Reviewby Theron Martin,
The Twelve Kingdoms
Novel 3 - The Vast Spread of the Seas (Hardcover)
Two young boys – one in Hourai (i.e. Japan) and one in the Kingdom of En – are each abandoned by parents unable to support them in troubled times, and yet they both survive to lead ultimately convergent lives. One is Rokuta, eventually revealed to be the kirin of En, who must fulfill his divine responsibility to choose a king for his suffering nation despite misgivings that he is choosing the man who will destroy the kingdom. The other is Koya, who is raised by a demon beast and struggles to find a place in the world until he is found by the man who will become his master. They meet once in their early years and then again later on, when Rokuta, who laments the apparently idiotic and irresponsible king he chose, finds himself spirited away by Koya to the palace of Koya's master Atsuyu, a regent for the governor of Gen province. Concerned by the king's long inattention to a crucial flooding problem, Atsuyu has decided to take matters into his own hands, an approach Rokuta does not resist at first. As the kirin of En soon discovers, though, there is more to both Atsuyu and King Shoryu than initially meets the eye.
The Vast Spread of the Seas is the third of the landmark fantasy novel series on which the anime The Twelve Kingdoms was based, but instead of forming the anime's third story arc, its content is split between the first and fourth arcs. The origin stories of Rokuta and Naotaka/Shoryu are interspersed with the main storyline in this novel but appeared separately as a single chunk of flashback in episodes 11 and 12 of the anime, while the main story involving Atsuyu and the goings-on in Gen province closely equates to episodes 41-44 and most of 45, minus the framing device of Shoryu explaining the story to Yoko and Rakashun; in fact, the only other significant detail which varies is the disposition of the baby involved in Rokuta's kidnapping once Rokuta has been secured in Ganboku Palace. (Once you have seen both versions of the story, why they changed this for the anime version should be clear.)
Unlike the first two novels, which were as much exercises in world-building as actual storytelling, this one assumes that the reader already understands the basic mechanics of the world, and so only occasionally reviews crucial points while expanding on the political specifics that were only minor peripheral details in the first two novels. This one also splits its main focus between three pivotal characters (Rokuta, Koya, and Shoryu) rather than exclusively focusing on a single character. A few side characters even get feature moments, something which was quite rare in the first two novels.
A story broader in scope than those in the first two novels requires such a dispersion, but pulling back from the more intimate focus of the predecessors should not be taken as a sign that Fuyumi Ono's writing is discarding the intensive character studies that helped make her earlier efforts so involving. Instead it allows her to run a comparison/contrast between Rokuta and Koya. Both have similar origin stories, both came to master demons, and both wound up in the service of a powerful master. Whereas one serves only because it is his assigned role and regards his master as an irresponsible idiot, the other finds in his master exactly the kind of acceptance he has always wanted, and so serves faithfully and to a fault. One sees in his master a potential destroyer, the other a potential savior. One finds blood and violence anathema to the core of his being, the other is willing to take the initiative to commit even ugly acts in service to his lord.
Their masters are likewise studies in contrasts. Shoryu, as king, is so flaky that his staff also regards him as an idiot, while Atsuyu seems the consummate leader, the man perhaps better-suited to be king. Over the course of the story, though, the true colors of both gradually begin to show. Atsuyu, for all his propriety, does have the expected hidden dark side, while Shoryu gradually reveals himself to be far shrewder than most give him credit for.
These details remain consistent between the anime and novel versions of the story, but the slant each takes on events is a little different. In the anime version Shoryu is narrating, so the story takes a slant more in the direction of whether or not Shoryu was truly the most worthy man to be king. Having his backstory run parallel to the main story in the novel allows the story to focus more on the qualities that do make the former Naotaka worthy to be king despite his idiosyncrasies, and in the process gives both the scene where Rokuta offers him the kingdom, and the late scene where Shoryu defines his purpose for being a king, all the more power. Most who might find this approach a little weak at the outset should be more than satisfied with the way things come together in the end. At 294 pages this novel may have the shortest page count of the novels to date, but it tastes no less meaty for it.
Tokyopop has once again published this book under its Pop Fiction label, which means the book is as likely to be found in a Young Adult section of a bookstore as in the manga section. Unlike the previous two novels, the editorial standards have slipped a bit, allowing a few grammatical errors and typos to slip in. Its interior pages include occasional illustrations in the same style as the previous novels, including, unfortunately, the same plain-Jane map of the Twelve Kingdoms and an only slightly more elaborate detail map of En. The book sleeve fronts with a picture of Rokuta and offers a brief bio on the writer on its back flap.
For those who have not seen the anime version and are instead following the franchise via the novels, knowing that this story takes place about 470 years before Yoko's time is a crucial bit of missing information, an omission that is the novel's one significant flaw. It otherwise delivers an exceptionally well-written tale which stands equal to the first novel while taking a markedly different approach than either of the first two novels. If you have become a fan of any previously-released Twelve Kingdoms material, this one will not disappoint.
Overall : A-
Story : A-
Art : B-
+ Wonderful storytelling, vivid and involved setting.
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