YUMI AND THE NIGHTMARE PAINTER by Brandon Sanderson (BOOK REVIEW)
“The true hero is the one in your mind, the representation of an ideal that makes you a better person. The individual who inspired it, well, they’re like the book on the table or the art on the wall. A vessel. A syringe full of transformational aspiration.”
Yumi and the Nightmare Painter by Brandon Sanderson is the third secret project to be traditionally published by Gollancz and Tor and it’s one which blew me away. I expected the masterful worldbuilding and the compelling characters but what I did not expect was such a tender exploration of loneliness, acceptance and love.
Two different worlds, two different souls, one shared experience.
Komashi is a planet in complete darkness except for magenta and azure hion lines running through the streets which provide the only source of colourful light. Upon the edges of the city of Kilahito lies the Shroud, a place where Nightmares manifest and enter the city to devour its victims. To stand against these forces are Nightmare Painters who by the stroke of a brush and the creation of art can change the Nightmare’s physical shape and cause it to evaporate. Nikaro is one such Nightmare Painter. In the city of Torio, a place of burning sunlight and floating plants there are those Chosen to call upon the spirits and bind them to grant the villagers their much needed aid. The Chosen are called yoki-hijo, vigorously trained from childhood in the art of stacking stones and producing artistic sculptures that do not seem possible but which attract the spirits to them. They are born to serve, they have no free will, they need no comforts. Yumi is one such yoki-hijo. By the fate of the spirits these two vastly different lives collide, and Nikaro and Yumi become connected to one another in a way neither understands.
The novel begins with Yumi and Nikaro in their retrospective worlds as we learn of their way of life and the sheer isolation and loneliness they both face. However, once their crossover occurs there is much humour as they both try to decipher what is happening. There are moments where Nikaro, now in the body of Yumi, embarrassingly adopts Yumi’s daily ritual routines which include letting others bathe and feed her, and when Yumi enters Nikaro’s world, she is utterly baffled by the technological advances. Sanderson vividly portrays the contrast, the sheer otherworldliness these two characters face and in return we begin to understand them on a deeper level.
“An artist has a gaze like a knife, separating the layers of skin, fat, and muscle. His were the eyes of a person who could rip out your soul and recreate it on the page in ink or graphite.”
Watching Yumi in Nikaro’s world experience simple pleasures in life such as getting lost in drama series on the ‘hion viewer’, taking a shower by herself or going shopping to choose her own clothes was amusing as well as incredibly sad. This became the point where I began to truly appreciate the beauty of this story. Nikaro, most commonly known as Painter throughout the novel, teaches Yumi that she is not a machine who has to obey orders because of her being “Chosen”, that she has a right to make decisions, exercise free will whilst still being devout. Whereas Yumi teaches Painter that he can forgive himself for his past mistakes, they do not make him a bad person, only one who doesn’t want to disappoint others. He can have friends such as Akane and Tojin, if only he was more honest with them and himself.
It becomes clear that Yumi had put too much of herself into her work, always striving to achieve perfection and Painter had become stuck in a rut of not having enough passion and drive for fearing he wasn’t good enough, yet they both understand what it is like to have given themselves to their art. In his postscript Sanderson mentions many of the inspirations this novel stems from, most notably Yumi’s world is inspired by a historical Korea and Painter’s a modern Japan. Yet one that caught my eye was the anime, Your Name, which I am yet to watch but am even more excited for now, given that the premise revolves around two people connected by swapping lives. It sounds like a beautifully sad love story and at its heart that is exactly what this novel is. Yumi and Nikaro become two intertwined souls who understand each other like no other can and who would defy every rule to be together.
“How did you deal with the loneliness?” she asked softly. “When you were younger?”
“When you make art,” she whispered, “it’s easy to forget.”
“Until you don’t have anyone to show it to.”
Sanderson elevates the story even further by its narrator, Hoid, whom we know from many of the Cosmere novels. Hoid’s storytelling throughout The Stormlight Archive novels have been some of my favourite parts and to see him deliver a full length tale here was delightful. Hoid’s narration is beautiful, it’s full of enchanting descriptions and often poignant reflections. There is also much of himself in the narration too—his knowledge of the planets and myriad of people within the Cosmere, his sarcasm and clever wit. Adding further Cosmere connections we are also treated to more of Design whose nonsensical, outrageous ways I absolutely adore. Although this is a standalone novel that can be read without any prior reading of Sanderson’s other works, as always I very much enjoyed seeing a few familiar characters.
Romantic, mystical, poignant and hopeful, this novel is simply stunning.
ARC provided by Jenna at Gollancz in exchange for an honest review—thank you for the copy!