Two figures stand on a grassy plain. In the distance is a fort, to either side of them are cascades of water or steam. One, a woman, is dressed in a simple white outfit, holding a staff. She is looking directly out of the image. The other is a man, tall, fit, holding a futuristic looking sword and wearing armour that’s as battered as it is functional. He is staring off into the distance. Above them, Wold War 2 era planes fly towards the castle. It’s an arresting image and one that serves not only as a cover but a surprisingly detailed summary of the novel’s themes.
The woman is Miyo, Queen and Oracle of Yamatai.She’s a quietly rebellious character, a woman of tremendous intellect and strength who manages to side step the stereotypes those character traits so often lead to.Miyo is fully aware not only of her responsibilities but of exactly how far she can push her luck.She’s also very aware that her life will never change, that she has been handed what some would view as a fairy tale ending and that as a result, it means very little.
In the hands of a lesser author, Miyo would be conflicted by the arrival of Orville, the other figure on the cover, worried about how her life would change or delighted to see that change made manifest.In Ogawa’s hands though, she becomes one of the most nuanced, grounded female protagonists of recent years, a woman who is tested to the limits by the horrific new world she’s plunged into but is up to the task and more.Miyo is a leader and her journey to that realisation is presented as subtly as it is realistically.
It’s also the reason why Miyo is looking out of the image towards the viewer.She is the only character in the novel who is still able to think past the war, to be aware not even of the future but of the possibility of one.The final scenes demonstrate both this and how far she’s come perfectly, as Miyo rallies what’s left of the Yamatai forces in the surf and in one speech begins to lay the groundwork not only for the future of her country but her species.It’s a crucial moment for both her and the story as she finally embraces her position and sees the battlefield in a different way, the Queen finally realising she can move and act differently to every other piece on the field.
If Miyo is a Queen, then Orville and his fellow Messengers are pawns.An AI from 2598, Orville is part of the Upstreamer Force, humanity’s last line of defence against the ET, a race of aliens who have swept the inner solar system clear of humanity.With the tide finally turning, the ET initiate a jump ‘upstream’ into humanity’s past to continue the war there.Orville and his thousands of compatriots are sent after them but with a subtly different mission; instead of fighting the ET, they will announce themselves to Earth and unite their ancestors against the common threat.In doing so, they will erase forever the future that gave birth to them.
Orville is as fascinating a character as Miyo as much because of his limitations as his abilities.Able to access vast tracts of knowledge instantly, terrifyingly effective in combat and in constant communication with the other Messengers and Cutty Sark, the AI organising the campaign, Orville starts the novel as a pawn but soon realises that pawns don’t win wars. As he and his colleagues discover, time and again, that humanity cannot unite against a common threat he begins to doubt Cutty’s battle plan and in doing so, learns how to move across the board differently. Orville begins to think like a Knight, looking more than one move ahead and, in doing so, he sows the seeds that will lead to humanity’s salvation. Ironically, he also indirectly creates the society that snatches Miyo from her parents and drops her into her role at the pinnacle of Yamatai society.
The seeds of Orville’s independence in turn come from his final months prior to deployment.Like the rest of the Upstreamer force, he’s encouraged to spend time with humanity and like many of his colleagues becomes romantically involved.Orville’s girlfriend, Sayaka, is a cheerfully cynical and quietly altruistic supply officer who uses her job as a crucible to examine the true nature of humanity.She’s painfully aware of every failing we have but also sees how many of those failings come from good intentions and it’s this crumpled optimism and cheerful mistrust of authority that she passes on to Orville.We aren’t a perfect species, but that’s what makes us fascinating.Much like Miyo’s growing strength as a leader it’s a fairly traditional narrative technique but, as with Miyo, Ogawa presents it in such a grounded, honest manner that you can’t help but be carried along.
Orville isn’t the only Messenger to be changed by his time with humanity, as his friend Alexandr demonstrates.Alexandr becomes friends with Shumina, a librarian and one of the novel’s most affecting strands deals with the story Alexandr is writing for Shumina, or whatever version of Shumina the timestream will eventually create.An allegorical children’s story dealing with the war, it’s the one thing that keeps Alexandr sane across thousands of years of combat and defeat and becomes something more than the Messengers, a story with a life of it’s own sewn across countless cultures and countries, a message in a bottle from the future, buried in the past.
Alexandr’s story ends up embodying everything that the Messengers did right and every one of their failings.Unable to hold the ET off at any time in history, the massively depleted troops use the last weapon at their disposal, myth, to arm humanity against incursion.This is not only the moment where Orville, Alexandr and the rest truly become Knights, figures with one foot in reality and one in story, but also the moment that shows why they can never be anything more.The Messengers come back from a future where there the war dominates every aspect of life and is the reason for their existence.Their tragedy, and Orville’s in particular, is that he can no longer see anything beyond the war, beyond the next holding action, the next small victory, the next retreat.In the end, Orville is looking out across the plain because that’s all he knows how to do.
The Lord of the Sands of Time is one of the first releases from Haikasoru, a new imprint dedicated to bringing Japanese science fiction to the west and it would be difficult to find a stronger first offering. Ogawa has an eye for detail and character and a consistently elegant view of temporal warfare that gives the book a grace many other novels lack. This is an intelligent, compassionate, action packed story about love, duty, history and the different ways we perceive it.It’s one of the finest science fiction novels of the last five years and one that anyone remotely interested in the field shouldn’t be without.