I often get annoyed at works of fiction in any medium that feature an almost exclusively male cast. Where are the women? Girls? Who is producing all the men in this strange world? They baffle me, these worlds without women. As I’ve said before, there are only two situations in which I will accept a startling lack of women: boys’ boarding schools and men’s prisons. These are places where the population necessarily lists male-heavy. Any other setting in a world of human beings better have some women who say something and are part of the action in a significant way or I am walking away.
But I have at last discovered a third world in which a mostly male cast is entirely acceptable: Heian-style segregated imperial court. After the first volume of the Yatagarasu series Karasu ni Hitoe wa Niawanai, which was pretty much all ladies all the time, Karasu wa Aruji wo Erabanai presents the men’s side of the story. And not in a #NotAllMen kind of way. Abe simply rewinds time in a way, bringing her readers back to the beginning of Hitoe and retelling the story of that entire time period from the perspective of the men involved in the story. And since the court in this world (and in the flowery bygone days of a long-ago Japan) is mostly segregated by gender, the story of the men mostly involves men, much like the story of the women mostly involved women.
At last we can learn why the crown prince seems like such a dick! And the truth behind more than one incident in Hitoe! (I was particularly pleased to see the beloved of one of the princess make an appearance in Aruji. I want their love to be forever!) (Yes, this series has completely won me over and I look forward to breathlessly recounting the thrills and chills of each book as I finish them.) Once again, however, this volume is less fantasy and more murder mystery, although the stakes are higher this time given that the intended victim is the future emperor himself. Imperial intrigue ahead!
Our tutorial character this time is the second son of a provincial lord, Yukiya. Beloved but generally considered incompetent and lazy, he is content to spend the rest of his life fucking up in minor ways in his northern home, but a chance encounter with Natsuka, the former crown prince and eldest son of the emperor, leads to him serving at court under the current crown prince. He very much does not want this new life far from home and away from the land he loves, but his father threatens him with military school if he doesn’t go, and so Yukiya reluctantly leaves to serve the next Kin’u, the title for the crow-person who rules over everyone in Yamauchi, the crow-people land in the mountains. But of course, he comes face to face with much controversy and conspiracy because this is court, and if I’ve learned anything from the many books I’ve consumed over the years, court is a terrible, backstabbing place and to step into that narrow, stifled world is to ask for death or worse.
The controversy here is that a large portion of the court doesn’t believe that the crown prince should be the crown prince, given that he is the second son of the emperor and of a concubine to boot. So there is much scheming and intrigue to try and remove him from his position. The would-be emperor naturally trusts no one, and it’s this situation Yukiya walks right into. It’s another three hundred and sixty-some pages of court drama, and just like the first three hundred and however many pages, I am one hundred percent here for it.
Abe has such a clear vision for this world she’s creating and pulls it out of her head so skillfully that I was even more easily sucked in than with the first volume. After just a few words, I could see the palaces built into the mountains of this stony world in my mind, hear the soft rustle of kimono sweeping along those marble floors. The men in this crow-people world are a little freer than the women, so we get to see a larger slice of it, the seedier side with all the usual vices. I’m really in love with the way Abe gradually opens up our view of Yamauchi. In the first volume, she shows us the Sakura palace and the women’s court and pretty much nothing else. In this volume, we get to see the political machinations behind all of that and the pleasure quarters. I hope that she takes us further afield in the next volumes, out into the domains of the four directional houses to build an even more complete and immersive world. (You know I am already reading the third volume and pretty satisfied with where it’s going.)
In the end, I am struck again by how novel and original this thing Abe has created is. A fantasy series based not on the usual Tolkien-style mythology of elves and all that, but an entirely Japanese fantasy derived from Japanese history and culture. If you’ve ever studied the history of this country (or of kimono!), you will find much to nod your head knowingly at. But for all that Abe borrows from history, her story is still very much its own thing. I’m excited to follow her where she takes me, but I’m already sad that the end of this story exists, despite the fact that it is still four volumes away. It’s just that good.