Monday, October 27, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #298: Ubel Blatt, Vol. 0 by Etorouji Shiono

I'm sure Michael Moorcock didn't know what he was putting us all in for, back fifty or so years ago when he first thought of giving a tormented weak guy with a complex backstory that honking gigantic black killer sword. How could he? He didn't know it would lead to a parade of cursed blades and their bearers, each more tormented and anguished than the one before. He didn't know "black sword" would become standard fantasy shorthand for "look out -- badass!" He didn't know Elric would become as much of a cliche as his opposite Conan had already become.

But it's mostly because of Moorcock and Elric that we have Ubel Blatt, Vol. 0 all these years later, even if creator Etorouji Shiono, as I suspect, got his doom-haunted half-elf and his particular ebony death-machine entirely through intermediaries and secondary sources. (Though I could be wrong: Shiono could be a huge Moorcock fan and the parallels entirely planned.)

Before I get into the plot details, a quick consumer note: yes, this is Volume Zero. As far as I can tell, it reprints the original Japanese volumes zero and one, which in turn reprinted the first episodes of this story. It's not a later prequel; this is where the story starts. If that big zero isn't purely an affectation, I can't see what it implies. But this also is a gigantic book -- over 400 pages, in the larger manga size rather than the mass-market-paperback size -- so you can forgive it a few affectations.

In a Germanically generic fantasy world -- castles, armor, flying machines, magic used entirely for organized murder, feudalism, a nasty religion, and of course lots of swords -- the good-guy Empire of Szaalenden has been threatened by the evil forces of Wischtech for quite some time. (Wischtech seems to be more other-side-of-a-dimensional-gate than over-the-mountains, but this isn't entirely clear.) Twenty years before the main action of this story, the Emperor sent out an elite strike force, each with a lance he blessed himself, as the Fourteen Lances, to go kick some bad-guy ass and save the world for a while. Three died on the way and four Traitorous Lances defected to the enemy and had to be killed, but the Seven Heroes were victorious and came back to get power and lands and all that good stuff.

But now Wischtech is threatening again, and there are other pockets of unrest on the Empire's borders -- frankly, established authorities in this part of the Empire are all looking pretty lousy, at best ineffectual and in most cases actively hand-wringingly evil. But there is this half-elf kid Koinzell, who looks far too wimpy to be any trouble...which of course means he's the biggest bad-ass in the world, by the old law laid down in karate movies. And it turns out that the story of the Seven Heroes is not quite the way it's been told. Finally, this is a seinen manga, which means everything has to really go to hell, to make the story of saving it all be that much more impressive.

Ubel Blatt is a pretty decent epic fantasy/seinen manga mash-up, if you're not looking for anything too original on either side of that mash. Of course, just shoving those two things together makes for some interesting moments -- sure, both traditions feature a lot of S&Mish sexual play to establish how nasty the villains are, so that just stacks, but Koinzell's actual Black Blade is depicted early on as a bunch of smaller knives attached to his long braided hair, which is just goofy enough to be awesome. I could see this being a particularly good introduction to manga to fans of secondary-world fantasy (or even death metal, honestly) -- Shiono has a crisp style that's very accessible to Westerners, distinguishes clearly among all of the characters in his large cast, and has a suitably kick-ass story to tell here.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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