Two Flowers for the Dragon 3 by Nari Kusakawa: B+

Shakuya, the heir to the dragon clan that rules an important desert oasis, has a rather complicated life. Not only does she turn into a dragon when her feelings grow too strong, but she also has two fiancés since the original one, who was missing for five years, suddenly returned with most of his memory missing. This third volume finds Shakuya being sent to a neighboring oasis to help regulate the flow of water that allows their crops to grow. Both fiancés and a bevy of squeeful handmaids, who delight in their mistress’s love triangle, accompany her.

The regulation of the water and the attempt to dispel a dangerous sandstorm takes a back seat to more personal drama, as Lucien encounters the woman who took him in when he was lost in the desert, who might also be the person with whom Shakuya’s father had an affair that resulted in his banishment from the dragon clan. The ultimate outcome of this meeting is kind of predictable, but it also introduces some new mysteries about Lucien’s time away from the village and the extent of Shakuya’s dragon powers.

I find Two Flowers for the Dragon to be a very fun read. The art is cute, the characters are likable, the women aren’t helpless, and the dialogue is great. In addition to that, it’s funny. Not so much in volume three, perhaps, with all its action, but I typically giggle several times per volume. Also, I think Kusakawa has some of the most amusing sidebar material I’ve ever seen.

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

Two Flowers for the Dragon 2 by Nari Kusakawa: B+

From the back cover:
A mysterious old snake charmer compelled Shakuya to assume her dragon form and flew away on her back to his desert retreat. Now he is holding her captive and plans to marry her off. Needless to say, no one is happy about that, least of all Shakuya’s two fiancés, Lucien and Kuwan.

They’ve put aside their rivalry to join forces, head out into the desert and try to save the girl they both love. But their alliance may soon unravel when the tattoo on Shakuya’s arm representing Lucien begins to grow—a sign to Kuwan that he may be losing the competition for the Princess’s love.

Like volume one, this cover blurb has a phrase that’s a different color and font from the rest. This time it’s “two fiancés.” I wonder what it’ll be next time. “Turns into a dragon,” perhaps?

This volume picks up with Shakuya in the custody of kidnappers who want to marry her to their lord so he’ll have control of the Oasis of the Dragon, an important stop for desert travelers. Her reaction to all of this is great. Instead of weeping or despairing, she thinks, “This is infuriating!” and begins planning her own escape rather than waiting for one of the guys to rescue her.

Later in the volume, Shakuya decides that she wants to get to know Lucien and begins to ask him questions about his time in the desert. This nicely fills in some narrative holes while showing the progression of Shakuya’s feelings toward her suitors. Later still, the circumstances of Shakuya and Kuwan’s first meeting is also revealed. I started out preferring Kuwan to Lucien, since I tend to like serious and quiet characters, but he’s kind of getting on my nerves now. It seems he only makes an effort to be nice when he’s trying to beat Lucien and not particularly out of any true affection for Shakuya. Lucien, meanwhile, shows that he understands Shakuya pretty well. I’m quite interested in learning what exactly happened to him while he was missing.

One thing I didn’t mention in the review for volume one is that this series has really great dialogue and a good translation, to boot. Characters actually say things that sound intelligent and use a much broader vocabulary than typical manga characters do.

This volume also included a short story called “The Cogwheelers” about a non-human guy who’s responsible for building cogs that represent cause and effect for everything that happens on Earth. He’s having trouble grasping the ramifications, so breaks the rules and goes down to Earth to see what it’s really like. I typically don’t enjoy these kind of volume-padding short stories, but this one is quite good, especially considering it’s only the second thing Kusakawa had published.

Two Flowers for the Dragon 1 by Nari Kusakawa: A-

From the back cover:
Shakuya is the heir to the Dragon Clan and next in line to rule the land. Oh, and she also happens to have two fiancés! Lucien won Shakuya’s love and her hand in marriage, but he disappeared before the wedding day. So the princess did what any woman would do—replaced him. Kuwan stepped in as her new soon-to-be-husband, and everything was fine until fiancé number one came back to town—with everything but his memory. What is a girl to do?! Now, Shakuya must choose who she wants to marry, using her two magical tattoos that change to reflect her feelings for each of the suitors!

I find it simultaneously amusing and perplexing that the words “magical tattoos” are in a different color and font than the rest of the text, as if that is the most important aspect of the story. I make my own fun by imagining purchasing decisions being made solely on a basis of “Ooh, magical tattoos! That settles it, then.”

Back cover mockery aside, I really, really like this. It’s cute, it’s funny, and I like the characters. Shakuya is far more sensible and intelligent than most shoujo heroines, and is perfectly fine with the necessity of a political marriage, though she’d prefer it if she and her spouse could also be in love. Kuwan is serious and sometimes kind, though not very merciful, and while Lucien begins as cocky and teasing, he also has a more gentle and affectionate personality.

I like the way Kusakawa handles the story’s gimmicks, namely Shakuya’s ability to turn into a dragon when her “feelings needle swings into the red zone” and the magical tattos that serve as a gauge for her feelings for each fiancé. The positive and negative aspects of her transformation ability are both explored well. The growth of the tattoos is nicely integrated into the story and, as Shakuya’s feelings for Lucien bloom ever so slightly, I found my own opinion of him shifting as the story wore on and more of Kuwan’s flaws became apparent.

Too, I like how little things show how well the stories are thought out. Like, early on Shakuya mentions how she has difficulty braiding her own, very long hair. Later, when her handmaid has skipped out on her duties in order to attend a market day, Shakuya must dress herself and appears with her hair in mere pigtails. It’s a very minor thing, but somehow impressed me immensely. Also, the final chapter, with its plot about snake charmers who kidnap Shakuya, could’ve been ridiculously silly but was instead unique and quite exciting.

I’m sure some will not be fans of the art, but I like it a lot. Kusakawa has a distinctive style and I have no complaints about it. In fact, now I feel compelled to read everything by her that I own.

Venus in Love 5 by Yuki Nakaji: B

Venus in Love is a cozy shojo romance that seems to firmly belong in the era of titles like Marmalade Boy, except without as much angst.

College students Suzuna Ashihara and Eichi Uozumi have been friends and neighbors for couple of years now. They both started off liking the same guy, but have gradually begun to realize that they might actually fancy each other instead. And when I say gradually, I mean it. A year ago, they shared a kiss at Christmas, and the holidays have just about rolled around again before they have their second smooch at an amusement park. And yet they still aren’t dating. They’ve both acknowledged their feelings to themselves at this point (and I do like that we also get Eichi’s perspective of this process, as well), but have not yet managed to confess and solidify their status as a couple.

The chapters in this volume are all self-contained and manage to make some progress toward official couplehood for Suzuna and Eichi. Mostly, though, they’re just cute. There’s the one where they go to the zoo and are happy, the one where they go to the aquarium and are happy, et cetera. My favorite is the chapter where Suzuna takes a job working nights at a convenience store in order to buy cavity-ridden Eichi a swanky toothbrush for Valentine’s Day. He gets wind of her job and secretly watches over her every night to ensure nothing bad happens to her.

The one complaint I really have about this series is its over-reliance on silly shojo clichés. I swear Suzuna must trip or stumble at least three times in this volume and accidentally falls asleep on a boy twice. It got so that I’d heave a great sigh whenever such an act was repeated, which detracts from the overall pleasant reading experience Venus in Love provides.

Review originally published at Manga Recon.

Venus in Love 4 by Yuki Nakaji: B+

From the back cover:
Suzuna began her college career by competing with Eichi for Fukami’s affection. Now that she’s decided she might like Eichi in a special way, newcomer Yuki entangles them in another boy-girl-boy love triangle. Then family tensions come to the forefront; first Eichi’s younger brother comes to town, then Hinako worries about keeping a secret from her parents—she’s dating her Greek teacher!

This was a really cute volume, though it had precious little to do with family tensions, despite what the back cover blurb claims.

The book covers about six months in time, during which Eichi realizes how much he needs Suzuna, Suzuna realizes that she’s in love with Eichi, and Yuki becomes less obnoxious and confesses his love to Eichi. I suppose that doesn’t sound like much, but some of those realizations took place over several scenes. It does kind of bug me a little that Yuki is apparently utterly nonchalant about being “head over heels” for a guy. From the rumors circulating about him (he’s a famous model, natch), it seems he was exclusively a ladies’ man before.

I like that everyone is usually happy and wholesome in this series. Okay, a realistic depiction of college life it is not, but I still appreciate that Yuki primarily likes Eichi because of his cuteness and enthusiasm. It’s all very low-key and kind of refreshing, in a way. It was also good to get some chapters from varying points of view—at least a little of it was Eichi’s perspective, and there was a full chapter about Hinako and her professorial love affair. (Again, completely wholesome.)

Venus in Love is not for everyone, but as far as pleasant, slowly unfolding romances go, it’s definitely a success.

Classical Medley 1 by Sanae Kana: C-

There are two magical orbs in the Classical Kingdom, one a ball of light and the other a sphere of darkness. The power of the latter has been sealed away since being abused by a king of yore, and a ceremony to renew the seal is required every 100 years. The ceremony goes wrong, and the current king winds up possessed by dark powers while Alto, protagonist of indeterminate gender and bodyguard to the prince, obtains the powers of light. Alto flees with Prince Soprano and trusty dragon companion Mezzo to seek help from Soprano’s brother, who is the only one not to have come under the king’s evil influence since he’s attending school in another country.

This title is rated Teen, but it’s hard to imagine any teen wanting to read this. The characters look and act younger than their established ages, the attempts at humor are not funny, and the story keeps getting modified as it goes along. I’d say it ought to be rated All Ages instead, but there are a few gratuitous images of the queen’s enormous boobs that might make that problematic.

Classical Medley is thoroughly mediocre, treading closely to the border with outright bad. I’m usually a completist, especially with a short series like this, but I couldn’t endure a second volume, even to know how it all ends.

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

Tears of a Lamb 3 by Banri Hidaka: B

The greatest strength of this series is the relationship between its two lead characters. After getting off to a rough start—with Kei badgering Kanzaki to allow her access to his apartment so she can search for a lost ring—it has developed into a solid friendship, with each able to confide in the other about their problems. I particularly like how Kanzaki’s consideration of Kei is shown through his actions rather than told in mere words. The best scenes are when they are engaged in heartfelt conversation.

Unfortunately, such moments do not happen often in this third installment of the series. The standout chapter actually focuses on the school doctor and her own experiences in high school. A nice character piece, it also provides a glimpse of the mysterious Suwa, the older man upon whom Kei is fixated and the owner of the ring for which she is searching.

Hidaka’s art is cute (I love the fleecy lambs sprinkled throughout) but my enjoyment is marred by the continual reliance on violence as a source of humor. Poor Kanzaki takes a pounding on practically every page and it’s really beginning to disturb me. If you can get past that, however, Tears of a Lamb definitely has something unique to offer.

ETA: As I read the galley copy in preparation for the review above, I noticed quite a few instances of dialogue appearing in an incorrect bubble (and thusly being attributed to the wrong character). I didn’t mention it then in the hopes that it would be corrected in the official release. Having just obtained said release, however, I am sad to see that they have not been corrected. Does nobody read the galley with an eye for mistakes? Isn’t that what it’s for? Did it not strike anyone as strange that the character jumping in the air jubilantly is not the one whose dialogue reads, ‘Yay!!’?! Grumble grumble.

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

Tears of a Lamb 2 by Banri Hidaka: B+

From the back cover:
It’s “Sports Day” at school! Coincidentally, it’s also the last day Kanzaki has a chance to make it onto the basketball team. He faces an old rival who knows about his past failures, and when an accident puts his ability to play in jeopardy, it shakes up his confidence even more. It’s up to Kei to pump him up and help him get his game face back on.

Usually, I find school events like festivals or sports days to be a bit of a cop-out story-wise, but in this case, its approach was actually mentioned in the first volume, and there’d been enough build up that it actually had some narrative importance.

Kanzaki hadn’t played basketball since near-blindness in his left eye caused him to commit an error that cost his junior high team an important game. He’d been avoiding the game since. With the help of Kei and others, he finally realized that he’d forgotten the fun that could be had in simply playing, versus the attitude that winning is everything. This might sound kind of lame, but it was really handled pretty well over the course of several chapters. I swear I got kind of verklempt at one point.

The main goodness, however, was the growing friendship between Kei and Kanzaki. I especially liked how Kanzaki was sensitive to her eating disorder (she’s a recovering anorexic) and didn’t put her in situations where she’d feel compelled to accept food. He did this completely nonchalantly, and it was an excellent way to show (not tell) his caring side. In return, she bolstered him when his confidence flagged. I’m very pleased that this relationship is shown with such a firm foundation of regard and consideration and isn’t based on love-at-first-sight theatrics.

The not so good stuff:
* The over-the-top humor from the last volume was toned down slightly, though I was annoyed when Kanzaki’s overbearing sisters visited and one had fun smacking him around. I’ve encountered that from time to time (like in Boys Over Flowers) and I dislike it thoroughly.
* There were further errors in overlays, mostly with the original not being completely removed before the translation was applied atop it. I noticed a couple of typos and weird symbols, too.

Add some mystery about Kei’s past (and one panel that hints to something in Kanzaki’s, as well) and the second volume of Tears of a Lamb works out to be a satisfying read.

Tears of a Lamb 1 by Banri Hidaka: B

From the back cover:
Freshman Kei has one thing on her mind: getting into fellow classmate Kanzaki’s apartment. She won’t tell him why at first, but she’s searching for something that she lost in there two tenants ago. Starting with this strange connection, a friendship grows between two students who have each suffered their own separate trauma. Can Kei and Kanzaki help each other get over the secrets that are tearing them apart?

At first, I was pretty bored by Tears of a Lamb. There wasn’t anything obviously wrong with it, but neither was there anything really special. Additionally, the main characters reminded me of some in Fruits Basket: Kei was kind of like Tohru, with a never-give-up attitude and an ability to understand others’ problems; Kanzaki was kind of like Kyo, gruff on the outside but caring within; and Takama-sensei (who’s also Kei’s cousin) was kind of like Shigure, with a silly/playful side as well as a more serious one. I have no idea which series came first, but these similarities made the setup here seem awfully familiar.

In one of her columns, Hidaka-sensei mentioned that, when she conceived of the tale, she was eager to introduce a character from Kei’s past and wasn’t dwelling a lot on the introductory bits with Kei and Kanzaki at school. The difference showed, as when the story delved into the more serious territory of Kei’s past, my enjoyment of it markedly increased. The personalities of Kei and Kanzaki were fleshed out more and there were some really nice scenes between them as they very slowly started to become friends and to confide in each other about their problems. The progression of the relationship was well done, especially in comparison to some shoujo I’ve recently read, where love declarations came after only a few pages.

I was less enamored of the “funny” parts of the story, since I didn’t find them particularly humorous. I guess some folks might enjoy spazzing older brothers who hurl forks at boys who criticize their sisters, but not me. Honorifics were maintained, which I appreciated, but there were a couple of other problems in the translation. At one point, Kanzaki was referred to with an incorrect first name, and there were other small things like weird symbols where apostrophes should be and odd placement of overlays. Hidaka’s art is clean and cute; in fact, that’s what initially attracted me to her works.

After a slow start, Tears of a Lamb wound up finding an original story after all. I’ll be continuing with the series.

Venus in Love 3 by Yuki Nakaji: B

From the back cover:
Suzuna’s had her heart set on Fukami but she’s been afraid to tell him her true feelings. Now Fukami’s out with another girl, and they seem to be turning into a steady couple. Suzuna finds herself spending more time with their mutual friend Eichi and a surprising development leaves the two of them with confused feelings about each other. Just when Suzuna thought things couldn’t get more complicated… they do!

Venus in Love is a comfy read. There’s no angst that a little encouragement can’t cure and bright smiles abound. Unfortunately, there’s also not a lot of resonance to the emotions these characters are supposedly feeling. If one were to compare what passes for love in this series to Ann and Daigo’s relationship in Sand Chronicles, for example, one would find the latter far more poignant.

Even though the series might miss the mark in depth, that doesn’t mean it isn’t enjoyable. The characters are likable, and I am occasionally a little surprised by twists in the story, like when the new male freshman character turns out to be interested not in Suzuna (what shoujo usually does) but in Eichi. But even then, his interest is shallow, of the kissing sleeping people and proclaiming “he will be mine!” variety.

Venus in Love has the goods to make me smile and I’ve learned by now not to expect more than that. I read it when I’m in the mood for some pleasant fluff, and with that expectation, it satisfies.