So, it’s time once again for our weekly look at the latest thing to pass across my reading radar. This week’s review is of Zoe Marriott’s new novel, ‘The Night Itself,’ which is the first book in The Name of the Blade series. Here it is:
One of the main reasons I wanted to read this book was because it roots itself in a culture and mythology which fascinates me, but about which I know shamefully little: one glance at the (beautiful) book jacket will probably tell you that the culture I’m talking about is that of Japan. The book’s protagonist is a young British woman, Mio Yamato, whose heritage is Japanese. At fifteen, Mio is respectful of this heritage, but she chafes against her father’s oppressive, and rather cold, treatment of her, which she understands to be a consequence of his being Japanese. She loves her gentle mother, and remembers her deceased grandfather – Ojiichan – with affection, but seems to feel as though her brittle relationship with her father overshadows her happiness. As the book opens, we see Mio’s parents leave for a holiday to Paris, during which time she will turn sixteen – she feels as though her father doesn’t want to spend her birthday with her, and has arranged this holiday in order to ensure she is alone on her special day. She pretends not to care, and waves her parents off with the intention of having fun with her best friend Jack (Jacqueline). They plan to attend a fancy-dress party, to which Mio wants to wear her kendo costume, complete with a mysterious sword her grandfather once showed her. This ancient weapon lies in a box in the attic of her house, and has haunted her mind ever since she first laid eyes on it as a child. As soon as she picks up this wonderfully wrought sword, however, strange things begin to happen…
Disturbing the sword’s rest and, particularly, showing it to other people, unleashes a series of ever more terrifying creatures on an unsuspecting London; Mio, of course, is completely unprepared for any of it. She vaguely remembers her grandfather trying to warn her about the sword, exhorting her to keep it secret, hidden, and guarded, but she cannot understand the importance of this warning as he died before he could tell her everything she needed to know. Once it has been disturbed, however, it cannot be put back, and Mio barely has time to realise the sword is at the heart of something very strange before she and Jack become inveigled in a struggle between a terrifying cat-demon (never has the phrase ‘cat-o’-nine-tails’ been so at the forefront of my mind!) and a mysterious warrior who appears, apparently from nowhere, to defend her. This warrior seems familiar and dear to Mio, despite the fact that she has never met him before; his identity, and his origin, gradually become clear as the story unfolds. Mio has suffered from restless and disturbing dreams all her life, dreams which seem to make no sense to her, but the more she gets to know Shinobu, this strange boy-warrior, the more the dreams start to click into place.
Soon, they find themselves at the mercy of the horrifying cat-demon, and must rely on the unpredictable help offered by the inhabitants of the ‘other’ London, a magical Otherworld populated by figures from Japanese myth and legend. Travelling between the worlds is not easy, and fighting as a coherent group is even less so, but Mio has no choice: she must trust these strange beings, and her newly discovered yet somehow also ancient friend Shinobu, as they square off against a creature of darkness and horror which intends to steal her blade and use it to destroy the world. So, no big deal.
So much about this book was wonderful. It’s engagingly written, and fast-paced – the 360+ pages zipped by without me even noticing them – and I loved not only the character of Mio but also her friend Jack, a sparkily intelligent and unconventional ‘sidekick’ who is far more than just that. The girls’ friendship is lovely and ‘real’, and Jack’s love for her sister Rachel is touching, forming a huge part of the emotional heart of the story. This book is the first in a series, and so some of the things I didn’t like so much – Mio’s father, the relationship between Mio and Shinobu which comes very close to ‘insta-love’ (though, on this very point, here’s a blog post from the author about the use of this trope in the book), the secret behind the sword – may well be explained and expanded upon in future books. I was left irritated, but intrigued, at the story’s conclusion – I can’t say why, of course – but I’m hoping the sequel will help to soothe my furrowed brow. I only have a year (more or less!) to wait before I get my hands on ‘Darkness Hidden’, the second book in The Name of the Blade series, but let’s not worry about that part.
‘The Night Itself’ is a quick read, but I was pleased by it. I know a quick read usually means the author has taken a long time and a lot of hard work to get the book ‘just right’, so I appreciate the skill on display here. It’s also great to see characters like Mio and Jack, by no means ‘stereotypical’ teenage girls, take centre stage in a well constructed story and kick some butt. I had problems with the book, but they weren’t enough to mar my enjoyment, and if Japanese nightmare demons and beautifully described swords (‘katana’ is the proper name for the sword Mio uses), as well as mythology, folklore, friendship and courage float your boat, then give ‘The Night Itself’ a try. Be prepared for the ending to infuriate you just enough to make you impatient for the sequel, though.