Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Book of Heroes: Book Review

One-line blurb:
After discovering through a talking book that her missing brother has been possessed by the evil King in Yellow, Yuriko goes on a quest to capture the King and find her brother.  

One-line concluding message: 
The ends do not justify the means and there is a fine line between hero and villain.  

-- I read this book after reading and loving Miyabe's children's book Brave Story.  
-- The book opens with this fact: you know that Yuriko's brother brought a knife to school and stabbed two kids, killing one and leaving the other critically wounded, before disappearing.  This book maintains a delicate balance of approaching some serious subjects without being either grim or flippant.  

To start, I'm afraid the one-line blurb doesn't quite do the book service.  It's not just a quest to find a brother - it's also a journey to find out why Yuriko's brother did what he did and if his actions were justifiable.  It's not just a battle against an evil king because the King in Yellow AKA the villain and the Hero AKA the hero are described as two sides of the same coin.

As with all questing books, Yuriko picks up a number of companion travelers.  One is a dictionary named Aju who Yuriko turns into a mouse, for easier traveling.  Of course!  (Books can be heavy and bulky)  One is a servant she names Sky who is devotedly loyal to her and who I can't help loving in spite of the fact that everyone in the book tells me not to.  One is a man named Ash who serves as an undertaker in his own world and as a 'wolf' who hunts down the King in Yellow to trap him in all the other worlds.  Ash is the voice of reason in the group and he's that kind of dark, broody character who actually has more emotionally invested in the outcome than you first realize, which means that yes, I loved him in spite of himself, too.  The companions don't quite fit together and in many instances don't get along but in that sense, there is realism - circumstances bring unlikely people together to accomplish what they need to.  Aside from knowing it's a quest that deals with the issues I've before mentioned, I stop the summary here to avoid spoilers.  ;)

Instead of giving you spoilers, I give instead two remarks about the ending.
(1) When all is said and done, the crime at the beginning of the book is still a crime at the end of the book.  I expected more of a happy ending regarding that event, confidently anticipating that an adult or circumstances or even time travel was going to swoop in and take away what Yuriko's brother did or make it better.  But that didn't happen.  I was shocked with myself to realize how much I was expecting it.  Here I stand, now re-analyzing my views of justice and mercy and morality.
(2) I once heard that Japanese authors give their readers all the pieces of the puzzle but expect them to put the pieces together themselves.  This is no exception, especially on an emotional level.  I needed some time to figure out how I felt about the story and the characters and the quest.  It's a cathartic process.

Here is the thought that remains with me: It's not heroic if you're pursuing a virtue through un-virtuous means.  What you do matters just as surely as how it turns out.  That's a powerful lesson.  One I hope I remember for a long while yet.  

Do I recommend this book?  Yes.  If you're looking for a book that is entertaining and keeps you analyzing the rules and structures of a different world while questioning the rules and structures of your own world, this is a good choice.  

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