This week during a terribly geeky Friday night literary journey, I read an entire book. I imagine it would be one thing to say that were it a small novel, or something of The Goosebumbs variety (God ... I'll never forget those), but this was a slightly less reasonable 464 pages in one sitting. Even more interesting is the fact that the book in question, The Twelve Kingdoms: Sea of Shadow, wasn't even particularly amazing.

I wouldn't say the book is terrible by any means, but this is a novel marketed towards a Teen audience, and that's even where I had to find the novel at my Barnes & Noble. I rummaged through the Fiction, Science Fiction, and Manga sections before I decided I needed to look up its proper shelving. The fact that the novel is geared toward a younger audience gave me some initial fears, but I imagined that wouldn't be such an issue. I've wanted for a long time to finish The Chronicles of Narnia, and read the new His Dark Materials trilogy that seems to be fairly popular, so I was hoping that I could cope with fairly simple language and themes. I was, for the most part, wrong.

My literary tastes are, without tooting my own horn, fairly academic. I move from genre novels like Neuromancer, to cultural studies texts like Confucius Lives Next Door, and in most cases, I've grown to really enjoy ... wordiness. In moving backwards to The Twelve Kingdoms, all that appreciation I have for language is thrown to the dogs. As I've mentioned to others, note the first sentence of the novel:

"It was dark beyond darkness, deeper than the depths of night."

Ouch. I don't know about anyone else, but that isn't really working for me. They couldn't pull together anything more appealing than that? The rest of the novel isn't quite as bad, but it never really pulls itself together well either. I even noticed at least five typographical errors, and they stand out because, really, how often does that shit get through to a final product? I suppose, if anything, that shows we're working with Tokyopop and not an established publisher of literature.

That brings to question whether the issue of unimpressive language is the fault of Fuyumi Ono, the original author, or the translators responsible for creating the English version. I can't be sure, but I'd imagine the cause is equally dispersed among them. On the other hand, where Fuyumi Ono does excel is in crafting a vast fantasy world. Sea of Shadow is only the first novel in what, if I remember correctly, is a series of six or seven, and already the world is showing obvious Tolkien and Lewis inspired depth. Their are a series of kingdoms, rumored kingdoms, and a vast Void Sea filled with stars that connects these lands to modern Japan. C.S. Lewis and The Chronicles of Narnia have a stronger influence here than Tolkien, and the parallels between the two stories are more than obvious. Happy talking badgers have become happy talking rats, but their role is the same.

If Tolkien's influence does show anywhere within Sea of Shadow, it is in the gore. The majority of the novel has the main character Yoko battling hordes of demons for days on end, to the point of physical and mental exhaustion. Her endless battles are filled with bloody details, and initially they're one of the better aspects of the novel. Especially as Yoko comes to term with her abilities, and finds herself enjoying the bloodshed. Unfortunately, as the battles rage on they grow tiresome, and it's easy to ask the question, is she just going to fight these random demons for the entire text?

When you realize the end of the novel is approaching, despite the story building around Yoko and her role in The Twelve Kingdoms, and the answer is Yes, then the entire experience feels a little jaded. Just as the vast climax approaches, it seems as if an entire portion of the novel was removed and we're left without the grand Tolkien-esque battle, only a half-hearted conclusion. It reeks of a writer who was forced to meet a deadline, and sacrifice detail for denouement. A novel with no climax is a hard sell for any reader. Were the sequel to the book readily available, and I could continue my journeys in The Twelve Kingdoms world, this wouldn't be such a blow, but no follow-up is in Tokyopop's schedule for the coming months. I suppose this is what Harry Potter must feel like, although I imagine each book is woven in a manner to avoid this.

The appeal of much children's literature like His Dark Materials and The Chronicles of Narnia, is that reading it as an adult makes the deeper themes more apparent. I'm happy to say that despite the language, Sea of Shadow does have that deeper underlying theme for adults to enjoy. For much of the novel this theme is, in short, the Socratic Paradox, or the truth that no matter our actions, whether noble or unjust, we're always acting according to the perception that we're benefiting ourselves. As the characters in The Twelve Kingdoms betray Yoko, she realizes that each member of this new world is very blatantly seeking their own benefit at her expense. Her acceptance of this, initially the terrible aspect of it, and ultimately the truthful aspect of it, is the most obvious example of her character growth.

So, I will say that The Twelve Kingdoms: Sea of Shadow wasn't too impressive. A good many aspects of the novel, particularly the language, kept me from considering it a masterpiece. It was, however, a good read, and I will continue the journey in the world of The Twelve Kingdoms as the books are released. Sweeping fantasy epics aren't usually my thing, and I do have a strong disliking for series and the terrible waiting they inspire, but this world is fascinating, it has the perfect amount of Japanese culture to pique my interest, and to be frank, a series of beautiful hardcover novels at $11.00 a piece is more than welcome in my collection.

Fans of manga will be happy to see the occasional page within the novel devoted to artwork that is very pleasing, as is the art on the books dust jacket. I never shook a slight Inuyasha feeling that crept upon me during the reading, as a young girl transported from modern Japan to a world of magic and demons does sound vaguely familiar. I will say though, this was much, much better than any Inuyasha I've ever seen. The Twelve Kingdoms has its own anime series, totaling what I believe is 40+ episodes, and is already available in America.

I left much of the plot open so as to not spoil the story for anyone, but here is a synopsis for those interested:

Yoko Nakajima's life has been fairly ordinary--until Keiki, a young man with golden hair, tells her that she is his master and must return to their kingdom. With the help of a magic sword and a magic stone against the demons on her trail--Yoko begins her quest for both survival and self-discovery in her new land.

This book is available on Amazon.


  1. Nathan said...
    The series sounds interesting enough, especially with confirmation that it's related to the anime, which I've heard is fantastic time and time again. I'd consider checking it out, but I honestly have too much on my plate at this point. Also, as far as literature of that variety goes I'd like to check out the His Dark Materials trilogy. I picked up the set for my sister at Christmas, and she seemed pretty impressed with it after getting through the first novel.
    Cody 'Zen' Musser said...
    I have The Golden Compass chilling right here beside me actually. I wanted to read it before the movie happened so I picked it up at work one day. Unless I go for a one-night-slamming of the book though, it'll probably be on hold for a while.

    I haven't read any nonfiction for a while, and I'm in desperate need of something along the lines of cultural/social studies, so beyond coursework I'm hoping to head in that direction.
    Louise said...
    Wow, I love cyberpunk and all, but you just reminded me I need to read Neuromancer!
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