Empress of All Seasons
“This young adult fantasy is dark and deftly drawn, an intriguing blend of The Hunger Games and a Japanese Cinderella story turned inside out.”
Mari is an Animal Wife, born for one purpose: to trick men into marriage and steal their fortunes. Like all Animal Wives, she is part human and part yōkai, a supernatural demon. But her mother feels Mari is too plain, not pretty enough to attract a rich man. Instead, she trains Mari to use the naginata, a sword used in Japanese martial arts. Instead of deceiving a rich man into giving away his fortune, Mari will win the prince, even though it’s her mother’s wish, not hers.
This young adult fantasy is dark and deftly drawn, an intriguing blend of The Hunger Games and a Japanese Cinderella story turned inside out. For in Prince Taro’s world, the girl who survives the palace’s magical and deadly seasonal rooms becomes the empress of Honoku.
All can participate except the yōkai. Taro’s father the emperor is determined to either destroy or enslave every yōkai monster, ghost, and spirit. Mari must hide her yōkai heritage as she competes. Her freedom and very life depend on it.
Prince Taro hates the idea of women competing for him as much as Mari hates it. Instead, he’d rather build his mechanical creatures and sell them in the market of a small village somewhere. “Taro’s mechanical bird was ready to fly. Last night, he’d placed the final copper feather in its tail. He’d slept restlessly, imagining how the bird would look with its wings spread for the first time . . . Soon the bird would be free, and so would Taro.”
Taro and Mari accidentally meet in the woods the night before competition begins. He knows she is one of the girls vying for his hand, but Mari doesn’t know his face or his name. Next morning, hundreds of girls with weapons await entry into the Summer Room where the Emperor and his son also wait.
“I am Master Ushiba, Imperial Seasonist,” the man in charge says. “I will be your guide through this competition. Seasons will be your judge.” He tells the girls they may not kill one another, but the rooms he has designed are treacherous. “They choose you as much as you choose them. From this point on, your life is forfeit.”
Feeling stupid that she hadn’t recognized him, Mari realizes the young man behind the Emperor is Prince Taro. Looking into his eyes, she recognizes the mutual attraction they’d experienced the night before. Mari has another suitor; Akira, Son of Nightmares, is half human and half yōkai ghost. He has watched over Mari for a long time and will continue to do so as she navigates the dangers of the season rooms.
Only ten of the hundreds of girls competing for the prince will find the hidden scrolls inside the Summer Room that qualify them to enter the next seasonal room. The girls flood into the room, which is actually a small world, complete with entire landscapes of mountain ranges and forests. As Mari and the other nine girls proceed through the rooms, she makes risky alliances and suffers painful betrayals; one girl is a killer, another a half human half yōkai like Mari. All want the same thing—to become the Empress of Seasons.
But Mari wants more. She wants to free all the yōkai which men have collared to prevent their dangerous traits from emerging and turned into slaves. She wants to protect her mother and the other Animal Wives who live in a secluded village. And she wants to prove that as a woman, she does not depend upon men for her existence and comfort.
While much of the story is pleasingly predictable, the book builds to an entirely unexpected ending that is certain to surprise. This book is something else that many readers will appreciate—it’s not part of a trilogy or a quartet—it’s a remarkable stand-alone novel. No need to wait a year or more to see how it ends!