*I received a copy of this book from the publisher*
I actually picked this up at the Gollancz blogger preview evening a few months ago. I knew when I heard the synopsis that I was interested in it. A standalone fantasy where the main character is a secretly disallowed competitor in a competition to become Empress? Sign me up, I am sold! I also liked the fact that it was Japanese-inspired fantasy. It felt like it would be similar to Shadow of the Fox, which I really liked, so I was already going in with good feelings about this.
In a palace of illusions, nothing is what it seems.
Each generation, a competition is held to find the next empress of Honoku. The rules are simple. Survive the palace’s enchanted seasonal rooms. Conquer Winter, Spring, Summer, and Fall. Marry the prince. All are eligible to compete—all except yōkai, supernatural monsters and spirits whom the human emperor is determined to enslave and destroy.
Mari has spent a lifetime training to become empress. Winning should be easy. And it would be, if she weren’t hiding a dangerous secret. Mari is a yōkai with the ability to transform into a terrifying monster. If discovered, her life will be forfeit. As she struggles to keep her true identity hidden, Mari’s fate collides with that of Taro, the prince who has no desire to inherit the imperial throne, and Akira, a half-human, half-yōkai outcast.
Torn between duty and love, loyalty and betrayal, vengeance and forgiveness, the choices of Mari, Taro, and Akira will decide the fate of Honoku in this beautifully written, edge-of-your-seat YA fantasy.
There was loads that I really loved in this book. The idea of an outcast, a yōkai, competing in a situation where she’s not supposed to be was really interesting, and raised questions of marginalisation, judgement based on predetermined characteristics, and monarchy as a whole.
Thematically, this felt a lot like Shadow of the Fox. The main character, a non-human, steps outside of her secluded enclave for the first time and gets swept up in something much bigger than she is. She has to deal with discrimination against her because she’s not human, and meets a variety of different people, both human and non-human, throughout her adventures. The difference, I guess, in this, is that Mari knew what she was getting into here, which isn’t the case with Shadow, where she’s just kind of thrust into an environment which is far outside of what she’s grown up knowing and expecting.
But the parallels between the two aren’t a bad thing. I really did like Shadow of the Fox, and I’m looking forward to the sequel coming out. So really, this was a winner for me. I loved the variety of different Japanese-inspired characters which drew on the rich folklore which is available in that world. Funnily enough, this was the second Japanese-style book I read this month (although Memoirs of a Geisha is a very … different kind of Japanese-inspired book). One thing which grated on me throughout the book was the choice of which words to italicise. Most words in the book which were direct Japanese were put in italics – hakama, obi, yōkai, rōnin, daimyō, etc. But then some weren’t – samurai, ninja. I found the distinction between the two hard to grasp. And the fact that five or six words per page were set in italics was both distracting and annoying. But then, I guess that’s a stylistic choice that is only really irritating to me for strange and individual reasons, so really I should give that one a pass.
Overall, though, the book was lush, the setting was intricate and well-drawn, the dilemmas were clear. Mari was a main character who was sympathetic and relatable, and I totally understood and appreciated her viewpoint. The shifting narrative between Mari, Taro, the emperor’s son, and Akira, her friend from home, added depth to both the plot and the characters. It also widened the viewpoint of the story as a whole – having Akira on the outside meant that we could add more depth to the idea of a yōkai rebellion, and how that might work out. Given that this was a standalone, it was important to have that extra depth, because there aren’t sequels to come back and explain what’s happened. The occasional feel of the Hunger Games wasn’t a bad thing for me – there are only so many ways you can pit a bunch of people against each other, and there was sufficient variation between the seasonal rooms, the motivation for the competition, and the rules of play to justify it.
There were two other reasons that this book wasn’t quite a five-star read for me. The first of those was the characters. There’s a broad cast of characters in the book, which means they don’t all get the time and space they deserve. One person who suffers through that is the Weapons Master. She clearly has a really interesting backstory, and gives the chance to add depth to the world – how does her same-sex attraction impact on her life here? But she was clearly a minor character in the grand scheme of things, so I guess she couldn’t have too much space or thought. My larger qualm was with the main characters and their development. Specifically Taro, the son of the emperor, and the object of the competition. His character undergoes a complete sea-change at a high point in the action, which is never properly examined or explained. It’s just accepted as part of the plot development, and from then on he becomes sort of a force in the narrative, rather than a fully developed and nuanced character. It was really disappointing, because I think his actions could have been completely believable, if they were properly examined.
My other qualm was Akira’s obtaining crucial information. Just by coincidence, he happens to stumble upon a great secret which changes the game. And, helpfully, while this exposition is just stumbled upon, it’s explained perfectly so that someone who happens to be eavesdropping will understand perfectly what’s going on. In a book which had a lot of well-plotted and developed story execution, this felt lazy.
But! Overall, this was still a rollicking read, with plenty of twists and turns, good characters, a mixture of representation, a main character who stands on her own two feet and grows as a person over the course of the book, and a thoroughly enjoyable ride. I definitely recommend it, as it was very engaging and will look out for more from this author in the future.