The Girl Who Leapt Through Time

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time
(時をかける少女)
Tsutsui Yasutaka

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time was not what I expected. Somewhere I read that this is a tale of a girl who suddenly acquires the power to time travel and, eventually, learns Important Life Lessons. My wife told me that she vaguely remembers seeing an adaptation of this and thinking it has surprising lesbian overtones. In both cases, the first is more or less correct. The main character, Kazuko, does indeed travel through time, and this particular story has been adapted numerous times. The second half of both statements is wildly off-base, though not unreasonable. Girl was written for the YA audience, itself a frequent target of Important Life Lessons. As for the lesbian bit, well, this is Tsutsui, so I would believe just about anything.

In fact, Girl is not by itself a novel. It is a novella that anchors a collection by the same name that includes two other short stories. (Or novelletes, or possibly novellas. I’m not really sure.) The book is available in English, but I only have a Japanese copy, so that is what I read. It was a nice change of pace from some other stuff I have read; apparently YA is my comfort level in terms of kanji. (To give a comparison, I peaked at about 50 pages per day with Girl, almost double the speed of my last book.) Because I read this in Japanese, I am thankfully free of any obligation to critique Tsutsui’s writing. I feel happy to get through without too many dictionary forays, let alone digging into issues of style. I will say that the language often seemed stiff, but that may be because it is 1960s Japanese, or may be because Tokyo dialect always sounds stilted to my Kansai ears.

Girl is only nominally SF. Mostly it is about junior high school, which seems to be a major part of the charm. Both of the other stories also center on adolescents, with the second more of a light horror and only the third betraying Tsutsui’s usual black humor. He gets a lot of mileage from the nostalgia; it got to me a bit, even though my only connection to Japanese cultural memory is whatever I absorbed while living there in my 20s. The stories are nice enough. Girl takes a sudden turn towards the end that I didn’t see coming, then again in the final pages; it was oddly touching, but also somewhat disconcerting. I am curious to see how the movie adaptations handle things. There were no lesbians.

I wouldn’t call this an essential read. Much of Girl‘s popularity hinges on gauzy memories of 1960s junior high school experiences, which the Western reader isn’t going to share. It’s a nice story, certainly nothing I would warn anyone away from, but not a genre touchstone. On the other hand, it is a great place to start reading Japanese SF in Japanese, with a vocabulary and character set aimed at the YA crowd, but an adult intelligence. This is definitely something I’m going to give to my kids when they are a bit older.

Rating: The New Year’s high school soccer tournament. Perfect for reliving youthful memories, if not the most polished gem available.

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Dragon Sword and Wind Child

Dragon Sword and Wind Child
Ogiwara Noriko

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.

DarkAngel

Dark Angel
Meredith Ann Pierce
(reviewed by Jose)

Part of being in the book business means that I’m generally kept fairly aware of what is selling and what is not. I have to say, with some dismay, that the majority of fantasy that I see anymore is published by Luna press or TOR. For those of you unaware, Luna is a press that specializes primarily in “alternative romance.” This catch-all term describes romance that involves vampires, werewolves, space ships, and all of the other abominations that the recent Twilight and/or Harry Potter craze have infected the modern fantasy scene with.[1] The relative boom in Luna’s success over the last few years has not gone unnoticed, and major publishers have started picking up startling quantities of both “alternative romance” and young adult fiction that revolves around the same topics, if somewhat censored.

Dark Angel, oh, excuse me, DarkAngel, is very much in the style of this young adult fiction. It is a fantastic account of some young girl who becomes enraptured with a “vampyre” and all of the zany and somewhat cringe-worthy adventures this leads her on. The prose reminds me very much of a failed Patricia McKillup. There is a serious attempt to lend a certain dreamlike and airy quality to the entire story, but rather than coming off as charming and elegant, the author often falls into the trap of overly obfuscating prose and general inability to form a coherent point. And while, as I will elaborate on further, this seems to be a conscious choice of the genre as a whole, it leaves the entire thing feeling rather empty. I struggled to remember characters once they weren’t on the page, and there seems to be no attempt from Pierce to actually make sure you’re keeping track of who’s important and who’s not. (Which is because no one is, except the main character and the vampyre. Doting ahoy.) There’s not really anything of substance to the plot, and it probably can be read in a short afternoon or over a couple lunch breaks.

I’ll be the first to say that two paragraphs is completely insufficient for what attempts to be a formal conversation or commentary on a piece of “literature” [2]. This is systemic to the genre. Reviews panning the stuff struggle to walk the fine line between beating a dead horse or writing a single paragraph that implies the authors need to go take a damn creative writing class. So rather than try and walk that line, I want to try to analyze the reason that the line exists in the first place.

Vacuity tends to make things very difficult to criticize. It’s why until someone sat down and took the ninety minutes necessary to coherently ream the entirety of the Star Wars prequels, most audience goers were left with a vague sense that they had been cheated and that the movie sucked, but were hard-pressed to point at anything in particular when challenged. The key, of course, is that there is nothing to actually point at. I’m going to elaborate on three of many specific decisions [some in more detail than others] that create this effect.

1.) Self-Inserts. The bane of any good reviewer, especially one that is read by large swaths of people, is that s/he is typically under some level of pressure from his editors to avoid anything that can be construed as libel. This practically means that generally anything even resembling an ad hominem attack is flatly off the table. This is a problem.

The main character in this wonderful little pile of crap is named Aeriel. Lets run-down the check list: Aeriel is clumsy. Aeriel is constantly reminded of her much better looking and grateful mistress. Aeriel is shy. Aeriel is also, obviously, exactly what some dark vampire needs to redeem his soul, and, because of all of this, she will become the prettiest flower in the flower patch with her dark and brooding lover. [3] Here is a picture of Meredith Ann Pierce. She is not ugly, nor is she particularly attractive. She plays the harp and lives in the woods in south Florida. She went to normal schools, and enjoys normal activities. She has been a reasonably successful author, and probably isn’t that bad of a musician. In short, there is really nothing special about her. She’s altogether quite ordinary.

I remember, a long time ago, when I was first introduced to this sort of “alternative romance” drivel, I had picked up a Catherine Asaro book because it had a picture of a neat spaceship. I was not totally disappointed (it was one of her earlier books, apparently she’s gotten much much worse,) it indeed had a cool spaceship. It had lots of battles and explosions. It had quantum phasing missles slamming into space stations the size of planets and lots and lots of talk about klein bottles. It was pretty cool. [4] Unfortunately, it also had a main character who was achingly special, despite the fact that she was totally ordinary on Earth. I can distinctly remember at the ripe old age of fourteen that it was perfectly obvious, down to the way the girl was described as looking and acting, that Asaro was definitely inserting herself into the shoes of the main character.

I’m not trying to argue that Pierce is creating a fantasy for herself where she is swept off her feet by a dark and brooding lover. Rather, I’m saying that this yearning (which, to be fair, all of us kind of have) to be special or better is the creative impulse which drives the main connection within the plot. It leads to an unacceptable connection between the author and her characters. She becomes invested–unwilling to let bad things ultimately happen and tell a story–and rather gives the reader a sort of twisted bastardization of a morality play. The bad guys get what’s coming to them, the good guys get everything they want, and Aeriel is undoubtedly the primary force for redemption and butterflies and sparkles.

This makes it incredibly hard to attack the plot and conflict as anything other than absent. You can’t point at particular struggles that the characters have because they really aren’t there. The vampyre screams about how awful he is and how much he wants Aeriel to go away, and Aeriel dotes after him like a good princess.

2.) Bad Prose. At one point, Pierce describes a persons’ eyes as “mocking-merry.” What in the world is mocking-merry? Is it gleeful sadism? Is it a friendly jab? Is it hidden resentment? WHAT IN THE HELL DOES MOCKING-MERRY MEAN, AND WHY DOES IT MAKE ME SO ANGRY? [5]

3.) Superficial Othering. This is slightly more complex, so bear with me. One of the tropes, especially of “alternative romance,” is the overwhelming attempt to beat you over the head with the supernatural, or “otherliness,” of whatever it is that the author is trying to do it to. Typically this is done through small tropes that you may not even think of. Misspelling words as “vampyre” instead of “vampire,” or “magick” instead of “magic” all serve to try and disassociate the author’s creation from the other tropes that you’ve read about. Done properly, this effect can be very powerful. It allows the other to create a powerful sense of humanization and redemption–as the thing we establish as the “other” slowly comes more and more to resemble a complex individual. Done poorly, it allows the author to hide her static character behind it’s otherness, because goddamn it, it’s not human, so why does it have to act like one?

All of these combine to create a veritable moving target of literature. On one hand, there’s something disturbingly wrong with the story, but instead of being able to point to any one particular thing, all we’re left with is a vague sense of vacuity. The words seem to mean nothing, the relationships between the characters are meaningless, because the author has already made it quite clear that she is uninterested in them acting like humans. And, perhaps most damningly, the plot is already quite clear from the very second that our glorious author becomes too connected with the redemption of her characters.

Stepping back, one might think it silly to even take the time to write this review. It’s been done to death, and people have been doing it far better than I for a long time. Twilight is here to stay until something else gets big, and even then, the damage will have probably been done. I only mention this book because it was written in 1984– a veritable pioneer of the genre before it was cool.

I need a drink.

Rating: Blackburn v. Stoke, both coached by clones of Sam Allardyce.

[1] I’m not saying that these things weren’t there before. Vampire fantasy has been around for some time with authors like Brian Lumley. The difference is that vampires were definitely not all sparkles and happiness. Conversely, the books had vague tones of satanism, sadism, and a fairly heavy element either of redemption or despair. They were also often quite gory.

[2] Seriously, I’m at a loss to try and say much more about it. The story is simple and handled poorly, there are large elements of deus ex machina at work through-out the entire interaction of the primary characters, and said characters are wood cut-outs with a little bit of glitter strewn on them for good measure. Aeriel pines after her black clad DarkAngel, and he radiates ANGSSTTT like any good teenager It, ultimately, is trying to be a story of redemption, but when all you want to do is club the person that’s supposedly getting redeemed into a fine mist, it sort of loses any effect it might have.

[3] Admittedly, this is only book one of a trilogy. This does not happen in this book, but if you want me to read the other two, I’m going to have to be bribed.

[4] There were a few moments that my thirteen year old mind had just started to grasp, but I generally plowed through them with my mind off. Gratuitous space sex is the easiest type of sex to ignore.

[5] Rant aside: prose that means nothing means there’s nothing to criticize.