The Adventure Zone: Here There Be Gerblins

By Clint McElroy, Griffin McElroy, Justin McElroy, Travis McElroy, and Carey Pietsch | Published by First Second

I’m a newcomer to The Adventure Zone podcast (only 24 episodes in at this point, so no spoilers, please!) but quickly fell deeply in love with it. My timing was good, actually, because it just about coincided with the release of the graphic novel based on the first arc of the podcast’s first season (also known as the Balance campaign). Initially, I thought I’d simply enjoy the graphic novel instead of reviewing it because the podcast is so important to me. It’s been a really tough year and The Adventure Zone made me laugh and gave me something new to feel enthusiastic about, and for that I will be forever grateful. Happily, however, the print adaptation is just so damned good that I find I have to talk about it!

The Adventure Zone started as a special episode of the McElroy brothers’ long-running and much beloved podcast My Brother, My Brother and Me, but proved so popular that it became a series in its own right. Summed up by eldest brother Justin McElroy as “the story of four idiots that played D&D so hard that they made themselves cry,” it’s the story of a human fighter named Magnus (created by Travis), an elf wizard named Taako (created by Justin), and a dwarf cleric named Merle (created by the boys’ father, Clint) who find themselves working for an organization that’s trying to round up and dispose of dangerous magical relics. They’re guided by youngest brother Griffin, who serves as Dungeon Master and portrays a fantastic array of NPCs. The improvisatory results are hilarious, profane, and wonderfully endearing. And, eventually, capable of evoking tears, though I haven’t gotten to that part yet. I love that the family known for a goofy advice podcast started The Adventure Zone as a lark and ended up creating something genuinely moving.

The graphic novel adaptation is not a word-for-word copy of the podcast. Most of the out-of-character moments have been omitted, and what remains almost reads purely as a fantasy story, except that Griffin occasionally pops in to request perception checks or give out inspiration points, which reminds readers that there are unseen players behind the characters on the page. It’s a neat way to focus on the world the McElroys created without completely shutting them out of it. Some of the dialogue is different (though many favorite quips have made the cut) and some of the names are different (licensing issues, one assumes) and a couple of pivotal events play out a bit differently, but the feeling is the same.

Plot-wise, at this point in the story the trio of adventurers is doing a job for Merle’s cousin, Bogard, who has hired them to convey some of his belongings to another town. Along the way, they come upon evidence that Bogard and his bodyguard, Barry Bluejeans, have been abducted by gerblins. Now our heroes must save them! Along the way, they discover a mine renowned for its mystical ore, an evil drow named Magic Brian who is after something particular that our heroes can’t seem to make out, and an orc woman named Killian who is so impressed by their skills that she takes them to meet her employer. Also, Taako gets a cool umbrella staff! (Really, Taako is the best.)

What’s neat is that, given that the McElroys started working on the adaptation after the Balance campaign concluded, they’re able to add some foreshadowing along the way, like a certain character’s cameo appearance or a seemingly very significant pause when Killian’s boss sees the guys for the first time. (I haven’t finished Balance, so I don’t know what this is foreshadowing, but I’m sure it’s something!) Too, Carey Pietsch’s art (so fun and expressive throughout) includes some in-jokes for McElroy fans, the most adorable travel montage ever, and a dramatic reveal that literally gave me goosebumps. I especially appreciated getting to actually see Magnus engage in various foolhardy exploits. This volume ends with a teaser for the adaptation of the next arc—Murder on the Rockport Limited—and I’m really looking forward to seeing how Pietsch depicts Magnus’ more inspired feats from that adventure.

Ultimately, I’d say that the podcast is funnier, whereas the graphic novel presents a more cohesive story. Both are fantastic, and I recommend them heartily. Lastly, I’ll close with this excellent fan film made using audio from the podcast. If you’re not familiar with The Adventure Zone, this will give you an idea of the lovable silliness that awaits.

Wotakoi: Love Is Hard for Otaku, Vol. 1

By Fujita | Published by Kodansha Comics

Narumi Momose and Hirotaka Nifuji were childhood friends and reconnect as adults when they discover they work at the same office. Narumi is hiding the fact that she’s a hardcore fujoshi, especially since she’s lost several boyfriends because of it, while Hirotaka isn’t making any attempt to hide his video game fixation. After listening to her complain about her latest heartache and asking, “Why can’t you just find a guy who accepts you as an otaku?,” Hirotaka suggests himself as an alternative and they start dating. Wotakoi, befitting its webcomic origins, is essentially a series of vignettes about their relationship with each other and with their otaku friends (and combative couple) Hanako Koyanagi and Taro Kabakura.

I must say that at this point it’s a little hard to see what exactly Hirotaka sees in Narumi, but he himself is pretty awesome. He can tell when she isn’t feeling well when no one else can (even when it turns out she’s only sad ‘cos a favorite character died), he is willing to executive a kabedon on Kabakura for her enjoyment, and, best of all, he patiently helps with her BL doujinshi when she’s up against a deadline for Comiket. He’s supportive and non-judgmental of her hobbies, and when she worries they’re just settling for each other, he tells her, “We’re together because I love you and I like seeing you doing things that make you happy.” Hirotaka is really great. I wish Narumi would make a similar declaration of love for him. Maybe that’ll come eventually.

Also great are Koyanagi and Kabakura. Normally, characters who spend this much time bickering and calling each other “ugly” and “idiot” would not be my favorites. In fact, I’d find them troubling. In this case, though, there’s enough chemistry and underlying affection between the two that it works. Kabakura is the most normal of the bunch, though he’s not hiding his hobbies, claiming, “I just know how to enjoy things in moderation.” Koyanagi is really into cosplay and, despite her generous bosom (which gets a lot of attention, especially when compared to Narumi’s lack of same), excels at portraying cool bishounen types.

All of the characters are fun and I enjoyed spending time with them, but it’s probably pretty obvious that Hirotaka is my favorite. This two-in-one omnibus ends with the prospect of he and Narumi going on a proper date, which makes me happy. The vignettes are amusing and I enjoy them, but I’d also like to see their relationship progress and for our stoic-seeming hero to have more reasons to smile.

Wotakoi is ongoing in Japan, where five volumes have been released so far. Kodansha will release the second omnibus, containing volumes three and four, next Tuesday.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

After Hours, Vol. 1

By Yuhta Nishio | Published by VIZ Media

In the opening scene of After Hours, Emi Asahina is attempting (unsuccessfully) to meet up with a friend in a loud and crowded nightclub. After a spunky DJ named Kei saves her from a grabby creep, they get to talking. Emi tells her, “I don’t really see what’s fun about places like this.” Much of the rest of the manga is Kei helping her to change her mind about that.

Emi ends up going home with Kei that night, and they appear to have fooled around to some extent, though that’s left to the reader’s imagination. Instead, the focus is on Emi learning more about Kei’s world. The club scene is a new setting for me where manga is concerned, and imparts a unique feel. Emi is 24 and unemployed and she doesn’t know what she wants to do with her life, but after once getting roped in to providing visuals to accompany Kei’s music, she’s enthusiastic to try it a second time. Kei swiftly provides Emi the key to her apartment, and tells her things about her past that she usually doesn’t talk about, gives her records from her prized vinyl collection, etc. For all of her cool chick persona, Kei is open and honest and pretty awesome. And so, I’m kind of afraid she’s going to get her heart broken.

Because although Emi is having fun with Kei, there’s never really a sense that she’s choosing Kei as opposed to just sampling her lifestyle. After they maybe sleep together, there is not a single scene from Emi contemplating what this might mean about her sexuality. And, at the halfway point of the volume, we learn that she is living with the boyfriend she’s only “kind of” broken up with, and Kei has no idea. Is Emi going to make a decision about what she wants from life that will include Kei, or is this just tourism for her? Granted, the manga itself isn’t amping up the potential for drama here, so perhaps it will all play out in the relatively restrained way it has so far.

One thing I really liked about this volume was a scene in which Kei is showing Emi how to operate some DJ equipment. She explains how the inputs from two separate turntables can be adjusted to mix and segue into each other. Later, this metaphor is applied to their relationship. Kei is sharing a lot while Emi is revealing little. “If it’s all coming from my side, it’s not really mixing, is it?” she says. I thought that was a pretty neat idea. Really, my one complaint so far is that the characters look so young. Kei is supposed to be thirty, but looks fourteen. She still comes off as a vibrant and captivating, but I think her cool quotient would increase if she looked more like an adult.

Definitely looking forward to volume two!

After Hours is complete in three volumes. The second is due out in English next week.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

The Queen’s Thief, Books 4-5 by Megan Whalen Turner

A new installment of The Queen’s Thief is here! That proved an excellent incentive to reread the first three books (which I deeply love) and finally tackle the fourth book as well as the handful of short stories that’ve appeared as paperback extras.

A Conspiracy of Kings
A Conspiracy of Kings is a coming-of-age story for Sophos, the sweet, scholarly boy we met in The Thief who also happens to be the heir to Sounis. Some of the barons are in revolt, and when the villa in which he’s staying is attacked, Sophos tries to save his mother and sisters but ends up captured himself. Although he’s resourceful enough to escape and hide out amongst enslaved field hands, he nonetheless is bitterly self-critical and sure his father is disappointed in him (as usual). And yet, throughout the course of the novel, he exhibits a great deal of courage, makes some hard choices, and—though still the sweet, scholarly boy underneath—ultimately becomes a worthy king.

A Conspiracy of Kings strikes me as a simpler book than The King of Attolia, probably because Sophos is earnest and idealistic rather than guarded and secretive, though that’s not to say that he’s incapable of carrying out a secret plan or clever strategy. The book does have an unusual narrative style, beginning in the third person with Sophos already in Attolia, switching to first person as he tells Eddis his story up to that point, going back into third while everyone’s together in Attolia, going back into first when he returns after claiming the throne and fills Eddis in again, and then back into third for the ending.

It occurs to me that as The Queen’s Thief series continues, the further we’re getting away from Eugenides. The Thief was first-person from his point of view, The Queen of Attolia was third-person, The King of Attolia viewed Gen and his relationship with the queen through the eyes of a palace guard, and now we have a story about Sophos in which Gen appears occasionally and spends some of that time behaving with icy formality. I appreciate the expanding world the characters inhabit and genuinely enjoy spending time with everyone, but I do love Gen best and hope the focus returns to him someday.

Thick as Thieves
After waiting so long for a new book in the series, learning that it would be about Kamet, the slave of the Mede ambassador Nahuseresh, was somewhat of a disappointment. Now, I feel compelled to apologize to the author because I really should’ve had more faith in her. Kamet is a smart, distrustful protagonist with somewhat of a superiority complex and his evolution throughout the novel is fascinating.

Thick as Thieves is most similar to the first book in the series, since it involves a road trip peppered with storytelling. An Attolian soldier has been dispatched by Eugenides to steal Kamet out of spite, and after initially planning to decline the offer of freedom (thinking of all the power he will one day wield after he is gifted to the next emperor), Kamet is forced to accept after learning that his master has been poisoned and that he must escape quickly or face torture and execution. A Goodreads reviewer describes what follows as “bloodshed, betrayal, and bromance,” and I really cannot improve on that description. Although he initially thinks the Attolian is an idiot and plans on ditching him at the earliest opportunity (rather than return to uncivilized Attolia) he comes to like and respect him very much. I also love how one little piece of information lets readers know exactly who this soldier is, although Kamet does not use his name until near the end.

I don’t want to spoil the ending, but that’s the part of the book that really shines. (Alas, the road trip does drag a little in parts.) There are quite a few surprises—including one satisfying “I knew it!” moment—and the conclusion is both sniff-inducing and exciting, as conflict is still brewing between the Empire and the small countries on the peninsula, though the latter (thanks to Eugenides) appear to have acquired some powerful allies. This is such a great series and I hope we’ll see Kamet again in what follows.

The short stories:
“Thief!”, originally printed in Disney Adventures Magazine in 2000, is a prequel short story about Eugenides as a kid. There’s not much to it, but I liked seeing Gen interact with his older brother and favorite sibling, Stenides.

“Eddis” was included in the 2007 paperback edition of The King of Attolia. In it, nine-year-old Helen—wonderfully described as round, solid, sturdy, and not too bothered by the fact that she isn’t pretty—slips away from the palace to go exploring. Her destination is a desolate temple where she is visited in the night by a trio of gods, who refer to her as “the last Eddis.” It’s a neat story that not only fleshes out Helen’s background a little bit and explains why she uses the masculine “Eddis” rather than “Eddia,” but ties in nicely with her motivations in A Conspiracy of Kings.

“Destruction” was included in the 2011 paperback edition of A Conspiracy of Kings. In this brief story, we witness the ceremony to dispose of Hamiathes’s Gift in the fires of the Sacred Mountain in Eddis. Frustrated Sounis is in attendance as is Attolia, who never takes her eyes from Eugenides. Scant though it is, I find I appreciate having a mental image for this occasion, as well as the moment in which Eugenides achieves certainty that the stone is really gone.

“Knife Dance” is included in the new paperback edition of The Queen of Attolia. In it, a juggler named Druic is coerced by his jerk of a brother to perform a certain Eddisian knife dance—”one of the Mysteries of the Thieves”—for the court of Attolia. Both the king and his god have something to say about it. I liked this one, and the ending was very satisfying.

“Wineshop” is included in the new paperback edition of The King of Attolia. It’s extremely short and depicts Eugenides enjoying his final moment of anonymity before coins bearing his likeness enter circulation and how Teleus spoils it all. There’s one part of it that makes me wonder if Eugenides knew that was going to happen. It would not surprise me.

Moteki: Love Strikes!, Vol. 1

By Mitsurou Kubo | Published by Vertical Comics

Although I was originally quite keen to read Moteki, it took me nearly a week to finish this volume. That isn’t due to its length (Vertical is publishing the entire series in two hefty volumes) but to the fact that the protagonist, self-proclaimed loser Yukiyo Fujimoto, is really hard to take in large doses.

The story begins in the summer of Yukiyo’s 29th year, when he experiences a brief flurry of contact from women in his past. Desperate for love and sex, he reconnects with each of them and botches each attempt in one way or another. With Aki Doi, the former coworker who held hands with him at a rock festival until her boyfriend showed up, he’s too passive. With Natsuki, a girl he bombarded with “please fall in love with me” vibes for a year before finally losing his virginity to her older sister, he very nearly scores but can’t perform. It’s with his friend Itsuka, however, that his behavior is the most troubling.

In their first meeting two years ago, their mutual friend Shimada tries to pair them off. Yukiyo is all for this, but Itsuka balks. (We later learn it’s because she was in love with Shimada.) Yukiyo erupts. “Are you one of those girls who acts like a cocktease then plays dumb out of spite, or maybe you act like you’re being generous when you give a guy who just saved you a kiss on the cheek instead of putting out for him?! You are one nasty chick!!” Despite this, they become friends and, in the present day, she invites him on a trip to eat a local delicacy. In their hotel room, they almost have sex before she finds out he’s not a virgin and kicks him out of bed. She promptly falls asleep and his first thought is, “If you don’t resist, that means you want it, right?” Then he realizes that he doesn’t have any condoms. Only after that does it occur to him that she trusts him not to do anything to her. Later, he’s super persistent to the point that Itsuka blocks him from contacting her and calls off the friendship.

Previously, Itsuka had said that she wishes she could find someone to love, and Yukiyo is baffled as to why she wouldn’t consider him. “Could she still not forget about Shimada?” It’s at this point that I desperately wished for some hallucinatory foodstuffs to appear. Like so:

Thankfully, in the second half Yukiyo seemingly begins to change. Despite getting terrible advice from a girl in his hometown, urging even more persistence (and I do worry what kind of message this manga is sending in that respect), when he meets Itsuka again he manages to actually listen to her romantic woes with empathy, realizing they share problems with low self-esteem, and even be just assertive enough to help her get closure regarding her unrequited feelings for now-married Shimada. He’s serious enough to say “I’m interested in you” without going overboard and insincerely declaring his love, and he isn’t pushy about getting in her pants. Just when you think they might finally make things work, however, he ends up hanging around Aki Doi again and getting jealous when a slovenly, struggling manga artist seems interested in her. Make up your mind, dude!

Ultimately, I just don’t know. I’ll read the second (and final) volume, but I worry I’ll end up grumpy and frustrated once again.

Moteki is complete in Japan with 4.5 volumes. Vertical will release the omnibus containing the second half of the series in July.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

The Ancient Magus’ Bride, Vols. 1-8

By Kore Yamazaki | Published by Seven Seas

I’d heard good things about The Ancient Magus’ Bride from my Manga Bookshelf compatriots, but I had also heard about a sad fate befalling some cats, so I steered clear. After reading and really enjoying Kore Yamazaki’s Frau Faust, however, I decided to give AMB a try. I’m glad I did, because it turns out the cat stuff wasn’t a deal breaker (it all happened long ago and present-day kitties emerge unscathed) and the series is excellent.

In the opening chapter, fifteen-year-old Japanese teenager Chise Hatori is on sale at a British auction house. She is apparently “the most wondrous tool an alchemist can hope for—a sleigh beggy,” though she knows not what a sleigh beggy is. She only knows that she’s been attracting weird creatures all her life, that her father left with her younger brother, that her mother committed suicide, that her other relatives wouldn’t take her, and that she just wants a place to call home. She doesn’t care whether she lives or dies, but thought that if she could be useful to someone, that would be okay.

She’s purchased by a mage named Elias Ainsworth, who takes her as his apprentice. Elias is not entirely human and not entirely fae, either. Most of the time he assumes the form of a tall human with a head somewhat like a cow’s skull, but his real form is something far stranger. Despite his scary looks, he’s kind to Chise, insisting that she be neither passive nor servile, and she’s soon comfortable in his home in the countryside west of London. Eventually, he tells her that because of her ability to absorb and generate mass quantities of magic, her lifespan is destined to be brief. Part of the reason he bought her was to try to help overcome this while also learning more about humans. And to be his bride, of course.

Here’s a particularly revealing passage from volume two:

”I bought you because you met my requirements. With nothing of your own, you’d have little reason to leave me. I gave you food and shelter, and said things I expected you wished to hear. I thought that raising you myself might enable me to better understand your kind. I’d planned to tell you these things after I was confident you’d never leave.”

For Chise, someone not wanting her to leave is a novel experience, so she stays. Most of the time, anything romantic happening between them is downplayed. Instead, they take on a variety of tasks like investigating the black dog haunting a churchyard (who ultimately becomes Chise’s very, very lovable familiar), or helping a muse-like fae communicate with the man she’s loved for decades, or helping a girl find the brother her parents have inexplicably forgotten. Meanwhile, Chise learns more about magic (and how it differs from alchemy) and becomes passionate about helping others, often to her detriment. While she’s become more attached to the idea of living, she’s also reckless, culminating in an incident at the end of volume seven where, in an attempt to calm a rampaging dragon, she ends up absorbing so much of its magic that she curses herself. A despairing and desperate Elias attempts something awful to cure her, driving her away in the process (and potentially into an alliance with evil alchemist Josef, though I fail to see how Chise could rationalize doing such a thing).

What I’m getting at here is that this is a series rich in story. The plot is interesting, but the real story is Chise and Elias, what they mean to each other and how they might be incompatible despite all that binds them together. Besides the fact that her life was already going to be brief, now Chise has this dragon’s curse to contend with, and it’s really not looking good for her. Sometimes, too, Chise gets warned about Elias’ interest in her, like when his master Lindel says, “It looks as if he’s trying to tame you… and you are allowing him to do it. But you mustn’t.” Even if she were to return to him after what he did, would that be the healthy choice? I’m not sure this is going to have a happy ending, but it’s certain to have a fascinating one. I can’t wait for volume nine!

The Ancient Magus’ Bride is ongoing in Japan, where the ninth volume has just been released. It’ll come out in English in September.

Again!!, Vol. 1

By Mitsurou Kubo | Published by Kodansha Comics

Having greatly enjoyed Yuri!!! on Ice, written by Mitsurou Kubo, I’ve been eagerly anticipating the release of some of Kubo’s manga in English. (In addition to Again!! from Kodansha, Vertical Comics has just published the first omnibus of Moteki, which I shall be reviewing within the next week or so.) Happily, Again!! did not disappoint.

This shounen series begins on March 14, 2014, when long-haired, scary-looking outcast Kinichiro Imamura is about to graduate from high school. He’s friendless, and despite going to a good school, he has no college or employment plans. The graduation ceremony reminds him of his entrance ceremony three years ago, during which the lone remaining member of the ouendan club (a girl, at that) tried to recruit new members. This spurs him to go check out the now-deserted ouendan club room and, when chasing after a female classmate who gets the wrong idea, he ends up falling down the stairs and three years into the past.

Now it’s April 6, 2011 and Kinichiro has a chance to do it all over again. Will he manage to navigate school this time without scaring people? He decides to actually talk to the ouendan girl this time, and learns her name is Yoshiki Usami. In a neat twist, the girl he was chasing also fell down the stairs and ends up back in the past with him. Her name is Akira Fujieda, and while Kinichiro begins to make small improvements on his high school experience—dispelling notions that he’s in a gang or that his blond hair signifies anything other than a hair stylist’s whim—Akira’s knowledge of the future alienates her classmates and would’ve-been future boyfriend.

Mostly, though, the focus is on the ouendan club and Kinichiro’s attempts to help Usami out. She’s stubborn, however, and resists efforts to draw male membership by featuring her image on recruitment posters. This makes more sense later on, when it’s revealed that she originally got a lot of media attention that led to fallout within the group—stoked by an online smear campaign—leading everyone but her to quit. Complicating matters is the captain of the cheerleading club, Tamaki Abe, who is resentful of having to cooperate with the ouendan, and determined to sabotage them. Happily, the girl she picks to seduce Kinichiro has scruples (and Kinichiro is also not an idiot), so this first volume ends with our heroes savvy to her scheme.

Again!! is a lot of fun. If you’re looking for time travel with a reasonable scientific explanation, then you should probably look elsewhere, but if you just accept the premise and go with it, then it’s kind of like a sports manga and a coming-of-age story rolled into one. I do worry what’s going to happen after Kinichiro reaches his graduation year again. Will these changes stick, and will he be able to go forward in life with more ambition and fewer regrets? I’m confident, though, that these questions will be answered eventually.

Again!! is complete in twelve volumes. The second volume is due out in English next week.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Lovesick Ellie, Vols. 1-3

By Fujimomo | Published digitally by Kodansha Comics

I admit that I was initially attracted to Lovesick Ellie because of the covers, which are adorable. My favorite is the third, because it perfectly captures Ohmi-kun’s personality.

So, imagine you’re an awkward boy who doesn’t express himself well, only you’ve been born exceedingly handsome. You’re placed on a pedestal, and instead of getting to play a tree in the school play, the role of the prince is thrust upon you. At kindergarten graduation you’re completely confused when the girls ambush you for souvenirs and end up in tears. In middle school, you end up alienating your best friend who grows envious of your good fortune and disappointing people when you let your true personality show. That’s the plight facing Akira Ohmi, and when he gets to high school he decides to adopt a princely facade to go along with his looks so that he can keep his distance and avoid hurting anyone else.

Eriko Ichimura is a plain girl whom nobody notices. (Yes, this is one of those Dessert manga where the friendless girl attracts the notice of the most popular boy in school.) In lieu of real relationships, Eriko entertains herself by writing fantasies about Ohmi-kun on an anonymous Twitter account under the name Lovesick Ellie. One day, she accidentally catches a glimpse of the real Ohmi-kun. Shocked, she leaves her cellphone behind, enabling Ohmi to read her tweets about him. Rather than be mad, he thinks they’re hilarious. In exchange for her keeping his secret, he offers to fulfill her fantasies, then laughs when she’s, like, “Okay!” In the end, he decides to trust her.

After this encounter, they gradually come to know each other. Ohmi is derisive toward the other girls who’ve fallen for the false persona he’s created, but Eriko is different. Not only is she not disappointed by his true personality, she continues to lust after him openly. Ultimately, this is a story about really being seen and loved for your true self. Nobody noticed Eriko until Ohmi did, and while everyone noticed him, they never saw the real him.

As they navigate their new relationship, there are various firsts, and a lot of blushing, and some misunderstandings, and some mean girls who disapprove of Ohmi dating someone (though they mistakenly think he’s dating Sara, the friend Eriko eventually acquires). None of this is new shoujo manga territory, but the characters are refreshing. Ohmi is seriously endearing, especially once his bratty attitude subsides and he allows himself to be sweet and vulnerable. He’s apologetic for the things he gets wrong, and encourages Eriko not to give up on him. For her part, Eriko is kind of a spaz, but shoujo heroines are not typically this horny, so that’s a unique aspect, for sure. It certainly makes for some snerkworthy declarations, like when she proclaims, “I like you sexually!”

So far, I really like this series a lot, and I look forward to continuing it.

Lovesick Ellie is ongoing in Japan. Its sixth volume comes out there on March 13th, which is the same day the fourth will be available in English.

Review copies provided by the publisher.

Beasts of Abigaile, Vols. 1-2

By Spica Aoki | Published by Seven Seas

After having been bullied in school back home in Japan, Tsukishiro Nina comes to live with her uncle in the tiny principality of Ruberia, famous for its roses. Outwardly, it’s an affluent place, but Nina soon learns—after being bitten by a luga and taking on some of their characteristics—that wolf-like people known as luga serve as slave labor for the humans in Ruberia, and that young luga are all rounded up and sent to an island prison/school called Abigaile, where they learn how to serve humans. Nina is sent there after her transformation and must try to blend in, because if the other luga find out she’s human, they’ll turn on her.

I wasn’t sure I would like this at first because Nina’s character blurb contains the phrase “sometimes lets her emotions drive her to dangerous behavior,” which is definitely not my favorite personality type. And, it’s true, she does require a bit of rescuing due to her impulsive actions, usually by handsome luga named Gilles (who’s on the student council and seemingly devoted to its mysterious president) and Dario (the effeminate alpha who dreams of becoming a fashion designer). However, I like that, because she comes from a place where teenagers are able to pursue their aspirations, she becomes determined that the luga should have the same right, and thus wants to unite them and get them out of there.

That said, Nina is actually the least interesting character to me. I probably shouldn’t like Roy, the luga who bit her and who is the alpha of the most dangerous “home” (basically a pack) in Abigaile. He enjoys tormenting Nina but he’s definitely the most fascinating character so far, especially when we learn at the end of volume two that he himself had hoped to unite the luga but couldn’t. Nina and Roy actually remind me of Clarke and Bellamy in The 100—two teens who emerged as leaders from among a disenfranchised group of youth who disagree with each other’s methods, but if they could trust each other and become a team, then they might really have a chance. (Granted, I haven’t seen more than a handful of episodes at this point.) I like that dynamic between them and look forward to Roy eventually coming to trust Nina.

Meanwhile, Roy’s “beta,” Eva, is possessive of him in the extreme and jealous of Nina, so contrives to attack and/or expose her at every turn. She’s a great antagonist because her motives are so strong, and by the end of volume two she’s convinced Poe, a lowly “omega” whom Nina has been trying hard to protect, to turn on Nina and deliver unto her the rose perfume that disguises Nina’s human scent. Dun dun dun!

In addition to hoping Roy and Nina team up and successfully escape Abigaile, there are some other plot points I hope get fleshed out. What’s the deal with the student council president? Why is the chief instructor such a bishounen? Surely the mangaka wouldn’t waste such a character design on someone who wasn’t going to be significant down the road. And, perhaps most importantly, why did being bit by Roy cause Nina to take on luga characteristics, when that never happened to any of the other humans he’s bitten?

I’m glad I took a chance on this one.

Beasts of Abigaile is ongoing in Japan, where three volumes have been released so far. The third comes out in English on Tuesday.

Review copy for volume one provided by the publisher.

The Promised Neverland, Vol. 1

Story by Kaiu Shirai, Art by Posuka Demizu | Published by VIZ Media

First off: The Promised Neverland is amazing and you should go buy it. I’d heard good things about it, but hadn’t expected this degree of exhilarating awesomeness. Secondly: I will do my best to avoid major spoilers, but a few are unavoidably required to describe (and compliment) the plot. Take heed!

Emma is an eleven-year-old with a sunny disposition and boundless energy. She lives at Grace Field House, an orphanage, and is one of the oldest of 38 kids. She loves them all. Everything seems normal to them, including the numbers tattooed on their necks as well as the daily test, which is dramatically revealed in a two-page spread. Emma and her fellow eleven-year-olds Norman and Ray always get perfect scores on the test, and I particularly enjoyed that the ensuing story actually shows their intelligence instead of merely telling readers that they’re smart.

Every now and then one of the kids finds a home, but oddly, none of the children who’ve left have ever sent any letters. The place is comfortable, with plenty of food and a forest to play in, but they’re forbidden from going near the main gate or a fence in the forest. One day, when one of the younger girls who wasn’t doing well on the tests is headed off for her new home, she leaves behind a beloved stuffed rabbit. Emma and Norman decide to break the rules and head toward the gate to return it to her, whereupon they learn something shocking (via another very effective two-page spread) and realize they must escape.

It’s riveting watching the kids try to figure out what’s going on, how much their caretaker (whom they call “Mom,” though we learn she’s named Isabella) knows about what they know, how to defeat the trackers Mom makes sure they know exist, etc. Basically, laying out the rules of their confinement that they’re going to have to overcome. Too, although analytical Ray points out that their chances in the outside world would be far better with just the three of them—and also that it’s 2045 and they don’t have any books published after 2015, so who knows what the outside world is like now—idealistic Emma is insistent that they’re not going to leave any of the kids behind, even including the dozen or so who are three and under.

It’s clear that this story has been carefully thought through, and I love how little things are foreshadowed that later prove significant. For example, in the early scenes, the kids are playing outside and Emma is thinking about how they know the forest around Grace Field House inside and out, including which tree has a hole in its trunk. Later, there’s a nonverbal moment where she and Norman choose that as a hiding place for some table cloths they hope to use to get over the wall surrounding the property. It’s subtle, but ultimately reassuring.

Happily, volume two comes out in five days. After that, I’ll be studiously avoiding spoilers, even though I’m sure the wait for new volumes will be agonizing.

The Promised Neverland is ongoing in Japan, where it is up to seven volumes. The second will be released in English on Tuesday.