One girl must compete to become the next empress while keeping her monstrous identity a secret in this ancient Japan–inspired standalone fantasy.
Winter 2018-2019 Kids’ Indie Next List
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 yokai, 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 yokai 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-yokai 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.
IN THE BEGINNING, dark water flooded the earth.
Kita, the Goddess of Land and Rice, built a staircase out of lightning and stepped down from the sky.
She dipped her nimble fingers into the black oceans and sculpted from the rocky depths the lands of Honoku. From her body, she made the terrain. Her eyelashes became forests, dense with trees. Her tears of joy became the oceans, rough with salt. Her breath became the desert, hot with sand. And with her fingernails, she created an impassable mountain range, one of extraordinary danger and height.
Delighted by her cleverness, she bragged to her fellow gods and goddesses.
Sugita, her brother, God of Children, Fortune, and Love, perpetually prone to jealousy, refused to be overshadowed. From the land, he gathered clay and molded figures.
The first were yokai.
Sugita’s imagination ran wild, and he fashioned these spirits, monsters, and demons, these otherworldly creatures, with blue, white, and yellow skin. Some he fashioned with horns; some without. Some he locked forever in childhood. To others he gave two mouths or fifteen fingers, long necks, ten hundred eyes, or shriveled heads. The yokai were as limitless as the magic within them.
The second were human.
These he made in his own image, relatively uniform in appearance, with ten fingers and ten toes, each with a single mouth, and with hair upon their heads. Soon enough, Sugita recognized the weakness in his design. He had given yokai vast powers, whereas he had given the humans none. So he gifted the latter with a second language—curses that may be spoken or written to ward off the yokai, strip them of their powers. In this way, a balance might be established.
And to all—yokai and human alike—he bestowed a mortal heart.
Finally, he took the human that bore him the strongest resemblance and set him upon the most fertile land. He touched the human’s brow with his thumb and drew a smudge between his eyebrows. All would know that he was favored by the gods and goddesses. So it was.
The human was called Emperor.
Ruler of the land.
BREATHING IN THE DARK, and not her own.
Mari tilted her head. She couldn’t see in the pitch-black, but she closed her eyes. It helped her focus. She knew this space well, this room with no windows and an almost airtight door. Sometimes the musty smell invaded her dreams, morphed them into nightmares. The Killing Room, and Mari was executioner.
She inhaled, holding the stale air in her lungs. There, in the right corner, two feet away, someone waited. Afraid.
Mari stepped forward, the floorboards creaking under her weight.
“P-p-please,” a high-pitched male voice wailed.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” she said, letting a note of reassurance enter her voice. Not yet, anyway. She probed the wall. Her fingers brushed against a wooden ledge, then paper pulled tight over a bamboo frame. Matches rested next to the lamp. She struck one and lit the cotton wick, illuminating the room in a soft glow. The scent of rapeseed oil crept through the air. When her eyes refocused, she saw that the man was dressed in hakama pants and a surcoat. Samurai garb. The uniform of the military elite.
“Gods and goddesses,” he said, mouth lifting into a sneer, “I thought you were one of them. Why, you’re no taller than a sapling! What happened, little girl, did you lose your mommy?”
Mari regretted her paltry effort to comfort him. That’s what you get for being nice. Men. They always underestimated her.
Opposite the man, a variety of weapons leaned in the corner: a sickle and chain, a bow and arrow, a nunchaku . . . Mari gestured toward them. “Choose.” She liked to give the men a fighting chance. I’m sporting that way.
The samurai huffed. “You don’t know what you ask, little girl. I trained at the Palace of Illusions with the shogun himself.”
Mari clenched her teeth. This was growing tedious. “I said, choose your weapon.”
The samurai strolled to the corner. He rifled through the weapons and selected a katana and a wakizashi.
Predictable. The long and short swords were samurai weapons. Her opponent brandished them, sharp-edged steel blades glittering in the lamplight.
Mari sauntered to the corner and quickly chose her own instrument. Always the same. The naginata. The reaping sword was a long bamboo pole culminating in a wicked curved blade. Thought to be a woman’s weapon, none of her opponents ever selected it. It was the only weapon Mari knew how to wield. “If you train on all weapons, you will master none,” her mother always said.
Mari stamped the naginata on the ground. Dust billowed around the hem of her navy kimono. “I’m very sorry, but from this moment, you’re dead,” she said, unsheathing the blade.
The samurai laughed, the sound robust and biting.
Mari cut his chortle short. She dipped into a crouch, letting the pole end of the naginata swing out in an arc, clipping the back of the samurai’s knees.
He collapsed with a loud thud. Mari winced. The big ones always fall the hardest.
“That was a mistake,” he said, clambering to his feet. He crossed the swords in front of him, a dangerous glint in his eye.
At least he’s taking me seriously now. “No,” Mari corrected. “That was intentional.”
The samurai rushed her, and she followed suit. The blade end of her naginata clashed against his big sword. Sparks flew.
The samurai jabbed with the smaller sword, and Mari dodged. A hairsbreadth from being impaled. That was too close. Her pulse quickened with fear and excitement. This samurai is well-trained. Before the samurai could pull back, Mari began twisting the naginata, catching both of his weapons in the windmill. Forced to let go, the samurai dropped his swords, which scattered to the ground, a few feet away. Well-trained, but not as well-trained as I.
She couldn’t allow him time to take a breath, to reach for his weapons. End this. She snap-kicked, her right foot connecting with his abdomen. The samurai grunted and doubled over. He clutched his stomach a...
“With rich mythology and elegant atmosphere, Empress of All Seasons will latch onto your imagination and sweep you along for a magical and dangerous ride.”—Joelle Charbonneau, New York Times best-selling author of The Testing Trilogy and Eden Conquered
“Jean’s world building is incredible and reflects her Japanese heritage, from the richly described landscapes of the animal wives’ home to the city of Honoku to the seasonal rooms. Action, romance, family, and self-discovery are all parts of Mari’s journey...In a genre that is quick to make trilogies and quartets, this is laudable as a standalone that fully tells its story within a single volume.”—Booklist
“The author uses Japanese folklore elements to effectively craft an engaging story that also questions the power structures of heaven and earth, male and female, human and yokai. A narrative that will engage fans of the genre with a much-needed non-Western setting.”—Kirkus
“This well-written fantasy will keep teens engaged. =Recommended for fans of Victoria Aveyard’s ‘Red Queen’ series and Cindy Pon’s Serpentine. A strong purchase for YA shelves.”—School Library Journal
“The three protagonists’ efforts to define themselves against family expectations build a compelling narrative framework, and there are many strong, interesting female side characters.” —The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books
“An enchanting, gripping novel.” —Shelf Awareness
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