3 out of 4 stars
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It's World War II, and American bombardier Micah Lund has just died on a mission distributing propaganda leaflets over Hiroshima. But instead of being in heaven or hell, he finds himself turned into a spirit. Intrigued by a woman named Kiyomi who witnessed his death, he follows her home and spends his days observing a culture he used to hate. It turns out that there are other spirits just like him, generously explaining the ins and outs of this realm to him. But after finding out that some humans can enter the spirit realm and interact with spirits while they're asleep, Micah can't help but wonder if he could ever actually interact with Kiyomi.
That's Micah's side of the story in In the Realm of Ash and Sorrow by Kenneth W. Harmon, but he's not the only protagonist. Kiyomi also has a life of her own: she had an illegitimate child, ended up marrying a man she didn't love out of obligation and is now a widow, living with her cruel in-laws. Her daughter is Ai, young and naive despite the cruelties of the war. Their life is marked by hardship, as the working-class population in Hiroshima is starving. Kiyomi works at a factory for meager pay and lines up at the food distribution center for food that is nowhere near enough for her family. And as if that wasn't enough, her intuition tells her that there's a spirit in her house.
The writing style is the first thing that draws you into this book, right from the first sentence: "Death followed Micah Lund like an ever-present shadow." Considering the premise, the setting is particularly important here. Most readers are not very familiar with 1940's Japan, but Harmon's vivid descriptions would make anyone feel like they've been there and seen it themselves. His usage of colors, uncommon metaphors, and beautiful similes paint a picture in your mind as if you're right there at that moment.
Kiyomi and Micah are both wonderfully developed characters. We watch as they find themselves confronted with the possibility that their beliefs and prejudices are wrong and consequently, grow as people. They each have their backstories, their fears, and their secret dreams. Kiyomi is particularly interesting, torn between her expected role as the perfect Japanese woman and what she actually wants. While we don't see things from Ai's perspective, she still brightens up the harsh setting every scene she's in.
Although the side characters don't get as much time, they're still very memorable. Micah's new spirit friends make for some surprisingly funny moments, and Kiyomi's work colleagues also leave their small marks on the plot.
There is not much to dislike about this book. I did find some minor typos here, most of them involve missing quotation marks in dialogue. They did not hinder my enjoyment in any way.
More importantly, there is some usage of Japanese terminology that I feel general readers may not fully understand. For example, Kiyomi hesitates to accept favors from others because she doesn't want to be indebted to them, which the book describes as "wearing someone's On." Being familiar with some Japanese myself, I knew this is a literal translation of a Japanese figure of speech which means being indebted to someone. But your average English reader is not going to understand this; even if they figure out the meaning from the context, it still reads rather awkwardly. Luckily, there are only a few instances of this.
All in all, I had a blast reading this book. It's heartwarming, sweet, has an interesting premise and likable characters, and is very well-written. I can easily give it 3 out of 4 stars and would not hesitate to give it 4 stars if the minor issues were dealt with. If you like historical romance with a side of the supernatural and can stomach gritty depictions of war, you will love this book. Those who can accept cultural and religious differences would probably enjoy the protagonists' growth more. The book does feature some minor profanity and sexual references, but the main reason I'd recommend this to adults only is because of the inherently violent setting.
In the Realm of Ash and Sorrow
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