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Book Review: Dragon Sword and Wind Child by Noriko Ogiwara

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VIZ Media, a major publisher and distributor of manga translations in the English-speaking world has a new imprint, Haikasoru, dedicated to introducing the best of Japanese fantasy and science fiction to English audiences. One such novel is Dragon Sword and Wind Child, an epic fantasy rooted in a mythic, ancient Japan.

Based only loosely on Shinto mythology, Noriko Ogiwara’s novel is at least equally influenced by her studies of British folklore and myth, and the modern fantasy it’s inspired. Her land of Toyoashihara is at least as far removed from the historical Japan as Tolkien’s Middle-earth was from any part of Britain’s past. This is in contrast to something like Lian Hearn’s Tales of the Otori series, which, though fictional and magical, is clearly anchored in the culture and politics of Japan’s late feudal period. Nothing like Ogiwara’s world is likely to have ever existed outside story and myth.

The story follows a girl, Saya, living a quiet life in a small village. Her adoptive parents love her and she loves them in return, but she still has nightmares of her former home and family — and the attack that took their lives. She’s not sure exactly where she came from, and there are hints she may be different from other people, but she longs to live an ordinary life. She worships the God of Light, rejects the darkness, and strives for conventionality in all other respects. However, her past will not leave her alone.

The Prince of Light, one of the Light God’s two immortal children, takes notice of her, and brings her to his palace as a handmaiden, a dream come true. But it soon becomes clear that this was not a whim. He knows more of her past than she; in fact, they’ve already met, in her former lives. At the same time, she has been contacted by worshippers of the dark, who also know something of her past lives, and are equally sure she belongs with them. What can she choose, when all she knows is her quiet village life? Her choice will not be insignificant, since she seems to have a crucial role to play in the unending war of light and dark.

At least initially, it seems like a refreshing reversal from traditional western fantasy, where dark is bad and light is good, and no one would ever be tempted to switch sides. However, it becomes clear very quickly that the children of the Light God, beautiful and immortal, are also cruel and, to some extent, unnatural. The forces of dark simply represent an acknowledgement of the natural cycle of life and death, which even human worshippers of the light must follow.

Little pretense is made that there is any true moral ambiguity in this war, at least for most of the book. It makes me wonder if the choice of the translator to use the terms dark and light, with their religious and historical baggage for English speakers, may prove misleading. Perhaps something like Earth and Sky, for the two sides, would have less connotations and be truer to Ogiwara’s original intentions.

Throughout the book, the character of Saya seems unsure what she wants or what she should do. She seems to go with the flow and is often unsure why she makes the decisions she makes, or even why she feels the things that she feels. Some of this is explained as her true self remembering a past life that she cannot consciously recall. However, as the character of her former life is also never really developed, it feels at times like her path through the story is being guided by the blunt edge of narrative necessity.

And, indeed, this is often a feature of epic or high fantasy. An implicit belief in predestination, born kings, and heaven-chosen warriors means that sometimes the hero does what they do because it’s simply what they are supposed to do. Much is made of the cultural differences between East and West, but historically, the belief in innate nobility was widespread throughout the world since ancient times (though not unchallenged). This belief is often taken as a given in the genre, so we accept that a boy’s ability to remove a sword from a rock will make for good governance; and a girl’s choices don’t need to follow from any of her previous education or experience, since her true self is the reincarnation from a forgotten life. Translating a work into another language (or, for that matter, another culture) also has the potential to exacerbate character issues.

Dragon Sword and Wind Child is not without depth, but some of the attempts at character development do not really come through. I admit that I can also be critical of some of the traditional tropes of high fantasy. These factors both prevented me from becoming as invested in the story as I might have otherwise, but the story and world were unique enough to maintain my interest. Given the endless flow of generic Tolkien knock-offs flooding the fantasy market, anything with a different cultural perspective and source material ought to be worth a look for fantasy fans.

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About J.J.S. Boyce