BOOK REVIEW – ICO: Castle in the Mist by Miyuki Miyabe (Translated by Alexander O. Smith)

By Marty Mulrooney

Ico Castle In The Mist

ICO: Castle in the Mist is a novel written by Miyuki Miyabe, one of Japan’s most popular and best-selling authors. Inspired by the cult video game Ico (an award-winning PlayStation 2 game released in 2001/2002, now remastered in HD for PlayStation 3),  the story was originally printed between May 2002 to May 2003 as instalments in Shūkan Gendai, a Japanese weekly current affairs magazine. It was recently translated into English by Viz Media and released in North America on the 16th of August 2011, before being distributed in the UK by Simon & Schuster from the 15th of September 2011.

Ico – for that was the boy’s name – turned away from the window at the top of the cave, letting his eyes travel across the gray walls. This cave was on the northern edge of the village. It had originally been a small, rocky hill until the men of the village hollowed it out by hand, specifically to house the Sacrifice. Ico would remain here until the priest arrived to lead him away. The years that had passed since the cave’s construction had smoothed the marks left on the walls by the stonecutters’ chisels and axes. Ico could run his hand over it and feel nothing but featureless rock.

At its core, ICO: Castle in the Mist tells the exact same story as its video game equivalent. A young boy named Ico – a pair of horns growing out of his head – is taken from his village by warriors on horseback and placed in a stone sarcophagus within a seemingly abandoned castle. He soon escapes and comes across a beautiful girl of pure white – princess Yorda – trapped in a cage suspended from the ceiling of a tall tower. Together, Ico and Yorda must overcome their language difference and escape the fortress, whilst avoiding relentless shadow creatures (the souls of other horned children sacrificed according to tradition) and the Queen, ruler of the castle and Yorda’s mother.

However, ICO: Castle in the Mist takes this simple tale – arguably one of the greatest stories ever told within the video game medium – and fleshes it out in new and exciting ways. The beginning of the game doesn’t even appear in the book until page 79, Chapter 2. Instead, the first chapter offers extensive background information about Ico’s life, his village and the reason he has been chosen as the ‘Sacrifice’. We also get to know Ico’s best friend Toto, who travels without permission to a city turned entirely to stone in one of the book’s most memorable and terrifying passages. The master in the castle was capable of dooming an entire walled city in the space of a breath.

Ico lunged, barely catching her hand. The girl swayed, her legs tracing an arc through the air that almost reached the underside of the bridge. The momentum of his lunge nearly sent Ico skidding off the bridge himself. He tried to find purchase on the stones with the tip of his sandals and used his free hand to grab hold of the edge, finally stopping just at the point where his shoulder had cleared the edge.

In the preface Miyuki Mayabe stresses: “If you picked up this book hoping for a walkthrough of the game, look elsewhere. The order of events, solutions to puzzles, and even the layout of the castle have changed. While it is certainly not “spoiler-free,” someone who reads this book and goes on to play the game will find much there that is not here.” The producers and creators of Ico willingly gave Mayabe free reign with the story and world found in the game and the result is spectacular; fans of the game will recognise key moments but those exposed to the story for the first time won’t feel as though they are simply reading a written account of a video game playthrough.

Changes have certainly been made, but none of them irritate and every alteration benefits the story being retold in book form. A major aspect of the game upon release were its gorgeous visuals, which still hold up today – the castle felt like a real fortress, soaked in history. Mayabe takes the formidable task of conveying this sense of place and history with words alone, and conquers it with ease. Thankfully, the English translation by Alexander O. Smith is as smooth as glass. The only thing between them and the massive gate was a long path, as wide as the gate itself, covered in soft grass. Cobblestones had been laid down its center, and pairs of tall torch stands stood like sentries on either side. The torches were useless under the sun, but even so they seemed to welcome him, beckoning like outstretched arms, showing him the way out.

The swordsman thanked her deeply, then added “And my apologies”. He removed his helmet. It was certainly against the custom in any land for a warrior to address a lady with his head covered – though as it turned out, leaving his helmet on might have been the more prudent decision.

Yorda quickly bit the inside of her cheek, trying unsuccessfully to stifle a little yelp. The horns she had thought were a part of his helmet grew out of the swordsman’s head.

Of course, simply covering the events of the game in novel form would still be an admirable endeavour, yet Miyabe does true justice to the source material by delving even further into the world of Ico and in particular, Yorda’s past. A huge portion of the book details Yorda’s life as a young girl living within the castle, which is bustling with life – handmaidens, servants and warriors all walk within its walls. This provides a beautiful contrast with the castle as it is more commonly known and also offers some answers as to why it has ended up becoming so hauntingly empty. I would even go so far as to say that reading this rich backstory, although perhaps considered non-canonical, will greatly enhance future playthroughs of Ico.

The entirely new story of the friendship between a horned warrior named Ozuma and princess Yorda is an epic tale in its own right, heaping further heartbreak onto an already highly emotional narrative. The character of the Queen is also explored in far greater depth than she was in the game, becoming even more terrifying and evil as a result. Flashbacks are featured throughout the novel from the beginning of Chapter 2, usually when Ico takes Yorda’s hand, allowing the narrative to break away fully during Chapter 3 without the new additions to the plot feeling tacked on. He returned his sword to its scabbard, tossed his helmet aside, and ripped off his chain-mail vest to lighten his load. Holding Yorda in both arms now, he leapt from the top of the bridge. Yorda pressed her eyes shut a moment before they touched the foaming waves.

Ico held the sword high above his head, and from behind the shades, part of the wall forming the hall began to rumble. Fine dust accumulated over the years drifted slowly from between the stones. The next moment, the wall collapsed with a great cloud of dust and rubble. The way was open through it – a stone staircase.

Ico’s eyes travelled up the staircase, past the shadowy creatures, past the shape of Yorda frozen in grief, all the way to the true throne room of the queen.

ICO: Castle in the Mist is without question the greatest video game to book adaptation of all time. It retells one of the most poignant and heartfelt stories in gaming in written form, fully embracing its new medium to expand the narrative in often ambitious yet ultimately respectful ways. The biggest compliment that can be paid to this book is that it could easily work as a standalone novel – it doesn’t read like it is stiffly based upon a video game and is written with true emotion and grace. A beautiful, unforgettable story that pays fitting tribute to one of the greatest video games of all time. Essential reading for fans of Ico and thoroughly recommended to anyone who loves a truly good story.

10 OUT OF 10

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