First off, let me say I love the cover, so kudos to the artist. As a fan of Asian cultures, and Japanese in particular, I’m always drawn to books with an Eastern flavor to them. While there were some inconsistencies in McClain’s use of honorifics (for example, having a character use one suffix out loud then switch to another while they’re thinking, or having them use two different suffixes for the same person during a single conversation) I think she did a good job of integrating them in a way that non-Japanese speakers could still follow.
For the most part I had no problem with the Japanese and Japanese-esk words, but there was one term that threw me off every time it came up. “Hifu” shows up at the very beginning of the book, and several times throughout, but doesn’t appear in the glossary and it’s meaning seems to change from one use to another. The Japanese definition would be “skin.” Most often, this seems to refer to a persona that Kusuko has adopted, but at several points she is actually addressed as Hifu-san, so I’m not quite sure what to think. This could be easily remedied by simply including it in the glossary at the beginning of the book.
The formal tone of the writing also matches what I know of Japanese culture, particularly in an era of swords and wandering warriors.
The writing itself is decent, with some very nice turns of phrase, but I feel it could have been tightened up quite a bit without losing anything. There were a lot of instances of specifying things that didn’t need to be explained, and a good deal of telling the reader things that the narrator didn’t see or wasn’t thinking about. (i.e. Mishi didn’t notice… proceed to tell us everything she didn’t see.)
McClain’s handling of internal monologue was good, and her scenes building attraction between characters was very well done, but the dramatic action left something to be desired.
I don’t want to give anything away, so I’m staying purposefully vague, but there are a couple scenes where McClain basically skips over all the action and the characters go from worrying about what’s about to happen, to being glad that it’s over without anything in the middle. Even when the characters recount the events, they skip any mention of what actually happened, leaving a huge blank spot in the story for the reader to fill. The book focuses very intently on the internal struggles of the characters, which is great, but falls short on actual plot.
The characters are definitely the driving force of this book. While there were three narrative voices, I felt that Mishi was the main protagonist. This threw me off a little at first since both the prologue and the first chapter centered on Kusuko, but I didn’t get enough out of those to really relate to Kusuko. It’s not until much later in the book that I felt Kusuko became a fully actualized character. It was Mishi’s first chapter when I felt like the book really started. Taka is interesting, but doesn’t seem to have enough going on at the beginning to be a focal character. In many ways she acts more as a catalyst than a character.
Also, while we’re on the subject of narrative voices, there is one chapter a third of the way through the book that is written in a fourth voice, that of a little girl named Mizu. It took me two paragraphs to realize I wasn’t reading one of Mishi’s chapters and actually look at the name. I’m not sure why McClain decided to write a single chapter from a unique perspective, but my guess is that it was the easiest way to get the reader where she wanted them to be. While I understand this dilemma, it is rather jarring from a reader perspective, and I feel McClain could have found another way to convey the necessary information.
As for the characters’ arcs, Kusuko developed the most over the course of the story. In that sense, perhaps she is the main protagonist, but she was hard for me to connect with in the beginning. It’s almost like the author did too good a job making Kusuko hide her emotions, so even the reader can’t get to know her.
Mishi is the opposite. She agonizes about everything, having the same arguments and voicing the same fears over and over. I understand that she needs to work through her issues, but it get’s redundant pretty quickly when your narrator thinks “I’m a monster” on every other page. And while we’re on the subject of her thinking she’s a monster, I never really got that impression. Since I didn’t read the first book, perhaps she does something truly atrocious that I don’t know about, but from what I gathered from her confessions, she was just doing the best she could in a difficult situation, and while that might be enough to give her nightmares, I’m not sure it explains where her deep self-loathing comes from.
The other issue I have with Mishi’s development is that everyone seems to understand her perfectly, as though they are all sharing space inside her head. There are no misunderstandings, no hurt feeling. Everyone knows she’s going to run away, and accepts that she’s doing it to protect them. Everyone acknowledges and commiserates with her fears. Everyone voices her deepest concerns before she’s even had a chance to realize them for herself. Because of this, it doesn’t seem like Mishi has much to do with her own evolution. She lets those around her do all the heavy lifting, then sits back to judge their findings. In the end, she doesn’t blaze a trail for herself, but rather follows where she is led.
Note: I received a free copy of this story in exchange for an honest review.