This year has been an interesting one for speculative fiction, especially in terms of highlighting fantasy and science fiction written by women. In March, Lady Business published the (rather depressing) results of their study on coverage of Women on SFF blogs.

In the months that followed the survey, a number of blogs and authors made a public stand to embrace and celebrate diversity and women in speculative fiction. In April, fantasy author Martha Wells compiled a list of non-European fantasy novels penned by female authors.

Read the last Book Smugglers on the new 'Worldsoul' series.

This list inspired us to join the conversation around diversity and female writers in the genre-fiction world. Thus, we have created a fun, self-imposed challenge to read and review as many titles as possible from Wells’ list, some of which we will be reviewing here at Kirkus, and cordially invite you to read along and do the same.

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Dragon Sword and Wind Child by Noriko Ogiwara, translated by Cathy Hirano

Dragon Sword and Wind Child is the first book in the Tales of the Magatama series written by Japanese author Noriko Ogiwara and translated into English by Cathy Hirano. An alternate historical fantasy novel, Dragon Sword is set in the mythical land of Toyoashihara (Japan), at a time in which the forces of the God of Light and the Goddess of Darkness have been warring for almost 300 years. Saya is an orphaned girl who has worshipped the Light all her life, only to learn that she truly is a Priestess of the Darkness with a singular destiny to still the Dragon Sword. Chihaya is an immortal and a child of the Light, but is strangely attracted to Darkness. Together, Saya and Chihaya will shape the course of Toyoashihara’s fate.

Ana’s Take: There is much to appreciate in Dragon Sword and Wind Child: the idea of Light and Dark, Yin and Yang, which are supposed to be connected but have lost their way. Neither side is presented as intrinsically Good or Evil. I loved the idea of the reincarnated Priestess who has always failed but with each subsequent reincarnation has moved a bit closer to her goal. That is an awesome way of dealing with the idea of repetition by adding a personal flavour to each Priestess. In that sense, Saya is all the others that came before her as well as wholly herself because she takes their path to its ultimate conclusion.   

Unfortunately, this was as good as it got. Dragon Sword and Wind Child is that sort of frustrating book that has a fabulous mythical premise and an intriguing story but one that falls short in terms of writing, execution and character development. For all that Saya’s is an intriguing story, I can’t help but to feel dissatisfied with the way the plot was executed. The storytelling progressed unevenly, jumping from event to event without a lot of consideration for character development beyond telling the reader (and with a lot of exclamation marks, too) how characters were feeling about said events. The main themes of choice and destiny are all but superficially dealt with. Although Saya is the main character, as her point of view is the one that carries the narrative for the most part, Chihaya’s arc better developed. Saya’s role remained reactive rather than active, and Chihaya’s arc became the truly momentous one. 

I’ve also had issues with the writing itself. Dragon Sword and Wind Child is that sort of YA novel that looks down on its audience, with a stilted, simplistic writing in which even adults sound like young children. In addition, there were times when idiomatic English words and expressions were used (“Oh, right”; “whatever”) that didn’t mesh well with the historical Japanese setting. That said, I do appreciate the fact that many of those problems might stem from the translation but this is the only text I can work with.  

Add to that the fact that the worldbuilding was extremely hetero-normative  (when describing the special bond between couples, that seemed to be only possible between a man and woman), and we have a dud. Dragon Sword and Wind Child definitely didn’t work for me, and I see no need to continue with the series. 

In Booksmugglerish: 4 out of 10 (Bad, but not without some merit).

Thea’s Take: Like Ana, my experience with Dragon Sword and Snow Child was a mixed bag. The overall premise of the novel isn’t anything particularly new or groundbreaking, but I did love the care that Ogiwara uses to set the novel and create a lush world in which Light and Dark are sundered, but desperately struggle to be reunited. This tension between the Light and the Dark, attracting and repelling, is a defining theme for the novel and characterizes not only the overall struggle between the two forces, but within the characters of Saya and Chihaya. I loved the differences between the two factions—the Light with his never-changing, beautiful, immortal Prince and Princess that rule Toyoashihara with unyielding strength; the Darkness with her children of the Earth, who die and are reborn through soil and water, always yearning to still the fire of the Light.

Beyond the setting and the overall struggle, however, I struggled with the text. The translation is actually quite good in terms of description, but falters in its colloquialisms and dialogue as Ana mentions above. But more importantly, I couldn’t actually connect or get into the story itself because the plot lacks direction and meanders on without purpose or direction. Most frustrating of all is Dragon Sword’s heroine, Saya, who goes on an adventure to become one of the Prince’s Handmaidens and basically does nothing except: One, make everyone fall in love with her and want to Have Her (on account of her unearthly beauty and compassion, of course); two, Get Captured and require Rescue (by her many male compatriots); and three, mope around and help other characters achieve their destinies (because her destiny is to help someone else achieve his at the end of the day). That’s not to say that Saya has no agency or characterization, just that ultimately, she’s underdeveloped and seems to be more of a means to an end, and she isn’t nearly as interesting as she could be.

Needless to say, I wasn’t overly impressed. This wasn’t eye-gougingly terrible, but I wouldn’t recommend it either. I agree with Ana:

In Booksmugglerish: 4 out of 10 (Bad, but not without some merit).

Thea James and Ana Grilo are The Book Smugglers, a website for speculative fiction and YA. You can find also find them at Twitter.