The first copy I bought of The Guin Saga, Book One: The Leopard Mask ended up in the garbage, but not because it deserved to be there: the copy I’d ended up with somehow had a good chunk of the text missing from the book due to a manufacturing error. At least I was able to get my money back—but I had to gnash my teeth for days on end until I could order a replacement copy. What little I could read offered a tantalizing slice of something I wanted very badly to experience at that point in my rather drab day—to be someone else, somewhere else, and to experience something new. Sometimes that’s all you really need.
I understand now, I think, why the Guin books have run to over one hundred volumes in their native Japan, and why each volume in that series has sold something like 250,000 copies. It’s a fiery, rousing adventure story that does everything right—it puts a noble and compelling hero at the center of the action, it throws him up against impossible odds, it gives him things to care about and fight for, and it makes us want more when it’s all over. It breaks no ground, but it doesn’t have to: we’ve gotten to a point where to just be able to do this sort of thing well is in itself somewhat groundbreaking because there are far too many examples of it not being done well at all.
When he wakes up in the Forest of Rood, face-down in a stagnant pond, our hero remembers only two things—his name, “Guin”, and another word, “Aurra”, although whether that too is a name is anyone’s guess. Even more mysterious is his head, ensconced in a mask that gives him the face of a leopard. His fearful appearance terrorizes the two children who stumble across his half-dead body—Remus and Rinda, heirs to the throne of a kingdom now destroyed by a tyrannical invader. Of the two, Rinda is slightly more comfortable with peril, and also that much more charged with the purpose of her station in life: in one of the book’s best lines, she puts her brother in her place when she tells him “My name is to be spoken, not whined.”
They’re perplexed by Guin—doubly so when he single-handedly devastates a squadron of soldiers sent to massacre them all, only to collapse at their feet once more. When the forest yields up yet another wave of horrors—this time in the form of a battalion of the undead—they survive through a combination of quick thinking and sheer luck, only to be captured and taken to Stafolos Keep, where the diseased Count Vanon holds court. Literally diseased, as every inch of his body is swathed in metal and fabric to keep his plague from spreading to those who might catch a whiff of his effluvience. The keep soon comes under siege, a few more cronies are thrown into the mix for good measure, and one amazingly violent escapade follows another.
The Vampire Hunter D books and the Conan adventures have reawakened me to the possibilities of epic adventure outside of the Tolkien template, and the Guin books offer more of the same in their own vein. I think part of the reason these books work as well as they do, while most of the current crop of mainstream fantasy writers haven’t drawn my attention as strongly, is because they don’t try to pack the world into a six hundred page tome. The individual books are shorter, with appropriately tighter focus; the first four books of the Guin series would probably have been published as a single volume in English, but when broken into smaller individual books, they become that much more manageable (and, I suspect, that much more lucrative for the publisher).
But most importantly, these books know their real job is to give us a thrill ride, and there’s very little that gets in the way. I was also pleasantly surprised to see Guin (and Rinda and Remus, and many of the rest) become strongly-delinated characters over the course of just this first book. They’re not painted with a great deal of psychological profundity, but they don’t really need to be: we may know what to expect from them, but we get it in strong, basic ways that complement the story and put us into the action. Said adventure also takes place without a lot of boring detours into politics and geography. (Truthfully, there’s a bit of this kind of info-dump here—delivered with Guin on the receiving end, as you might expect—but it’s fairly swiftly over with and it doesn’t come at the expense of the original mission.)
What Guin does best, and it does it extremely well, is something very primal: take us someplace where really amazing things are happening and make us want it to never end. The book also concludes with a very literal leap into the unknown that sent me back to Amazon to order the next volume—which is, I suspect, what the publishers believe all good fantasy should do. I’m not complaining; I’m celebrating.
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Other Lives Of The Mind