Reviewby Theron Martin, Apr 5th 2010
The Twelve Kingdoms
Novel 4: Skies of Dawn
In the Twelve Kingdoms, three girls, all about the same physical age but from backgrounds as diverse as can possibly be, set down arduous paths towards an ultimate convergence in the Kingdom of Kei. Shoukei, daughter of Chutatsu, the King of the northwestern kingdom of Hou, led a strictly sheltered life in the royal palace until her parents were struck down amidst claims of excessive harshness towards their people. Stripped of her position as princess and thrown into a cruel version of a commoner's life, she grows to hate Kei's new Glory-King because that girl has everything that Shoukei has lost. In the west-southwestern kingdom of Sai, Suzu is a kaikyaku (a person tossed into the Twelve Kingdoms from Hourai, aka Japan) who latched upon the first person she met who could speak her language and, in exchange for being made an oracle (which gave her effective immortality and, more importantly, the ability to communicate), suffered a hundred years of servitude at the hands of a merciless mistress. Upon hearing of the new Glory-King and that she is also a kaikyaku, Suzu assumes that this girl is the only one who can understand her, and so seeks to escape her conditions and meet her.
And what of that new Glory-King? Though now officially installed as King, Yoko hardly has it much easier. Constant arguments from her Ministers and the disapproval she can sense from them and Keiki force her to appreciate that she knows too little to effectively govern and is starting to repeat her old approval-obsessed habits. In an effort to learn more about her own kingdom, she goes into seclusion to study under a wise teacher. When that teacher gets kidnapped, though, Yoko discovers that the kidnapping is just the tip of the iceberg; a rebellion is brewing in Wa province, and she has to face the ugly truth that the rebels may be in the right. In that chaos of dangerous events, the three girls eventually meet in a gathering that may decide not only their fates but that of the entire kingdom of Kei.
At 642 pages, Skies of Dawn is considerably longer than the first of Fuyumi Ono's The Twelve Kingdoms novels and is, in fact, longer than the second and third novels combined. It is also the most expansive of the novels to date, as it is the first to feature multiple lead protagonists and covers a far broader swath of the Kingdoms than any previous novel, with eight kingdoms being visited at least briefly before the main characters all assemble in KEI for the last two-fifths of the book. It is also the first novel in the series to require familiarity with previous novels for full appreciation; those who have not read Sea of Shadow (the first novel) or seen its equivalent anime arc will have a difficult time fully understanding Yoko's situation, as references to events of the first novel do not go into sufficient detail for a newcomer. It also makes at least one reference to Sea of Wind (the second novel) which will not be understood by those not familiar with that book or its equivalent anime arc, although knowing that reference is less crucial. Perhaps most interestingly for fans of the anime, it is also the first novel to suggest details which go beyond the scope of the anime series, as there is one reference to the situation in Tai which hints at why certain events described in the anime, which go beyond the scope of the second novel, may have happened. But that is a matter for a future novel.
This novel, which was originally released in two volumes in Japan during 1994, was the source material for the anime version's third story arc, which covered episodes 24-39, although a few of the details in the novel came up in the interlude episodes or the first story arc. (The wrap-up piece seen in episode 40 was apparently an original work.) Those who have seen the anime version will find that it follows the novel closely in most places – except, of course, for the bits involving Asano, who incorporates into his character some roles played by others in the novel. The anime did take some liberties with the setting and circumstances of some late scenes in Takuho, does add in a few extra scenes here and there to flesh things out better, and corrects one of the biggest flaws in the novel version by filling in a scene which feels like it is missing, but the only change of consequence is the nature of Shoukou, who has a decidedly different demeanor in the anime version even though he is credited with exactly the same actions. Those who have seen the anime version will likely be disappointed with the novel version. While the novel has the edge in clarifying various naming conventions, the anime version, thanks to its extra scenes, does a better job of justifying Yoko's crowning First Edict and paces itself a little better in the later stages.
And that brings up the flaws in Ono's writing this time. After spending most of the novel establishing the characters and gradually bringing them together, the climactic rebellion and its resolution, which covers the last 120 pages, feels a little rushed and underdeveloped by comparison, and the missing scene leading into it (the one which comes at the end of episode 35 in the anime) is a glaring omission which starts the problem even though, technically speaking, the story can make do without it. In previous novels Ono's writing was the equal or superior of the anime in scene descriptions and characterizations, but here the anime often trumps the original writing. The lack of extra set-up for Yoko's First Edict/Proclamation makes it feel almost more like an afterthought than something that the entire series to date was building towards (as it was in the anime) and causes it to lose the transformational “changing the soul of a kingdom” quality emphasized in the anime. (The book can, perhaps, be partly excused for that since the scene in question is one of the all-time great anime moments, but the book's final words are still not as satisfying as they could be.) The anime also handles the early assassination plot against Yoko better, too. At least the book does not have the Asano distraction, though, and it does more clearly point out two details which are shown in the anime but are easy to miss because of lack of emphasis: the fact that Yoko dresses very differently in court after the rebellion and why that is so important.
The strengths of Ono's writing are the same as always: a wonderfully-developed setting rich in intricacy and detail, an obsession with naming conventions nearly the equal of Tolkein, and well-shaped, thoroughly-examined lead characters that a reader can easily understand and relate to. As with past books, each of the heroines here must confront and overcome personal flaws in order to become worthy people: Shoukei must deal with her sense of entitlement and failure to actually learn anything in her time at court, Suzu must overcome her propensity to prioritize feeling sorry for herself, and Yoko must learn how to get on top of things as a ruler. Ono handles the tricky business of rotating between her heroines' stories and gradually pulling them together with great aplomb, creating such an involving page-turner that a reader can easily burn through a couple hundred pages in one sitting without realizing it. Brief return appearances by the King of En and Enki, and a much more involved appearance by Rakashun, only contribute to the appeal. One might complain that Shoukei does not get treated completely fairly, as she ends up having to accept guilt for something that she was not really in a position to affect or control, but it is tolerable because it is a necessary set-up for her character growth.
Sadly, the production of the novel does not equal the quality of the story. Tokyopop's manga-size hardback release, as with the last three novels, comes with an attractive slipcover (albeit one which gives Shoukei a weird shade of blue for her hair) and a brief bio blurb on the back flap. The general physical condition is perfectly fine, but the content quality is not. The provided maps not only continue to underwhelm with their lack of artistic merit but the blow-up map for KEI also does not correspond well at all to the descriptions of the provinces in the novel. Unlike with previous novels, the text here is rife with errors. One place where katakana characters are apparently intended to be shown for a name instead has default symbols and a major formatting gaffe, while several other places show incorrect word choice, word omissions, and other typos. The text's use of hyphens is also frequently questionable. These may not be pervasive problems, but they happen much too often (perhaps a dozen times in all?) for this to be considered a properly professional job. Still, Tokyopop has to be praised for continuing to release this series, but hopefully they will have their act better together next time.
Despite some flaws, no one who has read the previous novels, or watched the anime, is likely to be disappointed overall by this release. It features everything that has made the series great so far and continues to be involving and entertaining. It also marks a significant moment for fans of the anime, as this represents the last of the source material adapted into anime form. After this, the series heads into entirely new territory for American readers.
Overall : B+
Story : A-
Art : B
+ Skillfully balances three protagonists, wealth of setting detail, characterizations.
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