Thank you so much to Gollancz / Orion Books for kindly providing me with a review copy of Empress of All Seasons.
This is a spoiler-free review and all opinions are my own.
Title: Empress of All Seasons
Author: Emiko Jean
Publisher: Gollancz / Orion Books
Publication Date: 8 November 2018
Length: 384 pages
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.
This is a standalone novel (for now).
🌸 “Men are conditioned to take. Women are conditioned to give. Never let a man take anything from you. Your smiles, your humour, your body.” 🌸
I loved the feminism in this – YES! Finally! Gone are the days where I had to trudge through the bitchiness and rivalry and just unnecessary girl hate.
Here, everyone had their own agenda and reasons for why they wanted the throne, but surprisingly none had to do with actual romance or getting the prince. Instead, they joined forces, made alliances, and actually bonded.
Exciting? Heck yeah!
This camaraderie was so wholesome ❤ I loved Mari and the Animal Wives – their loyalty, their drive, their ruthlessness, how they treated each other like family despite not sharing any blood.
☀️ “Our bodies are not ornaments, they are instruments.” ☀️
I loved learning about all the different yokai and the different elements from Japanese culture. If you’re a folklore geek like me, you’ll feel on top of the world with this book!
All the characters had something unique to them – a hidden struggle, a hidden story, something that made them truly interesting. The cold prince is not just a vapid royal. The Son of Nightmares is not just a shy, kind nobody. The Animal Girl is not just an ugly black sheep.
🍂 “Silence is the cousin of invisibility.” 🍂
The last few chapters and the ending were actually my favourite. It was completely unexpected and didn’t follow the usual happily-ever-after formula.
❄️ “Not every happily-ever-after includes a man.” ❄️
Instalove… Why oh why? Even though the relationship kind of grew on me, and I found them pretty cute in places, I never really understood how or why it began. Their feelings were just too sudden (especially his) and inexplicable.
I mean, we are told Mari is not beautiful – in fact, quite the opposite. So instant attraction is not really an option here. But we aren’t given any other reasons as to why she is suddenly so desirable.
🌸 “Do not let your fear decide your fate.” 🌸
I felt the rooms were too easy and were over way too soon. I’m usually not very good at riddles and even I was able to figure them out quickly. Yet the way Mari and the other girls managed didn’t make much sense to me – similar to when a light bulb pops up on top of a cartoon character’s head.
The competition required a lot more challenge, both physical and mental, to win me over. In the end, it just felt like a poorly thought-out plot device to move the story forward – there was so much potential to it, so much that could have been explored, yet barely anything actually happened?
Most of the focus lay beyond the seasonal rooms, and while that could have worked marvellously to bring the reader closer to the characters and further empathise with them, it ended up creating an imbalance and producing the opposite effect: I just didn’t feel all that connected to anyone.
☀️ “If you train on all weapons, you master none.” ☀️
The first third of the book felt so slow and boring… Which is a shame because I really enjoyed the rest of it. Had it grabbed my attention from the very start and I would have easily given this 4 solid stars!
Empress of All Seasons was a pleasant surprise. Despite struggling with the first few chapters, it ended up taking me on a lovely journey through the beautiful Japanese scenery and all its rich history.
I didn’t enjoy the romance all that much, but I don’t think it actually carries too much weight here. The dreaded love triangle was well executed – again, without taking away from the story – while both friendships and family bonds took centre stage.
The world-building and folklore are truly what bring this book to life, yet its characters were not too far behind: they ebbed with the flow and each layer revealed more than meets the eye, constructing a gentle yet engaging narrative.
Duplicitous personalities, ever-changing loyalties, feminist nods and an incredible finale would have made Empress of All Seasons a spectacular read. But alas, I needed a bit more excitement, consistency and higher stakes to feel completely satisfied.