I'm a librarian who loves anime, manga, and reading a wide variety of genres.
This is my fourth or fifth time reading this book, and my third year in a row of rereading it. When I reviewed it back in 2014, I gave it a 4.5-star rating. I'm going to upgrade it to 5 stars. I'm trying to be more comfortable with loving the books I love, if that makes any sense. This is one of my "guaranteed to make me happy" books, even knowing that its happy ending won't last long.
Since I've already written a full review for Sea of Wind (two reviews, actually), I'm just going to make a few comments here, most of which apply to the series as a whole.
- The world of the Twelve Kingdoms: I love this world, even though it's quite possibly one of the most restrictive (not sure if that's the right word) fictional worlds I've ever read. If you can believe everything the characters say, free will either doesn't exist in the Twelve Kingdoms, or is very limited. This applies even more to the kirin than to anybody else. Whether he knew it or not, Taiki could feel his king's presence even before the aspiring kings made it to Hohzan.
The world of the Twelve Kingdoms is weird. On the one hand, regular people live there and have regular lives, raising children, worrying about money and food, etc. On the other hand, there are all kinds of fairy tale-like details. For example, in the Whitejewel Palace in the kingdom of Tai, there's a little building that houses one lord and the ten lesser officials who care for that lord. Who happens to be a white pheasant. The pheasant only cries twice in its lifetime: once when a new king ascends the throne, and once at the end of that king's reign. So ten officials cared for that bird for 10 years before it made its first sound, and those ten officials might then have to care for that same bird for hundreds of years before it cries out again and then dies (the kings are nearly immortal, and the oldest has, I think, been alive for 800 years). And that's not even getting into the giant turtle that lives in the sky and exists only to take a new king and his or her kirin from the Yellow Sea to their kingdom.
- Eggfruits: In the world of the Twelve Kingdoms, reproduction and sex are entirely divorced from each other. I can't remember the exact details, but basically if you want a kid, you marry someone of the opposite sex. Then the two of you go to a special tree, tie a bit of cloth onto it, and pray. Eventually an eggfruit grows and hatches, and there's your kid. Then you and your spouse can decide not to be married anymore, if you'd like, and no one will think anything of it. Marriage is pretty casual in the Twelve Kingdoms.
There are none of the physical inconveniences of being pregnant (or, I assume, menstruation). In another book we learn that, culturally, men and women are seen as basically being the same. There are male kings and female kings, neither or which is considered to be better than the other (barring a few superstitions based on "our previous king was male/female and was terrible"), and both men and women hold governmental and military positions. But there are still a few roles here and there where being male or female seems to matter. For example, all the oracles in Sea of Wind are women. So if Ono really wanted to create a world where it didn't matter if a person was male or female, she could have gone a bit further. Then there are all the LGBTQIA issues that Ono never even touches on (but which could make for great fanfic!).