Manga: Vampire Knight by Matsuri Hino

Cover of the Viz edition of Volume 6. Yes, I’ll discuss pleats soon.

Vampire Knight
by Matsuri Hino
published in English by Viz Media, LLC, San Francisco
2004 – 2013

As I was exploring the Viz website, I decided to read a preview of Matsuri Hino’s popular shōjo vampire romance. I was immediately hooked on her humor – she laid out immediately that in the school setting where this story takes place, vampires are all gorgeous, and no one can resist them – plus, her clear dedication to fashion / costume design. This is going to be fun! Viz makes it easy to access the English editions by having the complete series available in a digital format for multiple platforms, including their own website (viz.com).

I’m unsure when it’s the best time to review a long series like this. At the moment, I’m 10 volumes in, and that means I’ve read 2,000 pages or so… I’m impressed and how much work it must have taken to lovingly produce these elaborately illustrated pages… Drawing the hair alone could take lifetimes! This is a work of great dedication.

The Story: Yuri Cross is an ordinary schoolgirl protagonist and apparent orphan, being raised by a headmaster at a private school. The school has a day class of ordinary students, and a night class of gorgeous, supermodel-attractive students who are secretly vampires. [squeal] Poor Yuri is tasked with keeping these groups apart during shift changes, even though she is TINY and not very persuasive, aside from having terrifyingly large eyes. (Really, they cross a line into scary-intense.)

Yuri has two love interests attending school, both of whom are relentlessly handsome: Zero, the troubled orphan from a vampire-hunter clan, who has an elaborate neck tattoo and a vampire-hating stare (day class, light hair, wearing black), and Kaname, the broody, indulgent vampire who saved Yuri’s life when she was a small child (night class president, dark hair, wearing white). Yuri doesn’t understand why Kaname, who could have anyone, indulges her, though she knows he is keeping a secret about her past.

Zero and Kaname are rivals for Yuri’s love, because of course they are.

Perfect set up, right? (Answer: Yes. And yes, there are entire articles about why this manga is superior to Twilight, so you don’t even have to raise that.) Societal forces and political intrigue off campus create all sorts of danger: eventually the school is attacked, and Yuri winds up wielding a super-cool weapon much larger than she is, and having to choose between her loves.

What I’m learning: arriving late to this genre, I had to learn some (probably) obvious things.

Chaste blood sucking: Blood sucking is the most forbidden, naughty, taboo thing you can do. (The text specified this.) So, having gorgeous boys lick your hand when you get a paper cut [swoon], or having them sweet talk you into letting you put their fangs into your neck (or each others’ long, handsome necks) [swoon], or generally drinking each others’ blood while making expressions of surrender and ecstasy is naughty, and is a stand-in for… any other possible exchange of bodily fluids. That’s why you keep letting handsome boys nibble on you only in secret: because it’s… taboo and forbidden on campus? Sure! Got it!

Dominance and submission: There are powers of mind control that powerful vampires naturally have over weaker ones! There are spells that can tame someone, and make them obedient to your wishes. Yes, there are.

Beauty appreciation/devotion: everyone is so gorgeous that same-sex attraction is totally understandable. No blame! Though it’s attractive to blush with embarrassment about it, because blushing just makes gorgeous people more gorgeous.

Fashion fetishism: There are the many beautiful fashion touches specific to Hino’s style. These made a big impression on me – the costumes are ELABORATE, and have so many unnecessary-but-pretty fasteners!

I have gone to so many kimono exhibits, and it took me a while to think about these costumes in contrast to those. Traditional Japanese clothing has its lovely flat collars, cord fasteners, printed patterns, straight edges, and wrapped contrasting layers, and these costumes are the opposite of each and every one of those details. Suddenly, Lolita-fashion as rebellion makes total sense. Lace! Buttons! Embroidery! Solids! Pleats! Clasps! Elaborately gathered skirts, crinolines, collars that could get a plane off the runway in a strong wind…. YES! This is fashion fetishism in a consistently designed, affectionate style.

Fasteners and stitches gone wild! Look at the care that goes into these clothes for the cover of Viz’ Volume 11! The buckles on Zero’s coat, the stitching on Yuri’s sleeves…

YES, THERE ARE DRESS UP PARTIES – how could there not be? Also, castles, and ballrooms, and long eyelashes on nearly everyone.

Hino knows EXACTLY what a vampire romance should have, and she delivers with a style that shows great fashion talent and dedication. I see why this is popular! And I understand why there are multiple art books and a sequel.

Be careful of the fan wiki at vampireknight.fandom.com, because it is filled with spoilers, even though it will help you keep track of the characters. (There are lots of blonde men with similar names, but the explanations also tell you their fates!)

I’ll now resume reading the next volume to see what our overdressed heroine, whose big heart still burns for both men, and whose giant weapon can collapse conveniently to fit into a purse, does next…

P.S. A week or so later, at the end of volume 19: Oh! There is a lot of action (fighting, assassinations, explosions) in this series! It’s difficult to keep the peace between humanoids with such different powers and lifespans, especially since some of the vampires get violently ambitious. Major conflicts between the different factions, which complicate our heroine’s romantic relationships, are based in the struggle to keep certain vampires from abusing their special abilities. Note: I got emotional on the very last pages, which means the characters really meant something to me. (Awwwww! This really is bittersweet! I didn’t expect to be so moved.) I really did enjoy this well written, well-paced, gorgeously illustrated, action-packed story.

Book: Mermaid Saga, Volume 2, by Rumiko Takahashi

Mermaid Saga, Volume 2
by Rumiko Takahashi
published in English by Viz
2021

Yuta, the man who ate mermaid flesh and gained unwanted immortality, is tired of having those around him wither and die of old age – he wants a cure. Mana, whom Yuta freed from her lifelong imprisonment, has no one in this world, and her childhood in captivity failed to prepare her for life of any length.

This second volume of stories from Takahashi continues the adventures of this unlikely, very attractive pair, as they seek a non-self-destructive solution to Yuta’s problem, and encounter others who either seek immortality or suffer from it. These stories are dark: obsession, betrayal, failed suicides-by-mermaid-flesh, greed, unwillingness to let go of loved ones, failed efforts at raising the dead, and the inevitability that seriously evil people would gain immortality and terrorize mortals around them for centuries….

The Viz Collector’s Edition includes color pages with cover art from individual issues, and their just LOVELY.

Why I like it: Yuta is fundamentally kind-hearted, and wants to help others, even though it entangles him and Mana in many dangerous (and interesting!) dramas; Mana develops an innocent and adorable loyalty to him.

Takahashi draws these characters with FANTASTIC hair, extra-shiny eyes, and lovely details – the old people look really crinkly, their expressions are very expressive, the monsters have bulging, distressing eyes, her fabrics and buildings are always so well observed and rendered. Her slightly industrial coastal fishing towns ring very true; she manages to include many lines suggesting the flow of water in so many subtle ways…

Takahashi is famous for her comedies, such as Ranma 1/2, but these stories show that she has a serious side, and sees that humans have the capacity for terrible behavior. The goodness of our hero balances what could otherwise be a dark world view, while still showing that being good in the human world takes determination and real effort.

Viz produced a beautiful collection, and being able to have all of the stories in just two convenient volumes, with lovely color covers, color inserts for the individual issue colors, and some other splashes inside, makes following the story easy AND a pleasure.

Yuta and Mana’s fate is undecided at the end of this volume, as you would expect for unintended immortals, which feels RIGHT. I’m so glad I have this, and am delighted I was able to get this collection so soon after its publication in English!

Book: The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin

The Stone Sky, book three of the Broken Earth Trilogy
by N. K. Jemisin
published by Hachette, New York
2017

I finished this BRILLIANT trilogy, which I enjoyed as an audio book read by the extremely talented Robin Miles, and have taken a few days to really reflect on it.

The writing is excellent, and I’m admiring it technically before getting to gush about the story. It is brilliantly paced; the introduction of narration by a key character in the second volume opened a path for some brilliant development of Stone Eater themes in this volume; and the development of various parallel storylines makes this volume feel VERY high stakes. I’m just floored by the talent it took to lay out this story so skillfully! This is what I’ve been dwelling on – not just this book as a standalone, but how it fits so WELL with the other books, while still feeling like a distinct yet internally consistent part of one story. This is just such a great structure, and is so well put together… I’m awed.

Story: This third volume continues following Essun, who has lived multiple lives in her way, as she attempts to save the unstable, constantly quaking, ash-covered world. She has already experienced life detours, tried to start afresh in new locations and under new guises, lost and regained hope of ever reuniting with her lost daughter, found community, survived attacks, killed with her powers, and taken on some friends/followers with ambiguous motivations. Despite how cruel the planet and the people on it both have been to her, she is determined to save the world, using ancient technology and her newfound abilities to use that technology to do it. The task at hand feels impossible, but she’s already practiced doing a seemingly impossible thing, and has been growing in skill and perception. And her adoring Stone Eater is by her side. (I love that character, and its affection for her!)

Working against her is her own daughter, whose absolute child’s belief in extreme right and wrong has already turned deadly, and is ready to end it all – not her life, but human life across the world. And she has allies of her own…

Why I like this trilogy: it’s got the perfect depth in its world-building; the way the planet’s past is revealed is perfect – I had thought some of the knowledge had been lost forever, and to have it revealed after I’m already deeply attached to the characters, and have it be a drama unto itself, was SO EXCITING I couldn’t stop listening; the technology that is present is used at just the right level – it is an enabling device, never a crutch; the technology is both a benefit and a threat, which is so true to the nature of technology generally; Essun’s world-weariness feels so right, as does her stubborn determination to see things through; the people in the world have their own motivations, flaws, and strengths — no one feels like a drop-in generic type; the descriptions of how things feel (without getting down to some crazy level about the types of screws used) is quite successful…

The build up to the story’s resolution is great; I have favorite characters, and had creepy feelings in scenes with the villains (who also evolved in their way); there were a great ratio of relatively calm moments to crises or surprises (at one point, a character has a cup of Saf(e) that turned a color and I freaked out completely, because I had context they didn’t); travel on foot took a long time, AS IT SHOULD; the ultimate patterns of humans fearing other humans and establishing castes and bigotries and exploitation felt true to human nature; and this is just a ripping yarn. It glided along, and I was at the edge of my seat for exactly the right amount of time to feel stimulated rather than exhausted.

N.K. Jemisin wrote a fantastic trilogy in a world that I found compelling, with great characters, ideal pacing, and tantalizing ways of revealing how things worked, and I zealously recommend it.

Book: Dear Life by Alice Munro

A modest cover revealing rewards to be immodest about!

Dear Life
by Alice Munro
published by Vintage Books (Random House), New York
2012

I came to this collection of short stories knowing that Alice Munro had won international recognition for her outstanding writing, but not knowing if I would ENJOY it. I do! I’m delighted (and deeply impressed) by her remarkable clarity, her sharply observed descriptions of human behavior, her characters’ methods of acting out their emotional states, and her spare, crisp, and often bleak Ontario landscapes.

She says SO MUCH so efficiently! Two sentences in and I am THERE.

The collection of short stories has several themes, and the one I choose to emphasize is: turning points. Our characters decide to reach out to a stranger; have a spontaneous love affair on a train; decide NOT to return from war to their awaiting family; try to resist looking into the open casket… and these decisions do (or don’t!) change the trajectory of their lives. There is a tension between things that happen to them, their relative acceptance of circumstances, and how long they can accept things as they are before fleeing or being cast out.

The interactions are largely interpersonal, and feel like large dramas playing out on small, domestic stages. The women in particular are constantly balancing their limited options and their opportunities, rolling with what is expected of them – until they won’t. Social pressures erupt in judgments of all sorts, invariably against women who don’t try hard enough, or try too hard – the acceptable zones are small and ill-defined. Characters face conservative, conformist social pressures with a 1950s-70s weight that I’d characterize as “American mid-western,” though these stories are emphatically Canadian. (SO CANADIAN.)

From the first story I marvelled at her descriptions. How can the increasingly exaggerated and theatrical goodbyes people make through windows be so immediately and clearly written? You may not know someone’s height, or the pattern on their shirt, but you are quickly led to their careful manner, their sense of privacy, the way they speak when angry, the compromises they have made to be themselves, and what those cost them.

I have fussed over certain turns of phrase in writing about other authors, and I can say that Munro is doing something else: her language is brisk and sharp, cool and clear in a non-showy way, and all the more stunning for it.

It will be difficult to tolerate less skilled, more verbose stories by other authors for some time…

Book: The Mermaid Saga, volume 1, by Rumiko Takahashi

Yes, even the cover is so lovely…

Mermaid Saga (volume 1)
by Rumiko Takahashi
published in English by VIZ Media, LLC, San Francisco
2020

Yes, Rumiko Takahashi, the ‘princess of manga,’ published these stories in 2003, but now Viz has a beautiful, “signature edition” in English and with color inserts that is truly special! The second volume is being published this month, so I rushed out to get the first, and I LOVE it. You can read a free preview at the Viz website (viz.com)!

Mana is a lovely girl, being affectionately raised in a remote village of women, but must live in shackles. She is being raised… for a purpose that hasn’t been disclosed to her.

Yuta has watched his wife and loved ones die of old age while he remains young, after inadvertently eating the flesh of a mermaid. While his fellow diners died horribly or turned into miserable monsters, he received the immortality and endless youth that so many others will kill for. But he doesn’t want to live forever.

Unlike Takahashi’s light-hearted, comedic manga like Ursei Yatsura or Ranma 1/2, Mermaid Saga is a dramatic horror story. There is violence and plenty of death; monsters are real; humans behave monstrously; and people ruin the lives of people they claim to love through betrayals, violence, jealousy, murder, and imprisonment.

The artwork is lovely, which may seem like a funny thing to say when Yuta is constantly filthy and bleeding from some new wound! Takahashi’s work is beautifully composed; the fabrics are all lovingly rendered; the landscapes and cityscapes are all evocative; there is a convincing amount of detail (just enough, exactly where it should be); the action lines are bold, and anything that flows has lovely curves; everyone has FANTASTIC HAIR; old people are super, super old… The color and toned work in certain sections are an added bonus. SHE IS SO GOOD! I want to call her the QUEEN of manga, though they don’t historically have queens in Japan, but she deserves all the accolades.

Mana and Yuta didn’t CHOOSE their situation, but they are actively choosing to change it! It’s a compelling, serious set of stories. I’m hoping I’ll have volume 2 in my hands later this month!

Book: The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin

Cover of the Obelisk Gate

The Obelisk Gate (Book Two in the Broken Earth Trilogy)
by N.K. Jemisin
published by Hachette, New York
2016

Note that Hachette’s site for the trilogy, linked above, contains light spoilers, in that the summaries reveal whether certain characters survive the previous volume(s).

Essun’s long quest to avenge her murdered toddler son and rescue her daughter, if that is still even possible, suffers a detour. She and her peculiar traveling companions are attracted to a place where Hoa says that there are many others of her kind, but her daughter isn’t there. The Season (the devastating aftermath of a volcanic/seismic cataclysm) is becoming more severe, and people – now organizing into factions – are becoming more desperate…

In this book: Essun finally returns her attention to the giant, floating crystals in the sky; Hoa’s backstory and insights about the stoneaters add depth (we learn how he REALLY met Essun!); someone who should know better disregards light up, hovering, holographic warning symbols; a powerful child makes some severe value judgments; and there is some mass murder.

I want to gush – there were times while listening to this that I refused to stop to do <some real-world thing>, because I HAD TO HEAR MORE – but won’t risk spoilers. I will just say that I am delighted by the story’s progress in this volume, especially the ancient technology revelations, and am eager for the third book. The last pages of this volume serve as a warning that our major characters are not all sharing the same goals…

As with the first volume, I’m LISTENING to this book on the Hachette audiobook version, and it is extremely well done, and I recommend it highly.

Book: Palimpsest: Documents from A Korean Adoption by Lisa Wool-Rim Sjöblom

Palimpsest: Documents from A Korean Adoption
by Lisa Wool-Rim Sjöblom
published by Drawn & Quarterly, Montreal, Canada
2019

This is a beautiful, non-fiction graphic novel about an adopted Swede of Korean origin, her life experience as an adopted person, and the corruption and bureaucracy of the international adoption industry.

Drawn & Quarterly is a great publisher, and the excerpt of this book at their website drew me in. The story is charmingly illustrated, but the subject matter is serious. Who gets to decide what the narrative of adoption is? For international adoptions, why is the story always that heroic white people saved a child from their terrible relatives and/or homeland? Why are so many children who are not actually orphaned adopted out of their families and culture?

The narrator looks into her own family history, and it takes years of effort and abundant support from her friends and family to dig through layers of lies – constant lies, omissions, and half-truths – to learn the circumstances of her birth. She illustrates and narrates her experience wonderfully, and makes an excellent advocate for adoptees.

I had to double-check my understanding of the word palimpsest: it is a document that has been erased and written over, and so may have different layers of meaning. It’s a strange Greco-Latin word, and a fitting one for the identity layers adopted people experience.

~~~

I’ve had friends who have been adopted, and a colleague who made an international adoption. My adopted friends shared their perspectives about their adoptions with me, how they processed revelations about their origins, and their desires to eventually meet their genetic relatives. (They did!) Their views were the opposite of the adoptive parent colleague, who baselessly villainized his child’s anonymous birth mother to a degree that shocked me, but which fit into his desired heroic narrative. So much of what Ms. Sjöblom wrote made sense to me because of what my friends had shared, but her story should appeal to anyone who wants to know who they are and feel that they “belong.”

Book: The Lover by Marguerite Duras

The Lover
by Marguerite Duras
translated from French into English by Barbara Bray
published by Pantheon Books, NY
1985

On the paths of the yard the shadows of the cinnamon-apple trees are inky black. The whole garden is still as marble. The house too – monumental, funereal. And my younger brother, who was walking beside me, now looks intently at the gate open on the empty road.

Note: This edition of Duras’ concise novel includes an introduction by Maxine Hong Kingston, who advises us to interpret the novel as autobiographical, which I might not have done otherwise. She also observes parallels with Duras’ screenplay for Hiroshima Mon Amour, which I’ve read, and her observations gave me insights about Duras’ life.

If there was a character limit to my remarks about reading this book, I would write something like: at-risk French girl in occupied Vietnam escapes her unhappy home by sleeping with a meek older man; a dire situation, beautifully described. Unluckily for you, I can write all the words I want!

Through a series of increasingly vivid memories that drift forward and back in time, Duras’ novel tells the story of an impoverished French teen in French-occupied (colonial) Vietnam, living with her deeply depressed mother, two brothers, and a her own developing awareness of mortality. (So FRENCH!)

Our unnamed character’s life is tenuous. She wears her mother’s old, threadbare clothes; the family struggles on her mother’s schoolmistress wages after her father’s unexpected death; a sense of doom hangs over the family; her mother not only falls frequently into immobile despair, but also spoils her sons while pressuring her daughter to make up for their failures.

Her escape: to get into the limousine of a nervous, fellow foreigner, but one who is not French: a wealthy Chinese man, entirely beholden to his father, but also inappropriately smitten at first sight of this inappropriately dressed, quite underaged teen.

The novel is often (but not always) a first person narration, centering the girl’s alienation from Vietnamese culture and her own (French) family; the alienation of remote colonial life; the constraints of poverty; the scarring, emotional tensions of her household; her self-enforced emotional distance from her unsuitable lover; the pain of her mother’s exploitation; and always – always always – a sense that everyone will die and all things must end.

The prose is visually rich and lightly punctuated as the narrator moves from awkward social interactions of German-occupied France in adulthood to afternoons of being fully absorbed by illicit sex in Vietnam; from invisibility to parental approval for all the wrong reasons; forward to deaths, and backward to youth. It starts as a novel, and winds up a vivid, non-linear series of beautifully described recollections.

It absorbed me completely, and I’m glad I read it.

Books: Audiobooks that support your local bookshop

There are times when I want to read a book, there are times when I won’t do my chores if I have the option of a reading a book, and there are times when one of my neighbors shouts her conversations immediately outside one of my windows, distracting me from my reading. The solution to these awkward circumstances is: listening to an audiobook.

Audiobooks from megacorporations don’t support my beloved local bookshops, but Libro.fm does. Libro.fm sends a portion of my purchases to a specific local affiliate shop of my choosing. (I see you, Green Apple Books!) I recently signed on with them, and recommend their service, website, and app (<– referral link, if you are into that).

Audiobooks aren’t a new idea: even in my childhood (geologic ages ago), there were books on record or audio cassette (now you know my age) that were like radio story programs. They relied entirely on dramatic readings and cool sound effects! There were also tapes I could play along with children’s books, with child-appropriate character acting, and a chime when it was time to turn the page, to give tired parents a break from reading the same story in dozens of voices YET AGAIN. (I still have songs from Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day and Jungle Book memorized… ) Current publishers have the author or other skilled voice actor read mainstream, contemporary books, either condensed or full (unabridged), in an up-to-date, relying-on-the-words way. I still love, purchase, and collect BOOKS, of course; audiobooks are just a nice way to enjoy a book once eye fatigue from work has set in. Audiobooks can be well-produced and enjoyable as an experience in their own way.

Book: The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

The Fifth Season
by N.K. Jemisin
published by Hachette
2015

It’s been a while since I read an expansive sciency, future/past work of fiction, so I am delighted to have found this book, the first in The Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin. There’s a lot of sciency stuff to geek out over, and I need to tell you just enough about it to tempt you, without spoiling anything about it.

In a future or alternative earth, humans and much other life on earth has nearly been wiped out by extreme seismic and volcanic activity. Periodic volcanic winters that last from years to decades have dramatically limited human habitation and survival, and people lead relatively simple lives while forever preparing for the next time ash blots out the sky. Civilizations have risen and fallen, over and over, scattering technology that no one remembers how to operate around the remaining large continent where people scrape by.

Some of the surviving humans have inexplicable skills in managing or controlling seismic activities. Those who can be trained and controlled by the dominant empire are exploited to minimize earthquakes for society, but are killed if they become too independent; those who aren’t controlled by the empire are killed by mobs, even if they are just children, due to superstition and fear surrounding their abilities.

The story follows the adventures of several individuals, but especially a woman who secretly has these seismic energy powers. She returns home to find the body of her murdered toddler, and pulls herself together just enough to begin a quest to avenge her son and rescue her daughter; this happens shortly after a major seismic event may have set off potential mass death across the earth again…

The characters, who are organized into three groups, are engaging and interesting enough that I got misty over what my favorites experienced; the societies we see are superstitious and nearly feudal, but the powers that trained seismic experts wield are advanced; there are subtle technologies that people can’t interpret as such; there are non-humans present that people likewise can’t interpret or perceive correctly; the many abandoned structures and mysteries of prior civilizations have me giddy with curiosity, even while people are almost completely disinterested for practical (if misguided) concerns about their immediate survival. And, as a multi-racial person, I am delighted with the descriptions of the characters, most of whom have brown skin of different shades, and kinky or curly hair. The fact that they have these characteristics is completely normal, as it should be.

This is an engaging, FUN, gloomy, interesting book! I recommend this book for other people who also have a go-bag ready for earthquakes, who generally object to empires, who wish people weren’t so suspicious of education, and who desperately want to know what the abandoned tech lying (or HOVERING ) around is for! I’m looking forward to the next two books in this trilogy.