Ibara-Hime, by Suzumoto Beni, with cover by Hibiki Reine is, I believe, a doujinshi novel or shousetsu.
The story begins with two travelers, a young, beautiful girl named Rustica and Iru=Eve, a pilgrim and servant of the Goddess.
Iru=Eve is not a big talker, so most of the book is presented as an internal monologue. We learn that both Iru=Eve and Rustica (pronounced Roo-steak-ah) are, in some sense, running away from something and, as the story plays out, we learn what those things are.
Rustica is beautiful, but rejects the terms “angel,” “doll,” “flower” and other expressions of dainty beauty, while Iru=Eve is stoic and diffident. Their stories encompass gender and sexuality in an alternate universe setting that has a slight Russian fairytale feel about it.
I say their stories encompass gender and sexuality, but not in a way that we, the reading audience, might want. In their world, marriage partners are determined by a mark that appears on your finger when the time comes, and the person with the matching mark is your partner. There is no other form of relationship than Goddess-sanctioned heterosexual marriages.
Iru=Eve’s story is tragic, of course. She and two childhood friends, Iru=Yunoa and Iru=Azael hung out every day, playing, napping by the river, until the Torun, the mark of marriage, appeard on Iru=Azael’s and Iru=Yunoa’s fingers. This is unfortunate, and more so because Iru=Eve and Iru=Yunoa start to have feelings for one another. But Iru=Yunoa and Iru=Azael marry and move away and Iru=Eve takes to the road to deal with her conflicted feelings.
Rustica confides that she has run away from home herself. She’s small, delicate and beautiful, but , like Iru=Eve, has no marriage mark yet in her late teens. She doesn’t want to marry, really, and more confusing to her is that her body, as beautiful as it is, is still a child’s body and has not matured. She is not even sure she’s human, much less female.
Iru=Eve realizes that she cares for Rustica and wants, very much to protect her- and she recognizes that this was the same feeling she had for Iru=Yunoa. Is it love? She doesn’t really know, since “love” is a thing that you feel only for your chosen marriage partner.
More importantly, Iru=Azael appears, accusing Iru=Eve of murder. They fight, and Iru=Eve manages to defeat her former friend and escape with Rustica. Later, on a dark, windy night, she tells the young woman the rest of her story.
When she returned home after her friends’ marriage, she found Iru=Yunoa miserable and lonely. Her dear friend starts to solicit more intimacy (by which she means a hug or two), and eventually convinces Iru=Eve to run away with her. Can you see where this is going? Yes, one dark and stormy night, Iru=Azael catches up to them and accuses Iru=Eve of stealing his wife and, rather predictably, Iru=Yunoa lies and says this was all Iru=Eve’s idea. In the ensuing sturm and drang, Iru=Yunoa dies and Iru=Eve takes off on the run.
But, now, she decides to face the truth. Despite the fact that she’s long past time to have her Torun appear and despite the fact that her order probably considers her a murderer, Iru=Eve returns to her town and to her teacher, with Rustica at her side. Her teacher decides that the Goddess will determine if she is innocent or not, so when Iru=Azael arrives, he commands that the two of them duel. Iru=Azael loses, but Iru=Eve does not kill him, in a rather supreme effort of skill. Declared innocent, Iru=Eve asks Rustica if its okay if they just travel together, y’know, forever. Rustica gladly agrees and the book comes to an end.
There were a lot of predictable bits of this story. But there were also some excellent elements. The world is not fully fleshed out and, probably not surprisingly, I’m creeped out by any society that includes genetic/scientific/political predetermination of obligatory heterosexual partnering. Nonetheless, there were decent elements of storytelling among the clichés.
Interestingly, one of the most unique elements was the typesetting. Where most Japanese novels are set vertically, and read right-to-left, this was set horizontally and read left-to-right. This added to the “foreign” and fantasy feel of the novel.
Overall – 6
I would have really preferred to have more illustrations of the characters than the one cover picture, but only because I really like Hibiki’s art. The story itself didn’t warrant them. ^_^;