Krystallina: This is not a romance. Well, not in the typical sense of the word. This is a romance as in a fairy tale or exotic story, as in Romance of the Three Kingdoms or Rurouni Kenshin‘s subtitle Meiji Swordsman Romantic Story. And those types of tales — well, any fiction, really — are the kind Romance of the Imperial Capital Kotogami: A Tale of Living Alongside Spirits‘ protagonist, Akari, hates.
Akari lives in an alternate version of Taisho-era Japan, one where spirits exist. These beings can cause chaos, and it’s up to a special military division of Narrators who can seal rogue yokai into books and summon supernatural creatures from tomes. This all has nothing to do with Akari, who wants to be an independent, financially stable woman.
But one day, her company’s apartment building burns down, and she’s helped by an eccentric man named Tomohito. Tomohito is not actually a person, but a spirit, aka Kotogami. And now he wants to serve Akari and have her take control of his book (Kotogatari). Akari refuses, but when she’s offered payment for doing so and a place to stay until she has a permanent place to stay, she can’t refuse. Still, Akari refuses to be hired as an official Narrator and wants this arrangement to come to an end sooner rather than later.
At its core, this is a story about Akari rediscovering her love of books. It’s also, of course, a novel about meeting new spirits in the vein of Kamisama Kiss or Natsume’s Book of Friends. But unless a sequel comes out, this is a done-in-one volume, and it’s not the lengthiest one either. So it’s a bit disappointing the novel covers Akari meeting new spirits, and then it’s time for the climax. It’s like watching the first few episodes of an anime series where we meet cover everyone’s meeting and the first big bad, and then the novel peaces out just as Akari chooses her future. There was one key figure I was hoping to meet who never shows up.
On the other hand, the subtitle is A Tale of Living Alongside Spirits. It’s only the beginning of Akari’s journey, and there’s certainly a lot left to explore about this world if so desired. The fantasy “rules” are relatively straightforward, but it’s likable. As for spirits, the number here are rather limited, but the author (through Akari) draws some unique parallels between Eastern and Western creatures.
Speaking of places, locations in this world are based on real ones, just with the names slightly altered (“Angland” instead of “England” for instance). These felt like rather unnecessary changes since everyone will just read and picture England anyway.
Many light novel readers will enjoy seeing a more grounded protagonist even though she can be a bit of a stickler about things (mainly Tomohiro’s comedic over-devotion). She doesn’t get swept up by romance, so while this may be labeled as josei, it reads more like one for general audiences.
In fact, I hesitate to call this a light novel at all. It just reads like a standard novel. There are also no illustrations here outside of the cover and a color insert, so this also gives this a less traditional light novel feel to it. While some Japanese terms are kept but explained, even though the setting may make this seem like it caters to Japanese media fans, this one be a way to bridge some (general/Western) fiction lovers to light novels.
Romance of the Imperial Capital Kotogami: A Tale of Living Alongside Spirits is the kind of novel I don’t regret reading. It has some fun characters and features the type of romantic fantasy adventures that’s always entertaining to dream about. However, it has that early “gather-the-group” setup to it you’d expect from a longer series, and while Akari confronts the reason why she avoids fiction books, I don’t know if this is the sort I’ll want to dive into again since it’s rather easily summarized, just as how the first few episodes of most anime are.
Krystallina’s rating: 3.5 out of 5
Helen: Akari Mitsukuri lives in the Taisho period of a similar-yet-not world where a tentative peace exists between humans and the supernatural. In Yamato yokai and other characters from folklore are entrapped and enshrined within books (called Kotogatari), becoming creatures called Kotogami that can be resummoned if someone with the ability to do so (Narrators) reads their book. Akari however wants nothing to do with this thank you very much; while she doesn’t ascribe to the radical notion of destroying all Kotogatari, and therefore the Kotogami inside of them, her aversion in Kotogami, Kotogatari, and the Narrators is so strong that she’s not even a fan of regular, mundane fiction.
Alas, when a rogue Raiju yokai destroys her company-provided housing, and her employer can’t provide her another place to stay, she accepts a proposal from a Kotogami and Narrator who appear on the scene to manage the damage. The proposal? Keep your regular job but work for us evenings and on weekends by helping to manage one of the residential buildings designed for both Kotogami and Narrators and, not only will we let you stay there free of charge, but we’ll also pay you for your services as well. Akari isn’t thrilled that this is her only other option besides homelessness, and she’s also not thrilled about the pushy Kotogami who saved her from the Raiju, Tomohito Yagyou, already lives at the Bookhouse, but hopefully this will be a simple, temporary upheaval to her life.
While labels are a fuzzy thing to start with, I strongly suspect that Romance of the Imperial Capital Kotogami: A Tale of Living Alongside Spirits is not actually a light novel but a novel-novel. Like many books put out by Cross Infinite World, Romance Alongside Spirits seems to be a on the longer side for a “light novel” but more crucially for me, the only illustration in the entire book is the clean version of the cover (with some additional art that I suspect was on the back cover of the Japanese version). I am very pro-illustrations in books, frankly I think more Western novels should have them as well and would have loved some interior illustrations for this story in particular, but I bring all of this up for all of the fans out there who have become very tired of whatever light novel trend is currently in vogue. For readers like those, this low-fantasy that lacks many typical light novel tropes and reads more like non-light novel fantasy might be more to their taste.
This story really is more of a fantasy than anything else, even if it’s not the word “fantasy” but “romance” in the title. While there certainly is romance in this story, such as how Tomohito’s introduction to Akari involves him being immediately smitten with her and asking her to become his mistress (admittedly in a “master-servant relationship” sense, not an infidelity one), I would say that the romantic subplot is secondary, or perhaps even tertiary, to other plot-points in this story. As Rebecca Silverman of ANN points out, “romance” used to be a catch-all term (during the period when Romance Alongside Spirits is set) that we would separate into distinct genres today, such as fantasy or gothic, the basic ideas being that these stories are “romantic” in the sense of being opposed to the modern world and this series is quite romantic in that sense. For the majority of the story you get the impression that Akari would be much happier in our world where there aren’t magical beasts and abilities to contend with, although she manages admirably in the face of such disappointments.
Akari is a determined, almost plucky young woman who is clear about her boundaries and, even if Tomohito would like for Akari to become a Narrator and work with him permanently, her force of will is such that every character in the story, human and yokai, come to quickly respect her. It’s also clear early on that Akari’s dislike of the supernatural has a reason behind it, that it’s not simply a whim but something deeper and more private, and I felt that Yamori Mitikusa did a good job at teasing out that suspense with an appropriate pay-off. Since Akari’s reasons are rooted in her childhood there are a few details that I wish had been clarified a bit more, as at times it’s a bit hard to tell what truly happened and what Akari’s young mind thinks did, but I’ll admit that I find it more difficult to flip back and forth between different sections of an eBook to re-read passages for context than it is for a physical book and that may have affected my experience.
Akari’s story seems to be done, since the book is listed everywhere without a series name or number to indicate a continuation, and while it’s a fine ending I would certainly enjoy reading more. Akari’s personality is wonderful, the world Mitikusa has created is equally so, and I’m sure that Akari will be facing many more Kotogami-related challenges that I would love to read! I’ve always been a fan of folklore, which is why I tend to enjoy yokai-related stories quite a bit, and Romance Alongside Spirits scratched an itch in a way that I hadn’t been able to for a long while.
Helen’s rating: 4 out of 5