Every now and then, it's good to break away from the mold and try something different. I don't often read adult sci-fi/fantasy, but walking through the aisle one day, Miyuki Miyabe's The Book of Heroes caught my eye. The novel's concept intrigued me. Plus, it had something else going for it from the get-go: I always enjoy a good hero story.
Eleven-year-old Yuriko Morisaki is an ordinary fifth-grade student until her older brother Hiroki does the unthinkable. After a bad altercation at school results in his disappearance, Yuriko embarks on a journey to save him. The most interesting thing that drew me into the story was this: the "hero" is not as good and virtuous as our society allows us to believe. Only one part is. No matter how magnificent the hero, there is always a darker side that we overlook. The hero has two sides to him, and the darker side of the coin is often referred to in the novel as the King in Yellow. It's hard to explain the concept, but for example, think about Hercules. He performed a lot of heroic deeds, but also did some pretty vile stuff that would seem more like what a villain might do. This dual look at heroism was interesting to me, especially since it's something I've been studying in order to flesh out my own characters. I love the concept that there's more to a hero than what meets the eye. Things aren't always black and white.
The part of the hero that is the King in Yellow likes to wreak havoc on our world as much as the hero likes to save it. He needs vessels to break out of The Book of Heroes, where he has been imprisoned in the Nameless Land where all stories are born. Yuriko's brother Hiroki finds The Book of Elem and uses it to unknowingly become the last vessel and release the King in Yellow from imprisonment. Taking on the role of Allcaste, Yuriko finds herself faced with an impossible quest to save not only her brother, but the entire world.
The Book of Heroes was really unique and refreshing. I'd never read a book quite like it before and after turning the last page, I wondered if Miyabe would write another book in her world. I also went back and re-read the poem at the novel's beginning in addition to perusing the prologue once more, which gave me an even fuller understanding of the story. I also took a more in-depth look at the cover and understood why the artist created the image they did (much as I did after finishing Rebecca Stead's When You Reach Me earlier this year). It made sense in a way it wouldn't have before I started reading the book.
It was also interesting to read a Japanese novel after having lived in Japan. I could visualize Yuriko's world much better than I would have had I never been there, though I don't feel the lack of knowledge would detract a reader from the story. It just made things like school life, teacher/police/parent/student/etc. responses, etc. make more sense. There were a couple of "monster" fights that were uniquely Japanese. If I hadn't seen the Hayao Miyazaki movie Spirited Away, it would have been harder to imagine black-tentacle monsters with dangling faces because I've never been one for Japanese horror/monster stuff. However, by envisioning No-Face or No-Name or whatever the character's name was, it gave me an idea of what the author was referring to. It was really interesting to see what constituted a "traditional" Japanese novel. Before Miyabe, the only other Japanese author I'd ever read was Haruki Murakami, and that was before I'd been to Japan. Back then, I just remember thinking that the Japanese have a very different outlook on life from us Westerners, and after having lived there, it definitely reaffirms that thought (albeit in a good way).
If you're looking for something interesting and are open to something a little different from what you're used to, The Book of Heroes might be a good choice for you.