March 04, 2013

Book Review: Tiger Lily

I don't remember how I wound up with Tiger Lily on my Kindle, but here it is and since I was in the midst of a flurry of Japan research I opened it up and read it.

Tiger Lily is a fantasy novel set in Japan during the Sengoku-Daimyo period. Japan at this time had two emperors, one of whom (Emperor Go-Daigo) eventually abdicated when it became apparent he could not win control over the entire country. The champion and general of the "legitimate" imperial line was Ashikaga Takauji who began by supporting Emperor Go-Daigo but switched his loyalty to Emperor Kogon (and later, Emperor Komyo) when Emperor Go-Daigo became tyrannical and attempted to destroy the political powerbase of the Bushi (early samurai). The official Imperial Court at the time backed Ashikaga's rebellion against Emperor Go-Daigo because they feared Emperor Go-Daigo was intent on building a Chinese-style dynastic throne which would also undercut the power of the court as a whole.

When transforming history into fantasy it is important to recognize what is truly important and to preserve the motivations and aspirations of characters who appear on the pages of your story, especially when those characters stand for or directly represent historic persons. J.R.R. Tolkien, J.K. Rowling, and C.S. Lewis were masters of this technique of creating realistic fantasy characters, which is why we still read their stories long after the newness and novelty factor wears off. If this book is any indication, then Ms. Lincoln has a long way to go before the same can be said of her work.

The first two-thirds of the book are very, very good. Lily-of-the-Valley, the main character, is the daughter of a Shinto shamaness. Lily prefers to avoid working in the rice fields of her village by spending her days wandering in the woods singing her mother's ritual songs. Here is where the first major problem arises. Shinto is an animistic religion that depends on sympathetic magic and communing with "kami", the nature spirits that dwell throughout Japan. It is not based on spirit possession except for very, very rare occasions in certain divination rituals. In Tiger Lily, however, spirit possession is the basis of Shinto magic, bringing the story's magical foundation in line with Druidic and some Wiccan sects but placing it at the opposite end of the spectrum of genuine Shinto belief. Nonetheless, the characters are strong, the culture is reasonably accurate for the historic period, and I was more than happy to overlook this minor deviation because the main conflict driving the plot is the conflict between Buddhism and Shinto with the "legitimate" Emperor backing Buddhism while the "pretend" Emperor backs Shinto. A conflict which was key to much of the warfare of the 7th Century but had nothing to do with the political situation during the Sengoku-Daimyo period.

As the plot unfolds Lily uses her ritual songs to help the son of the local Daimyo (Ashikaga Yoshinori) win free of two ambushes by the Fox soldiers of the "pretend" Emperor Go-Daigo. So far, so good. A minor stretch, but after all, this is fantasy so the core of the story is supposed to be the metaphor and the iconography. Then, suddenly, about two-thirds the way through the book right at the point where the climatic crisis is approaching and without any warning at all, Yoshinori is revealed to be a woman and not a man. This revelation shifts the entire story into a sort of fantasy-based LGBT propaganda work based on the life of Jeanne d'Arc by casting Jeanne's story into a Japanese context. Now Buddhism becomes the Catholic church at the height of the Inquisition, Shinto is nothing more than a stand-in for Druidism and Wicca, and gender oppression becomes the new prominent theme.

If there had been any kind of precursor or oblique hint that this was the true intent of the story then I could forgive the suddenness as a really cool plot device. Instead, I as a reader felt I had been betrayed into reading a story I would not normally give a second glance to because the writer felt she had some deep compulsion to instruct me in how evil it is to treat LGBT people as second class citizens. Now, instead of an interesting and creative mixed metaphor, I find I'm reading a political treatise on gay marriage, the evil of the Defense of Marriage Act, and the necessity of always voting Democrat in American elections, a stance I most certainly oppose on every level. I as an individual never treat LGBT people as second class citizens. One of my uncles is homosexual and has a life partner who he has been together with for decades. In the Army I had several friends who were "in the closet" because I served long before "Don't ask, Don't tell" so by trusting me with the knowledge of who they really were they were in fact risking their military careers. I don't have a problem with two men or two women who fall in love and want to spend their lives together. I just cannot call that relationship a "marriage".

Transforming a pretty darn good fantasy story into a political treatise without warning is, to my way of thinking, about as dishonest and unethical a trick as a writer can pull. Nonetheless, Ms. Lincoln tells a good story with a reasonable plot and strong characters. It is still a very entertaining novel, but anyone I recommend it to is going to be warned ahead of time what the true nature of the fictional Ashikaga Yoshinori is. I suspect that will prevent many of them from bothering to read it at all.