The world is our own, familiar in many ways. Modern Tokyo seethes with activity, and the cap of Mount Fuji towers in the popular imagination. People live and work, and in some cases, go on historical tours. The author shows us a land filled with people similar to the reader, just going about their day to day lives. It’s drawn broadly, but with sufficient style that I was able to picture it vividly. Alongside this mostly familiar geography, however, sits one entirely separate. There exist manifestations of elements – air, water spirit, earth, fire – who were once involved in a titanic struggle, which broke the world, and reshaped it into its current form. They live in a space of concept and memory, drawing disciples to them, in a half-world, a liminal space intersecting only marginally with what we think of as real. There are castles in the air, delicate battlements drifting in a breeze. A sturdy rock guardian, shaping and breaking the earth when required. Serried ranks of samurai-disciples, ready to fight and die for their elemental ruler. There’s some wonderfully imaginative set pieces here – volcanic fires, devastated cities, the struggle between elemental s played out against a backdrop of modernity. I would have liked to have delved deeper into the half-world (though there are some rather hefty infodumps throughout) – we see some of how the current situation was created in flashbacks, but there’s a rich mine of mythos here to be excavated – perhaps later books will put it on display.
The characters suffer a little against their backdrops. We’re given a protagonist who enters this strange world of the supernatural at the same time as the reader, and her acclimatisation to this world goes hand in hand with our own. But whilst we’re sat alongside her, I never quite felt that I got to know Keiko. She’s smart, cautious, and occasionally funny. But what drives her to excel, what gives her passion and informs the decisions she makes? This is alluded to gently, over the course of the text, but it needed to be looked at in more depth, I think, some meat put over the bones of the character. She’s perfectly readable, but never quite feels real. The same is true of several of the kami. They seem defined by their elements, and have character traits on display, but we can’t get at the details that define them. Some of this is resolved in flashbacks, again, but glimpses of the past don’t give the characters as a whole enough heft. The exception is the nominal villain, the fire lord – a tormented figure, driven to madness, and defined by love. Here is a complex, well drawn antagonist, one moment a beast, the next displaying noble motives and a mind like a steel trap. His journey, and resolution, bring the characters up considerably – they’re defined in their interctions with what they oppose, and why, and it feels like this struggling, tragic figure is the lynchpin of the narrative.
The plot – well, it starts with a bang, It felt a little confusing in the early stages, as we followed our protagonist in being drenched with information and context, trying to get up to speed. There’s a slow burn happening after a frantic start, but once ti gets going, it’s easy to become invested in the battles between dragons, the fire and ice, the shadow warriors crawling out of woodwork, and so on. There’s a stutter between the slower segments and the rapid-fire action – but the latter is very well done, and the former work well enough as well. Certainly by the end I was flippinmg apges to see what happened, and that’s never a bad thing. It has the florid style mixed with the gently personal touch of a good manga. If you’re in the mood for a unique spin on fantasy, a space where dragons and elementals war with each other over broken Tokyo – then this book is worth your time.