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The Infinity Courts: What If Siri Ran the Afterlife?

I don’t know why I’m still trying to get into YA novels, considering that I tend to not like them. But sometimes, you just have an impulsive, smooth-brain moment. And in this particular impulse, I decided to try Akemi Dawn Bowman’s The Infinity Courts, the first in what is—according to Goodreads—a trilogy. I’ve apparently made a habit of reviewing individual installments of book series as of late, so I guess I’ll continue that pattern again!

In The Infinity Courts, a typical teenage girl named Nami Miyamoto is about to have the night of her life: a graduation party, whereafter she and her crush, Finn, will have their happily ever after. But when her dumb friend makes her buy something spur-of-the-moment, Nami has a true isekai-light-novel experience when she is shot in a convenience store and is awakened in a strange world known as Infinity. Everything here is perfect, which means it’s actually not even remotely perfect. And it doesn’t take long for Infinity’s Residents to start hunting her down.

I suppose that, being at most the one-third point of the bigger story, the following statement would be said too soon. But I’m going to say it anyway: if you’re looking for something that’ll make your brain gears whirl, then The Infinity Courts is not it. The world of Infinity is more-or-less that of The Matrix. Just like in those whacky conspiracy theories, our smartphone A.I.s—with this world’s model being named Ophelia—end up ruling the human race and want to brainwash everyone. Nami joins your typical Resistance group in an effort to take Ophelia down.

However, there is at least a bit more creativity this time around. Infinity has a lot of appealing and surreal setpieces, as implied by the map at the beginning. It helps that we get a good enough description of these setpieces; not too much and not too little. A lot of names are just common nouns with uppercase letters, but it’s not as excessive with that trope as other YA novels.

It also helps that Bowman is a legit good writer. Even though The Infinity Courts is a case of “same sh** different day”, I was thoroughly engaged with the story and wanted to know what happened next. It’s not too pretentious with metaphors, like most YA novels tend to be (even if it asks those philosophical questions a lot).

The cast is also surprisingly likable… for the most part. A lot of the resistance people are decent folks who just really prioritize the Colony above all else. However, Nami—despite being named after One Piece‘s Best Girl—is an incredibly hard sell. Like your typical YA female protagonist, she’s self-deprecating, and doesn’t want to fight the Residents even when shown how they enslave and torture humans. And of course, she has mysterious abilities that no one else has, even if this particular instance kind of makes sense, given her weird sense of sympathy with her smartphone in life.

Gil is the other hard sell. He’s a middle-aged, war torn veteran trapped in a teenager’s body, but some of that teenager-y-ness manifests as well. He’s so hard-headed and angsty, and is also that guy who hates the main protagonist just to be an asshole. The other leading lad is Prince Caelan, one of the four Princes of Infinity. He’s, well, Mr. Perfect, and is—for the time being—the only Prince to get an actual character arc. The main antagonist, Ophelia, is your typical robot overlord; she’s all like “humans are all born racist and violent and evil”, and thinks that trying to remove them from Infinity is an objectively good thing.

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Final Verdict: 8.75/10

The Infinity Courts is not original whatsoever, but it reinvents the wheel in a pleasantly surprising way. I’m more than willing to commit to this series, which is saying something considering how I feel about YA novels. I recommend it if you want raw entertainment, but don’t expect your thoughts to be provoked.

Weeb Reads Monthly July 2021

Yen Press just HAS to publish their new light novel volumes at the end of every month, don’t they? This month was particularly bad because several volumes dropped on the day that this would’ve been posted otherwise. Because of that, I had no choice but to post this in the wrong month, making it irrelevant! And guess what: this is probably going to be the case with every single one of these monthly posts forever! Hooray (am I cursed or what?)!

So I’m a Spider, So What?! Volume 12

Light novels and YA novels seem to have something in common, and it’s that you can have a story arc that is—for all intents and purposes—supposed to be action-heavy. And yet, when you actually get to that part, it turns out that there’s next to no action whatsoever. That’s this volume.

It’s at least better than Julius’ volume. However, don’t rejoice in Best Girl White’s return as narrator. You see, her POV is only in the first and last chapter, and the rest are each taken over by a different character. And boy oh boy… I forgot who almost all of them were. The author does include an overly large bio of each person at the start of their chapter, but I still found myself not caring about them (regardless of if I remembered them or not), and it royally killed the pacing. This is the climax of the series, and you waste our time with backstories that don’t contribute anything to the current moment.

Also, it’s not much of a climax since our protagonists are so stupidly powerful. Furthermore, merely remembering what happens in earlier volumes (which the series is now caught up with chronologically) kills any form of, you know, not knowing what’ll happen. It really shows that the weird timeline storytelling was kind of a shallow gimmick.

Verdict: 6.5/10


Combatants Will Be Dispatched! Volume 6

This is a pretty random volume, to be honest. It’s just various shenanigans that don’t seem to have any real connection to each other, from exploring more of the planet to apprehending a weird criminal. As with Konosuba, focus was never meant to be the core source of appeal anyway.

The aforementioned weird criminal, Adelheid, is as bizarro as you can expect. Despite not being one of the high-and-mighty Heroes from the real world, she sure acts like one. In that classic way of subverting “good guy protags”, she causes mayhem and is completely oblivious to the fact that she is doing harm. And, well, that’s about all there is to cover. Shenanigans and over-the-top action are abound as always.

Verdict: 8.5/10


DanMachi Volume 16

It’s been sixteen volumes, and it’s finally time for Syr to have a character arc! It’s been blatantly clear that she had something to do with Freya, given the fact that they both love Bell, and she’s finally going to make her move. In fact, she proposes a bet with Freya to see who can win his heart first at the Harvest Festival. 

Overall, it’s a solid volume. There are a lot of cute interactions between Bell and Syr that have been long overdue. There is also a huge reveal at the end, which is something I saw coming since the beginning of the series yet caught me off guard at the same time. In fact, I’m still not sure of the logistics behind it.

Verdict: 8.5/10


The Executioner and her Way of Life Volume 2

It feels like it’s been forever since the follow-up to the really awesome first volume of this series. I’ve been chomping at the bit to see what Menou plans to do with Akari, as well as what other insanity is going to take place. And, well, it’s not like I save the best volume of the post for last or anything… but I have a feeling that this one’s gonna slap.

The strange duo find themselves in Libelle, which has a nice view of one of the other Four Major Human Errors: Pandemonium. We get a preview of it in the prologue, and it’s more-or-less the setting of Torture Princess scaled down to a small archipelago with a nasty fog covering it. Not a fun place.

Anyway, due to a lack of travel funds (and the author wanting to find an excuse to put out a self-contained conflict given the nature of the light novel medium), Menou has to solve a classic drug trafficking issue. And, well, it’s pretty telegraphed who the culprit is: Manon Libelle, the daughter of the guy in charge of the town. She’s very unrealistically evil for a teenage girl, but that’s just the kind of series Executioner is. 

Also, it looks like we get some context as for Akari’s suspicious behavior at the end of the previous volume. She indeed knows that Menou is trying to kill her, and furthermore, the events of the series as we’re perceiving them aren’t even Akari’s first experience in this world. Time travel also seems to have given her a weird split personality… or something. 

Overall, this is a phenomenal volume, which further cements Executioner as one of my new favorite light novel franchises (for someone who doesn’t particularly like dark stuff, I sure like all the effed up light novels for some reason). To top it off is a crazy climax and some big developments. Next volume when?!

Verdict: 9/10


Conclusion

Boy, this market is so overwhelming. I don’t know how other people can keep up with this stuff when I can barely keep up with the things I’m dead-set on finishing! And now thanks to release timing, I’m probably never going to be able to make these posts in the correct month ever again. Oh well!

The NPCs in This Village Game Sim Must Be Real! Volume 1: A Really NEET Light Novel

Okay, sooooo I kinda said that I wouldn’t be covering light novel debuts for a while. However, at the time, I had completely forgotten that I was looking forward to The NPCs in This Village Sim Game Must be Real! (along with one other series). Look, Japan puts out thousands of these every year; I’m not the only one to completely forget something I knew I wanted. So, after this and that other series, I’m DEFINITELY not covering any light novel debuts for a while. I think?

In The NPCs in This Village Game Sim Game Must be Real!, a NEET named Yoshio receives a strange package, containing a game in its alpha build: The Village of Fate. He must test the game, but the fact that it’s classified is really weird. That, and the fact that it has the most realistic graphics ever despite how well it runs on his older computer. Oh, and the fact that the characters seem all too human. 

Right off the bat, Village Game shows a lot of promise. The author clearly put a lot of thought into the game mechanics, but it’s definitely not something most people would play. Basically, imagine a village sim roguelite, which sounds pretty kickass just from that description. However, there are some things that seem like utter BS, and intentionally so. For starters, Yoshio gets only one run, and the game permanently soft-locks, in addition to the permadeath that can happen to the NPCs. Also, he cannot directly control them. The only way to command them is to write a prophecy as the villagers’ god. And this feature only refreshes once every twenty-four hours of real time. He can accumulate Fate Points (FP) to unlock powerful and necessary upgrades, but the upgrades are expensive, and—here’s the real kicker—the game has micro-transactions. 

This series seems to be setting up a character study that can—hopefully in an intellectual manner—examine people and how easily they can lose their sense of reality to that of a game world. And in addition to that, Yoshio undergoes some real growth that most characters of his ilk do not. Since he’s stuck in the real world, he has to face his insecurities head-on. As questionable as The Village of Fate is, it has compelled him to go outside. He even has to get a job because, as expected in a game with microtransactions, The Village of Fate is pay-to-win. And I don’t even mean that from the standpoint of making a grindy game less grindy; it is simply impossible to gain enough FP to keep up with the crap the game throws at you.

The problem lies within The Village of Fate itself, and I don’t mean how intentionally sadistic its design is. The game’s worldbuilding and denizens are about as bland as any substandard isekai. Our cast of the game is a family of three, whose little daughter has an unhealthy crush on a fourth main character named Gams, a significantly older man. They’re… there. I don’t see how Yoshio got so invested in them outside of how realistic they look in the game. 

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Verdict: 8.9/10

I didn’t expect The NPCs in This Village Sim Game Must Be Real! to be good at all. And yet, it pleasantly surprised me. I highly anticipate how much more advanced the game will get as more stuff happens, and Yoshio’s character arc is very engaging. I recommend it not to isekai fans, but slice-of-life fans, since it’s pretty grounded for a fantasy series.

When Disney Decided to Dig a Little Deeper: Princess and the Frog Retrospective

Well, I kind of cheated with this one. Basically, I got to rewatch Princess and the Frog during a movie under the stars event in Disney and decided to write a retrospective on it, in advance of its twentieth anniversary. However, I got impatient and instead decided to post it now. In any case, this review was written after watching the movie for the first time in over two years, so I should be able to break it down pretty impartially.

In Princess and the Frog, a girl named Tiana dreams of opening a restaurant in New Orleans. But since it’s Disney, her father dies early on and she gets screwed out of a vacant property right when she saves up enough money. What’s worse is that she runs into Prince Naveen (*smack* of Maldonia), a strapping prince who happened to be visiting the States, and the two of them turn into frogs.

Princess and the Frog was the start of a new trope for Disney’s female leads. They would no longer be damsels in distress who were swept away by some hunk. In fact, a lot of these Disney women would start off on bad terms with their husbando-to-be. Princess and the Frog also starts a trend of Disney lessons that are practical to real life, unlike previous ones which were like “If you cry hard enough some magic grandma will come save you.” The movie shows you the line between wants and needs, as well as work and play. I hate saying that something is good solely from being relatable, but Princess and the Frog is really easy to relate to, whether you’re some greedy hoarder, a workaholic, or anything in between. Heck, it’s something I still need to learn while juggling this blog and a full-time I.R.L. job.

But as far as the story itself, Princess and the Frog is about as straightforward as any mainstream Disney flick. The bulk of the movie is Tiana and Naveen goin’ down the bayou to reach Mama Odie, who supposedly has the ability to turn them human again. And of course, when they get to her, she’s all like “stuff Mufasa said probably” and sends them back to New Orleans so Naveen can make out with Tiana’s BFF. As you can expect, she gets the best of both worlds in the end. 

Fortunately, if you like classic Disney, then you’ll find Princess and the Frog to be one of their best. All the personality and Disney magic is still present, even though the behind the scenes for this movie has one of the producers saying “the world had grown too cynical for fairy tales” (which is more true now than ever thanks to social media and, well… last year). It’s lighthearted, funny, emotional, and bursting with color and heart.

The characters are among the most likeable in Disney’s repertoire. Tiana and Naveen aren’t that interesting by themselves, but it’s their relationship that brings out the best of them. They are two extremes; with Tiana being extreme work and Naveen being extreme play. To my knowledge, this is the second time in Disney history with a tsundere Disney Princess (the first being Belle). But unlike Beast, who saves Belle’s life and gives her Stockholm Syndrome as a result, Tiana and Naveen’s values clash in some bizarro way that results in the true wuv that we all care about (and them learning how to properly manage their lives).

Like I said in my Disney rant, people don’t care about the leads as much as the other characters. Louie the crocodile is your typical comic relief character. However, as lovable as he is, he’s not that funny. The most hilarious part about him is the sheer concept of a crocodile who wants to play jazz with the big boys, and the only funny bit is him not knowing “the geography and the topography” of the bayou. Of course, people (and myself) love Raymone to bits and pieces. The interesting part is that he’s one of the few Disney protagonists to die towards the end of the movie, as opposed to the parents who don’t even live for half an hour (such as Tiana’s dad). As desentized to Disney deaths as I am, I admit that seeing him be reincarnated as a star right next to his waifu in the sky is pretty moving.

A sadly unutilized character ends up being Best Girl Lottie. She’s loaded thanks to her father, John Goodman. Being a rich girl, her deep friendship with a low-income girl like Tiana could arguably inspire hope for  kids to this day. Regardless, she’s hilarious in every scene she’s in, even if those are low in number.

The antagonist, Facilier, is—to my knowledge—the last true Disney villain. After him, they would get less and less presence in the movies, and now, they pretty much don’t exist. With that in mind, what a banger to end on! He’s become a modern fan-favorite for a reason, and it’s because he’s constantly oozing charisma. He’s really intimidating for such a skinny guy, and his death is perhaps one of the scariest out of the Disney villains.

Being a Disney Princess movie, Princess and the Frog has a phenomenal soundtrack. I don’t like jazz at all, but I’m always surprised by how many different atmospheres and moods that they can convey with the genre in this movie. Also, Facilier’s number is probably one of the best villain songs in Disney history.

Princess and the Frog hasn’t aged a day, despite its use of traditional hand-drawn graphics. It’s a visually stunning film, with both nostalgia and modern flair. They make New Orleans look just about as fantastical as any Magic Kingdom, that’s for sure. The behind-the-scenes said that they’d occasionally like to return to hand-drawn graphics every now and then, but they still have yet to do it. WHY?!

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After All These Years: 9/10

Princess and the Frog is really damn good! There’s nothing else to say besides that. If you like Disney, then you should have no problem with this one.

Over Already?!: Last Round Arthurs — Volume 5

This, I hope, is the first post where I cover the final volume of a light novel series. The reason why I’m unsure is because BookWalker doesn’t list Last Round Arthurs as “Completed” on its page. This might be a Yen Press thing, since it doesn’t say Silver Spoon is completed either. But based on what happens here, the afterword literally saying “the series has come to an end”, and it literally saying “FINAL” on the cover, the fifth volume is the finale of Last Round Arthurs, so let’s review this thing already!

When we last left off our intrepid heroes, Luna’s team just found the Holy Grail, while leaving Rintaro to fight his dad. When they get back, however, things aren’t too pretty. It’s more-or-less the end of the world, actually. There’s only one thing to do: whoop butt!

As the finale, there really isn’t much to the plot at all. Basically, we establish King Arthur himself as the real villain (as if that’s never happened in edgy retellings of his legend), and he’s just nonchalantly going to destroy the world. We get the full backstory for everything, including Morgan’s motive. This takes just about thirty to forty-ish percent of the volume.

And the rest is pure action! Without wasting any time, we just go, go, go straight towards the final battle. As always, Last Round Arthurs excels in its combat, and this series of fights is no slouch. You can expect the detailed descriptions that somehow don’t nerf the pacing, as well as the hype battle shounen moments. 

Unfortunately—this sounds cliché—but the finale is a bit rushed. I initially thought that the series was axed, given its relative unpopularity. But nope; the afterword says that this was meant to be a five-volume series. Everything resolves without plothotles, but the whole establishment of the climax is VERY sudden, and King Arthur being a baddie comes way out of left field.

Verdict: 8.5/10


Final Thoughts

Last Round Arthurs is one of the most underrated light novel series, but it still has some of flaws. It felt like Rintaro had a whole “face his inner demons” scene about eighty times over the course of the story, and it got quite repetitive. Also, despite how awesome Luna is, she ended up being his damsel in distress numerous times. Furthermore, I concede that Luna and Rintaro are the only really good characters in the whole series.

Fortunately, I enjoyed it immensely due to its sheer entertainment value. The action was always over-the-top and fast-paced. I could picture what was going on, and it looked phenomenal because of how well-written it was. An anime adaptation would probably not be capable of doing this series justice, but at the very least, it would only need one season to be a complete adaptation. I’d recommend Last Round Arthurs to battle shounen fans who don’t mind protagonists with a massive ego.

Final Verdict (Whole Series): 8.85/10

Why the Cyberpunk Genre is Stale: A Rant

The cyberpunk genre is definitely not as huge as it was in the late Twentieth Century, but it’s still a genre that a lot of people love and think is mindblowing. But as I said in my first impressions of the manga, No Guns Life, I find the genre to be not-so-mindblowing. In fact, it’s second only to romance (ROMANCE!) as my least favorite genre of all time. This rant details why, based on my admittedly small experience with the genre.


The Human Condition, Turns Out, is Pretty Conditional

To begin this passage, I’ll tell you about a memoir I came across, once for no particular reason (as in there’s no particular reason why I came across it, not why I’m telling you about it). I forgot its title, but it was published in the early 2000s, and it was about a deaf person who willingly signed up to have a computer installed that would essentially replace their dysfunctional human ears. According to the book’s description, the person had an existential crisis and began to question whether or not they were human, simply because they were hearing a “digital interpretation of a real sound instead of the real sound” or something. Although I never read it, coming across this book is one thing that made me question the popularity of cyberpunk.

Why would you have an existential crisis over one part of your body being a machine? I’ve seen this trope before. The main character sometimes has a robot arm or something, making them a cyborg, and then they’re all like “I’m not so human anymore.” My grandfather, who I love dearly, got an intramuscular pacemaker implanted in his heart, and it’s been proving to be one of the best health decisions he’s ever made. But by cyberpunk logic, he would no longer be considered my grandfather, let alone a human being, because the organ that gives him life is not entirely “organic”.

Beyond the scope of cybernetic augments, the trope makes cyberpunk extremely pretentious because it’s all under the notion that humans are special. Sure, we’ve evolved abnormally fast and done some crazy things, but that doesn’t make us special. There’s this one episode of the Neil DeGrasse Tyson reboot of Cosmos where he goes down a list of different animals who display traits that are conventionally thought of as distinctively human. It shows that we aren’t that much different from other species. Because of this, the big “What makes us human?” question that often frames the cyberpunk genre seems pretentious to me. And for the record, that’s why I hate the word “human” as an adjective for a well-written character arc.


“Robotic Overlords”

I’ve seen enough cyberpunk to differentiate between cyborgs and androids. While the previous passage mainly focused on cyborgs, this one will focus on androids, and A.I.’s in general. Androids are 100% machines, built from scratch, with the  intention to be sentient. Out of all the cyberpunk tropes, these guys can at least be done in an interesting way, if done well. But of course, I find them to almost never be done well.

Part of it is because it feels like nobody has bothered trying anything new with them in the past forever. While not technically cyberpunk, Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot did something important with the android trope in the Three Laws of Robotics. To sum them up in one sentence, the Three Laws of Robotics are a set of codes that make it so androids cannot harm humans, and also have to protect humans over themselves. The fact that this essentially robs what are technically living, sentient beings of their rights as people does raise some legitimate questions. But sadly, it feels like writers just repeatedly ask this same question over and over again in cyberpunk.

The whole “humans are special” stigma also applies to androids at times. If there’s one that isn’t evil, it usually hates its own existence. They observe humans and are all like “Wow, emotions are beautiful. Why don’t I have those?” They would give anything to be human, but the fact that they even want something means that they kind of already have what they wanted in the first place. The problem is that I’ve never seen any progress with the trope after the character arc of Data from Star Trek: Next Generation.

Like I said before, androids are the smallest problem I have with cyberpunk. But A.I. are worse. Technically, androids are A.I., but I’m kind of referring to sentient computer programs as opposed to humanoid machines. I’ve never seen this character type done in a way that’s interesting. They’re either some Mr. or Ms. Existential Crisis that—like Data—wants to be human, or something that wants to take over the world “for the good of the human race.”

A recent example of me having been disappointed by an A.I. is  a visual novel that I watched YouTuber NintendoCaprisun play a while back: Eliza. Again, I don’t know if it counts as cyberpunk, but I wanna talk about it anyway. Eliza is about the titular A.I. program, programmed to serve as a therapist. This could’ve been interesting, but nope, they cop out big time. Eliza feeds prompts to a human proxy to read aloud to the client as a form of A.I. therapy. I had hope with Eliza in that first client, when it was able to essentially pretend that the human proxy itself was  speaking to the client, when they were actually still reading the prompts. But from there, it goes south. All Eliza can do is provide a preconceived response to every patient, which doesn’t help them, and it concludes by making them load up on prescription drugs. And when you’re able to deviate from the A.I.’s responses at the end of the game—Whaddya ya know?—it low-key instantly helps everyone. Instead of making us consider the possibility that A.I. could be used as a psychiatrist, they do the “normal” thing and make it bad. I want to say that the message of the game is that A.I. technology is at such an infant stage that no one really knows what the future holds. But with the way the game presents itself, and the fact that its main antagonist wants to use Eliza to steal people’s information for his company’s gain—a typical conspiracy theory trope—I’m led to believe that they didn’t have the guts to challenge conventional thinking. The game slanders conspiracy theories left and right in its dialogue, but sadly, doesn’t practice what it preaches.


Don’t Believe Everything You Hear On the Internet

The Eliza part of the rant feeds into this passage. Cyberpunk first came around during a genuinely scary time in U.S. history, and it kind of warranted the social commentaries. But these days, it feels like the basis for cyberpunk is in the toxicity of social media.

You see, the media thrives on attention. And to generate attention, they have to present the news in a way to make people buy it. Sadly, because of how the human mind works, people are more interested in something negative than positive. As a result, the media will present certain bits of information and withhold other bits in such a way to make it seem that the world is ending. Many people know this and try to shrug it off, but there’s a very vocal, vulnerable part of society who will take it to heart, and if you have a social media account, you will be bombarded with this constant cynicism.

Some of these cyberpunk worlds, and dystopian worlds in general, are ruled by censorship and facist governments, and they’re supposed to be an allegory to our own society. And just… no. Ever since the U.S. federal government formed, people  seem to live under the impression that the president can—at any time—just do whatever he wants, without checks and balances. The U.S. Constitution was made specifically so that it doesn’t happen, even if George Washington and Alexander Hamilton both knew that the country’s political climate would go to hell. If I can’t take our actual society seriously, I can’t take a fictitious world based off of it seriously.

Am I wrong about this? I admit that I’m pretty out of the loop with society, and it often feels like I live in a different world. Everyone else seems to legitimately believe that George Orwell’s 1984 is happening right now, even though the book was an allegory to Communism. Also, they act like censorship is a current, prevailing issue in this century that’s rapidly worsening, as if the government can just disappear anyone at anytime, like in that “F.B.I. open up!” meme. I have no idea where people get this impression, and maybe that’s because I’m falling for that very censorship. How about I move on before I continue to counter-argue with my own post?


Oh No, My American Values!

I don’t know how to say this without sounding like a bad person, but I feel like a lot of writers are not willing to explore the less comfortable themes of cyberpunk. It’s not really anyone’s fault; people are raised on whatever cultural values of, well, whatever place they grow up. Cyberpunk is supposed to explore some darker areas, but in my experience, they take anything that an average person would fear, and don’t bother turning that fear into interest.

My biggest example is Arc of a Scythe (assuming it’s a cyberpunk). I covered it in detail once before, but basically, it’s set in a world where immortality is achieved, and specific humans are hired to govern all death in the human population. If it sounds scary to you, then you’re probably an average person. The author does the basic, obvious thing and makes the idea objectively terrible. A system like this could work, given an insane number of background checks, but in the context of the story, it’s the typical “absolute power corrupts absolutely”. No room for interpretation. And why? Because the idea is too uncomfortable. 

This also gets hammy when it comes to messing with individuality, something I’ve learned is highly prioritized, in the U.S. in particular. You know, the opposite of Spock’s famous “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” line. I most often see this tackled with the issue of altering people’s memories. First off, while the idea is scary, how the crap are we supposed to have that technology? The only way we can give someone false memories is to meet an amnesiac and tell them incorrect information about their identity. I sincerely doubt it’s possible to use technology to inject someone’s brain with an entire prefabricated lifetime. The other application is making an A.I. and giving it a real human’s memories. While that is also scary, my argument is: what’s the practicality of doing that?! That’s just a critical system error waiting to happen, and with how expensive they are, you don’t want to do that. Regardless of how this trope is handled, individuality is pushed to the Nth degree. It’s annoying, especially given COVID, where that individuality made people not willing to follow protocols for the sake of national health.

A great example of this tired trope being subverted is Ghost in the Shell, which I can at least admit is one of the better cyberpunks out there. SPOILERS for the ending: Kusanagi willingly fuses with another cyborg, and it’s painted as a good thing. What an outlandish turn of events, and all it took was coming from a country that’s not as uppity about the self as the U.S. of A!

One final thing I need to mention, which happens to be short enough to not get its own section, is that I have autism. As a result of living in society as someone with autism, I’ve had to study my own mind in order to combat my many anxieties; something I’m still doing to this day. So when the blurb says “This made me really look at the world and myself differently”, they probably mean that, since it actually WOULD be their introduction to such deep thoughts. My lack of interest in cyberpunk themes can easily be chalked up to the fact that I’ve already done the deep thinking that the genre is supposed to make you do for the first time.


A Silver Lining

Not to toot my own horn, but I’m nowhere near as conditional as a lot of other people on the Internet. I’ve seen so many comments from people who act like it’s written in stone that “generic protagonists” or “simplistic narratives” are objectively bad. Despite how much I rag on romance and slice-of-life, I enjoy some very specific ones. And I think the same for cyberpunk as well. The aforementioned Ghost in the Shell is one example. Furthermore, despite everything I’ve said, they still have some good entertainment value from their visually appealing settings (almost all of which look vaguely like Tokyo, which is a bonus for me), sexy sci-fi outfits, high-octane action, electronic soundtracks that pack ambience as well as adrenaline.

I might have ended up ranting about science fiction as a whole and not just cyberpunk (which is ironic because I had a separate rant about that). In any case, cyberpunk really isn’t as stale as I claimed in the post title. Like every other genre, 90% of it is crap. While it still bothers me that people actually think that this media rooted in archaic Red Scare thinking has any kind of accurate representation of our future, the genre is at least more respectable than romance.


Postscript

Look, full transparency here. This whole post was me trying to make a Hail Mary pass at disputing the common consensus that stuff like 1984 are accurate to our current society. Honestly, given my anxieties, I am actually all too willing to take cyberpunk worlds as accurate portrayals of our future. I mean, how many U.S. election results have been falsified? That, in addition to COVID data, including the stats on the CDC’s own website? I’ve also seen, in limited capacity, the notion that hackers are developing A.I. to pose as world leaders. Also, I don’t think I’m alone when it comes to feeling that crushing pressure to consume the same predetermined set of media, lest I be cast off from the human race.

But at the same time, what if it’s not society at all, and cyberpunk is just as BS as I made it out to be. Recently, I’ve had to dive into my own mind, and learn how human insecurities work. Our anxieties are not directly caused by society, but by how we respond, emotionally, to the stimulus from society. Basically, what if—in the same way that the media uses topics like illegal immigrants and minorities (which have real issues) as scapegoats for America’s problems—we use allegedly corrupt governments and censorship as scapegoats for our own individual problems? In that case, cyberpunk is just a shallow method to reaffirm those beliefs.

Look, I know America is not perfect; it never was. But at the same time, the Founding Fathers were idiots for making the American Dream something as impossible as a perfect nation. Sorry for rambling… Basically, cyberpunk can be a great subgenre, I just try to take it with a grain of salt.

Some Old-School Prog for a New Year: Silver Lake by Esa Holopainen — Self-Titled Album Review

Part of being neck-deep in the metal hole is an obligation to look into new artists as they appear. Well, in this particular case, I wouldn’t call Esa Holopainen a new artist, but this solo project of his, Silver Lake by Esa Holopainen, is new. Plus, it’s my first time ever hearing of Holopainen himself, so he’s new from my perspective. Anyway, I think I’ve said a number of times that most dedicated metal bloggers only cover the extreme, underground stuff (and the rare time I’ve delved into those subgenres, it’s with bands that they DON’T cover). So yeah, I wouldn’t be surprised if the amount of reviews of Silver Lake’s self-titled debut album can be counted on one hand.

According to the Internets, Esa Holopainen is the guitarist of Finnish prog-metal band Amorphis… which have been around about as long as Dream Theater. Cool. Well, I only JUST caught up with Dream Theater, so… Sorry, I’m sure Amorphis is great, but my hands are tied by the march of time. Anyway, I don’t know much about this Silver Lake project other than that Holopainen, well, decided to do it. An interview with him I read on Nuclear Blast Records’ website said that this side project of his might be a one-and-done deal, although he has also considered following it up. Well, if it is a standalone album, then that saves me time in the long run!

The artwork doesn’t look too impressive at first; after all, it’s just a posterized photo of—surprise, surprise—a silver lake, with the project’s name smack dab in the middle like a perfect Pokémon Snap picture. But for some reason, I dunno… something spoke to me about it. It’s very much in the spirit of old-school prog, and that choice of font style for the name is beautiful. Props to whoever designed that.

Silver Lake starts with a three-minute acoustic intro track. Yep, that’s prog alright! It’s melancholy, and weirdly beautiful, a perfect lead-in to an equally melancholy song called ‘Sentiment’. Well… that’s more-or-less how the whole album goes. Overall, it’s a very strange record.

I know it sounds like hyperbole to say that “every song on an album is different”; even I’m willing to admit that a lot of my favorite bands merely expand on an established formula as opposed to breaking it completely. Silver Lake, however, really makes every song stand out. There’s the aforementioned acoustic track, along with whimsical yet epic ballads (such as the MV embedded below), a track that’s just powerful riffs playing over some guy narrating, and even a track with death growling. 

What helps is the wealth of vocalists who perform in this album. I have no idea who any of them are, but they all end up being more than talented enough for Silver Lake. The lyrics, however, I cannot decipher to save my life. In fact, I don’t even know if this is actually a concept album or not. 

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Final Verdict: 8.85/10

The only real flaw with Silver Lake by Esa Holopainen is the possibility that this really is a one-off project. While not album of the year to me, this is a hidden gem that gives classic prog that modern pizzaz. I recommend it if you’re someone with super eclectic taste.

The Emerald City of Oz: Somehow, a Volume with a Literal War in it Has Next to NO Action

L. Frank Baum’s Oz books had been steadily getting better, up until the fifth book, The Road to Oz. I really hope that it was just a fluke. Well, the only way to figure out if the series is getting better or worse is to continue it! Let’s jump into book six: The Emerald City of Oz.

In this installment, Dorothy’s aunt and uncle are S.O.L. And while a good therapist would tell you not to run away from your problems, Dorothy suggests to do just that! She has Ozma invite them to live in Oz forever. And what a time to move in, as the Nome King is planning to invade.

Up to this point, the government of the Emerald City has been well-established. However, when Baum gave us the recap of how it worked, I realized another prophecy of Baum’s. But this one, er… Well, to sum up, everyone has equal money in the Emerald City. Oz is a Communist kingdom. Aaaaah, American culture, you never cease to baffle me.

Anyway, the basic structure of this volume alternates POVs, from Dorothy showing her relatives around Oz, while the Nome King’s general recruits followers for his cause. I initially looked forward to this, because I thought, “Hey, we can reintroduce some of the minor antagonists from earlier in the series! Continuity!” However, I was once again an ignoramus for having hope in Baum. Instead of doing that, we are suddenly introduced to a number of one-dimensionally evil races, one of which is a literal race of furries (different from the ones in The Road to Oz). 

Not only are there new bad guys in this volume, but there are also brand new denizens of Oz. Classic Baum, constantly adding new things instead of expanding upon existing things. Because it’s whacky! The new races are as imaginative as usual, such as a race of people made out of puzzle pieces. There’s also a race of paper people, all created by a single girl—once again, Baum unwittingly stuffs sacrilege into kids’ brains. At least he has balls. 

But no matter how creative Baum gets, it seems I just cannot get immersed in this world. Everything in it is just distributed, and doesn’t feel… like anything. People still love this series so much? How? I can only see this being good at the time, before Tolkein raised the bar (a bar that is definitely not met even these days). It takes so much more than ideas to have good worldbuilding, and I expected more out of such a beloved series. I guess that’s one thing that it has in common with most modern stuff (Oooooh snap).

Honestly, I have nothing else to say. The climax is boring and rushed, possibly shoehorning in a new plot device that I’m supposed to have believed was in the Emerald City from the very beginning (I say “possibly” because it could’ve been mentioned and I forgot because I was bored). Oz researcher Peter Glassman, once again, acts as if this is the greatest thing since sliced bread. But this time, his reasoning seems to entirely rest on the fact that Emerald City has alternating POVs. This is what I hate about classic literature as a whole. People just laud them for being the first at doing something, as if that makes it better than any later stuff that does the same thing better. By comparison, I can at least say that Dracula is one of the best vampire stories ever. It was a no-nonsense thriller, where the vampires were real monsters that didn’t glow with shoujo sparkles. Oz is not Dracula.

It’s not all bad, though. There were a couple of interesting bits that I feel like should be brought up. First off, there is a place (I forgot what location was called), where its people had anxiety attacks over literally every possible negative eventually, even the super improbable ones. Baum, arguably, predicted the slowly deteriorating mental health of America. It’s exaggerated, but I actually related to these people, since I’m living in a world where the media will make everything out to be the end of days. There is also another case of Glinda the Good being not-so-good. They meet these rabbits who have been forcibly evolved to a civilized state completely against their will, and only because Glinda felt like it. That final book looms ever ominously before me, man.

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Final Verdict: 6.7/10

Emerald City of Oz gets a slightly higher rating since it has some of the more inventive ideas (even if they are superficial). Overall, this book sucks. I would be glad to be finished with it, as it was meant to be the final Oz book. However, we are not even halfway. I’m suddenly Han Solo, because I have a bad feeling about this.

Two First Impressions of Two Psychological Manga

I initially come off as someone who only likes happy, fluffy stuff. And while that is generally what I gravitate toward, I do get that variety is the spice of life. I love a good, dark drama; the problem is that there aren’t a lot that satisfy both conditions. But for some reason, I’ve found manga to be my most enjoyed medium when it comes to enjoying the darker facets of the human psyche. And to show how insane some manga can get, here are two examples. Note that neither of these appear on BookWalker’s search suggestions, meaning only one thing: THEY ARE NOT FOR YOUNG’UNS. For fairness sake, both reviews are based on the respective mangas’ first two volumes. 


Back When You Called Us Devils

In this messed up manga, you have the most generic-looking kid imaginable: Yusuke Saito. Apparently, looks are deceiving. He’s been coming down with amnesia, but it isn’t long before some people show up who claim that he was a very, VERY horrible person in his past. 

And I mean horrible. Basically, the most messed up things you can think of, Yusuke allegedly did. I don’t even want to write the words for them, so here’s a basic TL;DR of his crimes: Goblin Slayer Episode 1. No, that’s not hyperbole. I have a good enough grasp of reality and fiction to not get messed up by it, but that doesn’t mean it won’t mess you up.

The main conflict is to get Yusuke to remember everything he did. Fortunately, helping him is his childhood friend who also happens to be one of his alleged victims: Aizawa Yojiro. Since Aizawa actually knows Yusuke, the process is simple: go to the places relevant to his past and jog his memory in said places. The story is fun (albeit a bit messed up), and I’m curious to see where it goes.

The hardest sell of Back When You Called Us Devils is no doubt the characters. If you couldn’t tell, everyone is basically evil. It doesn’t take long for you to find out that Yusuke is indeed what his victims claim him to be, but it feels very unrealistic for a kid to just be like that without the full story. Aizawa is Mr. Ends-Justify-the-Means, and does not hesitate to commit equally bad crimes if he darn well feels like it. Even Yusuke’s favorite victim, Akari Ichinose—whom he supposedly murdered (they have yet to show her dead body, which is a classic trope in pretty much all media)—is pretty messed up as well. She had some bizarre relationship with him where she lets him do whatever he wants to her and hopes it breaks him somehow? It’s something I can’t really describe, honestly; you’ll have to read the manga to find out!

The art is what it should be for this type of manga. It has a sketchy style, and the character design gives me a very 1990s manga vibe for some reason. Thankfully, a lot of the expressions are relatively subdued; a very rare design choice in this medium. Overall, it looks great.

Current Verdict: 8.5/10


My Dearest Self With Malice Aforethought

This manga ended up being, by sheer coincidence, similar to Back When You Called Us Devils; the main protagonist, Eiji Urashima, is also haunted by a dark past that’s about to bite him in the butt. But unlike the other guy, the reason is pretty well-known: he’s the son of LL, a serial killer. Eiji has been able to live a normal life, but he suddenly starts experiencing time-skips. The reason for this is B1, a split personality that seems to be more-or-less following in his father’s footsteps. Eiji now must find the truth behind, well, himself.

Dearest Self ends up, arguably, being more suspenseful than the other manga. Back When You Called Us Devils is built entirely around the anticipation of learning Yusuke’s past, the suspense being in us not knowing information. Here, however, we are fed new information relatively quickly. After all, we’re seeing the consequences of B1’s actions in real time. And every time we’re given that new information, it has the same “Oh crap” feeling that makes suspense good. There’s also a lot more action to boot.

The characters are, sadly, not too spectacular. Eiji is your typical thriller protagonist, where he starts off as super timid, but ends up becoming more and more like B1 as he’s forced to do uncouth things in order to find the truth. The most likeable character is this one loli whose name I actually forgot… oops. Basically, she’s that weird girl who’s super big-brain and knows how to do a lot of unconventional stuff that just so happens to be helpful in plot progression.

The art, for the most part, is much more modern than Back When You Called Us Devils. The eyes are very detailed, and there are a lot more instances of crosshatching and distortion effects. The faces are a bit more exaggerated, however.

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Current Verdict: 8.65/10


Conclusion

These were both very fun, and dark manga that will probably never get anime adaptations. Of course, Naoki Urasawa can eat these for breakfast. But at the very least, these will do fine to tide you over if you’re waiting on more Asadora! to release. In fact, that’s basically why I decided to read these in the first place. Since both are finished in Japan, I should be able to put out full reviews of them sometime next year!

The Last Fallen Star: My First Ever Impression of Korean Culture

As someone who’s been alive within the last ten years, I have borne witness to the sudden rise of South Korea’s influence on the world’s entertainment industry. And considering I’ve been into Japanese culture for a long time, I’ve basically been jealous of Korea to this day. Anime have been out internationally for decades, and only a handful of them are accepted by your garden variety “all-American”. In my experience, it feels like Japan has only gotten more disdain as facets of their culture continue to come into the fold. And yet, all it took was ‘Oppa Gangnam Style’ for South Korea to be welcomed with open arms. Nowadays, manhwa and webtoons seem to be eclipsing Japan’s manga industry, and BTS the biggest active music group in the world, with their other K-Pop compatriots not far behind. Eventually, I just lost it, and absolutely HAD to know if I was missing something. And my voyage into Korean culture begins with Graci Kim’s novel, The Last Fallen Star, one of two Korean I.P.s from Rick Riordan Presents.

In The Last Fallen Star, you have your usual secret coven of witches. I’ll give you three guesses as to what the main protagonist, Riley Oh’s, problem is. …Did you guess that she has no magic? Yep, that’s exactly the case. The other old beans in the clan try to act like they don’t think she’s just baggage, but it’s not a particularly good facade. So, what does Riley do? She and her sister, Hattie, perform an illegal spell that has a chance to give Riley temporary powers. I’ll give you three guesses as to what results.

If you guessed that it goes horribly wrong, then that would be correct, but also an understatement. In fact, Riley’s parents end up in a position where they decide if they or Riley get permanently ejected out of the clan. Riley decides for them, and boots herself out, afterwhich the sisters perform ANOTHER illegal ritual that puts Hattie’s life at stake. Of course, the solution is for Riley, and her friend Emmet, to find a MacGuffin. Why wouldn’t it be?

Positives first. The story, unlike other Presents books, doesn’t waste time. The premise being entirely centered around MacGuffin-finding screams padding, but it’s actually relevant to a much bigger plot. It’s much more dialogue-driven than other Presents books, but not having random Korean monsters attack just for the sake of action is another plus for the pacing.

Sadly, that’s about where the positives end. The Korean-mythology-based worldbuilding is pretty typical. It’s your garden variety urban fantasy, with the different portals to witch-land in the middle of unassuming public areas, various rituals, and really dense-headed coven bigwigs. The specific legends used in the story, such as Korea’s creation legend, are… alright, I guess. Even taking my Shinto bias in mind, it’s your usual “the world is created perfectly and then someone does something stupid.”

The cast also leaves something to be desired (big surprise coming from me). Riley, being adopted, magicless, and wanting to be included in social circles, ticks all the boxes on the “relatable” checklist. I also dislike her for using the word “amazeballs”. The male lead, Emmet, is your typical best friend, and his arc revolves entirely around his response to the inevitable big plot twist reveal. We don’t get to see many gods—in fact, we only see one—and she is not as memorable as she could’ve been.

The only other issue I have is with the climax. It’s a good climax from a sheer entertainment standpoint, but I feel like some stuff happened solely for shock value. Also, the final twist feels like Kim trying to make readers feel that participation-trophy-specialness, which—according to Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck—leads to mental health disorders.

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Final Verdict: 8/10

The Last Fallen Star is the second best Rick Riordan Presents book I have read thus far, which is not saying much considering that I don’t like most of them. And even then, I still didn’t love it like I do that one series I will be covering at some point. I’m willing to finish this series, but I don’t think I’m going to learn why people like this particular brand of mythology.