Yamada Monogatari: To Break the Demon Gate, by Richard Parks
Posted March 8, 2015on:
published in 2014
where I got it: purchased new
Historical fiction about a time and place I don’t know much about combined with mystery, ghosts, demons, and political intrigue? Sign me up. As much as I love my space opera and low fantasy, I grew up reading historical fiction, and historical works have a very special place in my heart. I’ve read and enjoyed a few of Richard Parks’ short stories, so I was curious to read one of his novels.
Yamada Monogatari: To Break the Demon Gate by Richard Parks takes place in 11th century Japan. Yamada no Goji is a minor nobleman, lately welcomed at the palace compound, but since the loss of Princess Teiko, he has avoided crossing paths with the nobility. What was the secret she was willing to die for? Was someone blackmailing her? And the larger concern is the safety of her son, Emperor Takahito. The power of the Fujiwara clan is rising, how far will they go to ensure one of their own sits upon the throne?
(quick language lesson: Monogatari translates to story, tale, or narrative)
The opening chapters of To Break the Demon Gate are just beautiful. Characters send metaphor laden poetry back and forth to each other, and this art of courtly poetry was a real thing in the court of the Heian period. Inflection, rhythm, symbology, and how it all came together in a very short verse was just as important as the information carried therein. Many of the poems are explained, but I enjoyed trying to figure out the symbology before Yamada explained it to me. Colorful poetry aside, this was a very formal environment, with no room for public displays of affection. In these early chapters, it is implied that Yamada and Princess Teiko have a history, but exactly what that history is is never specified.
The novel takes a fantastical turn as Yamada is called upon to investigate the death of a young lady in waiting. How did the assassin get into her guarded room? Why was she, specifically, killed? Is the young Emperor in danger? When night falls, the capital city crawls with ghosts and demons. Many are harmless, and if you carry the right currency, some of these creatures can be convinced to speak with you. I enjoyed how Parks illustrated how the city comes alive at night, how the mortals hide behind locked doors, but how Yamada walks around with eyes wide open, fascinated and curious. There is a fantastic scene where Yamada converses with Seita, a hungry ghost who lingers at his old home, now a ruin. Seita had been human, but appears as a lantern with eyes and a mouth. When you get to the description of why he appears as a lantern, you’ll know why I adored that scene.
Unfortunately, as the novel progresses, the pacing falls to a laborious crawl. Yamada goes back and forth between Seita, Prince Kanamore, the mysterious Lady Snow and the iterant monk Kenji, asking questions, prying bits of information out of people, and putting puzzle pieces together. What started out as an enjoyable and well paced historical mystery quickly became a slog to read. There were a good hundred pages in there where I kept asking myself “why am i still reading this?” The pacing was horribly slow, I didn’t feel invested in Yamada’s quest for information, I didn’t care about the subplot involving Yamada’s father (because i didn’t have enough information on that either), and there was barely any more of that lovely poetry.
I kept reading because I liked the environment. I enjoyed how Parks injected the prose with culturally accurate words, including bushi, asobi, youkai, shoji, and the like. A sucker for historical dress and costumery, I could have read countless paragraphs about Lady Snow’s wardrobe, hairstyles, and accessories. To Break the Demon Gate is atmospheric, and includes some stunningly rendered scenes. That doesn’t change the fact that I never felt invested in these characters or what happened to them. At the end, we do find out some needed information, and I was like “oh, that makes sense”, but it was too little too late to make up for that boring middle.
From reading a few other reviews of this book online, I realize I’ve come into Richard Parks realm of works at the wrong end. Previous to To Break The Demon Gate, he wrote Demon Hunter, a collection of short stories about Yamada no Goji in which the man’s history is more fully explained. Readers of Demon Hunter are sure to enjoy To Break the Demon Gate more than I did, because they will have a better idea of what was going on. I was a little disappointed that no where on this book (front cover or back) was it mentioned that these are “more adventures of Yamada”, or “the Companion book to Demon Hunter”, or anything that would tell me that this wasn’t the first book in a series. I’ve certainly read the second or third book in a series first, but knowing there are earlier books changes how I think about jumping into the series in the middle. I’m more forgiving of not having any idea who these people are, for example. In this case, I really wish I’d read his earlier works first.