Novel Review: House of Salt and Sorrows

Fairy tale adaptions are a popular subset of YA novels, but not many are based on The Twelve Dancing Princess. However, Erin Craig has taken that lesser known tale and combined it with gothic flavored horror in House of Salt and Sorrows.

Back Cover Blurb

Annaleigh lives a sheltered life at Highmoor with her sisters and their father and stepmother. Once there were twelve, but loneliness fills the grand halls now that four of the girls’ lives have been cut short. Each death was more tragic than the last–the plague, a plummeting fall, a drowning, a slippery plunge–and there are whispers throughout the surrounding villages that the family is cursed by the gods.

Disturbed by a series of ghostly visions, Annaleigh becomes increasingly suspicious that her sister’s deaths were no accidents. The girls have been sneaking out every night to attend glittering balls, dancing until dawn in silk gowns and shimmering slippers, and Annaleigh isn’t sure whether to try to stop them or to join their forbidden trysts. Because who–or what–are they really dancing with?

The Review

Erin Craig presents an interesting twist on The Twelve Dancing Princesses. There’s a mystery to be solved, but it’s styled less like a hero’s challenge and more like a gothic horror story. Although the puzzle of the worn dancing shoes comes into play, the primary enigma confronting our main character is the deaths of her older sisters.

Annaleigh is the sixth of the Duke of Salaan’s twelve daughters. However, four of the young women have met untimely ends. People whisper that the sisters are cursed, but Annaleigh suspects murder. As her family attempt to ignore the rumors and move on with their lives, Annaleigh investigates the deaths only to find herself increasingly beset by eerie visions and nightmares.

I have mixed feelings about this book. It got off to a fabulous start with Craig’s gorgeous world-building. Arcannia incorporates many Victorian-era elements in its setting and culture, and those who like descriptions of silk ball gowns and corsets and luxurious gaslit estates will have plenty to enjoy. Another Victorian element of the story is the gothic horror type atmosphere haunting Annaleigh. As she confronts one gruesome image after another, readers are left guessing whether her sisters’ ghosts are real or she’s losing her mind.

Then a third of the way through the story, the nighttime balls come into the story along with a magic/meddlesome deity aspect. From the get-go, Arcannia is depicted as a polytheistic society, with each area of the kingdom paying homage to a regional deity. These initial descriptions make it seem like these gods and their supernatural powers are rather removed from the mortal world. However, once the sisters start going to the family shrine, gods and magic are suddenly very active in the narrative.

This irked me. The initial chapters made it seem like the only possible actors in the sisters’ deaths were ghosts or humans. Annaleigh never considers that magic or immortals might be involved even though their existence is supposedly common knowledge. So when the mystery of Annaleigh’s ghoulish visions is revealed as the workings of a god, that was a letdown.

Another weakness of the story is the romance between Cassius and Annaleigh. It’s not insta-romance on her end; watching her figure out whether he’s friend or foe is actually intriguing. However, he walks into the story besotted with her before they’ve met. Considering how he learned about Annaleigh and the fact that she’s one of eight sisters, I’m left wondering why her and not one of the others.

The story also runs into the same quandary I noticed in another Twelve Dancing Princesses retelling, Princess of the Midnight Ball. Basically, twelve sisters is a lot of people to keep track of. Granted, the deaths in House of Salt and Sorrows reduces the number to eight, but that’s still a lot. Aside from the eldest, the youngest, and the main character, the sisters are a muddle of names without much to distinguish them.

However, a woman that does stand out in this female-heavy family is Morella, the Duke’s new young wife. As soon as I saw the word “stepmother,” I really hoped the novel would depict something beyond the hackneyed evil stepmother. Sadly, Morella winds up among the ranks of the wicked version although she puts on a pretty good nice-mom act for most of the book.

In Summary

This book starts off well and creates wonderful atmosphere in both its radiant and creepy scenes. (And if you want spooky descriptions, there’s plenty on these pages.) However, the deus ex machina resolution to the mystery of Annaleigh’s visions was disappointing, and for the life of me, I don’t see how the main character was so compelling that her love interest would go to such lengths for her.

First published at The Fandom Post.


Light Novel Review: Saga of Tanya the Evil Vol. #06

The Saga of Tanya the Evil anime was a surprise favorite for me in 2017. With a title like that, I was almost too scared to give it a try, but conniving little Tanya turned out to be nothing like I anticipated. Yen Press has released Volume 6 of the light novel adaption, and you can read on for the review. (For reviews of other Tanya the Evil works, click here.)

Back Cover Blurb

Through the bone-chilling winter wind, the clashes of war can be heard. Equipped with fragile weapons and machinery, Tanya and her unit march toward the Eastern front. There, Tanya realizes the primitiveness of it all, and that it’ll take more than a miracle to emerge unscathed…

The Review

As with the previous volume, this one begins with Tanya on the Eastern Front dealing with a dilemma. Whereas before the Salamander Kampfgruppe was struggling against guerrilla attacks, it’s now contending against a greater, nondiscriminating enemy: winter. Although they do have the assistance of the newly formed Council for Self-Government, their collaboration is mostly in name only. Yet Tanya once again sees through the mess of problems and to find solutions that protect her forces and cement relations with the Council for Self-Government. While her insights aren’t as revolutionary as the not-everyone-in-the-Federation-is-a-Commie realization of last time, watching her rational brain deal with the challenges that beset her still makes for an engaging read.

Of course, the Commies aren’t taking the PR fallout from the formation of the Council for Self-Government lying down. They counter with their own campaign: a multinational mage unit to display their international ties. Leading this unit are Colonel Drake of the Commonwealth and Colonel Mikel, recently a resident of a Federation concentration camp, and embedded in their group is Lieutenant Mary I’m-gonna-kill-the-Devil-of-the-Rhine Sue. Perspectives on the anti-Imperial side have bounced from character to character throughout the series, but that role looks like it’s going to be carried by this threesome moving forward.

This is a nice development because we’ll actually get a chance to truly get acquainted and attached to the people stuck with carrying out the orders of Commonwealth and Federation. Despite being representatives of very different ideologies, Drake and Mikel hit it off right away. Both are talented mages with a keen understanding of the political forces that have teamed them up. With a Communist political officer attached to watch the multinational unit’s every move, the two men are continually thrust into situations where they must put on a show for the Commies so that Mikel doesn’t get tossed back into the concentration camps.

While the Mikel and Drake walk a political tightrope to keep themselves and their subordinates alive, Mary tears about like the proverbial bull in a china shop. She might’ve gotten sympathy points before as the bereaved daughter of a fallen Entente Alliance mage, but now she’s just a thoughtless officer causing trouble for everyone around her. If Tanya has an antithesis, Mary is it. She’s fighting for completely personal reasons, has no regard for rules and procedure, and despite the line in the narrative, “[Mary] wasn’t a girl who couldn’t read the room,” Mary really can’t read any perspective but her own. Any appearance of Mary inevitably causes a headache for her commander Drake, and I’m groaning right alongside him.

As far as the broader scope of the continental conflict goes, things get muddled further when the kingdom of Ildoa does some saber-rattling. The introduction of a potential new player on the current theater of war turns the narrative into a bit of a slog. Zen-sensei’s tendency toward untagged dialogue and minimal setting descriptions, unfortunately, means that all the conjecturing about Ildoa’s intent and motives results in confusion rather than an aura of intrigue. As such, I look forward to the manga’s version of these events to clarify the situation for me.

Extras include map and fold-out illustration in color; appendixes of the history timeline and general commentary; author afterword; and six black-and-white illustrations.

In Summary

Characters on both sides keep the story lively with challenges physical and political. We still have Tanya struggling to compensate for the gap between General Staff’s view of things and reality, but now the Commonwealth’s Drake also provides a similar perspective as a commander in the multinational mage unit. The high level scope of the growing continental conflict unfortunately remains a difficult read, but the scenes of those in the trenches cut straight to the heart.

First published at the Fandom Post.




Manga Review: Sacrificial Princess and the King of Beasts Vol. #6

The theme of love transcending appearances is a popular one in fairy tales, and Yen Press’ Sacrificial Princess and the King of Beasts fits that genre. The fantasy manga tells of the relationship between a girl and her beastly fiance, and you can read on for the review of Volume 6. (For reviews of other volumes, click here.)

Back Cover Blurb

The Grand Consecration to celebrate the founding of the Kingdom of Ozmargo is nigh…but the king of beasts remains in his human form despite the dawn! Thanks to Sariphi’s quick thinking, disaster is averted and the ceremony goes off without a hitch, prompting Chancellor Anubis to declare an end to Sariphi’s trials. But having assumed the role of Acting Queen, Sariphi is faced with her first job…which just might turn out to be insurmountable!

The Review

Volume 6 begins with the conclusion of the consecration arc. Surprisingly, although the judge Set injected an insidious air right before the arc’s climax, he doesn’t appear at all during Leo’s consecration speech or the falling action. Even so, Set left enough of an impression that he’s likely to cause problems in the future. As for Leo and Sariphi, an unexpected outcome results from the incident: Anubis appoints Sari as acting queen consort.

It seems like a big win for Sari, but when Anubis lays out the conditions of the position, the concession merely sounds like a continuation of her queen trials only with higher stakes. So even though she now has a title, her newfound standing grants her no security. Thus, her fight for acceptance in the beast realm continues.

The narrative then takes a single-chapter detour to focus on another couple. Although Princess Amit’s feelings for the dashing Jormungand continues to be one-sided, her maidenly fluster is plenty entertaining as she waffles over whether to wish him well on his next military assignment. And as always, her toothy looks provide a humorous contrast to her blushing personality.

Then it’s back to Leo and Sari as they head to Ozmargo’s protectorate, the nation of Sarbul, for Sari’s first official duty as acting queen consort. The decision to instate her has not been a popular one, and Sari must confront the prejudices of the population at large. Leo’s authority keeps the behavior of adult beastfolk in check, but that restraint doesn’t extend to children.

Whereas Sari had to win over a battle-hardened geezer a couple volumes ago, now she must deal with a bratty kid. Princess Tetra abounds with smart remarks, which is to be expected. However, her threat to make a suicidal leap is not, and the parallels drawn between Queen Calra and Sari’s substitute mother feel forced.

Extras include embedded author’s notes about the characters and the bonus manga, “The Beast Princess and the Regular Princess.”

In Summary

Sariphi’s trials come to an end! Well, not really. She attains the role of acting queen consort, but there’s no security in the position whatsoever. As such, even though her new title supposedly means that she and Leo can face the challenges of the crown together, the story still continues with the theme of Sariphi having to convince beastkind that humans aren’t awful.

First published at the Fandom Post.

Manga Review: Saga of Tanya the Evil Vol. #07

The Saga of Tanya the Evil anime was a surprise favorite for me in 2017. With a title like that, I was almost too scared to give it a try, but conniving little Tanya turned out to be nothing like I anticipated. Yen Press has released Volume 07 of the manga adaption, and you can read on for the review. (For my reviews of other Tanya the Evil works, click here.)

Back Cover Blurb

With undeniable wit and charisma, Tanya manages to charm her way into the warmth of the office…not. When an order for a military march launches the dumbfounded Degurechaff into the freezing depths of winter, fluffy pillows and five course meals are the last thing on her mind…That is, until the Major discovers another tempting course of action…

The Review

I commented in my review of Volume 6 that Being X has been absent a while. Well, apparently he doesn’t want us to forget him because he pops in at the opening of Volume 7. Although the chapter is titled “Norden VI,” nearly half of it is Tanya’s reflections on her previous world and the philosophies and events that formed her character. In the midst of this walk down memory lane, Being X interrupts with images of a life the Japanese salaryman could’ve had. The interaction between divine and mortal is brief, but in addition to the usual spite and venom that reaffirms our main character’s disgust toward his creator, we also see a rare instant of vulnerability.

Then it’s back to Norden and the winter offensive so hotly debated in the previous volume. Tanya calculated that such a push would only wear down the Empire’s already ragged resources, but General Staff is treating the Northern Army’s offense as part of a larger plan to subdue the Regadonia Alliance. Tanya piecing together the top-secret attack through her conversation with von Rudersdorf is covered in all three incarnations of this story, and as usual, the manga provides the clearest version. Whereas the anime breezes through the massive pincer plan too quickly and the novel’s narrative is a bit hard to comprehend, the manga’s depiction of the von Rudersdorf interchange followed by a cartoon outline spells out the operation in understandable terms. Granted, the outline is somewhat dense, but that’s only because so many elements are involved in the multipronged attack.

Having explained what the imperial forces are about to do, preparing to execute it is the next order of business. Thus far, we’ve only seen Army forces at work, and in “Norden VII” we get a first glimpse of the Navy. Despite the tension of the impending fight, these scenes are good for giggles. In addition to the usual contrast between Tanya’s train of thought and those of the adults around her, Tojo-sensei has fun with the character designs of the imperial sailors. (Battleship Yamato anyone?)

The volume concludes with the start of the strike on Os. While the illustrations deliver excitement with clarity per usual, they also included an artistic choice that made me really uncomfortable.  Not to say that getting one’s clothes shredded is an impossibility in combat, but it just seems wrong when Tanya’s the only one fighting naked in a zone filled almost entirely with adult men. I really wish Tojo-sensei had let her stay clothed or leveled the field by making everyone naked.

Extras include battle log thus far, character introductions and detailed glossary of terms between chapters.

In Summary

General Staff chooses to make a winter offensive on Norden! But before the fight begins, the narrative delves into the strategic nitty gritty of what the higher ups really have in mind for this seemingly foolish attack. While we don’t get any combat scenes till the very end of the volume, the lead-up to the fighting plus a glimpse into Tanya’s previous life keeps things engaging.

First published at the Fandom Post.




Manga Review: Dive!! Vol. 3

With the 2020 Tokyo Olympics around the corner, there’s bound to be an interest in sports manga about Olympic hopefuls. Dive!! is one such title, and you can read on for the review of Volume 3. (For reviews of other volumes, click here.)

Back Cover Blurb

The Japanese delegates for the Tokyo Olympics have been selected…and Youichi’s gotten the ticket of his dreams! When the motives behind the JASF’s premature decision come to light, though, Youichi is completely thrown off his game. But that won’t stop him! Once he’s back on his feet, determined to take back the Olympics on his own terms, how might his actions turn the tides?! See what the future holds for the boys of MDC in this final volume of DIVE!!

The Review

The first volume mostly focused on Tomoki, and the second volume showed Okitsu’s struggles. Now the third volume delves into Youichi’s issues. Up till now, he’s been the unshakable champ, the elite paragon the others measure themselves against. So when the JASF decides to choose its Olympic team without holding a qualifying meet and Youichi gets selected, their choice seems more than reasonable. After all, he has a winning track record to justify his place on the team.

However, Youichi’s unhappy at how the decision was made. Even though it’s his dream to compete in the Olympics, he wants it on his terms. His frustration gets to the point of interfering with his diving, and he ultimately throws his Olympic spot back at the adults who handed it to him.

The Youichi arc is part rebellion against the machine controlling Olympic athletes, part rebellion against the father who treats him as a component of his coaching career. While Youichi’s resentment against the adults using him is definitely relatable, the way he self-destructs goes off the deep end. Much like Tomoki’s depression over Miu, it feels like drama for drama’s sake.

At any rate, Youichi’s rejection of the JASF’s grand plan allows for a final competition among the divers in this series and opens the door for a major shakeup in rankings. The MDC boys, including side character Reiji, get to show how they’ve progressed with their skills even as their stories get wrapped up. While I’m not averse to underdogs, I didn’t find this sports manga’s ultimate conclusion particularly satisfying, though that’s probably due to a lack of empathy with the cast.

As with the previous volume, this volume covers the same territory of the corresponding Dive!! anime episodes. However, unlike the anime, the manga carries the qualifying meet till the very end. In addition, it includes details the anime glossed over as well as a post-competition celebration with Tomo, Reiji, and Ryou. So if you’re a fan of the anime, this volume might be worth picking up for those extras.

Extras include the first four pages in color and afterword.

In Summary

Tomo and Okitsu have had problems, and now Youichi has them, too. While his resentment toward his father is easy to relate to, the dilemma of having an Olympic spot fall in his lap is less so. At any rate, this last volume has a final barrage of dynamic diving scenes set in the grand competition of Olympic qualifiers. But even though a place on the Olympic team is at stake, the meet is less about the fight for the top and more about the MDC boys overcoming their individual challenges.

First published at the Fandom Post.

Manga Review: Oresama Teacher Vol. #26

Mafuyu is a high school delinquent who wants to turn over a new leaf. So when she transfers schools, she thinks she’ll finally be able to live the life of a normal girl. There’s just one problem: her teacher  Mr. Saeki is a bigger delinquent than she is!

Oresama Teacher is a shojo manga that offers humor of the silly variety. Volume 26 has  been released, and you can read on for the review. (For those who are interested, you can click here for my reviews of earlier volumes).

Back Cover Blurb

Mafuyu’s homeroom teacher Mr. Maki isn’t just a conundrum, he’s also a kidnapper! Right when Mafuyu thought she was getting to the bottom of her missing memories, Mr. Maki spirited her away to an amazing mansion. While Mafuyu is a sucker for mansions, she does have a school to save. But she can’t escape on her own, and all her friends think she’s just home with a cold. Now her only choice is to rely on her enemy!

The Review

Mr. Maki’s exhibited some fairly odd behavior, and now he tops it all by kidnapping Mafuyu. Normally, a high school teacher abducting a student would be really creepy (not to mention illegal!). However, Tsubaki-sensei averts the creepy vibe, partly by making it a place from which Mafuyu could easily escape, partly by using the circumstances to progress her investigation of Mr. Maki, and partly by having Toko stumble upon the kidnapped Mafuyu.

As it turns out, Mr. Maki is a servant to Toko, and the place Mafuyu is held captive is the Hanabusa mansion. Interestingly, Mafuyu was not abducted at Toko’s orders, but that doesn’t mean Toko’s unhappy with the kidnapping. Rather, she seems amused to have someone in the house to mock (I guess rich people in this world don’t worry about legal implications) and goes to taunt Mafuyu whenever Mr. Maki isn’t around. But instead of being disheartened, Mafuyu is actually thrilled. She’s always wanted female friends, and her favorite female type is “an elegant, dignified rich girl.” As a result, no matter how demeaning Toko’s treatment, Mafuyu receives it joyfully, and the kidnapping turns into a bizarre situation where Mafuyu is pampered by Mr. Maki in posh surroundings and ingratiates herself to Toko.

It is through this turn of events that we get a major revelation on Mr. Maki’s past. Although Mafuyu spends much of her imprisonment letting Toko treat her like a dog, she does have a moment of bancho brilliance when she gets Toko to explain how Mr. Maki wound up in the Hanabusa household. And through Toko’s explanation, we also learn how she became the warped person she is.

Although this fills in a lot of blanks about Mr. Maki’s past, the one while he was at West High remains, and thanks to a convoluted pigeon letter exchange, this investigation falls to Takaomi. He returns to his old stomping grounds in Saitama, and it looks like there will be a fateful mingling of past and present as current and former Saitama delinquents cross paths.

Extras include Characters and The Story Thus Far, 4-panel comics, and a bonus chapter.

In Summary

Mafuyu gets kidnapped by Mr. Maki and winds up captive in the Hanabusa mansion! It’s kind of bizarre, but we’ve seen weird goings on in a rich family’s house before so it’s not out of character for this series. At any rate, an entire chapter gets devoted to Mr. Maki, the Hanabusa family, and the circumstances under which Toko grew up. Not all the details have been revealed, but we certainly get a lot in this volume.

First published at the Fandom Post.

Novel Review: Spin the Dawn

Fantasies often have wizards as central characters, but how about a tailor with a magical touch? Elizabeth Lim presents the tale of a girl tasked to create three mythical gowns in her debut novel Spin the Dawn.

Back Cover Blurb

Maia Tamarin dreams of becoming the greatest tailor in the land, but as a girl, the best she can hope for is to marry well. When a royal messenger summons her ailing father, once a tailor of renown, to court, Maia poses as a boy and takes his place. She knows her life is forfeit if her secret is discovered, but she’ll take that risk to achieve her dream and save her family from ruin. There’s just one catch: Maia is one of twelve tailors vying for the job.

Backstabbing and lies run rampant as the tailors compete in challenges to prove their artistry and skill. Maia’s task is further complicated when she draws the attention of the court magician, Edan, whose piercing eyes seem to see straight through her disguise. And nothing could have prepared her for the final challenge: to sew three magic gowns for the emperor’s reluctant bride-to-be, from the laughter of the sun, the tears of the moon, and the blood of stars. With this impossible task before her, she embarks on a journey to the far reaches of the kingdom, seeking the sun, the moon, and the stars, and finding more than she ever could have imagined.

Steeped in Chinese culture, sizzling with forbidden romance, and shimmering with magic, this young adult fantasy is pitch-perfect for fans of Sarah J. Maas or Renée Ahdieh.

The Review

This fantasy is a delightful change of pace. Unlike most English language novels in this genre, which tend to have European-style settings, this story takes place in A’landi, an East Asian inspired empire. And instead of having a royal or adventurer protagonist, the main character Maia Tamarin is a tailor.

Not to say there aren’t royals or a dangerous quest in the plot. Following a five year civil war between the emperor and a powerful warlord, the master tailor Kalsang Tamarin is summoned to the emperor’s court. However, the recent war, which claimed two of his sons and maimed the third son, has left him so broken he cannot sew. Unfortunately, the summons cannot be ignored, so his daughter Maia disguises herself, taking her remaining brother’s identity, to go in his place. Soon thereafter, Maia discovers she’s merely one of twelve tailors that will vie to become the emperor’s master tailor, and the judge is none other than the warlord’s daughter Sarnai, whose impending marriage to the emperor is critical to A’landi’s newfound peace.

The primary thread of this book is Maia rising up to each of Sarnai’s challenges. The demands of those challenges changes drastically as the story progresses, and the novel winds up in three distinct acts. The first is the competition between the twelve tailors at the Summer Palace. It resembles a TV elimination-type competition with plenty of girls-are-capable-as-boys gumption and a thick layer of court intrigue. The second part is the quest for the mythical components of Sarnai’s three wedding dresses. These chapters are reminiscent of impossible task folktales where heroes venture into forbidden territories with the aid of magical helpers. In Maia’s case, her magical helper is the emperor’s enchanter Edan, and in addition to being an adventure-style quest, this section also ends up a romance between the two. In the final section, Maia must reckon with the costs and gains of her efforts and determine whether she can return to normalcy.

It’s a lot of territory for one book, but despite roaming over a bunch of genres, it forms a solid, cohesive, and engaging story. The strength of Maia’s character has a lot to do with it. The novel gets off to a slower start than some, but the family history in the initial chapter forms the core of what makes Maia compelling and relatable.

Actually, the multifaceted nature of the cast is among its greatest strengths. Edan carries centuries of baggage behind his teasing, and although Sarnai doesn’t hesitate to torment others, she’s to be pitied as a woman forced into an arranged marriage. Most characters fall into shades of gray, which makes Maia’s dilemma of whom to believe and trust as pressing as the sewing challenges she must win.

Regarding the love that blossoms between Maia and Edan, I’m happy to say that it is not a case of insta-romance. Maia meets him amid the intrigue of the Summer Palace, where Edan is only one of a number of enigmatic figures she’s trying to figure out. Although the connection between Edan and the palace’s black hawk is kind of obvious, it’s not obvious from the get-go how their relationship will progress, which makes it fun to watch. However, it is odd she refers to him as a “boy.” His actual age aside, Edan has the appearance of a young man of about twenty.

Another interesting facet of this story is the descriptions of the materials, tools, and techniques the tailors use. If you like fashion, this may be a selling point for you. However, I found some aspects of Maia’s abilities jarringly unbelievable. Not only does Maia work so fast that she knits two complete sweaters during her five-day ride to the Summer Palace, she sews the silk portions of Sarnai’s three gowns while she journeying to the desert and a frozen mountaintop. I’ve sewn dresses and shirts myself, and I can’t imagine keeping all those pieces clean and in order while camping, let alone through the sand and rain she supposedly traveled through.

The journey’s pace was also puzzling at times. Maia has a mere three months to travel to the three corners of the continent to gather the magical materials for Sarnai’s gowns. As such, Maia’s constantly under the pressure of this looming deadline. However, there are parts, such as their encounter with Orksan’s caravan and their visit to the monastery, where they stop a couple days as if time is of no consequence.

Those are minor nitpicks though. Overall, I enjoyed this story and its cast, and unlike most recent novel series I’ve read, I’m actually eager to see what happens in the second book of this duology.

In Summary

Spin the Dawn is one girl’s journey from obscurity to fame, from the mundane to the magical, and from loss to love and back again. Combined with a complex cast, an intricate Asian-inspired setting, and plenty of unexpected twists and turns, this novel is a delightful read with wide appeal.

First published at The Fandom Post.


Novel Review: Eve of Man

A recurring theme in sci-fi is humanity’s existence pushed to the brink by everything from monsters to global catastrophes. Now Giovanna and Tom Fletcher adds a worldwide dearth of baby girls as a species-ending dilemma in their novel Eve of Man.

Back Cover Blurb

On the first day, no one really noticed. All those babies wrapped in blue blankets–not a pink one in sight. On the third day, people were scared–a statistic-defying abundance of blue. Not just entire hospitals, not only entire countries, but the entire world. Boys. Only boys.

Until Eve. The only girl born in fifty years. The savior of mankind. Kept protected, towering above a ruined world under a glass dome of safety until she is ready to renew the human race.

But when the time comes to find a suitor, Eve and Bram–a young man whose job is to prepare Eve for this moment–begin to question the plan they’ve known all along. Eve doesn’t only want safety, and she doesn’t only want protection. She wants the truth. She wants freedom.

The Review

What would happen to humankind if the gender balance tipped completely toward males? This book’s premise is an interesting one, especially since societies like China’s are dealing with the fallout from sex-selective abortions. Unfortunately, Eve of Man doesn’t so much delve into social change as it uses the scenario as the basis for a futuristic princess-locked-in-a-tower tale.

And main character Eve is literally confined at the top of Extinction Prevention Organization’s 2.5-mile high tower. Because the youngest women other than her are in their mid-sixties, Eve is the one hot commodity, and the EPO has made it their business to shield her from the opposite sex until she’s mature enough to take a shot at another generation. But now that Eve is sixteen she gets to choose her future mate from three potential males. As you might guess, Eve ends up falling for someone outside of this preselected pool.

The cover flap blurb teases, “But how do you choose between love and the future of the human race?” The question insinuates that Eve’s choice (Bram) is lacking somehow, like he has a genetic disorder or is infertile. That would make for interesting drama. However, the story boils down to revealing EPO as the big bad out to maintain worldwide domination by controlling Eve’s reproductive bits while Bram is the rebel in the organization trying to break her out.

The world-building in this novel is weak, which makes for confusing storytelling. Perhaps this is because it was written by two authors, but important elements don’t get clarified as soon as they should for a sci-fi title. For instance, Bram mentions that the EPO tower is located in a place called Central in Chapter 3, but it isn’t until Chapter 37 that we learn Central was once called London. Chapter 3 also talks about an apocalyptic combination of pollution clouds, global warming sea rise, and extreme weather, which gives the impression that the outside environment is borderline uninhabitable. Two-thirds of the story later, Bram is watching all sorts of mundane activity take place out of doors. The most confusing moment for me was the introduction of Holly in Chapter 1. The prologue had already hammered home the point that Eve is the ONLY! girl on the planet, so when another “girl” shows up in Eve’s penthouse quarters, I was stuck wondering what she was. After a couple of pages without an explanation, I assumed she was a kind of AI. Then in Chapter 2 (after 11 pages of Eve /Holly chatting) they FINALLY reveal that Holly is a hologram.

And not just any hologram. She’s controlled by “pilots,” young men close to Eve’s age, and Bram is one of these pilots. While it is an interesting way for the characters to meet and fall in love, the rationale behind “Holly” is shaky. She’s an extremely expensive technology whose only purpose is to manipulate Eve. However, manipulating Eve is only valuable if Eve has any real power, and she doesn’t. Whenever she shows a hint of disagreeing, the EPO tosses out Holly and reverts to force. So if they don’t really need her permission, why waste the effort and resources to persuade her? Not to mention, their pilot standards are pretty shoddy. Bram and his cohorts are supposed to act the role of a best girlfriend, but when the jerk character pilots Holly, his jerk personality bleeds through. And when the boring guy pilots her, the boringness comes out loud and clear.

The story’s one-dimensional characters, unfortunately, are not limited to these two. The primary villains Vivian Silva and Dr. Wells are especially egregious in their respective roles of unscrupulous, arrogant corporation head and evil scientist/abusive father, but it expands to include the entire male gender. Without the kindler, gentler sex, men apparently unleashed World War III and devastated the environment. Moreover, the book asserts that men possess zero self-control and, if they see a woman, are helpless to stop themselves from raping her. It’s a narrative I find appalling and rather shocking, considering a man co-authored it.

Regarding cast diversity, the main couple is white (and gorgeous), and the other key players are also white. There are side characters who might possibly be non-white, but the physical descriptions on them are so sparse that it’s difficult to tell for certain. The single character who is definitively non-white is Diego, one of Eve’s potential mates. However, he is described in unflattering terms. (“In appearance Diego is small and uninteresting…” “His skin is rough and dark, his eyes small and beady.”) Oh, and within fifteen minutes of meeting Eve, he murders someone and gets blasted to pieces. End Diego.

I suppose it’s up to the authors to decide how to design their characters, but given that they’re depicting a worldwide problem and the setting is London, a city with a diverse population, it would’ve been nice to reflect that in their cast. For instance, the narrative mentions at least three times that Eve is struggling to learn Mandarin, so why not include a Chinese person among her attendants?

The novel isn’t without its strong points. The action and escape scenes are fast-paced and have unexpected twists. However, most of those don’t show up till the second half of the book, and by then I’m already disinterested in the fate of this couple and their world.

In Summary

The book has an interesting premise but doesn’t quite deliver. Problematic storytelling aside, the story takes what could have been an interesting commentary on gender balance, power, and traditional roles and simplifies it into a hero-must rescue-princess-from-the-evil-totalitarian-power tale. Add to that some convoluted world-building and flat characters, and it makes for a less than engaging read.

First published at The Fandom Post.


Manga Review: Behind the Scenes Vol. #7

There are a LOT of anime and manga centered around glamorous idols and movie/TV stars, but what about the humble folk that do the grungy, tedious work behind the camera? The unseen teams charged with creating film sets, costumes, and props are the subject of Bisco Hatori’s Behind the Scenes!! Viz Media has released Volume 7, and you can read on for the review. (Reviews of previous volumes can be found here.)

Back Cover Blurb

The Art Squad has always felt like home to its members, but as their chief’s final year winds down, doubts begin to assail them all. Tomu worries he has no talent, Ruka decides to quit the club early to live up to family expectations, Izumi’s amnesia finally starts to get to him, and Maasa plans to give up zombies in order to find a man. Now it’s up to Ranmaru, the newest and most neurotic club member, to save the spirit of Art Squad!

The Review

This is the final volume of the series, and it’s a whirlwind rush to conclude the story’s various character arcs. First it starts with Tomu. Unlike the others in the Art Squad, he doesn’t have artistic talent, and his main contribution has been his dad’s garage space and his boundless energy. As it turns out, that boundless energy is a talent of its own in front of the camera, and he discovers his true calling when he gets scouted as a costume actor for an action film.

Next is Soh’s crush on Izumi. Although chit chat abounds about stage work, these chapters take place against the backdrop of an outdoor barbeque and a fireworks festival. Ultimately, Soh resolves to get over Izumi by agreeing to a date with another boy, an event which has both her and Ranmaru freaking out. While it’s fun to watch the squad keep Soh’s outing from turning into a disaster, her resulting interest in Ranmaru feels forced and somewhat squicky. (They are cousins, after all.)

Then the focus turns to Ruka when she tells the squad she’s quitting after the school festival. No sooner has she made the announcement than she gets slammed with costume and hair requests. This two-chapter arc is part Ruka resolving her family issues, part Art Squad team effort, and part Goda fessing up to his feelings for Ruka. Of those three elements, the third is the most subtle (a bit too subtle, IMO) but delivers the biggest payoff in the end.

The last chapter is a final tying off of loose ends with Goda finishing his script at last and directing his film. The film’s production winds up the catalyst for good things for everyone in the Art Squad, and to eliminate any doubt about their happy futures, Hatori-sensei concludes with a five-page glimpse six years into the future.

Extras include mini-profiles on the mangaka’s assistants, embedded notes from the creator, glossary, and author bio.

In Summary

It’s a wrap for Behind the Scenes!! Rather than focus on the production of any one film project, these chapters are mainly geared toward providing closure to romantic elements. The one exception is the final chapter which relates the making of Goda’s film, and mixed up in the backstage chaos are key moments that set the trajectory of the squad members’ varied futures. Parts feel rushed, especially Soh’s abrupt change in love interest. Otherwise, there’s plenty of success and happily-ever-afters to go around in this conclusion.

First published at The Fandom Post.

Light Novel Review: The Reprise of the Spear Hero Vol. #01

Originally published as a web novel,  The Rising of the Shield Hero has spawned a light novel, anime, and manga. And a sure sign of its continuing success is the fact that it’s generated a spin off series: The Reprise of the Spear Hero! Read on for my review of Volume 1.

Back Cover Blurb

Summoned to another world to serve as the Spear Hero, Motoyasu Kitamura is a pitiful young man who eventually finds himself only able to love filolials. But after being fatally injured in battle, Motoyasu wakes up yet again in the exact circumstances of when he was first summoned. It turns out that his spear possesses an ability known as Time Reversal! With his stats unaffected by the reset, Motoyasu decides to fight once more. His motivation: to once again see the smile of Filo, the filolial that he loves more than any other! Could this be considered the start of a new game in god mode?! The long-awaited otherworldly redemption fantasy begins!

The Review

The Reprise of the Spear Hero is a spin off of the The Rising of the Shield Hero. If you are not familiar with The Rising of the Shield Hero light novel, anime, or manga, this series will be nothing short of confusing. However, as long as you’ve been exposed to one version of the Shield Hero and don’t mind possible spoilers, The Rising of the Shield Hero can be a humorous take on the biggest idiot of the cast. For my part, I’ve only watched Season 1 of the Shield Hero anime, and even though Reprise makes reference to characters and events beyond that arc, the numerous summary pages and side commentaries allowed me to follow the narrative without any trouble.

As the title suggests, the spinoff’s main character is the Spear Hero Motoyasu Kitamura, whose most distinguishing characteristic is his stupidity. In fact, the prologue relates how his thoughtlessness resulted in his untimely death in Japan. In the original series, Motoyasu was so easily manipulated by Princess Malty that he became the most obnoxious of the Four Heroes and caused Shield Hero Naofumi no end of trouble. However, as the story progressed, Motoyasu’s disdain for Naofumi turned to pure devotion while his adoration for Malty and other females soured into a disgust so intense he views all women as oinking pigs.

The spinoff begins with that somewhat enlightened Motoyasu dying in battle. There aren’t details on what killed him, but that’s okay because they’re not actually important. What is important is that upon dying, he finds himself in the magic circle that first summoned the Four Heroes to Melromarc. In other words, his life has been restarted. However, while the other three heroes are as they were when they initially arrived, Motoyasu retains the stats he attained prior to dying as well as certain memories of his previous life. Those memories include the truth about Malty’s scheme to frame Naofumi. Thrilled with the chance to correct the mistakes of his previous life, he uses his overwhelming powers to protect Naofumi. Unfortunately, keeping Naofumi from getting killed turns into a greater challenge than Motoyasu ever expected.

Thus, Reprise winds up as an alternate version of The Rising of the Shield Hero. Instead of beginning his journey with no allies, Naofumi starts with one very powerful, very enthusiastic, and extremely peculiar ally. Motoyasu is telling the story so it can get confusing, especially when women enter the scene. Because he perceives them as pigs, it’s only through other male characters that we learn who their identities are and what they’re saying. Also, Motoyasu takes every opportunity to wax poetic about filofials. Filo, the filofial he’s most obsessed with, doesn’t actually show up in person, but he talks about her constantly. So to keep the narration from getting too crazy, the Naofumi from the original series occasionally pops in with explanation blurbs to guide the reader.

As mentioned above, Motoyasu’s memories and god mode powers prevent a repeat of the false charges that turned the kingdom against Naofumi. The good news is that Naofumi doesn’t turn into an embittered outcast, and he’s not forced to buy a slave to survive. The bad news is that his enemies add Motoyasu to the hit list and resort to more drastic measures to eliminate them both. After a couple false starts, Motoyasu realizes the best plan of action is to help Naofumi escape hostile Melromarc for friendlier Siltvelt. They are joined by Eclair, a swordswoman whose father governed Raphtalia’s home region before the waves. Eclair’s also a notable exception to Motoyasu’s pig-vision, and she takes the role of protector and potential love interest that Raphtalia held in the original series.

As for Naofumi’s other companion Filo, Motoyasu holds out hope that he’ll encounter her again. He even goes so far as to purchase filofial eggs at every opportunity. Sadly for him, Filo hasn’t emerged yet. However, a whole lot of other chicks do, and these filofial queens and kings provide the fun and feathered chaos that Filo did.

Extras include the first four pages printed in color, summary of The Rising of the Shield Hero, embedded character profiles, six black-and-white illustrations, and commentary from the Raphtalia and Naofumi of the original series.

In Summary

The Rising of the Shield Hero meets Groundhog Day! This is definitely a series best left to existing fans of The Rising of the Shield Hero. If you’ve ever wanted the Spear Hero to redeem himself or to see a kindler, gentler version of the Shield Hero, you’ll find it here. Be warned, however. The perspective of the filofial-infatuated Spear Hero makes for a unique narrative style.

First published at the Fandom Post.