The Lizard Prince 1 by Asuka Izumi: B-

lizardprinceFrom the back cover:
Canary is the princess of the kingdom of Linaria. Her father, the king, has promised her hand in marriage to Heath, the handsome prince of the kingdom of Gazania. Canary isn’t crazy about this, because Heath has a bad reputation. The Prince has his own reservations, and gets his brother Sienna to pose as him on their first date, convinced he’ll drive her away. But the plan backfires when chemistry ignites between the two. The only problem is, Sienna’s been under a spell, which turned him into a lizard. And once he’s done posing as his brother, he reverts back to that form! Will love really conquer all in this mixed-up triangle?

CMX does a great job finding all-ages shoujo fantasy titles that also appeal to older readers. I enjoyed both The Palette of 12 Secret Colors and Lapis Lazuli Crown, and while I think The Lizard Prince has some problems, it’s still a decent read.

When Princess Canary’s father announces that the time has come to discuss an arranged marriage, she is pragmatic enough to have been expecting it, though she is not so sanguine about her proposed mate. Prince Heath, heir to a neighboring kingdom, is rumored to be a drunken, womanizing lout and Canary wants nothing to do with him. Her father assures her that she need only meet him once and can then call things off, and she agrees. Meanwhile, Prince Heath has acquired some magical 24-hour body swap medicine and prevails upon his talking lizard pal/minion to switch places with him.

With the lizard inhabiting his body, the Prince Heath Canary meets is sweet and kind, and she falls in love with him. Awesomely, when Canary later meets the real Prince Heath she can tell instantly that he’s not the same person and, when she learns the truth behind the masquerade, unselfconsciously professes her love for the lizard. The moment she does so, the curse upon the lizard is lifted and he’s revealed to be Heath’s older brother, Sienna.

It’s patently clear that The Lizard Prince was meant to be a one-shot story. Events wrap up so neatly at the end of the first chapter that there’s not much else to be done. And yet, the tale continues with Canary and Sienna having a variety of episodic (and rather lame) adventures, like dealing with an imposter, helping some ghosts achieve closure, and caring for an infant. After fifteen years of living as a lizard, Sienna now possesses the ability to become one at will (though he has no control over when he becomes human again), and frequently faces peril while in this form. It’s sometimes amusing, but not often.

Though it may be similar in feel to Lapis Lazuli Crown, The Lizard Prince suffers in comparison because there’s no point to the story. Both Canary and Sienna are likable characters—a “strong woman and pathetic man” combo that the author professes to prefer—and much of the enjoyment derived from reading the volume is on account of them, but it’s disappointing that they’re not given more to actually do.

Izumi’s artistic style isn’t particularly distinctive, but it is nice to look at. Sienna doesn’t look much like any lizard I’ve ever seen—he kind of looks like a plushy comma with teeny legs—but I doubt realism was even attempted. The biggest problem is that it’s occasionally hard to determine in what order the panels should be read; I made the wrong choice a few times.

The Lizard Prince is pleasant but forgettable. If the series were any longer, I’m not sure I’d bother continuing, but since it’s only two volumes long, I will likely seek out the second for the sake of completion.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Oh! My Brother 1 by Ken Saito: B-

ohmybrother1-125Masago Kamoguchi is a normal girl: normal looks, normal grades, and normal athletic ability. But normal isn’t good enough for Masago when she’s constantly being compared to her older brother, Shiro, who is smart, good-looking, popular, and someone who draws people to him wherever he goes. As the story begins, Shiro is leading the student council in preparations for the school’s Cultural Festival and Masago is keeping a relatively low profile. All of that changes when Shiro dies saving Masago’s life and his consciousness somehow ends up sharing his sister’s body. Assuming that the incomplete plans for the festival are the “unfinished business” keeping Shiro around, Masago (with some oratorical assistance from her brother) convinces the remaining members of the student council to put aside their grief and make the festival a success in his honor. The students do just that, and though Shiro doesn’t move on as a result, that’s okay with Masago, who has decided she likes having him around.

The name Ken Saito might be familiar to some as the creator of The Name of the Flower. I like that series a lot, so I’d been looking forward to Oh! My Brother ever since the license acquisition was announced. Unfortunately, I found it to be somewhat of a disappointment. There are quite a few characters introduced all at once, and their various reactions to Shiro’s death—stemming from unrequited love or unfulfilled soccer rivalry—lack poignancy when we’ve only just met them; the tone is inconsistent, with the comedic aspect of the body-sharing predicament vying with teary moments for dominance; and I literally groaned aloud when the first page revealed the series was entering well-trod school festival territory already. Also, the relationship between the siblings is kind of icky at times: seriously, who blushes furiously when their brother gives them a peck on the cheek?

That isn’t to say it’s without good moments or the potential for a compelling story. When the successful completion of the festival fails to free Shiro’s spirit from this earthly plane, Masago realizes that his unfinished business is actually her and that his wish is for his sister to live life more fully. Of course, one of the ways in which she might do this is by allowing her feelings for Shiro’s friend, Kurouma-sempai, to flourish (and most likely be reciprocated), a path that Shiro seems determined to thwart by taking control of her body any time he thinks they’re getting too close. This dichotomy in Shiro’s intentions is interesting; I hope it’ll be explored later in the series. Also, it’s always completely clear which sibling is in control of Masago’s body at any given time, either by mannerism, expression, or dialogue. That can’t have been easy to achieve.

Artistically, Oh! My Brother has a cute style, though it’s a little too sketchy sometimes, particularly where light-haired characters are concerned. There’s one panel in particular in which a wispy-looking Masago appears right next to a solid-looking, dark-haired Kurouma-sempai. Perhaps there’s actually some deep symbolism going on here—she’s not fully here while he’s got both feet firmly on the ground?—but I rather doubt it. Also, there are a few errors in CMX’s script, a “your” that should be a “you’re,” and a “thoese” that should be either a “those” or a “these,” but definitely not both at once.

Ultimately, while I am slightly disappointed in this first volume, I plan to continue reading. Maybe this one just needs a little time to grow.

Oh! My Brother is published by CMX. The series is complete in Japan with four volumes, though only one has been published in English so far.

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

The Lapis Lazuli Crown 2 by Natsuna Kawase: B+

lapislazuli2After receiving encouragement from a boy called Radi, really Prince Radian in disguise, Miel Violette has been devoting herself to her magical studies in order to earn a place as a palace magician and be of use to Radi. The events of volume two span at least eighteen months, as Miel first enrolls in a kind of prep course, then takes the entrance exam for the palace training school, earns a place in the Barrier Bureau (responsible for keeping out magical burglars, essentially), and finally clears her family name by exhibiting her profound physical strength and magical power in a ceremony to reinforce the barrier protecting the entire country of Savarin (a barrier manufactured by the lapis lazuli crown, which finally makes an appearance in the series bearing its name).

Through the author’s comments, it seems clear that a more leisurely progression through these events was originally planned but had to be accelerated to comply with “page constraints.” Despite sacrificing some elements, the story still hangs together well and offers a satisfying conclusion, one that manages to work in a little palace intrigue to boot. I like that Miel is encouraged to demonstrate both her prodigious strength and magical ability, and that the emphasis is on achieving her place through her own merits rather than by any patronage of Radi’s. The romance between them takes a backseat to the rest of the story, which is fine by me since it really is comparatively less interesting.

Kawase’s art continues to be remind me of Nari Kusakawa, which is definitely a compliment, and CMX’s packaging is lovely. The most glaring flaw in this edition, however, is how the name of Miel’s friend, Seigle, is often spelled as Seagle. It’s as if they changed it midway and forgot to make sure it was consistent throughout.

On the whole, The Lapis Lazuli Crown is a cute and enjoyable series, and because of its rating would definitely be a good choice for kids and libraries.

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

The Lapis Lazuli Crown 1 by Natsuna Kawase: B

lapislazuli1In the country of Savarin, about 20% of the population can perform magic. Seventeen-year-old Miel comes from a long line of sorcerers, and though the family has fallen a bit since the days when their services were sought after at the palace, they’re still very respectable. Miel doesn’t have much interest in improving her own skills, though, until she meets Prince Radian (also known as Radi), whose positive encouragement inspires her to develop her magic so that she might be hired by the palace and be of use to him.

Though part of me takes umbrage with the idea that Miel doesn’t get serious about magic until a boy comes along, I can’t deny that The Lapis Lazuli Crown is a cute story, particularly for a younger audience. The episodic adventures, the art, and Miel’s plight—she’s good at written exams but not so hot at practical magic—all remind me of another CMX series, The Palette of 12 Secret Colors, which is a compliment.

The one genuine complaint I have is in regards to the bonus story, “Daisy Romance.” The lead character, Hanagiku, looks exactly like Miel, and the two male characters bear more than a passing resemblance to Radi and his retainer, Sieg. This makes for some disconcerting reading at first.

The Lapis Lazuli Crown is two volumes long and is published in English by CMX. Volume two is due out in September.

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

Fire Investigator Nanase 1-2 by Izo Hashimoto and Tomoshige Ichikawa: B

nanase1After losing her parents in a fire, Nanase Takamine resolved to become a firefighter. Now 21, she has achieved her goal and works as a fire investigator, not actually battling fires directly but determining where and how they started. Three years ago, while she was still a student at the academy, she came upon the scene of a hospital in flames. Rushing inside, she saved the life of a burning man, ignorant at the time that he was actually responsible for setting the fire. After he escaped from the ambulance, taking the lives of a pair of paramedics in the process, his identity as the wanted arsonist Firebug became known. Now, as Nanase is facing some puzzling cases, Firebug has contacted her and, in an effort to repay her for saving his life, provides clues and insights that help in her investigations.

When a story features a young female investigator receiving hints and advice from a notorious criminal, comparisons to The Silence of the Lambs are inevitable. What Fire Investigator Nanase reminds me most of, though, is actually Gosho Aoyama’s long-running mystery series, Case Closed (Viz). You’ve got the rookie investigator spotting things that others with more experience miss and piecing together the elaborate methods used to commit and obscure crimes. Even the little boxes that introduce the suspects and the anonymous way the culprits are drawn pre-reveal are similar. Unfortunately, the cast of suspects is more limited in this series, making for predictable outcomes in most cases.

The cases themselves are mildly intriguing, and certainly fast reads, but I found them to be easily forgettable after I’d put the book down. One story, too, cuts off rather abruptly, with Firebug taking off in a burning car with an arsonist while Nanase, left behind, thinks, “How horrifying.” It took me several pages to realize that the next chapter had moved on to a different case entirely.

Nanase is another problem. She’s plucky and determined as one might expect, but early on she’s portrayed as klutzy and cries frequently. I had been hoping for someone more… badassedly professional, I suppose. Firebug is the real star of the series, wonderfully creepy in his omniscience and equipped with the ability to disguise himself as others in order to get close to Nanase. The moments when he appears before her, managing to elude her attempts at capture while doling out just enough information to get her on the right track, are eclipsed in greatness only by chapter sixteen, “Stalker,” in which he protects Nanase from an assailant in order to preserve her for his own evil purposes.

Tomoshige Ichikawa’s art works well for action sequences, with a good sense of place that makes it easy to keep track of characters’ locations within burned or burning structures. Less successful, though, is the depiction of people. The two adult males that figure most closely in Nanase’s career—her supervisor, Tachibana, and the police arson detective in pursuit of Firebug, Ogata—look superficially similar, with slick-backed black hair, sneering smiles, and arching brows, and it took me a while to be able to tell them apart. Too, there’s a shower scene in which Nanase’s torso is so asymmetrical it looks like she’s missing some bones.

On the whole, I found Fire Investigator Nanase to be a bit of a disappointment. It isn’t bad by any means; it’s simply just not as cool as I was expecting it to be.

Fire Investigator Nanase is released in English by CMX and two volumes have been released so far. It’s complete in Japan with seven volumes.

Review originally published at Manga Recon.

The Name of the Flower 1 by Ken Saito: A-

When Chouko Mizushima was in her first year of high school, she lost both parents in a traffic accident. The shock and grief left her unable to speak and she was shuffled around amongst various relatives before finally ending up with her father’s cousin, the reclusive and cold-seeming author, Kei. Kei sets some conditions for living with him that include tending to his decrepit garden. As Chouko cares for the plants and flowers, her heart slowly begins to mend. She credits Kei with spurring her to shake off the darkness of her grief with her own two hands, not realizing just how much her presence has affected him in return.

The first adjective that comes to mind to describe The Name of the Flower is “quiet.” Although it has its funny moments, the overall feel is serene, focusing on small moments of interaction between the lead characters rather than intense drama. One way in which it accomplishes this is through the story structure. I had been expecting that the story would begin with Chouko moving in with Kei, but actually, it begins after she’s been living with him for two years. Gradually, over a series of flashbacks from both Chouko and Kei, we see not only how they were then but also how they have changed because of each other. I found this to be a very eloquent way of getting the point across.

Kei’s garden also plays a big part in the series. Not only is Chouko’s transformation of the neglected garden into a thing of beauty indicative of her own painful journey, but it also symbolizes the gradual thawing of Kei’s heart. He had been known for very dark literary works before taking Chouko in, but his latest novel is actually a love story based on his life with her.

After reading the novel, Chouko asks Kei about it, but he cowardly claims it isn’t based on reality. Therefore, she doesn’t know that he has romantic feelings for her and he can’t believe that her love for him is real, thinking instead that it’s “more like a newborn chick following its mother.” I thought this was an interesting way to deal with the age difference (twelve years) between them. Although Chouko is technically an adult now, Kei feels she hasn’t experienced enough to know what real love is, and thinks it’d be unfair to saddle her with his unworthy self when she might be able to find someone else who could make her really happy. This makes me like him for not only his maturity but also the angsty possibilities of a hero with an inferiority complex.

Saito’s art works well with the story, though the character designs are rather familiar. Kei is the bespectacled kimono-wearing author, Akiyama (Kei’s editor) is so bland-looking I can’t even describe him, and Chouko occasionally bears a distracting resemblance to Asami from High School Debut. I really like the chibi art, though; it’s very cute.

If a calm love story sounds intriguing, or you’re a fan of CMX’s other shojo offerings, then you might want to check out this series. It’s also short, at four volumes total, if that’s any incentive.

The Name of the Flower was serialized in LaLa DX and is four volumes long. Volume one is available now and volume two will be released on May 19, 2009.

Review originally published at Manga Recon.

The Palette of 12 Secret Colors 4 by Nari Kusakawa: B+

This is the story of Cello, an aspiring Palette or “color magician,” who has had to repeat her first year of training school because her abilities are a bit different than those of her fellow students. The Palette of 12 Secret Colors is a very episodic series, and this volume is no exception. On the agenda are a separation from her avian partner that prompts Cello to strive to be her best, a rampaging drunken ostrich, and a swimming competition.

I’m not a fan of episodic tales in general, but Kusakawa manages to incorporate modest development for her lead characters and their relationship even while hijinks are ensuing. Over the course of the previous volumes, Dr. Guell (the school doctor) has helped Cello out on numerous occasions and now secretly harbors romantic feelings for her. The episodic nature of the story contrives to put the two of them together, occasionally in ridiculous situations, but also provides the opportunity for many warm and fuzzy moments. The final scene between them in volume four is anything but ridiculous or fuzzy, however, and may be just what Cello needs to finally begin to see the stoic doctor in a new light.

That said, this story is certainly progressing at a leisurely pace for one with only two volumes left. I can’t help but wish for a more dramatic storyline or more tangible evidence of Cello’s progressing skills. Aww-inspiring it may be, but it’s currently too mellow to generate anything akin to awe.

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

The Palette of 12 Secret Colors 3 by Nari Kusakawa: B

From the back cover:
Cello meets Fenne, a fellow Palette-in-training who’s been having problems with his abilities ever since his bird-partner died. Despite his sarcastic attitude, Cello is determined to both help him find a suitable new bird and to become his friend. Then Olga—Dr. Guell’s jealous bird—decides that Cello is taking up way too much of Dr. Guell’s time. So now she’s determined to make sure that Cello quickly completes her Palette training.

Just as I was wishing to know more about Cello’s progress, she makes a remark in one chapter about how she has cleared “about half” of the first twelve colors. That’s a step in the right direction, I suppose.

Unfortunately, none of the stories in this volume really do much for me, though none is bad or anything. A new character, Fenne, is introduced and ropes Cello into helping him adapt one of the migratory birds that visit the island to be his new partner. At first he mocks her for having to repeat her first year, but comes to like her, which bothers Dr. Guell, who is coming to realize that Cello occupies his thoughts rather a lot.

The story with Olga serving as Cello’s tutor misses the mark for amusing and instead ventures into the territory of “too silly for me.” The same can be said for the chapter in which Cello’s father pursues an outrageously ridiculous plan of making up with his wife, with whom he’s had a fight. About the only one I really like is the one about Cello’s birthday, and how Dr. Guell sweetly buys her a present. Not only that, he’s clearly paid enough attention to her to know exactly what kind of present she would like best.

The relationship between Dr. Guell and Cello is the most interesting thing about the series at the moment, but I do rather wish for a more serialized story line. This is the halfway point of the series and though it’s very pleasant and guaranteed to foster some warm fuzzies, it feels like something more should be happening by now.

The Palette of 12 Secret Colors 2 by Nari Kusakawa: B+

From the back cover:
It’s Christmas time on the island of Opal, and a visiting young Prince introduces holiday traditions to its residents. What could be more festive than the powers of the color wizards unleashed upon the season? But Dr. Guell is jealous of the relationship between the Prince and Cello and adds a sour note to the happy celebration. Then, find out more about Cello’s family and learn how she first bonded with Yoyo, her very special bird.

The episodic adventures continue in this volume, including a story about a visiting prince with a predictable secret, the tale of how Cello first met Yoyo, and a chapter about Cello’s family and her dad’s attempts to get some kind of facial expression out of terminally cool Dr. Gruell. Each of the episodes has something amusing about it, or some particular insight on character, but some are also a bit dull; I’m already kind of tired of seeing the triplet little girls turn up again and again.

The second story is my favorite, and not just because of Yoyo’s cuteness, though I suppose that is a factor. Mostly, though, I like it for the continuity. In an offhand remark in volume one, Cello mentions that she used to like climbing trees until she fell from one, and now she’s afraid of heights. This chapter includes that incident. It’s a minor thing, but I’m happy to see the seeds for it planted in advance.

While the current story structure is not short on charm, I still keep wanting this to be like a shounen manga somehow, with Cello acquiring mastery of new colors and her progression in skill clearly mapped. So far, she has improved enough to do well on a mid-term exam, but that’s sort of nebulous; the idea of knowing exactly how many of the twelve colors she can control and how many she has left has definite appeal.

The Palette of 12 Secret Colors 1 by Nari Kusakawa: A-

From the back cover:
On the island of Opal live the world’s most colorful birds. The birds have attracted a school for aspiring “Palettes”—wizards who have the ability to borrow color from one object and paint its qualities on to another. Young Cello has the potential to be a great Palette, but she just can’t seem to control her power. As the end of freshman year approaches she’s on the verge of failing, so she’s going to need all the help her bird Yoyo can provide.

This is the story of Cello, a sixteen-year-old studying to be a Palette, or artisan with the power to control colors. It seems like a silly skill to have, but the volume shows different ways in which it can be useful. Cello is smart and aces the written assignments, but her practical abilities need work: she has the unique ability to manipulate color from a distance, but not the fine control required to craft the fine goods that fetch high prices from outsiders. Her problems with control result in her being splattered with color pretty frequently, requiring multiple visits to the infirmary to see the young school doctor, Dr. Guell.

In the chapters that follow, she and Guell foil two separate attempts to steal the village’s precious birds and also supply some fun for some little girls’ birthday. It’s true that these adventures are episodic, but they really don’t feel that way because they’re not pointless. In the wrong hands, I’d dislike the chapter with the random little girls, but Kusakawa uses it to reveal details about Guell’s background as well as to illustrate what a kind person Cello is.

I also like that romance is not the focus of the story. Cello has definite goals that she’s working towards and acquiring a boyfriend is not among them. That said, there are a few subtle moments that hint that she and Guell are starting to at least admire and appreciate one another.

What I love most, however, is Yoyo, Cello’s bird. I love Koh from Silver Diamond because he talks and is amusing, but a lot of Yoyo’s cuteness is because he is silent. He’s clearly intelligent, but must get his point across mutely. One of the most endearing things he does is kick Cello (cutely, I swear) every time she thinks or says something self-pitying or overly self-critical. I heart him.

Kusakawa’s distinctive artistic style is the same here as in Two Flowers for the Dragon, and I find it quite appealing, though the evolution of Dr. Guell’s appearance between the beginning and end of the volume is pretty major. It’s interesting how different the settings are for the two stories—Two Flowers is set in an oasis in the middle of a desert, while Palette takes place on a semi-tropical island, complete with palm trees and lush vegetation. Also, I really, really love the covers to this series. So much, in fact, that I’m gonna have to link to them. There’s an online preview at that site as well, if your curiosity is at all piqued.

The Palette of 12 Secret Colors is published by CMX. Four volumes have been released so far, with the fifth due on February 18, 2009. The series recently ended serialization in Japan and is complete at six volumes.