The Lord of the Sands of Time

Title: The Lord of the Sands of Time
Japanese Title: 時砂の王 (Tokisuna no Ō)
Author: Ogawa Issui (小川一水)
Translator: Jim Hubbert
Publication Year: 2009 (United States); 2007 (Japan)
Publisher: Haikasoru
Pages: 196

Sometimes you get to the end of a book and wonder what just happened.

The Lord of the Sands of Time was like that for me.

Allow me to spoil the ending:

The weakness of the aliens attacking the earth is salt water.

There is also time travel involved. Androids with highly advanced artificial intelligence are sent back in time to fight seemingly mindless mechanical extraterrestrials who for some reason are bent on wiping out the human race, and it takes the best among the androids several sweeps of human history to figure out that sea water kills the aliens.

I’ll be the first to admit that premise of the novel is kind of silly, but it’s still an engrossing tale of adventure across alternate histories.

The Lord of the Sands of Time is about Orville, an android who was created on Triton, one of the last outposts of human civilization in the year 2598. Orville is one of many Messengers, who were engineered with the purpose of going back in time and saving the humanity from destruction at the metallic tentacles of an alien force from beyond the solar system, which is collectively referred to as ET.

The novel begins in Japan in the year 248, a destination at which Orville has arrived after many timestreams of trial and error. With the cooperation of Himiko, the ruler of the Kingdom of Wa, Orville tries once again to rally the human race against the ET, but the situation is dire. The ET have already overwhelmed the Asian mainland, and many of Orville’s Messenger comrades have fallen over the course of their long journey. Even worse, the ET are also capable of time travel; and, unlike the Messengers, they have the capacity to attack from space.

Every alternate chapter tells a segment of Orville’s backstory. The Messengers first came to Earth in the twenty-second century, but humanity was too busy bickering with itself to launch an effective resistance against the ET. After failing to rescue humanity in that timestream, the Messengers try again, transporting themselves to the eve of the second World War. Once again, however, humanity is too busy bickering with itself to fight the ET. The Messengers thus try again, and again, and again, their numbers decreasing as the ET use their own version of time travel to thwart them.

Although it first appears that the humans of Himiko’s timestream will also fall victim to internecine warfare and thus prove incapable of marshaling a united front against the ET, Himiko is strong willed and politically savvy enough to keep the peoples of the Japanese archipelago from killing themselves long enough to realize the full extent of the threat the ET pose. Even though Orville lends Himiko his superhuman strength and knowledge of technological advances, the outcome of this timestream seems bleak as well, and the fight will be a close one.

For the first half of the novel, tension builds steadily as Himiko deals with political machinations and Orville comes into his own as a character. The descriptions of Japan in the late Yayoi period are just as fascinating as the descriptions of the doomed yet utopian society on Triton, and Himiko’s growth as a ruler is just as compelling as Orville’s blooming love affair with Sayaka, a human woman in the Triton Defense Force, as he learns about what he is trying to protect.

Unfortunately, things begin to fall apart in the last quarter of the novel. As the narrative rushes toward its conclusion, world building and character development are neglected in favor of battle scenes. In the midst of this fighting, Orville trips and falls into bed with Himiko. This is not quite as epic as it could be. In two short paragraphs, Orville tells Himiko about Sayaka, Himiko calls Orville by his first name, Orville cries, and Himiko hugs him. There’s a page break, and then the narrative is back to talk of fighting and armies.

“From that night on, Miyo [Himiko's personal name] and Orville shared the same bed” is about the extent of the romance between them, but Himiko undergoes a startling personality shift after she begins sleeping with Orville. She becomes a background character in her own story and spends most of her time panicked and helpless. The following “newsflash,” which has been making the rounds on Tumblr recently, states:

If a strong, independent female character falls in love, it does not automatically mean that she has lost her values or that she’s become less strong and independent, and does not necessarily change her story into an anti-feminist one. The idea that all women should fall in love and get married IS sexist, but a woman actually falling in love and getting married of her own free will is NOT sexist. Thank you and good day.

Sometimes, however, a female protagonist will fall love with a male protagonist and suddenly cease to be a protagonist at all, and that’s what happens in The Lord of the Sands of Time. Himiko is barely even fully conscious throughout the final quarter of the novel, and Orville is too busy kicking ass and taking names off camera to have any real input in the story. With the two main characters out of the picture, the novel gears up for its big reveals – what the motive of the ET is, how time travel works and doesn’t work, how the ET will be defeated – but these big reveals are rushed don’t really make any sense. The weakness of the aliens is water, the power of love plays a role in this discovery, and the aliens don’t have any real motive for attacking the earth. The time travel mechanics are especially disappointing. To be fair, time travel never makes sense, but it’s as if the author got around all the problems implicit in time travel by simply pretending that they don’t exist.

The last sixty pages of The Lord of the Sands of Time thus pass by in a flurry of tropes and battle scenes that might have worked better if they were filmed instead of written. In the novel’s defense, though, the buildup to these last sixty pages is strong enough to carry the reader all the way to the end. Sure, the love story between Orville and Himiko/Miyo never goes anywhere, and sure, this flaccid non-relationship diverts the narrative focus away from the relationships between Orville and the other Messengers (which are infinitely more interesting), but the reader is still curious to see how it all ends (and don’t worry, I didn’t spoil everything).

The Lord of the Sands of Time is not high art or epic romance, but it’s a fun novel, especially if you have a soft spot for science fiction. Jim Hubbert’s translation doesn’t call attention to itself and allows Ogawa’s prose to flow quickly and seamlessly. (In fact, I’m so impressed by the eighties American sci-fi feel of Hubbert’s translation that I’ve already ordered a copy of his other translation for Haikasoru, Hayashi Jyōji’s The Ouroboros Wave.) As much as I make fun of science fiction tropes, I can’t get enough of them, and The Lord of the Sands of Time fully satisfied my holiday craving for a sci-fi novel of manageable length to chill out with over a relaxed weekend.

The Summer of the Ubume

Title: The Summer of the Ubume
Japanese Title: 姑獲鳥の夏 (Ubume no natsu)
Author: Kyōgoku Natsuhiko (京極夏彦)
Translator: Alexander O. Smith and Elye J. Alexander
Publication Year: 1994 (Japan); 2009 (America)
Publisher: Vertical
Pages: 320

Reading The Summer of the Ubume was like being in a trance. Honestly, it feels weird to not be reading the book right now, but I imagine that I’m going to be reading it again soon. I haven’t been this engrossed in a book since I read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Which is not to say that Summer of the Ubume is in any way like the Harry Potter series, aside from its sheer literary addiction quotient. On the surface, the book presents a simple “sealed room” murder mystery. Underneath, however, is mystery upon mystery upon mystery. Running through these mysteries is a current of Japanese folklore, especially folklore concerning spirit possession. The “ubume” of the title is the ghost of a woman who died in childbirth and carries out her grudge against still-living mothers by stealing their infant children. This trope is connected to the household of a family that is just about as gothic as they come, with frail maidens and hereditary curses and hidden murders set on the stage of an almost abandoned hospital, which was designed by an insane architect and almost destroyed during the wartime firebombing of Tokyo.

The Summer of the Ubume is set in 1952 in the Nakano area, which used to be a residential district on the northwest periphery of Tokyo, a stone’s throw away from the prisons, insane asylums, and black markets of Ikebukuro. Its narrator is a man in his early thirties named Sekiguchi, a freelance writer who specializes in essays on supernatural incidents. Sekiguchi is friends with the brilliant yet antisocial proprietor of the Kyōgokudō used bookstore (which is the name his friends use to refer to him). Sekiguchi is the Watson to Kyōgokudō’s Holmes, and a great deal of the book is devoted to their conversations concerning metaphysical matters, which end up having a great deal to do with the mystery at hand.

In the course of his work (which borders on yellow journalism), Sekiguchi has stumbled upon a rumor of a woman who, having been mysteriously deserted by her husband, has been pregnant for eighteen months. After asking several magazine editors about the source of the rumor, Sekiguchi becomes more intrigued. Due to a strange series of coincidences, the writer has the opportunity to meet the woman’s family, which is deeply dysfunctional in every possible way. As Sekiguchi learns more about these people, it turns out that his ties to them are deeper than he initially suspected.

The first chapter of the novel is a forty-page discussion of the supernatural between Kyōgokudō and Sekiguchi. Each page is dense with ideas and metaphysical language (not to mention text – the book’s margins are practically nonexistent), and neither Sekiguchi nor Kyōgokudō is presented in a particularly sympathetic light – Sekiguchi comes off as rather dense while Kyōgokudō is supremely abrasive. If the reader can weather this initial chapter, however, he or she will be rewarded with a deliciously convoluted mystery populated by a genuinely fascinating cast of characters. The action of the story reaches its climax 230 pages into the novel, which leaves 90 pages for the explanation of the mystery. Although this may seem like poor pacing, the explication is well-plotted, engrossing, and bizarre, reaching its own climax at the end of the novel.

The Summer of Ubume is Kyōgoku’s debut novel, and at times it does feel unpolished. The momentum of the story more than makes up for any flaws in the narrative’s structure, however. The occasional clichés implicit in the mystery (such as the uncertainty that is inevitably created when there are two almost identical sisters in a fictional family) are balanced by the writer’s unique take on the gothic genre. The novel’s setting in 1950’s Tokyo is fully taken advantage of by Kyōgoku, who skillfully renders the city as a sinister gothic landscape.

Although, as I mentioned, there is a greater emphasis on talking heads in this novel than is strictly necessary, the characters and setting are superbly handled, and the mystery is just about as addictive as they come. I can only hope that more of Kyōgoku’s work is translated into English as soon as possible.

The Devil’s Whisper

Title: The Devil’s Whisper
Japanese Title: 魔術はささやく (Majutsu wa sasayaku)
Author: Miyabe Miyuki (宮部みゆき)
Translator: Deborah Stuhr Iwabuchi
Publication Year: 1989 (Japan); 2007 (America)
Publisher: Kodansha International
Pages: 254

Some people say that Miyabe Miyuki is the Stephen King of Japan. I’m not sure exactly what that means, but I think it has something to do with the fact that she has published a hell of a lot of books (as well as scripts for radio dramas, manga, and video games). Her work is superlatively popular, and a great deal of it is dark or fantastic. She is perhaps best known in America for her murder mystery novels, which more often than not feature a killer who uses a magical or semi-magical power as his or her modus operandi.

The killer in The Devil’s Whisper is a hypnotist, as the book’s title implies. (I think I may have just given away what one of the blurbs on the back cover calls “a brilliant plot twist,” but I found it fairly obvious from the beginning of the novel.) He has hypnotized a young woman to run out in front of a taxi, thus making her death seem like a suicide. So far, so good. The driver of the taxi, however, is charged with vehicular manslaughter and imprisoned. His sixteen-year-old nephew, Mamoru, senses something fishy about the police reports and decides to investigate the matter himself. Mamoru is basically a decent kid, but he’s got some skeletons in his closet that come out to haunt him as the story progresses. The novel therefore presents two mysteries to the reader: what grudge does the hypnotist killer have against the women he murders, and why did Mamoru’s father abandon him and his mother when he was a young child? The way that these two plotlines come together at the end of the book is quite interesting and enjoyable.

Although The Devil’s Whisper does not suffer from an abundance of characterization, almost everyone comes off as sympathetic. Mamoru does indeed bear traces of several Stephen King characters like Danny from The Shining and Jack from The Talisman, who are bright and earnest boys placed in difficult situations. The killer comes off as a kind of Hannibal Lecter figure, as logical and urbane as he is insane. The real villains of the novel actually seem to be the young women who are being killed, although the reader is forced to wonder whether they really deserved to die.

In my eyes, the major weakness of Miyabe’s style is that she tells her reader what every character is thinking. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a flaw, but Miyabe will occasionally write entire sequences of paragraphs explaining the obvious. One of the first pieces of advice given to aspiring writers is to show, not tell. A relative clause depicting a character picking at her fingernail can say much more about her state of mind than an entire paragraph attempting to chart what is going on inside of her head. Since The Devil’s Whisper is only about 250 pages long, this type of inner explication is by necessity kept to a minimum, and a great deal of it is expressed in dialog, which partially reduces the level of tedium and keeps the action moving. Miyabe’s characters are interesting; but, unfortunately, none of them are so interesting that I want to know every thought that passes through their minds.

Overall, Miyabe’s mystery novels range from excellent (All She Was Worth) to decent (Shadow Family) to so horrible that they make me want to claw my eyes out (Crossfire). The Devil’s Whisper falls somewhere in the middle, and I would recommend it over many of Miyabe’s other titles available in translation.