Book review: 片羽の蝶 (One-winged butterfly)

With the end of the year approaching and my manga goal close to doubled, I decided on a whim to throw myself into the next 鬼滅の刃 spinoff novel and finish it up over the next few weeks. My initial plan was to read a certain number of pages per day and finish just in time, but I happened to notice that there were only six chapters, the goal suddenly became “one chapter per day”. It seemed like an insane pace at first but I actually managed it, bringing my new record to six days; a big improvement over my previous record (11 days) and more than twice as fast as the previous book in this series (14).

Unfortunately, I didn’t really find that 片羽の蝶 lived up to my expectations based on しあわせの花. It had its moments — the chapter about Mitsuri did a good job of capturing her character and relationship with Iguro — but most of the stories were basically just fluff. Even the first (titular) chapter, which features Shinobu and Kanae as children immediately after the events which lead them to join the slayer corps, does practically nothing in terms of fleshing out characters or events, which is terribly disappointing since I would love to hear more about Kanae (and since she obviously won’t show up in the main series, there’s no chance of stepping on the main author’s toes).

I enjoyed this book but probably wouldn’t go out of my way to recommend it. With the main manga series now fully complete, hopefully any further spinoff material will be a little less restrictive.

Book review: 秋の牢獄 (Autumn Prison)

Immediately after finishing 本好きの下剋上 vol. 1, I decided to blaze through another book before the bookclub moved on to vol. 2. 秋の牢獄 is another book by 恒川光太郎, the author of 夜市, and I bought both books at the same time (along with one more, 雷の季節の終わりに) without any knowledge about it beyond the fact that I was really enjoying the writing style. Originally I planned to finish it in two weeks (about 10 pages per day), but it ended up taking me just 11 days, which beats out しあわせの花 as my fastest book so far. I feel like I could have finished it in just a week if I had hustled a little more; the first story (72 pages) took me just three days.

As with 夜市, only the first story in the book is actually called 秋の牢獄, and this first story was my favorite of the three by far (while the others were good, they’re also not as straightforward to summarize so I’ll only be covering this first one). It follows a woman who wakes up one day to discover that it’s November 7th for the second day in a row. Everything that happened yesterday is happening again today, from the weather to the classes at her school to small talk at lunch. Day after day, November the 7th never ends; no matter what she does, everything resets at midnight and she wakes up in her bed at home the next (the same?) morning. It’s not long before the repetition starts to take its toll, but just when it’s becoming too much to bear, she discovers she’s not alone — there are other “replayers” just like herself, some of whom have been stuck in November 7th for hundreds of loops.

Some of the Replayers take full advantage of their effective immortality, since everything (including death and injury) are rolled back at the end of the day. Of course, it’s not all fun and games; in one sobering example, one of the other Replayers wakes up every morning to the sound of his wife getting ready for work, knowing full well that today is the day she intends to cheat on him — over and over again. Interpersonal conflict among the Replayers is briefly touched on and the implications are equally uncomfortable — since it’s impossible to move house, you would do well to avoid making an enemy who would then be able to repeatedly target you day after day.

As if all that isn’t bad enough, this world is also home to a mysterious and terrifying entity known among the Replayers as “the Lord of the North Wind”. Nobody knows who or what it is — some believe it to be a hungry predator that traps people in the loop until the time comes for them to be harvested; others say it’s a benevolent deity who will free you from the loop. The only thing anyone knows for sure is that once you’ve seen it, it won’t be long before you quietly disappear.

The sense of unease, despair, and eventual acceptance throughout the story is incredibly effective. I’ve really come to enjoy this author’s work and I’m excited to read 雷の季節の終わりに, which will be an interesting change of pace as it dedicates a full book to one story. As with Night Market, Autumn Prison is not available in English but I would heartily recommend it to anyone who can read Japanese.

Book review: 本好きの下剋上 vol. 1 (Ascendance of a Bookworm)

This review is rather overdue; I finished reading this book a couple of weeks ago. As of today I’m moving on to the next volume, again with the WaniKani bookclub, with the goal of finishing it just before the end of the year.

本好き is my first foray into the genre of 異世界 fiction; specifically the “reincarnation” subgenre. The hallmark of this kind of story is that our hero (typically a sad loner with no apparent future) meets an untimely death at the very beginning, and is then reborn into a new world (medieval fantasy settings seem to be the norm) with all his memories intact, and usually with some unbalanced magical power to boot. It’s a very popular concept, but one which has never much appealed to me due to the power fantasy trappings that seem to be endemic.

本好き is a bit different. For one, the main character (literally named “Main”, though the official English translation renders her name as “Mayne”; rhymes with “mine”), a book lover who had recently graduated from college with a degree in library science, actually seemed to have a pretty good life ahead of her before she was tragically crushed to death by a falling bookshelf. Things only get worse and worse from the moment she opens her eyes in her new home; she finds herself as a sickly little girl in a poor family, with not a single book in the house to help her while away the hours in bed. It’s not long before we find out that it’s not just her family; this is a world where being able to write your own name is remarkable, and where a single sheet of parchment is worth a month’s salary. Books will be hard to come by.

Though ostensibly the goal of the series is for Mayne to become a librarian against all odds, it’s a long climb to the top. Her goal throughout the whole first book is to come up with some way of writing, whether that be a pseudo-papyrus made of grass or clay tablets, but each new attempt comes with unforeseen challenges. Interleaved with the bookmaking are smaller, more achievable goals like figuring out how to make shampoo in a dirty, hard-fantasy world, or trying to adapt local ingredients to suit her Japanese tastes. Throughout it all, the narration is delightful and full of character.

At the time of writing there are 25 books in the series, with a new one coming out about every three months, so who knows when I’ll ever actually catch up (especially at bookclub pace). I do intend to continue for a while though. The recent anime adaptation apparently covers the first three volumes, so if any of this sounds interesting, be sure to check it out!

Book review: 狼と香辛料 (Spice and Wolf)

Emboldened by the success of my first fast-paced reading challenge, I reached for my stack of unread Japanese books and picked one that I’d been thinking about for a while; Spice and Wolf, which I had randomly inherited from a friend long before my reading was remotely up to scratch.

My original plan was to read 15 pages per day (a one-page increase over my average pace from last time) and finish it in three weeks, but after the first week it was apparent that this was going to be completely unsustainable and re-targeted to a four-week pace, bringing me to an even 10 pages per day. Even this would prove to be a challenge, though I did manage to finish it one day early.

To briefly summarize the broad concept: whereas some fantasy authors set out to create a world in which to play out their unique ideas for a magic system or to explore a web of political intrigue, Isuna Hasekura has decided to spin a story all about the dirty details of being a merchant. Rather than an encroaching dragon, the driving tension comes from the possibility of taking advantage of a currency speculation scheme that turns out to have some very powerful actors working behind the scenes. I really do have to give him credit; “fantasy economics” isn’t a genre I would have ever thought of, but there’s no reason it shouldn’t work. The political tension between neighboring kingdoms, the risk of dealing with multiple merchant guilds, the potential for worldbuilding with regards to supply and demand across different regions; there’s potential here to tell an endless number of deep, interconnected stories (and considering that there are now 20 books in the novel series alone, it seems that’s exactly what he’s done).

Where it all falls apart is…I just have no interest in what is very clearly the entire point of the book.

The two main characters, Laurence (a traveling merchant) and Holo (an ancient goddess of harvest known as the Wise Wolf) are well written and have good chemistry. Holo in particular is delightful with her old-timey speech style and penchant for mischief. Their scenes together are highly enjoyable, but they’re interspersed with what I can only describe as excerpts from a fictitious textbook on medieval trade theory. It’s quite possible that I wouldn’t have been bothered by this if my Japanese reading ability was higher, but as I am right now, it just felt like a series of speedbumps that got in the way of my enjoyment of the story.

Spice and Wolf is…not a book for me. I can understand what makes it tick, and I can even appreciate what the author has managed to do, but quite frankly there were not a few moments where reading this book made me want to die. What I can say for certain is that I now understand why some of my favorite series — the ones that describe the process of cooking in great detail and go into depth about the nuances between certain ingredients — fall so flat for other people. If you’re not interested in cooking, you probably won’t enjoy a book written by someone who loves it — and I have absolutely no interest in economics.

Book review: しあわせの花 (Flower of Happiness)

My third Japanese novel this year comes to a close in much shorter order than my other two. Upon finishing Night Market, it suddenly occurred to me: “I’ve been reading each week’s quota of ten-or-so pages in one sitting — why not keep up that pace for the whole week instead of just for a single day?”

And so, I cracked open Flower of Happiness, which is a light-novel spinoff of the manga series 鬼滅の刃 (aka Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba). My original goal was to read 8 pages per day and finish it by the end of the month, but I ended up getting swept along and ended up reading about 14 pages per day, which allowed me to finish it in just two weeks. This is obviously the fastest I’ve read a Japanese novel and I’m excited by the prospect of keeping on this track.

To be honest, I didn’t know anything about this book at all when I bought it — I essentially bought it on a whim after I caught up to the KNY manga and was itching for more content in the same universe (though it would be some time until I actually got around to it). As it turns out, it’s not one full story at all, but rather five short vignettes depicting various characters from the main series.

The first chapter, which shares its name with the book, is set during the time that Tanjiro, Inosuke, and Zenitsu are recovering from their battle in the tsuzumi manor. Upon being invited to attend a wedding in the local town, Tanjiro finds himself wondering whether Nezuko will ever be able to become a bride herself — just in time to hear two girls talking about a rare flower that is said to bring happiness to any woman who carries it…

The second chapter, For Whom, follows Zenitsu on one of his ill-fated attempts to escape from his slayer training. Unfortunately, on his way down the mountain he runs into his greatest weakness — a lady in distress; promised to a demon in order to save her cowardly stepfather’s skin. Zenitsu can be pretty insufferable when it comes to women (and this is definitely the case later in the book), but this story shows him at his best. He seems genuinely concerned about this girl, and considering how terrified he is of demons (not to mention how eager he is to continue with his escape), you can tell it takes a lot of courage for him to help her out.

Next up, The Trouble with Fortunetelling was definitely the most entertaining story of them all, but unfortunately also the most annoying. Set after the events of the Infinity Train arc, Zenitsu is accosted by a fortune teller at a crossroads and told “stay away from women for the rest of the day, if you value your life”. He then spends the rest of the chapter in hysterics, which is somewhat disappointing considering how well he had been written immediately prior. There are some great moments here though — Inosuke picking up a menu at a cafe and immediately exclaiming “I can’t read!” (followed by Tanjiro’s futile attempts at teaching him some letters) had me laughing out loud.

Aoi and Kanao is a great little expansion on the two titular characters, and it’s too bad that more people won’t read it. While Kanao sees significant character growth throughout the manga due to Tanjiro’s positive influence, Aoi feels somewhat neglected despite being set up as an interesting character at the end of the rehabilitation arc. This story gives her a little extra time in the spotlight and serves to flesh her out between manga chapters.

Finally, Kimetsu Academy Stories is a goofy re-imagining of the setting as a typical middle/high school. If you’ve seen the anime, you may recognize this concept from the shorts at the end of some episodes. As might be expected, nothing of importance happens here at all, it’s just a chance to have some fun with the characters. It got a few laughs (my favorite bit was Yujiro pretending to be sick every day so he could see Nurse Tamayo), but this was definitely the weakest one for me.

Overall, despite the fact that it doesn’t add a lot to the story of KNY at large, I liked this book quite a bit. The writer’s style is enjoyable and she did a great job of capturing the characters. I rarely read afterwords but I decided to read this one and it seems like she really likes KNY and was super excited to write a novelization, which was cute and heartwarming. I already have one of the other books (片羽の蝶, One Winged Butterfly) and I’ll be looking forward to reading that as well.

Book review: 夜市 (Night Market)

I’ve recently finished reading Night Market as part of the WaniKani book club and wanted to write up some thoughts. This was my second-ever completed Japanese novel (the first being Hyouka, which I didn’t care for too much despite having very much enjoyed the anime adaptation) and we read through it at a pretty leisurely pace; just about exactly three months for a short 200-page book.

In retrospect, Night Market would have been the perfect introduction to the world of Japanese prose. Compared to Hyouka, which seemed to revel in its vagueness and non-committal narration style, the writing here is snappy and straightforward. Some of the sentences feel even a bit too easy, like they were plucked from the pages of a textbook. While I think it’s still broadly true that novels are more difficult to read than manga, comparing Night Market to Hyouka is enough to show that the difficulty is still a spectrum.

There are two short stories in this book, of which only one actually focuses on the titular market — a setting which, counter to my expectations, has nothing to do with bright lights and street food vendors. When the Night Market opens, those who visit will find themselves unable to leave without making a purchase — and anything, from weapons, to talents, to years of life, can be bought and sold here.

The second story, “The Old Wind Road”, was where the book really took off for me. It follows a nameless boy who is separated from his parents in the park and ends up stumbling into another world for an afternoon. This “old road” has entrances and exits here and there across our own world, but they open and close according to their own rules — and when the boy decides to revisit it years later, he discovers that the exit he had planned to use is only open while the cherry blossoms are in bloom.

The worldbuilding in this second story is fantastic. The Old Road is home to all kinds of strange creatures and spirits, and most of it is unmapped and shrouded in mystery. Even so, there are other humans here too; some simply passing through, others eking out a living by providing services to those brave or foolish enough to venture in. You get a real feeling of the scope of this world, its denizens, and the possibilities for what else might be out there, but the details are left intriguingly vague.

The conflict in both stories is simple yet compelling — you’ve found yourself in a dangerous world that plays by rules you don’t understand, and you can’t leave. In each case, there’s a great tension between wanting to leave as quickly as possible, and the knowledge that the only way to get out is to push deeper and learn more about what you’ve gotten yourself into. It works really well and kept me engaged throughout the entire book.

When I realized that Night Market was published by Kadokawa’s horror imprint, I was expecting something…a bit more grotesque than what I actually got. I’m actually happy about the reversal though. It reminded me of the kind of lingering existential dread you get by watching the Twilight Zone…rather than trying to shock or horrify, it aims for a sense of unease that sticks with you after you finish the story.

Night Market has no English translation, and considering it was published in 2005, I wouldn’t hold my breath. As I always say, the best time to start learning Japanese is three years ago — the second best time is right now.