Tsubasa RESERVoir CHRoNiCLE 18 by CLAMP: B+

There be spoilers here.

From the back cover:
In the world of Infinity, Princess Sakura has become a Chess Master and the other travelers are her pieces. But the Mafia is running the game, and they don’t care if Sakura’s opponents break the rules or murder Sakura’s companions! Why is Sakura so determined to risk everything?

Although many an awesome thing transpired in the X version of Tokyo, I was ready for a change of scene and so was glad when the team finally shifted away from there. Before leaving, though, they received more information from Yuuko on the situation with Fei-Wang Reed, including what he is trying to accomplish. There was also a sliver of a hint as to how Watanuki will play into all this. So, not really answers, per se, but definite progress.

What occured in the next world was mostly setup. Having seen the devastation caused by Syaoran in his search for her feathers, Sakura decided to enter a competition with a monetary prize that could be used to help rebuild the country he ravaged. Most of the rest of the volume consisted of the guys fighting various opponents and Sakura freaking out over all the similarities between the new Syaoran and the one she grew up with. I thought it was nice that she and Fai seemed to be even closer these days, and that the similar way they have of bearing pain with a smile was pointed out (by Kurogane, of course).

The new Syaoran had angst of his own, seeming to have fallen in love with Sakura while seeing her through the clone’s eyes. There was one particularly great sequence where she stumbled and he caught her, followed by each of them retracting their hands from the other, she quickly and he more regretfully. Describing it like this, I suppose it sounds like some lame harem gimmick, but really, it was quite sad and awkward.

Finally, I liked how, though everyone was trying to proceed as they did before all of the heavy revelations, it was clear that none of them really was the same person they were when they started out. I’d be happy if the series continued on with this new mix of adventure and darkness.

Me and the Devil Blues 1 by Akira Hiramoto: A-

RJ isn’t cut out for a farmer’s life. Despite the urgings of his sister and pregnant wife to give up his dreams of becoming a bluesman, he still finds himself drawn to the local juke joint, where folks of ill repute gather to listen to the blues. His own efforts to master the guitar aren’t going well, though, and after a particularly poor reception to his playing, one of the denizens jokingly suggests that he sell his soul to the devil to obtain the skill he lacks.

The desperate RJ goes through with the deal, and returns to wow the crowd with his incredible newfound ability. All this is not without a price, though, as he learns he’s actually been gone for six months and that his wife and baby have died in the interim, part of the devil’s deal to enable him to know the blues. He sets out on the road and before too long encounters Clyde Barrow, a white man and a criminal, who involves RJ in his schemes, one of which threatens to cost RJ his life.

I can honestly say that Me and the Devil Blues is unlike any manga I’ve ever read before. In fact, I think the closest thing to it in terms of tone and feel would be The Sandman series by Neil Gaiman. There are parts that I really love and parts that I still don’t quite get, and through it all there is an unstinting depiction of the brutality and ignorance of which the human race is capable. Uplifting it is not.

The art—truly excellent throughout—also reminds me of American comics to some degree, but with more consistent quality than that medium usually manages. The resemblance is particularly striking in the first few chapters, where much of the action takes place at the juke joint in RJ’s rural town. Panels have no free space, and instead reflect a darkened interior crowded with people dancing, drinking, and socializing. It’s not hard to imagine it in gritty color.

Hiramoto also does great things with the character of Clyde Barrow, managing to visually convey the man’s potential to be charming, confident, scheming, rattled, and dangerous. I particularly like the mannerisms he’s been given; I’m not sure I’ve seen a mangaka bother to give someone a recognizable tic like Clyde’s habitual hair smoothing before. The time period of the story (early 1930s) is also well-rendered, with hairstyles, clothing, cars, and attitudes all doing their part to contribute to a feel of historical accuracy.

While certainly not the sunniest option one might have for reading material, Me and the Devil Blues is not one to miss. It may also be just the thing for that comics-loving pal of yours who is absolutely convinced there’s no manga that would appeal to them.

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

xxxHOLiC 12 by CLAMP: B+

From the back cover:
Lately Kimihiro Watanuki’s dreams have been pleasant escapes that have given him the chance to talk to his new friend Haruki Doumeki. But now he’s falling asleep a lot—and starting to think his entire life with the witch Yuuko might be taking place in some kind of dreamworld. Then one night his dream is visited by a pretty princess named Sakura…

This is the second volume in a row to consist primarily of ominous hints regarding the goings-on in the Tsubasa storyline and the future of this one. I thought it was kind of neat last time, but it’s starting to get on my nerves a little, because it seems like the main xxxHOLiC storyline is rather scattered as a result. Of course, Watanuki popping in and out of a dream state probably contributes to that, as well.

Even though the story isn’t always coherent, and there are some bits that don’t make a lot of sense to me, some very important things manage to happen. The last few pages throw a new light on the series and are much appreciated. Hopefully that bodes well for a fair amount of revelation in the next volume.

Now that I’m getting my wish of a more epic storyline, I really oughtn’t complain too much, but I just hope that xxxHOLiC doesn’t end up playing second fiddle to its sister series. There are times when ties are a source of strength and times when they just hold you back.

Tsubasa RESERVoir CHRoNiCLE 17 by CLAMP: A-

Book description:
One of the travelers is about to die, and the only way to keep that from happening is to make a deal with Yuuko the witch. The price has lasting repercussions for the others—one must be responsible for the saved life while another is sent out into the inhospitable ruins of Tokyo on a quest… alone.

It’s not a surprise that when CLAMP does shounen, they don’t do it like everyone else. In most shounen series I’ve read, characters aren’t allowed to undergo such fundamental changes as have occurred in these last couple of volumes of Tsubasa. There’s also lots of rather subtle character growth and interaction, too, especially between Fai and Kurogane. I love every scene where these two are together—okay, part of it may be “squee, they’re so in love!” but there’s a lot more to it than that. Fai’s struggle to stay remote and unconnected is particularly fascinating to me.

There’s not a whole lot of focus on what’s going on with Syaoran, since there were more immediate things to deal with, like wishes and their prices. Sakura, however, gets a lot of attention. Upset by how often people are getting hurt on her account, she decides to pay the price of one of the wishes on her own, and exhibits some surprising toughness. I’m a little unsure of where this grit came from, honestly, but the chapters focusing on her quest are pretty neat. I’m impressed by how well the story was conveyed in a 99% nonverbal fashion.

The ending is super sweet, and ties back in to Fai’s issues in an understated way. Again, I urge people not to judge this series based on its early volumes—I think it’s starting to become one of my favorites by CLAMP.

xxxHOLiC 11 by CLAMP: A-

From the back cover:
Kimihiro Watanuki has been saved from death by the sacrifices of his friends, but his recovery time is cut short. His special connection with the spirit world is needed to investigate a terrifying haunted house, placate annoyed Warashi spirits, and face the growing threat of a shadowy figure called Fei-Wang Reed.

This volume was interesting. It was liberally sprinkled with hints about something coming down the line—”the final moment,” as Yuuko called it—and preparations being made for its arrival. There were also more references to the travelers in Tsubasa than heretofore and suggestions that their decisions are affecting Watanuki’s fate in some fashion.

All of that was cool, but some of the episodic chapters weren’t exactly riveting. There was one cool tale about a girl who was frightened of sounds she heard in the house in which she lived that I liked, but it ended kind of abruptly. There were also a couple of appearances by Kohane, who is a child with abilities similar to Watanuki’s. I have no idea what her deal is, but find her fairly boring so far.

There were several cute scenes where Watanuki showed kindness to a creature and made it very happy. At one point, he was tasked with naming a magical bird he’d given Himawari for a pet. As he mulled, we got a panel of the bird in question, all sparkly and adorable with “Great Expectations” written in the background. Later, the pipe fox spirit was sulky on account of not having been named yet, and repeated the same pose when Watanuki deliberated once more. It was extremely cute.

On a final note, there are some visual spoilers for Tsubasa volume 16 and slightly beyond, so if you’re following that series and aren’t up-to-date, you might want to get caught up before reading this volume.

Tsubasa RESERVoir CHRoNiCLE 16 by CLAMP: A+

From the back cover:
The five dimension-hopping travelers have stuck together through all sorts of worlds and all kinds of harrowing adventures. But when the group enters the ruined city of Tokyo, two powerful fugitives set in motion a disastrous chain of events that may cause their tight-knit friendship to unravel. Syaoran’s mysterious past is finally revealed, and a tumultuous battle leaves one of the friends near death, while another becomes an enemy after a shocking act of betrayal. Don’t miss this pivotal volume in the Tsubasa saga!

Holy crap! Now that’s what I call major payoff! It took quite a long time, but wow! In retrospect, maybe all that lag time was necessary to make the events in these chapters even more shocking by contrast. This was easily the most suspenseful volume of manga I’ve read in ages.

In addition to all the stuff in the blurb above, which was incredibly awesome, there was also movement on a couple of subplots—namely the twin vampires that Seishirou is after and Kurogane’s quest for revenge against the person responsible for killing his mother. These chapters were very, very creepy and every bit as dark as something like Tokyo Babylon or X.

I am really glad that I didn’t give up on this series. If, like me, your interest waned around volume 10, I urge you not to give up on Tsubasa. It’s volumes like this that really show what masterful storytellers CLAMP are. Now if only they could get over their thing with eyes…

Tsubasa RESERVoir CHRoNiCLE 15 by CLAMP: B+

From the back cover:
Kurogane, Syaoran, Fai, Mokona, and Princess Sakura have come upon a desert of shifting sands and ruined skyscrapers. This postapocalyptic nightmare is all that remains of the booming metropolis that was Tokyo, and the survivors are battling for the few life-giving resources left in the world. As the five dimension travelers search for another piece of the princess’s lost memories, they will all be tested to their limits in ways they never expected!

When did I start to like Kurogane so much? It’s crept up on me unawares. My favorite thing about him is how observant he is. It was Kurogane who, a few volumes back, knew something was up with Tomoyo and her Dragonfly Race. It’s been he who’s noticed Syaoran’s shifts in personality, and it’s he who initiates a fascinating conversation with Fai in this volume about how the latter has been keeping his distance while wearing a “constant grin.” What I love is that no one ever cried, “Gee, Kurogane! You sure are observant!” Instead, the character trait is portrayed with subtle consistency, and I really like that.

There’s a lot to like plot-wise in this volume, too. The gang from X is almost all here, but with some differences. The groups that Kamui and Fuuma lead are reversed from how they were in the X manga, and Subaru and Seishirou are missing. All of Tokyo is battling over water—a precious resource in this country—and it’s a pretty interesting landscape for our leads to be thrust into. More importantly, there is a major development concerning the villain’s plans that also seems like it might shed light on Syaoran’s mysterious origins.

Every time I resume reading this series I realize anew how entertaining it can be. Some chapters are uneventful, and I find it hard to care very much about Syaoran and Sakura, but I really adore Fai and Kurogane and anything that pertains to them.

Tsubasa RESERVoir CHRoNiCLE 14 by CLAMP: B+

From the back cover:
The odd group of dimension travelers arrives in a country full of magic seeking a book that may hold the key to finding one of Princess Sakura’s powerful memory feathers. But the volume they need turns out to be a national treasure, off limits to the public. Now Syaoran, Kurogane, and the others must brave traps, ravenous beasts, and some of the universe’s strongest magicians in order to steal the book. When it comes down to enchantments versus martial arts skills, can the team pull off the biggest caper of their career so far?

A lot of important stuff went down in this volume and, though the individual chapters often seemed short and occasionally uneventful, the whole was definitely greater than the sum of its parts.

In addition to learning a little bit more about the motivations of the villain, readers also learned more about the main characters, as two of them displayed previously unseen sides of themselves. While battling for access to the book containing Sakura’s feather, Syaoran seemed briefly to be taken over by a more ruthless fighter. Kurogane noticed something afoot immediately. Later, when the group’s escape attempts were thwarted, Fai relented and performed some magic so they could transport to another world. “First one and now the next!” Kurogane noted.

By the end of the volume, the tone of the story had become quite serious. I thoroughly approve! It really seems that things are going somewhere at last.

Tsubasa RESERVoir CHRoNiCLE 13 by CLAMP: B+

From the back cover:
Five friends must journey through time and space to lift a curse from beautiful Princess Sakura. Their quest now leads them to a world of magic and mysterious learning. Syaoran, the princess’s young but fierce defender, is awestruck by this new world’s enormous library. But when he opens one of the books, he is suddenly whisked away to a different dimension—a rough, barbaric place that resembles medieval Japan.

There he witnesses the hardships faced by the family of a feudal lord who looks surprisingly like Syaoran’s gruff companion Kurogane. Now Syaoran must figure out how he was transported… if he ever hopes to see Sakura again!

This volume started kind of slowly, but finished strong. Turns out, a magic book with the power to reveal one person’s memories to another had been handled by Kurogane before it was passed to Syaoran, and so Syaoran took an accidental tour through some of Kurogane’s past. The first few chapters were okay, but Syaoran kept intruding on Kurogane’s memories as he took ages to figure out what was going on, causing the reader to go “Duh! Of course you’re in the world of the book! Didn’t you read Fushigi Yûgi?”

Once he figured it out, Kurogane’s tale continued and progressively got both more interesting and more sad. The significance of Ginryu (the sword that was Kurogane’s prized possession and his payment to Yuuko at the beginning of the story) was revealed as well as the circumstances of Kurogane and Tomoyo’s first meeting. In one of the chapters there was an image that made me go “Eww!” and “Cool!” simultaneously, which I appreciated.

I really liked the last chapter. In it, Syaoran woke from the book trance and immediately asked for Kurogane to talk about what he’d seen. A nice conversation ensued. Also, I was happy to see movement on the plot regarding the mysterious evil figure who’s been lurking in the background all this time. On the whole, this was a really good volume.

Tsubasa RESERVoir CHRoNiCLE 12 by CLAMP: B+

From the back cover:
All is not well on Piffle World. The magical land’s most popular sporting event—a race of lightweight aircraft called dragonflies—seems to have been rigged by one of the contestants. But winning the competition is the only way Princess Sakura and her friends can recover one of the princess’s precious and powerful memory feathers.

The five friends are determined to cross the finish line first, but the cheating is taking its toll—even Fai is out of the running! Can the travelers still win the race and discover who’s behind the booby traps before it’s too late?

This volume was a little disappointing, since the identity of the culprit was fairly easy to guess. I was hoping that a certain person wasn’t responsible, since it was so obvious, but alas.

Still, there were an awful lot of good character moments that made up for it. Sakura does particularly well in the race, and it was nice to see her looking determined and not helpless. Fai commented to Kurogane about it, and was surprised when Kurogane told him that he (Fai) had changed, too. I really love the dynamic between those two. The best moments, though, were between Kurogane and Tomoyo, especially a conversation they had outside while a celebratory party went on inside.

CCD watch update: The boys didn’t really have much to do in this volume, but the observant will spot Nokoru sleeping in Suoh’s lap the morning after the festivities. Also note that while Akira and Nokoru both appear to be somewhat hungover, Suoh looks perfectly fine. In character to the end!