The classic pulp fantasy adventures involve manly men with rippling muscles fighting their way through hordes of monsters to survive and carve out a place of power in a chaotic and brutal world. The first name you usually think of in the west in this genre is Conan the Barbarian. The first Conan movie is what helped Arnold Schwarzenegger become a movie star. In Japan when people think of sword and sorcery the first name that jumps to mind is Guin. There are currently over 120 books in the series with no sign of stopping. In fact Guin Saga is the longest continuing single-writer’s work in the world. There is also a manga series of side stories and an anime based on the novels. Kaoru Kurimoto is also a well respected mystery novelist in addition to writing about Guin. Even Issac Asimov would be impressed. The Guin series is clearly influenced by writers like Robert E. Howard, Michael Moorcock and Fritz Leiber but she makes a fantasy world and characters that are her own.
I am always curious about works that have influenced creative minds across the board. This is especially true when I have only recently heard of a work that has been decades in the making and continues on (the 126th book was published just last month!). Though it seems quite suddenly Guin Saga has stepped into my line of vision not only thanks to Vertical’s publication of the first few novels (and some subsequent manga) in the series but as it has just begun an anime TV series run in Japan. Also a great love for both fantasy and adventure runs in my veins. Beyond so many other genres, these types of stories begin in an unfamiliar, mysterious world where the reader must not only discover the secrets of each character on the journey but also explore an unknown setting. So it was with barely restrained curiosity and excitement that I took up the first Guin novel.
After the Mongaul army has taken the capital of the Kingdom of Parros, the remaining twin heirs to the throne, Rinda and Remus, flee for their lives. During their attempt to escape they are accidentally teleported into enemy territory. When they are captured by enemy soldiers a man in a leopard mask named Guin single-handedly saves them. It turns out that Guin has amnesia and cannot remove the leopard mask. The three of them must band together not only to escape the deadly Marches they found themselves in but to escape the grasp of the tainted Black Count Vanon and Stafolos Keep.
Adventures can start many ways. Some may begin in a sleepy village or with an ordinary boy. Guin Saga laughs at that and fast-forwards you to where the action truly beings. This is easily one of the best hooks of the book: our narrator dumps us into the middle of the Marches only moments before Guin takes down an entire band of trained soldiers and then collapses. And this is Guin on an off day as he has only just awoken to his clouded memory and a leopard head quite unwilling to come off of his own head. These moments of intensity and calm come in quick succession like an enjoyable rollercoaster ride. Kurimoto also knows when and where to sprinkle the details of the world giving the viewer just enough to be able to fill in the surroundings with their imaginations. There are many scrapes in the next 200 pages and the body/ghoul/monster/thing count is high and bloody. However, the book is hardly a string of violent incidents. As we get more and more pieces to the puzzle, it becomes increasingly clear that this world is a complicated place.
Guin starts as a blank slate to himself and to the reader. We quickly learn that he is an amazing fighter and that he still has a decent amount of knowledge about various things not related to himself. The only personal memories he has are his name and the word Aurra. But if Aurra is a person, place, or thing is unknown. While amnesia can often be used as a tool to circumvent having character development, I applaud Kaoru Kurimoto for slowly showing us who Guin is as he in turn learns it as well. The most important thing we learn is that Guin is manly, bad-arse dude. We get several descriptions of how amazing Guin’s physique is, but more importantly every fight is clear cut proof that he is head and shoulders above anyone else in terms of ability. But Guin is more than a muscle bound monster, he has a clear grasp of strategy and diplomacy. Guin is not a talkative person but he will be the leader or take orders as the situation demands. We get a good insight into his thought processes to see why he does what he does.
Guin is a hypnotic, stunning character that demands your attention from the prologue to every scene he appears in (of which are many, imagine that). Since he starts with just a little more knowledge about what is going on around him as the reader does, the mysteries of the world are slowly revealed to us. Though this could make for some awkward dialogue of people spouting off long monologues of explanations, it is kept to a minimum. People’s reactions to his appearance are just as important as the descriptions we get. He is constantly being compared to a God. And you get the distinct impression that women are going to be falling in love with him left and right as the series continues. As for his great skill in battle, we learn quickly that it is more on instinct; it’s as if he has done nothing but train to fight his whole life to survive the fiercest foes. Since we know only as much as Guin does, our guess is as good as his about where these abilities come from and what effects the leopard head has on them.
Rinda and Remus are interesting as a pair as well as individually. Both twins have led an extremely sheltered existence. Rinda is obviously the stronger of the two. She is the one who always takes charge and constantly shows the dignity, elegance, and cunning of a proper member of royalty. She steps up to the plate when necessary, shows a good grasp of most situations, and has a great deal of adaptability and resilience. She is scared and shaken when appropriate but she never lets it stop her from doing what she can do. Since Rinda is not only a strong soul but also has the gift of prophecy, Remus seems to have grown dependent on Rinda while being slightly resentful at the same time. Remus starts extremely passive and more of a hindrance than anything. He seems mostly there to complain, get Rinda in trouble, and be rescued. As the book goes on we see several moments were it is clear that Remus has potential to grow and be stronger. When he is forced to step out of his sister’s shadow, he has resolve and strength he has just never had any reason to exercise it before. He does not unrealistically transform from a crybaby to a man but we do see him begin to change slowly but surely.
Rinda and Remus start from opposite corners, one pretending not to be scared and the other showing it like a second skin. They have both been raised as royalty but have gotten different things out of it. Rinda gaining the inflated ego but also the stature appropriate to a woman of her standing and Remus being left with the pampered softness of never having to fend for oneself. Rinda often postures and it is easy to see why Remus has become the submissive twin. This becomes especially clear when you find that the two have never been further than a room’s length away from each other since birth. The eventual, though short, separation of them during the course of the book breaths a bit of life into Remus. I am curious to see how their relationship changes and whether it grows or deteriorates as the journey continues. Their bond with Guin is remarkably quick and is even commented on by Remus. It is sure that something is pulling all three of these fates in the same direction.
The Black Count Vanon is a vile and nasty man in every respect. He is easy to hate while not being comically villainous. Everything from his intimidating and monstrous appearance to his callous and vicious nature make him an excellent first antagonist for Guin. We are also introduced to Istavan Spellsword who will surely cross paths with Guin again. Istavan is a charming and clever mercenary. He seems to be the ultimate survivor and sort of a Han Solo-type charming rouge. His fate is unknown at the end of the book, but given the type of person he is, he is sure to appear again. Rinda also meets a sentient monkey girl named Suni. Although they both cannot speak the others’ language they quickly become friends and help each other throughout the course of the book. She too seems poised to become a reoccurring character. Orro of Torus is another notable member of the cast. Although we hardly see him and we never get a detailed description of him, Kurimoto easily paints a picture of the type of man he is by his actions and words.
Our nefarious villain Count Vanon I’ll agree isn’t comically evil, but he does come off as a pretty typical foil to our heroes. However, everything in Guin Saga has a familiar yet surprising feel to it and Count Vanon is no exception. Some of Kurimoto’s best descriptions come along with him including the way he smells and the way he moves. He is easily and hideously memorable. Also worth mentioning is the soldier Orro of Torus who, in a moment of ardor, aids Guin at a critical point. He plays a small part in this book, but he brings a greater point to light: the Mongauli are not just a race of evil-doers. People have motivations and things they wish to protect on all sides of the conflicts that are erupting. There is more at work here which establishes the splashes of grey in this world Kurimoto has created. While the side cast has certain aspects that make them sure to appear again, there is no telling when it will be. I can imagine people we see now showing up again dozens of books later just as easily as in the next chapter. The series seems aimed for a very large and varied cast to come.
One of the questions that springs to mind is if it’s worth reading the novel if you’ve seen the anime. I feel that while the anime is a good adaption, they are different enough that having experienced one does not prevent you from enjoying the other. The general plot, pacing, characterization, and spirit is the same but the anime plays around with the details. So reading the novels is still a distinct experience. There are excellent companion pieces to each other.
Because of the series’ immense library you might be hesitant to dive in, but nothing could be more of a folly. Guin Saga’s intensity, its pace, and its characters move you along their path so effortlessly that you are in the throws of combat or exploring a dark chasm not sitting quietly on the sidelines (so much so that you forget you are on the subway going to work and almost miss your stop!). In a mere 50 pages I knew that I was not going to be able to put this series back on the shelf. So perhaps it is dangerous, not because it is so much to read, but rather because there is no way you won’t want to read it all if they follow in the stride of this first installment.
The first book of the Guin Saga is more the first of a five act play than book one an arc. That does not mean it does not have a definite and self contained narrative though. You get a sense that this part of the story is over but if there was never another book you would surely go crazy. This book merely introduces you to the main plot, shows the world that Guin finds himself in, and starts him on his long journey with his new found allies. It is the first step on the journey of 120+ books. This is hardly a bad thing. Like any good series the author keeps you anticipating the next book. You get your fill of action and adventure but still have a hunger for more. Don’t be too surprised if you find yourself rushing to the store to pick up the next four volumes in a hurry.