In this riveting sequel to The Keeper of Night, a half Reaper, half Shinigami soul collector must defend her title as Japan’s Death Goddess from those who would see her—and all of Japan—destroyed.
Death is her dynasty.
Ren Scarborough is no longer the girl who was chased out of England—she is the Goddess of Death ruling Japan’s underworld. But Reapers have recently been spotted in Japan, and it’s only a matter of time before Ivy, now Britain’s Death Goddess, comes to claim her revenge.
Ren’s last hope is to appeal to the god of storms and seas, who can turn the tides to send Ivy’s ship away from Japan’s shores. But he’ll only help Ren if she finds a sword lost thousands of years ago—an impossible demand.
Together with the moon god Tsukuyomi, Ren ventures across the country in a race against time. As her journey thrusts her in the middle of scheming gods and dangerous Yokai demons, Ren will have to learn who she can truly trust—and the fate of Japan hangs in the balance.
What’s it about (in a nutshell):
This is book two in a duology about a half British reaper and half Japanese Shinigami named Ren Scarborough. This is the story of Ren’s journey to find her identity among a mix of cultures that will not accept the part of Ren that’s different from their own.
Initial Expectations (before beginning the book):
Book one left off in a very dark place, so I’m curious to see where this book takes Ren. I love the cover with its authentically Japanese feel, and the blurb tells me everything I need to know going in.
Actual Reading Experience:
The plot of The Empress of Time is very much like book one, The Keeper of Night, with a quest adventure that makes the pages flip very quickly and holds my interest without fail. The quests take the reader to visit different gods, goddesses, and even creatures. I especially loved that there was a dragon in this one, which made my heart happy.
Both book one and book two are equal in every way, and one is not better than the other. So, if you enjoyed The Keeper of the Night, chances are, you will enjoy The Empress of Time and vice versa. The writing for both is beautiful – at times, it’s almost lyrical. Other times it’s dark and gritty with the realities of Ren’s life, but both set the stage for a poignant story about a girl who is rejected and bullied all her life.
I love the mythology and creatures in both books. I did not know much about Japanese mythology until reading this story. Still, I have a whole new appreciation for the artistry, beauty, and darkness that comprise its gods and stories. In some ways, it is very much like the mythology of western cultures. Still, in other ways, it has a uniqueness that comes from a culture so different from our own.
All of the characters, particularly Ren, are incredibly complex. Whether the bully, the bullied, or the loved ones – they all have formed layer upon layer of complexities due to years of constant negativity.
Ren Scarborough’s father is a British Reaper, and her mother is a Japanese Shinigami. She grew up among the British but had to deal with constant bullying from other reapers and rejection from her father. Years of this have led to an overwhelming need in her to find a place where she is accepted for who she is.
Narration & Pacing:
The narration is done in the first person, with Ren telling us her tale. This is an excellent choice as it’s a personal story of not fitting in and being accepted. No other narration could explain all that Ren goes through like she can since much of it is the emotions she feels at the hands of people who will not accept her for who and what she is.
The story is action-packed, which keeps the pace relatively fast, but it does slow down from time to time, so I’ll split the difference and call it medium-paced. I never felt bogged down in the story, but since it is told in the first person, there are a lot of thoughtful details to sit through. My reading never felt burdened by these details, though.
Various places in Japan and the Japanese underworld are the sole settings for this second part of the duology. I love learning about the country and its mythology, and I knew nothing about it before reading this duology.
Read it if you like:
- Japanese mythology and reaper lore
- Dark fantasy
- Medium pace
- A mix of plot and character-driven stories
- Strong character development
- Complicated and diverse characters
- Flawed main character (morally gray)
Overall Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐💫
- Originality: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
- Writing Quality: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
- Pace: ⭐⭐⭐
- Character Development: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
- ‘Couldn’t Put It Down’-ness: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
- World-Building: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Kylie Lee Baker is the author of The Keeper of Night. She grew up in Boston and has since lived in Atlanta, Salamanca, and Seoul. Her writing is informed by her heritage (Japanese, Chinese, and Irish), as well as her experiences living abroad as both a student and teacher. She has a B.A. in Creative Writing and Spanish from Emory University and is currently pursuing a Master of Library and Information Science degree at Simmons University. In her free time, she watches horror movies, plays the cello, and bakes too many cookies.
- Author website: https://www.kylieleebaker.com/
- Twitter: @KylieYamashiro
- Instagram: @kylieleebaker
Deep down below the land of the living, in a place where light could not reach, I lived in a castle of shadows.
It sat on a high platform of stone, its towers spiraling into Yomi’s endless sky with rooftops sloped like claws and edges that blurred away in the night, as if a black fog had wrapped its arms around the castle and choked its breath away. Most people would never have the displeasure of seeing the monstrosity of my home in the total darkness of Yomi, but Shinigami, like me, could sense it clearly.
I knelt in an empty courtyard marked by smooth tiles just beyond the lotus lake, every breath echoing forever into the darkness. At times, the night was so still and vacant that I felt like it was listening to me, waiting for me, and if I only said the right words, the whole world would unfold and light would break in from above.
One of my shadow guards hovered beside me, his shape ebbing and flowing, pulsing like a heart as he waited for my instructions. My guards were people of the shadows—inhuman creatures born from the lost dreams of the dead, spirits with no body to call home, formless and ephemeral. My palace was filled with too many of them and an absurd number of handmaids—women bound forever to the palace from deals they’d made with Izanami. Most of them had bargained for more time with the living, either for themselves or their families. I didn’t know if their quiet subservience was out of fear, or if Izanami had bound them with some sort of curse.
“Have Chiyo send someone to clean the courtyard,” I said, glancing at the muddy marks I’d left on the stones. The mess didn’t bother me, but it would surely bother Chiyo, and I wanted the guard to leave me alone.
“Yes, Your Highness,” the guard said, evaporating into the darkness.
Before going inside, I turned to the west wing of the courtyard, where the darkness grew thick like treacle, clinging to my sandals as I walked. After a few steps, I could no longer see my hands in front of me, even with my Shinigami vision. The world was nothing but my own slow heartbeat and the cold sweat on my skin, the weight of a thousand worlds crushing down on my shoulders as the darkness grew heavier and heavier.
I fell to my knees at the border of deep darkness and reached a hand out in front of me. My palm pressed into a cold wall, unyielding but invisible. Beyond it, the darkness was so dense that it seemed like the world had simply ceased to exist.
I pressed harder against the wall, feeling my bones creak and joints protest. Even before I’d become a goddess, I’d been strong enough to crush bricks to dust and bend steel like dough. As a goddess, my anger could make mountains tremble and my touch could shatter diamonds. Yet the wall that barred me from the deep darkness would not yield. It had grown weaker over the years—I could hear the tinkle of hairline cracks forming on the other side—but still, it remained standing.
At first, I would sit outside for hours pushing against the wall until my fingers broke and my wrists snapped, but now I knew that if I wasn’t strong enough, no amount of time spent pushing would change that. Only more souls in my stomach could weaken the barrier. So instead of trying anymore, I fell forward onto my hands and glared across the darkness, whispering a secret prayer and hoping that somewhere in that dark infinity, Neven could hear me.
When humans grew desperate, they offered me anything at all to spare them and their loved ones from suffering. But there were no gods left for me to pray to. I had become my own god, and now I knew the cruel truth: gods were just as helpless as humans when it came to things that mattered.
I rose to my feet and trudged back to the palace doors, where two more shadow guards stood at attention. They bowed as I approached, then raised the great metal bars that sealed the palace and let me inside.
Chiyo stood waiting just beyond the door, her arms crossed. Out of all the handmaids Izanami had left behind, I’d chosen her to attend and advise me. Despite the way Death often blurred one’s features, Chiyo’s eyes had a sharpness to them, like she was ready for a sudden attack. She was the only servant who seemed like she’d retained even a piece of her soul after having her heart eaten by Shinigami. The others had vacant stares and cowered in fear, but Chiyo always had a sour look on her face when I frequently displeased her, which I much preferred. My guess was she’d died somewhere in her thirties, though the sternness in her face made her look older.
“That took longer than scheduled,” Chiyo said, frowning at the trail of mud behind me. “The Goddess of Death can’t even kill efficiently?”
“I felt like making you wait,” I said, stepping through the doorway. Chiyo did little to conceal her disapproval for my extra soul collections, but she helped me because I was her goddess and I’d asked her to, and she had to trust that a goddess knew what was best, even if we both knew that was a lie.
I lit the ceremonial candles in the hallway with a wave of my hand, casting the palace in dim light. Chiyo flinched like I’d set off fireworks, but I ignored her and trailed muddy footprints down the hallway.
One of the many changes I’d made from Izanami’s reign of total darkness was that I required at least dim light in the palace at all times. Even though my Shinigami senses could make out the furniture and wall paintings in the darkness, I’d also started to see faces that shouldn’t have been there. In the formless swirl of darkness, they came together piece by piece, hazy nightmares that dispersed whenever I blinked and then reappeared when I turned around.
Chiyo bowed and opened the door to the bathroom. She tried, as she did every day, to help me undress, but I shooed her away with a wave of my hand while other servants filled a tub with scalding hot water. I cast off my soiled human clothes and dropped them in a wet pile on the floor.
“Burn them,” I said to Chiyo, stepping into the tub. My clothes reeked of blood and wouldn’t have been salvageable even if I’d wanted them.
“Most deities don’t waste quite so many kimonos,” she said, gathering the dirty fabric.
“Most deities don’t do anything,” I said, scrubbing the blood from under my fingernails. “They just bask in humans’ prayers and have their underlings do their chores. But I have tasks that only I can do correctly.”
Chiyo made a noncommittal humming sound that she always made when her thoughts weren’t polite enough to say to a goddess, but she didn’t deny my words. The Shinto gods all had great adventures and conquests and tragedies when the world was first beginning, but since the modern era, none of them seemed particularly active.
While I hadn’t expected any of them to welcome me with open arms, none had deigned to even speak to me. Chiyo mentioned their doings in passing—when typhoons tore through Japan, that was likely the doing of Fūjin, the god of wind. And when the population increased, that was the doing of Inari, goddess of fertility. But none of them ever drained the seas or turned the sky purple or performed any sort of godlike miracle, anything that couldn’t be explained by nature or luck. I imagined that they merely sat in their palaces and watched the changing winds.
“Has anything of importance happened in my absence?” I asked. Chiyo knew well that important meant any situation I had to deal with immediately or risk total chaos and peril. Anything else, she could handle on her own.
“Yomi is quiet, Your Highness,” she said. “It is Obon, so the dead are on Earth.”
Just like every year, I had forgotten about the Obon festival until it was upon us, marking the waning days of summer, one more year of nothing changing at all. It was now a Buddhist holiday, but I observed it even as a Shinto goddess, for the two religions had long ago become intertwined in the lives of humans in Japan. Every year, the souls of the dead traveled back to their hometowns on Earth, summoned by fire. After three days of festivals and dancing, fire bid the spirits goodbye, and they returned to Yomi. Usually, that meant that no one bothered me for three days.
“However, there are Shinigami waiting upstairs,” Chiyo said.
“Why?” I frowned, combing my fingers through my wet hair. The water clouded with blood.
“I believe they are hoping for a transfer.”
I sighed, nodding as I scrubbed the blood from my forehead. It was my fault for daring to hope that Obon would mean a few days of peace and quiet in Yomi. What right did I have to peace?
“I don’t suppose you could tell them to come back tomorrow?”
Chiyo’s thin smile twitched, her eyes glinting like sharpened knives as she turned toward the light as if considering my request. Chiyo had to be patient with me, but I knew her patience was not infinite.
“Fine,” I said, sinking deeper into the water, “but I’m not going to meet them sopping wet, so they’ll just have to wait a bit longer.”
“Of course,” Chiyo said, bowing in a way that somehow felt sarcastic, even if I couldn’t prove it. “I will take care of your clothes and have the floors cleaned,” she said, turning to leave.
She stopped in the doorway. “Yes, Your Highness?”
I could not look at her face when I asked my next question because I would know the answer from her eyes alone. Instead, I stared at my reflection in the muddy water, dirty and distorted like me.
“Have the guards found anything in the deep darkness?” I asked.
Every day, right before she answered, there was a moment of breathless silence when I allowed myself to hope. Sometimes I would stop time and cling to the moment just a bit longer, allowing myself to think that maybe today was the day.
“No, Your Highness,” Chiyo said. The only time her voice was gentle was when she answered this question. “Perhaps tomorrow.”
“Yes,” I said, shifting in the tub so that my reflection rippled and broke, “perhaps.”
She bowed again, then hurried out of the room. I glanced at my ring on the counter, then sank under the water.
I closed my eyes as a wave of fresh souls rushed over me, a warmth spinning through my blood, burning from my heart to my fingertips. I could always feel when my Shinigami brought me fresh souls. A thousand names flashed behind my closed eyes, streaks of bloodred kanji burned into my vision. The ache in my bones abated slightly, heat returning to my core. With every soul, I felt a little less like I’d been dragged through wet earth with a sick stomach full of hearts and more like someone who might be a goddess one day.
I stepped out of the tub and into my room, where servants were already waiting with clothing.
When I’d first taken the throne, they’d tried to dress me in twelve layers of fabric, so heavy that I could hardly stand up.
“The royal junihitoe is the proper clothing for a goddess,” Chiyo had said.
But I hadn’t felt like a goddess then, and I still didn’t now. I was just a pathetic girl whose anger had killed her brother and then her betrothed, and my prize was an eternity of lonely darkness. I didn’t deserve the throne, nor did I want it. But this was the only way to stay in Yomi and wait at the edge of the deep darkness, either until my guards brought Neven back or I finally grew strong enough to break through the wall and find him myself. So, for the time being, I would have to play the part.
“I want a simple black kimono,” I’d said to Chiyo. “I don’t want to look pretty. I want to be able to move.”
“Your Highness,” Chiyo had said, the first traces of impatience starting to curdle her expression, “for a goddess, black clothing looks rather mournful.”
“Yes, and?” I said, casting the last of the purple fabric to the ground and standing only in my slip. “My brother is gone, my mother is dead, and I stabbed a ceremonial knife into my fiancé’s heart. I will mourn if I want to.”
To that, Chiyo said nothing, bowing deeply to hide her expression. The next day, she’d brought me a closet full of kimonos as dark as Yomi’s endless sky, and that was what I’d worn ever since.
The servants dressed me, tying my kimono tightly behind me. Even now, it reminded me of the first time someone had helped me into a kimono with hands that glowed like moonbeams and skin that smelled like brine.
A servant bowed and offered me my clock, which I clipped to my clothes and tucked into my obi. Finding a new clock of pure silver and gold had been difficult in Yomi, but it turned out that Death Goddesses got almost anything they wanted. I had never found Neven’s clock that I’d dropped on the floor of the throne room all those years ago, despite having my servants turn over every mat and empty every drawer in the entire palace. I suspected Hiro had destroyed it.
Chiyo tried to tie my hair up, but I stepped away from her and brushed it myself. I’d spent too long hiding the color of my hair from Reapers to simply tie it up and hide it again for the sake of proper styling. Nothing about me was traditional or proper, so what difference did a hairstyle make? I slipped my ring necklace over my head and rose to my feet, pushing the doors to my room open before the servants could do it for me. They threw themselves to the ground in apology, but I ignored them, charging down the hallways past the murals of Japan’s history—Izanagi and Izanami stirring the sky with a spear, the birth of their first child, Hiro, and their final children, the gods of the sun, moon and storms.
At first, I’d thought someone had painted the murals so the history wouldn’t be lost. But the palace had a mind of its own—mere days after my ascension, I’d walked past a new painting. It showed an angry girl cast in shadows, holding a candle in one hand and a clock in the other, standing at an outdoor shrine that dripped with blood, the body of a man at her feet.
I’d ordered the servants to paint over it and watched unblinking until it was done, but the next day, the picture appeared again. It seemed no matter what I did, I couldn’t erase it. I no longer visited that wing of the palace.
The guards at the entrance to the throne room bowed and opened the doors as I strode past them.
Inside, two Shinigami knelt on cushions on the floor, one man and one woman. They wore crimson red robes embroidered with gold dragons that captured the pale candlelight. How unfair it was that they could wear the uniform of Shinigami when I never had the chance, their lives so simple and whole.
I stepped up onto the platform and sat on my throne. The ceremonial candles lit the platform around me like a stage, Izanami’s katana mounted on the wall above me.
This was the room where I’d first met Izanami, back when I’d truly believed that she could help me. Once, the distance between the sliding doors and the great platform of Izanami’s throne had felt like a thousand miles, the pale reed mats an endless desert that pulled nervous sweat from my palms as I crawled across them. Now it was just a room of echoes and darkness, a chair that was expensive and uncomfortable, and a murder weapon mounted above my head because I didn’t know where else to put it. What had made the room magnificent was the fear that Izanami inspired, and now she was gone.
I sat down on the throne and crossed my arms as they bowed to me, then closed my eyes. The names of the Shinigami appeared in the darkness of my mind.
“Yoshitsune and Kanako of Naoshima,” I said, opening my eyes. “Speak.”
“Your Highness,” the man, Yoshitsune, said, “we’ve come to ask for your permission to transfer to Tottori.”
I sighed. What a waste of time. This had hardly been worth getting dressed for.
“No,” I said. “Was that all?”
“But…” Kanako frowned, rising up from her reverent bow, “why not?”
“‘Your Highness,’” I reminded her, scowling. In truth, I hated the title, but letting them speak informally to me was a quick path to being called Ren and then Reaper.
“Why not, Your Highness?” Kanako said, though the title sounded more like an insult than any sign of respect.
“You know why,” I said. “Do not waste my time with this.”
“Her father lives in Tottori, and he’s growing old,” Yoshitsune said, frowning as if I was singularly responsible for this. How quickly they had gone from pressing their noses to the floor to glaring at me. This was how it always went—they were willing to pretend I was their goddess until I didn’t give them what they wanted.
Most Shinigami didn’t even keep in touch with their parents enough to justify such a request. Just like Reapers, Shinigami families were only useful for alliances and protection. Once children married, there was no practical need for them to see their parents anymore. One of the many reasons my father had renounced me was probably that he’d never expected me to marry, so he wouldn’t have had a convenient excuse to disappear from my life. I doubted that the Shinigami before me truly wanted to relocate for noble reasons.
“I don’t need more Shinigami in Tottori,” I said. “The population there is hardly growing. You may transfer to Tokyo or Osaka, but Tottori is already bursting with Shinigami who are bored to death. My answer is no.”
“Izanami allowed us to stay with our families,” Yoshitsune said, glaring at me through the darkness.
Lies, a voice whispered, the words scratching down my ear like my head was full of spiders. I had figured as much, but comparing myself to Izanami rarely ended well. As much as I wanted to grant their wish and shut them up, the only thing worse than angry Shinigami was uncollected souls floating in the ether because there weren’t enough Shinigami to reap them. Then, instead of thinking me heartless, the other Shinigami would think me incompetent, which was much worse.
They had no innate respect for me, a foreign girl who had abruptly replaced the creator of their world. Reapers had impeccable hearing, so I knew all the things they whispered about me before I summoned them to my meetings—that I had seduced Hiro just to steal his throne, that I had taken Japan as an English colony to enslave, that I had no right to sit on Izanami’s throne and give orders. I couldn’t bring myself to disagree with the last one.
So, if they wouldn’t respect me, they had to fear me.
My shadows reached out and wrapped around their arms and legs, tearing the couple to opposite sides of the room. They screamed as the shadows pinned them to the walls, long tendrils of darkness crawling around their throats, lifting up their eyelids to examine the soft flesh below, tickling up their noses to peer at their brains.
Tears pooled in Yoshitsune’s eyes as the shadows dived down his throat, but Kanako bit down on the dark coils before they could choke her, spitting inky blackness back at me.
“Which one of you would like to die first?” I said in Death. The language was useful for intimidation, for even if my words were inelegant, Death curled them into a sinister lilt that made the Shinigami break out in goose bumps.
“You can’t kill us and you know it!” Kanako said. “The population is growing too quickly and you need all the Shinigami you can get.”
Unfortunately, she was right. Though the death of any Shinigami would result in the birth of another, I couldn’t exactly wait the hundred years it would take for them to grow up and complete their training. More Shinigami were already being born to meet the needs of the growing population, but all of them were still too young to reap.
“There are things worse than Death,” I said. This, I knew all too well.
I snapped both of their legs and dropped them to the floor.
They groaned as they fell limp against the mats, my shadows retreating back to me. They would heal in a few hours.
“Chiyo,” I said.
The door slid open instantly, as if she’d been waiting with an ear pressed against it. Her eyes were wide and alarmed, and for a moment I hesitated—she was used to my outbursts when dealing with Shinigami, so surely a few broken shins wouldn’t have unsettled her. Something else must have happened.
But whatever it was, she could find a way to resolve it herself. I didn’t have the patience for another catastrophe right now.
“Have them taken outside,” I said. “They can crawl home.”
“Yes, Your Highness,” Chiyo said. “If I may—”
I strode past the Shinigami, but one of them grabbed my ankle, stopping me in my tracks. I turned to Kanako, her face twisted in pain but her grip iron strong around my leg.
“Have you no respect?” I said, my jaw tense. “I could have killed you. I can spare one Shinigami, I promise you that.”
Kanako shook her head, nails biting into my skin.
“I don’t worship foreign gods,” she said.
I sighed, then yanked my ankle away and stomped firmly on her hand. It crackled with a sound like stale bread.
“Take them out now,” I said to Chiyo, storming past her.
Foreign gods, I thought, stomping toward my study. That was always the problem. Years ago, I’d given up fighting the word foreigner, knowing it was futile. Gods weren’t supposed to care what lower beings thought of them. All my power was supposed to extinguish that sort of weak, mortal doubt. Because if it didn’t, then why had I sacrificed everything for it?
Somehow, despite all my power, I was still trapped. It didn’t matter if foreigner stung less now than it had ten years ago, because the result was the same—no one respected me. No amount of introspection or confidence could change the fact that I had no say in who I was. Even as the most powerful being in all of Yomi, I felt like none of it truly belonged to me—my palace was a dollhouse, my riches trinkets, and all of it was a sham, because someone like me was not allowed to be a goddess.
“Your Highness!” Chiyo called, hurrying behind me.
“I’m going to my study,” I said.
“But Your Highness, there’s someone here in the lobby—”
“I don’t care if Izanami herself has risen from the grave and come over for tea. I am not seeing any other guests today.”
Chiyo clamped her mouth shut, but at the mention of Izanami, her eyes went wide.
“Chiyo,” I said, slowing to a stop. “Is Izanami—”
“No, no, Your Highness,” Chiyo said, shaking her head. “But there is someone I think you’ll want to speak to.”
I sighed, my jaw locked with annoyance. “Who is it?”
Chiyo looked at her feet. “He didn’t exactly say, but his face…”
She trailed off, but it was enough to make me hesitate. Chiyo knew better than to waste my time, so if she was stopping me for this visitor, he must have been of some importance.
I turned back down the hallway and headed toward the main entrance, Chiyo following close behind. I entered the main lobby, bristling past the shadow guards into the golden entranceway, its ceiling painted with a thousand flowers and its walls mapped with more of the castle’s murals cast in a backdrop of gold.
A man stood by the door, arms crossed as he examined the painted walls. He wore a kimono in ethereal white that glowed so brightly it seemed to emanate a pale mist of light. He turned around, as beautiful and terrifying as an endless sea, skin of moonbeams and eyes of exquisite coal. Someone I never thought I’d see again.
Excerpted from The Empress of Time by Kylie Lee Baker, Copyright © 2022 by Kylie Lee Baker. Published by Inkyard Press.