Yamada Mongartari: To Break the Demon Gate
by Richard Parks
To Break the Demon Gate was written in 2014, by Richard Parks. Mr. Parks is a Mississippi native who currently inhabits New York with his wife; and veteran author of short stories who has only recently started writing full blown novels. While this is the first work of Mr. Parks I've read, looking at a list of his work there is a certain bend towards Japanese influenced fantasy. It's kinda interesting how wide spread Japanese works and influence is in North America. I'm certainly not immune to it, the first work from outside the Anglo sphere (English speaking nations, pretty much the United Kingdom and former colonies) was a Japanese light novel. Part of this is the sheer amount of Japanese work that makes it to North America. Speaking for myself when I was growing up in the 1980s and 90s, my choices were often English fiction, American fiction or Japanese fiction. Back then, that last was mostly in the form of anime but that did spark an interest in the culture of Japan in a lot of people. That's not entirely one sided either, anime was inspired by Disney Animations. To be honest if I had to guess, I would say that Japanese works are often foreign enough to be new and interesting but influenced enough by American works that it's not completely bewildering.
To Break the Demon Gate, fits into that. It's set in a semi-historical feudal Japan where ghosts, demons and more are real and drop by way to often for comfort. Our main character, Yamada Mongartari is a broke washed-up minor nobleman who now works as “nobleman's proxy”: solving mysteries and problems for the wealthy and powerful who need these issues resolved quietly and discretely. When he's not working, he's drunk. Mostly to forget his failures and personal loses. In other words, he's a noir private eye. In feudal Japan. With magic and ghosts. You could stick him in the Maltese Falcon and he would work just fine! I can almost hear Mr. Parks yelling at the top of his lungs ‘Genre conventions be damned I want my Japanese ghosts in my detective story!’ The thing of it is, it works masterfully in this novel. Yamada is an interesting character, the mysteries he's hired to solve are complex, strange and help to pull you in. Additionally, Mr. Parks clearly has an understanding of Japanese history and culture and unlike a lot of writers goes to the pre-Shogunate era, to a time when the court of the Emperor of Japan did actually rule Japan. This is a very neglected period, so it gets bonus points from me. When I read this book I actually feel like I'm reading a noir mystery that could happen in a ghost ridden Japan of that bygone age. Additionally, there is an attention to detail in the time period that I enjoy. Characters communicate by exchanging poems (something the nobles of the time did to both show off their education and maintain a level of privacy in their communications). The word samurai isn't used as it hasn't come into vogue yet, instead the warrior class are referred to as Bushi and they're not at the top of the totem pole yet, so they mostly serve as retainers to the noble class. The Taira and Minamoto clans are both referenced although their confrontation in the Genpei wars hasn't happened yet. Instead the story takes place during the Taira domination of the Imperial Court (made possible by their strategy of getting the Emperor married to a Taira princess as often as possible without causing massive inbreeding). However conflict between them and the provincial Minamoto clan (whose claim to power is they're doing all the actual fighting against rebels and barbarians to the north) is on an upswing.
Before I get into that let me get into some of the characters, first off we have a character who doesn't actually have a lot of screen time but looms large over the plot: Princess Teiko, 2nd wife of the former Emperor, mother of the current heir to the throne (imperial succession was complicated). While we don't get to see a lot of her, her actions shape a lot of the plot. She acts with one goal on her mind, to ensure that her son gets crowned Emperor of Japan. She does this using every tool and person at her disposal--including herself--with a ruthlessness that is actually rather shocking in its purity. In fact I'm going to note that frankly she is the most ruthless character in this book. For all that, she's not malicious or violent. In fact she's actually a fairly sympathetic character, showing that sometimes ruthlessness is wasted on the wicked. Alongside her is her brother Prince Kanemore, who wants nothing more than to renounce his title, start his own clan and hack his own fief from the howling wilderness. For that to happen his nephew must take the throne. Prince Kanemore not only is a friend to our main character Yamada but also serves as patron, ally and conduit into the halls of power where a lot of the struggle takes place. He's also serves as kind of a straight man to Yamada's sneaky cleverness at times. On the other end of society we have the vagabond exorcist Buddhist Priest Kenji. We don't find out a lot about Kenji in this book but we do find out that while somewhat reliable (when sober) Kenji wears his vows lightly (hence the sober remark). That said, he's often a useful ally to Yamada and helps shines a light on supernatural matters. Arrayed against them is Lord Sentaro of the Taira clan, who himself is wealthy, powerful and ruthless in the pursuit of his goal. Placing a son of the Emperor and Taira princess on the throne of Japan. To that end he will lie, cheat, steal and even murder men, women and helpless children; and sleep contently because he honestly believes such a goal is worth any sacrifice. I honestly love villains like this. Lord Sentaro isn't in this for primarily personal gain (he's already at the very top of his social structure) he's playing for the benefit and enrichment of his family and his family's family unto the 10th generation. Lord Sentaro is a vile human being in a lot of ways but he's one I can understand and even respect. I'd still recommend shooting the bastard mind you, but I can respect and hate a person at the same time.
The conflict between the Taira clan and the various other clans clan over control of the Imperial court under-girds the whole book, providing the basic conflict but the book avoids focusing on that. Instead it's about the personalities and their conflicts that really take center stage. This isn't just a dynastic struggle between two family groups. It's a personal struggle between Yamada, who is fighting for people he loves and cares for, against a man he hates. After all it was Lord Sentaro who got Yamada ousted from the Imperial court in the first place. Meanwhile Lord Sentaro blames Yamada for his failure to get his candidate chosen as heir to the throne. So both these men are carrying large grudges against each other and would really love if if the other guy could just... Fuck off and die already. On top of this are a number of characters with their own secret motivations and desires that I can't discuss for risk of spoilers. Those motivations however cause actions that end up steering the plot in many ways and it's how Yamada and Lord Sentaro navigate and deal with those actions that display their virtues and vices. Throw in a number of unexplained murders, a supernatural uproar and plots within plots and you have a really fun story.
The characterization is downright amazing,the attention to detail both historical and plot-wise are very well done (he has most payments being made in rice! Yamada pays his rent in rice! Everyone forgets that detail about Japan, a lot of payments were made in rice!). The dialogue can be a bit stilted to western ears as Mr. Parks adopts a more formal way of speaking with his characters (which also makes sense as most of them are upper class noblemen with an education, not to mention that Japanese has a formal form of the language that English just lacks entirely. Translating would also lend to the stilted feeling.) which may be a problem for some readers, although it honestly didn't bother me. That said I did grow up with the King James Bible so any work that doesn't have Thees and Thous (there is no such thing in this book, just a formal tone in speaking) is honestly not that difficult for me. Perchance if thou had hast my training in thy youth, thou wouldst tread upon the same path as I. There is an issue with pacing as well. Mr. Parks did most of his writing in short stories and it shows here, so in a lot of ways this book reads more like a series of interconnected short stories than a full length novel with a single story. On the one hand, I kinda like that and I can say that Mr. Parks manages to do in 50 pages what more than a few of the recent books I've read couldn't do in over 300. That is: tell me a story with a middle, beginning and ending! On the other hand, he should consider working a bit harder to develop stronger interconnections between chapters. In total it didn't impact my appreciation of the story; it was still quite easy to follow; and at least I didn't feel like the last 75 pages or so was a headlong rush to wrap everything up because oh crap we've run out of novel (you know who you are. You know!). Your mileage may vary on Mr. Park's pacing though, so be aware of that going in.
All in all I really enjoyed the book. It's not often I read a story before the Genpei Wars in Japan and less often that I read a story set in a Japan that never was that's not about samurai doing samurai things to each other. On top of that, I appreciated the noir style of the tale and characterization, but the same time the story didn't leap headfirst into the darkness that lot of modern noir tales tends towards. I also enjoy a story willing to defy rules like when and where certain stories are suppose to take place and do it well. The pacing issues and the dialogue may detract from the enjoyment and sadly do bring the grade down on this book, but I am also left more than willing to read more of Mr. Parks work and certainly would like to see more of Yamada. After the last couple books, this was a welcome breath of fresh air and I am glad not to be taking a veteran writer to task but to celebrate their work instead. Because of this I am awarding Yamada Monogatari: To Break the Demon Gate by Richard Parks a B+. Let's see if we can keep up the good times right?
Next week, we return to light novels for a bit as I need kind of a brain dump before tackling one of the historical non-fictions on my shelf demanding that I get over here and learn something. See you then.
This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.