Books / Reviews

Erotic destiny, palace intrigue

by Steve Finbow

Based on apparent “past-life memories,” this historical novel by shamanic witch, priestess and time-traveler Cerridwen Fallingstar takes place in 12th- century Japan in the period leading up to the Genpei War between the Taira (Heike) and the Minamoto (Genji) clans.

WHITE AS BONE, RED AS BLOOD: The Fox Sorceress, by Cerridwen Fallingstar. Cauldron Publications, 2009, 378 pp., $19.95 (paper)

The narrative follows the life of Seiko Fujiwara, daughter of a Shinto high priestess of Inari, through court intrigue, war and magic. With the fate and future of Japan in her hands, the young girl, a poet and scholar, waits to fulfill her giri (destiny) as handmaiden to her friend Tokushi, the empress in waiting. A rebel, Seiko stands firm against her father’s wish to marry her off to an older man, and falls in love with the dashing lieutenant-governor Sannayo.

They finally marry and go to live in Sannayo’s remote household.

However, Sannayo turns out to be a sadistic rapist obsessed with pornography and not a gentle courtier taking instruction from a pillow book. Seiko’s husband purchases a concubine — On’na Mari — whom he uses as a sex slave. After Seiko gives birth, the two women become friends and plot to kill “the Beast.” Forcibly separated from her daughter, Seiko finds herself in the Imperial Palace with her old friend the Empress Tokushi.

Tales of sorcery, sex and politics follow, written in a florid, sometimes gushing prose, referencing the art, literature and fashion of the Heian Period (794-1185) and the influence of Confucianism, Buddhism and Chinese poetry on the Japanese court. The book is well-researched if a little overdependent on sentences that baldly state historical facts rather than incorporate the events into the narrative.

The sex scenes are believable, written with an almost coy sense of metaphor and simile, like veiled shunga (erotic scrolls). There are threesome scenes, lesbianism, group sex, nymphomania, bondage, satyriasis, all clothed (or unclothed) in cherry blossoms, willow trees, and flower arrangements. The real life of the Imperial Palace happens on futons on a chodai rather than within the court itself.

The Heian Period is portrayed as balanced and civilized before the onslaught of the samurai and the overthrow of the emperor by the Kamakura shogunate. The history of Japanese religion forms a large part of the story: Shinto gods (kami), Fujiyama, the sun goddess Amaterasu, tanuki and inari deities all have narrative space.

The author imagines a mostly realistic 12th-century Japan — despite flights of magical fantasy — contrasting the world of the court, poetry and tradition with that of superstition, fancy and ritual. “The Tale of Genji” is one of the blueprints for this novel, the author leaping a millennium by introducing 21st-century New Age rites, beliefs, and practices into the 11th-century tale of the Kyoto Imperial Court. The other narrative source is “The Tale of the Heike,” an account of the events leading up to the Genpei War, the battles, and their political and social aftermath.

This is the first book in a series. The sequel “White As Bone, Red As Blood: The Storm God” deals with the war and the start of the Kamakura Period.

As a novel, “White As Bone, Red As Blood: The Fox Sorceress” has faults — at times, it is repetitious, overwritten, incorporates unassimilated research, and is full of anachronistic spiritual theories, character names and behavior.

If you prefer your history with a touch of narrative, eroticism and flourish rather than facts, then this might transport you back in time to the days when women shaved off their eyebrows — painting them on again high on the forehead, wore multilayered kimono (juni-hitoe), had very long hair (kurokami) and blackened their teeth (ohaguro).

Or it might not.