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.

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.

Frau Faust, Vols. 1-2

By Kore Yamazaki | Published by Kodansha Comics

I had heard good things about Frau Faust and figured I would probably like it too, but I wasn’t prepared for the “OMG, I love this!” feeling that overtook me after the first dozen pages or so. I loved it so much, in fact, that the first seven volumes of Yamazaki’s other published-in-English series, The Ancient Magus’ Bride, are currently on their way to my branch of our awesome local library. If Frau Faust is going to be this original and entertaining, clearly I need to read more of Yamazaki’s work!

But let’s back up a little to the premise. Johanna Faust was always an extremely curious child, her quest for knowledge so intense that it led her to dissect animals and do other things that caused her to be ostracized for being creepy. Even her own mother was afraid of her. Because of this greed, the demon Mephistopheles paid Johanna a visit, promising to bestow all of the knowledge she could ever want upon her. Johanna flatly rejected this deal, however, because she’s only interested in knowledge she attains for herself. Mephisto (for short) proceeds to hang around for a few years, in case she changes her mind. Eventually, to help save her only friend from a slavering wolf creature, Johanna agrees to the contract. When she dies, Mephisto gets her soul, but what she wants while she’s alive is actually him. He’ll be her protector, assistant, et cetera.

Of course, we don’t learn all of that right off the bat. Instead, we encounter Johanna as she’s trying to get into a church to retrieve one of Mephisto’s body parts. A curse prevents her from opening the door, so when she protects a young book thief named Marion from the authorities, he seems to be the perfect candidate to solve her problem. While they wait for the new moon to complete the errand, Johanna offers to tutor Marion, whom it turns out was merely stealing his own books back after they were taken by debt collectors. Poverty has also caused him to give up school, which was the only thing he’s good at.

After the errand is complete, Marion refuses to let his memories of the encounter be wiped, and tags along with Johanna on her journey to gather the rest of Mephisto, whom she refers to as “my adorable, detestable, unfathomable idiot of a dog.” As the trail leads Johanna to a town where the church is protecting Mephisto’s leg, we learn more about why the demon has been quartered and his parts kept under guard—his only charge is performing an immortality curse upon the dead—and what this means for Johanna. Whenever she sustains an injury, she is able to heal herself, but has a finite supply of physical material to work with, thus she ends up looking younger each time.

As cool as it was to have an older protagonist, I really don’t mind that she ends up looking younger, since she is demonstrably still the same person. I appreciate that Johanna is decidedly not evil. She never threatens Marion or anything of the sort. And though she might have made some past decisions Marion has a hard time accepting, she only did so after a lot of thought and because it was the best and only option at the time. I also really like how Marion becomes a stronger character in the second volume, as we learn that his motivations for tagging along with Johanna are more than mere curiosity: she’s his ticket out of a town where he has very few prospects.

I haven’t yet touched on the church characters, primarily an inquisitor named Lorenzo (who’s trying to stop Johanna but yet agrees to work with her to expose a corrupt priest) and his friend and assistant Vito, who gets himself captured along with Marion whilst trying to figure out why vagrants keep going missing around the church. They believe humankind will suffer if Mephisto is allowed to return to normal. (Nico, Johanna’s homunculus “daughter,” doesn’t seem fond of him, either.) The players on each side are sympathetic and the story is complex, just how I like ’em. We still don’t know what sort of “game” Johanna and Mephisto are playing and why she doesn’t just take her immortality and run, rather than risk injury trying to put the demon with dibs on her soul back together. Maybe she’s simply fond of him?

Alas, this series is only five volumes long, but I will look on the bright side—we will hopefully get a really satisfying conclusion that much sooner!

Frau Faust is complete in five volumes. The first two volumes are currently available in English and the third will be released on Tuesday.

Review copies provided by the publisher.

Wake Up, Sleeping Beauty, Vol. 1

By Megumi Morino | Published by Kodansha Comics

Tetsu Misato makes up for what he lacks in height with his energy and determination. Due to a mysterious promise he made to his hospitalized mother, Tetsu is driven to earn money. So much so that he plains to join the work force after graduation and already is working several part-time jobs while in high school, abandoning the soccer team as a result. To prove to his father that he is ready to hold down a job, he begins working through his father’s housekeeping agency at the Karasawa mansion. There have long been rumors that the place is haunted, but Tetsu soon learns that the “frail, sickly daughter” who allegedly lives in a separate building is a real and friendly girl, no apparition at all.

In fact, Shizu doesn’t seem ill at all, but some of the things she says are strange, like “I’d like you to come see me… to see Shizu Karasawa again.” And when Tetsu confesses his love (thankfully without prolonged angst) Shizu is troubled and invites him to visit again on his next work day before she gives him a straight answer. When he complies, he finds a completely different Shizu, who refers to the personality Tetsu interacted with as “Haru” and only vaguely remembers Tetsu. She doesn’t seem to know who she herself really is.

Most of this first volume is Tetsu figuring out the mystery of what exactly Shizu’s deal is, which I don’t want to spoil, but I will say I definitely enjoyed the read. Early on, there are some gag reaction panels that aren’t particularly amusing, but which make the darker, creepier moments later on land with more impact. Tetsu is quite the scaredy cat, and while he initially visits Shizu because he cares about her (well, the Haru version, at least) and doesn’t want her to be lonely, by the end of the volume, Shizu’s mother has made him an offer he can’t refuse, and though he’s now scared of Shizu because of what he’s learned, he’s compelled to stay near her to protect someone he cares about—and this time, I think that’s referring to his mother or his family and ties in to the unknown reason that he needs to earn all that money. It’s a nice shift in his motivations, especially as it occurs after the real Shizu has shown that she cares about Tetsu, a first for her.

The tables have turned in their relationship, and I very much look forward to see how the story progresses from here.

Wake Up, Sleeping Beauty is complete in six volumes. Volume two will be out in English next week.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Several from Seven Seas

In the past couple of months, Seven Seas has published several new releases of interest to me!

Bloom Into You, Vol. 1 by Nakatani Nio
Koito Yuu has just begun her first year of high school. Pressured by her friends to participate in club activities, she ends up assisting the student council, where she meets elegant second-year student Nanami Touko. Yuu has been trying to figure out how to reply to the male friend who confessed his love for her at their middle school graduation, and when she overhears Touko rejecting a confession with the words “I don’t intend to go out with anyone, no matter who asks me,” she thinks she’s found someone who’ll understand how she feels.

Or, rather, doesn’t feel. Yuu wants to experience a soaring, sparkly love like she reads about in manga. She tried, but she couldn’t, and with Touko’s support, she’s finally able to let the guy down. What she isn’t prepared for is for Touko to reveal that they’re not alike after all because “I think I might be falling in love with you.”

At first, I was annoyed by Touko’s declaration. It was too soon; it felt unearned. However, the more we get to know her, as Yuu spends more time with her while working as her campaign manager for student elections, it becomes clear that Touko has devoted a lot of time and effort into projecting an image that isn’t really her. She wanted to be special, and now she must maintain that perfect facade. Around everyone, that is, except Yuu, who is seemingly incapable of finding anyone special. For you see, Yuu doesn’t feel anything when Touko confesses either, nor when the other girl steals her first kiss. She’s not excited, and she’s not upset. She feels nothing. I actually began to wonder… has she suffered some kind of deep, psychological trauma?

I like both Yuu and Touko, I like the Maria-sama ga Miteru sort of atmosphere, I like Yuu’s continued detachment, and I have high hopes for how this story might unfold going forward.

Bloom Into You is ongoing in Japan, where three volumes have been released so far. Volume two comes out in English on May 16th.

The Girl from the Other Side: Siúil, a Rún, Vol. 1 by Nagabe
It doesn’t happen all that often that I read something and conclude, “This is a five-star manga that everyone should read.” So, please keep that in mind when I say… This is a five-star manga that everyone should read.

The back cover blurb sets up the tone of the series marvelously, so I’m going to quote it. “In a land far away, there were two kingdoms: the Outside, where twisted beasts roamed that could curse with a touch, and the Inside, where humans lived in safety and peace. The girl and the beast should never have met, but when they do, a quiet fairytale begins.”

I knew I’d adore this series the moment a black-as-pitch creature approaches a little girl who’s snoozing unaware and instead of menacing her, he scolds her for wandering off. Indeed, the creature—whom Shiva, the little girl, refers to as “Teacher”—is gentle, gentlemanly, and valiant, protecting Shiva both physically (when paranoid human soldiers think she must be cursed and try to kill her) and mentally (by shielding her from the truth that she has been abandoned). He also possesses medical knowledge but forgot that he told Shiva he’d been a doctor. Was he once human himself? His concern for Shiva radiates from him—I was particularly struck by a panel depicting his fists clenched in worry—and I love him deeply.

While humans and their fear are one threat, we’re introduced to another at the end of the volume, making for a chilling cliffhanger. I can’t wait for volume two of this lovely and captivating series!

The Girl from the Other Side is ongoing in Japan, where three volumes have been released so far. Volume two comes out in English on May 16th.

Kase-san and Morning Glories by Hiromi Takashima
Kase-san and… is a series that is technically comprised of a succession of one-shot stories. This first volume, entitled Kase-san and Morning Glories, includes the title story as well as interludes like “Kase-san and the Bicycle,” “Kase-san and Sneakers,” and “Kase-san and the Spring Breeze.”

Yamada doesn’t fit in with her classmates well. Though she has noticed popular Kase-san, the boyish star of the track team, she never thought she was on the other girl’s radar. But it turns out that Kase-san admired Yamada’s dedication to the thankless task of weeding the school grounds. The girls eventually start hanging out together and it isn’t long before Yamada is having Feelings with a capital “F.” There ensues the typical angst about “but she’s a girl.”

There are a couple of other moments that I’ve seen elsewhere, too—an indirect kiss via a shared thermos, the first real kiss in the nurse’s office—and it’s certainly fluffy and insubstantial, but it’s still really cute. The art style is pleasant, and I wonder whether Yamada’s friend—who warns her about Kase dating girls—might provide some drama down the road. In any case, I’m on board for the next volume.

Kase-san and… is ongoing in Japan, where three volumes have been released so far. The second, Kase-san and Bento, comes out in English on May 23rd.

Kindred Spirits on the Roof: The Complete Collection by Hachi Ito, Aya Fumio, Toitentsu, and Liar-Soft
I was initially under the mistaken impression that the manga version of Kindred Spirits on the Roof was a retelling of the storyline from the yuri visual novel. Instead, it focuses on new girls attending Kokono-Tsuboshi Girls’ Academy of Commerce with some of the original couples returning as side characters or cameos.

In side A, written and illustrated by Hachi Ito, we are introduced to shy Shiina Shiori, who is in the art club. She comes out of her shell a bit while helping to create scenery for the play her class is putting on for the school festival, and by the end of the volume—after much dithering and conversations about “what does it feel like to love someone?”—has decided to stop running away from the feelings of her childhood friend, Kanda Mako. The moment where they become a couple is the only time the original kindred spirits are glimpsed, buy they don’t do or say anything.

Side B, written by Toitensu and illustrated by Aya Fumio, has a little more meat on its bones, but only just. Hase Chiharu and Ichiyama Tokino are fans of “friendly girls,” and decide to join the quiz club so that they can squee over the relationship between their sempai, Tomoe Natsuki and Sasaki Rika. They endeavor to help cool Sasaki admit to her feelings, and there is, of course, the implication that they themselves will form a couple someday. There were very brief glimpses of the girls at their quiz tournaments, but it was very far from being the focus of the story.

Ultimately, I didn’t hate Kindred Spirits on the Roof. It’s sweet and not lecherous. But it’s also a very frothy concoction without much depth. I can’t see myself ever desiring to reread it.

Kindred Spirits on the Roof is complete in two volumes.

Review copies for Kase-san and Morning Glories and Kindred Spirits on the Roof provided by the publisher.

The Night Beyond the Tricornered Window, Vols. 1-3

By Tomoko Yamashita | Published digitally by SuBLime

tricornered1Until Olivia mentioned it over in the comments on Manga Bookshelf, I had no idea this series existed, let alone that it was being released in English! Having loved Yamashita’s Dining Bar Akira and Black-Winged Love, I immediately purchased all extant volumes.

Kosuke Mikado has been able to see spirits since he was a child, but any time he tried to talk to his friends about it, they thought he was weird, so he has been keeping his distance from other people and has begun to doubt his own sanity. When the manager of the bookshop where Mikado works hires Rihito Hiyakawa to deal with a pesky spirit—and after Hikayawa recognizes Mikado’s powers and uses them to boost his own—Mikado finally finds someone who lives in the same world he does. Although he begins the series frightened and clinging to skepticism, through Hiyakawa’s assurances, Mikado gradually accepts the things he sees as reality and begins to combat them independently.

tricornered2I love series like this, where the leads have episodic disturbances that they investigate (via the partnership they strike up as a sort of supernatural cleaning crew and frequently assisting a non-believing cop named Hanzawa) plus an ongoing mystery (involving curses cast by someone named Erika Hiura) and yet the most important and fascinating aspect is the relationship between the leads themselves. There are the fun, suggestive moments where the guys are combining their powers for one reason or another and end up using dialogue like, “Do you want me to touch it?” or “Take me all the way in.” But where Yamashita-sensei really excels is at teasing out threads of darkness.

We first get an inkling that something is amiss when the guys visit a potentially fraudulent fortune-teller. Mikado is the one who physically sits for the session while Hiyakawa, bodily still in the waiting room, casually inhabits Mikado’s body to see for himself. The fortune-teller warns Mikado that the way Hiyakawa reaches into him so easily is dangerous, a warning neither Mikado nor I take seriously. And yet, after an encounter with Erika Hiura shows Mikado’s vulnerability to being accessed in this way, Hiyakawa makes Mikado enter into a contract he doesn’t remember, and we get this awesomely creepy full-page panel.

After this point, more and more potentially disturbing things about Hiyakawa are revealed. “I don’t have parents or friends,” he says at one point. Later, he seems baffled by the concepts of beauty and evil. As troubling indications mount, Mikado knows that he should be thinking seriously about what is happening between them. Other characters certainly question it, but Mikado is strangely reluctant. Is it because Hiyakawa is somehow keeping him quiescent, or is Mikado willfully maintaining his ignorance because he does not want to go back to being alone?

tricornered3It’s only at the end of volume three, wherein Hiyakawa nonchalantly suggests that it’d be good if they could work the other side of the business, too, that Mikado realizes he has no idea what kind of person he’s working with. As a reader, I too was lulled into believing that of course the protagonist of a series about fighting the supernatural is a good guy. Turns out, he’s more of an empty-inside opportunist. At this point, even I just want to say, “Run away, Mikado! Run away and don’t look back!” Is there any hope that he can help heal and humanize Hiyakawa, or will he only end up destroyed? How soon until volume four comes out?!

Lest my focus on the relationship suggest otherwise, the plot of The Night Beyond the Tricornered Window is also excellent. In fact, I sincerely owe Olivia a debt of gratitude. And SuBLime, too, in fact. I hope print editions are available at some point in the future, because this is a series I need to have on my shelves.

The Night Beyond the Tricornered Window is available on Kindle and at sublimemanga.com. The series is ongoing in Japan, where the fourth volume has just been released.

That Wolf-boy Is Mine!, Vols. 1-2

By Yoko Nogiri | Published by Kodansha Comics

wolfboy1After making a social blunder at school that results in being shunned by her female classmates, Komugi Kusunoki is glad of the chance to start over in Hokkaido when the demands of her mother’s job mean Komugi will need to live with her father instead. At Maruyama High School, she quickly befriends a couple of nice girls (Kana and Keiko) and learns about the small clique of hotties over whom many girls swoon but who keep to themselves. One day, she surprises one of the boys (Yu Ogami) while he is napping and he turns into a wolf who promptly boops her on the nose.

Adorable as that was, he was actually trying to erase her memory of the incident. When repeated attempts to hypnotize her fail, she promises to keep their secret and thus becomes the first person to surmount the wall the boys have erected around themselves. It turns out they’re animal ayakashi who have learned to transform and who live in the human world for its entertainment. In addition to Ogami, the next most prominent character is Rin Fushimi the fox, though there’s also a troublemaking tanuki boy and an aloof cat boy.

wolfboy2As Komugi gets to know them better, she learns that Ogami is half human and was abandoned in the woods by his human mother. Although he doesn’t hate humans as Fushimi claims to do, and is in fact kind and sweet, he’s still determined that he is going to be the last of his line and that he won’t fall in love with anyone, which is a problem because it doesn’t take long for Komugi to fall for him. Meanwhile, Fushimi witnesses this happening and tries to spare her hurt, and when she’s later trying to acclimate to just being friends with Ogami, he’s the one who’s there for her to talk to, sparking some jealous feelings on Ogami’s part.

Whenever something claims to be “perfect for fans of _______,” I am dubious. Just because a book features a petite blonde who fights demons doesn’t mean that it resembles Buffy the Vampire Slayer in any truly meaningful way. So, when a back cover blurb claimed that That Wolf-boy Is Mine! is perfect for fans of Fruits Basket, I uncharitably thought that they must mean it’s because hot guys transform into animals.

Now, it’s certainly true that hot guys do transform into animals, but the real emphasis here is on someone finding out a secret, proving themselves trustworthy, and helping damaged boys presumably learn to accept themselves. Nogiri-sensei has also done a great job in developing the three lead characters—I especially like level-headed Komugi and wary Fushimi—and it’s been a very long time since I’ve found a love triangle as compelling as this one. Any doubts I had about this series have been firmly dispelled, and I’m not only eagerly looking forward to volume three, I’m also bummed that the series is only four volumes long.

That Wolf-Boy Is Mine! is complete in four volumes. Two volumes have been released in English so far.

Liselotte & Witch’s Forest, Vol. 1

By Natsuki Takaya | Published by Yen Press

liselotte1On the one hand, it’s exciting to be reading something new by Natsuki Takaya, creator of my beloved Fruits Basket. On the other, it was kind of weird to embark upon an unfamiliar story whose artistic style was so very familiar to me.

This volume goes by quickly, with its large, pretty panels unencumbered by much in the way of background detail. Liselotte and her two child attendants (twin siblings named Anna and Alto) have recently moved to a remote location, simply referred to as “the east of the east of the east,” and we gradually learn that they are there because Liselotte comes from a noble family and was accused of plotting to overthrow her elder brother. Given the choice between exile or death, she chooses the former and is determined to make the best of it. She’s an interesting blend of optimistic shoujo heroine and someone more mature who has been through some crap. Actually, she reminds me of Anne Shirley a bit!

When Liselotte was younger, she had a friend named Enrich who would tell her stories about “the east of the east of the east,” in particular that witches live there. When she’s attacked by a witch (and is kind of awesomely irritated about it), she is saved by a white-haired guy named Engetsu who seriously reminds her of Enrich, only his eyes are light crimson instead of the blue she remembers. Engetsu decides he’s going to live with Liselotte, and most of the volume involves Alto grumbling about this and ending up sick, whereupon an adorable witch’s familiar named Yomi goes off to fetch him some medicine. (Actually, Alto spends the entire volume grumbling, which is not especially endearing, though he claims he’s frustrated by his beloved master’s situation.)

While this opening installment does feel a trifle insubstantial, it capably introduces the characters and the setting, and puts forth some intriguing ideas. Is Engetsu really Enrich? What happened to him? Did Liselotte actually plot against her brother? Is Engetsu in cahoots with the witches? What else are they planning to do? I’m definitely interested to find out. I just hope we get some answers by volume five, as that’s where the series has stalled because Takaya took an extended hiatus due to illness.

Liselotte & Witch’s Forest is on hiatus in Japan. It currently has five volumes. Yen Press will release volume two next month.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Shades of London, Books 1-3 by Maureen Johnson

The actual title of this post should be “Books 1-3 plus that novella that came out in 2014,” but that was rather inelegant.

name-of-the-starThe Name of the Star
When Louisiana native Rory Deveaux’s professorial parents take a sabbatical in the UK, Rory jumps at the chance to attend boarding school in London. The early chapters of The Name of the Star depict her acclimation to life at Wexford, befriending her new roommate (Jazza) and developing a flirtation with one of the male prefects (Jerome). Because the phrase “boarding school in London” is totally my cup of tea (har har) and because Rory is amusingly snarky, I was already loving the book at this point, and that’s before I even got to the part with Jack the Ripper and ghosts!

A copycat of the notorious killer is on the loose, and since Wexford is located in Whitechapel, many of the crime scenes are nearby. After a near-death experience by choking grants Rory the ability to see ghosts, she actually witnesses the perpetrator (who has mysteriously failed to show up on any CCTV recordings of the murders) which brings her to the notice of a special secret police squad tasked with controlling any unruly members of the spectral population.

Several more fun characters are then introduced, and here I must compliment the narrator of the unabridged audiobook, Nicola Barber, whose facility in accents made me feel like I was listening to a BBC show. (I especially liked that Callum, a former football hopeful now dispatching meddlesome ghosts on the Underground, sounded rather like Lister from Red Dwarf!) In fact, I think this would make a pretty great BBC show, with its mildly diverse cast and the fact that the heroine is not merely brave (she eventually assists the squad in their ghosthunt), but funny, too. Admittedly, there were a couple of moments where Rory did some dumb things, but one could argue she didn’t really have better alternatives.

I haven’t loved a book this much in quite a long time, and I am both happy and bummed that there are two more (only two more!) in the series currently.

madness_underneathThe Madness Underneath
It is with true regret that I must report that The Madness Underneath suffers from an unfortunate case of Middle Book Syndrome. A crack created at the end of the first book seems to be providing a way for the buried dead of Bedlam to make it to the surface, and Rory’s newfound skills as a human “terminus” are effective in dispatching one murderous ghost, but this plotline fizzles out partway through. (Sidebar: it’s a crazy coincidence that this article comes out the very day I finish this book!) Then Rory falls in with a cult whose philosophy and goals don’t make a lot of sense, and shortly after her costly rescue, there’s suddenly a cliffhanger ending. If I had to wait for book three, I would probably be peeved that that’s all there was.

That is not to suggest that nothing of merit happens, however. I actually really liked how Rory’s return to Wexford was handled—how she was just simply incapable of caring about things she used to care about. So far behind in schoolwork that it’s overwhelming, she can’t muster the desire to try, and yet is blindsided when it is suggested that perhaps she ought to withdraw prior to exams. So caught up in the ghosthunting gig, boyfriend Jerome’s suspicions (and then guilt over same) become just another nagging problem, so she ends their relationship. I liked that Callum feels more antagonistically towards ghosts than the others do, and yet everyone seems to respect each other’s point of view. I liked the Marc Bolan reference. And, of course, before the more serious stuff starts to happen, there are at least a dozen lines of dialogue that made me laugh. (There’s also a dream featuring ham lunchmeat that I think might be an homage to the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “Restless.”)

Even though this particular installment was kind of disappointing, I continue to look forward to subsequent books just as much as before.

boy_in_smokeThe Boy in the Smoke
This short novella visits four defining moments in the life of Stephen Dene, leader of the ghost police, offering insight into the thoughts and background of a notably reticent character. Some of these incidents have been referred to in previous books, but not in this much detail.

“The Forgotten Boy” recounts a time when Stephen’s parents forget to fetch him from school at the end of term. (They’ve gone to Barbados instead.) His sister Regina comes to his rescue, determined to save him from a life doing what their parents expect, but she’s erratic and Stephen soon figures out that she’s using drugs. In “The Break in the Chain,” Stephen is attending Eton when he gets word of Regina’s death by overdose. (His parents “worked out their grief at a resort in Switzerland.”) He manages to carry on for several years, determined to fulfill his duty of succeeding at Eton and carrying on to Cambridge, until a visit from his unfeeling family leads him to commit suicide (in a scene that is absolutely riveting).

“The Specialist” find Stephen recovering at a psychiatric hospital and being recruited by Thorpe to lead the reformed team. And in “The Boy in the Smoke,” Stephen has finally achieved his dream of becoming a police officer. Practically the first thing he does is search for Regina’s ghost, only to find she did not return. Lastly, he fulfills his promise to come back to visit the ghost who saved his life and this slim little book comes to an end that left me rather verklempt.

Is this book essential to understanding the Shades of London series? No, but I’d say it’s essential to understanding Stephen, and very definitely worth the time.

shadcabThe Shadow Cabinet
What do you get when you take a series that first beguiled me with London, boarding school, Jack the Ripper and ghosts, and then remove half of those things? A book that is reasonably good but which I just cannot love with anything approaching the ardor I originally felt.

The Shadow Cabinet offers a lot more information about the cult and their goals, introduces the concept of powerful stones that prevent London from being overrun by spirits as well as a secret society tasked with protecting them, and unleashes creepy, evil siblings Sid and Sadie upon the world. More attention, though, is devoted to Rory’s personal plight. Now in hiding from family and friends after running away from Wexford, she and the team are searching everywhere for one of their own who they believe has become a ghost.

The resolution to book two’s cliffhanger is pretty satisfying, I must admit, and I found that I did care a lot about whether certain characters made it out of Sid and Sadie’s proximity unscathed. I also really liked getting to know more about Thorpe, the group’s MI-5 overseer, and that Rory apparently receives permission to tell her two closest friends from Wexford what’s really been going on. And then there’s also the part where Stephen asks the bad guys, “Do you want to test that theory?” which surely must be another Buffy reference, right?

I’m still looking forward to the fourth book, which I believe is going to be the last in the series, but I must admit that my expectations are lower now than they once were.

A Bevy of Buffy

Because I am a great big geek, one of my personal goals is to read all of the novels inspired by Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This is the first in what will be a series of posts collecting reviews of these books in a somewhat shorter-than-usual format. In this installment: Afterimage, Bad Bargain, Blooded, Carnival of Souls, One Thing or Your Mother, and Portal Through Time. All are set during the show’s second season.

Afterimage by Pierce Askegren
I’m pretty sure Afterimage is set between “What’s My Line” and “Ted”—the former is a definite, despite the season being referred to as early autumn even though “What’s My Line” takes place after Halloween, but the latter is a guess based on a couple of thoughts Joyce has about needing to get out more, which the author (writing in 2006) might’ve intended as a lead-in to “Ted.”

The book gets off to a slow start and, in fact, not much seems to happen for the first sixty pages. Our heroes encounter some strange folks about town, and it’s pretty obvious to the reader that “Hey, these are characters from the movies being shown at the new drive-in!” but it takes quite a while for the characters to catch up. That said, around page 100 things begin to improve, which is right about where Jonathan appears. I knew he was in this, and was hoping for more of an active role. Sadly, all he does is go to the movies with Xander and then get afflicted by a mysterious sleeping sickness, along with 29 other Sunnydale residents.

Speaking of the drive-in, it occurred to me that this is totally a Sailor Moon plot. Creepy yet charismatic bad guy comes into town and advertises a free drive-in. The local residents swarm the place and then creepy guy feeds on their energy. Our heroine destroys the evil projector with her tiara machete, and the bad guy dissolves. He does not, alas, proclaim “Refresh!”

Still, this was a pretty enjoyable outing, and had some nice touches, like a glimpse at Xander’s bickering parents, a spot-on depiction of petulant Harmony, and Cordelia demonstrating her intelligence and leadership skills. In fact, while Buffy is important, I think Xander comes across more like the protagonist of this one, which is a nice change.

Bad Bargain by Diana G. Gallagher
Bad Bargain is set in season two (between “What’s My Line?” and “Ted” would be my guess) but written in 2006, three years after the end of the series, which allows author Diana G. Gallagher to use her knowledge of later events to color what would otherwise be a fairly dull tale of demonic critters infesting a rummage sale.

In another of her attempts to recapture a normal teen life, Buffy is volunteering at the school rummage sale to benefit the marching band. She’s roped Willow and Xander into participating, too, and this scintillating event has even come to the attention of Spike and Dru, who head to Sunnydale High for a spot of shoplifting. All goes awry when a spell to locate one kid’s missing amulet ends up inviting a host of microscopic Hellmouth beasties, who proceed to infect most of those present. The day is ultimately, of course, saved, though Willow theoretically suffers trauma from being parted from the cute-looking critter who beguiled her into becoming its protector. That part is kind of dumb (and I didn’t think Gallagher captured Drusilla’s mode of speech well, either).

What’s interesting, though, is that Andrew is in this. In fact, he and Jonathan have fairly prominent roles, which I thought was quite fun. In a nice bit of dramatic irony, Jonathan has become possessed by some demonic whip thing and subsequently angsts when he realizes that he nearly killed his best friend. In addition, Gallagher includes a few comments that suggest that these events spurred actions by the characters as seen in the show. For example, Oz muses about painting his van and, after the pests have been sent back where they belong, Princpal Snyder remarks, “Next year’s fund-raiser for the marching band will be something simple, like selling candy.” Hee!

Blooded by Christopher Golden and Nancy Holder
It’s difficult to pinpoint the timeline for this one. Angel’s stint as Angelus is mentioned, as is the death of Jenny Calendar, but he was apparently able to regain his soul in a way that did not involve Willow. (This book was published in August 1998, and I have to wonder if Whedon wasn’t willing to give away the plot details for the season two finale, so Golden and Holder had to be super vague about it.) I do think this is the end of season two—despite what Wikipedia claims—because Oz and Willow’s relationship is still new, her hair is still long, etc.

Anyway, the gang goes to a museum for a field trip and Willow ends up freeing and being possessed by the spirit of an ancient Chinese vampire-sorcerer. She gathers minions, attacks Xander, and causes her friends to fret. Eventually, Xander gets possessed by a Japanese mountain god and there’s a big battle and spells and Giles wears a headband with a kanji on it. In the end the day is saved through teamwork (yes, really).

On the whole, this book is pretty boring. However, there are a few things to recommend it. For every two or three bits of clunky dialogue, there is occasionally one that is at least slightly amusing or which I can easily hear in the actor’s voice. It was also prescient about a few things. Cordelia’s lack of skill as an actress is mentioned, which will come into play on Angel, and she makes the comment, “I’ll never admit it if you tell her I said it, but I’d hate to think about what Sunnydale would be like if we didn’t have a Slayer in town.” This is interesting, because she is the one who allows us to see exactly that in season three’s “The Wish.” There’s also some good stuff here with Willow’s desire for power and strength, and how that made her vulnerable to the vampire-sorcerer dude. Most of the resulting darkness is played as his fault, but it dovetails nicely with her eventual character arc on the show.

In the end, there are far better Buffy tie-in books, but this wasn’t too bad.

Carnival of Souls by Nancy Holder
Carnival of Souls turned out to be a lot better than I was expecting. Wedged snugly between “Ted” and “Surprise,” the story is set around the episode “Bad Eggs,” which is a great place to put it because, hey, if the book’s at least moderately good, it’ll still be on par with that notoriously rather lame episode.

The premise is that a carnival has come to town, and its proprietor is some kind of devil demon thing that uses prisms to hypnotize visitors into giving in to the temptation of the seven deadly sins so that it might feed off of their souls. Our heroes are not immune, so Buffy becomes proud, Cordelia greedy, Xander gluttonous, Willow envious, Giles angry, Angel lustful, and Joyce slothful.

Really, the specifics of the carnival itself are not very interesting. What I most liked were the many scenes of the group all together, doing their investigation thing, and how good a lot of the dialogue was. Some of Xander’s lines are especially easy to hear in the actor’s voice, and I actually laughed at one of Buffy’s mid-slaying puns. Plus, I liked that they gave Jenny Calendar something significant to contribute.

All in all, I’d recommend it wholeheartedly if not for the matter of the kittens.

Early on, Giles acquires a pair of kittens with the intent to use them as payment to Clem in exchange for information, fully cognizant they’ll be used as currency in a demonic poker game. And as if that weren’t bad enough, when Angry!Giles summons a demon that destroys his apartment, no one asks what happened to the kitties, including Buffy and Willow, who were loving on them in a previous scene! Still worse, if you interpret the text in a certain way, you might conclude that Giles sacrificed them as part of the ritual. Ugh! Why?! It was absolutely not necessary to include them and taint this otherwise decent book.

One Thing or Your Mother by Kirsten Beyer
One Thing or Your Mother is the best Buffy tie-in novel that I have ever read. Well done, Kirsten Beyer! I’m sorry that, as this is also the last Buffy tie-in novel to be published, you never got to write another one.

Set between “I Only Have Eyes for You” and “Go Fish,” One Thing or Your Mother finds Buffy contending with several different problems. Aside from the recurring menace of Angelus, there’s the fact that Joyce has been contacted by the school about her daughter’s poor grades (with the end result that Buffy acquires a tutor), the disappearance of a young girl followed by sightings of a child vampire, and the strange behavior exhibited by Principal Snyder that ultimately imperils the whole town. True, none of these elements is particularly exciting, but each is competently executed, and done in a way that has bearing on what’s going to happen next in the series.

Where Beyer really shines is in capturing the characters—not just in dialogue, at which she admittedly excels, but in thought as well. Too many times to count, the thoughts attributed to Buffy and the others in these books have been downright insipid, but not this time. In addition, the scenes with the Scooby Gang together in the library are so spot-on they’re just about episode quality. Granted, this doesn’t match up to the very best of Buffy—a lot of which can be found in season two—but with a little reworking and simplifying, this could’ve made a solid episode better than the worst of Buffy—some of which can also be found in season two. I also thought Beyer did a great job with Spike.

Perhaps once I’ve completed this project I’ll have to come up with the Top Ten Buffy Novels for those who only want to read the cream of the crop. One Thing or Your Mother has definitely secured itself a spot on that list.

Portal Through Time by Alice Henderson
Set between “Bad Eggs” and “Surprise,” Alice Henderson’s Portal Through Time evidently takes place very early in 1998, because Buffy is still sixteen (she turns seventeen on January 19th) and Angel has not yet lost his soul. A vampire called Lucien has done a lot of research into time-traveling magic and recruits some assistants to help him with his plan: go back in time and kill four very famous Slayers so as to disrupt the line and allow the Master (of whom he is a devotee) to rise unimpeded. Angel gets wind of the plan, so Buffy and pals end up traveling to Wales in 60 C.E., to Sumeria in the time of Gilgamesh, to Tennessee during the Battle of Shiloh, and to Paris during the French Revolution.

Sometimes being a reviewer (or at least being one who sets geeky goals) means reading things so that others don’t have to. Such is the case with Portal Through Time. Although there are some things Henderson does well—I like her attempts to recapture the feel of the show by employing quick cuts between scenes to humorous effect, for example—the overall concept of a magical means to travel back in time is just not very well thought out.

For one, if such magic did exist, you can bet that Willow would’ve used it to wipe out Warren before he could do harm to anyone she cared about. And two, even within this book there are complications and possibilities that are not pursued. Near the end, for example, Buffy stakes Angelus and then reuses the incantation to go back in time to the same spot and keep that from happening. So why does everyone seem so secure that once they’ve thwarted the vamps in a given time period the Slayer is now safe? The vamps could just go back and try again!

On top of this, Henderson’s writing is frequently redundant, like when she reiterates several times that if the vampires arrive at their destination during the day they will have to wait until nightfall to take action, and sometimes just plain bad. During an interminable passage in which Buffy is creeping through the woods around the perimeter of Shiloh, she ends up getting shot in the leg and suddenly develops a fondness for deer. Behold:

She forced herself to focus on the grand trees and shadowed valleys, golden fields in which the deer gathered at dusk… She imagined the fields and groves of trees without the thousands of bleeding and broken soldiers, but instead full of foraging deer and black bear.

I should not be snickering when there are thousands of bleeding and broken soldiers in a scene. And maybe you see nothing wrong with that quote, but to me it sounds nothing like Buffy and is just the author clumsily inserting an anti-war message.

Sometimes it can be fun to read a lousy book, but in the end this one is just too long and boring for me to recommend doing even that.