Rating: 4.5 stars
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Shinigami is the second book in the Takamagahara Monogatari series and is an epic, supernatural, historical with two intertwined, but doomed, love stories. The author recommends reading the novella Kogitsune first, but I think you could read them out of order and still be fine. In fact, I went back and re-read Kogitsume after this one, so I could better appreciate nuances of the novella I missed in the first read. The major benefit of reading in order is familiarity with language conventions and Shinto deities that are common in this medieval Japan setting.
Fujiwara no Hirotsugo, called Hiro for short, is the firstborn son of Umakai, a high-ranking member of the Fujiwara clan. Since birth, Hiro has been betrothed to his cousin, Princess Abe, a girl who will one day be Empress of Japan. Hiro and Abe are raised in proximity, and Abe, knowing she will never receive scolding, often goads Hiro into foolish and daring plans. Hiro is not completely like his family; he can see yokai, spirits of the Earth, and is often visited by Inari, the seven-tailed kitsune god of rice and prosperity. A kitsune is a fox yokai with magical powers of shapeshifting. Inari does not know why Hiro is different, only that he smells part-human and part-something else. Maybe a deity.
The story mainly follows Hiro growing up in the protective shelter of his wealthy and powerful family. Hiro is an anomaly within his hypermasculine family in that he is compassionate of the poor and loves nature. At age nine, Hiro discovers an urchin in their garden stealing rice to feed his sickly father, and he gives the boy, Ryu, food, medicine and clothing that will keep them both alive. Hiro discovers his god-power later, when one of his half-brothers kills a nightingale and Hiro is able to capture its soul and have Inari transfer it to another being. This first soul reaping creates Biko, a yokai who serves Hiro later in his punishment.
Hiro has another supernatural observer, from deep behind the veil of Yomi, the Land of the Dead. This god-observer plays many parts in the development of Hiro’s character and the plot of the story. As we watch Hiro grow, we know this story is told through the god-observer’s eyes, and he steps in to change Hiro’s fate to bring forth the god-power within Hiro. Hiro encounters Ryu many years after their first meeting—when they are both teen boys. Hiro is learning to take the census of his father’s crops and Ryu’s father is beaten near to death by one of Hiro’s orderlies. A recurrent theme for Hiro’s journey is that whenever he attempts kindness, the object of his kindness is left in a far worse situation than if Hiro had never intervened. In this case, Hiro’s intervention leads to Ryu being beaten and sold as a slave. Still, he is wealthy and his father is indulgent at times; Hiro buys Ryu to be his personal servant. As a sheltered teen approaching adulthood, Hiro did not understand that close proximity to Ryu would lead to a growing affection and eventual attraction, but it does. Again, his father’s indulgence allows Hiro to safely explore some level of physical intimacy with a male consort. Because Hiro would never force himself on the boy he desires but cannot have, his education pays off later.
Abe’s continued goading brings Hiro into knowledge that he does not understand—about the legacy of his family and their brutality in the world. This knowledge is augmented by his god-observer, who’s plans for the rebirth of his own love can only come at the great loss of Hiro.
I mentioned that there are two doomed love stories in this book. One is Hiro and Ryu, who do find love in one another, for a time. The other is between two brother gods who were violently separated by their father, the highest god in the Shinto pantheon. I don’t want to reveal too much of the details here, as it is a parallel love story to that of Hiro and Ryu, and doesn’t get fully explained until near the end. Ultimately, the survivor of this battle vowed to resurrect his lost love, and was further cursed by his father to three thousand years of loss. Hiro is the key to the rebirth of his love, and it is through pain and suffering that each man will keep his love alive.
A shinigami is a death god in the Japanese tradition. They are akin to Reapers within other faiths. The surviving god takes on the role of shinigami, a power that Hiro also has, and escorts souls to new bodies. Hiro has no knowledge that he is himself a carrier of another soul, and his powers stem from that soul’s abilities. Watching Hiro and Ryu fall in love is hard for his god-observer, but it is also necessary to the rebirth of his love. Further, the passage of a soul from Yomi requires the souls of a million lives, and this god has been playing a deep game within the Fujiwara clan to claim his required souls. Hiro’s heartbreak leads him down a similar path of his god-observer, and he vows to make all the necessary steps to ensure his beautiful Ryu can live on eternally.
While these love stories are “doomed,” they are also passionate and complex. Hiro’s love for Ryu and Ryu’s love for Hiro is blessed by the gods, but their lives are not. Hiro’s path has always been defined by tragedy, a status ensured by his great-great grandfather’s avarice and hunger for power. Generations of Fugiwara men have all been unknowingly cursed by the bargain their ancestor struck, and Hiro sees no shame in sacrificing more of their vapid and power-hungry lives to ensure Ryu’s eternal life. Inari plays an unwilling role in this, and Biko vows to be a guardian to Ryu for eternity.
Many aspects of medieval Japanese life are described in intimate detail, with an historical grounding of the story upon real touchstones. I could easily visualize the setting and scenarios from the lush and dramatic descriptions. I felt I was there, watching Hiro try and fail and try again. There were Fujiwaras in medieval Japan, and Hirotsugo was the last to fall—fighting to eradicate Buddhism from Japan. Intertwining the vices and actions of Shinto deities with the Fujiwara mission allowed for a creative fantasy centered within the history. My heart exploded at least twice for Hiro and Ryu, as well as for the brother gods and their suffering. So many times I wanted to reach through the veil myself and shake Hiro—telling him to stop listening to Abe and live a better life.
There are other stories to come and the first book, as I mentioned, seems to work as either an introduction to this one, or an Epilogue. I say this because it is set 300 years after Shinigami ends—tying up some plot points that are important. Nevertheless, this is not a romance. Do not expect a romantic happily ever after. Love lives on, but not in the forms we experienced in the book. Instead, expect times of love and deep passion countered by stoic and calculated plans to survive in the face of great loss. Fans of The Last Samurai or Shogun will likely be as captivated as I was.