I’ve had many, many months to digest The Twelve Kingdoms because there’s a lot of it, it’s a very dense series, and it’s best looked at with that breathing-space. It’s a tough sell of a series, a meandering, often tricky to keep up with isekai story that is full of abrasive characters, but its sheer scale and ambition – as cliché as that sounds – is hard to find elsewhere.
I don’t need to explain much of the plot to explain why it has stuck around in my mind so long. A group of students are sent to a fantastical world that runs on mythic logic, and the story is about how they change to fit in and make the world change in turn. It’s a series with a lot of gravitas, a weightily-depicted world of nations good and bad, good people forced to do bad things and those just trying to survive. But what it offers is something very welcome – it depicts a world where arrivals from another time, another place are so common they have become routine. Governmental bureaus exist to handle these outsiders, the locals learn modern-day languages and keep themselves appraised of changes in documentation and so on, and it becomes not so much being drawn into a world of heroes and myths but being an immigrant into the legendary past. That was the first detail that made me realise this was a series that was going to go places. Just one detail that when described plainly feels like a parody, a satirical intrusion of modernity into fantasy, played entirely reasonably.
It added so much to the world not just in terms of “the writers here have thought things through” but also added many, many potential stories to tell; the heroes weren’t falling into their destined greatness but awkwardly trying to negotiate the bureaucracy of a strange and inaccessible new country, with no wealth or status or local knowledge to tell if they were being exploited or tricked. It was a kind of desperate tone that was interesting, because I had not experienced much like it before.
The second thing the series did that immediately leapt at me was play with expectations of the hero’s wish to return home or not; their home life was not happy, but their new life was worse and worsened further by the reminders that they had left behind people who at the very least were worried about them. It wasn’t a simple matter of dying and being reborn, or seeking a way home, it was about letting go, accepting that there probably isn’t a way back and even if there was, would things be the same?
Which moves into the third good idea the series had in its lengthy run. The protagonist becomes a queen. Not the queen, but a queen. Ruler of one of many nations, chosen by destiny – because this is a world where the divine right rules. And chosen, ultimately, to join an immortal lineage where continued rule is based on ruling well. That, building on the way the series had played with doubts and worries about who had been left behind, was fascinating. It gave the protagonist an incredible arc because it became a story of pure anger after a point. The protagonist is given rule of a deeply broken and unfair society and yet has no apparent means to challenge this. She has status but no power. And so the latter half of the series becomes a story of the outsider testing their divine mandate to try and improve things, fighting wars not for personal glory but for social good, uprooting an unfair society she is being forced to comply with. And this would not be half as powerful as it ended up being were it not for the many parallel sub-plots, the stories of rulers good and bad, of the question of forgiveness of tyrants and complicity in the sins of the father, of the fallibility of the divine. It is dense and needs concentration, and at times it is a tough watch because of the raw unfairness at play, but by the end the details tie together so well.
You could argue The Twelve Kingdoms is some kind of deconstruction or metacommentary on isekai tropes, but it isn’t. It is just a story that wants to focus on the things it wants to focus on. I don’t feel it’s trying to make a grand point about the isekai genre as much as it is asking some questions and offering some answers. It may let you, the viewer, recontextualise your views of fantasy fiction, of the good king and the isekai narrative, it may invite you to ask yourself some questions about justice and the immigrant experience, but it feels to me like a finely-crafted empirical story, a world depicted, upset and changed and the viewer left as a sometimes confused, sometimes angry observer seeing everything from the outside.