Book Review: Old Celtic Romances

Book Review: Old Celtic Romances by P.W. Joyce

The Gaelic-speaking people of ancient Ireland told tales of their mighty ancestors and great men, not unlike the people of every nation and tribe.  When writing came, they began to put these tales into manuscripts.  Out of the large body of remaining literature, in 1879 P.W. Joyce chose thirteen legends he felt represented the most interesting of Irish tales.  Eleven of these were printed in the first edition, but this volume is a reproduction of the third edition which has them all.

Old Celtic Romances

They’re roughly in order of internal chronology.

“The Fate of the Children of Lir; or, The Four White Swans” is the first of what are called “the Three Sorrows of Irish Storytelling” due to their somewhat tragic endings.   Lir’s four children are turned into swans by their stepmother due to her belief that people liked them better than her.  She curses them to spend nine hundred years in those forms, three hundred years each in three different bodies of water.

Only the arrival of Christianity to Erin allows them to leave their watery prison, and a disciple of Saint Patrick is able to turn them human, whereupon the children of Lir die of extreme old age.

There’s some evidence to suggest that some of the older tales started out under the old “pagan” religions and then were altered to meet new Christian guidelines.  “Druidical wands” are common in the early ones.

“The Fate of the Children of Turenn; or, the Quest for the Eric-Fine” is set in the days of Lugh of the Long Arms, as he battles the Fomori (sea raiders, often depicted as giants or deformed.)  Lugh’s father Kian is murdered by the three sons of Turenn due to an earlier quarrel that is not explained.  Because Turenn is a distant relative of Kian, this is considered kin-slaying and Lugh can choose to have them either executed immediately, or exact a blood price (the “eric-fine” of the title.)

Lugh describes the eric-fine in general terms that makes it sound not so bad, but when the brothers accept, he reveals that each of the items he mentioned are in fact mystic relics of great power guarded by mighty owners, or are otherwise hard to get.  For example, the three apples he wants are the Golden Apples of the Garden of Hisberna, which can heal any wound among other properties.

The brothers cut a bloody swath across Europe gaining the parts of the eric-fine, using each item they gain to make it easier to get the rest.  Eventually, a smart king just gives them what they want rather than have his army and himself slaughtered.  But with 5/7ths of the fine gathered, Lugh plays a nasty trick on the children of Turenn, mind-zapping them into returning to Eire with only that part of the eric-fine, confiscating the magic items, and then sending them off for the rest.

The last two items have the toughest guardians yet, and the brothers are fatally wounded in the process of gaining them.  The children of Turenn manage to return to Lugh successful in paying their fine, and ask him to heal them.  He refuses and cheerfully watches the brothers expire, followed by their grieving father and sister.  The ancient Irish really know how to hold onto a grudge!

“The Overflowing of Lough Neagh, and the Story of Liban the Mermaid” tells the tale of two brothers who decide to leave home with their followers to settle new territory.  One perishes quickly, but the other settles down in an area with a magic well.  Too soon the protection around the well is broken, and it floods the entire valley.  One person, Liban, survives by becoming a mermaid.

“Connla of the Golden Hair and the Fairy Maiden” has the handsome young man lured from his home by  a beautiful woman from the land of Moy-Nell, where there is no old age or sickness.  He is never seen again.

“The Voyage of Maildun” has the title character go off for vengeance against the raiders who killed his father.  He’s told by a soothsayer to only bring sixty crew members, but his three foster-brothers insist on coming along.  Breaking this prohibition gets the ship lost in a storm, and they must sail randomly to bizarre islands and have adventures not unlike the Odyssey.  They lose each of the foster-brothers and are at last able to find their way again, but Maildun learns he must show forgiveness to finally come home.

“The Fairy Palace of the Quicken Trees” is the first of the tales starring Finn, mighty leader of the Fena.  Finn  and his men slaughter an invading army, sparing only Midac, the youngest son of the invading king.  Finn brings up the lad in his own house, intending to turn him to good.

Midac, though, holds a grudge, and when he is fully grown, invites Finn and his men to his palace made of quicken tree (mountain ash).   It turns out to be a magical trap, foiled only by a) a couple of the younger men of the Fena being left on guard outside the palace, and b) Midac holding a huge banquet for all the villainous fellows he’d recruited to help him kill Finn.  The baddies come over in small groups, and by the time Midac is there with his full army, the Fena have been freed to fight.

This story also introduces Conan Maol (“Conan the Bald”) who is something of a comic relief figure.  He’s a coward, glutton and most feared for his sharp tongue-but also deadly in a fight.

“The Pursuit of the Giolla Dacker and His Horse” has Finn and his men be fooled by a giant calling himself “Giolla Dacker” (“slothful fellow”) who has a equally slothful-looking horse.  Giolla Dacker tricks several of the Fena to mount his horse in an effort to tame it–they are then stuck to it, and the suddenly vigorous horse runs off, followed by its also suddenly speedy master.  The rest of the story is the many adventures of Finn and his men trying to get back their fellows.

One bit that I noticed was Dermat O’Dyna has the habit of never eating leftovers–later his companions are able to know he’s been somewhere by the heap of half-eaten deer, as he kills a new one whenever he’s hungry rather than finish off the old one.

“The Pursuit of Dermat and Grania” has the young hero Dermat elope with the beautiful Grania.  This is an issue as she was promised to Finn (who is by this time old enough to be her grandfather.)  Finn reacts badly.  After much slaughter, Finn finally backs off.

However, this leads to the scene I describe as “remember that time twenty-five years ago when I said I forgave you?  I lied.  Now, I’ve led you into a trap, and will watch cheerfully as you bleed out and refuse to magically heal you.”  The translator notes that this is an unusually negative portrayal of Finn.

“The Chase of Slieve Cullinn” is the story of how Finn’s hair changed from golden to silver.  It involves a shapeshifter, a magical lake, and vanity.

“The Chase of Slieve Fuad” has another shapeshifter lure the Fena including Finn to her brother’s castle to be magically imprisoned and slaughtered.  This is Conan Maol’s big moment as he saves everyone–but also has a sheepskin permanently bonded to his body, requiring shearing every year.

“Oisin in Tír na nÓg” concerns Finn’s son Oisin, (also known as Ossian), the last survivor of the Fena.  He had been scouted by a young woman from the Land of Youth, and agreed to accompany her there to be her husband.  And that fair land was agreeable to him, but Oisin grew homesick.  When he returned to Ireland, the Fena were long  dead, the people had shrunk, and Christianity had come to Erin.  Oisin accidentally broke a taboo, and could not return to his wife, becoming old and blind.  (Tradition has it that this and the preceding two tales were told by Oisin to Saint Patrick before he died.)

“The Voyage of the Sons of O’Corra” has triplets who were dedicated to the Devil before birth (as God had not answered O’Corra’s pleas for children.)  They caused much mischief in honor of their sponsor (mostly destroying churches and outraging the religious) before suddenly coming to the epiphany that evil is bad.

Repenting, they converted to Christianity and started atoning for their ill deeds.  As part of their penance, the triplets and several men of the cloth took a sea voyage where they saw many strange islands, some of which were metaphorical.  (The translator notes that many of the instances are similar to or identical to scenes from Maildun’s voyage.)

“The Fate of the Sons of Usna” ends the volume with the Third Sorrow.  A girl named Deirdre is born, and it’s prophesied that she will bring woe to Ulster and Erin.  Deidre is raised in isolation, but decides that she wants to marry a man with hair as black as a raven, cheeks as red as blood, and skin as white as snow.

This turns out to be Naisi, one of the sons of Usna, and a Knight of the Red Branch.  He reciprocates, and they elope to Alba (Scotland) with his brothers and a group of followers.

Unfortunately, King Conor has decided he wants Deirdre for his own wife, and engages in a series of treacherous actions to bring the sons of Usna and Deirdre back to Ireland and then have the men killed.  This eventually works and Deirdre dies of grief.

Mr. Joyce notes in his prologue that he has erred more on the side of preserving the sense of the language from the old texts than a literal translation.  He’s also kept in the poetry that the characters occasionally burst into, which is probably fragments of the earlier oral tradition versions of the stories.  There are copious footnotes that explain words and the present-day names of places.  End notes go into further detail on aspects of Irish folklore.

As mentioned earlier, this Dover publication is a reproduction rather than a reformatted reprint.  This means it keeps the tiny font of the original book, and the even tinier font of the poetry sections.  It was difficult to read on Kindle, so I would recommend springing for the hard copy instead.  I also urge Dover to come out with a large print edition.

The writing style is a bit stiff and old-fashioned, but that’s to be expected.  Recommended to those wanting to research Celtic legends but without the ability to read the sources in the original languages.

Disclaimer:  I received a download of this book through Netgalley for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

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.

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.

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.

Manga Review: Oh My Goddess! Volume 27

Manga Review: Oh My Goddess! Volume 27 by Kosuke Fujishima

Keiichi Morisato is an engineering undergraduate at the Nekomi Institute of Technology when his overbearing upperclassmen stick him with watching the all-male dorm over a holiday weekend.  (It’s not like it’s going to interfere with his social life.)  Getting hungry, Keiichi tries to order delivery, but each restaurant he tries is closed.  In a fit of frustration, Keiichi punches random keys on the phone–and is connected to something called the Goddess Help Line.

Oh My Goddess! Volume 27

The voice on the other end says that an operator will be with him shortly, and it turns out they meant physically.  A beautiful goddess named Belldandy (after Verthandi, the Norse Norn of the present) offers a single wish to Keiichi.  Lonely and with no luck with women due to being short, the dumbstruck Keiichi wishes for “a girl just like you to stay with me forever.”

The wish is granted by forcing Belldandy to stay on Earth with our young protagonist.  The returning upperclassmen kick the couple out of the dorm (“all-male” and they mean it) so Keiichi and Belldandy move into an abandoned shrine that Belldandy shines up with her powers.  Not too long after, Belldandy’s sisters Urd and Skuld show up…and never go away.  Our young couple is finding themselves truly falling in love, but will they ever get enough peace and quiet to fulfill it?

This seinen (young men’s) manga series (Aa! Megami-sama in Japanese) ran monthly from 1988 to 2014, a total of 48 volumes!  It’s been immensely popular over the years, spawning a set of OAVs, three anime series (one a gag spin-off), a theatrical movie and a novelization.   The relatively chaste nature of the series (Keiichi and Belldandy seldom do more than hold hands for most of the run) made it a good choice to show new anime fans in the U.S.

This is one of those series that showed marked artistic improvement over the years as Fujishima mastered his craft.  (The animated versions use the later character designs even when covering the early events.)

This is very much male wish-fulfillment.  A beautiful girl falls in love with our outwardly schlubby hero because she’s not fooled by his unimpressive looks and can see the true nobility of his inner nature.  While the course of true love seldom runs smooth, it’s almost always interference coming from outside, and Keiichi seldom has to actually work at building and maintaining the relationship.  Plus, Belldandy is in many ways the positive stereotype of the traditional Japanese housewife, kind, efficient, competent at all things feminine and ready to follow Keiichi’s lead.

Also irritating to some readers is that the main relationship plateaus early on as the creator realized what a cash cow he had and determined to milk it as long as possible.  It’s not until the final volume that Keiichi and Belldandy finally move past “grade-school sweeties who live in the same house”, and then the long stall is turned into a plot point.

All that said, they are cute together and most of the characters are likable.

In the volume to hand, #27, shenanigans have turned a former demon’s familiar partway into an angel.  (Angels are bond creatures to gods as familiars are to demons.)  Without a god or demon to bond to, the new “angel” will die.  Keiichi, being the kindhearted and steadfast fellow he is, has volunteered to host the critter in his body temporarily.  This is killing him as the volume begins.

Keiichi disappears, and the goddesses look for him, only to find him in the most likely place.  Then the crew realizes there’s one being in the neighborhood that could host the bond creature–Velsper, the demon who’s been trapped in the form of a cat to curb his powers, and doesn’t have his own familiar.   There’s a smack of homophobic humor, but all ends well (if embarrassing for Velsper.)

Then Urd, Skuld and Peorth (an unrelated fourth goddess who’s also staying at the temple because reasons) get into a rubber band war that escalates far beyond just flicking office supplies at each other.  Silly and inconsequential.

The volume is rounded out by a story in which we meet the Machiners, one of the many races that share Earth with the humans–at a slight angle.  The Machiners are machine people that come in various sizes and shapes, and sometimes need repairs.  It’s a good thing that Belldandy and Keiichi are good at machine repair, Belldandy due to her supernatural nature, and Keiichi because he loves machines.   This is a “sense of wonder” story that stands well on its own.

There are also a few Mini-Goddesses gag strips, and the first chapter of the novel First End, which posits a scenario in which Keiichi dies.

This series is now being reprinted in omnibus volumes, and those may be easier to find than the older ones.

And here’s a great scene from the movie:

Book Review: Respectable Horror

Book Review: Respectable Horror by K.A. Laity

Horror is a wide-ranging genre, which can be tailored to a variety of tastes.  Some folks prefer their scary fiction with a maximum of gushing blood and sharp objects being plunged into soft flesh; others like a more genteel approach that emphasizes the subtle wrongnesses and growing atmospheric dread that comes before the end.  This collection is geared towards the latter audience, with one of the inspirations being the work of M.R. James.

Respectable Horror

There are seventeen stories in all, starting with “The Estate of Edward Moorehouse” by Ian Burdon.  The title character went missing in a remote section of British coastline seven years ago.  He’s been declared dead, and a relative is looking through his estate and discovers that Mr. Moorehouse was searching for traces of a buried village on a beach mentioned in an old text.  He decides to honor the man by visiting the same beaches.

This is a thoroughly modern story with Facebook ™ and SIM cards, but ancient evil has adapted to the new technology.

The final story, “The Astartic Arcanum” by Carol Borden, is more of a period piece.  A Cthulhu Mythos tale, it pits poet Nita Sloan against a cabal of wealthy old men in Detroit who want to change the world.  It would appear that her latest work might be the only thing that can stop them–provided they don’t manage to sacrifice her to their dark god first!

Some other standouts include: “The Feet on the Roof” by Anjana Basu.  Set in 1960s India, there is culture clash between a wealthy widow and her daughter.  The daughter just up and vanishes one day, but then mysterious footprints begin to appear where no footprints should be.  It’s nice to see a horror story set in India that is by someone who actually comes from there.

“Miss Metcalfe” by Ivan Kershner is a Bradburyesque story about a substitute teacher.  It is the day before Halloween, and there’s a new substitute teacher, with a radically different lesson plan.  It involves bats.  Nicely spooky, and dances right up to but not past the line.  Read it to your kids.

“The Well Wisher” by Matthew Pegg concerns a series of poison pen letters.  One target of the letters has already been driven to suicide.  A governess may be able to unravel the mystery of the “Well Wisher”, but can she do so without revealing her own dark secrets?  Innovative, but also comfortably period.

My least favorite story was “Recovery” by H.V. Chao.  An author with writer’s block has moved to a small French village in the hopes it will help.  It hasn’t, but he’s enjoying listening to the guest next door speak to a lover who never answers.  The story never reaches spooky, just barely making it to odd.

Most of the other stories are decent to quite good; this would make a fine Halloween present for a sweetheart or other book  lover.

Book Review: Taran Wanderer

Book Review: Taran Wanderer by Lloyd Alexander

With the Black Cauldron destroyed, Death-Lord Arawn has retreated to his own lands for the time being, and no other major threats beset the realm of Prydain.  Long peaceful days at Caer Dallben have given Taran Assistant Pig-Keeper time to think.  Taran has realized a number of things, including that he wants to be together with Eilonwy for the rest of their lives…and that he has no idea who he is.

Taran Wanderer

That’s both in the metaphorical and literal sense.  Taran has no idea who his parents were, or if he has living kin.  And his life at Caer Dallben has been more about caring for the oracular swine Hen Wen than discovering his own way of life.  What if he is of noble birth?  What if he is truly a peasant?  Can he be together with a princess if his birthright is unknown?

Dallben the enchanter is as usual not a great deal of help; he either cannot or will not tell Taran the details of the boy’s heritage.  So it is that Taran sets out with his faithful companion Gurgi to the Marshes of Morva.  There, Taran consults the three dangerous sister enchantresses, but learns he cannot pay them a price high enough to learn his own secret.  They do, however, mention that the Mirror of Llunet might give him a glimpse of his true self.

Lake Llunet, where the Mirror was last seen, is clear at the other end of the country, and the rest of the story is about Taran’s journey there.

This is the fourth of five novels in The Chronicles of Prydain, a children’s series based loosely on Welsh mythology.  (Mr. Alexander mentions in the foreword that he’s borrowed bits from other folklore as well.)  The focus is on Taran’s character development, so there’s no one overwhelming threat, but a number of smaller problems and lessons that Taran must overcome or learn from on his way to maturity.

Indeed, Taran has grown a great deal from the callow lad he was at the beginning of the series; he shows wisdom whenever he thinks about how to help others, rather than his own problems.  But he still needs to let go of the notion that he needs to be special before he can embrace his true destiny.

Not everything is hard lessons; not-quite-human Gurgi and the prevaricating bard Fflewddur Fflam provide comic relief.  But there are villains as well, the terrifying Morda, who cannot be killed by mortal means (and who is responsible for some of the mysteries in earlier books) and the greedy mercenary Dorath.  Eilowny does not appear, but is often mentioned.

The book is well-written, though some of the running character tics grow tiresome by the end.  (And the lesson at the end is obvious at the beginning if you’re at all familiar with children’s literature.)   It’s a good breather before the climactic events of the final volume, where Taran and Eilowny must take their mature roles.

I recommend the entire series, and the Disney version has its good bits as well.

Book Review: The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume 9: The Millennium Express (1995-2009)

Book Review: The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume Nine: The Millennium Express (1995-2009) by Robert Silverberg

Robert Silverberg (1935-still alive as of this writing) is one of the longest-running science fiction authors, having made his first sale in 1953.  Especially in his early years, Mr. Silverberg has been prolific, with his non-series short fiction alone filling nine sizable volumes.  This is the last in that series, but not necessarily the last collection of his short stories.

The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume Nine: The Millennium Express, (1995-2009)

As the author explains in his foreword and the story introductions, he’s slowed down some as he’s aged, for various reasons.  There’s “only” sixteen stories from fourteen years presented here, but most are longer, a few up to novella length.

The opening story is “Diana of the Hundred Breasts” originally written for sale to Playboy, but turned down by them.  A wealthy layabout goes to visit his brilliant archaeologist brother at his dig in Ephesus, Turkey.  They meet a retired minister who’s touring the area, and the brother takes the other two to see the famous Diana statue of the title.  A little later, the archaeologist uncovers what may be the true meaning of the statue, but the brothers are left with more questions than answers.

I found the story so-so.  Mr. Silverberg uses tourists as main characters in many of his late period stories, something the Playboy fiction editor chided him for.  Even when the characters aren’t tourists as such, the stories often include long sightseeing sections.

He also favors the setting of the very far future and having characters realize just how very old the universe is.  Of these tales, I liked “The True Vintage of Eruzine Thale” the best.  It’s set in Jack Vance’s “Dying Earth” cycle.  Poet and wine connoisseur Puillayne is pulled out of his ennui by three suspicious looking men who claim to be fans of his work.  They turn out to be far more interested in Puillayne’s collection of rare treasures, especially the title liquid.

“The Millennium Express” is set in the relatively near future of 2999.  Four clones of great men have suddenly begun destroying the remaining treasures of the past.  A witness of one of their crimes becomes their pursuer, trying to discover their motivations and prevent them from wiping out the Louvre.  It’s a story about letting go of the past.

My choice for the strongest story in this collection is “Defenders of the Frontier” which first appeared in the Warriors collection, which I read previously.  A squad of soldiers man a forgotten outpost between their Empire and “the enemy.”  No orders or supplies have come to them in years as their numbers dwindled.  The enemy, too, has dwindled–they seem to have killed the last one in a thousand mile radius some weeks ago.  The soldiers can’t leave their post without orders, but if the enemy is truly gone, then there is no point in remaining.

I was reminded of the anime series Sora wo Oto, also about a small group of soldiers at a seemingly pointless outpost, though its mood is very different.

The final story is “Smithers and the Ghosts of the Thar”, set in India as the British Empire is building railroads there.  Young Smithers learns of a legendary sound in the desert, as though there were invisible people there, or perhaps ghosts.  He drags his friend Brewster off on an adventure to investigate.  They learn the truth behind this mystery, but at a terrible cost.

Several of the stories have scenes of extramarital sex.  (Apparently, at one point Mr. Silverberg concentrated on soft porn when the science fiction market was in a slump.)  “Beauty in the Night” has rape, child abuse and general physical abuse.

Overall, a high quality collection.  Robert Silverberg is a fine writer who has honed his craft over decades, and took his time with these stories.  However, I think this volume might do best for older readers who have some life experience to fully appreciate the nuances.  Beginners might want to start with one of the earlier volumes.

Disclaimer:  The version I read was an Advance Uncorrected Proof, and the final contents might be slightly different–at the very least, the typos fixed.

Manga Review: Monster Collection: The Girl Who Can Deal with Magic Monsters, Volume 5

Manga Review: Monster Collection: The Girl Who Can Deal with Magic Monsters, Volume 5 by Sei Itoh

Kasche was an apprentice summoner, gifted at bringing magical monsters from where they are to the place she needs them, and controlling them using name magic.  But her recklessness made Kasche less than popular with most of her teachers.  When Lord Duran stole the Encyclopedia Verum, a living book that contains all the knowledge of past summoners, it just so happened that Kasche was the only summoner capable of going after him!

Monster Collection: The Girl Who Can Deal with Magic Monsters, Volume 5

Monster Collection was originally a collectible card game, much like Magic: the Gathering, in which the players are summoners who use monsters to battle for them, each having special powers and weaknesses.  It spawned this manga, a video game (which merged it with a board game mechanic) and an anime adaptation, Mon Colle Knights.  None of these share any continuity.

In this volume, Kasche and her team: human warrior Cuervo, who Kasche has a crush on, lamia sorceress Vanessa, and “spirit animal” Kiki finish up their battle with the fallen angel that had been summoned against them.  It’s at this point that  Shin, a lizard man ally of theirs who might or might not be he Lizard King, reappears.

Turns out the only reason they had enough time to finish that grueling battle is because Shin was distracting the other monster in the area, a high dragon.  None of them feel up to the task of fighting such a powerful creature.

Until, that is, Shin reminds Kasche that she in fact knows the true name of this dragon, as that being had previously sent her a dream asking for help.  If Kasche can free the dragon from Lord Duran’s control, it will be a powerful ally.  So Kasche goes into the spiritual realm to battle Lord Duran’s magical sealing, while the others protect her from a swarm of giant ants summoned by Lord Duran’s servant.  Shin turns out to be able to summon himself, but only other lizard folk.

Kasche is at a severe disadvantage until she realizes there is one category of monster she can summon in the spiritual realm.  But will this demon be her trump card or her doom?

There’s some nice detailed monster and battle art, but the writing is only so-so and the volume is essentially wall-to-wall fights.  There’s relatively little gore; the “mature readers” label comes because Kasche is usually naked on the spiritual plane, complete with nipples.  (There’s also some male nudity on display, particularly in the humorous bonus chapter.)

This one may be hard to find.  CMX was DC Comics’ attempt at creating a manga line, which was mismanaged and quickly folded.  Some of their titles were “rescued” for printing elsewhere, but not this one.

And now, the opening video of Mon Colle Knights, so you can see just how different a treatment it is.

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