Harry Potter, Eragon, His Dark Materials... the range of options for young readers interested in fantasy is much wider than it ever has been. In my day, we read Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, C.S. Lewis, and if our parents weren't watching closely, Robert E. Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Most of this was technically science fiction, anyway. Dungeons & Dragons was really my generation's fantasy landscape and created the next generation's rich fiction. Swords-and-Sorcery themes gave way to more complex and interesting themes, including Brian Jacques' anthropomorphic series featuring usual themes and unusual characters. Brave Story fits in not at all with most of the fantasy literature passed to American children over the past decade. It has a distinctly foreign quality to it and is obscenely long. The amount of detail, introspection, and everydayness in the book will overwhelm most juvenile readers. Over 800 pages long with over 200 pages of non-fantasy build-up, Brave Story requires a real commitment from its readers. The translation is good, but the author's voice isn't as clear as it must be in the original language. Reading translated work is obviously as much a reflection of the translator as it is the author. There's no way to know how much input Miyabe had into the final version, so we have to take it on good faith that Japanese words were not just faithfully translated, but that the translator knew Miyabe's intention in her original language.
The story captures the essence of a painfully average boy becoming a hero in another world. There are none of the assumptions that Harry Potter makes about his magical world to be had in Brave Story. The hero, Wataru, goes from hanging out in a middle-class Japanese home to exploring a strange fantasy world. The reader is led to believe that the fantasy world Vision may be just that, a vision that Wataru has in the throes of anxiety and depression. Remember that episode in Buffy where she dreamed she was in the insane asylum and just dreaming her Slayer life? You never really knew in the end what was real and what was fantasy... Brave Story leaves us in the same suspended state by implying that the terrible circumstance of Wataru's life push him into fantasy. He hopes to use his time in Vision to reconcile the terrible conflicts of his real life but he also wonders if he is doing more harm than good. The characters of Vision are often a reflection of the real world. Think Wizard of Oz where the actors did double duty as friendly farmhands and fantastic creations. Wataru is just one of several Travelers that make an appearance in Vision. All are heading toward a rendezvous with The Goddess in hopes that she will grant one wish for them. There are events in Vision that threaten to sideline Wataru's quest and he soon finds himself in a storm of competing priorities.
Gamers will immediately see how the mental imagery drawn from Brave Story made its way into the PSP game. If any of the Harry Potter books had been translated as faithfully, the game versions of Rowling's work would be selling gold and platinum right now. The full cast of characters and enemies from the book appear in the game and there is a greater level of detail in the book that will please fans of the game. Players will know that Wataru, Meena, and Kee Keema make an appearance in the PSP game but are not the featured characters. This was the right decision to make in order for the game to be more than just a carbon-copy of the book. It may have been that the game's developers were just completely overwhelmed by the scale of Brave Story and tried to pull out the most exciting parts. Several parts of the story are transferred directly to the game and the overall plot of the game is the overall plot of the book. Gamers and readers alike won't care about where and how the creative decisions were made since everything came out looking, playing, and reading well. The gaming experience is probably superior to the book since the book's exposition in the first 200+ pages is exhausting and unnecessary. We have to suspend disbelief anyway to "buy" Wataru as a Traveler, so it doesn't take 200 pages of backstory on his family struggles to help us believe. One wonders if family dynamics and the pain of divorce or marital dysfunction is still so great in Japan that readers there are transfixed by this kind of stuff. Sad to say that American readers are probably inclined to care a bit less when Wataru's mom and dad are splitting up, since at least half of most marriages fail for whatever reason these days. The bottom line is that Miyabe could have found ways to spin Wataru's tale in a less linear fashion and could have introduced the fantasy world much earlier to capture the imagination of her readers. The final work is enjoyable, but will remain below the radar of most Western fantasy readers.