Unable to noodle around in bookstores in Tokyo this summer, I have been noodling more in (online) bookstores in Toronto. But the indies closest to me, and hence the indies I can walk over to and pick up my books from (because why waste time and money on the post?), are pretty focussed in their missions. There’s Glad Day, a celebration of all writing queer and makers of delicious beignets; The Beguiling and its babies, Page & Panel and Little Island, serving all your comics needs; and Bakka Phoenix, your one-stop-shop for everything SFF. So because of the latter, I’ve been reading a lot more speculative fiction in English these days, which weirdly got me wanting to read some speculative fiction in Japanese. Does my brain simply need balance in the two languages? Who can say! Brains are weird.
Fortunately, I’ve had a little treat waiting for my attention in the bookcase of unread books ever since it came out last year. I enjoyed Ueda Sayuri’s last collection of short stories so much that when she released a new novel, I snatched it up. (Back when I was still allowed into Japan and could still hang out in my favourite bookstore…) The obi on Lilas to Senka no Kaze promised me this was a standalone novel, unlike her imposing and daunting Ocean Chronicle series. And no hard sci-fi here! This one’s a historical fantasy, set in World War I, so I figured it wouldn’t be full of made-up words to trip me up and make me doubt my linguistic abilities. It is, however, nearly five hundred pages long, and thus it’s been sitting on my shelf since I bought it because that is a real time commitment, and I am always having to read something else for work.
But! This volume’s time had come at last! I was ready to commit myself to five hundred pages of whatever combination of World War I and fantasy Ueda was there to bring to me! And it is…a weird combination? I don’t know what I was expecting, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t anything close to the story I ended up reading. By the time I closed the book, I felt like Ueda got obsessed with WWI at some point and just really wanted to talk about it in great detail for a long time. And the lengthy bibliography at the end certainly shows her passion for the subject and her pursuit of the truth at every turn in the book. Except for the monster part, of course.
Jörg is an unfortunate grunt in the German army, sent to the front in Champagne. In his old life, he was the son of the village barber, and he grew up assuming he would one day take over those scissors. And yet here he is in the trenches, the stench of death all around him, his feet rotting in his wet boots. He and his fellow soldiers had been told that the war would be over before the autumn leaves fell, but we all know that that’s not how it turned out. So he’s stuck on the frontlines, trying not to think about how he is actually murdering people and hang onto some semblance of humanity, when he sees a massive black something flying up above them right before he gets caught up in an explosion and slams into the ground, on the verge of death. And he feels a bit of relief. At last he’ll be able to leave this hell on earth.
But then a strange man in a stylish cloak yanks him up out of the mud, gives him the once over, and then says, finally, “Well, you’ll do” before pressing a finger to Jörg’s forehead, and Jörg passes out. He wakes up to the smell of coffee in what looks to him to be a sunny inn, far from the dank depths of the trenches. He meets the titular Lilas there, a Polish girl of eleven or twelve, and then the man who saved him, Count Gheorghe Silvestri, an immortal “monster” who bears more than a passing resemblance to a vampire, but is never referred to as such. The Count has learned a lot of magic in his long life and he wants to use some of it to split Jörg’s soul in two. Half of it stays in Jörg’s body out there on the battlefield, while the other half lives in an “empty body” in the inn (which turns out to be a hospital) to be Lilas’s personal bodyguard. The two Jörgs share their experiences via their dreams, but live separate lives from that point on, one in the world of magic and the other in the world of war.
The magic and the rules of the fantastical part of the world Ueda builds are weird and fascinating, and live right alongside the ultra-reality of the war. Like I said before, Ueda gets *really* into the war. She details the various fronts, the push-pull of the different armies there, the introduction of new technology (including a deep dive into the British tanks used for the first time in the Battle of the Somme), and goes over the lead-up to the war itself, starting from the unrest in Serbia and the assassination of Franz Ferdinand that set the whole thing in motion. As a Canadian, I learned the gist of WWI in school and through various media, so the bigger picture was familiar to me. But I still learned so much about the war reading this. Ueda is maybe too thorough in this aspect. Some sections of historical exposition read like a textbook, especially the by-blows of this or that battle, when I just wanted to find out what happened to the two Jörgs.
The tale of the Jörgs, though, and their influence on the war from their different spheres is utterly engaging, and Ueda’s obvious horror of war and the terrible things it does to the world and to us as people is a comforting throughline in the book. There is nothing dreamy about her portrayal of war. It is consistently hell from start to finish. And not just for the soldiers forced to become murderers, but also for the people back home, slowly starving to death, helpless waiting for their loved ones to return to them. And on both the fantastical and realistic sides of this story, socialism gets a big high-five. Above all else, Ueda puts people first, even when they might technically be monsters.