Given that, as a civilization, we’ve had 80 years to adjust to Lovecraft, 90 to Dunsany, and 100 to Chambers, it seems like it would be difficult for a new twist to be added to their individual takes on fantasy and horror. However, that’s what Miyuke Miyabe’s “The Book of Heroes” manages to do.
The story begins with a young schoolgirl named Yuriko, who learns that her brother Hiroki attacked two schoolmates with a knife before disappearing. Struggling to understand why a good person like Hiroki would attack anyone, especially without mention of any problems he may have been through at school, Yuriko begins sleeping in his room. One night, in fevered dreams, she awakens to a book talking to her.
The book, Aju, is young as far as ancient tomes go. However, he is able to tell Yuriko what has happened to her brother: Hiroki has become a vessel for the King in Yellow. From there, Yuriko begins an adventure to save her brother, which takes her on an adventure from her uncle’s old shack filled with sentient books as old as the universe to the fictional universes of books themselves.
Now, a note as to the usage of the King in Yellow here. This story does not involve itself with a mindbending play relating to Lost Carcossa, or even any of the characters from Chambers’ collection of short stories. So what is the King in Yellow?
To first explain that, we have to delve into the idea of character archetypes. For those unfamiliar with the term, an archetype is a basic character mold, such as a hero, or a princess, or a bounty hunter. There are almost limitless different ways in which these characters can behave, as long as they adhere to a few basic rules, i.e. the hero goes on a quest to save the day, the princess needs to be in distress, etc. The Book of Heroes assumes a primordial “perfect” story, in which humans are vaguely aware of, and attempt to recreate at every opportunity. There is the pure, shining Hero, and the flipside of the coin, the King in Yellow.
The King in Yellow of the Book of Heroes is merely a nod to Chambers, who is cited in-story as writing the strongest vision of the archetype or part of the primordial story yet. In the original “The King in Yellow“, the King is a character in a play that causes everyone who’s read it to experience sanity slip. The collection of stories that Chambers produced is known as one of the first stories to be told by an unreliable narrator. Chambers’ color of choice for the King was yellow, symbolic of decadence and insanity. And so it is here: The King in Yellow of Miyabe’s imagination is the warped, twisted shell of the hero, the remnants of the powerful hero after unlimited power has distorted its view of reality.
The King in Yellow is the poison that Hiroki has taken. In exchange for unlimited power (for reasons yet unrevealed to Yuriko), Hiroki has condemned himself to become the King in Yellow. However, the books in the shack leave Yuriko a small degree of hope. If she can undertake a quest to contain the King in Yellow, there is a possibility that her brother can be saved. Yuriko jumps at the chance, and is soon transplanted into the realm of the Nameless Ones.
This is where the book veers from one brand of fantasy into another. The description of the Nameless Land reminded me very much of the heavily mythological works of Dunsany or the richly textured (and sometimes horrifying) lands of Lovecraft’s Dream Cycle (more specifically, Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath). The Nameless Land is a misty land devoid of color, outside of time, full of mind-bogglingly endless landscapes, and enormous buildings of non-Euclidean geometry. The land itself is inhabited by a hivemind, the million faces of the Nameless Ones. They bring Yuriko into one of the aforementioned buildings, and give her a quick (and confusing) run-down of the way the book’s universe works.
In short, the Nameless Land is from where all ideas flow, and to whence they return when forgotten. The center for all of this activity is the Great Wheels of Inculpation, where vast legions of Nameless Ones toil for interminable shifts in turning great rods that reach far into the sky. With the King in Yellow released from the Nameless Land by Hiroki, the Great Wheels are threatened. The King will slowly consume all stories, becoming closer to the primordial story, gaining power all the time. As stories are consumed, the Great Wheels spin faster and faster, releasing ideas at a faster rate. Finally, the King will have consumed every story, and the universe will collapse.
Once the sometimes dense work of world-building is shoveled out, the story picks up a very taut pace. If you can make it through the first 90 or 100 pages without wanting to put it down and never touch it again, you’ll enjoy the turns the story takes. With an idea of what she must do, Yuriko sets out on her quest to contain the King in Yellow, along with the help of an incomplete Nameless One (known as Sky), the book/mouse Aju, and a warrior of unknown origin, The Man of Ash.
The Book of Heroes could really be split into three world-building exercises – modern Japan, the Nameless Land, and a fictional fantasy world that seems vaguely reminiscent of George R.R. Martin’s Westeros. Each have their own mythologies and histories, and Miyabe deftly jumps between them when the story thread in each seems to be unraveling.
This book was an exercise in the type of fantasy I like most: journeys in distant lands, with experiences far outside of what could be called “normal” in our world. The story seems to always be toeing the line between comprehensible and becoming lost in its own mythology. For a story that seems to be an homage to Chambers, Dunsany, Lovecraft, that’s a fine compliment to be paid, although not necessarily one that will resonate with readers. It takes a particular taste to enjoy this kind of fantasy, but if you’re a fan of any of the above authors, I would recommend checking it out.
Rating: 8/10 – The story drags in places, and infodumps related to world-building are a little dense and confusing, even if some of the details are relevant to the story later on. Otherwise, The Book of Heroes is a richly imagined universe filled with well-rounded, if sometimes mysterious characters.
I am tempted to write a little more detail into why the Nameless Land is Dunsanian/Lovecraftian, but I have two problems with doing so. One is that even delving into much detail is slightly spoilerific, while another reason is that I don’t have the book handy, so even if I were to spend a post elaborating, I’d have to do it from memory, which isn’t doing the topic justice. Alas, this will have to wait for a later post…