This novel, a prequel to book 2 (which was a prequel to book 1) is the origin story of two of my favorite characters from the previous novels, the suave king Shoryu and his grumpy kirin Enki (here called Rokuta.)

After the disastrous reign over the land of En by the former king, Shoryu was chosen to succeed him and has begun to repair the devastated kingdom. But he’s flippant and flaky and doesn’t even bother to show up in court most of the time, and everyone wonders if he’s up to the job—even Rokuta, who chose him. When Rokuta goes to meet a mysterious demon-rider whom he’d first met when they were both children, and is kidnapped by an aspiring ruler, the ensuing test of Shoryu’s abilities and Rokuta’s loyalty intertwines with the story of how they first met.

I had wanted more discussion and critique regarding the king-choosing system, and this book supplies it, along with a plausible reason why it’s ever a good idea (magical term limits, basically) and lots of exploration of what makes a good ruler. Rokuta is a much more fun protagonist than passive Yoko or timid Taiki, and kept me engaged in his story even though he spends large portions of it locked in a room, unconscious, or unconscious while locked in a room. And I don’t think it’s spoilery to say that Shoryu has hidden depths.

Like the previous novels, it takes its time exploring the characters and milieu while slowly gathering emotional force. Here the worldbuilding is less about magic and landscape and more about society and politics, which I actually found just as interesting. I’ll definitely keep reading the series.

I especially liked Akihiro Yamada’s illustrations in this. Rokuta/Enki is just so damn cute.

View on Amazon: The Vast Spread of the Seas (The Twelve Kingdoms)
I looked up Fuyumi Ono on Wikipedia and was delighted to see that she had written a series of “Evil Spirits” books, presumably for children, with the following titles:
There are lots of Evil Spirits?! There are really lots of Evil Spirits! Too many Evil Spirits to sleep, A lonely Evil Spirit, I Don't Want to Become an Evil Spirit! Don't Call me an Evil Spirit, I don't mind Evil Spirits 1 and I don't mind Evil Spirits 2.
Though set in the same world as the first Twelve Kingdoms novel and possessing a few of the same characters, this is not a continuation of Yoko’s story, but about events a number of years before that story begins. You don’t have to read the first book first, but if you did, note that the hero of this one is much easier to take than Yoko is for much of her story.

A young boy is swept away from Japan into another world, where he is named Taiki and informed that he is a kirin: a magical shapeshifter who enacts the totally literal Mandate of Heaven via his choice of a new king. (The king can be either male or female, incidentally.) But unlike a normal kirin, Taiki can’t shapeshift into his animal form or bind demons into his service. If he can’t even be authentically himself, how can he correctly choose the rightful king?

Like the first novel, this book has a slowly builds up to a powerful climax. Most of the book involves Taiki slowly learning the ways of the kirin and the world. This is rather leisurely paced, though the world itself, which is based on Chinese mythology and elaborated with an unusual level of invention and detail, is fascinating. But by the time Taiki makes his choice, I was completely invested in his emotional conflicts.

The take on the “rightful king” theme is unusual and intriguing, but I wish there had been more exploration and critique of how and why it works, and whether it’s really better than other methods of obtaining a monarch. Also, though the translation is less clunky than that of the first book, I question the choice of the translators to refer to Chinese mythical beings as “boggarts,” “faeries,” and “lamia.” Those are very culturally specific and non-Chinese creatures, and keeping the original terms intact would have been much less jarring. (If those were the original terms, I question Ono’s choice to use them!)

Quibbles aside, this is definitely worth reading if you’re more in the mood for worldbuilding and character development than wall-to-wall action. Akihiro Yamada did the gorgeous interior illustrations.

View on Amazon: Twelve Kingdoms - Paperback Edition Volume 2: Sea of Wind (v. 2)
Yoko Nakajima is a modern Japanese teenager distinguished only by her total passivity and natural red hair. One day a bunch of monsters explode into her classroom! And a blonde guy hands her a sword and tells her to fight! She bursts into tears and refuses, and he makes a disembodied head demon crawl into her body and take it over to fight with that sword!

Yoko is taken to a very cool otherworld, where she proceeds to be the most reluctant, whiny, and passive heroine ever. If this didn't make the read difficult enough, nothing good happens to her for the entire first two-thirds of the book.

I watched part of the anime based on this and was intrigued by the worldbuilding, but ultimately gave up due to disliking every single character. I was told that character development was the entire point, but I didn't stick it out long enough to get to that part. But since I can take a book at my own pace, I speed-read this to see if the changes were actually worth it.

To my surprise... yes, they are. At the two-thirds mark, Yoko has changed a lot, the plot stops being one of relentless grinding misery, and it becomes an intriguingly different epic fantasy with some unusual takes on old tropes. I did think the pay-off made the whole book worth reading, but your mileage may vary. The translation is pretty clunky, incidentally.

Click here to see it on Amazon: Twelve Kingdoms - Paperback Edition Volume 1: Sea of Shadow (v. 1)

Spoilers for the beginning of the anime, which may be spoilers for later books in the series.

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