A long time ago (17 years!) Square Enix got together with Disney to create a game that combined characters from Square’s famous role playing games (Final Fantasy) and characters from classic Disney canon. The aim was to get new audiences for both companies work by connecting them via a story featuring a young protagonist (Sora, aged 14 in the first game and still only just about 16 in the latest) and his adventures. That game was Kingdom Hearts and we’re still here 17 years and 13 games later with the last release being the biggest selling instalment and the 2nd biggest game globally this year. Just as an illustration of how confusing this series is though – after 13 games that last release was Kingdom Hearts 3, a sequel to Kingdom Hearts 2.8!
Until recently it was tricky to play all of the games as they appeared on different consoles and one thing that has helped has been the books written by Tomoco Kanemaki with illustration by Shiro Amano (who also worked on a manga adaption of the series). These books are classed as “light novels” and are a nice easy read for any age group from 10+. Because I love the games but hadn’t played all of them I decided to read the series for myself. I skipped Kingdom Hearts 1 as I’d heard that this first book was a bit “we went to X and did Y” – a more linear recreation of the game with no added characterisation. Later novels were described as being better insights into characters, to the point that Tomoco Kanemaki had been asked by the series created (Tetsuya Nomura) to help him write character and dialogue for one of the characters because she understood her so well.
Quick recap of basic principles – all games feature young protagonists wielding weapons called Keyblades (look like giant keys used as swords) in conjunction with magic. They’re fighting various bad guys, human and monster, to prevent the unsealing of a thing called “Kingdom Hearts” which if opened will destroy the current world/timeline and remake a new one. Skilled wielders are called Keyblade Masters and the most famous in-game is Mickey Mouse himself, and yes, he does kick ass in fights. The fight is sort of between light and dark but as we grow we realise that balance between the two forces is the way forward.
Chain of Memories
The first novel in my reading order covers a game that exists between Kingdom Hearts 1 & 2. It features Sora (our main protagonist) searching Castle Oblivion for his best friend and series deuteragonist Riku (who was actually the antagonist in the first game, as he fell to the dark, because that’s how this goes). The novel introduces the overarching enemies of the series, Organisation XIII, and their plans to use Sora to obtain Kingdom Hearts (the key to a new world). It’s also our first hint that Riku isn’t quite normal either (another character asks “What is he?” rather than “Who is he?”). There’s double and triple crosses, memory manipulation, cloning hijinks, and some great reunions. I particular love hints of things that happened when Sora was younger that might still pay off in future games (where did his heart necklace come from, what happened the night of the meteor shower?). Also it does a great job of showing Riku’s isolation and anxiety, he’d been trapped in darkness for a period of time and finally seeing Mickey Mouse again (who essentially becomes Riku’s mentor and father figure) shocks him so much he collapses. A good book that cuts out the repetition of the game and focuses on the characters instead – 4 stars.
This book runs a little in parallel with Chain of Memories and features mostly Organisation XIII. Our key characters are Roxas, Xion, and Axel (who was a key character in Chain of Memories). The title should be read as 358 days by 2 as it covers 358 days from the view of Roxas and Xion. It’s not entirely a spoiler to say that basically that is the entire lifespan of these characters. Roxas is Sora’s “Nobody” – a person created when somebody loses their heart (literally as Sora stabbed himself through the heart in the first game!). Sora got better, but Roxas still existed with essentially amnesia so he was manipulated into working for the Organisation with Axel as mentor and, eventually, friend. Xion was a clone made of some of Sora’s memories and gets described as a “puppet”. Riku is also featured as he works to try and recover Sora from the coma state he was left in at the end of Chain of Memories, to do this he has to make some hard decisions and be rather manipulative allowing you to see how far he will go to save his best friend.
Over the course of the book we see the confusion of Roxas and Xion as their powers wax and wane and Xion comes to realise, through Riku’s intervention, that she can’t carry on living as eventually she will cause the death of both Roxas and Sora. Xion’s is one of the sadder stories in Kingdom Hearts as she essentially suicides (by forcing Roxas to fight her) and knows that after her death she will be forgotten. Except by Roxas who basically loses it and goes to take out the Organisation who he holds responsible. He’s also stopped by Riku, they fight, and Riku has to transform himself using dark powers to win. That also has consequences, and leads us into the next main game.
This novel worked really well, the Organisation and their infighting, and hidden agendas came across really well. And some seemingly odd motivations and lines seem to be having meaning now in later games. Xion and Roxas are fan favourite characters for a reason and the sadness of their existence really showed here, they just wanted the peace to go to the beach and eat ice-cream with friends. 4 stars
Kingdom Hearts 2
This was actually written earlier so got split into 2 smaller books and covers the events of the main series game. I’ve often wondered how people who came to this having only read/played Kingdom Hearts 1 coped as we start with Roxas as our viewpoint character, we also have Riku not looking like himself due to using dark powers (he looks mid-to-late twenties, instead of 15-16, and facially appears to be the character called Ansem Seeker of Darkness), and we have Sora waking up from a year long coma and coping with that missing year.
As a main game there’s more of a focus on Disney worlds and these can be more linear with characters going from A-B to support people in doing activities that fit their film (be a lion in the Lion King and defeat Scar for example). As with the game, the book picks up once you’re past all of that and into the end-game. Here we have the long waited for reunions as Sora finds his friends again. Kairi – the girl in their group – was initially rescued by Riku-Ansem and give a keyblade of her own and she jumps in to save a surrounded Sora. She then forces a reluctant Riku-Ansem to reunite with Sora (he though he couldn’t be forgiven for his earlier actions) and in one of the most famous and dramatic scenes in the game Sora collapses to his knees in tears overwhelmed to finally have found Riku again. In the novel, reading Sora’s thoughts just makes it better as throughout you have seen how desperate Sora is to find Riku and be with him again, including his joy earlier when he realise Riku had helped him in Mulan’s world. You also get to see some of these events from Riku’s perspective which doesn’t exist in the game as he helps out behind the scenes. It makes it fitting that the end of this novel features them fighting side-by-side, winning, but stranded in darkness and agreeing that so long as they’re together it’s OK.
This was great as a book, a chance to really see how the characters felt which could be missed in the game, and provides insight into why people behaved as they did. 4.5 stars
Birth By Sleep
This is a prequel set 10 years or so before the first Kingdom Hearts and for me, was the weakest book and game. My issue is the repetition of events from the viewpoints of 3 characters – Terra, Aqua, and Ventus. As a result of how things happen this leads to a confusing early narrative where events are mentioned from one character’s perspective and then shown in detail from another’s later (even though this was referenced earlier). Also, as a point of view character Terra does come across as naive and occasionally just plain dumb and trusting. Definitely a case of “pretty, but stupid” as he ends up possessed by the villain by the end of the game and sort of causes this whole mess (or at least helps it along).
The interesting bits are where we meet you Sora (age 4) and Riku (age 5) and also the thoughts of Ventus’s dark twin Vanitas. Both Terra and Aqua are drawn to an incredibly bright light and it turns out to be Riku resulting in Terra performing a ceremony that means Riku is destined to be a Keyblade wielder and Aqua deciding not to do that to Sora as she thinks both of them having the gift could cause conflict as they got older (in the same way she felt it had harmed her and Terra’s relationship). This is really important later on in the series and illustrates the fact that both Sora and Riku are key to the games. And seeing the horror of Vanitas’s existence – all loneliness, despair, and basically being tortured – really makes you empathise with him and want some sort of happy ending down the line.
Not such a good book, the last third is fine but outweighed by earlier repetition and less sympathetic characters – 3 stars
Apart from Birth by Sleep these novels do a good job of extending the games by helping to add deeper motivation to the characters and giving you an insight into their thoughts and feelings. It’s definitely helped me care more about the characters for future games, particularly Sora, and Riku who get most detail and who appear in most games (Riku actually more so than Sora). I’m looking forward to the next novels, particularly as the next two are based on games which focus heavily on the two main characters. Possibly not much use as books in their own right but as companions to the games, or ways to fill in on the games you missed, then they do a good job.