I’m going to use an adjective to describe the fourth Guin Saga book, Prisoner of the Lagon, which might seem completely out of place for this most fast-moving and hard-hitting of adventures: introspective. After the full-bore action extravaganzas of the first three volumes, book four slows things down just a bit — but a slowdown here is akin to downgrading to “only” a Lexus from a Lamborghini. There’s still a lot happening between the covers, just in new realms.
Lagon gives us two parallel plots: Guin traversing the far reaches of the Nospherus wastes to enlist the aid of the barbaric Lagon in his fight against the Gohran armies; and intrigue within the ranks of the Gohran forces themselves. Each one ends up a fair distance from where it starts. The former storyline begins with Guin struggling against the elements and enemies of nature, but transforms into a vision quest within Guin’s memory and spirit. The latter presents us with what sounds like a sure-fire formula for gleeful mayhem: the cutthroat and cutpurse Istavan sneaks into the Mongaul army and masquerades as one of their number. But that story, too, evolves from one of subterfuge into something more unexpected and even touching.
One of the ongoing mysteries of the Guin stories has been Guin himself. Where has he come from, and what secrets lie behind the veil of his amnesia? A secret that broad and deep is too good to ruin in one swoop, and so author Kaoru Kurimoto has been dropping one hint after another. The first one comes straight from the mouth of Istavan (in the guise of “Eru”, a Mongaul knight), recounting what would ostensibly be a fabricated story about his encounter with someone who might have been Guin, once upon a time. Is it all just more of Istavan’s fanciful imagination at work to cozen up to Marus, a superior through whom he can enact the rest of his plan, or is there a grain of truth there? It’s left open-ended — all the better to keep us reading.
Meanwhile, with the Mongaul armies chiseling at the ranks of the barbarian Sem, Guin undertakes a journey deep into the wilds of the Nospherus to make contact with another tribe that might ally with them against the Mongaul: the Lagon. When cornered by wild wolves (a fantastic action scene, drenched in blood and animal frenzy), Guin is bailed out by a wholly unexpected savior: the Wolf King. This creature serves both as lord of his kind in the Nospherus, and as a sort of psychopomp for Guin himself. Before long Guin is taken within himself to pick up a few more tantalizing clues about his true nature: whether he be god, beast or man, he’s unquestionably a fulcrum of destiny for all that surround him. Unfortunately, his inner journey is cut short when the Lagon show up and trap him (and, rather disappointingly, that’s all we see of the titular Lagon for the whole of the book).
The last stretch of the novel shows us the fruits of Istavan’s labor, but they’re played for melancholy and not true triumph. Much to his own surprise, Istavan has not only put himself in Marus’s confidence, but has come to develop a germ of respect for him and the other knights. It’s all the more painful when he has to betray them and watch them die in front of him — it’s a reminder that for all of his bluster and cleverness, Istavan is still young, still relatively untested and still due for great heartbreak in his time. It’s also one of the biggest signs we’ve gotten so far that the Guin series is as interested in watching these characters grow and change as it is in showing how they collide.
Translation: Video-game fans might recognize the name of the translator: Alexander O. Smith, best known to video game fans as the head localizer for everything from Phoenix Wright to Final Fantasy X. The best thing I can say about his work is that there was never a moment when I felt like I was reading a translation, just a crackling good yarn. That was precisely the idea — the localization for the story never calls attention to itself and never gets in the way.
The Bottom Line: Even when the Guin Saga slows down to catch its breath, it still does enough to leave you breathless. If the reviews of the previous three volumes pique your interest, go start there and get caught up. After that, I’d bet my matched 401K donation for the week that you’ll also be hyped for the release of the next volume come later this year.