I found much to admire about The Sixth Precept, by Larry Ivkovich. Its narrative, like the narrative of Memoria (another of my recent reads), is steeped in a particular culture that permeates and enriches the story – in this case, Japanese. The mythology is complex and engaging, and the plot is beautifully intricate. Though I have several issues with the novel, including a regrettable lack (at times) of character examination and the ease with which certain characters master their mystical powers, there is enough right about The Sixth Precept that I can both recommend it, and mark its author as someone to watch.
Police lieutenant Kim Yoshima is our main character, even if we don’t meet her until several chapters into the novel. (Then again, perhaps we meet her earlier, in a sense.) Though she lives and works in modern-day Pittsburgh, she has a deep respect for traditional Japanese culture which was carefully instilled in her by her grandmother. Her family history is extremely colorful, including a series of fascinating incidents in medieval Odawara, Japan that involve a courtesan ancestor of hers who bears a striking resemblance to our heroine. But at the beginning of our story, Kim doesn’t know very much about that, or about the ouroborosian nature of the adventure into which she is shortly to be drawn.
Ivkovich spends the chapters before we meet Kim setting up the backstory, so that we get a glimmer of what’s at stake. But for most of the novel, we find out things as Kim and her friends do. We travel between modern-day Pittsburgh and medieval Odawara, as aspects of both affect the existence of each other in potentially paradoxical ways. We meet a set of bizarre characters: a warlord from ages past who thirsts for blood and power; a former police officer who now owns a bizarre reading room; a mild-mannered milquetoast who suddenly begins to gain both the powers and the disposition of a comic-book hero; a pair of bikers come forward in time to fulfill one very special purpose; and a demonic creature bred for slaughtering and destruction who turns out to have all-too-human desires and motives. And of course, there’s a little girl at the center of a prophecy, and the fate of centuries’ worth of human history is absolutely dependent on whether she can reach a specific place at a specific time to realize her destiny.
The best thing about The Sixth Precept is its plot. For those who like fast-paced narratives, the book moves. For those who like intricate plots, its movement is purposeful. Characters are reincarnated, or move between time periods…and yet Ivkovich never loses track of who is where and when. Certain events get foreshadowed by the simple but effective method of having a character with a bit of historical knowledge (from their perspective) drop it into a situation where the events they’re talking about have not yet taken place. I paid very close attention to the implicit promises made in this manner, and they were all fulfilled. It’s a masterful juggling feat that Ivkovich pulls off here, one that I found reminiscent of Brandon Sanderson at his most enjoyable.
Nor does Ivkovich shy away from the implications of including time travel in his narrative. Several times, his characters wrestle with the implications of whether their actions are predestined, or whether they have free will. This is as it should be, since the author has to wrestle with not making everything feel predetermined while still remembering that the time-travel narrative needs to take place within a very strict framework. Yet the implication is that the characters do have free will, and that their actions can indeed change the timeline. Both the good (Shougouteki) and evil (Totou) organizations jockeying for power understand this, and factor it into their calculations – the Totou hope to upset the timeline and ensure victory, while the Shougouteki strive to preserve it. Several times, this leads to some interesting consequences – for example, the final defeat of the master villain arguably comes directly in the middle of the narrative! Yet the climax retains the punch it should have…because with just a few careful alterations of history, that earlier defeat would be washed away. In short, Ivkovich handles the flow of the story with a deft and sure touch.
Unfortunately, there are other areas where his touch is not as sure. Largely, these are minor issues, but they multiply over the course of the story. For example, in the service of moving the narrative along, several characters gain or discover mystical powers, and master them surprisingly quickly. There is also a character who is a theoretician in just the sorts of issues that would be likely to come up with time travel. Ivkovich handwaves his way through these passages, providing explanations that sort of work but aren’t completely satisfying, which strains the suspension of disbelief. He might have been able to get away with this more easily if we had spent more time in the characters’ heads, but I felt like I was only sporadically allowed the necessary access. The novel’s brisk pace, in this sense, comes at the cost of making the characters incompletely relatable. In fact, the most human-feeling character in the whole story isn’t even human at all…it is a shadow-tracker, a beast bred for stealth and combat. The shadow-tracker has a clear motivation, and expresses it well through action. The passages we spend in her head are among the novel’s best.
The world-building is largely a strength of the novel. I know very little about medieval Japan, and what little I do know largely comes from epic poems and samurai films, which may not be the best historical sources. However, Ivkovich still takes great pains to create a world that feels real, both in its more realistic aspects and in its incorporation of mythological creatures. The shadow-trackers are, by novel’s end, only the most familiar members of a vast bestiary, most of which are from Japanese legend. Ivkovich clearly knows his mythology, and delights in trotting out his beasties for our appreciation. However, the wide breadth leads to shallow depth, as many of them make but a single appearance of little consequence. Fewer monsters with more to do would have been better. Also, occasionally he allows the detail of the world to seep through inappropriately, as when one character who should have no reason to know about Japanese architecture suddenly knows the names for a few typical features. Finally, though it is great fun, I question the inclusion of Western comic books as the source for one character’s mysterious powers. You have a mythology where certain souls, at least, are reincarnated across generations…and when in the past, this character effectively becomes a ninja. Why not simply make him the reincarnation of a great ninja?
Still, these are relatively small complaints, and are the sort of thing that – along with the occasionally less-than-perfect proofreading job – I would expect to improve in the next book. And I dearly hope that there is a next book, whether it is a continuation (or expansion) of this story or the start of another universe entirely. One of the reasons I have long shied away from reading unknown authors is because the work can be frustrating. That may be so, but I am rapidly discovering that there are also compensations. In this case, that would include the discovery of a raw but promising new voice. I’ll be back when it speaks again.