Brave Story by Miyuki Miyabe
Reviewed by William Alexander
Miyuki Miyabe has written dozens of books in all sorts of genres, but only a few of her novels have as yet been translated from Japanese into English; Brave Story, a sprawling young adult fantasy, is the fourth. Brave Story chronicles the adventures of Wataru, an ordinary boy who leaves urban Japan for the fantastical world of Vision. This particular magical kingdom, filled with swords, circuses, monsters and helpful animal-folk, is similar to Fantastica of Michael Ende's The Neverending Story in that it never pretends to be anything other than imaginary, even within the world of the novel; both Vision and Fantastica take their shape and substance from the imagination of ordinary people. But unlike Bastian, The Neverending Story's book-loving protagonist, Wataru's imaginings are fueled by intense 3-D graphics. He loves video games, especially fantasy role-playing, and such games are his primary reference point for fantastical things.
This could also be true of Brave Story's target audience, who might have learned fairy tale tropes primarily from games like The Legend of Zelda. I'm not going to wring my hands about this, or panic that kids are abandoning traditional entertainments for new, scary, and immersive forms -- D&D games do not really inspire teenagers to summon demons with the blood of their toddler siblings, few readers since Quixote have lost their sanity in heroic novels, and Plato's Republic has yet to be overthrown by either poets or playwrights. The interesting question is not whether the influence of video games is pernicious, but whether game-logic and story-logic are even compatible. Game play involves active choices with unpredictable outcomes, but it isn't possible to nudge the characters of a book into doing things differently.
In Brave Story, at least, the ludic and the literary do compliment each other. One reason for this compatibility might be the fact that fantasy literature and fantasy games share a certain amount of folkloric source material, including the "plot coupon" story structure. A fairy tale hero, for example, may date the princess only after finding the golden feather, the magic mirror, and the singing donkey -- collect all three, and turn them in for plot resolution. The original Legend of Zelda involved collecting shattered fragments of a magic glowing triangle and ultimately cashing them in for a princess-rescue. In Myst you solve puzzles to collect the pages of a magic book. The pattern gives structural backbone to the game, making it more story-like.
Wataru's plot coupons are five magic gemstones, scattered throughout the land of Vision in order to test the worth and mettle of a Traveler; it's a bit contrived, but it works because of the acknowledged kinship between Wataru's Vision and his love of video games. The pattern makes his story more game-like, which is likely to woo young players who don't yet consider themselves readers. But this plot coupon structure also works because Miyabe keeps it in the background, foregrounding instead her beautiful menagerie of creatures and supporting characters. She complicates Wataru's quest with difficult moral dilemmas, and gives much more narrative weight to his growing maturity than his gem-collecting. She also takes her time establishing the painful real-world circumstances Wataru escapes, and ultimately hopes to change, by way of his magical adventuring. The result is a "brave story" indeed.