by Svetlana Chmakova
published by Yen Press; $10.99 US
Review by Ed Sizemore
Sarah Treveney is the new Night Keeper at a high school for supernatural beings: weirns (witches/ warlocks), vampires, werewolves, etc. Her job responsibilities include making sure that normal people don’t discover the school’s existence, ensuring students don’t use magic outside the classroom areas, and preventing the facility from destroying the property during lessons. She gets along well with the students and is helping them to organize several extracurricular clubs. She has a younger sister Alex who is a weirn, but for reasons yet to be explained, is currently being homeschooled by her.
Alex is suppose to study inside the apartment, but she likes to go to the local graveyard to practice her spells. There she runs into a vampire with his latest girlfriend and a group of hunters. It’s not fully explained, but it appears hunters are people who go hunt supernatural beings. Alex mysterious escapes the hunters and gets back to the apartment. It looks like everything is okay until Sarah suddenly disappears.
Svetlana is a graduate of Toykopop’s school of hard knocks for young artists. Her previous series Dramacon is generally considered one of the few successes for Tokyopop’s line of original manga. Many people, myself included, were excited to hear she was doing a new series for Yen Press. Nightschool first appeared, and is still being serialized, in Yen Press’ monthly magazine Yen Plus.
As the summary above indicates, this first volume of Nightschool is short on exposition and character background. The focus of this book is world-building. As readers, we are introduced to lots of characters and circumstances, but we aren’t given many details about either. This can be off-putting for readers who prefer more character-centered storytelling such as Svetlana used in Dramacon. This book is almost pure plot with lots of hints about things to come.
This doesn’t mean that the characters are completely ignored in this book. You get to spend enough time with Sarah to begin bonding with her and to actually care, like Alex, when she disappears. However, we don’t really get to spend as much time as we should with Alex for her to become a sympathetic character. The chapters in which she appears tend to be taken over by other characters rather quickly. We get a better sense of Alex’s astral (witch’s familiar) than we do her. Not knowing why Alex doesn’t attend school, like the other weirns her age, is a distracting question mark throughout the book.
The book is both fast-paced and slow. We move promptly from event to event in this book. Readers won’t be bored with lots of dialogue or bogged down with background information. There’s a nice blend of action, drama, and humor to keep the reader entertained, and the book is a quick reader. However, because of all the hints and foreshadowing in this book, it feels like we haven’t even scratched the surface of the main story. This makes the book feel like a prologue to the real storyline.
Of all the OEL manga authors, Svetlana has the most intuitive grasp of the manga format. She really understands the conventions of manga and uses them all flawlessly. If she was writing under a Japanese pseudonym, I doubt anyone would even realize that a non-Japanese person wrote this. This is best seen in her use of humor and chibi art. Like the best manga, the humor comes from the characters and usually serves to make the person more endearing as well as provide some insight about them. So many OEL artists use the chibi form as a way to get cheap laughs. The chibi works best when it flows from the story and is used to highlight the lighthearted nature of a moment or a remark. I never feel that Svetlana is trying to copy someone else’s style, but that manga is really the format most natural to her storytelling.
The art is superb. I love just looking at each page. There’s nothing that Svetlana does bad visually. She has excellent page layouts. The characters are well-designed, and each one has a unique look, so you’re not left guessing who is who in a crowd scene. She aptly conveys the characters’ thoughts and emotions on their faces and in their body language. The fight scenes are full of energy and flow well. I found myself lingering over pages as I read, just soaking in the art.
Overall, the book was thoroughly entertaining, and the series has a lot of promise. Alex appears to be a likable person, but I want more than a vague impression. Also, there is a large cast of secondary characters that need to be fleshed out. Not to mention fuller exposition on who the hunters are and what rules govern them. I fully recommend this book for the art alone, if not completely for the storytelling. I don’t think Svetlana will let us down in the character development department, but I can’t say for sure. Hopefully, the next volume will settle down and give muscle and flesh to the skeleton we have here.