The Heavenward Path, by Kara Dalkey (Harcourt Brace, 1998, YA, 222 pages)
This is the sequel to Little Sister (my review here), a tale of a noble Japanese girl from long ago, the shapeshifting, quasi-demonic Tengu who fell in love with her, and the ghosts, dragons, ancestors, and deities that the two met while on a periluous journey together. That journey ended...and the two friends, Mitsuko and the shape-shifter Goranu, parted ways for a time, though it was clear at the end of the book that there was much unfinished business between them.
The Heavenward Path begins with Mitsuko brought back to her role of dutiful daughter being groomed for advantageous marriage, a role she does not relish. But a promise she made during her last adventure several years ago returns to haunt her--she swore she would repair a small forest shrine. To break the curse she fears will harm her family if she doesn't keep her word, she calls Goranu back to her, and together they travel back to the shrine. But now the ghost of the warrior king buried beneath the shrine demands more, as penalty for the delay. The series of tasks he sets her seem impossible, even with the magical help of Goranu...but to fail means being claimed by the Lord of the Dead.
Together Mitsuko and Goranu set forth again, into a landscape of Japanese myths and legends made real. Can Mitsuko learn enough of the Tengu-do, the trickisome ways of the demons, to become devious enough to outwit the dead king? And, of even greater interest to me, will Goranu and Mitsuko find a way past the obstacle of their entirely different states of being, and find love?
The result is a lavishly and lovingly written romantic adventure, that will delight anyone who appreciates the manifestation of the mythic in the real world (and who enjoys a nice bit of understated impossible romance). It's slightly more relaxed in cadence than book one, and more directly humorous in places, making it an even faster and more enjoyable read. I liked book one, I really liked book two (oh Mitsuko and Goranu! what will become of you?), although I think one could argue that the plot of book two is thinner. But since I was busy reading the book for its characters, I'm not going to make that argument.
I've heard that a third book might be in the works, and I do so very much hope there is! But even without a third book, this is an excellent series, recommended in particular to the fantasy reader who wants a change from the much more common European-esque world making. Also good on the "girl rejects stifling norms of society" end of things.
Note on age: I stuck YA on this one, because thematically that's how it felt to me, what with relationships and all. But nothing ever "happens" between the two (sigh), and there isn't ghastly violence; a younger reader might well enjoy it as well. So I'm sticking Middle Grade on too....