Saturday, July 31, 2010

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (book) by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith

I just barely managed to finish reading this in time (before my ILL due date). Even with zombies and changes here and there in the text, there's still a lot of Jane Austen's writing to get through (I'm not an Austen-hater, I'm just a modern reader who stalls a bit when confronted with non-modern writing). I had a lot of fun with this book, though, and I'm now thinking that I need to reread the original.

Brief Synopsis:

In short, this is Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice set in an England facing an outbreak of zombies. Young men and ladies are trained in the art of combat if they're physically able, but that doesn't stop everyone from being interested in appearances and marriage. Everyone except Elizabeth, who would rather concentrate on kicking zombie butt. Something she does very, very well.

If you want more details, read the longer synopsis, but, basically, Grahame-Smith works the zombie bits in very well. In some cases, he works them in so well that I think his version of events is better than the original. In other cases, he tries so hard to keep the story from straying from the original that his own additions can't properly be followed to their logical conclusions.

Longer Synopsis, with Zombie Bits
:

It's been so long since I read the original that I can't remember much about it - I read it in middle school as part of a "you must read some of the classics, but you can read whichever ones you want" project, and I remember being a bit surprised that it wasn't as painful to get through as I thought it would be. I picked it because it was short and seemed likely to have romance.

My most recent memories of non-zombiefied Pride and Prejudice therefore come from the two TV versions (at least, two is all I remember, and I haven't seen the more recently produced movie version). I remember Mrs. Bennet being silly, but she's even sillier in an England filled with zombies. Most of her attention is on marrying off her daughters. Mr. Bennet, rightfully so, is more interested in seeing all his daughters survive to adulthood, unafflicted by England's mysterious plague. Out of concern for their future survival, Elizabeth and her sisters were trained in combat from a very young age, sent to China by their father to learn the "deadly arts."

Elizabeth and Jane are two of the most accomplished sisters in the family when it comes to combat, although all of the sisters are deadly. Jane is a kind person, who tries to see the good in everyone (even, in some cases, zombies), but Elizabeth can be a bit scary at times (perhaps sociopathic?). It looks at first like Jane might end up being the first of the Bennet sisters to marry, but various other people interfere. Mrs. Bennet is also excited when it appears as though Elizabeth may have a chance to marry, but Elizabeth wants nothing to do with Mr. Collins, the man who proposes to her out of a desire to appear generous (he'll be moving into the Bennet family's home after Mr. Bennet dies - one of the reasons why Mrs. Bennet desperately wants to see all her daughters married off).

Mr. Collins ends up marrying Charlotte, a friend of Elizabeth's, instead - later on, Charlotte relates to Elizabeth in confidence that she is stricken with the plague and only wishes to end her days in happiness. After the marriage, Elizabeth visits and is stunned and horrified that Charlotte is showing obvious signs of becoming a zombie (oozing sores, speech problems, sickness) that no one but her seems to notice, not even Mr. Collins. Eventually, though, Lady Catherine, a woman whose skill at killing the afflicted is considered legendary, forces Mr. Collins to realize his wife's undead condition. Mr. Collins beheads Charlotte and then hangs himself.

Although Elizabeth was not particularly impressed with Mr. Collins, she did find a soldier named Mr. Wickham a bit interesting. She didn't expect or even want to marry him, but she liked talking to him and, through him, she learned all kinds of distasteful things about Mr. Darcy's character. Apparently, as a child Mr. Darcy broke both of Wickham's legs in a fit of jealousy over his father's attention. Elizabeth resolves to dislike Darcy.

Unfortunately, Mr. Darcy confesses his love to Elizabeth, a love that he feels despite her rather embarrassing family. Elizabeth angrily turns him down and even battles him when she discovers that he is responsible for her sister Jane's unhappiness. However, Elizabeth later comes to regret her response when she discovers that Mr. Darcy isn't the horrible person she thought he was. Mr. Wickham had lied about their past - Mr. Darcy broke his legs after he discovered that Wickham had planned on beating a deaf stable boy. Also, Mr. Darcy interfered with Jane's budding romance with Mr. Bingley because he believed she had become afflicted - since he thought it was only a matter of time before she'd start trying to eat brains, he wanted to protect his friend from an unhappy relationship with her.

After kicking Mr. Darcy's head into a mantelpiece during their fight, Elizabeth is sure that he could not possibly still care for her, and she regrets this dearly. When her sister Lydia is basically kidnapped by Wickham, however, she and her family have other things to worry about. If Wickham and Lydia don't marry, Lydia's reputation will be ruined - Mary and Kitty Bennet resolve to come up with plans to kill Wickham for the affront to their sister's honor. Eventually the family hears news that Lydia and Wickham are to be married - Wickham lost the use of his arms and legs after a bad carriage accident and now only hopes to marry Lydia for just enough money per year to cover new bed linens, as he now soils them often. He also plans to join the seminary. When Lydia arrives back home with her new husband, she is bubbly and joyous, despite Wickham's shocking condition - apparently, she doesn't care about the state her husband is in, so long as she can say she's a married woman.

Elizabeth later discovers that Mr. Darcy had a hand in Wickham's change of heart - and his changed physical condition. Presumably in order to avoid being killed for his behavior, Wickham allowed Mr. Darcy to beat him until he lost the use of his arms and legs, as well as his ability to procreate (Mr. Darcy was not pleased at the news of the number of bastards Wickham left behind). He also promised Mr. Darcy that he would marry Lydia and join a seminary.

Now that Lydia's situation is happily resolved, Elizabeth has to deal with her personal problems again. The Lady Catherine shows up at the Bennet family's home, angry that Elizabeth is apparently rumored to be getting married to Mr. Darcy. Lady Catherine had wanted Mr. Darcy to marry her own daughter, and she is not happy at the idea of Mr. Darcy marrying someone like Elizabeth, who learned the deadly arts in China of all places (she considers Japan to be higher class). She challenges Elizabeth to a fight. Although Elizabeth manages to stab Lady Catherine, Lady Catherine keeps the upper hand for a while, until Elizabeth finally corners her with a katana. Rather than behead her, however, Elizabeth chooses to let her live, because she doesn't want Mr. Darcy to hate her for killing Lady Catherine, his aunt.

Later, Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth finally work up the courage to talk to each other about their feelings for one another. Mr. Darcy's haven't changed, much to Elizabeth's joy. They agree to be married, and celebrate their engagement by killing some zombies together. Elizabeth's father is shocked that she wants to marry someone she had earlier said she hated, but he accepts her decision. Mrs. Bennet is overjoyed that both Jane and Elizabeth are finally getting married.

Commentary:

Depending upon how you feel about the original book, you may either like the characters as they are in this one, or you may be outraged by them. I was thrilled that Elizabeth was so kick-butt, but I was also a little put off by her sociopathic tendencies. Not only does she coldly think about killing several people during the early parts of the book, at one point, she fights Lady's Catherine's ninjas, rips the heart out of one of them, and takes a bite out of the heart. Ew. Not to mention, isn't that an awfully zombie-like thing to do? Mr. Bennet, who I remembered as being the more likable of Elizabeth's parents, is revealed to be a cheating bastard at one point, which I didn't like, although I understood. Charlotte was a great change, and I think one of the best uses of zombies in the story, although it was really bizarre that no one but Elizabeth noticed her gradual descent into zombiehood.

There are inconsistencies in the story, though. If the plague is only in England, why do other countries allow Englanders to visit them? I wouldn't think Japan or China would want to risk getting the plague too. Also, no one notices that Charlotte is ill - huh? No one comments that Mr. Collins has killed himself. Lydia's reaction to her husband's condition is kind of creepy and surreal. Also, I think the author mixed Chinese and Japanese cultures a bit too much - I think he not only used the word "dojo" for both cultures, I think he also had Japanese weapons in the Bennet's Chinese house.

Although a lot of the zombie stuff if played for laughs, there is a bit of creepy stuff. For instance, the zombie baby that Elizabeth lets live, or the zombie children. The fact that this country is overridden by zombies is also creepy, especially when you consider everyone's continued fascination with marriage - you'd think people would be a wee bit more focused on survival and the steady shrinking of the living population. Those who take issue with the less amusing and more horrific aspects of all the zombie stuff may also find that they have problems with the prominent presence of vomit in the story. I didn't think it was possible to vomit politely, but apparently it is, because characters do it a lot. Also, Mrs. Bennet vomits when she's worried about Lydia. I think vomiting replaces having the vapors in women. Not sure what it replaces in men.

I've talked to at least one person who said they probably wouldn't read this book because they liked the original and didn't want this book tainting that love. I suppose I can understand that (especially when I think about the vomiting and heart-chomping), but, at the same time, I think fans of the original story would be in the best position to appreciate the punishments meted out upon certain characters: Mr. Collins committing suicide, Wickham ending up with a bedpan, etc.

The book ends with a section of discussion questions (a lot like what you'd find in a book discussion group edition). They're often funny, but they should not be read unless you don't mind spoilers or have already read the book.

I'm going to try something new, starting with this post. In the interest of being able to list all read-alikes and watch-alikes I can come up with, and not just the ones I'm willing to write about, I'm now not going to write brief descriptions for them. True, I usually ended up just copying and pasting things from previous posts, but that's not possible when I haven't used something as a read-alike/watch-alike before. I'd now like to only write briefly about whatever it is that made me decide to include the book/movie/whatever in my list. We'll see how that goes. More than likely, no one will miss the old way (hey, does anyone even read these lists anymore? or my posts??). If you do miss it, well, click on the links, do a search in your favorite search engine, or use the little WorldCat search box I put at the top of the right-most column in this blog.

Even after cutting out all the descriptions, it's still not possible for me to list all the potential read-alikes for this book. Do you know how many rewritten Jane Austen books, rewritten classics in general, and classics rewritten with zombies/vampires/whatever there are? It's mind-boggling. And zombies, so many zombies everywhere.

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • Shaun of the Dead (live action movie) - For those who see the humor in zombies, here's a hilarious British zombie movie. Just like it took forever for anyone to realize there's something wrong with Charlotte, it takes a lot longer than it should have for anybody to realize everyone's become a zombie. No, that lady isn't just drunk.
  • Pride and Prejudice (book) by Jane Austen - If you haven't read the original yet, you really should.
  • Zombieland (live action movie) - Yet another funny movie with zombies, this one with more zombie-killing action than Shaun of the Dead. If you liked the bits where the Bennets kicked zombie butt, you might enjoy this movie, set in a near-future (or present-day) where likely most of humanity has been turned into zombies.
  • Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters (book) by Jane Austen and Ben H. Winters - Tired of all the Pride and Prejudice-based stuff, but still want more Jane Austen parodies/rewrites? Then try this, which, obviously, has sea monsters in place of zombies.
  • Pride and Prejudice (graphic novel) adapted by Nancy Butler, illustrated by Hugo Petrus - Holy crap, there's a Pride and Prejudice graphic novel! No, there aren't any zombies, but I couldn't help but list this.
  • Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls (book) by Steve Hockensmith - If you liked P&P&Z, you might like this sequel, which takes place five years before Bingley moves to Netherfield. This one may be even better than P&P&Z, because it's not bound to any particular text and can therefore be a bit more free, aside from making sure that its ending conditions match up with the beginning of P&P&Z.
  • Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (book) by Seth Grahame-Smith - Oh. My. God. Ahem. Anyway, this one's written by the same guy who did P&P&Z, only now he's re-imagining history through the lens of horror. Sounds like fun.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit (book) Nahoko Uehashi, translated by Cathy Hirano, illustrated by Yuko Shimizu

I liked the book, but I don't know if I would have liked it more, or less, if I hadn't already seen the anime. At first, it seemed like the anime must have been very closely based on this book, and then it became clear that the anime expanded things quite a bit (or, depending on your point of view, added a lot of "fluff").

Synopsis:

Like in the anime, Balsa is a spear-wielding bodyguard who gets hired by the Second Queen to be Prince Chagum's bodyguard shortly after she rescues him from drowning. Chagum's father, the Mikado, has ordered him to be assassinated because the Master Star Reader believes Chagum to be possessed by a demon that will bring a terrible drought to the land.

At this point in the anime, Balsa and Chagum spend a great deal of time evading the Mikado's men, Chagum learns a lot about how to blend in with commoners, and everybody tries to figure out what's really inside Chagum, only to later discover that what's inside him isn't a demon at all, but rather a Nyunga Ro Im (a Water Spirit). In the book, the Mikado's people learn rather quickly (but after several attempts upon Chagum's life have already been made) that they made a mistake and then turn their energies towards trying to figure out how to get the land through a drought and how to make sure that Chagum survives the Rarunga, a terrible being that apparently always rips apart the Nyunga Ro Chaga (Guardian of the Spirit). Tanda (a healer and Balsa's childhood friend) and Torogai know immediately that what's inside Chagum is not a demon, and they, too, try to figure out what to do about the Rarunga.

Although Shuga, a gifted young Star Reader, learns a great deal about the Nyunga Ro Im and that the Rarunga's weakness is fire, he doesn't have the time to learn everything he needs to. Still, he thinks he knows how to protect Chagum and how the hatching time will go. Unfortunately, everyone is missing a few vital pieces of information - they didn't realize that the egg would force Chagum to attract the Rarunga and that the egg would be hatching in an entirely different location than expected.

As the eight Hunters and Balsa fight to protect Chagum from the Rarunga, Chagum basically coughs up the egg, and Tanda figures out at the last second that the egg must be thrown high up into the air, where the nahji (a kind of bird) can catch it and then carry it away to the sea.

After the egg is carried away, Chagum must go back to the palace - since his brother died while he was in hiding, Chagum is now the Crown Prince, the Mikado's only possible heir. Although he's sad about leaving Balsa and Tanda, who have become almost a family to him, Chagum knows his duty. In the end, Balsa, too, must leave. Although she said that, after saving her eighth life, she would see about settling down (possibly marrying Tanda and having those kids everyone keeps encouraging her to have), her time with Chagum helped her learn a little more about what Jiguro (the man who protected her as a child) must have felt. She wants to go back to Kanbal for a bit and see Jiguro's friends and family, so that she can tell them what happened to him and what kind of life he led after he left them.

Commentary:

My comments reference the anime heavily, because the first way I experienced this series was through the anime. However much my comments might sometimes make it seem as though the anime came first, though, it was the book that came first - it's just a little hard to remember that when I didn't even know that the anime series was based on a book until well after I'd seen a few episodes.

The basic shell of the story is the same in the book and the anime, only with, I felt, less flashy magic and action in the book. So, overall, it felt like the anime was a fairly faithful adaptation of the book, and I therefore had a pretty good idea of what was going to happen in the book.

That doesn't mean there weren't differences, though. In fact, there were quite a few differences. In the book, Chagum and his brother weren't close, so his brother's death didn't really affect him at all, emotionally. As I said in the synopsis, the whole bit about "is this a demon" was barely even an issue. Toya and Saya, who show up enough in the anime that I had no problem remembering their names, are barely even in the book, and Chagum never spends much time with them - that part with Toya, Chagum, and the fixed game was completely an invention for the anime. The eight Hunters, although somewhat more developed (you learn a bit about what the childhood of one of them was like, which makes a scene in the anime make a bit more sense), are also not in the book nearly as much. I found it much more believable that the Shuga of the book was a fisherman's son than the silver-haired Shuga of the anime. Finally, the last part of my list of differences: you learn a lot more about the Yogoan past, what the first king was like (a guy who couldn't think for himself), and that the first Master Star Reader (Kainan Nanai) basically ruled the country.

I kind of liked the anime more than this book, because I felt like I got to know the characters better - maybe not their pasts, as much (I'm thinking of the Hunters, here), but they felt more like people rather than characters. True, the one Hunter was a bit more sappy in the anime, but at least he felt like someone I could like and understand. Plus, Balsa and Chagum got more chances to be cooler in the anime - it really does help sometimes to be able to actually see action scenes happen, and the action scenes in the anime, although not the focus, were pretty good.

None of that is to say that I disliked the book. I'm still a bit ambivalent about the book - actually, I'm ambivalent about a lot of "books the anime was based on," like, for instance, Fuyumi Ono's The Twelve Kingdoms series. There seems to always be some about the translations (or writing?) of these books that seems a little clunky.

The list below will look very familiar if you read my post for the Moribito anime. What can I say, I'm lazy.

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • Princess Mononoke (anime movie) - While fighting to save his village from an attack by a demonic wild boar, Ashitaka is inflicted with a deadly curse that forces him to leave his village in search of a cure. He ends up in the middle of a war between the forest gods (including a girl raised by wolves, or maybe wolf gods) and a village determined to continue producing iron. This movie's setting feels similar to the one in Moribito, a sort of fantasy-filled past.
  • The Twelve Kingdoms (anime TV series); The Twelve Kingdoms, Vol.1: Sea of Shadow (book) by Fuyumi Ono - In this series, an unhappy high school student from our world encounters a strange man who swears allegiance to her. The two of them are attacked by demon-like beasts, and the student ends up being transported to another world, one in which there seems to be no one she can trust. Somehow, she must survive and figure out why she was brought to this other world. Like Moribito, the setting feels almost like something from a historical anime/book, with enough fantasy elements mixed in to make it clear that it's not quite an Earth setting. Although the high school student, Yoko, doesn't start off very strong, she becomes stronger because she must. Those who liked the survival elements of Balsa and Chagum's story may like this series.
  • Graceling (book) by Kristin Cashore - When she was only 8 years old, Katsa learned that she is Graced with killing. By the time she is 16, Katsa is in control of her abilities and has become King Randa's tool for punishing those who disobey and defy him. However, what Randa doesn't know is that Katsa has formed a secret council designed to right wrongs perpetrated by the kings of all the kingdoms. After Katsa rescues the elderly Prince Tealiff, she finds herself working with Prince Tealiff's grandson, Po, to try to uncover the motive behind his kidnapping. Another story with a strong female character, fantasy elements, and a pseudo-historical setting.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Story of Saiunkoku, the Complete Season One (anime TV series)

This series was one of my rare crazy impulse purchases. Usually, before I buy, I research an anime series. Sometimes I'll read lots of reviews, take a look at screen shots (the artwork can have a big effect on whether I like something or not), and watch a few fansubbed episodes. At the very least, I read short summaries, so I know what the series is about.

With this one...I looked at the packaging design. That's all. Seriously.

From the packaging design, I guessed that this would be a nice historical romance featuring at least one very pretty guy. And so I bought this boxed set.

This could have gone very badly. Even though Rightstuf.com was having a Geneon sale, it still wasn't cheap. Had Season Two also been available and on sale, I probably would have bought that, too, because I am a completist. I still don't have Season Two, but I plan to get it once Rightstuf has another Geneon sale and I can compare the price there to Amazon's. I have an Amazon.com gift certificate, so that may win out.

My impulse buy worked out in the end, because I really enjoyed this show. It wasn't quite what I expected, but it was enjoyable all the same. This turned out to be a pretty complicated series, although I didn't understand the full extent of that complexity until the last few episodes. My synopsis includes several spoilers, but, in the interest of not writing something novel length, I still had to leave a lot out. Many characters and events are either skimmed over or completely left out.

Synopsis:

The country of Saiunkoku is composed of eight provinces, each named after a different color. Ryuki Shi is the new emperor, after the struggle for the throne left everyone in the royal family dead except for him and his beloved older brother, Seien Shi, who was exiled. Unfortunately, Ryuki seems to be a useless emperor, refusing to see to his duties and spending his nights with male lovers. Shurei Hong (or Kou - either the translators made up "Hong" or Kou is the Japanese way of saying Hong), a princess whose family has fallen on hard times, is offered, and accepts, a large sum of money to become Ryuki's temporary concubine and help him become a better emperor. What Shurei would really like to do is become a government official, but, although she is intelligent, women are not allowed to become government officials. Being Ryuki's concubine is the closest she can come to achieving her dream.

Ryuki falls hard for Shurei. She is kind to him and cares deeply for Saiunkoku and its people, and her attitude begins to rub off on him. It turns out that Ryuki is not the "idiot Emperor" he pretends to be, and he's not as frivolous as the rumors make him out to be. He's also not interested in men, although Shurei doesn't find that out until later. The reason Ryuki has acted the way he has is because he lacks confidence in himself. Also, he keeps expecting his beloved older brother Seien to come back - he feels that Seien would be the preferred ruler and would be happy to let his brother be Emperor if he returned and wished to be. When Ryuki was little, everyone in the royal family abused him, and the only one who showed him true affection was Seien, who also was not loved by most of the royal family.

Ryuki happily discovers that Seien is alive and well, now going by the name Seiran and living with Shurei as her loyal friend and bodyguard. However, Seiran wishes to continue keeping his true identity a secret, and now Ryuki no longer has a reason to continue avoiding his duties. Once he finally begins acting like an emperor (and after a few assassination attempts), Shurei goes home, but that doesn't stop Ryuki from courting her as best he knows how (his efforts are, unfortunately, way over the top, but at least his heart's in the right place). Ryuki's time with Shurei convinced him that women could potentially make good government officials, so he manages to convince the court to allow Shurei to take the exam one needs to pass before becoming a government official.

Shurei passes the exam and deals with the miserable period afterward. While others who passed the exams slowly get to take on more responsibilities, Shurei is left scrubbing toilets. She's not the only one being given a hard time - the person who scored the best on the exam and the youngest person ever to pass, a 13-year-old boy named Eigetsu, must clean the shoes of arrogant, mildly abusive government officials. Both Shurei and Eigetsu are rewarded for their trials, however. Ryuki demonstrates his trust in them and their abilities by making them the first ever co-governors of a province - the dangerously unsettled Sa province.

It's at this point in the show that it turns into something I didn't expect - rather than staying physically near Ryuki and getting to see him and Shurei fall in love, Shurei leaves and spends very little of the rest of the season with Ryuki. Instead, there is lots of action, political unrest, and drama, as Seiran and Ensei (the former governor of Sa province) try to get Shurei and Eigetsu safely to their destination. There are some additional romantic subplots, as a bored young merchant, who is actually a horrible bastard whose only redeeming qualities are his looks and his affection for Shurei, falls for Shurei and she starts to care for him a little, prompting Seiran to sort of confess his feelings to Shurei.

Otherwise, though, the rest of this show is mostly about politics, which is not as boring as it sounds. Things wrap up tragically in terms of the horrible bastard, who died prettily. Eigetsu and Shurei turn out to be fabulous co-governors who manage to draft a great plan for the future of Sa province, thereby winning everyone's respect and trust. Unfortunately, the horrible bastard (whose name is really Sakujun Sa, but I like "horrible bastard" better) still manages to cause problems, even in death. He set things up so that his brother, Kokujun Sa, would believe he killed his own father and grandfather, making him therefore not worthy to marry Shunki Sa and become head of the clan. Also, although the horrible bastard was never able to bring himself to tell her flat-out, the way he had originally planned to, Shurei is a smart young lady and was able to figure out that she was inadvertently responsible for his death - a death that upsets her, even as she knows he gave most people no reason to mourn his passing. Fortunately, Shurei manages to deal with her grief with the help of her friends.

Finally, near the end of the season, Shurei and Ryuki get to see each other again, so that Shurei can submit her and Eigetsu's plan to him for his approval. As Ryuki has become a better Emperor, he has also become more lonely. Now, Shurei is one of the few people who still treats him like Ryuki and not just like the Emperor. He still loves her, and she still refuses him, but he says he doesn't mind, that he can wait as long as necessary.

Here's hoping that season 2 brings some resolution to Shurei and Ryuki's romantic storyline - while this ending isn't completely painful, I need something more than this.

Commentary:

For a series with packaging that shouts "romance," there's not a whole lot of that, at least not as much as I expected. The beginning of the season, with Shurei as Ryuki's concubine, didn't surprise me, but I expected that, afterward, he'd court her, she'd become a government official, and that would give them lots of opportunities to see each other and become closer. Instead, Ryuki does the responsible thing and sends her to another province, where she can do the good she wants to do, and the two of them spend almost all of the rest of the season apart. Ryuki pines over Shurei, Shurei finds herself attracted to Sakujun in spite of herself, and Seiran offers himself to Shurei as a better option than Sakujun. Aside from all of that, the season focuses mostly on Shurei's struggle to stabilize Sa province and assume her position as governor.

And yet, I wasn't bored. As much as I hated Sakujun Sa, he was so deliciously messed up and terrible that his mere presence had a tendency to ramp up the drama. Had he not been in the series, it's likely that all the scheming between the various old men, plus the thugs they sent after Shurei, Eigetsu and, by extension, Seiran and Ensei, would have bored me. Thugs are one thing - with Sakujun, I was never really sure what he would do or what he was even capable of. Sure, he was nice to Shurei while she interested him, but what if he got bored with her, the same way he did with everything else?

Even as I liked some of the things Sakujun brought to the show, I was annoyed at how stupid he tended to make Shurei, all because of the supposed similarities she saw between him and Ryuki (which I never really saw myself, even when Shurei tried to spell them out). Usually, when an anime or manga heroine is dumb around a guy, I can at least tell myself, "Well, but it's ok, because she's dumb even when she's not around him." Sad, but true (*cough* Miaka *cough*). In this case, Shurei was intelligent, with a level head on her shoulders - that surprised me a little, since her penny-pinching and slight whining at the beginning of the series prepared me for a heroine that would be much-loved but also annoyingly stupid. She wasn't stupid, and she actually trusted her friends. Amazing. And then she met Sakujun and was like a deer in headlights.

Well, even though the second half of the season, where Eigetsu and Shurei were trying to take their place as co-governors of Sa, didn't bore me, I must admit that I preferred the first half of the season, as stereotypical as it was. I loved watching Shurei and Ryuki together (and giggling every time Shurei figured she was safe with him because she'd heard he likes guys), and I loved watching Ryuki grow up. Unfortunately, in the first half of the season Shurei doesn't really get to do much, beyond cook great food and charm people with her beauty, intelligence, and general affection for her country and its people. Are heroines like Shurei only allowed to do great things if they are not in close physical proximity to romantic situations? I hope not. I would like the second season to have more romance, with Shurei still getting to be a competent government official.

Watch-alikes and Read-alikes:
  • First Test (book) by Tamora Pierce - Of all of the Tortall books that Pierce has written that I've read, her books starring Keladry are my favorite. Kel is determined to be the first girl to be officially allowed to be a page - Alanna, the first Lady Knight, had to pretend to be a boy in order to be allowed to train to be a knight. Unfortunately, even though girls are allowed to train to be knights now, there are many who don't agree with this, and Kel has to deal with a lot of bullying, in addition to the usual hazing and brutal training all pages go through. Fortunately, Kel's determined, a hard worker, and good at making friends. Those who liked the semi-historical feel of The Story of Saiunkoku and the whole "girl trying to enter a man's world" aspect might like this.
  • The Twelve Kingdoms (anime TV series) - This anime is based on a series of books written by Fuyumi Ono, which I highly recommend reading in order, just because the world it's all set in is so complex that it's really just best not to create an additional breeding ground for confusion. I think the anime covers the events of the first three books. The series as a whole is centered upon the world of the Twelve Kingdoms, each kingdom of which is governed by a ruler whose very existence determines the health and prosperity of his or her kingdom. Each ruler is chosen and guided by a kirin. One particular ruler who comes up a lot in the show and the series of books is Yoko, a seemingly ordinary Japanese high school girl who was taken from the world she knew by a strange man named Keiki and plopped in the world of the Twelve Kingdoms. Eventually, Yoko learns that she's the new ruler of Kei and must figure out how to stabilize a place she knows little about, whose people, fearing that she's just like the previous ruler, don't trust her. Not exactly a "woman breaking into a man's world" story, since male and female roles are less divided in this world, but it is another story about a woman finding her strength and trying to make a place for herself, with quite a bit of politics (and even less romance than The Story of Saiunkoku).
  • Fushigi Yuugi: Mysterious Play (manga) by Yuu Watase; Fushigi Yuugi: Mysterious Play (anime TV series) - Miaka is an ordinary middle school student who wants nothing more than some tasty snacks and to be accepted into the same high school as her best friend (who, unfortunately for Miaka, has much better grades than she does - getting into the same high school is going to be tough). When she visits the National Library with her friend, she stumbles upon the book The Universe of the Four Gods and literally gets sucked into the story. She becomes the priestess of Suzaku, protected by her Celestial Warriors. If she can find all seven of her Celestial Warriors, she will be able to summon Suzaku and go home. A good suggestion for those who'd like another pseudo-historical story with lots of drama and fantasy elements, plus way more romance.
  • Moribito (anime TV series) - Like The Twelve Kingdoms, this is based on a book (which is part of a larger series, but the anime only covers the events of the first book). Balsa is a female bodyguard, a skilled spear-wielder who just wanted to get her spear fixed when she found herself with little choice but to protect Chagum, a young prince possessed by a water spirit. Those who'd like another pseudo-historical story with political and fantasy aspects might want to try this.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Hakuouki (anime TV series), not yet licensed

I suppose technically this is a post for the first season of the show, since I'm pretty sure there's a second season planned for the fall of this year.  I'm kind of surprised this show survived one season, but whatever.

Synopsis:

My knowledge of Japanese history is really, really lousy. Everything I know about the Shinsengumi I learned from watching Rurouni Kenshin and Peacemaker and the little bit of information I've read online (if anybody knows of a good book about the Shinsengumi that's in English, do let me know in a comment!). That makes it really hard to write this synopsis with any degree of detail - I would've had to spend all my time writing names down, which would have interfered with what little enjoyment I managed to get from this show.

Now that I've prepared you for the suckiness of my synopsis...

Chizuru has come to Kyoto looking for her father, a doctor who has gone missing.  However, after she witnesses members of the Shinsengumi kill a bunch of blood-thirsty, monster-like Shinsengumi, Chizuru is taken prisoner.  It's possible that Chizuru could be killed for what she witnessed.  However, the Shinsengumi are also looking for Chizuru's father, so, in the end, it's decided that, if Chizuru is a well-behaved prisoner, she might get the chance to occasionally look for her father a bit.

The problem is, everyone in the Shinsengumi is a wet washcloth where Chizuru is concerned, and it's not long before she gets to be wherever she likes.  Not that she uses this as an opportunity to escape and go looking for her father.  No, she cleans, cooks, does laundry, and does whatever else that needs doing. After she loses instantly in a fight against Saitou, it is determined that Chizuru would be able to defend herself well enough that she wouldn't get in the way if she accompanied Shinsengumi members on patrol, so her options for finding her father are opened up slightly. For the rest of the show, the general pattern is: Chizuru rushes into or stumbles upon danger, she shuts her eyes and flinches without ever drawing her sword, and some male saves her.  She manages to draw her sword once, maybe twice, but that's all.

Being one of the Shinsengumi kind of sucks.  Everyone hates them, and their own allies constantly try to either grab any and all glory from them or just outright betray them. In this show, they were also used as guinea pigs - Chizuru's father had been using Shinsengumi members as test subjects while trying to perfect a dangerous medicine. The medicine has great healing powers and can make anyone who drinks it stronger and nearly impervious to damage, but it's still imperfect and has unfortunate side effects, like insanity and vampirism. Despite these side effects, several members of the Shinsengumi willingly drink the medicine, including, by the end of the season, four members of the main cast.

A natural version of what the medicine is trying to create already exists - they are oni (demons), and, for the most part, female oni are rare. It just so happens that Chizuru is a female oni, which makes her much sought after by a group of male oni. By this time, the Shinsengumi have decided that they like Chizuru enough to die defending her, so they stand between her and the male oni, since Chizuru chooses not to leave with the female oni who offers to protect her.

All of this is happening at the same time various historical events that I'm sure those who are more familiar with the Shinsengumi than I am will probably recognize.  The events at Ikedaya, the only part of Shinsengumi history that I know in any kind of detail (from Peacemaker), are over by the end of the third or fourth episode.  By the end of the season, the Shinsengumi, now led by Hijikata, have elected to leave Kyoto (retreating after being betrayed by their allies) and go to Edo.

Commentary:

All I knew about this show when I started watching it was that it was about the Shinsengumi, it was pretty, and it would probably not be the best thing I had ever seen.  I didn't realize until after I began watching it that it was based on a romance adventure game.  Don't make the mistake of thinking that this show is going to be chock full of romance, though.  It's actually quite bloody, and there isn't really any romance, unless you count Chizuru occasionally blushing over the (very, very gorgeous) higher ups in the Shinsengumi, the oni guy who wants to take Chizuru away and make her his bride (although I kind of think he's more interested in Hijikata or Souji than Chizuru), and the light flirting the Shinsengumi guys sometimes engage in with Chizuru after they save her for the umpteenth time.

To be honest, if my weakness weren't bishounen characters, of which there are many in this show, and if I hadn't liked the artwork, animation, and battles, I probably would have quit watching this show.  It helped that I knew I only had to get through 12 episodes, although I'm kind of bummed that I may be forcing myself to get through another 12 during the autumn anime season.  See, the thing is, this show is pretty boring.  Some of that might have been that I had problems keeping the events and groups involved straight, but some of it was due to the show's hideously bad pacing.  There are only 12 episodes in this season, and it isn't until the 5th or 6th episode that anything really happens.  All that stuff about the special medicine is only hinted at until halfway through the show.

It doesn't help that Chizuru is weak and uninteresting.  For a girl who's supposed to be an oni, she's pretty worthless in a fight.  I laughed out loud when Saitou declared her able to accompany Shinsengumi members on patrol without getting in their way - in his words, her "blade is unclouded." Well, ok, but he beat her instantly in a practice fight, and she had demonstrated absolutely no ability to use her sword in a real fight.  You know, the kind where there's blood and people die.  You'd think that, after the first time she went out and had to be saved because all she did was flinch and tremble when someone drew his sword on her, no one would let her go out on patrol again, but that wasn't the case.  Because of the ease with which she could be used as a hostage and, once the oni males got involved, because of the danger she attracted, she was basically a giant weakness for the Shinsengumi, but no one seemed to recognize that.  Apparently, her cooking skills, gentle nature, and ability to tie a bandage were all well worth risking death for.

When I wasn't yelling at Chizuru to stop running headlong into battles in which she'd only get in the way, I at least got to admire the pretty artwork and characters.  Since my most recent exposure to the Shinsengumi was Peacemaker, however, some of the characters in this show took some getting used to.  For instance, I kept confusing Hakuouki's Heisuke with Peacemaker's Shinpachi.  After falling in love with Peacemaker's gentle and scary Souji, Hakuouki's Souji seemed a little sociopathic at first, but he eventually grew on me, as much as any of the characters in this show could.  Unfortunately, with this many characters, simultaneous historical and supernatural storylines, and only 12 episodes, most of the characters weren't much more than a name and a basic personality.  For me, the most interesting characters were Sannan (the only Shinsengumi member who tried to be cruel to Chizuru), Kazama (an oni guy whose motives I keep hoping will be more interesting than "he wants Chizuru as his bride" but who will probably disappoint me in the end), and Souji (I hope his gunshot wound and tuberculosis haven't taken him totally out of the picture).

The combination of decent animation and lovely artwork helped make the battles another one of the few things to enjoy about this series.  Unfortunately, the one battle I was really looking forward to that the opening credits hinted would happen, the battle between Kazama and Hijikata after he's taken the medicine, was cut short.  What little there was of the battle before other characters stopped it was pretty good, though.  The episode when this battle occurs, the last episode of the season, is also the first episode where Chizuru almost took part in a real fight.  She drew her sword, prepared herself, and I got a moment to foolishly think that she would get a chance to display some oni powers beyond the ability to heal quickly before Kazama stepped in and killed all her would-be opponents.  Darn you, Kazama!

One thing I was wondering: in the end, was Hijikata the first person to take the medicine who was not really affected by its side effects?  Supposedly, everyone else who takes the medicine can't be out during the day, but Hijikata seemed to do just fine.  Plus, he spent time around a blood-soaked body and didn't go crazy. Hopefully that gets addressed in the second season, but I don't think I'd be terribly surprised if this kind of blatant breaking of series rules ended up going without comment.

Another thing I wondered: why did Chizuru continue to dress as a male?  After all, she fooled no one.  I only have a few years of anime-watching to rely on, but I'm pretty sure her body language was blatantly female (particularly the way she held her hands), so why even bother wearing male clothing? 

Overall, this season was a slog to get through, and I don't imagine that the next season will be any better.  Despite knowing this, I will probably end up watching the next season.  Why, you ask?  One, the bishounen.  They, and cute animals, are my kryptonite. Two, I hate watching or reading only half of something. Unless I just cannot bring myself to inflict any more upon myself, I must at least try to watch the rest. Three, I hope to see more of the characters I liked, and I'm still hopeful (probably foolishly so) that Chizuru will blossom into someone who doesn't constantly need to be saved.  Of course, since I think most of the Shinsengumi end up being killed (although maybe in this show they'll all just be turned into vampires?), Chizuru either has to learn to defend herself or resign herself to being some male oni's bride.  And, finally, four, I like the voice acting.  Shinichiro Miki (Bleach's Urahara) is Hijikata, Nobuo Tobita (Getbackers' Akabane) is Sannan, and those are just the ones that sparked an immediate "Hey, don't I know that voice?" response.

Watch-alikes and Read-alikes:
  • Rurouni Kenshin (manga) by Nobuhiro Watsuki; Rurouni Kenshin (anime TV series) - This series takes place after the end of the Shinsengumi and includes at least one person from the Shinsengumi (Saitou).  The battles are more over-the-top than anything in Hakuouki, and it's at times a bit goofier, but it may still appeal to those looking for another historical series with lots of battles and a smidgen of romance. The female characters are also less wimpy than Chizuru, although I know that's not really saying much, since just about anyone is less wimpy than Chizuru.
  • Peacemaker (anime TV series) - This is based on a manga series (or two?) - I own part of it, but haven't read it yet.  This anime covers a period of time before and just after the events at Ikedaya and focuses mainly on a young boy who joins the Shinsengumi for a chance to avenge his parents' deaths. It's not as dark a picture of the Shinsengumi as is shown in Hakuouki, and the show has quite a few light and/or silly moments, but it may still interest those looking for another interpretation of the Shinsengumi.
  • Kaze Hikaru (manga) by Taeko Watanabe -The main character in this one disguises herself as a boy in order to join the Shinsengumi and get a chance to avenge the deaths of her father and brother.  Those who'd like another historical story involving the Shinsengumi, something with action and maybe a bit more romance, might want to try this.
  • Fushigi Yuugi: Mysterious Play (manga) by Yuu Watase; Fushigi Yuugi: Mysterious Play (anime TV series) - My one non-Shinsengumi-related suggestion.  This one's a good one if you'd like something with action, a historical feel, and fantasy aspects and thought that Hakuouki didn't have nearly enough romance for your tastes.  The heroine in this one is a modern day girl transported into a pseudo-historical world inside a book.  In that world, she is the priestess of Suzaku, protected by her Celestial Warriors. If she can find all seven of her Celestial Warriors, she will be able to summon Suzaku and go home. Like Chizuru, Miaka is surrounded by gorgeous guys who constantly need to save her - if you like the idea of that, this may be the series for you.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty & the Beast (book) by Robin McKinley

(There's no cover art for this one because I read a library copy that had had its jacket removed.)

When I was in my teens, the YA section of my public library was, for the most part, geared towards middle school students. I left that area for the adult fiction section as soon as my parents would allow, but that didn't mean it didn't have any books worth reading. This book was one of those books. I think this is the first book by Robin McKinley I ever read. I loved it, except for one thing - the Beast turning back into a man at the end. I didn't like that when it happened in the Disney version, and I didn't like it in this book (although I much prefer McKinley's man to Disney's).

I've been trying to reread some of the books I loved when I was younger. Whether my love for a book is renewed or I find that I now hate it, it's always an interesting experience. I'm often amazed at the amount of stuff that apparently when over my head when I was younger. Also, there's the things that I think I probably noticed, but didn't care about as much when I was younger. This book didn't give me quite as many personal revelations as some others have, but I did enjoy rereading it.

Synopsis:

Beauty (whose name is really Honour, although she's hardly ever called that) is the youngest of three daughters. Her sisters Grace and Hope grow up to be far more beautiful than she, but it's hard for her to hold it against them when they are also so kind. Her father is a well-to-do merchant who loves all three of them. While it looks likely that Grace and Hope will soon be marrying men they love, Beauty would like one day to attend a university, despite the slim likelihood that a woman would be able to do such a thing.

The family's happy life is interrupted when their business takes a sudden and complete turn for the worse. The man Grace had hoped to marry is presumed dead at sea, and the family finds itself nearly penniless. Everyone moves to a house in the country with Ger, the man Hope is to marry, and does their best to adjust to their new circumstances. Life becomes mostly happy, until one day their father has a terrible story to tell them all. He had been coming back from the city after sorting a few things out there, and he got lost in the woods. He came across a castle that seemed to invite him to rest and recuperate, so he did. Unfortunately, on his way out the next day, he remembered Beauty's request for some rose seeds. He had not been able to get any in the city, so he plucked a rose from the gardens at the castle. At that point, an enraged Beast told him that, as payment, in one month he must either give his life or bring one of his daughters to live at the castle. Furthermore, the daughter must come of her own free will.

Beauty immediately volunteers to go, since she figures she'd be the least missed, since she's not particularly pretty. Also, had she not asked for the seeds (a request she had thought more easily granted than her sisters' jesting requests for jewels and strings of pearls), her father might not be in this situation. At her family's urging, she takes her beautiful and gentle horse, Greatheart, with her.

The castle is a magical place. Invisible servants see to Beauty's every need and want (except her desire to go home and see her family) and dress her in beautiful clothes, sometimes more beautiful than she feels fitting for one of her plain looks. She is able to go on rides every day and read as much as she wants. There's a library containing more books than she's ever dreamed of - it not only contains works currently in existence, but also works that have yet to be written. All of this isn't quite enough to make up for not getting to see her family, but it does make her situation a bit more bearable.

At first, the Beast frightens her, even though he assures her that he will not hurt her. Eventually, she comes to like his company, taking meals with him, talking to him, reading with him, and walking the castle grounds together with him and Greatheart. The one thing she cannot bear is his nightly request that she marry him. As she grows to know him better, it saddens her that she can't say yes.

One day she finds out that the Beast has not only been sending her father dreams that let him know she's all right, he can also see how her family is doing. He reluctantly agrees to let her see them, and she learns that Grace's fiance, who was supposed to have died at sea, is still alive. Anxious to tell her this news before Grace agrees to marry someone else, Beauty receives the Beast's permission to go back to her family. However, she only has one week. If she's not back before then, the Beast will die. Beauty loves seeing her family again, and Grace is thrilled at the news Beauty brings her. However, Beauty's family doesn't really understand why Beauty actually wants to go back to the Beast. They keep her with them for as long as possible, and Beauty goes back to the castle almost too late. The Beast is almost dead when she finds him, but he revives. Beauty tells him that she loves him and would like to marry him, at which point his enchantment is broken and he turns back into the handsome man Beauty had seen in a tapestry in the castle, albeit 20 or so years older. Beauty is a bit dismayed, because she doesn't believe herself to be beautiful enough for such a man (he proves her wrong with a mirror), but she gets over it. The book ends with the two of them happy and soon to be married.

Commentary:

I don't really understand why the Beast was turned into a Beast in the first place. That wasn't very clear, since there weren't really any bad guys in this book. The Beast was a great guy, and there was no real villain. The goodness of everyone may bother some people, since it's almost sickening. McKinley later wrote another version of the Beauty and the Beast story, and I think that in that version the Beast before he became a beast wasn't quite such a wonderful guy. Although I think some details of the later version were better thought out, I still remember preferring this version, if only because the romance is a bit more prominent. True, it's not until a third of the way into the book that you even get to see the castle and the Beast, but still. I'll have to reread McKinley's later version of the story, to see if what little I remember about it is accurate.

One other thing that annoyed me about this version was the whole "Beauty's not pretty" aspect. I think that was something that really appealed to me when I was younger, but, now that I'm in my late 20's, too much harping on the "I'm not beautiful" stuff gets a bit annoying. Beauty doesn't seem to really feel sorry for herself, which is nice, and no one goes around telling her that she's not beautiful, but... I think the thing that really got to me was when Beauty volunteered to be the one to go to the Beast, one of her reasons being that she'll be least likely to be missed because she's not beautiful. Seriously? That's just dumb.

And then apparently love made Beauty beautiful, or something, because she's magically beautiful by the end of the book. I've seen this sort of thing in other books before (the first one that comes to mind is Knight of a Trillion Stars by Dara Joy), and it's kind of annoying. Couldn't she look into the mirror and see herself looking just like herself, only happier? Is this supposed to be one of those things where she was always beautiful and was just never able to notice it before?

Overall, I still liked the book, even if the story seemed to be missing a few explanatory details and I was annoyed by Beauty thinking people wouldn't miss her as much because she wasn't the "pretty one" (oh, gag). After all, it had nice romance, magic, and a really awesome library. However, this probably isn't going to be one of those books I'll be hunting for during my used bookstore shopping trips.

There are lots and lots of books based on the Beauty and the Beast story. I could list as many of them as I can find, but I don't want to. If you'd like more than what I've listed here, though, let me know and I can tell you some more.

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • The Fire Rose (book) by Mercedes Lackey - After her father dies, Rose Hawkins, a young scholar, finds herself in dire financial straits. When she is offered a position as a governess for the children of Jason Cameron, a wealthy rail baron in San Francisco, she feels she has little choice but to accept. However, Cameron has no children and doesn't need a governess. He's actually an Elemental Master whose specialty is Fire. He needs Rose's help to undo a spell that transformed his appearance and forced him to become a recluse. With an old enemy looking for any exploitable weakness, Cameron must work quickly. Another book based, more loosely, upon the Beauty and the Beast story.
  • Disney's Beauty and the Beast (animated movie) - If you haven't seen this yet, OMG are you kidding?? Go, find it, watch it - if you like McKinley's book, this will feel almost like the animated version of it (awesome library, gorgeous dress, kindly father, nice horse, etc.), although there are still quite a few differences between the two. I must admit, it's been ages since I've last seen this (or, really, any animated Disney movie), but this one has been one of my favorites since I first saw it.
  • Rose Daughter (book) by Robin McKinley - McKinley's other retelling of the Beauty and the Beast story. I know, I know, I'm cheating. Hey, it's not like I'm being paid to do this, and coming up with read-alikes and descriptions for them can take an annoyingly long amount of time. So, I'm cheating.
  • Howl's Moving Castle (anime movie) - This movie is based on Diana Wynne Jones's book of the same title, but only loosely, if I remember correctly. Sophie is a plain young hatter who is cursed by an evil witch. Stuck with the body of an old woman, Sophie seeks out the wizard Howl, figuring that, even with his dreadful reputation, he's her best chance and becoming young again. Sophie becomes his housekeeper, befriends his fire demon and his apprentice, and eventually helps Howl with problems he didn't even know the full extent of. This has the feeling of a fairy tale, with its fantasy elements and magical curses, and may therefore appeal to those who liked McKinley's book. In addition, considering that Sophie spends most of the movie as a stooped old woman, the ending is surprisingly romantic, in a sweet rather than annoying sort of way - Sophie's likability helped a lot, as did the nicely developed friendship between her and Howl.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

A slight change

My once-a-week posting schedule is going to be changing, starting this week. I don't know how long it's going to last, but I realized a change was needed when I started trying to push my backlog out faster and ended up with enough finished posts to last me half a year if I only published them once a week.  Anyway, I'll be moving briefly to a twice weekly schedule and then, at some point, to a once-a-day schedule, until everything is slightly more manageable.  This will probably last as least through September.

Just watch - after all this, I'll hit a dry period where I won't be able to force myself to finish writing anything. Then my posting schedule will go down the tubes and I'll wish I had all those finished posts back.  Oh well, too bad.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Shadow Queen (book) by Anne Bishop

Do you look at this cover art and think, "Wow, she's big-boned, freckly, and not very pretty"? Yeah, neither do I. Well, at least it's eye-catching.

Synopsis:

Two years after Jaenelle loosed her power upon the world of the Blood and wiped out everyone who had been tainted by Dorothea, Dena Nehele is nearly in ruins. The landens hadn't wasted any time attacking the weakened Blood, and it was only at great cost that the Blood in Dena Nehele managed to beat them back. Most darker Jeweled Blood are dead, and there is no one left who could make a suitable Queen. Prince Theran Grayhaven, a descendant (grandson, I think) of Jared (read The Invisible Ring), knows his people have one chance - he must convince Daemon Sadi, one of the most dangerous Blood males alive, to help him find a Queen for Dena Nehele in Kaeleer.

Cassidy, the Queen Daemon and Jaenelle find for Dena Nehele, is not what Theran was looking for. She isn't pretty, she only wears a Rose Jewel, and she seems like bottom-of-the-barrel pickings (her previous court walked out on her - because she wasn't pretty enough and because being part of her court wouldn't lead to bigger and better things). Although Theran doesn't adjust well to Cassidy, those around him do. Eventually. After they're hit over the head by a few details, like the fact that Cassidy is on a first name basis with Jaenelle, who is Witch, and the fact that Cassidy received her "court polish" from none other than Saetan himself. Also, Lia, the former Queen of Dena Nehele, seems to posthumously accept Cassidy. And Theran's cousin, Gray, warms to her almost immediately and soon falls in love with her, even though he had previously been terrified of all Queens after having been tortured by Dorothea's Queens.

Although Theran never quite gets along with Cassidy, she does end up finding her place in Dena Nehele with her new court and with Gray, who by the end of the book is still in the process of transitioning into something more like the man he might have been had he not been tortured.

While all of that is going on, Daemon is falling apart. A witch named Vulchera tries to play a game with him, taking one of his shirts and wearing it, with the intention of sending it back to his household for Jaenelle to see (or maybe she did send it - I wasn't quite clear on that). The idea was that the shirt could be used as blackmail against Daemon. Vulchera had already played this game with quite a few men - all of them were married, and some of them slept with her, which made it easy for her to get one of their shirts, but she found ways to use the same trick even if they didn't sleep with her.

Even on a good day, Daemon isn't a man to mess with. Lately, however, he's been on edge, so badly on edge that he even frightened Jaenelle and thought he might hurt her without realizing it. In the end, though, it's not Daemon who kills Vulchera, it's Saetan. Saetan enters the Twisted Kingdom and kills her, a sort of transferred vengeance, because her actions sometimes had results similar to what Dorothea did to him. In one case, the wife of one of the men Vulchera blackmailed denied him paternity and, because of a carefully timed push on Vulchera's part, the man killed everyone around him, including his wife and beloved child. Saetan can't help but think of Dorothea, and how she denied him paternity at Daemon's Birthright Ceremony, and the thought of what he could have done to Daemon is almost enough to break him. Daemon and Lucivar manage to set things right without bloodshed, though, and all is well.

Commentary:

I read a comment about this book on another blog, something about the Daemon/Jaenelle/Saetan/Lucivar cameos being a bit much. At first, I couldn't see what the problem was. Yes, the back-and-forth thing as characters from Bishop's original Blood trilogy kept checking on Cassidy looked like it might get annoying after a while, but I figured that would let up eventually. Plus, part of me kind of liked it - I do still like most of the characters from the original trilogy, and it was nice to see what they were up to.

Then those characters tried to take over the book. I'm not really sure when it started - maybe when Daemon started having his Vulchera problems, or maybe it didn't really start until Saetan began his multi-stage torture/killing of Vulchera. Anyway, for a little while, I forgot that the book was actually supposed to be about Cassidy and Dena Nehele. The whole thing with Saetan got resolved, and suddenly I remembered that that wasn't really the climax. Or it wasn't supposed to be.

Had Daemon and Saetan's issues not taken up so many pages, there might have been more room for Cassidy and Dena Nehele. Maybe Bishop didn't feel like there was enough story there to fill a whole book, and that's why she allowed her characters from the trilogy to run amok, but I think there was a lot more she could have done with Cassidy's story. For one thing, she could've had Theran get his head out of his butt faster and spent more time showing Cassidy getting others to trust her and believe that she could be a good Queen for Dena Nehele. She could have spent more time showing Cassidy bridging the bloody gap between Dena Nehele's Blood and landen - I'm sorry, but after all the bloodshed the two groups went through only two years prior, one incident in which Cassidy protects a landen girl and justly punishes the Blood males who hurt her isn't enough. Mending the rift should take more work than that - why not show some of that? Why not show Cassidy interacting more with her court and others in the area? She seemed to spend all of her time with Theran, Shira, or Gray.

The cheesy bit (sidestory?) involving the "treasure hunt" at Grayhaven, in which Cassidy keeps finding all the pieces and can't let anyone else know, was just...not worthy of a novel. A short story maybe, but only if there was nothing better to write about. I know, I know, it was supposed to show how Cassidy was being accepted as the Queen of Dena Nehele by a great former Queen's magic, which, I guess, overrides any objections anyone else (like Theran) might have. Whatever. Wasn't there a better way to do that? Something less clunky?

Seriously, once Bishop got past the bit where she set up the basics of Cassidy's part of the book ("Queen who's been emotionally wounded by a court who rejected her for not being pretty, going off to be Queen of a place where, for the most part, she's not wanted because she's not pretty"), it's like the book became two blended short stories - Daemon and Saetan's "two men who still bear the scars of their pasts" story, and Cassidy's "treasure hunt, and do I really belong here?" story. If Bishop wanted to write a couple short stories (or novellas), she should have just written another anthology. I would have preferred that, because at least then it would have been clear what I was getting into. Instead, I expected a book starring new characters, with cameo appearances from old characters. That's sort of what I got, but that's not the spirit of what I got.

I have to say, I'm not a huge fan of "the dark side of the men" stories, so I wasn't as happy about most of the Daemon/Saetan stuff as I could have been. I skipped the Zuulaman story in the anthology Bishop did (Dreams Made Flesh), because I don't like reading about Saetan having crazy person meltdowns. I wasn't entirely happy with Daemon having crazy person meltdowns directed at Jaenelle - I mean, I always thought that Jaenelle would be the one person Daemon would never go all scary with.

Aside from all of that, I think one thing that got to me with this book was that none of it really felt new. Maybe it was all the cameos and references to, well, everything Bishop had ever set in the world of the Blood. Seriously, I think she referenced nearly every book and short story in one way or another - even if I didn't prefer the original trilogy to this book, I still wouldn't recommend this book to a newbie to the series, because of all the references. I do think, though, that, even without all the references and cameos, it still would've felt a bit too familiar. Saetan had his breakdown story already - Zuulaman. Daemon spent, what, a whole book broken? Also, he had a short story where people spread rumors that he was cheating on Jaenelle, kind of like what Vulchera was planning. So, other than Daemon almost/sort of hurting Jaenelle (and I'm not entirely sure that hasn't happened before), nothing new.

It seems like every single one of Bishops good Queens isn't pretty, although Cassidy may be the first one to be stuck on that. Gray's man-boy nature (mentally a boy, with flashes of being mentally the 27-year old man he really is) is also, I think, new for one of Bishop's romantic heroes, although his damaged nature certainly isn't new. Even so, Cassidy's part of the book is still fresher than the parts of Daemon, Saetan, Jaenelle, and Lucivar - it's too bad Bishop couldn't think of anything better than a treasure hunt and allowed cameos to eat valuable story space. I should note, however, that, after I finished the book, the parts I went back and reread were all parts with Cassidy and Gray. Especially Gray - I enjoyed reading about him as he learned about Protocol and fell in love with Cassidy.

Overall, though, not Bishop's best effort. I loved the bits with Cassidy and Gray, and the bits where Cassidy tried to become the Queen of a place that couldn't seem to accept her, but I hated the treasure hunt and I hated the dark, show-stealing sidestory involving Saetan, Daemon, and Vulchera. I know there's at least one Blood book after this, and I plan on reading it, but I hope that Bishop gets her act together and writes a book, and not a few blended novellas. Or, hey, I'll take the novellas if they're actually called that. Just be honest about what I'm going to be reading, and I'll be happy.

I'm going to assume that anyone who reads this book and likes it even a little has read at least some of the previous books in the series - I'm not even going to bother to list any of Bishop's books as read-alikes. Of course, that means my list is really short. I had problems coming up with good things to include. On the plus side, at least everything I've listed is something I would consider to be a strong read-alike/watch-alike. On the minus side, neither of these suggestions have much in the way of romance - Chalice, only a little, and The Twelve Kingdoms, nothing at all, unless you count the occasional blush over Keiki or the possibility of friendship with Rakushun blossoming into love.

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • Chalice (book) by Robin McKinley - Mirasol, a beekeeper, finds herself way, way out of her depth when she is declared to be the new Chalice. The health of a land is determined by its Master, and a Chalice is supposed to keep the Master in line and make sure everything is stable and in balance. Unfortunately, unlike most Chalices, Mirasol has had no apprenticeship and therefore doesn't know how to do her job. In addition, her Circle obviously doesn't want her, and the new Master is barely human. Those who, like me, enjoyed the bits of The Shadow Queen that were about Cassidy may want to try this book - just be warned that, although there is a smidgen of romance, romance is not a big part of the book.
  • The Twelve Kingdoms (anime TV series) - This anime is based on a series of books written by Fuyumi Ono, which I highly recommend reading in order, just because the world it's all set in is so complex that it's really just best not to create an additional breeding ground for confusion. I think the anime covers the events of the first three books. The series as a whole is centered upon the world of the Twelve Kingdoms, each kingdom of which is governed by a ruler whose very existence determines the health and prosperity of his or her kingdom. Each ruler is chosen and guided by a kirin. One particular ruler who comes up a lot in the show and the series of books is Yoko, a seemingly ordinary Japanese high school girl who was taken from the world she knew by a strange man named Keiki and plopped in the world of the Twelve Kingdoms. Eventually, Yoko learns that she's the new ruler of Kei and must figure out how to stabilize a place she knows little about, whose people, fearing that she's just like the previous ruler, don't trust her. Again, if you liked Cassidy, you may like this, but don't expect romance just because Keiki is pretty.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Eclipse

I just saw Eclipse.  I think I read too many amusing blog posts beforehand, because all I could think about were things like Bella's eyebrows, counting how many times Jacob appeared onscreen with his shirt on, and everyone's wigs.  I also couldn't stop wondering why no one in Forks ever commented on the Cullens' eyes.  Maybe they were distracted by their hair.  This time around, though, I think Bella's hairline stole the hair spotlight - I could not stop staring at it.

A few other things I wondered about:
  1. After spending the night shivering (even though her nose didn't turn red or drip), how was Bella able to easily stand outside in the snow without a coat on the next day?  Granted, it didn't appear as though there was any wind, but it should still have been too cold to just stand there.  Of course, Bella's breath wasn't showing either, so there were more problems with that scene than just her lack of a coat.
  2. Why do Edward and Jacob love Bella so much?  Four books, three movies, and one graphic novel later, and I still don't get it.  I suppose you could argue that Jacob is young and his hormones are just out of control, but Edward doesn't have that excuse.  Maybe her delicious scent overrode his brain?
  3. Why doesn't anyone in the Cullen family go wild for the scent of Bella's blood anymore?  Yes, Edward had that incredibly sappy answer for Bella, but that answer doesn't hold for everyone else in the family.  Bella was able to parade around in front of them after having gashed her arm open, and no one even seemed to notice.
  4. Was I the only one who cringed every time Jacob talked about how much he loved Bella and how much Bella loved him?  All I could think about was, "And very soon you will be imprinting upon her infant daughter."  Ew.
  5. Were the vampires always made of plaster?  I sure don't remember that being the case in the previous movies, and I don't remember it coming up in the books.  And yet now they shatter.  Wouldn't this sort of thing actually make them more fragile than human beings, rather than less?
For me, the best parts of the movie were:
  1. Charlie.  He was awesome, and easily the most natural, grounded character in the whole movie.  I had another one of those "gosh, Bella's relationships are unhealthy" moments (actually, multiple moments), and I felt like cheering every time Charlie told Bella he wanted her to spend more time with people besides Edward.
  2. The bit where Jacob explained to Charlie why he and Edward had been fighting.  "I kissed Bella...and then she broke her hand."  On his face.  
  3. Seth.  In human form, he's adorable.  In wolf form, if I saw him at the pound, I'd want to adopt him, scratch him behind the ears, and give him a big hug.  Who cares that, even while standing on all fours, he's still taller than I am?
Do I want to own this movie when it comes out on DVD?  No.  Although I might get it one day anyway, just because this would be a wonderful movie to watch with a group - it begs to be made fun of.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The state of things

I'm not all that wild about either of the books I'm reading right now, but I have issues with quitting books after I've started them.  I don't do it often.  I don't know why - the few times I've chosen to just quit reading a book, I haven't regretted it.  I just don't like starting a book and not finishing it.

I'm almost done watching The Twelve Kingdoms all the way through in English (my first viewing was in Japanese with English subtitles).  I prefer it in Japanese, but I've gotten used to the English dub - I no longer cringe when Yoko speaks.  I haven't decided what I'll watch next.  I should watch at least a little of the second season of Rurouni Kenshin, so I can decide whether I need to buy the first and third seasons. I'm not really in the mood to watch the whole season right now, though.  For me, it's currently a toss up between Red Garden and Welcome to the NHK.  However, I might decide to watch Raccoon Princess before I get started with either of those.  Decisions, decisions.

That's just my DVD viewing - online, I'm currently working my way through Naruto Shippuden.  I've got a long, long way to go.  There are 167 episodes on Hulu, and I'm only on episode 16.  I put off watching this show because I was a little burned out on being hooked on really long shows.  I love being able to follow beloved characters for dozens or hundreds of episodes, but I also like owning stuff I enjoy, and loving something this massive is really expensive.  Naruto, the first TV series, gave me an excuse to quit watching it by going on a hundred-episode long filler spree.  Then my dad started giving me Naruto Shippuden spoilers, and I kept seeing AMVs with really great Naruto Shippuden clips, and I ended up caving.

Tomorrow I plan to go see Eclipse, the teenage fangirl magnet.  I hope it's been out long enough that I won't find myself sitting in a crowded theater.

And, last but not least, I'm starting to get sick, which isn't good.  I can feel it in my throat, so I'll need to make sure to drink lots of tea.  Hey, it's an excuse to drink my delicious and expensive throat tea.  I consider it the tastiest tea I own.  The only good thing about having a sore throat is that it gives me an excuse to drink this tea.  Anyway, I'm convinced it's the weather that's making me sick.  We've been having a lot of rain lately, which seems to have no effect on our disgusting heat, other than to turn it into humid heat.  I still walk to and from work almost every work day.  Most days, it rains a lot in the middle of the day and/or in the evening, which means my walk usually isn't too bad.  By the end of the work day on Friday, though, we had a few mid-calf height puddles (which might better be called "mildly flooded streets" and "gutter rivers").  Even before Friday, it's felt like the humidity has been clinging to my lungs - no matter how much I clear my throat, that little tickle always seems to come back.

Twilight: The Graphic Novel (graphic novel, vol. 1) by Stephenie Meyer, art and adaptation by Young Kim

Synopsis:

If you've already read the book, you know what's going to happen in this graphic novel, even though you may not know exactly how it's going to happen or what details might change or get condensed. If you haven't read the book, unless you'd like a Cliff's Notes version of the original story, I suggest you start with that instead.

So, I'll just make this brief. This graphic novel adaptation covers a condensed and sometimes a little altered version of the events of Stephenie Meyer's novel Twilight, up to the point where Edward tells Bella what he is and that she smells fantastically delicious to him. They kiss, and there's the bit where she rides through the forest on his back. Yeehaw.

Commentary:

My initial reaction to this volume, when I flipped through it, was "ooh, pretty artwork." That's one thing this adaptation has over, say, the movie - the Cullens don't look like pale plastic Barbie people, they look like the inhumanly gorgeous creatures they're supposed to be. Unfortunately, the super-gorgeous character designs include Bella, who, rather than looking like an ordinary girl, has a tendency to look like a manga (or is manhwa the better word to use here?) princess - what's going to happen when the story gets to the point where Bella gets turned into a vampire and she's supposed to become inhumanly beautiful? I'm not sure it's possible to draw her more beautiful than this.

Had I been a newcomer to this series, I don't know that I would have liked this adaptation all that much. While Bella's narration can get a bit...trying...in the original novel, this graphic novel condensed things almost a little too much. The worst part is, the annoying aspects of Bella's narration are still there, so it's not like that particular weakness is overcome (it's still incredibly dramatic in an unintentionally amusing way, and Bella still doesn't "sound" like a teenage girl to me). Anyway, it's probably a good thing that I didn't read this for the story. I already knew the story, what I wanted was to see the artwork and take a look at the visuals for any scenes I remembered enjoying in either the novel or the movie.

While I, for the most part, enjoyed the artwork, with its gorgeous character designs (although I thought Jasper actually looked better than Edward), dreamy shading, and clever use of color (only a few pages in this volume have any color), there are still things about the look of this volume that I hated. For now, this is only a minor weakness, although it'll become a greater weakness if this graphic novel series ever makes it to the more Jacob-heavy parts of the series: while the first wolf depicted in this volume looked really good, the second one looked off and bothered me. A more generalized problem I had with the artwork involved characters' facial expressions. While some subtle facial expressions were well-done, other times (quite a few times actually) characters' facial expressions were so subtle that they seemed to be non-existent, at least to me. Also, is it too much to ask that not all facial expressions be subtle? It was rare for characters' facial expressions to be more pronounced or to involve their whole face. Maybe they all got Botox treatments?

All those complaints feel kind of nitpicky in comparison with my hatred of the conversation bubbles, lettering, and "trembling" lines used, although at least the "sweat drops" weren't overdone (unlike in In Odd We Trust). The conversation bubbles tended to be large, perfect, translucent things, with a scraggly little line pointing in the direction of whoever was saying the text. The lettering used throughout the entire volume was perfect, the kind of thing you'd see in a Word document. The overall effect, combined with the inhumanly lovely characters and smooth shading, was one of lots and lots of perfection. A little hand-lettering, or at least a font that would give the illusion of hand-lettering, might have broken up that perfection somewhat. The translucent conversation bubbles just annoyed me - they screamed "lookit what we can do with the computer!" more than anything else to me.

The "trembling" lines (such as when Edward is shaking from the effort of being around Bella at the beginning of the volume) had a look that was similar to the weird scraggly lines coming out of the conversation bubbles. The lines were too strong (especially when outlined in white while on a dark background), making them stand out way too much, I hated that the look screamed "we did this on the computer, after everything else had already been drawn" (making the trembling less a part of the artwork and more something like a sound effect), and there was something about them that didn't seem quite right to me. When I first saw the "trembling" lines, I had a second where I couldn't figure out what they were. That shouldn't happen. Things like these lines need to perfectly follow conventions, which will allow them to be interpreted by readers as being certain emotional cues, all without the reader ever necessarily being aware of what's going on. If you're actually seeing the lines, the way I did, and not feeling them as emotional cues, then something's not right.

I already wrote a lot about the original novel in a separate post, so I don't think I need to say too much about what I thought about the story. I still think Bella's a bit too masochistic. I think this adaptation proves that there is no way to do Meyer's "sparkling vampire" look without it seeming stupid - it was stupid in the movie, and, although it's marginally better in this graphic novel (the bit where Edward walks out into the sunlight is absolutely gorgeous and one of several instances of the book's really effective use of limited color), it's still pretty lame. In addition, because of Young Kim's style, I couldn't help but think "shojo sparklies!" when I saw the sparkles shining in Edward's hair.

If I had bought this instead of getting it via ILL, I would probably consider this a keeper for the artwork alone - despite various shortcomings, the artwork is still lovely. As far as its story goes, though, it's pretty meh. If you want the story, I'd recommend the book or even the movie over this graphic novel any day.

My read-alikes list is nearly the same as the one I wrote up for Twilight because, well, I copied and pasted most of it. Yes, I'm lazy. Especially because a complete and updated list of Twilight read-alikes would probably be at least a few dozen pages - dark (or somewhat dark) YA romances featuring supernatural heroes are everywhere you look these days. If you need more suggestions than I've listed below, let me know - I can come up with more, no problem.

Read-alikes:
  • The Awakening (book) by L. J. Smith - This is the first book in Smith's Vampire Diaries series. Elena is a beautiful, popular high school girl who is intrigued by Stefan, a brooding and mysterious newcomer who is the only one to ever resist her. Damon is Stefan's sexy and dangerous brother, who, in order to get revenge against Stefan, is willing to take Elena from him by whatever means necessary. What Elena doesn't know at first is that both Stefan and Damon are vampires - by getting closer to them, she's involving herself, her friends, and her family in their dangerous world. Those who'd like another story involving high school romance, vampires, and a vampire character the heroine can't keep her eyes off of might like this book.
  • The Initiation (book) by L. J. Smith - This is the first book in Smith's Secret Circle series, although it is no longer available on its own - the link will take you to the Amazon.com page for a volume combining the first book and half the second book (what were they thinking?!). Cassie isn't thrilled to move from sunny California to gloomy New England, but it isn't long before things get interesting for her. Her new school is practically ruled by a group of gorgeous teens who appear to be feared and/or respected by everyone around them. Cassie gradually discovers that, not only do these teens have special powers, so does she. As she gets involved with the group, she begins to fall for one of the girls' boyfriends. Those who'd like another story involving a teenage girl who's recently moved to a new town, dangerous fantasy elements, and romance might like this book.
  • Blood and Chocolate (book) by Annette Curtis Klause - Vivian is a werewolf, part of a small community of werewolves living in secret among humans. Vivian's father, the pack leader, was killed when the pack was driven out of its previous home, and all that remains is for a new leader to be chosen before the pack can move to a more permanent home. In the meantime, Vivian doesn't really feel at home with anyone in the pack. She begins dating a human, but how long will their relationship last if she tells him what she is? Even worse, people have been getting killed and Vivian can't be certain she wasn't responsible. Those who'd like another story with supernatural beings, high school-aged characters, and romance might like this book.
  • Vampire Kisses (book) by Ellen Schreiber - This is the first book in Schreiber's Vampire Kisses series. Raven, a Goth obsessed with all things dark and creepy, is in oddity in her tiny hometown. One day, a handsome teenage boy moves into town, and Raven is immediately drawn to him - like her, he's pale and dresses in dark clothing. She's sure he's a vampire, just as she's sure she wants to be his girlfriend. Those who'd like another "teen girl and her vampire boyfriend" story might like this book and series, which is aimed at a somewhat younger age group than Meyer's books (the books are much shorter, under 300 pages, and things don't get quite as dark and dangerous). In addition, this series has also been manga-fied - check out Amazon's page for the first volume here.
  • Vampire Knight (manga) by Matsuri Hino - Yuki's earliest memory is of being attacked by a vampire and then saved by another, the gorgeous and mysterious Kaname. Ten years later, Yuki, now the adopted daughter of the headmaster of Cross Academy, spends her time blushing over Kaname and protecting the Day Class students (all humans, unaware of the vampires around them) from the Night Class (all vampires). She is aided by Zero, a brooding teenager hiding a dark secret. Those who'd like another romance involving teens, vampires, and guys with conflicting desires (should they rip the heroine's throat out or kiss her? hmm...) might like this series.
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