Book Review – The Unseen World by Patricia Correll

The urban fantasy world is rife with stories of young people with untapped potential. Frankly, it’s a trope I really enjoy, so I can’t diss anyone who makes use of it. Besides, even the Good Book (not Starship Troopers, the other one) said there is nothing new under the sun. And, let’s face it, that book was written a long, long time ago and has been riffed on a lot over the years. So, you’ve got a fairy classic story that harkens way back in time, what do you do with it?

Aye, that’s rub.

Now, excuse me if I get pedantic here – I write urban fantasy and love to think I’m smarter than I really am, so I do tend to prattle on – but the execution of a good story relies less on a brand new idea than how well you take something and make it yours. Thus, young person with untapped potential: We’ve already established I’m down with that. What about magic? Cool, let’s do magic and have some cool rules for it. Now, what about some underlying mythology? Japan. Hell, yeah; I’m in like Flynn. With all that, maybe we’re moving closer to fantasy than urban fantasy, but it’s all good since The Unseen World is a great read either way.

And that’s where we wind up with Patricia Correll’s cool and fun “The Unseen World”. Rather than being lazy and setting the whole thing in Sheboygan, WI, Correll drops her story into mediaeval Japan. Which teleports us from traditional urban fantasy into something exciting and new. And, from my limited understanding of Japanese tradition and rules – cobbled together from samurai movies and a lifetime of martial arts – she nails it. And, I’d love to point out, the Japanese have an absolute lock on freaky monsters. Werewolves, vampires, fey? Pshaw. Overdone and oversaturated. Give me some Tengu. Give me some Kappa. Give me some cat cat yōkai. Give me a literal eternal emperor. Give me a bittersweet ending, the flickering flame of love that dies out, and characters that rise to the occasion and even try to shirk their destiny. That’s what makes a fun story.

There’s nothing normal or boring here. Once you open the book, you’re in for the long haul. You’re dropped into a world that isn’t always pretty and surrounded by people who aren’t always pretty. A world that feels like you can reach right out and touch it. And don’t forget to bow to the nakayama; they’re on your side.

Sanami is teenage girl living in a tiny village in a remote province of the Tensho Empire. While her father is unknown and her mother abusive, she’s found a safe place with some kindly neighbors. Sanami is content with her quiet life and with her upcoming marriage to her childhood sweetheart. But an unforeseen obstacle to the wedding sends Sanami to the capitol, to beg the immortal Emperor’s help. While there she meets the onmyouji, servants and advisors to His Majesty. Part sorcerer, part medium, part fortune teller, the Sasugawa onmyouji clan is one of the most powerful and feared families in the empire. They recognize her as one of their own,­ a surprise made stranger by the fact that onmyodo powers belong almost exclusively to the males of the clan. She agrees to stay in the capitol for one year while the onmyouji try to figure out why she is what she is, and what role she is meant to play.

Over the course of this year Sanami is introduced to a world of spirits and magic that she never dreamed existed. But when she discovers the purpose for which the gods have chosen her, she wonders if she will ever be strong enough to fulfill her destiny.

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