[Click the cover below to check it out! If you don’t see a book cover below it’s probably ad-blocker settings]
[I really wish this cover was used for the US release of the game. It’s so pretty and mysterious. The US cover was just terrible.]
“When a boy named Ico grows long curved horns overnight, his fate has been sealed-he is to be sacrificed in the Castle in the Mist. But in the castle, Ico meets a young girl named Yorda imprisoned in its halls. Alone they will die, but together Ico and Yorda might just be able to defy their destinies and escape the magic of the castle.
The novelization of the hit video game of the same name, Japan’s leading fantasist Miyuki Miyabe has crafted a tale of magic, loss, and love that will never be forgotten. “
So, first thing’s first: This is a novelization [kinda sorta] of the video game, Ico. The game came out in 2001, and the book was released in 2004. It’s seemingly lesser known than Team Ico’s other games in the same universe, Shadow of the Colossus, and The Last Guardian.
To sort of touch on the ‘novelization’ part of the synopsis — while half of it is a faithful descriptor of the events in the game, the author also took creative freedom on entering in her own creations of the lore in the story, and completely overwrote/changed parts of the story that actually happened in the game.
Just as a warning, this review is going to go back and forth on the game, and the book. So if you haven’t played the game, it may or may not be interesting, but it will definitely be spoiler-y.
The book and the game’s namesake is Ico – a boy who was born with small horns that signifies that he is destined to be a sacrifice to the mysterious Castle in the Mist. He comes from a long line of other fellow horned children raised this way, their horns suddenly sprouting when the time of sacrifice is at hand. They are then brought to the Castle, locked in a tomb, and left to die and then essentially become enslaved to the castle itself, so that their souls may never leave. In Ico’s case though, his tomb falls and breaks, freeing him. He discovers another person locked away in a massive cage in the castle, an ethereal girl of light named Yorda who is the Princess of the castle, and is the daughter of The Queen. The Queen is a powerful being who is darkness incarnate, and keeps her daughter locked away, never to leave the castle.
Ico wishes to free the Princess along with himself, and they help each other along the way to do so. [The game makes you drag her around because essentially she’s been locked away for potentially thousands of years, and is very weak] Yorda has powers of Light and Lightning, and is able to help Ico get through cursed and magic-locked areas. The entire time however, mysterious creatures of Darkness are constantly trying to get in the way of Yorda escaping, trying to drag her back into the darkness and imprison her once again.
The book still basically follows the same premise and characters, but adds a lot of background to Ico’s character. In the book, he comes from a village that is cursed to having a horned child born every few generations, and has long followed a tradition of exiling the parents, and treating the horned child as not quite human, and brainwashing them that they are nothing but a tool to save the village and the entire world from the destruction of the Castle in the Mist, which can turn everyone to stone and spread Darkness upon the land unless the horned children that are born are sacrificed to it. We learn about the village elders that raised Ico, and their general village lives, including childhood friend characters.
The biggest differences between the game and books however, is the lore of the Castle in the Mist, in particular with Yorda and the Queen. For awhile, the book spirals into stuffing that between major sections of the game’s story. Without giving too much away for those that might be interested in the author’s take, it goes into Yorda’s past before her mother was essentially living darkness when her father was alive, and the downfall of her kingdom because of her mother’s evil. It also goes into detail about a race of actual horned people, and a famous horned warrior named Ozuma and his relation to the generations of his own bloodline [which is considered anyone who has horns in this case, not just his actual bloodline] and how the Castle became a desolate, evil, and sort of parasitic entity.
As much as I wanted to like the author’s renditions of these events, honestly I really didn’t. The story was fine. Her writing is actually very in depth and I can see why she’s apparently a famous fantasy author in Japan. But… I dunno. I just didn’t like her interpretation at all.
Team Ico’s games are made to be pretty mysterious, so I feel like there’s a lot that would have been fine to be left that way – but instead the author seemed to feel the need to spell out every tiny little detail with backstory. One thing I liked within the game is that Yorda, while weak, is also stoic, mysterious, and dreamlike in her characteristics. She just seems to not really be of the same world as Ico, and time to her is completely different. But the author sort of just flatlines that with her being hyper emotional and traumatized to the point of almost being a walking zombie to explain her behavior in the game. But the game doesn’t really give that feel about her at all, at least it didn’t to me. She seems lost. unsure of herself, and scared of her mother, sure, but that seems pretty normal given her circumstances. She’s never been able to leave the castle and have a life for herself, because she only exists for the Queen to eventually use her body as a new host once her existing body dies [and is close to doing so in the timeline of the game]. This also applies to the backstory given to the Queen herself. Despite that sure, she isn’t in the game much at all, the game made it so that she didn’t necessarily need to be, and she was very blunt and straight to the point. What she did within her castle was no one’s business but her own, and wanted Ico to leave. But the author turned her into a comically stereotypical evil woman [I almost expected her to enter in the Noblewoman’s Laugh anime trope – ohohoho~] who needs to villain-monologue constantly.
[Hint, major spoilers below in white – skip if you don’t wanna see the details]
I also especially didn’t like the author changing the completely canon, happens-in-the-game story elements, that actually bothered me a lot. The happenings in the end of the book are not at all what happen in the game, and it actually takes away from multiple events that happen with Yorda and her having bonded with Ico. In the game, Yorda is turned to stone by the Queen when trying to save Ico, whereas in the book, she gives up on life essentially which allows her mother to possess her [again.] Instead of Ico falling into the ocean because of these same events in the game, Ico decides to throw himself off a bridge into the ocean because he’s also giving up.
In the book, it’s never really covered that the Queen’s nefarious plans are revealed that Yorda only exists for her to take over her body when her own dies [resulting in the death/suppression of Yorda’s soul], and instead the Queen has possessed her multiple times, and it’s almost played out as a normal sort of thing? This also directly relates to after the major boss battle in the game where Ico defeats the Queen, only for her to try and make her plan still happen and tries to completely take over Yorda with the last of her energy, which turns Yorda into a shadow being. But even as it’s made to seem that all of Ico’s effort was wasted, Shadow-Yorda uses the last of her strength to save Ico/send him away and purposely stays behind in the crumbling castle to sacrifice herself and kill the darkness once and for all. That effort in storytelling doesn’t happen in the book. Yorda is just normal and saves Ico and that’s about it.
The most agitating/last of it is also that the author takes a major reveal in the game [that the shadows that Ico has been fighting the entire game are actually the corrupted souls of previously sacrificed horned children like himself] and puts it right in the beginning. No buildup really, it’s just really matter-of-fact that Ico is fighting his brethren who met terrible fates that he was almost destined to experience as well. There is some dialogue about this, but it just didn’t get that same gut-punch feeling when you realize you’ve been going through the entire game killing off kids like yourself that are dead and trapped forever in the castle. In the book, Ico actually gets furious at them and goes out of his way to kill them because they’re fellow sacrifices. Then there’s the very end – the author makes Yorda and Ico not have any memories of each other, or the events that took place. For some reason they’re both just stranded on a beach, Ico is really beaten up [bloody broken horns and everything], but they have no idea where they are or what just happened. Not at all the same touching ending in the game when Ico finds that Yorda has also survived and they both made it out alive. Ugh.
Another point that’s not exactly super spoiler-y, but that I want to mention is that the origin of the horned species of people and why they became sacrifices doesn’t match what was stated by the game’s director, writer, and lead designer, Fumito Ueda. He quoted Shadow of the Colossus to be ‘both a spiritual successor and prequel to Ico’ but urged players to also consider their own personal interpretations. With that information, it’s always been considered that Wander’s choices and pact with the cursed [and horned] entity known as Dormin during SotC [that causes Wander to grow horns when cursed by him as well as when he’s reborn] is what started the cause of horned children to be considered ‘cursed’ and therefore sacrificed. The book originally came out mid-2004, and SotC was released in later 2005. I’m not super sure how that translates in the book’s canon [if it’s considered any kind of canon at all], but in later editions Miyuki Miyabe added an insert to the book about how it’s her own interpretation, and not officially written by Team Ico/Sony.
Like mentioned before, the story is fine. There’s obviously plenty of people who liked what the author added to the story. I’m just not really one of them. Usually with a book I felt as ‘meh’ about as with this one, I’d donate it now that I’m done reading – it’s not the easiest to find, so I’ll be keeping it in my collection to let others borrow if ever asked.
I’d only really recommend the book to someone who either has already played the game, or plans to soon after reading it. [Though I will say the game is very… dated, especially the controls – the PS3 HD redo of it did shape some of that up a little – so it may be easier to watch a Let’s Play/Stream of it] I’d definitely recommend reviewing the game first though, as it is a groundbreaking game for it’s time, and I think the magic of it would be better experienced first before reading this book.
I give Ico: Castle in the Mist 3/5 [Horned] Sacrificial Children
“Not all history is told in stories and chronicles. The parts untold, the dark passages of time, were those that swallowed men’s hopes and made the distinctions between good and evil as nebulous as mist.”
“The dim phosphorescence at the bottom of the pool was beautiful, yet fleeting – a spectral gown worn by a dancing ghost.”