Book (Manhwa): The Knight and Her Emperor by G.M, Team IYAK (winter, heyum)

Tappytoon banner for The Knight and Her Emperor by GM and Team IYAK (winter, heyum).
Tappytoon banner for The Knight and Her Emperor by GM and Team IYAK (winter, heyum).

The Knight and Her Emperor
by. G.M, Team IYAK (winter, heyum)
published by Tappytoon (197 chapters over 4 seasons, complete)

Pollyanna’s neglectful family needed to contribute a family member to the war effort. Her parents favored her younger sister, so they just… handed Pollyana over to be trained as a solider, and didn’t look back. Her mentor trained her as well as he could, advising her on how to compensate for her weaknesses, while grimly warning that both the enemy and her own side were likely to rape her. Her fellow soldiers were cold and abusive, and she had little personal safety and no sympathy. She gave up all femininity to be one of the guys, pulled together a loyal team during military campaigns, and tried to die an honorable soldier’s death while saving them.

As her captors struggled to execute her less-than-honorably, she made an impression on the enemy’s emperor.

Such a big impression, that he offered her a job.

And, given her first real opportunity, the foreign (!) woman (!) solider (!) took that job offer and ROLLED WITH IT. Pollyanna swore an oath to the emperor, became the knight Sir Pol, and served his majesty faithfully throughout his military campaign to conquer the incessantly warring continent.

This webtoon spans MORE THAN A DECADE! (I’ll change to present tense!) In a country where people express sympathy for the misfortune of giving birth to a daughter, Pol’s life requires near-daily struggle, struggle softened by the loyalty and friendship of her knights plus rewards from her appreciative emperor. Along the way she makes friends and enemies, kicks men where it hurts, becomes a war hero, conceals weapons in formalwear, inspires fierce loyalty in comrades at arms, becomes lonely, tries to do too much herself, develops close female friendships, becomes a role model, and… punches trees.

This multi-season graphic novel (based on a book) took the artists six years to complete, and it’s epic! I hadn’t realized when I started how many chapters were available, so each chapter was a cliffhanger – I wasn’t sure anyone would survive, and was pleasantly surprised to hit the button providing the next chapter, even when the (relatable) pain of Pol’s struggles to be taken seriously stung me in familiar ways. In that spirit of suspense, I’ll only note that Season 1 centers on the decade-long war across the continent; Season 2 is focuses on establishing a lasting peace and living in a society that has no clear space for senior female officers; and Season 3 is about being true to oneself and pursuing happiness against all odds after ALL OF THAT.

I felt weary on Pol’s behalf at the at the end of the war, worried that Pol’s spirit would be broken during peacetime by hateful old men, charmed by the emperor’s adoration-plus-respect for her [swoon], and misty that she could be herself AND (to her own surprise) have people who truly care about her and like her just as she is.

This webtoon has many lighthearted moments, funny jokes told by characters that other characters refuse to laugh at, adorable chibi-style illustrations, hard life lessons, babies drooling, a man with blinding physical beauty, and moments of yelling at the characters to JUST TELL EACH OTHER WHAT YOU ARE GOING THROUGH that must go unheeded for the sake of the plot for a while, but not forever.

This webtoon delights me, and I’m so glad I read it. I developed care and affection for the characters, and was emotionally moved at the end. I strongly recommend The Knight and Her Emperor.

Books (Manga): The King’s Beast by Rei Toma

Cover of the King's Beast volume 1 by Rei Toma
Cover of the King’s Beast volume 1 by Rei Toma

The King’s Beast
by Rei Toma
published by Viz (ongoing)
2021 –

This is the most beautiful monochrome manga. Toma’s art is INCREDIBLE. And her people, especially her men, are SO GORGEOUS!

I am 61 chapters into the story (!), and there are more to come, but I’m impatient to gush about it. (I also want to say that the ears on the Ajin characters are not some fetish thing, so read without fear.) Viz has lovely previews of each volume on their website, linked above.

The story: our hero(ine) is Rangetsu. She is one of the Ajin, an human-oppressed group of people who happen to have some animal features like furry ears and tails. Ajin women are forced into prostitution; Ajin men have limited options as exploited laborers, but the most accomplished among them can work for the Imperial Family as personal servants or soldiers.

Rangetsu is a young girl; her twin brother went to work for the Imperial family, and was brutally murdered. Rangetsu vows to avenge her twin, but the only way to access the Imperial palace and investigate his murder is to present as a boy, become physically powerful, compete for a job there as an imperial beast-servant, and win. Only then, after devoting years of her life to this purpose, will she have a chance to use her position to avenge herself against the likely culprit, Prince Tenyou.

Rangetsu is hired into the palace, only to find Prince Tenyou to be (a) crushed over her brother’s death, and (b) shockingly beautiful. Tenyou wants to help Rangetsu (who is successfully passing as a boy despite being really, really pretty) find out what happened. How awkward it is for Rangetsu that the prince is so tender toward [her]. How awkward it is that the other (also gorgeous, ofttimes bitchy) princes are so… handsy.

The scenery is beautiful.

The architecture is beautiful.

The characters are beautiful.

Single panel from Rei Toma's The King's Beast, showing the gorgeous characters being gorgeous.
Single panel from Rei Toma’s The King’s Beast, showing the gorgeous characters being gorgeous. (The conversation where this collection of character is being imagined made me laugh.)

I love the way Toma draws eyes. Many of her best eyes are subtle trapezoids, and the details in their irises are subtle washes. The main characters all have shapely eyebrows. Everyone of import also has good eyelashes, while their flowing hair goes on and on…

The story is high stakes – Rangetsu may be killed before she can discover who killed Sogetsu. And the other princes of the palace are shady. (Hot and shady.) Plus, the beast-servants of the other princes also have special powers, called arcana, making them extra-dangerous.

The vengeance story arc is a long one, but is very solid. This manga is a huge accomplishment, and is lovingly drawn. I’m looking forward to future issues.

Cross-dressing, palace intrigue, physical powers beyond those of humans, danger, Chinese palaces and gardens, eyes so deep you want to swim in them, confused longing, gorgeous men in flowing robes… Yes, I’m raving here: I highly recommend this manga.

Books (Manga): Yakuza Lover by Nozomi Mino

Cover of Yakuza Lover volume 12 by Nozomi Mino, published in English by Viz
Cover of Yakuza Lover volume 12 by Nozomi Mino, published in English by Viz

Yakuza Lover
by Nozomi Mino
published in English by Viz (complete 12 volumes)

Volume 12 was just published this month, so I can write about this breathless, living-dangerously fantasy of an assertive college girl who falls in love with a handsome, high-ranking professional criminal.

Yuri wants a boyfriend, and after a stylish organized crime boss gets her out of a bad situation at a party, she seeks him out to return his coat… And is dazzled by underboss Oya’s good looks, pretty tattoos, wealth, henchmen, aura of power – and his DRAMA!

If you want an obsessive older guy who says he’ll see you next week IF HE IS STILL ALIVE, this is the series for the impressionable and unwise young version of you!

Yuri doesn’t have non-guy goals, so she gets purpose and unusual experiences out of this relationship. Oya is a possessive / obsessive boyfriend who is wild for her, providing immature intensity, approval, good sex, excessive gifts, and access to luxurious places she would never ordinarily experience. Their relationship also puts Yuri in sketchy situations, gets her kidnapped, leads to being threatened by thugs, alienates people close to her, and requires her to make adjustments to accept his criminal underworld and its drama.

Hardships only bring Yuri and Oya closer together. The more people in their circles object, the tighter they hold each other, and the more delighted they look together in bed.

The drama, danger, Yuri’s giant-eyed-open-mouthed surprise at everything, and Oya’s lovey-dovey excessiveness make for an over-the-top, entertaining story.

Books (Manga): The Legendary Fossil by Abyu, Besi, Chung Jong

The Legendary Fossil
published in English by Tappytoon (80 chapters – complete)

This is the story of a warrior… going back to high school! Ashleigh Lute was tasked with a quest by the emperor, but once she completed it, the authorities wouldn’t allow her to admit that SHE was the one who killed the Demon King of the north.

Worse yet, while she was away for three years on her heroic quest with fellow adventurers, she missed three years of school – and now must complete her education, mingling with (UGH!) YOUNGER PEOPLE. Ash feels like, yes, a fossil, and can’t even really tell them why she was gone. Or how she became such a strong swordswoman.

Ashleigh Lute, the warrior heroine of the story who knows her way around a sword (two images); plus a quiet guy she is fond of from The Legendary Fossil, published by Tappytoon.

Typical for the Korean manga I’ve read, many of the characters have traumatic backstories they are trying to overcome: dead parents, abusive parents, murdered siblings, switched birth orders, sibling rivalries, and (oh yes!) MAGICALLY CURSED ITEMS.

The characters are cute, and the artists like to either remove facial features entirely in some scenes or have transparent versions of the characters’ eyes showing through their hair, which is kind of neat (see first character illustration – the characters all have softly draped hair in their eyes).

The last twenty (?) or so chapters introduced new characters and intrigue. The story had been more straightforward in a talk-to-the-sword way, but became more political. To my relief, the story still achieved a sword-centered ending. I was relieved that a betrayal I anticipated did not come to pass.

Recommended if you like: talented women with swords & secrets at school.

Books (Manga): Absolute Boyfriend by Yuu Watase

Cover of volume 1 of the manga Absolute Boyfriend by Yuu Watase
Cover of volume 1 of the manga Absolute Boyfriend by Yuu Watase

Absolute Boyfriend
by Yuu Watase
published in English by Viz / Shojo Beat Manga (33+ chapters)

Riiko is a lonely young woman who orders a “boyfriend” from a sketchy company based on a sketchy ad. And what does she receive? A human-sized box with a human-sized, very charming android with superhero-like powers! Night, as she names him, is programmed to perform intimate services… which Riiko is not actually ready for. And the company she ordered him from wants their money, or at least some data about Night’s seduction abilities, which Riiko doesn’t want them to have….

This is a comedy with high levels of silliness, plus romance elements. This story involves jealous childhood friends, androids who can cook, fantasies of what makes the perfect bf, sketchy salesmen prone to cosplay, forbidden technologies, elaborately drawn hair, one way tickets to Europe, and possibly first love. It was initially too silly / over the top for me, but I came back to finish the main story arc, and was entertained.

Books (Manga): A Friendship So Impure by Cherangbi, Chomi

Cover of A Friendship So Impure on Tappytoon

A Friendship So Impure
by Cherangbi, Chomi
published by Tappytoon (50 chapters – complete)

So many manga are intended for all-ages audiences; even if they are in the romance genre, they are often centered on youth romance in which the starring couple has limited physical contact. Happily, this is not one of those comics! This is a steamy, sexy comic in which an attractive couple get together, take off their clothes, and loudly enjoy nights of passion.

Siyeong is a cute young woman with a gift for languages, who winds up working with her boyfriend’s friend, Jihoo, at his startup. Siyeong is soft and pretty; Jihoo is handsome, fit, tall, rich, and shy. When Siyeong’s fiancé turns out to be a jerk, Jihoo is literally standing right there, being all warm, supportive, handsome, and attentive… and he wants to be so much more.

The drawing style is soft, using a limited palette of colors and minimal lines; I found the illustration style internally consistent and appealing. The characters have charming faces! Below-the-waist anatomy is illustrated with precision, yet also flooded with white ink; exactly what they are doing to each other is very clearly drawn. (The sound effects entertained me.) This comic is only available in “Mature” mode as a result.

This is a fantasy, so the attractiveness, stylish wardrobe, physical attributes, and ‘unnatural aptitude despite limited experience’ from Jihoo in particular exceed non-fantasy abilities. There are scenes outside of the bedroom to ground their relationship in a context, and Jihoo has to perform some gendered duties (protector, provider, etc.) consistent with Korean romance-themed comics I have read so far.

This comic charmed me, and I was rooting for this couple to be together.

Books (Manga): The Water Dragon’s Bride by Rei Toma

cover of volume 1 of the Water Dragon's Bride by Rei Toma, Viz edition.

The Water Dragon’s Bride
by Rei Toma
published in English by Viz / Shojo Beat (complete – 44 chapters)
2017 – 2019

Unable to resist the gorgeous drawings of Toma’s most recent manga, The King’s Beast, I eagerly sought out her earlier work, The Water Dragon’s Bride. Here we can see Toma’s gorgeous men, with beautifully shapely eyes and long, flowing hair, represented with special elegance by the Water Dragon God.

Asahi is a little, contemporary, beloved girl, who is grabbed by the water in her parents’ garden pond (!!) and spirited away to another era. A boy of similar age named Subaru finds her in the forest near the lake (her pond’s ancient form) and takes her home to his village, where Asahi realizes something is… different. No, everything is different. No wires? No phones? No train station?

Subaru’s enthusiastic mother wants to take her to a special ritual, which, Asahi realizes too late, involves tying her to a rock and returning her to the lake.

Unlike the other girl-child sacrifices, Asahi is lucky: the Water Dragon God is… just bored enough to keep her alive (with tips from friends).

But she is still just a lost little girl, and her survival from this event would be suspicious to the superstitious villagers. Can she survive? Can she make it home to her own time and loving parents? Can Subaru hide her from his family? Importantly, can she hold the inhuman and generally indifferent Water Dragon God’s attention long enough to get his help?

This is a story of survival, friendship, politics, rivalries, ancient forest spirits, greed, war, community, superstition, spiritual darkness, hope, water-doors between worlds, years away from home (!), personal development, and Love with a capital L. I have a soft spot for stories about little girls falling into other worlds, which was my favorite genre as I was learning to write (though I included a frivolous number of talking animals in my stories, but still). Our favorite characters evolve, though the villages of humans… continue to disappoint in a way I find realistic. I got misty-eyed at the very end, which I didn’t expect.

Toma’s especially beautiful Water Dragon God and his special effects are lovingly drawn. I love this story (with serious stakes) and charming art, including the little round illustrations near the beginning of each chapter. I recommend it!

Rei Toma's Chapter 21 cover for The Water Dragon's Bride, featuring the Water Dragon God himself
Rei Toma’s Chapter 21 cover for The Water Dragon’s Bride, featuring the Water Dragon God himself.

Books (Manga): MAO by Rumiko Takahashi

Cover of MAO Volume 1 by Rumiko Takahashi
Cover of MAO Volume 1 by Rumiko Takahashi

by Rumiko Takahashi
published in English by Viz (ongoing)
2021 – present

Rumiko Takahashi is a famous and prolific manga author, who I have been a fan of since our various California anime fans brought the animated comedy Ranma 1/2 to club meetings (back in the 80s/90s). I especially love her Mermaid Saga, which is dark and ambiguous. I’ve written previously about the anime based on Takahashi’s Inuyasha series, and have mentioned RIN-NE in passing; she structured these manga ingeniously to be easily serialized as anime.

Nanoka is a contemporary girl in Japan, being raised by her kindly grandfather and strange housekeeper after surviving a gruesome freak accident which killed her parents during her childhood. One day, near the scene of the accident, she takes a turn, travels back in time, and is almost immediately attacked… by monsters.

In this past, she meets the exorcist, monster-killer, and part time doctor to nice spirits, Mao. Distinctive-looking Mao, who bears a facial scar and fears he may be immortal, has been through some traumas he doesn’t recall clearly. A day of tragedy hundreds of years ago led to his friends trying to kill him, the destruction of a temple/school, and the death of the girl he loved – and he worries that he may have killed her himself.

Nanoka isn’t sure why she is in this past with Mao, but when trouble strikes and she picks up Mao’s cursed sword, she isn’t struck dead. What gives her this power to resist the curse, and what is her connection to Mao?

I’m 200 chapters in (!!!), and while Takahashi’s serialized-for-television structure persists, there is a sense of tangible progress on solving the mysteries that worry Mao. Yes, there are side quests, and a very large number of characters, but most connect to the mysteries Mao is attempting to solve. As a Takahashi fan, I’d say that MAO has more focused story-telling than Inuyasha (which had more side quests than goal resolution), and is more serious than RIN-NE (which is a school comedy about death and regrets – no, really). The tragedies that strike, and the cruelties that the characters experienced are serious, and they are marked by them – in many cases literally scarred, but also emotionally harmed. Answers to the mysteries that haunt them bring some relief.

This is an interesting story, and Takahashi keeps it progressing with more intensity than some of her other popular works. I am enjoying it.

Books (Manga): Dawn of the Arcana by Rei Toma

Dawn of the Arcana
by Rei Toma
published in English by Viz / Shojo Beat (complete – 53 chapters)

I’m reading the still-being-released manga, The King’s Beast, which is so gorgeously drawn… and then realized that the author has older works that are complete for me to enjoy! This is one of them, and appears to be set in the same world as TKB.

Nakaba has had a rough life: she was orphaned young, kept isolated in a tower, has been avoided or abused by relatives, has an unacceptable haircolor, and ultimately is married off to a prince in an enemy kingdom for political reasons. Ignorant stereotypes about her kingdom are used to insult her. Aside from her loyal Ajin servant (a completely devoted man from an oppressed ethnic group identified by their animal-like ears), she has no one in the world who cares what happens to her.

And then, to top it all off, she starts to see the future.

Perhaps… she has more options than just running away after all. Perhaps she can turn her situation around… and change the world. If she doesn’t kill herself trying to look at the future!

The art style is much less elaborate than TKB, but familiar in a pleasant way. The heroine is optimistic and good-hearted, which gets her far. There are many characters, multiple countries, plots, family dramas, bitter rivalries, lost loves, and appropriately unexpected plot twists. I enjoyed it all.

Books (Manga): Demon Love Spell by Mayu Shinjo

Demon Love Spell
by Mayu Shinjo
published in English by Viz / Shojo Beat (complete – 6 volumes)

Miko is a shrine maiden who is terrible at detecting spirits, but she is game to cure a guy who appears to be possessed as he cheats on every girl at school. Her prayer works – but she winds up with a handsome man-demon the size of a doll.

Kagura, the incubus demon whose power comes from women’s desire, is vulnerable to attacks by other demons in this state. Those rival demons swarm him – and are tempted by Miko’s beautiful spiritual energy to attack her as well. Miko can’t even see them, unless she is touching Kagura – and oh, how he wants her touch and affection, so he can have the power to fight them off!

This comedy involves over-protective, spiritually powerful parents; a sexy, sexy demon; dreams of steamy passion; scary and/or sexy demons; lots of posing; and frustration for both characters as their conflicting needs (Miko needs to remain a ‘maiden’ and Kagura needs her not to) lead to silly situations as they fend off danger together.

I laughed out loud.

Demon Love Spell is light-hearted and slapstick, and completely unlike worrying about my job. Part of its charm is that it is complete (no waiting!) and concludes tidily at the end of volume 6 – ‘will they or won’t they’ suspense is best kept brief!

I was entertained.