Thursday, March 22, 2012

A boy's quest through a fantasy land to change his life in the real world

When a video game is based off of a book, or vice versa, usually one or the other suffers for it.  Either the player can't tell what's really going on in the characters' heads, or or the book is paced so much like a game that it becomes distracting.

Thankfully, Miyuki Miyabe created an amazing story that has survived many retellings in Brave Story.

Wataru Mitani really is just a normal boy going through normal boy problems.  As is sadly too common in Japan, his father is fairly absent from his life, due to the demands of being a salaryman.  At the outset of the story, though, his father announces that he is leaving the family.  Wataru's life continues to crumble around him as his mother tries to kill herself and is left in a coma.

Desperate to change his situation, he ends up in the land of Vision and discovers that if he can complete his quest, he can change his life in the real world as well.  But he has competition on this quest.

The best part of YA Japanese books is that they don't talk down to their readers.  In a nation where children meet their salaryman parents at work to make sure the come home at a reasonable hour, lest they succumb to the national plague of karoshi, kids understand a lot more than some adults give them credit for.  In the US, the surge in YA books like The Hunger Games and The Midnight Palace are starting to draw up this market, but even these books keep things relatively simple for the reader.  There's a clear bad guy or something to struggle against.  Even if there is some inner turmoil for the main character, there's still a clear path to be taken.

There is much more introspection in Brave Story.  Wataru truly grows as a person throughout the book, and is fundamentally changed by the end.  And he changes in a way that one would expect of a boy in this situation.  There's no logic gap in why he's behaving in the manner he is.

Beyond that, though, this certainly is an adventure story.  Laid out rather like a standard RPG, there's a quest to gather the five gemstones.  There's side missions along the way that help further the plot and character development.  There's helpful natives that tag along, seemingly just to see what the Traveler is up to next.  And there's an antagonist, though not precisely and enemy, that Wataru needs to interact with and defeat.

Now, I don't mean to oversimplify the book.  Just because parts of the structure are formulaic doesn't diminish the story as a whole.  On the contrary; it makes perfect sense that the imaginings of a boy whose primary entertainment is video games would draw heavily from those themes.  And readers who have played and loved their stories in that format should be comfortable and enjoy this immensely as well.

Highs:  Miyuki Miyabe, though not so well-known in the US, has written quite a few books in Japan and it shows in the pacing and character development

Lows:  A reader not familiar with RPGs might be a bit confused with the plot design

Verdict:  A grand adventure, and a good selection for reluctant readers

Further Reading:  Book of Many WaysThe Midnight Palace

Monday, March 19, 2012

Manga Monday: Can someone raised as both a boy and a girl ever be comfortable in her own skin?

Princess Sapphire comes up against pirates, goddesses, and even Satan himself in Princess Knight Volume 2.

Note: Princess Knight Volume 2 takes places after the events in Princess Knight Volume 1. The review for Princess Knight Volume 1 is here.  Otherwise, read on!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

A wandering spirit finds a new kind of vessel to inhabit

Poor Edwin could never have imagined the consequences building himself a clockwork friend would bring when he created one in Cherie Priest's first Clockwork Century story 'Tanglefoot.'  Edwin is an orphan in the year 1880, who lives in the basement of an asylum with the brilliant but addled Doctor Smeeks.  His parents died a year ago, and while the doctor may not always remember who he is, living in the laboratory is much better than living upstairs with the other children.

One of the biggest perks of living in the basement is that he can use the pieces of machinery that Dr. Smeeks doesn't need for his own attempts at invention.  After a few childish yet successful creations, he's finally completing his most ambitious project yet.  Named Ted for his younger brother who died in infancy, he's created a mechanical friend.  When wound, his jaw moves a bit and he walks forward with a stiff, soldier-like gait.

As time goes on though, Ted seems to be...advancing.  He moves when Edwin is certain that he turned him off.  His jaw moves as if to answer the questions asked of him.  He learns to turn around obstacles instead of walking into them until he topples.

The residents of the asylum don't trust him, either.  After initial delight at Edwin creating a automaton, Dr. Smeeks threatens to dismantle Ted if he gets near him again.  Edwin and Ted also come across a patient named Madeline.  She takes a close look at Ted, and before the orderlies can haul her back to her room warns Edwin that Ted has no soul of his own, and that Edwin needs to dismantle him before someone else takes up residence.

Everyone has read stories about malevolent spirits.  Oftentimes, these spirits will take over a body, evicting the rightful owner.  In the burgeoning world of Steampunk, these spirits are being introduced to a while new type of vessel.  While many authors eschew the fantastic, perhaps there will be other forays combining the mystical with the scientific.  'Tanglefoot' is a nice first taste of the genre, and is available for free on the Subterranean Press website.

Highs:  Edwin's a very likable boy who is easy to emphasize with

Lows:  Not the most realistic 19th century insane asylum

Verdict:  A nice foray into the genre, and a great beginning to the Clockwork Century universe

Further Reading:  BoneshakerSoulless

Monday, March 12, 2012

Manga Monday: Stargazing with Jumbo

Summer homework comes out, and Yotsuba finds plenty of ways to help in Yotsuba&! Volume 5.

Note: Yotsuba&! Volume 5 is, of course, the sequel to Yotsuba&! Volume 4. The review of Yotsuba&! Volume 1 is here, and the review of Yotsuba&! Volume 4 is here. Otherwise, read on!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer finally have a grown-up demon fighter to follow.

Most 'Chosen One' stories deal with teens or children as their main characters.  Both are tumultuous times in a person's life, and while so much is going on, it makes sense that one would come into his powers then, too.  But sometimes a situation calls for a special person, with a special connection to his god, or God, and age doesn't matter terribly much.

Such is the situation in Princess of Wands by John Ringo.  More a collection of three novellas than a proper novel, the stories center around Barbara Everett, a good Christian woman and soccer mom of 3.  Raised a military brat traveling the world, she learned from an early age to defend herself both through extensive martial arts training as well as modern weaponry.  Her fierce temper, however, she has come to control through a close, personal relationship with God.

A very close relationship with God.

We get to know Mrs. Everett in 'The Almadu Sanction'.  Even though Barb is the consummate housewife and PTO member, even she occasionally needs a break..  So she tells her ESPN-watching husband that she's taking a weekend for herself down in Louisiana.  But on the road, instead of heading for one of her usual haunts, she takes an impulsive turn off to a backwater parish, looking for some "authentic" cajun food.

Unfortunately, Thibideau, LA deserves all of the horror-novel-style creepiness that pervades the place.  Detective Kelly Lockhart has a lead on some murders down in New Orleans, and his investigation is leading him places that he never could have imagined.  He's approached by an FBI agent from Special Circumstances.  These agents are only called in when some sort of supernatural or occult activity is suspected.  It turns out that there has ben some Construct DNA found on the murdered women's bodies, and with that knowledge, Kelly is sent to find the man last seen with one of the victims.

When Detective Lockhart and Barb meet up in the local bait-shop-cum-restaurant, and both realize that their cars have been disabled, it's up to them to get themselves out of the bayou alive.  Will Barb be able to draw on her undiscovered connection to the White God's power to save both herself and Kelly?

In 'The Necromancy Option', Barb is called away from her family, this time for a religious retreat of sorts. The Foundation for Love and Universal Faith is more than a day spa with prayerful overtones. All the attendees here are fighting the good fight against evil, but no two people get there in the exact same way.  These retreats are a good way to share information picked up in the field, take time out for good, old fashioned book learning and research, and to pick up new assignments.  There are, however, very few good Christian soccer moms in a place like this.  And the people who have connected to other gods have generally had bad experienceds with the popular girls like Barb.  So beyond learning how to identify demons and the like, along with a host of other topics that Barb certainly never thought shed be dealing with, she also has to learn how to fit in with people from many, many different backgrounds, and with very different ways of connecting with their gods.

After a week at the Foundation, Barb gets sent out on her first field assignment.  There's been a string of murders out of Ohio and Virginia, and they've been tied to science fiction conventions.  So after a week of sharing a camp with devotees of every religion under the sun, Barb now has to deal with her first taste of fandom.

Life just isn't fair, sometimes.

But when the convention is hit by a blizzard, and both roads and cell phones are out of commission, things turn bad quickly.  Back-up is unreachable and bodies start piling up fast, but Barb and her teammates are particularly suited to take on such a problem.  Will the team, aided by some very...well-equipped military SF fans, be able to handle things on their own?

And in 'Broken Sabbath', the Circumstances hit much closer to home.  Barb's oldest daughter Allison has a new softball coach, and he's setting off Barb's creep radar.  At first, Allison's sullenness and late-night, student-only meetings could be shrugged off as the natural state of high school girls and sports.  But as she becomes more run down and after an uncomfortable meeting between Barb and Coach Sherman, will Barb have to call on her newfound abilities to save one of her own?  Because there is nothing more frightening than a Paladin of the Light protecting her own child.

Fans of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" who grew up watching a teenage blonde fighting evil with find lots to like here, with a new late 30s blonde doing the same thing.  Barb, for all her unintended preachiness and strangely sheltered yet experienced background, is a truly likable person.  She hasher metaphorical demons, including a vicious temper, but does her best to control them.  While parts of 'The Necromancy Option' feel like a bad fanfic, with Barb being introduced to all the cliques at a local convention, once the action picks up again that feeling goes away.  It's also obvious from the descriptions that Ringo gives of the women at the Con that he's more accustomed to writing for his military science fiction fanbase.  When writing fantasy, with a much higher female readership, it might behoove him to remember that they don't need to know the chest size of each female.

But Ringo has some of the best characters and humor in the genre today, and fans of his more famous series would do themselves a disservice by passing this one by.

Highs:  Barb having to remind Janea several times that the White God would frown on joining in on her escapades.

Lows:  If she's travelled so, why has she never encountered any of these countercultures?

Verdict:  Not Ringo's best fantasy, but a light read that stays fun to the end.

Further Reading:  There Will be DragonsSpirits in the Wires

Monday, March 5, 2012

Manga Monday: A young lady's dreams of touching the stars begins to come true

In the 1950s and 1960s, the world watched as the USA and USSR raced to reach the moon.  The USSR had some early accomplishments, launching Sputnik 1 in 1957 and Vostok 1 with Yuri Gagarin in 1961.  In 1969, Apollo 11 launched and Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were the first men to walk on the moon.

Since then, space exploration has taken a much more cooperative approach.  The ISS is a joint project between five space agencies, and astronauts from 15 different countries have inhabited it in its 14 years.

In Twin Spica Volume 1, the history of space exploration has played out a little differently.  Here, in 2010, Japan's JAXA space agency launched its first all-Japanese shuttle into space.  But 72 seconds after takeoff, critical systems failed and the shuttle crashed back to Earth.  Beyond dealing a near-fatal blow to Japan's nascent space program, debris from the shuttle landed in a small tow, killing or injuring many civilians.

14 years later, Asumi Kamogawa is taking her first steps towards space herself. The astronaut program at Tokyo's space school is finally accepting new applicants, and Asumi has secretly applied.  It's only herself and her father at home, and she doesn't want to worry him with tuition or boarding fees, since he works double shifts as a construction worker to make ends meet as it is.  But in the tradition of good fathers everywhere, he might have an idea or tow as to how to help his little girl achieve her dreams.

Upon arrival at the space school, entrance testing continues.  Her first day at school, she's locked into a room with two other girls and assigned a seemingly impossible task to accomplish over the next three days.  While one roommate, Kei Oumi, is outgoing and nice enough, the other, Marika Ukita, is a quiet, sullen girl who doesn't seem to speak but to criticize.  But learning to work together in a closed environment is just another lesson to be learned in the course of becoming an astronaut, and Asumi will do her best at this, too. 

Asumi has another person in her corner on her way to the stars.  At age 6, her mother died after being in a coma since The Lion's failed launch.  While dealing with the death of the mother she never really knew, she meets a spirit who calls himself Mr. Lion.  With astronaut pants and the head of the Lion mission's mascot, he keeps Asumi company through her rather lonely childhood.

Like many Vertical titles, Twin Spica is a slower paced, contemplative story.  Current-day chapters are followed by chapters that give us a look into our characters' backstories.  Covering topics ranging from lost loves to a parent's devotion to his child, to following one's dream no matter where it takes one, Twin Spica is a touching story that nearly anyone can relate to.

Highs:  Fathers often aren't portrayed well in the media, but Asumi's dad shows what it means to work every day for your children.

Lows:  Hopefully we'll find out more of how Asumi grew up and got to this point.

Verdict:  Perhaps not to the typical shonen manga reader's taste, Twin Spica shows a lot of heart and more real emotion than many manga.

Further Reading:  The Color of WaterPlanetes