Monday, January 30, 2012

Manga Monday: You'd think even Chi would have enough sense to come in out of the rain...

Chi spends a long, wet night outside after she loses her collar in Chi's Sweet Home Volume 7.

Note:  Chi's Sweet Home Volume 7 is, of course, the sequel to Chi's Sweet Home Volume 6. The review of Chi's Sweet Home Volume 1 is here, and the review of Chi's Sweet Home Volume 6 is here.  Otherwise, read on!

Monday, January 23, 2012

Manga Monday: How many shinigami can one high school support?

Rin and Sakura are back, and perhaps Rin has some competition in the shinigami business in Rin-Ne Volume 3.

Note: Rin-ne Volume 3 is, of course, the sequel to Rin-ne Volume 2. The review for Rin-ne Volume 1 is here, and the review of Rin-ne Volume 2 is here.  Otherwise, read on!

Monday, January 16, 2012

Manga Monday: Another plucky young girl saving her noble family from poverty

There are many stories out there in which a semi-noble family falls on hard times and ends up living a life of genteel poverty.  Oftentimes, it is left to a plucky young girl to go out into the world and either make her way by herself, or help her family rise again.

Our plucky young hero is Shurei Hong, and the book is The Story of Saiunkoku Volume 1.  Shurei was born the daughter of the Imperial librarian.  That's certainly a proper job for a nobleman, but it's also one that doesn't pay particularly well.  Shurei has been tutoring youngsters to help make ends meet.  She dreams of taking the Imperial exams and take a post in government, to help make a difference in the empire.  As women are forbidden from taking the exam, she sees tutoring these kids as her way of making a difference by-proxy, as well as help put food on the table.

Even with her outside work, and their only remaining retainer staying on despite not being paid as an act of loyalty, rice tends to be a 'special occasion' food in their household.

When the Emperor's Grand Advisor gives her the opportunity to make a very large amount of money in just six months, Shurei jumps at the chance.  The mission seems simple enough on its face.  She must train the new emperor to lead.

This new emperor, though, doesn't seem at all suited to the job.  Ryuku Shi, the 6th son of the former emperor, is only the heir due to his father's dying wish, as well as the fact that the rest of his brothers all either killed each other off or are living in exile.  As the youngest of a pack of rather devious and brutal boys, he was often beaten by both his siblings and his mother, and locked for days in a dark storage room.  He has no desire to lead, and still hopes that his exiled brother - the only person to ever show him any kindness - would return to lead.  He believed that the best way to make sure that his brother would be able to take the throne if he came back would be to seem so incompetent that he wouldn't seem a threat.  He wandered aimlessly through the compound so that his advisors and tutors could not find him.  He even spread the rumor that he preferred men to women, giving people the impression that he would not be able to produce an heir to the throne.

So Shurei certainly has her work cut out for her.  But she's not one to take a challenge - or the prospect of a payday - lying down.  She's headed to the Capitol, and she's going to make something out of this young Emperor if it's the last thing she does.

High:  The shojo genre is full of plucky young girls determined to get some goal or another accomplished, but the layers of palace intrigue and a possible assassination plot give this story more depth than others.

Lows:  The art, while well done, has a very generic, feminine fell to the men, to the point that it can be a bit hard to tell people apart.

Verdict:  Better than many shojo titles, but still firmly of the genre.

Further Reading:  Rin-NePrincess Knight

Monday, January 9, 2012

Manga Monday: A young angel's slip-up causes all sorts of trouble

It's a great time to be a manga reader in the US.  Even though recent years have seen the demise of both CMX and Tokyopop, and now even Bandai is pulling out of the DVD anime business, other publishers such as Vertical and Yen Press have really stepped up to bring us a variety of manga that has never been available before on Western shores.  Vertical especially, with both the Osamu Tezuka classics as well as current gems like The Drops of Gods and Twin Spica, has added tremendously to the depth and spectrum of the genre.

There's also been a resurgence in the shojo genre on store shelves.  The most prominent series would, of course, be the Kodansha re-release of Sailor Moon in the original, unflipped format and with the Japanese names intact.  Beyond that, both Magical Knight Rayearth and Cardcaptor Sakura have received the omnibus edition treatment.  Tezuka, as is often the case, wrote one of the earliest entries in the genre with the 1950's Princess Knight series.  Serialized in Shojo Club, it is where many of the common themes of shojo manga first appear.  Vertical, in its recent trend of releasing Tezuka's manga in the US, has split the series into two volumes

In Princess Knight Volume 1 we learn about the terrible predicament poor Princess Sapphire has found herself in.  Before her spirit was sent down to be born, a mischievous angel-in-training named Tink causes the poor princess-to-be to receive both the wild heart of a boy and the refined heart of a girl.  So Tink is sent to follow the Princess to Earth and retrieve the misassigned boy heart.

To make things worse, Princess Sapphire was mistakenly announced to her kingdom as PRINCE Sapphire With a throne that can only be inherited by a male heir, and an evil uncle waiting in the wings to steal the throne for his son, the King and Queen make the heartbreaking decision to keep up the charade, keeping Sapphire's public presence strictly princely.

But Sapphire has a girl's heart as well, so along with the fencing lessons and horseback riding, Sapphire's mother makes sure that she has plenty of time to follow the more gentle, womanly pursuits of reading poetry beneath the trees and dancing lessons.

Eventually, though, her uncle becomes determined to steal the throne for his son, and he and his cronies work to show 'Prince' Sapphire for the young woman that she is.

There's all sorts of stories tied together in Princess Knight.  There's the Cinderella effect of Princess Sapphire going to a ball in a dress and falling for a handsome prince from the next kingdom over.  There's an evil witch who wants to steal Sapphire's girl heart for her own daughter.  There's the fact that Sapphire and her parents are truly worried about what would happen to their kingdom if their nephew comes into power.  And there's poor Tink, the angel-in-training who caused this whole problem in the first place.

At its heart, Princess Knight is just like its titular character.  It has a sweet, romantic side, as well as an action-packed, royal intrigue side.  It helped work out the formula used even today in countless shojo and shonen manga, from Ranma 1/2 to The Story of Saiunkoku, balancing the romance with action.  While not perfect by any means, Princess Knight Volume 1 is worthy of shelf space next to so many of Tezuka's books that formed the manga that we enjoy today.

Highs:  Tink is such a sweet little sidekick to Princess Sapphire, and even as you want Sapphire to keep both of her hearts, you still want Tink to earn his place back in Heaven.

Lows:  It's a little bit insulting how all of Sapphire's bravery and strength is tied to that boy heart of hers.  And why does no one notice that a certain swan has human legs?

Verdict:  Besides the boys' role vs girls' role mess that a book like this is almost certain to provoke, Princess Knight Volume 1 is a fun read, especially if the reader keeps an eye out for all the standard manga themes of today.

Further Reading:  Dororo, A Bride's Story

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Immortality gives ruling for life a completely different meaning

Before Scott Westerfeld made himself famous writing about teenagers who don't fit in and airships, he wrote a science fiction duology that brought up some fascinating ideas about immortality and evolution.  That would be Secession, beginning with The Risen Empire.

Humanity has not only conquered the stars, it has conquered death as well.  But even in this, there is conflict.  The Imperials have beaten mortality by biological means, and everlasting lfe is granted to those who can work their way up the social and political ladders.  The Emperor discovered the secret to eternal life while trying to cure his sister, known as 'The Reason.  As he is the one who has bestowed upon the Empire the gift of life after death, he is both the emperor and also the leader of a personality cult surrounding him.  And as the first 'Risen,' he will conceivably rule forever.

The Rix, on the other hand, have gone another route to immortality.  They have embraced technology, creating a race of women-machine cyborgs who exist to further the spread of their religion.  Planetary computer systems have evolved to the point where they can develop their own AI mind.  The Rix see it as their duty to help seed these minds on already-developed worlds by inserting a virus-like piece of coding into the planet's telecommunications system.  Given just a bit of time to move undetected, this nacient consciousness can insert itself into every piece of technology in the system.  It's not a malicious entity, per se, but it is persistent, and the Risen Empire has declared the Rix to be an illegal cult.

We start the tale with Laurent Zai, a fierce Emperialist and captain of the Imperial Frigate Lynx.  He has been sent to the Legis system and when we join him, he is in the middle of the worst hostage crisis the Risen Empire has ever faced.  Somehow, the Rix have gotten ahold of 'The Reason' and are holding her and her retinue while they seed a new collective mind on the planet. 

Nara Oxford is a senator in the Risen Empire, though very unlike the others who share her title.  For one, she is a member of a sect that has renounced eternal life, instead opting to live out her 200 or so natural, subjective years  and then move on to make way for the new generation.  This is especially odd among Senators, who are granted a symbiote and eternal life as a matter of course.  

She also had a fairly rare bad reaction to the syneasthia augmentation that most citizens get as children.  This allows the user to commandeer the sensory processing power of the brain to layer different feeds over one's field of vision, letting Nara see news feeds, proposed legislation and other Senators' approval ratings all at once, in front of what is actually going on in front of her.  Side effects do happen, and along with this new processing ability, Nara received a very strong, very debilitating degree of empathy.  Rendered mad as a youngster, she uses a sort of apathy drug that she controls through a device on her wrist to let her have some peace around other people.

What follows is a fascinating combination of a thought exercise, a political thriller and a space opera, with a few love stories thrown into the mix as well.

Laurent and Nara meet at a political function, where Nara is the newest Senator and Zai is the youngest person ever made Captain of a starship.  A romantic relationship begins, and they decide to pursue it, even though they both know that the Time Thief of relativistic travel and the cryogenic sleep that Senators engage in between sessions will cause problems.

To choose Laurent Zai and Nora Oxford as the 'main characters' does a grave disservice to the other points-of-view that we enjoy throughout the story.  We see the world and the events unfolding through a dozen eyes, from the Empress herself, to a Rix warrioress during the incursion, and beyond, to the slightly too intelligent AI that runs Nora's household.  Even if we only inhabit the person's mind for a few pages, to have all the different points of view shown broadens the world Westerfeld crates immeasurably.

The problem with reviewing the plot itself is that the book jumps between points in time and between characters so well that to give any more information would be to ruin parts of the book, which would be a shame.  I'll simply mention that the book touches on such topics as where the lines between honor and love lies, what qualifies as life, and whether a civilization can truly advance when the old guard need never step down.

It's a shame that Westerfeld gained his fame writing books about teenage ennui when he obviously has so much talent in writing adult fiction.  The world thankfully gets revisited in another Secession book, The Killing of Worlds, and hopefully he'll come back to adult science fiction someday soon.

Highs:  Rarely have I seen a novel examine so many facets of future life, without long information dumps, but Westerfeld manages to give us all the information we need through the narrative itself.

Lows:  Fair warning: there is a very cruel cliffhanger ending here.  Have the next book on hand.

Verdict:  Perhaps not for the typical Westerfeld fan, though they might be the ones to benefit most from it, this is a book that will leave you thinking about the questions it raises for days.

Further Reading:  The Killing of Worlds, Embassytown

Monday, January 2, 2012

Manga Monday: Amir and Karluk go through some tough times, and become closer because of it

Amir's natal family makes good on their threat to come back for her and she makes a new friend of her own in town.  Welcome back to more everyday life on the plains of Mongolia in A Bride's Story Volume 2.

Note:  A Bride's Story Volume 2 is, of course, the sequel to A Bride's Story Volume 1.  The review of A Bride's Story Volume 1 is here.  Otherwise, read on!