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Teenaged Yoko Nakajima seems to have a pretty normal life. She does well but not outstandingly at her all-girls' school, allows her friends to copy her homework when they need it, and lives a comfortable life with her parents. However, "seems" is the operative word. She's smart enough that she should be attending a better school - but her father forbids it. Her "friends" only like her because she's biddable and helps them. Her father only wants to make sure that she never shames him or draws attention to herself. Her mother loves her but won't buck her father's wishes. And her teachers are convinced that she's a troublemaker - despite her immaculate behavior and good grades - because of her flaming red hair, which they're convinced she dyes.

Recently Yoko's sleep has been haunted by terrifying nightmares in which she's being stalked by horrible monsters. Every night, they get closer. She's losing sleep, her grades are suffering, and her teachers decide she's been staying out late clubbing. After she's humiliated for falling asleep in class and has to stay after school to talk with her teachers, Yoko's convinced that life can't get much worse.

Then a golden-haired man interrupts her student-teacher conference, warning of impending doom and demanding a pledge from her. Almost immediately thereafter, all the windows in the room blow out, and the monsters from Yoko's nightmares show up on the roof of the school. In short order, Yoko finds herself in another world - the Twelve Kingdoms - where her home is only a myth, and she is pursued across days and nights by more monsters and demons. Her only salvation is the sword the golden-haired man has given her and the creature that he causes to possess her body so that she can use the weapon. She faces betrayal after betrayal, escape after narrow escape, all sorts of physical and emotional privation, and finally comes face to face with the destiny for which she was born.

I found this a hard book to like, but it's grown on me after a second reading. The lands of the Twelve Kingdoms are governed by a set of fascinating rules, some of which make mythological sense and some of which are utter crack (wait until you find out where babies come from!), but it's all handled with a passionate sincerity that carries you along - if you let it.

 

The Twelve Kingdoms, vol. 1: Sea of Shadows (review)

No, the babies aren't brought by storks or found under cabbages. They grow on trees. Literally. If you can deal with that, the rest of it ought to be a piece of cake.

Yoko's ordeals through the major part of the book were really, truly unpleasant. I did not enjoy reading them the first time around. The main thing she seemed to be learning was that you couldn't trust anyone. But in retrospect, I found myself thinking of the ordeals of heroes in other mythologies, and how they re-forge the spirits of those who are unaware of their destinies. In Peter Dickinson's wonderful and under-read historical novel The Dancing Bear, the crazy saint, Holy John, speaks of those whose destiny is to bring about the will of God. He compares them to the boy Sylvester's flute, and comments that when the instrument-maker carved the flute from wood, he paid no attention to the wants and feelings of the instrument that was being made. When he polished it to a beautiful sheen, it was not because it would be pleasant for the flute. The sole aim was to create something that would make the proper music. Yoko needs to be carved, polished, and tuned to be the gods' instrument.

Part of Yoko's issues, as a girl in late 20th-century Japan, were that she was utterly passive and went along with everything. Her early ordeals were directly meant to counteract that and make her independent. Only once she had passed that point was she allowed to meet someone who wouldn't betray her - and that person, Rakushun, is small and childlike, so Yoko wouldn't be able to easily feel dependent on him. Not only that, she ends up having to take care of him - when the demons attack - and she fails. From this, she learns responsibility for others. And it's only then - when she realizes that she can trust and care for others from a position of strength, and that this is what it means to be fully human - that she can kill the tormenting monkey (well, that's what she thinks she does) and regain the scabbard to her sword.

The other reason for her ordeals is to bring her face to face with what the Kingdom of Kou has become, and what her kingdom could become. And it's no accident, I think, that it's Rakushun who eventually convinces her to take on the yoke of the kingdom. The beastling boy - seemingly less than human and certainly treated that way in Kou - becomes Yoko's conscience and the exemplar of proper human behavior.

I can't say I like Yoko, but by the time she agrees to become the King of Kei, I feel for her. And I really like the Ever-King and Enki, the kirin of Ki. In fact, Enki is by far my favorite thing in the whole book - even more than Rakushun, who is adorable. But I was really touched by Rakushun's scene where he convinces Yoko, and as part of that, turns into his human form - even though it means he'll be naked, which embarrasses him utterly - so that he can wipe away her tears.

In the end, I liked the book. And I've already read vol. 2, and will blog it soon.

 

Comments

( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
meganbmoore
Apr. 18th, 2008 02:52 am (UTC)
With Youko's journey, there's also the element that if you refuse to trust, you can never be happy, and you have to learn to trust even with the chance of betrayal, or lead a very unhappy, lonely existance.

I figured you'd like Shoryu and Enki best. Enki's snark is a thing of beauty, and Shoryu is one of the few manslut characters where that part of his character doesn't annoy me, and where I don't have to grit my teeth and like him in spite of it.
chomiji
Apr. 18th, 2008 10:50 pm (UTC)

I don't remember instantly thinking that Shoryu was a horndog ... maybe I'm expecting my ancient Chinese-style ruler to act that way, if they're young? So I'm letting him get away with it? It's possible.

The thing I love about Enki is not just his snark, but his forthright goodness. Especially now that I've read the second book and know something about the author's concept of the kirin, Enki is just wonderful. It would be so easy to make all the kirin faintingly, limply good like poor Kourin - who really can't help how she comes across, but it's exactly what you'd expect of a creature that can't deal with blood at all and can't help but be good. And yet Enki is rude. And insulting. And has no use for authority except in the service of the will of Heaven. There's no reason why a really good character can't be that way, and yet so few of them are. He's like an unblighted 12-year-old Gojyo ... .

meganbmoore
Apr. 18th, 2008 10:59 pm (UTC)
I can't remember how directly it's addressed in the first book, but shoryu likes to gives his advisors heart attacks by always disappearing, and keeps up with what's going on in the kingdom by frequenting brothels undercover, and has to choose a new hangout(such an annoyance!) every few years so his cover won't be blown. It's hard to remember, though, what the anime revealed in Youko's arcs that wasn't as obvious in the books.

The kirin, I'm happy to say, come in all varieties. In just two books, we already have a super snarker, a meekly pure one, a lost little woobie, and a guy who's strung so tight that he makes Shinrei look like the most laid back guy to ever live.
chomiji
Apr. 18th, 2008 11:31 pm (UTC)

(BTW, I keep meaning to say I love your Kinuko Craft icon ... she's one of my favorite artists and the match up with McKillip was pure genius on someone's part.)

I'm glad to hear about the kirin! Yes, Keiki has his issues! (And I like the comparison with Shinrei - can't you just see them, glaring coldly and righteously at each other ... .) The description of Taiki in his kirin form made me want to draw/paint something for the first time in ages.

Do we ever find out about that red-furred beast form Yoko finds herself in briefly (or hallucinates) when she first washes ashore?

meganbmoore
Apr. 18th, 2008 11:55 pm (UTC)
(I was reading Ombria in Shadows and went MUST HAVE ICON! MUST!)

I think the beast was meant to be a reflection of her own darker side...what she became inside when she temporarily became little more than a monster before meeting Rakashun(and I love the gender reversal there...the sweet and gentle boy finding the wild warrior girl and teaching her to trust and care again) as a warning.

I have to say...as much as I love the high strung ones sometimes(often), I've never been able to really like Keiki outside of Taiki's story. I think it's because there always seems to be this control freak undertone to him. The kirin seem to choose kings that suit them, and I can't help but think that Keiki chooses kings who he thinks he can control and dominate, even if he doesn't realize it. It really shows in Youko's second story, when she puts her foot down and thinks and acts for herself, instead of doing what he says.
chomiji
Apr. 22nd, 2008 02:41 am (UTC)

The Young Lady just whizzed through both books yesterday and today, so now the whole family has read the two of them. And we want more, darn it!

Hmm ... somehow I can't see Yoko as wild - out of control, definitely, though. Also, as much as Rakushun did (and it was a lot), the ice was really broken by the poor peddlers who gave her the sugar candy.

I think you're right about Keiki. And because I always poke at these bits, I havce to wonder what the gods use for determining personality, given that genetics just don't exist ... . (Do Twelve Kingdoms people have DNA? Inquiring minds want to know ... .)

smillaraaq
May. 13th, 2010 05:34 am (UTC)
Comment necromancy ahoy!
Hee...unsurprisingly I also quite loved the snark-duo of Enki and Shoryu, and found that scene you mention with Rakushun's transformation utterly sweet and touching. (Also, that left me seriously contemplating Yoko/Rakushun ship potential.)

Poor Kourin didn't have much a chance to get in-depth characterization compared to the other kirin, but I have to say that she did still manage to make a serious impression on me in the scene where she's weeping over the bloody decapitated head of her dead dog-demon...
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )

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