Overall = A-
For high-schooler Yoko Nakajima, life has been fairly ordinary--that is until Keiki, a young man with golden hair, tells Yoko they must return to their kingdom. Once confronted by this mysterious being and whisked away to an unearthly realm, Yoko is left with only a magical sword; a gem; and a million questions about her destiny, the world she's trapped in, and the world she desperately wants to return to. (Source: Amazon)
I watched the Twelve Kingdoms anime a couple of years ago and loved it; but the one thing that always bothered me was that the anime only told a fraction of the story from the original novels. Now, thankfully, all seven volumes from the original book series are being translated and released in the US, and the first proves to have all the qualities that I loved about the anime and more.
The story in this first book can be broken down into three main parts: First Yoko meets Keiki and is whisked away to another world. Then she ends up getting lost in the new world and has to fight her way through all kinds of physical and mental battles in order to survive. Then eventually she finds out why she was forced to come to this world and what she needs to do. That's mostly the same story as was in the anime, but the major difference is that this version focuses entirely on Yoko. That means that her two fellow students -- Asano and Sugimoto -- are totally absent in this version. But that works out well since it allows the story to be told from one consistent point-of-view, giving it the ability to focus on Yoko's personal development.
And that personal development is a huge part of what makes this a great story. The person Yoko is at the beginning of the novel is very different from who she is at the end. The anime has that same kind of development, but the book goes into greater detail to describe Yoko's emotional reactions and mental reasoning, so it's easier to follow exactly why she makes certain decisions throughout the story. This mostly occurs during the second part, when Yoko is trying to figure out who to trust and whether or not it's worth fighting to stay alive. I think some people will think that this middle portion is boring compared to the action packed beginning and the revelations from the end, but personally I love it when a story goes into depth about what a character is thinking because it adds depth to her character. Plus it keeps me from having to question she does certain things, making her easier to empathize with and understand.
The other thing that makes this story so impressive is the intricately developed world in which it takes place. You can tell that the setting -- much of which is based on Chinese mythology -- was fully realized before the author wrote a single page. The world of the Twelve Kingdoms runs under a very specific set of rules, and to break those rules warrants divine punishment. It's like the gods were trying to create a world that worked under a system that allowed humans to have free will, but also kept it from falling into total chaos. So as a result, everything from the way that the land is divided to the social hierarchy is extremely organized. The political structure has a series of checks and balances that are meant to ensure that only the most qualified rulers are chosen and that they make the decisions that are best for the people. But despite all that, it still doesn't keep some rulers from becoming corrupt and some countries from falling into chaos. It's almost like the author is commenting on the fallacy of humanity, saying that even when gods create a fool-proof system, people will still find some way of screwing up. But thematic analysis aside, the more I learned about the world of the Twelve Kingdoms, the more fascinating and engrossing it became.
Since I'd never read a translated version of a novel before, I was worried that the translation from Japanese to English might make for some awkward writing, and that some concepts might get lost. But as it turns out, this book is very well written. It is a very fast and easy read even with its depth and details.
The one major disappointment was the ending. It builds up to what you expect to be a huge battle, but then it skips any description of the fighting or invasion of the castle, and instead goes right to the resolution. My guess is that the author had spent so much time showing Yoko's personal struggles, that she had used up her page allotment and she was forced to wrap up quickly. Although, I supposed that the argument could be made that the victor of the battle is a foregone conclusion so any further description is unnecessary; but given that the rest of the novel is so detailed in showing how the action unfolds, it is jarring to have it end so suddenly.
Despite that though, overall I loved this book and can't wait to read the remaining six volumes. Whether or not you are a fan of anime, I think this is a well-developed story from beginning to end that has believable characters and a lot of depth that almost anyone could enjoy. Very highly recommended.