2012’s Darkest Light is the second book in Hiromi Goto’s Half World series.
Mr. Glueskin has been vanquished, allowing the age-old cycle of birth, reconciliation, rest, and rebirth to start once more.
Mr. Glueskin has been reborn as sixteen-year-old Gee, an odd-looking outcast, haunted by a malevolent inner voice. The only person who can stand to be around him is his adopted grandmother Popo. He leads an odd, sad life. But it may be better than what’s coming.
Mr. Glueskin’s followers cling to their pitiful existence in the Half World, preferring it to re-living past traumas (which is the only way to pass onto the Spirit World, after which one is reborn; lather, rinse, repeat), even though the only means to do so is to consume the souls of the dead Eel-armed Ilanna and bird-headed Karu, decide to drag their former boss back from the living world to glorious, sadistic, anthropophagy.
An angry exchange with local bully Winston ends when Winston and his goons storm out of Popo’s store. The exchange has two consequences: one positive (Punk Cracker is impressed by Gee and befriends him) and one negative (Winston smashes Popo’s store window, which indirectly sends Popo to the hospital).
Gee gives into his darkest impulses and smashes Winston’s car. Cracker insists on helping. A furious Winston attacks the pair. Gee fights him off, in the process undergoing a horrifying transformation. Gee may be a brand-new person, but it seems he still has Mr. Glueskin’s … gifts.
Enter Ilana and Karu, determined to awaken the Mr. Glueskin they are sure still lives within Gee.
The malevolent pair are not the only supernatural being with an interest in Gee. Psychopomp White Cat appears and gives Gee some surly advice about how to seek out the best available fate.
Step one: voluntarily travel to the nightmarish Half World, where the shades of the dead confront the traumas of their lives. This does not sound inviting, but the alternatives are worse. Accompanied by Punk Cracker, who is determined to find the shade of her dead sister, the trio of boy, cat, and girl sets out for a realm which, if not Hell, is in many respects indistinguishable from it.
There turns out to be a gulf between books whose craft I admire and books I’d want to reread any time soon. This falls into the first set.
I wonder if the reason I have not seen much talk about this book is because it seems to be rather poorly supported by booksellers. I had search assiduously to track it down on Amazon. If it is available on Barnes & Noble, my ingenuity was not up to the task of finding it.
Rather like the Half World itself, this novel is less about delivering comforting messages and more about encouraging people to cope with inescapable truths. Readers may find this depressing at first, but if they persevere, they will discover a relentlessly bleak world in which there really is very little that people can do to save others from their inner demons or themselves from life’s unpleasantness. The author’s cosmology offers a rather Herman-Kahn-like menu of undesirable choices. Some decision pathways lead to destinations that are distressing, but the seemingly easy paths will land you somewhere utterly horrifying.
Of course, eventually spirits do pass through the Half World to the Spirit World. Provided one stops the story there, this may seem hopeful, were it not for the inevitability of rebirth and the beginning of a brand-new cycle. But although avoiding pain is impossible, there are choices that can mitigate it to a degree. Yay?
Goto is a skillful writer, drawing the reader into this Buddhist YA . Consider recommending it to any teens who smile too much,
1: A note from the editor, who is a Zen Buddhist: if the spirit realm isn’t a surcease from suffering, just a way-station on the way to rebirth, then it really isn’t the Buddhist nirvana. The author seems to believe in only the first of the four noble truths (life is suffering) and not in a way out of the cycle of suffering (unless the only way out is eternal life in the Half World, which doesn’t sound pleasant). I wouldn’t consider this book Buddhist YA. But … I’ve got a horse in this race.