Karasu Hyakka—Shirayuri no Sho: Abe Chisato

If you’ve been following along these last few years, you’ll know that I am utterly and completely smitten with Abe Chisato’s Yatagarasu fantasy series, and I was sure my heart would crumble to dust when I finished the sixth and final book. What is left for me in this world now that there are no more new Yamauchi adventures to read, I lamented. And while there is indeed the pleasure of reading all the books again and falling even deeper into this detailed, rich world, that’s not quite the same as having your breath taken away by an unexpected twist in an entirely unfamiliar story. And there have been so many unexpected twists in this series! Murderous monkey people! Imperial intrigue! Secret romance! 

Just when I was truly about to breathe my last, despairing of a life without Yatagarasu, I stumbled upon a volume of side stories browsing the shelves at my favourite bookstore in Shinjuku. I gasped audibly and earned the stinky side-eye from a couple of my fellow book browsers, but I did not care. I could hardly believe my eyes, and I had to double and triple check that it was not a different version of a book I already had and loved. But no, the internet informed me that this was in fact new, full of stories I had not read. So I bought it and loved it and was briefly sated. But then the despair started to claw at me once more. It is a hard thing to love a series so passionately. 

And then the sun on the horizon, the start of a whole new Yatagarasu series! We are truly blessed as readers. It takes a long time to write a whole book, though, and while the first volume of the new series took the edge off, I was starting to daydream about Yamauchi again this spring. Like any good (literary) dealer, however, Abe knows what her readers need and want, and so she released another book of side stories this spring. I’ve been savouring these slowly to make them last until the second volume of the new series was released. 

Weirdly, I had already read three of the eight stories in this volume, and I only remember reading one of them in Ooru Yomimono, the magazine they were serialized in. Am I so desperate for crow content that I am sleep-reading literary magazines??

The story I remember reading is “Haru no Tokoyami”, a sort-of origin story for the second princess who was our ostensible protagonist for the first volume of the first series. Twins Rei and Rin are flute players in the east territory, an area known for producing great musicians and artists, trying to earn a spot as a court musician. Rei is frustrated by his inability to play as beautifully as his brother and worries about his future. But at a banquet to determine which eastern princess will be sent to the imperial court to vie for the hand of the crown prince, the twins are bewitched by the playing of a certain princess, and their entire lives are upended. 

This story is such a perfect microcosm of everything that makes the entire Yatagarasu series great: the politics and machinations of the nobility and the imperial court, hints of mysteries to be solved, tantalizing moments of forbidden love, humor in surprising places, and above all else, the sensuality of Abe’s writing. I’ve never heard a ryuteki or a nagon (the latter of which appears to not even exist in reality), but the two instruments were playing a magnificent duet in my head while I read this story. Abe lingers on these sensual moments: the feel of a spring breeze, the sunlight coming through the gentle pink of a canopy of sakura trees, the creaking of floorboards in a sprawling mansion. She creates a space for the reader to live with these sensations, so that you really feel like you are somehow breathing the air of Yamauchi. There’s a gentle poetry to her style in these books that I honestly cannot get enough of. 

The other stories similarly shed light on beloved characters from the main series, more or less indirectly. We see Yukiya as he grows and changes through the eyes of his best friend Shigemaru’s baby sister Miyoshi in “Kare no Otonai”, and this one made me shed real tears because of [spoiler] from the main series and how honestly great a character Shigemaru is. “Fuyu no Kotora” is another peek at Yukiya’s past, but this time from the perspective of Ichiryu, one of his comrades-in-arms in the big battle against the monkeys. 

In “Chihaya no Damari”, we get a couple more of Yukiya’s pals from military school, Akeru and Chihaya. Abe gets a little more into the class politics of her world here, adding yet another layer of depth to it. Akeru is the son of one of the four great noble families, and he’s been trying to get over his classist shit, but he still can’t help but judge people based on their appearance and class despite gentle and not-so-gentle chiding from story guest star Masuho no Susuki, my favourite character in this whole series hands down, so you know I loved to see her show up her. Chihaya comes from a rough-and-tumble peasant background, and he gives us a glimpse into what it’s like for your average citizen of Yamauchi. But Chihaya and Akeru are friends and war buddies, so these two backgrounds slam up against each other more than they don’t, showing us the fractures in Yamauchi society. 

“Aki no Ayaginu” is perhaps the story furthest removed from the main characters in the series, a tale of a recently widowed mother of two small children who finds herself saved in a way by a young noble with seventeen-going-on-eighteen wives. Tamaki knows she has no other choice, but she hates that fact, and it’s this that makes the true conflict of the story. She doesn’t want to have to rely on others, she’s angry at her husband for putting her in this position, but she has to keep her two chicks alive, so she swallows her pride and does what she has to do.

And I don’t even want to say a word about “Onibisaku” because I was truly delighted to discover who the story was about and I don’t want to steal the joy of that surprise from you. 

The last story in this volume, “Kinkan o Niru”, is a previously unpublished treat, an idyllic moment in the life of the emperor’s family that practically had me weeping because I just want them to be happy together. Maybe the pandemic is making me have extra feels when it comes to togetherness and family, but these people finding a way to be with each other and survive in a world that really has it out for them (poison testers exist for a reason) made my heart grow about three sizes bigger. 

I know Abe can’t keep writing these stories forever, but I take hope from the late, great author of the Guin saga and pray that Abe too will keep making her Yatagarasu universe ever bigger, ever deeper. 

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