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Tomoe Gozen The Golden Naginata Thousand Shrine Warrior

Most reviews here are of recent novels, and tend to skew towards YA. So for something a little different, I'd like to offer a blast from the past, something that harkens back to the 80s, when most fantasy was derived either from Tolkien or Robert E. Howard. Men were men and wore sandals and thongs while they fought monsters twice their size; women mostly writhed at their feet in lamé bikinis.

Into this environment stepped Jessica Amanda Salmonson, an author you've probably never heard of who wrote a series you've probably never read.

The trilogy consists of Tomoe Gozen (also published as The Disfavored Hero), The Golden Naginata, and Thousand Shrine Warrior. Sadly, they are all out of print, but you can probably find them for sale from used booksellers on Amazon or elsewhere, and it's well worth getting the complete set.

Although today there are a wide variety of female protagonists in fantasy, and many of them are badass and awesome, back in the B.F.E. (Before Buffy Era), if you encountered a female warrior in fantasy fiction, she was usually pretty much a man with tits (very large ones), hunting down the forty-seven men who'd raped her, etc.

Tomoe Gozen is a legendary warrior woman described in the Heike Monogatari ("Tales of the Heike"), which tells the tale of the 12th century Genpei War that ultimately led to the rise of the samurai class. The Heike Monogatari is considered to be semi-historical, in that most of the events and people described in it have been confirmed by other sources, and it is thus one of the best descriptions historians have of the Genpei War. However, it's basically a collection of oral accounts dating back over 700 years, and it contains a good deal of epic embellishment. Thus, there is some debate over whether Tomoe Gozen actually existed, or was a creation of some storyteller or unknown author, since there is no record of her anywhere else. According to the Heike Monogatari, she was the wife of Minamoto Yoshinaka, the hero of the Genpei War who was eventually betrayed by his own cousin:

Tomoe was especially beautiful, with white skin, long hair, and charming features. She was also a remarkably strong archer, and as a swordswoman she was a warrior worth a thousand, ready to confront a demon or a god, mounted or on foot. She handled unbroken horses with superb skill; she rode unscathed down perilous descents. Whenever a battle was imminent, Yoshinaka sent her out as his first captain, equipped with strong armor, an oversized sword, and a mighty bow; and she performed more deeds of valor than any of his other warriors.

Thus endeth the history lesson.

The Tomoe Gozen trilogy is based on this legendary figure who may or may not have actually existed. Salmonson hewed pretty closely to the actual history of the Genpei War, but she set the story in a fantasy version of Japan, where magic and mythical creatures are real.

Today, this would probably result in a crappy manga series, but this was the early 80s, back before you could find translated manga in American bookstores, and the only anime on TV was Starblazers and Speed Racer, and if we wanted to watch real anime we had to hike ten miles in the snow uphill both ways to watch badly dubbed laserdisk copies of Vampire Hunter D in someone's house...

Ahem. So anyway, the Tomoe Gozen trilogy has a lot in common with the fantasy that was popular at the time: it's pure swords & sorcery, with a badass heroine who travels across Naipon (yes, it's called "Naipon" in the series, because Salmonson deliberately distinguishes this alternate Earth Japan from the real Nippon), fighting other samurai, monsters, wizards, and even a ninja or three, and pretty much carving up anyone and anything that gets in her way.

What makes this series great? Well, first of all, Tomoe Gozen is 100% pure epic badass. She totally p0wns, just like Conan and Elric and all the other male heroes who've been chewing up fantasy landscapes for decades. But Salmonson is writing about a legendary hero, not a Mary Sue adventurer -- Tomoe's skills are the skills of a samurai, and Salmonson nails the feel of a samurai epic. She also gets the magic and the monsters of Japan right -- yes, you've got your tengu and your kappa and your oni and even your ninja, but when they appear, they have the same mystery and magic about them as in Japanese fairy tales; they don't feel like wandering monsters from Oriental Adventures who just show up for the heroine to score some XPs off of.

Tomoe is a samurai, so her strict bushido code frequently forces her into conflicts she'd rather avoid. The series is full of tragedy as she's forced to pursue vengeance, keep promises, battle friends, and abandon loved ones, all for the sake of her honor. This makes her a very human character, despite the fact that she's nearly undefeatable in battle.

Really, though, it's just an awesome, rocking adventure from start to finish. Salmonson writes well, in a fluid style well-suited to this kind of non-stop storytelling. It's been years since I've read this series, and I just can't say enough good things about it. If you like Asian fantasy, or if you like traditional swords & sorcery, and best of all, if you like both, I don't think anyone has ever combined them better.

I also thought of posting this review after reading winterfox's reviews of The Fox Woman and Fudoki (and her comments on Tales of the Otori). It's a tricky thing when authors write fantasy drawing on a culture other than their own. Readers nowadays are much more sensitive to someone sticking a few foreign words and exotic weapons in their fantasy world and calling it "Asian-flavored."

In my humble minimally-educated Western opinion (yeah, I took a few classes in Japanese language and history in college, like all the other fanboys at the time, but I make no claim to being an authority on the subject), Salmonson wrote a fantasy classic that truly captures the samurai era she was writing about, with a larger-than-life heroine who's still very much a product of her culture, a woman who eschews femininity for the way of the warrior, but who never becomes a man with tits.

ETA: For some reason, all comments to this post are getting screened, so I have to unscreen them. Wha'dIdo? :(


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 31st, 2010 04:29 pm (UTC)
I read the first one, and I concur: It's a worthy read. It's refreshing clear of tropes, of bog-standard fantasy progression, and if it follows Campbell's mythic cycle it's convoluted enough to not be so apparent.

Read it!
May. 31st, 2010 06:07 pm (UTC)
Wow, this sounds quite intriguing. As a child, I read a little bit of historical fiction set during the time of the Genpei War (yeah, I was a strange child), and I later read Heike Monogatari in translation, but I haven't really read anything set in this time period for years. (Tales of the Otori doesn't count.)

I'll have to try and track it down.
Jun. 1st, 2010 11:17 am (UTC)
Readers nowadays are much more sensitive to someone sticking a few foreign words and exotic weapons in their fantasy world and calling it "Asian-flavored."

Well, yeah, nowadays, you know, after Asians finally learned how to read.
Jun. 1st, 2010 11:55 am (UTC)
Well, I'm not saying that cultural appropriation hasn't always been an issue, but there's more awareness of it now than there was thirty years ago.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )


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