Sunday, June 29, 2008

Full Metal Panic Volume 7 by Shouji Gatou and Retsu Tateo

Kaname Chidori looks like a normal high school girl, but looks can be decieving. Kaname is actually one of a group of people called "The Whispered", who are born with information coded into their DNA that makes them superior at math, engineering and other sciences. They are called Whispered because it is as if they literally had a voice in their heads, whispering the information to them. And actually, it is someone whispering to them. Aliens from the future, apparently.

Anyhow, after an assassination attempt on Kaname, a bodyguard is assigned to her by an organization called Mithril, Which, unknown to Kaname at the time, is the sanctuary of other "Whispereds". Her bodyguard is to be Sosuke Sagara, a former Japanese soldier raised in Afghanistan by several military and terrorist organizations. He's young enough to be able to pass as a high school student and is assigned to protect Kaname... with his own life, if necessary. When it comes to the military, Sosuke is top-notch, but he is completely out of his depth when it comes to the life of a typical high-schooler in Japan. He can speak the language and he is Japanese by birth, but his understanding of things from a military perspective makes life for Kaname rather... difficult. This is played for humor and when things happen, that usually means it's time for Kaname to bring out the giant white comedy fan and smack Sosuke one.

This volume is a series of short stories that take place at school: from Sosuke's new pet, which just happens to be a mouse that escaped from a laboratory and has the power to eat and eat through just about anything, including girl's panties, apparently; to a story with Sosuke acting strangely and Kaname following him, which leads to a revelation regarding a secret vice of Sosuke's; to the arrival of a new teacher who wants to teach the class synchronized swimming... but with Sosuke trained to hold his breath longer than most people, who in the class can keep up with him?

Also, when Kaname is abducted by a street gang, Sosuke must negotiate with the leader to get her back. But does he even know the meaning of the word? And when the principal of the school asks Kaname and Sosuke to check out a Fantasy Hotel because several of the staff and students have been seen going there, can Kaname resist using the place to fulfill a fantasy of her own, and keep Sosuke hopping? Finally, when Sosuke notices someone following them home, he immediately pulls her into a general store and has her pretend to buy a home pregnancy test to give them a reason for being there. Humiliated, Kaname stomps away and Sosuke is told off by an old man, who enlists his help in finding the man's lost granddaughter.

This was a great collection of short stories and foretells the growing closeness between Sosuke and Kaname. She is falling in love with him, but Sosuke appears to have lead between his ears and doesn't realize this at all. The stories are all funny and charming, and while Sosuke's general cluelessness is played for laughs, some of the stories still manage to be touching as well as funny.

I like this series, and while there is a related series called "Full Metal Panic: Overload", where Sosuke's cluelessness and inability to understand things in anything other than military terms is turned up to 11, I prefer this series more. Here, the reader can understand why Kaname is falling for Sosuke. He's a strict military guy, but he has courage and honor, too. And yeah, he's cute/handsome as well. That certainly doesn't hurt.

I have tried to find this series in bookstores, but I was unable to find it. Maybe I have to try a bigger bookstore. In any case, I would buy this series... if I could find it!

Hellboy II: The Art of the Movie

Hellboy II: The Art of the Movie is the actual shooting script of the new Hellboy movie, plus pictures, concept art and stills from the actual movie. Now, you might think that reading the script would destroy any reason to see the movie, but this isn't so. In fact, the whole thing just whets your appetite to see more, as the pictures only give hints as to what is to come.

It's a little hard to review an artbook, but I'll try. Basically, this movie gives us something the fans have wanted to see for years... young Hellboy. I was hoping as soon as I saw the picture, that they'd show us a quick scene of Hellboy getting introduced to pancakes, but that was in the original comic (As the short story, "Pancakes", naturally) and would have probably detracted from the main movie. However, one page of the comic is reproduced in this book, and it made me grin anyway.

For those of you who haven't seen the first movie, read the comics, seen the animated features (all of which have their own separate style and continuities, according to the word of God, i.e. Mike Mignola) or read the books, Hellboy is the son of Satan and a human woman, taken to Hell after gestating in her body for years. He is also Anung Un Rama, the one fated to destroy the world, but due to a summoning mishap by the Nazis, Hellboy was found and adopted by Dr. Bruttenholm (pronounced Broom) and raised to fight supernatural menaces. Though he tries to be just a normal guy, that's pretty difficult when you're seven feet tall, have horns growing out of your head (that he breaks off and files down) and are red as a fire hydrant. Not to mention that stone-covered hand he has on his right side.

Hellboy works for the B.P.R.D., the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, who try to keep the world safe from the monstrous creatures, depraved ancient societies and other menaces that would take it over and remake it from their twisted perspective. Hellboy works with Liz Sherman, a firestarter who is immune to her own flames (and maybe all fire... it's hard to tell sometimes), and Abe Sapien, a fishlike creature found under a southern hospital with only a single note on the tube containing him, and that was the date of Abraham Lincoln's assassination, from which Abe got his first name. Sapien because he is obviously intelligent (more so than many of the humans he works with, actually).

This movie will introduce another character from the B.P.R.D., Johann Krauss, a former medium whose body was destroyed during a seance (due to a supernatural catastrophe the B.P.R.D. was dealing with. He wasn't the only one affected.) and he now inhabits a special containment suit to make sure his ectoplasmic body doesn't dissipate. He still has his mediumistic powers, but his "body" such as it is, is just translucent stuff that no longer looks human. Or, as the movie puts it, he has "a nice, open face". Literally!

In any case, the movie presents us with a story based on Celtic myth, but as usual, with a twist. The King is named Balor, and might be supposed to be the original King Balor defeated by the Tuatha De Dann or he might be just named after him. His two children, a son and a daughter, are Nuada and Nuala, twins. The Prince rebels when it appears that the humans have broken the contract made ages ago by the humans and the elves. He wants to retrieve the crown that controls the goblin-constructed golden army and use it against the humans to make them fear and respect the elves once more.

I can't say more without giving away the entire plot, but the movie looks like it's going to be great, and the designs are incredible, with that dark "Mignola feel" that made me so enamoured of the comic book. I may not buy the book, but it will make me go see the movie.

The Lost Journal of Indiana Jones

The Lost Journal of Indiana Jones purports to be the journal that Indy was given by his father before the start of their journeys in the television series. The first page in the book contains his father's admonition to record what "Junior" sees and learns. On the page after, we find that Indy lost his journal to the Russians, and is annotated by them, presumably to learn what they can about the archaeologist.

The journal is filled with Indy's observations and notes from throughout his life, based on the incidents and adventures in the television series, and the films (with one exception, "Old Indy", the man who recounts the stories of his life in the television series, is not represented, presumably because by that point he had stopped having adventures. So if you have seen the movies and the books, you will know most of what the "Lost Journal" contains.

The book was enjoyable, but many things broke my willing suspension of disbelief. For one thing, many early pictures in the book have been doctored (probably with photoshop) to include the very recognizable faces of Harrison Ford as a small boy and Sean Connery as a young man. Other pictures are of the male actor who played young Henry Jones Junior in the TV series. This presents problems when they are nothing alike! (Young Harrison Ford is dark-haired, the actor who played young Indy is dark blonde, and their faces don't look in the least bit like each other to me.z) Also, the younger Sean Connery doesn't look anything like the actor who played Dr. Henry Jones, Senior in the television series, either.

The other thing that leapt out at me is that presumably, Indiana Jones had only one journal all his life? With all his adventures and the things he did? That beggars the imagination. Even if he kept the journal only infrequently, it would seem that a man with such an adventure-filled life would have filled up more than a single journal.

On further reflection, the journal is too nice looking. Remember what Indiana Jones goes through in his adventures. I'd expect it to be beat up, with water-smeared pages and many, many more stains, spots and smudges than are presented in the pages.

My biggest gripe is that it gives us no new insights into the character of Indiana Jones, just information we could have gotten from watching the TV show or movies, which basically makes it just one more useless piece of fan crud. Now, I must say that journal tie-ins to movies aren't all bad. I have a leather-covered journal from the "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" movie as part of my collection of fan crud. The difference? It's an actual blank journal you can write in, which at least makes it useful.

The book was entertaining, and it was a good idea, but the lack of logic and continuity kept throwing me out of the pleasant fantasy that I was supposed to be having, that I was actually reading the supposed Journal kept by Indiana Jones. As such, it was a less than successful book for me. And at the price you are expected to pay for this experience, $25 US, I wouldn't waste my money on this at all.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Shaman King Volume 16 by Hiroyuki Takei

The Shaman fight continues, with Yoh's team winning its first round. Yoh's behavior has won him many allie, even among his opponents, but there is another opponent, Hao, who has as his Shaman ally the fire spirit, one of the five great spirits in the world, the living embodiment of fire. Hao also says he will be the next King, but he has enemies already.

The X-Laws are a group of shamans who have come to the tournament strictly to fight Hao, as each of them was wronged by him in some way. Led by Jeanne, a girl who spends most of her time in an iron maiden when not battling, they seek to overcome Hao and knock him out of the fight. Yoh has befriended one of the X-Law shamans, a boy named Lyserg whose spirit ally is a Poppy fairy.

When Yoh goes to speak with Lyserg, they both express friendship for the other, until the other X-Laws show up wanting a fight. The fight is forestalled by Jeanne in her iron maiden, who invites Yoh to join them, but Yoh refuses, saying their way is not his way. Once again, the others (save for Lyserg and Jeanne) would fight him, but Jeanne takes his refusal well and won't allow the others to fight Yoh.

The next day, three of the X-Laws meet Hao and two of his team in the ring, but Hao dismisses his allies and tells the X-Laws he will give them a chance, allowing them to fight him alone, knowing they want revenge on him. They accept and fight him, throwing their own lives away in the battle, for this way, the members of the organization can learn more about Hao, including, hopefully, the way for the others to defeat him.

Yoh doesn't like their way of fighting at all, and gets extremely upset with the X-Laws throwing their lives away for what he views as a wasted exercise. And indeed, none of the X-Laws in the ring are able to defeat Hao or his spirit ally. After the titanic battle, Hao summons the spirits of the now-dead X-Law shamans and feeds them to his spirit ally to make it stronger.

This so incenses Yoh that he reveals to his friends and allies a hidden truth: Hao and Yoh are brothers, born of the same womb. But if Hao is ten thousand years old, how is this possible? Yoh tells the story, revealing the truth: Hao was reborn in the body of his twin brother, come back to become the Shaman King, and born with his spirit ally already in place!

Though the cover of this manga is bright and colorful, the story has taken a dark turn, with a group of shamans willing to die to beat Hao. The story of Hao isn't a very bright one, either, and Hao feeding his losing opponents souls to his spirit ally is just...

I don't buy this manga, I get it from my library, as it's just one more fighting manga to me, only with oversouls and spirit allies instead of kicks and punches. Even reading this volume hasn't really changed my opinion of that. I also feel that the art has undergone a change for the worse since the beginning of the series, namely in the character of Manta Oyamada, who in character terms has become a supernumary nipple. There just isn't much to attract me here any more, and I become less likely to continue reading this series, even from the library.

If you're looking for another fighting series, with a twist, look no further. Otherwise, it's just more of the same. Not that fighting series are bad, but they do get awfully repetitive and I'd rather have my story in a form other than that crammed in between scenes of opponents beating the snot out of each other, however they do it.

B. P. R. D.- Killing Ground by Mike Mignola, John Arcudi and Guy Davis

After Johann's discovery in the last Graphic Novel of Captain Benjamin Daimio's past ancestor, they are questioning him pretty heavily, which he objects to. Johann has taken control of one of the soulless bodies made to house the spirit of Langdon Caul's former friends and the spirits of thousands of others, allowing him to eat, drink, breathe and live in a way he has not been able to in a very long while.

As Damio storms out from his questioning in disgust, a man who is being posted to the Denver office of the B.P.R.D is attacked, his computer, briefcase, identity and car stolen. The question is, why? And the facility takes delivery of a Wendigo named Darryl, who Abe Sapien and Hellboy once met. He once remembered his name and life as a human, even if it was hard for him not to act on his instincts as a Wendigo. But even though the scientists at the B.P.R.D. have been trying to reverse the process and turn him human again, his humanity seems long gone, rendering him just a Wendigo.

Liz's visions continue, despite her not wanting to trust Rasputin, and she has been taking to talking to Panya, as the mummy has had her own visions of the Apocalypse.

But when Darryl escapes, Johann, entranced by his new body, has gone off base against orders to carouse and pick up girls. Damio and Abe go in search of Darryl, who manages to escape the base in a blinding snowstorm, only for Damio to go crazy and become some kind of jaguar-monster thing that knocks Liz out. The search for Darryl becomes a search for Damio and an attempt to awaken Liz, who remains unconscious despite nothing apparently being wrong physically.

Who was Damio, really, and what happened to him? Why has this transformation happened, and how can it be stopped? Can they ever get back the man they knew or is it a hopeless task? And does Damio even know what has happened to him?

Another excellent graphic novel. Damio has been such a staunch member of the B.P.R.D. that although when he was introduced I fully expected him to be some sort of monster or infiltrator, that expectation has dimmed with the passage of time, only to now see it bear fruit was a bittersweet experience at best.

Although I didn't actually like the character, I did feel rather sorry for him and what happened to him. But it was hard to feel sorrow when I realized that he knew what was coming, more or less, and kept it from his fellow members of the B.P.R.D., which wasn't good at all.

Of course, the story doesn't end in this volume, but the questions continue, as always. And I'll be there to see them pursued.

B. P. R. D.- Garden of Souls by Mike Mignola, John Arcudi and Guy Davis

Abe Sapien may be a fish-man now, but back in Civil War times, he was a human named Langdon Everett Caul, a scientist and occult investigator part of an organization of like-minded men seeking to know the secrets of life itself. Abe doesn't remember anything of his earlier life, but he recently found out about his former life, and now he has decided to look into it.

Apparently the men Abe knew as Caul discovered a 3000 year old mummy, who, when they unwrapped its bandages, was somehow still alive. Now, Abe has just come back from a mission where fellow B.P.R.D. operative, the golem named Roger, sacrificed himself to end a mighty evil. As a result, he is being buried under a fake name in Colorado, in hopes that those who might still wish to steal his body and do something with it are thrown off the track and cannot find him.

Back at base, Liz Sherman is having nightmare apocalyptic visions where Rasputin tells her that she can trust only him, Johann Strauss is delving into the records that remain after the fire that nearly destroyed them all and discovers some unusual information about a current agent of the B.P.R.D, and Captain Benjamin Damio is having some sort of secret procedure to guard against an attack by... something unnamed and probably very horrible. Abe gets a package for himself and finds a cigar case with his old initials on it, containing three very old cigars and a map showing a location in southeast Asia.

Abe and Damio travel to Bangkok, where Caul's old friends now live, carrying on their experiments on a small jungle island. Abe is abducted by one of the men, now in a new, purpose-grown body. The others, who should have been long dead, are now only able to live in a bath of nutrient fluid, carried around in robotic bodies. They have been tinkering with the local wildlife in the effort to understand the secrets of life, aided by the mummy, who they call Naunet, but whose real name is Panya.

Panya is desperate to escape her virtual imprisonment on the island, and to expose the schemes of Caul's former friends. But they tell Abe themselves, eager to have him join in their scheme and thinking he will support them: Since humanity is killing the earth, they will don the new bodies they are growing for themselves and set off a tidal wave that will kill most of the remaining humans. When the dead human souls leave their bodies, they will also be drawn into the new bodies, which are made to house many souls. The men will become the remainder of humanity, embodying the entire race.

Abe is appalled at their plan, and makes it clear to them. But they have already set their plans in motion, with 35 huge bombs set in place around the pacific rim. Can Damio, separated from Abe and with the help of a little retarded girl possessed by Panya, find the bombs and neutralize them before Caul's former friends decide to unleash their plan early?

Mike Mignola has a very unique style of artwork also uniquely suited to the types of stories he tells, which tend to be full of dark plots and strange organic-techno machines that look as though they were the product of some long-hidden strange race from the mists of pre-history. That artwork is fully allowed to shine in B.P.R.D., which used to be Hellboy, but since Hellboy quit, has become the playground of the "lesser lights" from the roster.

This story really focusses on Abe, and we finally learn a bit more about how Langston Edward Caul became Abe Sapien, and why he was discovered underneath an old hospital with the date of Abe Lincoln's assassination on his tube.

Anyone who reads this comic expecting it to be just like the Hellboy movies will be in for a big surprise. Liz doesn't like Hellboy, she likes Abe, and Johann Strauss, just introduced in the second movie, has never met Hellboy, as he joined the B.P.R.D. after Hellboy left. His appearance is quite a bit different from the movie as well, and his powers are different also.

This is a great graphic novel and can stand alone quite well. It does help to have read all the Hellboy and B.P.R.D. books before this one, however, to understand who Roger was and how he died, and where Liz's visions are coming from. Even without that, this remains a superior book and superior story, and the art is dark and scary and outstandingly outré.

Speed Racer by Dwayne Alexander Smith and Elmer Damaso

Speed Racer is the young scion of the Racer family. His father, Pops Racer, designs cars for a living, and his son, Speed, Races them. Speed drives his father's pride and joy, the Mach Five, a high-performance race car, along with his own determination and skill, that makes him the winner in every single race.

And that doesn't sit well with Adam Matic, the son of the equally reknowned car inventor, Doctor Otto Matic. When Speed wins another race in the Mach Five, Adam accuses him of cheating and decks him, right at the finish line. Speed fights back, refuting Adam's accusations, until they finally have to be separated by their own fathers.

Later that night, Adam tells his father to make his car better, so he can outdrive and win against Speed, or Otto Matic will really see Adam get angry. Dr. Matic works on the car until he falls asleep, and is awakened by his manservant, who puts the old man to bed. Dr. Matic blames himself for Adam's troubles, as he ignored Adam when he was younger, and an explosion from one of his devices ended up killing his wife. Adam blames his father, and Otto Matic thinks he is correct.

But Adam isn't satisfied with threatening his father. Instead, he breaks into the Racer facilities and booby-traps the Mach Five. The next day, when Speed passes Adam on the final lap, Adam activates the bomb and blows up the Mach Five, only to have the same explosion blind him and cause another crash... from which Adam does not survive.

Adam Matic's funeral is attended by Speed, who speaks about his one-time adversary in glowing terms, until Dr. Otto Matic shows up with a robot he calls Adam 2.0. At a meeting with the racing commission, Otto Matic says he intends to let his "new" son drive his cars for him, and when Pops Racer says that driving requires a human heart, the robot opens his chest cavity to show that he does have one... Adam's old heart! Then Racer X shows up to say that he has no fear of driving against Adam 2.0 and tells everyone to let him race... they will soon see he can't beat a human driver.

He also teases Speed with a reference that he knew Speed's brother, Rex Racer, and drives off. Back at Otto Matic's mansion, the robot wants to know how "he" died. When his father won't tell him, the robot looks it up himself and finds the articles on the race in the computer, and comes to the conclusion that Speed killed him, so Speed Racer must die.

At the next triple threat race, Dr. Matic intends to monitor "Adam 2", so that he can't do anything wrong, but Adam takes his own initiative and tries to kill Speed by driving him off the road. Failing to do so, Adam drives his car directly into Speed's pushing him off a cliff and putting him in the hospital, as well as trashing the Mach 5. Speed is saved by his brother, in the guise of a racer named Prince Kabala by a blood transfusion of the same rare type of blood.

Since the Mach 5 is pretty much totaled, Pops racer constructs a new Car, the Mach 6. Speed doesn't like it as much as the old one, but when he and his girlfriend Trixie take it for a test drive, they are ambushed by Adam 2 who kidnaps Trixie and demands another race from Speed, this time with the prize of Trixie's life! He steals the Mach 6, so Speed and his father must try to get the Mach 5 race-ready again. But they find the car has been stolen. Can they track down the thieves and recover the car? And if they can, get they get it ready in time to race the demented Adam 2? And even if he beats the robot in the race, how can he shut him down so that he will never trouble Speed again? Dr. Otto Matic has one idea, but it will take a single, microscopically small chance for Speed to be able to do it... Can he do it in time?

This manga was rather a surprise for me. I used to watch the anime when I was much, much younger, and I was familliar with many of the characters, a lot of whom appear in the manga here, some named (Speed's brother Spritle and his pet ape Chim-chim, Racer X, Prince Kabala, Trixie) and some go unnamed (Inspector Detector and Speed's Mechanic Sparky). The names, too, are reminiscent of the earlier anime (Otto Matic).

But the story is new to the manga, and the style of art, while different, is more manga-inspired while being true to the characters and character design. It managed to mate the new with the old and combine them into a refreshing whole, one that draws on the best of each to tell a new story that could easily have fit into the old series.

And although this book is in honor of the new summer movie, as far as I can tell, the book doesn't seem to be anything like the new movie at all, in art or production design. And as far as I am concerned, that's a good thing. I'm glad I read this manga. It was enjoyable and brought back the memories of my past in a good way.

Bram Stoker's Dracula Manga, adapted by Michael Mucci, Ben Caldwell and Bill Halliar

Dracula is a wonderful old book by Bram Stoker, and now it has been brought to teens in manga form by a company called Sterling. Is it a successful adaptation? Yes and no.

For those who have been living in a cave for the past 100 years, the story involves Jonathan Harker, a real estate agent who has been sent to Transylvania to meet a reclusive nobleman called Count Dracula. After a number of unnerving experiences on the way there, he is met by a black coach driven by equally black horses. An old woman attempts to convince him he is in danger, but Jonathan is a rational Englishman and though he takes her cross when she presses it on him, he goes to the Count's Castle.

While in the Castle, Jonathan has the count sign papers so he can take possession of his new properties all over England. But a number of experiences in the castle convince Jonathan that something strange and uncanny is going on with the Count, and he knows that when the Count has no more use for him, Jonathan will be served up to the Count's vampire brides as a snack. Unwilling to let that be his fate, Jonathan tries to escape, only to end up falling into a river. His last thoughts are of Mina Murray, his bride to be.

Back in England, Mina is staying with her friend, Lucy Westenra, who has gotten an unprecedented three offers of marriage: one with the local doctor of the madhouse, Dr. Seward, a wealthy Texan named Quincy, and a nobleman, Arthur Holmwood. This being England, Lucy has accepted Holmwood's offer, but that day, a storm comes up, driving a Russian freighter to crash at the docks. Soon after, Lucy begins sleepwalking and acting strange, and Dr. Seward is called in. When he isn't able to help her, he writes to his old teacher, Abraham Van Helsing, who comes to see Lucy as well. Lucy is dying, her blood somehow being syphoned away, and despite numerous blood transfusions, she eventually dies.

But Van Helsing knows what caused her death, and leads the others to Lucy's tomb, where she has also become a vampire and must be staked through the heart and beheaded to end her evil. Mina had left to go to see Jonathan, who had been found ill in Budapest, and marry him. Now they have returned, and Mina thinks he may have been driven mad by his experiences. Van Helsing reads his diary, and tells her Jonathan isn't mad, and just hearing that, and the fact that Dracula is in the area leads him to helping Van Helsing and the others track down Dracula's holdings, driving him out and back to Transylvania.

But Mina was attacked, Dracula making her drink his blood, and she will eventually become a vampire as well if her maker isn't stopped. Dracula may be able to see through Mina's eyes through their connection, but she can also see through his, and hear through his ears, allowing them to track him back to his castle, in hopes of getting their first to deal with his evil.

After a long journey, they do eventually track him down, and the curse of the vampire is fully, finally laid to rest.

To start with, I didn't particularly like the art for the book, which reminded me a bit of grafitti or hip-hop-style art. While there is certainly a place for such art, and I don't have anything against it on its own, I don't feel it was the best choice for this particular story. On top of it, I found the lettering somewhat difficult to read, and that made understanding the story harder at times.

The story is abridged from the original book, but that is all to the good, as a more faithful adaptation would end up being huge in graphic novel format. The character designs are also a mixed bag, and the older characters look more cartoonish (Van Helsing especially) than the other characters in the book.

So my feelings on the comic are mixed. The words are difficult to understand because of the font, and the art is pretty ghastly to me, so I can only give it a so-so rating. It could have been done a lot better with different art, and different, clearer lettering.

Rhysmyth, Volume 2 by Anthony Andora and Lincy Chan

Elena Bohndana was just a klutz, until she managed to gracefully fall tumble her way down stairs in front of Wahzee Zameel. Though he didn't approach her then, he thought she'd be perfect for the new sport called Rhysmyth, a combination of Dance Dance Revolution and Acrobatics.

Although she originally didn't care about Rhysmyth, when it was pointed out to her that she needed something to stand out on her academic record for college, she decided to do it for that reason alone. But she had a rival on the team, Taylor Hamilton. Taylor thought there was only room for one girl on the team... herself. So, finally sick of what she saw as Elena's whining, she challenged her to a Rhysmyth competition.

Elena doesn't think she can beat Taylor, but she vows to try, just to shut the other girl up. After a long battle on the Rhysmyth stage, Taylor wins, but only barely, and that while savaging Elena with her tongue the entire time. She conceeds that Elena has some talent, and decides to let her stay.

Then, the Coach comes in with some good news: He's finished the costumes for the team's competition in the Bay Area District Match. Elena is a stand-in should one of the team have to step out, and when the day dawns, The Coach makes sure they arrive early. In fact, they are the first team there.

Their team, from Highwall High, is the second-ranked, behind last year's winners, Mountain Ridge Prep. But the leader of Mountain Ridge seems to have a feud with Wahzee, and when their coach must suddenly leave for a personal emergency, the entire team must deal with the problems they encounter. Taylor is injured in the third match, after getting a taste of what Elena must have felt like when she continually dissed the other girl, and Wahzee's anger at Renaldo Guarini, the rival leader of Mountain Ridge Prep, threatens to derail his entire performance. Can Wahzee fight off his anger and win? Will Elena be able to beat Taylor's opponent? Or will she fail, putting the rest of the team at risk for losing?

This was a cute, but rather short, manga. Not that the manga itself lacks pages, but the story reads so quickly that it was over even faster than a manga usually is for me. It's also a manga by an American Artist and writer so it is read "backwards" to the Japanese manga, which actually took a bit of getting used to for me. Seems ridiculous, since I read plenty of other books in the normal left to right fashion, and plenty of American Graphic Novels, but there you go.

Unlike a lot of other Japanese manga, the story, even though it is ostensibly a sports-themed manga, came off as a bit of fluff rather than serious. You never really get into the story enough to root for the protagonists, and in the end I just didn't really care about the outcome of the battles the characters fought. Oh, attempts were made to make the readers care, but it just wasn't happening.

If you're a DDR fiend, you might enjoy this book, but those looking for a serious sports manga where you will care and get deeply involved in the stories of the characters and become invested in the outcome of the battles they fight won't find it here. It may try to be more, but it's just fluff. Harmless, innocent old fluff at that.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Talyn by Holly Lisle

Talyn is a Tonk magical soldier in the Confederacy of Hyre. For 300 years, the Tonks have been at war with the Republic of the Eastils, over the rich lands that divide their countries. Each believes the other side are Barbarians, and each want nothing more than to conquer the other and bring some civilization to the other side, although the Eastils want to "civilize" the Tonks a bit more than the Tonks do, as they just really want to be left in peace.

Talyn is a shielder, one who protects her country from magical attacks launched by the Eastils. When she gets tired of the war, she can ask for a breeder exception and have children for the Tonk army, who will probably be magically talented as she is. That's what her mother and father did, and they had fourteen children between them, an unprecedented number.

But now rumor have come of a peace negotiated by the Feegash, a people that have always remained neutral from any war. They have offered to negotiate a peace settlement between both countries, and oversee it with their own troops, until both countries form an integrated whole. It is not until an Eastil attack on the Tonk leaders who have gathered to talk about the offer that the offer is accepted. Talyn is one of the troops who are on guard against an Eastil attack that they know is coming there, and she manages to bump into one of the Feegash while looking for the Eastils from a metaphysical area called "The View" to find that the Feegash man is calm and clear, rather like what the Tonks would consider a saint to be like, and she is intrigued. They speak mind to mind for a short time before she continues her task.

The Eastil soldiers fight when they are discovered, but three of them are captured and taken prisoner by the Tonks whom they were trying to infiltrate, including Gair, the leader. As the peace is discussed throughout the land, the three are taken back to the city where Talyn is stationed, and she makes a mob back off from stoning and abusing them on the way to their prison. However, since the Eastils were an infiltration unit trying to pretend to be Tonks, the proof that they were actually enemy soldiers is lacking, and they are unable to be housed with the actual military prisoners. As a result, they are thrown in the regular jail, where they are housed honorably... until the man taking care of them dies and the jail is taken over by a man neither Tonk nor Eastil, who intends to run the jail to make a profit. Not believing Gair and his men, he has them systematically tortured, beaten and kept on such tiny rations that they are nearly starving.

Meanwhile, Talyn meets the Feegash man again when he comes to the city where she is living. She is immediately attracted to him, and is slowly mustered out along with the other magical troops. Skirmig, the Feegash diplomat (a very junior diplomat) starts coming around to see her, first comissioning jewelry and metalwork from her and then becoming her lover. It disturbs Talyn that when they first make love the two end up physically savaging each other, but Skirmig calms her fears and becomes her lover. All the while, however, she has dreams of Gair (whose name she doesn't know and whose face she doesn't consciously remember) in a cage, his eyes imploring her to help him.

But it isn't until his former comrade Snow Grell returns and asks Talyn to help him find Gair and his comrades, who disappeared at the end of the war and never returned to the Eastils. Talyn agrees to help him and, realizing that most of her magical comrades have dispersed to far-flung places, gathers a few that remain to search for them. They eventually find the men in the prison, and Talyn is shocked to discover their condition. Something is definitely wrong in her homeland, and it seems to have come in with the foreigners the Feegash brought in with them. Talyn is forced to ask for Skirmig's help in rescuing Gair and his comrades, but one of them has already succumbed to the torture and died. Gair and the other remaining man are rescued and brought to Talyn's farm, where she brings a healer into the conspiracy and gets his help in healing Gair and his remaining man. Snow Grell is also there to look out for them.

Skirmig, meanwhile, decides to show Talyn the magic of his people, the Feegash, and slowly schools her in it, telling her to keep it secret, as by doing so, he has betrayed his people. Their physical relationship continues, and he asks her to move in with him, but something bothers her about his servants. She resists for a while, but his villainy is revealed when he invites more Feegash over to the house and their wives tell her the truth about Feegash society: how the women exist only to be beaten and brutalized by the men, and when one woman dies, he already has more being groomed for his bed. Talyn is disgusted and outraged, but Skirmig wipes her memory of the event with his magic, saying that she was poisoned and must recover to account for the missing time.

Meanwhile, Gair, recuperating at Talyn's farm, begins having dreams of Talyn in chains, and when her skill in Feegash magic allows her to see what Skirmig has done to her mind, she rebels and undoes his work. But Skirmig is still able to overcome her, and hands her off to some of his friends for torture, rape and murder. Gair and Snow Grell (the other soldier having died of his wounds after being rescued) rescue her and take her to a bunker unknown to the Feegash, made by the Tonks to fight from should they ever be invaded. Gair sends Snow Grell back to Eastil for reinforcements, sure that his country would have found out about the treachery of the Feegash and found a way to overcome them. Meanwhile, he and Talyn will organize a resistance movement from here.

He and Talyn find a communicator who was forgotten about by the Feegash and assemble those Tonks they can reach, both from the army and civilians from the surrounding regions. Talyn teaches the magic troops Feegash magic, while Gair turns the soldiers into a fighting force capable of taking on the Feegash and those under their mental control, waiting for Snow Grell to return with the reinforcements he is sure to bring from the Eastil Empire.

They fight a few battles with some good luck, and then Snow Grell returns alone, telling them that the Eastil Empire is completely in the control of the Feegash. Even the royal princesses, one of which Snow Grell was in love with, all act like Skirmig. Gair is nearly broken by this revelation, as he believed his people were superior to the Tonks, but apparently their "superior" government allowed them to be more easily taken over.

Unfortunately, Snow Grell is a plant, and has been taken over by the Feegash. Using him, they are able to take over most of the troops that Talyn and Gair had gathered, and Gair and Talyn must flee. Somehow, they must take on the Entire nation with only their own powers and abilities. But can they defeat Skirmig, a fleshmage capable of controlling two nations with his powers?

I enjoyed this book, although parts of it were disturbing to read, especially the parts where the perversions of the Feegash are revealed for the first time, and essentially the mind-rape that Skirmig puts Talyn through. I found the relative ease with which Talyn recovers from her ordeals to have a relationship with Gair less than realistic, although her reactions towards other men after the event are extremely realistic. While the explanation is handwaved as being her realizing that he will not harm her (because he is a weapon her saint has placed in her hands), that didn't cut the mustard with me.

Even more ridiculous is the fact that at the end, despite being cut up like sliced meat in her abdomen and groin, she manages to still have children. Yes, yes, heavenly intervention, but really! I didn't find it believable at all.

The war parts of the book are extremely well done and believable, and the menace of Skirmig is palpable after he has been unmasked. He also acts in a very believeable way as a villain, even if, again, those sequences are hard to read (since he doesn't care for anything but himself, those taken over by him don't feed their children or animals, leading to massive amounts of deaths in the aftermath, and he also goes after Talyn's family since he has a grudge on her because she escaped him).

This is a mature fantasy book, not only for its frank depictions of sex (and talk of same among Talyn's people), but the descriptions of torture and the aftermath of the conflict. If you are not disturbed by these things, this is a fantasy novel that you will enjoy. Otherwise, you might want to stay away from this one. Even so, this novel will linger in your mind long after you are done with it, and may even inspire some not so nice dreams (or nightmares).

Heart of Stone by C. E. Murphy

Margrit Knight is a Legal Aid attorney who likes to jog in the park at night. But when a strange man approaches and speaks to her, she is freaked out, especially when she learns later that night that a man answering his description was seen crouching over the body of a murdered woman, and she immediately goes to her on-again/off-again Italian cop boyfriend, Tony, who yells at her for running in the park so late at night. Which is part of the reason why they are so on-again/off-again.

Tony has her make a sketch of the guy with the Police sketch artist, and finally lets her go back to her job in Legal Aid, where she is helping get a woman who killed her abusive husband pardoned by the governor.Later, she and her roommate and his fianceé go out clubbing, and she is approached by the man again at the club. He tells her he is innocent of the murder, and he tells her his name, Alban Korund, but she is freaked out enough that she screams. He disappears, however and the cops are once again called. Now she is curious about the man and asks to see the security tapes. But they show the man seeming to turn into a white streak going to the ceiling. How he can do this is unknown, but once again, Margrit is intrigued.

The woman Margrit is trying to get released is finally pardoned, and Margit is now famous... or at least well known, with her picture in the paper. To celebrate, her colleagues take her out drinking, and later that night she is also approached by a woman named Cara, who is in danger of being homeless when the building she is squatting in is torn down. It turns down that the building is owned by Eliseo Daisani, a notorious real estate developer. The very next day, Margrit goes to see Daisani, who offers her a job, which she turns down, and mentions out of the blue that he knows her mother, and she knows him. Margrit tells him she plans to get an injunction stopping the building being torn down, and he laughs at her bravado, wishing her well.

A few days afterwards, Tony and Margrit go to dinner, and she is nearly run over by a car while they are walking home, but is rescued by Alban, who takes her to a seedy apartment room. She is woozy from a knock to the head she sustained in the accident, and he begs to speak with her. He says he is innocent, but cannot go to the police, mainly because he isn't human... he's a gargoyle, and then he shows her in uncertain terms that he is speaking the truth. He cannot go to the police because he must remain in stone form during the daylight, sleeping, and if he is caught in his stone form by the police, not only will they destroy him, not understanding him, but commit genocide on the entire Gargoyle race.

Though her head isn't the best, she questions him, and learns he is one of the old races, of which there are only five left now: Djinni, Dragons, Gargoyles, Selkies and Vampires. He isn't responsible for the murders, but someone is, and Alban needs her help. Margrit does some checking, and finds that at least a dozen women have been murdered in a similar fashion in New York city over the past 200 years. Since that is longer than a human can live, she determines that Alban must be truthful and not be the one killing these women... until she finds that Alban is at least that old.

Meeting with him is troublesome, as their meetings keep getting interrupted by Tony, who becomes half-convinced that Margrit is connected with the murders somehow. He even takes her in, which puts a real kibosh on their relationship. In addition, Margrit is finding herself attracted to Alban, which confuses her a little, but she sees the same attraction in Alban, though neither are able to figure out how to broach it to the other.

Tony lets slip a name to her, Janx, and she tracks the man down in his club, where the doorman frightens her, and makes a bargain with the man, three favors for three favors, all in the form of questions to be answered. She asks him who might want to hurt Alban, and he gives her three names, and tells her he will use his connections to find others. One of the names is Grace O'Malley, named after a female Pirate, who is something of a folk hero for delivering vigilante justice on those who abuse the weak. The second is a name she is unfamilliar with: Biali, and the third is very familliar indeed: Eliseo Daisani.

Margrit keeps on digging, and finds that members of all five Old Races are living in the city. Indeed, she has had dealings with all of them. But a clue left at the scene of a murder of a woman in central park leads her to the most unusual suspect of all, Alban's former lover and mate, mortally wounded during the reign of terror in France. It seems that Hajnal, Alban's former mate, may still be alive, and taking revenge on women who resemble herself whom Alban was watching over.

But can Alban face the idea that his mate is still alive and has gone insane, killing women? More, can Margrit survive a killer that is not human, and who is stronger than stone, with clawed talons, someone who intends to make Margrit the next victim?

This was an unusual but extremely enjoyable series, with a heroine who doesn't have any supernatural powers, but has sheer determination and never stops digging for answers. Though she comes up against creatures that would drive any sane human weak with fear, she is usually able to use her attitude and courage to take them on regardless, usually earning the admiration of the member of the Old Race in question. And this stands her in good stead later on in the book.

I liked Margrit, although the book does play a little with the reader by not letting you know that Margrit is black until she blatantly says so to her boss. By the point she does so, however, you no longer see her as anything but Margrit, sassy lawyer and courageous woman. By that point, learning that she is black doesn't do anything but add a point of information to your knowledge about her, although it's again not until later in the back that she says she is/would be seen as an octoroon, or a very lightskinned black woman who could almost pass for white, if this was 200 years ago. She even comments that she could have been a placeé, or a white man's colored mistress.

Margrit is an absolutely kick-ass heroine, although her chops are mainly in the intelligence department, as well as having courage and an open mind. This is only the first book of what is going to be a three part series (or more, but only three books are mentioned so far) and I will definitely be reading them when I see them in the bookstore.

If you are looking for a paranormal or dark fantasy romance with a difference, or even an "urban fantasy", look no further than "Heart of Stone", which offers a great deal to love and lots to look forward to. I'll be waiting right there with you for more.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

A Feast of Poisons by C. L. Grace

Kathryn Swinbrooke is now married to Colum Murtagh, and the newlyweds are called to the small town of Walmer by news of two deaths in the village, that of the blacksmith and his wife, both poisoned on the same day by two very different poisons, the blacksmith from his water-butt and his wife from a small barrel of new wine that they planned to drink with dinner that night. Kathryn is is called in because of her abilities as a doctor, and because the Lord of Walmer, Lord Henry Beauchamp, is meeting with representatives of King Louis the XI of France in a bid to stop the ongoing war with a permanent peace.

Since the King values Kathryn's sharp and agile mind, she has been called in to view the proceedings, especially since a secret cipher revealing the whereabouts of England's spies has been lost in France, and King Louis claims to have it. In reality, this is just a bluff, but Louis hopes to use it to wring concessions from England. The English King does have cause to worry, because the man who held it, William Marshall, disappeared and is presumed dead in Paris. Since he carried the Book of Ciphers on his person, English agents are still seeking both.

Katherine is asked by Lord Beauchamp to look in to the poisonings, as they may have something to do with the secret negotiations happening at the castle. He is also under suspicion, as a letter was recieved at court claiming that his wife, dead these last months, was killed and thrown over a cliff at her husband's estate. The woman who supposedly wrote it is also now dead and cannot be questioned, so Kathryn must look into things on her own.

The village is actually rather famous for an incident that happened a number of years ago during the Wars of the Roses. Three Lancastrians rode into town after a battle their side lost, and were set upon by the people of the town. The three, a squire and two common fighters, fled to the church, trying to plead for sanctuary, but were caught and killed in the cemetary, and their heads placed on poles by the villagers of the town, who were Yorkists. Lord Henry had been chasing the Lancastrians, but arrived too late to prevent the slaughter. As he served the Yorkists, he reluctantly praised the town and saw to the burial of the bodies. Later, Edward of York, now king, made Henry Lord of Walmer and sent him to take on the wreckers who called that part of the county home. The villagers were also glad to see the end of the wreckers and are well satisfied with their lord.

As Kathryn begins to investigate, another man, Adam the Apothecary, is killed in a locked room of his home as he drinks ale. His mother, who lives above, is ill and a light sleeper, and she claims that she heard or saw no one, and the only two routes into the house were locked, and one passed through her room. Why was Adam killed? Was it something to do with poisons or medicines that he dispensed? Kathryn questions all those who knew the victims, including Mother Croul, the widow of a former wrecker who survives by the herbal potions she makes.

Kathryn also sits in on the discussions with the French emissaries, who are men named Cavignac, Delcroix and Sanglier, the last of whom Kathryn met in another case she was charged with solving. But when one of the French is killed, also with poison, and the murders continue in town, Kathryn must unravel a tangled skein of motives and murders to see all responsible brought to justice.

I really enjoy the Kathryn Swinbrooke mysteries, and hope there will be more at some point in the future. Kathryn's sharp mind and quick wit make her an excellent solver of mysteries, and most of the books about her involve poisons and potions she is familliar with in her practice as a physician. I love the sense of place the author brings to his works, where you believe you could actually be in the place he is describing, and the characters seem familliar, as if you already knew them.

All the plots are also based on real-life events, and include bits of information on Medieval history that are something of a surprise, even to me, and I love medieval history, although I have never studied it formally. In this case, we find that transvestites were known and had their secret clubs even during the middle ages, which was quite a revelation.

I really enjoy this series of mysteries, and if you enjoy immersive mysteries, where new and strange places are made to feel almost old and familliar, you will probably enjoy it as well.

Dragon Drive, Volume 7 by Ken-ichi Sakura

Reiji Ozora thinks he's not good at anything, especially schoolwork, but when his friend Maiko introduces him to a new game called "Dragon Drive" played at underground centers around the country, he's eager to give it a try, hoping to get a super-impressive dragon. Instead, he gets paired with Chibi, a tiny dragon that doesn't look as if it could frighten anyone or anything. Still, Reiji and Chibi manage to win several contests against other users and their dragons.

Reiji meets Meguru, a woman supposedly working for Ri-on, the company that makes the game and sponsors the Dragon Drive centers. She tells Reiji that Dragon Drive actually contains a gate to an alternate world, where the Dragons come from. Ri-on are looking to exploit that world, and are searching for the Jinryu stone, which is central to their plans. She asks is Reiji and his friends will fight for this other world, which is slowly being destroyed by Ri-on. He agrees, and he and his friends, and their dragons, are taken into the world of Rikyu, where they agree to help the inhabitants.

Reiji is welcomed as a savior, as his Dragon, Chibi, is more properly known in Rikyu as Senkokura, and is a sacred force. After some training, Reiji and Chibi enter the Dragon Heaven Heaven Competition, whose prize is a stone that many believe to be the Jinryu stone. Opposing him is Kohei Toki, another boy from Earth whose father, Saizo Toki, is the owner and president of Ri-on. Kohei believes himself to be the hero of this game his father has made, and is annoyed when Reiji and Chibi come through all challenges. Unable to defeat Reiji on his own, Kohei cheats and steals the stone, which, as it turns out, is merely the Key to the Shrine where the real Jinryu stone is hidden. As Kohei flies off in search of the shrine, Reiji and Chibi follow him, but Saizo Toki is helping his son, teleporting in new dragons to assist him and delay Reiji and his allies.

Kohei arrives at the shrine, where Meguru is waiting for him. She attempts to talk him out of taking the stone, but he won't listen. She then attempts to entomb him in crystal, but fails, and Kohei steals the stone and makes his way for the gate to earth so he can deliver the stone to his father. The stone has an effect on Kohei, however, making him angrier and angrier, and Kohei decides to wait for Reiji and defeat him in dragon to dragon combat as proof that Kohei, not Reiji, is the true hero of the game.

Meanwhile, Reiji and his allies, including the dragon as weapon Shinsaber, arrive at the shrine. When Reiji sees Megumi entombed in stone, he uses Shinsaber to free her, losing the use of the weapon. Still, he decides to chase Kohei and save Rikyu. When he finally catches up with Kohei, Kohei has a little mental breakdown and goes batshit crazy. On Earth, meanwhile, his father sacrifices everything to keep the gate open for Kohei, even sending three experimental, new types of dragons through the gate to help Kohei, who is upset that his father doesn't believe in him.

Chibi/Senkokura and Kohei's dragon fight, and Chibi gets in a good hit on Kohei's dragon, which allows Kohei to have his dragon attack, not Senkokura, but Reiji, hitting him with a beam through the chest/stomach/abdomen. Reiji nearly dies, but somehow syncs his own heartbeat with that of Chibi/Senkokura, allowing his dragon to make the transformation to his final, ultimate form. One blast from Senkokura wipes out all three of the other dragons, but somehow Reiji is inside the form of Senkokura and completely helpless to do anything. As he struggles to even move, he begins seeing visions of the past, of the last time Senkokura fought a dragon named Shinryu, the dragon imprisoned in the stone that Kohei stole.

As Kohei fights to kill and destroy Reiji and Senkokura, his increasingly out of control rage causes cracks to appear in the stone, which finally shatters, freeing Shinryu once more! But as Reiji learns, the fight between Shinryu and Senkokura will end up destroying the entire world of Rikyu, and if Saizo Toki's plan of merging the two realms succeeds, the ensuing battle will destroy the earth as well. We can also see that Saizo Toki was once a warrior of Rikyu who attempted to stop the battle between Shinryu and Senkokura. Doing so may have made him immortal, but it also seems to have twisted his morals.

The emergence of Shinryu has nearly killed Kohei, but his father tells him that he won the game and was truly the hero, and Kohei is happy, but then dies. He then reveals his Xanatos gambit to everyone, that everyone in the game, including Reiji and Chibi, have been dancing to his tune and following the plans that he has set in motion to destroy and reset both worlds because he thinks of humanity as a stain that destroys everything it touches.

Reiji is enraged and decides to deny Saizo the ending he wants, and finally manages to make his arm move. Can he prevent the ending of two worlds? Stay tuned to find out.

You might think this is the kind of story that will only have one ending, a happy one, but given that it's a japanese manga, that's not always the case. Sometimes Japanese stories go for the schmaltz, as just about every American story does, but more often you get endings that aren't as happy, or that end rather badly for everyone involved. While I don't think the ending will be an utter failure, in this case, I think that there's a strong possibility this ending won't be as happy as an American-style ending would be. Perhaps Reiji and his friends will be stuck in Rikyu, away from their families forever, or something like that.

I'm not terribly enthralled by this series, as it has a lot of the same tropes that a lot of Japanese Anime have: the hero who has no skills who somehow manages to survive and thrive because of the power of their heart? Check. The no-skills hero who just somehow manages to be better than others despite having no skills? Check. The world in trouble who must rely on the outsider to save them? Check. The arrogant rival who must cheat to win? Check. Oh, let me count the tropes... In any case, a lot of this story read like something I have read a hundred other times before. And if this was an American story, you'd probably see all the dragons featured in the game as toys. In fact, this may still be the case, as I am not up on toy figures from Japan. A lot of the Dragon introductions and forms read like they are specifically meant to sell toy replicas of them.

Despite that, the story does have some pluses. It is entertaining to read, although for me, fight manga, even fights with dragons, just aren't that interesting, and that's what most of the books have been based upon. I think the world and character development got a bit of short shrift here, but nonetheless, it is still an enjoyable read, just not really deep or all that fulfilling. The backstory is interesting, and does remind me of other types of games written about in manga, something like Yu-ji-oh's card monsters or capsule monsters. Those are okay, too, but they do get old after a very short while. Luckily, this story seems like it won't last any longer than the next book, maybe two at the most. So for those who want their stories short and contained, this is a good series for that.

I won't be buying this series, because it's just too much the same for me as other manga series I have already read. Okay to read, but I wouldn't spend my hard-earned money on it. And if you're older than 15 and not a boy, you'd best not to spend your money on it, either.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

From Dead to Worse by Charlaine Harris

Sookie Stackhouse is a waitress at Merlotte's Bar and Grill in Louisiana. Hurricane Katrina, while not recent, has cut a swath through the vampire community, which is mostly based in New Orleans, as well as a tragedy at the Pyramid owned by the Friends of the Sun, an Anti-Vampire group that managed to kidnap and kill many vampires, and nearly kill many more. The Queen of Louisiana is still recovering from a wound that has her missing both legs.

Sookie is mostly inured from Vampire politics in her home, but other supernatural creatures have also been raising a ruckus, such as the Weres. The Weres have split in two, and the two groups are at each other's throats. But all that takes a back seat to a double wedding of two local bigwigs, which is attended by the vampires who deal with one of the grooms. Sookie is there to serve drinks at the bar, but gets hijacked into the wedding party to replace one of the bridesmaids who was taken to the hospital. At the wedding, she meets Maria-Star Cooper, a local photographer who is helping with the wedding photos. She is also a Werewolf and the lover of Alcide, leader of one of the Were factions.

The day after the wedding, however, she is found brutally slain in her home, and Alcide is sure that his rival, Patrick Furnan, had her killed, especially since one of his men was among the killers. As other female Weres are killed, tensions between the two run even hotter, until the only place it can end is outright war.

Meanwhile, Sookie's roommate, Amelia, gets a visit from her very important, very rich father, who seems to want to run her life. Soon after, Amelia is tracked down by her old mentor who wishes to bring Amanda to heel for her unrestrained use of magic, which turned Amelia's ex-lover Bob into a cat that still lives with them. Both Amelia and her mentor help Sookie discover who killed Maria-Star and soon the mentor, Octavia Fant, comes to live with Sookie and Amelia. Amelia's father also reveals that Sookie's cousin Hadley had a son, but that she left her son with the father even before she became a vampire and got killed for the last time.

But that isn't the only relative to turn up for Sookie, because she gets to meet her grandfather, who turns out to be a faerie, and is apparently responsible for Sookie's telepathic talent. Kept away from Sookie by her father, who forbade him to contact any of his children, now that Sookie's father is well and truly dead, her grandfather wants to do something for her to make up for all the time when he has had no contact with her. She can't think of anything she wants, and she's somewhat suspicious of the offer, but she agrees to think it over.

Another relative plaguing Sookie is her brother, who finally married his werepanther bride. Things aren't going so great between them, but the camel's back is finally broken when Jason tricks Sookie into catching his wife in the act with another man. As both Jason and his bride took vows to be faithful in the werepanther way, Sookie, as the stand-in responsible for Jason's misbehavior, must crush the hand of Jason's bride with a brick... or that of Sookie's friend, Calvin, who agreed to be the stand-in for Jason's bride. Jason is all too quick to make Sookie do the actual deed, which is the final straw for her, and she tells him she never wants to see him or speak to him again.

Amidst all this, the Weres go to war, and Sookie attempts to broker a peace, only to find it is a third group of Weres who are responsible for the whole thing. In the ensuing fight, Patrick Furnan and the leader of the other pack are killed, leaving Alcide in charge of the much-diminished pack, and Vampires from Las Vegas make a bid to take over Louisiana, now that many of the vamps in New Orleans are dead. Add to that Bill Compton's trying to heat things up with Sookie again, and Eric Northman finally remembering everything that happened at Sookie's house when he was there with Amnesia, plus her blood bond to him that ties them together, puts Sookie in a dangerous position once the shooting starts. And when she discovers a betrayal deeper than anything that has come before, her life really gets interesting, in the Chinese way...

Lots of changes happen in this book, and continue the wake of changes that started with Hurricane Katrina and the debacle of the vampire summit. Although lots of characters die, the ones who readers are most familliar with all manage to survive, so most of the action doesn't feel terribly shocking. The way that Charlaine Harris manages to intertwine the threads of the action makes the book feel almost like a series of hard slams. Sookie barely has time to recover before another supernatural crisis grabs her attention.

But this one really affects Sookie's emotions, especially the scene with her brother, which leaves her mortified and angry at what she is forced to do to a man she considers her friend. And her love life goes straight to suckage again, as Sookie doesn't seem to be able to find a man who isn't some sort of bastard or who puts her first. But was she really being fair. After all, all men still love their mothers. Will Sookie's aborted Romance with Eric be on again now?

I don't know, but I kind of hope she ends up with her Boss, Sam, who is the guy who treats Sookie the best out of everyone. Yeah, he's another Supernatural, but he's less urge and moon driven than the true weres, being only a shapeshifter. Being that Sookie's new relation is a Faerie, and she has it in her background, perhaps she'll meet some more of them in the next book. I know I'll be there to find out.

Lessons of Desire by Madeline Hunter

Phaedra Blair is an author and publisher whose father has recently died. His last legacy to her is a memoir of her father's life and many of the famous and powerful he knew. He made her swear a deathbed promise that she would publish the memoirs as is, with no cuts or annotations.

This presents a problem for Lord Elliot Rothwell, whose father, while not named in the memoirs, is slandered within as causing the death of an officer who seduced the elder Rothwell's wife. Elliot and his brothers would rather the whole manuscript, or at least the part that slanders their father, be excised and disappear. One of his brothers suggests that he bribe Phaedra to cut out that part of the manuscript, or that he steal the entire manuscript and destroy it. But first he must find Phaedra, and that means travelling to Italy, where she is currently under arrest.

Phaedra was mainly raised by her mother, who was an advocate of free love and friends who made no demands on each other. Phaedra's father never married her mother, but his manuscript made mention of an affair she had in the years before her death the led to her disgrace and being made a fool of. Phaedra's mother was notorious for her salons and the way she supported artists and painters who later became famous. Many of her former aquaintances now live in Italy, and Phaedra has gone in search of the man who dishonored and disgraced her mother. But a duel between two men battling over her affections, one of whom is a member of the royal family, has made the Sherriff of the town throw her in jail.

Elliott wins her freedom by agreeing to look after her and control her, something Phaedra will never put up with, until Elliott tells her she will be returned to jail should she demur. She ungracefully acquiesces, and he uses this goad to make her follow him around Italy, where he may also find a man who can deny the story about his father. But Elliott is tormented by his lust for Phaedra and is determined that she be his.

Finally, in a small town, she once again incites the leader, and he wishes to arrest her for witchcraft. After Elliot goes to her rescue, he is forced to spend the night with her in a lonely tower. They become lovers and the next morning, the two are forced to marry by the town's women. They get away without signing the papers, but their possible married state plagues Phaedra even as they go on being lovers while looking for the answers to their own mysteries. But their travels in Italy must end eventually, and their return to England brings dangers of its own. Can each get what they want without destroying the other?

I didn't like this book. It left a bad taste in my mouth after it was done. Phaedra Blair is presented as a woman able to take care of herself... she thinks. But then Elliott arrives and her carefully cultivated ability to take care of herself seems to go out the window like so much rubbish. I hate that kind of story, where the heroine becomes a blithering idiot upon the appearance of the hero, and I disliked that by the end of the story, Phaedra had to give up all of her former beliefs and attitudes towards men, whereas Elliot never had to do so with Phaedra. Essentially, he is always, always right and she is always, always wrong vis-a-vis the relations between men and women. And in the end, she ends up liking his point of view. Blegh!

I had a sneaking suspicion where this was going about a third of the way into the story, and I really should have stopped reading right then, but like a fool I kept at it, hoping that sinking feeling in my stomach was just gas. But no, the conclusion was forgone and by the end of the book, I was cursing the three hours of my life (more or less) that I would never get back after spending it reading this book.

If a book where the heroine is forced to make all the concessions while the hero essentially pats her on the head and has the attitude of "Look at how forbearing I am being towards your eccentricities that are keeping us apart and therefore keeping my man-stick from your hoo-ha" turns you on, by all means, go for this book. You won't be disappointed. But if that leaves just as bad a taste in your own mouth as it does mine, avoid this one like the plague. You'll be glad you did.

One with the Shadows by Susan Squires

Katherine Malone is a grifter in a Victorian-age Europe. Born in England, her first memory is waking up on a heap of garbage with no memories before that. To survive on the streets, she became a pickpocket and common thief, then was taken in by Nuns when her patron was arrested and sent to the gallows. Adopted by a man who claimed to be her father, he taught her to read the Tarot cards and used her to fleece money out of the rich and gullible. But he drank himself to death and now Kate finds herself on her own in Italy.

Her one dream is to earn enough to buy her own house somewhere in rural England and have enough money to live comfortably for the rest of her life. She continues to dupe people using her Tarot cards because her "father" constantly told her it was either that or be a whore. And a common whore, at that. Because once when he beat her, it was badly enough to leave a permanent spider-web shaped scar over one side of her face. Kate is cynical, tough and sardonic, and not above a little thievery on the side.

At a party, she meets a man who is physical perfection, named Gian Urbano, who pooh-poohs her supposed "powers", but when she reads his cards, she finds herself saying things she did not intend but which apparently are no more than truth. And afterwards, she collapses in a swoon. When she awakens, she makes her way home and decides to spend the rest of the night just walking. When she bumps into an expensively-dressed man, she picks his pocket and finds an incredible windfall- an emerald as big as an apricot. But she could never sell it uncut...

When she takes it to a gemcutter, the sight of the gem drives him mad, and later that night, Gian appears and tries to take the gem from her. When she refuses to admit she has it, his eyes glow red and he tries to compel her to tell him where it is, but she is unaffected by his powers. When he finally leaves, she is accosted by a woman who also demands the stone, but Kate is similarly resistant to the woman's powers. The woman resorts to strangling her instead, but she is saved by Gino, who fights the woman.

As he does, the room goes up in flames, and Gino saves Kate from the fire, taking her to his house after she finally tells him where the stone is. He agrees to pay her 20,000 pounds for the stone, but the attack on her makes him take her to the one person who can keep her safe from the other vampires who seek the gem: his mother, who is also a Vampire.

When Kate works out what her rescuer is, he is able to foil her deductions by easily handling a cross. But his vampirism is due to an alien organism called "The Companion" that resides in his blood and keeps him alive. As they travel, Kate has more and more visions of the future, and in his mother's house, discovers that her reading about Gian was true... but his impotence is cured by their becoming lovers. While she is not a virgin, she has never had an orgasm, a situation he rapidly remedies.

Gian wants the emerald to return it to the Elder vampires in a Monastery in Transylvania, but it seems that the Emerald instead wishes to return to a temple located somewhere in North Africa. But it will take a return of Elyta, the female vampire who attempted to strangle Kate, Gian's imprisonment and torture by Elyta, and a rescue by Kate to convince him that Kate's idea might be better.

And when Kate visits Ian and Beth Rufford with Gian, both vampires, she begins to dream that they could have forever together... but with Elyta on their tail, can they manage to survive the trip to the temple?

I liked this book, primarily for Kate, the rather kick-ass heroine. In many books, the hero must save the heroine over and over again, while in this book, Kate saved Gian just as much as he did her, which was rather a refreshing change of pace for a romance book. I also liked the character of Gian, who was a strong hero without being an absolute prick, as in some romances. Very early on, he begins to genuinely appreciate Kate's unconventional upbringing, as well as her beauty, even with the scar.

I also purely loved the repartee between Gian and Kate, which made me laugh in places. Elyta is a villain that is only moderately deep, but comes off as batshit crazy. She had a similar upbringing to Kate, but of course this engenders no sympathy because of her wide-eyed whackaloony plans... which just might work given her vampire powers.

This is an unusual vampire series, but I do recommend it as something a little different from normal vampire lore.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Tsubasa: Resevoir Chronicle, Vol. 16 by Clamp

Syaoran and his companions are now in a world where humanity has nearly killed themselves by polluting the planet. Most of the rain that falls is Acid Rain, and people survive only by gathering around the few unpolluted sources of water left, one of which is under the seat of Tokyo's government. This appears to be the world of Clamp's X/1999 and Tokyo Babylon.

As Syaoran wakes up from being injured, Mokona senses a feather in the basement below the building. This is where the fresh water is stored, and is forbidden to most. When Syaoran goes down there, he discovers Princess Sakura in the waters, the feather is gone, and the magical shield that has kept the building safe has disappeared. Syaoran is attacked by a man dressed in black (Kamui) who is protecting someone named Subaru. Kamui wants to kill Syaoran so that his blood will wake up Subaru.

He and Syaoran fight, and Fai throws himself into the fight, ripping off the Kamui's arm and reviving Syaoran, who has been choked into unconsciousness. Kamui called Syaoran "game", or prey for consumption. Fai and Kamui have a conversation about Syaoran, while Kamui's arm reforms. Fai maintains that Syaoran is a good kid, while Kamui thinks he is evil.

Meanwhile the Time-Space Witch Yuuho senses that the magical seal on Syaoran's eye is weakening and breaking. Syaoran is a copy of Clow Reed's heir, but to escape a binding that Clow Reed put on him, he made a copy of himself and put part of his soul inside, knowing that some day the copy would wake and free him. But now the copy has a soul of its own, forged by the act of travelling the worlds and retrieving Princess Sakura's memory-feathers. But what kind of soul is it?

Syaoran wakes again, and decides he will do anything to get the feathers back, including taking one of Fai's eyes for the power it will give him. But when he emerges from the water with Fai's body and Kurogane sees what he has done, Kurogane attacks Syaoran to save Fai. But Syaoran appears to feel no pain... physically or emotionally.

Then the original Syaoran arrives, and tells the copy that since he has awoken too early and not developed a heart of his own and gone on a rampage, that Syaoran will destroy his copy himself. But the copy manages to battle free and travels on to the next world to look for more feathers, leaving the others, including Sakura, behind.

For those left behind, the picture is bleak. Kurogane has lost his sword, Fai is deeply injured and might be dying, and even the real Syaoran is hurt from the battle. Mokona manages to contact Yuuho and Kurogane asks if there is a way to save Fai. She says there is... but what price will she demand?

This was a somewhat confusing volume, with two copies of Syaoran, talk of magic and metaphysics, and discussions about Clow Reed, magician who created the Clow Cards of Cardcaptor Sakura and apparently not a very nice guy. Even if you haven't read all of the Clamp series that are somehow attatched together in some way, just the information that he imprisoned and bespelled his blood heir gives you the idea that he isn't good news. In fact, all magic users, apparently save Fai, are not nice people in the Clamp universe. Even Yuuho is mysterious and charges a steep price for the help she gives. Fai may seem nice now, but who knows about his own past?

It's also a shocking volume, both in finding out that the Syaoran who traveled with the others was apparently no more than a magic doll its creator could see out of through the seal that was on his right eye, and watching him attack people who were supposedly his friends and at least his long-time companions. Especially shocking is how he leaves Sakura, the one thing he supposedly loves best, behind, which breaks her heart.

Yet, I still want to read the rest, and see what happens. In fact, I can't wait to find out what happens to both the real Syaoran and the copy, and whether Fai can be saved. There is also the rather confusing assertion that Fai's magic resides in his eyes, and that by stealing one of Fai's eyes, the copy stole half his magic. I am feeling that perhaps Yuuho will return Fai's tattoos to him, since apparently he also had magic invested in them, but I could be wrong.

This, like all Clamp series, is excellent, and it's like a drug you can't get enough of. You'll be hopelessly hooked as soon as you read it. Why wait?

Kingdom Hearts, Chain of Memories, Volume 2 by Shiro Amano

Sora, Goofy and Donald continue their exploration of the castle. Sora remembers that in his group of friends, he knew another girl, who was quiet and always drawing. But one day, she was just gone. Sora wonders why he is remembering this now, but since to find is to lose, and to lose is to find, inside the castle, perhaps the castle brings back forgotten memories to replace the ones they lose?

Meanwhile, the members of Organization XIII continue to taunt and plague Sora. A woman, Larxene, taunts him until he remembers the name of the girl in his memories... Namine. And then she tells him he will have to go through her to get to Namine. She fights him until a star-shaped charm falls out of Sora's clothes, and that's when he remembers Namine's name. After a few more taunts and blows from crossed swords, Larxene disappears.

Back at the Organization XIII base, one of the higher ups, Vexen, tried to recruit Riku to his side, but was soundly rebuffed, so he makes a heartless replica of Riku, and will use him to fight Sora. The Fake Riku picks fights with Sora, but is unable to win. When Sora learns that Namine is being imprisoned, he rushes off to find her, even leaving Donald and Goofy behind.

Eventually, he finds a door that leads to the island where he grew up, where he meets Namine again, only to discover that she is responsible for the loss of his memories. She entered his heart and rewrote his memories to include her. Larxene appears again to taunt Sora, and Sora decides to fight her anyway. He is losing until Donald and Goofy show up, and they use lightning on her, but she isn't affected. It isn't until they get her wet that she overloads from all the lightning inside her.

Namine tells Sora he can get his true memories back by going to the top of the castle and fighting Marluxa, the castle administrator, who is rather... evil. But a fight for control is going on in the organization, and Sora must decide who to support before he can enter the pod to regain his memories.

Meanwhile, Riko has rejected the darkness, but Ansem waits inside him, urging him to give in, telling him that only his fear leads him to reject the darkness inside. When Riku finally gives in, Ansem tries to take over his body, only for Riku to apparently kill him. But Ansem isn't gone. He's still inside Riku, waiting to take him over. Namine offers to seal Riku, with Ansem inside him, away forever, keeping the world safe from Ansem and his evil, only for Riku to reject her. He wants to kill Ansem permanently. Namine is relieved by his choice, and Riku and King Mickey travel on, while Sora, Goofy and Donald sleep, slowly regaining their memories. To be continued in Kingdom Hearts 2...

This was a rather confusing series, even if it was only two volumes. I have a hard time conceiving of why they wrote it, as the Nobodies are introduced again in the second Kingdom Hearts series, as well as Organization XIII. Maybe it was to introduce the character of Namine and show the infighting in the Organization. I honestly don't know. But I do know it doesn't seem necessary to the story as a whole.

Even if the entire series was some huge wank-off for the writers, it's still entertaining, though it doesn't make much sense story-wise. I'm not sorry I read it, but I am a bit upset at spending money on it. The only consolation is that each volume is about twice the size of the Original "Kingdom Hearts" manga, so at least you are getting a lot of reading for the money.

My feelings on this one are mixed, but combined into a whole, I'd rather not have spent my money on this series. Well, what's done is done, and that's all I can say.

Kingdom Hearts 2, Volume 2 by Shiro Amano

Roxas, who lives in a small, seaside town but dreams of being Sora, is forced to face the truth. His friends no longer seem to see him or remember who he is. Not only that, but his hands go through them, and no one else seems to exist in the town.

Axel appears and tells Roxas that if he wants answers, he should go to the castle. Roxas does, and gets to see Namine one more time. She tells him that he needs to wake Sora. The strange man in bandages, who seems to be the leader of the organization appears and freezes Namine, then tells Roxas to meet him in the library. When Roxas does, he finds a secret door opening that leads him to the basement. Inside, he relives his memories.

He was made by the organization to keep watch over Sora's body, coocooned in a pod and deep inside a dream. Roxas was made to keep the heartless from Sora's dream, but he became enamoured of some kids inside the dream and decided he wanted to be their friend, and gave up his job to be with them. Now it is time for Sora to wake and for Roxas to disppear back to the nothingness from which he was created. Roxas was actually part of Sora's soul or memories.

When Sora awakes, Roxas is gone, and Sora's keyblade has been returned to him, and outside of the castle is the town from Sora's dreams. He comes upon the children who were friends with Roxas, and they seem to remember him as well, such as buying four ice creams when there are only three of them. Sora rescues them from bullies, and when they must say goodbye, can't stop crying, although he doesn't consciously remember them. King Mickey appears to fight some heartless and tells Sora, Goofy and Donald to get on the train, for the train knows where to go. He also gives Sora a bag, and inside is the marble that Roxas won in the contest back in the first book.

The train takes them to the castle of Yen Sid, a master magician, who congratulates them on their success in containing the heartless. But there is a new threat, the nobodies. When someone with a strong heart becomes a heartless, their body develops a mind of its own. Some of them have formed a group called Organization XIII and control the nobodies. King Mickey is searching the worlds to find their true objectives, which is why he can't return home yet.

Sora, Goofy and Donald agree to fight the nobodies, and Yen Sid hooks them up with new, fresh clothing, and another Gummi ship to travel the worlds with. They return first to Hollow Bastion, where Sid, Yuffie, Aerith, Merlin and Leon live. Yet it is still in danger of being overrun by the Heartless.

And we find out that Maleficent isn't dead after all, and she still has plans to take over all the heartless, and all the worlds, with Pete as her servant. But with thousands of Heartless in a canyon outside Traverse Town, can Sora and the others do anything to eliminate them, with Organization XIII and more nobodies waiting in the wings?

This particular volume suffered from a bit of a split personality, what with the first third focussed on Roxas, and the rest on Sora and his friends. Seeing the end of Roxas, when the whole first volume focussed solely on him, was rather sad, and the contrast between the cheerful but thoughtful Roxas and the relentlessly cheerful Sora was marked and especially jarring. By the end of the volume, you can begin to finally forget about the tragedy of Roxas, but no matter how many times I read the volume again, the transition still cuts as sharp as a knife.

This series will continue, and I'll continue to read it, but I don't feel this was the best way to split up the story of Roxas.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Fables, Vol 10: The Good Prince by Bill Willingham

With the revelation of Prince Ambrose's real history, the humble janitor who was the Frog Prince (Nicknamed Flycatcher, or Fly for short) has regained his memory and is tormented by it. He stops cleaning the mayor's office and sits in the dark and broods. Prince Charming, the mayor, excuses him, but is upset that all the files are lying about. He threatens Bufkin, the flying monkey office assistant, with death by being eaten unless the files are cleaned up.

Bufkin knocks over the armor of the Forsworn Knight, who warns him that the time is coming... which is taken as a warning of War with the Adversary who overran all the Kingdoms the Fables originally hailed from. The Fables know now that the Adversary is not the Monstrous-looking Emperor, but the man who created him, the woodcarver Gepetto. The Adversary is looking to capture the Fables who escaped him, and probably the whole of the human world as well. He is also locked in battle with the worlds of the Arabian Fables, who have signed a deal with the Fables of Fabletown, and they all are getting ready to fight the Adversary and his forces.

With the armor knocked down, however, it proves to be empty, until the knight when the former wearer of the armor turns up in ghost form. Lancelot is looking for the good Prince... Ambrose, to lead him to create a Kingdom in the former Fable Lands to harry the forces of the Adversary and give those who disagree with him a place of sanctuary.

But first there are some things Ambrose must do... such as descend the Witching Well and gather up the spirits lost therein to march upon the Kingdoms conquered by the Adversary... including both Blackbeard and Shere Khan, both thrown into the well for betraying the Fables, their spirits trapped for eternity. Of course, they intend to betray Ambrose, but he knows that. In fact, he is planning for it.

And when he finally sets up his kingdom, he will have to resort to an unusual series of tactics to be be able to keep it alive and growing in the face of repeated invasions by the empire. But while his army of former ghosts may be able to frighten off normal human soldiers, what can Ambrose do against the Golden Horde, an army of wooden soldiers all carved by Gepetto, the Adversary? Will defeating them mean the end of Ambrose and his Kingdom of Haven?

I loved this book, which took one of the characters who was the most forgettable and seemed the most powerless, and made him into someone who was powerful because of his essential goodness and purity, showing how just that quality makes one more powerful than all the armies of Evil. Okay, Ambrose had a great deal of magical power on his side, along with the magic armor of Lancelot and the magic sword, Excalibur, but this was a wonderful story to read and redeemed many of the characters who had betrayed Fabletown in some way. Others, of course, not so much.

Interspersed with the story about Ambrose is the story of Fabletown and how it prepares for the coming battle with the adversary, and clears up a lot of minor mysteries, such as Snow White and Bigby's cubs finally being introduced to their sibling, Ghost, who is invisible and a Zephyr, due to Bigby's father being the North Wind. Other mysteries remain, but are hinted at, such as the source of Frau Totenkinder's power, which is apparently not a very nice source, and having to do with many, many deaths. I'm guessing it's not something as clean as ammunition manufacturing, with a glyph on the bullet that sends her the power of the death the bullets create.

Well, we'll soon see, and I'll be there to see it. Get this book, and if you haven't already, get this series. It's worth it, and then some.

Aventura, Volume 2 by Shin Midorikawa

Lewin Randit is a swordsman in a great school that teaches both wizards and swordsmen. He wanted to be a wizard, but didn't have enough magical power, so he entered as a swordsman instead. However, when he breaks into the wizard's side of the school, he is befriended by two apprentice wizards, Thies Cottonberg, an elf and Darwell, a human. Though forbidden to mingle, the three become friends.

Thies and Darwell are sent to test their fire powers on a bunch of skeletons, but are nearly killed by the regenerating creatures until Lewin appears to defend them with his sword. When all seems lost, Lewin summons a fire spirit that lives in his blade, and manages to summon Flare, the most powerful fire spirit of all, by asking for its help to save his friends. Lewin saves them and manages to befriend Flare, but his antics get him expelled from the swordsmen's school.

Thies and Darwell decide to go to Lewin's aid when he is summoned to see the headmaster. He is afraid as well, but he is told he isn't being thrown out of the school- they can't let someone with that much magical power run around without that supervision. Instead, he's getting his wish... he's being transferred to the wizard school, where he can hopefully learn to control his power.

But all is not well at the school. Someone has been trying to steal a magical stone that the headmistress has in her charge. Who could be trying to steal it? It's someone with a great deal of magical power...

I had a hard time reading this manga, which looks like it was drawn by pencil and not cleaned up after with ink lines. This makes the entire manga look almost "fluffy" and hard to read. The character designs are, along with the unique art style, drawn in a ultra-kawaii style complete with occasional SD (superdeformed) or Chibi-style older characters in addition to Lewin and his friends, who are all Chibi-style to begin with.

I can't say I like the series all that much, but I will read it if there is nothing else to read, as it was in this case, and if I get it from the library, as again was the case. I can't recommend it much, either, as there seems to be just as much fluff in the storyline as in the art. But it's not really humor and not really drama, either. All I know is that nothing really sells the series to me.

If what I have described is something that interests you, go for it, otherwise, you'll be completely justified in giving this one a miss.

Shekhar Kapur's Devi: Namaha

The Devi was a goddess created from the essence of all the Hindu Gods to fight one of their own who had become evil: Bala. Devi led the Durapasya, a group of humans who fought on the side of the Gods, to the fortresses of Bala's generals and followers and conquered them. Armored in light, inspiring lust and love in all who beheld her, but not affected by those herself, and sheathed in the flames of the sun, Devi fought and defeated Bala and returned him to Bodha, ruler of the Gods, for judgement.

Bodha's decision was to imprison Bala in Jwala, a prison of fire and earth, deep below the ground. But though Devi said it would have been better to do away with Bala, Bodha couldn't bring himself to do so, for the other gods were like his sons. Devi then asked that her essence be used to funnel the power of prayers to the other gods, to replenish the power they had lost in creating her. Bodha accepted her request.

Thousands of years later, it is time for the great Devi to be reborn, and her human body is known as Tara Didi. She is the girlfriend of a man who is a gangster, and looked down upon by the local women for being a whore, but the children love her, as she helps them out.

She has serious problems, however, for a heavenly Apsara assassin has been hired to kill her, and her boyfriend, Iyam, is the reincarnation of Bala's chief general, also named Iyam, who Devi slew before she defeated Bala. It turns out that Iyam has been having fun, amusing himself with the vessel that will hold the form of Devi before he kills her. But with the Apsara Kratha on Tara's trail, he must kill her himself or feel Bala's not-so-heavenly wrath.

Tara is abducted by the Durapasya cult on her way home, but they are only saving her to sacrifice her. The only ones who seem to want to save Tara for herself is a cop, Inspector Rahul Singh, a somewhat more than normal human who leaps into the situation knowing only that Tara Didi is a young woman who will be killed if he doesn't try to intervene.

Tara must make a trip to the Gods via an infusion of Soma to come into her powers as Devi. But in this case, the Gods may have gotten themselves a little more than they bargained for, for when Tara comes into her powers, she has her own ideas about how to use them... and who deserves her ultimate allegiance.

This graphic novel was an interesting treat, written and illustrated by Indian writers and artists, and based on an entirely different mythology than western angel/devil mythology or ancient Greek/Roman/Egyptian-based systems that are more widespread in the West. The novel sets up a quick history of Devi, and Tara is introduced to the powers given to her by the Gods and the spirit of the original Devi. The story in the book ends with Tara deciding to go her own way, and given that Kratha and Iyam are still alive, as is the man calling himself Bala, it will be interesting to see how long she can go her own way with impunity. Given that the others are trying to kill her, she will have to defend herself, and may not even know quite how to use all those powers she just recieved yet.

An interesting story, and I'm very interested in seeing more. Well done.

Godchild, Volume 8 by Kaori Yuki

Cain sends Mary Weather away with her cousin Oscar and his mother, a stern woman who promises to carefully look after her. Cain also promises Mary the tea party in the garden again that he promised her in the last book before they part.

He and Crehador go to see a famous medium, Madame Octavia, whose home is the focus of a web of places purchased by Delilah, in the form of Stonehenge. She is said to be in possession of a doll's head that can make wishes come true for those who possess it. But she has been selling it to those who can afford the price. Is there more than one head? There certainly seems to be. Even Mary Weather sees a woman who owns one on the train that is carrying her and Oscar to safety. And when the head is smashed, inside is the skull of an infant... and then they see more people with the talisman... going to see the Queen! What can Delilah be planning?

Cain has been thrown into the sewers beneath the mansion, where he is found by a scavenger who offers to guide him through the sewers to Hell's Castle... for a price. The man and Cain agree, and the man takes Cain there while Oscar and Mary Weather return to London to try and prevent whatever Delilah is planning using the heads.

Cain, meanwhile, is told by the man leading him that explosives have been placed around the city leading to the Deptford Power Plant, and beneath the twelve Angel statues as well. He wonders what sort of mischief Delilah is planning, and it is revealed as the Angel Statues are blasted apart to reveal magical obelisks within that cast a dark pall over the city. With darkness over London and the power gone, the only light is coming from Hell's Castle... where Alexis plans to call back Augusta's spirit back into a newly-grown, but insane body, and begin a 1000 year reign.

Meanwhile, the traitor grows arrogant and prideful, planning to kill Alexis and take over. When the seer, Madame Octavia, threatens to lock his dual personality away again, he kills her, but she threatens that he will never be free if she is dead. He also kills other members of the organization who object to his actions, only to discover that his hand is trembling.

Finally, Cain must face off against his father, Jizabel, the traitor and those who are helping Alexis in his ultimate goal. But is he truly the one behind it, or is there another evil in the shadows... guiding his hands?

This is the last book in the Earl Cain saga and ends on a sad note, as I had suspected. The traitor is redeemed, and the people of London are saved, and we find out the truth of Delilah: that all the people in it are damaged or broken in some way, and joined in Alexis' scheme to find some sort of power over their broken lives. As in the last book with Jizabel, their sad pasts may make you feel a bit sorry for them, but their pasts don't excuse their sins and crimes in the near past and present.

The ending of the book closes on a mysterious note, just as the series began, with Cain's apparent giving Mary Weather her promised tea party in the garden, where she walks almost every day, remembering the promise that he made to her ten years before. This ending nearly made me cry. It certainly did choke me up a good bit, and it probably will do the same for other readers. I really enjoyed the series, but not as much as the earlier series, the Earl Cain Saga, mainly because this time the focus was all on Delilah instead of other, stand alone mystery stories.