Alanna: The First Adventure by Tamora Pierce

From the back cover:
“From now on I’m Alan of Trebond, the younger twin. I’ll be a knight.”

And so young Alanna of Trebond begins the journey to knighthood. Though a girl, Alanna has always craved the adventure and daring allowed only for boys; her twin brother, Thom, yearns to learn the art of magic. So one day they decide to switch places: disguised as a girl, Thom heads for the convent to learn magic; Alanna, pretending to be a boy, is on her way to the castle of King Roald to begin her training as a page.

But the road to knighthood is not an easy one. As Alanna masters the skills necessary for battle, she must also learn to control her heart and to discern her enemies from her allies.

Filled with swords and sorcery, adventure and intrigue, good and evil, Alanna’s first adventure begins—one that will lead to the fulfillment of her dreams and the magical destiny that will make her a legend in her land.

Review:
For a period of several years, I was an administrator on an online roleplaying game based on a popular series of children’s fantasy books starring a protagonist with a peculiarly shaped scar. New players to this game would frequently submit applications for characters that read very similar to this:

“Ten-year-old Alanna has red hair, purple eyes, and a twin brother. She is very smart, determined, and brave. Plus, she has a great magical gift, so great that she will one day be able to succeed in curing a deadly sickness where all other healers have failed. She also excels at becoming the best at unarmed combat and swordsmanship (albeit with quite a lot of practice), distrusting bad guys instantly, and conveniently finding ancient, powerful swords with sparkly crystals on them.”

Okay, perhaps that’s a bit better than your average newbie attempt, but there are still some striking similarities. This resulted in me snickering out loud the first time Alanna’s looks—for, yes, that paragraph is describing the protagonist of this book—were mentioned, and in rolling my eyes every time her awesomeness was further established. The action in the book covers several years, and Alanna’s plan is to divulge her secret on her eighteenth birthday, after she is made a knight. It’s certainly welcome to see a female proving herself in that environment so adeptly. I don’t mean to suggest that awesome women cannot exist, but after a while I started asking myself, “What next?”

Perhaps such a heroine appeals more to young adults, the intended audience for this book. There are some good messages here about applying oneself when the things you want to do prove challenging and not letting anyone’s idea of your limitations get in your way. It’s just that everything kind of happens too easily. Even though we know Alanna is spending hours and hours practicing, her evolution from fumbling beginner to “a matchless swordsman” doesn’t seem to take very long. The climactic battle at the end against an immortal race of evil beings living in “the black city” also seems too simple.

In the end, I liked Alanna: The First Adventure enough to continue with the rest of the quartet. It appears to be the first book Pierce published, so it’s no wonder it doesn’t match up to my favorites amongst her works.

Witch Way to Murder by Shirley Damsgaard: C

From the back cover:
Ophelia Jensen wishes she was just your typical, thirty-something librarian. Unfortunately, she’s been burdened with psychic powers—an unwanted “gift” she considers inconvenient at best and at worst downright dangerous. Her kindly old grandmother Abby, however, has no compunctions about the paranormal, being a practicing witch with unique abilities of her own.

And sometimes the otherworldly arts do come in handy—like when the arrival of a mysterious, good-looking stranger to their normally tranquil corner of Iowa seems to trigger an epidemic of catastrophes, from the theft of bomb-making materials to a murdered corpse dumped in Abby’s backyard.

Luckily Ophelia and Abby are on the case and determined to make things right. But it’ll take more than magic to get out of the boiling cauldron of lethal trouble they’re about to land themselves in.

Review:
When a friend of mine mentioned on Twitter that she was indulging in some “fluffy fiction,” I—book fiend that I am—had to inquire. This ultimately lead to me borrowing a copy of Witch Way to Murder, which I believe was described as “chick-lit paranormal mystery” or words to that effect.

The basic plot is that Ophelia, a thirty-something librarian, has moved to the small town of Summerset, Iowa to escape the grief of her best friend’s murder four years ago. She eschews human contact, partly because of her past and also because she is trying to avoid acknowledging that she has inherited her grandmother Abby’s psychic abilities. Into Ophelia’s life intrudes Rick Delaney, a persistent reporter investigating a string of chemical thefts, which leads to Ophelia’s involvement in ferreting out a major drug ring as well as solving a murder, making a friend, and finally embracing her magical abilities.

Damsgaard’s writing was a major obstacle to my enjoyment of the book. Her sentences are often choppy, and dialogue is stiff and unrealistic. Like, for example, this bit in which Abby is talking to her granddaughter, Ophelia:

I’ve lived in this town fifty-three years and realize it isn’t the same here as in the mountains where I grew up.

Who would talk like that to their own granddaughter? My grandma grew up on a farm in Wisconsin, and if she were the one speaking, she’d say “it isn’t the same here as it was back on the farm.” And then of course we would all know it was the farm in Wisconsin on which she grew up ‘cos, like, she’s our grandma.

The book is also poorly edited, featuring a “picture perfect” without the hyphen, a “base” instead of “bass,” a “there” instead of “they’re.” There are some repetitive turns of phrase, and even some repeated actions, like when Ophelia is twisting a napkin back and forth on page forty-eight and then someone else is doing the same thing on page fifty. Maybe there’s so little to do in Summerset that napkin-twisting is all the rage!

Lastly, the mystery is not really that great, though at least it held my interest, and I was able to peg the culprit from his very first appearance. That said, though, I did like Darci, Ophelia’s new friend, whose intelligence is constantly being underestimated because she’s blonde and shapely, and it was unexpected that Ophelia and Rick did not get together in the end, despite the many, many, many scenes of him pestering her (we are informed he is charming, but he mostly comes across as annoying) and her responding in spite of herself.

Ultimately, even though this book was far from great, I still ended up borrowing the second book in the series. Maybe it’ll be better than this one.

Five Children and It by E. Nesbit: B+

From the back cover:
‘It’ is a Psammead, an ancient, ugly and irritable sand fairy the children find one day in a gravel pit. It grants them a wish a day, lasting until sunset. But they soon learn it is very hard to think of really sensible wishes, and each one gets them into unexpected difficulties. Magic, the children find, can be as awkward as it is enticing.

Review:
After reading and really enjoying The Railway Children, I decided that I definitely needed to read more by E. Nesbit. Five Children and It was my first pick, because I’ve been curious about the book for ages. Expect to see more Nebsit after this one!

Five Children and It (1902) actually has some things in common with The Railway Children (1906). It’s obvious from the titles that both feature kids, but more specifically these kids are siblings from the city who are moving into a new house in the country. Both stories are told by a companionable and amusing narrator. In the case of the latter book, the kids meet and help a lot of new people, and a warm, feel-good tone is the result. There is, alas, less of that feeling in Five Children and It, though it’s still an imaginative and entertaining tale.

Cyril, Anthea, Robert, Jane, and “the Lamb” (the nickname for the youngest, a two-year-old boy whose given name is Hilary) have just moved into their new house, and are keen to explore. One day, when their mother has gone off to tend to her ailing mother, their wanderings take them to a nearby gravel pit, where they dig and find a strange creature called a psammead, or sand-fairy. The psammead agrees to grant the children one wish per day, the results of which will disappear at sunset, and the majority of the book is made up of their wishes and the usually unpleasant repercussions thereof.

Nothing ever seems to turn out like they hope. When they wish for money, it comes in a form unrecognizable and unaccepted by local merchants. When they wish for wings, they fail to account for how hungry the exertion of flying will make them, and end up stranded on a rooftop after stealing someone else’s dinner. When they wish they lived in a castle, it’s ill-defended and in the midst of a siege. Each time, they attempt to learn from what went wrong and get the best from their next wish, but by the time their mother returns home they’re quite ready to quit with the wishing altogether. If I had to pick a theme for the book, I’d say it’s “be content with your lot.”

What’s really nice about the story is that the kids aren’t idealized at all. In fact, Nesbit says up front that they can be tiresome, and they’re shown being disagreeable often enough. They’re also, however, shown being clever and level-headed, particularly Anthea, the oldest girl. It takes a while for them to emerge as individual characters, though, and I’m still not really sure how to describe Jane, the youngest girl. This is another aspect in which The Railway Children is the superior book, since each of those characters is memorable and distinct. I do think, though, that Anthea and Railway‘s Roberta would like each other very much. In fact, now I kind of want to read fanfic in which they hang out and are sensible together.

In the end, I definitely enjoyed Five Children and It and look forward to reading its two sequels, but it doesn’t supplant The Railway Children as my favorite Nesbit so far.

Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword by Barry Deutsch: A

From the back cover:
Mirka Hirschberg is a spunky, strong-willed eleven-year-old who isn’t interested in knitting lessons from her stepmother, or how-to-find-a-husband advice from her sister, or you-better-not warnings from her brother. There’s only one thing Mirka does want: to fight dragons! But she’ll need a sword—and therein lies the tale!

Review:
Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword is a delightful story, due in large part to not being what I expected.

As the back cover avers, Mirka is indeed spunky and strong-willed and fantasizes about being a heroic slayer of dragons. Her day-to-day life amongst an isolated community of Orthodox Jews seems anything but heroic, however, full as it is of school, chores, worship, and instruction in “womanly arts” like knitting. When the casual theft of a grape from a mysterious garden leads to an encounter with an angry monster (it’s actually a pig, but Mirka has never seen one before), Mirka finds herself dealing with a foe nobody else believes in.

Eventually, Mirka not only extracts a promise from the vengeful pig (who is very proud of its garden) to leave her alone, she later saves it from some bullies, which causes its owner, a bizarre woman with a witchy mien, to be in her debt. The witch reads Mirka’s mind to identify her heart’s desire provides instructions as to where she might find a sword, that first essential ingredient to becoming a dragon slayer.

Now, I had thought this was going to be a story about a girl who gets a sword and discovers that she’s the chosen one, et cetera, but that’s actually not what happens. True, Mirka has a moonlit encounter with a troll in order to obtain the weapon, but it’s a knitting showdown she wins by virtue of emulating her stepmother’s prodigious talent for arguing. She then leaves the troll with the responsibility of safeguarding the sword and goes back home.

Will there be more daring adventures for Mirka in the future? I certainly hope so, but the best thing about this comic is that Deutsch realizes that the real mystery for readers is not the slayage of fantastic beasties but Mirka’s orthodox lifestyle. There are many interesting details about her daily life, including things like the amount of work that goes into preparing for Shabbos or what the popular girls wear at school. Even if the story ended here, I would be satisfied, because Mirka has learned to value not only her stepmother more, but also the traditional skills she’s expected to learn. Perhaps it will be enough for her to have proven she could earn the sword, even while she realizes that she’s happy with her current life.

While I’d heartily recommend this comic to anyone, I’d love to see how girls of Mirka’s age react to it. Maybe they’d be disappointed by the scarcity of fantastic elements, but I could be underestimating them. For me, at any rate, it was quite a pleasant surprise.

Garden Sky by Yuko Kuwabara: C+

I reviewed this quasi-BL collection for this week’s BL Bookrack column at Manga Bookshelf. The book is divided into two sets of stories that are boring while underway, feature extremely similar characters, and go nowhere in the end. This makes for quite a dull read.

You can find that review here.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Complete Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde: A

From the back cover:
A celebrated playwright and poet, Oscar Wilde also penned incomparable nonfiction and fiction—and lovely gem-like fairy tales. Filled with princes and nightingales, mermaids, giants, and kings, his tales carry the mark of his signature irony and subtle eroticism. This volume brings together all the stories found in Wilde’s two collections, The Happy Prince and Other Tales and A House of Pomegranates. Published here alongside their evocative original illustrations, these fairy tales, as Wilde himself explained, were written “partly for children, and partly for those who have kept the childlike faculties of wonder and joy.”

Review:
I was first made aware of the fairy tales of Oscar Wilde by Stephen Fry, whose recording of six of the stories is nothing short of delightful. This print edition has its charms, too, including three additional tales as well as illustrations and a great introduction that acquaints readers with not only the tragedies of Wilde’s life but with the fond recollections of his friends. I’d say it’s worthwhile to invest in both.

Wilde published two collections of children’s stories and both, obviously, are included here. On one level, the stories are amusing and imaginative, featuring a bevy of talking animals—whom Wilde often uses for satirical purposes, as with the mother duck in “The Devoted Friend” who frets that her children will never be in “the best society” unless they can stand on their heads—and even a sentient firework with delusions of grandeur. Often, though, a surprising degree of darkness is also present, as various characters die, realize the suffering they have caused others, commit valiant acts of self-sacrifice for ultimately no purpose whatsoever, and persist in their misguided ways despite the best attempts of others to show them the light.

In these stories, Wilde mingles the fantastic with the quotidian and the heartwarming with the bittersweet in a way that really appeals to me. Here are my three favorite examples (spoilers ahead):

In “The Nightingale and the Rose,” a nightingale overhears a student bewailing his plight: the woman he loves has agreed to dance with him at an upcoming event if he brings her a red rose. Alas, there are no red roses in his garden. The bird, believing him to be the very embodiment of true love, which she is always singing about, tries everything in her power to procure such a flower for him, ultimately deciding that it’s worth sacrificing her own life for the sake of love. And what is the recipient’s reaction to the rose when it is presented to her? “I’m afraid it will not go with my dress.” It ends up in the street and is promptly run over by a cart. The end.

A similarly awesome ending can be found in “The Star-Child.” One winter, a pair of poor woodcutters are returning to their homes when they see what appears to be a falling star land nearby. When they get there, they find a baby, and one of the men takes it home. The boy grows up fair and comely and becomes vain and cruel because he is convinced of his own lofty origins. One day, a beggar woman shows up to claim him as her son, but he rejects her. This action renders him ugly, and he spends the next three years in search of the woman to beg her forgiveness, learning mercy and pity along the way and sincerely repenting of his former actions. A happy ending seems imminent when he not only gets his looks back but is revealed to be a prince, but Wilde concludes the story (and A House of Pomegranates as a whole) with the following paragraph:

Yet ruled he not long, so great had been his suffering, and so bitter the fire of his testing, for after the space of three years he died. And he who came after him ruled evilly.

The end. Is that not amazing?

My very, very favorite story, though, is “The Happy Prince.” Once upon a time there was a prince, and he was happy while he lived in his isolated palace and remained ignorant of the world outside. After his death, the townspeople erected a beautiful, gilded statue in his honor and set it on a tall column, from where he can see (with his sapphire eyes) all the misery in the city that he could not see before. One day, a swallow—delayed in departing for warmer climes because of his devotion to a fickle reed (“It is a ridiculous attachment,” twittered the other swallows. “She has no money and far too many relations.”)—lands near his feet and becomes the messenger for the Happy Prince, plucking out his jewels and stripping off his gold and delivering them to the poor and needy.

The swallow eventually succumbs to the cold, but not before sharing a kiss with the statue he loves. The mayor, once he notices how shabby the statue has become, decides that one of himself would do much better and pulls it down. Here, instead of a wholly sad ending, Wilde offers up a sweeter alternative that sees both the statue and the bird rewarded for their benevolence. It’s an immensely satisfying tale that also portrays pure love between two males, though they be not human; I like it immensely.

The one author of whom I was reminded while reading these stories is Neil Gaiman. I’m now convinced he was at least partly inspired by Wilde, so, if you’re a fan of his short stories, you might like these as well!

Silver Diamond 5-7 by Shiho Sugiura: B+

My darling Silver Diamond! How I have missed you! There was almost a year between the releases of volumes four and five, but TOKYOPOP is on the road to recovery (yay!) and the series is now on a quicker release schedule.

In volume four, Rakan traveled to the other world in the company of Chigusa, Narushige (and Koh!), and Tohji. Pretty quickly they encountered a group of cast-off “numbered children,” banished from the capital and assigned the unnecessary task of guarding the frontier. As volume five begins, Rakan demonstrates his sanome ability and pretty quickly wins over all the men with his warmth, acceptance, humility, and absolute sincerity in his desire to make their lives better. In fact, he appoints them his personal guards, and they’re all happy to have something purposeful to do.

Before things can get too cozy—but not before Tohji and Kazuhi, leader of the guards, realize they’re brothers—an illusion of the evil prince appears and predicts many calamities will befall the land, including an earthquake, which promptly occurs. Kazuhi and his men are trapped below ground, though alive, and as they work on finding their way out, a furious Rakan—more determined than ever now to defeat the prince and bring life back to the world—and his companions begin to make their way to the capital. In volume seven, an assassin briefly delays their journey, but Chigusa—and an entirely unexpected, entirely shaggy ally—prove to be more than a match for him.

At first, when Rakan began making his journey to confront the prince I initially thought, “What? They’re doing this now? How is this series up to volume 21 in Japan already, then?” But then I remembered… Silver Diamond is a very, very slow-paced series, and I suppose it may be frustrating to some for that reason. Honestly, though, I would not have it any other way.

I love the small episodes of world-building scattered throughout, like when the scarcity of wood necessitates different methods of cooking and printing. I love the moments when characters grow closer, and I appreciate that Sugiura takes time to show these relationships evolving. Particularly moving is how Rakan unconsciously brings so much hope to those around him, from the formerly dispirited numbered children to Chigusa, who has never had anyone cry for his sake or wish to protect him before in his life. There’s a lovely passage in volume seven, for example, in which Chigusa—who can heal his wounds when he’s near Rakan—thinks, “The holes in me are filling up,” a sentiment that is both literally and figuratively true at that moment.

There’s also a lot of comedy in the series, though most of it hinges on Narushige and Tohji attempting to put a stop to Chigusa’s tendency to touch Rakan whenever possible. I continue to adore Koh, the talking snake, and was unabashedly delighted when a new animal companion joins the group at the end of volume seven. I swear that I am not normally so easily swayed by talking critters; it’s just that Sugiura does them so well!

The pace may be slow and the plot a little skimpy, but if you’re looking for a story with loads of loveable characters building warm, strong friendships and a generous helping of non-human cuteness, then this just might be the series for you!

The Sharing Knife: Horizon by Lois McMaster Bujold: B-

From the front flap:
In a world where malices—remnants of ancient magic—can erupt with life-destroying power, only soldier-sorcerer Lakewalkers have mastered the ability to kill them. But Lakewalkers keep their uncanny secrets and themselves from the farmers they protect, so when patroller Dag Redwing Hickory rescued farmer girl Fawn Bluefield, neither expected to fall in love, join their lives in marriage, or defy both their kin to seek new solutions to the perilous split between their peoples.

Fawn and Dag see that their world is changing, and the traditional Lakewalker practices cannot hold every malice at bay forever. Yet for all the customs that the couple has challenged thus far, they will soon be confronted by a crisis exceeding their worst imaginings, one that threatens their Lakewalker and farmer followers alike. Now the pair must answer in earnest the question they’ve grappled with since they killed their first malice together: when the old traditions fail disastrously, can their untried new ways stand against their world’s deadliest foe?

Review:
If I didn’t like Dag and Fawn, The Sharing Knife: Horizon would be one of the most boring books I’ve ever read.

Having reached the end of their river voyage, Dag and Fawn pause long enough to witness the marriage of Whit and Berry before parting ways with Fawn’s brother and his new bride and heading to New Moon Cutoff, a Lakewalker camp where a renowned medicine maker, Arkady Waterbirch, lives. There, Dag finds an explanation for some of his abilities that is far more positive than the dark alternatives he’d been fearing and apprentices with the fastidious Arkady for several months.

Arkady is opposed to Dag practicing medicine on “farmers,” but when a child stricken with lockjaw needs his help, Dag goes willingly, knowing that he might be sacrificing the incredibly valuable apprenticeship as a result. The boy survives, but Dag’s actions throw New Moon camp into a tizzy so he decides to head back up north with newly pregnant Fawn rather than succumb to the restrictions the camp leader wants to oppose on him. A little way down the road, he’s joined by Arkady, staging his own protest against the leader’s decision.

Along the way they acquire various traveling companions—farmers and Lakewalkers both—until their party numbers more than two dozen. Dag fashions a trio of necklaces designed to help veil farmers’ grounds and protect them against malices. These are put to the test right at the end of the book when the party stumbles upon a particularly awful malice and Fawn (with help from Whit and Berry) proves again how resourceful and useful farmers can be if allowed to help. The implication is that the tale of this deed will spread far and wide and help foster a sense of cooperation between the two peoples.

Most of the book focuses on what Dag is learning and, true, it can be kind of interesting sometimes. Bujold has created an admirably consistent world for her characters to inhabit, so all of the detail about the healing techniques Dag is learning pretty much makes sense. It’s just that the narrative moves so slowly. I never do particularly well with a story whose whole plot is, “And then they walked a lot,” and that’s essentially what this book becomes in its second half.

Also, there’s too many characters at the end. Some of the new ones are interesting—I’m fond of Dag’s patroller niece, Sumac, and I can see why the half-Lakewalker siblings Calla and Indigo are important as a preview of what Dag and Fawn’s own children might be like—but many are nondescript. It’s easy to forget some of them are even there; I certainly did so more than once.

Ultimately, I did enjoy The Sharing Knife series and, though it’s easy to fault it for being too long and rambly, I don’t have any particular recommendations for how it could be made shorter.

Additional reviews of The Sharing Knife: Horizon can be found at Triple Take.

Foiled by Jane Yolen and Mike Cavallaro: B-

From the front flap:
Aliera Carstairs doesn’t fit in. She’s invisible at high school. She’s too visible at the fencing gym. Aliera’s starting to wonder… where does she belong?

Review:
Tenth grader Aliera Carstairs has established a routine: go to school, go to fencing class, go home. On Saturdays she plays a table-top RPG with her wheelchair-bound cousin, Caroline. She’s exceptionally good at fencing, but that doesn’t seem to matter much in her daily life, the drabness of which is conveyed by the art’s uniformly greenish-grey color scheme (also indicative of Aliera’s color blindness). When a cute boy named Avery Castle transfers into her high school and is assigned as her lab partner, Aliera forgets the golden rule of fencing: protect your heart.

While Aliera begins to fall for Avery despite some decidedly odd behavior on his part, she’s also ruminating a lot on her new practice foil, a $2 find (complete with gaudy “ruby”) that has helped improve her skills. One day, as she’s waiting in Grand Central Station for a tardy Avery to show up to a movie date, Aliera puts on her fencing mask to protect herself from a dive-bombing bird and can suddenly see a plethora of colorful fantasy creatures mingling with the ordinary travelers. She must immediately dispel some kind of evil cloud with her bejeweled foil, learns Avery’s secret (spoiled by Jane Yolen’s thank-you section in the front of the book), and is told that she’s a Defender of the Kingdom of Helfdon, but must receive more details from a Slayer. Or something.

I would like to say that Foiled is a story about a lonely girl finding her place, except she doesn’t quite manage to do so. Instead, it’s more of a prologue to a story about a lonely girl finding her place. I can only assume a sequel will follow. Not that Foiled isn’t enjoyable on its own, however. Aliera is a wry narrator with a conversational style and, though I do not get at all why she thinks Avery is dreamy when he obviously enjoys dissecting a frog way too much, I can sympathize with her excitement that any boy, let alone a cute one, has finally noticed her.

My main problem with the book is the somewhat jerky pace of the narrative. Some scenes are a little too choppy, some scenes of bickering between Aliera and Avery go on a little too long, and at one point, Aliera asks Avery, “What was that all about—the rats, the green glass crown?” except we haven’t seen a green glass crown! I can only assume that something was cut and an editor didn’t catch this reference. The cliffhanger—we end with many unanswered questions about Aliera’s role as Defender—is also awkwardly executed; even just a little more resolution would’ve made it feel like Foiled had functioned like a self-contained story while sustaining a sense of momentum going forward.

If a sequel to Foiled is released, I’ll read it. Perhaps I’ll appreciate this prologue more when I can actually see where it’s headed.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Fullmetal Alchemist 1-2 by Hiromu Arakawa: B+

I’ve been hoarding volumes of Fullmetal Alchemist for several years. Having heard it praised for its impressive storytelling, I decided to wait until it was nearer to being finished in Japan before starting it, with the idea that I might be spared some of the long waits between volumes that other fans have endured. But now, word is that the end is nigh, and with Melinda recommending it to me so ardently, the time has finally come. Cracking open that first volume felt like quite the momentous occasion.

Edward and Alphonse Elric are unlike normal teenage boys. Both studied alchemy as children and when Edward found a way to bring their beloved mother back to life, the boys performed the ritual without a second thought, not realizing—in the “equivalent exchange” demanded by alchemy—that it would cost Edward his left leg and Alphonse his entire body. After exchanging his right arm for Alphonse’s soul, Edward grafted the soul into the one human-shaped thing that was handy at the time: a suit of armor. Edward is haunted by this mistake, not to mention the memory of what they actually managed to resurrect for their sacrifice, and his primary concern is regaining their original bodies. To that end, they travel the world looking for the Philosopher’s Stone, an alchemical power booster that might make this possible.

The brothers’ travels bring them into contact with trouble in various forms. Their first deed is to expose an alchemist posing as a religious figure, followed by freeing occupants of a mining town from the corruption of a military official and foiling a train hijacking. While this is going on, Edward is also trying to learn as much as he can about biological transmutation. In the second volume, his research leads him to a state alchemist who’s had some success in this area, which in turn takes the story down a very dark avenue involving human experimentation and a vigilante named Scar who takes it upon himself to execute alchemists who have violated the laws of nature.

I knew exceedingly little about Fullmetal Alchemist going into this, which is great. I knew about the brothers’ injuries, though not how they obtained them, and I knew they’d meet a mechanically inclined girl at some point. That’s it. As a result, I was surprised by a number of things as I read, including the presence of comedy. I’m not sure why I thought there wouldn’t be any, but having lighthearted moments sprinkled throughout is definitely welcome, especially once the story delves into more disturbing territory. I particularly love anything that shows that Alphonse, trapped inside a hulking steel shell, is really just a kid.

I was also surprised (and impressed) that the series tackles the religion vs. science question right away with the story of the fraudulent holy man. This also provides an opportunity to introduce Edward’s feelings about alchemy: because alchemists strive to understand the laws of nature, they are perhaps the closest to God that a human can achieve, but overstepping certain bounds—he likens this to the hubris of Icarus—leads only to sorrow and pain. His conflicted feelings resurface several times in these two volumes; one gets the idea that he would like to avoid the very kind of alchemy he’s been researching, but because it’s his best chance at bodily restoration, he’s got no choice.

Lastly, I was downright shocked by some things in the second volume. Somehow, I had expected the Elric brothers to save Nina, the child of a desperate alchemist about to lose state funding, from her father’s experimentation, but this was not to be. Similarly, I expected them to escape grievous bodily harm when fighting Scar so imagine my surprise when both are gravely injured in volume two. That’s just not normal! Shounen heroes are supposed to sustain wounds that would kill an average guy three times over and then get up for more!

I had originally planned to read three volumes for this review, but so much had happened by the end of volume two that I required time to digest it all. I’m used to a shounen manga’s second volume being the stage of the story where some wacky episodic hijinks introduce our hero to the rivals who’ll eventually become part of his entourage. It’s usually not until half a dozen volumes later that you glimpse the real meat of the story. Not so with Fullmetal Alchemist, which lulls you into expecting that episodic setup but makes with the buildup and continuity right away. I can already tell, and believe me that I mean this as a most sincere compliment, that this is going to be one challenging series.

Fullmetal Alchemist is published in English by VIZ. There are 22 volumes currently available, with volume 23 due out next month. We’re pretty close to being caught up to Japan, where volume 25 just came out in late April.