Empress of All Seasons by Emiko Jean (Spoilers)

If you want to read the spoiler, highlight between the two ♈ symbols. For those using the Word Press Reader: the text between the two symbols won’t be hidden – so if you don’t want the story to be spoiled, look away when you get to the ♈ symbols or visit my actual site to avoid them.

So this one took me a little time to get through – just a little less than two months, which is a lot for me. Empress of All Seasons is a Japanese inspired fantasy where instead of the Emperor arranging a marriage for his son, he instead holds a competition where women from all over the country come and have to conquer 4 seasonal rooms within the palace to adhere to a tradition that has its basis in Japanese folklore. The woman, or girl, who is able to beat all 4 rooms, wins the prince’s hand in marriage. These aren’t, however, rooms that are just decorated to match the particular season whose name they bear. These rooms are deadly. There are blizzards and ice in the Winter room; blazing heat and a lack of water in the Summer room; and wild animals and crazy rain storms in the Fall room. It is more likely that the participants die trying to conquer the room rather than just flunk out of the event. In addition to the competition that is the main focus of the book, there are also different types of creatures in this world: Humans and yðkai.  Yðkai are pretty much demons and they come in all shapes and sizes, just like humans. The difference is, because yðkai are much stronger than humans, they are enslaved.

The story is told from 3 different perspectives: Mari, an Animal Wife who has been trained since childhood to compete in the competition for Empress; Taro, the prince whose hand is up for grabs in the competition and pretty much just wants to be left alone to tinker with his toys; and Akira, also known as The Son of Nightmares, who lives close to Mari and is very much in love with her and has been hiding her secrets for years. In addition to the three main character perspectives, Jean provides little mini-stories of Japanese mythology that serve to illustrate the basis for the competition itself. Overall, this was a very fascinating read. I’m super interested in mythology from all areas of the world, though I will admit that this was my first experience with Japanese mythology and as per my usual, I loved that aspect of the book!

The world-building was fantastic, the characters were well-fleshed out, and the mythology is there just waiting to grab the reader’s attention. What I didn’t like so much…

♈ Taro is very much the beleaguered prince in this story. His father and him have a very distant relationship. His mother and his father were a true love match, she was the love of his life, but she died when Taro was younger, so that has left the Emperor, pretty much a grouchy old man. Taro is also very much an inventor, he tinkers with metals and gears to create a flying bird with copper wings. He is also known all over the kingdom for creating the metal collars that are used to enslave all of the Yðkai, though if you ask him, it was the biggest regret of his life. When we meet Taro, he’s even contemplating running away from the palace before the competition starts. He’s gone so far as to memorize the guards’ routines so that he can sneak out undetected. He spends almost the first two-thirds of the book gaining the reader’s sympathy because he’s been teased by his father for years; he’s not allowed the freedom to do what he wants; his inventions were misused by his father, etc. etc. Then, when his father is assassinated, he does this massive, immediate 380 where all of the beliefs he’s held dear for this much of the novel no longer matter. Now he, all of a sudden, believes that the Yokai should remain enslaved and that as Emperor, it is his duty to ensure that this is the case. Because Jean spent so much time building up Taro’s character so as to gain sympathy from the reader, his change-of-heart at the end feels disingenuous and very trope-y.

Let’s talk about Mari for a second. She is a bad. ass. She’s spent her life training on the naginata (see cover) and she can whoop just about anybody’s ass. But she uses her powers for good and she makes her own autonomous decisions, which makes her a 🔥 Fiery Female🔥.

Overall, I really liked the mythology and Mari, but see spoiler above just kind of left a bad taste in my mouth, and because of that:

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🗣Talk to Me🗣

Did anyone else feel similarly about Taro? Who did you ship more, Taro & Mari or Akira & Mari? What other Japanese mythology books have you read?

 

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