Twelve Kingdoms, Volume 1: Sea of Shadow

~written by Fuyumi Ono
~translated by Alexander O. Smith and Elye J. Alexander

I don't remember exactly where I first heard about Fuyumi Ono's fantasy light novel series The Twelve Kingdoms, illustrated by Akihiro Yamada, but over time I've gained the impression that the books are quite good. And so when I came across the first volume Sea of Shadow, which is long out of print and somewhat hard to find, at a used book store I nabbed it. The English translation was executed by Alexander O. Smith and Elye J. Alexander. Tokyopop first published Sea of Shadow in hardcover in 2007 before releasing a paperback edition in 2008. The first volume of the English edition of The Twelve Kingdoms actually collects the first two volumes of the series as released in Japan, published in June and July of 1992. The full title of the two part novel translates into English as Shadow of the Moon, Sea of Shadow. The Twelve Kingdoms ran for eleven volumes in Japan. The first seven books were released by Tokyopop collected as four volumes in the English edition.

Yoko Nakajima is a fairly normal high school student who wants to be liked and accepted by her peers. She tries to appease everyone and acts as the perfect good girl, good student, and good daughter. But when a strange man comes looking for her at school and she is whisked away to another world she can lo longer be any of those things. Soon separated from the man who swore his protection and allegiance to her, Yoko finds herself alone with no idea where she is or what is going on. Pursued nightly by demons, she is painfully aware that her very life is in danger if she doesn't figure out something soon. All she wants to do is go home, but with no one to help her she must learn to depend on herself.

While I enjoyed the first part of Sea of Shadow, it wasn't until I was about halfway through the book that I knew for certain that I wanted to read the rest of The Twelve Kingdoms. It is at that point that Yoko has sunk to her lowest as a person. She is aware of the changes in herself, but she can no longer bring herself to care after being repeatedly betrayed. Yoko's character development in Sea of Shadow is by far the most complete. She significantly matures over the course of the book and for very good reasons. It is chilling and almost scary to see how she adapts to her circumstances even if it is understandable considering how she must struggle to survive on her own. Her experiences are harsh and emotionally, spiritually, mentally, and physically draining. It is no surprise that Yoko is a very different person at the end of Sea of Shadow than she is at the beginning. Ono captures her development magnificently.

Ono's world building in Sea of Shadow, heavily influenced by Chinese mythology, is solid. Occasionally the narrative falls prey to infodumping, mostly because the reader is limited to what Yoko knows about her environment. If she hasn't learned something yet, the reader is also left in the dark. But as the novel progresses and Yoko finds people she believes she can trust, more and more about the world in which she is now living is revealed and explained. And it is absolutely fascinating. The political structure is particularly interesting and the system of checks and balances establishes very real and often dire consequences for rulers and for their kingdoms. Even with divine aid, people will continue to be people with all of their faults and thirst for power intact; nothing is perfect. I definitely want to learn more about the world Ono has created in The Twelve Kingdoms and look forward to continuing the series with Sea of Wind.

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