“Guilt has a great number of friends and keeps their addresses handy for quick summons.”
Yumi and the Nightmare Painter is magically experimental. It’s like a manhwa written by Brandon Sanderson, featuring vivid imagery, overflowing creativity, and plenty of drama.
Yumi has spent her whole life as a conduit for the spirits that power her nation. She stacks stones in gravity-defying formations, channeling the creativity that attracts the spirits’ curiosity. She lives a life of solitary ritual and has never made a decision—or a friend—for herself. She is only told to take care of herself so she can continue giving her life in complete service, but people always want more than she can provide.
Nikaro, the Painter, lives in a city surrounded by an impenetrable shroud of darkness, from which nightmares emerge. Driven by the fuel of fear, these terrifying, silent wraiths can decimate a city unless the painters track them down each night. Although his job is creating art to subdue monsters, he still struggles to see his value. Creatively, he’s in a slump—he has seemingly lost his passion for art. Instead of a hero, he just feels like a mundane and lonely employee, one among hundreds.
Yumi and the Nightmare Painter is Sanderson’s first romance (although it is also a lot of other things). Romance is not known to be one of his strong suits. Usually, his pairings work because the characters themselves are great, not because the buildup of the romance shines. In fact, the lack of details or overt chemistry is what strikes me more often as a characteristic of his preferred style of romance-writing. Surprisingly, not much about that has changed here. However, this book isn’t memorable because of the romance, which I didn’t think was anything remarkable. Yumi and the Nightmare Painter is primarily a story of how two people who feel lost and guilty find understanding and freedom in each other. It’s an exploration of what it means to be an artist, along with all the disheartenment of creativity—the slumps, the lack of motivation or understanding of the value of your art, the fear of disappointing others by failing at what you think is your only worthwhile skill. That’s what left the most impact on me.
The aesthetics of this book are just beautiful—the haunted noir urban backdrop of Nikaro’s city, where the only light in a world of shrouded darkness radiates from ghostly beams of teal and magenta; the paradisiacal oasis of Yumi’s world, with its floating flowers and warm earth and red-orange glow. I’m not much of an artist, but if I were, I wouldn’t be able to resist drawing these settings.
However, my reaction to Yumi and the Nightmare Painter is ultimately ambivalent. It was a delightful and amusing read, but those aren’t the adjectives I wish I could have used first to describe this book. On their own, the elements of Yumi are thrilling, romantic, eerie, and heartwarming, but I don’t think Hoid’s narration works to convey those emotions. To me, this story needs to be closer to its characters; the events should be observed and processed directly by the characters themselves. I would prefer that it took Yumi and Nikaro more seriously to be a captivating book instead of merely an entertaining one. The joking and lighthearted writing style doesn’t match the atmosphere and emotional impact I would prefer from a plot like this.
Additionally, the legendary Sanderwave is uncharacteristically convoluted and confusing. Hoid takes at least three infodumps to explain it all, and it really doesn’t need to be that complicated. Additionally, I disliked the use of a frustrating trope, which I thought spoiled the poignancy of the ending.
Despite these missteps, Sanderson’s writing skills are still commendable in Yumi and the Nightmare Painter. The unpredictability kept me hooked as seemingly unassociated parts fell together like cogs in the unfolding mystery of this world. I enjoy Sanderson’s self-contained stories because they bring out some of his other talents, those sometimes overshadowed by his strengths of developing large-scale worldbuilding and huge casts. Although I love his intimidating 10-book sagas, it’s a testament to the quality of his storytelling that he needs only a single book to tell a beautiful and creative story.