Each year, Sirens chair Amy Tenbrink posts monthly reviews of new-to-her fantasy books by women and nonbinary authors. You can find all of her Sirens Book Club reviews at the Sirens Goodreads Group. We invite you to read along and discuss!
It was with equal parts excitement and trepidation that I began Empress of All Seasons by Emiko Jean.
I love a good warrior-girl story. Even more than that, I love a good monster-girl story. And Mari, the half-human, half-yōkai, practically invincible protagonist of Empress of All Seasons, was both. A girl born to a tribe of monster-women, raised to be an indomitable warrior, a probable champion of a deadly game that pits warrior-girl against warrior-girl in a contest to marry the prince….
And there’s my trepidation. A deadly game that pits warrior-girl against warrior-girl in a contest to marry the prince. Again? How many books have I read—and even more, how many books have I not read—that contrive a deadly game that pits warrior-girl against warrior-girl in a contest to marry the prince? Way too many, that’s how many.
But while I might be able to ignore a warrior-girl, I cannot ignore a monster-girl, a girl of fang and claw, a girl of my heart. So off I went.
Mari is an Animal Wife, heir to a monstrous legend of beautiful, shapeshifting women who marry men and then steal their riches, returning to their sisters with more money, more wisdom, more power. But in Mari’s land, the emperor despises yōkai: anyone non-human, with often non-human appearances and always non-human abilities. And so the emperor has ordered all yōkai collared, thereby reducing their strength and abilities to something humans can overcome. That those collars are cursed and burn the yōkai is of no consequence, of course, so long as they are contained. Mari, living in a remote mountain village has so far escaped the collar, but she’s about to go into the proverbial lion’s den.
Unlike most Animal Wives, Mari wasn’t born beautiful, or at least that’s what she’s told. Much is made of her plain appearance, her short stature, her round face. In fact, she seemingly wasn’t even born with the full abilities of an Animal Wife, since she can change her human form only partially. And so, assuming she can’t trap a husband with her looks or her magic, Mari’s mother raises her to be a warrior. Because once a generation, countless human girls travel to the imperial city to compete in a competition for the next emperor’s hand in marriage. As with the first emperor, who loved a woman who bested all four seasons, each new empress must conquer four magical rooms, one devoted to each season. Unlike most other battle-for-the-prince books, Mari and her competitors aren’t supposed to kill each other; just like most other battle-for-the-prince books, they do so anyway—and many other girls are killed by the elements in the rooms. This is a deadly game, based on a legend, made possible by magic. And despite her non-human abilities, because of her human appearance, Mari has been raised to win and be the most successful Animal Wife of all: The one who steals the imperial riches.
This book has a lot to unpack. It wants, badly, to explore themes on femininity, beauty, and power, through Mari’s purported plainness, her part-monstrousness, her skill with the deadly naginata. It wants, badly, to dissect that preposterously large overlap between teenaged girls and monstrousness—a monstrousness that is often placed on them in order to remove their acceptableness and their power. It wants, badly, to deconstruct what it means for a girl to be monstrous, to want things she’s not allowed, to do things she’s not permitted, to be things she’s not supposed to become.
“We’re all monsters. No man, no human, will ever love us. That is the curse of the Animal Wife, never to be loved for who we truly are.”
And in some ways, Empress of All Seasons succeeds. Not through Mari, necessarily, even though her monstrousness and her power and her struggle are the driving force of the book. No, more notably through Akira, Mari’s friend, the half-yōkai, the Son of Nightmares, who sees her and her monstrousness and her competence and her power and her beauty, and loves her, exactly as she is. With a bit of luck and care, we all have people in our lives who see our monstrousness, our beastliness, our abilities as something gloriously more than we do, and Akira is that person for Mari.
And the book succeeds through Hanako, a yuki-onna, a Snow Woman made of ice and hard edges, known as the Weapons Master of the yōkai Resistance. She’s dangerous, she’s unapologetic, she’s ambitious. She’s a girl who knows her power and revels in her power and wields her power. She’s a girl to aspire to.
Somewhere in here, there’s an unflinching, uncompromising blade of a book that brooks no denial and makes no apologies. It tackles monstrousness as a necessity in a society that puts women in boxes and cages and collars. It tackles beauty as more flexible than we’ve been led to believe. It tackles gender and power and rebellion as both an everyday intersection and a grand-scale revolution. All of that lives somewhere in this book.
But all of that is nearly suffocated by the rest of this book. By Mari’s complicated relationship with her mother, her tribe, her best friend, who appears briefly in the first act, only to conveniently disappear in the third. By this nonsensical, deadly game of the seasons, that ridiculously pits powerful girl against powerful girl for marriage to a man known as the Cold Prince, only to repeatedly mock the girls who are there because they want to be empress. By a steady thread on brutality and othering people who are different than we are, but that never really gets its hooks in the reader. By Mari’s burgeoning, almost accidental love story with that prince. And finally, by the sharp left turn in the third act that twists the book into one of poorly planned rebellion.
And Mari—our protagonist, though only one of three point-of-view characters—drowns in all of that. She’s pushed along by the plot, rarely making her own decisions, rarely recognizing what she wants, as opposed to what her mother, her friend, the prince, the emperor want of her. She’s poorly skilled in court games, but for a book conceived around a game set at court, that hardly seems to matter. She’s even less skilled in rebellion, but Hanako conveniently shows up to take care of that. I had a hard time getting a handle on Mari; the prince and Akira, the other point-of-view characters, were both more one-note, but along those same lines, more consistent, while Mari seemed to have little personality beyond a bit of feminism, a bit of girlish head-over-heels love, and a lot of deadly skill.
In the end, Empress of All Seasons wanted to be so much: an interrogation of feminism and beauty and power; a parable about destroying each other because of our differences; a love story; a deadly game; a dazzling display of magic; a necessary rebellion. And in trying to do so much—for all those monster-girls of my heart—it ended up doing so little.
Amy Tenbrink spends her days handling strategic and intellectual property transactions as an executive vice president for a major media company. Her nights and weekends over the last twenty-five years have involved managing a wide variety of events, including theatrical productions, marching band shows, sporting events, and interdisciplinary conferences. Most recently, she has organized three Harry Potter conferences (The Witching Hour, in Salem, Massachusetts; Phoenix Rising, in the French Quarter of New Orleans; and Terminus, in downtown Chicago) and nine years of Sirens. Her experience includes all aspects of event planning, from logistics and marketing to legal consulting and budget management, and she holds degrees with honors from both the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music and the Georgetown University Law Center. She likes nothing so much as monster girls, Weasleys, and a well-planned revolution.