On Mavar Nendaiki

mavar
The cover.

Right now, when I google “Mavar Nendaiki” (not マヴァール年代記), I get exactly *two* results. Looks like a task for Bednorz and his Weeablogue.

Mavar Nendaiki (The Annals of Mavar) is a historical novel set in a fictional land (kakuu rekishi shousetsu) by Tanaka Yoshiki. It originally was a series of three volumes, later gathered into a single book – only the first edition (started in 1988) consisted of separate volumes. You might have heard about Arslan or some other less known works by Tanaka-sensei, the creator of LoGH. But probably not this one. It’s rather obscure. How obscure? You see, my original intention was to pirate it. Except, I only was able to obtain the second and third volume. I found a way around it, however. I also found the “Mavar Nendaiki cassette-book” uploaded on Niconico. What is a “cassette-book”, you ask? It’s a strange hybrid of an audiobook and an audiodrama, with major voice actors of the late eighties reading out a little play summarizing the novel, available on tape. So, the plan was to consume the first volume in the form of this strange radio play thingy and to read the rest in form of pirated ebooks. But then, I listened through the cassette-book and said… Aah, screw it. I’ll just buy the damn thing. And so I did – I used a proxy service to buy a used copy off Yahoo Auctions. The book itself cost me 200 JPY – much less than expected. If you wanna win, you gotta play it smart. Since Tanaka-sensei prefers basing his fictional worlds off real ones, the Empire of Mavar is based on medieval Hungary. If “Mavar” brings “Magyar” to your mind… yes, it should. Or at least the proper nouns are based on Hungary. Tanaka-sensei seems to think he’s adding “local flavor” to his fantasy novels, but I’m afraid that’s not enough for Mavar Nendaiki to feel “Hungarian”. It has next to nothing to do with Hungary, which is kind of a missed opportunity. Anyway, “Magyarorszag” is the only Hungarian word I know. Or wait, I know “Lengyelorszag” too.

BOOK ONE

Year 1091. The “Annals” start with a boundary skirmish between the Empire of Mavar – a warlike, landlocked country – and its rival, the kingdom of Erudei. The novel is written like a chronicle or some kind of historical source – if you’ve read the English edition of LoGH, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Tanaka-sensei imitates medieval chronicles even when they hilariously overestimate the numbers on each side of the conflict. There’s no way they could mobilize 100 000 soldiers like it’s nothing in the Middle Ages. For a petty border conflict, too. And they couldn’t have any potatoes around – that bit is addressed in the afterword, though! The imperial army of Mavar is led by one of the story’s three heroes, kronprinz Karman. The commander achieves an easy victory against Erudei’s heavy, clumsy cavalry but fails to properly exploit the win, since he receives an order to return to the capital. His father, emperor Bogdan II is dying. The scarfaced General Lazar of Erudei, who served as an assistant to the main commander, survives to fight another day and bother Karman for the rest of the story…

The old Bogdan II is a gigantic asshole. He maintains a facade of being a good ruler to the people, but is a tormentor to his family. He mentally cornered Karman’s two older brothers to suicide. The protagonist might be next. Karman is told the emperor is dead, but upon entering his room, he realizes the summons he received was only one of the senile annoyer’s trials – if Karman failed to show up, there would be hell to pay. The young successor to the throne snaps and asphyxiates his father with a pillow. The old man doesn’t even resist. Karman leaves the room and doesn’t inform the servants, convinced that the emperor died on his own, of what happened. However, Duke Wentzel who happened to be in the palace picks up the pillow lying beside the dead emperor’s bed and notices some wet tooth marks on it… The ruler of Mavar is officially announced as deceased and preparations to select the next ruler start.

After this political earthquake of an opening, we’re treated to a little history lesson. Just like the real-life Hungarians, the Mavar were originally a nomadic tribe from the east who settled in this plot of land surrounded by mountains. They consider Arpad the Conqueror their state’s founder – he started out as a wanted criminal and ended his life as a lauded emperor. The tradition of climbing up the power ladder by all possible means is alive in Mavar even hundreds of years after Arpad, as you will be able to see in the Annals. As you can judge from the cover, Mavar Nendaiki has three main characters – all old friends, all the same age. There’s Prince Karman, a peerless warrior and a possible successor of the throne. Wentzel, one of the country’s six Dukes, with his own territory and some power over who becomes the next emperor. He’s physically weak, but lethally sharp intellectually. And then there’s Ridwan, mediocre at war and academics, but always just and good. A knight who managed to climb his way to becoming his Duke’s prime minister, but quickly resigned, disillusioned by the ugly world of politics. If you know your LoGH, you might ask “so who’s the Yang Wenli of this story?” The answer is: pretty much every character significant to the plot is a Yang Wenli to some extent. Mavar Nendaiki is a chessmaster story. A 軍師もの. It’s about all kinds of actors scheming to claim as much power for themselves as possible. But if I were to name only one character, it’s definitely Wentzel. THE Chessmaster who has always harbored an unstoppable, obsessive will to expand and outplay others in the Great Competition that is life. He can’t help it and it’s not like he hates his opponents. He’s like Yang Wenli, except he’s not a reluctant hero at all. He might say stuff like “There’s nobody to rule over you so I guess I’ll have to do it” but it’s all bravado. Him picking up that pillow is the beginning of his quest for glory.

bingo
the things you can find on the internet…

There are two candidates to the throne – Karman and Prince Ruset, who’s still an infant, but is surrounded by an active and powerhungry faction of nobles. The gathering of all six Dukes of Mavar, with choosing the next emperor as its goal, is supposed to be underway. But, only five arrive – Duke Imre died a mysterious death. A new Duke can only be instated by the emperor and the emperor is dead, so the meeting is paralyzed. This situation, caused by a faulty law, has created perfect conditions for more bad stuff to happen. And since it’s the Middle Ages we’re talking about, things will get bloody. The entire kerfuffle around succession paints a picture of Mavar as a declining state where politicians abuse their power for personal gain and the actual functions of the state remain ignored. Sounds familiar? Soon, an attempt at poisoning Karman happens. Baron Apostol, the leader of Prince Ruset’s party gets accused of it but denies being guilty and nothing happens (what’s more, it later turns out he wasn’t lying). More assassination attempts followed. Imre’s dukedom is claimed by his wife and her lover, Simeon, the Duke’s former subordinate. Duke Sturza imprisons Wentzel’s sister and Ridwan’s son in his crazy underground labyrinth. Sturza was a rather atypical bad guy – not a Tanaka-style Incompetent Villain or a Tanaka-style Evil Villain, but a normal, decent guy who got twisted by his privileged position and an obsession on being exceptional. I’m afraid if you’re mediocre in Tanakaverse, you get made into a villain and you die. In general, Mavar dives into complete chaos. The leader of Ruset’s faction is assassinated. It soon becomes clear that the succession debacle will have to be solved with military strength instead of common agreement.

People die like in a Shakespeare play, except the ones who are killed by their own hilarious incompetence. And finally, Karman makes a deal with Dragosh, the fiercest knight in Mavar – he’ll kill the Duke he serves, an enemy of Karman’s, and the prince will acknowledge the warrior as the new Duke. The plan fails. The beastlike knight replaces his Duke but then immediately pounces at the crown prince. The entire empire unites to fight Dragosh, and after a long battle on the surface of a frozen lake, Ridwan kills him… with a spear made of ice. Wentzel contributes to the campaign in his own way, by taking some of Dragosh’s territory. Nothing is standing in Karman’s way now…

BOOK TWO

Year 1092. The year before was catastrophic – Mavar not only experienced a civil war over succession, it was also cursed with a famine due to abnormally cold weather. However, the new emperor of Mavar, Karman II manages to minimize the effects of the disaster. Spring is coming and his attention is directed at the neighboring kingdom of Cernagora, which prides itself with its warmer climate and better conditions for agriculture. If only Mavar could have those… The embassador of Cernagora, Zaitsel pays the freshly ascended emperor a visit to present him an offer: princess Adelheid of Cernagora is willing to marry him. King Danilo IV of Cernagora is in poor health, so eventually, the deal could even end with Karman becoming the head of state for both countries. Meanwhile, Karman is glancing suspiciously at Wentzel and his dukedom, which emerged from the chaos of civil war as the number two power in Mavar. However, Wentzel insists on maintaining silence.

Whatever happens, it won’t happen peacefully. Lazar, the embassador of Erudei in Mavar and self-styled chessmaster won’t let it. He conducts an assassination plot on Zaitsel on Mavar land, planting some seeds of mutual distrust between the two states. Eventually, after being given a small push by Lazar, Karman actually invades Cernagora. The instant the imperial army crosses the border, Erudei joins the war on Cernagora unasked. The small kingdom is in a state of panic, but its citizens won’t go down without putting up a valiant fight first. In spite of many efforts by general Ypsilanti and politician Juraj (whose name Tanaka-sensei pronounces as ジュラージュ), Mavar wins the deciding battle on the banks of a giant river, but not without difficulty. Cernagora starts being called “former Cernagora” and Adelheid becomes Karman’s wife. Not reluctantly – her little kingdom had always been too small to contain her ambitions. She plans to eventually take power over the entire empire and maybe even the entire continent. Erudei benefits from the war as well – Lazar makes sure his army does the least possible amount of effort, so that they nominally deserve (and receive, indeed) a chunk of Cernagora for their contribution. Greater Mavar is now a perfect, complete state – impervious to famine and even connected to the sea by a small strip of land.

The successful Cernagora campaign causes all the neighbors of Mavar to fall into uproar. Lazar uses the atmosphere of panic to form an alliance of seven states surrounding Mavar. It’s a secret alliance for some reason – what if one of its signataries gets attacked and the others just sit and watch? Officially, there is no alliance, after all. Meanwhile, Wentzel is still waiting in his dukedom for the right moment to act…

BOOK THREE

Greater Mavar is now a reality and Karman is at the height of his power, but Lazar seems determined to rain on his parade. As the leader of a secret alliance, he makes Kurland, Mavar’s northeastern neighbor attack the empire. Lazar’s plan is to toy with the regional power by surrounding it by a circle of bullies. Fighting one alliance member after another should quickly exhaust Mavar and ultimately lead to its demise. As the imperial army is readying to repel the Kurlandian raid, Mavar’s southwestern neighbor, Ulgar attacks. Mavar will be forced to drag all its military might from one end of the country to another, and then back. With a little help from his friends, the emperor manages to repel the invaders. Karman recognizes Lazar as the instigator behind this mean plan (tell me how the hell he knew, Tanaka-sensei!) and issues an order: arrest Lazar, the Erudei embassador residing in Onogur, the imperial capital. Lazar barely manages to run away with his life and breaches the border to escape to his native Erudei… Meanwhile, Wentzel is preparing to make his move. His plan is simple: to get his hands on prince Ruset, kept in a mansion in the capital, and declare him the legitimate emperor.

Mavar finally made the move to apprehend Lazar, and failed. The embassador is still alive and punchy. Lazar has a conversation with the king of Erudei, Siegmund VII… and it’s probably my favorite part of the book. Finally, an elephant in the room gets addressed. Lazar had some great contributions to his country’s national interest – his scheming won ten counties of land for Erudei at a minimal cost. The embassador definitely is proud of himself. Except… Although he did benefit his country, he benefited its biggest rival *even more*. He won a strip of land for his homeland, but also caused the rest of Cernagora to be devoured by Mavar, making the empire the biggest it has ever been. The king says “you’re either an agent of Mavar or an incompetent clown”, puncturing the giant balloon of Lazar’s self-infatuation. The king’s right, isn’t he? The story of Lazar proves that there is a limit to being a chessmaster, an armchair detective. There’s only so much you can gain only by meddling from the safety of that armchair. And that being a Light Yagami type always inevitably comes with narcissism. Seems like the embassador has started something too big for him to handle, he caused a storm which will, sooner or later, kill him. This seems like a good moment to ask the question: “how good a chessmaster story is Mavar Nendaiki?” And sadly, if I were to only judge the book with that question in mind, I’d dunk on it pretty hard. The ploys aren’t very believable. Stuff just happens and then you’re informed who won. This should sound familiar if you’ve seen/read LoGH. The “amazing gambits” featured in the story are often bullshit like stating post-facto that “actually, Wentzel was the mastermind that stood behind all this”, without much effort put into making that claim credible. This isn’t Death Note. Mavar Nendaiki would like you to buy into the idea that “there are wannabe chessmasters and real ones”. I can’t help but think they’re all wannabes, though…

King Siegmund agrees to a following plan: although Lazar is safe and comfy in the capital of Erudei, the king tells Karman that Lazar was stripped of all privileges in Erudei and resides in Kurland now. They offer the empire some troops to help invade Kurland and punish the villain, too. Karman buys that and doesn’t even suspect that Lazar is among the soldiers he let onto his own soil. After having some trouble in the severe climate of the north, Mavar wins against Kurland. Karman cannot catch a break, though: Lazar’s previous stratagem is still being pulled off – Ulgar attacks, except now Wentzel pours some more fuel to the fire by convincing Ulgar to invade Cernagora instead of raiding the proper Mavar territory again. A shadow of suspicion falls upon Adelheid, leading to her imprisonment. Wentzel sets off to liberate Cernagora from Ulgar invaders and becomes a hero for putting out a fire he himself caused. Soon, as the Erudei army led by Lazar is roaming freely with the emperor’s permission, the former embassador receives an order from his king to retreat as he’s a step away from success. Going against the order leads to him fighting another Erudei general and winning at the cost of losing an arm. Then, Lazar attacks Karman and the imperial army out of nowhere, dealing it a destructive blow. The emperor is nowhere to be found for a while. Thankfully, Ridwan appears with his troops, defeats Lazar and finds Karman, safe and sound. The scarfaced wannabe chessmaster might have been a villain but damn, if he wasn’t a cool one.

Times are stormy, but the situation seems to be heading towards a conclusion. Wentzel is the last remaining opponent standing in Karman’s way. At Wentzel’s suggestion, Juraj, who still serves Adelheid, poisons the general in charge of guarding the capital to free Adelheid. The liberated queen, however, refuses to rise up against Mavar to regain Cernagora’s independence. She doesn’t care. Wentzel marches into the capital – his ploy proved to be a complete success. Ruset is now his, Juraj kills himself, and it looks like Wentzel won. The brilliant Duke finally rolls out the bombshell which should make his victory final: he publicizes that Karman killed his father and announces Ruset is the new emperor. All that remains is to have a final battle to decide who should take the throne.

The battle goes more favorably for Wentzel, at least until the army of Kurland, persistently invading Mavar time after time, arrives under the capital – a third force joins the fray, and Wentzel’s army takes the brunt of their onslaught from the north. The grand battle is nothing but a slaughter. Many valuable men die, even Adelheid gets caught in the vortex of death, because of her own stupidity and arrogance. “Ah, the folly of war” – says Tanaka-sensei. How did the similar LoGH quote go, again? Not very sincere of him to exclaim that after having written a whole thick entertainment novel about war. The massacre of a battle ends in Kurland’s defeat, but the two pretenders to the throne are absolutely spent. The future of the empire will be determined through a duel. The one-on-one ultimately ends in mutual destruction. With his last words, Karman entrusts the imperial throne to Ridwan. And so, it wasn’t the Good Chessmaster or the Bad Chessmaster, or the Emperor of Thunder who won in the end. It’s the mediocre nice guy who will get to start a new dynasty. One could call it a MAHOIKU END…


Okay then. I wasn’t sure what to expect from Mavar Nendaiki, but what I got was the first classic, thick fantasy novel I’ve read in Japanese. And a good one, too. Madly entertaining. As expected of Tanaka-sensei. I have to admit the long-ass list of characters at the beginning of the book seemed overwhelming. Thankfully, the book makes sure you’re fed those in manageable doses. There’s a lot to memorize in this book, though. Which is good. To be a nerd is to enjoy memorization, right?

The tome is 625 pages long, so I expected it to be huge. But it isn’t – upon arrival it turned out to be about the size of an A6 sheet, and thinner than expected. It’s true – everything in Japan is smaller. Nippon banzai. However, it’s packed tightly with text. Beating this small brick of paper took me an entire month. It’s not only dense with text, but also *content*. A whole lot can happen within only several pages – Tanaka-sensei made sure to only keep the important stuff in, no filler.

Now let’s have a look at the linguistic side of the novel. Mavar Nendaiki took me to a literary bootcamp. I spent the last month doing my best to read 25 pages per day on average and everyday, this novel would have me look up tens of words. Is there any furigana? Rarely, only when it’s absolutely necessary. The novel is super rich in vocab and has taught me more Japanese than any other book I’ve read until now, hands down. It’s not a book where you can be like “I’m too lazy to look things up, I’ll take a guess on what this means”. It truly made me realize the size of the gigantic abyss that is the Japanese language. It’s like I haven’t really even begun exploring it. The book felt intimidating at first, then I felt like it got easier, and then it got hella hard again. I’m really glad I have my phone. And Wiktionary. If you follow me on Twitter, you should know. I’ve been tormenting you twitties with strange Japanese vocabulary pretty hard this January. Like my favorite, “aramahoshiki“. And my second favorite, “hyakugou” – using this counts as a joke in my book. A hilarious one. Call me a nerd, I don’t care. Which reminds me I should read more Carlo Zen, he’s a fan of “aramahoshiki” – a Tanaka Yoshiki 2.0. Some words weren’t even in the dictionary. Is this what all Tanaka works are like? It hurt. I want some more. Maybe soon. It’s a pleasure to read… if you have the mad skillz. A pleasure big enough to make me read it out loud at times.

So yeah. Read Mavar Nendaiki. If you dare. How the hell did Arslan get multiple adaptations while this book got none? Arslan sucks.

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