Mizuki Tsujimura’s Lonely Castle in the Mirror is a stand-alone portal fantasy novel. Originally published in 2017 as Kagami No Koji, Phillip Gabriel’s English translation came out in 2020.
Kokoro Anzai has been the target of mass bullying at school1. Rightfully dubious of the school’s ability and willingness to protect her, she has arrived at a simple but effective countermeasure. She refuses to attend school; she won’t even leave her house. Aware that their daughter is skipping school but not understanding why, her parents find her a new school. Kokoro confounds their efforts. Anything outside her house has become too frightening.
Respite comes from her mirror.
When her bedroom mirror begins to glow, Kokoro cannot resist touching it. She is dragged into another realm, that of a fantastic castle. Although her initial reaction is terror and flight back to the safety of her bedroom, Kokoro is intrigued enough to return to the castle the next time the mirror glows.
Kokoro is one of seven students enticed into the castle by the Wolf Queen, a mysterious girl in a wolf mask. The others are Aki, Fuka, Masamune, Rion, Subaru, and Ureshino. The Wolf Queen explains that they are present to take part in a treasure hunt. Somewhere in the castle is a magic key, the Wishing Key. Whoever finds it will get a wish.
As one might expect, there are rules and conditions. Only one student can have the wish. The students may only search for the key between 9 AM and 5 PM, Japan time. All of the students must leave the castle by 5 PM, Japan time. If even one misses the deadline, they will all be eaten by a ferocious wolf. They have only until the next March 30thto find the key. If they fail, the only consequence appears to be that nobody will get the wish.
A desperate race to find the Wishing Key … fails to follow. None of the students asked for a magic wishing key. On the other hand, as Kokoro swiftly deduces, all are dropouts. Social contact proves more precious than a wish. The months slip away as the students use their time to hang out and have fun with each other.
The students belatedly discover that they share something else. All are dodging attendance at the same school. Were they to actually attend, then they could hang out there as well as in the mysterious otherworldly castle.
It’s fine plan. But even though some of them follow through and start attending school again, they cannot find each other. In fact, perusing the school lists would show each of them that while they themselves attend such a school, none of the others do. They appear to come from parallel universes. Universes only infinitesimally different — but that difference is enough to keep them apart in the worlds outside the mirror.
The Wolf Queen never mentioned parallel worlds. What else has she concealed?
This book reminds me of Piranesi, the Susanna Clarke novel I’ve recently read (and reviewed): strange, other worldly dimensions, quests, certain crucial bits of information being withheld. This is a complete coincidence. I don’t know why such synchronicity happens, but it happens all the time. At least this bit of synchronicity is better than the week where all the protagonists had a hand amputated due to dynastic conflict.
Kokoro takes a very long time to tell her mother what was happening at school. Nor does she complain to the school: she has no faith that the teaching staff will support her. Kokoro knows that society tends to side with popular people and while her persecutors are popular, Kokoro is not. It’s just common sense that adults will only make her situation worse.
We eventually find out that she is being very unfair to her mother and somewhat unfair to the teachers. Yes, a lot of the teachers reflexively assume that if she is being bullied, she did something to deserve it. However, not all of them are utterly useless. It’s working out who the exceptions might be that is the problem.
Given the themes of social isolation and school-facilitated terror campaigns, not to mention the whole “and also, you may be eaten by a wolf” subplot, one might expect Castle to be a bleak read. It’s not, although it is a rather grim take on their school system that all of the kids judge the chance of being consumed alive by a supernatural beast of prey better than what awaits them at school. Instead, it’s a heartening work, one I could imagine becoming a comfort read for the correct reader.
1: Editor’s comment: the bullying reminds me of the cruel bullying in Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being. Also a fantasy, if not the usual extruded fantasy product.