When someone conjures up an idea of what fantasy entails, it’s usually in some small or large part influenced by the twentieth century literary works of C.S. Lewis and J. R. Tolkien. It’s almost an unescapable situation. Their works of fiction continue to be a driving force in our views of fantasy. In recent years however, another author has begun to grow herself a following in the genre, though it’s doubtful you’ve heard much of Fuyumi Ono outside of Japan.
First published in 1991 and brought to America in 2006, her first book in the highly acclaimed The Twelve Kingdoms series became the object of an instant love affair in the West. Out of all of the titles published from Japan by the now defunct publisher TokyoPop, this, above all others, even Kino no Tabi, was its highest-selling success. Published on a rotation of one book per year, the series was printed in both hardback and paperback, a feat not attempted since then except by The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya.
The story itself begins in Tokyo, Japan, introducing readers to a young high school girl named Yoko Nakajima. A typical straight A student, Yoko lives a mostly average teenage life, dealing with mostly average teenage issues. That is, until the day she meets the man with golden hair. In the split second of a school day, her life is forever changed. Before she has time to process her thoughts, windows lay broken all around her, blood is spilt and she is whisked away by a man and his strange cohorts to another world. However, the group is soon attacked and Yoko blacks out.
Alone and frightened, she finds herself washed ashore in a strange world filled with demons and peasants. With no sign of the man who brought her, she begins a journey of survival, unsure of where she is and where she is going. But one question will continue to haunt her constantly: Is she forgetting what it means to be human?
Now, for a bit of a confession. The Twelve Kingdoms is actually the first work of fiction from Japan I ever bought. It was out of curiosity more than anything, an impulse purchase. For reasons I cannot comprehend, I lost interest in the story, and put the book down for many years. Regardless of that strange lapse in judgment, I quickly fell in love with Fuyumi Ono’s novel last month and found myself very glad I chose to revisit this wonderful work of fiction.
The writing is truly magical. Though a translation, The Twelve Kingdoms, excluding one typo, reads as naturally as any work originally written in English. Ono’s ability to weave words is beyond words itself. Gripping, clever, and simple, it never fails to keep the reader glued to each and every page.
Ono also quickly reveals a mastery of character development. She succeeds in what few authors accomplish: connecting readers to a character so strongly that her pages evoke verbal reactions. I literally found myself talking to the book; a great feat indeed for Ono, but perhaps worrying for my doctor. However, being completely serious, the author’s use of every scene to build the main character and her struggles is refreshing in a YA culture mostly built on forgettable protagonists.
In works of fantasy, there is always a fear of filler. When a writer introduces a meaningless sub-plot in order to bulk up his work he ultimately annoys the reader into utter boredom. That sort of cheap trick is used so often in the genre, and, for a moment, I feared Fuyumi Ono might fall prey to it as well. Thankfully though, she didn’t. One of the strongest attributes of The Twelve Kingdoms is that at no point in the story did I get the sense that a scene wasn’t needed. Every moment felt as if it were desperately required for character growth, and each scene brought with it its share of surprises, good or bad.
So with such a great track record thus far, what could possibly manage to notch down what would otherwise be a masterpiece of young adult fiction? Sadly, the ending. The talented author makes the terribly amateur mistake of skipping one of the most crucial and desired scenes in the book. Without giving anything away as a spoiler, Ono essentially skips the conflict to jump to the resolution. To say the least, it is extremely anti-climatic. For a book as brilliant as this is, it deeply pained me to realize that Ono allowed such a blatant and serious flaw.
But even so, this novel, though suffering from what could possibly have been a near-fatal blow, managed to redeem itself with a story and world that readers aren’t soon to put down or forget. With three subsequent books in the series already released, I doubt I’m alone in looking eagerly forward to continuing this journey with Yoko. If they prove every bit as good as the first, if not perhaps better, then Tolkien and Lewis may finally have some serious competition coming their way.
Matthew Reeves is an aspiring novelist living in California. You can usually find him lost in thought on a walk or writing on Twitter as @MattReeves17.