1979’s The Leopard Mask is the first volume in Kaoru Kurimoto’s one hundred volume plus (!) sword-and-sorcery Guin Saga. The 2003 English translation is by Alexander O. Smith and Elye J. Alexander.
The kingdom of Parros was peaceful and prosperous; its nobility was elegant and pious. It was a jewel of a kingdom. All the neighbouring Archduchy of Mongaul had going for it was a large army. This allowed Mongaul to crush its elegant neighbour.
The invading Mongaul attack managed to kill all but two members of Parros’ royal family. Twins Rinda and Remus — the Pearls of Parros — escape to the Roodwood. It’s a tossup whether Mongaul’s soldiers will capture the two teens before the Roodwood’s monsters eat them.
The cosseted royals are awful at woodcraft. Soldiers venturing out from Stafolos Keep stumble across the twins, who are trying to hide in the woods. Capture seems certain … and then a near-naked man wearing a leopard mask leaps out of the woods to obliterate the Mongaul soldiers and save the children.
The leopard masked man can remember his name — Guin — but he is otherwise amnesiac. He cannot remember who masked him or why. The mask cannot be removed and he is dying of thirst. Rinda and Remus save him by finding a reed that can be used as a straw, one that fits through the narrow mouth opening in the mask. Hydration comes just in time, as the three new chums are chased by a second wave of soldiers.
The second wave is swarmed and killed by their former mates, who are now ravening undead. The third expedition proves luckier; they evade the undead and capture Guin, Rinda, and Remus.
Stafolos Keep is the army’s oubliette; it’s where careers and quite often soldiers go to die, courtesy of the abundant local monster population1. The keep’s commander is the forbidding Count Vanon, whose terminal and highly contagious disease is (barely) kept from spreading by his ominous black armour.
Count Vanon is pleased to see the prisoners. Not only will capturing the Pearls of Parros win praise and possibly a ticket out of Stafalos, but Guin could be sold as an arena fighter. The twins are dispatched to tower cells — ominously, pretty Rinda is given her own room, isolated from Remus and Guin’s designated prison — and Guin is forced to fight a monster to prove his worth. Guin is a ferocious fighter, but no match for the monster; a soldier, impressed by Guin’s fighting spirit, intervenes to save the masked man.
The Count’s propensity for seemingly pointless malice proves the Keep’s undoing. Among the Count’s hobbies: kidnapping Sem. The Sem are a local hominid species; they are more numerous and organized than the Count expects. A revenge-seeking horde of Sem descend on the Keep.
Now Rinda has befriended Suni, one of the Sem hostages. One might think that this would be a get-out-of-jail card for Rinda, Remus, and Guin. It’s not. Suni is of a different tribe than the invaders, who will happily kill her, and her friends, along with the rest of the garrison.
Oh, and there’s the true monster of the Keep, which is very keen on making the trio’s acquaintance.
All seems lost. It isn’t, because there are more than one hundred sequels featuring Guin. But you’ll have to buy the next book to find out how they, or at least Guin, escaped this particular peril.
This had more references to rape than I would expect in what seems to be a young adult fantasy novel.
The author intended a lean one hundred volumes in her series. She delivered one hundred and thirty volumes in the main sequence and twenty-two side-story novels. There might have been more, but she died in 2009. Persistence!
I’d like to give a special call-out to charming cad Istavan, who was imprisoned in a cell next to Remus and Guin’s cell. He sweet-talks the boy out of his bed sheets and uses them as rope wherewith to escape his cell. Alone. The rogue! I wonder if he reappears later in the series.
Guin is an impressive warrior. He overcomes a platoon of soldiers even when virtually naked and unarmed by grabbing the nearest enemy soldier and using him as club to kill his companions. The mask and the amnesia give him a mystery to solve. So, there’s a potential for fun plots there.
The Pearls of Parros, on the other hand, are essentially useless except as plot devices: now the amnesiac Guin has friends to protect. Their failure to rise to the occasion might explain how it was Parros proved so vulnerable; the royal family might have been decorative, but they probably weren’t all that great at warfare. Overall, the effect is as though an amnesiac Conan the Barbarian got himself saddled with Superfriends’ Wendy and Marvin. Which I suppose would make Suni Wonder Dog.
This was not a good book. Perhaps some of the problem was the translation; the prose is both purple and clumsy. I might try another one of these to see why the series was so popular. Then again, I might not.
1: Stafalos Keep also offers few opportunities for graft, a lack the soldiers lament.