Welcome to Realm Explorers! In this weekly series, we visit a variety of unique worlds created by talented science fiction and fantasy authors. Enjoy your travels! And don’t forget to read to the bottom of the post to find out more about each author and see how to purchase the featured book.
Author’s name: Laura VanArendonk Baugh
Title of book and/or series:
The Kitsune Talesseries includes so far Kitsune-Tsuki, Kitsune-Mochi, and “The Lonely Frost” (appearing in Specter Spectacular and Weird and Wondrous Work later in 2014). Another novel is quite likely!
Brief summary of the story:
In Kitsune-Tsuki, we meet Tsurugu, an onmyouji who has been hired by the warlord to protect his new bride from a kitsune, or shape-shifting fox spirit, which is rumored to be near. The question is, how does one find a shape-shifter who may not even exist?
Kitsune-Mochifollows Tsurugu-sama and many of the characters into a new threat, as supernatural forces threaten Kaede-dono’s life with the warlord in a wholly new and very real way.
Brief description of the world or location you created for this story:
This is Not-Japan of the Heian-Kamakura transition, roughly AD 1200. I have winked and called it “Not-Japan” because I took a few liberties to make some aspects more accessible for readers or to fudge a couple of historical facets closer together, but it’s fairly close to the historical culture.
Naka no Yoritomo is a daimyou, or warlord, subject to the shogun and fighting quiet battles of influence with other daimyou. Tsurugu Kiyomori is a talented onmyouji, which was actually a court position in the Heian era, a mystic practitioner responsible not only for supernatural protection but divination and calendar-keeping. All the supernatural elements in the story – the shape-shifting kitsune, music-loving tanuki, strong water-dwelling kappa, and more – are authentic Japanese folkloric elements popular for centuries of storytelling.
If we were to visit Naka-dono’s home as tourists, what would you recommend that we see or do there?
First of all, be very polite. Manners and accomplishment are everything in this society, and a beautiful girl’s marriage chances or a man’s political career can be spoiled by sloppy handwriting. Poetry is exchanged to settle everything from courtship to politics, and the quality of a poem can make or break one’s career. Speak carefully and with great consideration.
That said, this era produced poetry which has been honored for centuries, so take the time to read some of what’s passed to you. And then go outside to marvel at the military prowess which is being developed at the head of Japan’s shogunate.
What dangers should we avoid?
Well, offending the wrong person might result in such social dishonor or death, and that would certainly be inconvenient during your visit. There’s also the concern of Naka-dono’s shadows, stealthy spies and assassins to take care of that business which shouldn’t be discussed too openly. In future centuries, their descendants will be known as shinobi or ninja, but this is their misty past.
And of course there are thousands of varieties of youkai, or supernatural creatures. Many are harmless, some are friendly and benevolent, many are indifferent, some are mischievous but mostly harmless, and some like the water-dwelling kappa prefer to prey on human flesh. Don’t worry, we’ll help you to avoid the most dangerous!
Is there a distinct or unusual type of food or meal that we might be served?
Well, sushi and the hibachi haven’t been invented yet! But you’ll be served a lot of rice and vegetables, as Buddhism is making great inroads and has reduced the amount of meat consumed. What meat is eaten may be consumed raw, which will startle your tourist palette, or you may eat cooked fish. All the seaweed you eat will help to grow your hair – ladies of quality in this era had hair which reached to the floor or even trailed several feet behind!
What types of weaponry or fighting styles are common?
Tsurugu works mostly in onmyoudou, a way of reading and influencing the contrasting forces of nature, male and female, and the five elements of wood, fire, earth, air, and water. (You may have heard of something like onmyoudou; its counterpart in old China eventually developed into Feng Shui.) You will frequently see him using circles and shikigami, spirit-infused paper servants, or reading a chokubanfor celestial alignments.
The shadows, however, train in taijutsu, the use of the body as a weapon. They are more than competent with other weapons as well, knife and staff, but they know how to use their own weight and strength to advantage when they have nothing else.
What types of vehicles, animals, technology, etc. are used to travel?
Ox-cart is one of the primary methods of travel, for those who can afford it, though foot and palanquin are also seen. Horses, too, are ridden by those worthy and wealthy.
Technology is typically medieval, all muscle and levers, even though Tsurugu’s grasp of astronomy and natural science is daunting.
What types of plants, animals, or sentient races might we encounter that we don’t see today?
Your biggest surprise will be the youkai. This word is frequently translated to English as “demon,” but that’s a pretty poor translation; it means only something that is not human. A better translation for Westerners would be something like “elves,” which also are distinctly not-human and yet are seen in many varieties: Santa’s elves, Tolkien’s elves, elves which abduct children, elves which help shoemakers.
Youkai may be tiny creatures the size of a hummingbird or nightingale, or they may be enormous beings larger than Naka-dono’s spacious house. They may be as friendly as the polite beto-beto-san, who walks invisibly behind you until you gesture him ahead, or as dangerous as the fearsome oni which devours men. In general, it’s best to be cautious and polite.
The kitsune is a fox which can take the shape of a human, possibly even mimicking the appearance of someone you know. A kitsune has between one and nine tails, depending upon age and power, and it may be benevolent or malicious. They are clever and they are known to move among humans, but there are a few clues which might reveal one in disguise.
Sadly, the friendly kawausocannot be seen at all in modern Japan, as this shape-shifting river otter has been driven to extinction in its otter form.
What role, if any, does magic or the supernatural play in the lives of people?
Onmyoudou informed the lives of everyone in this era – it was magic and astronomy and meteorology and the calendar, all in one. An onmyoujiwas responsible for divining an auspicious day for beginning a new project and for deflecting negative energies. The emperor’s court kept official onmyouji, regarded just as any other government official might be.
Tell us about any sports, games, or activities that are available for entertainment.
We’ve mentioned the poetry, which was everywhere as the accepted form of communication. Men and women exchanged poetry in courtship before they met. Social status depended upon one’s graceful handwriting and turn of phrase. A moon-gazing party, in which the participants drank sake, wrote poetry, and read it aloud for prizes, might be a typical overnight indulgence among the elite.
If that seems like a ridiculous pastime, consider the sport of golf today, which is simultaneously a hobby and yet a negotiation field for many businessmen.
Is there a particular religion practiced in this era?
The native religion is Shinto, but Buddhism has been widely adopted and in some cases blended.
What is the political or government structure? Who is in charge there at the moment, and what kind of leader is he/she?
Naka no Yoritomo is a daimyousworn to serve the shogun, but his word is law in his own land (and many other places). He’s aware of his power and tries to use it fairly, though he is also aware of the great potential for betrayal and treachery in this shifting political climate.
What, if any, “hot-button” or controversial topics do you touch on in your book?
Classism and sexism are inherent and powerful in this society. The elite view the lowest classes as animals, and women are greatly restricted in education, autonomy, and voice. Kaede, Naka-dono’s wife, and Murame, a farmer’s daughter, are two very different examples of how women find power and agency in this world.
Laura was born at a very early age and never looked back. She overcame childhood deficiencies of having been born without teeth or developed motor skills, and by the time she matured into a recognizable adult she had become a behavior analyst, an internationally-recognized and award-winning animal trainer, a popular costumer/cosplayer, a chocolate addict, and of course a writer. She speaks at conventions on Japanese Folklore & Mythology and writes books about murder and magic and mystery and hope. Find her at www.LauraVanArendonkBaugh.com.
Where, and in what formats, can we purchase your book(s)?
Other titles and upcoming appearances can be found at Amazon
or my website
Where can readers connect with you online?
My website and blog is www.LauraVanArendonkBaugh.com
, and I always welcome comments! In addition I love to chat with readers on Facebook
and via Twitter (@Laura_VAB
). And please do say hello if we happen to be at the same writers’ or geek convention!
I hope you all enjoyed the trip to “Old Japan”. Questions about the world or the book? Ask them in the comments and the author will get back to you!
Click here to read other posts in the Realm Explorers series.
Please join us again next Monday for a trip to the fantasy world of Astarkand in Realm Explorers Part VI!