I used to hate epic fantasy — or rather, I hated what epic fantasy had devolved into: cynical assembly-line knock-offs of the Tolkien estate designed to sell a series, rather than any one book. The Wheel of Time cycle turned me off after one book — although the shock and dismay of having Robert Jordan himself die before he could finish the series proper was absolutely not lost on me — and Eragon was almost too awful to be believed.
By that token, I should never have picked up The Guin Saga at all. Here we have a Japanese fantasy novel series that has been running for decades in Japan with over one hundred books in the series and with more still on the way. But I’d been hearing about Guin for over a decade through one channel or another — after all, any series that had sold something like twenty-five million copies in its native country was going to be hard to ignore. Everyone from upscale film director Nagisa Oshima to manga-ka Kentaro (Berserk) Miura described themselves as Guin fans.
My curiosity finally boiled over when Vertical, Inc., purveyors of finer Japanese popular culture since 2000 or so and the parties responsible for the recent wave of upscale Osamu Tezuka reissues (MW, Apollo’s Song), snapped up the first few books in the Guin Saga for an English-language translation. They are now bringing the first cycle of books back out in a trade paperback edition with original cover art and internal illustrations by Naoyuki Kato. It was all worth it, because Guin is epic fantasy as I have come not to know it lately: restless, unapologetic, world-spanning, monster-smashing meat-and-potatoes fun.
Every fantasy author’s got his particular charm. Tolkien has his mythopoetics, Peter S. Beagle his fairy-tale wisdom, and Philip Pullman his meditations on faith wrapped in high adventure — but Kaoru Kurimoto’s Guin hearkens all the way back to Robert E. Howard’s Hyborean Age and Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Barsoom. These books hit the ground running and don’t look back, and (maybe most importantly) Kurimoto doesn’t waste your time, or his. He just drops you right into the action and expects you to start swimming along with him. It’s a welcome relief after uncorking one bottle after another labeled “FANTASY” and pouring out something that moves like molasses in the Arctic and takes 600 pages of dull-as-ditchwater family histories to get anywhere.
No fantasy saga is worth the ink it’s printed with unless it delivers us a hero worth watching and following, and the titular hero of Guin is a stage-stealer. He’s a man with the body of a gladiator and the head of a leopard — not merely a “leopard mask,” as those who first see him are inclined to believe. With no memory of how he came to be this way, and certainly no memory of how he ended up in the dangerous wild-lands of the Marches, he stumbles across another pair of wanderers through that forsaken — the royal Twins of Parros, Rinda and Remus, heirs to an empire that has since been burnt to the ground. Rinda is more suited to the skeins of difficult destiny than her rather timid younger brother; she has one of the best lines in the book when Remus begs something of her and she retorts, “My name is to be spoken, not whined.”
Then come the Black Riders of Mongaul, hunting for the Twins. They’re stupefied — Rinda and Remus doubly so — when Guin strides out of the brush and decimates the whole platoon single-handedly. But violent as he may be in battle, he’s no beast at heart: he looks at the Twins and sees nothing more than two children desperately in need of protecting. He’s also befuddled by not being able to remember a single thing about himself, other than perhaps his name, Guin, and another name — “Aurra” — that rests tantalizingly on the tip of his mind without giving away its true meaning. They are not about to escape that easily, however — not after the Black Riders come back to life as denizens of the undead, and the three of them are forced to choose between a quick messy death and a slow painful one.
Somehow they persevere, if only to end up once again captives of the Mongaul, and are spirited off to the gothic Stafolos Keep where the legendarily diseased Count Vanon holds court. Swathed in bandages to keep others from mistakenly touching his suppurating flesh (and dying horribly), he becomes instantly fascinated with Guin and pits the leopard-headed warrior against a monster and without even a weapon in hand. Then the keep comes under siege by a massive army of the monkeylike, demi-barbaric Sem, and Guin and his new compatriots are once again forced to choose between what kind of death they would like to have. The ending is a very literal cliffhanger, with Guin and his newfound friends leaping headfirst into the void … and into the second book of the cycle.
Postscript: Not long after filing this review I realized I'd used the male pronoun when referring to the author. Kaoru Kurimoto is in fact a woman, albeit one writing under a pseudonym.
Guin is fascinating for a whole clutch of reasons: aside from being a roaring good story, it may open the gates for many more books like it.
For a long time, most of what we knew in the West about Japan’s literary tastes had been dictated by fairly stuffy and academic tastes. Unless you were a Nobel prizewinner (Kenzaburo Oe, Yasunari Kawabata), a classroom staple (Ryûnosuke Akutagawa) or both notorious and accomplished (Yukio Mishima, Osamu Dazai), you didn’t stand much of a chance of being translated into English. Kodansha International and a smattering of other publishers did manage to bring some of the more populist Japanese works into English, like Seiicho Matsumoto’s crime fiction (Inspector Imanashi Investigates) or new authors like Banana Yoshimoto, but for the most part it was an uphill battle. Then came the manga and anime boom, and folks like Vertical stepped in to show people what else was big in Japan apart from the most obvious stuff like Naruto or Bleach.
And now, Guin, which has been more than worth waiting for. It's not only great because so little material of its kind ever made it across the Pacific, and not only because reading it gives you a better understanding of what the Japanese themselves find enthralling, but because most of what turns up as a result of such digging is great fun. Guin is no exception, and as with Vampire Hunter D and Fûtaro Yamada’s ninja novels I’m thrilled it’s finally getting the English-speaking audience it’s deserved for decades. Stick around for this one; the joy’s just gotten started.