Review & Rambling: Unnamed Memory Vol. 2

I liked Vol. 2 of Unnamed Memory. There’s tragedy, mystery, history. “Oh, sorry. I guess it really is a kraken after all.” War, the emptiness of revenge, vacation. Time travel (maybe). “Why did you end up killing another country’s god when you just went out on a short observation mission?!” And entertaining banter between the romantic leads. I found the book quite enjoyable, and it built on a number of details and plot threads from the first volume in a satisfying manner (alas, though, certain other plot threads get no development or resolution at all). This is one novel with one overarching story about the relationship between Oscar and Tinasha. However, thanks to the relatively loose connections between various vignettes, it also comes across more as an episodic slice-of-life story.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Unnamed Memory is how unusually “western” it feels to me. Of course, that raises an obvious question: WHY does the story remind me of European / American fantasy stories more than pretty much any other light novel I’ve read? Obviously, Unnamed Memory *is* a light novel, originally written in Japanese by a Japanese author, yet something about it seems different than most fantasy light novels. After reflecting, I think a big part of what I perceive as the story’s “western-ness” is the sense of capriciousness, ambiguity, and wonder surrounding the setting’s five witches. Those are qualities I associate more with the western fantasy stories of my childhood than with the often RPG-inspired light novels I discovered as an adult.

J.R.R Tolkien’s Middle-Earth’s exemplifies what I’m talking about. In Tolkien’s works, the boundary between magical and mundane is fuzzy and unspecified. Consider the following moment from The Fellowship of the Ring:

“Are these magic cloaks?” asked Pippin, looking at them with wonder.

“I do not know what you mean by that,” answered the leader of the Elves. “They are fair garments, and the web is good, for it was made in this land. They are elvish robes certainly, if that is what you mean. Leaf and branch, water and stone: they have the hue and beauty of all these things under the twilight of Lórien that we love; for we put the thought of all that we love into all that we make.”

The unnamed Elf neither confirms nor denies that the cloaks are magical. Another example would be Frodo’s (formerly Bilbo’s) weapon, Sting: It’s never called a “magical” sword, and yet it glows in proximity to orcs. Clearly, Sting isn’t just an ordinary blade, but it’s not exactly “enchanted” either. The supernatural can also be unpredictable. Tom Bombadil…is there, Gandalf comes back from the dead, the palantíri exist, and a glorified water bottle proves an effective deterrent against an eldritch horror. The story’s supernatural elements have an undefined quality that leaves the reader uncertain as to what sorts of wonders exist or what sorts of miracles are possible. Middle-Earth is a place where the supernatural is most definitely present, but in an elusive form.

Many fairy tales, stories from Greek mythology, and more relatively modern western fantasy stories are similar. They don’t provide deep metaphysical explanations of the supernatural forces in play. The line between “possible” and “impossible” isn’t spelled out (pun intended). Why does the fairy godmother’s spell expire at midnight? Why can’t Orpheus turn around to look at his wife until they’re out of the underworld? A scene from Wishbone‘s version of Treasure Island springs to mind:

“Say something, Silver!”

“It is what it is, mates.”

“Uh… Say something else!”

The magic in these stories “is what it is.” In such works, one encounters a supernatural that is fickle, inscrutable, or both. It defies the well-ordered magic of many light novels and anime, with their RPG-inspired rules and structure.

This brings me back to Unnamed Memory, and specifically its mysterious witches, each with her own cryptic title. “The Witch of Silence” pops up out of nowhere to pronounce a dreadful curse for unknown reasons. “The Witch of the Azure Moon” holds herself aloof from the world, yet grants wishes to challengers who can overcome her tower’s trials. “The Witch of the Forbidden Forest” prepares food laced with dangerous magical effects and makes a game of whether others are foolish enough to thoughtlessly accept her treats. A fourth simply bears the obscure appellation, “The Witch Who Cannot Be Summoned.” (Does that mean she’s immune to getting pulled into isekai stories?) It’s not entirely clear what the mercurial supernatural forces of this world can do, nor why they may or may not do it. I think this “disorderly” quality to the setting’s major supernatural forces is why Unnamed Memory evokes western fantasy for me.

“Now let me be clear,” I’m not suggesting any style of story is better than another. Nor am I suggesting one approach to fantasy is, in any meaningful objective sense, “western” and the other “Japanese.” This sort of thing exists on a continuum that ebbs and flows over time between various authors and works. I love the stories of Lloyd Alexander and Robin McKinley with their more mysterious supernatural elements, but I’ve also derived much enjoyment from the novels of Brandon Sanderson, one of whose hallmarks is intricate systems of magic explained with almost scientific precision.

That said, most of my experience with the more wild, intangible sort of magic comes from western tales, while the Japanese fantasy stories I’ve consumed tend to have more “explained” systems of magic, either because they are games, or because they take inspiration from RPGs. I think that as a result, when I read a light novel where the supernatural elements seem to lean more toward cryptic than scientific, my brain interprets it as “western.” I think it’s relevant to consider the famous aphorism of sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Clarke’s point was that if technology in a sci-fi story operates off entirely unknown principles to do things that are absolutely impossible at present, then it’s straddling the line between “scientific” and “magical.”

I mention this because the converse (or something close to it) can also be true. Consider how it’s stated in the quite possibly literally endless webcomic Girl Genius:

A story may so thoroughly explain its supernatural aspects that it starts edging into the realm of sci-fi. And this, I believe, significantly affects how we (or at least I) experience such stories. I’m tempted to call this a distinction between coolness and wonder. Or maybe I should say awesomeness vs. awe? Regardless of the exact terms we use, it makes a difference how directly a story describes the supernatural workings. Thoroughly explained magic can be cool or awesome, but there needs to be elements of mystery if fantasy hopes to evoke wonder or awe. Sanderson’s character Lift is awesome, but she doesn’t evoke the same sense of amazement that I get from reading about Tolkien’s Lúthien.

There’s no clear line between these two qualities; I can’t tell you exactly how much explanation it takes to change magic from “wondrous” to “cool.” I just know that how codified the supernatural is in a story has an effect on how I experience it. I suspect that Unnamed Memory feels atypically “western” for a light novel because its presentation of the supernatural evokes the European / American fantasy stories of my youth in a way that other light novels rarely do. Additionally, I posit that maybe a better way to frame the distinction I’m sensing would be continuum with something like “awesome” on one side and “awe-inspiring” on the other. Coolness/awesomeness is quite compatible with an RPG-esque depiction of magic, while wonder/awe tends to require the supernatural to be at least a little bit enigmatic and undefined.

Don’t take any of this too seriously: I’m just thinking out loud (err…typing…on…screen?), and could easily change my mind about this stuff. But I enjoyed the journey of writing this post, and I hope you’ll find it thought-provoking and/or amusing.

Unnamed Memory, Vol. 2 can be purchased through Yen Press.

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