1979 was a pretty good year to be a fan. Look at what was in theaters: the first Star Trek movie; Alien; the animated Lord of the Rings flick. And there was an even bigger kick waiting for us in the bookstores — the first installments in this awesome new fantasy series about this warrior with the head of a leopard.
No, wait. That last bit didn’t happen — at least, not here. But oh man, how I wish it had.
The copyright page of Book Two of The Guin Saga tells me: Originally published in Japanese as Koya no senshi by Hayakawa Shobo, Tokyo, 1979. There’s something intimidating about discovering that one of the best fantasies of 2008 was published in 1979 — and all us poor suckers in the English-speaking territories are just now finding out about it.
There’s far more to Guin Saga than the fact that it’s a neat obscurity. It is the purest, most unapologetically escapist thrill ride / movie-for-the-mind to come across in what feels like and what probably is decades. It hasn’t dated a day since it first popped out twenty-nine-years-ago, and I’m still divided as to whether that’s because Kaoru Kurimoto knew exactly what the heck she was doing the first time around or because we’ve been playing catch-up ever since.
The very literal leap into the void at the end of the first book leads us directly into the beginning of Book Two, which is essentially one long chase punctuated by the introduction of a few new faces. Our hero — the leopard-headed Guin, the warrior with no memory of his own past — and his compatriots, the royal Twins of Parros, Remus and Rinda, have fled the overrun Stafolos Keep for the wastelands of Nospherus. Behind them in hot pursuit, the Knights of Mongaul, they who also laid waste to Parros and now seek the Twins as final proof of that kingdom’s demise. It’s bad enough that the Mongauli knights want Guin and his friends dead, but so does the wilderness itself: toothy monsters erupt from the river Kes as they paddle across it on a raft, and from the sands of the Nospherus wilds around them.
They’re not wholly alone, though. Joining them is a figure glimpsed briefly in the first book, the mercenary Istavan Spellsword, a braggart whose mouth is forever on the verge of writing one too many checks his body can’t cash. Insufferable and rash as he might be, he’s also one of the few wildcards for survival Guin and his friends have on their side. Istavan’s also convinced that Guin’s memory hole isn’t as all-consuming as it seems: why, for instance, does Guin seem to know more about the wasteland than he lets on?
Also in their company is Suni, one of the barbarian Sem, a race of monkey-like creatures that inhabit the Nospherus. Like Istavan and the rest of Guin’s party, she was an escapee from Stafolos Keep — and in another hint that Guin has forgotten more than most people will remember, the leopard-headed warrior is able to speak with Suni and learn that she can offer them sanctuary with her own tribe. (Digression. One of the things that annoyed me about MPD-Psycho was how the authors used multiple-personality disorder as a gimmick to pull plot threads out of thin air, and there are times when Guin’s amnesia comes close to being the same kind of bottomless box. The difference is that the Guin books are such fun to begin with, so this kind of legal cheating hardly makes a dent.)
They can’t run forever, though, and before long Guin and the Twins are surrounded by the Mongauli armies and quite literally dragged in front of their commander: Lady Amnelis, barely twenty, beautiful in a way that Rinda won’t be for at least another decade, and radiating the kind of obsessed fanaticism that puts fear into even her own men. Only Guin stands tall and dishes all her haughtiness right back at her — the sort of thing that only makes Amnelis all the more fascinated.
Before she can act further on her fascination, though, Istavan swoops back in — against his better judgment, which gets plenty of laughs — springs everyone out of captivity, and sets in motion the massive, cinematic brawl that concludes the book. Or, rather, it’s a brawl that looks like it’s going to conclude the book until we get suckerpunched with another cliffhanger ending to keep us chewing our cuticles until Book 3 drops in March.
When I came across the Vertical, Inc. folks at the NYAF, one of the first things out of my mouth about Guin were “I can’t believe for the life of me this hasn’t been made into a movie yet.” Neither could they. Neither will you.