Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) When eighteen-year-old Keiko Yamada’s father dies unexpectedly, he leaves behind a one way ticket to Japan, an unintelligible death poem about powerful Japanese spirits and their gigantic, beast-like Guardians, and the cryptic words: “Go to Japan in my place. Find the Gate. My camera will show you the way.”
Alone and afraid, Keiko travels to Tokyo, determined to fulfill her father’s dying wish. There, beneath glittering neon signs, her father’s death poem comes to life. Ancient spirits spring from the shadows. Chaos envelops the city, and as Keiko flees its burning streets, her guide, the beautiful Yui Akiko, makes a stunning confession–that she, Yui, is one of a handful of spirits left behind to defend the world against the most powerful among them: a once noble spirit now insane. Keiko must decide if she will honor her father’s heritage and take her rightful place among the gods.
Thoughts: I wanted to like this book. I wanted to like it a lot. I’m a bit of a Japanophile, and so when I encounter speculative fiction with a Japanese bent, I usually am more than willing to give it a try. It seemed like it was going to be really interesting, based on the synopsis.
I didn’t like this book. In the end, it was a mess of problems, and it was a major struggle to keep going.
The first problem I had with it was the most obvious once you start getting into the meat of the story: the gratuitous Japanese. Let me clarify that. The gratuitous bad Japanese. Technically grammatically correct, if you only ever use a single verb tense and don’t know much about when certain terms or phrases are used. The constant use of “so desu” and “honto desu” and everything desu made it sound as though every character speaking Japanese was doing so after having spent half a semester in an elementary Japanese class and had never heard a Japanese person actually speak. And when these characters are supposed to be native speakers of the language, it’s just cringe-inducing.
There was also no point to it. These characters expressed time and again that they were perfectly capable of speaking fluent English, which was the protagonist’s native language. They just interjected random Japanese in their sentences. Not in places where it’s culturally appropriate, or where there’s a term that doesn’t translate very well. Just put there as flavour, as though to constantly remind the reader that these people are still Japanese. It wasn’t even done very well as a contextual or educational thing. Sometimes you’d get lines like, “Wakarimasu. Let’s go,” where most people who don’t know much about the Japanese language would assume that wakarimasu means “let’s go.” It doesn’t. It means, “I understand.” No context. And then you get lines like Yui’s, “So desu, oni. Ikimasho!” No translation. Nothing close to context. It’s said right before two people fight, so maybe you can assume that it might have something to do with that, but unless you already know a decent amount of Japanese or are willing to keep a dictionary on hand (or just don’t care about translating anything at all), you have no clue what was actually said. (It’s something akin to, “It is so, devil. Let’s go!” Which only half makes sense in the context of the scene.)
Now let’s talk about the concept of names. Two characters made me think that the author was either playing with some weirdness without making it very clear, or else doesn’t know that surnames and given names aren’t just interchangeable. Yui Akiko. I winced when I first saw the name, given that both are given names, but about 30 seconds on Google taught me that Akiko can actually be a surname, albeit a fairly uncommon one. Then there’s Matsuda Yamanaka. Both surnames. Matsuda is supposed to be the character’s given name. That made me wonder if I was actually giving the author too much credit when it came to the use of Akiko as a surname.
Takeshi, the patriarch of a semi-divine family, was hit or miss when it came to names, too. Takeshi can be a surname, though I’m far more familiar with its use as a given name, which gave the unsettling and somewhat giggle-worthy impressing that every time the protagonist said, “Mr. Takeshi,” it was the equivalent of me addressing my roommate’s father as, “Mr. Bob.”
As for the writing, I can’t say it was bad, exactly. It was all right, it held some potential, but it was largely unpolished, unrefined. The pacing was far from smooth. At times it was unclear whether I was reading something occurring in the present or as a flashback until about 3 pages into the scene. The quality of the imagery in the book was sporadic, ranging from a very clear picture of what was going on, to a jumble of images that could be either chaotic or else so removed and distant that at times I wasn’t even sure what was going on. Call me crazy, but I would think that while the entire city of Tokyo is literally burning, it would warrant a little more than a single passing sentence, seeing as how the characters in question were trying to escape from it at the time.
This wasn’t a book I would read again. This wasn’t a book I enjoyed reading even once. It was an interesting concept with very poor execution, and the only thing I can really say that I’m glad of is that I’m finished reading it. It was a true struggle for me to want to continue with, and I think it was only my stubborn determination not to leave a book unfinished that kept me going. I wouldn’t recommend this book, even to those with an interest in Japanese culture. Actually, make that especially with an interest in Japanese culture, because you’re not actually going to see any here. You’re going to see bad language-use, poor understanding of how many things work, and maybe some of the action scenes could be enjoyable, if you can wrap your head properly around what’s going on due to the fuzzy imagery. Give this book a miss; it really isn’t worth it.
(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)