Monday, January 19, 2015

Skies of Dawn (book) by Fuyumi Ono, translated by Alexander O. Smith

Skies of Dawn is the fourth book in Fuyumi Ono's The Twelve Kingdoms series. I've been debating what genre to put it in. It's definitely fantasy. I'd also argue that it's epic fantasy - this book alone covers 100 years and multiple kingdoms.


I have now finished all of the books in this series that were licensed and translated into English. If I could ask for one Tokyopop license rescue that hasn't already been announced, I'd ask for this. Ono created a fascinating world, and I'd happily read more about it.

Skies of Dawn is probably the most complex book in the series so far, because it doesn't just deal with one main character, but rather three: Yoko, Suzu, and Shoukei. Readers who've read the first book should be familiar with Yoko. Skies of Dawn picks up almost where Sea of Shadow left off - Ono chose to skip Yoko's defeat of the false king and the death of the King of Kou, and began instead with Yoko's coronation. Yoko quickly learns that her problems aren't over – her new kingdom, Kei, is a mess. As King, she has the power to make things better, but she doesn't even know where to start.

The two new characters, Suzu and Shoukei, are located in completely different kingdoms. Suzu is a Japanese girl who was transported to the Twelve Kingdoms one hundred years ago. After a few years, she became the servant of a flying sage in the Kingdom of Sai, which granted her immortality and the ability to understand all languages. Although her mistress is cruel, she doesn't dare leave, out of fear that she'd lose her new linguistic skills. Shoukei also had a painful history. Thirty years ago, her father was King of Hou. He was so unyielding and brutal that he, his wife, and his kirin were eventually killed by his own people. Shoukei was spared but forced to live the life of an ordinary villager.

One thing Ono does really well is character growth. Many of her characters start off deeply flawed and are then forced to come face-to-face with those flaws until they finally recognize and overcome them. Yoko spent most of Sea of Shadow doing that, and it paid off. In Skies of Dawn, it didn't take her long to realize she'd fallen into her old behavioral patterns, break free of them, and start doing something more productive. Suzu and Shoukei were another story. They still had a lot of growing to do, and it was sometimes painful to read.

Shoukei was the worst. Yes, it was horrible that she'd been forced to watch her parents get killed. She had loved them, and hearing people rejoice over their deaths had to have been horrifying. However, she was so lacking in empathy that my sympathy for her soon dried up. Her father had had one fifth of Hou's population executed, and yet she couldn't even begin to understand why people hated him so much, and why they hated her for turning a blind eye to all of it.

I tolerated Suzu fairly well, at first. I knew from Sea of Shadow how bad things could get for a kaikyaku (a person from Japan brought to the Twelve Kingdoms). Without the magical linguistic skills she got from being the servant of a flying sage, she likely had a lifetime of loneliness to look forward to. Still, there's only so much I can stand. After a certain point, Suzu actually had things pretty good compared to other kaikyaku and even some Twelve Kingdoms natives, and yet she continued to wallow in self-pity.

When Shoukei and Suzu learned that the new King of Kei was a 16-year-old girl just like them (physically, anyway), the both assumed things about her. Shoukei immediately hated Yoko, convincing herself that she was unfairly given the life of luxury that should have been hers. Suzu put Yoko on a pedestal. Surely Yoko, who was also from Japan, would be just as lonely and in need of a friend?

While I applaud Ono's decision to write really flawed characters, they could be tough to handle for long periods of time. It took about 300 pages for Shoukei and Suzu to become more tolerable, and I'd have to say that I enjoyed the second half of the book, which focused on a rebellion in Kei, more than the first. The best parts about the first half of the book were getting to see more of the Twelve Kingdoms and learning more about how life in the Twelve Kingdoms worked. I loved how Ono started with the idea of eggfruits and built an entire society around that. People being born from eggfruits had an effect on everything from property inheritance to gender roles. Ono could have carried things a bit further, but it was an ambitious undertaking nevertheless. I just wish more of the details had been conveyed in a less info-dumpy way.

The second half of the book, with its strategic maneuverings and battles, reminded me a bit of Book 3, The Vast Spread of the Seas, and I admit that I wasn't always able to follow things very well. Even so, it was nice to be able to see Yoko, Shoukei, and Suzu in the same general physical area, dealing with a common enemy. I especially loved seeing Yoko finally coming into her own as King of Kei.

I enjoyed this book, although, to be honest, I probably enjoyed the world it was set in more than the story itself. The world-building is incredibly rich and detailed, and I love how Ono tied bits and pieces of the previous three books into Skies of Dawn. I want more epic fantasy like this.

Additional Comments:

I read the paperback edition of this book. It's an absolute brick, with a spine that's almost two inches thick. I bought a hardcover edition with the intention of replacing my paperback, only to later read a review indicating that the hardcover had major issues.

So that others won't make the same mistake I did, here's a link to the review. I haven't looked for the hyphenation and pronoun errors the reviewer mentioned, but I can confirm that the last 8 pages of chapter 16 were omitted. Tokyopop's hardcover release of this book is an embarrassment. In this case, I'd definitely advise getting the paperback edition. I'm still trying to decide what I'm going to do with my hardcover copy.

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 (manga) story by Sai Yukino, art by Kairi Yura ; The Story of Saiunkoku (anime TV series) - This series has some romance, but I'd say it's more focused on politics. It stars a determined but sometimes naive female character who wants to become a government official and make a difference in people's lives. I've written about the first season of the anime and the first 9 volumes of the manga.
  • Arrows of the Queen (book) by Mercedes Lackey - Those who'd like another fantasy world with a rich history may want to give this book, or one of the others in the series, a try. Arrows of the Queen is a good place to start, but there are plenty of other options - I started with The Black Gryphon.
  • Blue Sword (book) by Robin McKinley - Those who loved Yoko may want to give this a try. It's another fantasy book with a sword-wielding (eventually) heroine.
  • Dragonsong (book) by Anne McCaffrey - This is another one where I'm listing a particular book but actually recommending the series as a whole. McCaffrey's Pern books are set in a richly detailed world that reads like fantasy, although it's actually secret sci-fi.
  • Alanna: The First Adventure (book) by Tamora Pierce - For those who need their "strong female main character" fix, I highly recommend Tamora Pierce's Tortall books. This is a good place to start, although you could begin with the first book of one of the other subseries, if you wanted.

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