I loved the idea of this but while I did for the most part enjoy it I’m afraid it just didn’t live up to expectations. There are some great moments but the whole thing feels rushed and lacks the depth and emotion I was hoping for.
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.
I really wanted to love this book but despite a promising start and the odd brilliant moment I’m afraid this was more of an okay read rather than something special. I’m starting to think that YA fantasy just doesn’t work as a standalone and if this had been developed into a series it could have been so much better. As a single book, and not a particularly long one, there’s just not enough space for everything the author tries to do. Characters are under developed and rather two dimensional, the action feels rushed at times and there’s a general lack of emotion throughout which left me feeling rather unsatisfied.
That’s not to say it’s bad, I think a lot of readers will enjoy it (for the most part I did). The start of the story is wonderful, I loved the diversity in the characters, I loved the Japanese influences and the way the author weaved mythology through the story. The world building is also very well done and the characters likeable. I just feel like the story tries to be too big and ends up a little lacking. If the author had kept it simpler or expanded it I think it would have worked so much better.
The story itself is kind of The Selection meets the Hunger Games (I hate these types of comparisons but that seemed the best description), with girls coming from across the kingdom to compete for the chance to marry the Prince and eventually become Empress. This isn’t your average episode of the Bachelor however as the girls have to make their way through a series of four rooms (one for each of the seasons) surviving the elements, various creatures and (despite the no fighting rules) each other.
Main character Mari is one of those competing in the contest for the prince but as a yokai (a sort of monster) she may have special abilities and training that will help her win but if her secret is discovered it will almost certainly mean her death. She has a little bit of help however from Akira, a boy from her home who is part human, part yokai and a prince who doesn’t want to be the emperor (or the prize in a competition).
The story is told predominantly from the pov’s of Mari, Taro (the prince) and Akira and all three are for the most part likeable characters. Mari is probably the most well developed and the one I was most invested in but I definitely had some sympathy for both Taro and Akira. All three are outsiders in some way and are struggling with the roles they’ve been forced into. I did enjoy watching Mari develop over the course of the story but while both Taro and Akira also changed I’m not sure it was a change I liked.
The secondary characters unfortunately appear only briefly and are a little flat and I think this is a large part of where the story went wrong for me. There’s quite a bit of violence in this book and more than a few deaths and… I didn’t really care. It’s probably not helped by the deaths generally being a bit rushed, a character is barely introduced before they’re bumped off, but I should have been upset when certain character’s stories came to an end. And, as far as the villains go I wanted them to get the comeuppance they deserved and a lot of what should have been big moments never came.
This is particularly true of the ending, I’m not going to give anything away but there was just something rushed and unsatisfactory about it. It’s not that I disagree with the ending, I liked the direction it took, it’s more the way it’s written, it lacks the emotional punch it should have had.
As you can probably guess there is a bit of a romance in this and yes the classic love triangle but to me neither relationship felt particularly believable (one is too sudden and the other one sided) so it was pretty inoffensive.
Overall I’m sorry to say this was a bit of a disappointment for me. I had such a good feeling when I started it and I loved the world and the magic system but it just didn’t take the time to develop the characters or the relationships between them and consequently it lacked the feels I was looking for.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for providing me with an advance copy. This has in no way influenced my review.