Emiko Jean’s 2018 Empress of All Seasons is a standalone secondary universe fantasy.
Animal Women have a simple lifestyle: find a gullible human man, seduce him, marry him, take his possessions, and leave. Any girl children who result from the union are raised, while the useless boys are discarded.
Mari is an Animal Woman to whom fate has been unkind. Almost every Animal Woman is incredibly beautiful. Mari is not. Faced with a daughter unable to befuddle men with her looks, Mari’s mother decided to set her daughter on the path to the loftiest husband of all: an emperor.
Some kingdoms select queens by their looks or family connections. The emperors of this country prefer a more straightforward approach. Any ambitious woman can put herself forward as a potential wife to an unmarried imperial heir. All she need do to win her husband is to survive a simple test of cunning and prowess: enter and survive four magical rooms.
Mari’s mother has no idea how to make Mari beautiful, but she can give her the skills needed to survive four enchanted death traps. All it takes is years of intensive training. By the time Prince Taro is old enough to take a wife, Mari is more than a match for the best samurai. Her skills and her Animal Women gifts should ensure victory, then the opportunity to rob Taro blind.
There are, of course, other women contending for the position, women just as highly motivated as Mari. Some of them are willing to be Mari’s friends. Others aren’t willing to trust the room to eliminate their rivals, not when a little homicide is all that stands between them and imperial status.
A greater impediment is Mari’s race. Animal Women are yōkai, supernatural beings. As far as Prince Taro’s father is concerned, yōkai are subhumans who exist to be enslaved if useful or killed if not. They are most assuredly not fit to marry. Should Mari’s true nature be revealed, a swift death will follow.
Taro is unpromising material; he is famously aloof. The cold prince, as he is known, loves only his mechanical creations. People are of less interest. But perhaps an Animal Woman can succeed in winning his heart where others have failed.
Or perhaps Mari will simply find herself caught up in a country-wide slave uprising.
The test feels like something set up by a bored emperor tired of dealing with endless overtures from aristocratic families hoping to make advantageous marriages. It must produce some interesting family dynamics, given that the winners are people who could, if they chose, bisect their imperial husband with a skillfully wielded naginata.
You may wonder “can a prince whose wealth is dependent on brutal exploitation give it up thanks to love?” Sorry, no. That’s another book. This is the story of how the son of a man who was an abusive dickhead turned out to be slightly more sentimental than his father, but still an abusive dickhead.
Given that so much fantasy is rotoscoped history, I’ve wondered if any authors will plagiarize the Shimabara Rebellion. The Empress of All Seasons is as close to this as I can expect to see. While Mari is busy surviving the four rooms, the other yōkai are using the distraction of the test to launch what they hope will be a war of liberation.
The author’s prose is fine and (aside from an irritating inability to notice who amongst them are clearly conniving villains) her characters are engaging enough. Where the novel stumbles is pacing: the author covers the tests in detail (Mari breezes through them while her rivals die like flies), but an epic war that restructures the nation is handled in a brief afterword. It seems to me that the rebellion would be the more interesting material and could have supported an entire series.