~written by Fuyumi Ono
~translated by Alexander O. Smith and Elye J. Alexander
The Vast Spread of the Seas is the third book in Fuyumi Ono's series of fantasy light novels The Twelve Kingdoms. In Japan the first two novels of the series were each released in two parts, technically making The Vast Spread of the Seas, published in 1994, the fifth volume of The Twelve Kingdoms. However, in the English-language edition of the series The Vast Spread of the Seas is the third volume. Tokyopop first released Alexander O. Smith and Elye J. Alexander's English translation of the novel early on in 2009 as a hardcover. Later that year it was released again in a paperback edition. Tokyopop's release of The Vast Spread of the Seas retains the illustrations by Akihiro Yamada. I quite enjoyed the first two books in The Twelve Kingdoms, so I was looking forward to reading The Vast Spread of the Seas.
The kingdom of En has fallen upon difficult times. The previous king drove the country to ruin and many of its people either died or fled during his vicious reign. Much of En became a wasteland and demons prowled the wilds. At first Shoryu, En's new king divinely appointed by the kingdom's kirin Rokuta, gives En's people hope for a better life. But much to the dismay of his ministers, it soon becomes clear that Shoryu would rather galavant about the country than focus on the kingdom's administration. Many of those in the provincial governments are also frustrated by Shoryu's seeming lack of motivation and the slow restoration of En. Atsuyu, the acting regent of the province of Gen, plans to take matters into his own hands if the king continues to refuse to address En's problems. With civil war brewing, Shoryu will be forced to abandon his inscrutable style of rule if he is to put an end to the rebellion and maintain the peace. But even then his decisions continue to confound those that serve him.
Although The Vast Spread of the Seas is the third novel in The Twelve Kingdoms, chronologically it takes place before the first two and isn't directly related plot-wise. However, the volume does focus on Shoryu and Rokuta who have played small but incredibly important roles in both Sea of Shadow and Sea of Wind. Reading the first two books does provide a little more insight into Shoryu and Rokuta's characters and what people think of them, but for the most part The Vast Spread of the Seas stands on its own. It explores their pasts, both before and after their association with En, as well as a critical period early in Shoryu's reign as the king. Because I have read the previous volumes in The Twelve Kingdoms I knew how some of the events in The Vast Spread of the Seas would ultimately end, but it was still very interesting to see how they played out and how Shoryu dealt with them.
A large part of The Vast Spread of the Seas delves into court politics and intrigue. Atsuyu's viewpoints are considered to be heretical and even dangerous, but his challenging of a system of authority that has failed its people is understandable and he raises some very legitimate concerns. Unfortunately, his criticisms are never fully addressed in The Vast Spread of the Seas. What is established is that Shoryu is a much keener ruler than he lets on and that he cares about his people immensely. Actions that seem to make no sense actually have significant purpose. He doesn't allow himself to be limited or constrained by what is expected of him as a king; Shoryu is incredibly creative and shrewed in his administration of the kingdom and very few people actually realize it. It's no wonder that he later becomes so admired and respected as a ruler despite his quirks and unorthodoxy.