Monday, 12 November 2018

Review: 'Empress of All Seasons' by Emiko Jean

You know when you have a book waiting for you and yet somehow you don't read it for ages?! I hate it when that happens and yet iI have no one to blame for it but myself. This happened to me once again with Empress of All Seasons, Emiko Jean's stunning YA Fantasy novel. Competitions, empresses, and supernatural monsters and spirits. What more could I have asked for? Thanks to HMH Books for Young Readers and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 08/11/2018
Publisher: HMH Book for Young Readers

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 yōkai, 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 yōkai 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-yōkai 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.

I am an avid Fantasy reader, I love sinking into new worlds full of magic and mystery. However, sadly many authors settle on a medieval European world and, on occasion, provide nothing more than a weak copy of Tolkien's Middle Earth or Lewis' Narnia. So whenever I stumble across a Fantasy book that does something new, that isn't afraid to steer away from the ol' reliable and dares to bring something different to the genre, I do a happy dance. This year only two books have triggered that dance. The first was Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, a stunning African story of family and magic. The second is Empress of All Seasons, Emiko Jean's beautiful Japanese tale of love and strength. What I found fascinating is that, thinking of the two together, both are bound strongly by the theme of discrimination. In Adeyemi's novel the main character grows up afraid and ashamed of what she is, conditioned to consider herself less than. Children of Blood and Bone is a sharp and honest story about racism. Empress of All Seasons, while perhaps not quite as sharp, shows a similar picture. Jean's protagonist, Mari, has to hide who she is, a monster in the eyes of humans and a disappointment in the eyes of her own people. As Adeyemi draws from African folklore, so Jean draws from Japanese folk tales, and both make the Fantasy genre richer by their addition.

Empress of All Seasons is enchanting. From the beginning of the novel I was completely caught up in the world Emiko Jean was creating. Initially I was suspicious of the seasonal rooms and how it would work, but the mythology feels completely real and fantastical at the same time. Split between different narrators, The Empress of All Seasons manages to convey all the different consequences of a society split by those who are "right" and those who aren't. Mari is a great main character, scarred and scared but strong and determined in her own way. Struggling with her own identity and the expectations that come with it, Mari is someone you're rooting for. Similarly, Taro is more than the grumpy, sulky prince, and Akira is more than the third part of a love triangle. Although that tension is there, it is in no way the main focus and something you have to almost actively read into the text yourself.

Emiko Jean's writing in this novel is stunning. She sets her novel solidly in a medieval-esque Japan where monsters and spirits and humans roam side by side. Her writing suits itself to both the very real tension of a mother-daughter relationship and the mythical creatures and traditions that move through her world. Her descriptions of the Rooms are so vivid I could see them when I closed my eyes. Jean confidently strides into the YA genre and twists its tropes upside down. Are there three young people who may or may not be in love? Perhaps. But it's not as it seems! Is there a young woman with a destiny? Definitely. But neither her nor the reader know what to expect from it! I loved the twists of her plot and the last quarter of the novel is full of surprises.

I give this novel...

5 Universes!

I absolutely adored The Empress of All Seasons and want to read everything Emiko Jean writes. Mari is a brilliant fantasy heroine and Jean will continue to surprise you throughout her novel. I'd recommend The Empress of All Seasons to every fantasy reader looking for something new and beautiful.