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The Heavenward Path
Kara Dalkey
Harcourt Brace Children's Books, 222 pages

The Heavenward Path
Kara Dalkey
Kara Dalkey is the author of many short stories and novels, including Little Sister and The Nightingale. In addition to writing, she plays electric bass guitar, paints, dabbles in community theatre, and practices shotokan karate and tae kwon do. ISFDB Bibliography
Past Feature Reviews
A review by Victoria Strauss

I don't suppose it's news to anyone that hardcover books are becoming increasingly shoddy these days. Happily, however, there are still publishers and imprints that strive to maintain a high quality of construction and design, Harcourt Brace Children's Books among them. The Harcourt young adult books are among the most attractive I've seen this year. And Kara Dalkey's The Heavenward Path is perhaps the prettiest of the lot, with its fine binding, striking cover art, and lovely interior design. It's an appropriate setting for this enchanting fantasy tale of 11th century Japan.

Great Lady Mitsuko, a daughter of the noble and powerful Fujiwara clan, has entered a monastery to study the Heavenward Path of Buddhism. But one night an uneasy wind begins to blow outside her room, and she hears a ghostly voice whispering her name. It turns out that she is being haunted by the spirit of a woodland shrine where, in an earlier adventure, she took refuge from pursuers. In exchange for concealment, she promised the spirit that she would make sure its shrine was repaired. But she has forgotten her oath, and now the spirit, tired of waiting, has come to remind her.

The spirit turns out to be no ordinary shade, but the ghost of an ancient priest-king. Angry at Mitsuko's forgetfulness, he tells her she must now fulfill three demands: rebuild his shrine as the greatest the world has ever seen, restore the original contents of his looted tomb, and seek out the descendants of those he once ruled, so that they may worship him again. When she protests these impossible tasks, the ghost threatens to invoke Lord Emma-O, Judge of the Dead, whose wrath Mitsuko once incurred by trespassing in his Court, and tell him to send his demons to drag her down to hell.

Desperate, Mitsuko turns for help to her friend, Prince Goranu, of the mischievous shape-shifting Tengu people. Goranu tells her that she must not obey the ghost, but outwit it. To do that, she must learn how to think for herself -- and that means studying the Way of the Tengu, for whom everything is changeable and nothing is taken seriously. With the help of her practical maid Suzume, Mitsuko (a very literal-minded and serious girl) embarks upon these difficult lessons, and then upon a journey that returns her, dangerously, to the Court of the Dead.

Although The Heavenward Path is second in a series (the first was Little Sister), it's easily read as a stand-alone novel. The narrative, filled with details of Japanese culture and daily life (there's also an informative historical note at the end of the book, and a glossary of Japanese and Buddhist terms), effortlessly invokes the atmosphere of 11th century Japan, while the vivid fantasy elements, which include Buddhist and Shinto spirits, a great winged dragon, and the rambunctious Tengu, blend seamlessly with the real-life setting. Mitsuko is a plucky and likable character, and her gradual transition from the rigid, shuttered perspective of a noble lady to the more tolerant outlook of the Tengu is nicely rendered. Dalkey's writing is lovely, with evocative descriptions of real and supernatural settings, and a delicate haiku to begin each chapter. There is also much sly humour, and clever dialogue that manages to combine fairy-tale formality and present-day colloquialism without ever seeming awkward.

The Heavenward Path is permeated with Buddhist lore, from its title to its twelve chapter headings, each of which corresponds to one of the twelve links of the Buddhist Chain of Causality that binds human souls to the wheel of rebirth. This is more than just historical window-dressing: over the course of the story Mitsuko must confront some serious philosophical and spiritual questions, and her solution of these is integral to the plot. It's refreshing to see such issues dealt with in a way that's neither sentimental nor moralistic. Young readers (and older ones too) will find food for thought in The Heavenward Path, as well as a beautifully realized fantasy and a thoroughly delightful read.

Copyright © 1998 by Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. For an excerpt of her Avon EOS novel, The Arm of the Stone, visit her website.

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