Within the Sanctuary of Wings, by Marie Brennan

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – April 25, 2017

Summary: After nearly five decades (and, indeed, the same number of volumes), one might think they were well-acquainted with the Lady Isabella Trent–dragon naturalist, scandalous explorer, and perhaps as infamous for her company and feats of daring as she is famous for her discoveries and additions to the scientific field.

And yet–after her initial adventure in the mountains of Vystrana, and her exploits in the depths of war-torn Eriga, to the high seas aboard The Basilisk, and then to the inhospitable deserts of Akhia–the Lady Trent has captivated hearts along with fierce minds. This concluding volume will finally reveal the truths behind her most notorious adventure–scaling the tallest peak in the world, buried behind the territory of Scirland’s enemies–and what she discovered there, within the Sanctuary of Wings.

Thoughts: Having already read Turning Darkness Into Light before this, some aspects of Within the Sanctuary of Wings weren’t a surprise to me. But I don’t always read books in order to be surprised by their events. Sometimes I know what happens at the end of the story, but want to see the journey, the path by which the characters reached that end.

Plus I love Brennan’s writing, so that was a definite point in this book’s favour.

Within the Sanctuary of Wings is the fifth and final book of Lady Trent’s memoirs, one that starts with her feeling restless about the discoveries she hasn’t made. Odd though that sounds, I can understand where the sentiment comes from, especially for a woman living in a man’s world, so to speak. The accomplishments of men, especially younger men, will rise above hers, with them being younger and having resources she didn’t or doesn’t, and while she provided a good deal of the foundation for which future discoveries can be made, when you have the heart of a scientist and adventurer, it’s not enough to just sit at home and be all academic about it. You long to be out there, still making your mark, still uncovering the secrets that the world has to offer.

So when the opportunity to see some unusual dragon bones is presented to her, an expedition to a remote area and the world’s tallest mountain, she doesn’t refuse the chance. What she finds there changes not only the study of dragons, but what’s known of history and mythology too.

I’ve mentioned before that I have a bit of a passion for anthropology, and while I don’t think that’s exactly the right word to use when the culture being studied is one comprised of draconic people, this still presses all the right buttons for me. Though I know it isn’t true, sometimes it feels like there’s nothing left in the world to discover, and maybe this is one of the reasons I enjoy fantasy so much. The genre scratches that itch to encounter things I have yet to encounter, things that nobody has yet encountered. And I could always read historical accounts of discoveries, both scientific and cultural, but to be completely honest, I find those difficult sometimes, as they’re often filled with Western-centric judgments and racism, colonialism, and destruction. But what the Memoirs of Lady Trent series gives readers is that sense of historical discovery without most of the real-world baggage. We get the scientific and anthropological /archaeological adventure stories we long for, while temporarily setting aside the frustration of our own culture’s legacy.

Plus Isabella is such a great character. She knows where society’s limits for her are, and pushes past them anyway, but she does so while still living within that society. It’s a fine line to walk, and I like seeing characters who forge their own paths without turning into someone who’s just angry at everything and refuses to follow any rules, rebelling for the sake of rebelling. She might burn bridges, but when she does so, she does so with a reason, and often with an eye to build a new bridge that will serve more people later on.

I loved reading about her time with the Draconeans, the slow but steady process of them learning to communicate with each other, the differences and similarities between them. I was riveted when Isabella discovered the Draconean side of a story she had known since childhood, a tale of both myth and history, and learning that what she knew wasn’t the whole truth. Within the Sanctuary of Wings isn’t just a scientific adventure story, but a novel of breaking down what you know and rebuilding it with a more complete truth. It’s destruction of the past so that the future can be born, but also acknowledgement of the past and all of its flaws.

I’m a bit sad that the series has ended and that there are no more Lady Trent novels to look forward to. I don’t doubt that I’ll end up rereading the series later on down the road, though, because they are that good, and an uncommon offering for the fantasy genre, combining real-world historical inspiration with fantastical elements, and a style not often seen. This is definitely a case of, “Don’t cry because it’s over; smile because it happened.” These books left their mark on me, from beginning to end, and I’ve very grateful they exist and that I had the chance to read them. I highly recommend them, from beginning to end.

Aggretsuko: Metal to the Max

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Publisher’s website
Publication date – September 29, 2020

Summary: Aggretsuko, the hit Netflix show in production for season three, stars Retsuko the Red Panda, a young office worker stuck in a thankless job, whose only stress release is singing death metal at the local karaoke joint. With the help of her friends, can she ever find the job satisfaction she craves – – not to mention adventure, the approval of her mother, and even… love?! These comics explore all these issues and more, brought to life by today’s top talent!

Thoughts: I love Aggretsuko. I was super excited when the 3rd season was finally added to Netflix, and no lie, I kind of want a couple of the character plushies, because I’m absolutely that kind of geek. I love the idea that someone can be shy and sweet most of the time without it being pretense, but that they also have less-sweet emotions and thoughts that they need to release by means of screamy death metal music. I love the way it presents people as multi-layered and complex, and also that even if someone’s less-public side might be surprising, there will always be people who understand and accept that. If you haven’t watched the show yet, I highly recommend you do so; it’s gained popular status for good reason, and don’t let the fact that it’s made by the same company who made Hello Kitty fool you into thinking it’s some cutesy little childish thing.

So hell yes, I was thrilled to get my hands on Aggretsuko: Metal to the Max.

The first story in the comic collection, Down With the Sickness, is about an illness spreading around the company where Retsuko works, one that’s unique to that company and is caused by employee stress, poor self-care, and bad management. And I honestly can’t tell if, given the current pandemic, this story is in poor taste or brilliant. On one hand, when there’s a devastating disease still infecting thousands every day, maybe playing an virus for laughs isn’t the best option. On the other hand, the idea of a viral infection getting really out of hand due to poor management at higher levels, and the demand for people to go to work even when they’re sick and ought to stay home… You know, I can see why that might resonate with some people! It’s also playing off the whole “zombie virus pandemic” thing that’s still popular, since infected employees just sort of rush around in hordes and try to infect others. Yeah, not sure if it’s secret brilliant or in poor taste. Maybe a bit of both?

The second story involved Retsuko and Tsunoda going shopping and Retsuko getting annoyed with Tsunoda’s superficiality. Nothing too special there, but amusing enough. The third story, though, was about how an employee satisfaction survey showed that the company’s Japanese employees were less satisfied than ones in the West, and so a Canada goose named Karen is sent to change up how to office works, to improve employee happiness. She does so by getting in everyone’s way and making a bunch of suggestions that the employees are resistant to, and I’m sure she was meant to come off as… well, as a karen, and doubly so when you consider that she was trying to change things in one culture based on the sole perspective of her own culture.

But, I mean, one of the suggestions she made was updating the accounting software so that things ran more smoothly and efficiently. And the idea was met with, “Nah, it’s fine, and it would waste so much time having to be retrained.” Most of her suggestions were out of place and very much unwanted, but her literal job there was to find ways to improve company happiness, and “more efficient workflow” is absolutely a valid way to do that and it wasn’t an unreasonable suggestion. But it was treated as being an unreasonable as saying there should be more motivational cat posters, or the whole, “I want to speak to your manager,” thing she did toward the end of the story.

Ditto her problems with Ton being a bad boss who takes advantage of the people under him. Retsuko had a point that she has to stay and live with the consequences of not appeasing Ton whereas Karen gets to leave and forget about it if she wants, but Karen also had a very good point about bosses getting away with too much, and sometimes that can get very very bad. Hell, that very issue came up in an episode of the show!

(Also want to point out the irony of Karen saying that having dinner with coworkers was “out-of-the-box thinking” for boosting employee morale, since a lot of company in Japan mandate employee drinking parties at least once a month, and from what I hear, a lot of employees hate them. It’s hard to get out of them without seeming like you’re not a team player, and all they do is make you waste time and money and result in you going into work hungover the next day. “Out-of-the-box,” my ass! I’m not sure if that was meant to be Karen’s ignorance of Japanese work culture, or just something the comic’s writer wasn’t really aware of, but either way it gave me an ironic chuckle.)

I will say that some of the characterization seemed kind of off to me, but I have to concede that might be because when I watched the show, I watched it with Japanese audio rather than English, so the characters might be spot on for the English dialogue used. I really can’t tell. But for the Japanese version I’m more familiar with, there was a bit of a disconnect. It’s tough to see Retsuko saying, “What the hell?” for instance, and while Tsunoda might be very concerned with her appearance and manipulative, I can’t remember any hints that she might be super rich and think nothing of spending $700 on a dress or buying out a jewellery display case. Friends who watched the English dub, can you chime in on this one and offer clarity and context?

The art was good, and very true to the source material, and the stories were fairly creative, but I think there was a bit too much of a disconnect in some areas for me to like Metal to the Max as much as I enjoy the anime it was based on. The characterization wasn’t quite there, and 2 of the 3 stories had some sticking points for me that kept me from just reading and enjoying them; I felt too much like they were trying to make a point but missing the mark just a little bit. It wasn’t bad, far from it, but it was the little things that kept coming back to me, and the little things added up in the end. Fans of the anime will probably enjoy this supplementary comic, so long as they don’t look too deep or want it to be 100% true to the show, I think.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

Gods of Jade and Shadow, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – July 23, 2019

SummaryThe Jazz Age is in full swing, but Casiopea Tun is too busy cleaning the floors of her wealthy grandfather’s house to listen to any fast tunes. Nevertheless, she dreams of a life far from her dusty small town in southern Mexico. A life she can call her own.

Yet this new life seems as distant as the stars, until the day she finds a curious wooden box in her grandfather’s room. She opens it—and accidentally frees the spirit of the Mayan god of death, who requests her help in recovering his throne from his treacherous brother. Failure will mean Casiopea’s demise, but success could make her dreams come true.

In the company of the strangely alluring god and armed with her wits, Casiopea begins an adventure that will take her on a cross-country odyssey from the jungles of Yucatán to the bright lights of Mexico City—and deep into the darkness of the Mayan underworld.

Thoughts: I want to state right away that nothing I can say here will do this book justice. Reading this book make me bitterly regret that I couldn’t read it faster, because the story was so good and so compelling, while at the same time lamenting that I couldn’t go any slower, to make it last. This isn’t the first time I’ve had that thought process while reading one of Moreno-Garcia’s books, and I doubt it will be the last.

Gods of Jade and Shadow tells the story of Casiopea, a young woman working for extended family who, to be blunt, treat her pretty damn poorly. She wants more in her life than drudge work, dreaming of the day she can move to a bigger city and start a new life, a life that’s really hers. Her adventures in the wider world get unexpectedly kickstarted, however, when she accidentally frees the god Hun-Kame, whom Casiopea’s grandfather had trapped in a wooden box. Hun-Kame seeks Casiopea’s assistance to return him to his rightful place, ruling the Underworld, but this means finding his missing body parts to restore his power, as well as overthrowing his brother, Vucub-Kame, who now sits on the throne. The whole story is set against the backdrop of Mexico during the 1920s, setting it firmly as historical fantasy.

I’ll be honest here: the place and time period aren’t ones I know very much about, so I can’t comment on any artistic liberties or anything of the sort. As for the mythology… Well, I knew how to pronounce Xibalba before I opened this book, but that’s about as much as I can claim. My lack of familiarity with a lot of the cultural and historical elements, though, worked rather well for me, as now I feel compelled to end some of my ignorance by learning more. This is one of the things I love the most about reading novels set in this world but in places or times I’m less familiar with. If I enjoy the book, I’m usually inspired to learn more, to familiarize myself so that I’m less ignorant in the future, and so that I can better appreciate more media with similar elements.

I have a weakness for stories in which deities interact with mere mortals, and Gods of Jade and Shadow definitely delivered on that count. I expected a bit of amusement when it came to Hun-Kame trying to deal with the mundane world, but there was actually very little of that, sticking with a more serious tone throughout the story rather than taking a “fishgod-out-of-water” approach. There are some clashes between him and Casiopea, most of them due to Casiopea’s quick temper and her wants and needs, which were sometimes opposed to what Hun-Kame wanted or needed. While Hun-Kame’s status as a deity was in question through the story, it never really became a focal point for humour, which, honestly, was kind of impressive. I like that sort of take and expected some of it because it’s easy territory to play in, but that clearly wasn’t the story that Moreno-Garcia wanted to tell.

As I said earlier, there’s nothing I can say here that would do this book justice. It’s a fantastic novel, it’s a brilliant story set in a fascinating time and place, with a compelling story and flawed but interesting characters moving everything along. Even when you dislike characters, you want to know more about them, find out their motivations and goals. They all have a place within the plot, but none of them existed only to move the plot along. They all had their own lives, their own development, all of them felt fleshed out and real. There are themes of sacrifice and devotion, of duty and independence, of selfishness and taking risks and love of all kinds, and it’s just such a wonderful damn book that I can very highly recommend it to pretty much everyone who reads my blog. If your tastes are even a bit close to mine when it comes to SFF novels, you’ll find yourself very satisfied by what you find inside the pages of Gods of Jade and Shadow. Don’t miss out on it.

Storm Front, by Jim Butcher

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – April 1, 2000

Summary: As a professional wizard, Harry Dresden knows firsthand that the “everyday” world is actually full of strange and magical things—and most of them don’t play well with humans. And those that do enjoy playing with humans far too much. He also knows he’s the best at what he does. Technically, he’s the only at what he does. But even though Harry is the only game in town, business—to put it mildly—stinks.

So when the Chicago P.D. bring him in to consult on a double homicide committed with black magic, Harry’s seeing dollar signs. But where there’s black magic, there’s a black mage behind it. And now that mage knows Harry’s name…

Thoughts: Over the years, I’d heard so many good things about this series. I mean, you don’t get to have over a dozen books in the same series published unless there’s something reasonably popular there, right? I figured it was about time I gave it a try, to satisfy my curiosity and to see what all the fuss was about.

I… did not come away with the most positive of impressions.

I’m aware that this particular novels is over 20 years old at this point, and that some things can be winced at but ultimately waved aside because yes, the very early 2000s were a different literary landscape when it came to SFF. I didn’t expect this book to be some sort of bastion of wokeness or anything.

But by the end of the second chapter, I was wondering whether or not it was worth it to push through the overwhelming misogyny and male-gaze, or to throw the book at a wall and move on.

Harry Dresden is a wizard, the sort that gets called when his contacts on the local police force encounter something they really can’t explain. This gets him an invite to consult on a very odd murder scene. By the end of chapter 2, he’s examined that murder scene, and the reader has learned several things about Harry that made me so very frustrated while reading.

1 – He takes pride in being “chivalrous,” doing things like opening doors for women and pulling their chair out at dinner, etc, even when they have expressly asked him not to do that because it bothers them.
2 – He states that women hate better than men and are generally just meaner.
3 – Since the book is written in the 1st person and from his perspective, he thinks lines to himself about how he “swallowed manfully” at the sight of mangled bodies, even though he was moments away from “crying like a little girl.”

That sort of stuff was cringe-worthy by modern standards, but okay, maybe I could grit my teeth and ignore the misogyny and just push on with the story. But then he gets to the crime scene and sees the bodies, both of which have their ribs pointing in the wrong directions after their hearts literally exploded in their chests.

And what does the text inform us of first? Not this very gory detail about bones now being on the outside, not the blood spray everywhere. No, we’re first informed about how the female victim’s body was straddling the male’s, the arch of her back, and the gentle curve of her naked breasts.

That was what made me want to chuck the book away. Argue all you like about how Harry Dresden is a red-blooded American man who likes him some pretty women, but so far as I’m concerned, when you describe a corpse’s breasts before you describe the very obvious thing that makes them a corpse (and which would likely ruin any “gentle curves”), I call bullshit. That’s not just the attitude of Joe Hetero. That’s the attitude of Joe Inappropriate-Male-Gaze.

I did push on, after asking some friends if the series gets better. Apparently it does, apparently Harry has some personal growth and stops being quite so much a douchenozzle after a while, which is heartening, but quite frankly, encountering all of that before I had finished chapter 2 really made an impression on me. And I’m not sure if I want to wade through what I’m told is a few more books like this in order to get to something better.

The story in Storm Front is, admittedly, pretty interesting. Not only does Harry have some backstory established from times prior to this novel, but the mystery the exploding hearts was something that did keep me reading, and I wanted to get to the bottom of the mystery and to learn more about the occult world that Harry deals with. Though even that interest came with a bit of a bitter realization, since I had to admit that the story was most interesting when Harry wasn’t thinking about or talking to women. Whenever women played a significant role in the story, they were usually trying to get with Harry (one under the accidental influence of a love potion, in a scene that I’m sure was trying to go for a hectic comedic edge to a life-threatening situation, but it kind of failed at that because magical roofies aren’t funny even when they’re accidental), or pawns in the greater mystery.

And I’m sure this review is going to piss off a load of Dresden Files fans, and possibly piss off even more people who think I’m just some virtue-signalling SJW bitch who wouldn’t know a good book if it bit them on the ass, but my opinion is my own here, and my experience was what it was. I’m still not sure if I’ll end up reading any more of the series, regardless of how good I’m told it is. There are books out there that deal with supernatural mysteries and investigations that don’t have a bunch of misogynistic content, I’m sure, and even if they might not be as popular, I may end up enjoying them more. I do enjoy a good supernatural mystery, if it’s done right, and I can overlook some problematic content in novels if the story draws me in enough, but there does come a point where the problematic content overwhelms my ability to deal with it, where it sours the experience and spoils what might have otherwise been a very enjoyable story had a few things just been toned down.

I can see why the series got a following, especially early on in its life, and I can see why people appreciate the storytelling and the mystery-building. But I think this isn’t the series for me. If the next few books have similar issues with women as the first one, there’ll be too much that I won’t enjoy to make it worth me reading them, well, for enjoyment. Reviewing is a hobby, I prefer to read books I like as opposed to ones I don’t, and from this awkward beginning, the Dresden Files series isn’t one that I feel particularly inspired to spend my time on. Shame, but them’s the breaks.

Fangs, by Sarah Andersen

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – September 1, 2020

Summary: Elsie the vampire is three hundred years old, but in all that time, she has never met her match. This all changes one night in a bar when she meets Jimmy, a charming werewolf with a wry sense of humor and a fondness for running wild during the full moon. Together they enjoy horror films and scary novels, shady strolls, fine dining (though never with garlic), and a genuine fondness for each other’s unusual habits, macabre lifestyles, and monstrous appetites.

First featured as a webcomic series on Tapas, Fangs chronicles the humor, sweetness, and awkwardness of meeting someone perfectly suited to you but also vastly different. This deluxe hardcover edition of Fangs features an “engraved” red cloth cover, dyed black page trim, and 25 exclusive comics not previously seen online. Filled with Sarah Andersen’s beautiful gothic illustrations and relatable relationship humor, Fangs has all the makings of a cult classic.

Thoughts: While it may seem strange to end Manga Month with a non-manga title, I couldn’t let August end without highlighting Sarah Andersen’s latest release, Fangs. A love story between a vampire and a werewolf might sound like the most cliche thing imaginable, the subject of I don’t know how many novels and short stories over the past decade or so, but as with many things, a unique approach can really spice up what might seem like a tired outdated trope.

And Andersen does a good job at bringing this uniqueness, with an emphasis on humour rather than broody drama. It’s cheesy humour at times, like jokes about werewolves having fleas or vampires sleeping in coffins, but it works, and there was a smile on my face the entire time I was reading Fangs. The art style isn’t what I’d call minimalistic but it does emphasize clean lines and simplicity, making it really easy to visually follow and not get bogged down in a zillion tiny details.

Also, the relationship between Elsie and Jimmy is so freaking adorable. How could you not get behind these two when they have bizarrely cute conversations about eating people? (Okay, maybe that one’s just a “me” thing…) Or how they’re quite different people but find ways to work their differences into the relationship and don’t feel the need to hide or minimize things their partner might not relate to. The way their relationship is so honest and open adds to the humour, and yes, I am probably reading too much into a simple comic about a vampire and a werewolf who are dating, but dangit, I really enjoyed Fangs, so I’m going to have my moment to gush over it!

It’s a short and sweet read, a series of one-shots that chronicles the early parts of their relationship, and is definitely something that would be right at home on my bookshelves. Though I received a digital review copy, I know already that I’m going to purchase a physical copy when it’s released, so that I can share the humour and adorableness with my partner. Fangs is 100% something we both enjoy and will want to dive into again.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

Venus in the Blind Spot, by Junji Ito

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Publisher’s website
Publication date – August 18, 2020

Summary: A “best of” collection of creepy tales from Eisner award winner and legendary horror master Junji Ito.

This striking collection presents the most remarkable short works of Junji Ito’s career, featuring an adaptation of Rampo Edogawa’s classic horror story “Human Chair” and fan favorite “The Enigma of Amigara Fault.” With a deluxe presentation—including special color pages, and showcasing illustrations from his acclaimed long-form manga No Longer Human—each chilling tale invites readers to revel in a world of terror.

Thoughts: If you’re into the weirder side of Japanese media, you’ve probably heard of Ito’s work before. His is the mind and art behind Tomie, Uzumaki, and dozens of other titles that are distinct in style, notable for the merging of beauty and grotesque. It’s not a stretch to put his work firmly in the Weird genre; I mean, Uzumaki is a horror story about a town slowly being overrun by a deadly obsession with spirals. It sounds almost silly, but it’s actually rather horrific, and Ito’s art doesn’t dip toes into the uncomfortable so much as it jumps in and splashes around for a while.

Venus in the Blind Spot is a collection of shorts, most of which are rather horrific, and even the one that’s a little more amusing and autobiographical (Master Umezz and Me) still comes off as a bit creepy due to the level of obsession displayed. Some, such as The Human Chair are based on short stories written by others, and adapted to manga form by Ito. You have ones like The Licking Woman, which sound exactly like a horrible urban legend come to life, complete with a twist that sort of makes sense for a monster story but also lacks context… kind of like a lot of monster stories, especially ones told around the campfire.

But then you get stories like An Unearthly Love, in which a woman discovers that her husband is having an affair… with a sex doll that he keeps locked in a trunk in the attic. In a fit of jealous rage she destroys the sex doll. Later, she finds her husband has killed himself so that he and his ceramic lover can be together in the afterlife. It’s a whole load of WTFery that was nevertheless entertaining to read.

I did stumble a bit over How Love Came to Professor Kirida, though. The best way I can sum up that story is: a woman is in love with a misanthrope who rejects her. The woman tries to drown herself in grief, but lives. The professor is then convinced that the woman’s spirit is haunting him. Also, a parrot might be the conduit between here and the afterlife. Maybe. It’s really not clear. I feel like perhaps the story it was based on might shed more light into the confusing aspects, perhaps something just got missed in the jump to a different medium, but this one didn’t really hold together that well, and honestly, it was mostly because of the parrot. Was it an actual astral haunting? Was the parrot just really good at imitating people? Both? Something else entirely? I couldn’t say. I was kind of just left confused by this one.

But overall, this collection of shorts definitely has some of the best that Ito has to offer, and is a good way to experience his work without committing to the more famous multi-volume works. If you’re a fan of Ito, or if you just want to give some Weird J-horror a try, then Venus in the Blind Spot is a good place to start.

Just… be warned if body horror is a problem for you. He does that stuff a lot.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

Blue Flag, volume 1, by KAITO

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Publisher’s website
Publication date – April 21, 2020

Summary: An unexpected love quadrangle with a dash of unrequited love as two classmates, a boy and a girl, begin to fall for each other when each of their best friends have already fallen for them.

For some reason, Taichi Ichinose just can’t stand Futaba Kuze. But at the start of his third year in high school, he finds himself in the same homeroom as her, along with his childhood friend Toma Mita, a star athlete. But one day, Futaba opens up to Taichi and admits she has a crush on Toma. She then asks for his help in confessing to him! There’s just one problem—Toma seems to already have a secret crush on someone else.

Thoughts: Futaba has a crush on Toma. Toma has a crush on Taichi, but thinks that Futaba has a crush on Taichi. Futaba’s best friend Masumi has a crush on Futaba. So far I think the only one who doesn’t have a crush on someone else is Taichi. So, to sum up, we have one guy with a crush on a guy, one girl with a crush on a girl, one girl with a crush on a guy, and one guy who doesn’t seem to have a crush on anyone.

I’m rooting for everyone to end up in a stable group relationship by the end, I seriously am.

I knew from the moment I saw the description of Blue Flag that I wanted to read it. The whole, “but Toma has a secret crush on someone else,” made me wonder if that person was Taichi, and I deliberately went and looked up spoilers to see if I was right. I’ve mentioned before that I keep wanting to read manga with queer characters, but so many BL stories are problematic that I keep getting burned out and disappointed. But Toma’s crush on Taichi instantly made this one stand apart, because that one crush wasn’t the whole of the story. It couldn’t be. Not with Futaba in the mix. I went into this series with some spoilers in hand, wanting to see how it all played out, to see if this presentation of queerness was any better than most of the others I’d encountered.

What I didn’t expect was to have a bonus wlw relationship thrown in the mix! So as much as this manga seems to be playing out like a contemporary high school romance story, it’s already got me more invested than other titles, because there’s a mix of straight and not-straight love going on.

I can really relate to Futaba. Shy, earnest, awkward, generally a loner most of the time because people are scary and weird. Taking out the adorable earnestness, I was pretty similar in high school. And Touma is exactly the kind of person I would have developed an impossible crush on, because he’s considerate and popular and if someone like that had deigned to say kind words to me, I would have definitely felt a pull to them.

Taichi, too, was an interesting character. At first it seems like there’s no much to him, that he’s a “just another face in the crowd” kind of guy, one who doesn’t seem to have much direction in life and is a bit disillusioned with things, not seeing what the point of anything is. But the more he got to know Futaba, the more it seemed like he started questioning that aspect of himself. If shy, awkward, “nobody likes her” Futaba can have hobbies and interests like gardening, for instance, then why doesn’t he? If someone people think nothing of other than to put them down can still have passions in life, then what’s stopping him? It feels as though him seeing an unpopular person still have more of a life than him made him stop and reconsider some things, and that was pretty good to see. Especially in manga, because so often I see the “go home club” type characters glorify their laziness and then often end up having massive story arcs and being Chosen One type characters instead. I get that the point is to emphasize the “zero to hero” bit, but in a more realistic setting, it’s actually somewhat refreshing to see someone go, “Maybe I ought to reconsider what I’m doing with my life,” after seeing someone else have fun with theirs.

I can’t say too much about Masumi yet, because her character shows up rather late in this volume and I haven’t had as much time to learn about her as I have the other three. But she does bring an interesting dynamic to the romance, that’s for sure!

There isn’t too much more I can really say about this first volume of Blue Flag. As a contemporary romance, there isn’t some great big world-changing story arc or anything filled with action and tension. It’s slow-paced, a rather relaxed story, but that does mean that the first volume doesn’t contain too much to discuss. Taichi starts to help Futaba get more comfortable talking to Toma, questions his life decisions, learns some things about his new friends, and that’s it. Even the reveal that Toma likes Taichi and Masumi likes Futaba is a short scene between only Toma and Masumi, so that aspect of the love, er, quadrangle hasn’t really been brought into play yet. It exists almost passively for the moment, though I’m hoping that picks up some in the second volume.

Which I’m absolutely going to read, by the way, because as I said, I’m invested in seeing how this definitely-not-straight romance situation plays out. There’s how I want it to play out, how I half expect it to play out, and possibly a third option in there for how it all might go down, but I’m very curious to see it happen, because I haven’t encountered any manga that attempt to tell a queer love story alongside a straight love story without it basically being very much yaoi or yuri, and at that point, you know how it’ll turn out because of the genre. This has so many variables, so many unknowns, and that mystery is what keeps me wanting to read more.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

A Gentle Noble’s Vacation Recommendation, by Momochi, Sando, & Misaki

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Publication date – August 11, 2020

Summary: When Lizel mysteriously finds himself in a city that bears odd similarities to his own but clearly isn’t, he quickly comes to terms with the unlikely truth: this is an entirely different world. Even so, laid-back Lizel isn’t the type to panic. He immediately sets out to learn more about this strange place, and to help him do so, hires a seasoned adventurer named Gil as his tour guide and protector. Until he’s able to find a way home, Lizel figures this is a perfect opportunity to explore a new way of life adventuring as part of a guild. After all, he’s sure he’ll go home eventually… might as well enjoy the otherworldly vacation for now!

Thoughts: The isekai genre is a pretty popular one, and for storytelling reasons, it’s easy to see why. Someone from one world magically ends up in another one, and it’s a great way for characters to drop a whole load of world-building exposition on the newbie. It’s a good way to get readers to relate to the protagonist, since the reader is just as ignorant about the new world and gets to learn and grow alongside the main character. Usually this is done with someone from this world getting teleported into a new world, whether that world is a pure fantasy world, the world of a video game, or something based on history but with a twist.

In A Gentle Noble’s Vacation Recommendation, we have a character from a secondary world getting plopped down into another secondary world, which, honestly, is something I don’t think I’ve really seen done before. It instantly removes the intended relatability from the main character, since the reader can’t approach the story from the perspective of, “I know the same things as this person because we grew up in the same world.” (Even though, if I’m honest, that relatability is often just a shell; lots of people grow up in this world and can’t understand or relate to each other; the biggest way readers tend to relate to protagonists in isekai stories is through their shared ignorance of the new world, which we tend to interpret as being alike because we’re from the same world.) The main character of this manga, Lizel, comes from a world that’s as much a fantasy to us as the one he randomly finds himself stuck in.

This leads to a bit of an awkward beginning in the manga as we don’t know what Lizel’s world is like or in what ways this new world is different to him. Both worlds seem to involve magic, so him trying to buy a magic bag with infinite capacity isn’t weird or unreasonable in either his world or the new one. But he’s pretty tight-lipped about what his own world was like, so A Gentle Noble’s Vacation Recommendation seems at first less like an isekai story and more like an instance of a resourceful person dealing with some degree of amnesia, or just someone who had spent their life very sheltered. It’s difficult to tell sometimes which areas of Lizel’s ignorance are because he’s from a different world, or because he’s just encountering things in life that he hasn’t encountered before.

The world he ends up in seems rather like a generic fantasy video game. There’s a ranked adventurer’s guild, where people sign up and take quests for profit, like killing ten rats outside of town. Some weapons are only found as loot at the end of dungeons. It’s always weird to me to see ideas like this outside of video games, though logically, there’s no reason they should fit into a video game’s world any more realistically than a world portrayed in any other medium.

Which brings me to what I consider A Gentle Noble’s Vacation Recommendation‘s strongest point: getting the reader to question preconceived notions. Why is something more believable or acceptable in this form as opposed to that form? What qualifies something to be considered this instead of that? Why do we relate to some protagonists we often have absolutely nothing in common with them? As I read through this manga, I found myself hitting stumbling blocks, and then being prompted to consider why they were stumbling blocks to begin with. Was it a flaw with the manga and its story, or was it just that I’d come to expect things to be a certain way and instead was being given something other than the typical presentation?

I very much want to continue with this series. It gave me some good food for thought, and I enjoy the way Lizel and his bodyguard/tour guide Gil interact with each other, especially since they both guard so many secrets about their respective lives. (Also want to see if the slashy vibe I’m getting off them is actually leading to something or is just there for the fanservice.) The story’s progression revealed that there are connections between Lizel’s original world and the new world he ended up in, so I want to know how that aspect of the story is going to develop. Apparently this manga is based on a light novel, so I’m sure I could just go look up the answers to my questions, but I’d prefer to keep reading the manga for now and be surprised as I go.

I think fans of isekai stories could like this one a lot, if they go in with the understanding that they’re not going to get stereotypical isekai fare. It hits a lot of the same points, but also is its own unique story. It’s a good one for those who enjoy their manga with a strong fantasy flavour, but who are also looking for a combination between the “fish out of water” story and the “rich noble who can do what they want” story. I’m intrigued, and I really do want to follow A Gentle Noble’s Vacation Recommendation to its conclusion; my interest has been piqued, and I’m not about to let it lie.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

There Are Things I Can’t Tell You, by Mofumofu Edako

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Publication date -June 17, 2020

Summary: Kasumi and Kyousuke are polar opposites when it comes to personality. Kasumi is reserved, soft-spoken and shy; Kyousuke is energetic and has always been popular among their peers. As the saying goes though, opposites have a tendency to attract, and these two have been fast friends since elementary school. To Kasumi, Kyousuke has always been a hero to look up to, someone who supports him and saves him from the bullies. But now, school is over; their relationship suddenly becomes a lot less simple to describe. Facing the world ― and one another ― as adults, both men find there are things they struggle to say out loud, even to each other.

Thoughts: I don’t know what it is, but there are a lot of BL titles where the main characters are in high school. Usually their final year of high school. So it was nice to actually see a title where the two of them have graduated high school, have jobs, succeeding at adulting, all that stuff. I don’t know why such titles seem like rarities; maybe I’m just not looking in the right place, or maybe it’s because high school stories are still so appealing. The moment right before childhood ends and adulthood starts, that balance of responsibility and carefree youth; I can definitely see why it would appeal to many. Heck, I enjoy a good high school story every now and then. But they come with a sort of implication that unless some things happen to you in high school, they’re never going to happen at all.

There Are Things I Can’t Tell You sidesteps that quite handily by having the characters be in their 20s. Pretty easy, that.

So. Kyousuke is in love with Kasumi, has been for a while now, but hasn’t told him because he can’t find the right words, or the courage to overcome potential judgment. The two are good friends, sharing an apartment together, though there are ways in which they don’t get along. Like any friends, really.

Only there was a moment where Kasumi confessed his love for Kyousuke. Kyousuke, though, responded by becoming afraid that his desire to be around Kasumi, to be close to him, gave him the wrong idea and confused Kasumi about the difference between friendship and love.

I mean… What?

I get that Kyousuke was trying to suppress his own feelings while still trying to be around Kasumi as much as possible, but come on! My dude, if you can figure out that you’re in love with someone, surely they can also make that decision for themselves. You don’t get to tell them, “You’re just confused and don’t actually feel that way.” You don’t get to tell people how they feel. Or if you’re going to stick with that, then why do your own feelings not get examined, why do you not spend days telling yourself that you’re not really in love with Kasumi, that you just misunderstood what friendship was?

(And yes, I know he says later that he was trying to protect Kasumi from being “corrupted” by queerness the way he was, but it was still one of those moments that came across as painfully hypocritical and shortsighted, and the fact that this hypocrisy wasn’t even addressed in his internal monologue made me wonder if the mangaka even noticed it to begin with…)

Not going to lie, I almost gave up on the manga at that point. There were a few things it did that were problematic, and your mileage may vary on this, but those things are pretty common in BL manga. It can be easy to overlook as just being a part of the subgenre, in some ways. I’m kind of used to overlooking them and not dwelling on them because honestly, if I focused too hard on them I’d probably never read queer-oriented manga again, and I keep doing so, hoping to come across volumes with fewer things I consider problematic. So I pushed on.

(Though I’m starting to feel like I could write an entire post about the problematic stuff that keeps cropping up in BL manga and why I am so very over it…)

I ended up getting being pretty torn on what I thought of it in the end. It did some things I like, such as having the characters be adults with their own lives and jobs and passions. There was also a good message in there about mistakes not being the end of the world, that things might look like they’re going badly but there might still be something salvageable from it, or the chance to use it to advance even further later on. But it also did things I didn’t like, such as the, “They’re in love but don’t know it, now there’s angst, they spend a night together and will probably be happy, but oh no, we should break up because it’s better that way, but oh look, now they’re back together again!” narrative.

It was… okay, I guess. It was on par with a lot of BL on the market, I think, so if you enjoy a lot of those titles, you’ll probably also enjoy There Are Things I Can’t Tell You. It was kind of sweet in places, and I admire Kyousuke’s work ethic and passion, as well as relate to Kasumi’s shy insecurity. But I don’t think I can really recommend it on any strengths, or on its ability to stand out from other titles. And I think, in the end, that’s really what I’m looking for these days. Something to stand out, something to make me interested and invested, and not just give me the same story I’ve already seen a dozen times over.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

The Fox and the Little Tanuki, vol 2, by Tagawa Mi

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Publisher’s website
Publication date – August 18, 2020

Summary: After 300 years, the gods that imprisoned Senzou the Fox Spirit for his arrogance finally set him free. There is only one condition ― he can’t have any of his supernatural abilities back until he successfully helps a tanuki cub named Manpachi become one of their magical assistants. Unfortunately for Senzou, there’s no cheating when it comes to completing his task! The magic beads around his neck make sure he can’t wander too far from his charge or shirk his duties, and so… Senzou the once-great Fox Spirit must now figure out how to be an actually-great babysitter to a mischievous little tanuki or risk being stuck without his powers forever!

Thoughts: The first volume of The Fox and the Little Tanuki had many things to say about the consequences of rejection and repression, and I quickly grew to think of the story as something akin to My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. Something that’s ostensibly for kids, but also has surprising depth to it, things that adults can enjoy and stand to be reminded of every once in a while, and more to it than what’s on the surface. I found myself hoping that this would continue in the second volume. Happily, I wasn’t disappointed.

Manpachi has gone missing, tricked into vanishing by a sly and deceptive badger, Momoji, who senses that Manpachi will become powerful when he grows up and wants to set himself up as an ally to that strength. Manpachi is entirely unaware of this, thinking only that Momoji wants to be his friend and help reunite him with the family who rejected him at birth.

Once again I’m struck by how much this manga addresses the issue of people not being to blame for their own births. Or rather, how they shouldn’t be blamed; plenty of people blame Manpachi for his birth. He’s bakemono, he’s different, he’s an outcast, the energy needed to create him messed up the ecology of his home for possibly years to come… And he’s not actually at fault for any of that (that last one is revealed to be entirely untrue anyway), though people are happy to treat him as though he did everything deliberately, maliciously. Turning bakemono into scapegoats.

It’s one of the reasons I really enjoy Senzou as a character, even if he can be a jerk and practically desperate to deny that there’s anything good about himself. He’s faced that same mentality. Heck, he became the embodiment of it, taking an, “If they’re going to hate me for being destructive, then I may as well destroy everything,” approach to life for so long. But that’s part of why he was chosen to raise Manpachi to begin with. Not just as some sort of rehabilitation project; that could have been anything, really. But Manpachi has the potential to become just like Senzou, facing the same obstacles in life and risking the same brutal punishment that Senzou experienced, when his pain overwhelmed his reason and he became violent. Senzou’s got this job because he gets it. He knows what Manpachi’s life will be like, he knows that kind of pain. His job isn’t just to raise Manpachi to be a good person, a good tanuki. His job is to spare Manpachi the same pain he went through, by making sure he doesn’t walk the same path.

Or at least, that’s how I’m reading it.

I think this sort of story can resonate with anyone who’s spent time on the fringes of “acceptable” society. The blame, the stress, the internalizing of what everyone considers as your faults. The way pain can make you lash out — I liked finding out that Mikumo nearly lost his way and became angry and violent due to pain, not because I like knowing he was in pain, but because he found his way out of it. And also because his case shows that really, it can happen to anyone if they’re pushed in the right way; nobody is inherently evil. And there’s  the positive side of the manga’s themes, too. The friends and family you make, rather than the ones related to you by circumstance of birth. The way idealism can lead to great changes. The way one’s destiny isn’t fixed, but that change comes all the time, and how you handle it affects how life goes from there. Nothing is ever destroyed, even if it changes beyond what you can easily recognize.

I’m really enjoying seeing Manpachi grow up with that idealism, and the guidance (albeit somewhat unwilling, at least at first) to avoid missteps. I enjoy seeing Senzou adjust to how his life is so very different from what he imagined it to be, and the way he’s learning to be better because people have placed their trust in him. I enjoy Koyuki’s weird hyperactive maternalism toward Manpachi, and the way she sometimes turns that on Senzou to amusing effect. I like the bond between Tachibana and Mikumo, and Tachibana’s doofy canine smile. I like Hagiri’s love of cats, and his loyalty to those who deserve it. I like the way the story of animals spills over into humanity, and the complications that brings to Senzou’s life and appointed task. I like the art style, I like the way a simple story can say so much that hits so hard.

I still maintain that The Fox and the Little Tanuki is the sort of story that can be enjoyed by kids and adults alike, in so many different ways. It’s got a lot to say about a lot of issues, and the fact that it chooses animals as allegory isn’t a reason to dismiss it as being too childish to pay attention to. I didn’t expect to have so much to say here, either in this review or my review of the first volume, but the manga itself has plenty to say, so I suppose it shouldn’t come as a surprise. I’m already looking forward to volume 3, whenever that gets released.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)