Comic Book Review: World of the Dragonlords

Comic Book Review: World of the Dragonlords written by Byron Erickson, art by Giorgio Cavazzano

Donald Duck has read another self-improvement book.  This one is about family togetherness, so Donald drags his nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie and Uncle Scrooge out to a picnic in the woods.    None of them are particularly keen on this; the nephews have a movie audition to get to, and Scrooge is spending his time assessing the forest for lumber profits.  Just as Donald is reaching the end of his temper (admittedly a short journey), a hole opens in the air, bringing forth two odd pink-skinned beings called “humans”, followed quickly by three “Morgs” riding dragons!  Picnic called on account of adventure!

World of the Dragonlords

Those of you who don’t follow comic books may be unaware that Walt Disney continues to license out its cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse, Goofy and especially Donald Duck to be published in comic books both in America and around the world.  Thanks in large part to artist/writer Carl Barks, who invented Scrooge McDuck and many other characters, the duck stories have a reasonably coherent setting and loose continuity.  The Duck family primarily lives in Duckburg, in the state of Calisota.  Donald takes care of his three nephews after their father “went away” (early on, their misbehavior was legendary) and sometimes does odd jobs for his Uncle Scrooge, when he isn’t employed elsewhere.   The family often goes off on adventures together.

This particular epic storyline was originally produced for the German Disney comics, as they were having a sales slump at the time.   It took two years to get it ready, by which time the sales had rebounded and the editor of the main magazine was no longer interested in such a long and radically different tale.  Dragonlords sat in a drawer for a few years until a magazine aimed at older Disney fans picked it up, then it got collected in a special Finnish edition, which this volume is a translation of.

Back to our story.  The humans are the mighty warrior Brendon, leader of the human resistance against the Morg invaders, and the slightly airheaded wizard Hintermann, who opened up the portal from Our Mother (what the humans call their world) to Earth.   The Morg have both firebreathing dragons to fly on, and solar-powered lightning spears.  What they don’t have is good teamwork.  While the Morg are able to knock out the local ducks and capture them, at the cost of stranding one of their warriors, Brendon and Hintermann are able to get back through the portal and escape. Group Leader Snark decides to take the ducks back to Morgworld (what the Morgs call it) to sell as slaves.

Huey, Dewey and Louie wind up in the dragon stable run by Clarg, a stupid and lazy Morg.  They learn that the dragons are vegetarians and normally peaceful, and their kindness soon allows the triplets to tame a trio of baby dragons.  However, they also learn that the Morg use electrical torture and other cruelties to turn their dragon mounts into obedient war machines.  The good news is that the boys are able to make contact with the city’s human resistance, as exemplified by former stable boy Jute.

Donald winds up in the armory, polishing weapons and getting up close and personal demonstrations of how they work.  Uncle Scrooge, however, becomes the servant of Lord Moraq, ruler of the fortress city Toom.  He soon takes advantage of this by driving a wedge between Moraq and his immediate subordinate, General Hyrrr.

Back in Duckburg, Daisy Duck starts getting worried about the boys, and starts trying to figure out what happened to them.  (Her rescue effort only fails by dint of not being fast enough.)  Meanwhile, stranded Morg warrior Groob must make his way in a world of duck people.

The Morg culture is kind of stereotype baddies; based primarily on who can beat up who, with little seen of loyalty or honor.  There are civilian Morg, but we never see them (or any mention of female Morg, if such things exist.)  The Morg also don’t use pronouns to make them sound less educated.

Chapter 11 (of 12) is especially striking as the writer chose to make it an almost entirely silent one, allowing the excellent art of Cavazzano to take the fore.

For those of you who are shipping fans, the story does absolutely nothing to stand in the way of shipping Brendon and Hintermann together; even framing them together in a “family” moment.  Or they could just be really good friends of course.

In the end, “family” is what the story is all about, as the Ducks may not be into forced togetherness, but always seek each other out when separated.

Recommended for the intersection of Disney Duck fans and epic fantasy fans, from late elementary school readers on up.

And now, the opening theme for the new Ducktales cartoon, since it has several of the same characters:

Manga Review: Rin-Ne Volume 25

Manga Review: Rin-Ne Volume 25 by Rumiko Takahashi

Quick recap:  Rinne Rokudo is a shinigami, a psychopomp who guides stray spirits to the afterlife for rebirth.  But he’s part-human, so he has to use (often expensive) tools to make up for his weak powers.  That, plus debts his deadbeat father Sabato saddled him with, and being seriously unlucky, keeps Rinne in dire poverty.

Rin-Ne Volume 25

Fortunately, Rinne has his black cat familiar Rokumon and Sakura Mamiya, a mostly normal schoolgirl who can see spirits and is blessed with common sense, to help him.  See previous reviews for more.

This volume opens in June, the rainy season in Japan.   There have been reports that a ghost in a bridal gown and veil has been haunting the neighborhood, looking for a wedding chapel.  Rinne and Sakura quickly discover that the old wedding chapel was turned into a cafe, but why the ghost bride was looking for it is a bit more complicated than it appears.

The final story concerns a summer fireworks display.  Each year for the last three years, one of the shells has burst into the form of a kanji (Chinese ideogram), a different one each year, though they look similar.  Behind this mystery is a tale of heartbreak and ineptitude.

In between, the major story is the discovery of forged shinigami gold licenses.  These licenses show the bearer to be an expert in sending spirits to the afterlife, and come with an increased salary and other perks.  (Rinne only has a silver license.)  To no one’s surprise, Rinne’s father Sabato is the man behind the forgeries.

What does cause surprise is that Sabato’s model for the forgeries is his own genuine gold license.   He’s always been a slacker who would rather come up with get rich quick schemes than work as a shinigami, so how did he get that–in high school, no less?  Time for Rinne to finally get some answers from the old man!

Also in this volume are stories involving new recurring characters Annette Hitomi Anematsuri, a teacher who is descended from a French witch and thus has some magic powers she’s not that good with; and Ayame Sakaki, a miko (shrine maiden) who has a crush on inept exorcist Tsubasa Jumonji (who has a crush on Sakura, who has feelings for Rinne, who has feelings for Sakura but won’t do anything about them because of his poverty.)

The stories continue to be funny and the art is good, but none of them advances the main plot or introduces important characters, so you could probably skip this volume if you’re on a budget.

Comic Book Review: The Building

Comic Book Review: The Building by Will Eisner

This is a ghost story.   In New York City, a brand new building has risen where another one stood for eighty years.  But not all remnants of the old building’s history are gone.  Today, four people from the past appear, their tales entwined with this site.

The Building

Will Eisner (1917-2005) was one of the first creators to produce original material for comic books, which had started out as reprint magazines for newspaper comic strips.  His best known creation was The Spirit, who ran from 1940 to 1952.  The strip was known for its innovative layouts and strong writing (even if done by “ghosts” during most of World War Two.)

He kept busy with various projects, including training manuals for the military, and a monthly preventive maintenance magazine with comic book elements.  In the late 1970s, he returned to fiction with A Contract with God, and Other Tenement Stories, which popularized the term “graphic novel” for long-form comics storytelling in a single volume.  Mr. Eisner’s work in this line continued, and was so influential that a major comic book award was named after him.

In this story, we learn about the four ghosts.  Monroe Mensh was a shoe salesman who minded his own business until the day a child was gunned down in front of him.  Anguished by the thought that he could have done something to prevent this tragedy, Monroe dedicated his life to charity, trying to save children without a great deal of success.

Gilda Green, a pretty dental assistant, loved penniless poet Benny, but married her successful employer for economic stability.  She couldn’t commit fully to either relationship, which resulted in heartbreak for everyone.

Antonio Tonatti loved to play the violin, but he wasn’t quite good enough to make a living at it.  So he got a decent-paying construction job and only played for special occasions.  That is, until an accident left him disabled.  His pension being good enough to keep him housed and fed, Antonio returned to his first love, and became a street musician near the building.

P.J. Hammond was the son of a real estate magnate, who followed his father into the business.  At first, he had some idealistic notions about the social responsibilities of landlords, but exposure to what it really took to get ahead in the business hardened his heart.  As part of a huge development deal he put together, P.J. was adamant on repurchasing the first building his father had owned.

But the new owners refused to sell, and P.J. became obsessed.  He finally resorted to the most underhanded methods that were still marginally legal that he could think of–but it was a Pyrrhic victory that eventually bankrupted him.  P.J. was finally forced to sell out this last remaining building, which was razed, and the Hammond Building put in its place.

Today, these four ghosts appear, and each in their way intervenes in events.   The new building is now free to collect its own stories, and its own ghosts.

This is great stuff, pictures and words working together to tell a story that would not work without either.   The long-story format allows for many single-panel pages focused on the tall buildings that are the setting, but also multiple-panel pages showing changes over time.

We get to know the characters, their flaws and failings as well as their good intentions.  There is much sadness here, but also hope.

Highly recommended as an example of what the comics medium can be used for, and an excellent story.

Manga Review: Fire Force Volume 01

Manga Review: Fire Force Volume 01 by Atsushi Ohkubo

On an alternate Earth, the majority of Japanese people have been converted (at least on the surface) to the religion of the Sun God.  This may or may not have anything to do with the fact that the biggest threat to human life is now spontaneous combustion.  The vast majority of people who burst into flames become rampaging monsters.

Fire Force Volume 01

However, a few become “second-generation” flame controllers who can manipulate fire but not create it, or “third-generation” flame emitters who can create fire and use it in various ways.  Those blessed or cursed with these powers often join the Fire Force, a subsection of the fire department that battles fire monsters.

One of these is Shinra Kusakabe, a third-generation who can ignite his feet to give himself superhuman running speed (technically gliding.)  His nickname is “the Devil” because of his bizarre habit of grinning widely whenever he’s nervous or upset; when he was a small child, he was found grinning over his mother’s charred corpse.  Shinra has a need to prove himself as a hero, and to find the person or thing really responsible for his mother’s death.

This shounen manga is the latest work of Atsushi Ohkubo, the creator of Soul Eater.  It’s done in his distinctive cartoony style, with some terrifying flame monsters.  Special Fire Force Company 8 is the usual assortment of quirky characters, and there’s considerable humor between the dramatic bits.  I also like the creative use of powers.

Before I get into the next bit, I need to talk about “Watsonian” and “Doylist” analysis.  The terms are named after the two writers of the Sherlock Holmes stories; John Watson, the in-story chronicler of his friend’s adventures, and Arthur Conan Doyle, the real world author.  This is used for the explanation of story elements.

A “Watsonian” explanation is “in-story.”  For example, Professor Plum murdered Mr. Boddy in the kitchen with a candlestick because he was being blackmailed over an affair he had with a student.  A “Doylist” explanation is “metatextual.”  Professor Plum murdered Mr. Boddy because this story is a murder mystery, so someone had to commit a murder.

Both approaches have their place, but have difficulties when crossed.   A Watsonian explanation may work perfectly fine in context of a particular story, but trying to assuage Doylist concerns with one doesn’t always work.  For example, if every one of an author’s stories has a damsel in distress being rescued by a handsome man, the explanations for this in each individual story may be quite plausible, but that doesn’t excuse the author from being criticized for not varying the formula.

So when we have a scene of two young women showering (seen from the back) in the introductory chapter, the Watsonian explanation is that they’ve gotten sweaty and dirty from fighting an infernal, of course they’re going to take a shower.  The Doylist explanation is that the writer wants to give fanservice to the primary audience of teenage boys.  (After all, we don’t see the male characters in their shower.)  The scene also serves the purpose of establishing some personality traits of the female characters (by failing the Bechdel test) and establishing that Sun God nuns, unlike Catholic ones, are not expected to stay celibate.

And fair enough, this is a manga for teenage boys, and I also appreciate the female form.  Plus it flows naturally within the story.  So far, so good.

But then we get to Chapter Five, where we meet a bunch of other rookie Fire Soldiers.  The male ones are wearing fairly sensible firefighting outfits that would protect them while fighting fires and monsters.  But the one woman, Tamaki Kotatsu, is wearing an open coat with a bikini.   More, she has a “condition” where she automatically moves in a way such that men around her are forced to cop a feel–and then she gets offended by that, especially by Shinra since he’s got that painful grin on his face.

Now, I am sure there is a perfectly reasonable Watsonian explanation involving the way Tamaki’s powers work that require this.  But from a Doylist perspective, it’s just fanservice, and shoddily done at that.  It isn’t funny, it calls attention to itself, and it’s degrading to the characters, both Tamaki and Shinra.  My interest in following this series crashed.

So, not recommending this one unless you are willing to forgive the crass fanservice.

Manga Review: Weekly Shonen Jump (2017)

Manga Review: Weekly Shonen Jump (2017) by various

This is my blog’s fifth anniversary!  And thus this is my sixth annual review of the state of Weekly Shonen Jump, the online version of the popular manga anthology Weekly Shounen Jump.

Weekly Shonen Jump 2017

The online edition, being aimed at the North American audience, is substantially different from the Japanese newstand edition.  Several of the Japanese serials are not considered suitable for translation, and instead monthly serials from other magazines are brought in to fill pages.

Let’s take a look at what’s currently running.

Weekly

“One Piece” by Eiichiro Oda: The epic series about stretchable pirate Luffy D. Monkey and his wacky crew on a world that’s mostly ocean continues to be the tentpole for Shonen Jump.  The current story centers around cook and ladies’ man Sanji, who was kidnapped by his abusive birth family to be married into the Big Mom pirate clan.  The arc appears to be winding down as the wedding went about as well as one written by George R.R. Martin, and now the Straw Hats crew and their temporary allies are attempting to escape Big Mom’s territory.  That will depend on whether Sanji and his would-be bride Pudding can create the perfect substitute wedding cake in time!  Cast bloat continues to make this series move at a snail’s pace, but oh! what characters.

“My Hero Academia” by Kohei Horikoshi: Deku, formerly one of the Quirkless minority on a world where 80% of people have superpowers, has been gifted with One For All, a rare transferable quirk that will someday make him the world’s greatest superhero, if it doesn’t kill him first.  That’s why he’s enrolled in the superhero training school Yuuei High, along with a number of other niftily powered teens.  This series has just finished an arc in which Deku aided in rescuing a little girl from an attempt to make the Yakuza big time again by wiping out superheroes.  The baddies’ plans were smashed, but not without cost.  This continues to be one of the best battle manga around, with plenty of neat characters and fun battles.  Plus it’s nice to see optimistic treatment of superheroes.  The last arc did, however, kind of shortchange the female heroes.

“Dr. Stone” by Riichro Inagaki & Boichi: For reasons yet unknown, humanity was petrified nearly four thousand years ago.  A handful of people have been unpetrified, most prominently Senkuu, a high school science prodigy.  He now strives to bring the wonders of scientific knowledge and technology back to this world of stone.  This series is new for 2017, and is notable for its emphasis on smarts and facts as a way to get ahead.  (The first few chapters made it look like Senkuu’s strong but not very bright friend Taiju was the protagonist, but he’s since been moved offstage.)  For the last umpteen chapters, Senkuu has been trying to gain access to a primitive village whose priestess may have information he needs–if he can cure her of her mysterious illness.  His rapid introduction of useful things like glass and magnetism helped, but since this is a shonen manga, it all came down to a fighting tournament.

“Black Clover” by Yuuki Tabata: In a world where everyone can use magic, Asta was the only person who seemed to have no mana or talent.  That is, of course, until his power turned out to be summoning anti-magic swords!  Asta has joined the Magic Knights misfits squad known as the Black Bulls, and dreams of becoming the Wizard King!  After several attacks by a terrorist group known as the Eye of the Midnight Sun, a strike force has been cobbled together of the most effective Magic Knights (plus Asta) to attack what appears to be the Eye’s headquarters.  This series is kind of generic, and average in quality, but does the battle manga thing well enough to keep people reading.

“Food Wars: Shokugeki no Souma” by Yuuto Tsukada & Shun Saeki: Souma Yukihira is a cocky young chef being trained at the prestigious Totsuki Culinary Institute, a cooking-obsessed high school with a 1% graduation rate.  He must battle to prove his skills are worthy of being a top chef.  Currently, we are finally approaching the finals of the team shokugeki (cooking battle) between the Elite Ten under the evil Director Azami and the rebels led by Souma.  With both sides whittled down, we may next year finally see Erina in action, as her cooking ability has been hyped since Chapter Two without ever being seen in the present tense.  The ecchi elements have been toned down since the early chapters, but we still do see naked women (and men) from time to time.

“Robot X Laserbeam” by Tadatoshi Fujimaki: Also new for 2017!  A stoic boy, Robato Hatohara, nicknamed “Robo” for his apparent lack of emotion, discovers that he has a special gift for golf, and then that it is the one thing that truly excites him.  By the creator of the hit series “Kuroko’s Basketball”, this series tries to do the same thing with professional golf.   Amazingly, after Robo is introduced to the love of the sport, the manga skips the entirety of his high school career, and we’re now reading Robo’s professional debut match against a South African giant.  I find most of the characters, except lovable goof Dorian Green (the afore-mentioned giant) bland and uninteresting, but the creator has a good reputation.

“We Never Learn” by Taishi Tsuitsui: Also new for 2017!  Nariyuki Yuiga comes from an impoverished family and despite not being above average intelligence, uses hard studying and learning techniques to get excellent grades, just below math genius Rizu Ogata and humanities expert Furuhashi Fumino.  If he could get the special VIP Scholarship recommendation from his school, Nariyuki might be able to get into a first-class college, make it into a decent job and move his family up to middle class.  The principal dangles this prospect in front of the young fellow, but first he must successfully tutor Rizu and Furuhashi, as they want to get into colleges that specialize in majors the opposite of their strong suits!  As the teens begin to learn how to deal with their studies, they also begin developing feelings for each other.  This “harem” romantic comedy has since added a third girl for Nariyuki to tutor, athlete Uruka Takemoto, as well as a couple of other young women that probably aren’t really in the love market but provide other fanservice.  I find this series a bit cringey, especially as it’s moved away from the study skills premise, and I would like to see more male friends for Nariyuki.  The fanservice art is nice.

“The Promised Neverland” by Shirai Kaiu & Demizu Posuka: Children raised in a happy orphanage discover that instead of being adopted by loving families, they’re actually being raised to be eaten by demons.  The children have finally escaped from the orphanage, only to discover that the person they were hoping to meet to take them to safety hasn’t been at the rendezvous point in years.  Emma and Ray are currently proceeding to the next rendezvous point with a nameless older survivor, but Emma abruptly finds herself in a demon noble’s canned hunt.  This series continues to be excellent.

Monthly

“Blue Exorcist” by Katou Kozue: Rin Okumura may be the son of Satan, but he defies his demonic heritage to join a school for demon-hunting exorcists.  Currently, Mephisto has been badly wounded, weakening the barriers between Earth and Gehenna.  More personally, Rin’s brother Yukio appears to be going over to the dark side, may be the one who shot Mephisto, and is invited to join the Illuminati.  This time we may be looking at a permanent threat escalation.

“Seraph of the End” by Takaya Kagami, Daisuke Furuya & Yamato Yamamoto: After a plague wipes out most of humanity, the remainder are either enslaved by vampires, or ruled by armies that use demons as weapons.  Yuichiro escapes the vampires and joins the Japanese Imperial Demon Army to avenge his fallen friends, but discovers over time that the JIDA might not be the good guys either.  Currently, Yuichiro has reunited with his old friend Mikaela, who has become a (weak) vampire himself, and they have allied with the remains of Yuichiro’s squad and some rebel vampires against the true threat…God?  Seriously?

“One Punch Man” by ONE & Yusuke Murata: Saitama was once an unemployed loser who dreamed of becoming a hero that could defeat any opponent with one punch.  After some training, he became exactly that, but learned to his sorrow that ultimate power is ultimately boring.  This superhero parody is considerably deeper than you might have guessed.  Currently, it’s in a long arc where the Hero Association faces two threats: the Monster Association that is its opposite number, and Garou, a man who hates stories where heroes always win.

“Boruto: Naruto Next Generations” by Ukyo Kodachi & Mikio Ikemoto: A sequel to the enormously popular Naruto manga, this one features his son Boruto and other second generation ninja in a world that has been at peace for a while.  Currently, Boruto and his team have been diverted from their ninja gadget testing mission to check up on some missing scouts.  They’ve been told not to engage any enemies, but this is after all a shounen manga.  This series has been surprisingly good for a cash-in sequel.

“Yu-Gi-Oh! Arc V” by Shin Yoshida, Masahiro Hikokubo & Naohito Moyashi: Yuya Sakaki is a Duel Monsters (children’s card game) player with multiple personalities (that at some point were actual people) who’s come back from the future in search of the GOD card that will end the world unless properly contained.  I think.  This series is a confusing mess.

“Hunter X Hunter” is back on hiatus due to creator bad health, and it looks like the “Ruroni Kenshin: Hokkaido Arc” has been suspended indefinitely as the creator has been arrested for possession of child pornography.  (Ow.)

Despite some relative duds, Weekly Shonen Jump online still remains one of the best bargains in manga, with several excellent series.

Manga Review: Bleach Volume 10

Manga Review: Bleach Volume 10 by Tite Kubo

Ichigo Kurosaki is not your typical Japanese sixteen-year-old.  For one thing, he has naturally orange hair which makes him look like a delinquent.   But more importantly, he can see ghosts.  For some reason, his home city of Karakura Town is particularly inhabited by ghosts, and he can only very occasionally help out.  This gift also allows him to see the initially invisible to normals Rukia Kuchiki, who is a Soul Reaper charged with escorting ghosts to the afterlife and fighting Hollows, ghosts that have succumbed to despair and become monstrous.

Bleach Volume 10

Rukia is badly wounded by the Hollow she’s hunting, and in desperation transfers her Soul Reaper powers into Ichigo.  He turns out to be a natural at the combat part of the job, though he still needs a lot of guidance on everything not involving hitting things.  Ichigo’s classmates Orihime Inoue and Yasutora “Chad” Sado also develop spiritual powers and begin helping him deal with the increasing Hollow problem.

However, someone in the Soul Society (the organization that controls the Soul Reapers) has accused Rukia of breaking their law by empowering Ichigo.  She’s been abducted back to the afterlife to stand trial and be executed.  Ichigo is determined to go after her and rescue his friend, with the aid of Orihime, Chad and Uryu Ishida, an archer who belongs to the rival Quincy organization (or would, if there were any other Quincies left.)  It’s not going to be a cakewalk!

Bleach is a shounen (boys’) manga that ran in Weekly Shounen Jump from 2001 to 2016.  It was popular enough to spawn an animated television show and several movies, as well as video games and rock musicals.

The manga’s primary strength, beyond its initial premise, is its many interesting characters.  Kubo is great at character design, and tended to introduce a new herd of characters whenever he got stuck.  This did, however, lead to a certain amount of cast bloat, so that fan favorite characters would often not be seen for many chapters as each new character got a moment to shine.

Kubo, in common with many other shounen creators, also had difficulty with keeping female characters in the fray.  Rukia loses her powers in the very first chapter, acting as an advisor to Ichigo until she starts to recover, at which point she’s abducted and imprisoned for the Soul Society arc.  After being freed, she’s mostly sidelined and gets maybe one good fight per arc.  Orihime picks up one of the most broken powersets in the manga, but is a pacifist so seldom uses it to advantage, and is abducted in the arc immediately following the Soul Society, spending most of it the prisoner of the main villain.  And the pattern for other female characters is similar.

The character art is good and it’s usually easy to tell characters apart, but the backgrounds are often skimpy at best.

Back to the volume at hand, #10.  Our heroes, including Yoruichi the talking cat, have made it to Rukongai, the city where most of the Soul Society and their oppressed masses live.  (Seriously, this is not a pleasant version of the afterlife.)  However, the massive stronghold of the Soul Reapers, the Seireitei, is protected by an anti-spiritual energy barrier, and they were unable to get through the gate.

They have, however, managed to get temporary allies, the explosives expert Kukaku Shiba, and her surly brother Ganju.  Kukaku has a way to shoot a “cannonball” through the barrier with people inside.  Ganju will be coming along as he has a grudge against Soul Reapers involving his deceased brother.

Meanwhile, we look in on the Soul Reapers organization, briefly meeting more than a dozen new characters, some of whom will be important.  Most of them aren’t villainous, all they know is that there are intruders in the Soul Society of unknown motive.  We also see that they have internal politics going on.

Upon arriving in the Seireitei, the group is scattered by a poor landing.  Ichigo and Ganju face off against the hot-blooded Ikkaku Madarame and dandyish Yumichika Ayasegawa of the 11th Division (known for its combat skills.)  Ichigo does very well against Ikkaku, considering, but Ganju is outmatched against Yumichika and has to resort to running.

Back on Earth, the minor characters form a hero group to keep Hollows from overrunning Karakura Town while their main defenders are away.  (This is primarily comic relief.)

The introduction of the Soul Reaper captains, several of whom will remain relevant for the rest of the series, makes this a key volume.   We already see foreshadowing of events that will come up much later.  On the other hand, this is also the beginning of the cast bloat that became such a problem later on.

I’d recommend starting with Volume One, and seeing if that’s your thing–by this volume, we’re into the long storylines that will dominate the rest of the series.

Book Review: Season of Marvels: Viking Tales

Book Review: Season of Marvels: Viking Tales by Deb Houdek Rule

This is a collection of four speculative fiction short stories on the general theme of “Vikings” from the small label press Variations On a Theme.

Season of Marvels: Viking Tales

“Viking -Trojan War” is an after-action report about 8th Century Viking raiders suddenly materializing on the USC campus due to the Temporal Physics department getting a bit careless.  The narrative voice is apparently one of the college administrators, and sudden bits of informality suggest that this is the draft version of his or her report rather than the final one.  Lightly humorous.

“The Last Ship” is set in Greenland during the 15th Century, after the supply ships from Norway stopped coming.  A shepherd sings an old song from the pagan times, and one last ship arrives.  Did she call it, or was the ship doomed to begin with, and the survivor less monster than alien?

“Season of Marvels” is closer to the fantasy side.  Kieran, Irish slave of Einar the Earless, wants his freedom.  And in this Icelandic winter where marvels and dark magic are on the rise, he might be able to get it.

“Borealis”, on the other hand, is more inclined to science fiction.  An orphan boy who forms a bond with a cat (possibly psychic in nature) is drafted by a secret organization.  That organization drops him without a briefing on a planet with a Norse-like culture that’s been stagnating for centuries.   Culture shock ensues.

This last story has the most potential to be turned into a full novel, or even a series, as Brock deals with Chimaera and its mysterious goals.

They’re all decent stories, with four very different moods.  The paperback is perhaps a bit overpriced for the size, but I see the Kindle version is inexpensive, or free if you already have Kindle Unlimited.

Consider this one if you like Viking-themed stories, or as a gift for someone who does.

Manga Review: Platinum End Volume 3

Manga Review: Platinum End Volume 3 Story by Tsugumi Ohba, Art by Takeshi Obata

Quick recap:  Mirai Kakehashi has had a miserable life as an abused orphan, but when he attempts suicide, he is rescued by an angel.  Nasse, the Angel of Purity, informs Mirai that he’s been chosen to join a contest to determine the next person to be God.  Currently, Mirai is allied with his classmate and crush Saki Hanakago and her sponsor, Revel the Angel of Trickery.  They’re opposed to the mysterious Metropoliman, who wears a superhero costume and has already murdered several God candidates.

Platinum End Volume 3

As this volume opens, Mirai and Saki have been tracked down by yet another candidate, Nato Mukaido.  He’s a businessman who used to work in the fashion industry before he developed terminal cancer.  His sponsor is Baret, Angel of Knowledge.  Nato is pretty sure he’s not going to survive the full 999 days of the contest even if he’s not murdered, so his primary objective is not letting the amoral Metropoliman become God.

Nato isn’t lying, so Mirai and Saki ally with him, despite Mirai’s reservations about killing even in self defense.

We also learn Metropoliman’s secret identity and part of his motivation for becoming God, which I won’t spoil here.  His sponsor is Meyza, the Angel of Greed.  He needs a new plan to draw out his enemies, and takes inspiration from a friend.

Metropoliman breaks serial killer Mimimi Yamada out of prison and enslaves her using the red arrows of love.  He equips her with wings and red arrows, then gives her instructions of who to target.  The plan is to draw out God candidates who won’t allow a superhuman serial killer to operate due to their own moral standards.

And it’s at this point I need to issue a Content Warning:  A pre-adolescent child is placed in a sexual situation on-page before being murdered.

Our protagonists recognize that Mimimi is bait for a trap, but come up with a plan to deal with her that might not leave them too vulnerable to Metropoliman.  They might have underestimated the masked man’s ruthlessness and access to resources, though, and things look dire at the end of the volume.

The art continues to be top-rate, and it’s always fun to watch very smart characters attempt to outplan each other.

Nato’s a good choice as an ally character, someone who temporarily outshines the main protagonist but is doomed by backstory, so will soon give back the spotlight.

Metropoliman:  To quote Brooklyn 99, “Cool motive.  Still murder.”

Mimimi is much less interesting, combining the most irritating characteristics of Misa in Death Note with a skeeviness that is just repulsive to me.

And that’s why I am not unreservedly recommending this series any more.  The skeevy parts made this volume much less enjoyable for me.  Approach with caution.

Book Review: The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2014

Book Review: The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2014 edited by Paula Guran

Even the fastest, most dedicated readers can’t read everything that’s published each year.  Not even in relatively limited genres like fantasy or horror.  That’s where “Year’s Best” collections come in handy.  Someone or several someones has gone through the enormous pile of short literature produced in the previous year, and winnowed it down to a manageable size of good stories for you.

The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2014

Admittedly, these collections also come down to a matter of personal taste.  In this case, Ms. Guran has chosen not to pick just straight up horror stories (which do not necessarily include fantastic elements) but fantasy stories with “dark” elements.   She mentions in the introduction that at least some good stories were excluded because they weren’t brought to her attention–small internet publishers might not even know such a collection exists to submit to.

This thick volume contains thirty-two stories, beginning with “Wheatfield with Crows” by Steve Rasnic Tem.  Years ago, a man’s sister vanished in a wheatfield.  Now, he and his mother have returned to the site as darkness falls.  Will history repeat?

The final story is “Iseul’s Lexicon” by Yoon Ha Lee.   A spy discovers that the army occupying half her country is being aided by not-quite-human wizards everyone thought were wiped out centuries before.   They are compiling a lexicon of every human language for nefarious purposes, and it is up to Iseul to find a way to stop them.  In the end, she learns that there are innocent casualties in war no matter how  targeted the weapon.

Some stories I particularly liked:

“The Legend of Troop 13” by Kit Reed, about Girl Scouts gone feral, and the foolish men who think to possess them.  This one has a logical stinger in its tail, and very dark humor.

“Phosphorous” by Veronica  Schanoes is about the women who made phosphorous matches, and their fight for better working conditions.  The viewpoint character is a woman dying of “phossy jaw” caused by the poison she’s been exposed to.   She is determined to see the strike through, and her grandmother knows a way–but the cost is high indeed.

“Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell” by Brandon Sanderson concerns a bounty hunter who must track her prey in the forest that has Three Simple Rules.  Don’t start fires, don’t shed blood…and don’t run at night.   So simple.  But there are other bounty hunters in the forest tonight, and treachery.  Some rules will be broken, and the shades will descend.

One story I didn’t care much for was “The Prayer of Ninety Cats” by Caitlin R. Kiernan, which is a description of a horror movie based on the legend of Elizabeth Bathory, the Blood Countess.  There are some good scenes, but the presentation muffles the effect, taking me out of the story.  There’s also use of “Gypsy” stereotypes within the film.

Most of the other stories are good to decent, and there are big names like Tanith Lee and Neil Gaiman represented.  If this is the sort of genre fiction you like, it would be worthwhile to check the book out at your library–and then buy it if enough of the stories please you.

Manga Review: The Ancient Magus’ Bride Vol. 1

Manga Review: The Ancient Magus’ Bride Vol. 1 by Kore Yamazaki

Chise Hatori has had a rough life.   Her father ran off with her little brother, her mother committed suicide (probably), and her ability to see magical creatures got her bullied and abandoned.  She was on the verge of suicide when Chise was approached by a black market auctioneer who explained that she was actually special, and valuable under the right circumstances.  He convinced her to allow him to sell her into slavery.

The Ancient Magus' Bride Vol. 1

It’s probably fortunate that the high bidder is Elias Ainsworth, a not quite human mage from Britain.  He removes Chise’s chains and whisks her to his home to become Elias’ apprentice.  Oh, and eventually his bride.

This shounen (boys’) fantasy manga is now getting an anime adaptation, and has been generally well-received.

Elias explains some, but not all, of what’s going on.  Chise is what mages call a sleigh beggy, a powerful natural mage that attracts other supernatural beings.   Children with magical talent have become rare in the modern world, especially as many of their possible progenitors were slain in “the last great war”, but sleigh beggy are one in a generation.  Elias is anxious to teach her how to control her powers.

Chise also meets some Ariels, who are of the Fair Folk.  They don’t like the term “fairies”, perhaps “neighbors” is a good word?   They can be helpful, but also very dangerous as their idea of “help” is not always what humans would think of that way.

In the next chapter, Chise meets Silky.  She’s a “neighbor” who acts as Elias’ housekeeper, and does not speak.  As well, Elias takes Chise to meet Angelica, an artificer specializing in magical jewelry.  Angelica explains some of the basic rules of magic, and notes the difference between mages (who bend the world’s energy to their will) and alchemists (who use a more scientific approach.)

Then Simon Cullum shows up.  He works for “the Church” though it’s unclear if that means Catholic or Anglican.  Simon is supposed to be keeping watch on Elias, but is hands-off in exchange for the mage taking care of magical matters that the Church should not be handling.

First off, there’s an ancient dragon dying in Iceland, the last known dragon sanctuary.  A bit sad, but not the tragedy you might have expected.

Then it’s off to Ulthar, where it is a crime to kill a cat.  (See also H.P. Lovecraft on this subject.)  Long ago, a resident was driven to despair and broke this law, killing many cats in cruel ways.  He was…dealt with.  But his unclean spirit still remains, and has grown dangerous again.

Elias’ magic is not suited to the task of banishing the spirit, but Chise’s might be.  Untrained, this will be her first true test.  But before Chise can begin the ritual, she’s ambushed by a mysterious pair that have other motives, and a grudge against Elias!

This early part of the story is heavy on the sense of wonder as Chise learns more about the world of magic and her own potential, but maintains an undercurrent of menace.  Even the friendliest of “neighbors” can lead you astray.  It’s clear that Elias has a past that has not always been on the straight and narrow.

And many questions are raised.  Why did Chise’s father abandon her?  Are any of her relatives still alive?  If her gifts are so powerful, why did no one contact her until now?  What, precisely, is Elias, with his animal skull head?  Why does the Church have a watch on him?  (Some of these, at least, will get answered.)

The slavery thing is icky, though Elias and Chise’s relationship quickly drops those terms for “apprentice” and “bride.”  The latter might also be rather icky, depending on what that actually means in a mage relationship.

There’s also bits of humor, such as Elias crafting his “human” disguise after Simon as he was under the impression that man was handsome.  (Chise finds the face “sketchy.”)   The overall art style is good, and Elias manages to be expressive despite his immobile features.

Chise is rather passive in these chapters, more concerned with being safe than expressing her own opinion, but does show flashes of personality.  She can be rather blunt when need be.

Elias seems pleasant most of the time, but exhibits a lack of understanding of human society and emotions from time to time.

This is a promising beginning which should work well for young adult fantasy fans.

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