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A few posts back, I wrote that the closest antecedent to the classic western pulp market is East Asian “light novels”, not western e-publishing. Translations of these books are becoming more frequent, but there’s still a huge amount that’s yet to be licensed or officially translated and probably never will be. The insanely short release schedules and sheer volume of work, coupled with the general disinterest of western readers and publishers in tackling translations in the first place, dictates against us getting more than a small window into grab-and-go novels geared towards teenagers and people who want a quick read on their commute. Yet unlike other languages, Japanese, and to a lesser extent Chinese and Korean, has a dedicated and active fan translation community that brings out work we otherwise would never see. The legality of these projects is dicey, but oftentimes its the only way to read these works if you’re not fluent in the language of origin and the only way they’d ever come to the attention of English-language publishers in the first place.

What I found was that some forms of storytelling from older English pulp that has largely died out on this side of the ocean is alive and well in Japan, as well as a certain young adult ethos that characterized older middle-grade fiction but not the current predominate mode of YA. These features were especially noticeable in two series that I breezed through this year (both not officially translated, alas). (more…)

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I always feel some trepidation when an author returns to a series after many years with a new installment—even when the book is good, it tends to miss something from the original, some spark that drove that series along. So, the news that Isuna Hasekura would release more Spice and Wolf came with some mixed feelings; Spice and Wolf was very much the comfort read I needed at the time I discovered it, but with seventeen books and a satisfying conclusion do we really need more? (more…)

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City and Swamp

Part I

Alasdair: The point you make about authoritarian regimes narrowing the scope of possibility for the future is an important one. Indeed, all of the major antagonists of the Wolfhound Empire trilogy are concerned with remaking the Vlast according to a singular vision. (more…)

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Lost in Leningrad

I read Peter Higgins’s Wolfhound Century after a strong recommendation from fellow blogger Alasdair Czyrnyj. He’ll join me in the next series of posts as we air our thoughts on the Wolfhound Empire trilogy one book at a time.

First, some background. Wolfhound Century takes place in the Vlast, a country bearing the heavy mark of the Soviet Union, manifested particularly in the city of Mirgorod, a swampy cement-covered place that evokes St. Petersburg back when it was called Leningrad. Vissarion Lom comes to Mirgorod to investigate the activities of erstwhile revolutionary Josef Kantor. This thriller-esque procedural plot largely takes a back seat to the cosmology and fantastic weirdness of the Vlast, caught in a struggle between stone angels and an endless forest, industrialized but in a way that incorporates the preternatural. Giants and golems wander the streets as labourers, unremarked but haunting in their normalcy.

I greatly enjoyed Wolfhound Century but I suspect that I was drawn to different aspects of the novel than Alasdair. So, to start off, Alasdair, what did you find so overwhelmingly compelling about Wolfhound Century, and why did you insist so strongly that I give it a go? (more…)

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Norwegian Wood

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I wouldn’t have picked up Norwegian Wood if it wasn’t by Haruki Murakami. The back cover promises semi-autobiographical recollections of college days. Those narratives makes up a respectable (but not overwhelming) chunk of contemporary literature in western countries and largely don’t fall into my wheelhouse, though at least coming out of a different culture adds another layer of interest on top of the more typical explorations of early-adult ennui.

The novel is still twice removed from the bulk of Murakami’s work–ambling narratives with fantastical elements that combine into a unique sense of atmosphere and isolated, detached moments of beauty. Norwegian Wood has none of the unreality lying at the heart of The Wind-up Bird Chronicle and Kafka by the Shore; it’s a more straightforward depiction of Tokyo in the late 1960s and the relationships formed by Toru Watanabe with two women as he’s on the cusp of turning 20. Elements of elegy and hints of nostalgia abound.

It was a slow read; I took Norwegian Wood in small doses over a long period of time and feel that matches the structure of the novel, itself unhurried and purposefully aimless. The other Murakami books I’ve read take the same relaxed approach to narrative, and that’s one of the reasons I like him. However, paradoxically, while Norwegian Wood cleaves closest to reality, bereft of the bizarre situations and undercurrents of the author’s other books, I found myself at far more of a distance from the work itself. I could not get a grasp on Watanabe, could not find points of connection with Naoko or Midori or Watanabe’s other friends. Watanabe is not significantly different from Murakami’s other protagonists, but it’s almost as if when those characters are faced with the baffling and strange they tap into a set of universal fears and an emotional space that makes them suddenly relatable. They come to occupy a space where I can feel the same things they do. Watanabe doesn’t face these things, and becomes locked away in his own thought processes, inscrutable to me from the outside.

And still, Norwegian Wood is well-measured, well-written. It remains Murakami’s most successful work financially, perhaps partly because it’s the most overtly erotic of his books. As far as sex scenes go, you could use this book to teach a class on them. That’s by no means the chief reason to read this; now, it appears as a generational marker, bottling up the era in an oddly efficient way. Yet it’s specificity to that era makes it less attractive to me than other Murakami: I’m more drawn to his manner of connecting the deep past and with the present through the timeless myths that run between them.

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I’m three-quarters of the way through Thomas Wharton’s The Shadow of Malabron and I’m just not feeling it–not the characters, not the world, not the story. Passages go by where I realize my inattentiveness several pages later, reading but not registering, and then having to flip back to figure out why Will is doing this thing or why the wolf is over there. Not a good sign, and one that chafes because Wharton’s glacially-paced Icefields kept me far more engaged. Much more happens in Shadow, yet the impact is much less. (more…)

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There are a lot of books on writing fiction, so many that I wonder just who’s buying them all. They’re either disproportionate to the people who actually sit down and write, or publishers can always count on writers (published and unpublished and self-published) to buy these books to the degree that releasing one is always a safe investment. Or else I’m missing something about the marketplace completely. (more…)

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