The best thing about the fifth book in the Guin Saga is, in a way, also the worst thing. At last, the five-volume “Marches Episode” — the first five of the hundred-plus Guin novels — has come to the smashing conclusion it deserves. But while it ends with a bang (and a roar, and a whoosh), it also leaves behind so many tantalizing hints and so many as-yet-unanswered questions that it’s not so much an ending as a pause for breath. We know there’s more … just not here, and not in English. I could lament that fact until they carted me off, but I’d rather celebrate the fact that we got this far at all.
Over the course of the previous volumes we’ve followed Guin, he of the body of a gladiator and the head of a leopard, out of the forbidding Roodwood and into the wastes of the Nospherus. He’s become self-appointed guardians of the royal twins Rinda and Remus, been chased by the armies of the Mongaul empire, made tentative allies out of the simian Sem to protect their lands against invasion, and headed ever deeper into the wasteland to find and enlist the fabled (many would say fictional) Lagon in their ongoing fight.
Book five opens with Guin now a prisoner of the Lagon, a primitive warrior tribe of giants who all tower over our hero. They are as baffled by Guin’s appearance as he is by them, but Guin manages to win them over through a combination of bravado, raw muscle, and at least one helping of what is either dumb luck or the hand of Kurimoto’s deity “Jarn Fateweaver”. It turns out to be a bit of both, and further evidence that Guin is the nexus for incalculably great change in his world. To paraphrase an old cliché, destiny is what happens when you’re making other plans.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the wasteland … Guin’s friends the Sem are in serious trouble. Without the “old leopard-head’s” guidance, they fall victim to a truly devastating attack courtesy of the still-teenaged commander of the Mongaul army, Lade Amnelis. She’s still smarting from having lost one of her best men to a bit of treachery: the rogue Istavan, Guin’s other comrade-in-doubts (as in, they sometimes doubt if he’s a comrade or not), capped off the last book by assassinating the captain of one of the army’s divisions. And Istavan himself is smarting from the consequences of that decision, as he’s learned there are some things you can’t brag or rationalize your way out of. In his own way, he’s started to mature, and one unexpected source of suspense later in the book is whether or not he’ll show the maturity to actually stick his neck out for someone else in a way that matters.
I’ve called Guin a movie for the mind, and it is as close to an IMAX 3-D feature on paper as you’re likely to run into in these parts nowadays. You’re not just reading the story; you’re on the inside, looking out. Tough for any writer to pull off, but Kurimoto does it through a mechanism that is only clear to me now that the first arc is actually over. The current crop of fantasy authors would probably take the events of the entire five-book arc and jam it into one single x-hundred-page volume. By breaking it across several books, Kurimoto not only makes the whole thing a lot more accessible — you can get hooked more easily and read in smaller chunks — but she automatically creates that many more opportunities for suspense. None of the Guin books, not even this one, have ended with all the threads tied up; there’s always been something to keep us thirsty for what’s next.
It’s a brilliant maneuver, and true to form, the ending that we get here in book five — and it is an earth-mover of a capper for this story cycle — doesn’t come near closing the door all the way. It’s still wide open, and I hope by the curls in Jarn Fateweaver’s beard that we get to walk back through it soon. I won’t ruin anything, but let’s just say we get a conclusion where Guin quite literally rules.
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 fromPhoenix 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: Go to the bookstore. Drop fifty bucks on all five of the Guin books, this one included. Get hooked. Tell friends. Repeat until Vertical brings us the next five books in the series. Because if they don’t, they’re gonna see a grown man cry.