A Mortal Song
by Megan Crewe
Publisher: Another World Press
Release Date: September 13th 2016
Genre: Young Adult, Contemporary, Fantasy
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Sora’s life was full of magic—until she discovered it was all a lie.
Heir to Mt. Fuji’s spirit kingdom, Sora yearns to finally take on the sacred kami duties. But just as she confronts her parents to make a plea, a ghostly army invades the mountain. Barely escaping with her life, Sora follows her mother’s last instructions to a heart-wrenching discovery: she is a human changeling, raised as a decoy while her parents’ true daughter remained safe but unaware in modern-day Tokyo. Her powers were only borrowed, never her own. Now, with the world’s natural cycles falling into chaos and the ghosts plotting an even more deadly assault, it falls on her to train the unprepared kami princess.
As Sora struggles with her emerging human weaknesses and the draw of an unanticipated ally with secrets of his own, she vows to keep fighting for her loved ones and the world they once protected. But for one mortal girl to make a difference in this desperate war between the spirits, she may have to give up the only home she’s ever known.
“Megan Crewe’s A Mortal Song is engrossing from the first chapter. The world of the kami is beautifully fantastic and delicately drawn, and the switched-at-birth scenario made me instantly feel for both of these resilient, brave girls. A Mortal Song has lots of magic, lots of heart, and lots to love.” -Kendare Blake, author of Three Dark Crowns.
(I received a free copy of this book in exchange for a review).
(This review may contain spoilers).
Having been a long-time fan of manga and anime, I was particularly intrigued to see more about the Japanese paranormal culture when I was given the opportunity to read this book.
I really liked Sora’s character. She was easy to engage with and I found myself aching with her as she learned she wasn’t who she thought she was.
I was particularly interested in learning about the kami. I thought the different kinds of kami were good to see, although I would have liked a bit more detail of things like how they could have children and what kind of relationship they had with the world they took care of.
I especially liked being able to see how Sora related to the environment around her and her relationships with the other kami, especially Midora. I really didn’t like Ayame, though. I thought she was fickle and didn’t really care about Sora as a person… only about the position.
I really didn’t like the love triangle. Even though it didn’t irritate me quite as much as most love triangles do, it was one of the worst cliches I’ve seen in love triangles. If it wasn’t for that, I would have easily given this book five stars.
I did like both Keiji and Takeo, even though there were some problems involving both of them. However, I felt both of them had a lot of depth… although there were times I felt Takeo was a bit one-dimensional.
While I did feel there were times Chiyo crossed too far into the over-powered territory, it was good to see that she did have to have training and that she wasn’t perfectly good at using her power. I did also find her boyfriend to be a really interesting character. It was good to see the humans battling along with the kami to save the world… and it was also good to see that it wasn’t just one person who could do everything.
I felt this book was good at drawing me in and making me care about the world and the characters. I even thought it was good to see that the villain had a lot of depth and wasn’t just a one-dimensional character. I would definitely be interested in reading more books by this author in the future.
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About The Author
Like many authors, Megan Crewe finds writing about herself much more difficult than making things up. A few definite facts: she lives in Toronto, Canada with her husband and son (and does on occasion say “eh”), she tutors children and teens with special needs, and she’s spent the last six years studying kung fu, so you should probably be nice to her. She has been making up stories about magic and spirits and other what ifs since before she knew how to write words on paper. These days the stories are just a lot longer.
Megan’s first novel, GIVE UP THE GHOST, was shortlisted for the Sunburst Award for Canadian Literature of the Fantastic. Her second, THE WAY WE FALL, was nominated for the White Pine Award and made the International Reading Association Young Adults’ Choices List. Her Fallen World trilogy (THE WAY WE FALL, THE LIVES WE LOST, THE WORLDS WE MAKE) is now complete and she has a new trilogy forthcoming in October 2014, beginning with EARTH & SKY. Her books have been published in translation in several countries around the world. She has also published short stories in magazines such as On Spec and Brutarian Quarterly.
On the afternoon of my seventeenth birthday, I came down the mountain to visit a dying man.
The affliction had revealed itself slowly. I’d first noticed the tremor of discord in Mr. Nagamoto’s ki—the life energy that glowed inside him—three months ago. Over the weeks, that tremor had swollen into a cloud, dimming the ki at the side of his abdomen. Today I arrived to find the cloud twisting and churning while he typed at his computer in the living room. It was draining his already inconceivably short human life away, but neither he nor his wife knew it was there.
They didn’t know I was there either. I kept myself invisible as I watched from beside the narrow sofa, as I always did when I visited the households in the town at Mt. Fuji’s foot. The people living in those homes looked much like myself and many of the other kami, but it was their differences that fascinated me. They shifted from one mood to another in patterns too complex to predict, and their bodies changed quickly too, for better or for ill. As I’d drifted through the beige walls of this house over the years, Mr. and Mrs. Nagamoto had grown plumper and their hair grayer. I’d joined their children’s games unseen and silently shared their laughter before the son and then the daughter had transformed into adults leaving for college. And now this sickness had come.
I stepped closer to Mr. Nagamoto. Seeing how his disease had spread made me feel sick myself, but that was why I’d come. My resolve solidified inside me, overshadowing the worries that had driven me from the palace. If I really wanted to consider myself a part of this family’s lives, I should help them—help him.
I’d have healed him if I could, but the cloud of decay was so large and fierce I doubted even the most practiced healers of my kind would have been able to defeat it. We kami had other skills, though. I knew a few in the palace whose focus was tending to the dying. When a worthy person or creature passed away, they let it hold on to life a little longer by transferring its spirit into something it had loved. I thought Mr. Nagamoto might like to linger in the cypress tree in the yard or one of the koi in the pond beneath it, where he could continue watching over his family.
Any kami was capable of doing that. Any kami but me. Mother and Father hadn’t let me learn the sacred practices yet.
I had so much more power than anyone in this town—more ki in my little toe than Mr. Nagamoto had in his whole fragile human body. It wasn’t right for me to stand by and let his life slip away unrecognized. My parents would just have to accept that it was time I started serving the purpose I was meant to.
I bowed my farewell to Mr. Nagamoto and slipped outside. The summer sun was dipping low in the stark blue sky. Midori, my dragonfly kami friend who always accompanied me on my ventures off the mountain, flitted around me with a mischievous tickle of ki that dared me to try to reach the palace faster than her.
I took off down the street. Midori darted past me, but in a moment I’d matched her pace, sending ki to my feet to speed them on. The houses streaked by, clay walls and red-and-gray tiled roofs standing behind low fences of concrete or metal. It was strange to think most of these people barely believed my kind existed, spoke and prayed to us only out of habit, with no more faith than they had in the characters they watched on their TVs. But as long as kami lived on Mt. Fuji and elsewhere, we’d continue to act as guardians of the natural world, doing all we could to keep the crops growing, to fend off the worst storms, and to calm the fire that lurked deep inside the mountain.
Or, at least, the others did, and I hoped soon I’d find my focus too.
Midori pulled a little ahead of me, and I pushed my feet faster. I was the only one to have been born in the palace in as long as my honorary auntie Ayame could remember. She loved sharing tales of my birth even more than she did those of heroes and sages. “It was a blessing for our chosen rulers,” she’d told me. “When your mother and father announced they were expecting, the celebrations lasted for weeks.” The parties commemorating my birthday weren’t anywhere near as extensive, but kami still traveled from far abroad to pay their respects. Surely while my parents were thinking of how much I meant to them, they’d recognize how much this request meant to me?
In a few minutes, Midori and I had left the town behind and started up the forested slope. An odd quiet filled the pine woods we dashed through. No animals stirred, except for a couple of squirrels that rushed this way and that as if in alarm before scurrying away. I slowed, forgetting the race as I peered amid the branches for the owl kami who normally maintained the harmony in this part of the forest. “Daichi?” I called. There was no sign of him.
He must have already headed up to join the party. I’d mention my observations when I saw him in the palace.
I directed a fresh rush of ki through my legs. As I ran on, my feet hardly touched the ground. Farther up the mountain, the rustling of moving bodies and the lilt of birdsong reached my ears. Nothing was terribly wrong, then.
The voice brought me to a halt. Midori settled on my hair. A tall figure was striding toward us through the trees. My heart skipped a beat.
“Takeo,” I said, trying not to sound as breathless as I felt after that run.
Takeo stopped a few paces away and dipped into a low bow. He was wearing his fancier uniform with the silver embroidery along the jacket’s billowing sleeves. In contrast with the deep green of the fabric, his mahogany-brown eyes gleamed as brightly as if they were made of polished wood. With his shoulder-length hair pulled back in a formal knot, the lacquered sheath of his sword at his hip, and the arc of his bow at his shoulder, he looked every inch the palace guard. But he smiled at me, warm and open, as a friend.
If I’d had a camera like the ones the tourists carried, I’d have captured the look he was giving me for keeps. Although then I’d have to explain why I wanted to, and I hadn’t worked up enough courage to confess these new feelings yet. He might see me as a friend, but before that I was the daughter of his rulers, a child he’d been assigned to watch over and teach since I was seven years old, when he’d arrived at the mountain barely out of childhood himself, seeking to serve.
What if he couldn’t think of me as more? Just imagining him telling me as much, struggling to let me down gently, made my stomach tie itself into knots.
I pushed those thoughts aside. I had another goal tonight. Takeo was the only kami close to my age I knew, and he had been training in all the skills of the kami since he was much younger than me.
“I was a little worried when I couldn’t find you in the palace,” Takeo said. “But then I remembered your favorite place to visit. You were in town?”
“Yes,” I said. “Is something wrong?”
“Only that Ayame is looking for you. She’s fretting that she won’t have enough time to get you ready. You know how she is.”
With a wisp of amusement, Midori cast an image into my head of Ayame calling in her usual frantic voice, “Where is that girl?” I wasn’t late, but unlike humans, who might be panicking one moment and easygoing a few minutes later, kami were much more strict in their natures. It was Ayame’s nature to fret over absolutely everything.
“Hush,” I said to the dragonfly with a suppressed groan. She wasn’t the one Ayame would be fussing over when we got back. “I’m sorry,” I added to Takeo.
“It’s no problem at all,” he said, his smile widening. “I’m pleased to escort you home.“Is everything all right with you?” he asked as we continued up the mountain. “On your birthday, I’d have thought you’d be too busy to leave the palace.”
The question reminded me of the niggle of doubt that had drawn me to the Nagamotos’ house so I could steel myself to challenge Mother and Father’s judgment tonight. “I just needed to get away from the busy-ness for a bit,” I said, and bit my lip. “Takeo, do you think if I ask my parents to let me start learning the sacred practices, they’ll say yes?”
“Of course,” he said. “Why wouldn’t they?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “They’ve avoided giving me any responsibility—haven’t you noticed? Last year Kaito offered to teach me the way of the rain, and the year before that Manami suggested I accompany her to her shrine, and both times Mother and Father said that I shouldn’t have that sort of pressure on me before I’m fully of age. But I’ve been able to best you with ki since I was twelve—I nearly beat you with a sword last week. I know every inch of this mountain. Isn’t it time I learned our actual duties?”
“You should tell them that’s what you want,” Takeo said, ducking under a branch. “I’ve never known your parents to be anything less than understanding. They’ll find the right answer.”
The worries I’d squashed down in Mr. Nagamoto’s house surged back up. What if the answer was that they had good reason not to trust me with responsibility? Grandfather always said, “The one truth I know is, we can’t help but be the way we are.” Which meant if I were capable, it should be as clear as Ayame’s fretting, as Mother’s cool collectedness, as Father’s indomitable compassion.
So much of the time, nothing inside me felt clear at all. I could believe with every fiber of my being that I was ready, and a moment later be completely uncertain again. Maybe that was the problem. Maybe my parents had seen that strangeness in me and decided I was… inadequate. I’d never heard anyone else in the palace mention feeling so jumbled up, so I’d tried not to show it, but it had only gotten worse in the last few years.
I glanced sideways at Takeo. “Did you ever…” I said, and hesitated. “Have you ever felt you needed to do something, but at the same time you weren’t sure you could do it, and—”
My voice broke when he turned his head toward me. His handsome face was puzzled.
“If there’s something I can’t do, I leave it to those who can,” he said. “None of us can do everything.” His smile returned, softer this time. “But I think you’re strong enough to accomplish just about anything you decide to attempt, Sora.”
Even though he hadn’t understood what I’d been getting at, his smile steadied me. Was it really so unexpected that Mother and Father might want their only child to relish her youthful years before turning toward duty? “If you give enough to the Earth, it gives you joy in return,” Ayame liked to say. “You are the joy it gave your parents.” Every time my parents called me their “gift,” every time the other kami bowed to me, every time I stood on the mountainside with its power echoing through me, I remembered those words. The Earth itself had brought me into being to do its work. I was meant to be here, to fulfill that promise. I needed to keep my mind on that and not these ridiculous fears.
For a few dazzling seconds, I let the full force of my ki rush through me in a hum of light. The landscape blurred around me. Midori’s grip on my hair tightened as she sent me a glimmering thrill of exhilaration.
Then I reined myself back. At my fastest, I’d leave Takeo behind. I dodged the pale trunk of a birch—and nearly darted right through a ghost.
“Oh!” I said, jerking to a halt. “Excuse me, Miss Sakai. I didn’t see you.”
The filmy young woman bobbed her head to me. Wan and wide-eyed, Miss Sakai had been floating around this part of the mountain for several months. I’d gotten it out of a maple kami that her boyfriend had been walking with her along the paths and pushed her over one of the sharper inclines. She’d broken her neck. “I imagine she’s stuck around to give him a piece of her mind,” the maple had added, but Miss Sakai always seemed calm when I saw her.
Not today, though. I schooled my gaze away from the space partway down her legs where, as with all ghosts, her translucent body dissolved completely, leaving no knees, calves, or feet beneath her. Her ki was jittering. She stretched her mouth into an over-wide grin.
“I wasn’t watching either,” she said, too brightly. “So sorry.” Her eyes darted from me to Takeo and back. “I should be wishing you a happy birthday, shouldn’t I! The big party is about to start?”
“Thank you,” I said. “Yes.”
I wondered if I should invite her to join us, but she spun around before I could say anything else. “Have a wonderful time!” she said, and shot off down the slope. In a few seconds, she’d disappeared amid the trees.
“That was strange,” I said.
“It’s unusual for the spirits of the dead to cling to this world at all,” Takeo pointed out. “I suppose that can’t help but affect their minds.”
We crossed the spring that babbled just below the palace’s entrance and stepped through the grove of cherry trees to the shallow cave on the far side. Any human who happened upon this spot would see nothing more than a small hollow. But when we walked through the cool stone, which tingled over my skin as if I’d passed under a waterfall, we emerged into the main hall of the great palace that housed most of Mt. Fuji’s kami.
Inside, I released the energy that had held me invisible and settled back into my more comfortable corporeal form. At once, my surroundings felt more solid too: the wooden floor smooth beneath my feet, the muted sunlight that gleamed through the ceiling panels warming my long black hair. On either side of us, sliding doors painted with images of flowers and sweeping branches broke the dark wood of the walls. The thrum of the mountain’s ki washed over me in welcome.
Farther down the main hall, two palace attendants were leading a group of guests toward the large public rooms. The smell of the grand dinner being prepared filled the air—kami could take all our nourishment directly from the Earth when we needed to, but that didn’t stop us from enjoying good food. Frolicking music filtered through the walls. My mouth watered and my feet itched to dance, but as Midori flitted over to join the early merrymaking, I turned in the other direction, where the private apartments lay.
I’d only taken one step around the corner toward my parents’ chambers when a high, nasal voice stopped me in my tracks.
“Sora!” Ayame cried, tearing across the hall with her spindly arms waving and her hair billowing around her petite frame. “Look at you, child. Bare-faced, dirt on your clothes… Augh, I can’t have you seen like this, not on your birthday.”
“I need to speak to Mother and Father first,” I said as she tugged me toward my rooms.
“You can go when you’re properly prepared.”
Well, it might be wise to look my best when I made my appeal. I relented.When we reached my inner rooms, Takeo hung back. “Wait for me?” I said. Takeo’s protection was merely a formality at my age, but I’d feel more confident approaching my parents with his steady presence at my side.
“Of course,” he said.
Ayame shoved the sliding door shut between us. Her assistants—one human-shaped like Ayame and me and the other three kami in the forms of a robin, a crane, and a monkey—were waiting in the bathing room. I was scrubbed and rinsed with water scented with cherry blossoms, then powdered and combed and lotioned and powdered again. Finally I was allowed to get dressed, in a silky robe more flowing than any humans ever wore. The pale blue fabric danced with golden butterflies.
“Ah!” Ayame said, clapping her hands together. “Magnificent.”
“Am I done, then?” I asked as the monkey tied the sash around my waist.
Ayame made a dismissive sound and launched into a tirade about my hair. I stared longingly at the door. If I didn’t distract myself, I was going to burst.
As the robin started coiling my hair and Ayame brought out her make-up palette, I exhaled, sending out a stream of ki shaped into a kite. At my mental nudge, it drifted through the door. Takeo and I had played this game since I was first learning how to use the energy inside me, but these days I offered it as a challenge.
The kite was caught by an impression that was purely Takeo, gallant as one of the mountain’s young pines. I drew it back. His ki resisted, dragging the kite toward him, and the corners of my mouth twitched upward.
“Hold still!” Ayame said.
Quieting my expression, I reeled the kite in against Takeo’s pull. At the last instant, Takeo whipped it away. It took all my self control not to lunge after it physically. I clung on with sharpened focus and yanked. The kite shot straight to me, Takeo’s connection snapping. In the room outside, he laughed at his defeat. Ayame shook her head.
“So strong, my Sora,” she murmured. “All right, you’ll do. Walk carefully—and keep your hands away from your face!”
I hurried with Takeo down the narrow hall that separated my rooms from my parents’. The lamps along the wall were starting to flare on with the fading of the sun. Around us, an anxious tremor rippled through the mountain’s ki. I glanced at Takeo, startled, but he showed no sign of concern. That must have been my anxiety, trembling out of me.
My pulse beat faster as we came to a stop at the door to my parents’ private chambers. Takeo tapped on the frame and announced our presence, and Mother’s voice answered.
She and Father were sitting on crimson cushions by their low ebony table. A light sandalwood scent wafted from the incense burner set in an alcove. Takeo eased the door shut, staying on the other side. I padded across the finely woven rush of the tatami mats to the other side of the table.
Because kami age so slowly once they reach adulthood, Mother and Father both looked as young as humans of about twenty, but otherwise they were each other’s opposites. Mother was thin and lithe with ivory skin, while Father was broad and bulky and ruddy complexioned. The way they smiled at me matched their temperaments perfectly: Mother soft and bright, Father wide and warm.
“We were about to send for you,” Mother said. “You look beautiful, Sora.”
I blushed, lowering my eyes. Strong, I reminded myself. Strong and capable.
“I can’t believe you’re already seventeen,” Father said in his rumbling voice. “Three more years and you’ll be all grown up.” He sounded strangely sad.
“It isn’t so short a time,” Mother said gently, as if I might someday leave for college or other far away places like the Nagamotos’ children.
A distant shout reached my ears. Mother frowned, glancing toward the hall. Kami usually got along, but occasionally there were disputes between the guests.
The faint silhouette of Takeo’s form moved away from the door’s translucent panel. He must have gone to see what was the matter. I drew my mind back to my goal.
“I’ve been doing everything I can to prepare,” I said.
“Let’s not worry about that,” Mother said before I could go on. “Tonight is one of the few occasions we can think of celebration instead of duty. Your father and I wanted to give you your birthday present.”
She nodded to Father, who lifted a long rectangular object from the floor behind him and set it on the table. It was a lacquered case with a leather strap and a gold clasp. “Open it,” he said, grinning.
I leaned forward and pushed up the clasp. As I raised the lid, my breath caught. “Thank you!” I said, staring at the instrument inside. “It’s wonderful.”
It was a flute made of polished bamboo, so carefully crafted I could feel how pure its sounds would be just by running my fingertips over the wood. I picked it up and brought it to my lips. The scale hummed through me as if I were as much an instrument as the flute. Each note expanded into the quiet like a flower bud unfurling. It was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever heard—and it was mine.
I set the flute back in its case, closed the lid, and hugged it to me. “Thank you,” I said again. “I’ll play it tonight.” I’d meant to use my old flute, the one they’d given me when I’d started lessons years ago. But this was a true musician’s instrument. One for a woman, not a girl. Maybe they knew I was ready to finally find my place among the kami.
I slid the case’s strap over my shoulder. As I opened my mouth, another shout carried through the wall, followed by a heavy crash that shocked the words from my throat. Footsteps thumped down the hall outside. Takeo pulled open the door, and one of his fellow guards stumbled to a halt on the threshold, his breath rasping.
“Your Highnesses,” he said, “forgive my intrusion. We’re under attack.”
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