Monday, January 20, 2014

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 1/18

For the last four weeks, I've only gotten one book a week to write about, which has been oddly convenient for this post. This week, it looked like the streak would extend -- but then a big box from Yen Press arrived late in the week, so I have a bunch of books to tell you about.

But I'll start with what looked like that one book for a few days, just because, and then work my way towards the land of manga via a light novel that Yen is publishing this month. As always, these books just arrived on my doorstep, so I haven't yet read any of them. I'll tell you what I can but -- especially if any of you know more about a book or series or author -- please feel free to speak up in the comments.

The single SFF novel this week is Rex Regis by the always dapper L.E. Modesitt, Jr.. It's the eighth novel in the "Imager Portfolio" series, which -- as far as I can tell -- blends the typical epic fantasy elements of big magic and sweeping historical events with a more Age of Enlightenment level of technology and a magical system based on raw imagination. Rex Regis is a Tor hardcover which officially hit stores earlier this month. And, if the description is anything to go on, it's full of people and countries and conflicts that you should have read at least the last few books -- I believe the eight-book series falls into two major parts -- to understand.

Everything else I have this week is published by Yen Press -- the manga arm of the multifarious Hachette Book Group and corporate sister to the SFF imprint Orbit -- and reaches stores during the month of January. You should be able to find all of it available now at your favorite retailer.

First up is a light novel, Book Girl and the Scribe Who Faced God, Part 2, latest and last in the series by Mizuki Nomura about a tiny high school literature club, made up of one boy who wants to be a novelist and a female supernatural creature disguise as a girl, who lives by eating stories. This is the big finish, and the back cover promises the usual emotional rollercoaster of Japanese popular culture -- a whole bunch of names who all really, really strongly want radically different things, and probably a pile of plot complications to make it even worse. The first book is Book Girl and the Suicidal Mime; start there if the premise sounds interesting.

From here on, as usual, I'll tackle the manga more or less by volume number, so I'll start with things closest to the beginning of a story and end with the most convoluted and least new-reader-accessible stuff. I should also note, as a consumer guide, that Yen seems to have had a price rise recently: most of the standard-size manga volumes are now $13, and some of the fatter ones have hit $25. (I expect this is because of an unpleasant feedback effect from Amazon; I've seen that a lot professionally.)

And so here's Nico Tanigawa's No Matter How I Look at It, It's You Guys' Fault I'm Not Popular!, Vol. 2, where the very Seussian lettering of the title is still confusing me. It's about a geeky highschool girl, Tomoko -- geeky in very specific Japanese-teen-girl ways, though, which is not at all what a random American would call "geeky" -- and her inevitably futile attempts to be more popular. (I haven't read this yet, but it's probably telling that she wants to "be popular," rather than to "have friends," or even just enjoy her life.)

Also a #2, and with its own odd title issues, is Shiro Amano's Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days, Vol. 2. (So...179 days, then?) It's set in the same world of the previous Kingdom Hearts games and manga, in which a force of transdimensional cops with Keyblades travel through the worlds of Disney movies to destroy bad guys, collect hearts, and (presumably) rack up high scores. In this series, young Keyblade-weilder Xion has lost her weapon, so she has to go on missions with compatriot Roxas until she can find it again. Look, I'm sure it makes sense in context.

Weird titles continue with Coco Fujiwara's Inu x Boku SS, Vol. 2, about a teenage girl going to a boarding school so elite that every student gets her own personal "secret service agent" -- and hers is, naturally, gorgeous and mysterious. Oh, and she's part demon because Japan.

Next up is the finale of a sub-story: Durarara!! Saika Arc, Vol. 3 is about the fifth book overall in the series about a large cast of odd-balls, low-lifes, ne'er-do-wells, and other hyphenated types in Tokyo's dangerous Ikebukuro district. This arc, from the back cover, is about a serial slasher whose mania is apparently infectious, which doesn't sound good for the un-slashed population of Tokyo. A major series character is apparently the final target of the slasher in this book, so expect high drama and flashing blades. Oh, and I should give you the credits: this comes from an anime, so it's art by Akiyo Satorigi, character design by Suzuhito Yasuda, and CREATOR Ryohgo Narita.

Yoshiki Tonogai's Survivor-meets-Battle Royale story continues in Judge, Vol. 3, in which the imprisoned young "sinners" continue to form alliances and back-stab as they decide which of them will die first to fulfill the whim of their mysterious captor. (I'm afraid I don't see the appeal at all of this, so I'm probably slandering it badly.)

The current major "magical girl" series continues in the multiply titled Puella Magi Kazumi Magica: The Innocent Malice, Vol. 4. Since this, too, came from other media, it's credited as original story by Magica Quartet, story by Masaki Hiramatsu, and art by Takashi Tensugi. (And I appreciate the irony of crediting an original story and a plain, ordinary story.) This one has more revelations about the nature of these magical girls, and if one of them needs to be eliminated for the good of them all -- man, it's tough being a teenaged girl in Japan, even if you do have superpowers.

Then there's Yuuki Kodama's Blood Lad, Vol. 4, in which young okatu duke of hell Spaz and his dead plot-token human girlfriend Fuyumi continue to wander around, meeting more of Spaz's relatives and getting involved in the expected schemes and plots.

And the Haruhi Suzumiya spin-off machine continues as well, with The Disappearance of Nagato Yuki-chan, Vol. 5, in which Yuki is no longer disappeared. This line extension credits art to Puyo, story to Nagaru Tanigawa, and characters to Noizi Ito.

I forget what Shouji Sato's series Triage X was about -- it's back for a fifth volume this month -- but I didn't think it was about idol singers, which seems to be the focus this time out. Digging into the Google, I see that this is the one about a secret team of crime-fighters -- mostly buxom young women, with the inevitable quiet boy at their center -- who operate out of a hospital and are mostly staff there. (Because doctors and nurses have so much free time that they need to fill up with vigilante activity.)

JinHo Ko's continuing story of massive supernatural violence for its own sake continues in Jack Frost, Vol. 9, in which Jack the Ripper -- or at least another guy with that name -- and other psychopaths posture and battle over geographically defined regions of the extradimensional city of Amityville and over the plot-token girl from the early volumes, known as the mirror image. Don't worry about any of that: it's just an excuse for the ultraviolence.

And the harem manga is alive and well, as Milan Matra's Omamori Himari, Vol. 11 arrives. I'm not sure who these people are, but Himari -- one of the many supernaturally-powered and well-endowed girls around our nebbishy hero -- is the one in trouble this time, because he drew too deeply on her demonic power, and that's never good.

The palace opera is also alive in Park SoHee's Goong, Vol. 14, in which the royal heir Shin -- yes, this is a mildly alternate history in which Korea still has a monarchy, because you can't have a princess without a prince, and you can't have a really high-drama palace opera without a princess -- begins to unravel the secrets of his divorce from the series heroine. (And if you don't think they'll get back together eventually, you have no idea how popular fiction works.)

Yana Toboso's Black Butler, Vol. 16 is here as well, with its particular take on Victorian England and its butlers and lords. This time out, the Earl has to win a cricket tournament to get an invitation to a secret banquet to talk to the head of secretive Weston College, of course.

We're getting into high numbers here, like Atsushi Ohkubo's Soul Eater, Vol. 18. This is still a story of a cadre of demon-fighters and their sentient shape-shifting weapons (or perhaps vice versa), and, even more so, about the school for those demon-fighters, because every shonen series must be about school by the iron law of Japan. And I doubt anyone would want to dive in with this volume.

Even better is Jun Mochizuki's Pandora Hearts, Vol. 20. I'll just quote the back-cover copy and leave it at that:
These...are the "cursed words" I deliver to you.

The pathetic farce that has unfolded in earnest is no more than an absurd yarn spun by the man who caused the Tragedy of Sablier by following his heart's desires. The players in his tale begin dancing with abandon, their emotions bottled up inside, as though they are marionettes manipulated by a master puppeteer...
Got it? That's what this book is about.

The last two books are both deep into two related series, but may be more approachable. First up is Higurashi When They Cry: Festival Accompanying Arc, Vol. 3, with story by Ryukishi07 and art by Karin Suzuragi. Hirgurashi is a series of murder-mystery computer games, all set in the same time and place, with different plots. As usual with a popular Japanese property, the original games metastasized into light novels, manga, TV series (animated and live-action) and several other permutations. But each "Arc" of the manga adapts one game, and so each one should basically stand alone. This is still the third volume, and 23rd overall, but it's only three of eight in "Festival Accompanying," which is better than it could be.

Last, there's Umineko When They Cry Episode 3: Banquet of the Golden Witch, Vol. 1, which adapts a different series of murder-mystery games -- which were also turned into manga, movies, chew-toys for dogs, support girdles, saltwater taffy, and other random products -- of which Banquet of the Golden Witch is the third. (That Golden Witch previously had a Legend and a Turn, and subsequently had an Alliance, an End, a Dawn, a Requiem, a Twilight, and one further adventure that Wikipedia only has in its Japanese name.) That witch apparently maneuvered the rich and far-flung Ushiromiya clan into having their reunion on a remote island, which reunion plays out somewhat differently -- though still full of murder and mayhem -- in each version of the game and manga. This huge brick -- it's over 600 pages of comics, seriously -- has story by Ryukishi07 and art by Kei Natsumi, and, like the rest of the above items, is available right now.

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