To Break The Demon Gate is the brilliant second book in Richard Park’s Yamada Monogatari series. If you haven’t read the first book, fear not, because this book is a superb stand alone. However, if you’ve read the first book in the series, the transition can be somewhat disorienting.
The first book, Demon Hunter, was a series of short stories set in the Heian era which featured our protagonist, Lord Yamada, solving mysteries involving various mythological creatures, from jealous Kami to mischevious Kitsune. This book begins with the most important short story from the book, Moon viewing at Shijo Bridge, the story that introduces us to Princess Teiko, the chess master and great love that will define the rest of Lord Yamada’s adventures. After that, it bypasses a lot of the short stories in the previous book and moves on to a novel after the event. After that it’s mostly smooth sailing, except for the ending which finished on almost exactly the same three paragraphs and revelation from the previous book, except slightly altered. This was very jarring to say the least, and makes me wonder what point in the timeline the events in this book are taking place. However, if you’ve not read the previous book this won’t be a problem, and To Break The Demon Gate is a truly great story.
The defining feature of this series is the sheer amount of research that went into portraying Heian era Japan and its culture. I’m no subject matter expert, but I’ve done a fair bit of research into Japanese history and from what I can see it’s very accurate. We’re constantly given bits of information about the culture:
He sighed. “Think? Rather, I know. Every year more and more land and wealth is concentrated in the hands of the provincial nobility, and their private armies are filled with these samurai,” Kanemore said, now using the more common, corrupted word, “whose loyalty is first to their lords and not the Emporor, as is right. It is for this reason only that upstarts like the Abe Clan can make so much trouble.”
There is no info dumping in this novel and the world building is very flowing.I love the way Parks renders the beautiful Japanese landscape, from its moonlit nights to the pleasures of having tea in the gardens. Much of Heian Japanese poetry focuses on nature and seasons, so it is only right that the environments would be brought to life in any Heian era novel.
The characters are likeable too. Our more reserved, serious protagonist Lord Yamada has a great friendship with the very brusque and noble warlike Prince Kanemore. However, centre stage has to be the friendship between Lord Yamada and reprobate priest Kenji, whose carefree drunken ways are the perfect foil to Lord Yamada’s gruff seriousness. The banter is always great between them. Unfortunately, the weak link here was Lady Snow, who takes up the role of female lead after Princess Teiko.
Like Princess Teiko, she’s beautiful mysterious and a master manipulator. However, unlike Teiko who was a strong force with her own agenda, this character has little agency and switches between manipulator to manipulated puppet and victim. Even though she may don a Yukata and veil instead of tight leather and stilettos, she is the classic femme fatale Delilah archetype. Unlike the strong and interesting females of Demon Hunter, Lady Snow felt less like a character and more like a plot device. The mystery surrounding her was very, very interesting and she didn’t ruin the story by any means, but considering the strength of his other characters and that she was the female lead, her lacking as a character was kind of disappointing.
And speaking of mystery, the mystery and plot is also very well done, although I have a couple of minor niggles: I couldn’t believe that Prince Kanemore would trust his once most hated enemy to the point where he would disbelieve his loyal friend. Without giving away spoilers , I don’t buy that Yin is that good and innocent if They knew about Yang’s actions and yet did not take more drastic action to stop them.
But these are minor problems. To Break The Demon Gate is an excellent novel and I think it deserves to be a lot more well known than it is. Anyone wishing to read a good historical fantasy in a world that is completely different from your usual sword and sorcery fare, then give this books read.