Friday, September 10, 2010

The Twelve Kingdoms, Vol. 3: The Vast Spread of the Seas (book) by Fuyumi Ono

Synopsis:

Rokuta's story begins in Japan, approximately 500 years ago (my knowledge of Japanese history sucks, and I can't remember the name of the conflict, but apparently this was sometime during a civil war). Barely even able to find food and shelter for themselves, Rokuta's parents abandon him when he's only four years old. Rokuta is actually the kirin of En, and, nearly dead, he is saved and taken back to the world of the Twelve Kingdoms by his nyokai (in the book, this is translated as "lamia"). In the world of the Twelve Kingdoms at around the same time (I think), a different boy is abandoned by his mother. Unfortunately, he doesn't have Rokuta's luck and is instead found and raised by a demon (youma). A few years later, Rokuta befriends this boy and names him Koya. As long as Koya stays with the Big One, the demon who adopted him, he can't be around people, because it's in a demon's nature to eat people, and Koya doesn't want anyone to get hurt. When they part, Rokuta figures he won't see Koya again.

When Rokuta learns that it's his job as the kirin of En to find and serve the new ruler of En, he's horrified. He's convinced that rulers do nothing but destroy their countries and kill their people, because that's all he's ever known rulers to do. To try to escape his fate, he goes back to Japan and spends several years wandering before he encounters Naotaka, soon to be the new head of the Komatsu clan. Rokuta also knows that this man is the new king of En, and he can't help but want to be by his side. After everyone in the Komatsu clan except Naotaka is killed, Rokuta finally accepts what he must do. He offers the kingdom of En to Naotaka, who accepts.

Twenty or so years later, Naotaka, now called Shoryu, is driving everyone crazy. Instead of attending court and showing a proper amount of interest in political matters, it seems that Shoryu would rather gamble his money away and sleep with whatever pretty young ladies catch his eye. What decisions he does make baffle everyone. Rather than relieving those who insult him of their duties or having them put to death, he instead has a tendency to promote them. Everyone, including his kirin, thinks he's an idiot.

Then trouble starts brewing in one of the provinces of En. Atsuyu, who oversees that province in his father's stead, is upset that Shoryu hasn't ordered that levees be built and does not permit those who oversee the various provinces to make those decisions themselves. Believing Shoryu to be a lazy ruler who doesn't care about his people, Atsuyu wants Shoryu to give him a sort of over-king position, a position with more power than the king. In the world of the Twelve Kingdoms, where the Heavens decide who the rulers for the various kingdoms are via the kirin, this is blasphemy. Atsuyu figures that the best chance he has is to kidnap Rokuta (Enki, the kirin of En) and hold him hostage, something he does with the help of Koya, Rokuta's old friend, and Koya's demon, who is now named Rokuta. Koya has done well for himself and faithfully serves Atsuyu.

Things look good for Atsuyu at first - his people love him, and his ministers are all on his side. Once Shoryu actually starts doing things, however, Atsuyu is in trouble. Rather than having his army fight Atsuyu's army right off the bat, Shoryu has others spread rumors that Atsuyu is going against the Heavens, that he has kidnapped the kirin and might kill him, and that the king is a good and wise person that the country would not want to be without. Lots of people still remember what En was like when it didn't have a king, so it's not long before the ranks of the royal army swell with volunteers - and yet Shoryu still doesn't send them to fight. Instead, he has them build levees. The people love the levees, but Atsuyu doesn't, because they would cause flooding in just the right areas to kill his rebellion.

Rather than admitting defeat and deciding that maybe Shoryu isn't a complete idiot, Atsuyu orders his army to take down the levees once the rain starts, which instantly puts his army in conflict with the locals, who then have the royal army on their side. Suddenly, Atsuyu is the bad guy. Meanwhile, Rokuta has a chance to escape but, suffering from blood poisoning (kirin can't stand being exposed to blood, and Rokuta was exposed to a lot of it in a particularly tragic scene), gets a bit turned around and instead learns that Atsuyu's supposedly sick father is actually being held prisoner. Rokuta is found by Shoryu, who has joined Atsuyu's army under a different name. That's right, Shoryu joined his enemy's army.

Anyway, everything falls completely apart for Atsuyu now. His people no longer support him, and Rokuta reveals what Atsuyu has done to his father. Even Koya, who kills for Atsuyu even though he used to hate killing, is starting to waver. Atsuyu begins blaming everyone around him for everything - Rokuta's kidnapping was done on the advice of a traitorous minister, he had no idea what had been done to his father, etc. Shoryu reveals his identity as the king of En and challenges Atsuyu, who backs down and then goes after Shoryu when his back is turned. In the end, Atsuyu dies, finished off by Shoryu. Rokuta realizes that maybe his king really is someone who can be trusted to do what's best for En, and Shoryu promises Koya that En will one day be a place where demons can live among people without fear.

Commentary:

I was dragging my feet with this book and was a little worried that I wouldn't be able to finish it by its ILL due date. I had 2 days left, and I hadn't even read half the book. This was after having it in my possession for 2 weeks.

Then I hit the bit where Shoryu actually started doing stuff and the world began to fall down around Atsuyu's ears, and suddenly the pages just flew by. Shoryu is awesome - it doesn't matter whether I'm reading a book with him in it or watching him in the anime, he's consistently one of the most enjoyable characters in the series.

I finished my first viewing of the anime not long before starting this book, so I had a pretty good idea of how things would go. One thing, though: the anime crams the events of this book into four or five full episodes and a few scenes mixed in with events from other books. That's it. Even so, the anime was a pretty faithful adaptation. There are some things it gets across more clearly than the book, and some things the book gets across more clearly than the anime, so I tend to like both versions for different reasons. I felt that the book conveyed a much fuller, better picture of Shoryu than the anime did. Unfortunately, I also felt that the book suffered from the same problem the previous books in the series did - the writing/translation was a bit clunky and the glut of names, places, and Twelve Kingdoms jargon made it too easy to get lost and confused (there's no glossary and no "character guide," just a map of the Twelve Kingdoms and a map of the parts of En that are featured most prominently in the book).

I wonder how I would have felt if I had read this book before finishing the anime? The second book in the series confused me, because I had a hard time figuring out where in the timeline of the Twelve Kingdoms it fell - I imagine I might have had the same problem with this book. This series keeps moving backwards in time - there was the first book, with Yoko, then the second book took place during the previous Queen of Kei's reign, and this third book takes place primarily 20 or so years after the start of the King of En's reign. The first book takes place 500 years after the third one.

Anyway, the first half of this book was a bit of a slog for me - all those names and places, and nothing much going on, aside from some examples of Shoryu's rather odd behavior as the new king. Things didn't start to get good until Shoryu stopped lounging and slouching his way through the book and actually started doing something. Things didn't start to get really good until the horrible, sad bit where Ribi explained to Rokuta how much of an idiot Shoryu was not and demonstrated the extent of her loyalty. I have a weakness for awesome leaders who will do anything for their people, and Shoryu was definitely that - it just took him a while to show it.

I've read a few reviews of this and other books in the series, and none of those reviews mention the general problem I've had with the series, the whole "I dragged my feet through the first half and then just loved the second half" issue. I can't be the only person who has this problem with Ono's books. They just seem so bogged down with stuff in the beginning, and it's not until much later than Ono lets her characters show how truly awesome and interesting they really are. Seriously, all my favorites scenes in each of the books end up being in last 50 to 100 pages. I'm surprised, but glad, that this tendency hasn't been a series killer. I want to read more about the Twelve Kingdoms (although I'm already peeved by spoilers I've read that say that Ono never resolves the situation with Taiki and Tai).

Overall, I enjoyed this book. I might not have liked the beginning as much, and I thought the translation felt clunky and sloppy, but there were many things in the last half of the book that made this a worthwhile read for me. As I've already said, Shoryu was awesome. I loved how the relationship between him and Rokuta developed, as Rokuta learned more about the side of Shoryu that he doesn't often show and learned to trust him more. I liked reading about the people around Shoryu trying to figure him out. I loved the scene where Shoryu told Koya off for being ok with the idea of En being destroyed - it was the first really good, obvious demonstration of just how much Shoryu cares about everyone in his kingdom, and it reminded me of the scene in the anime where Enho told Yoko to consider the people of her kingdom to be her children, since she would never be able to have any herself.

Extras:

The book includes a map of the Twelve Kingdoms, a map of the areas of En that are of greatest importance in this book, and five illustrations.

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  •  Fushigi Yuugi: Mysterious Play (manga) by Yuu Watase; Fushigi Yuugi: Mysterious Play (anime TV series) - Those who'd like another story in which the main character is transported into another world (in this case, "China of the past"-like world inside a book) might want to try this.  This series is much more focused on romance than politics, though.  Way, way more focused on romance.
  • The Story of Saiunkoku (anime TV series) - I've only seen the first season of this one so far.  Those who'd like another story set in a historical-feeling world that, like the world of the Twelve Kingdoms, has the occasional fantasy elements might want to try this.  It might seem, at first, that this series is as focused on romance as Fushigi Yuugi, but, surprisingly, it becomes more focused on politics as it progresses.
  • Fullmetal Alchemist (manga) by Hiromu Arakawa; Fullmetal Alchemist (anime TV series); Fullmetal Alchemist: The Movie (anime movie) -There is an additional incarnation of this series, a new TV series called Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, but I wouldn't recommend beginning with it, as it flies through the earlier portions of the series far too quickly.  Also, don't assume that because you've seen the anime you know how things are going to go in the manga - after a point, the two are very different animals.  They're both good, but they're really different.  Anyway, those who'd like something with political machinations and a heavier dose of action might want to try this.  This might also be a good one for those who want something less...girlie girl...than my other two suggestions.
  • Peacemaker (anime TV series) - This one is based on actual historical events and people - it focuses on the Shinsengumi, and the TV series, at least, ends well before things start to go really bad for them (the TV series is based on a manga series, which I haven't read yet and which I believe was never finished).  You could argue that Tetsunosuke, the main character, is a bit like Enki, and this story also deals a bit with an uprising.  There are spies and minor battles and one major battle - it's pretty nifty.  In the earlier episodes, this series also has quite a sense of humor, although it becomes much more serious (and bloody - one character is tortured to death and another is beheaded) as it progresses.
  • Rurouni Kenshin (manga) by Nobuhiro Watsuki; Rurouni Kenshin (anime TV series) - You might want to try this if you'd like something else starring a character who occasionally acts like a goofball but is actually pretty awesome.  Kenshin isn't awesome in the same was as Shoryu, but he's not bad.  This series is a bit...simpler...than any of the Twelve Kingdoms books or the TV series - yes, there's an overarching story that packs quite an emotional punch, but it's also basically a bunch of battles, some of which are more than a little over-the-top.  It's based somewhat on actual Japanese history (set in the beginning of the Meiji era), but the crazy stunts that tend to pop up during the fight scenes tend to make it easy to forget that this is a historical series.

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