In Honoku, humans exist alongside yōkai, supernatural beings and spirits "as limitless as the magic within them." The human emperor hates the yōkai and wants them counted and killed or forced into slavery. He has already magically collared every yōkai in the imperial city; he hopes one day to "rid the East Lands" of them altogether. Akira is half-yōkai, half-human. Known as the Son of Nightmares, he is the child of a yōkai vengeful ghost and a human man, and was born with "deep, silvery trenches on half his body" to mark him as such. Akira has magic: he can see auras as well as "move as the wind" and "behave like a shadow." Not truly human or yōkai, he believes neither group will ever accept him. But Mari accepts him. And he is in love with her for it.
Mari is an Animal Wife yōkai, "born for a singular purpose: to trick men into marriage and then steal their fortunes." Animal Wives are supposed to be preternaturally beautiful, with the ability to transform into truly dangerous monsters. But Mari has neither of these traits--she is plain and capable of only a partial transformation, growing talons from her fingers and scales on her hands. When it became clear to Mari's mother that Mari would not be beautiful ("as if it were a choice"), she altered her daughter's destiny. She taught Mari how to fight so that she could "conquer the Seasons, become Empress, and steal the prince's fortune."
The prince whose fortune she's after is Taro. Every generation, a competition is held to find an empress: the young woman who solves the riddles and survives each of the palace's enchanted seasonal rooms wins. All of Honoku's young women (except yōkai) are eligible to compete, and Taro is the prize. Taro is disgusted with the practice and desperate to get out of it.
Mari travels to the palace to survive the Seasons, knowing full well that she could lose the competition or, worse, be discovered as yōkai; Akira, in a last-ditch effort to prove his love, follows her. A chance meeting between Taro and Mari kindles the first flush of love and Taro begins to care about the competition, insofar as it will make Mari his empress. Mari, however, must win to keep herself alive, but faces a decision if she is the victor: Is her duty to her new love or to her mother? Meanwhile, Akira has fallen in with a group of revolutionary yōkai who are planning to assassinate the emperor.
Told in the alternating voices and experiences of Akira, Mari and Taro, Emiko Jean's (We'll Never Be Apart) Empress of All Seasons builds a lush, Japanese mythology-inspired world. The three teens are inextricably linked, each individual's fate reliant upon another's choices and so, as the stakes rise for one, they rise for them all. An enchanting, gripping novel. --Siân Gaetano, children's and YA editor, Shelf Awareness
Shelf Talker: In Emiko Jean's Empress of All Seasons, three teens find themselves on opposing sides as they each bear the weight of a kingdom.