I Have Many Books

Since I knew that I had next to nothing left of Brightly Burning yesterday, I had to take a second book with me.  There wasn’t anything else I was particularly craving to read, so I opted for another Valdemar standalone, Take a Thief.  Timeline-wise, this book is centuries after Lavan Firestorm (who is briefly mentioned) and takes place not too long before Arrows of the Queen, the first book written in the entire series.  It is the tale of Skif, who will later become one of Talia’s friends, a Herald-Trainee and former thief.

Well, not “former” in this particular book.  It’s his backstory, after all.

Take a Thief is a perfect example of the strengths a series like Valdemar posesses.  Skif is an important character for both Talia and Elspeth’s stories, but he’s never the protagonist.  An ally, a man of many talents, but not the central focus.  In the earlier books, Lackey never told us too much about how Skif came to be a Herald (outside of a song at the back of one of the books), but Valdemar’s flexibility enabled her to go back years later and fill in that gap with a novel, revealing aspects of the character that we might not have suspected, and could never have known.  In fact, read in chronological order, Take a Thief sets the stage wonderfully for the Arrows trilogy.

When you contrast this to Lackey’s current fixation on Herald Mags, well, needless to say they’re a great study in the best and worst ways to add on to the series.  Do I think Take a Thiefs a great book?  No, but it is a good one.  Is it as good as Brightly Burning?  Definitely not, it does not have the same emotional impact.  Is it far better than yet another book featuring Mags?  Hell yes.

In other news, I have acquired and not-quite filled bookshelves!  They are simple, but very sturdy and adjustable.  Most shelves are spaced to allow for doublestacked paperbacks, but I couldn’t quite manage that for every single one.  Which is fine, since I do have quite a lot of oversized paperbacks and hardcovers as well.  It may not be a solid wall of books like my dad’s, but I find this quite respectable.  Below you can see some before and after photos.

I can’t put anything on the one base shelf right now because it’s acting as temporary storage for more wood, which will eventually become a piece under the window where I can put my plants, among other things.  There’s a few more books out of sight, mostly very tall ones, very small ones, graphic novels, textbooks, and my to-read Pile.  Don’t get me wrong though, there are a number of books I’ve never read that have just been added to those shelves.  I took the opportunity to raid my dad’s collection and grabbed a few books I felt I should have as well as a number that I’d like to try to read at some point.

In fact, my next book is one of those.  I was adding the books to my database as I shelved, and glancing down at the books to do so.  One of them intrigued me as I worked, so as soon as these photos were taken I hauled it down and sat it next to my keyboard.  And yes, I need a stepstool to reach the top two shelves.  In fact, I could use a taller one (or one with a third step) when it comes to the topmost shelf.  At least the books up there are the ones I am least likely to touch for some time.  The box on the end is a complete set of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the end with the horse is ten volumes of The Best in Children’s Books, an anthology set of classic tales.

And no, I have not yet updated my short stories database.  I don’t think I’ll be adding things like the children’s story collections to it simply because those aren’t the stories I created it for.  Not to mention that most of them are abridged or excerpts from longer works.  I will go through all the standard books though, and add things like all the Ray Bradbury shorts (and all I have from him are collections too).  This isn’t something pressing in light of the unpacking I have yet to do.  Now that the books are (mostly) settled, I can shift my focus to things like clearing off the washer & dryer and putting my tchotchkes on all the shelves I no longer need for books.

At some point I may sit down with all the kids books I’ve rediscovered and read through a bunch of them.  I have several that I’m sure everyone knows, but I also have a number that no one else I’ve met seems to have heard of.  Which is a shame, because those are the ones I love most of all.

One for Sorrow

After that, I wanted a comfort read.  Another one of my favorites.  And Lackey, because Lackey is a nice, easy read.  Which brings me back to Valdemar and to Brightly Burning, the story of Herald Lavan Firestorm.

When Lackey first began to write Valdemar, she wasn’t simply telling us the tale in the book (in this case, Talia, because that trilogy was first), but also informing us that this world has a past, even if we’re not familiar.  We heard mention of Valdemaran legends such as Vanyel, Tylendel, and Lavan Firestorm.  Those stories weren’t told yet, but their underlying facts existed already.  After all, if not for Lavan Firestorm, there wouldn’t be a section on Valdemaran maps called “Burning Pines.”  Brightly Burning is the story of how this name came to be.

Lavan was a great hero to Valdemar, chasing off the Karsite army in such a way that even centuries later their summoned demons wanted nothing to do with the pass he held against them.  His tale is also one of Valdemar’s great tragedies, for he died in this defense.  I must be a sucker for sorrow or something, since I seem to be attracted to these stories.  Then again, if you pick up this book with any familiarity with the series, you have to know that it can’t end well.

Our story starts with an unhappy Lavan who has recently moved to Haven with his family.  Everything is different, and not just because they’re living in the city instead of the country.  He has no friends and much less freedom.  Since he shows no interest in either parent’s trade, they send him to school. And yes, this is a school book in some ways, but that’s not the primary story.  School is a vehicle, one containing plot points, and a location, but little more.  It’s simply where the story of Lavan Firestorm truly starts.  Everything previous has just been setup.

Brightly Burning may be my single favorite entry in the Valdemar series.  Part of this may be due to it being a single story, instead of a trilogy or duology, and not a particularly long book either, like By the Sword.  Perhaps it also strikes a chord in me, as Lan often feels like an outcast in various parts of the book, and is utterly uninterested in anyone romantically.  Of course, he has a different reason from mine, and one that raises a large number of questions, but I’m not going to get into spoilers today.  Suffice to say, I greatly enjoy this book and am always happy to revisit it.

I Don’t Like Recommendations

There’s a reason why I don’t usually take recommendations.  No one else knows my tastes in reading the way I do.  Oh sure, they can see a title or a synopsis and think I’d find it interesting – and I might – but the writing style might ruin the entire experience.

Gregor von Rezzori’s writing style does not at all mesh with my reading.  If I had known this last summer, I wouldn’t have allowed my friend to persuade me to buy the book.  I picked it up at the same library sale as Golda Meir’s autobiography, but this is the very opposite in every conceivable way.  The title is Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, and it is a floridly rambling piece of prose in which the author reflects back on many of the ways he’s screwed up his life.

I can’t even say for sure that it’s completely true, as there’s a bit in the fifth (and final) section that indicates that Rezzori is prone to incorporating what others have shared with him into his own memories.  But it’s not an especially satisfying read.  The boy grows into a man who becomes an old man, but does he actually learn anything?  He’s certainly still an anti-Semite at the end, just as he was in the beginning.  And it’s just as meaningless now (1979) as it was then (1930).  His anti-Semitism is like Caucasian Americans looking down on Hispanics or Indians or any other minority.  There’s no real justification for it; he was raised that way.  And despite growing up with Jews all around him, and interacting with them in so many ways over the course of his life, he’s still an anti-Semite.  It’s not even like he made a conscious decision to continue with this perception, he just doesn’t bother to correct it even though he’s shown repeatedly that Jews are people just like him.

That doesn’t even mention that at least two of the five stories are almost entirely about sex, the pursuit or lack thereof.  Which is…really, truly not what I want out of a book.

I suppose you can say it’s better than The Wonder in that I don’t utterly despise it, but I am not keeping this book and I will never pick up something from this author again.  Ugh, let’s go find something easy, familiar, and enjoyable in my library.  Which, of course, makes things complicated since I just started reshelving things now that I have shelves.  Pictures will come when I’m less pissed.

Finally Finished

Well, that worked out about as well as I could have expected.  It’s been both a long book and a long move, and I’m not completely done with the latter.  I am, as of last night though, sleeping in my new home.  There’s a bit more to be done, and not just unpacking boxes.  I don’t have quite as many of those as you might think; having only so many good for transporting books means I was unpacking them as soon as I got here and taking them back to refill again and again and again.

bookpile
I have many piles of books.

As you can see, my next priority with those will be shelves.  I’m not planning on spending a fortune, and I definitely want to be able to see the walls and not just bookcases.  More photos once I have them and they’re filled.  Needless to say, that room is officially the library.

Choosing a longer book for the bulk of the move has paid off in the sense that I didn’t have to rush around and dig for new books every day or two.  Also because The Faded Sun by C.J. Cherryh is one of my very favorite books, and one of the three I asked her to personalize when signing.  Yes, I could’ve asked her to do so for all thirty-some of the books I’d brought, but I only wanted that for the best of the best, which this one is.

This particular volume is actually an omnibus of the Faded Sun Trilogy, originally released from 1978-1979 in some amazingly seventies hardcovers.  You see the weirdest stuff at used bookstores, okay.  But that’s besides the point.  Point being, this one book contains Kesrith, Shon’jir, and Kutath together.  I do want to point out that this is not the only entry in Cherryh’s Alliance-Union universe previously released as three books and now combined into one, but unlike Cyteen, these are three separate books following the same story, as opposed to one very long story originally broken up into three books due to physical publication restrictions.

This trilogy takes place much, much later on the Alliance-Union timeline than Cyteen, and I couldn’t tell you how much time spans the two.  I couldn’t even tell you if the humans here are from Alliance, Union, or Earth.  For all I know, those three nations may no longer exist as known during and in the aftermath of the Company Wars.  After all, this time period is called the Mri Wars.

Mri means People, and they are one of the alien species dealt with in The Faded Sun.  The primary one, as it turns out.  You see, Kesrith opens with the end of said wars, with peace.  Humans are taking possession of the planet Kesrith as ceded to them by the regul.  Regul being our other main alien species.  The mri are mercenaries and the regul their employers.  For more than two thousand years, mri have been regul bodyguards and have fought each other in single combat representing regul trade interests.  Then came humans onto the scene, fighting modern battles as opposed to the traditional mri combats with swords.  The mri would almost certainly have fought to the bitter end, but the regul lost their taste for battle and have now signed a peace treaty.

Mri are humanlike in appearance.  They are tall, slim, and golden from their manes to their eyes to their skin.  It is said in their edunei, their traditional homes of four towers, that they are born of the Sun.  In contrast, the regul are big, obese creatures should they survive to adulthood.  Their gift is an eidetic memory which they will exercise far more than their legs, which will atrophy from sitting around in their electronic sleds instead of attempting to move their bulk.

These books are all about xenopsychology as we try to understand the thought processes and motivations of the two new species involved.  The regul, with their perfect memories, find lying to be anathema, but are not above taking revenge in subtle ways by methods such as restricting available information and not volunteering what they know if not explicitly requested.  The mri, on the other hand, disdain lying as beneath them and live their lives as they alone choose, not compromising in the least their ancient ways regardless of how times have changed.

Most of what I’ve just discussed is simply the first book.  Shon’Jir is where things really start getting interesting as we leave Kesrith on a years-long journey (even with ships able to jump between stars) for the mri homeworld of Kutath.  Here we begin to understand that the ancient ways of the mri are far older than anyone had ever dated to imagine, save for some few mri who understood.  You see, there are three main castes of the mri people.  Kath, the blue robes, are children and women who are not inclined to the exercise of weapons or minds.  These are protected and concealed from outsiders for they are the future of the people, the Face that Smiles.  Next is Kel caste, the black robes, the Face Turned Outward.  These are the fearsome warriors that all know well in these books.  Yet, both Kel and Kath revel in their ignorance.  They know what they know, but there is much that is not meet for them to know, and so they will refuse this knowledge.  Their history only goes back so far, and they are content with this.  It is Sen caste, the gold robes, who retain true knowledge.  Smaller than either of the other castes, Sen is celibate while they guide their people.  But while they have input on the direction of the group as a whole, it is the she’pan who leads.  She is Mother to the tribe, wearer of the white robes.  Technically she is from Sen caste, but there is no doubt that hers is the sole authority, lent input by her Sen and her Kel Husbands.  The Husbands are not so in our human sense of the word, more that they are Kel men old enough to have some wisdom despite their caste and steady enough to rely upon.  The she’pan, like her Sen, is celibate.  She alone knows all, and she may choose to share with her people or not what she knows.

Because it is the Kel who interacts with outsiders most frequently, it is through the Kel that we learn to understand the mri.

In time, we come to Kutath and the planet is, of course, the mri homeworld.  And if you don’t have a good understanding of the alien psychologies at the end of this book and trilogy, then you clearly haven’t been paying attention.  What Cherryh accomplished here in the Faded Sun trilogy she tried again with the Chanur books a couple years later, though with many more species.  Frankly…it didn’t work nearly as well as these three books allowing us to come to understand two very different species from our own.

I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the elements that make up these books, but very little about the story contained within.  It is gripping, and it hurt me so badly to spend a good week reading it when I would have loved to curl up with it on a weekend and burn through the whole thing in six hours.  At least it gave me something to look forward to when I could spare some time to read.  Not that my next book won’t, but it’s not something I know and love as much as The Faded Sun.

Slowing Down

As previously mentioned, The Twelve Kingdoms: Skies of Dawn is much longer than any of the other books in the series (as it exists in English).  Combine that with my continuing move, unforeseen issues, and now overtime, and you can understand why it’s taken me so long to read.  Well, the overtime just started today, so you can expect books to take even longer to complete than usual.  Especially given that I’m strongly considering an omnibus for my next read – three books in one cover.

Anyway, I said that Skies of Dawn featured three main characters instead of one.  We have Yoko again, the Glory-King of Kei, Shokei, the former princess of Hou, and Suzu, a kaikyaku living in Sai.  I omitted the term kaikyaku before, favoring taika for people like Yoko and Taiki.  Taika, as a reminder, are people who should have been born in the Twelve Kingdoms, but were swept to our world by a shoku.  If they return to the Twelve Kingdoms, they shed their “shell” appearance that resembled their foster parents and regain the form they were meant to have.  Kaikyaku, in contrast, are people of our world who are swept away to the Twelve Kingdoms by the shoku.  They can learn the language if they dedicate themselves to it, but otherwise are completely adrift in a land that only superficially resembles what they know.

Suzu is from the late 1800s.  Her family sold her for a bit of money and one less mouth to feed.  As she was being taken to her new home, she fell off of a cliff and the next thing she knew she was on a boat in the kyokai.  She ended up doing general work for a troupe of traveling performers before discovering that sages (people on the divine registry) can understand her.  Begging the woman to take her as a servant, Suzu ended up spending the next hundred years working for an abusive master.

Shokei, on the other hand, is a native to the Twelve Kingdoms, and whose father was chosen by Hourin to become the King of Hou.  Known as the Ridge-King after his death, he was slain by one of his provincial governors who recognized that he had stepped off the Way and that things would only get worse.  As a Princess, Shokei was spoiled rotten, but was not so guilty that she was forced to join her parents and Hourin in death.  (Note: the kirin was not actually guilty, but this was her second king.  People are only so forgiving.)  Instead, Shokei was treated like an orphan and sent to live as an ordinary girl.

Both of the new characters have a lot to learn, and we see them grow and change throughout the book.  Yoko doesn’t necessarily change so much as try to learn more about the kingdom and people she now rules, so that she can be a better and more effective monarch.

Sadly, that’s all the Twelve Kingdoms I can read at this time.  As mentioned, I’m thinking of a longer book next.  Depending on how long it takes me to read, I may consider doing a different kind of post in the interim.  If I were to do so, what would you be interested in reading?

Read and Pack

Packing books to move them can be somewhat awkward sometimes.  Such as when I’m thinking “oh, I should pack the rest of my manga” and then remember that I have a brand new volume upstairs, just waiting to be read.  Obviously that meant I should take the time to get it out of my to-read Pile so that I can pack it properly with the rest of its series.  This would be Blue Exorcist Volume 16.

Blue Exorcist made its Stateside debut back when Shonen Jump was still being physically serialized.  As I had a subscription, that meant I got to read the first chapter and decide that, yes, this was definitely an interesting series.  Even more interesting, this was an interest I shared with a friend of mine.  She’s the one who suggested that we watch the newly translated and subtitled episodes together each week when they premiered – her on her site and me on Viz’s official website.  And by “together” I mean that we would message each other on when to hit play and pause, since we live in two different countries.  I have to say, it was super fun, and I look forward to the next time we’re able to do so.

So what is Blue Exorcist about?  Well, our protagonist is Rin Okamura.  He’s a slacker, especially in comparison to his twin brother Yukio who is generally the smartest kid in the room.  They live with their adoptive father, a priest, in his church with a few monks.  Then one day Rin discovers that he is actually the bastard child of Satan himself.  Which is also the day his adoptive father dies – possessed by Satan.  This starts off Rin’s new life in which he decides to be an exorcist and one day defeat Satan.  Most of the manga follows a “magical school” format, though the special exorcism school is an after hours “cram school” instead of the daytime one.

As it’s been a while since I last reread any Blue Exorcist (or rewatched the anime, not that this would help as the manga is far beyond it at this point), I actually read volumes 13-16 today.  That is to say, I rejoined the story about a third of the way into the arc exploring Izumo Kamiki’s past.  Kamiki is one of Rin’s classmates, and her specialty is to summon demon foxes for attack and defense.  She comes from a line of priestesses charged with protecting a nine-tailed fox demon from being awakened and released.  Kamiki’s family has been in the hands of the Illuminati for years, this being an organization the reader has only just been introduced to as an opponent for the Knights of the True Cross to whom the protagonists belong.  In fact, Kamiki’s home has been turned into an Illuminati laboratory that is trying to create an elixer for immortality.

These volumes see the climax and conclusion of this particular arc, with the new book being something of a break as we return to the school setting and generally don’t have any big events going on.  There are some revelations of course, some character growth, and much continuing of various plot lines.  I don’t want to get into too much detail because a. spoilers and b. I didn’t reread (or rewatch) the whole series so I don’t feel like I should discuss it as a whole.

I also finished the third entry in The Twelve Kingdoms today: The Vast Spread of the Seas.  Where the first book is the present and the second the recent past, book three takes us back some five hundred years to the early days of Shoryu’s reign over the Kingdom of En.  Not only do we see Enki reminiscing over how the two met, but we also see Shoryu’s…unconventional means of dealing with a provincial rebellion as well as his own administration.

For the most part, this book takes place about twenty years after Shoryu takes En’s throne.  Before that, the kingdom was the next thing to a barren wasteland, with only ten or twenty thousand people left alive within.  Not only did the previous king, now called the Owl King, help to destroy his own land, but there were more than forty years between his death and Shoryu’s ascension.  It’s very rare in the land of the Twelve Kingdoms, but the kirin before Shoryu’s failed to find a king at all and died after a mere thirty years.  Yes, the kirin, like their kings, are immortal.  But only once the pact between the two is made.  Choosing a king, then staying by their side, is a kirin’s whole purpose in life.

Books two and three are the shortest of the four I own.  I’ve mentioned that if you add them both together, they’re about the same length as book one.  However, if you take book one and either of the short ones and put those together, then you’ll have book four.  This is hardly surprising, as each of the first three books has a single main character.  Book four, on the other hand, is a little different in that respect.  But I’ll elaborate more on that once I finish it.

I am quickly reaching the point where I may want to avoid moving more books to the new place simply so that I still have options when I want something to reread, as opposed to shortening my Pile.  I’ve managed to completely empty two bookshelves (a large and a small) and redistribute the remaining books so that nothing’s horitzontal any longer.  Of course, there’s still a lot to dig out, pack, and move, but the day is coming soon when I’ll be typing from a new location.

Timing

When I said that The Twelve Kingdoms books are of varying lengths, I meant it.  Books two and three together are about the same length as book one.  Thus today was book two, Sea of Wind, the story of Taiki.  You may recall from yesterday’s map that Tai is one of the outer kingdoms, an island in the northwest corner.  Taiki is therefore the kirin of that kingdom.  Remember, for each kingdom there is a kirin who will choose the king.  Their names are more titles, starting with the name of the kingdom and then adding a suffix: -ki for male kirin and -rin for female kirin.  Thus far in the books we have seen Keiki, Kourin, Enki, Taiki, and Renrin.

Sea of Wind actually takes place before Sea of Shadows, a difference that I estimate as four to eight years, being too lazy to actually look it up.  It’s not that important when most main characters are immortal.  We know this rough time difference because Yoko is told at one point that the kirin of Tai is about the same age as her, and in this book he is only ten.  Like Yoko, Taiki is a taika.  When his eggfruit had been on the sacred tree on Mount Hohzan only a few days, a massive shoku struck, sweeping him off to Hourai where he was raised as an ordinary Japanese boy.  Of course, because a kirin is not actually human, this led to quite a few issues when he was eventually found and returned home.

Sea of Wind is an excellent contrast to Sea of Shadows.  Between the two, we get a fairly completely picture of how a king ascends the jeweled throne from both the king and the kirin’s points of view.  Because both main characters are taika, the reader gets a fairly solid grounding in how the world of the Twelve Kingdoms works on many levels, a time-honored way to introduce fundamental concepts.

Because Sea of Wind happens earlier, we also see some of the background events that set the stage for Yoko’s journey, such as the beginning of her predecessor’s downfall.  One hopes that Keiki was able to learn from the experience, and be better able to help Yoko than he was the former king.  Of course, there is no explanation for why Taiki and his king are missing when Yoko arrives in the world, but one assumes that later in the series there is a resolution to that conflict.

Both books are about the main character’s journey to understand themselves, but with no reflection.  There is very little audience in these two books.  Yoko spends most of her time wandering alone through the mountains of Kou, and Taiki is isolated from the world in the Brush-Jar Palace.  True, he has the oracles around him, but being human they are unable to help him learn what it is to be a kirin.

When comparing this section to the anime, I think there is one thing the anime does better, in some ways.  I don’t know if the books truly lack a part of this scene or not, since I only have access to the four I’ve mentioned.  Last post I mentioned a girl named Sugimoto who came with Yoko to the Twelve Kingdoms (along with Asano).  Sugimoto was convinced that she was the great heroine as in a shojou manga – an ordinary girl transported to a magical world to save the day.  Her jealousy of Yoko’s usurpation of her presumed destiny grew bitter and deep until she found herself in service to the king of Kou – and swearing to kill Yoko.  In the end, she came to her senses and realized that this world was not for her and went home.  Once there, she saw a boy in her art class painting something that bore a suspicious resemblance to a map of the Twelve Kingdoms.  This boy was, of course, Taiki.

Sadly, the US-licensed material cuts off before anything in that plot could be furthered, but it does raise so many questions.  What happened to the King of Tai?  Why did Taiki return to his human home?  How much of his time in the Twelve Kindoms does he actually remember?

One day I hope I’ll know the answers to those questions.  Until then, I’m only halfway through the series.

Definitions are Hard

I’ve mentioned before that I have a manga collection, but I haven’t reread any of it in a while.  And today’s book is not, technically, manga.  But I’m classing it there anyway for three main reasons.  First, this was published by the now-defunct manga company Tokyopop.  Secondly, because this novel was originally published in Japanese and was translated into English.  Thirdly, and probably most importantly, this novel series was adapted into an anime.  Not only that, but I was exposed to the anime years before I opted to read the books, so I will always think of the tv series first.  That’s why I’m dumping these books under the manga category.

The series is The Twelve Kingdoms, written by Fuyumi Ono, and book one is Sea of Shadows.  Unfortunately, only four of the twelve books have been translated and brought over to the US.  Even more unfortunately, the anime series cuts off at the same point as the English books, meaning that I may never be able to read the rest of the story.

In my experience, Twelve Kingdoms is not one of the best-known anime out there.  It is known, better than some of my other favorites like Blue Seed, but it’s nothing like Neon Genesis: EvangelionInu-Yasha, or even Dragon Ball Z.  Of course, it’s also a lot shorter than two of those, and doesn’t have the constant additions to its franchise to explain the ending like the third.  I think it still holds up though, enough to find myself a set of DVDs.

Let’s start with the basics.  The series (both) starts with Yoko Nakajima, an ordinary schoolgirl in Japan.  One day a strange man named Keiki comes to her school, tells her that she is in great danger and must come with him.  He also bows to her and demands that she accept his pledge of fealty.  Also a giant crow demon thing attacks her.  Keiki gives her a sword, summons up other demon things and they end up at the harbor where she kills the crow demon, thanks to the liquid demon (hinman) Keiki has placed inside of her.  Then they get on the flying demon things and fly over, then into, the ocean.  When the come back out of the whirlpool, a storm hits and they are separated. Thus begins Yoko’s adventures in the Twelve Kingdoms.  In the anime, Yoko is transported with two friends, Asano and Sugimoto, who I suppose exist to give additional perspectives.  Asano doesn’t exist in the books, and Sugimoto, while being the only classmate who actually has a name in the novel, still has almost nothing to do in her few pages of existence.

Anyway, the bulk of the story takes place in this mysterious other world.  The twelve kingdoms make a squarish map, something like a compass rose with corners around it.  It’s not easy to describe, so I’ve found you a map to look at.  The outer sea is known as the kyoukai, and it is the Sea of Shadow from the title.  That’s where Yoko ends up before she washes up on the shore of the Kingdom of Kou.

12kmapThis image found via google.

What you see on the map is all that exists in this particular world, no more and no less.  It’s a very different world from ours in many ways, starting with the kirin.  You may recognize this as the Chinese word for unicorn, and some parts of these stories are based on ancient China.  Not most though.  Anyway, the kirin of a particular kingdom will choose the king.  They are such noble creatures (who wear human form most of the time) that they can only bow before one individual, who is their true master.  That person then becomes the king, and also immortal.  A ruler can be killed, but they will not age beyond their appearance when they were chosen.  However, if the kirin dies, their ruler will die as well.  This can happen if the king loses the Mandate of Heaven, for there are laws that govern the kingdoms.  They are few, but they do exist, such as not making war on another kingdom.  There are warning signs though.  Demon attacks increase, crops fail, and finally the king’s kirin will fall prey to the sitsudou illness.  If the kirin dies, the king will follow in less than a year and the kingdom itself will deteriorate until a new king is chosen by the next kirin.

The world of the Twelve Kingdoms has a true gender parity in comparison to our world.  Gender roles here are defined based on sexual characteristics, relegating women to a childcentric life.  In the Twelve Kingdoms, however, children are born from eggfruit, which grows on special trees.  Each village has such a tree, and couples hoping for a child will tie a ribbon on a branch.  If they are to become parents, an eggfruit will grow on that branch.  In time it can be plucked, and a day later will open to reveal the baby.  However, a storm such as a shoku, a magical weather event that touches both worlds, can rip eggfruit off the tree and bring it to our world.  (Japan is known as Hourai and China as Wa.)  In that case, the eggfruit will end up as an embryo in someone’s uterus and be born in our normal manner.  However, the child is a taika, who truly belongs in the other world.  If they have a chance to return, their appearance will change to reflect who they truly are.  After all, when you are born from trees, there are no ethnicities, no rules that you must have any resemblance to your family.  You can even be a hanjyu, or half-beast, with your family all fully human.  Hanjyu have two forms: an ordinary human one and a human-sized animal one that walks on two legs.

It’s quite an interesting world from the base up, and the story may be a hero’s journey, but it’s also a fascinating psychological trip as we see Yoko go through a fairly extensive transformation.  Personally, I’m glad the books don’t including the side characters from the anime as they got fairly annoying at times, especially once their minds started to deteriorate from stress.  On the other hand, it would have been nice to see the storyline with the traveling performers, so you can’t have it all either way.  Regardless, both incarnations are good.  I’m simply more likely to gravitate towards books because it takes a lot less time to read four books of varying lengths than it does to watch 45 episodes of anime.  Even if you skip the intro, outro, and preview.

More Accessible

When it rains, it pours, eh?  Sometimes life is just like that and the only escape is a good book, even when I’m trying to transport the whole of my library in stages to the new place.  The logistics are sound, it’s the actual execution that’s suffering.  But enough about real life, let’s talk books.

Today is the other DAW anthology I bought at the convention along with The Dragon and the Stars.  This is Ages of Wonder and I found it to be a better book on the whole.  Part of this is likely because I cannot fully appreciate the subtle elements of Chinese stories (of which there are always so many) because I simply don’t have the mindset to pick up on them.  That doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy them or take delight in the elegant imagery they convey, just that I will probably never get as much out of them as someone who is more familiar with Chinese culture and customs.

Ages of Wonder, on the other hand, is a much more Western anthology.  It’s an interesting concept too, requiring authors to use less-commonly chosen eras of our history as the basis for their fantasy.  Fantasy, not alternate history.  The specific Ages the editors (Julie E. Czerneda and Rob St. Martin) have chosen to focus on are the Age of Antiquity, the Age of Sail, the Colonial Age, the Age of Pioneers, the Pre-Modern Age, and the Age Ahead.  Now, I know I’ve read short stories and novels set in all of these time periods before.  Of course, I can’t swear off the top of my head that I’ve read a fantasy set in every era listed.  The Age of Pioneers and the Pre-Modern Age tend to lend themselves to steampunk, and it’s very difficult to find stories in the Age Ahead that aren’t science fiction.  Some of those can read like fantasy, but at their core they are still sci-fi, such as the Dragonriders of Pern.

Speaking of the Age Ahead, the story “Mars Bound”by K.J. Gould reminded me of the old Final Fantasy movie, The Spirits Within.  You may scoff because, well, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, it has nothing to do with the video game franchise, and the CGI is dated.  But I found it an enjoyable watch, especially since I’ve never played any of the games, and at the time, it was pretty good CGI.  “Mars Bound” is a much better story in comparison.

It is very hard to pick what stories to call out by name, because, frankly, they were all quite good.  There were some things I had seen before – a private eye in a magical world?  Who is himself a mage?  Yeah, this is not the first one of those.

There was a story in the Age of Antiquity called “To Play the Game of Men” by Caitlin Sweet.  I was very proud of myself for figuring out relatively early on that the horse telling the story was known as Bucephalas, the beloved mount of Alexander the Great. I credit the Heroes in Hell books by Janet Morris & coauthors for that one, especially given the big deal Alexander makes about finding the horse.  Or what he thinks to be the horse.  Or what might actually be the horse.  It’s Hell, who knows?  I will definitely read more of that series someday, and tell you all about it, but for now, suffice to say that it’s been a good way to learn random historical facts .

The themes of the stories range all over, including coming-of-age, seflessness & sacrifice, forgiveness, and more.  In fact, this is probably the least unified anthology I’ve read in a long time.  You can really only call the stories within a particular age unified, because each of the ages is so different from the others.  It’s a different approach, but not a bad one.  The point was, after all, to give some love to eras that aren’t nearly as popular as say…modern times.  Or the medieval days.

There’s a card game from Loony Labs called Chrononauts.  In it, players are time travelers from different versions of U.S. History, trying to get home.  On a timeline stretching from 1865 to 1999 (or 2008 with an expansion), you’ll have three years to match properly.  One will be the normal event as happened in history.  The other two will be alternate versions of other events.  If all three are correct at the end of your turn, you win.  The two alternates you need are called “ripplepoints.”  They are affected by events known as “linchpins.”  Swing a linchpin, and one or more ripplepoints are affected.  This means you often have players arguing over whether Hitler is alive or dead.  Same for Lincoln.

My point here is that one player noticed that there were some ripplepoints that had only one character requiring them for victory, meaning that some very smart people could then figure out what other years were required for that player to win.  They wrote a letter to the company suggesting that Loony Labs fill in the gaps, and even provided a sample of a new character to boot.  The company liked the idea, made the character, and held a contest to fill the rest of the contigent.  This resulted in the Lost Identities expansion.

Why bring this up?  Because of the one guy who said “hey, this game would be better if we gave more love to these particular years.”  It’s the exact same premise behind Ages of Wonder and I think that’s what makes this anthology work.  Because, like Chrononauts, it evolved out of a love for history and fantasy, offering nineteen authors a chance to stretch their wings.

Some of the authors I recognized from the last DAW anthology I read.  Others, like Elizabeth Ann Scarborough, needed no research before I recognized their names.  One did surprise me though: Nina Kiriki Hoffman.  When I was adding these stories to my database, it suggested her name before I finished typing, making it obvious that this was not the first time.  I looked her up out of curiosity.  Turns out her story “The Curse Tablet” is my fifth encounter with her work.  She is featured in all three Firebird anthologies, and also contributed to In Celebration of Lammas Night.  I suppose I should feel somewhat guilty for not recognizing her name sooner, since she’s obviously skilled.

As of this post, I have over one thousand and ninety books, and over one thousand and thirty unique short stories.  I wonder if there will be a day soon when I have more short stories than books.  Of course, there’s a number of books waiting to move from my parents’ basement to my new home, and none of them have been logged at all.  I don’t know how many anthologies are in that lot, but only time will tell on that front.

Anthologies have not been a bad choice given the state of my life right now, but I only have one left and I’m not sure that’s what I want to read next.  I’m thinking that whatever I start next should probably be a reread, if only so that I don’t need to commit too much attention to it.  This then begs the question.  Do I reread anthologies?  Do I go for shorter books, with the understanding that I’m then committing to a lot more posts on this blog when I need all the sleep I can get?  Do I pick out a longer book and endeavor to be certain it’s one I won’t get lost in if I take too long in the rereading?

I’ll probably answer those questions for myself tomorrow, as it’s getting late and I unfortunately won’t be getting to bed nearly as soon as I’d like.

Chinese Stories

I finally finished The Dragon and the Stars, a collection of eighteen short stories by Chinese authors.  That is to say, all of the authors have at least some Chinese heritage, though they’re from all over the world.  Being Chinese is what unifies them.  Each of the stories has some hint of this as well, though I would say one or two don’t require that any of the characters be Chinese.  Of course, this is simply my uninformed perception.  I am not in any way Chinese and thus not fully qualified to judge.

My impression of Chinese stories in general is that they are meant to be lessons.  Not like European fairy tales where it’s pretty obvious you shouldn’t go through the woods by yourself.  And nowhere near as simple as the monkey’s paw, where wishing gives you unintended consequences.  My impression of Chinese works is that they are meant to be appreciated on at least two levels, and that there may always be more.  I say “may” because, again, I don’t always see it.

Don’t get me wrong, these traits are not limited to any specific culture.  To me, it simply resonates with Chinese works in particular because it seems to apply to absolutely everything Chinese.  Including their legendary bureaucracy.

The stories run the gamut in timeline, in setting, and in characters.  There are a number of stories dealing with Caucasians in various ways, which I take to be a point as to how omnipresent white people have made themselves, Americans in particular.  There’s a reason why the world at large keeps an eye on our news, and it’s probably not a good thing.  It also makes it entirely unsurprising that other political entities might attempt to rig our elections in their favor.  Frankly, it’s more surprising that it hasn’t happened more…to the best of my knowledge.  I am not the most informed person around and I am not a fan of the news nowadays, so don’t think what I say is the whole truth.  I am no kind of authority and can only speak to what I perceive.

Anyway, stories.  I think my favorites are “The Polar Bear Carries the Mail” by Derwin Mak, “Mortal Clay, Stone Heart” by Eugie Foster, and “Threes” by E.L. Chen.  I think part of this is because these do have real conclusions, moreso than some of the other stories.  Also because they are stories of love.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m still an aromantic asexual who thinks all you sexual people are driven by your hormones.  But I appreciate stories with a strong emotional connection, regardless of whether or not it’s romantic.  Love doesn’t only mean sex, guys.  Parents and children love each other, and sex is only involved in particularly twisted relationships.  Friends can, and should, love each other platonically.  Love is a generally positive emotion that opens the door to positivity, and thus it should be encouraged.

This is also the anthology that’s pushed me over the mark.  I have over one thousand unique short stories in my library now.  I may continue with anthologies given that my attention span is mostly on packing.  I have begun packing books, even.  I have a lot more to do though.