🌟 I read this for the Yule Bingo Challenge, for the category of Newt: book with magical creatures. For more info on this challenge, click here. 🌟
I'm giving this three stars, but it's basically an honorary four-star review, and I'm going to explain why in just a moment.
According to the author's note at the back, A MORTAL SONG took several years to complete. It shows. I'm no expert in Japanese religion and mythology, but based on the little I do know, the author got a lot of things right. This is a world based on Shinto religion, so you have kami (basically a cross between spirits and gods), torii gates (the gateways into sacred spaces); ofuda (paper talismans that repel bad spirits); purification wells (to purify yourself before entering the sacred spaces); and demons, which are bad creatures (I think they're called youkai).
All of the characters are Japanese. This is not an "Asian-inspired world." It takes place in Japan, specifically Nagoya and Tokyo, and the forested regions around the mountain. The main character, Sora, has been raised her whole life as something between a god and a princess. When you read the story, you think you're getting a typical "chosen one" plot, but Megan Crewe turns that trope on its head. Sora is actually a human "dupe": the real chosen one has been living with humans in Tokyo for her own protection for all these years. All the powers that Sora thought she had, she was "borrowing" from helpful, lesser kami, in particular her dragonfly companion, Midori.
The real kami chosen one is a girl named Chiyo, who is about what you would expect of a Mary Sue - lavender hair, cheerful all the time, incredibly popular. However, even with this, Chiyo isn't what you would expect. She is painfully naive and makes a lot of mistakes, and her constant upbeat attitude sometimes causes problems, particularly in delicate situations.
Chiyo, Sora, a boy from Chiyo's class named Keiji, and Chiyo's boyfriend Haru, as well as Sora's guardian, Takeo, have to join forces with the kami of the mountain to stop a bunch of yakuza ghosts from basically destroying the world and allowing Mt. Fuji to erupt. It sounds ridiculous when summarized so succinctly, but somehow it works. It has a very manga-like vibe to it, and the whole time I was reading, I kept getting flashbacks to Yu Yu Hakusho and Inuyasha (I'm old, okay).
There is so much that this book got right and I would honestly give A MORTAL SONG four stars if not for the fact that it took so long to get off the ground. It feels very second act-heavy, the way first books in a series often do. This means that while the first half is slow, the second half is jam-packed with action as the author frantically attempts to wrap everything up. Ironically, the story was so slow to start that the book didn't feel rushed; it just felt like a normal, action-packed pace. I really enjoyed the second half, and even teared up a little at a touching moment at the end.
The best aspect of this book, for me, was that it allowed me to relive the trip to Japan I took last summer. We went to several Shinto shrines and they are so beautiful and so mysterious. I can't really put into words what it was like standing in the middle of one of the sacred forests, except that it's an environment entirely unlike anything I've ever felt in the forests here.
Here are some of the pictures from my trip that this book made me remember:
"Floating" torii gate at the island of Miyajima:
Large torii gate standing at entrance to Meiji shrine:
Torii gate at Lake Ashi (near Fuji-san!):
Bowing sika deer at Nara:
Sika deer at Kasuga-taisa standing next to a tōrō
(probably a kami):
Little figurines outside the Arashiyama bamboo forest: