The Story of Saiunkoku 2 by Kairi Yura and Sai Yukino: B+

From the back cover:
Shurei Hong, destitute but of noble birth, has always dreamed of working as a civil servant in the imperial court of Saiunkoku, but women are barred from holding office. The emperor Ryuki, however, refuses to take command, leaving everything to his advisors. Shurei is asked to become a consort to the emperor to persuade the ne’er-do-well ruler to govern.

After realizing Ryuki has been faking his ignorance, an enraged Shurei demands to be sent home immediately. Ryuki then locks Shurei in her room, unaware he has now put his consort in great danger…

With this volume, The Story of Saiunkoku proves that is more than just a romance. Even though the developing relationship between Shurei, a poor yet noble lady brought in to the imperial palace to serve as consort and tutor, and Ryuki, her vacuous-seeming charge, remains the driving force for much of what happens, more space is devoted here to exploring the political rivalries and ambitions of others and how their schemes impact the main characters.

Essentially, in order to motivate Ryuki to give up his charade of stupidity and become a worthy emperor, one of his advisors puts Shurei’s life in peril. Ryuki rises to the challenge admirably, shedding his foolish façade and employing badass sword skills and cleverness to come to the rescue. Along the way, he admits why he was acting so dumb in the first place as well as why he has been avoiding relationships with women, even though he actually does fancy them as much as men. Both explanations make a surprising amount of sense.

If volume one served to introduce us to Shurei and her awesomeness, volume two does the same for Ryuki. He’s not only capable of great competence, but he’s also an honest guy and genuinely loves Shurei. She, however, sees her position at court as only temporary and when it becomes obvious that Ryuki doesn’t need a tutor after all, she heads home.

Other nice things about this volume are the brotherly reunion scenes between Ryuki and Seien, who was technically banished thirteen years ago but whose current identity has been obvious; a thoroughly surprising revelation about the Black Wolf, an assassin who did the bidding of the previous emperor; a plethora of attractive bishounen; and the bonus chapter about Ryuki’s love of Shurei’s steamed buns, which he has unknowingly been consuming since childhood (his tutor was Shurei’s father). Thanks to this last, I now have a serious craving.

I’m really enjoying The Story of Saiunkoku a great deal, especially now that it’s gotten beyond the few episodes I saw of the anime. I’m hopeful that the balance between romance and politics will continue, since both leads are at their best when required to exercise their intellect.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

The Story of Saiunkoku 1 by Kairi Yura and Sai Yukino: B+

From the back cover:
Shurei Hong, destitute but of noble birth, has always dreamed of working as a civil servant in the imperial court of Saiunkoku, but women are barred from holding office. The emperor Ryuki, however, refuses to take command, leaving everything to his advisors. Shurei is asked to become a consort to the emperor to persuade the ne’er-do-well ruler to govern.

Shurei enters the palace as Ryuki’s consort, but he has yet to seek her out. It is rumored that men, not women, share the emperor’s bedchamber. Shurei must think of a way to stop the emperor from shirking his responsibilities, but she has to find him first!

I can no longer remember when or how I was exposed to the anime adaptation of The Story of Saiunkoku (originally a series of light novels). While I liked the characters and the setting, I never mustered a passionate devotion to the series and didn’t get beyond the first few episodes. Happily, I have a feeling things will be different with the manga adaptation.

The first volume covers ground familiar to me: sixteen-year-old Shurei Hong is the clever and hard-working daughter of an impoverished but noble family in the capital city of Saiunkoku, “the country of the colored clouds.” Her father maintains the imperial archives but doesn’t make much money, so Shurei supplements the family’s income by tutoring children and taking on other odd jobs. One day, the Head Minister, Lord Advisor Sho, turns up at their home with a proposition: he’ll pay Shurei a hefty sum to enter the court as the emperor’s consort and whip the nineteen-year-old shirker into shape.

Shurei immediately consents, and it’s a job she’s well-suited for, as a noblewoman with nothing but beauty to recommend her would not be learned or capable enough to complete the task at hand. Alas, the emperor, Ryuki, avoids her to the point where the ministers (a trio of awesomely scheming old dudes) are about to orchestrate a meeting. When they finally do meet, Ryuki pretends to be someone else, but Shurei sees through him almost immediately. Still, she plays along, sharing her ideal vision of an emperor with him and letting him know that she’ll be beside him all the way. Ryuki eventually declares that he will learn governance, and the two of them begin taking lessons from Koyu Ri, a brilliant young civil servant.

Although Shurei is a strong and interesting lead, towards the end of the volume Ryuki steals the show in a big way. He pretends to be somewhat of an elegant spaz (He actually reminds me of Tamaki in Ouran High School Host Club, though not as frantic.), but is actually educated and an accomplished swordsman. As we learn more about his past—as an “unnecessary” sixth prince, he was bullied by his brothers and neglected and abused by his mother—we learn why he finds Shurei so appealing. Rumors abound of Ryuki’s taste for men, but it’s not clear whether this is something sexual or merely related to his fear of being alone with the dark. He’s a damaged but likable guy, and being with Shurei brings him peace but also strength. The happy expression on his face when she finally invites him into her bed chamber for the night (he’s previously had to sneak in) is positively adorable.

The enjoyable interaction between Shurei and Ryuki may be the centerpiece of the story, but a pair of political subplots serve to flesh out the story. First, due to her proximity to the emperor, as well as rumors that an heir will soon be produced, Shurei becomes the target of assassins. Ryuki enlists the aid of two retainers to protect her, earning their loyalty by finally placing his trust in their abilities. The second concerns Ryuki’s older brother, Seien, who was banished as a teen for treason committed by his maternal relatives. It’s hinted very strongly that Seiran, the sole remaining servant to the Hong family, is the missing brother, but that’s not yet confirmed.

Somehow, the manga interpretation of the story is able to capture my interest more fully than the anime. I feel like I understand more what’s going on and can remember the cast of characters more easily—maybe Kairi Yura’s lovely art is responsible for that. Too, I’m now eager to reach parts of the story that are new to me. Alas, I shall have to wait until February for volume two!

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Taliesin by Stephen R. Lawhead: C+

From the back cover:
It was a time of legend, when the last shadows of the mighty Roman conqueror faded from the captured Isle of Britain. While across a vast sea, bloody war shattered a peace that had flourished for two thousand years in the doomed kingdom of Atlantis.

Taliesin is the remarkable adventure of Charis, the Atlantean princess who escaped the terrible devastation of her homeland, and of the fabled seer and druid prince Taliesin, singer at the dawn of the age. It is the story of an incomparable love that joined two worlds amid the fires of chaos, and spawned the miracles of Merlin… and Arthur the king.

Oh man, I am old. I have owned this book—the whole of Lawhead’s Pendragon Cycle, in fact—for at least twenty years. And yes, it has taken me that long to get around to reading it. Given that I’ve held onto this book for a couple of decades now, I really did want to like it, but I unfortunately found it rather boring.

In the beginning, the narrative alternates between Wales, where an unlucky prince named Elphin finds the babe Taliesin (pronounced Tallyéssin) in a salmon weir and raises him as his own, and Atlantis, where Princess Charis loses her mother in the opening skirmish of a war and spends seven years dancing in a bull ring until the prophecy of Atlantis’ doom comes true. Only a few ships’ worth of Atlanteans are saved, and by the time they claim a bit of Britain for themselves, Taliesin has become a respected bard and druid. (Note: while much is made regarding the beauty of Taliesin’s singing voice, no specifics are offered—I’m not even sure whether its register is specified—so it’s impossible to imagine what it sounds like.)

It takes a very, very long time for Taliesin and Charis to meet. Theirs is a destined love, which means they love each other on first sight and decide to get married pretty quickly. Oh, Charis mounts a token resistance because she knows her father will never agree to her marrying Taliesin, whom he regards as a barbarian, but fairly quickly decides to go through with it regardless of his wishes. Although we are told often that they love each other, I’m not exactly sure why they do. We are told that they talk often, but dialogue between them is actually rather sparse. Rather than two people in love, they’re treated more like pawns whose purpose is to beget Merlin. The same could be said for many characters in Arthurian legend, but in a 486-page book, I don’t think expecting more is unreasonable.

Near the end, Taliesin goes gaga for Jesus and begins talking up the “Savior God” everywhere he goes. It’s at this point that I understand why a quote on the back cover compares Lawhead to C. S. Lewis. Christianity undeniably plays a significant part in Arthurian legend—that whole Holy Grail business, for instance—but turning Taliesin into God’s fervent mouthpiece makes him less interesting.

In the end, despite my complaints, I intend to continue with the series. Perhaps as I encounter more characters with whom I’m familiar, I’ll begin to enjoy it more. And perhaps Merlin will not be as prone to religious zealotry as his father. Let us hope.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen 1 by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill: B-

From the front flap:
London, 1898. The Victorian Era draws to a close and the twentieth century approaches. It is a time of great change and an age of stagnation, a period of chaste order and ignoble chaos. It is an era in need of champions.

Allan Quatermain, Captain Nemo, Hawley Griffin, Dr. Henry Jekyll, Mr. Edward Hyde, and Mina Murray are those champions and together they comprise the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

Recruited by the enigmatic Campion Bond, under orders from the mysterious “M,” these six adventurers are pressed into service by their empire in its time of need. Now they must face the nefarious Doctor and his vile plan for world domination. But things are not entirely as they seem; other factors, cryptic and corpuscular, are also at play. A remarkable drama ensues.

“The British Empire has always encountered difficulty in distinguishing between its heroes and its monsters.”

It’s 1898 and Mina Murray (Dracula), back from her Transylvanian adventure and now divorced from Jonathan Harker, works for a mysterious person named Mr. M, whom she assumes is Mycroft Holmes, brother of the great (and currently presumed dead) detective. Mr. M claims to have the welfare of the British Empire at heart when he assigns Mina to recruit various unsavory fellows.

She has already teamed up with Captain Nemo (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) and together they venture to Egypt, where they pick up opium-addled Allen Quatermain (from the African adventures penned by H. Rider Haggard); to Paris, where they restrain the murderous Edward Hyde and his mild-mannered creator, Dr. Henry Jekyll; and to a girl’s school in London where Hawley Griffin, the invisible man, has been having his way with the students. Each recruit ultimately joins the cause, though their motivations for doing so vary widely, and when the team is assembled they receive their first assignment: retrieve some stolen Cavorite, a mineral that enables flight, which is now in the hands of a Chinese crime boss.

Their journey takes them into extremely squalid areas of London and into contact with some very unsavory people, but the real story begins when they turn over the recovered Cavorite to their go-between with Mr. M and Griffin decides to see what he can learn about their mysterious leader’s identity. Up until this point, I hadn’t really enjoyed it very much, but the last three chapters are actually pretty cool, with a lot of action and the characters functioning together more as a team, though of course one can never forget that some of them (notably Griffin) are not remotely trustworthy. The conclusion is an exciting one, and I liked it well enough that I intend to continue on with the second volume.

That said, there are some things that bug me about The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. The stylized art is rather weird, for one. I’ve not read a lot of Western comics, true, but I’m used to there being some short of shading in a character’s eyes. Here, you just get one shade, which takes some getting used to. Also, I assume that the exceptionally teeny waists on the corseted Victorian ladies are intended to be a sort of commentary on their restrictive situation, but they look strange nonetheless.

This exactly parallels the treatment of the sole female on the team, Mina Murray. Moore often portrays Mina as competent and clever, and unfairly condescended to by men of her acquaintance. Indeed, he seems critical of society’s views towards women in that era, which is well and good. At the same time, though, he puts Mina into unnecessarily gratuitous situations (nearly raped twice), has her denegrate her own “ridiculous female naiveté,” and, in a frightening moment, has her seek solace in the arms of a man. Now, one could argue that Moore is showing that Mina herself is not immune from society’s influence and is only saying and doing things that are expected of her, but that doesn’t explain the attempted rapes.

Ultimately, it took a little while for me to warm up to this series, but I liked the place it was in by the end of the volume and look forward to checking out the next one. As soon as I pay my steadily mounting library fines, that is. Sheesh.

More reviews of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen can be found at Triple Take.

Marvel 1602 by Neil Gaiman, Andy Kubert, and Richard Isanove: B

From the front flap:
The year is 1602, and strange things are stirring in England. In the service of Queen Elizabeth, court magician Dr. Stephen Strange senses that the bizarre weather plaguing the skies above is not of natural origin. Her majesty’s premier spy, Sir Nicholas Fury, fends off an assassination attempt on the Queen by winged warriors rumored to be in service to a mad despot named Doom. News is spreading of “witchbreed” sightings—young men bearing fantastic superhuman powers and abilities. And in the center of the rising chaos is Virginia Dare, a young girl newly arrived from the New World, guarded by a towering Indian warrior. Can Fury and his allies find a connection to these unusual happenings before the whole world ends?

The basic premise of Marvel 1602 is an interesting one: characters from Marvel’s roster of heroes are born 400 years too early, and here we see them as they would appear in the final days of Queen Elizabeth’s reign. Nick Fury is Elizabeth’s intelligence chief, Dr. Strange is her physician, and various other familiar characters appear as either “witchbreed” (the X-Men), inquistors (Magneto), freelance agents of the crown (Daredevil), or antagonists (Doctor Doom).

This would seem like a recipe for much coolness, but unfortunately the plot is a rather convoluted. There are no less than four subplots going on at once, and though they do converge at the end, early chapters are rather disjointed and later ones feel rushed. Even though I was never really invested in the story, it’s still fairly decent overall, with some elements that are more appealing than others. One thing that I thought was kind of lame was having characters make prescient comments, like when Professor Xavier remarks, “Sometimes I dream of building a room in which danger would come from nowhere.” Okay, even I get that and know how cheesy it is.

Possibly I would’ve liked this more had I more readily recognized the characters that were being portrayed. Certain ones are easy—I can recognize most of the standard good guys in Marvel’s stable of stars, it seems—but I completely failed to grasp clues as to the Grand Inquisitor’s identity (two major ones being the identities of his two helpers) until his ability to manipulate metal made me go, “Ohhhh.” I’m sure that real Marvel fans had figured it out way before then. I’ve also never before encountered the character of Black Widow so I didn’t recognize her. Kudos to Gaiman for employing her in a role—a freelance agent helping Nick Fury and Daredevil—that seems to be perfectly in keeping with the character’s established history.

In the end, Marvel 1602 is a pretty fun read. It didn’t rock my world or anything, but it did familiarize me a little more with some elements of the Marvel universe, even while presenting them in an alternate time line. I can’t complain about that!

A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray: B-

greatterribleFrom the back cover:
Gemma Doyle isn’t like other girls. Girls with impeccable manners, who speak when spoken to, who remember their station, who dance with grace, and who will lie back and think of England when it’s required of them.

No, sixteen-year-old Gemma is an island unto herself, sent to the Spence Academy in London after tragedy strikes her family in India. Lonely, guilt-ridden, and prone to visions of the future that have an uncomfortable habit of coming true, Gemma finds her reception a chilly one. She’s not completely alone, though… she’s been followed by a mysterious young man, sent to warn her to close her mind against the visions.

For it’s at Spence that Gemma’s power to attract the supernatural unfolds; there she becomes entangled with the school’s most powerful girls and discovers her mother’s connection to a shadowy, timeless group called the Order. It’s there that her destiny waits… if only Gemma can believe in it.

It’s 1895, and sixteen-year-old Gemma Doyle has finally got her wish and has come to London. It’s not how she’d envisioned achieving this goal, however, as it occurs only after her mother, who’d been steadfastly diverting Gemma’s pleas to leave India and see London for quite some time now, kills herself under mysterious circumstances. With Gemma’s father incapacitated by grief, she is largely left in the charge of her grandmother, who promptly ships her off to Spence, a boarding school where she will be made into a proper (read: obedient) lady.

While all of this is going on, and while Gemma is being bullied by a group of influential girls at school, she’s having disturbing visions and receiving warnings to quit having them from a handsome Indian boy named Kartik. Eventually she both befriends those girls and decides to disregard Kartik’s warnings entirely. The girls learn of a powerful group of women, the Order, and decide to reenact some of their rituals, not realizing at first how very real it all is. Things get out of hand, as magical dabbling often does, and the consequences are rather grim.

I’ve got mixed feelings about A Great and Terrible Beauty. On the negative side, it takes quite a while before the story makes sense. It’s not clear, for example, whether Kartik’s warnings ought to be heeded and Gemma is a fool for disregarding them, or whether he is simply trying to keep her from developing her powers as she should. As a result, I couldn’t tell whether I ought to find Gemma willful and annoying or cheer her on, which was a problem again later when she is shown some magical runes and then promptly told she mustn’t ever use them, yadda yadda. Well, you just know she’s going to, and at least I found her rationale for finally giving in kind of sympathetic, but we’re subjected to all kinds of petulant wheedling before that point. The ending is also rather strange in that I don’t understand how Gemma doing one thing causes another to happen.

On the positive side, I like the atmosphere of the school and its grounds as well as the evocation of the time period. The book is at its most compelling when it focuses on the plight of women in this era: little is expected of them save for placid compliance—no real academics are taught at Spence, for example—and they are often used as bargaining chips in marriages not of their own choosing. Each of the four girls in the new Order is unhappy with her lot in some degree, summed up nicely in a ghost story as told by former bully, Felicity:

Once upon a time, there were four girls. One was pretty, one was smart, one charming and one… one was mysterious. But they were all damaged, you see. Something not right about the lot of them. Bad blood, big dreams… They were all dreamers, these girls. One by one, night after night, the girls came together and they sinned. Do you know what that sin was? No one? Their sin was that they believed, believed they could be different, special. They believed they could change who they were. Not damaged, unloved, cast-off things. They would be alive, adored, needed, necessary.

But it wasn’t true.

I listened to A Great and Terrible Beauty as an unabridged audiobook, and I’d be remiss if I neglected to praise the excellent narrator, Josephine Bailey. She does a truly amazing job in giving each character a distinctive voice—so much so that it’s hard to believe at times that it’s one person behind them all. Her performance is one of the most impressive I’ve ever heard and I’ve heard quite a lot.

At this point, I am unsure whether I wish to continue with the series. In its favor is the fact that I already own the other two books in the trilogy, but since I find the plot rather muddled and the protagonist quite irritating at times that’s about all it has going for it at the moment. Besides my completist nature, that is.