published by Viz
Dawn of the Arcana Book 3
by Rei Toma
Nakaba gets the kind of pledge from her arranged husband that many girls dream about, as he, thinking she might have tried to kill him, nevertheless vows that he will always come back to her. Meanwhile, the faithful Loki is granted higher status, becoming a knight, in order to better protect her. Who wouldn’t like these guys battling over them? She’s even noble about it, since she’s fighting for the status of her people, to bring an equality with their oppressors, while they’re playing silly games like trying to force-dye her unusual red hair.
That particular threat doesn’t really make sense in the fantasy setting of princes and kingdoms, but it’s the kind of challenge that will be meaningful to the teen girl readers who will most enjoy this illustrated proto-Harlequin. The feelings are heightened, the stakes high, and the characters easy to grasp. The art is simple, mostly faces, few backgrounds, to better power the emotional drama and read quickly and easily.
Nakaba feels powerless, but she is clearly the center of events, fated to have a huge destiny, while princes fight over her. A mysterious visitor, in this volume, spells it out further while she struggles with the question of whether to succumb to her strong husband. This series hits all the right marks for a love fantasy aimed at girls dreaming of faraway times and places and magic.
The Story of Saiunkoku Book 7
by Sai Yukino and Kairi Yura
There is a huge cast in this historical soap opera, so I’m glad the narrative style is to tell the reader lots about what’s happening. That makes it a bit easier to catch up when it’s been a while since I’ve read the previous book. (I reviewed the previous installment of Saiunkoku, as well as Dawn of the Arcana, in February.)
I can’t tell all the characters apart visually, so I’m not sure who the young man is, the one pondering whether he should stay with his uncaring master or strike out on his own. He resembles the emperor, but I know that’s not right. I’d like to see more of the emperor, actually, since his relationship with Shurei is what first attracted me to this series.
That’s been downplayed in later volumes, presumably to keep the series running, but there’s hope here that we’ll soon see more between the two. I’m also intrigued by the storyline that’s replaced it in appeal for me, the one about Shurei struggling to be the first female civil servant. In prior books, that one has been a real downer, full of other characters hazing her, apparently without much repercussion. At least her determination and uncomplaining accomplishments are starting to win over those not already bigoted against her.
Unfortunately, her struggles take a newly dramatic turn in this volume, as officials begin acting more overtly against her. She’s held captive in the house of a high-ranking courtesan, one who was previously friendly but is now trapped into playing politics as well. There is to be a trial, in the next book, where Shurei will have the chance to prove her abilities once again. That allows for plenty of political scheming and cross-plotting, part of the series others may find more intriguing (and easy to follow) than I do.
The exaggeratedly decorated robes continue to be a high point of the art, conveying the flavor of the past. One particular official has a costume of floral paisley that’s ridiculously detailed. He’s the bad guy, so I’m thinking that his choice shows the evil of pride and suggests by contrast the virtue of simplicity. A backup story flashes back to young Shurei, her healing mother, and how Seiran got his pseudonym.
Ai Ore! Book 5
by Mayu Shinjo
I’d been looking forward to trying this new series, since I enjoyed the over-the-top soap opera of Shinjo’s earlier series Sensual Phrase. The first three books were double-sized, but I put off reading them after hearing mixed reactions. (Although I suspect that some people disturbed by the sexual content, rape threats, etc. of this series weren’t fans of Shinjo’s work, since that type of material was also part of Sensual Phrase.)
It’s not ideal to start this far into a series, but Ai Ore! is a bit different. What Viz is publishing under this title was originally released as two series, an original and a sequel, in Japan. The first series made up books 1-3; the second began with the fourth volume in the U.S series and will end with Ai Ore! 8. So this is really the second book of the sequel. Plus, there’s a handy “story so far” summary.
The concept is simple enough, although with its rock-and-roll cross-dressing, it’s also determinedly edgy. Mizuki is treated like a prince at her all-girl school because of her guitar playing. The boy Akira wants to be the lead singer of her band, even if it means dressing like a girl — which he does very well, coming out cute.
However, by this point, the series seems to have changed into more of a school romance. Akira is insecure about being slender and not looking masculine enough, so as this book opens, he’s getting a friend to help him pick out clothes for an upcoming date with Mizuki. He’s tired of being mistaken for a girl. Mizuki, meanwhile, is trying to look feminine for the first time. They’re sort of adorable in how much they want to please each other, while being totally ludicrous in how much they overreact and obsess.
Plotwise, the setup here is that the girls’ school gets a new male teacher, their first, but it’s okay, because he’s gay… only that’s a lie. He’s also Akira’s former tutor, and he holds a mysterious secret about the boy.
It’s a common idea in teen fiction, that characters are too shy or too worried about what others will think to be honest, but often, as here, it just comes off as a plot device. I don’t understand why we’re supposed to believe these two are meant to be together at the same time we’re being told they can’t share their concerns with each other. It reads as a cheap try at dragging out drama.
I know a lot of kids feel ashamed of themselves, as though they’re not worth loving if people knew the truth about them, but in this series, I’m just not buying it in the fiction. I was also put off by the way Shinjo draws guys meant to be big and bulky. They wind up with giraffe necks and tiny heads for their bodies. Mostly, I don’t care enough about Akira as a character to want to follow the story now that it’s being told from his perspective.
(The publisher provided review copies.)