I’m all for books that base the world building off cultures that aren’t as prevalent. So when I learned Empress of All Seasons by Emiko Jean was based on Japanese mythology with yokai and more, I was stoked. Unfortunately, after reading, I thought there was more to be desired.
Every generation a competition is held to find a new empress. To win, one must conquer all four seasonal rooms. Mari has spent her entire life training for this competition, but Mari is a yokai—a supernatural monster—and is forbidden from entering the competition. As the Emperor continues to enslave and destroy all yokai, Mari is determined above all else to become empress and change the kingdom forever.
The highlight of this book is definitely the world-building. I love how it dives into Japanese mythology with the various yokai like Kappas or the Animal Wives. I like how the conflict centers around the Emperor’s slavery of the various yokai and how Mari hopes that by becoming Empress she can break this chain of oppression. I also love all the Japanese details, such as the kimonos Mari wears or the descriptions of the palace.
The main plot of the book was intriguing as well. It reminded me slightly of The Hunger Games since the girls were pitted against each other in a competition, though a less bloody version since they aren’t supposed to harm one another. But whereas The Hunger Games was immersive in the actual competition, Empress of All Seasons came across as a fast-forwarded, summarized version of the competition. Each round is only a chapter or two long, and the narration tells what happens instead of showing. Some aspects are more developed, such as the fight scenes, but overall, I felt disconnected from the action and thought it moved along too quickly.
In addition, the “romance” between Mari and Taro moved far too quickly for my taste. Taro had almost insta-love for Mari after he lays eyes on her, and then he can’t stop thinking about her. If there had been some kind of magic explanation (like her yokai abilities attracted men), it would have made more sense instead of being cliche and annoying. Can you truly fall in love with someone after only a few days? Come on.
But the biggest problem I had with this story is that partway through, something happens that completely flips everything. This is the moment where the book went from being interesting to kind of stupid. And I felt like it was done in order to push some kind of agenda, instead of giving us rich character arcs that would have made for a fuller story.
I don’t want to spoil the book, but the events of the latter half of the book just weren’t as impressive or exciting. Instead, they were predictable and frankly too easy. Again, a lot of the action was summarized through telling that left me disconnected from the ending. And it all happened so fast that there wasn’t any build up.
Overall, Empress of All Seasons wasn’t exactly what I expected. While it flourished in world-building and strong ideas, it suffered in the execution of such ideas. I think this book can still be worth reading, but I wouldn’t expect it to become an all-time favorite.