The Twelve Kingdoms is one of my top favorite Japanese light novel series, although it's not without its problems, and it took reading the second book and seeing the anime for me to start feeling that way. I wanted to finally read the fourth book, but it's been four years since I read the second and third and more than six since I read the first, so I decided that it'd be best to start from the beginning.
This book introduces the world of the Twelve Kingdoms via Yoko Nakajima, a high school student in Japan. When we first meet her, Yoko is as bland and inoffensive as she can make herself. Pretty much the only thing that makes her stand out and that she refuses to change is her hair, which is red enough to look like it's been dyed. She prefers to wear it long, even though it looks redder that way, and even though her mother keeps pushing her cut or dye it so she'll blend in better.
Then one day a man with strange clothes and golden hair appears at Yoko's school and tries to take her away. She refuses, at first, until terrifying creatures she'd previously only seen in her dreams suddenly attack. The man, Keiki, hands her a sword and tells her to fight. When Yoko protests that she doesn't know what to do, Keiki tells Joyu, a jellyfish-like creature, to attach itself to her and help her, forcing Yoko to kill for the first time in her life. They escape to a strange new world and are soon separated. All Yoko wants is to go home, but first she has to find Keiki and figure out how to survive in a place where everyone and everything seems to either want to kill her or betray her.
I had vague memories of not really enjoying the first book, but also not hating it so much as to cross the entire series off my TBR list. I liked it more this time around, because I had a better understanding of what was going on and what it was all leading towards, but it wasn't exactly an enjoyable read. This book is 459 pages long, and over 300 of those pages featured bad things happening to Yoko. She was betrayed multiple times, forced to kill demons every night, tormented by visions of home, and taunted by a blue monkey that seemed determined to throw all her worst thoughts and actions in her face. She'd have died of her wounds, starvation, and exhaustion multiple times over had it not been for a jewel that Keiki gave her.
Like I said, not pleasant, and it didn't help that Yoko wasn't very likeable either. When she was in Japan, she said nothing when a group of students bullied another girl, because she was afraid of being their next victim. She also lied to others in order to avoid confrontation. She spent her first days in the world of the Twelve Kingdoms refusing to allow Joyu to fully help her, because the bloodshed horrified her. As her experiences wore her down, it became harder and harder for her to trust anyone, to the point that she contemplated stealing from or even killing someone who had previously helped her. While I could sympathize with some of Yoko's thoughts and actions, dealing with them for 300 pages was a bit much.
The good thing is that Yoko was forced to take a long, hard look at the person she'd been and who she'd become. While she wasn't given a choice about her role in the Twelve Kingdoms, she at least got to decide how she wanted to proceed. One of my favorite moments was when she met Keiki again and he realized how much she'd grown as a person since the last time he saw her. He'd named her his master because he'd had no choice, so his more complete acceptance of her by the end of the book was nice. Keiki was barely in this book, so I think the second book may have colored my perception some. Although it deals with a different set of characters, it provides a closer look at the kirin and their relationships with their rulers.
The writing didn't work for me, for reasons I can't explain. However, I found the world of the Twelve Kingdoms to be fascinating enough to make up for that. Whenever Yoko spent more than a few minutes with anybody, she usually received a lecture on some aspect of the Twelve Kingdoms. It should have been boring, especially on a reread, but I ate it up. I loved learning about life in the kingdoms of Kou, Kei, and En. Rakushun, a hanjyu (half-beast) with the form of a rat, was a fount of fascinating information. I loved him for that, as well as for being incredibly nice.
All in all, this was definitely worth a reread. During my first read, I was as clueless about what was going on as Yoko. Having a better understanding of the world meant that certain scenes had more impact for me this time around. I admit, though, that I'm now even more disappointed at the way Ono structured the series. While this first book reunites Yoko and Keiki, by the end Yoko is still in danger, the false ruler is still in power, and the king of Kou is still out there. And instead of continuing the story, the next two books take readers to earlier points in the world's timeline. It's frustrating. The anime does a better job of tying those loose threads up before moving on.
Read-alikes and Watch-alikes: