Miyuki Miyabe
ICO Cover

ICO: Castle in the Mist

Leslie D

When Miyuki Miyabe comes to ICO she writes a world she has made her own. As she states in "Preface," given "free reign with the story and world found in the game" by the producers and creators, she found her "own path through the tale." She uses and develops elements and characters, but "the order of events, the solutions to puzzles, even the layout of the castle have changed." The designated status as novelization honors the originators of her inspiration, but make no mistake that Miyabe lends the story a heart and a craftsmanship that is all her own.

A story of an unknown place, Told in an unknown age. (epigraph).

The time had come for Toksa Village to offer its sacrifice to the Castle in the Mist. It had been their misfortune to have a horned child born into their midst years earlier. "The loom had fallen silent," the first line of the story reads. The silence of it is noticeable to the elder of the village even as the darkness in the tone of Miyabe's tale begins to settle. This is no story of a people fully convinced in a duty that was established many long years before. A terrible fear is made apparent even as the reasons why they should fear are not. The Castle is a bogeyman in a lot of ways, a scary unknown that lingers in the customs and lore of the villagers. Even as Miyabe crafts a world with enviable fluidity, she infuses the story with a simultaneity of dread and eagerness for that unknown: the Castle in the Mist.

I adore the sort of tale that throws you straight in and erects the world around you as the world itself continues forward in its dilemma. Miyabe moves through characters and time with an organic sense of story, establishing the mystery the rest of the books sets out to uncover: What is the Castle in the Mist and why does it demand a sacrifice? And what role does Ico really play in a story so steeped in religious and magical aspect?

Ico, born of a normal village household, differs from the others of Toksa in more than existence of his horns: he does not fall ill, heals quickly, is fast and strong and agile. He is considered soulless (as if it already belongs to a god), yet is depicted clearer of heart. Ico is sweet without being cloying. A good hero who in his youth loves and is loved; which makes the loom cease beneath the hands of a distraught foster mother; which makes an eager friend (Toto) become one of the better story devices I've seen.

Miyabe is very skilled at setting up plausible situations for later. Knowing that ICO finds inspiration from a video game, it was difficult to read this without having aspects of a game in mind and so I read many instances as if they were a game world's tutorials. A situation met/explored on an easier level so as to be ready when things become increasingly difficult, and Miyabe does take the ICO to some very tricky levels. She diligently avoids misuse of myth or mysticism for the sake of ease. She puts the solutions herein, we just have to recognize them, just as Ico must.

From the very beginning, clear notions and directives on right and wrong become confused; the popular logic subverted with Toto and our first taste of real destiny. And we could expect nothing else as Miyabe seats her novel in a sign of a rebellious spirit written into the very first sentence. I'm out of my depth with Japanese myth perspectives,* but Ico undermines the traditional image of a horned character for western cultural readers. ICO moves on to muddy the absolutism of Light and Dark. And relationships are not left to the skeletal forms of (world constructed) expectation. Perhaps the true distress experienced in the novel is deciding which position/perspective to support—in this we have plenty of avatars at our disposal.

Ico dreams of her before he happens upon her, the girl in the iron birdcage, our deuteragonist. He is enthralled, taken with the desire to rescue her even as he doesn't understand her or the troubles she will cause him. She is like a key, unwittingly sharing her memories with him, able to open closed pathways. She is called Yorda. Like the game, the shades are determined to recapture her and Ico has to mind the fragile figure of her; which is a bit frustrating. Already ICO tests (and will continue to test) the pacing with it topographical challenges as Ico traverses the labyrinthine Castle. True to gaming form, there are puzzles and even tasks in the novel's questing. And true to said form, ICO is building notions into the greater structure of the story. The Castle and her contents becomes more a character, though hardly illuminated and progressively more sinister in both its revelations and obfuscations. Yorda is much the same in characterization.

I was invested in the read by the arrival of "Chapter 3: The Cage of Time," but I'm pretty sure I held my breath many times after—I think it helps me read faster. We move to Yorda's point-of-view and the doll-like figure wakes. Miyabe overlays sequences with a deft pen. That organic movement in time and story returns to focus and we are given new fascinations in Yorda, her parents, and Ozuma (to name a few). Yorda was a puzzle before, but what the hell!

Miyabe makes Yorda make sense. She is the maiden to her witch mother. That she is beautiful creates an allure that is not necessarily typical. She captivates, and it is an understated power. Where her mother holds power by inciting fear, Yorda wields a vulnerability that one wants to exploit or rescue but always underestimates. Yorda is a play on how we perceive the vulnerable and how we mistake the interchange of beautiful, lithe female as delicate versus the psychological complexities of her situation as Yorda. She is claimed by both her father's and mother's blood; one Light (goodness) and the other Dark (destruction). And when she is good, she is destructive. Yorda's dilemma is rich and wrenching.

[!! potential spoiler] It is vital for Yorda to be her father's daughter, because that means she has an option to be someone other than her mother. Yet in order to be good, does she not need to be the loving (aka dutiful?) daughter to her mother? Can she still be good if she had not failed to destroy her mother? [spoiler end !!]

Ozuma, Ico's horned ancestor, is also a story who is rich and wrenching. And the Queen…if only she were not the only villain, but as the primary sense of torment, she gave me the chills. The Queen is as effective in inflicting wounds with truth as she is with lies. Everything about and within the Castle is her descriptor, as intended, but with perhaps more attention than we spare; especially when we find ourselves not ascribing upon her as much detail as we could, the Tower of the Wind, for one (oh, the symbolism, the attributions, and the implications). As it is she appears truly unstoppable.

So many great heroes came before Ico, with power outside of luck, foreknowledge beyond wits, and yet it is Ico who would be great. When Ozuma talks about the horned ones, their creator and purpose, we are more deeply saddened by the sacrificial system, but we are also offered hope. Ico is perceptive and self-determining, those are his most rewarding/rewarded traits; telling for a novel investigating the systems of control and those who dare push against their boundaries, let alone break free of them…


recommendations: ICO intends to induce horror in various fashions, so I'd recomment 13 & up with the understanding that this is not just a book for teens or young adults; in fact, some of the depth of the morality questions may not ping with too young readers. For those who love good fantasy, dark lore, adventure, and/or gaming sensibilities.

of note: Ursula K. LeGuin's short story "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" came swiftly to mind with ICO and it never really left me; in a nice way. The cover of the edition I read is the same cover used for the PS2 game for European and Japanese distribution, "painted by director Fumito Ueda and inspired by Giorgio de Chirico's The Nostalgia of the Infinite" (wikipedia "Ico"). The second image is a 2008 reprinting poster of an edition cover illustrated by neonvision.

*I skimmed a google search yield of Oni (?).