Book Report: The Grey Witch

Published April 29, 2018 by Iphis of Scyros

So, today I’m bringing you the report on my selection for Challenge #19, “A book of genre fiction in translation.”

Firstly, that graphic I got off Goodreads isn’t accurate.  There’s no white on the cover; everything white you see there is also black.  And everything that isn’t black is gold, and the black is, well, I’m not sure if it’s real leather or pleather, but it’s something leather-like, at any rate.  This is a very spiffy edition, and it’s certainly been a long time coming:  it missed being a 30th anniversary edition by a few weeks.  (It released in December of last year.  Had it come out in January, it would have been a 30th anniversary edition.)

Those of you with even a passing acquaintance with anime — older anime, anyway — are probably familiar with the name Lodoss War. but for those who aren’t, let me explain that this book spawned a massive franchise, with many more novels, lots of manga (graphic novel) adaptations and spin-offs, and two anime series, one an OVA (direct-to-video, limited episode) and one on television.  Oh, yeah, and the Crystania movie (blehh), and the Rune Soldier Louie TV anime.  And a number of video games, of which I think only the Dreamcast game ever came over to this country.  (It was a bit clunky, but a pretty decent game.  Even if the best part, to me, was watching the anti-hero laugh after his goblin minions obeyed when he ordered them to drop dead.) Record of Lodoss War is something of a cultural institution in Japan (at least in pop culture terms), and has had a profound influence on all the fantasy that followed in its wake.  It also, according to the afterword, apparently invented the “light novel” almost single-handedly.

The best way to sum up the genre of Lodoss War is Lord of the Rings by way of Dungeons & Dragons.  Quite literally, actually, as Record of Lodoss War started out as life as a tabletop RPG session, which the author fleshed out and novelized into this book.  (According to the afterword, written for a now-five-year-old Japanese edition, all the further novels came from Mizuno alone, rather than from further RPG sessions.)  In some ways, the Lord of the Rings influence is extremely obvious (like the dwarf being named Ghim and hating elves), and in other ways, there isn’t much Tolkien influence at all:  thieves (aside from Bilbo Baggins) don’t play much of a role in Middle Earth, but Wood is an important part of the story, and there is nothing anywhere in Tolkien’s work that is anything like Karla the Grey Witch.  (Not that I’m aware of, anyway.)

The story focuses on a relatively inexperienced young warrior named Parn, and his friend Etoh, a small town priest.  After Parn’s hotheaded need to pursue justice and protect the innocent rather blows up in his face, they go on a journey so Parn can get stronger.  In the course of their journey, they join up with the rest of the party (though Slayn the wizard and Ghim the dwarf join up with them before they even leave town) and become embroiled in a bitter struggle over the future of all of Lodoss.  Oh, but you may be wondering what Lodoss is!  Well, let me just use Mizuno’s own description (by way of translator Lillian Olsen) of Lodoss Island:

Lodoss was a remote island a fortnight’s voyage south of the Alecrast continent.  [snip]  Some people on the continent called Lodoss “The Cursed Island,”

and, as the opening of every episode of the OVA continued, it was the site of the final battle between Marfa and Kardis, the goddesses of life and death respectively.  (I could swear that their deities of light and darkness, Pharis and Phalaris, respectively, were also goddesses, but this translation calls them gods.  I need to go back and re-watch the OVA, clearly…)

I can’t go into too much detail as to what the crisis facing Lodoss is without spoiling the plot, but I think I can at least mention the invasion of a dark army from the Island of Marmo, off the coast of Lodoss, and the interventions of the mysterious witch Karla, whose various aspects, as a character, I’ve seen elsewhere (though in at least some of those cases, probably inspired by/outright copying Karla) but I don’t think I’ve ever seen any other character who combines them.  I can’t go into detail as to what they are, though.  (Sorry!)

So, as you can tell, this was not a “pure” first read:  I’ve seen the OVA I don’t even know how many times (it’s not all that long, and I used to have a lot more time on my hands), I saw the TV show once (and was deeply disappointed), and I even played the Dreamcast game once (and probably would have played it again, if it weren’t for the need to grind, the fact that I don’t even remember where my Dreamcast is, and never ever ever ever again wanting to hear “A mighty spell!”), and there’s a spoof manga called Welcome to Lodoss Island that covers this and the next novel which I’ve read quite a number of times (because it’s a single, light volume and makes a great read in the bath).  Therefore, I can’t really say how it would read to someone who doesn’t already know the story.  Probably it would still read about the same way, only without the eager foreknowledge.  (For example, a character is described in two sentences (or maybe only half a sentence) when they get to a particular city, and I’m already going “ooh, is that King Kashue?!”)

There were two things about this that surprised me.  One is the differences from the OVA, which I’ll get into below, and the other is the style of the writing.  Given its heavy Tolkein influence in the world-building, I had sort of naturally expected an equally rich, occasionally weighty narrative style.  Had I expected anything else, well, my only other particular experience with light novels has been the Slayers novels (which are wonderful, btw, so if you can find them second-hand and you like comedy fantasy, buy them!) which have a very distinctive style, with a lot of character in the narration itself.  Lodoss War, on the other hand, has an anonymous, omniscient third person narration style, with very light description, and sometimes tells you exactly what every person in the scene is thinking.  (Not all the time, of course.  And never when it would spoil the plot.)  I don’t often see the omniscient narrator like that, and I have to admit to being surprised by it.  And by the lightness of the narration.  The focus is on keeping the story moving, including that it often skips over things that you expect it to cover in great detail (like passing through monster-infested tunnels under a mountain!).  For me, that worked out nicely, because it’s the story and the characters I’m interested in, not the visuals of the world (which I can’t particularly visualize anyway, no matter how good or lengthy the description) or even the action of the battles.  For people more invested in the visuals of the setting, or the fantasy combat, it might therefore be a disappointing read.

All right, now the differences from the OVA.  Which I will try to cover in as spoiler-free a manner as possible.  Mostly, it was differences of characters not being included in the first book who are very much a part of the OVA.  Despite being mentioned repeatedly, Wagnard never actually put in an appearance in this book.  A more surprising (and, let’s be honest, disappointing) lack of presence on the Marmo side of things were everyone’s favorites, Ashram and Pirotess.  Ashram showed up for about two and a half pages in the final battle, though his name was only used for about the last third of that time, and Pirotess was a complete no-show.  I guess I get it:  when they were making the OVA, they thought they might not get to make any more anime, and wanted to make sure such popular characters were included (and they certainly did improve every scene they were in!) but…it’s one of those irritating changes that makes it very hard to start with the adaptation and then go backwards to the original.  *cough*  Though I’m totally hoping they translate the rest of the novels, so I can find out their real story… (as long as it’s better than the Legend of Crystania movie…)  In the other direction, the omniscient narrator let us know some cool bits of character backstory that we never got in any of the anime versions.  (Dunno about in standard manga adaptations…)

So, bottom line, if you’re a Lodoss War fan…actually, if you’re already a fan, you’ve probably already bought (and read) the book, so I don’t even have to tell you that you want to.  I think it should also be an entertaining read for people new to the franchise, too.  (I wish I could add the good news that Record of Lodoss War has just been released on Blu-ray, but it’s actually not good news, because it’s a box set of both the OVA and the awful TV show.  So you’d be paying for a lot of material that isn’t actually worth it.  But maybe the Blu-ray will make people sell back their DVDs of the OVA…)

Now, before I end this post, a few words to anyone who might have tried to contact me on here in the time since I last logged on to complete pre-writing my A-to-Z posts:  I’m sorry.  I needed a break from blogging after finishing A-to-Z, and then, well…then Infinity War came out, and I had to start avoiding the Internet so as to avoid spoilers.  (Especially in light of all the fan speculation pre-release regarding how many characters were likely to die…)  I’m going to be seeing it on Monday, after which I’ll be back online.  (Okay, technically, I’m online right now, but so long as I don’t click on that little bell up in the corner, or on the “Comments” line on the sidebar, or the “Dashboard”, I’m in a pure little bubble of “no contact with other people.”)  If there have been any comments, I’ll respond to them then.

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