by Theron Martin,

Twelve Kingdoms

novel 1

Twelve Kingdoms: Sea of Shadow
High-school student Yoko Nakajima was ever the good girl: class president, reliable student, and never misbehaved, although her naturally red hair often caused her problems. Deep down, though, she was haunted by frightening dreams and so terribly insecure that pleasing others, and getting people to like her, became her primary motivation. Her priorities change immensely when a strange gold-haired man named Keiki shows up at her school one day, pledges his loyalty, gives her a magic sword he said was hers, and delivers her into a situation where she is not only forced to fight monsters but is ultimately drawn to another world. There she finds herself changing in inexplicable ways as she struggles to survive a hostile environment where both men and beasts alike seem specifically out to get her, for reasons she is unable to fathom. And what has happened to Keiki, who promised to protect her?

The surge of anime-related novel releases in North America since 2005 made it inevitable that one of fandom's most-requested prizes – the series of novels on which the Twelve Kingdoms anime was based – would finally see a North American release. That day has finally come, and fans of the anime should be quite pleased. Despite some different details, the novel is everything fans could have anticipated and more. It is also the ideal gateway into the world of Twelve Kingdoms for newcomers to the franchise.

Unlike virtually every previous anime-related import, this novel is, physically, a very substantial work. Its 459 page count more than doubles the length of other releases, and while it retains the approximate dimensions of the earlier manga-sized novels, it is the first to be released in hardcover. It is also the first (to this reviewer's knowledge) to be released as a regular book instead of a “manga” title; in fact, you will probably have to look in the Young Adult section of your local bookstore to find it. The sharp sleeve art, which features a defensively-postured Yoko with her brilliant red hair and silvered sword shining out from a textured blue color scheme, is certainly eye-catching, and everything about the production and positioning suggests that Tokyopop is actually trying to market the book as a regular novel intended for general audiences and not just a work aimed at anime fans. Hopefully that approach will succeed and get word to spread, as author Fuyumi Ono's work is certainly worthy of the attention.

The story follows the same course of events as the opening “Shadow of the Moon, the Sea of Shadow” story arc for the anime version, so fans of the anime will have few surprises. The biggest difference is that, in the novel, Yoko comes to the land of Twelve Kingdoms alone. Classmate Asano is exclusive to the anime, and Sugimoto, who has such a major role in the anime, has only a brief and very minor presence in the novel. (Her anime role encompasses some of Yoko's internal dialogue and actions played out by others in the novel, as well as causing some of the business with King Kou to play out a bit differently.) Also completely absent are the traveling troupe of entertainers Yoko falls in with for a while in the anime and one prominent battle scene on the seas. Because the novel focuses exclusively on Yoko, it also doesn't have some of the side scenes the anime does, such as the ones showing what happens to Keiki or the explanations of the backgrounds of Enki and the King of En. It does, however, have considerably more graphic content and places greater emphasis on the hardships Yoko endures in the wilderness.

None of that will matter to someone who hasn't seen the anime, though. What truly matters is the quality of the writing, and in that regard Ono-san shows impressive skill. Her writing is sufficiently descriptive without being flowery, smoothly works in details about the setting as Yoko discovers them, handles Yoko's internal dialogues quite well, and moves the story along at a steady clip. Perhaps most importantly, it spins an involving yarn about a heroine who has to undergo an awful lot of character growth, and quickly, just to survive. She comes into the picture obviously and intensely flawed, yet watching her endure her many trials and grow into herself is just as fascinating as discovering the details of the intricate world laid out in the novel. And while clearly aimed at a teenage audience, the writing never feels like it's talking down to its readers; any adult could read this without feeling uncomfortable. Other anime-related novels released to date may have had stories and settings just as engrossing and compelling, but none of them can match this one on caliber of writing. It is the most complete effort to yet cross the Pacific.

Tokyopop's production merits are the equal of the writing. The novel translates some names and references that are left untranslated in the anime version, but it is also entirely free of the niggling little typos that have frequented other recent anime-related novels. Notably, all of the bits about how names are written with Chinese characters have been retained, and Rakashun has more of a country accent evident here than in the anime. The pages are of heavy stock, and the cover and binding well-made. The book includes no extras beyond a blurb about the writer and a summarizing bit of prose at the end, but illustrations are scattered throughout. A crude map of the layout of the Twelve Kingdoms can be found at the beginning, one whose lack of elegance may pain those used to the wonderfully-drawn maps seen in the anime. If the novel lacks anything, it's blow-up maps of the Kingdoms of Kou and En, where nearly all of the story takes place.

Though it may seem at first glance to be just another story about a person from the Real World being spirited away into a fantasy realm where they are Someone Special, quality writing allows Sea of Shadows to make a great step beyond the mold. The greater length and hardback printing result in a $16.99 MSRP, but even at that price you will get your money's worth.

Production Info:
Overall : A
Story : A
Art : B-

+ Rich and detailed setting, interesting heroine, excellent writing.
Lackluster and/or absent maps.

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