25 Apr, 2009

The Lord of the Sands of Time and More

By: Michelle Smith, Melinda Beasi, Erin Finnegan, Connie C. and Chloe Ferguson

This month’s Otaku Bookshelf column is a chunky one! First, Melinda renders her verdict on volumes two and three of The Guilty (DMP), a yaoi novel about love between an editor and author; Connie enjoys the trashiness of The Lonely Egotist (DMP); Chloe has high praise for Haikasoru’s The Lord of the Sands of Time (Viz); Michelle finds volume four of the S (DMP) series to be better than most yaoi novels; and Erin wraps things up with Sea of Wind (TOKYOPOP), the second volume in the Twelve Kingdoms novel series.


The Guilty, Vols. 2-3

guilty3By Katsura Izumi, Illustrated by Hinako Takanaga
Published by Digital Manga Publishing

Toya Sakurai is a young editor of mystery novels for a struggling publisher who has just scored a huge success for his company with a new book from best-selling author, Kai Hodoka. What no one else knows is that while working on the project, Hodoka also became Toya’s lover through a bizarre series of pool games in which Toya paid for his losses with his body. Now that the book has been finished, Toya isn’t sure where he stands with Hodoka and is desperate to find out, but his timidity and Hodoka’s incommunicative nature keep getting in the way. Meanwhile, Toya begins work with a new, young author, Amano, whose straightforward manner and obvious feelings for Toya only make things more confusing. As these volumes continue, Toya struggles against his own insecurities to try to understand Hodoka’s feelings, while also battling a rumor about their involvement which forces the question of whether or not they should reveal their relationship publicly.

This series has so much potential to be fun, solid romance, but it is unfortunately dragged down repeatedly by the rather appalling treatment of Toya’s sexuality and his physical relationship with Hodoka. Most of their frequent sexual encounters read like assault, with Toya begging for relief from Hodoka’s sadistic treatment of him. Though it is clear that Toya truly desires Hodoka and even initiates their encounters from time to time, these scenes are irrevocably tainted by Toya’s constant feelings of shame and humiliation, which Hodoka encourages and obviously enjoys. Late in the third book, Hodoka actually rapes Toya outright, purportedly to give Toya a much-needed reason to break up with him. The fact that this ultimately is explained away as an act of kindness is fairly shocking by itself, but what’s most disturbing is that this scene is not appreciably different from most of their other sexual encounters, aside from Toya’s use of the word “rape.”

The most distressing element of all this, however, is the author’s emotional and physical portrayal of Toya. Having discovered his own sexuality after years of simply feeling no real attraction to anyone at all, it is understandable that he would be confused by his own emotions and desires, and perhaps even believe that he should be ashamed of them. What’s appalling is that this point of view seems to be shared by the author, who not only spends a great deal of time describing in detail how Toya’s manhood is degraded by his desire, but actually treats him as though he is equipped with female genitalia and experiences the physical responses that go with it. It is difficult to decide whether this is more demeaning towards Toya or to the series’ female readers, but either way it is deeply unfortunate.

Regrettably, these problems dominate what would otherwise be a nicely engaging romance series. Toya is an immensely relatable character, struggling to balance career success with romance for the first time in his life. As he juggles his shaky affair with Hodoka along with young Amano’s feelings for him, he realizes too late that his fear of conflict and desire to be kind to everyone may actually result in a great deal of hurt for others–an important but painful lesson too often ignored by most people. Hodoka, too, is quite a poignant character, obviously deeply damaged by his past, and though early on it is difficult to understand why Toya would stay with him when sweet, open Amano is right there waiting in the wings, over time it becomes clear how much good Toya and Hodoka might do for each other, if only they stayed out of the bedroom. Near the end of the second volume, Hodoka begs Toya to teach him how he wants to be loved, and for one shining moment it seems possible that he might learn real tenderness and help Toya to shed his shame over his own body, but by the end of the third volume this hope remains sadly unfulfilled.

Ultimately, The Guilty offers some nice characterization and real emotional depth. Unfortunately it is not enough to balance out the uncomfortably humiliating sex scenes or homophobic self-loathing of the series’ protagonist.

Volume two of The Guilty is available now. Volume three will be available on April 28, 2009.

–Reviewed by Melinda Beasi


The Lonely Egotist

lonelyegotistBy Hikaru Masaki, Illustrations by Masara Minase
Digital Manga Publishing, 180 pp.

Minami Kasuga, an up-and-coming architect, is excited about his new job designing rooms for the Hotel Moon. He was hired on at a prestigious design firm less than a year ago, and this is his first big solo project. Imagine his surprise when he shows up for his first consultation and is violated by the hotel’s owner, Shinya Asakura. Before he can explain to his boss that he isn’t taking the job, he shows up to work and finds that Asakura has beaten him to the punch by signing a contract with the firm’s owner. So now Kasuga is stuck working with Asakura, and it’s pretty safe to assume that Asakura’s behavior won’t improve.

I wound up enjoying this a lot mainly because it was a really great trashy novel. The story is a simple one, and it takes you through without deviating from its set path, but I think that’s why it works so well. There are plenty of really silly things in it (at one point, Minami falls into a pool, which of course means that he has to take his clothes off, which then leads to another sex scene), but the writing is good enough that you’re not slapping your forehead when these things come up. Plus, it’s got two things working in its favor: the relationship is between two adult men, and sex scenes are always a little more striking to me when they’re in a novel.

The one thing that really bothered me about it is that Asakura rapes Kasuga within the first 25 pages. After this happens, the novel makes a lot of excuses as to why Kasuga can’t tell anyone about it, and then it happens again. And then Kasuga realizes he’s in love. I know this happens a lot in yaoi, but no matter how many times I see this plot device, it will never be okay. It was particularly hard to deal with here, because the issue isn’t really glossed over like it often is. Kasuga thinks about it a lot, and uses the word “rape” as opposed to the usual euphemisms. Plus, in the novel we have access to Kasuga’s train of thought while it’s happening, and he’s… he’s really not enjoying it, guys. It was a little hard to get past that part.

The cover and occasional interior illustration is done by Masara Minase, who’s got two volumes out in English, Empty Heart and Lies and Kisses. She’s a fantastic artist, and Lies and Kisses was one of the first really good yaoi books I read. I was disappointed initially that this wasn’t just a manga drawn by her, but I actually wound up enjoying the novel quite a bit, even though it used my least favorite plot device. It’s great trashy romance, and if you’re into that sort of thing, it’ll be hard to put down once you start.

The Lonely Egotist is available now.

–Reviewed by Connie C.


The Lord of the Sands of Time

sandsoftime1By Issui Ogawa
Viz Media, 260 pages

One of four kickoff novels to jumpstart Viz’s Haikasoru novel imprint, the English incarnation of The Lord of the Sands of Time is very clear proof that a good translation and an eye for dynamite original source material can do wonders. Rooted in both history and classical sci-fi genre tradition, the novel puzzlingly opens in 248 AD Japan, seemingly focused upon the (very real) Yayoi period priestess-queen, Himiko. Suffice to say that once the aliens start showing up, it rapidly becomes clear that time, space and possibility have begun to bend, and that Ogawa’s narrative structure is anything but straightforward. Flash forward to the twenty-sixth century: Earth and other solar-proximal planets have been abandoned in the course of enormous warfare with these same invaders. Humanity, now on the defensive, has begun mass production of artificially intelligent robots to counter the enemy. Among those produced is Orville, the novel’s central protagonist whose encounters with humanity and love fuel both his fighting and questioning across the centuries.

It’s impossible to encompass the enormous, rather mind-bending complexity of Ogawa’s narrative. Complicating the matter is humanity’s last ditch effort, an increasingly frantic attempt to thwart the enemy at various key moments in the past moving up the so-called time stream. The implications here are fantastic, and Ogawa swings for the fences with them; as Orville saves or fails to save individuals, the ripple effects are felt. Forgot to evacuate that city? There goes half of the troops from the 26th century force, given, of course, that one of the descendants of a citizen there invented them, and thus, if they never survived, the troops were never made. This sort of philosophical what-if-ing extends even to the timestreams themselves, as failure in one time stream inevitably mandates leaving humanity to languish and die in that particular stream. It is here to be found the thorny moral core of Orville’s tale–after failing to save humanity countless times, where does hope lie? And better yet, as an AI, what does humanity mean to him?

Structurally, The Lord of the Sands of Time is a sprawling epic of a mess, albeit one with dynamic possibilities and masterful construction. It’s the classic round the world tour, now in time, too: quick, we’re in the future! No, now it’s World War II! Wait, now Ancient Egypt! It’s quite the literary sprint, and if the idea is to convey Orville’s exhaustion, it’s job well done for Mr. Ogawa. It’s a shame that the ending is tainted with a touch of dues ex machina–granted, it makes sense in retrospect, but the abruptness of the conclusion somehow jars the book’s flow a bit.

Perhaps the brightest aspect of Ogawa’s novel is its refusal to surrender to the common sci-fi trope of artificial intelligence, despite having a robotic protagonist. Instead of the man versus machine dynamic of Asimov, Ogawa opts for a thoughtful, albeit searching soul in the form of Orville, one capable of love but who is hard-pressed to understand it. The novel’s main alien menace proves equally unusual, albeit bogged down by the sense that they’re a bit too much of a necessary plot presence and not enough of a justified opponent. Ogawa’s portrait of humanity is, on the other hand, far more scathing: across time and space, it seems, people are still fundamentally a greedy, close-minded bunch.

Ultimately, The Lord of the Sands of Time ought not to be missed, if only for its fantastic English rendering. Enormous kudos to Jim Hubbert, as his natural, flowing translation is (aside from a few small oddities) almost seamless; one would be hard-pressed to call out The Lord of the Sands of Time as Japanese based on the language in which it’s told. Sci-fi vets will find plenty of common themes to lure them in, while even the casual or reluctant reader can use Hubbert’s eminently readable version to find a time-jumping, mind-boggling good time within. It’s not exactly a top shelf masterpiece, but The Lord of the Sands of Time puts most of its pop fiction fellows to shame.

The Lord of the Sands of Time will be available on July 21, 2009.

–Reviewed by Chloe Ferguson


S, Vol. 4: Afterglow

s4Written by Saki Aida, Illustrated by Chiharu Nara
Digital Manga Publishing, 250 pp.

Masaki Shiiba was a detective investigating the manufacture of illegal firearms and Keigo Munechika was his “S,” an informant who played a key role in Shiiba’s information gathering. At some point in the past, the two began a romantic relationship, but a powerful yakuza boss with a grudge against Munechika wants to see him suffer and so hires a hitman who’ll receive one million yen every time he shoots Munechika.

As the fourth volume begins, Munechika lies hospitalized and Shiiba has turned in his resignation and bought an illegal gun with the intention of killing the man responsible—Takanari Godou—who also might’ve had something to do with the death of Shiiba’s sister eight years earlier. Shiiba gets as far as confronting Godou at gunpoint, but the other man manages to exploit his weaknesses in such a way that he agrees to do Godou’s bidding in exchange for the hit against Munechika being called off.

Let me be clear on one thing: I am not comparing S to great works of literature. As far as yaoi novels go, however, it seems to be better than most. True, the writing is facile, with a blatant disregard for the admonition “show, don’t tell,” but at least the story is trying to be about something more than sex. In fact, there’s only one sex scene in the whole book and it’s between two men who genuinely love each other. Despite Godou’s attempts to humiliate Shiiba while the latter is in his clutches, no nonconsensual scenes result. That alone is worthy of praise.

The basic plot is “the good guys versus Godou,” and I had no trouble getting into it, though the finer details never really coalesced for me. Nearly all of the characters are conflicted in some way, especially Shiiba, whose ruminating upon past events fills in the blanks pretty well. Throughout, I could easily visualize the action, so it felt a lot like reading a novelization of a story originally told in manga format.

There are some problems, though. After much is made of Shiiba needing to stay at Godou’s house in order to protect Munechika, there are no consequences when he leaves. When Shiiba is reunited with Munechika, who has some powerful connections himself, Munechika’s people simply say, “Oh yes, we know about the hitman,” and that’s that. It’s all very anticlimactic. Also, two characters, including the main villain, have similar angsty backgrounds that involve a mother’s inappropriate love for either her son or her son’s half-brother and her subsequent early demise. I’m not sure what the author was trying to say there.

DMP’s packaging is a mixed bag. A color illustration is included, which I appreciate—Chiharu Nara’s art is quite nice and depicts both Shiba and Munechika as mature, masculine men—but there are many grammatical errors in the text. Most of these are things that should’ve been easily caught, like “the wings itself aren’t blue,” while others, like “He took the bouquet from the employee’s hands, who looked conflicted,” conjure up amusing mental images of unusually expressive appendages.

If you’re looking for a yaoi novel with an emphasis on plot, then S might suit you to a T.

Volume four of S, subtitled Afterglow, is available now.

–Reviewed by Michelle Smith


The Twelve Kingdoms, Vol. 2: Sea of Wind

seaofwindBy Fuyumi Ono
Tokyopop, 320 pp.

You could read The Twelve Kingdoms: Sea of Wind, the second volume in the series, without reading the first volume, Sea of Shadow.The volumes are not numbered and they don’t take place chronologically, nor do they share the same protagonist. Although Keiki plays an important part in Sea of Wind, the events take place several years before he meets Yoko (the protagonist of Sea of Shadow).

Sea of Wind was adapted into episodes 15-21 of the anime series The Twelve Kingdoms, which I had seen prior to reading the book. This arc covers the story of Taiki, a magical creature known as a Kirin. Taiki is born in the magical fantasy world of the Twelve Kingdoms, but is swept away in a storm to Earth, where he is raised until the age of ten as a human. Taiki is rescued from Japan by Sansi, his half-leopard nursemaid/guardian. The young boy always felt out of place growing up, and although he feels more comfortable in his new home on Mount Hou, he is woefully unprepared to be a Kirin.

Most Kirin grow up as unicorn-looking deer creatures, flying around and taming demons by defeating them in staring contests. Later, they shift into human form and choose a king for their assigned kingdom. Taiki has no idea how to change into a unicorn or fly, and he keeps losing his demon staring contests. His lack of confidence in himself blocks his ability to find the next king through divine revelation.

Much of the book is spent in set-up, explaining the nature of a Kirin. The latter half hinges on Taiki’s misunderstood struggle to find his king. The weight of the impending decision pulled me through to the end of the book, but the first few chapters, told from Sansi’s point of view, were melodramatic and plodding. In the anime series, I found Yoko somewhat annoying, whereas I liked her more in the first novel. Inversely, Taiki is very likeable in anime series, but in the novel his weakness and constant self-doubt can be a little tiresome at times.

Fuyumi Ono is successful in her creation of a complete fantasy world that seems more oriental than occidental in origin. The political landscape is well rendered and Mount Hou was created with the eye of an anthropologist and a linguist. The large-ish font and the occasional illustration make the book a fast read, as a light novel should be.

Sea of Wind is available now.

–Reviewed by Erin Finnegan

2 Responses to "The Lord of the Sands of Time and More"

1 | swanjun // soliloquy in blue » Blog Archive » S 4: Afterglow by Saki Aido and Chiharu Nara: B-

April 25th, 2009 at 10:23 pm

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[...] I reviewed the fourth and final volume in the yaoi novel series S, published by DMP, for this month’s Otaku Bookshelf column. It was actually pretty decent, as far as yaoi novels go. You can find my review here. [...]

2 | there it is, plain as daylight. » Nodame Cantabile, Volume 1

April 25th, 2009 at 11:48 pm

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[...] over at Manga Recon’s Otaku Bookshelf column, for the second and third volumes of DMP’s The Guilty, a series of yaoi novels I had extremely mixed feelings about. And now, a quick review of something [...]

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