Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Review of Yamada Monogatari: To Break the Demon Gate by Richards Parks

My first encounter with Richard Parks as a reader was a nice surprise.  Going through The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Vol. 8 I came across the story “Cherry Blossoms on the River of Souls”. About a young boy who goes investigating the well outside his bedroom window which emanates music each night and the fantastical things he finds within, it’s atmospheric, it’s mysterious, and it captures a little bit of that exotic Oriental something that I find so often reading Chinese stories but so rarely in Western stories of the same intent.  Thus when a copy of Parks’ novel Yamada Monogatari: To Break the Demon Gate (2014, Diamond Book Distributors) came my way, it was difficult to refuse.

Lacking the subtlety and mood of “Cherry Blossoms on the River of Souls”, To Break the Demon Gate is more a straightforward samurai drama of the fantastic.  Intent on Japanese history and swordfights, demons and ghosts, and court intrigue, it mixes mystery, action, and tropes familiar from other genres to create a lean, vigorous story.  The main character a minor lord caught up in a series of seemingly impossible murders, his penchant for drink has him nodding to detectives of noir while wielding a katana in classic samurai style, killing the ghosts and demons that threaten to spin Japan’s highest regal court out of order.

As such, To Break the Demon Gate is reminiscent of the recent Hollywood take on 47 Ronin as well as the series of Hong Kong films, of which the first is called A Chinese Ghost Story.  Filled with action and fantastical spirits intent on meddling in the affairs of humans and set in a recognizable period of the Orient’s past, the only major difference is the country, the film’s China vs. Parks’ Japan.  Like the movies, Parks shows strongest interest in dramatizing a period from the Orient’s past, placing special emphasis on the noble swordsmen of Japan and their code of conduct. And, when taken with purpose in mind, succeeds.

Culture appropriated for plot, To Break the Demon Gate uses the bits of Japanese history and culture salient to the Western mind in telling its tale—plus one extra intriguing additional element.  The narrative stance opposed, for instance, to Gene Wolfe’s Soldier novels which let Greek history inform the storyline rather than vice versa, Parks keeps his aims squarely on informed drama.  Though background knowledge is indexed at the novel’s rear, it remains that Japanese social practices, samurai code, and court hierarchy are the triggers of action and not the subjects under discussion.  Yamada having to weave his way through labyrinth of society and social rules in order to get to the bottom of who is committing the murders, Parks maximizes these aspects for storytelling effect, but at no time, at least as far as I could tell, let’s actual events from history play any major role in the plot.  Balancing this, however, is the superb job Parks does blending court poetry into the interaction and communication between the characters.  Feeling very authentic, the riddles nicely complement story, make the novel unique, and give the reader something to wistfully ponder while reading (little other material available in the same quarter).

The reader’s milage varying regarding the usage of history, less subjective, however, is the prose.  Generally lackluster, Parks gets the narrative from point A to B in customary, accessible fashion, but occasionally too much so.  In the middle of an action scene the narrator states that Yamada was “…poised for the blow swordsmen liked to call the ”pear splitter”, because a split pear is precisely what the victim’s bisected head resembled once the blow was completed.” Such lines make me feel as though I’ve entered Brandon I-think-little-of-my-readers-therefore-I-hold-their-narrative-hand-every step-of-the-way Sanderson.  Parks is certainly a more polished writer than Sanderson, the distance between A and B relayed in more concise terms, but neither does Parks display the magic of “Cherry Blossoms on the River of Souls”.  To be fully transparent, however, it’s possible Parks was attempting to imitate a particular style of Japanese writing, rendering this criticism unfair.

But from this Westerner’s eyes, To Break the Demon Gate ends with the feeling of being undistinguished.  Never committing itself tonally, the middle road is too straight.  In order to completely pull off the fun of storytelling, it would need a lighter, more jocular, perhaps more humorous tone.  Likewise, to unreel a richer drama, there would need to be more grit, more realism, more details which heighten the tension.  As it stands, the action scenes never feel dangerous, and at the same time, nor do they feel entirely playful, while the transitory scenes convey necessary information but never sparkle or prick.  Caught in the middle, what the scenes do is feel flat-footed, the writing’s pitch unable to give them the full sense of vigor they need to engage the reader in some direction.  Caught between Twilight Samurai and Bridge of Birds (but more on the Birds side), the novel never has a chance of equaling or bettering those efforts.

In the end, Yamada Monogatari: To Break the Demon Gate is largely unique in genre for its use of Japanese fantasy elements and its research into the culture’s folklore and history, and would be a treat for someone looking for an ancient samurai story with elements of the Japanese fantastic playing a strong role.  Overall the story is successfully action-drama oriented, but fails to fully generate mood through tone; Parks has written a nice novel on paper (the poems are an especially nice touch), but it will be up to the reader’s expectations how much those words resonate with story.  I can say fans of Saladin Ahmed's Throne of the Crescent Moon will probably enjoy Parks' novel.

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