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: 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.

Audio Review: If We Were Villains

Audio Review: If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio

Eleven years ago, seven drama students entered their fourth year at the prestigious Dellecher Classical Conservatory.  Now, a decade after the end of that school year, one of those students, Oliver Marks, is being released from prison.  Former police detective Colborne has never entirely bought the official version of what happened, and Oliver agrees to finally tell the truth of that year.  Or at least a truth.

If We Were Villains

The highly competitive nature of the school and constantly interacting with each other have made the seven students their own little troupe with defined roles.  But a couple of the students have begun resenting their typecasting, and natural born star Richard is on the verge of snapping.  Even when Richard is removed from the picture, the fractures in the group widen until the tragic climax.

This is a debut novel from Shakespearean scholar M.L. Rio, and is full of William Shakespeare’s words and ideas.  The theater kids often quote (or misquote) Shakespeare’s plays to each other in their dialogue, and sometimes to confused or annoyed outsiders.  A basic familiarity with the Bard of Avon will vastly enhance your enjoyment of the story.

The main characters are the kind of “party hearty” kids I did not get on well with in college; their substance abuse is a large factor in how badly their actions go off the rails, and the sexual shenanigans certainly didn’t help.  And of course, keeping secrets from the adults on campus who could have solved many of the issues early on makes things even worse.  (While I am on content issues, warning for rough language, slut-shaming and domestic abuse.)

Oliver has pressures outside school as well, as his parents are unsupportive of his career goals and one of his sisters has an eating disorder that needs them to redirect their limited financial resources.  (Oliver is alas completely unempathetic towards his sister’s problems.)  And some of the other students have even worse family situations, one of the reasons they’ve bonded with each other instead.

Once having established that the main characters are not the kind of people who make smart choices, the stage is set for the inevitable spiral into tragedy, mirrored by the plays they’re performing.

The version of the novel I’m reviewing is the audiobook from Macmillan Audio, and read by Robert Petkoff, himself an actor experienced in Shakespearean drama.  His voice is well suited to the text (though there were times when I could not distinguish between female characters) and conveyed emotion well.

However, the audiobook experience was sometimes difficult for me.  I sometimes missed important words, especially early on, and “rewinding” the CD was trickier than simply turning back pages to recheck lines.  On the good side, portions of the book are written in a semi-script style that made it clear who was speaking, very helpful when all the main characters are in the same room.

The physical presentation of the audiobook is barebones, just a box containing plain white sleeves for the ten CDs.  There are no liner notes (it would have been both helpful and apropos to provide a dramatis personae), nor a quick bio of Mr. Petkoff.

While this novel has mystery elements, it fits more comfortably into the “contemporary” subgenre.  Perhaps that New Adult category I’ve heard of.  Recommended to Shakespeare buffs, theater kids and fans of last minute twists.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this audiobook from the publisher to facilitate this review.  No other compensation was requested nor offered.

Book Review: Wintersmith

Book Review: Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett

Tiffany Aching is a witch in training.  She in some ways is already a very powerful witch, and has endured some hard lessons that required growing up fast.  But she’s also very much a girl who’s almost thirteen.  Miss Treason, on the other hand, is over a century old and has not been a “girl” in a very long time.  So when she tells Tiffany not to move during a dance, it doesn’t occur to her to explain what the dance is or why moving during it is a bad idea.  Tiffany senses a spot in the dance that seems to be shaped for her, and her feet dance her right in.

Wintersmith

That was a huge mistake, as the dance is the change of seasons.  And now the Wintersmith, the personification of winter, has become fascinated by Tiffany.  He sees her as the Summer Lady somehow in his time, and wants to hold her forever.  And if Tiffany doesn’t make it to spring, then spring will never come…..

This is the third Tiffany Aching book within the Discworld setting; the first book in the sequence is The Wee Free Men.  Tiffany is a farm girl who grew up in sheep-herding country called The Chalk.  She’s very practical and straightforward, which serves her well in witchcraft.  (In the Discworld setting, witchcraft, while it certainly includes a heaping of magic, is more about being a “wise woman” who provides skills and knowledge to a rural area.)  On the other hand, she is very young and has many things to learn, and sometimes Tiffany will get her back up and turn stubborn at the wrong moment.

Tiffany is aided as always by the Nac Mac Feegles, tiny blue men that combine the more disturbing aspects of Smurfs with the more violent aspects of highland Scotsmen stereotypes.  They have their own special dialect, and there’s a glossary at the front that also helps readers and parents know what they’re in for with the Feegles.  The tiny men provide much of the comic relief in the book, and are usually annoyances, but they are helpful when pointed in the right direction.

As well, Tiffany interacts with the community of witches, from the fearsome Miss Treason who has mastered the art of Boffo, through the harsh but highly competent Granny Weatherwax and jolly Nanny Ogg to the vain and in way over her head Annagramma.  Each of them has lessons to teach Tiffany (yes, even Annagramma has her uses) and help her on the way in her Story.

And Roland, the baron’s son, Tiffany’s friend who is a boy, comes into play as he has his own problems, but sets them aside for the time being to be the Hero that the Story needs at a crisis point.  His highly unpleasant aunts sound like they will be an issue in the next volume.

The Wintersmith, of course, is the antagonist of the book.  As the anthropomorphic personification of the idea of winter, it isn’t evil.  But Tiffany’s mistake has thrown the Wintersmith out of balance, and unbalanced winter is highly dangerous.  Worse, it’s trying to make itself more human without understanding what that means or caring about the effects it has on others.  It chillingly (pun intended) follows a children’s rhyme about what “makes a man” until it gets to the most important ingredients and just skips those.  It’s both funny and scary when the Wintersmith tells random people “I am a human being.”

A nice twist of the book is that it starts with a version of the final showdown between Tiffany and the Wintersmith, then rewinds the story, reminding the reader “the future is always a bit wobbly.”  When we reach the ending again, things are somewhat different.

This is listed as a “Young Adult” book but should be fine for precocious middle-schoolers on up.  Some parents may be disturbed by references to sex and childbirth (no gory details), but it makes sense in setting; Tiffany’s a farm girl with older sisters in a society that doesn’t shy away from those topics.  But the important thing here is relationships and learning how to say “no” to ones that are not a good idea.  Younger readers should probably start with the first Tiffany Aching book.

Recommended to fantasy fans, young readers and fans of practical, straightforward women.

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