The Lord of the Sands of Time
Reviewed by Brittain Barber
I am going to go ahead and assume that no readers out there are currently wondering what would happen if aliens invaded ancient Japan, or how time traveling cyborgs would fight them off. Even if the cyborgs had been skipping through time in an effort to block the xenocidal menace and were aided by a snippy, AI-controlled spaceship, this is probably not a question that keeps people up at night. Ogawa, on the other hand, has let the scenario occupy his Seiun Award winning brain long enough to unleash The Lord of the Sands of Time on an unsuspecting populace; Haikasoru then chose this as one of its four launch titles.
I was initially planning on categorizing this book under Alternate History, but have changed my mind. I think that The Lord of the Sands of Time fits better into Historical Fantasy, despite technically being science fiction. I made this executive decision because Alt History tends to take time travel (or whatever) as the point of departure for an exploration of how technology, usually of the military variety, would change the target milieu. Ogawa, on the other hand, is much more interested in how the time travel affects his characters than what might happen when a visitor from the future suddenly starts modernizing Yayoi Period Japan. (And by “Yayoi,” I mean Japan in the 3rd Century BC, not “yaoi” boy love manga. I made myself look stupid in front of an anime crowd by mixing these terms up.)
The novel starts in Japan, when Princess Himiko and her retainer are attacked by aliens. Himiko appears to have been a real person, though details are sketchy. (I think we can safely assume, however, that she was never attacked by aliens.) She is promptly saved by the heroically named Orville, in the guise of “Messenger O.” Orville, it turns out, is a cyborg from the future, constructed to travel back in time and fight against aliens bent on the destruction of humanity. As Messenger O, he has been strategically maneuvering the Japanese (Yamatai, at the time – Japan as a country was several hundred years away) into a position where they can effectively fight when the aliens appear in force. When he saves Himiko, Orville steps out of the shadows and begins the battle in earnest. (He also puts himself in a position to score with a Japanese princess, but that appears to be a tertiary motive at most.)
Full disclosure time: I don’t generally like time travel stories. Like my other pet peeve, ESP, time travel opens up a stadium-sized can of worms that authors rarely deal with in a skillful manner. Had this not been written by a Japanese author, I probably would have skipped it. Instead, since my goal is to get through every Haikasoru title in the public library, I snapped it up.
For the most part, Ogawa didn’t let me down. He takes his time travel, chooses his side (multiverses generated when realities splinter at decision points vs. static and basically unalterable time flow), and lets the consequences play themselves out. Despite the implications of unleashing technology centuries early in Japan, the focus of the story remains on Orville and Himiko. In the latter’s case, she is forced from being a figurehead into real leadership as the people rally around her to repulse the alien invaders. Orville is the Wandering Man O’ Woe, who has fought the aliens (and lost) across the centuries. He carries terrible burdens, of course, like impossible love and the knowledge that humanity is, by and large, too petty and shortsighted to ever win this war. I suppose that I would be woeful myself, if I had spent 400 years fighting a losing battle with aliens who somewhat inexplicably want to crush Earth across the time streams.
As far as things I liked, the main setting is right up there. I am a sucker for Olde Nippon and the Yayoi Period is a new and exciting place for me. Much like Western stories, where Middle Ages stuff is easy to come by but other historical eras are comparatively untapped, very little outside of Tokugawa or Warring States Period Japan makes its way into fiction. Yamatai was a welcome place to spend a few hours. I also enjoyed the strategic implications of time travel. The forces of good and evil would ebb and flow in a time stream based on the effects of their actions on other time streams. For example, victory for the good guys meant that more cyborgs came from the future to help out, while defeat caused people to wink out of existence as their home time stream was destroyed. This sort of thing can rapidly descend into chaos, but Ogawa manages to keep things under control, perhaps simply by not thinking too much about it. Finally, the characters are likeable and sympathetic. Like other Japanese fiction I have read, there is a melancholic undercurrent that tugs the heart strings a bit and gets the reader cheering for a happy ending. I have said this before, but Japanese SF often seems to be more about people than ideas. This may just be a humanist streak that attracts the Haikasoru higher ups and leads to a skewed selection, but I have seen it in other publications as well.
In the negative column, the book is most likely a translation of a “light novel.” These are roughly analogous to YA fiction here, though it often has as much to do with length as thematic content. The trade paperback is pricey for just being a couple hundred pages, but that is only relevant to book buyers, not library patrons like myself. Price aside, the book is short, and Ogawa skips lightly over the surface of several questions that could easily be explored more thoroughly. Lord doesn’t feel incomplete or rushed, but more story probably wouldn’t have hurt. The end is also a bit abrupt for my taste. While Ogawa sets up the reasons for this early in the book, his deus ex machina pulls the rug out a bit from under the themes of self-sacrifice and brooding inevitability that slowly build through the story. It keeps the book from being a total downer and makes sense, but is somewhat lacking in narrative grace.
And so, at last, the final recommendation.The Lord of the Sands of Time gets my qualified approval. It is not essential, nor is it life altering, but it is creative and interesting. If nothing else, it answers the question posed at the beginning of this review; I don’t know of any other book that does. Ogawa makes very reasonable demands on the reader’s time, so with the right expectations, this is a worthy couple of hours spent in ancient Japan.
Brittain writes for the Two Dudes in an Attic blog – which you should check out!