Are you into non-traditional fairy tales? Ready to read a fantasy book with all the longevity of a series yet saliently ensconced in one book? You will find this and more in the lovely written Empress of All Seasons by Emiko Jean.
Empress of All Seasons has all the standard hallmarks of a fairy tale: a beleaguered hero ostracized by society, a young royal ready to live outside the traditional boundaries, an overlooked best friend who wants more, and parents who never seem to understand. Yet, in this story, the outsider is Mari, an animal wife from a remote village in the mountains of the Honoku kingdom. Animal wives are beautiful women who can transform into fearsome creatures. Their primary modus operandi is to venture into townships once they have come of age, marry a man, then steal his fortune after becoming pregnant. Of this matriarchal community, Mari’s mother is leader, yet this power holds no satisfaction for either mother or daughter, as Mari is born without their standard of beauty or ability to fully transform. As a consequence, Mari’s mother trains her in extensive combat, raising her to compete in the ultimate competition against young women from throughout the Honoku to become empress of all seasons.
In the palacial city, where the women will converge to beat each of the four enchanted seasonal rooms, beings with beastial powers like Mari’s, the yōkai, are collared from using the full force of their powers by the Emperor. Mari knows that to reveal her powers under these circumstances would lead to her eminent demise. Unbeknownst to her, her best friend Akira has followed her to the city and becomes involved in a yōkai resistance that leads directly into the competition to become the next empress. The competition is further complicated by a prince who does not wish to be won - a prince that would rather continue engineering his gadgets and fleeing his royal life altogether. Somehow Mari must battle her homesickness as well as her competitors, figure out how to hide her true form while also being true to herself, and make her village proud by becoming empress of all seasons, stealing the emperor’s riches, and returning home. Throughout her time in the palace, she must also navigate her way through the intricacies of anti-yōkai policies and intrigue within the court while also determining what her heart truly wants.
Empress of All Seasons is a book that would charm anyone who identifies with fighting for what they want, even when they may not know what exactly it is. I found the charm of the book enthralling enough for me to read in two sittings, with a plot full of twists and turns that stay true to character ideals. I was most compelled by the trajectory of Mari’s relationship with her mother. Mari goes from suspecting that her mother has no love for her and that nothing she does will ever satisfy her or the women of her village to realizing that she must find her own path and learn how her love can shape her home. I recommend this book to any lover of the YA or fairytale retelling genres.