Book Review: The Oni’s Shamisen
Reviewed by Tucker Lieberman
Shapeshifters craft a longed-for stringed instrument in Meiji-Era Japan in this empathetic historical fantasy
The Oni’s Shamisen, the ninth book in Claire Youmans’s The Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy series, continues the adventures of characters we’ve met before, like the Dragon Prince Irtysh and Dragon Princess Otohime.
Many are “dual-natured” humans, meaning they can shapeshift into an animal that is unique to them. The various scenes, set in 1877 in Japan, feel almost like a collection of separate folk tales woven artfully into a novel: an unusual approach that feels organic. It’s refreshing to read a novel with characters who are so empathetic, respectful, and helpful in each other’s quests.
A large part of the story centers on Kukanko’s need. She’s an oni, a horned creature the size of “a very large human.” Oni can be various colors—red, yellow, green, blue—and though they look fierce, they are generally kind beings who protect mountain-dwelling people.
Kukanko develops an interest in the tunes that traveling blind musicians play on a shamisen, a traditional stringed instrument. (The women, known as goze, band together for their safety and reputations and are guided by sighted women known as tebiki, whereas the men, known as bosama, are mostly on their own.) Kukanko borrows a shamisen, hoping to learn to play it, but unfortunately the instrument is damaged. The eagle-human Akira examines it and seeks the right tools so he and Irtysh can make a new one.
Curiously—though dragons can do the artisan work to craft a musical instrument—they fear they lack the creativity to play them. This rule has ambiguous parameters. “Dragons can use what is, but we do not create,” the Dragon Queen Rizantona warns. As Irtysh puts it, they don’t “do fantastic things.”
Meanwhile, the toki-girl Azuki—a toki is an ibis—works with the dragons to craft a kimono. It seems that everyone is busy making something.
In addition to enjoying their craft, the characters explore the joy they discover in their supernatural bodies. Otohime has “prehensile whiskers around her blunt muzzle” and “tiny vestigial wings, so light and almost translucent.” Shota, in sparrow form, likes to ride on Renko’s head, which works well whether Renko is in dragon or human form.
Birth and hatching is central to the story. For a dragon to lay an egg (or two) is a similar effort as for a human to give birth. The story also explores the anxiety of Miyuki, who has smallpox scars and is terrified she will never marry. Author Claire Youmans expertly blends serious themes with lighthearted storytelling in The Oni’s Shamisen. Though the magical world often seems carefree, we are periodically reminded of the worries that cloud the characters’ minds. They tend to be the sort of concerns that affect people who are reaching adulthood and are coming to understand the harsher realities of life.
References to Japanese folklore and history are provided as context. For example, we learn that the Tokyo Shokonsha Shrine was erected in 1869 to honor those who died fighting for the emperor in the Boshin War. Useful details like these ground the story.
Though the novel acknowledges violence, illness, and power struggles, for the most part the story is low-tension. We are following characters as they craft an instrument, which sets a leisurely pace. It will appeal to readers who want to feel transported into another world with a lot of interaction between dragons and relatively little discussion of realistic human problems. In following the whole series, readers have a chance to see these kind, pleasant, joyful characters grow and mature.
Genre: Fantasy / History / Japan
Print Length: 494 pages
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