Dragon Sword and Wind Child
I am not the target demographic for this book. I checked it out because it’s a Haikasoru book, it’s fantasy based in ancient Japan rather than ancient Europe, and I rationalized that maybe my daughter would enjoy it if I read it aloud to her. My daughter never made it past the first chapter, but I gave it a shot on my own despite my general reluctance to mess with YA fantasy. The bad news is that this is definitely YA and pretty clearly the author’s first book. The good news is that Dragon Sword and Wind Child (DSWC) is not nearly as targeted towards adolescent girls as it initially seems, and that the author manages to be rather inventive with the material at hand.
The big draw here is of course the setting. DSWC is built around Japanese legends, most strongly the story of the Goddess Ameterasu as recorded in the Kojiki, one of Japan’s core historical/ legendary volumes. Ogiwara has naturally changed it around a bit, but the foundation for whole tale lies in a well-known ancient myth. Er, well-known to the Japanese, that is. This isn’t the Japan of Kurosawa samurai movies, nor is it even the time traveling historical fantasy of The Lord of the Sands of Time. In fact, Ogiwara is vague through most of the book as to whether or not the characters are romping through ancient Japan, or just some fantasy world where everybody just looks like they’re from Japan. (Rather like how much high fantasy is in a world named, to pull something out of my behind, Ereboran and all the inhabitants are named Sir Brian of Helmslee and just happen to act like Europeans circa 1257 AD. Ho there churlish knave, and all that.) I think at the end though, she commits herself to Japan’s actual geography, though this raises questions of just who exactly is in danger. Will the whole world be destroyed? Or just a relatively small island part of it? These quibbles aside, Ogiwara’s Japan reminded me most of Princess Mononoke.
DSWC came first, however, so I wonder if Miyazaki isn’t influenced by it (and its sequels). After all, the authors share many common themes: strong young women as protagonists, a deep connection to nature and the environment, backdrops formed from disparate elements of ancient Japan, and complicated views of good and evil. This actually occurred to me just five minutes ago, almost two weeks after finishing the novel, and has just changed the status of Ogiwara’s sequels from “Maybe check out some time” to “I’d better look into this further.”
The next bits are somewhat spoilerific, as I want to dig into the best parts of the story. The heart of the plot is, of course, the eternal struggle between Light and Dark. Light is represented by Prince Tsukishiro and Princess Teruhi, immortal warriors of the God of Light, forever young and beautiful, and tireless generals in the Army of Light. Dark is a ragtag bunch of rebels, hold-outs, frontiersmen, and other followers of Earth Goddess. Light is pure, clean, white, and disconnected from the grubby reality of ancient life. Dark moves with the rhythm of the earth, lives in the forests and fields, and is alright with a little bit of mud. The world is sundered between the two because of the split that came between the God of Light and the Earth Goddess long ago, part of the Ameterasu myth that forms the foundation of the story.
DSWC stands out from the crowd of YA fantasy because Ogiwara doesn’t just flip the identity of good and evil, she detaches these two adjectives from the battling sides. Dark is clearly the sympathetic faction; they are indeed “right,” but neither side is entirely “wrong.” This paves the way for a resolution that is more of a reconciliation than a triumph, since what the two sides need is communication and understanding, rather than subjugation. This, I would argue, is a very Japanese way of approaching a problem, in contrast to a more Western tendency to overcome evil, not negotiate with it. (Which is itself a reflection of the Christian affinity for Manichean conflict, rather than a more nuanced view of clashing ideas which are ultimately connected in ways not readily apparent.)
Looking over what I’ve written, it occurs to me that, while I may not be giving Ogiwara too much credit per se, I am certainly reading more into the story than its intended audience would. This is still YA, there’s still a lot of fluttery hearts and the discovery of true love, a gaggle of youth bearing some grave destiny that they can’t run away from, and teens learning to be happy with who they are, even if that identity happens to include a homicidal dragon or the power to quell angry nature gods. I have long since learned to love me for me, so large portions of The Message induced eye rolling rather than productive introspection. To the author’s credit, though, every time I started to cringe at the teen girl conversations, Ogiwara pulled back from the precipice of cattiness and returned the story to more respectable topics, like war or angry gods.
DSWC shows many of the signs of a first novel. There are some questionable pacing decisions, visible seams between parts of the plot, and an ending that feels a bit too pat. In fact, I am starting to realize just how difficult a solid ending is to write. Rhythmic irregularity and coherent plot strand connections are challenging for a veritable plethora of more experienced authors, so I don’t fault Ogiwara too heavily here. Still, everything seemed a little too happy for me, considering the violence and drama leading into the finale. I am also baffled somewhat at her reluctance to pull the trigger on certain characters that deserved worse, while others got the ax in jarring fashion, but that may just be a reflection of the injustice of real life. Technical issues aside, it’s probably just as well that I didn’t read this to my daughter – Wind in the Willows it is not. At least, not unless I missed some violent deaths, suicidal harem maidens, and a fleeting moment of icky incest on my last read that particular classic.
Trying to condense all of this into a recommendation paragraph is tricky. DSWC would be a good place for anime fans to first dig into Japanese writing, since that group is likely more forgiving of the technical flaws and general adolescent vibe, but would enjoy the Japanese-ness of it all. (Shrine maidens! Kimonos! Koi ponds!) Sci-fi and fantasy grognards like me will probably look askance at the emoting and Destiny, but appreciate the unconventional (by our standards) setting and mythical foundation, as well as Ogiwara’s willingness to toy with our expectations of Good and Evil. John Ringo fanboys should probably move on down the line; there’s nothing to see here.
Rating: A U-17 championship match. Some quality and a lot of potential on display, but ultimately limited by the players’ age and experience.