My thanks to NetGalley and Orion Publishing Group for a review copy of this book.
This one is again a young adult fantasy–adventure, set in a world inhabited by humans and by yōkai (beasts, some of whom are part human, or have the ability to transform), the latter being subjugated by humans, kept in collars with all kinds of restrictions. Our heroine Mari, belongs to one group of yōkai, the Animal Wives, who are exceptionally beautiful and have a human form (with the ability to change into beasts at will), and who marry rich men and make away with their fortune. Mari not having been blessed with the looks of the other animal wives, her mother plans a different future for her. She trains her rigorously to win the ultimate contest, a battle against the seasons, held in the imperial palace to choose the bride for the prince, and in effect the next Empress of the land. On the other side, we have the prince Taro, who doesn’t wish to either be a prince, nor a ‘prize’ in a contest, and is happiest when he is with his inventions, working with metal to create various things. And we also have Akira, a half-human-half-ghost, who has been Mari’s friend and loves her but feels he needs to prove himself to earn her affections. This is a story that has many aspects of course, love, family, the contest, betrayal, and duty, but at the heart of it is the distinction/discrimination that one people makes against the other, and the consequences for them both, and for the world they (we) live in.
I had requested this fantasy title mostly because of the Japanese fairytale–folklore background to it, and I really enjoyed these elements—the story is told from the perspective of three characters, Mari, Taro, and Akira, but interspersed between their chapters are stories of the gods and goddesses, who face similar struggles, similar issues as we do, and must face the consequences as well. The elements of the seasons too were enjoyable (certainly a different idea), and the monsters pretty imaginative as well. From other reviews, I see a couple of criticisms of this book were on account of its plot being too similar to other books of this genre, and of the contest, which seemed like the main ‘event’ in the book so to speak, being too short a part of the book. As far as I first goes, I did see some similarities with other such books involving contests and such (The Hunger Games, for one), but since I haven’t read very many titles in the genre, it didn’t bother me too much. Plus, I actually rather enjoyed the plot, I wasn’t sure how things would pan out in the end, and in fact I really liked the ending of the book (definitely not a typical one). The pacing too was good—the book moves really fast (I’d probably have read it a lot faster, except that it was an e-book, and I am generally slower with those). Re the second criticism, however, I agree, the contest part did feel a little too short considering that was basically what everything was centred on. The characters too were quite likeable, though the ‘villain’ of the piece was pretty obvious, and the romance was just ok (while it was building up ok, again it felt like everything happens too quickly). But the central points of the story on discrimination whether against genders or against just different living creatures, I think stood out well and is one that can’t be made enough times. An enjoyable read for me, and certainly one that much more than just a fantasy–adventure!