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: Life Is Beautiful

Book Review: Life Is Beautiful by Sarah M. Johnson

In 2008, an airplane carrying humanitarian workers to a remote village in Guatemala, where they were to build a school, crashed and burned.  The crew and most of the passengers were killed; one young woman survived relatively unharmed, though she had lost half her family, and her mother was severely injured.  This is her story.

Life Is Beautiful

Sarah’s life had not been an easy one for some time before the crash.  Raised outside a small town in rural Wisconsin, Sarah’s family was socially and emotionally isolated.  Her father was a recovering meth addict, they’d recently lost a close relative to cancer, and what little social life Sarah had revolved around heavy drinking with her friends.

At college, Sarah met Jacob, a young man who introduced her to a stronger belief in God, but was dangerously flawed; in particular he reinforced her drinking habits.  A combination of alcoholism and depression made Sarah’s  college career a bust, and Jacob cheated on her, so she had to come home feeling a failure.  The Guatemala trip was meant to help mend the family’s fences.

As this book is in the “inspirational” sub-genre, you might expect that Sarah turned her life around after hitting rock bottom, and you would be correct.  When she finally accepted the help of a therapist (it isn’t directly stated, but her father’s apparent ability to quit meth cold turkey may have influenced her to try to handle everything solo), Sarah began to be able to process her grief and make progress on recovery from alcoholism.  (Finding sober friends and a welcoming church group also helped.)

From a writing perspective, this book is a good example of how real people are far more complex and messy than they generally are shown in fiction.  Jacob is a prime example, a fervent believer who introduces Sarah to a personal relationship with her “higher power” but prone to bouts of unwanted preaching and self-righteousness when drunk, and who is a toxic boyfriend for her.

One misstep is Sarah’s breakthrough moment with her therapist, when she can finally tell the story of the crash and its aftermath while allowing herself to feel the emotions associated with it.  While it would be a powerful moment if the facts had been concealed up to that point in the book, on paper it’s mostly a recitation of details already covered in the first chapters.  This is a short book, and a reader with a decent memory will find this bit redundant.

Recommended primarily to fans of inspirational literature, and older young adult readers who like non-fiction stories as Sarah’s life is of interest.  Not necessarily recommended to those currently undergoing the grieving process; Sarah mentions several books that helped her, and those would probably be better choices.

If you would like to purchase the book, please consider getting it new, as part of the proceeds go to Habitat for Humanity.

Disclaimer:  I received a free copy of this book to facilitate writing the review; no other compensation was offered or requested.

Book Review: Classic American Short Stories

Book Review: Classic American Short Stories compiled by Michael Kelahan

This book is more or less exactly what it says in the title, a compilation of short(ish) stories written by American authors, most of which are acknowledged as classics by American Lit professors.  The stories are arranged by author in roughly chronological order from the early Nineteenth Century to the 1920s to stay safely in the public domain.

Classic American Short Stories

The fifty-one stories included begin with Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle”, a tall tale about a henpecked husband who drinks ghostly beer and sleeps for twenty years, right through the American Revolution.  The book ends with “Winter Dreams” by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  A young man from Minnesota finds great success in the laundry business, but heartache when the woman he loves cannot settle for just him.  In between are ones that are very familiar to me, like “The Telltale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe (a murderer confesses his crime in an effort to prove his sanity) and stories that were new to me, like “The Revolt of ‘Mother'” by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (a New England woman, tired of an unkept promise, takes matters into her own hands.)

There’s a wide variety of genres represented, from “realistic” slice of life stories through mystery and fantasy to outright horror.  The chronological order highlights the changing social attitudes depicted in the stories, particularly the two Edith Wharton stories about divorce.  Women are reasonably well-represented, and there are a couple of writers of color as well.

Of course, just because a story is “classic” does not mean it will appeal to everyone.  I found Henry James’ novella “The Aspern Papers” (literary buff infiltrates the household of a famous poet’s ex-lover in an effort to gain any memorabilia she might have of him) tedious and predictable.  I am not alone in this, but many other readers have found it fascinating.

Content issues:  Many of these stories have elements of period racism, sexism and classism; sometimes it’s dealt with within the story itself, but other times it pops up as a nasty surprise.  “Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather, about a boy who wants the finer things in life without the tedium of putting in decades of hard labor to get them, deals with suicide.

This is a Barnes & Noble collector’s edition, and is quite handsome and sturdy, with a leather binding, gilt-edged pages and a silk bookmark for a reasonable price.  However, the fact that it has a “compiler” rather than an editor is telling.  There are scattered typos; I do not know if they were caused by errors in transcription, or if the sources were not scrutinized carefully enough.  The author bios at the end are not quite in alphabetical order, and miss out Washington Irving altogether.

Overall, most of these stories are worth reading at least once, and many are worth rereading over the years.  Highly recommended to people who don’t already have their favorites from this collection in a physical book, or are curious about the stories they haven’t read yet.  It’d also make a nice gift for your bookworm friend or relative.

Manga Review: Vampire Princess Miyu Volume Two: Encounters

Manga Review: Vampire Princess Miyu Volume Two: Encounters by Toshiki Hirano & Narumi Kakinouchi

The Shinma (“god-demons”) are supernatural creatures that come from a place known as the Darkness, which many of them have escaped from to the bright and warm Earth.  It is the fate of Miyu, born of the union of a vampiric Shinma and a mortal human, to be the Guardian who hunts down stray Shinma and returns them to the Darkness.  In this she is assisted by her bodyguard, the foreign Shinma called Larva.  Separated from her parents by her duties, Miyu yearns to go to the Darkness herself, but cannot do so before returning all the escaped Shinma.

Vampire Princess Miyu Volume 2: Encounters

Vampire Princess Miyu was a shoujo horror manga running from 1988-2002, which was turned into two anime adaptations, and had three spin-off manga series.  The manga was brought over by Studio Ironcat, but never fully translated, and is now out of print.

Miyu is something of a morally ambiguous character; while she primarily banishes Shinma who are preying on human souls or bodies, she also attacks those that aren’t doing any immediate harm or are even helping humans.   Sometimes she seems to enjoy playing with her prey, but can also be taciturn and business-like in her eliminations.  And Miyu requires the blood of humans every so often to function.  She only takes the blood of volunteers (usually people who’ve suffered great loss but are still aesthetically pleasing), to whom she promises “eternity”–a deathlike coma of endless comforting dreams.

This volume contains three stand-alone stories.  In “The Jewel Taken By the Sea”, a young man who loves aquariums sees a mermaid at the aquarium in the new village he’s moved to.  But at his school, he meets a girl who looks almost identical to the mermaid, except for clearly being human.  She’s obviously got a secret, but is it the one he thinks it is?

“Doll Forest” concerns a small shop that makes traditional Kyoto dolls, some of which look disturbingly like young women who have gone missing in the neighborhood.  Miyu investigates–is the monster the creepy old dollmaker, his uncannily handsome son…or something even scarier?  This story does include an overweight woman with self-image problems.

“When Birds Cry” is about a homeless man named Tori (“bird”) and his two wards, a bird and a little girl both named Ruri.  He’s taking care of the Ruris, but are his motives really benevolent?  And if Miyu banishes Tori, who will take care of the little girl?  This one has a teen boy who’s interested in Miyu, and not at all understanding the mystic weirdness going on.  His intentions are good, but people close to Miyu tend to die.

Interestingly, all three stories wind up being clean-ups from previous banishings that Miyu performed.

The art is light and airy, and can sometimes make it difficult to tell who’s speaking isolated speech bubbles.  The mood is less scary than sad, death or banishment is the inevitable outcome.  The writing is okay, but sounds many of the same notes repeatedly.

This volume and the other Vampire Princess manga may be difficult to find; the anime is somewhat more available.  Recommended to fans of YA vampire stories.

And here’s a music video with footage from the anime!

Book Review: The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds

Book Review: The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds by Selina Siak Chin Yoke

This is the life story of Chye Hoon, a Nyonya (Malaysian woman of Chinese heritage) who lives between 1878 and 1941, a time of great change in her homeland.  Initially a willful child who wants to break out of her culture’s tradition (why shouldn’t a girl get the chance to go to school like her brother?), Chye Hoon grows into a young woman whose reputation for temper and independent spirit seem to doom her prospects for marriage.

The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds

But an enterprising matchmaker brings her together with a Chinese immigrant named Wong Peng Choon.  Despite this being an arranged marriage and the pair never actually meeting until the wedding, things work out well.  Peng Choon appreciates Chye Hoon’s cleverness and unwillingness to be cheated, and in return is a good husband.  The young couple moves to Ipoh, a rapidly growing tin mining town.

The next decade or so is good to the couple; Peng Choon is much in demand as an accountant, and Chye Hoon has ten children!  But then Peng Choon must return to China to take care of some family business.  He perishes in that far-off land; while he was careful to make sure that Chye Hoon had enough capital for a couple of years, she knows that raising ten children will soon drain that, and jobs for widows with no formal education are few and low-paying.

Chye Hoon applies her cleverness and cooking skills to the problem, becoming an entrepreneur in the field of tasty kueh (Nyonya cakes of both sweet and savory varieties.)  There are many difficulties involved in making the business a success, but she and her servants make a go of it.

Meanwhile, Chye Hoon must also raise her children, facing times of joy, times of heartbreak and times of great frustration.  In this last category is the increasing  influence of the British over the Malay States as they take firmer control of the government, and increasingly the young people adopt Western ways.   Chye Hoon has become a traditionalist who fears that her people’s heritage will be forgotten in the rush to modernize.

Chye Hoon is based loosely on the author’s own great-grandmother, and apparently many family stories were woven into the narrative.  The parts of the book that give a sense of the time and place are fascinating.  Less helpful is that quite a few of the large cast are underdeveloped or vanish from the story–a couple of the sons get brief mentions at times just to remind us they’re still alive but not doing anything relevant.

The author has made some interesting stylistic choices; uneducated characters use traditional Malayan syntax, while those with formal schooling speak British English.   (Even when they’re clearly not using that language.)  There’s also frequent usage of traditional Malayan filler words and interjections, and the author has chosen to use the older transliteration of some words, as well as some language that is now considered pejorative.  In places, this works well, and in other places it becomes intrusive.  (It also kind of raises the question of just who Chye Hoon is telling this story to at the end.)

The story ends just before the Japanese invasion during World War Two, which gives a pretty obvious cue for a sequel with the surviving family members.

Worth checking out if you are into family saga stories, and especially if you are curious about Malaysian history and culture.

Manga Review: Samurai Executioner Omnibus 2

Manga Review: Samurai Executioner Omnibus 2 written by Kazuo Koike, art by Goseki Kojima

Yamada “Decapitator” Asaemon is the o-tameshiyaku, sword-tester for the shogun and official executioner of criminals.  It’s not a pretty job, but at least he has one in Edo-era Japan, during a time of peace.  Without wars to fight, many of the samurai vassals are on tiny stipends, while ronin without lords can at least get paying jobs if they’re willing to be a bit flexible in their ethics.  The merchant class is getting richer, while the underclass of urban poor swells and rural farmers are oppressed by their petty lords.  The social conditions breed crime, so there is always plenty of work for Yamada.

Samurai Executioner Omnibus 2

This seinen (young men’s) manga series is by the creators of Lone Wolf and Cub, and shares many of the themes and settings.   Unlike that earlier work, however, there does not seem to be an overarching plotline.  The stories are episodic, and most could take place in any order.  Two stories do, however, guest star young cop Sakane Kasajiro, an expert with his hooked chain.  Yamada helps him discover new ways of using his weapon to protect lives.

Yamada takes a grim satisfaction at being expert at his craft, able to decapitate the condemned with a single stroke and thus minimize their pain.  He was raised from early childhood to succeed his father as executioner, and has chosen to remain single to avoid condemning his children to the same path.  (One story in this volume has him briefly reconsider, but it is not to be.)  Yamada seems happiest when he can bring small moments of joy into a person’s life, and is often sought out for sage advice.

The first story in the volume has Yamada challenged for the post of sword tester by Tsukuya Bakushuu, a poverty-stricken and largely self-trained swordsman.  They participate in a contest of suemonogiri, precision cutting.  Tsukuya loses, but cannot accept this result.  It ends in tragedy.  To be honest, at least half the stories here end in tragedy, not surprising, given Yamada’s job.

The closing story is particularly hard to stomach.  O-Toyo murders the woman her lover abandoned him for, and mortally wounds the cheater.  However, it’s a slow death wound, and he could live up to four months with good treatment.  Her execution will be in three months, and O-Toyo wants to outlive the man out of pure spite.  As it happens, there’s one way for a woman to get her execution delayed–getting pregnant.  Now, how is that going to happen when she’s locked in a women’s prison?  Yes, the story is going there.  There are other examples of female nudity and rape in these stories, but this is the most brutal.  And then the ending comes, and it is even more brutal.  Even Yamada is shaken.

Also outstanding is the story “Tougane Yajirou”, about an elderly police officer whose use of force is considered excessive even by the standards of the time, and who is much more interested in catching criminals than in preventing crime.  Yamada disapproves, but there is a story behind the old man’s cruel behavior.

Koike and Kojma do a masterful job of depicting a world that is both very familiar in its everyday life, and alien in its way of thinking.  This omnibus edition combines three of the Japanese volumes, and is presented in the expensive and time-consuming fully-flipped format, so it reads left to right.

Recommended for mature readers who enjoyed Lone Wolf and Cub or are otherwise fans of samurai action.

Comic Book Review: Essential Tomb of Dracula, Volume 2

Comic Book Review: Essential Tomb of Dracula, Volume 2 mostly written by Marv Wolfman and art by Gene Colan.

When the Comics Code restrictions on horror were loosened in the 1970s, DC primarily went in for horror anthology comics, while Marvel Comics based entire series around horrific heroes and villains.  One of these was the classic (and public domain) character of Vlad Tepes, aka Count Dracula.

Essential Tomb of Dracula Volume 2

This series revealed that Bram Stoker’s book (highly recommended if you haven’t read it, by the way) was highly fictionalized, and Dracula had not in fact finally died at the end of it, only being very inconvenienced.  He had been various places, doing various things, temporarily being put of commission now and then…and this storyline opened with him once again being awakened to start his reign of terror anew.

Opposing the Lord of Vampires was a crew of vampire hunters including Quincy Harker (the son of Jonathan and Mina), now an elderly man confined to a wheelchair by injuries received in past battles with Dracula; Rachel van Helsing (great-granddaughter of Professor van Helsing) a crossbow-wielder who wasn’t always as effective as she’d like; Frank Drake, a descendant of Dracula (before becoming a vampire) who had wasted his wealth and had to man up over the course of the series; and Taj Nital, an Indian man who had been rendered mute when Dracula injured his throat.  Independent of them were Blade, who only hunted Dracula because he hated all vampires due to the murder of his mother by Deacon Frost, and Hannibal King, a detective that Deacon Frost had turned into a vampire, who avoided taking blood from living humans.

Of course, Dracula didn’t just have vampire hunters after him, but people who either wanted to become lord of all vampires themselves or otherwise exploit him.  The most persistent of these was Doctor Sun, a Chinese scientist who’d been turned into a disembodied brain hooked up to a computer, who wanted to take over the world.

At the start of this volume, Dracula learns of the current whereabouts of an artifact called the Chimera, which re-sparks his desire to conquer the world himself.  (He’d had to put that on hold as a vampire army large enough to take over would promptly drink the rest of humanity to extinction, and then where would they be?)  Fortunately for the world, Dracula is not the only one after the artifact, and it ends up smashed.

Dracula has noticed his powers waning, and this leads him to a near-final confrontation with Quincy Harker, before learning that it is in fact Doctor Sun behind it, and the action moves to Boston.  There the cast adds nebbish “true vampire story” writer Harold H. Harold and lovely but ditsy secretary Aurora Rabinowitz, who act as comic relief.

After the Doctor Sun situation is resolved, Dracula takes control of a local Satanist cult and marries a woman named Domini, who he believes will give him a proper heir.  (The leader of the Satanists, of course, has other plans.)

Mixed throughout this volume are soap-opera subplots involving the various supporting cast, and interludes of Dracula’s adventures in other times and places.  Marv Wolfman’s writing is often excellent, but he sometimes doesn’t consult previous issues, resulting in some minor continuity glitches.  Gene Colan’s art is more consistently outstanding, and fits the mood well, especially in this black and white reprint.  (Some stories from the Giant-Size side series are included, with art by the less impressive but very competent Don Heck.)

Make no mistake, Dracula is the main villain here, and rare is the issue where he does not murder at least one innocent person just to remind us of that.  Much of his time is taken up with petty revenge against people who have crossed him and when he acts against other villains, it’s usually out of pride or personal vendetta.  Every once in a while, he does show a moment of kindness, but the door soon slams shut when his darker nature prevails.  Because he’s the title character, Dracula has what TV Tropes calls “Joker Immunity”; he can never be permanently killed off, only temporarily thwarted, so the heroes seem ineffectual.  (Quincy Harker broods about this frequently.)

These stories do take place in the Marvel Universe, though this series avoids most of the implications of that.  Brother Voodoo helps Frank Drake through a bad patch in his life, and Doctor Strange actually temporarily kills Dracula (but is hypnotized not to notice it’s not permanent until later.)

In addition to the expected violence (but relatively little gore–the Comics Code was still in effect), Dracula’s attacks on women are often treated in a sexualized manner.  There are some instances of suicide, both voluntary and forced.  Dracula is also depicted as being racist (mostly against Blade) and sexist (he is not at all kind to the memory of Lucy Westerna.)

And speaking of sexism, one story includes a woman who’s a bit of a “straw feminist”; the owner of a fashion house who only hires women even if a man would be more competent at the job (except one dress designer who might be gay given the coding) and who has an enormous grudge against the various men who tried to keep her down.  Dracula agrees to kill her enemies in exchange for information she can get more efficiently than he, but leaves her in a sticky situation at the end of the story.

Despite often high melodrama, there are some very well-written moments as well.

Recommended for vampire comics fans, Blade fans who want to see his early adventures, and those who enjoy Gene Colan’s art.

Anime Review: The Rose of Versailles

Anime Review: The Rose of Versailles

In the Year of Our Lord 1770, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria and King Louis XV of France decided to seal an alliance between their countries with a political marriage.  Thus it was that Louis-Auguste (later Louis XVI) and Marie Antoinette were married.  So it was in our world too.  But in this story, the commander of the Royal Guards, protectors of the young princess, was Oscar Francois du Jarjayes, youngest daughter of General Jarjayes, who had been raised like a boy.

The Rose of Versailles

Soon Antoinette, Oscar and Oscar’s faithful servant Andre, were plunged into the swirling politics and complicated romantic relationships of the court.  Thus begins the ultimately tragic tale of the Rose of Versailles.

This popular and highly influential 1979 anime was based on the best-selling shoujo (girls’) manga Versailles no Bara by Riyoko Ikeda.  The manga had started out as a biography of Marie Antoinette, with Oscar as a supporting character to be involved in combat scenes where the ruler could not be placed, but the princely woman was immensely popular with readers and eventually became the star of the story.  (Especially once the queen retired from public life to raise her children.)  The anime therefore expanded her role at the beginning a bit.

The series is highly dramatic, often melodramatic, with shocked expressions, flowing tears and glittering roses.  Some modern viewers might find this all a trifle overdone, especially as many newer anime series have homaged famous scenes and effects from this one.  Romantic tension is high.  At least initially, Marie Antoinette and her young husband do not get along well, and she develops an interest in the Swedish Count Axel von Fersen, who reciprocates.  Oscar also has a thing for von Fersen, but is not reciprocated, while her childhood friend and servant Andre pines for Oscar but knows that a commoner can never marry a noble.

In addition, while Oscar is known to be a woman by most of the nobles, her handsomeness and chivalry cause her to be admired in an almost romantic fashion by various ladies, most notably a young woman named Rosalie, who turns out to have a secret of her own.

While the broad historical outlines of the series are accurate, many of the details are fictionalized or exaggerated.  For example, the Duke of Orleans was probably not directly behind every plot against Marie Antoinette.

In addition to the standard sword-fighting and the horrors of the French Revolution, there’s an attempted sexual assault at one point (the man stops when he realizes what he’s about to do) and a twelve-year-old commits suicide rather than submit to an arranged marriage.  (It’s pretty clear that her much older intended husband intends to consummate the marriage immediately.)  Towards the end, the narration specifically tells us two of the characters get it on.  The imagery is tasteful, but the content may be too much for younger or more sensitive viewers.

The series switched directors about halfway through; the earlier part has much more incidental humor, while the later half is more somber, befitting the way events get worse and worse for both Oscar and Marie Antoinette.

This is a classic, and now legally available in the United States with subtitles.  Recommended for French history and romantic tragedy fans.

Comic Book Review: The Best of Judge Dredd

Comic Book Review: The Best of Judge Dredd edited by Tharg

It is the dark future of the 22nd Century.  Nuclear war and environmental devastation have made large portions of Earth’s surface barely inhabitable, and the majority of the remaining population is crowded into sprawling urban areas called Mega-Cities.  Overpopulation, high unemployment, and a general social despair have caused crime to skyrocket.  To combat this, most law enforcement has been turned over to an elite force of Judges, who act as police, the judicial system and the prison system all in one.  It takes a special breed of human to become a Judge, and the most legendary of these is Judge Dredd.

The Best of Judge Dredd

Judge Dredd first appeared in the second issue of the British comic weekly 2000 AD in 1977, but quickly became the magazine’s flagship character.  The strip combined dystopian science fiction with dark humor and Dirty Harry style violence.  Over the course of the first few years, the Judges went from an adjunct to the regular police force to the only viable government of Mega-City One due to repeated disasters.  As a literal police state, the Judges tackled any problem by criminalizing it, the flaws in this becoming more obvious with time.

Dredd himself is an antihero, an incorruptible man who is trying his best to make the system work, but the system is so oppressive that it crushes the people beneath it, even when properly applied.  And one of the recurring themes is that the Judge system lends itself to corruption and abuse, and fails even at its most basic purpose of reducing crime.  Judge Dredd may be fair, but he’s harsh.

The first story in this volume is the first Judge Dredd story, and contains only the seeds of these themes.  “Meet Judge Dredd” by John Wagner (writer droid) and Carlos Ezquerra  (art droid) introduces Dredd as he avenges the death of a fellow Judge.  The criminals are holed up in the old Empire State Building, now a dwarf building compared to the mile-high construction around it.  The Judges’ advanced crimefighting motorcycles and firearms are introduced, but it is the prison the head criminal Whitey is put in that shows the most imagination.  “Devil’s Island” is a traffic island, surrounded by mega-freeways constantly flowing with high-speed traffic.  There’s no wall or fence, but just try crossing to safety!

There are several fine single stories, including the first appearance of Rico, Joe Dredd’s corrupt and vengeful clone-brother.  While he dies at the end of that chapter, Rico’s legacy affects Dredd for decades.  This volume also has bits of several of the epic stories that ran for months in the strip, including the Cursed Earth saga and the Judge Child storyline.  If there is one flaw in this volume, it’s that they only have those fragments.

However, all of “America”, which was the first storyline in the Judge Dredd Megazine monthly magazine, is included, in full color.  This hits the dystopian elements hard, as the child of immigrants is named after their dream of a better life, but the America they’re thinking of is long dead, and eventually so is the title character when she tries fighting for her ideals.  The story is told from the perspective of her childhood friend, with a bizarre science fiction twist at the end.  It’s a hard-hitting story, and perhaps the best in this book.

The weakest story for me is “Mrs. Gunderson’s Big Adventure.”  A profoundly deaf and legally blind senior citizen is embroiled in the escape of a crime boss who has unfortunately for him attracted the attention of Judge Dredd.  The “humor” stems from Mrs. Gunderson being almost completely unaware of what’s going on around her due to her sensory handicaps, and swiftly grows tedious.

Also of note are the first two appearances by serial killer P.J. Maybe who is only thirteen years old at that point.  It feels like the second story was created first, and the first story written to make sure the reader realizes that Maybe is not the good guy here.  In the first story, he kills two random people and their pet vulture, just to establish that he can.  In the second, Maybe wipes out the obnoxious relatives that stand between his family and a fortune in manufacturing.  (It took a long time for Judge Dredd to figure out that there was a serial killer, let alone that P.J. Maybe was him.  Years later, Maybe was the best mayor Mega-City One ever had, while remaining a remorseless serial killer.)

In addition to the expected ultra-violence, there’s some nudity and sexual situations.

This volume is a good choice for an introduction to Judge Dredd and his setting, with a variety of his writers and artists (including Brian Bolland) represented.  Recommended to fans of dystopian science fiction and dark humor.

Manga Review: Ooku 10 & 11

Manga Review: Ooku 10 & 11 by Fumi Yoshinaga

Quick recap:  In an alternate Shogunate Japan, a plague wipes out 80% of the men, requiring women to take over most of the jobs previously held by males.  This includes being shogun (military leader, the day to day ruler of Japan, as opposed to the Emperor, who reigned but did not rule.)  As part of the flip, the female shogun had a male harem named the Ooku (“Inner Chambers.”)

Ooku 10

In Volume 10, Aonuma and the other students of Western medicine in the Ooku make great strides in devising a way to immunize boys against the redface pox.  Unfortunately, their method will still kill three in one hundred from the pox itself, and one of those three is the son of a powerful lord who in grief turns into an anti-vaxxer.  Meanwhile, the modernizing shogun and her reasonable chamberlain who have made the research possible find themselves blamed for a series of disasters, including famine and a volcanic eruption.  When the shogun’s health takes a turn for the worse, Aonuma is finally allowed to diagnose her, but he discovers that her “disease” is not what the court physicians have said, and he has no cure for arsenic.  Disaster ensues.

As is often the case in this series, hope is followed by tragedy and injustice.  There is a brutal rape in this volume, though the actual act is off-page during a flashback sequence.

Ooku 11

Volume 11 opens with the first male shogun in a century and a half, Ienari.  But his mother Harusada makes it clear that he’s a puppet, and all power is to remain with her.  Study of Western science is now forbidden, as are many other fun and useful things under “frugality” laws.  Which would be less hated, perhaps, if the shogun’s court were not still spending money like water.  After decades of succession crises because of low-fertility shogun women and a high mortality rate among their few children, Ienari is a problem because of his unusual potency, siring children left and right.

Interestingly, the changed circumstances make Ienari far more sympathetic than he is generally portrayed in Japanese historical dramas.  Danger stalks the halls of the Shogun’s palace as more people become fully aware of just what kind of person Harusada is and what she’s been up to.

However, the few remaining men who had access to the Inner Chamber’s records and Western medical training at last learn of a safer vaccination method–the redface pox could be eradicated, if they were allowed to do so!

It looks like Volume 12 will be the conclusion of this series (and I am hoping it will not take the “and all the changes in history were whitewashed away by a government conspiracy so as far as you know this actually happened” line.)

As before, excellent art and effective writing.  Some scenes do go for more melodrama than is necessary.  Be aware that the “Explicit Content” label is there for good reason–this is not a series for children.

Recommended to alternate history fans and those looking for more mature stories in their manga.

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