Miuko, the protagonist of Traci Chee’s new novel “A Thousand Steps Into Night,” is just a servant girl in a poor, nearly deserted town when she is caught outside at dusk — a dangerous time of day when mythological creatures freely roam the human world. Cursed to become a shaoha, a demon of death, and exiled from the only home she has ever known, Miuko takes on a quest to restore herself to her human body and comes to befriend spirits, priests and folk creatures alike.
The crowning achievement of “A Thousand Steps Into Night” is its worldbuilding. Heavily drawing inspiration from Japanese mythology, Chee develops a catalog of demons, gods and other mythical creatures that populate the fictional nation of Awara. Each new reference to one of these characters is supplemented by a footnote explaining the etymology of their name, their origin, their character traits and their role in Awara’s mythology. In doing so, Chee constructs not just an entire religion, but an Awaran language — similar to Japanese in regards to the letters and vowel-consonant patterns used, but wholly unique in meaning. It’s an excellent addition that makes the story seem just that little bit more real. It’s subtle, but important.
Chee also takes great care to construct a compelling internal dialogue within Miuko. This dialogue carries the story through the book’s substantial number of action scenes and keeps them engaging and relevant. At times, the story can start to slide into the trap of conflict just for the sake of conflict, action just for the sake of action. But the quick pace, matched with Miuko’s strong personality, prevent it from dragging. She does not just witness the events unfold, but commentates with wit and feeling. Embedded into this narration is an underlying premise of women’s empowerment, a rebellion against a society that denies girls and women access to free movement, education and many other rights. Included too is the budding class consciousness of a servant girl finally able to act on her own terms. These elements, though not particularly nuanced or thought-provoking, add an additional layer of meaning and emotional investment in Miuko’s quest.
One crucial component of this narrative is Miuko’s transformation from human to demon, which spans nearly the entirety of the story. It’s not just her body that’s altered; she also undergoes a slow transition from a human mind to a demon mind. At first, she only has a small demon voice in the back of her head encouraging her to hurt others, but that voice grows as the curse takes over her body. This organic progression makes for an interesting twist on the concept of “protagonist” — you still find yourself cheering for her (and, at times, agreeing with her) even when she’s a demon who is making extremely morally questionable decisions. It’s an inventive take on the concept of moral grayness and the corruption of naivety. This shift in mentality also sets the backdrop for a major plot twist that kicks off the second half of the story, adding depth to the plot, tying some loose ends together and reinvigorating excitement in her adventure.
An added bonus is that Miuko, as a 17-year-old, makes decisions appropriate for that age. Sometimes in YA books, the main character is supposedly a young teen, yet they act like a fully-grown adult. Chee avoids that trap by writing Miuko to be both mature and immature at the same time — sometimes making logical, thoughtful decisions and sometimes acting rashly and without considering the consequences. Her age seems to fit her circumstances and her character’s progression. Miuko has all the emotional turmoil and inconsistency of someone on the brink of adulthood, bolstered by her impossible situation and the catastrophically high stakes resting on her every move. Her character becomes real by making choices that are at times beyond her years and, accordingly, at times below.
The downside to this story, however, is another YA pitfall: the perfectly aligned “coincidences.” Without getting into specifics, I will say that there seems to come a time in the book when Chee decides that Miuko has struggled enough, and things should now go her way. Little hiccups here and there, sure, but there’s no real question about how this is going to end. There’s no waiting with bated breath. Even though you’re not sure how exactly she’s going to pull it off, there’s a distinct switch when everything starts falling into place, and you know that it’s going to be wrapped up neatly. I can’t fault Chee too much for this given that it is, after all, a lighthearted YA read, and there’s still an intrigue in trying to figure out how the events are going to play out. But some of the exhilaration went out of it a bit too early, leaving the ending satisfying yet underwhelming.
Overall, this was a fun, quick read with an inventive premise and an engaging narrator. The writing was solid (though sometimes repetitive), the action exciting and the plot twists pleasantly surprising. If you’re looking for escapist entertainment with a moderate amount of substance behind it, it’s worth picking up.
Daily Arts Writer Brenna Goss can be reached at email@example.com.