Little Sister, by Kara Dalkey (Penguin, 1996, upper mg/YA, 192 pages)
In Japan, around 900 years ago, 13 year old Mitsuko lived the life of a typical noble girl. Sheltered from all outside trouble, modestly hiding her face behind her sleeve, she joins her sisters in writing poems, and dreaming vague dreams. But when trouble comes, and her household is endangered, Mitsuko and her sisters flee to the family's mountain lodge. On the way, they are attacked by brigands, and the husband of Mitsuko's beloved older sister is slain.
Now her sister sits like a souless shadow facing death. When the local warlord threatens to take in her family by force, Mitsuko drags her sister off into the forest, desperately looking for a way to save her. Taking shelter in a shinto shrine, Mitsuko prays for help...and help comes, in the form of Goranu, a tengu--an immortal, shape-shifting demon.
Goranu takes pity on Mitsuko, and leads her off on an adventurous quest to find her sister's lost spirit. It is a quest that takes them into the realms of dragons, gods, and demons, to the land of the ancestors, and to the sheltering home of a poor family she had once looked down on. And as Mitsuko learns first-hand the wonders of this world and the worlds unseen, she comes to realize that, even if she saves her sister, she can never return to the life of stifled privilege she had once led. Nor can she give up her shapeshifting, tricksterish, loyal friend, Goranu...even if he is a demon.
Shinto and Buddhist folklore mingle to make a magical journey of a book, one with beautiful images and wondrous happenings to spare. It is a beautiful journey character-wise too, as Mitsuko learns and thinks and grows...she is a worthy heroine indeed, determined and thoughtful. And Goranu is a most intriguing character in his own right, and the relationship that develops between them is tremendously interesting, and not without lightly humours touches.
Their relationship is not entirely satisfying, though...there's a gap of several years between the end of the quest and the end of the book, before the last conversation between the two that we are given. I really would have liked some more of these missing years of their friendship--as it was, the ending came as something of an abrupt surprise that hadn't been foreshadowed.
(oh my gosh--I just found that there is a sequel--The Heavenward Path. I Must Read it Now! Pause while I go place library hold on it....Done)
Dalkey's prose seems, at first, somewhat stiff and measured (the book's School Library Journal reviewer called its rhythm "choppy and unnatural," with some justification), and I was somewhat doubtful initially, but soon I wasn't thinking about style at all--just about the story. In the end, I was entranced, and I'd recommend this to anyone with a fascination for historical Japan, brave girls on magical journeys, or shapeshifters.
Age wise--nothing happens that isn't upper middle grade appropriate (a bit of violent death, but not too much), but I think the somewhat off-putting formality of the narration might make this more accessible to a YA audience. Publishers Weekly put at 10-14, Amazon has it as 9-12, and it's catalogued in my library as YA....My own call is 11 on up. And it's one that grown up readers of juvenile fantasy, like me, might well enjoy lots.
Thanks, Heather, for the recommendation! Here's part of Heather's comment (on another shapeshifter review): "Not only the best shapeshifter book by far I've ever read (I haven't read Mistwood yet), but one of the best Asian fantasies as well." I'm not quite sure I'd go that far, but I did like it lots! (and I can't wait for the sequel!)