Empress of All Seasons has an amazing plot, and beautiful world-building going for it. The author has used Japanese folklore and identifiable yokai legends and inserted them in a unique fantasy world with its own mythology. I particularly loved the creation myths occasionally dropped into the plot, and how they didn’t tie into the plot but also gave that nice mystical touch to the story. The story focuses on Mari’s journey from being a yokai to the Empress of Honoku, but also has POV from the current Prince Taro, and her childhood friend Akira, a half-yokai. She is from the Animal Wife clan, a clan of supernatural grifter yokai made up entirely of beautiful women who marry human men and steal their fortune. Mari has been brought up to one day participate in the Hunger Games-ish trials and become the Empress.
Besides Mari’s main story, the plot has a secondary thread of the treatment of yokai in Honoku as slaves. The current Emperor has hated them since one midwifed his Empress during childbirth (which resulted in her death) and has relegated them to be powerless and collared. Mari, having lived far away from all this, isn’t invested in the politics of the situation, but Akira, who follows her into the city (in hiding), falls in with the rebel force of yokai. Taro, meanwhile, wants to escape his current life but stays when he meets Mari. The consequences of a yokai yearning to be Empress are dire, indeed, considering the hate-filled palace, and the compliance of the people, which is what cheapens the way this book ended.
The story of the book is expansive, and yet it wraps it all up in a solo plot. The competition itself takes place within a week, and I mention this because there is a LOT that happens during that time, inside the four Season rooms, and outside, including character development and relationship changes, much of which can’t be justified during that short time! Taro has an insta-love for Mari, and she, too, falls for him in a matter of days. Mari makes and loses her friend, and is betrayed by another confidante. The emotional weight of the ending is lost when you consider that they barely knew each other and hadn’t had much time to even learn of the other. Also, the plot jumps forward often – I can’t even call this fast-paced because it completely skips over her ACTUALLY becoming Empress and changing the landscape of Honoku, instead just giving us an epilogue in a paragraph. The ending definitely ruins the enjoyment of the book, even if the rest of it went well.
In short, the too-fast pace and the rushed ending dampen the enjoyment of a beautifully constructed book that had the potential of at least a duology.