Friday, May 22, 2015

Manga Review: Rosario+Vampire by Akihisa Ikeda

I thought I might review one of my favorite manga.  You've heard me talk about it before, and so you probably know I love it, but I say it's still worth doing a post about.  The manga I'm talk about is of course Rosario+Vampire by Akihisa Ikeda.


The first series, ten volumes in total, follows Tsukune Anno, a boy who's absolutely average in absolutely every way.  He's been having trouble getting into a good high school, but fortunately he's just received an offer from Yokai Academy.  Upon arrival Tsukune meet the beautiful vampire Moka Akashiya, and promptly learns that Yokai Academy is an all monster school.  Fortunately, they are all practicing disgusting themselves as humans.  Along the way he also befriends a succubus name Kurumu, a yuki-on a named Mizore, a werewolf named Gin, and two witches named Yukari and Ruby.  It starts of as a lighthearted romantic comedy/harem series, but as it progresses it gets increasingly action packed and more dramatic as Tsukune and the gang take on ever strong enemies.  

Now, there are probably some of you who only know Rosario+Vampire via its anime adaptation.  Before we go any further take everything you know about that series and toss it away.  Unlike the anime adaptation, the original manga actually have things like plot, character development and it uses its fan service much more tastefully and sparingly.  Yeah, overall the anime doesn't really have too much in common with the manga besides a few tertiary connections and roughly the same premise.  Just figured we'd get that out of the way first and foremost.

This was one of the very first mangas I ever read, the very first being DeathNote, and is still easily my favorite.  From the first few volumes I was completely draw into the plot.  I was still getting use to the black and white aspect of manga, having grown up with full color American comics, and I think it really worked out pretty well in this case.  With many of the characters being monsters the black and white coloring brought to mind the old Universal Horror movies; i.e. Frankenstein, Dracula, Creature From the Black Lagoon, ect.  I'm more used to manga coloring now, but this was a great way to ease into it; similar to how in DeathNote it made me think of noir films.  And speaking of the art I think that Ikeda did a pretty great job drawing the manga as well as writing it.    

Of course, a manga is only as good as its characters, and this manga has some pretty great characters.  What I find most interesting about Tsukune is, despite being the primary viewpoint character and male lead, he fills the role of The Chick and The Heart.  He's the least powered member of the team while the girls are the primary fighters; which is an interesting twist on the style.  Moka is actually two characters for the price of one; we've got sweet and cutsie Outer Moka, and dark and deadly Inner Moka.  It seems to be some kind of split personality thing, and I'm wondering if they're going to fuse together at some point in the future.  Well, guess I'll have to find out in Rosario+Vampire Season II.  There's also Kurumu, a former mean girl sucubis who becomes a loyal friend.  You gotta love her, and not just beacuse of those knockers of hers.  

Then we've got Mizore, who holds the distinction of teaching me about what yuki-onna are.  She's also adorably shy and kind of looks like a friend of mine.  Whenever I read Mizore's line's I always heard that friend's voice.  And finally we've got Yukari and Gin, both kind of perverted, but both also fun and adorable in their own ways.  Along the way the gang combats a wide variety of monsters, both teachers and students, ranging from kraken, to slugs, to mermaids and even Medusa.  

If the series has a weakness it's an unintentional one.  As the series progresses one of the biggest antagonists are the monstrals, a group of mixed species monsters.  I'm sure, well hopefully sure, that Ikeda didn't intended it but the message came across as "mixed race people are evil."  Of course, considering whoever Tsukune ends up with, and by whoever I of course mean Moka, will be a diffrent species than him it give credence to my theory that it was unintentional.  

As for intentional messages, if there's one strong theme throughout the series it's the power of friendship and healing from past damage.  One villain who is rather similar to Tsukune remarks that if he'd friends as good as Tsukune's when he was at Yokai Academy then maybe he would have gone into villainy.  Many of the girls have tragic or otherwise unhappy pasts, but through their friendships they manage to over come that and become better people.  At the same time Tsukune grows from a boy without any aspirations in life to a young man serving as a mediator between humans and monsters.  

The series starts of in monster of the week, or monster of the chapter as it were, format but before long there is an overarching plot.  Specifically a plot about monsters and humans making peace.  Like I said before, the series starts of lighthearted but get gradually more serious as time goes on.  There's definitely serious themes and such even in the early parts, but about when Mizore shows up is when the tone really starts to change.  I haven't gotten around to reading Rosario+Vampire Season II yet, but this tend does continue from what I've seen.  In fact, by Season II the manga gets into deconstruction territory for harem tropes and the like.  As great as the first series is I can't wait to sink my teeth into Season II.   

It was one of the first manga I ever read.  It is one of my favorite manga.  It is Rosario+Vampire by Akihisa Ikeda.  Check it out today, and be prepared to fall in much in love with it as I have.     

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Book Review: Gunpowder Empire by Harry Turtledove

Believe it or not there was a time I read physical books rather than audiobooks, and on occasion I still do, and so I have decided to review one such book in this blog post.  That book is Gunpowder Empire, book 1 of the Crosstime Traffic series, by Harry Turtledove.  This was not only the first Harry Turtledove book I ever read, but it was also the first alternate history book I ever read.


The book takes place in the 29th century; in the past Earth was ravaged by overpopulation, environmental degradation and fossil fuels got used up.  Fortunately, all of those problems got solved when travel between universes got discovered.  Earth trades with parallel Earths to get food and raw materials, but they do so in secret and undercover; best not to panic the locals or give the more advanced timelines any ideas.  The story follows Jeramy Solters and his family go on missions to an alternate (as the universes are called) known as Agrippan Rome.  In this alternate Marcus Agrippa managed to live longer than in our world and conquered Germania, which help ensure the Roman Empire never fell.  In time Rome discovered gunpowder and developed firearms; unfortunately technological progress stagnated after that and Rome became a gunpowder empire (hence the title).  

The Solters trade in goods that are slightly better than what the Romans have in hopes to starting the wheels of progress once again.  Specifically they trade things like mirrors, razors, mechanical clocks and pocket watches, and so on.  Everything is going well on a routine trip when Mrs. Solters starts having abdominal pain and has to go back to the home timeline with Mr. Solters.  Jeramy and his sister Amanda are going to be on their own for hopefully not too long.  However, it's not long before the computer loses contact with the home timeline all together.  What's happened?  Will Jeramy and Amanda ever see their parents and their home timeline ever again?  Will they survive the coming invasion of the Lietuvians?  

Like I said, this was both my first Turtledove novel and my first alternate history novel; even after all this time I still say it was the perfect starting point for me.  One of the great things about the Crosstime Traffic series is that all of the novels are standalones and can be read in any order.  I just read them in order of publication because I'm that way.  Now, I've noticed a lot of older readers complaining about the fact that the protagonists are teenagers and that the novels seems geared towards young adults.  To those people I have this to say: you know that's the point right?  Turtledove wrote this series specifically to introduce teenagers and young adults to alternate history, so older readers weren't the target demographic.  I suppose this confusion comes from the books being shelved with Turtledove's adult books rather than in the young adult section.  

Turtledove has a Phd in Byzantine History, and I could definitely tell that he was in his element when he wrote this novel.  The descriptions of daily life in an alternate Roman Empire were lovingly and knowledgeably crafted.  I also liked the descriptions of how religion turned out.  For example there are only three gospels and the Bible has different end because John the Apostle was never born and Paul wrote letters to church that don't exist in our world.  Meanwhile, Christianity is split between those willing to making offerings to the emperor, known as Imperial Christians, and those who refuse to do so.  Also, Jesus is simply considered one god among many.  Maybe it was because I was always hungry when I got to them, but the descriptions of the food was great.  At one point I ate some bread and honey along with the characters and even made a toast to the emperor's health.  

It was also fun to see the little knowing winks to Turtledove's other works.  There's a scene where Jeramy plays a video game about aliens invading in the middle of World War II.  For those who don't get it, Turtledove's WorldWar series was going to get a video game adaptation, but for various reasons it fell through.  There's also mention of a world were the American Revolution never happened and America remain with Britain, and in a bit of foreshadowing to the following Crosstime Traffic novel, a world where Germany won World War I.  The exact boarders of this Roman Empire weren't established, but there's been fan speculation and so I've included this handy map to give you an idea.  Dark blue is firmly Roman, lighter blue is probably Roman, lightest blue is disputed and brown is Lietuvian.    


They say alternate history can also be a learning experience about actual history, and that was certainly true here.  I really got a few for what it would be like living in Ancient Rome.  It wasn't all gladiators and circuses, and even then those tended to be fairly violent and gory by modern standards.  There was slavery, head lice, the threat of invasion, poverty and other such things.  Yet there was also a fair amount of grandeur and awe, and I was still filled with a sense of wonder at this brave new world I explored with the turn of a page.  I also got to learn about the Lithuanians, some of their history and how they were pretty cool too.   

Where Jeramy and Amanda the most memorable of characters?  Maybe they weren't, but they served a purpose.  That could be applied to most of the characters.  They all helped brings the world of Agrippan Rome to life and show what made it tick.  Also, don't be afraid to get attached to anyone, because for once in a Turtledove novel, everyone lives!  Suffice it to say that this means there's a happy ending and Al, works out for the best.  Hey, I like happy endings, and so it was all good to me.  It find it humor in hindsight that Crosstime Traffic was a more business like version of the company from Twilight Histories, for whom I often make maps.  Perhaps it's only fitting that Crossitme Traffic was where I got my alternate history start.    

This was my first alternate history novel and my first Turtledove novel.  Even to this day it remains one of my favorites and most memorable alternate histories.  Pick up a copy today, and take a journey across time.  

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Book Review: Twinmaker by Sean Williams

I've been fan of Sean Williams' series of Twinmaker short stories ever since I discovered them via Lightspeed Magazine.  They're set in a world were teleportation, known as d-mat, has become the primary source of transportation and manufacturing.  When I heard that Sean was going to create a novel set in the same world, also known as Twinmaker, I was very excited.  Now that I've read the novel I'm...kind of disappointed.



The novel follows Clair Hill, a typical girl of the post-scarcity world.  She and her best friend Libby are trying to join the Crashlanders, and exclusive clique/party group that finds new party locations by jumping to random locations in the d-mat booths.  There's this rumor going around about something called Improvement; according to the rumors it can change a person's physical appearance using d-mat.  Libby tries it and begins acting strange before disappearing completely.

Clair sets out to do everything she can to find Libby.  Along the way she enlists the help of Jessie, a boy raised in the Stainer community (a group of people abstaining from d-mat) and an AI named Q.  Her quest takes her across the world and unravels a conspiracy leading all the way back to VIA, the government body responsible for watching over d-mat operations.

Now, that sounds like a pretty good novel doesn't it?  Sean is an excellent writer, you really should check out his short stories, and this novel had every reason to succeed and be great.  And yet it didn't succeed and it wasn't great.  There's a lot of points I want to talk about, but I think I ought to be fair here and talk about the things I did like, and that Sean did get write, before I get to the negative bits.

Clair is written as the type of character who would typically fill the sidekick role or the best friend role, and I like how here Sean elevated her to hero/protagonist status.  I also liked how Jessie and Q were written.  Jessie had a very nuanced and well rounded personality; he doesn't by into the Stainer philosophy, and he's wants to try d-mat.  At the same time, he's still cautious and, for all their faults and the Stainers are his family and he can't just walk out on them.  As for Q, well, what can I say?  Despite lacking a physical body she was a bit of cute robot girl, and I found her constantly asking Clair questions and trying to learn about humans absolutely adorable.  I also thought that it was interesting that in a market saturated with dystopias that the world of the novel was fairly utopian.  Also, I've got to give credit to Katie Koster for her excellent narration of the audiobook.

Now then, let's talk about the less than pleasant aspects.  First of all, compared to the Lightspeed short stories, this novel felt considerably dumbed down.  I understand that Sean was aiming for the young adult market, but even taking that into account it still came across as incredibly dumbed down.  Another issue I had was that this is a novel were people an travel the world instantaneously, but it just didn't feel like that.  What I mean is that almost everywhere the characters went felt bland, homogenized and lacking in personality.  Granted, this might have been a byproduct of such instantaneous transportation and the post-scarcity world, but we never get any explanation about that.

Now let me tell you about the Stainers.  They're those people I mentioned who distrust d-mat, and think anyone who uses it is a soulless zombie.  They're also convinced that it's all a conspiracy by the One World Government...and yes, after d-mat was invented all nations merged together (that I'm not so bothered by).  So they sound basically like the future version of those internet loons who are always ranting and raving about the conspiracy of the week, right?  Unfortunately, in this case the loons turn out to be right about everything.  Look, maybe they had a point, but they were all so completely unlikable and so completely unsympathetic that I had a hard time see it.  For example, they constantly give Clair shit because she uses d-mat, and this conflicts with their holier than thou mentality.  

Don't even get me started on the leader of the Stainers, and how smug he was, or how he was practically the personification of their holier than thou mentality.  The Stainers got so bad that by the end of the novel I was actually rooting for the bad guys.  Generally speaking, works that have an anti-technology message tend to get on my nerves.  I tend to get irritated about this because of all of the countless ways technology has improved and enriched our lives; to think otherwise would be foolish.  I'm fairly certain that Sean is pro-technology, and that he didn't intend to write an anti-technology narrative into the book.  However, to paraphrase Kosh from Babylon 5, understand literature is a three edged sword: there's what the author thinks they wrote, there's what the reader thinks was written and there's what is actually written.  

There's also certain details that don't quite add up.  For example, apparently the Moon has been colonized, but nowhere else in the solar system.  I find it hard to believe that humanity would lose its drive to explore, seek out new worlds and boldly go simply because d-mat got invented.  Also, d-mat helped to reverse global warming and climate change, and yet the world still shows obvious signs of this, such as Sacramento having a sea coast and New York City being flooded.          

The novel doesn't really end so much as it just stops.  No resolution, no tying of loose ends, no meaningful ending; it just...stops.  I know Sean was probably going for a cliffhanger, but there's a difference between a cliffhanger and just stopping in the middle of the action.  It know there's the old saving it for the next book argument, but there's still things that must be wrapped up in the first book.  Also, it is a top priority to get the reader interest by the time the first book is over.  If you fail to capture the reader's interest by the first book then we have a serious problem, and they aren't going to stick around for future books.  

The bottom line is that I had high hopes only to be incredibly let down.  I might get the sequel, Crashland, if only because the protagonists of the Lightspeed short stories will play a major role.  However, that's a very big maybe at this point.  All I'm saying is that if you feel compelled to purchase a copy of Twinmaker, book or audiobook, approach with caution.  

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Book Review: Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed

As you may or may not know I frequently review short story podcasts over at Alternate History Weekly Update.  I figured it was about time I reviewed something on my own blog.  To that end I've decided to review Saladin Ahmed's debut novel Throne of the Crescent Moon, book one of the Crescent Moon Kingdoms series.



The book takes place in the titular Crescent Moon Kingdoms, a fictional world model off of the Middle East during the Golden Age of Islam.  It follows Doctor Adoulla Makhslood, the last great ghul hunter of the city of Dhamsawaat.  He's joined by his assistant Raseed bes Raseed, a member of a group of holy warriors known as Dervishes.  They later take in Zamia, a Badawi tribeswomen with the ability to turn into a lioness.  Rounding out the group are Dawoud and Litaz, a mage and an alchemist respectively, and Miri, the owner of a brothel and Adoulla's primary love interest.

There's trouble brewing in Dhamsawaat, the current Khalif is a cruel and ineffective ruler, and support is grown for the charismatic bandit known as the Falcon Prince, who I can best describe as a Middle Eastern Robin Hood; though he might not be much better.  Meanwhile, there's a potentially bigger problem in the form of the jackal-headed ghul Mouw Awa.  It'll take all the magic, sword fighting and determination for Adoulla and the gang the make it out alive.  

Now there's plenty of magic, sword fighting and adventure in this book to go around, but what stood out the most to me was the excellent world building.  Some of the most memorable scenes were about the day to day happening in Dhamsawaat.  I really felt like I was there exploring the limestone streets while sipping on cardamon tea.  It was also refreshing to read a fantasy novel that wasn't set in a thinly disguised version of Medieval Europe.  I liked how all of the cultures and peoples were based upon those of the Islamic world, the Middle East, and hints of Africa and India.  It feels like there's hints of a wider world to be fleshed out in the coming novels.  

The characters all had really well rounded personalities.  Take Adoulla for example; he gets his powers by quoting verses from what is essentially the in-universe version of the Koran, which is known as the Heavenly Chapters.  You'd expect him to be super pious and religious, but he's actually pretty laid back, takes it easy and enjoys drinking tea and taking naps.  On top of that he is at times a bit of a dirty old man, but he is also a very wise old man.  Contrast that with Raseed, who has a very holier than thou personality and his general taking everything seriously worldview.  The most memorable contrast was when Raseed gives a speech about the importance of holiness and virtue, to which Adoulla asks when the last time he got laid was.  I also liked how the characters ways of speaking and thinking was neither too antique nor too modern.

If you're like me and prefer your books in audio format you'll be please to know there is an audiobook available from Audible.com, and from Brilliance Audio if you want the physical copy.  It is narrated by Phil Gigante, and he does an excellent job bringing the story to life.  He's a professional narrator and he does a spot on job of giving all of the character distinct voices and never slacks off. 

They say you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but I must say this book has one of the nicest covers I've seen in a long time.  It really is quite the work of art.  Speaking of art, the book includes a gorgeously drawn map of the Crescent Moon Kingdoms, made by the same artist who drew the map for the Codex Alera series.  In fact, it was through the map that I found this book.
  

Saladin Ahmed has also written two other stories set in the world of The Crescent Moon Kingdoms.  There's "Where Virtue Lives" about how Adoulla and Raseed first met, and there's "Judgement of Swords and Soul" all about the Lodge of God and featuring a character who will become important in the upcoming squeal to Throne of the Crescent Moon.  Both of them are available totally for free in audio form from PodCastle, the fantasy podcast of the Escape Artists podcast family.  Or, if you prefer reading with your eyes, you can find them in the e-book story anthology Engraved on the Eye, which collects several of Saladin's best stories.  

It's certainly one of the best high fantasy adventure novels I've read in a long time.  Saladin has a very promising writing career and is off to an amazing start.  He's got a squeal coming out soon, and I can hardly wait for it.  When I finished this novel I immediately sought out more of Saladin's work, and he continues to wow me with every story he writes.  

It's a breath of fresh air in a world of stale Eurocentric fantasy.  Get your copy, physical or audio, today.  

Friday, May 1, 2015

Poem: From Where All Gods Spring

It's time once again for another poem.  This one is called From Where All Gods Spring.  The rhyming scheme was inspired by a combination of Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales and the works of William Blake.  Perhaps a little ironic for a poem with atheistic themes, but I like their works so it rubbed off on me.  This poem was also featured as part of Pandora, the artistic magazine of Centenary College of Louisiana.  There really isn't too much more to say, besides that the poem is my musings on the origins of religion, gods and humanity's relationship with them in its quest for knowledge.  I'll let the poem speak for itself.  And without further ado, the poem:


In those days so long ago
Before the winds of Zephyrus did blow
Before Helios' rays did shine
Before mortal tongues tasted of Dionysian wine
The was in Africa a hairless ape that had learned to stand
This hairless ape was known as Man
Man found his world to be quite odd
So to explain it man turned to gods
Gods of the earth and gods of sea
And gods of just about everything there could be
But as Man moved out of Africa
To spread to all corners of the Earth to multiply
Man began to ask himself why
In Egypt and Greece man turned to the sky
And then did answers multiply
But as Man embarked on this knowledge quest
He began to discard his gods
"It's only for the best"
"But wait," said man
"Just maybe perhaps"
"We'll fill what we don't know with gods of gaps"
Time moved on and knowledge collected
And yet somehow the gods were protected
From criticisms small and great
For it was said those who doubted made the gods irate
Though many cast doubt the gods seemed here to stay
For on Man's heart they still held sway
Yet many were lost along the way
Victims to rationality on might say
But even to this jolly day
Though it may still seem odd
The world is still filled with many gods
Gods of love and gods of strife
Gods who promise eternal life
Yet as we keep all these gods in good jest
We must recall
That all gods' origins are from the beating heart within man's chest