The Book of Heroes by Miyuki Miyabe, translated by Alexander O. Smith
My version published November 2011 by Haikasoru (originally Jan 2010); Paperback, 352 pages.
The Short Version: This book has an interesting, if unforgiving, interpretation of the relationship between heroes and villains and the stories they create, with has a great deal of early promise. Unfortunately, it ends up somewhere geographically boring and ethically distasteful, with some bonus sidelining of the main female character along the way.
Rating: 5 sentient magical dictionaries out of 10
This is the second book by Miyuki Miyabe I’ve read, the first being Brave Story, a more explicitly young adult portal fantasy about a boy on a JRPG-inspired quest after family trauma in the real world. I picked up the ebook sample of the Book of Heroes at the same time, as a contingency read during a holiday to Japan, but it wasn’t until I fell in love with the paperback at a physical bookstore that I decided to bring it home and give it a read. (It has a flipbook animation next to the page numbers! And a note on the typography at the end! Who doesn’t love a book with a note about typography.)
The Book of Heroes is also a portal fantasy at heart, though not a traditionally structured one. It’s also about a kid (this time a girl called Yuriko) whose family undergoes a huge trauma (the disappearance of her brother Hiroki, a model student, after a violent incident at his school in which a classmate dies), and undertakes a magical quest which she believes will bring him back and return their life to normal. But where I remember Brave Story being generous with its characters and plotline, The Book of Heroes is both subversive and unforgiving, and ultimately a much less pleasant tale.
This is a book about how certain types of stories ruin lives, and how becoming caught up in a good vs evil narrative, even on the side of good, can be a terrible thing. Hiroki, we learn, has killed a classmate because he has been possessed by a spirit called the King in Yellow, who is also The Hero: a sort of meta-textual double-headed embodiment of all grand good vs evil narratives. The King/Hero is supposed to be imprisoned within the titular Book of Heroes, looked after by a group of “nameless devouts” in another dimension, but the spirit is also present in various other books throughout the real world and the worlds of fiction, and can escape if he obtains enough vessels.
For obvious narrative reasons, Hiroki is the last vessel the King/Hero needed to escape this time, so he’s out threatening us all, and its up to Yuriko and her talking book(!) sidekick Aju to stop him — except it isn’t, because there are a ton of well trained warriors called wolves who are also on the case. Of course, Yuriko is going to give it a go anyway because she’s a plucky young adult heroine, and these wolves don’t sound like they are going to be interested in saving her brother as part of this King/hero recapturing business. So off we go.
(Moderate spoilers follow!)
There’s the makings of something fascinating here, and it gets more intriguing when Yuriko’s initial jaunt into the nameless devouts’ dimension (which has a harrowing concept behind it) comes to an end immediately after the setup, and she then brings her magical powers and friends back into our world. A few engaging chapters follow with her learning more about what happened to her brother — this plot point which juuuuuuust fell within the bounds of credibility to me, but that’s sort of the point — and using her new powers and understanding to interact with the world as something more than the 11-year-old schoolgirl she has been to this point.
Unfortunately, things start to get both more convoluted and less interesting halfway in when one of these foreshadowed wolves turns up, and we find ourselves moving from our world into a different dimension with a rather uninventive fantasy narrative going on. Unfortunately, we’re stuck with this new world (which has also been affected by the King/Hero, but in a very cliche tropey way), and this is where the rest of Yuriko’s story takes place as she continues her search for her brother while everyone around her gets increasingly secretive and cagey about some inevitable twist.
This is the point at which my gender bullshit alarms became impossible to ignore. As the story goes on, the male characters and sidekicks pile up and take over until Yuriko becomes drowned out by their relationships and problems. We also have to put up with the wolf character Ash constantly bringing her down as “a girl” who isn’t capable of controlling her feelings and completing the quest, producing dialogue which adds literally nothing to plot or characterisation. The sense of Yuriko becoming sidelined in her own story is disappointingly confirmed in the end, when Hiroki reemerges and makes Everything About Him in the most unsatisfying twist possible. To add insult to injury, Yuriko is then informed that literally every (male!) character except for her knew that the twist was coming, hence their caginess, and that they had deliberately misled and manipulated her into a certain path. So much for that “we don’t even need you specifically to go on this quest, we have grown men who can do it better” thing!
Yuriko accepts this. She also accepts that there will ultimately be no justice for her brother or the people he was trying to stand up against in our world, because according to the logic of the book, fighting against injustice will ultimately just bring more pain on people she’s trying to protect. This “revelation” is supposed to be the culmination of the “coming of age” portion of her journey, and the conclusion we are supposed to draw from the “heroes and villains are two sides of the same coin” mythology. Needless to say, I think that’s complete nonsense, and was immensely disappointed to see such an interesting set-up devolve into the narrative equivalent of “maybe both sides are just as bad as each other!” It’s not true for political parties, climate change, or the war between Jedi and Sith, and it’s definitely not true for elderly school teachers who allow and encourage bullying children to the point of suicide, which is what’s under discussion in this case.
As you can likely tell, I desperately wanted to enjoy the Book of Heroes more than I did – the way it explores the impacts of heroic goodness as something inseparable from evil has immense promise, and I’m fascinated by stories which create myths to explore that connection, rather than the seemingly more common strategy of making everything dark and full of antiheroes. Book of Heroes’ mythology starts off unforgiving and, if anything, gets bleaker as the story continues, imposing extraordinary punishments on those who seek to live as heroes. This darkness is not inherently a bad thing, but my disbelief stopped being suspended the moment the book asked us to believe that the best good we can hope for is peace and stability, and that turning a blind eye to chronic injustice is the only thing we can do to bring this about. Ultimately, Miyabe’s mythology creates a world which I don’t wish to learn from or escape to, and that doesn’t leave many reasons to want to read.