4 out of 4 stars
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Myrtle and many others gather to hear a tale told by a bard wearing a white fox mask at the beginning of Fourth Sister: Hearth and Bard Tales, written by M.L. Farb. It takes place in Nihon, a land full of powerful spirits (kami). The story pulls elements from Japanese age-old beliefs, traditions, and culture, creating a spellbinding tale.
Shisei, the protagonist, is the fourth of seven sisters; we follow her journey from desperation, fear, and death to spiritual awakening, courage, and life. Shisei feels guilty because her twin brother died at birth. She prays to a deity (Inari) to give her another brother, but her mother dies during childbirth. The protagonist and her sisters believe that Shisei carries a curse against unborn sons. Grieving and feeling she is cursed, she decides to wander from village to village to find an apprenticeship. She does this disguised as a boy, assuming her deceased twin’s name – Sheng. Takumi, a mask maker, receives Shisei as an apprentice, and the journey begins.
I very much enjoyed reading this book, and it had numerous positive aspects. What I liked the most was its deeply touching symbolism. For instance, Shisei’s name is full of meaning; her mother told her it meant sacred poetry, a bridge between the seen and unseen. Also, “shi” is a word that means both fourth and death.
Additionally, the plot itself is full of parables and metaphors. Initially, the protagonist thinks a white fox full of tricks is making her life miserable and persecuting her. She feels she has a demon following her and causing harm. Shisei is markedly afraid of tricksters, but in a paradoxical move, she decides to hide her identity to seek knowledge. Above all, the author skillfully explores the metaphor of mask making; Shisei has the skill of illusion, which she strives to understand and master throughout the story, just as she struggles to learn how to make masks in her apprenticeship.
I also enjoyed the Japanese elements in the story. There are tatamis, kimonos, sacred poetry (haikus), tea ceremonies, Japanese theater, music, and dance. Readers learn about the spirits, gods, and deities of Japan’s Shinto religion. They make for a mystical background, which I appreciated. The book is poetic and artistic; the sisters’ different talents and skills combine to create a united front to defeat the fears and threats they face.
In closing, I’m glad to rate this lovely book 4 out of 4 stars. It seemed professionally edited; I found no editing mistakes in it. I see no negative aspects either. It is an exquisite tale of hope and redemption, and I recommend it to those who enjoy fantasy and symbolism. Also, if you appreciate Japanese culture, you should take a look at it.
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