I actually started reading this series years ago. I got through book one and realized that for some reason, I did not have book three even though books two and four were sitting on my shelf. I knew when I started this saga, Takemiya’s first real long-form work, that it was complete in four volumes and so I intended to purchase all four volumes and read the whole thing at once. And yet? Volume three was not there. Did I lose it? Did I somehow overlook that three comes between two and four? Who can say! All I know is that upon discovering the lack of a volume three, I decided to shelve the series until I could read it in its entirety.
But oddly, volume three turned out to be impossible to obtain. No bookstore I frequented had it on its shelf; my favourite online retailer continually listed it as unavailable. I feared that I would never find out what happened to prince-turned-slave Sariokis (I don’t know how to spell any of these ridiculous katakana names). And then a couple months ago, volume three was suddenly available once more. So I clicked on that order button and had it sent to my home away from Tokyo. Now, the tale can be told.
And the tale is wild! I have come to expect drama and rollercoasters from Takemiya, but she really delivers in this series. In the first half of the first book alone, a kingdom is burned to the ground; a princess floats down the river to become a citizen of an enemy kingdom; a prince is taken as a slave, flogged, incites an uprising among his fellow slaves, and is beaten to death by a terrifyingly large man. Also, there is an evil, sadistic young king who for some reason noodles about his kingdom randomly whipping and branding people. Plus the princess betrothed to this cruel king is warm and kind-hearted, making his treatment of her all the more cruel.
Since this is a shojo series, we all know how this is going to end. The only question is how Takemiya gets us to that happy ending. The answer is with a lot of bloodshed. And nonsensical political shenanigans. And a cult religion. You didn’t expect her to not continually up the stakes, did you? This is classic shojo. Of course, there is a desert cult.
So Sariokis is the second son of the royal family of Esteria, a small Egyptian nation that is invaded by the larger, more ruthless Uljina. The place is burned to the ground and Sariokis just barely makes it out with his life, after tossing his younger sister Nilekia into the Nile in attempt to keep her safe from the soldiers trying to cut them down. He is rounded up into a group of survivors taken to Uljina to be slaves and forced to work on the future grave of that evil young king, Snefel. But of course, he never loses his pride or his natural regal bearing, which gets him into a whole lot of trouble. He is determined, however, to have his revenge on the king who took everything from him. And here is where the twists begin!
I won’t spoil anything for you because part of the fun here is gasping aloud at the audacious twists and turns. Takemiya is in fine form, ramping up the drama at every opportunity with her beautiful youthful kings. There is a whole lot of the world turning itself inside out to express the many emotions of the many characters, something I really love about classic shojo that we don’t see enough of these days. I want artists to really lean into that artificiality and have horses writhing in agony to depict the inner anguish of the characters.
Takemiya peppers the story with narrative bits from the Esteria records, so even as we read, she’s telling us that this story is already finished and done, its outcome set. We are merely watching the chain of events unfold. And given the desert cult, this predestination feels very appropriate. Obviously, the hero will win out. It’s only a matter of how, and that is what the sagas are there to tell us.
I love this less than other Takemiya works, however, because wow, do people ever make stupid decisions in this one. Like “allowing an enemy army within the walls of your city for negotiations” stupid. Or repeatedly agreeing to be alone with someone who has tried to kill you every time you have been in each other’s presence. I can overlook a lot for the sake of a story, but there were a lot of things in this one that completely yanked me out of the story. The series really falls off the rails in the long-sought volume three. Sariokis has insisted on peace and not killing as a way forward, but then he just casually cuts a whole bunch of people down without so much as a second thought. It’s a serious divergence from the character Takemiya has been building since the first book and it’s very jarring to read.
There is a hostage situation that makes absolutely no sense, ostensibly to build tension toward the denouement. But it seems completely absurd from the get-go. And I know readers in the mid-seventies were not as attuned to world diplomacy as we might be these days, as globally connected as we are. But I think even those readers would be like, wait, what? Why is he doing this? It is just nonsensical.
It all pulls together in the end, though. Threads get tied up, the bad guys get their due, there is a final battle of epic proportions between villain and hero, and hero carries the day as was forordained by the gods. It might drag a bit with strange and unimportant political machinations in the third volume (the cursed volume!), but even with all the inconsistencies and contradictions, Takemiya delivers a story worth reading even now, more than forty years after it first was published.