The Blurb On The Back:
Momo Arashima just wants an ordinary life. But she’s about to become legendary …
At home, Momo cares for her mother; while at school, her classmates tease her for mixing up reality with the magical stories her mother used to tell her.
But when a terrifying death hag attacks Momo, she realises the stories are true – Momo’s mum is a Shinto goddess who uses to protect the gate to Yomi, the land of the dead. Now that passageway is under attack, and countless evil spirits threaten to escape and destroy humanity. Momo is the only one who can stop them.
Can Momo embrace her identity as half-human, half-goddess to unlock her powers, force the demons back to Yomi and save the world?
MOMO ARASHIMA STEALS THE SWORD OF THE WIND was released in the United Kingdom on 2nd March 2023. Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.
You can order MOMO ARASHIMA STEALS THE SWORD OF THE WIND by Misa Sugiura from Amazon UK, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK. I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.
The Review (Cut For Spoilers):
12-year-old Momo Arashima lives with her mother in a town near Half Moon Bay in California. Her mum works as a reiki healer in a local spa, but Momo’s father (a marine biologist) was swept off a ship during a storm 4 years earlier while on a research trip near Alaska and is presumed dead. Momo’s mum has never accepted her dad’s death and her health has been increasingly bad ever since as she forgets things and has to sleep a lot, leaving Momo to take care of the day-to-day stuff like doing laundry and getting repairs made, while also trying to take care of her mum.
At school Momo is an outcast, the 71st most popular kid in 7th grade (out of 71 kids in total). Bullied by the popular kids led by the Uber-mean Kiki Weldon, Ryleigh Guo, Brad Bowman and Danny Haragan (who used to be friends with Momo and who, like her, has Japanese heritage, but was adopted by a white couple and who ditched Momo for the popular kids the first change he got), a video of her at the back-to-school dance getting hit in the face by a glass of punch and getting really angry about it went viral and made the bullying worse. It doesn’t help that she can see things that the other kids cannot and she’s sure that things would be better if her mum hadn’t insisted that all of the stories she told her about Japanese gods and goddesses was real and that what Momo was seeing was really there too.
Then on the day of her 12th birthday, while she’s at the shopping mall buying new clothes with some gift vouchers she’s received for her birthday, she’s attacked by a shikome (a Japanese death hag) and is saved by a fox wearing old-fashioned clothes called Niko. When Danny reveals that he can see both the shikome and Niko too (despite having always joined in with Kiki and the others and saying that he couldn’t), Niko agrees (over Momo’s objections) to take him with them.
Niko reveals that the stories Momo’s mum told her were all true and not only that, but her mother is Takiri-bime-no-mikoto, a Shinto goddess and the guardian of the Island of Mysteries, which guards the entrance to Yomi (the land of the dead where demons called oni reside). However Niko’s got bad news – the seal that prevents the oni from escaping Yomi is failing and the island is dying and with it, Momo’s mum. Unfortunately Momo’s mum cannot return to her island to fight the oni and heal herself because her dad – Susano’o (the god of the sea) was so angry when she fell in love with Momo’s father and had Momo, that he cursed her to never be able to return and, not only that, but no other kami (or god) can visit the island to tackle the oni without being trapped there forever. If Momo’s mum dies, then the protection magic on the island will fail completely and all the oni will be free to escape to the human world and wreck havoc and calamity on it.
Fortunately, Niko has a solution: because Momo is half-kami and half human, she can enter the Island of Mysteries to beat the oni and then leave again. The fact that Momo isn’t sporty and has never fought before is irrelevant because the magical sword Dōjigiri is being displayed at a museum in San Francisco and Momo can use that to kill the oni. All they have to do is steal it, which sounds simple but it isn’t long before things go wrong and Momo, Danny and Niko find themselves caught up in a world of grumpy gods, fearsome creatures and a ticking clock that gives them only 5 days to Momo’s mother and in turn save the world …
Misa Sugiura’s fantasy novel for readers aged 9+ (the first in a series) showcases Japanese mythology and has strong themes of popularity, bullying, loneliness and assimilation with visual imagery that reminded me of Studio Ghibli films. However, emotionally the story didn’t ring true for me – I never understood why Danny wanted to help Momo and her relationship with her mum didn’t convince while the plot beats are too heavily structured for me.
The main reason to read this book is that Japanese mythology is front and centre to the story. Given how children’s publishing skewers towards western mythology (with Greek, Roman and Norse mythology remaining widely popular), I enjoyed how Sugiura creates and modernises the crazy, breathless world of Japanese gods with all its confusions and mayhem. The portrayal of Susano’o as a leather wearing wannabe rock star with a dad-bod works very well as does the power-dressing Daikoku (goddess of wealth) and the surfer shorts-wearing Hotei (god of contentment who likes handing out Twix bars).
Given that many western readers (myself included) are ignorant of Japanese mythology, for the most part I liked how Sugiura incorporates background information into the story through the fact that both Momo and Danny were told all about it by Momo’s mother when they were little but at times it’s a little too convenience how one or both character forget or don’t know about key information (this is particularly the case with Danny who seems to know a lot even though he gave up on that part of his heritage a lot sooner than Momo). There’s also a handy glossary at the back that summarises key characters and creatures and gives a phonetic guide to how to pronounce their names.
Sugiura is strong on creating visuals for her scenes – a taxi rank for magical creatures is particularly well done (although the reference to Titanic passenger ghosts did make me wince a little as it brought nothing to the scene and seemed too heavy handed) as is a scene where the trio encounter Uncle Kappy, a kappa (water spirit) sent to stop them and kami-con (an annual gathering of the kami, which seems like a free for all in an American bar).
I also liked the way that Sugiura has something to say about popularity and bullying in the book, with a particular focus on how Momo feels about being an outcast, which is heartbreaking but at the same time makes her anger all the more understandable. She mirrors this with Danny talking about what it took to be a popular kid and why it’s been stressed by his white adopted father that he needs to fit in if he’s to succeed, which reads like Sugiura making a wider point about how Asian people have to assimilate into American society.
However, I found the relationship between Momo and Danny to be largely unconvincing, mainly because it’s never made quite clear why Danny decided to abandon the popular kids and follow her after the shikome attack. There are times when it seems that he’s hoping to discover that he’s actually special in his own right or has some kind of destiny and equally times when he seeks to muscle in and take over decisions that Momo needs to make but these are not consistent. It would have been interesting to have Momo call him out on it (especially as she does eventually call him out on how he dropped her when he wanted to be popular and how she knows he will go back to picking on her when the adventure is over) but Sugiura avoids it. It would also have been interesting, given a revelation at the end of the book, to have Danny talk about how it feels to be a sidekick given how he’s had the message hammered into him that he needs to be successful but perhaps this is something that will come up in the later books.
Momo held my interest as a character and for the most part I believed in her loneliness and vulnerability at being picked on and having to take on responsibility for looking after her mum and the resentment she sometimes feels towards her mother as a result. However the relationship she has with her mother didn’t convince me – although she sometimes convinced me in terms of sometimes lashing out and the guilt she felt about it, Takiri herself was less convincing as a character and although she is a goddess and therefore not going to behave like a ‘normal’ woman, the decisions she takes in the book always seem very much to drive the plot forward rather than because they feel organic to the character. Part of the reason why it feels so unsatisfactory is because of a key revelation that comes in the final quarter when Momo’s mother confirms something that Momo has learned – it all feels very unearned and a bit of a cop out and as such, left me underwhelmed.
Niko is the comedy sidekick and although you are supposed to find him entertaining with his old-fashioned outfits and the equally old-fashioned language he uses to chide and chivvy Momo and Danny, I found him more mannered than charming. While I got that he was a trickster, again some key revelations in the final quarter of the book just don’t seem earned and as such did not have the emotional punch for me that they should have done.
Story wise, although there is a lot of plot here with the trio forced to go from location to location as events set them back and they have to try different kami and people to get assistance, there was something too structured about it all for me. None of it flowed organically, instead it’s very much highlighting that ‘this has to happen so they can go here and meet them’, which meant that at times my attention started to waver. That’s unusual for me because I am usually very much a plot-focused reader but here I could see the stitching and that took me out of the overall story and prevented me from caring about it.
The key revelations in the final quarter of the book will no doubt set up the sequel. However although there were things about this story that I liked, I cannot say hand on heart that I would automatically read on because I’m not sure I care enough about Momo to see how she masters her heritage and thwarts the plans of the main antagonist. None of this is to say that this is a bad book – it isn’t – it just didn’t wow me as much as I think it should have done.