A Mortal Song

A Mortal Song was written by Megan Crewe and first published in 2016. It is a fantasy story set in modern day Japan, focusing on a group of humans and kami who join forces to fight a powerful demon. The novel stands alone, so you don’t have to read any of the author’s other work to fully appreciate it.

As a kami princess, Sora has always longed to find her speciality and take on her sacred duties. However, as she prepares to confront her parents about this, disaster strikes. An army of ghosts overruns the palace on Mount Fuji. With the help of her bodyguard – Takeo – she manages to escape and goes in search of a sage who might be able to tell them how to save everyone. However, it is there that Sora learns that her whole life is a lie.

There is a prophecy that a kami princess will use the three imperial treasures to banish evil from the mountain, but that princess is not Sora. She is actually a completely ordinary human who was switched with the true princess at birth. In order to save the kami still trapped in the palace, Sora and Takeo must venture into Tokyo and locate the true princess. She is the only one with the power to save the day.

As Sora moves further away from Mount Fuji, she feels the magic that she has borrowed slowly leave her and must accept that she is not a kami. Her real family lives somewhere in the city and she must soon accept her fate and return to them. However, first she must help to train the princess. The ghosts will be at full strength during the festival of Obon, and that is only a few days away…

As you may have noticed in my posts, I love Japan. I find its culture, food, mythology and history deeply fascinating. Because of this, I was rather excited to pick up A Mortal Song. Yet I quickly found that the novel just did not speak to me at all. While it was very fast to set the scene, with the palace overthrown within a couple of short chapters, it was unfortunately rather bland on the whole.

The world-building of A Mortal Song seemed interested at first but it quickly became clear that it was rather shallow. My first problem was that Sora’s first-person narrative lacked description and so we never really got a feel for what anything looked like. Although the novel begins in a magical kami palace on top of Mount Fuji, no time was spent in allowing the reader to experience this world.

Yet, worse still, the novel did not ever really feel Japanese. I have reviewed other novels set in modern Japan, such as The Night Parade and The Sword of Kuromori which both did a great job of showing what it is like to live over there. However, the Japanese aesthetic just felt really tacked on to A Mortal Song. While it occasionally made reference to things like ofuda and torii gates, most of the dialogue in the story was jarringly western. There were no honorifics or Japanese terms. Even the fantasy elements of the story were simplified. While Japanese mythology is made up of many different spirits, gods and monsters, A Mortal Song crudely lumped these into the broad categories of “kami” and “ghost”. Really, it felt more like it was set in America than Japan.

While the opening of the story was fast paced, it quickly slowed down as the protagonists set off on their mission to obtain the three sacred treasures. It was at this point that I started to feel as though the story was a trawl to get through. The band of protagonists visited each shrine in turn, fought some ghosts and then moved onto the next. Although the novel frequently draws your attention to the urgency of Sora’s mission, the ultimate climax felt muted. We see nothing of the battle and victory seemed to be achieved through words alone. This was disappointing, as it felt as though the story had a lot of build-up for minimal pay off.

However, for all my gripes with the plot, my biggest problem was the characters. Primarily, my problem was the treatment of Sora. Although she was the narrative voice of the story, it never really felt as though it focused on her. The fact that she is human should have thrown her into an emotional turmoil. Not only does she not have magic or a long lifespan but her parents have been fooling her into thinking that she has for seventeen years! Sora’s acceptance of the fact that she does not belong in the kami world is shockingly fast, as is the belief that she will need to “swap” lives with the true kami princess, Chiyo.

This is the crux of the massive problem that I had with the story. Simply put: where are the feels? While I can buy that kami perhaps do not feel emotional attachment in the way that humans do (though in a mythology where yurei can hold severe grudges, this seems unlikely), what about the human characters? Chiyo’s adoptive parents have raised her for seventeen years, yet are quick to ditch her and rush to Mount Fuji in search of their “real” daughter. This just didn’t sit right with me. Surely nurture should count for something. I don’t think that many parents, even non-biological ones, would be able to turn their feelings off like a tap.

The love triangle between Sora, Keiji and Takeo also just felt tacked on. Too much time was devoted to this and it ultimately just came across as being weak. There was no chemistry between any of them. Sora only seemed interested in Takeo because he was her only male friend and he rapidly lost interest in her when he discovered that she was human. The budding romance with Keiji was just too sudden. He barely shared two words with Sora and then they were kissing, despite only having known each other for a matter of days.

The love triangle also served to draw too much attention away from Sora’s character development. Although A Mortal Song was supposed to be about Sora accepting the fact that she was a side-character rather than a chosen one, this is never true. Firstly, Sora did not have to fall far. Although she believed herself to be a powerful kami, she wasn’t especially arrogant to begin with. Secondly, Sora is ultimately the one who saves the day. Looking back over the novel with this in mind makes you wonder why so much time had to be wasted over Chiyo and the sacred treasures in the first place.

So, yeah, I think I’ve made my point. I was not overly impressed by A Mortal Song. If you are interested in learning about Japanese mythology (and you should be – it has sentient umbrellas), there are way better novels out there. I personally found this book to be a shallow read and ultimately rather forgettable. It’s definitely not one that I would recommend.

A Mortal Song can be purchased as a Paperback and Audio Book on Amazon.co.uk

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