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.

Cheeky Angel 19-20 by Hiroyuki Nishimori: B-

With these two volumes, Cheeky Angel comes to a close. Although it’s a bit rushed, the conclusion is ultimately fitting.

Warning: spoilers ahead.
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Oh! My Brother 2 by Ken Saito: B-

It’s been one month since Masago Kamoguchi’s brilliant older brother, Shiro, died and began possessing her. With all of this going on, Masago hasn’t been studying, so when exam time comes around, she allows Shiro to take the tests for her and ends up with a perfect score. Her impressive performance prompts a teacher to encourage her to run for student council, a decision she waffles about for a little while until gaining some confidence. Meanwhile, Shiro debates the wisdom of lingering in his sister’s body while his friend, Kurouma, deals with the knowledge that Masago likes him but views him as utterly unattainable.

I really want to like Oh! My Brother, and sometimes I manage to do so. I like Kurouma a lot, for example—it’s so refreshing that he actually notices Masago’s feelings!—and also the way Shiro’s possession is portrayed as a double-edged sword. True, his presence lends Masago strength in crucial moments, particularly in dealing with a bullying older girl, but her reliance on him is also holding her back in certain areas; although Shiro is willing to let go, it’s Masago who desperately makes him promise to stay with her forever.

On the other hand, there is a lot of extranneous material here that detracts from what’s good about this series. Some of the comedy feels out of place, and there are a few too many Shiro-obsessed characters floating around, from the aforementioned bully, to a former soccer rival, to a cool and competent member of the student council. If the focus had been more on the drama of Masago’s situation, coupled with the need to let go of Shiro in order to become open to other kinds of love, I’d like it so much more. As it is, I must be content with the occasional glimmer of what could have been.

Review copy provided by the publisher. Review originally published at Manga Recon.

Cheeky Angel 14-15 by Hiroyuki Nishimori: B-

The Ideal Woman competition proposed by Megumi’s self-appointed rival, Keiko, continues into volume fourteen. Megumi and Genzo, who have been partnered up for the contest, begin the volume by finishing off a random thug who’d threatened them, and successfully make it to the inn that serves as their goal for the day. After a random chapter in which Keiko and Megumi attempt to scare each other in their supposedly haunted rooms, the competition resumes the next day with a hike through the woods.

Unfortunately, the thugs return and most of the rest of the volume and some of the next is spent on our heroes running around the woods and showing up just in time to protect their friends and thwart the baddies’ plans. I am beyond tired of this kind of plotting and just about equally tired of complaining about it. There are a couple of redeeming things about this arc, however.

First, Hitomoji is paired with Megumi’s best friend, Miki, and seems increasingly intrigued by her. Miki is lady-like, something Hitomoji prizes, but also smart and brave. I think they’d make a great couple. More significantly, when Megumi is captured by the bad guys, Miki gets so upset that it makes her say some odd things about the curse and how Meg was before. It’s a neat twist that I hope proves essential in the conclusion of the series; for now, Miki has forgotten that she ever said anything strange, leaving Hitomoji to try to puzzle things out for himself.

Secondly, Meg and Genzo share what is one of the nicest moments between them yet. Earlier, Genzo barged through a steel door to save Meg from her captors—upon whom she had already inflicted much damage—and now they’re back at the inn, where she approaches him with a first aid kit and an offer to patch him up.

Genzo: If you were a man, you’d be cooler than me. You don’t back down and no one can touch you. I’m almost… jealous.

Meg: I knew you’d come. That’s why I wasn’t scared.

That’s a line that couldn’t be pulled off by just any heroine. Here, instead of coming across as dependent and awed by her masculine protector, it’s clear that Meg is referring to a respect between equals. Even better, Genzo gets it. He won’t try to protect her from situations that he has deemed dangerous, but he’ll have her back, just like he would for a male buddy. Nice.

After a disappointing fizzle to the Ideal Woman competition (the chief contestants both forfeit), Megumi turns sixteen, which prompts her parents, now that she can legally marry, to introduce her to a bunch of eligible guys. She ends up going on a date with one of them—causing Genzo and Ichijo to bemoan their lack of adulthood—but thankfully it doesn’t seem like something that’s going to continue for very long. It’s okay to spend a couple of chapters on how charmed by this guy Megumi is not, but any longer and I’d be bored to pieces.

In the end, these two volumes are an improvement from the few before them and, while I don’t anticipate much of anything new in the final five volumes (prediction: there will be thugs!), I’m still looking forward to seeing how it all ends.

Sarasah 2-3 by Ryu Ryang: B-

Sarasah, which starts off as the story of Ji-Hae and the romantic obsession for an aloof and decidedly disinterested classmate that compels her to travel back in time to put right a misstep from their past lives (while disguised as a boy, naturally), widens its scope in these two volumes to include hidden motivations and political agendas.

The incorporation of these elements into the story is a vast improvement, as it gives Ja-Yun (the past life equivalent of Ji-Hae’s modern love) more of a personality, fleshes out the character of Bub-Min (a nobleman who knows Ji-Hae’s true gender), and gives Ji-Hae something to think about besides boys. Both Ja-Yun and Bub-Min are using her for their own purposes, and therefore take some of the focus away from Ji-Hae, whom I still can’t like, despite some improvement in her behavior.

Ryu Ryang’s art continues to be attractive, and the introduction of Misa-Heul, leader of the hwa-rang group to which Ja-Yun belongs, adds another bishounen to the cast. And even though spindly boys with bee-stung lips are not my personal preference, I can’t deny that the cover of this volume, which features Ja-Yun in all his aqua-haired glory, beguiles me with its prettiness.

After reading the first volume, I didn’t have much interest in continuing with this series. Now, though, I am at least marginally intrigued about where this story could be headed.

Review copy for volume three provided by the publisher. Review originally published at Manga Recon.

Cheeky Angel 11-13 by Hiroyuki Nishimori: C+


In my review of volumes 1-10 of Cheeky Angel, I wrote, “Sometimes I’m not a fan of episodic storylines, but Cheeky Angel pulls it off because Nishimori-sensei never loses sight of the most important aspect of the story: Megumi’s struggle to choose between accepting her current femininity and finding a way to return to what she once was.”

Unfortunately, this no longer holds true for this trio of volumes. Since the end of volume ten, when Megumi learned that the curse would eventually wear off and she’d revert to boyhood, the series has spent very little time occupying her head. Instead, she is seen almost exclusively from the point of view of other characters, and comes off as extremely changeable, so much so that it’s impossible to know what she’s thinking or feeling about her predicament. Without this unifying focus, Cheeky Angel becomes a string of mostly dissatisfying episodic stories.

That isn’t to say there are no cohesive elements, however. In volume eleven, the idea of a manliness contest is proposed, with Meg and her pals judging each other on how they behave in various situations. Genzo becomes obsessed with the idea of being a man and shrugging off adversity, which comes in handy when he becomes the victim of the curse that had formerly plagued Meg. His stoic acceptance of his fate earns him Meg’s admiration, and his change in attitude also helps him mature. Unfortunately, this also means we’re in for many, many scenes wherein Genzo is challenged by random thugs and must refrain from fighting back.

Many, many scenes.

Focus on the manliness competition fades in the next volume, however, when Meg’s nemesis, Keiko, proposes a womanliness contest, which Meg also agrees to enter. Here’s where some annoying glimmers of sexism arise. Initially, Meg is convinced that the womanliness contest will involve cooking, and she and Genzo agree to participate in a bento-making competition to give her some experience. When Genzo wins, he is berated by the ladies present for not allowing Meg to win. What? Girls need to be coddled so you don’t hurt our pwecious feewings?

Keiko’s got something bigger than cooking in mind, however, and in volume thirteen the idea of a treasure hunt is proposed. Meg’s devoted maid, Yoriko, wants to have some input on the rules, including an evaluation by judges on how well the candidate encourages her male partner. In her effort to convince Keiko, she says, “Drawing out the best in any man is the essence of being a woman. And hasn’t that always been the ultimate measure of womanliness?”

I averted the terrible tragedy of having flames shoot from my eyes by telling myself that perhaps Yoriko doesn’t mean this. It is later revealed, after all, that she stacked the deck in the partner-choosing lottery to ensure Meg would be paired with someone from her group of slightly loserish male friends, whom she would no doubt be called upon to encourage in the course of their adventure.

The treasure hunt starts promisingly but devolves, as all things must do with Cheeky Angel, into a conflict with random thugs. Aside from a few really nice moments—Genzo saving a chick at a summer festival and Yasuda’s clever attempt to get to the bottom of the genie’s wish-granting methods, which may prove important later—these three volumes are extremely disappointing. The series can do better than this; I hope it turns itself around soon.

The Masqueraders by Georgette Heyer: B-

masqueradersFrom the back cover:
Temporarily abandoned by their scapegrace father, Prudence and Robin Lacey are forced to masquerade as the opposite sex to avoid capture by their political enemies.

Prue makes a devilishly handsome young man and her brother Robin is equally beguiling as her “sister.”

This, however, makes for some dangerous entanglements when Prue, as Mr. Merriot, falls in love with Sir Anthony, and her brother, posing as Miss Merriot, finds his heart struck by the lovely heiress, Letty Grayson…

Review:
Long have I nurtured a desire to read the works of Georgette Heyer, and what better place to start than the one with all the cross-dressing!

The Masqueraders is best described as a romantic farce. Siblings Prudence and Robin Lacey are the children of an exceedingly clever father who repeatedly gets them both involved in his schemes. Most recently, this involved being part of the Jacobite rebellion, causing them to go into hiding garbed as members of the opposite sex. Their father sends them to stay with a family friend where they are introduced into society as Peter and Kate Merriot.

Prudence, in the guise of Peter, begins to develop affection for the large and observant Sir Anthony Fanshawe while Robin, as Kate, comes to feel for a young heiress called Letty Grayson. To top it off, their father soon arrives, claiming to be Tremaine of Barham, heir to a Viscounty. Because he is an infuriatingly circumspect fellow, he won’t give them a straight answer as to whether he really is this person or if it’s just another of his masquerades, and both children have their doubts. Insert into this narrative blooming romance, a surly rival for Letty’s affections, a masked ball, a second claimant, a duel avoided, a duel provoked, a rescue, a death, an arrest, a subsequent rescue, and a pleasant though predictable ending and one gets an idea of the nature of this lighthearted tale.

While I did enjoy reading The Masqueraders, it never succeeded in surprising me any. Too, I found the siblings’ father to be quite tiresome—especially his tendency to proclaim himself a great man—and never did see what Robin liked so much about Letty other than her looks; her head is full of thoughts of romance and little else. More to my liking was the pairing of Prudence and Sir Anthony. Stolid and wry, he’s a likable fellow and also admires Prudence for the best of reasons, citing that he has never once seen her betray fear or lose her head.

All in all, this is a frothy confection that amuses without offering much substance. Still, I definitely liked it will enough to persevere in my goal of reading all of Heyer’s works. I know her fans are many, so if anyone has any particular recommendations of what I ought to read next, I’d be happy to receive them.

Cheeky Angel 1-10 by Hiroyuki Nishimori: B

cheekyangel1These first ten volumes of Cheeky Angel have been sitting around my house gathering dust for several years. There’s nothing like agreeing to a manga trade, however, to inspire one to finally read something before it’s gone. I’m glad I did because I ended up enjoying them a good bit.

When rambunctious nine-year-old Megumi Amatsuka and his female pal Miki defend a mysterious wizard from some other kids, Megumi receives a magic book as a reward. From the book emerges a genie and Megumi promptly wishes to be the manliest of men. Instead, the genie turns him into the womanliest of women and tries to extort ten years of Megumi’s life to undo the change. An irate Megumi hurls the book into the river and has been a girl ever since. All records and memories of Megumi ever having been a boy were altered; only Miki remembers the way things used to be.

The story picks up again six years later when Megumi and Miki, steered by the counsel of a psychic, enroll at the neighborhood high school that will theoretically lead them to the book so that the transformation can be undone. Megumi (played in my brain by Summer Glau) has grown outwardly very feminine, but still possesses some masculine attitudes, namely a certain degree of rash fearlessness. Throughout the first few volumes, her looks attract a motley crew of admirers: Genzo the former thug, Ichiro the average guy, Hitomoji the wannabe samurai, and Yasuda the geeky pervert. Although the guys really would prefer for Meg to remain a girl, they nonetheless lend their assistance to her efforts to become a guy again.

cheekyangel4I haven’t read many series that were originally published in Shonen Sunday, but Cheeky Angel does share common attributes with two that I have read—Case Closed and Inuyasha. In all three series, there is a larger plot that is touched on from time to time, but most of the story is made up of the episodic adventures (with a dash of comedy) of a likable ensemble of characters. In these ten volumes, Megumi encounters the genie twice more (on the first occasion it places a curse on her and on the second it informs her that the magic will eventually wear off of its own accord), and it’s definitely interesting each time, but more time is spent on foiling the murderous plans of some yakuza, preventing Miki from going through with an arranged marriage, et cetera. Just as no one believes anything fruitful will come of Inuyasha’s encounters with Naraku until the very end, there’s no real chance Megumi will suddenly become a boy again in the middle of this 20-volume series.

Sometimes I’m not a fan of episodic storylines, but Cheeky Angel pulls it off because Nishimori-sensei never loses sight of the most important aspect of the story: Megumi’s struggle to choose between accepting her current femininity and finding a way to return to what she once was. Even during the whole yakuza encounter, this dilemma is at the forefront of Meg’s mind and keeps the series focused even while silliness occasionally ensues. Because of her beauty, guys are continually showing their worst sides around her—coming off as horndogs, chiefly—which makes her question whether she really wants to be one, but then at other times her friends will come through for her in a big way and earn her admiration, reinforcing her “it’s cool to be a guy” belief while simultaneously inspiring some confusing semi-romantic feelings.

cheekyangel7While Megumi’s internal indecision is probably the most compelling aspect of the series, her relationships with the other characters are also rewarding. Miki is a very interesting character in her own right, the voice of reason who wants Megumi to stay a girl, but yet questions her own reasons for doing so. Although Miki claims she never thought of the male Megumi in a romantic light, there are hints from time to time that the two of them might’ve had something if Megumi had stayed a guy. Megumi’s effect on her male friends is also nice to see: Genzo makes obvious progress in thinking things through more clearly and restraining his impulses to glomp Meg, and Ichiro surprises himself by displaying courage in some dangerous situations. I also like how their perception of Meg changes from lust object to valued and respected friend, with the possible exception of terminally pervy Yasuda.

On the negative side, the biggest problem Cheeky Angel has is its repetitiveness. I cannot begin to tell you how many times Megumi encounters a couple of lecherous thugs while out in public and kicks them into submission: it happens many, many, many times. And while I completely get that her feelings for Genzo, the forerunner for her affections, would vacillate, depending on how accepting she’s feeling of her feminine side, the cycle of progress followed by backsliding (usually prompted by him doing something moronic) does get a little frustrating. In addition, some of the episodic plots are pretty lame and Meg’s family—a dad who wants to see his own daughter naked and a mother who encourages Meg to let him indulge his curiosity—is profoundly creepy. Thank goodness they appear so rarely.

cheekyangel10Artistically, Nishimori is to be commended on a few points. Yes, at first, his characters do occasionally appear to be vaguely cross-eyed, but he also employs a variety of character designs (except for the thugs) that all look Asian. Also of note: there is no fanservice at all in this series! For a manga about a hot chick who might possibly have feelings for her pretty friend, one might reasonably expect there to be something, but there never is. Megumi and Miki generally wear their school uniforms, but on casual outings are dressed either conservatively or in baggy clothing. VIZ’s production doesn’t earn as much praise, however, as there are several terms that could’ve used liner notes and a smattering of occasions where dialogue appears in the incorrect bubble.

Ultimately, Cheeky Angel is a shounen ensemble comedy with a good deal to offer. I read these ten volumes pretty much back-to-back and I could’ve gone on reading more if I’d actually owned them.

Angel Diary 10 by Lee YunHee and Kara: C+

angeldiary10It’s been two years since the Princess of Heaven fled an arranged marriage with the King of Hell to live in disguise as a human schoolboy called Dong-Young. In the meantime, four Guardians have assembled themselves around her and Dong-Young has fallen in love with her classmate, Bi-Wal, who, you guessed it, just so happens to be the King of Hell.

Volume ten begins with one of the guardians killing a demon who threatens Dong-Young, which, in turn, prompts the demon’s extraordinarily powerful friend, Ryung, to seek vengeance. Ryung is Bi-Wal’s older brother, and the majority of the volume focuses on the two siblings as they attempt to work out their childhood issues of mistrust and misunderstanding while exchanging magical attacks and sword blows.

The end result of airing all of this angst is a confrontation that’s somewhat silly and yet somehow kind of appealing. The idea of a villain whose actions are inspired by pain is nothing new, and the story skates along so swiftly that an opportunity to make this conversation truly poignant is missed. Kara’s lovely art, which tends to focus on the characters’ expressive eyes, helps greatly in this regard, however.

In the end, although I’ve got no desire to catch up on this series from the beginning, I find that I’m actually rather interested in what will happen next.

Review copy provided by the publisher. Review originally published at Manga Recon.

Kaze Hikaru 6-8 by Taeko Watanabe: A-

kaze6Even though I’ve enjoyed the earlier volumes of Kaze Hikaru, it is these three volumes—which expertly combine romance, humor, character development, and historical events (with exciting bits of foreshadowing)—that have secured my undying love for the series.

We begin in the summer of 1864. The Shinsengumi is waiting for the Bakufu government to take a stand regarding exclusionism and is growing frustrated with the hesitant leadership. Instead of protecting the shogun, they’re being used to round up members of the radical Choshu clan. At one point, we see Vice Captain Hijikata torturing one of these fellows for information. I love that Watanabe-sensei doesn’t shy away from depicting these characters doing unheroic things (although I do weary of Sei objecting every time and showing no deference to authority) while managing to make them sympathetic anyway; it’s not as if Hijikata enjoys torturing someone, but he takes up the role of the hardass villain so that beloved Captain Kondo doesn’t have to.

The intelligence obtained by the torture indicates the Choshu clan will be gathering at an inn called Ikedaya to discuss an attack on Kyoto, which leads into one of the most awesome scenes in the series so far. Sei and Okita head out into battle together, and when he appears to’ve been killed, she is transfigured by fury and turns into quite a competent fighter. Further awesomeness occurs when, after seeing Okita safely to the infirmary, she doesn’t linger by his side but instead leaves him to return to the fray where her brothers are still fighting. It’s wonderful to see Sei so thoroughly exhibiting the qualities of a bushi, and I also love how much the Ikedaya incident will continue to influence the story from here on out.

kaze7One consequence of Sei’s impressive performance at the Ikedaya is that Captain Kondo wants to adopt her as his heir, an honor Sei must decline on account of her gender but without giving either a full explanation or offense. She wonders why Okita, who has essentially been raised by Kondo since the age of nine, isn’t the heir, and it is revealed that Okita has vowed to commit seppuku when Kondo dies. This explains a lot about Okita and his undying devotion to Kondo (further fleshed out in volume eight), and appearance of maintaining a carefree life. He can’t think about things like love, even though it appears at one point that he has begun to see Sei as something other than a child, because his life is not truly his to do with as he wishes. What a great reason for keeping two leads apart!

Meanwhile, two members of the Shinsengumi, Vice Captain Yamanami and Assistant Vice Captain Todo, receive a lot of attention in these volumes. Yamanami wasn’t able to participate in the Ikedaya incident due to illness, so he doesn’t receive the bonus pay that some men get and proceed to spend on whores. They feel sorry for him and lend him some money, and when he goes to the red light district, he meets Akesato, the lady with whom Sei stays three days a month while menstruation is in progress. Yamanami is a simple and kind fellow, and he and Akesato end up falling in love, but he’s reluctant to pursue it because it’d be a betrayal of his friend. Akesato finally admits Sei’s secret, so that makes two members of the Shinsengumi who know it now.

kaze8This development of Yamanami makes sense when, after a huge battle (Kinmon no Hen) ravages the city with fire, he and Todo (the sick members of the group who’ve been left behind to guard headquarters) think to head over to the nearby prison to help with evacuation. When they arrive, they find the magistrate in the act of murdering the prisoners rather than release them and react with hostility to his actions. While they await being sentenced to seppuku for their disrespect, Todo seeks out the source of rumors that the Shinsengumi was responsible for the atrocity and ends up falling in love with a prostitute. I guess no proper ladies want anything to do with these rowdy fellows.

I really don’t have any complaints. The historical moments are positively riveting, and though the slice-of-life aspects are understandably less so, they’re still quite good. I am kind of sad, though, that Okita’s backstory includes a scene where he runs into Sei as a child. What a shojo trope that is; I’m always kind of annoyed wherever it turns up, even when it’s in a great series like this one. And, make no mistake, it is great.