Book reviews by Mobilism's Book Review team
Mar 3rd, 2020, 11:49 pm

TITLE: Empress of All Seasons
AUTHOR: Emiko Jean
GENRE: Young Adult, Fantasy
PUBLISHED: November 6, 2018


I think everyone loves a good story, even if our own, individual definitions of what makes any story “good” tends to vary from person to person. For some, a good story means the same thing as a fairytale: “And they lived happily ever after”. For others, it might be enough that “everybody lives, nobody dies”. Others may be of the opinion that collateral damage is acceptable, so long as only the character or characters one dislikes the most are the ones who die. And there are those whose idea of a good story is one where the world blows up in spectacular fashion, leaving no one except the reader to witness the end of all things.

Of course, stories don’t always fall precisely into one category or the other. In most cases, stories tend to fall somewhere in between along a sliding scale of sorts, leaning more towards one end of the scale than the other. A story can tick most of the boxes of what ought to make a good story, but then be completely let down by its ending. In other cases, a story might be lacking in one or two aspects, but can have other aspects be such amazing standouts that it’s easy to forgive its weaknesses.

Emiko Jean’s Empress of All Seasons is a good example of a story that falls somewhere in the middle of that sliding scale. There are aspects of it that make it a very good story, but there are other parts that just don’t quite measure up – and sadly, the good bits don’t quite salvage the bad bits.

Empress of All Seasons follows three characters: Mari, Taro, and Akira. Mari wants to escape the influence of her mother and her village. Taro wishes to free himself from the burden of obligation. Akira desires to win the regard of the woman he loves. A once-in-a-generation event brings them together in the Capital, where Mari must survive four magical rooms in the Palace of Illusions. Each room is enchanted so as to be an exemplar of the most beautiful – and most brutal – aspects of one of the four seasons. If Mari survives not just the rooms, but the rivals who enter the rooms with her, she will become the bride of the crown prince: the Empress of All Seasons.

The most notable aspect of this novel is its setting. There are quite a few fantasy novels that play with East Asian cultures and places as a basis for their world-building, but few do as fine a job of it as Empress of All Seasons. The Prologue opens with the following scene:
In the beginning, dark water flooded the earth.

Kita, the Goddess of Land and Rice, built a staircase out of lightning and stepped down from the sky.

She dipped her nimble fingers into the black oceans and sculpted from the rocky depths the lands of Honoku. …

Readers familiar with Japanese mythology will recognise the above as a nod to the original Japanese creation myth featuring Izanagi and Izanami, and it sets the tone for the rest of the setting. It can be difficult to build a world, to create enough detail to immerse the reader in the setting without overwhelming the plot, but the author manages to strike a fair balance between the two. These mythology chapters assist in that immersion; they give a bird’s-eye view of the world of Honoku, while the rest of the story immerses the reader in the here-and-now, so to speak.

The most interesting element of the setting, though, are the yōkai. Typically translated as “monster” in English, the term is actually a lot more nuanced than that, used to describe not just monsters, but also spirits, demons, and other supernatural entities. Most are not divine in nature, but some yōkai can have divine associations, like the kitsune. Yōkai are popular in Japanese culture, appearing not just in folktales, but in contemporary storytelling media like manga and anime.

But while there are many anime and manga that feature yōkai as characters, in many of them yōkai are either monsters that need to be defeated, or entities in hiding while living side-by-side with regular humans. Empress of All Seasons goes in another direction entirely, instead portraying yōkai as an oppressed, enslaved group upon whose blood, sweat, tears, and lives were built the glory and beauty of Honoku.

This is an intriguing element to the setting. While Japan has a history of slavery going back to the Yamato period, I am not certain if the portrayal of slavery in this novel is accurate to the way the Japanese treated their slaves, or if it’s more a reflection of the European-American context of slavery. Sadly, a potentially useful article on this matter is paywalled, so I am unable to confirm this. Still, whether or not the portrayal is historically accurate isn’t really the point; the point is that it’s there at all, and highlights what might be a little-known fact about Japanese history for readers who might not have been aware of it.

Fascinating as all this is, a world without characters is nothing more than a landscape, and in this regard, the Empress of All Seasons does some things right, and some things wrong. Mari, the main female character, is absolutely stellar. She is introduced to the reader in the following excerpt:
Breathing in the dark, and not her own.

Mari tilted her head. She couldn’t see in the pitch-black, but she closed her eyes. It helped her focus. She knew this space well, this room with no windows and an almost airtight door. Sometimes the musty smell invaded her dreams, morphed them into nightmares. The Killing Room, and Mari was executioner.

She inhaled, holding the stale air in her lungs. There, in the right corner, two feet away, someone waited. Afraid.

“P-p-please,” a high-pitched male voice wailed.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” she said, letting a note of reassurance enter her voice. Not yet, anyway.

I like that Mari is portrayed almost as a villain in this scene: a hunter who does not heed the pleas of her quarry. It is revealed later that she has a softer side, but she doesn’t quite lose that edge of ruthlessness that this scene shows to the reader. It is tempered by other emotions, of course, as well as a merciful streak that I deeply appreciate, but the reader never forgets that Mari is, ever and always, a capable young woman who has the skills to do what must be done.

Mari being likeable certainly goes a long way towards making this novel readable, since as one of (if not the) protagonist, it is vital that the reader like her to some degree. Fortunately, this likeability applies not only to her, but to a majority of the female characters in this novel. For example: Hanako, a character who appears a little later in the plot, is so kick-ass that I adored her almost immediately. On what might be considered the opposite end of the scale from Hanako is Sei, whose plight will likely tug at the reader’s heartstrings as much as it tugs on Mari’s.

And then there is Mari’s mother, Tami. Of all the female characters in this novel I find her to be the most intriguing, mostly because of how complicated my feelings are for her. It’s easy to simply dislike her for a variety of reasons, but to do so would be to ignore her character development. Mari’s relationship with her is an interesting echo of similarly complicated relationships that many readers (myself included) have with their parents and/or guardians, and while the portrayal of their relationship could stand to be a bit more nuanced, I appreciate its inclusion in the novel.

As for the male characters, that’s where things fall a little bit apart, both in terms of characterisation and in terms of plot development. On the positive side, there is Akira, who is perhaps the most instantly sympathetic character in the entire novel. His plight and concerns are such that the reader will likely be cooing and fretting over him right from the get-go, and with lines like the following, it’s rather hard not to:
He would always take the bait if it were offered from her fingertips.

Another good example is this one:
Love is never wasted.

Squee-worthy one-liners aside, Akira is notable for being the character whose actions prevent the occurrence of the cliche love triangle that has been a “notable” staple in the YA genre for a while now. I was somewhat concerned that there would be a love triangle in this novel, but I am glad that the author chose to write Akira in such a way as to prevent that from happening. His character development is also very good, and I found myself cheering him on every step of the way, celebrating his triumphs and keenly feeling his losses, while simultaneously wishing I could accept the latter with the same grace as he did.

And then there is Taro. Initially, Taro is as sympathetic as Akira, albeit in slightly different ways, and it becomes quite easy to get attached to him. But as the story progresses, especially after he meets Mari, the reader begins to lose sympathy for him and sees him in a more villainous light. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with this transformation, what I don’t particularly appreciate is how it happens in a rather abrupt manner. To be sure, there are attempts to explain why Taro takes on the attitude he does towards the novel’s latter third, but I rather imagine that a slower, more gradual transformation would create a clearer path towards making him a more sympathetic villain. The plot simply moves too quickly to grant characters enough time to really develop.

Indeed, if this novel has any major flaw, it’s the plot’s pace. It simply moves far too fast for certain characters (like Taro and the novel’s primary antagonist) and certain story elements (like the romance) to really develop well. In the case of the former, Taro’s transformation from sympathetic co-protagonist to ancillary villain is so quick that the reader loses all sympathy for him, which is a pity because he could have had an incredible story arc had he just been given enough time to grow as a character. The true antagonist, on the other hand, feels like a caricature instead of a genuine example of manipulative villainy, which is disappointing because I truly enjoy a good villain, and the wasted potential here is quite sad.

And then there is the romance. I am no fan of “love at first sight”, and I almost instinctively twitch when I encounter it in my reading (several times burned, immensely sick of it, and all that). In this novel it’s telegraphed quite early, so when I reached the point at which it occurs, I was reasonably well-braced for it, but I’m certain there are plenty of readers out there who will be tempted to put aside the book without going further as soon as they see even a hint of the trope. Doing so, however, would be rather unfortunate, as the novel goes completely against the usual expectations when it comes to how the trope is resolved in many other YA novels.

Sadly, that inversion is somewhat spoiled by the speed at which the plot moves. As with the character development, if things had moved a bit more slowly, if events had been allowed to develop more gradually, I think I would have been able to appreciate the inversion even more. There is also the issue of what the plot’s speed does to character development, since if the male half of the couple involved had been given more time to really grow, the inversion would have been pulled off with more grace.

The speed of the plot also spoils the ending somewhat. Since things move so quickly, there are moments in the climax that have a rather deus ex machina quality to them, which is unfortunate because those events could have grown more slowly and more organically out of a slower, more carefully-nurtured plot, and thus would have made more sense and had greater emotional impact. The ending, too, feels rushed; there is practically an entire second, maybe even third, book’s worth of story crammed in the concluding chapter, but it is all brushed off with a lacklustre “but that’s a story for another time”. This makes me think that the author had grander plans, but was forced for whatever reason to simply stuff everything into one book and call it a day. While some stories can and often do benefit from a bit of judicious pruning, in this case the attempt to make the story fit in one book has done rather more harm than good.

Overall, Empress of All Seasons is a very promising story hobbled by how quickly it goes. While the setting, characters, and the overall story arc all have immense potential, that potential is stifled by the rush to get to the ending. Most good things take time, and sadly, what could have been a very good thing is spoiled by its own haste.
Mar 3rd, 2020, 11:49 pm