Reviewed by Tucker Lieberman
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 the 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.
Genre: Young Adult / Historical / Fantasy
Print Length: 246 pages
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