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.

Loups-Garous

Title: Loups-Garous
Japanese Title: ルー=ガルー (Rū=Garū)
Author: Kyōgoku Natsuhiko (京極 夏彦)
Translator: Anne Ishii
Year Published: 2010 (America); 2001 (Japan)
Publisher: Haikasoru
Pages: 450

Spoiler: There are no actual werewolves in this book.

The real shape-shifter is Loups-Garous itself, which wears multiple skins. The novel is a murder mystery and a sci-fi suspense thriller. It is a police procedural, a cyberpunk dystopia, and a high school drama. It can also be read as a series of philosophical musings on technology, authority, and human nature.

Loups-Garous is set in the not-too-distant future (the 2030s are referred to as if they were the 1990s) of Japan, in which many of the laws and social conventions concerning food, housing, education, communication, and privacy are no longer what they once were. For example, although minors are assigned guardians who may or may not be their parents, they are apparently not required to cohabitate with these adults. Furthermore, children learn from computer modules instead of from teachers, and their only physical contact with other people is through periodically scheduled meetings with selected peer groups and guidance counselors. The younger generation has gradually come to interact with the world almost exclusively through computerized devices called “moniters,” which range in size from wristband models to screens the size of bedroom walls. Cities are divided into carefully controlled zones, all food is artificial, and the movements and consumption patterns of every individual are recorded through omnipresent video cameras maintained in both public and private spaces by the corporation that controls the country.

Despite the fact that this micro-management of individual lives is supposed to keep people safe, a series of connected murders has broken out in an otherwise peaceful residential district. A possibly related set of school absences draws three high school girls, Hazuki, Mio, and Ayumi, to meet together in person. Meanwhile, the girls’ guidance counselor, Shizue, is pulled into a police investigation of several students who may be either suspects or victims. As Hazuki and Shizue are pulled deeper into the circumstances surrounding the murders, the grimy foundations of their seemingly utopian society are revealed, as is a major government conspiracy.

The cyberpunk gothic noir setup of Loups-Garous attracted me to the novel and kept me reading, but I will admit that I ultimately did not enjoy the experience. None of the plot devices are particularly original, the themes are spread too thin, and the pacing is uneven. Long passages of exposition and dialog are broken by fights and chase scenes in a way that seems random and frenetic, and the last fifty pages of the novel read like the two minutes of downhill careen that follow a very long and very slow slog up the first hill of a roller coaster ride. Furthermore, the big surprises at the end, such as the identity of the killer, have almost no foreshadowing. To give an example, there’s a giant mecha at the end of the novel. It comes out of nowhere. The lack of suspenseful buildup leading to its appearance is so total that mentioning it doesn’t even feel like a spoiler.

I also found the main characters infuriating. I understand that these characters, who have grown up in a world in which there is very little interpersonal interaction, are supposed to be socially maladjusted, but that doesn’t make their antisocial awkwardness any easier to read. To bring up a topical analogy, Sherlock Holmes is interesting (and bearable) as a character because he is juxtaposed against foils such as John Watson and Inspector Lestrade. These foils don’t just help to demonstrate what is so unique and fascinating about Holmes; they also serve to drive the story forward by providing a means to address the more commonplace concerns that exist for a reader who lives in a world governed more by social and accidental systems of cause and effect than by pure logic. A story with two Sherlocks and no Watson wouldn’t be nearly as readable. Loups-Garous has five Sherlocks and no Watson, and it’s painful to watch these characters bicker with each other endlessly. Besides being socially maladjusted, each of them is idiosyncratic in her own way (“I’m a genius, so I don’t have a sense of aesthetics.”), and the weird gaps in their knowledge of the world mean that each of them will often say things that can come off as inane to the reader (“You think you can actually eat animals? That’s stupid.”).

Speaking of the characters’ knowledge of their world, the author’s construction of the novel’s setting felt uneven to me. Specifically, the story is supposed to be set in a time in which people who were adults in the twentieth century still hold active positions of power, yet the main characters act completely ignorant of the history, economic systems, and technologies that existed before their own lifetimes (even though the reader is left to assume that such information is freely and easily available, such as in the form of entertainment media). For example, when the self-proclaimed genius Mio explains the concept of a “telephone” to Hazuki, Hazuki is completely flabbergasted over the fact that such a thing could ever exist, and Mio herself admits that she doesn’t know what language the word “telephone” comes from. There is thus a deep contradiction in the novel’s construction of its setting (which is either super-futuristic or not really futuristic at all) that prevents the reader from really understanding the novel’s worldview or becoming absorbed in its atmosphere.

Finally, perhaps partially as a result of the awkwardness of the characters and setting, the long philosophical passages that fill the novel are written in a style that is somewhat confusing. For example, a chain of logic might be set up like this:

“It goes without saying that scissors are good for cutting paper. Similarly, the best accounting software can’t make music. Computers are nothing more than calculators. It’s a system built to do the math necessary to accomplish a task. If humans were able to do several calculations at once there’d be no need for computers. No matter how grand the calculation, nothing but cutlery can cut paper.”

Or a theme of the novel might be expressed in a meaningless repetition of chichés and platitudes:

“The adults don’t know anything.” Don’t they? It wasn’t just the adults. Kids wouldn’t know anything about other people either. No one wanted to know and no one wanted to be known. So no one knew anything about anyone else. They weren’t bothered by not knowing. They weren’t bothered by not being known. Moreover… They actually hated being known.

Unfortunately, Loups-Garous is filled with many such pseudo-philosophical soliloquies, which detract from what little plot, character development, and world building the novel is able to offer.

In the end, I feel that Loups-Garous is a waste of a good premise that could have been vastly improved with either more judicious editing of the original text or more creative license on the part of the translator. I hate to bash anything published by Haikasoru, a press that has almost consistently put out quality material, but Loups-Garous weighs in towards the lower end of the publisher’s catalog (along with Mardock Scramble, another title that, like Loups-Garous, has an animated adaptation).

If you’re interested in the dystopian sci-fi premise of the novel, you might be better off watching either Fractale (streaming on Hulu) or No.6 (streaming on Crunchyroll), two anime that share similar themes but are much more intelligent and stylish in their execution of these themes. Also, while I was reading Loups-Garous, I kept wishing that I was reading Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake instead. The story and premise of Oryx and Crake are similar to those of Loups-Garous, but the readability and literary flair of Atwood’s novel are much higher. Even though I didn’t like this novel, Kyōgoku Natsuhiko is a very interesting writer, and I definitely recommend his Summer of the Ubume. With so much other excellent reading and viewing material, why would you want to waste time on Loups-Garous? The novel wears many skins, but it doesn’t wear any one of them particularly well.

Ico: Castle in the Mist

Title: Ico: Castle in the Mist
Japanese Title: イコ:霧の城 (Iko: Kiri no shiro)
Author: Miyabe Miyuki (宮部 みゆき)
Translator: Alexander O. Smith
Publication Year: 2011 (America); 2004 (Japan)
Publisher: Haikasoru
Pages: 400

When people complain about sexism in video games, they’re not complaining just to start a fight or to prove that they’re on the right side of the social justice movement. The sexism in many games is not only unnecessary but also detracts from the player’s enjoyment of the game. For example, when I played the original Tomb Raider game for the Playstation, I remember being frustrated at Lara’s inability to navigate certain terrain and thinking this wouldn’t be a problem if she were wearing pants. A better example might be Metroid: Other M, in which your female player-character (a veteran soldier who has already saved the world multiple times) can’t use even the most insignificant of her abilities until given permission to do so by her male commanding officer in a gameplay paradigm that has to be one of the most frustrating I have ever encountered. This sort of sexism is dangerous precisely because it is so frustrating. Instead of hating the (male) developers who imposed such ridiculous limitations on the female protagonist, the player’s frustration at these limitations instead causes him to hate the female protagonist herself.

It is for this reason that I despise Ico: Castle in the Mist, a short puzzle platformer released for the Playstation 2 in 2004 that was received with almost universal acclaim. In this game, you are Ico, a boy with mysterious horns who is mysteriously dumped in a mysterious castle in which he mysteriously encounters a mysterious young woman named Yorda. As Ico, your job is to find your way out of the castle while simultaneously rescuing Yorda. Considering that Yorda (a) has lived in the castle for a very long time and (b) is magic, this shouldn’t be too difficult of a feat. Unfortunately, Yorda also (c) either can’t or won’t communicate with Ico and (d) is almost entirely passive. Ico quite literally must lug Yorda around like an inarticulate sack of meat, and the main challenge of the game is not for Ico to navigate his way through the castle but rather for Ico to bully and cajole Yorda over and around obstacles while she remains both vulnerable and inscrutable. If the player, as Ico, wanders off on his own for a moment, Yorda is besieged by shadow monsters that she will not attempt to ward off or escape in any way. Ico is a truly beautiful game that creates a hauntingly atmospheric experience through its graphics, music, and gameplay, but it is difficult to make it through the game’s roughly eight hour playtime without hurling obscenities at Yorda for being so useless. Sexism is thus built into the gameplay mechanics, and I remember thinking that Ico would have been a lot more fun if Yorda had actually done something instead of passively allowing herself to be rescued by a younger male hero.

When I heard that the novelization of Ico would be released in North America, I was really excited. I thought that Miyabe Miyuki, who writes about awesome female detectives and manages to create a strong yet believable female protagonist in The Book of Heroes, would be able to do something interesting with Yorda, or at least to make her more of a subject than an object. Thankfully, she succeeds – at least to an extent.

Like the game on which it’s based, Miyabe’s novelization is the story of Ico, a thirteen-year-old boy with horns who is exiled from his village and dumped at the Castle in the Mist by a group of soldiers. In the otherwise empty castle Ico finds Yorda, who is suspended in a hanging cage covered by thorns. Ico wakes Yorda and then extracts her from her cage, resolving to rescue her from her imprisonment in the castle. Yorda doesn’t speak Ico’s language and in any case doesn’t seem particularly interested in communicating with him, but her touch can open certain magical doors through which Ico needs to pass. Furthermore, Ico’s body is filled with light and energy whenever he holds Yorda’s hand, so he quickly develops an attachment to her.

As Ico and Yorda progress through the castle, Ico begins to see Yorda’s memories of her life before the castle was reduced to its current state. Through these memories, it becomes clear that Yorda’s mother, the queen of the castle, is the “daughter” of the Dark God. In ages past, Yorda’s mother used her power to keep outsiders away from her kingdom, mainly by turning them into stone. She also kept her own people within her country’s borders by means of an enchantment that kept their hearts and minds peaceful. Convinced that other nations coveted the beauty, wealth, and material prosperity of her kingdom, Yorda’s mother would hold a tournament every three years to bring the world’s mightiest warriors into her castle to compete for glory. The winner of these tournaments would teach the latest military technology to her soldiers – and then secretly be turned to stone. The tournament of Yorda’s sixteenth year brought a horned warrior, a servant of the Light God, to the tournament, and his interactions with Yorda led the kingdom to its current state of timeless abandonment. Ico’s job is thus to unravel the mysteries of the past in order to ascertain how to defeat the queen once and for all, after which he will presumably be able to escape with Yorda in tow.

Miyabe’s novel is divided into four parts. The first part details Ico’s life before he was taken to the castle and thereby provides information concerning the greater world in which the story takes place. The second part describes Ico’s adventures in the castle before Yorda begins communicating with him through her memories. The third part tells the history of the castle from Yorda’s perspective, and the fourth part follows Ico through his final confrontation with the evil queen. As Miyabe jokes in her introduction, her novelization isn’t meant to be a walkthrough for the game, and the first and third sections are almost entirely her own invention. Miyabe adds layers of depth to game’s characters and creates a handful of her own characters, who manage to be interesting and engaging despite only being onstage for small portions of the novel. Miyabe also renders the ending of the story slightly less ambiguous.

This is all well and good, but how does a puzzle platforming game translate into prose? Mainly, I suppose, in the way one might expect, though descriptive passages:

The thought put Ico at ease. Maybe if we can get down to those doors, we can get outside. The only problem was, there didn’t seem to be any way to get from the top of the bridge on the second floor down to the floor of the great hall. What stairs he could see went up to the ceiling, not down to the floor below, forming a sort of catwalk that seemed without purpose.

Besides such descriptions of setting, there is also a great deal of running, jumping, climbing, flailing at shadow monsters with a stick, and holding Yorda’s hand.

If the reader can successfully visualize what Miyabe is describing, then her descriptive passages, which form the bulk of the two sections from Ico’s perspective, create a sense of adventure and awe. If the reader is too engrossed in figuring out the mysteries of the castle to slow down and mentally picture the landscape Miyabe is describing, then these passages can come off as clunky and annoying. My sympathies tend to lie with the latter reader, especially if that reader has never played the game; trying to describe the visual aesthetics of the Castle in the Mist is like trying to describe an Escher painting. The game Ico is all about the atmosphere created by its visual and auditory elements, and a purely textual medium will never be able to capture that atmosphere, no matter how hard it tries.

What text can do, and what text can do well, is characterization, and it seems to me that the lion’s share of the game’s atmosphere is conveyed in the novel by Ico’s perceptions of and interactions with Yorda. Just as the castle is architecturally majestic and full of mysteries, Yorda is physically beautiful and conceals secrets upon secrets beneath her silent exterior. For example:

Ico glanced at her. She did not look sad or even frightened. Nor did she smile or seem engaged with the world around her at all. Though she was right next to him, and he could look directly into her face, he felt like she was standing on the other side of a veil.

Here’s another example:

The girl turned to him and to his surprise, she smiled faintly. She’s beautiful. He thought her smile looked like a flower in full bloom, swaying gently in a forest breeze, sending its petals out to drift on the wind. He could almost smell the flower’s perfume on her breath.

Here’s yet another example:

Filled with hope, Ico looked into Yorda’s eyes. He felt like he was looking into an hourglass, trying to pick through the grains of truth buried there long ago. He hadn’t found anything yet, but the warmth of Yorda’s hands in his told him that he was getting close.

Yorda is thus delicate and mysterious, and her main function as a character is to reflect the emotions Ico projects onto her. Because this novel is a work of young adult fiction, Ico is exceptionally pure of heart, and – perhaps as a result – Yorda is as well. What Ico is about, at its core, is the bravery of two children challenging the old, the impure, and the monstrous. For me, the main problem with Ico and Yorda is that, although purity of heart is inspiring, it is also somewhat boring. The evil queen is far more interesting. At a certain point I stopped caring about Ico and his youthful hope and good intentions and started waiting for the next appearance of the queen, who is the only halfway intelligent and rational character in the entire novel.

For example, unlike Ico’s caretakers, who tell him nothing, the queen respects her daughter enough to explain to her what she is doing and her motivation for doing it. The queen’s explanations are always pragmatic and hint at a lifetime of experience. The following passage, for example, is how the queen justifies to Yorda why the two of them never leave the castle:

“Beauty is a high and noble thing. Thus are men enchanted by it and seek it out. But those who desire you also desire our lands. I must keep you hidden so that you do not entice or enchant them – because, my dearest, while your beauty holds the power to command the actions of a few men, it does not bestow the ability to govern.

“It is the same for me. The land I govern is the most wealthy and beautiful of all the lands that divide this vast continent. They crave it, as they crave me. From their slavering jaws and their multifarious schemes have I escaped many times. All to protect myself and my beautiful domain, blessed by the Creator. You, who were born into the world as the lone daughter of the queen, have noble blood and noble beauty, thus must you bear my burdens.”

Judging from what happens in the rest of the novel (which I will not spoil), and judging from the way that Ico, his horned ancestor, and everyone in between has treated Yorda and her mother, the queen is not incorrect. Unfortunately, because the queen is a sexually mature and politically powerful older woman, she is EVIL and therefore cannot be reasoned with or redeemed but must be DEFEATED. The final battle between the queen and Ico is somewhat disappointing, as the queen is made to lay aside her primary weapons – her intelligence and wit – in order to fight boss-battle style with attacks that are easily deflected in a room filled with obstacles that deflect them.

The moral of the story seems to be that inarticulate yet delicately beautiful and innocent younger women are good (for men) and that brilliant and powerful mature women are EVIL (to men).

At least, that is the moral of the second and fourth sections of the novel, which are told from Ico’s perspective and closely follow the plot of the video game. The first and third sections are much more interesting and open-ended. The first section is, in my option, a superlatively excellent example of fantasy world building that establishes setting, mythology, history, and worldview through its characters instead of in spite of them. The third section, which is told from Yorda’s perspective, is an almost archetypal story of innocence awakening to experience as Yorda begins to question and investigate the world around while realizing the consequences of her own actions on the lives of others. By the end of the third section, Yorda has become a powerful queen in her own right…

…before we switch back to Ico’s perspective, in which Yorda is a helpless and naive young girl once more. Although this is jarring, it is also necessary. The game Ico is so deeply sexist that, in order for Miyabe to subvert this misogyny, she would have to abandon her goal of novelization. If Yorda were an active agent and not a passive victim, the events leading up to the final battle and the battle itself would not be possible. Good must triumph over evil in a decisive showdown; and, as everyone who has ever played a video game knows, such a task is the man’s job. This is why I complain about I sexism. Not only is it frustrating and unnecessary; it also tends to diminish from the overall quality of the work in which it appears.

Despite all this, Ico is a fun read. Miyabe is a good writer, and Smith has produced an excellent translation (as always). The plot and character conventions are fairly characteristic of mainstream young adult fiction, and I can imagine that younger readers would really enjoy this book, which is exactly the right length and complexity for the 7-12 demographic. It goes without saying that fans of the game will love the novelization, which does its very best to convey everything that was fun and intriguing about the original work. Fans of video games in general might also enjoy the book, which is an interesting experiment in adaptation. As for adult readers who are looking for archetypes represented in a deep and multilayered fantasy, however, I think there are much better books to spend an afternoon reading.

The Book of Heroes

Title: The Book of Heroes
Japanese Title: 英雄の書 (Eiyū no sho)
Author: Miyabe Miyuki (宮部 みゆき)
Translator: Alexander O. Smith
Publication Year: 2010 (America); 2009 (Japan)
Publisher: Haikasoru
Pages: 352

Before the earthquake hit Japan, I was drafting a review of Miyabe Miyuki’s Brave Story. I was going to say something along the lines of that, while many male-centered epic novels (like Wizard’s First Rule) are sex fantasies supported by the bare-bones scaffolding of fantasy tropes, Brave Story is not like that at all. I was also going to say something to the effect that Miyabe does realism much better than she does fantasy, at least in Brave Story, where the “Frodo in the Shire” (or “Wataru in a suburb of Tokyo”) segment is much more interesting than the actual adventures in the fantasy world of Vision. And then I was going to conclude that the book did not need to be eight hundred pages long, and that Miyabe could have used some serious editing, since the reader does not need to know what every character is thinking at any given time.

But then I thought, why write a review of a promising book that turned out to be dishearteningly mediocre? Life is short, and there is more to the world than picking apart the idiosyncrasies of genre fiction. One of the great things about fantasy literature is that, when done correctly, it can inspire courage, and hope, and bravery. And since everyone following the events in Japan could probably use a “brave story” right now (I know I could), I am instead going to review Miyabe’s much shorter (and, in my opinion, much better) fantasy novel The Book of Heroes.

The Book of Heroes is about Yuriko, whose older brother Hiroki snapped under pressure, knifed a classmate, and then disappeared. In the fallout of the incident, Yuriko’s family has been suffering from media overexposure, while Yuriko herself has had to drop out of middle school because of bullying. In the midst of this chaos, there has been no sign of Hiroki. Worried about her older brother, Yuriko ventures into Hiroki’s room and is approached by a talking book named Aju, who drops a few cryptic hints concerning Hiroki’s whereabouts. These hints lead her to her reclusive uncle’s cabin in the mountains, which is filled with rare books, many of whom can also talk.

These books tell Yuriko that her brother has become a Summoner, a being who can channel the evil King in Yellow, who sows discord wherever he goes. The King in Yellow is not an easy threat to quell, as he is one half of the Hero, the archetype who inspires brave and great deeds. To prevent her brother, who believes himself to be the Hero, from summoning the King in Yellow, Yuriko must become an allcaste, an adventurer with the ability to travel between worlds. Yuriko learns that all worlds (including her own), are created from fictions, and so she must travel through and into books in order to chase down Hiroki.

Yuriko’s journey begins in the third chapter (about eighty pages into novel), when she is transported to The Nameless Land, a kind of land beyond time where monk-like “nameless devouts” spin the wheels that cycle stories throughout the many worlds. This might sound as if The Book of Heroes is wading waist-deep through a meta-textual philosophical sludge, but the novel’s self-reflexive fantasy is actually quite fascinating. Miyabe’s descriptions of both modern Tokyo, The Nameless Land, and the fantasy book world that Yuriko enters are beautiful and striking. There is a sense of wonder in the storytelling, but also an appropriate sense of urgency. The odds that Yuriko faces are overwhelming, but she is accompanied by the book Aju, who temporarily takes the form of a mouse, a older male guardian and guide called Ash, and a nameless devout whom Yuriko names Sky. Each of these three supporting characters has his own story to tell, and each of them is as interesting and important as Yuriko, who really comes into her own as a protagonist over the course of the book.

As she grows stronger, Yuriko learns that her power does not come without a price, and the answers to her many questions are difficult and painful. The novel’s ending is bittersweet yet satisfying, and the endgame revelations are heartbreaking yet thought-provoking. Thankfully, the story is compelling enough to keep the reader feverishly flipping pages all the way through. Honestly, if you are in need of a break from current events that you can come back from refreshed and re-energized, The Book of Heroes is an excellent story to immerse yourself in. It’s got the same sort of quiet yet driving mystery and the same sort of exploration of fantasy with real-world implications as the anime series Haibane Renmei or Lev Grossman’s novel The Magicians. I cannot give it higher praise than that, although I should mention that Haikasoru has done a beautiful job publishing the book, and Alexander O. Smith’s translation is beyond excellent (as it was in Brave Story).

If you’re reading this alongside articles of the death and destruction in Japan and find my review of a fantasy novel trifling and tasteless, then I will hang my head, apologize, and humbly suggest Murakami Haruki’s short story “The Seventh Man,” which is published in the Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman collection but immediately available in several “unofficial” translations through a quick search on Google. “The Seventh Man” is about a memory of a tsunami, and its primary themes are terror, helplessness, and guilt – which I suppose is the other side of the “brave story” of disaster survival offered by The Book of Heroes.

Regarding the situation in Japan, I think Matt Alt makes an excellent point when he says, Don’t Panic. The best coverage of the quake and its aftermath from a personal level that I have read thus far has been on the blog Adventures in Gradland (which is a fantastic read even when its author isn’t being the most sane and level-headed person to post about what must be a terrifying series of experiences). This post over at The Lobster Dance contains a list of links for more reliable news sources, as well as information on charities (the word on the street is that Second Harvest seems to be doing the right work, right now). The art historian over at A Man with Tea has taken this opportunity to reflect on what might be lost in Japan, as well as why we need to keep calm and carry on. Finally, Daniella Orihuela-Gruber has issued an appeal for donations over at All About Manga, which is accompanied by a plan to make a difference. As for me, all I can do is cheer my friends and the people of Japan on from a distance. You guys are amazing, and you can survive anything!

Summer, Fireworks, and My Corpse

Title: Summer, Fireworks, and My Corpse
Japanese Title: 夏と花火と私の死体 (Natsu to hanabi to watshi no shitai)
Author: Otsuichi (乙一)
Translator: Nathan Collins
Publication Year: 2010 (America); 1996, 2001 (Japan)
Publisher: Haikasoru
Pages: 350

I don’t know why I haven’t reviewed anything by Otsuichi yet. Tokyopop has released two collections of his short stories (Calling You in 2007 and GOTH in 2008), and Haikasoru released the collection ZOO, which is a major bestseller in Japan and ended up getting its own film adaptation, around this time last year. It might be that I haven’t reviewed his work before now because, even though his stories are fun and creative, they tend to be hit or miss. Also, they fall squarely into the genre of horror, which has gradually eroded away into “Dark Fantasy” or “Thriller” in the American market (the back cover of my paperback copy of Stephen King’s most recent novel, which involves murder, rape, cannibalism, and mass asphyxiation, tells me that it is “Fiction”). However, the majority of Otsuichi’s stories are pure shock horror of the type that might be found in magazines like Black Static or Macabre Cadaver, which might explain the “hit or miss” factor and also makes them difficult to review. If you like horror, you’ll like Otsuichi. If you don’t like horror, why would you want to read him?

The three stories in Summer, Fireworks, and My Corpse are still horror, but I feel like two of them are fleshed-out enough (what a lovely analogy for horror fiction) to appeal to a wider audience. The title story, which is seventy pages long, tells the story of a murder from the perspective of the dead person, who is surprisingly nonchalant about the whole thing. Being dead, however, she’s able to follow the thoughts and movements of her best friend, who inadvertently killed her, and her friend’s older brother, a budding sociopath who helps his sister hide the body. The pair isn’t exactly professional in their cover-up operation, so there are a lot of delightfully suspenseful moments in which they are almost, almost found out. The surprise ending is morbid but equally playful. The setting of the story, the forest surrounding a Shintō shrine, is used to full advantage. I think those small forests are the closest thing to a Shakespearean green world in contemporary Japanese fiction; every time one pops up in a story, you know that something weird and exciting is going to happen. (Another good example might be found in the manga Tenken, which is absolutely brilliant and should be read by everyone.) Not just the suspense and the setting but everything about the story is well executed, and it’s hard to believe that Otsuichi made his literary debut with it while still in high school.

The following story, “Yuko” (優子), is the usual Otsuichi fare. It’s short, grisly, and doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. If you’re the sort of manga fan or Lolita fashionista who’s into the mock horror and period trappings of titles like Yuki Kaori’s Godchild, though, you’ll dig the gothic atmosphere and the creepy, creepy doll parts.

And then there’s the two hundred page novella Black Fairy Tale (暗黒童話), which was published five years after the other two stories in a separate volume. For me, this story is the best part of the collection. The narrative switches between a traditionally styled fairy tale and a more modern one, which is itself told from several points of view. The main point of view is that of a high school student named Nami, who loses her memory along with her left eye in a freak accident. She receives an eye transplant and gradually realizes that she can see the memories of the eye’s former owner if exposed to certain triggers. The blurb on the book’s cover makes it seem like this element of the story is its primary source of horror, in an I see dead people sort of way; but, as Nami has lost her own memories, she can only live her life though borrowed memories, and she becomes emotionally attached to the scenes of someone else’s life that she sees through the transplanted eye, which belonged to a college student named Kazuya. Since Nami has effectively become a different person than she was before her accident, her school friends and family distance themselves from her, so she drops out of school and uses the savings left behind by her former self to travel to Kazuya’s hometown, a backwater village called Kaede. As with the shrine forest of Summer, Otsuichi makes good use of his setting in this small mountain town, perfectly capturing both the charm and the pathos of rural Japan.

Black Fairy Tale is more than a travel novel, however. Of course Nami wants to visit the places and meet the people she has seen through the eye’s memories, but she also knows that its former owner was murdered for seeing something he shouldn’t have. The reader knows this too, as the narrative shifts between Nami’s story and that of a man who has the ability to keep living things alive, no matter what he does to them. He uses this ability to experiment on the human bodies he keeps in his basement, which are somehow able to maintain their lives and their consciousness despite the terrible things that have been done to them. Nami knows that, if she finds the house whose basement she has glimpsed through her transplanted eye, she will be able to rescue the people there and also avenge Kazuya. There is obviously a great deal of suspense in Black Fairy Tale, but it’s handled in a more sophisticated and effective way than it is in Summer. The character development is much stronger, as well. The separate narrative threads are woven skillfully throughout the story, and the story’s various themes and systems of visual imagery mirror each other artfully. Black Fairy Tale is undoubtedly a horror story, but it’s also put together in a fairly literary way, and it appealed to me and stayed with me in a way that Otsuichi’s previously translated work has not.

In other words, the collection Summer, Fireworks, and My Corpse should be fun for both fans of horror and fans of fiction in general, and I don’t feel bad about recommending it to anyone. My only regret is that I didn’t write about it in time for Halloween…

Slum Online

Title: Slum Online
Japanese Title: スラムオンライン
Author: Sakurazawa Hiroshi (桜沢洋)
Translator: Joseph Reeder
Publication Year: 2010 (America); 2005 (Japan)
Publisher: Haikasoru
Pages: 210

Slum Online is a short novel about MMORPG gaming. I was skeptical of this concept at first, as I wondered how level grinding, ammunition collection, and/or interpersonal dialog along the lines of “omg n00b pwned” could be any less tedious in fiction than in real life (so to speak). Thankfully, the fictional game in question is a fighting game, and its setup and mechanics are both simple enough to be understood by a non-gamer and complex enough to not lose their freshness after two hundred pages.

I was also worried that, since the novel’s cover (which is a mirror of the original Japanese cover) sports a manga-style illustration, Slum Online would be nothing more than a light novelized plot worthy of an anime (whose plots and dialog tend to not work so well without the animation). Again, my worries were unfounded, since the story more or less eschews anime tropes and works fairly well as fiction that can be read by someone not familiar with the quirkiness of characters like Suzumiya Haruhi and Lina Inverse.

Slum Online follows an older teenager named Etsuro through his real and virtual life. In real life, he is a college student pursued by a classmate named Fumiko who is pursuing a blue cat through the streets of Shinjuku. In his virtual life, he is a karate fighter named Tetsuo who is pursuing a mysterious player known as Ganker Jack while being pursued by a ninja character named Hashimoto. The novel’s chapters alternate between Tetsuo’s real life and his virtual life, but there is little disconnect between the two; and, in the end, they come together quite nicely. It’s equally amusing for the reader to follow Etsuro through the backstreets and arcades of Shinjuku as it is to follow Tetsuo and Hashimoto through the alleyways and watering holes of the gaming world. Moreover, the cast of characters in either world is equally interesting, especially as they interact with each other across both worlds.

I wouldn’t call Slum Online science fiction, necessarily, and it doesn’t quite belong in the realm of cyberpunk, either. I found it quite realistic in its depiction of gaming technologies, their applications, and the cultures that surround them. Nobody is downloading anything directly into their brains or raving about the awesome theoretical potential of cyberspace. The characters go to school and go to work like anyone else, and the only men in black suits are the salary men on the commuter trains. Everyone knows what Google and Wikipedia and Playstation are. I personally found it refreshing to read a story about real kids playing video games. No one is a hacker, and there aren’t any cyber police; it’s just a kid and his game console and his online network.

There’s no nonsense in the book about not being able to tell the difference between the real world and the cyber world either, although Etsuro’s language occasionally betrays how his awareness of the real world is influenced by gaming. He describes hearing things in terms of “sound FX” and perceiving people’s faces in terms of polygons or anime-inspired designs. As he walks around Shinjuku, he remarks how convenient it is to not have to worry about running into invisible walls, and how in real life one can’t just approach someone and start a conversation as if he or she were an NPC. Despite (or more likely because of) his mild geekiness, Etsuro is an amusing and sympathetic narrator.

Slum Online should be a fun read for gamers, and I think it should even be a fun read for non-gamers, who won’t be alienated by any specialist vocabulary. The translation is smooth and readable, the narrative flows quickly and seamlessly, and the layout is professional and engaging. The only bad thing I might have to say about this book is that it tends to come off as male-dominated, but whatever – I enjoyed it anyway.

Crest of the Stars

Title: Crest of the Stars: Princess of the Empire
Japanese Title: 星界の紋章:帝国の王女 (Seikai no monshō: Teikoku no ōjo)
Author: Morioka Hiroyuki (森岡浩之)
Translator: Sue Shambaugh
Publication Year: 1996 (Japan); 2006 (America)
Publisher: Tokyopop
Pages: 212

I am a great lover of books, and I spend a great deal of my time reading. I genuinely enjoy almost everything I read, no matter what the genre, and rarely do I dismiss something as absolutely not worth reading. It is very easy for me to explain why I like a particular book, or what is valuable about a particular work, but I think that sometimes it’s important to also discuss what is mediocre, and what can be done better.

Morioka Hiroyuki’s Crest of the Stars series was recently held up to me as a paragon of Japanese science fiction. I wasn’t impressed with the translation of the first book in the series, Princess of the Empire, when it was released in the fall of 2006, but I decided to try it again. The series is massively popular in Japan, and it has quite a dedicated fan base in America as well. I have heard it described as a masterpiece of Tolkienesque proportions in several reviews; and, in my mind, there is no higher praise. Perhaps I had misjudged it four years ago.

Unfortunately, upon re-reading the book, that turned out not to be the case. Princess of the Empire starts off with a wonderful prologue, which briefly introduces the main character of the series in an interesting and beautifully described setting before launching into a short but fascinating account of the space journeys that led to the present moment. This history is then interrupted by action! intrigue! betrayal! and emotion! Unfortunately, this prologue is only sixteen pages long. What follows is 161 pages of utter garbage.

The teenage hero of the series, Jinto, arrives at a spaceport, where he is met by a beautiful blue-haired space elf named Lafiel. Lafiel takes Jinto to a space elf ship which will transport him to the space elf academy (Jinto, although genetically human, is politically an honorary space elf). The ship is attacked by a human group that seeks to oppose the space elf empire, and only Jinto and Lafiel escape. The ship is destroyed, and the unlikely pair (well, actually, very likely, considering that there are no other characters) is stranded on a small backwards planet. The end. Oh, and if you guessed that Lafiel is the princess of the space elf empire, you win a cookie.

You might be thinking, well, if Morioka spins 161 pages out of relatively nothing, then he must be a fairly talented writer with an eye for detail and a talent for dialog. Wrong. The Crest of the Stars series is known for its world building, and what Morioka has given us is 161 pages of almost unmitigated world building. The space elves are called Abh, they have a space empire, they have strange breeding practices, and they are genetically engineered to be beautiful, blue-haired, and psychic. That’s right, they are psychic space elves – which would perhaps be forgivable if there were more to them. Unfortunately, Morioka’s world building reads like a world history textbook written for fourth graders. Even when delivered in speech, the tone of this information is uniformly dry, essentialist, and uninteresting. Population statistics and general government details are provided, but nothing is said about culture, religion, art, lifestyles, political factions, diversity, philosophy, attitudes towards technology – or anything that the reader might actually care about. The clunky constructed language that annoyingly pervades the text is substituted for any real imagination. The almost complete lack of any visual imagery makes the book seem almost sterile, which I don’t think is a deliberate choice on the part of the author, whose writing is incessantly puerile:

Sure, Jinto had experience interacting with girls – he’d made a point on Delktou, in his own way. However, older women were still a complete mystery to him – especially gorgeous older women who were commanders of interstellar battleships. He couldn’t get his heart to stop racing.

In other words, instead of building a fictional world gradually while pulling his readers deeper into said world through plot thickening and character development, making them increasingly curious about the universe in which the characters live as they become increasingly attached to the characters themselves, Morioka completely forgoes plot and character development in order to construct his setting, which quite frankly feels like a cliché mix of Star Wars empire-and-princess driven space opera and Star Trek alien-culture-of-the-week episodic exploration adventure. The fact that the Abh are long-lived, pointy-eared, and dismissive of humans does not make Crest of the Stars Tolkienesque, unfortunately. In his postscript, Morioka states that he hopes “to make shameless sci-fi fans groan.” I’m pretty sure “groan” is the operative word here, since even Troy Denning’s novels set in the Star Wars universe are better written. Alas.

Princess of the Empire is everything I hate about the genre of young adult fiction, which tends to presume that its readers can’t handle complex plots, three-dimensional characters, figurative language, or middle school vocabulary. It could be argued that Japanese light novels are an entirely separate medium than young adult fiction; but still, there are infinitely better light novels out there. One of my personal favorites is Ono Fuyumi’s The Twelve Kingdoms series. A translation of the fourth installment, Skies of Dawn, was recently released a week or two ago, and I am happy to report that the series is only getting better with each successive book.

If it’s Japanese science fiction you’re looking for, then popular mainstream writers from Abe Kōbō to Ōe Kenzaburō to Miyabe Miyuki have successfully tried their hands at hard science fiction at one point or another. If you’re looking for the epic adventure and unparallel world building of Frank Herbert (or China Miéville), then check out Murakami Haruki’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, which benefits from one of the most artistic and creative translations I have ever read. If you’re more in the mood for the intellectual short fiction of someone like Ray Bradbury (or Tim Pratt), then check out Tsutsui Yasutaka’s collection The Salmonella Beings from Planet Porno. If you’re in the market for lighter fare, I have been especially impressed by several of the translations I have read from an upcoming press called Haikasoru, which is an arm of Viz Media, an established publisher of manga intended for a slightly more mature audience than that targeted by Tokyopop.

In any case, to return to Princess of the Empire, it’s a morass of weak writing and tired stereotypes. Perhaps the Crest of the Stars series deepens in the second and third books, which are also available from Tokyopop, but I would rather spend my time reading all the cool new stuff that seems to be coming out almost every month. For those who want to know what all the fuss is about but don’t have the stomach to brave the light novels, there is always the Crest of the Stars manga trilogy (also published by Tokyopop). The manga are just as mediocre as the books – but at least the female characters provide the service of bending over to reveal themselves every few pages. Which, I suppose, is always a welcome distraction from heavy-handed world building and the overuse of a constructed language.