Monday, 19 September 2011

Crossing Midnight v3 – the Sword in the Soul

Mike Carey, Jim Fern, José Villarrubia
Vertigo (

The Sword in the Soul completes the story of Toshi and Kai Hara, twins born either side of midnight and worlds apart. Toshi, who no blade can harm, robbed of her past and future and pressed into the service of the sword-kami Aratsu; Kai, immune to all magics, just trying to find his sister and bring her home. But as he closes in on Toshi, Kai doesn’t realise she is hunting him in turn. Aratsu has promised the return of her lost memories should she slay her forgotten brother, and so they spiral round and round one another, drawing inevitably closer to one final climactic confrontation.

The Sword in the Soul is a perfect climax to the story, ramping up the action and hounding the overarching themes to their logical conclusion. Everything which occurs in this novel is a natural progression of what came before, generated in the hearts and minds of its characters rather than being imposed upon them by the needs of the plot. It’s a masterly demonstration of narrative control from writer Mike Carey, and it gives the fates of the Haras – and the supporting cast around them – serious emotional punch.

But I’m probably making this sound more Lost in Translation than it actually is. The novel’s underlying substance is its greatest strength, but what it underlies is a story packed to the rafters with action and wonder. The previous instalments in Crossing Midnight have shown a fairly measured progression from the everyday into the supernatural world, from the shocking intrusion of the kami into modern Japan through the surreal, neon strangeness of a night in mythic Tokyo. The Sword in the Soul cranks it several notches higher, throwing the Haras headlong into a full-blown war between supernatural factions – a magical, profoundly strange conflict which is superbly realised in the faint surrealism of Jim Fern’s linework and Jose Villarrubia’s lush, almost hallucinatory colours.

If the art excels, Carey demonstrates that he knows how to make the best of it – playing with the strengths inherent to the visual form. Take, for example, the way Carey cuts away from an incipient sex scene to show the childish joy of Saburo – a boy lost in Mythic Japan, who never grew up – as he plays with the ghost of the Haras’ childhood pet (p.112); the juxtaposition of innocence and experience is handled with admirable restraint, and provides a touching reminder of just what the Haras have left behind in their journey.

If the first two volumes of Crossing Midnight were concerned with the often painful transition from child- to adulthood, The Sword in the Soul drives the lesson home with uncompromising ruthlessness. Toshi Hara was always the more grown up of the twins, the five minutes she has on her brother seeming to grant wisdom far out of proportion to the length of her head start. But in The Sword in the Soul it’s Kai who’s growing up fast while his sister strips away her humanity, turning herself into a weapon in the single-minded desire to reclaim her lost past – even as she flees from the consequences of her ever-more-monstrous actions.
 “This isn’t about strength. You think to remove the hurt by removing your own knowledge of it. But those memories are rooted in your soul.”
 “My soul is a blade, Uso-Tsuki. A blade must narrow to its point. To its edge. Make me--- ---as sharp as you can.”


Without her memories and the opportunity to learn from her mistakes, Toshi reverts to something like childishness – albeit a child with alarming power, as demonstrated when a tantrum costs her valuable allies. This book is like a lesson in consequences, and learning to understand – and deal with – the fallout from your own decisions; something Kai can manage, growing into a man able to make sacrifices and take responsibility as he comes to term with who – and what – he is.

 “Life folds each of us into many curious shapes before we finally become what we are meant to be.”

As you might expect from a work so interested in matters of responsibility and consequences, The Sword in the Soul doesn’t pull any punches. The stakes climb higher and higher as the book winds towards its conclusion, and the depth of its characterisation, both here and throughout the series as a whole, invests every confrontation and loss with serious weight. Toshi might be a monster by the time she faces her brother, little more than a weapon in the hands of her master Aratsu, but you remember the decisions which forged her. And if Kai’s story is one of growing into an adult, Toshi’s regression towards childhood – and eventual, inevitable rebirth – mirrors her brother’s journey beautifully.

 Forgetfulness armours you against almost every pain there is.
 And makes every morning like another birth.

For all that I’ve gushed so far, The Sword in the Soul isn’t perfect. Its bittersweet, open-ended conclusion, while dramatically apt, has just a whiff of sequel-bait about it – probably not Carey’s intention, given the lack of loose ends at the close of the tale, but inescapable nonetheless. And the pace of the novel sags a little towards the middle, as a jaunt into rural Japan turns up a key ‘missing persons’ with eyebrow-raising ease – subsequent to which, half the supernatural world seems to descend upon them. If he was that easy to find in the first place, why hadn’t those so hungry to locate him already done so? An explanation is supplied, but while Carey handles his magic with a light touch and avoids the sort of overt exposition which can bring a narrative grinding to a halt, the mythological framework he’s built from traditional Japanese fairy tales occasionally feels a little too hand-wavy to bear the weight of the story.

What criticisms of The Sword in the Soul I can muster, though, are a little half-baked themselves; certainly they pale into insignificance when measured against the novel’s effortless characterisation and tense, intricate storytelling. This is essential reading, matching the brilliance of the Sandman series at its best. If you haven’t found yourself a copy already, what are you waiting for?

This review was originally written for