Well, it’s been a wild ride, but we all knew that it had to come to an end. I mean, going into the Yatagarasu series, I was aware that there were only six books in it. This isn’t some light novel series that drags out its tale volume after volume until its translator prays for mercy. And I have at last finished all six of those books. I’d intended to keep writing about each volume as I finished it, but of course, work and life and travel and other books all got in the way of me actually sitting down to write, even as I kept reading. And now I’ve finished the last of the six books, Iyasaka no Karasu, and all my brain wants to do is the big overview, so here we are.
Let’s just get this out of the way now: publishers, please, please license this series and hire me to translate it into English. People will want to read these books! They are unlike anything I’ve ever read in the world of science fiction and fantasy, and we could all use some beautifully written fantasy based on Japanese mythology and culture. I’m so tired of orcs and elves! Let’s get some crows and monkeys on the SFF shelves!
So with that obligatory plea to publishers taken care of, it’s time for books! Abe continues to develop this world of hers for us in new and astounding ways. Kin no Karasu, the third book, introduces an outside threat to the world of the crow people, real conflict beyond the murderous courtly intrigues of the first two volumes. A mysterious drug pops up and it’s murdering crow people. In an effort to track the drug to its source, Nazukihiko, the crown prince and magical leader of the land of Yamauchi, travels to the northern homeland of Yukiya, the protagonist of the last book. He does this in disguise, however, so the only one who knows the true identity of this visitor from the capital is Yukiya, and he is furious. He doesn’t want to serve the prince; he just wants to live his quiet life in the north with his brothers and parents. But a crisis point is coming for Yamauchi, and that’s just not an option for Yukiya now.
In the course of the investigation, they stumble upon the existence of giant monkey people who have snuck into Yamauchi to eat people. The monkey people are eating the crow people!! And suddenly the land is thrown into an existential crisis. Where are the monkeys coming from?? And so Abe pushes this world outward, showing us that just as the name Yamauchi (“inside the mountain”) would indicate, there is also an outside of the mountain. And it is complicated and dangerous. These monkeys are far more powerful than the crows, and they can also take on the appearance of people, just like the crows, allowing them to move through the world of the crows unnoticed. Yukiya, Nazukihiko, and their allies manage to figure out where the crow-murdering drug is coming from and check the immediate threat of the monkeys, but they know now that their world is in a precarious position and they need to be ready for the next invasion.
So Yukiya vows his eternal service and devotion to the crown prince and heads to the military school his father originally threatened him with to find allies and build his own skills. After all, whatever might be happening outside of Yamauchi, there is still a faction in the land who are doing whatever they can behind the scenes to eliminate the crown prince and restore his older brother to that position. Don’t worry. Abe hasn’t abandoned the murderous political machinations in favour of the murderous monkeys. Book four, Kuukan no Karasu is set in that military school and almost entirely from the perspective of everyone but Yukiya. So we get to watch the protagonist of this volume learn and grow and maneuver and manipulate through the eyes of other boys who become his friends and comrades, with occasional jumps into the heads of the royal family. And yes, the monkeys make another appearance. They will stop at nothing to destroy the crows. It’s a whole thing.
Tamayorihime, the fifth volume, veers off in a very unexpected direction that really threw me for a loop when I started reading it. Because it starts in our world, and our hero is a 15-year-old girl travelling to stay with estranged relatives in the mountainous countryside. This is where things creep deep into spoiler territory, so I won’t ruin anything for you. But I will say that the way Abe weaves these disparate worlds together is masterful, and I never expected a story about Heian-style courtly crow people to also be a meditation on the very act of creation itself. There’s a lot to wrap your head around in this and the final volume, Iyasaka no Karasu.
Like the first two volumes, the last two are also different sides of the same story, a nice mirroring technique that makes the whole series feel complete in a very satisfying way. So while book five is set in our world with an actual human being as the protagonist, book six takes us back to the world of the crows to show us what was going on there during the events of book five. It’s a lot and contains some of the most gruesome moments of the entire series, but it is war, so I guess that’s to be expected. It’s also beautiful and powerful and so meaningful in ways that I never expected going into this series.
Abe picks up threads laid out in the first volume to tie into a neat knot in the final book, further adding to that sense of completeness when you put down Iyasaka. This is her first series—the first volume was her very first book—and yet it’s so incredibly well thought out, every detail accounted for, characters weaving their way in and out of the six books, growing and changing in the most natural ways so that they are both serving the plot and their own natural arcs. Abe manages many different voices and tones to match the scene at hand, lyrical when necessary, brusque when that’s the character’s voice. Telling a story with so many characters in so many POVs can be tricky, but she pulls it off magnificently. I can’t wait to read what she does next, and fortunately, that book is already on my shelf waiting for me to read it because I—a smart person—bought a signed copy of it when it first came out, even though I had only read the first book in this series at that point. It was already clear to me then that she was a fascinating new voice in Japanese fantasy.