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.