***Spoilers are briefly mentioned near the end of this review.***
I was doing some market research for the book I’m writing and wanted to read books with Asian fantasy settings. This one came up on a list in Goodreads and the synopsis intrigued me. I was pleased to discover that it’s prose (as opposed to manga which I enjoy as well) and was eager to read this b/c I haven’t read very many Asian fantasy stories.
There are several things I enjoyed about this story: the worldbuilding, the history of the kings in the story, and the main character Yoko’s struggle to fit in both in Japan and the world of The Twelve Kingdoms. The world building seemed partly inspired by ancient Chinese history and culture. The Twelve Kingdoms, as it is implied, is each ruled by a king. The history of how the kings came to rule the Twelve Kingdoms is explained through divine selection by the kirin. I really enjoyed this aspect of the story because divine rule has always fascinated me. I also enjoyed how the author developed character histories. I really liked the character history for Keiki and the Prophet. Keiki is a kirin who, in Western context would be considered an angel. Kirin are messengers/representatives of God and they also are responsible for choosing kings. Kirins are powerful and so it was interesting to see how the author created Keiki to have flaws.
Another aspect of the story I enjoyed was how the author captured Yoko’s struggle to figure out her identity. Yoko doesn’t feel like she fits in at school, but she is a good student and manages to stay on the good side of other students and her teachers. Her home life seems typical for a Japanese high schooler, and yet Yoko feels like even though she doesn’t argue and gets good grades, she still feels like her parents don’t really love her. Yoko’s disconnect in this life is acute, so when she’s brought over to Kou that isolation is amplified. While she’s in Kou, trying to figure out a way home and also encountering other people, she realizes that although her life in Japan was comfortable and easy, Yoko wasn’t really living her life.
The reason for a 3.5/4 star rating was even though I enjoyed the fantasy aspects of the story, the pacing and character motivation/development were an issue for me. The pacing of the book could have been tightened up considerably. The first 3/4 of the book is very reminiscent of when Harry in Deathly Hallows goes camping with Hermione. Yoko seaches for Keiki for most of the book, encountering other characters from different villages. The encounters are supposed to shape Yoko’s personality, but I don’t know if it needed to be done for this long. The book started to pick up about half-way through when she encounters Rakushun (this was 237/459 pages). All the action happens in the last quarter of the book when the Ever-King shows up, but that’s at 374/459 pages at 81%. This story was published in 1992, so perhaps that’s the reason for the long development of Yoko’s character. This is my first experience with Japanese fantasy prose, so I also don’t know if this type of pacing is/was typical of this genre.
Another issue I had with the story was the half-beastling Rakushun’s role in the story. Yoko has become distrustful and even suspicious of everyone. Rakushun is the first being she encountered who did not seem to have any ulterior motives or desire to turn in her in. I actually liked his character a lot and Yoko did need someone to trust, but I felt that when Yoko had to make a decision about her destiny, Rakushun’s character became Yoko’s motivation to accept her destiny. Yoko was unsure if she could fullfil her destiny, but after having a talk with Rakushun, she finally agrees to try. I felt a little disappointed at this because I wanted Yoko to decide for herself.
I enjoyed Yoko’s struggles, the tests she experienced to figure out her identity, and eventual growth from a passive high schooler to someone destined to rule a kingdom, but I had issues with her reactions to learning the truth about her identity. She seemed unnecessarily obtuse when she was told the truth about who she was each time. I can understand shock and disbelief, but eventually when there’s undeniable proof, a character must accept the truth. Her refusal/disbelief for as long as it went portrayed her in a really poor way. I suppose because she was a high school student, there is a certain level of immaturity and disbelief at that age, but it weighed down the progress of the story. It was also frustrating that the author spent over half of the book developing Yoko’s character into someone who could fight demons and also be more discerning of people’s intentions and to get to the last quarter where Yoko basically reverts back to lacking confidence in becoming the Glory King. Yoko doubts herself because of what she’s learned about her own limits and faults while traveling through Kou which explains why she would be reluctant to become the Glory King, but it feels more like a set back at this point of the story rather than part of Yoko’s character growth.
I was also a little disappointed that the scene where Yoko finally makes a choice and accepts her destiny was very brief. She decides that she will help the Ever King rescue Keiki and rides with him and his special forces army. We actually don’t get to see this battle. I think since the page count was already at a high number, the author mentions the battles and a few pages are given about the rescue, and then had to write an epilogue about how things eventually turned out. If the pacing had been tightened up at the beginning, the author probably would’ve been able to to devote more pages to these climatic scenes.
Despite the pacing, I did enjoy this story overall. I would recommend this to readers 14 years old and older. The violence is in the context of fighting demons. Language is clean and there’s only one instance where sex is implied. (Yuko was tricked in going to a brothel, but nothing happens.) I also recommend this to readers who are interested in an Asian inspired fantasy adventure and who are also willing to try something new.