Empress of all Seasons is a YA fantasy book set in a Japanese-inspired world in which humans have enslaved magical creatures, the yōkai. Mari, the main character, is yōkai herself – as an animal wife, she’s able to partially shapeshift – and she’ll have to hide her powers to win the competition to marry the prince… and then steal his fortunes.
I wish I could have loved this book as much as I wanted to.
In the beginning, I thought it was going to be a fun if a bit cliché read with great worldbuilding, but the rest of the book proved me wrong: Empress of all Seasons is all but derivative, it has one of the most subversive endings I’ve read this year in YA fantasy. It takes so many common tropes – like a straight love triangle, star-crossed lovers, the girl cursed to never be loved who finds love in the end – and turns them on their head.
It’s a really clever, well-constructed book, and what I loved the most about it was its message: at its heart, Empress of all Seasons is a story about how you do not need romantic love to be complete. As almost every single YA main character seems to have their happiness tied to having a love interest, I think we need books like this one.
As I said before, I couldn’t love this book as much as I wanted to, because of its heteronormativity and bury your gays trope.
⭐ Amatonormativity and heteronormativity: on one hand, I really appreciated how this book talked about how you do not need romance to be complete. However, it still framed, several times, the inability to feel romantic love as something unnatural. Also, the curse of the animal wives, who are all women, is that they will never be loved – because men are humans and will not understand their nature. Does that mean that they can never love each other…? Ever? Why? I mean, we have an all-female village, am I really supposed to think there are no lesbians
⭐ Bury Your Gays: many girls die in the competition to conquer all seasons and then marry the prince. When one side character, Hanako, weapon master and fearsome yuki-onna, learns of one of the girls’ death, she’s really upset because that girl meant so much to her. Then she says that, even though she looks cold and distant, she is capable of love – and when you love someone, you end up thinking that they’re invincible.
I am tired of reading about f/f couples being torn apart by death.
I realize you could also read Hanako’s feelings as unrequited, so that her and the girl weren’t actually a couple – and I would prefer to read it that way, it would have hurt a lot less if it had been explicitly that way – but there’s nothing to point out that’s the case, to ever make you think the dead girl was straight, unless you just assume all characters are straight if they’re not explicitly confirmed as queer, which is… heteronormativity.
If it hadn’t been for these two things, I probably would have given this book at least 4 stars, maybe more. I really did love most of it, from the slow trope deconstruction in the second half to the message and surprising ending. The only complaint I have apart from the ones I listed before is that this book was very plot-driven, and the characterization was often weaker than it should have been.
My favorite aspect was the worldbuilding. Empress of all Seasons is set in a magical world with a rich mythology – there were interludes about the gods’ lives, and those were fascinating – and the setting is, without a doubt, beautiful. Most of Empress of all Seasons is set in the Imperial Palace, and I loved all the descriptions of it: the magical-but-dangerous palace is one of my favorite tropes, and this book is about a competition in which girls have to survive deadly magical rooms, one for each season, to marry the prince.
I loved the competition aspect: while I didn’t always love the writing, I really liked the fight scenes. I thought it was really interesting to read too; it didn’t feel like a 2012-era white YA dystopian in any way, unlike too many books about competitions.
Also, there were so many magical creatures! Not only the main character is an animal wife and one side character is a yuki-onna, one of the PoV characters is also half-yōkai and half-human and struggles with his heritage, and there are several other magical characters like oni, kirin, kappa, and jorōgumo.
My rating: ★★¾