Publishing Date: November 6th, 2018
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Young Adult Historical Fantasy
The Premise from the Publisher: "In a palace of illusions, nothing is what it seems. Each generation, a competition is held to find the next empress of Honoku. The rules are simple. Survive the palace's enchanted seasonal rooms. Conquer Winter, Spring, Summer, and Fall. Marry the prince. All are eligible to compete-all except yokai, supernatural monsters and spirits whom the human emperor is determined to enslave and destroy. Mari has spent a lifetime training to become empress. Winning should be easy. And it would be, if she weren't hiding a dangerous secret. Mari is a yokai with the ability to transform into a terrifying monster. If discovered, her life will be forfeit. As she struggles to keep her true identity hidden, Mari's fate collides with that of Taro, the prince who has no desire to inherit the imperial throne, and Akira, a half-human, half-yokai outcast. Torn between duty and love, loyalty and betrayal, vengeance and forgiveness, the choices of Mari, Taro, and Akira will decide the fate of Honoku in this beautifully written, edge-of-your-seat YA fantasy" (HMH).
My overall thoughts and review: If you know me, then you will know that at school I primarily study Japanese culture. My focus is more so on contemporary material, but I simply love to read anything inspired by Japanese culture. When I read the premise of this, I was definitely intrigued because it follows various different kami and yokai. To begin with, this is a fantasy inspired by the author's Japanese heritage so I don't think it's meant to take place in a specific time with a fantasy spin. It takes place in a world where there's a palace of illusions with an emperor and every so often there's a competition where girls are thrown into various seasonal rooms, and if they are the last one to survive, then they are made empress. However, this competition is strictly for human girls. We have our main protagonist, Mari, who is a yokai, who plans to enter the competition, marry the prince, and then steal his fortune. Mari comes from a very interesting village of women whose sole purpose is to seduce men and steal their fortune, and they are "free" when they have a daughter afterwards. It's a very rigid structure in which Mari finds herself confined and at the end of the day, the anxieties she feels of wanting to be accepted for who she is and loved for who she is, is very much something that can be related to today. Sure, she resides in a village with strong, independent women, but there are also things expected of her and in a way, she feels she has no choice.
The story also follows two other perspectives: the prince, Taro, who she is supposed to win his affections, and lastly, Akira/The Son of Nightmares, who is other-than-human, with his ghostly like abilities to move. Akira has been with Mari from the beginning and and loves her, but she does not return this love. Whereas, with Taro, she finds herself wanting to actually stay with him if she wins the competition and to make change from there, especially in a world where yokai are collared and have no agency. Taro also has problems in terms of dealing with familial expectations. Though I have to say, I just loved Akira's perspectives and I could easily just read an entire book from his POV alone. I definitely enjoyed the text, but I found it hard at times to suspend my disbelief, and I think that's because it did lull at some parts in the beginning. We have great chapters establishing the character's mindset and anxieties, but then it moves incredibly quickly after that, so I think it's a matter of pacing. Overall, it was a decent fantasy and I definitely enjoyed it more going back after I finished it to reread some passages. The various mythical stories that Jean wove throughout the novel was quite nice because it reminds us that we have a choice and we are not predetermined to walk the same path as those before us.
My rating of the book: ✮✮✮½ (3.5/5 stars)
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Author Question and Answer
Q: This book was inspired primarily by your Japanese heritage. I was wondering if there were any particular places in Japan that you looked to for inspiration when you were world building?
I spent a long time researching castles in Japan. In particular the Palace in Empress of all Seasons is modeled after the Heian Palace.
Disclaimer: An advanced reader's copy of the book was provided by Raincoast Books for participation in the book tour. All opinions of the book are my own.