Monday, December 13, 2010

Manga Monday: The transitive nature of friendship...for kitties

Note:  Chi’s Sweet Home Vol. 3 is, of course, the sequel to Chi’s Sweet Home Vol. 2.  The review of Chi's Sweet Home Volume 1 is here, and the review for Chi's Sweet Home Volume 2 is here.  Otherwise read on!

Monday, November 29, 2010

Manga Monday: An overgrown adolescent ends up with a kid, but not in the normal way

Guys have a horrible reputation when it comes to children. For the most part, it's really undeserved; plenty of guys make at least as good a parent as the mother, if not better. But hundreds of episodes of Maury and Springer do a number on the collective psyche, and guys are labeled 'deadbeat' until proven otherwise.

It's prevalent in fictional media, too. Fathers are either incompetent (the Homer Simpson type), or absent altogether. The contrast between this and Bunny Drop Volume 1 by Yumi Unita might be part of what makes it so special.

Daikichi is a 30 year old, single salaryman. He's gotten himself fairly high up the ladder at his company, mainly by working long nights, attending alcohol-based social events, and by generally ignoring his family and social life. Admittedly, his less-than-stellar looks haven't helped him any in that department, either.

He takes off at the end of September to head home for his grandfather's funeral. He walks in to the barely controlled chaos that is most family gatherings, right past a young girl playing outside that he's never seen before.

Turns out, no one else there had known of her, either. It turns out, Grandfather kept himself busy in his golden years, and he's ended up with another daughter. Her mother is nowhere to be seen, and she's mostly quiet and just playing alone out of doors.

The most appalling turn of events, though, is how the family reacts to this piece of news. Each of Daikichi's family members comes up with some reason or another why they couldn't possibly take the girl in. When one person mentions finding a facility to place her in, Daikichi impulsively tells his family how horrible he thinks they're acting, and declares that he'll take the girl in himself. While this causes some concern for Daikichi's mother, the rest of the family is mostly relieved that someone else is dealing with the problem.

So, Daikichi has found himself with a quiet, six-year-old girl named Rin. All they're able to find of hers around the house is her mother-daughter health book (a sort of baby book with immunization records and the like in it), and a change of clothes.

The book goes on from here mainly as a slice-of-life story with a new father and daughter getting to know one another. Thankfully, perhaps because of her upbringing so far, Rin is fairly easygoing and as she comes out of her shell, she has no problem telling Daikichi what she needs at the mall, such as clothes and socks and the like.

Oh, and daycare too. Mustn't forget about daycare.

Later on, we start to see that Rin might not be as well-adjusted as she wants to seem. This comes out in the usual childhood ways, such as nightmares, a brief bout with bedwetting, and some problems when daycare starts, and she doesn't want to be left alone.

This is a very sweet story about Daikichi and Rin, and the way that a child changes every decision from that point on. The cast grows slowly, as we meet a working mother at Daikichi's office (more of a rarity in Japan than in the US), and another woman at Rin's daycare, whose child Rin seems to like.

This topic could easily become sickeningly sweet, but the fairly matter-of-fact manner of Rin keeps it grounded. It's simply a good hearted, slice-of-life story of what happens when good people try to do what's right, even when it's not exactly what they expect.

Highs: Seeing what every day life of a salaryman and child would be like in Japan, the way a normal, bickering family is portrayed

Lows: Very simplistic art at times, though emotion is shown quite well on the characters' faces

Verdict: Excellent josei slice-of-life storytelling

Further Reading: Chi's Sweet Home Volume 1, Honey and Clover Volume 1

Friday, November 26, 2010

Can maple syrup really save the world?

Live Free or Die is a really strange take on the First Contact subgenre of science fiction. Of course, when we’re first approached by an alien race, we’re vastly outclassed. We’d have to be, since we don’t have anything near the technology necessary to initiate contact with another world ourselves.

The first race to contact us is a friendly race of traders called the Glatun. But the Horvath…not so much. They put in an orbital, a space portal to quickly traverse long distances, and declare Earth their property, to be mined by the Humans for basic materials.

Since Earth is so very outgunned, and the more peaceful alien races have no interest in fighting our battles for us, the leaders of Earth have no real option but to capitulate to the Horvath’s demands.

Enter Tyler Vernon. He’s yet another lone wolf, science fiction author who knows something needs to be done and will take it upon himself to make sure it does. He gets himself into a position to interact directly with a Glatun trader, and finds something that only Earth can provide that the interstellar community wants. So, simply following the laws of supply and demand, he’s able to amass quite the fortune with which to defend the Earth.

There are a lot of parts in this book that people could, and do, protest. Ringo is a libertarian through and through. Therefore, most of his heroes are lone wolf, do-for-yourself types. This doesn’t sit all that well with the more socialist, government-does-for-me type.

Also, the Horvath are essentially a slaving race. Being more advanced than current and past slavers on Earth, they can put eugenics on hyperdrive to better their slave population and cull the ‘weak’ and ‘undesirable’ from the group. Who the Horvath determine to be the ‘undesirables’ will, of course, offend even more people.

Folks, this is how science fiction is. There tend to be a lot of libertarian science fiction authors, perhaps because there’s something appealing to the libertarian about the idea of science- and logic-minded people taking responsibility for the world on themselves and working to save it. Heinlein, a ‘great master’ of science fiction was the same way and had similar protagonists. Ayn Rand’s speculative fiction Is held up as suggested reading for the libertarian movement. And in Men Like Gods by H.G. Wells shows a parallel Earth thousands of years more advanced with us, where the libertarian creed rules.

The point is, the tenants of libertarianism and the ideas that populate science fiction go hand in hand. The problem is that it’s so unpopular to be anything other than firmly liberal that any other viewpoint will be distasteful to a significant portion of the reading audience.

If the reader can get past some politics that may or may not be in line with his, though, he’ll be in for an intelligent, inventive, and simply fun read.

Highs: Lots of humor and interesting tech ideas

Lows: Starts out a little bit familiar for people who have read Ringo’s other First Contact book, A Hymn Before Battle

Verdict: Fun storytelling that shouldn’t be missed

Further Reading: Schlock Mercenaries (, Citadel

Monday, November 22, 2010

Manga Monday: A reflective look at WWII by a resident of Hiroshima

Although manga has been taken seriously as a form of literature in Japan for much longer than graphic novels have been in the West, the West has a significant head start on the autobiographical and historical comic. Maus, first published in 1986, has been taught for years in high school and college courses. More recently, Persepolis has been made into an animated movie and Pyongyang has let Guy Delisle write several other books chronicling his travels throughout contested areas throughout the world.

Manga authors, on the other hand, haven't been as much a part of this movement. One of the first I've seen translated into English is Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms.

The author Fumiyo Kono was at first hesitant to write about such a dark time in Japan's history. Although born in Hiroshima, neither she nor anyone in her family was a survivor of the bombing. After a lifetime of avoiding the topic, and at an editor's request, she finally broached the topic with these two short works.

“Town of Evening Calm” takes place just a few years after the bombs fell. Having lost most of her family, either to the bomb or to the situation surrounding it, Minami lives with her mother in a shanty in town. Her brother had been sent to the countryside during the war, and since he escaped the bombing itself, was adopted out to his aunt. Beginning as a simple slice-of-life story, it shows both the physical and emotional scars left by the bombing.

“Country of Cherry Blossoms” begins in 1987, following the daughter of Minami's brother in Tokyo. This story is more of a contemporary look at the discrimination and near-superstition surrounding anyone connected to the bombings, no matter how remote the ties.

This is an important piece on many levels. Because of the reception of these stories in Japan, it seems like these topics are simply not discussed. Part of the reason Kono wrote the stories was to bring it up for discussion among the Japanese people. There is also a bit of an undertone of anti-Americanism woven into the anti-war message. It's not mentioned, of course, that it was a Japanese attack that brought the US into World War II in the first place.

Barring that, though, it's an amazing look into a piece of Japan's history that isn't discussed, and that many would like to pretend never happened.

Highs: The simplistic art style is clean enough to not distract from the story, and shows the fragility of human life

Lows: It's impossible to completely depoliticize a story based on a wartime act, though the author gives it a try

Verdict: An important book for both the Japanese and anyone else trying to understand the Asian front of WWII

Further Reading: Pyongyang, Persepolis

Monday, November 15, 2010

Manga Monday: An honest look at how girls grow up

Boy coming-of-age stories are a dime a dozen. Half the shonen series out there are about 8-14 year old boys striking out on their own and finding their way, often with a pet dog (or dragon, or Pikachu) as their companion. Girl coming-of-age stories, however are a little harder to find. This is especially true in the manga world. They're usually less action-packed than the boys', and more slow-paced and reflective. When one does come out, however, it's a treat to read, and that's what is found in The Color of Earth by Kim Dong Hwa.

The setting is rural Korea, but the era is a little harder to pin down. A steam engine train is seen near the end of the story, and it isn't seen as a novel technology. There doesn't seem to be electricity or running water, but I'm not sure when that level of infrastructure reached all areas of Korea.

We meet Ehwa at 7 years old. She lives with her mother, a widow who runs a tavern near a small town. Life is hard for a single woman trying to raise a girl, but she is proud of taking care of things by herself. We never really learn much about Ehwa's father, but we assume he died when Ehwa was very young.

Though Ehwa often stays close to her mother during the say, she also does go off either by herself or with other girls from town. It seems like the town kids aren't raised quite as well as Ehwa though, and she gets into a bit of mischeif above her age with them. It also might be because she's an only child, but she is a lot more innocent than the other children we meet. As she grows up, of course, she starts to notice boys, though in a fairly age-appropriate way.

Mirroring this blossoming of Ehwa, a traveling salesman stops by the tavern and seeks a place to stay for the night. As the years pass, the salesman and artist comes by on his travels, and he and Ehwa's mother become closer.

This first book of “The Story of Life on the Golden Fields” trilogy spans several years, from the time Ehwa is a young girl, to when she is becoming a young woman. Girls in more rural settings do tend to seek out marriage earlier, but of course she is still very close to her mother and is in no rush to leave her.

This book is certainly a slow, contemplative journey. Ehwa grows up, goes through the awkward first interactions with boys, and learns that it's hard to control who you love. It's nice to see growing up handled in such an honest way, and it would do girls everywhere a service if there were more authors like Kim Dong Hwa writing today.

Highs: Gorgeous backgrounds with honest storytelling

Lows: Pacing is at times perhaps too slow for the usual manga reader

Verdict: Not to be missed

Further Reading: Moribito, The House of Many Ways

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

It's really not a good idea to make a werewolf nobleman mad...

Note:  Blameless is the third book in the Parasol Protectorate series.  If you haven’t read it already, check out my review of Soulless here and Changeless here. Otherwise, read on!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Manga Monday: Chasing justice and a cure around the world

There’s a horrible condition in a rural backwater of ‘Doggoddale’. Called monmow, it deforms the patient, making them look more like a dog than a man. There’s many different theories as to what might be causing it, but no cure. This is the world in which we land, in the Osamu Tezuka manga Ode to Kirihito.

A candidate for president of the Japanese Medical Association (JMA), Dr. Tatsugaura, has studied Monmow and is convinced that it is a virus native to Doggoddale. Feeling threatened by a young, well-liked intern named Kirihiro Osanai, he sends him to do some on-the-ground research. While he’s there, he does end up contracting monmow, but by force of will is able to keep from succumbing to most of the mental effects of the disorder. But he does turn into the half-dog, half-human spectre that is associated with the disease.

While he is there, he does discover that it is almost certainly not a virus that is infecting these people, but rather a contamination of the groundwater, but Dr. Tasugaura wants nothing of this. He’s built his career and his hopes of advancement on the idea that monmow is a virus, and goes so far as to delete Kirihito from the records at M University Hospital to stop word from coming out.

What ensues is a trek around the globe for Kirihito, seeing some of the best and some of the worst that humanity has to offer. Throughout, he battles both the disorder and society to keep his humanity intact, and people along the way both help and hurt this. We meet members of a demented circus and missionaries, as well as normal rural townsfolk. We also meet Kirihito’s fiancĂ©, who never gives up on him, even when the rest of the world seems to have.

There’s a lot of subtle imagery and depth to this story. The fact that the disease makes the sufferer look like a dog, instead of simply deforming him, for example, shows how their humanity is being stripped away. To become deformed, especially when it involves the face, affects one’s self-identity. Taking on the aspect of a dog, on top of changing that self-identity, makes the victim take on the aspect of a creature that is considered less than humans. It’s that stripping off of his humanity that causes so many of the emotional problems suffered by the victims, as well as perhaps some of the discrimination that the outside world has against them.

There are also a few pages in which Christianity is called into question. The victim Sister Helen is grieved that the church will excommunicate her. Kirihito tells her that he believes that Jesus especially would never turn his back on her. He points out that there are many passages in the Bible in which Jesus and his disciples accept, if not actively seek out, unfortunates and care for them. To some extent, it could be seen as a criticism of the church, as a separate entity from Christianity.

This is a magnum opus of a graphic novel. Along with helping to firm up manga as an art form, the complexity of the story helps cement manga’s place as a true form of literature as well. I can’t help but think that if American publishing companies would put out stories such as this, or the Black Jack stories, in weekly or monthly publications, perhaps print media wouldn’t be at death’s door.

Highs: Fantastic pacing, a compelling story, and lots of layers of social commentary

Lows: Some of the panels can be a little hard to follow, as the standard form of manga writing was still being developed

Verdict: A must-read for any manga lover who is beyond the shojo/shonen stage

Further Reading; Black Jack Volume 1, A Contract with God

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Who needs airplanes when the air force can ride dragons?

Alternate history stories can go one of two ways. In the first, the author is so concerned with the history that the story itself gets lost in the mix. In these, how history diverges and interplays with how history really took place is what the reader is looking for, and plotting and characterization oftentimes gets overlooked.

The other type of alternate history lets the history play as a backdrop to a character driven story. Unless the reader is an avid fan of the intricacies of history, generally this is the much more enjoyable of the two. In either type of story, the divergence point can be as small as a general taking sick, or as grand as an earthquake taking out an entire army.

Or the addition of dragons as an instrument of war.

Welcome to Naomi Novik's world of Temeraire, starting with His Majesty’s Dragon. Dragons exist, and as clever as humans. While there are still groups of wild dragons, especially in the Black Forest, many have been semi-domesticated, and are used by Europe as a sort of airborne cavalry. They’re large enough that they’re manned almost as an airship would, with a crew hanging off carabiners from the dragon’s harness.

When Captain Laurence of the British Navy captured a French ship, one of the prizes they took was a dragon egg bound for Napoleon himself. A dragonet generally becomes attached to the first person it sees after coming out of the shell, but this one passed up his intended handler and chose Laurence instead.

This rather disrupted his rather distinguished career as a Navy man, and immediately drafted him as an aviator. He gave up his ship; his future wife; and, after his father found out and disowned him, his family as well.

But with everything he’s lost, he’s gained an amazing friend. He named his dragon Temeraire, and a more loyal friend or family member he’ll never find. As Temeraire grows up, he becomesat least as intelligent as the rest of the characters in the book, and loves to be read to in both English and French, as dragons learn languages while in the shell.

We get to explore the world through the eyes of Lawrence, and are told about customs and such as he tells Temeraire. Dragons and their aviators are generally trained in Ireland, and we get to see the many ways that captains treat their dragons there, as well as later in battle.

The book feels much shorter than it actually is, because it’s such a fast, adventure story. Even when the story is being moved along mainly by dialog rather than action, I never felt the urge to flip pages until the fighting started again. It’s a great action book with little thought needed, and sometimes all a person wants is a little bit of dragon escapism.

Highs: Quick paced, great personalities among the dragons

Lows: If you want high literature, you’ll be sadly disappointed

Verdict: Great fun, and a fast read

Further Reading: Throne of Jade, Stardust

Monday, October 18, 2010

Manga Monday: If Dr. House didn't even bother with the medical license

Osamu Tezuka is known as the Grandfather of Manga.  His involvement in the genre even predates the word manga.  Though the only work of his that’s widely known in the US is Astro Boy, one of his most beloved series has now come to American shores.  The publisher Vertical has been bringing out several of the classics of the formative years of manga, and one of these is Tezuka’s Black Jack series, and it all starts in Black Jack Volume 1.

Black Jack is an anomaly of the medical community.  He refuses to get a medical license, and is not affiliated with any hospital.  He has an almost magical talent in the operating room, but no one can make him practice on a patient that he doesn’t want to work on.  

On top of that, he only practices on people who are willing to give whatever they have to be cured.  When he’s working with millionaires, he’ll charge them exorbitant fees for his services.  When he’s working on normal people, however, he only charges what they can give.  In one story, a barkeep needed help, and all he asked for was a month of free drinks.  He’s not exactly cold-hearted, he just wants people to value his work, and to really be willing to give something that is of worth for his talent.

Each chapter is a self-contained story, with only a little bit of a continuing plot or characters.  Pretty much only he and his assistant Pinoko are seen more than once.  It fits his personality, though, since he does seemingly have a problem connecting with people.  As the stories go on, we get to learn a little bit about his backstory and how he became the person he is, but he always remains a bit mysterious.

Originally published in a men’s magazine in the 1970s, some of the art reflects on the prejudices and mindset of Japan at the time.  Americans aren’t always seen in the best light, and people of African descent are drawn in a much more cartoonish manner.  There doesn’t seem to be any real malice intended, it’s simply a product of the environment in which it was created. Also, one story involving a woman who has a hysterectomy shows very old-fashioned ideas of gender and gender identity.  Occasionally the medical stories brush the border to horror, but there’s nothing to keep one up at night.

The entire Black Jack series, along with most of the rest of Tezuka’s work, is very special in that they show the evolution of comics from the newspaper strip to continuing stories that was pioneered in those days.  One can see the innovation with frame layout, and the more mature and intricate storylines that became popular at the time.  What happened then still continues to shape manga to this day, as well as comics around the world.

Highs:  Great stories in speculative fiction genre

Lows:  Relatively simple and old-fashioned art, though very well executed

Verdict:  A must-read for any fan of comics

Further Reading:  Ode to Kirihito, Amazonia

Thursday, October 14, 2010

If magic breaks, what happens to its users?

What happens when the city of the gods becomes the city of fallen gods?  Are the people that the gods bless now cursed?  What happens to the city itself?  How about the kingdom that surrounds it?  That’s the premise of Brandon Sanderson’s debut novel Elantris.

In the world of Elantris, people were randomly chosen to join the city of Elantris, and given the powers of the gods.  They shine with an inner light, are able to draw power from drawing sigils, and are known throughout the world as a peaceful city full of healing and beauty.

One day, everything changes.  The sigils don’t work, and the Elantrians become sick.  Their white, glowing skin becomes dark and mottled, as if from a flesh-eating disease.  The shining buildings accumulate a black sludge that seems to seem from the stone itself.  The worst part, though, is that any injury, no matter how small, that an Elantrian receives never heals, and never stops hurting.  That doesn’t sound like much, but every scrape, every burn, every stubbed toe aches like the second that it happens, forever.  And the Elantrians never die, either.  So no matter how damaged a person gets, they’re doomed to suffer, for an eternity, it seems.

Out of fear, Arelon closes the gates to Elantris, and posts guards along the top of the wall, to keep the Elantrians in.  If someone shows the sign of becoming an Elantrian, they are dressed in funeral garb, given a token offering of grain, and shoved through the gates.  From then on, their families simply see them as dead.

We explore this world through the eyes of Raoden and Sarene.  Raoden is the heir apparent to the realm that surrounds Elantris.  Mere days before his wedding to Sarene, he wakes up one morning with all the signs of being an Elantrian.  Being a prince doesn’t excuse you from exile, so he’s sent into Elantris and considered dead.

Sarene shows up a little bit ahead of the wedding, to get to know her future husband.  When she gets to Arelon, however, she’s told that Raoden died, and had already been buried.  Due to a clause in the wedding contract, once she became engaged to Raoden, she is unable to marry anyone else, but because she never married, she can’t inherit the kingdom.

To say very much more would be to start revealing some of the twists and turns of this artfully plotted novel.  Sanderson really understands how people think, and how hard it is to lead a group of people.  Especially as a first novel, it’s an impressive story, and I look forward to what comes next from him.

Highs:  Characterization, plotting

Lows:  Occasionally the pacing is off, and there are a few points that drag

Verdict:  A masterful debut that makes me hopeful for his next books

Further Reading:  Mistborn, The Wheel of Time

Monday, October 11, 2010

Manga Monday: Of course a cat can't be a sushi chef, his hands would be too warm

Neko Ramen is a great example of the success of an online comic strip.  Started in 2006, it’s now been turned into a web video series, as well as the manga published by Tokyopop.  It’s certainly the dream of every team of author and artist on the web to gain so much acclaim as to be picked up by one of the big publishers, and Neko Ramen Volume 1: Hey!  Order Up! shows why they’ve been noticed.

The star of the show, of course, is Taisho.  The son of a cat model, Taisho rebelled against his family’s expectations and left the house to make a name for himself.  He drifted from job to job, and eventually became a ramen chef.  Unfortunately, being a cat, he doesn’t seem to quite understand what humans want in a good bowl of ramen.  Or that it’s special to have a cat making ramen.

Of course, hijinks ensue.

Every good funnyman needs an even better straight man.  Enter poor Koichi Tanaka.  He stopped in the first day that Neko Ramen was open, and now he goes there out of a sense of obligation.  He’s never really gotten a good meal there, but at least he always has a story when he leaves.

Because Neko Ramen started as an online comic, if you’ve followed it since the beginning, you’ve seen the majority of these strips before.  There are, however, a few long-form comic stories, filling in some of Taisho’s back story.  Personally, I also like to have comics in paper form, rather than as an ebook or on a website.

This is the kind of comic that would probably get me to read newspapers more.  Perhaps the papers might want to target a younger audience, with a younger sense of humor, to get them in the newspaper habit.

Highs:  Cute storyline with an absurd sense of humor

Lows:  A little skimpy on the new material

Verdict:  Check out first, but if you like it, go for it

Further Reading:  
Chi’s Sweet Home Vol. 1, Shin Chan Vol. 1

Thursday, October 7, 2010

A British fantasy novel so good the Japanese made a movie of it

It’s hard to be the firstborn child. Everyone expects you to be more mature. The younger siblings want to tag along with you everywhere. And you’re usually expected to take over whatever family business or trade there might be. Such is the destiny of poor Sophie Hatter in Diana Wynne Jones’ book Howl’s Moving Castle.

She’s a fairly smart girl. She’s read enough stories to know that her sisters have a much more interesting destiny than she does. But there’s no point fighting against fate, and she’s fairly well happy working in her mother’s hat shop. She’s pretty good at it, too. She chats with the hats as she makes them, telling them all about the kind of person that might buy them.

Destiny has other plans for her, though. The Witch of the Waste has heard about the Hatter sisters, and there’s a rumor that the Wizard Howl might have his eye set on one of them. This doesn’t set well at all with her, and she decides to make sure that doesn’t happen. Because of a case of mistaken identity, however, The Witch of the Waste targets Sophie instead, turning her into a crone. In addition, she’s not able to tell anyone

Ever the good daughter, she doesn’t want to worry her family. She heads to Howl’s Moving Castle, to speak to the wizard, and see if she could get turned back.

Along the way, we meet characters such as Howl’s fire demon Calcifer and his apprentice Michael, find out why Howl has such a bad reputation, and even see the start of a romance. It’s a great adventure that targets the bookish, responsible girls in the family. This is, of course, just the type who seeks out British children’s fantasy novels in the first place.

Diana Wynne Jones is known as a master of her field. Even with the prevalence of great fantasy stories to tell in Japan, Miyazaki has adapted two of Jones’ books into movies. So go check out Howl’s Moving Castle, but make sure to pick up another of her books, because once you put down the first, you’ll want to start in on the next.

Highs: Great magical fantasy story, with interesting characters

Lows: Just a little short, and it wraps up VERY quickly, though it’s still satisfying

Verdict: A great starter fantasy book for younger kids

Further Reading: Castle in the Sky, Little (Grrl) Lost

Thursday, September 30, 2010

World War I, mechanical walkers, and VERY mixed-up animals

Steampunk fits in to many different time periods.  Gail Carriger integrates it into Victorian-era London in the Parasol Protectorate series.  Cherie Priest adds it to Civil War America in Boneshaker.  Here, Scott Westerfeld of The Uglies fame has combined steampunk and World War I in his newest teen book Leviathan.

The Clankers have put all of their science resources into machinery.  Steam-driven walkers are their war machines of choice.  They are also much more advanced with other weapons.  

The Darwinists, however, have mastered the art of genetically splicing animals.  The war effort uses some of them in the war, such as The Leviathan, which is a whale-like creature created to float over enemies, rather like a zeppelin.  The entire ship is a closed system, made of several different animals that each have a specific job to keep the airship afloat.

On a side, note, I read this book right around the time I was watching a lot of “Batman: The Brave and The Bold”, and I couldn’t help but think of the superhero B’wana Beast.  But that’s neither here nor there.

Deryn has always wanted to fly.  Unfortunately, she’s a girl, so that doesn’t work so well.  Her uncle had worked with the Darwinists’ airships, and she fell in love.  So, in intrepid girl style of old, she’s dressed herself as a boy and joined the army.

Prince Aleksandar isn’t in this for the fun, however.  Born the son of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, he was rescued from the assassination of the rest of his family, and is now on the run with a few old soldiers who were his trainers.

The story follows both of our young adventurers, and as their paths cross, they have to work together to stay alive.

If Westerfield wasn’t such an established Teen author, I’m sure that this book would have been classified as mid-grade.  While a lot of kids in middle school don’t learn much about World War I, a clever 12-year-old should follow along fine, and the type of story it is might be more suited to that age bracket.  For those of us who are still a kid at heart, though, it’s a fun, well thought out story that leaves us eagerly awaiting the inevitable sequels.

Highs:  Lots of action, sympathetic main characters

Lows:  The ideas of a prince on the run and a girl posing as a boy are a little overdone

Verdict:  More of a children’s book than a teen book, but entertaining for anyone who remembers being that age.

Further Reading:  Howl’s Moving Castle, Graceling

Monday, September 27, 2010

Manga Monday: A monkey-tailed boy, a turtle master, and a kid with no nose

For many people in the US, their first exposure to anime was badly cut and censored Dragon Ball Z.  Even now, with the proliferation of Japanese culture into many areas of the American airwaves, many people don’t know that Dragon Ball Z is only the second chapter of the story.  It all began with Dragon Ball.

Shonen Jump is finally giving the anime and manga fans what they want.  They’re releasing large-size versions of many of their more popular (and longer) series as three-in-one sets for $17.99.  Besides being much more affordable, the larger size lets the detail of the art come through better.  Admittedly, there’s not all that much subtlety to most shonen titles, but it makes some of the in-joke text to be a little easier to read.

Son Goku is a little monkey-tailed boy who’s living all alone in the backwoods.  When Bulma comes across him, he explains that his grandfather, Son Gohan, has died, and left him an orange and red glowing ball.  This glowing ball causes more trouble than either of them could have imagined.

Bulma, you see, is quite smart.  She was going through some of the old folklore, and discovered a story about the Dragon Balls.  It seems that if you can collect all seven and recite the right incantation, a dragon appears and will grant any one wish.  So she invented the Dragon Radar, and has set off on her summer vacation to find the dragon balls.

Of course, the #4 Dragon Ball is all that Goku has left of the man who raised him. He’s certainly not going to let Bulma take it from him, but he’s perfectly amenable to going on an adventure with Bulma to find the rest of them.  It’d be pretty cool to see the dragon, too.  So off they go, Bulma armed with her capsules and Goku with his magic staff, to see the world.

For the person who has only ever been exposed to Dragon Ball Z, or it’s more recent incarnation Dragon Ball Z Kai, the reader is quickly introduced to many of the main characters from that series.  Mugen Roshi, Yamcha, Pu’er, Kuririn, The Ox King and Chi-Chi are all introduced within the first half of the book.

What might also be interesting to American readers is the strong Teen rating of the manga.  There’s nothing really inappropriate in these books, but when compared to a show like Pokemon, there’s certainly some differences.  Being raised by an old man in an isolated area, Goku sees nothing wrong with running around naked, and is also not quite sure how tell boys and girls apart without...well...checking.  Also, Mugen Roshi rather likes the women, and isn’t terribly shy about it.  Nosebleeds abound.

The new format of the manga is a great way to draw buyers in to the series.  Seeing 26 volumes staring back from the shelf at a bookstore can be fairly daunting, but seeing nine nice volumes in a row is much more approachable.  The quality of printing is nice enough, with a few full-color additions, and the fact that it’s not censored is refreshing.

Highs:  Uncensored version of the story, the character Lunch

Lows:  A little heavy on the panty humor, but it’s a boy’s comic

Verdict:  A must-read for any Dragon Ball Z fan, or a fan of any shonen series

Further Reading:  One Piece, Dragon Ball Z

Sunday, September 26, 2010

What if the Civil War lasted 20 years...and had a few zombies too?

The best thing about steampunk is that it’s not really a genre unto itself.  Good steampunk is just a backdrop to the rest of the story, and doesn’t get in the way.  It shouldn’t be so jarring that it snaps the reader out of the story.

Boneshaker is a steampunk setting with a zombie story.  It’s set in the time of the Civil War, but the war became so protracted that it's been going for 20+ years. The steampunk material fits, since technology could have easily diverged at that point, and wartime tends to bring out scientific advances.  And since the city in which the story takes place is so run down and post-apocalyptic, mad scientists and strange technology fits, too.

In this timeline, America is starting to debate whether it should by Alaska from the Russians.  But during the debate, Russia wants to know if the Yukon has gold before it settles on a price.  Enter Doctor Leviticus Blue and his Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine.  Made to drill underground to look for veins of gold, something went wrong one night.  It drilled its way out of Blue’s basement laboratory, ran under half the town, and then returned to the lab.

Generally, cities don’t like having the ground drilled out from underneath them, so this caused a good bit of destruction.  Beyond the physical destruction, however, the Boneshaker released as gas known as Blight.  It is this Blight gas, when inhaled, which creates “rotters”, the half-dead creatures that we call zombies.

So what do the good people do to combat this?  They build a wall around the city, high enough to trap the gas, and keep in the rotters.  

Unfortunately, they also trapped healthy humans who couldn’t, for one reason or another, get out of the city.  The largest group of these was the people incarcerated in the city jail.  The police wanted to get out of the city themselves, and they left the jail closed, leaving the people there to die.  Local citizen Magnus Wilkes couldn’t leave these people to die, so he ran back in to the city himself to let them out.  While there, he was overcome with the Blight gas, and while two of the prisoners he released got him back out, he died.

Almost two decades later, Leviticus Blue’s wife, and Magnus’ daughter, now going by her maiden name of Briar Wilkes, and her son Zeke, live in the city outside the wall.  Briar works in the water works, which does its best removing the residue of the Blight from the area’s water supply, for a pittance.  Zeke is able to continue to go to school, but since he’s treated so badly by the people of the city (being the son of the person who brought about the zombie apocalypse does that), he’s been running with a bad crowd.  Most law-abiding citizens still see Magus’ final act as a crime, but the seedier side of town thinks of him as a hero.

After a particularly hard day for both of them, Zeke gets it into his head that he wants to go back in to the Blight to clear his father’s name.  There have been rumors that the Russians coerced Leviticus into testing the Boneshaker early, and it went out of control.  So, armed with an antiquated gas mask and an ancient revolver, Zeke makes his way into the walled city.

When his mother finds out what he’s done, she prepares to go in after him.  When an earthquake rocks the area, and the drainage pipes that Zeke uses to get in collapse and become impassable, Briar uses his father’s name to befriend an airship captain to get dropped into the city.  And from there, the gas-masked-wearing, dirigible-flying, steam-cleaned-air breathing adventure begins.

This book has a little bit of everything.  It has silent Chinese men working the unbearable steam jobs, a drug refined from the Blight gas called ‘lemon drop’ that they’re hoping will get some of the opium money flowing into the country, and of course the face-eating zombies chasing them whenever they hear living flesh around.

Cherie Priest has written a few books before this, but this book is getting her a lot of publicity.  For good reason, too.  This book sets up a great world for either sequels or parallel novels, and I can’t wait to see what else will be coming.

Highs:  Watching the mother Briar meeting the airship captains

Lows:  Uneven action, maybe too many stories in one.

Verdict:  A popcorn-munching, fun, fast romp

Further Reading:  Feed, Soulless, World War Z