In a long ago and not-too-historically accurate version of medieval Japan, there lives a girl named Suzume, who is about to discover that she has an extraordinary power: the ability to weave shadows into clever and breathtaking illusions. Unfortunately, the catalyst for her discovery is the slaughter of nearly her entire small family--father and foster sister/cousin. The culprits are soldiers employed by the Moon Prince; the cause, her father's supposed treason.
Suzume's mother, however, is off visiting family and consequently survives the attack. Mother and daughter are reunited and subsequently taken in by a friend of Suzume's father, Lord Terayama. Cue the entrance of the evil step-father. A nice twist, although the story doesn't entirely depart from the original Cinderella's vaguely misogynist origins. Mom is also sort of...well, not evil, but not Mom of the Year, either.
Suzume's father isn't even cold in the ground before Mom marries Terayama. Soon after, Mom's pregnant and the new family is journeying by sea to Terayama's estate in the capital. On the ship, Suzume meets Otieno, the younger son of a mysterious nobleman from a distant land (probably Africa). I admit, the fact that Otieno isn't the standard, Anglo Saxon pretty boy, but instead a mahogany hunk with dread locks has a lot of appeal.
Otieno essentially saves Suzume from a watery end when Terayama--Oops!--almost knocks her overboard. Yeah, step-dad's a prick.
Time progresses, Suzume discovers one of Terayama's dark secrets, commits a terrible act of her own and ends up on the streets. There, she meets a beautiful courtesan who, acting as the fairy godmother, helps Suzume craft a plot to wreck revenge on Terayama. Key to Suzume's plan is the use of her power to literally enchant the royal court at a ball.
The love story worked well for me. The relationship between Otieno and Suzume begins with the usual long smoldering looks and just-add-water, instant attraction. But as the story progresses, the two get a chance to build a relationship on something more that hormones. Of course, there's still a lot of chemistry at work here. I mean, they're teens. And any love story needs an injection of illogical lust.
I enjoyed how deeply the narrative sinks into Suzume's point of view, depicting her wrenching emotions as she deals with the darkness with herself, determined to punish herself for her own perceived crimes. (The astute reader will quickly suspect that Suzume probably didn't commit the crime in question.)
Weaker aspects of the story include Otieno's homeland, which sounds too perfect and the fact that his family doesn't have any objections to him marrying a foreigner, who is essentially a nobody. (Suzume is minor nobility at best.) I find it interesting that the language barrier is never addressed. Maybe it would muddy up the narrative too much, but I felt like Otieno's fluency in Japanese felt too much like an anachronism, even in story so steeped in fantasy.
Suzume is still the prettiest girl at the ball, a la Cinderella. Otieno, however, has seen her at her worst, with shorn hair, filthy and working as a drudge on Terayama's estate.
I'd argue that the story doesn't entirely diverge from the pretty girl gets the prince because..."Pretty" schtick, but Suzume is a fully realized character, and in her quest for revenge, she is no helpless twit waiting for her "prince to come."