RIGHT TURN ONLY!!
Novel Ideas

by Rebecca Silverman,

Our neighbor had to move and he couldn't find his cat. We offered to look for her and hold on to her until he could come get her, only to get the cat and have him offer her to us since, as it turns out, he was unable to keep her. We had every intention of bringing her to the shelter, but fall in Maine is a bad time for shelters, with summer people losing or deliberately leaving their pets when they leave. So we kept her, and after a week, there was no way we were giving her up. So while seven cats is perhaps too many (although since they all have food, water, a litter box, and the house is clean it doesn't count as “hoarding”), Kathryn has slipped right in to our weird family.

Seven cats. Are we officially Crazy Cat Ladies now?


SWORD ART ONLINE AINCRAD
Vol. 2

(by Reki Kawahara, YenOn, $13.00)

FROM THE BACK COVER:

Linked up and logged into the deadly VMMORPG "Sword Art Online" in both the real and virtual worlds, Kirito is stuck in a hell of one man's making, and like everyone else, unable to escape until the game is beaten. But while some players are crippled by fear and others throw themselves into completing the game, still others relax into everyday life in the face of their cruel predicament and live to the best of their ability...laughing, crying, but always enjoying the game. Among them are four women who make a mark upon the solo adventurer that Kirito has become: Silica, the beast-tamer; Lisbeth, the blacksmith; Yui, the mysterious orphan; and the tragic Sachi, never to be forgotten by the black swordsman...

REVIEW:

If Reki Kawahara were a better author, this would be a really good book. As it stands, it's a pretty good book, and it fills out Kirito's life in SAO decently well, even adding some depth to the character with the fourth and final story, which details his tragic (mis)adventure with the Midnight Black Cats guild. That story especially could have been really heartbreaking if handled with a little more literary skill; the only one narrated by Kirito himself, it shows him admitting to faults that he rarely acknowledged in the first novel and gives us a better idea of how Sachi helped to shape him as a person and as a player. Of the other stories, the third, told in third person from Asuna's point of view, is probably the weakest, although it does make an earnest attempt at deepening her character through her interactions with Yui. It unfortunately comes off as stilted much of the time; Kawahara made the same basic attempt with the first story about Silica trying to revive her pet with Kirito's help, and the relationship between Silica and Pino is much more believable than that of Asuna, Kirito, and Yui, at least in the mutual care sense that Kawahara is trying to evoke. The most surprising story is the second, which is narrated in the first person by the blacksmith Lisbeth. She stands out as a distinct character, to the point where Kawahara's device of having all the ladies love Kirito becomes less of an annoyance, or at least more believable. Her story also allows us to see how the everyday players see the world, right up until the moment when the game is cleared. This in itself makes her story worth reading.

RECOMMENDATION: Buy it. These stories fill in the gaps left by the anime (and manga), and Lisbeth becomes a character in her own right as opposed to one of Kirito's groupies. It may not be terrific writing, but it most definitely is a quick, enjoyable read.


KOKORO CONNECT
Vol. 1

(by Sadanatsu Anda and CUTEG, Seven Seas, $12.99)

FROM THE BACK COVER:

HEART AND SOUL

Yamaboshi Academy's Student Cultural Society consists of five weirdo (Himeko, Iori, Yui, Aoki, and Taichi) who just don't fit in anywhere else. While they seem as close as friends can be, when they mysteriously start swapping bodies with one another, their bond is put to the test. Now the five friends must figure out not only why this is happening to them, but come to terms with each other's innermost secrets, fears, and hidden crushes. Can they possibly stay friends while retaining their sanity? Find out in this first volume of Kokoro Connect which has been adapted into a hit anime!

REVIEW:

Adaptations of any original material can work really well – or they can sort of stutter and fail. Unfortunately, the manga version of Sadanatsu Anda's Kokoro Connect light novels is of the latter sort, which is doubly disappointing since it made a successful transition to anime in 2012. CUTEG's manga variant, however, suffers from difficulties in portraying the moment of body swaps (there's a sort of jiggling effect that doesn't quite work) as well as the fact that the characters themselves have switched bodies. For this last CUTEG relies on little heads drawn by the speech bubbles, and that really just makes it a bit more confusing than if she had given everyone a signature pose or gesture to indicate who was who. Since this is the main conceit of the book, not getting it right really cuts down on enjoyability, and actually creates some real annoyance as you're reading it. The back copy also makes the story sound more tense than it turns out to be – the only one who appears to have a secret is Yui, and the other girls seem to have figured it out anyway, while Aoki's crush on Yui is hardly a secret. (Of more concern to the guys is that now the girls know who has a bigger penis.) While Yui's secret is one that makes a lot of sense and feels realistic, it isn't handled as well as it could be, making the “reveal” of it to Taichi seem a bit undercooked. (His solution is also weird and far too easy.) On the plus side, CUTEG's art is very cute and attractive, and we can see that the original story did have some clear thought put into it. That just doesn't come across in the manga particularly well, making this feel kind of half-done and robbing it of its emotional pull. This could be rectified in later volumes as the villain's plans escalate (if you've seen the anime, you know what I mean), but in this book, Kokoro Connect is decidedly underwhelming.

RECOMMENDATION: Skip it. I really enjoyed the anime and was excited to read this, but it fell far short of the mark with confusing body switches and art that's more cute than useful.


SERAPH OF THE END
Vol. 2

(by Takaya Kagami and Yamato Yamamoto, Viz, $9.99)

FROM THE BACK COVER:

After trumpets of the apocalypse proclaim the fall of humanity, vampires arise from the shadows to rule the earth. Yuichiro wants just one thing – to get revenge by killing each and every vampire.

Now that Yuichiro has earned his place in the Japanese Imperial Demon Army, he prepares to undergo a fiendish test to acquire the most powerful and deadly of humanity's weapons against vampires—Black Demon Series Cursed Gear. Meanwhile, the vampire nobility welcome a new member—Mika, the best friend Yuichiro thinks died in their escape but who has his own bitter story of survival.

REVIEW:

One has to wonder whether or not Takaya Kagami has ever met a woman he liked, because Seraph of the End suffers from the same issue that his previous series The Legend of the Legendary Heroes did – a lack of good female characters. Since he's trying to create a multi-gender cast, this is a pretty big problem, and also one that bothers me quite a bit. With Shinoa Hiragi looking to be a major player and spending all of her time being deliberately obnoxious, this volume definitely suffers. Newly introduced (obligatory loli) vampire queen Krul Tepes is a major step up, but sadly that isn't saying as much as it could be, given that she spends most of her time slyly tormenting Mika. I'm not counting that as a spoiler because his new state of being is right there on the cover, to say nothing of being the title of chapter five, which may be the least subtle name since the Basara anime had an episode titled “Death of Shidou.”

But enough complaining. Seraph of the End is actually pretty good. Yes, the characters are generally unlikable (male as well as female), but this volume raises some very interesting questions of humanity. Is it predicated on being physically human? Mika seems to think so, but his actions would suggest otherwise, while fully human Guren Ichinose seems decidedly less so. Yoichi's experiences this time also have implications for what “humanity” means and the strengths and weaknesses it entails, and I can't help but think that this theme will have major implications for the rest of the series. That the vampires see humans as lesser and humanity as a weakness is certainly food for thought as the story progresses, even without the mysterious “seraphs” that Krul seems to be the only one to know about. The mysteries are still piling up, and they can get a little annoying, since it would be gratifying to actually get a few answers now and then. Seraph of the End can be a bit much of a tease, really, but at this point that's more an inducement to continue reading than a cause to throw up one's hands, hit Wikipedia for the answers, and stop.

RECOMMENDATION: Borrow it from a library or a friend. Seraph of the End's positives and negatives balance each other out right now, making it a good read if not a great one. It looks like that may change for one direction or the other, but right now, while it merits reading, it doesn't necessarily deserve the shelf space.


LIBRARY WARS: LOVE & WAR
Vol. 12

(by Kiiro Yumi and Hiro Arikawa, Viz, $9.99)

FROM THE BACK COVER:

In the near future, the federal government creates a committee to rid society of books it deems unsuitable. The libraries vow to protect their collections, and with the help of local governments, form a military group to defend themselves--the Library Forces!

Library Forces member Iku Kasahara has plans to go out for tea with her supervisor and secret crush, Dojo, but just figuring out what to wear puts her in a tailspin. When an urgent call comes in about an author seeking protection from the government, Iku realizes that the fight against censorship never takes a break!

REVIEW:

Library Wars is a bit of a strange duck – it wants to be both a military adventure about soldiers protecting the people from censorship and a cute love story at the same time. The sad result is that it does neither especially well, at least in the manga adaptation. This volume manages to get both storylines moving in a better way, which certainly makes it more successful than its predecessors, even if “love” gets more attention than “war.” The book opens with Iku and Dojo going on their totally-not-a-date, which opens the door for some really sweet awkward moments. Mostly this involves hand-holding, which, it must be admitted, does make it easy to forget that these are both chronological adults we're dealing with. Nevertheless, the scenes are some of the more successful in terms of presenting the romance, and they form a nice contrast with the developing Tezuka/Shibazaki relationship, which also develops this time around. Theirs feels less authentic and a tiny bit tawdry when compared to Iku and Dojo's, which certainly would seem to contradict my earlier jab at the hand-holding. Perhaps it is better to say that Iku and Dojo come across as earnest, trust-worthy characters, while there's just something shady about Shibazaki, and even about Tezuka in some respects.

That covers the “love,” so what about “war?” The crisis this time feels more relatable than previous conflicts, as it deals with a terrorist crime carried out that follows the plot of a popular novel action for action. This draws unwanted censure on its author's head, and the Library Forces steps up to protect him. Given that we currently live in a world where books are banned for being too sexual, too violent, featuring gay characters, or having magic in them, this feels like a very possible situation, and in the story's world could easily cause things to spiral out of control. So why do Yumi and Arikawa spend more time on the fluffier aspects of the story? We've finally been handed a plot we can sink our teeth into, and instead we get to watch Dojo and Iku awkwardly flirt while they're working. Way to not quite deliver, Library Wars.

RECOMMENDATION: Borrow it from a library or a friend. Library Wars 12 is true to its not-quite-good-enough roots, and while it does show promise and potential, it still isn't quite living up to it.


No. 6
Vol. 8

(by Atsuko Asano and Hinoki Kino, Kodansha, $10.99)

FROM THE BACK COVER:

I LOVE YOU, SHION. MORE THAN ANYTHING.

Risking everything, Shion and Rat have finally made it to the top floor of the Correctional Facility, where Shion is finally reunited with Safu! But has Shion's rescue attempt come too late? Is the Safu he once knew gone forever? As Rat rushes to find a way out, Shion must make a heartbreaking decision: Leave, saving Rat and himself from capture, or stay, and find another solution? Either way, Shion may lose a friend, or his own life! The tale of No. 6 builds to a climax in its second-to-last volume! Includes special bonus story!

REVIEW:

If you liked the anime but wished that the end had gone into more detail, this volume of No. 6 is here to fulfill your wish. But beware – because this is also one of the saddest volumes in the series, and with only one left to go, there's no real indication that things are going to get a whole lot better. (Except our own hope, that is.) With Shion and Rat finally find Safu at the top of the Correctional Facility, there are some harsh truths to be faced, both about No. 6 and what it has done to Shion's friend. The first two chapters are truly heartbreaking – Shion is unable to accept the truth of what he both sees and feels, and when he dreams about the way he always assumed it would be, it's hard not to choke up. Follow this up with Rat's internal monologue about Shion and the link to Macbeth's speech from Act V (“Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, etc.”) and you have a thoroughly depressing yet beautiful story. Hinoki Kino's art helps to emphasize this through her use of facial expressions, so if you're the kind of reader who cries, get the tissues ready.

Of course, since this is the penultimate volume, there's also a need to bring in all of the major(ish) characters from volumes past, and this results in a little confusion as we scramble to remember just who Renka is and why Karan has Lily with her. What was the plot going on within No. 6 again? It's so much less immediately compelling than the Safu storyline that it feels almost extraneous, even though we know that it isn't. Luckily Kodansha has included the extra booklet that came with a special Japanese release of the volume, which makes it feel worth every penny – lots of color images, including a truly beautiful one of Rat and Shion sitting on two sides of the world and an extra short story from Rat's perspective that adds to his character.

RECOMMENDATION: Buy it. Not only is this a great volume for story, but it also has those color pages. Add to that the fact that it really goes deeper into what's happening than the anime did and this really is a must-have for series fans.


DIGITAL SPOTLIGHT

NEW SISTER ARCHFIEND TESTAMENT
Chapters 1 - 3

(by Kashiwa Miyako and Tetsuto Uesu, Comic Walker, free)

FROM COMIC WALKER:

After his father's sudden remarriage, the high school student, Basara now found himself having to live together with his two new step sisters, Mio and Maria. But wait, one is actually the new spawn of Satan while the other is a succubus?!?! Get ready for the beginning of an ultra crazy story filled with erotic battles!

REVIEW:

Contrary to what you might think, I don't actively dislike boob/incest(y) stories. (I tend to dislike actual series rather than by genre.) And New Sister Archfiend Testament, also known as The Testament of Sister New Devil, is a pretty good one. Adapted from the light novels by Tetsuo Uesu, the story starts out as generic as they come – Basara's dad is remarrying and all of a sudden he has two new younger sisters: busty babe Mio and lovely loli Maria. Naturally Dad has to go on a business trip almost immediately, leaving the trio alone. Obviously Maria leaves incest hentai in Basara's room, which makes Mio – who of course woke him up by sitting on him – angry. Ho hum. But then things get weird. Mio turns out to be a high ranking devil, the daughter of the Archfiend himself, and Maria is actually a succubus. Oh no, what is Basara to – oh, wait. He's actually a hero, a specific supernatural race, and it turns out Dad knew all along what was going on and deliberately brought the girls in to keep an eye on them. But is Mio really as bad as her heritage suggests?

While the story's first three chapters, all that is currently available on Comic Walker, do trade in a lot of clichés, the story also really owns its schtick, and it isn't afraid to get raunchy when it needs to. Chapter three is actually quite racy, with a contract gone semi-wrong (Maria is a succubus, after all) necessitating a serious grope session of Mio's bountiful bosoms...and nine orgasms. If you're looking for straight incest, you won't find it here, although Mio does call Basara “big brother” at some odd times, but for a more grounded take on the supernatural fanservicey harem story, this is really pretty good. Also, as I was reading it I kept thinking, “This would animate really well,” only to then discover that as of January, it will have an anime adaptation. Let's see how many scenes they censor!

RECOMMENDATION: Read it, unless you really dislike the genre. It's definitely one of the more interesting variants of the harem story, and as an added bonus, it's free. Plus you know it's going to get the black/light bars or sparkly mist treatment this winter, so you may as well see it uncensored now, if that's your thing.


THE UNFINISHED

THE GOOD WITCH OF THE WEST
6 of 7 volumes released

(by Noriko Ogiwara and Haruhiko Momokawa, TokyoPop, $9.99)

FROM THE ENCYCLOPEDIA:

Firiel Dee is a 15 year old girl who lives with her poor foster parents in the remote mountain highlands of Sera Field. One day, she is invited to go to a ball, only to discover that she might be the heir to the throne. Soon, Firiel and her friends decide to partake in a quest for the truth, unaware of the dangers that await them.

THOUGHTS:

Based on the light novels of the same title (also not fully released in English, much to my disappointment), The Good Witch of the West is a fairy tale mash-up that alludes to its source tales without ever making a too-literal retelling the priority. Firiel is, more or less, a Cinderella figure, and her best friend Rune is basically Rumplestiltskin. Throughout the series, Firiel proves herself to be much more like the heroine of a Nordic folktale than the better-known Western European ones – the girl has guts. While to a certain degree she allows herself to be guided by those who supposedly know what's best for her, she also continually rebels, doing what she thinks is the right thing and sticking to her guns when she needs to. Her relationship with Rune is also an interesting one, as he tries to protect her (and stay away from her) when she'd really rather see them as equals. Firiel also has the best reaction to the shoujo trope of the surprise kiss – she asks Rune where he learned to kiss like that, in honest and surprised curiosity. Poor Rune – not the reaction he was hoping for, although perhaps the one he ought to have anticipated.

Haruhiko Momokawa's art for the series is beautiful, romantic and vaguely Mucha-esque with just a little bit of a sexy feel thrown in. Everyone looks a bit younger than you might expect, but he captures the quality of Noriko Ogiwara's prose very well, making the manga feel less like an adaptation and more like a variant of the original books, which, I might add, makes it fit in with its fairy tale theme all the more. I keep hoping that someone will rescue this manga, or the novels, or heck, the anime so that we can see how the story ends. But in the meantime, if you want something to take you away for a little while, The Good Witch of the West is an excellent, albeit unfinished, choice.


Thus ends another edition of RTO! I have to go prepare to drill MLA formatting for bibliographies into my students' heads, so go out and enjoy the fall for me. See you in October!


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