Jackaby, Books 1-4 by William Ritter

jackaby1Jackaby
I’ve seen this series described as “Sherlock meets Doctor Who,” and that is pretty apt. It’s January 1892 and our plucky British narrator, Abigail Rook, has just arrived in New England and needs employment. No one is hiring except for the eccentric investigator, R. F. Jackaby, who is looking for a new assistant since his previous one is “currently waterfowl.” Jackaby’s physical description is evocative of Benedict Cumberbatch in character as Sherlock, and he’s occasionally tactless, but aside from one early demonstration, he doesn’t do much in the way of deduction. Instead, he’s more like The Doctor—a kooky, scarf-wearing fellow who dashes about warning townspeople of supernatural threats while they regard him as “a crackpot imbecile.” Abigail is, of course, the companion—a clever girl who has always longed for adventure but who has until now been denied it. Happily, there is no hint of romance between them.

In this first installment, Abigail and Jackaby work together to solve a series of murders afflicting a particular apartment building. Jackaby, of course, can tell the culprit is a creature of some sort while the policeman in charge scoffs at this assertion and, at one point, locks Abigail and Jackaby up for impeding his investigation. Although I liked the characters—especially Jenny Cavanaugh, the ghostly resident of Jackaby’s headquarters—the mystery portion of the book was sadly predictable. “Obvious culprit is obvious,” I wrote in my notes, and though I didn’t work out what sort of creature was to blame, another character’s bestial secret was no surprise.

Still, I did enjoy Jackaby and like the characters and tone well enough to continue. I do hope the next mystery is a little less transparent, though.

the-map“The Map”
This short story takes place on Abigail’s birthday. She’s been quite clear about not wanting a fuss, but Jackaby is determined that they will have an adventure. Their first stop is a magical market, which she doesn’t enjoy much, to Jackaby’s disappointment. While there, however, they pick up a treasure map and proceed to complete a series of challenges in search of the treasure buried by the notorious rogue, the Bold Deceiver.

“The Map” may not be an essential piece of reading, but it was enjoyable nonetheless. I especially liked the challenge in which they must get past the enormous hare guarding a castle—that one was sad and funny simultaneously. I also like that they’re not 100% successful with all the tasks, since centuries have passed since they were set up. On the whole, it’s worth checking out.

jackaby2Beastly Bones
It’s now the spring of 1892 and Jackaby and Abigail have been sent to the nearby town of Gad’s Valley to investigate thefts from a paleontological dig site. Abigail is mad for fossils, so is very excited about this prospect, while Jackaby must be convinced it’s worth their time. Another benefit is that Abigail gets to spend more time with Charlie the handsome policeman, for whom she has feelings, though she’s unsure what to do about him. Jenny the ghost has advised her to go for it and make the first move while Nelly Fuller, intrepid lady reporter, chastises her for thinking about love. “Do you want to be safe and happy or do you want to be great?”

As I had hoped, the mystery in Beastly Bones is a definite improvement over the first book; despite being a fine example of Chekhov’s Gun, its multiple layers made for a more complex case. Mostly, however, I liked that one aspect of it remains unsolved. Even though this series has Sherlockian elements, it hadn’t occurred to me that there’d be a Moriarty equivalent, but it looks like there is!

Still, the characters remain the main draw. Jackaby can be brash and insulting, but he doesn’t talk down to Abigail or treat her like a kid. I enjoyed his aversion to hearing about her romantic problems, and his awkward attempts to be sweet. “Buck up; you’re dreadful company when you’re melancholy.” Abigail continues to be resourceful and likable. And though there wasn’t much of Jenny, the ending finds her enlisting Jackaby to delve into her own murder. I’m very much looking forward to it!

jackaby3Ghostly Echoes
I’d really been looking forward to Ghostly Echoes and the truth behind Jenny’s murder, but it wasn’t exactly what I’d been hoping for.

True, Jenny’s murder is solved, but there is practically zero exploration of the person she was when she was alive. The plot is more about the evil council responsible (turns out that Moriarty-seeming character from previous books was only stirring things up to keep Jackaby busy so this group of dark fae could keep an eye on him) and the looming threat to mankind. Jenny did grow tremendously in both confidence and ability, and had a few genuinely badass moments in which she got to save her friends. I also appreciated her realization that she is more than a mere echo of the girl who died, but has her own thoughts and feelings. “I’m my own somebody.” I liked all of that, but I still wish she’d been the focus throughout instead of only in places.

Too, there’s not really much Jackaby, either. Yes, we learn about his childhood friend who was the Seer before him and how the council was after her too, but he just seems so… deflated. I guess it’s reasonable for him to be subdued given the case and its implications—he was worried that closure for Jenny might mean she’d move on—but I missed the humor he used to bring to situations. I reckon there shan’t be much of that in the next volume, either, in which our heroes face off against the bad guys and attempt to save the world.

The Dire King
The final entry in the Jackaby series wasn’t bad but, like the previous installment, certain character moments that I really wanted to see play out were completely glossed over.

Jackaby and company are trying to prevent the Dire King from destroying the veil that separates the Annwn and our world. This involves locating a particular magical artifact, attempting to destroy a diabolical machine, clashing armies, and lots and lots of fairies and magical creatures. I cannot possibly express how little interest I have in lots and lots of fairies and magical creatures.

There was at least more Jackaby here, and a somewhat warmer one, which I appreciated. I just wish there was much more about him and Jenny. She’s finally able to overcome her inability to touch him when his life is on the line, and there’s the suggestion that they’re going to live happily ever after once the crisis has been averted, but man, I really wish we’d gotten a scene where he pours his heart out and she scolds him for taking so long while also crying happily. Similarly, while I like where Abigail ultimately ends up, the very end is briefly pretty great but then it’s just… over.

I know cheesy epilogues get maligned pretty often, but in this case I would’ve appreciated one!

Vagabond, Vols. 1-3

By Takehiko Inoue | Published by VIZ Media (first VIZBIG edition)

One of my goals for this Manga Moveable Feast was to finally read some of Vagabond. I’ve been collecting the VIZBIG editions since they started coming out, which means there were ten of these on my shelf (with their spines forming a group portrait) unread. Now that I finally have read some of Vagabond, I’ve found it so different from the Inoue I’m familiar with—and yet containing some of the same themes—that I’m rather at a loss for words.

Shinmen Takezo is the son of a legendary swordsman, though we don’t really find that out until volume three. Since the age of thirteen, when he killed a man who came to Miyamoto village looking to challenge its strongest occupant, he’s been ostracized by all save a couple of childhood friends and he’s recently been off to battle with one of them, Hon’iden Matahachi. They both survive a bloody battle, but Matahachi takes up with a thieving widow, leaving Takezo to return to Miyamoto with tidings of Matahachi’s survival.

To make a long story very short: Takezo meets with an unfriendly welcome and is manipulated by a clever monk named Takuan into reevaluating his life. Four years later, now going by the name Miyamoto Musashi, he shows up in Kyoto looking to challenge the head of the Yoshioka sword school, and though he defeats many of their members, he learns there are still those stronger than him. A drunken Matahachi accidentally sets the blaze that allows Musashi to escape, and the VIZBIG ends with him realizing that the old friend he left for dead might actually have survived.

Even though I knew this was about swordsmen, I somehow didn’t expect it to be as gory as it is. There are a lot of death blows being dealt here, as Musashi is obsessed with measuring/proving his strength against others and willing to sacrifice his life to this aim. That said, at times the art is absolutely gorgeous, and there are a few color pages that look like bona fide paintings. The scope, layout, and pacing of the story all lend it a cinematic feel that is genuinely impressive. There’s one scene early on, when Musashi turns around to face the one opponent left standing and it’s genuinely terrifying.

But yet, I mostly found it unaffecting. I expect there will be more insight into the main character as time progresses, but for now he’s so closed off, so proud of his strength and being hailed a demon that I can’t grow fond of him or endorse his goals. I have a feeling I’m not supposed to. I did identify with Matahachi a lot, though, especially his inferiority complex in regards to his friend and his inability to follow through with the heroic deeds he imagines himself performing. I like Otsu, the fiancée Matahachi left behind, and I’m intrigued by Takuan, the monk. I’ll keep reading for them, if nothing else.

One thing about Musashi reminds me a lot of Hisanobu Takahashi in Real. As a child, Hisanobu was attempting to master a particular basketball move that his father showed him. He worked very hard on it, but was never able to show his father because the latter abandoned the family. Musashi has also been abandoned by his mother and shunned by his father, and part of his drive to test himself seems due to the desire to show them his strength, show them that he doesn’t need to depend on anyone else. Musashi is a real historical figure, not a character Inoue created, but it seems like he’s drawn to these confident yet wounded types.

Ultimately, I can see why Vagabond is hailed as a masterpiece, and I will certainly keep reading it, but my heart will always belong to Inoue’s sports manga, Slam Dunk in particular. The heart wants what the heart wants!

Vagabond is published in English by VIZ Media. Single volumes up through 33 have been published, as well as ten “VIZBIG” editions comprised of three volumes each. An eleventh VIZBIG edition is scheduled to be released in December. Inoue has recently resumed the series in Japan, so the upcoming release of volume 34 (October) will be the first new Vagabond released in English in two years.

A Spy in the House by Y. S. Lee

From the back cover:
Mary Quinn leads a remarkable life. At twelve, an orphan and convicted thief, she was miraculously rescued from the gallows. Now, at seventeen, she has a new and astonishing chance to work undercover for the Agency.

It is May 1858, and a foul-smelling heat wave paralyzed London. Mary enters a rich merchant’s household to solve the mystery of his lost cargo ships. But as she soon learns, the house is full of deceptions, and people are not what they seem—including Mary herself.

Review:
As a convicted thief, twelve-year-old Mary Lang is about to be executed when she is saved by the ladies of Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls. There, she receives an education and by the age of seventeen is teaching other students the skills they will need to be independent. Trouble is, she’s not satisfied and the few other career options open to her gender don’t interest her much, either. When she mentions this to the two women running the school, they suggest another alternative: the Agency.

The Agency is a covert organization of female spies, operating under the assumption that because women are presumed to be flighty and empty-headed, their agents will be able to retrieve information more easily than a man might, particularly in situations of domestic servitude. Mary quickly agrees, despite the threat of danger, and soon finds herself serving as paid companion to spoiled Miss Angelica Thorold, whose merchant father is suspected of dealing in stolen Hindu goods.

Mary (now using the surname Quinn) isn’t the lead on the investigation and isn’t supposed to actually do much of anything, but she gets antsy, and in the process of snooping meets James Easton. James’s older brother desperately wants to marry Angelica, but James has heard rumors about her father’s business practices, and so is doing some sleuthing of his own to determine whether a family connection would be unwise. He and Mary form a partnership and spend most of the book poking about in warehouses and rest homes for aging Asian sailors and following people on foot or in carriages while maintaining a flirty sort of bickering banter.

Author Y. S. Lee tries to make the mystery interesting, giving us a bit of intrigue between Angelica and her father’s secretary as a distraction, but ultimately it feels very insubstantial to me. Nothing much comes as a surprise and two story elements that could’ve been highlights—Mary’s month-long intensive training and Scotland Yard’s raid on the Thorold house—occur off camera! Too, Mary is harboring a secret about her parentage which is thoroughly obvious: she’s part Asian. Only towards the end did Lee actually make clear that Mary is keeping this a secret from others because of the foreigner bias of the time, and I must wonder whether the intended young adult audience was reading this going, “What’s the big deal?”

Not that it isn’t nifty to have a part-Asian heroine, of course. Mary is competent and level-headed, though I admit I did get irritated by how often she is favorably compared to “ordinary women,” who would scream or faint in situations in which Mary is able to keep her head. When a mystery stars a male sleuth, do we need to hear over and over how much smarter he is than the ordinary fellow? I don’t think so. On the flip side, the overall theme of the book seems to be “don’t understimate women,” and Mary finds time to inspire a scullery maid to seek out Miss Scrimshaw’s and to convince Angelica to pursue a musical career.

In the end, A Spy in the House is a decent read. It’s not perfect, but I still plan to read the second book in the series in the near future.

Additional reviews of A Spy in the House can be found at Triple Take.

Right Here, Right Now! 1-2 by Souya Himawari

This time travel historical romance is actually a lot more rational than one would expect. Unfortunately, the romance is the least successful element of the story.

You can find my review for BL Bookrack here.

Review copies provided by the publisher.

Rurouni Kenshin 1-6 by Nobuhiro Watsuki: B+

It feels like I last read Rurouni Kenshin eons ago, even though it’s only been five years since the US edition came to an end. The siren call of a potential reread has been increasing in volume lately and finally, I could take it no more. Joined by my friend and fellow Kenshin fan, K, I’m yielding to temptation and diving back in! Over the course of the next few months, I’ll be reviewing the entire series, starting with the individual volumes and finishing up with the final VIZBIG edition, which contains some bonus material not included in the series’ original run. You can find an archive of both K’s and my Kenshin posts at Triple Take.

To summarize the general premise, during the Bakumatsu era a skilled young swordsman named Himura Kenshin fought on the side of the ishin shishi (pro-Emperor) patriots and earned the nickname hitokiri battōsai (essentially: a manslayer who has mastered the art of battōjutsu) before vanishing and becoming a figure of legend. While many of the ishin shishi eventually took up powerful positions in the new Meiji government, Kenshin was not interested in profiting thus from his actions, since he had fought only with the aim of providing a more peaceful future for Japan’s people. Instead, he becomes an unassuming rurouni (wandering samurai) and wields his sakabatō (a reverse-blade katana nearly incapable of killing) on behalf of those needing his help.

Before commencing this reread, my recollection was that Rurouni Kenshin gets good in volume seven, when one of Kenshin’s old enemies (the awesome Saitō Hajime from the pro-Shogunate Shinsengumi) pays him a visit. It turns out, though, that that’s not exactly true, since the first two volumes are very good.

The story begins in Tokyo during the eleventh year of the Meiji era (1879 or thereabouts). As he travels through the city, Kenshin is accosted by Kamiya Kaoru, the feisty instructor of Kamiya Kasshin-ryū (a school of swordsmanship that emphasizes non-lethal techniques), who is searching for the murderer who has tarnished the name of her school (and driven away its students) by claiming to be one of its devotees. Kenshin helps out, since this fellow is also claiming to be the hitokiri battōsai, and during the course of events, Kaoru discovers some of his violent past. Still, she asks him to stay, saying, “I don’t care who you used to be!” He agrees to stay put a while and moves into the dojo.

Like any good shounen series, our hero needs a band of friends, so volume two sets about fulfilling that requirement. The first addition to the cast is Myōjin Yahiko, an orphaned boy of samurai lineage who has been forced to steal in order to survive. He becomes Kaoru’s first student, and though somewhat obnoxious at first, he matures a lot in a short time, especially after he gets confirmation that all the training is paying off. Next is Sagara Sanosuke, “the fight merchant,” who was once a member of a civilian army that was betrayed by the ishin shishi. He has been hired to fight Kenshin, but realizes the rurouni is different from the other, corrupt patriots and ends up becoming his right-hand man.

In addition, much is made during these first two volumes about the Meiji government not delivering on many of its promises. Watsuki also works on building the relationship between Kenshin and Kaoru, showing the former contentedly helping out with the chores and the latter putting herself at risk when Kenshin is challenged by another former hitokiri simply because she’d rather be in danger than be alone again. It’s significant that when the battle triggers Kenshin’s battōsai mode, Kaoru is the one who prevents him from killing his opponent, for which Kenshin is profoundly grateful.

Volumes three and four are not quite as good, but close. I just can’t summon much interest in Takani Megumi, a woman from a long line of doctors who was coerced into making opium for a greedy industrialist, and she frustrates me by attempting to take her own life after Kenshin and Sanosuke have weathered some tough fights attempting to rescue her. Still, the introduction of Shinomori Aoshi, a former guard of Edo castle who is bitter about not seeing any fighting during the war, is significant, and the fates of his less-able-to-move-on-with-their-lives companions are compelling.

Where the story really sags, though, is in volumes five and six. Watsuki’s sidebars are full of comments like he can’t believe the series is still ongoing, how much work it is, and how certain stories were written “during a period of extreme exhaustion.” I must say that it shows. First, Yahiko defends a young girl named Tsubame against some dudes who are making her an accomplice to a burglary. Then a swordsman tries to recruit Kenshin to the cause of reviving a more lethal version of “the Japanese art of swords.” Lastly, Sano encounters a former comrade from his army days and must decide whether to participate in his anti-government plans. Zzz. Volume six, in particular, was a bit of a slog to get through.

Artistically, Watsuki’s style is attractive, featuring quite a few bishounen characters (somewhat to his apparent dismay, this results in a lot of female fans) as well as bizarre-looking ones. It takes a few volumes for the characters’ looks to settle down, and sometimes the metamorphosis is even faster (Aoshi looks a good bit different even just two chapters after his original appearance, though he’s still immediately recognizable.) One thing I find slightly weird is how often Watsuki openly admits to borrowing character designs from other sources (though in at least one case he specifies that he had the original artist’s permission to do so). Tsubame, for example, appears to be an exact replica of Tomoe Hotaru from Sailor Moon.

So, to sum up… Kenshin starts strong, but gradually falters, culminating in the rather boring volumes five and six. Take heart, though, because if memory serves, volume seven is truly fabulous, and sets off the Kyoto arc, which most Kenshin fans will probably name as their favorite part of the series. I’ll be reviewing the first half of it next time, so watch this space!

Barefoot Gen 1 Keiji Nakazawa: B

From the back cover:
Barefoot Gen is the powerful, tragic story of the bombing of Hiroshima, seen through the eyes of the artist as a young boy growing up in a Japanese anti-militarist family. Of particular interest is Barefoot Gen‘s focus on family in a militarized culture, and the special problems which they encounter. Barefoot Gen brings home the reality of an event in our history which we must never allow to happen again.

Review:
Barefoot Gen is a largely autobiographical, slightly fictionalized account of a young boy’s perspective of the bombing of Hiroshima. It’s drawn in a cartoony style reminiscent of Osamu Tezuka, and puts the experiences of the Nakaoka family into broader historical context.

My initial reactions to the first volume of Barefoot Gen made me feel like a bad person. I had expected to instantly like Gen and the Nakaoka family, but found them very difficult to sympathize with at first. Part of the problem for me is what Art Spiegelman describes in his introduction as “casual violence.” Certainly in a series about war and the aftermath of an atomic bomb, I expected there to be some disturbing imagery. I did not expect, though, that the members of a “peace-loving family” like the Nakaokas would be so violent themselves.

Daikichi Nakaoka, the father of the clan, is outspoken about his opposition to the war, which makes him and his family the target of much harrassment by their neighbors. You’d think that being against the war would mean that Daikichi is opposed to violence in general, but that’s not true. I lost count of how many times he smacks someone (usually a child) and sends him or her sprawling into a wall. This tendency for violence extends to his wife (who brandishes a knife on several occasions) and his youngest sons (who twice gnaw off the fingertips of admittedly odious people).

It got to the point where I actively began heckling them! Heckling the victims of a nuclear holocaust!

When the family’s wheat field—upon which they were relying as a future food source—is trampled, Daikichi cries, “Who in the hell would do such a thing?”

My response: “Uh, everyone?”

After Kimie, Gen’s mother, holds his eldest brother Koji at knifepoint because he wants to join the navy and thereby improve public opinion of his family, Daikichi says, “The fool. He doesn’t have to go off and get killed in the war.”

My response: “He can get killed right here at home!”

Just when I was sure I was going to the special hell, however, things began to improve. Koji’s decision to enroll in the Naval Air Corps somehow triggers a better meld between the tone of the story and how the characters behave. Gen, who is initially merely an excitable kid who doesn’t think too much about what he says or does, begins to grow up a bit and becomes much more sympathetic as a result.

My favorite part of the volume is when Gen discovers his younger brother, Shinji, humiliating himself for an opportunity to play with another kid’s toy battleship. He puts a stop to it, and when he spots another toy battleship in the window of a glass repair shop, attempts to buy it. While he’s waiting to talk to the owner—who tells him it belonged to his dead son and isn’t for sale—he overhears him being threatened by men to whom he owes money and decides to help out, Gen-style, which entails throwing rocks and breaking tons of windows to bring in business. The owner is so grateful he bestows the ship on Gen as a gift, who generously turns it over to Shinji. They make plans to take it down to the river the next day.

Except that the next day is August 6, and that’s when the bomb hits. This whole sequence is truly stunning, and actually included a few historical facts I didn’t know, like how the Enola Gay returned after the air raid sirens had ceased and that the casualties were greater because people thought the danger had passed and emerged from their bomb shelters. It’s also interesting how Nakazawa puts the blame for everything squarely on the Japanese leaders. Even from the start, he’s referring to the war as something “that Japan began with the USA and England.” He’s critical of the government’s refusal to surrender while they’re not the ones suffering, starving, and losing loved ones. The casualty totals are truly overwhelming, and for what? It makes me wonder if the leaders’ stubbornness was some kind of remnant of samurai pride…

Although it was tough going at the beginning, by the end of this volume I was genuinely excited to continue reading the series. I do feel it’s something that’s going to be best in small doses, however. And let’s hope the days of gratuitous finger-chomping are behind us!

Barefoot Gen is published in English by Last Gasp. All ten volumes have been released.

For more on this series, check out the Manga Moveable Feast archive at A Life in Panels.

The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages: A-

From the back cover:
It is 1943, and while war consumes the United States and the world, eleven-year-old Dewey Kerrigan lives with her father in a town that—officially—doesn’t exist: Los Alamos, New Mexico. Famous scientists and mathematicians, including Dewey’s father, work around the clock on a secret project everyone there calls only “the gadget.” Meanwhile, Dewey works on her own mechanical projects, and locks horns with Suze Gordon, a budding artist who is as much of a misfit as she is. None of them—not J. Robert Oppenheimer, the director of the Manhattan Project; not the mathematicians and scientists; and least of all, Dewey and Suze—knows how much “the gadget” is about to change their lives…

Review:
Eleven-year-old Dewey Kerrigan is used to being apart from her father. She’s been living in St. Louis with her grandmother while he’s off doing “war work,” but a sudden stroke renders Nana unable to care for Dewey any longer. With the whereabouts of her absentee mother unknown, Dewey is packed up and sent halfway across the country to the officially nonexistent town of Los Alamos, New Mexico where her father is a physicist working on what the residents of “the hill” refer to only as “the gadget” but which is actually the atomic bomb.

Dewey isn’t like ordinary girls. She’s fascinated by science, especially radios and other mechanical gizmos, and doesn’t make any attempts to fit in. Still, she’s got a lot of independence on the hill and there are many adults nearby to answer her questions and help with her various projects, so she’s reasonably happy, if a little lonely, what with Papa spending most of his time in his lab.

Her classmate, Suze Gordon, isn’t like ordinary girls, either, but that doesn’t stop her from trying to get them to like her. Unfortunately, like most awkward preteens in this position (and, believe me, Suze’s efforts conjured up some depressing sixth-grade memories of my own!), Suze’s attempts to fit in never work out. For a significant portion of the book she’s not very likable, and mounts a sullen resistance when, a little over a year after Dewey’s arrival on “the hill,” Dewey’s dad travels to Washington and leaves his daughter in the care of his friends, the Gordons.

Friendship does not automatically ensue between the two girls, but after Suze undertakes one last attempt to be cool—victimizing Dewey in the process—President Roosevelt dies and suddenly she realizes how shameful her behavior has been. Slowly, the girls bond and at this point the book finally becomes so good I wished for it to be quite a bit longer! The girls are delighted to finally have someone with whom they can share ideas on their projects—scientific ones for Dewey and artistic ones for Suze—and love of geeky pursuits. I hadn’t realized how hard it was to be a girl geek in the ’40s! Inevitably, the popular girls get wind of their friendship, and Suze is placed in a position where she must make a choice and makes the right one without a second’s hesitation.

Alas, all good things must end. Suze’s mother, normally so adept at being a good maternal figure in Dewey’s life, completely and utterly fails to realize when Dewey’s upset about something quite significant, leading to a particularly ridiculous bout of miscommunication and misunderstanding.

In the end, I enjoyed The Green Glass Sea quite a lot. I liked Dewey all along (though I was less keen on the bizarre shifts in verb tense the narrative underwent when switching to her perspective) and warmed up to Suze eventually. I was immensely glad to learn there’s a sequel, White Sands, Red Menace, and shall be reading it soon!

For additional reviews of The Green Glass Sea, please visit Triple Take.

Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos by R. L. LaFevers: B-

From the back cover:
“Frankly, I’m not fond of surprises, as ones around here tend to be rather wicked.”

For poor Theodosia, however, surprises abound. She spends most of her time at the Museum of Legends and Antiquities in London. There, all the artifacts that her parents dig up around the world are put on display and studied. But what her parents can’t see—and what Theodosia can—is the curses and black magic still attached to the ancient pieces. And it’s up to Theo to keep it all under control. Quite a task for an eleven-year-old girl!

Then Theo’s mother brings home the Heart of Egypt—a legendary amulet belonging to an ancient tomb. Theodosia’s skills will certainly be put to the test, for the curse attached to it is so vile and so black, it threatens to bring down the entire British Empire! Theodosia will have to call upon everything she’s ever learned in order to prevent the rising chaos from destroying her country—and herself!

Review:
Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos is like a sandwich. You might assume I mean that it starts and ends strong but has a disappointing middle, but I actually mean just the opposite.

1906, London. Theodosia Throckmorton, age eleven, is cleverer than most. Her parents work at the Museum of Legends and Antiquities, specializing in Egyptian artifacts. Theodosia claims many of these items are cursed, though no one else ever notices this fact, and describes the spell preparations she uses to nullify the curses before they do any damage. For a while, I regarded her as an unreliable narrator because I couldn’t tell whether we were supposed to believe that this was all true or if it was all an elaborate game of make-believe devised by an intelligent, lonely girl; many of her spells involve rather mundane ingredients like bits of string, after all.

When confirmation of the existence of curses as well as Theodosia’s talent for detecting them comes from adults in The Brotherhood of the Chosen Keepers, I began to enjoy the story much more. She gets involved with the Brotherhood after tracking men whom she suspects of having stolen the valuable artifact the Heart of Egypt from her parents’ museum. It turns out that this artifact brings a curse upon the nation responsible for removing it from its tomb and that Germans facilitated its removal by Theodosia’s mother in order to bring chaos upon Britain. To forestall plagues, famine, and the like it must be returned to its original resting place. The whole middle section, in which Theodosia enlists the aid of her little brother and a pickpocket named Sticky Will to get back the Heart of Egypt is pretty entertaining, if improbable.

Alas, things take a turn for the ridiculous when the leader of The Brotherhood asks the eleven-year-old Theodosia to convince her parents to take her to Egypt so that she can put the Heart of Egypt back where it belongs. And she can’t tell them what’s up or have any backup, since all the other Brotherhood agents are injured or elsewhere. Nevermind that a group of murderous Germans wants it back or anything. The final few chapters are pretty tiresome, full of scenes of evading the bad guys and Theodosia reminding readers over and over of her assigned task. Everything wraps up exactly as one would expect, of course.

Another thing that bothered me a lot at first was the writing. A superfluous mention of “frocks and pinafores” gave off the distinctive aroma of “someone trying really hard to sound British,” so I checked and, yes, LaFevers is an American. After a while it ceased to bother me as much, but every time Theodosia said “smashing” I did cringe a bit inside.

I went from being dubious, to being pleased, to being rather bored throughout the course of this story. There are currently two more books in the series, with a fourth due out next spring, and at first I thought I wouldn’t bother with them, then I thought I would, and now I am not sure. There’s definitely a lot of potential here, but the execution is uneven. Perhaps what is needed is for Theodosia to have a team to work with; those parts were much more interesting than when she was alone. Now that she’s become an honorary member of the Brotherhood and grown closer to her brother, such an outcome seems possible. I suppose this means I’ve convinced myself to read at least one more and see how it goes.

More reviews of Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos can be found at Triple Take.

Betsy-Tacy by Maud Hart Lovelace: A

From the back cover:
There are lots of children on Hill Street, but no little girls Betsy’s age. So when a new family moves into the house across the street, Betsy hopes they will have a little girl she can play with. Sure enough, they do—a little girl named Tacy. And from the moment they meet at Betsy’s fifth birthday party, Betsy and Tacy become such good friends that everyone starts to think of them as one person—Betsy-Tacy.

Betsy and Tacy have lots of fun together. They make a playhouse from a piano box, have a sand store, and dress up and go calling. And one day, they come home to a wonderful surprise—a new friend named Tib.

Review:
Although I’ve been meaning to read the Betsy-Tacy series for several years, I didn’t really know what to expect. That is, I knew it was the story of two life-long friends, but I didn’t know that it would be written so fondly, so amusingly, or depict life as anything but rosy for these two girls.

Betsy Ray has no girls her age to play with until bashful Tacy Kelly moves in across the street. Tacy’s shyness prevents them from becoming friends immediately, but once they bond at Betsy’s fifth birthday party, they’re inseparable. A lot of the book is devoted to the various imaginative ideas they come up with to entertain themselves, whether it’s coloring sand to sell to other children or pretending to drive the family surrey to the exotic realm of… Milwaukee.

Much of the book is quite amusing, especially the stories Betsy makes up. I’m particularly fond of the one featuring a talking horse with a hankering for some doughnuts. I was pleasantly surprised when things took a more serious turn: Tacy is one of many children and the youngest, “Baby Bee,” dies after an illness. There’s a really wonderful scene where Betsy’s storytelling abilities help cheer Tacy up. Later, when Betsy is upset over the birth of a new, “perfectly unnecessary” sibling, Tacy takes up the role of comforter. It might not sound like much by way of drama, but both instances manage to be charming and a little bittersweet at the same time.

Betsy-Tacy would be a great book to read aloud to elementary students, particularly an audience comprised of girls. My brother and his fiancée need to hurry up and give me a niece so I can read this to her.

The Color of Heaven by Kim Dong Hwa: C+

From the front flap:
Ehwa, now a confident young woman, finds herself in the same maddening situation as her mother: waiting for a man. Her mother hopes for the return of her roaming lover, and Ehwa, in turn, gazes up at the same moon as her fiancé Duksam, a farmer who has gone to sea to seek his fortune so that he can marry her.

Review:
I do honestly want to like The Color Trilogy. I like the idea of a mother and her daughter living together in a rural village in turn-of-the-century Korea. I like learning about food and traditions that are new to me. I like the detailed drawings of the landscape and, especially, the family kitchen. The problem is there’s just so much about the series that annoys me that I simply can’t like it.

The central plot of this volume is that Ehwa’s love, Duksam, has left town to attempt to make a living as a fisherman, and so she is left to wait around until he returns to marry her. Her mother is also waiting for her traveling salesman lover to stop by, so they proceed to have many, many conversations about men and how it’s the lot of women to wait for them. I’m not sure they ever talk about anything but men, actually.

I know that the limited scope of life for a woman in this time and place is historically accurate, and that for a mother to say, “There is nothing better in life than getting married” reflects a period where marriage provided the ultimate in protection for a woman. But still, I can’t help but get fired up by speeches like this:

After waiting and waiting, you begin to lose track of whether it’s the moon or the sun in the sky, and that’s when he comes in with a smile on his face. As soon as you see that face, all is forgotten and you begin chasing after his footsteps once again. That is the heart of a woman.

To be honest, I think a large part of my ire is due to the fact that The Color Trilogy is written by a man. If a woman wrote these things, I’d still be annoyed, but coming from a male author I can’t help but read such statements as downright condescending. Try as I might to view these attitudes through a historical lens, I’m simply unable to get over my knee-jerk reaction.

It isn’t only Ehwa and her mother who are obsessed with discussing men and women. Everyone in town gets into the metaphor that women are flowers waiting for butterflies (men) to alight upon them, and almost all of them talk in language that’s incredibly, ridiculously poetic. In an early example, Duksam says, “I’m going to head for the sea. The sea that’s as wet and salty as your tears, and as bold and clear as your eyes.” Now, I admit that I have little appreciation for poetry, but this sounds to me like something one would come up with as a parody of purple prose.

Every now and then someone speaks plainly, like when Duksam frankly discusses his fear of leaving Ehwa behind, which had me wishing for more of the same. All of the imagery and metaphor might appeal to some readers, but to me, I would’ve enjoyed The Color Trilogy a lot more had it been more straightforward.

I reviewed The Color of Heaven for this month’s Manga Manhwa Moveable Feast. More reviews and discussion of this trilogy can be found here.