Amedama: Seia Tanabe

Amedama_TanabeIt can be weird at times, being a translator of a variety of books with a brain that is a battler of even more books. By day, I read books I might never have otherwise read and turn them into English for all the monolinguals, and by night, I read all the books I dream of bringing to all the monolinguals in English. Naturally, there is overlap between these two selves. Sometimes, the dream of translating a beloved book comes true (like my precious baby Magician A, coming to Kickstarter backers very soon and to select bookstores later this year!), and sometimes, I discover that a book I’m translating is a true beloved (I will never stop pushing After the Rain and Requiem of the Rose King on everyone who asks me what they should be reading; they are perfect and true books in their own beautiful ways). And sometimes, translating something leads me to picking up other work by the same author.

After translating a short story by Seia Tanabe years ago for the Haikasoru collection Phantasm Japan, I kept my eyes open for more from this author of quietly frightening stories based on Japanese ghost and folk tales, eventually stumbling across her novel Ningyo no Ishi, a book I still reflect on surprisingly often two years after finishing it. Her prose is so sparsely moody and yet strangely down to earth for the tales of the supernatural that she tells.

And I know I should be used to this by now because authors stumble across my posts here about their work surprisingly often (and let this be a lesson to those of you who would use a foreign language as a secret code to gossip about people on a crowded train or some other such public place—there is inevitably a speaker of that foreign language somewhere near you who understands every word you’re saying and will no doubt take the first opportunity that presents itself to publicly shame/embarrass you if you are talking any kind of smack about anyone), but a few months after I posted about that novel, Tanabe reached out to me to thank me for reviewing the book and offered to send me some of her other books. Which was a delightful surprise and kind as hell, and you know that I gratefully accepted. (Thank you, Tanabe-san!) Continue reading “Amedama: Seia Tanabe”

Kaguyaden: Chiho Saito

KaguyadenDang. This year’s already got me on the run and it’s barely just begun. I’ve been chained to my desk the last three weeks, translating one book after another and just barely keeping up with my deadlines. I have this terrible habit of taking way too much time with novels in particular because there are so many more words and I want them to be the most perfect translation babies of all but perfection is impossible so I just keep picking at them and polishing since there will always be some new flaw to fix. And then I look up at my calendar with a gasp and realize I really need to get to work on all the other books in my schedule. After all, they are all my precious translation babies, equally deserving of my tender translation affections. However, devoting my attentions to my future children means no extra attentions for my bastard child aka this blog. But maybe I’ve dug myself out of that hole and can actually come and ramble here about books again?? Fingers crossed!

But before the rambling begins, I have to say thank you to all of you who made the Kickstarter Magician A a success! Not only did we reach our target, we also made it to all of our stretch goals! So everyone wins with fancy French flaps and super nice paper when the book eventually makes it to bookstores sometime later this year. And all the Kickstarter backers double win since they get the beautiful book plus an exclusive interview zine in which I talk with creator Natsuko Ishitsuyo about her career and her work, and we take a little side trip into spirituality and mythology. I’m hoping to post some of the interview here at some point, as a little teaser taste of what you can expect to find in the pages of Magician A, so once again, fingers crossed! Continue reading “Kaguyaden: Chiho Saito”

Yatagarasu V3-6: Chisato Abe

YatagarasuWell, 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! Continue reading “Yatagarasu V3-6: Chisato Abe”

Karasu wa Aruji o Erabanai: Chisato Abe

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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. Continue reading “Karasu wa Aruji o Erabanai: Chisato Abe”

Karasu ni Hitoe wa Niawanai: Chisato Abe

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After several months of flying around the world because I am apparently a jetsetter now—but only an economy class one, so it’s all very uncomfortable and cramped—I have returned to my home and native land (have we not changed the lyrics to that song yet? That is some seriously settler style stuff there) only to discover that it is cold and unpleasant here. A discovery I make upon my return every winter. A discovery which makes me reconsider my life choices and ponder a permanent move across the ocean to Tokyo where we simply play pretend at winter. All those Canada Goose jackets! For temperatures that almost never go below zero! How charming!

Happily, however, this freelance life means I can do my job anywhere as long as I have my trusty computer, and anywhere includes never leaving my apartment because it is too cold and gross outside. And never leaving my house means all that time I save on actually going places and seeing people, I can devote to reading all those books I keep buying to trap myself in a pleasant circular hell of never being able to read all the books I buy. But not all of those books are bought! Knowing that I have certain proclivities, pretty much anyone and everyone in my life gives me books when faced with the challenge of what to get me for some special occasion or no occasion at all.

Which is how I came into the possession of the six books of Chisato Abe’s Yatagarasu series. I’ve been wanting to dig deeper into science fiction and fantasy by women authors in Japan both because there is a dearth of these very books in translation into English and because I just really love SFF and want to find new stuff to tease my eyeballs with. And wow, if you want something new in your SFF reading diet, you are probably going to want to check out Hitoe. Here’s the elevator pitch: Heian era bird people. Game of Thrones meets Tale of Genji. With crows. Who are people.

The gifter of these books suggested that I start with volume three since the first two books are basically dressing the windows, mostly world building and not much action. But personally, I especially want my fantasy to be heavy on the world building; I want to dig deep into my new fictional universe! So of course I started with volume one, Hitoe. And while it is indeed heavy on the world building, it does not lack for action.

Surveying the great mountain range, the god of the mountains decreed that there would be four families ruling over them—north, west, south, and east—along with one family to rule over all of them—Souke. We enter this world long after the god has made this declaration, and all five families are well established in their own ways. Tradition has it that each of the four directional families sends a daughter when the time comes to serve at court so that the imperial prince may choose a wife from among them. And the time has indeed come.

But the eastern house’s eldest daughter, the one who has been groomed since birth to be the future emperor’s bride, is stricken with smallpox and scarred only a few months before she is to go to the imperial palace. So it is the second princess who goes in her place, a naïve girl who was raised apart from the main palace in the east and knows little of the ways of the world. Including the fact that she could technically turn into a giant bird whenever she wanted. She’s basically the tutorial character in an RPG. Since she knows nothing about anything, everyone is forced to explain things to her. This could have been annoying in the hands of a less capable writer, but Abe is surprisingly skilled (this is her debut work), and the second princess is deeply sympathetic as the reader learns with her about the three other princesses there to compete for the prince’s affections and the court system they are a part of.

Since no men are allowed in the Sakura Palace where the four women have their own palatial lodgings, the story revolves almost entirely around the princesses and their many lady attendants. And while the idea of competing for a prince’s affections sounds pretty backwards, the women all have their own agency and political motivations, making this less a love story and more a political thriller with romance having zero to do with any of it. And indeed, in the book’s climax, the story is more murder mystery than fantasy. We learn all the secret machinations that pushed the different bits of the story forward and characters that seemed despicable at first become sympathetic in a constant upturning of everything the reader is invested in.

From a language nerd perspective, I love how Abe constantly shifts between names for the characters in a way that is easy to follow and yet still deeply meaningful. When we meet our ostensible protagonist (all the princesses get their time in the sun), she is known only as the second princess. It’s not until she gets to court that she receives what we would consider a name. And all the princess names are merely pseudonyms, placeholders until they marry and can reveal their true names. A revelation that is powerful in many ways in the case of one princess later on in the book. It’s like Abe’s toying with that old fantasy trope that names have power, but combining it with the Japanese tradition of different names for different aspects of your life.

The book is basically three hundred and seventy pages of court drama and intrigue in flowing kimono with incense recipes and hanabi parties and origami, against a backdrop of steep cliffs and rocky mountains navigated by people who can turn into birds, who are birds. It feels both familiar and utterly, surprisingly new at the same time. Don’t let anyone tell you to read the third book first. Start with volume one and get deep into all the twists and turns of this strange world of crow people. 

Oukoku Monogatari: Asumiko Nakamura

Oukoku_NakamuraIt’s a good time to be a Nakamura fan. We’re getting not one, but two new translations of her work in English (both by me and I couldn’t be happier about it), there’s art shows and new editions and more to celebrate the tenth anniversary of her classic BL Dokyusei, the gorgeous set put out by Ohta and Libre to celebrate her fifteenth year as a manga artist, and now we have what the extra insert tells me is her first long-form fantasy story. Even if we only had that last one, though, it would be a great year for Nakamura.

It seems, however, that this new series did not spring from her brow fully formed like Athena. Although the first volume was published just this summer, in a delicious edition with a dizzying number of full-colour pages and black-and-white pages that are a beautiful bleached white, its earliest chapters date back to 2011. I actually have the issue of Erotics f that was home to the third chapter, the first of three about the king and his aide, complete with a pictorial of Nakamura’s work process on the story and a long interview with her. This chapter manages to tell such a complete story in only nine pages that upon first read way back all those years ago, I never expected to read anything else about this strange relationship. And yet seeing it newly published in this beautiful volume, it seems like it was always meant to be part of a larger story. Continue reading “Oukoku Monogatari: Asumiko Nakamura”