I'm a librarian who loves anime, manga, and reading a wide variety of genres.
[This is an old review, and I had to guess at a rating. It was a toss up between 3.5 stars and 4. My memory of this book is still pretty positive, even after 3 years, so I decided to round up.]
I got this at a used bookstore, buying it as part of decision to buy all the Tokyopop light novels the store had (at the time, 3 or 4 total). Other than that, I knew nothing about the book, although I had a feeling I might have seen ads for it before in the backs of other Tokyopop volumes.
On the one hand, I've read some real stinkers while trying out light novels, and this was better than I expected. On the other hand, the book was really uneven. It took a while for me to get a feel for where it was going (in my notes, I wrote, "What genre is this?" - for the longest time, I wasn't even sure if it was realistic fiction or psychological fiction). It was also difficult to tell whether anything really was going on, or if the entire story was just a giant tease.
I tried to write my synopsis without spoiling too much, and I'll try to do the same with this commentary, but it will be hard, because the way things appear in the book aren't always true. So, for the most part, I'll be writing as though the the way things appear is actually the truth.
The main story is written from the perspective of three girls, Sawako, Mai, and Mayumi. The story they are writing involves four people, however - Yukari is the only girl who never has any passages in the book written from her real-life perspective. I spent a good portion of the beginning of the book wondering who Yukari was. My most promising guess seemed to be Yuki, the tough-looking girl with the cell phone decorated with Donald Duck stickers. Eventually, I also started wondering about the identity of the girl whose story is the book's prologue - the girl's father would beat her mother whenever the girl didn't get good grades, until her mother finally ran away. My guess was that Yukari and this girl were one and the same, and the story Yukari started was a way for a lonely girl with an abusive father to play with other girls her age without actually having to interact with them in person.
The creepy nature of the story the girls were writing together and the mystery of Yukari's identity were the first clues, for me, that this would probably end up being a creepy story overall. Halfway through the book, when real life started invading the girls' writings and Sawako disappeared after being stalked, I felt a thrill - finally, the hints of upcoming creepiness were going somewhere!
At first, when Sawako went back to writing and the truth about what happened to Sawako was revealed, I was disappointed. It seemed like an awful lot of drama for no reason. It wasn't until Mai started investigating things that the very details of what I, the reader, thought I knew about some of the characters started to unravel. Perspective is a very important thing in this book, and not all of the characters can be trusted. Just like Yukari's stalker character views the world from his own twisted point of view, the truth as viewed by the characters in the main story is only the truth as they see it and not necessarily what has actually happened. There are plenty of hints throughout the book that this needs to be kept in mind, and one particularly big hint at the beginning of the book passed me by until the book was nearing its conclusion.
I could accept, because of the emotionally disturbed state of one of the characters, that the "truth" as it was presented in the book was not always the truth. However, I had problems with some of the other revelations at the end of the book. Much of the suspense in the last half of the book turns out to be very contrived.
(Sorry about the tortured writing coming up - I'm trying really, really hard not to reveal too much, but this is still something I feel like I need to write about. Unfortunately, including any details would give away parts of the book's ending.)
The actions of one of the girls, with respect to the story they are all writing, plays an important part in the ending of the book. Some of the suspense in the latter half of the book is achieved by not revealing everything that this girl is doing. The problem is that this girl is very much in her right mind - there is no logical reason for her not to think about what she's doing. In fact, I think that, in an effort to avoid letting the girl reveal too much about what's actually going on, Ishizaki even (inadvertently?) has her lie to the reader. Again, it makes no sense for her to do this and just makes the suspense, upon reflection, seem contrived.
Overall, despite feeling like the author cheated in order to ramp up the suspense and make everything work out neatly in the end, I did like this book. The girls are all really interesting characters - I couldn't help but want to find out more about them and see them grow. They are all so very lonely, with the story they're writing together their only real outlet. Sawako doesn't seem to get out much and has no friends. Mai goes out often but feels too different from the people she meets to really connect with them, so essentially she has no friends either. Mayumi lives and breathes for her friend Sayuri. Mayumi made it into her school only because Sayuri, a star badminton player, asked the school to make an exception and let her in. Mayumi is technically on the school's badminton team, but she never plays - she's not actually good enough to be on the team and is only on it to support Sayuri. Mayumi's one love, mystery stories, isn't of interest to Sayuri, and Mayumi has no friends outside of Sayuri that she can talk to.
It isn't until they all get involved in writing the story, Chain Mail, that the girls, some of them at least, really begin to open up. Mayumi, in particular, really comes into her own. I was so happy about that, because she was the girl I was most hoping would realize she could be something more. A person shouldn't have to be a supporting character in their own life.
There are indications that, in Japan, this book might be one book in a series (Amazon calls this "v. 1"), but, if that's the case, no other volumes have been translated into English as far as I can tell. If it really is one book in a series, I can only hope that future books show other characters from this book flowering as much as Mayumi. Mai, at least, got to shine through the work she did while trying to figure out more about the other girls. For once, she actually interacted with real people in a positive fashion and learned that her previous behavior with others had alienated them. I'd also love to learn more about Yuki, who seemed like a contradiction, with her tough girl looks and flashes of niceness. Sawako, too, was more than just a one-note character. These were some really complex and, at times, heart-breaking young teens.
One of the reasons this book initially grabbed me, enough to keep me going despite the truly creepy stuff not starting until halfway through, was that I have actually participated in a group story before. When I was a teen, I wrote one character's part in an online story posted on an AOL discussion board. My experience with that made the girls' participation in Chain Mail particularly appealing to me, but it also made me aware of all the areas where the book really simplified things. Group stories are not nearly as easy as this book makes them appear. The girls start to encounter some difficulties with Chain Mail as the book progresses, things like members with important characters slacking off on their part of the story, or some members writing others into a corner, but, overall, the whole thing goes pretty smoothly. My own group ended up going under because 1) the story simply couldn't progress and 2) no one could even decide where the story should go.
I've read a lot of light novels that were just plain terrible and some that felt like they could have been better but maybe encountered some problems in translation. Neither of those things were the case with this book. Aside from the contrived aspects I mentioned, this was an excellent read.
(Original review, with read-alikes and watch-alikes, posted on A Library Girl's Familiar Diversions.)