The Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy have reviews all over the Internet! There are many and they aren't all here. Or there. Or over there, either. It's just the way the Internet works.
These books can't be confined to any usual Western genre, though I've tried because readers like to know something of what they're getting. The themes, situations and vocabulary are often very adult. The culture portrayed is different from that of the West, and that means things just simply aren't done or conceived of in the same way. They feature young people as well as adults of all ages. Ethics and morals derive from different sources and are just not the same. Romance as the West defines it doesn't exist. Sex is an extremely private matter. Murder, death, war and professional killers are routine parts of life. Are these books Middle Grade, Young Adult, New Adult or All Ages? Have a look and decide for yourself.
Reviews from readers and others appear at Amazon, Rakutan/Kobo, Apple Books, B & N, Goodreads and at other retailers, associated with each book. Most editorial and some reader reviews are at the publishers or retailers, but not always, and those are not always associated with the new editions of some of the books. Some retailers have branches in different countries, and the reviews don't seem to have passports. Keeping track is like chasing rainbows or catching falling stars.
Here are some reviews and some links to reviews so you can see how other people react to these fun and fantastical tales from the Meiji Era. Please do write your own at the retailer of your choice and if you want it considered for publication here, feel free to send it in a message using the Contact form.
The Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy Series (7 Books) by Claire Youmans NEW!
Splendid, nuanced, and unfailingly entertaining middle-grade read….
Part history, part folklore, and part fiction, Youmans’s vivid, deeply intriguing, and seemingly small story of a sibling pair, children who can turn into birds, tells a much larger tale of the Meiji era Japan.
The Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy, the series kickoff expertly sets the stage for upcoming adventures of the sibling pair, Azuki and Shota. Wealth and luck bestow Chizuyo and Hachibei after arrival of their daughter Azuki, a Toki bird who can turns into a human child. The family becomes complete after Shota, a Sparrow bird that can turn into a human child, joins as Azuki’s younger brother. But Azuki’s precious feathers get the family into trouble after Hasegawa Genmai, Hachibei’s friend and a malicious overlord, decides to get Azuki for himself to procure her valuable feathers. With their parents killed, the siblings are separated, but they must return home or risk losing their ability to live in human society forever. Azuki and Shota are back home, dreaming about living peacefully in the human world in the second installment. But among the chaos and uncertainty of the war, the siblings are forced to live with traveling monk Yuta as a boy acolyte and a pet sparrow. Discovery of a precious asset forces the trio to visit the capitol and relay the information to the properly appointed Lord Eitaro. But the malicious DaiTengu wants Azuki’s feathers for its wind-making fans. Their life has become normal once again for the sibling pair in the third installment. Azuki and Shota are finally content living with Uncle Yuta. But when Azuki suddenly becomes ill, Shota sets out to find Tsuruko, the legendary Crane-girl, hoping she could help Azuki. Renko, the Dragon Princess, is torn between fulfilling her parents’ opposing wishes. Meanwhile, there is trouble brewing in the sea in the form of the Umi-Bozu patrol. Uncle Yuta’s life has become extremely complicated with everyone dual-natured around him in the fourth installment. If being dual-natured is not difficult enough, Azuki, Shota, and Renko are growing fast and with that becoming a challenge to deal with. And Japan is evolving as well: with changing times, the country is ready to introduce a new system of education. Yuta must prepare himself to guide his family through the storm of change. In the fifth installment, Youmans takes readers on Uncle Yuta’s newly married bride, Noriko’s, journey as she settles in her new home, surrounded by plenty of dual-natured children while trying to unravel the hidden secrets of her past. The Dragon-sisters Renko and Otohime’s destiny may lie among their ability to come to terms with their dual-nature after twist of fate leaves them drained of their powers in the sixth installment. In the seventh installment, Youmans introduces new characters as Azuki, Shota, and Renko struggle to adjust as dual-natured people in an ever-changing Japanese society as Japan sets on to embrace Western ideas and technology, including education in order to compete in the civilized world.
Full of grace and distinctive imagery, Youmans’s storytelling is articulate and suave. She’s deft at portraying relationships and inner thoughts and skillfully digs into her characters’ turbulent psyches. With their lives caught between two worlds, the siblings struggle to adjust as dual-natured people. She makes their emotional turmoil, inner conflicts, pain, heartaches, and desires both deeply affecting and intimate, giving ample voice to their hardships as well as their accomplishments. Azuki and Shota both have their own struggles, and although Shota makes for a memorable character, it’s Azuki who steals the show. With her quick wit and big personality, Azuki commands the spotlight. Despite her inner conflict that arises from her being a dual-natured person, she never has problem finding her own voice. The story’s chief appeal lies in Azuki, Shota, Renko, and various secondary characters’ ability to shapeshift. Youmans skillfully explores the vast changes in Japanese society that lead to the country’s embracing of Western education, leaving readers with lots to ponder. The children’s dangerous quests as they face malevolent enemies and perilous circumstances give the fantastical spreads breathtaking drama and splendor, while their resilience in the face of difficulties conveys the message of the importance of summoning one’s own power and never losing hope. Generous doses of cultural insights and the people’s ways of living throughout bolster this fascinating, engrossing tale of dreamy derring-do. Youmans’s descriptions of landscapes are poetic, and the worldbuilding nuanced. Egrets, mountain ogres, dragons, Tengu, the bird-humanoids, various types of bird-children, the outcasts, and bandits in the middle of all the uncertainty and chaos of the Meiji era Japan come out alive, leaving readers feel exhilarated. As the children grow older, so does the nation. Youmans’s smoothly paced narrative and crisp prose keep the pace quick, while the mix of folklore, Japanese culture, and traditional way of living help the story feel both fresh and timeless. And just like the traditional folklores, Azuki and Shota’s tale is as much about journey as it’s about destination. Though there are pains and heartaches, the overall story is lighthearted. Dominated by rich warm tones, the accompanied interior art, the Japanese Woodblock Prints which are contemporary to the time in which the stories take place, is exquisite. With its soothing and magical quality of a fairytale, the artwork seems at par with the timeless subject matter. Youmans is a natural storyteller who’s created a vibrant and cinematic series that young readers are going to love. This is a must-read for middle graders.
The Shadows of War (8) NEW!!
For: Independent Book Review
Shapeshifting children delight in the exuberance of flight in this immersive historical fantasy
The Shadows of War, the eighth book in Claire Youmans's The Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy series, centers on the antics of shapeshifting children and regal dragons who live in a fantasy version of Meiji-era Japan.
Their beautiful, innocent world is touched at its borders by the wars waged by adults. This novel and its cast of characters will appeal to readers who seek energetic dialogue and emotional gentleness.
The series is named for the girl Azuki and the boy Shota who can both transform into birds. Their adoptive parents in Kyushu have already died, and the siblings have gone forth into the world. At the beginning of The Shadows of War, Azuki and Shota see Japanese ships heading south through the Genkai-Nada Channel. No one knows how far they might go: to the Ryukyu Islands, or even Formosa? Meanwhile, news of the secession of the southern region of Satsuma is announced.
The story is set in the late 19th century, so horses and boats are prominent. Readers learn about Japanese culture at the time, including calligraphy, painted scenes on fusuma sliding doors, matcha-flavored cookies, and tea; the Setsubun holiday ritual to cast out demons; and the apparent influence of the West, such as a growing preference for cotton over silk robes. An inquiry into unexplained phenomena leads toward the possibility of a mischievous ghost called a "zashiki-warashi" ("guest room child"). Horseback riders practice tachisukashi: standing in the stirrups while aiming a bow and arrow.
For younger readers, the exuberant scenes of learning to fly will be especially delightful to read aloud or act out. Talking dragons and birds experiment with the moving air in thermal columns. "We can grip talons and fly one up and one down and flip each other," the eagle-boy Akira explains. "We use the thermals to ascend as a pair, then break and dive to come together again just above the waves and rise again, circling." Fellow shapeshifters also help teach the small, growing boy Susu the basics of flying.
Older readers may be interested in following intricate social networks and their formal interactions. There are also character relationships that will interest different readers on different levels, as, for example, when two dragons quietly evolve their friendship. The dragons spend time talking in a magnificent cavern where one of them, elegant and artistic, has built a throne in "a smooth dragon-sized basin" surrounded by igneous rock "like natural lava to create a high back" and then "to meld smoothly into the cavern floor."
The novel repeatedly observes that individual shapeshifters may prefer to inhabit one of their forms, human or animal. Though the person may give a reason for the form they prefer, a reason isn't really necessary. This cleverly reveals characters' personalities and describes the real-life concept of personality.
Young readers of varying ages will find much to appreciate in The Shadows of War. They are given a rich description of what it was like to live in Meiji-era Japan, and they are offered the chance to imagine what it is like to have wings.
The Eagle and the Sparrow (7)
For: Readers' Favorites
The Eagle and the Sparrow is a work of fiction in the historical and fantasy sub-genres and was penned by author Claire Youmans. The seventh novel in the Toki-Girl and the Sparrow Boy collection, the work is suitable for readers of all ages, though it does accurately reflect the uglier side of Japanese culture and history as much as the beauty. Set in the Meiji Era in 1875, the story continues as dual-natured beings discover the difficulties of living as humans amid tumultuous and changing times. As characters fall in love, are separated and face various heartaches, so the ensemble comes together against the backdrop of wickedness, selfishness, and greed in Japan.
Author Claire Youmans has crafted a fascinating and truly unique fantasy series that delves deep into Japanese folklore and stays true to the core values of its culture and historical heritage. I particularly enjoyed the characterization of Shota the Sparrow-Boy, who feels his duty painfully but is also going through an important emotional crisis during this tale. The geographical settings of the piece mix well with the folklore elements, and the various characters’ ability to fly, which allows us more scope and more beautifully described vistas and locations as the novel progresses. Highly suitable for teen readers and upwards, there is much to learn in the accurate history that the author weaves amongst her fantasy storylines, and overall I would highly recommend The Eagle and the Sparrow as a must-read for those seeking original fantasy works from other cultures.
Diane Donovan, Editor
Donovan's Literary Services
For: Midwest Book Review/Bookwatch
Author of San Francisco Relocated
The Eagle and the Sparrow
978-1-733-9020-3-8 $14.99 Paper/$5.99 Kindle
B & N: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-eagle-and-the-sparrow-claire-youmans/1137056626;jsessionid=10737C43794701A57ABADD738C8B20B2.prodny_store02-atgap14?ean=9781733902045&st=AFF&2sid=Draft2Digital_7968444_NA&sourceId=AFFDraft2Digital
Amazon Kindle: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B088Q41HF7
The 7th book in the magical realism fantasy series 'The Toki-Girl and the Sparrow Boy' will delight prior enthusiasts of the Japanese-centered story set in the 1800s. Here, bird-humans Toki-Girl Azuki and Eagle-Boy Akira and a host of others who exist on the cusp of two very different worlds continue their search for what it means to be and live in human society as something not entirely human.
Subject to changing forms, their struggle to stay human or integrate elements of their humanity with their animal side creates barriers and tests of courage as their dual natures vie with matters of the heart.
Folklore about Japan's Meiji era blends into a compelling saga that requires no prior familiarity with Japanese history, but will best be absorbed by prior series fans with a complete command of the environment in which Sparrow-Boy Shota faces his greatest challenge, which pits his heart against his duty.
Claire Youmans creates a vivid story of young people of 'dual nature' who struggle with a multitude of responsibilities, ambitions, threats, and puzzles stemming both from their natures and the world around them. This dichotomy and contrast between inner and outer states of being inserts a satisfying moral and ethical dynamic, as well as much psychological tension, into a story that evolves and continues to expand both the abilities and the dilemmas of these special folk.
Lovely black and white drawings pepper the tale, adding to its atmosphere and reinforcing the feel of Japanese culture with art.
Can dual-natured children grow up to honor both their heritages? The back and forth struggles as they attempt to achieve this and other impossible goals is depicted in lovely language in many thought provoking scenes such as this: "You want to be a human; you want Irtysh to be a human. I want our children to be dragons first. They must be dragons first and foremost! Sugaar must live with me so he learns that. Renko was almost killed because of your insistence on her humanity.”
As Akira faces equally powerful changing forces in Japanese society, he revises his vision of his place in it: "We have to take up our rightful positions in society. We're Samurai. We belong in the military. We should lead the military. We can't let the riff-raff simply kick us out, national army or no.”
While young people are the focus of this and all the Toki stories, this tale is far more complex and multifaceted than a young audience alone could absorb. It's recommended for mature young adult to adult readers of magical realism and fantasy. It offers an adventure that probes the forces of society and those divided by their heritage, special abilities, and uncertain place in the world.
The numerous references to Japanese history and culture throughout will delight adult readers interested in the forces shaping the politics, society, and psychological nature of the Japanese. The cultural and social clashes in The Eagle and the Sparrow form a highly recommended continuation to a series in which each already-extraordinary individual is forced to revise their paths, dreams, and ultimate strengths in response to a rapidly changing world.
The Eagle and the Sparrow
For: Independent Book Review
Light-hearted mythical beings develop strong friendships in this enchanting exploration of Japanese history
In 1875, in a magical version of Meiji-Era Japan, there are fairies, dragons, and dual beings: humans who shapeshift into animals and creatures. This is Book 7 in Claire Youmans’ The Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy series, appropriate for middle-grade readers.
The ibis-girl Azuki and the sparrow-boy Shota (who both appear in previous books) are siblings who have lost their adoptive parents. They have befriended Renko, a “mixed heritage” Asian-European dragon princess who gives them rides. Renko’s older brother, Irtysh, a European dragon prince, frolics in his Lake of Jewels, made brilliant with lights that “spread rainbow beams through prisms mounted in the ceiling and sparkled off the gemstones,” and he courts the attention of the Asian dragon princess Otohime. Azuki and Shota have also befriended Akira, an eagle-boy. As the story opens, they must help him recover from an injury.
Through the reality-based setting, this story—despite its obvious fantasy elements— teaches young readers about the truths of Japanese social history. On one instance, the boys enjoy an outing on a fishing boat in the harbor, and they learn that nations are manufacturing weapons to prepare for war. The author studied Japan for many years, and her knowledge comes through clearly.
The characters will entertain young readers with their light, cheerful banter. These dual beings also aim to impress as they experiment with the limits of their physical and fantastical powers. The premise that it is normal to shapeshift into animals and back again may open minds and inspire children. “You aren’t only an eagle,” Akira’s host tells him. “You are also human, and you need to be able to live as one.”
The dual beings’ biological and magical mechanisms aren’t fully described, and readers just have to take the author’s word that their bodies operate in certain ways. For example, the dragons possess Wishing Rocks to communicate; these tools allow them to hear one another’s voices at a distance, and we are simply told that “nobody was quite sure how Wishing Rocks worked.” Dragons can also form air bubbles around themselves to aid them when they dive underwater or fly to high elevations, and the bubbles’ containers are sturdy enough that large birds cannot pop them, but there’s no explanation of how the dragons create such shells. And one dragon, despite not having the inherent power to shapeshift, nevertheless manages “to create a simulacrum of a human form”—which seems to amount to the same thing.
One of the strengths of this book lies in how the half-human characters contemplate their special powers. As a dragon asks the eagle-boy: “What would you do if you could do anything?” These moments let the reader stop to think about what they would do if they spread their arms and their arms became wings. This gentle romp through a detailed historical landscape will expand horizons for any curious reader. IndieBookView@gmail.com
For: Readers' Favorites
The Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy is book 7 in The Eagle and the Sparrow series by Claire Youmans, a fascinating entry in a series set in the Meiji Era between 1875 and 1876. It is a period of transformation, with new inventions and systems that deeply affected how people related to themselves and how they saw the world around them. In this narrative, the author weaves a yarn that captures the colorful and adventurous folklore of Japanese culture. Toki-Girl Azuki finds out about the Eagle-Boy Akira from a distant Hokkaido, but can his dual nature allow him to live with her family? Sparrow-Boy has his own struggles and as much as he wants to help Akira, he must overcome his own limitations. Irtysh is a dual-natured Western Dragon Prince who is in love and devastated by the thought that his love might not be reciprocated.
Claire Youmans transports readers to the Japanese world of folklore and shares stories of characters that are not-so-normal, dual-natured humans struggling with historical changes happening around them. It is against the backdrop of a changing world that these characters seek love, friendship, freedom, and acceptance. Written in a style that is enticing, The Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy is permeated by realism. The characters are compelling and while some of the key characters are dual-natured, their humanity is beautifully captured in the stories, and readers can easily feel their pain and relate to their thrills and frustrations. I enjoyed the gorgeous writing that is filled with vivid descriptions, the deft handling of the plot, and the author’s gift for character. But the world into which this novel pulls the reader is what sets the story apart.
For: Readers' Favorites
Claire Youmans' seventh book in the Japanese fantasy folklore The Toki-Girl and the Sparrow series, The Eagle and the Sparrow comes on the heels of its popular predecessors Coming Home, Chasing Dreams, Together, Uncle Yuta has an Adventure, Noriko's Journey, The Dragon Sisters, and the prequel The Sparrows of Pussan. Azuki and her brother Shota are what Youmans calls dual-natured. They are among a special group that can take a form that is either human or bird living in historical Japan. In the form of a beautiful and rare Toki bird, Azuki moves between the coexisting world of her animal family and her human family alongside her sparrow-human brother Shota. Among their friends is an eagle-human named Akira that is nursed back to health and keen to connect himself to the family. The story is told from different point of view characters that also include an almost all-knowing and all-seeing Western Dragon Prince named Irtysh in an interconnecting subplot that bonds two worlds and themes of sacrifice, longing, love, solidarity, change, uncertainty, and danger.
The Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy is so much more than just another fantasy series and The Eagle and the Sparrow cements Claire Youmans as a premier author of Japanese mythology. Azuki and Shota are joined as sister and brother, but also as orphans who are coming of age at the same time that Japan as a country is doing the same. Surprisingly, my favorite character is the omniscient Dragon Prince Irtysh who is cloaked in an air of mystery around his motivations and has his insecurities exposed with love and human impersonation even as an authoritative figure. Azuki is a good and kind protagonist with a strength of character. Shota is equally good and kind but doesn't possess as much of Azuki's intuition and this puts him and Akira in grave danger when they try to carry out a plan to sell fish. Even though the book is part of a series, it can technically be read as a standalone but without the backstory that unfolds in the previous books readers will miss out on a lot of the plot's context and could easily get lost with the volume of characters. Youmans does provide a glossary of terms and descriptions of things that would be unfamiliar to most readers, but having read this installment I now want to go back and start the series from its first book. It's too good not to.
For: Readers' Favorites
The Eagle and the Sparrow by Claire Youmans is the seventh book in the historical fantasy fiction series The Toki-Girl and the Sparrow Boy. Set during the 19th-century Meiji era, a time of rapid change and Western influence in Japanese history, the storyline continues from the previous books wherein the protagonist is Azuki, a girl who shapeshifts into the beautiful Crested Ibis, a Toki, and her brother Shota takes the Sparrow form. Through a blend of Japanese folklore, therianthropy, and detailed period history, Azuki brings home her injured friend named Akira, a boy who is also dual-natured and can shift into a Sea Eagle. Akira struggles to find his place in the human world while Shota must learn how to manage the family estate, an overwhelming prospect, and one fraught with a tenuous past wherein Azuki had to sacrifice pieces of herself. It's not long before Azuki is tested again when Shota and Akira find themselves forced into the fringes of servitude.
The Eagle and the Sparrow is a wonderfully imaginative book that breathes life into historic fables for a new generation of readers. Claire Youmans is a master storyteller with descriptions that are vividly constructed and a narrative that is simple to follow, even with the use of some Japanese words and a large cast of ancillary characters. I particularly enjoyed the portrayal of Japan in the throes of an industrial and societal transformation through the eyes of the youth who have only known a notoriously homogeneous and devoutly traditional country. There is a scene where they are discussing new food types from other East Asian countries with keen interest, cementing the curious nature lent to both their age and personalities. All of this is woven together with gorgeous artwork throughout to complete a book that has a great deal to offer readers of all ages
Coming Home (1)
“The Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy is an imaginative and unique tale full of captivating settings, mesmerizing fantastical elements, and unforgettable characters. Author Claire Youmans spins a truly lovely story.” See the entire review and an interview at:
"Shota and Azuki's epic journey is a great read and it simply flies along." Kirkus.
"Claire Youmans' "The Toki-Girl & The Sparrow-Boy is a must have for any collection of literary works. The book is loaded with interesting bites of Japanese Folklore, European culture and offers a diverse group of general behavior within a framework of mysticism that follows solid guidelines of truth." Ankh Entertainment, with video interview.
Chasing Dreams (2)
There's one for Book Two, too.
…”a lovely tale full of sparking imagination, memorable characters and wondrous fantasy elements.”
…”unforgettable and likeable characters.”
“Like book one…an exciting and charming read.”
“timelessly classic and fresh.”
OnlineBookClub.Org has reviews for ALL SIX books -- start with this one and keep on going.
"The author definitely does a good job accurately depicting traditional Japanese culture and making it easy to understand."
"The Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy is an imaginative and unique tale full of captivating settings, mesmerizing fantastical elements, and unforgettable characters." Review + interview:
"...a great read and it simply flies along." Kirkus.
"Claire Youmans' The Toki-Girl & The Sparrow-Boy is a must have."
youtu.be/_tFgt6pjEFw (The Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy); youtu.be/W6JSZ8zy-74 (The Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy, Book Two, Chasing Dreams)
[Following is the official OnlineBookClub.org review of "The Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy (series)" by Claire Youmans.]
4 out of 4 starsShare This Review
Just about this time last year, I wrote a review for a book titled Chasing Dreams, which was the second volume of The Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy series by Claire Youmans. This year, I am back with a review for Together, the third installment of The Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boyseries. As I mentioned in my previous review, I did not read the first book in the series, which might have made reading the second book a bit more challenging. However, this time around, I did not feel like there were any problems following the story in this third book. Even with the passage of an entire year between reading the two volumes, it was easy for me to pick up this book and continue the story. Despite a lot of returning characters, I found that Together works pretty well as a standalone novel, as long as you can easily accept that the characters just know each other, without worrying about how they know each other (which is covered in the previous two novels).
Set in Japan sometime during the Meiji period (1868-1912), this book picks up where the previous book left off. Azuki, who has the ability to transform herself into the majestic toki bird, and Shota, her younger brother who can turn into a sparrow, have just returned to their home in Western Japan with their new guardian. Shota has taken up studying and sailing, and Azuki keeps herself occupied with weaving to make kimonos and other traditional textiles. When Azuki is suddenly ill, especially in her toki form with patches of missing feathers, Shota sets off on a mission to track down and seek help from the supposedly mythology Crane-woman.
The fun part about this book is the combination of actual history and mythological fantasy. I consider myself rather well-educated in Japanese culture, and this book presents so many elements absolutely perfectly (from my Western point of view, that is). There are also images of real, credited artwork at the start of each chapter that actually coincide with the events of the story, and this only enhances the enjoyment of the book. The bits and pieces of history and mythology that are woven into this story are so well done, it’s difficult to tell where the true history ends and the mythology begins.
When I read the previous book in this series, I remember getting a bit bored from some of the political and cultural information presented in the story. This time around, on the other hand, I never once felt such a negative experience. Explanations about food, clothing, and other customs, though not new to me, were presented in a fun and interesting manner that young readers could easily follow. There was even a helpful glossary at the end of the book with brief explanations of different items/terms that were mentioned throughout the story.
I absolutely adored this book, and, aside from maybe a single typo (not even worth mentioning as a negative, since I didn’t even bother taking note of it), I could find nothing at all to complain about. I gladly give this book a rating of 4 out of 4 stars and recommend it to those who are interested in Japanese culture or who just enjoy historical tales containing fantasy and adventure. Though this book is intended for children (middle-grade readers), adults like me should love it as well.
Uncle Yuta has an Adventure (4)
Independent Book Review:
Noriko's Journey (5)
Diane Donovan, Senior Reviewer, Midwest Book Review
http://www.midwestbookreview.com/mbw/aug_18.htm#donovan (click on Donvan's Bookshelf or scroll down)
Noriko's Journey: The Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy
9780990323495, $14.99 Paper/$4.99 Kindle
Noriko's Journey is Book 5 in the The Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy series and follows Azuki (a girl who incorporates the elements of a Toki bird with its beautiful plumage), sparrow-boy Shota, and Noriko, who has her own secrets and alter-identity. In this Japanese setting, the boundaries between human and animal are blurred, and special abilities and struggles juxtapose with everyday life changes from an uncle's marriage and new wife Noriko's challenge to accept her niece and nephew's secrets to a coming child who may be more crane than human.
In fact, they aren't the only ones to wonder if the next generation will be entirely stable: in this fantasy version of Japan, nothing is certain, and secrets abound within and between families. It will take a journey of challenge, acceptance, and change before Noriko can fully integrate her new position in life with its myriad demands and uncertainties.
While the story centers around two children who can turn into birds and their relationships with very different worlds, it also focuses on Japanese history and culture, the changing perspectives and dilemmas of those who traverse this odd world and its changing landscapes, and is especially strong in presenting the motivations and perceptions of inhabitants who, in one way, are very Japanese in their shrewd assessments of marriage proposals and life: "Toyoda-san was shrewd, Yuta thought. Marrying a second wife who was an older and experienced business-woman might be one way to acquire a cheap housekeeper and property manager. Yuta concluded that Toyoda-san was truly fond of Noriko and didn't want to see her dazzled by the offer of a late marriage to her ultimate detriment. He decided to forgive Toyoda-san's bad manners."
The surprising depth of the story comes from its focus and reflections on Japanese social strata and cultural inspection: "Noriko was one of the new women, she thought, the ones she read about, the independent ones who questioned traditional society and social roles. Religious life formed a part of traditional society, but Noriko wasn't the type to take that road, Satsuki could tell. Monasteries were for believing Buddhists, or those willing to pretend to be. Satsuki knew without asking that Noriko had never considered it. What she wanted to know was how samurai or aristocratic women functioned outside the system of marriage and family connections without becoming part of the floating world of entertainers. That was another refuge for upper-class women willing to sacrifice respectability for security and sometimes power. Noriko had avoided that, too."
This lends a profundity and series of real-world revelations unexpected in a fantasy setting, giving Noriko's Journey: The Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy a credible element of not just believability, but astute insights into the perceptions and social connections of the Japanese as a people. Within this backdrop of detail lies a complex world of dragons, humans, quasi-humans, and special forces which operate beyond the usual realm of human concerns.
Interactions are multifarious yet engaging, injecting questions of heritage into an absorbing quest that leads each character to question their roots, objectives, and place in the world.
The result is a powerful fantasy infused with Japanese cultural inspection, description, and changes. While prior familiarity with the settings and characters from the other books in the series will make The Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy's continuing saga easy to pick up, newcomers will discover that enough background is provided to lend to a relatively accessible read (albeit mid-journey).
What seems like a fairytale about children with uncommon gifts evolves into an engrossing tale that brings medieval Japan and its customs and culture to life. It's rare that a fantasy can claim to educate its readers about real-world circumstances; but The Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy's approach both entertains and educates, making for a highly recommended, unique story that should appeal to all ages, from children to adults who appreciate history and fantasy stories that journey from individual challenges to the wider-ranging social and cultural inspection of Japanese women who struggle with many facets of their changing worlds.
Independent Book Review:
Dragon Sisters (6)
The Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy: The Dragon Sisters
978-1-7339020-1-4 $16.99 Paper/$5.99 ebook
In Book 6 of The Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy, The Dragon Sisters, set in 1800s Japan, Dragon-girl Renko's ability to assume human form places her in a unique dilemma while her sister Otohime faces similar conflict about her identity after the death of her human husband. Where do their loyalties and hearts lie: with humans, or dragons?
First of all, it should be noted that the setting of this fantasy is real. The Dragon Sisters is rooted in Meiji Era Japan, which took place from 1868 to 1912, when a form of innovative Renaissance thinking flourished. However, this story is set in the World of Make-Believe, where "...there exists a Japan that incorporates both the objective reality and Japan's colorful, adventurous folklore."
Herein lie the roots of the Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy series, where the Dragon Sisters face challenges to their lives, hearts, and minds.
As Renko and Otohime cope with challenges to their individuality, vast changes in Japanese society, and the Meiji era's unique opportunities and dangers, readers are treated to a fantasy that at first might seem directed to preteens or young adults, but which holds historical and folklore elements of interest to all ages.
Renko and Otohime and Noriko and Shota, from previous adventures, face new ideas as strangers from overseas become familiar and exotic presences in Japan's ports. Claire Youmans excels in crafting detailed descriptions of the changes Japan faces during this time, which reach through society and into individual lives, perceptions, and encounters.
Sometimes these descriptions are very precise and involved, which may stymie readers looking for a quick fantasy read; but by now it should be evident that The Dragon Sisters is so much more than a quick leisure choice, holding the depth of description necessary to understand Japanese culture and society as a whole: "But here — there were so many different kinds of humans to watch! The clothes were different, too. There were Japanese clothes, mostly simple garments wrapped and tied for universal fit and easy adjustment as more or less coverage was required due to outside temperatures. More complex Japanese clothing, that of dressed up business-owners or workers, Samurai, officials or ladies, appeared here and there. Yuta and Noriko were typical of this latter group, with his plain schoolmaster's dark kimono and Noriko's simply wrapped and sashed green one being respectable understated daywear, not particularly fancy, their status showing only in the beautiful silk fabrics of which they were made. While merchants could now wear silk with the repeal of the sumptuary laws, getting fabrics and clothing made for them conflicted with the manufacture of fabrics for export and for the Western wear that was becoming increasingly popular among all classes in Japan."
There's always the temptation to fudge on description and forego detail in favor of action. Youmans never succumbs to this lure and, as a result, The Dragon Sisters is a multi-faceted fantasy that juxtaposes the growth of powers and special abilities and the perspectives of dragons, quasi-dragons and humans with Japan's evolutionary process and history.
Forced to embrace both their human and dragon sides, Renko and Otohime struggle for identity and survival in a world where their lives are entwined and mixed. This struggle is nicely captured in poignant moments of realization and reassessment: "Somehow, for some reason, she was unable to change. She tried not to panic. She remained a girl. She could manage as a girl, couldn't she? Why couldn't she change? It wasn't just the size of the space — she realized she felt weak. Even when she tottered to the little pond to get a restorative drink, she felt weak. And weaker. She tried to lift a rock. She couldn't lift a rock she could normally lift as a girl. Anxiety rose in her. She breathed steadily. She couldn't let herself panic. Yes, it was now obvious that her human abilities were normally augmented by her dragon capabilities, but this was ridiculous. She slid to the ground."
The Dragon Sisters is a compelling, involving story that blends fantasy, Japanese history and folklore, and a different kind of coming of age story that reaches well into adult readership. It's highly recommended for its wonderful twining of personal and social change that leaves readers not just with a fine adventure which both adds to the series and stands well on its own, but that transmits the history and cultural identity of Japan to audiences who may be relatively unfamiliar with Japanese peoples and history.