3 out of 4 stars
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Noriko's Journey by Claire Youmans does a very good job of detailing aspects of Japanese mythology. Its characters are distinct and anchored in the setting, and their relationships are believable. With a half-dragon character, multiple characters that can turn into birds, and horses that can communicate mentally, there is some excellent groundwork for a compelling story. Unfortunately, there's a lack of dramatic tension and focused conflict that really hinders the narrative.
At the beginning of the book, Noriko deals with adjusting to her new life as a married woman. Since she had trained for many years to be a female warrior, learning to accept a less tumultuous lifestyle is an interesting concept. However, it isn't given much time or development at all before it's drowned out by other aspects of the plot: namely, the half-dragon princess Renko trying to create a steam engine, as well as the three babies on the way from multiple different mothers. There's some conflict in Noriko coming to terms with not being able to have children, but again, this is barely explored.
The novel concludes with Noriko going on a journey to find the family she was separated from at a young age. Her desire to connect with her family is compelling, and her emotional scenes are powerfully written, but they still felt disjointed in the context of the overall plot. Many characters other than Noriko just aren't developed enough for me to feel attached to them.
The lack of flow, though, is really the only negative thing about this book. It depicts Japanese culture and mythology vividly, and the challenges that the characters face, like Renko's relationship with her mother and Noriko's pursuit of her origins, are relatable and believable, despite the fantastic setting. Several of the story's elements are interesting, and I genuinely wanted more development of them. It's worth mentioning that this is a sequel, so it's likely that some aspects are delved into earlier in the series.
Since I haven't read the prior books in the series, I have no choice but to judge this book on its own merits. The excellent setting and characters, as well as the lack of focus, mean that I rate it 3 out of 4 stars. I'd recommend it to people with an interest in Japanese mythology who enjoy worldbuilding more than a limited plot. It's probably worth reading the series in order, though, as I can see the many characters becoming overwhelming otherwise.
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