Queen of K'n-yan is the latest Cthulhu mythos offering from Kurodahan Press; it is written by Asamatsu Ken and translated by Kathleen Taji. Asamatsu-san should be familiar to all serious Cthulhu mythos fans for the 4 book series Lairs of the Hidden Gods, translations of modern Japanese mythos fiction. Queen of K'n-yan was apparently written in 1993, and set in 2007. This is its first publication available to English speakers. List price is $16.00 but discounted to $14.40 from Amazon. The text runs from page 3-213, pretty good value for the money with a price tag similar to other genre trade paperbacks. There is a very entertaining introduction from Darrell Schweitzer that puts the book into its proper context while giving no more spoilers than the blurb on the back, and a page with very brief biographies of the author, translator and cover artist. The exquisite cover art is by Ayami Kojima. I can't get over how beautiful the cover art has been for the Kurodahan Press books has been. Akihiro Yamada gave us the covers for the Lairs of the Hidden Gods and it was very unfortunate that none of his work was included in the recent Centipede Press book of Lovecraftian art. Ayami san's cover is equally wonderful. Production qualities are very good with few typos in this POD book. By and large I had no complaints about the translation except in the action sequences near the end where the writing seemed to lose some hint of immediacy, and I was left wondering if this was due to the author or the translator.
The antecedent story for this novel was the `revision' of Zealia Bishop's story The Mound, which was actually probably 99+% written by Lovecraft (which probably gets an award for the cheesiest use of an italicized ending, being written in both Spanish and English). The concept of a primordially ancient people living undetected in gigantic caverns under the earth must have resonated with Asamatsu-san, resident of a land with a culture thousands of years old, a land of catastrophic earthquakes adjacent to China where discoveries like the terra cotta army are made during mundane excavations. Asamatsu-san did what we would hope any mythos author would do: he took a concept and ran with it. This is no pastiche and is not slavishly beholden to Lovecraft; it is wholly original and all the better for it. No antiquarian resident of Boston poking around a Yig haunted desert here! For the westerner approaching this, it comes from entirely different traditions than our own and a bit of knowledge of some history of Japan and China, which the Japanese author takes as a given for his audience, would be very helpful (in fact, I wish Darrell Schweitzer had provided this in his introduction; maybe it is not necessary as you can infer what you need to, but it would have facilitated things for me.). The occurrence of crimes against humanity in World War II in the west mainly brings to mind Hitler's death camps but in Asia calls to mind Japanese experimentation with infecting Chinese and Manchurian citizens with biological agents. Many scientists from the notorious Unit 731 were never prosecuted. This is fertile ground for a Japanese author of horror fiction. Another piece of history that helps the story make sense is the Yin dynasty (perhaps better known to us westerners as the Shang dynasty), which ruled parts of China from about 1700 to about 1100 BC. The immediate antecedent state was the Xia dynasty, which possibly could be mythical. The Shang dynasty represented fire, and may have needed to create an opponent who they overcame who represented water. Thus the Xia may not have actually been a real political entity. What is important for our story is the opposition of the water people to those of the fire. Finally this story uses political realities of 1990s Asia. Japan's economic star is fading and wealthy Chinese businesses are investing heavily in Japanese companies. To the Japanese, the thought of Chinese economic (or worse, military) masters may be very unpalatable, and adds to the disquieting atmosphere Asamatsu-san is creating for his readers. Whew! Now what about the book itself?
Briefly, in the midst of a relentlessly scorching heat wave and with news of severe earth quakes happening in China, Morishita Anri, a molecular biologist, is driving to her new job in an ultramodern and imposingly large building, the headquarters of Japan Gene Engineering (JGE). Interestingly, Anri is a very girly name in Japan, perhaps like Missy or Tootsie here, making what she ends up doing seem all the more shocking. Once inside the immense tower, things get very weird very quickly. Anri meets an older scientist from China named Dr. Li, who is a very formidable woman. Perhaps she is Anri's mentor or perhaps she is a fiendish opponent. Certainly it becomes obvious that the two main characters are somehow linked intimately. Anri had only a sketchy idea about what she would be doing for JGE, but it turns out the Chinese military is heavily involved. A mummy has been discovered under the earth in China and she may be a denizen of the mythical kingdom of K'n-yan, which may be the origin of early Chinese mythology. Anri unravels the mummy's genetic code, which is discovered to be unhuman. It turns out Dr. Li probably already knew this but needed Anri to find out some other puzzle hidden in this mysterious DNA. When she uncovers what may be a missing piece, tying into the Japanese biological experimentation in World War II, all hell literally breaks loose.
I have indicated how well Asamatsu-san synthesizes varying modern elements with Asian history and a Lovecraftian idea. This novel works wonderfully well on so many levels; I found it to be a refreshingly original and vivid Cthulhu mythos novel. Unlike many mythos pastiches, there are exciting action sequences as well as otherworldly horrific images. The two main characters are believably drawn and come to life on the page. I liked everything: the prose, the plot, the characters, the exotic (for me) cultural setting and history and the Lovecraftian elements. The denouement was just about perfect. Anyone who cares about Cthulhu mythos fiction needs to read this. I can only wonder what other Lovecraftian wonders have been published in Japan or elsewhere, and when we might ever see them. Urgently recommended!