I love fantasy in non-standard settings. Whether we’re talking about folk tales, Baltic-inspired cities, Middle Eastern caliphates, Asian-inspired worlds, or something that draws from all or none of those, I love discovering unique worlds. Emiko Jean’s Empress of All Seasons has an Asian analogue setting that really shines in places. The setup is straight forward: the next in line for the throne has his bride chosen for him. But this isn’t typical arranged marriage. Rather, the heir marries the woman who can survive four seasonal rooms that are basically intended to weed out the weak. It’s an interesting twist on fantasy tropes that I appreciated.
There is a further complication, however. Yokai - basically monsters, some of whom appear quite human - are oppressed in the empire. Our main character, Mari, is one such. But she intends to defeat the four rooms and become empress. This use of folk lore in a fantasy setting is something I love, and I enjoyed it in Empress of All Seasons. I also thoroughly enjoyed seeing some fantasy tropes turned around. A prince who feels powerless, having a wife chosen for him, rather than the typical princess was a fun twist. There were certainly places where I would have liked more detail in the world building, particularly regarding the political situation of the empire and its neighbours, but I can’t say as this really detracted from the story in any way. The pacing was also good. Almost from the very first pages the action picked up and never lulled. A nice touch to the world building is interludes that tell the stories of the various gods.
Unfortunately, the characters and plot didn’t work for me. There were some questions plot wise that were never answered in a satisfactory way. For instance, early on we learn that Mari has never taken a life - yet she has somehow hidden this fact from her mother who doesn’t really seem like the sort of person it would be easy to hide this from. As the novel continues, Mari is also often saved by others, as opposed to succeeding on her own merits. There were several missed opportunities to show Mari as a capable character in her own right. Taro, the prince, seemed like an interesting character until an event about two thirds of the way through the book causes him to make a series of out of character decisions. This lack of consistency and nuance in his characterization was very disappointing. Akira, while more of a side character, probably had the most consistent characterization and arc even if his training montage felt a bit forced - one doesn’t typically become adept in the use of a weapon after a week of use. By the second half of the novel, I was incredibly frustrated with what I perceived as plot holes and inconsistent characterization. This kept me from enjoying the second half of the novel. While the pacing remained good, it became a chore for me to bear on with characters that felt like they were supposed to be one thing while turning out to be another. Some of this was exacerbated by a tendency to tell instead of show. All of these combined to rob the ending climax of any emotional impact for me, which was disappointing because I feel like the novel had a great deal of potential to satisfy in that way.
While this one didn’t connect for me, it may be of interest to those who are more forgiving of plot holes or who are looking particularly for an Asian inspired setting. In the end, the lack of consistent characterization kept this one from shining.
Review by Calvin Park
4.5/10 from 1 reviews
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