I don’t know what compelled me to do this. Isekai is one of my favorite genres (even though 99% of them are ass), so it only made sense for me to read a classic isekai: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum. I recall watching the movie in a film class. All I remember is that Judy Garland is adorable, and that the movie itself is incredibly lackluster with the exception of the [aged] technical effects. The books (yes, books. There are fourteen Oz books actually) are sure to have much more substance, right? After all; the book is better than the film.
In The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, a girl named Dorothy is just chilling at her rinky-dink home in Kansas when a CYCLONE LIFTS HER HOUSE. She is abnormally calm during the situation and falls asleep while still in the eye of the storm. Dorothy (with dog, Toto) wakes up in Oz, where she is praised for having murdered the Wicked Witch of the East with her house. In order to get home, she must find the titular Wizard of Oz.
Thanks to this, I finally know where most modern Japanese isekai get their lack of depth. The writing in this book is as archaic as the time period. We get the bare minimum description of anything, and no sense of scale for any architecture in this world (also, get used to some unexpected usage of the word “queer”). There is next to no worldbuilding; stuff is just there for the sake of being there. Also, Dorothy has plot armor out of her ass thanks to a kiss from the Witch of the North. It’s sad that a lot of literature has not evolved since the turn of the 20th Century.
At the very least, the book has momentum. It doesn’t waste any words, and scenes that would normally take ten years to read in a modern isekai can be completed in minutes. The Witch of the North would be an exposition dump character, but thankfully, she only tells Dorothy what’s actually RELEVANT to the plot at the current moment.
Unfortunately, the original source novel wasn’t as dark as I thought it would be. Normally, I don’t really care for super cynical stuff, but given the time period, I figured that the story would be really dark. But other than a few isolated scenes, such as the Tin Woodman’s backstory, it’s just about as lackadaisical as the movie. Oh, and in case you’re a fan of the movie, literally NONE of the famous lines are in the original. No “We’re not in Kansas anymore,” no “Lions and tigers and bears”; not even the cultic chant that the Witch of the West’s guards use when patrolling.
Furthermore, I did not like the cast of the book at all (surprise, surprise). They were not just boring but inconsistent. The worst of them is the Tin Woodman, who acts like he can’t kill anything but doesn’t hesitate to create an admittedly gorey mound of wolf corpses. And before you argue “Um people were super religious then and they didn’t really think animals have souls because God gave man dominion over animal”, just keep in mind that Mr. Woodman cries when accidentally stepping on a beetle. A beetle.
And holy heck, this is apparently where the “real treasure was the friends we made along the way” trope came from, because these characters are about as brainless as the Scarecrow. They all want these specific traits, but they end up already possessing said traits. Normally, this would be meant for an epiphany at the end, but it doesn’t turn out that way (it’s actually kind of weird what happens). I feel like Baum didn’t put any more thought into this than a typical crappy Japanese isekai author.
Another issue lies not just in the content of the story, but the publication. I got the 100th Anniversary edition, with gold pages, which made me think “This should be really well presented.” Wrong! This edition displays a large assortment of… uh… illustrations, but their placement is all wrong. Sometimes, you’ll see one before the actual depicted scene happens. But more often than not, they’ll SUPERIMPOSE TEXT over them. Who in their right mind thought this would be a good tribute to Baum’s legacy?!
Final Verdict: 6.75/10
Call me an uncultured swine, but I didn’t find The Wonderful Wizard of Oz to be all that wonderful. No worldbuilding, no consistency, no visual descriptions, flat dialogue… this might’ve been groundbreaking at the time, but things have changed in 120-odd years. While some classics, like Dracula, age pretty well, this one has not, and I hate it when people act like all literary classics are still objectively great even by modern standards.
However, I am at least curious as to what the rest of the series has to offer. Each installment seems to be pretty self-contained, so I hope to possibly review all fourteen books over a long course of time. I imagine that they get more and more effed up (the cover of the final book has people on fire in the background), and it might be fascinating to see. But as far as recommendations for the original classic are concerned… I’d hold off on it. There are better things out there, with better writing.
The Rick Riordan Presents publishing imprint has breathed new life into Western children’s literature. Debuting with the hit Pandava novels, Riordan has allowed writers to present other foreign cultures in a Percy Jackson-styled fashion to offset the overabundance of ancient Greek, Norse, and Egyptian mythology in popular culture. In today’s blog, I’m covering The Storm Runner trilogy, written by J.C. Cervantes and published by, well, I just told you.
The Storm Runner stars Zane Obispo, who is just about to enter Catholic school. But this plan gets turned on its head when he runs into a beautiful and enigmatic girl (like you do), named Brook. She tells Zane that he is apparently destined to release the Mayan god of death, Ah-Puch, and he needs to stop that from happening. Pretty simple, isn’t it?
While I was groaning at the whole, “unremarkable boy who gets bullied is approached by the cute girl who tells him he’s special” schtick, The Storm Runner manages to be pretty darn entertaining. The story has fast pacing as well as that great, sarcastic humor that Percy Jackson fans know and love. There’s also some unique meta aspects to the series as well. The first installment is actually an in-universe book that Zane writes in between that and the second installment. He publishes it as a means of bringing other demigods together to do plot stuff.
Unfortunately, I had some issues with it. The Rick Riordan Presents I.P. is meant to generate interest for other cultures in the minds of ignorant American children, but I didn’t find The Storm Runner that interesting. I’m sure the research is solid, but none of the Mayan gods themselves come off as particularly fascinating, nor do they feel creative in the context of the narrative. Sure, they integrate some modern elements into mythical locations, but that’s been done before numerous times.
This next problem is more-so a nitpick, because it’s entirely based on a single line of dialogue that really stood out to me, and because of it, I’ve wanted to assume that Cervantes thinks her audiences are actual idiots (since I take things literally on account of my autism). Basically, they end up in some city in Mexico at one point in the second book, The Fire Keeper. One of the characters doesn’t know which Mexican city it is at a glance, and in response, another character literally calls them “an uncultured swine”. I’m sorry, but that’s indirectly insulting the demographic. If they’re reading this to learn about another culture, then why berate them for not already knowing everything about it? I don’t know who the editor was, but this got past somebody at the publishing house, and it astounds me.
The Storm Runner is further marred by some seriously uninspired characters. While Zane has some good one-liners, he’s really generic. Plus, he makes a certain eye-roll-worthy decision early on that really reduced my initial enjoyment of the books. Also, I felt like his lame leg was a “shock value thing” meant to market the series toward physically disabled people. The reason is that he later gets a power that makes his leg normal, which oh-so conveniently saves the author from having to worry about his leg during any scene with urgency.
Meanwhile, Brook is that role model-esque tomboy, and her sister, Quinn, isn’t that much better. Uncle Hondo, the supporting male, is the best character of the bunch, since he takes the scenario of the series really well for a regular human, and offers some good comic relief. I also like Mrs. Cab, the designated person with the prophecy (but with how many eyeballs she has in her house, she might as well have a prophec-EYE (kudos if you get that reference)), but she doesn’t get much screentime. Book two introduces Renata Santiago, a cute demigod girl whose only personality trait is believing in Erik von Daniken’s alien conspiracy theories that are about as ancient as the Maya themselves at this point.
Normally, when I review these books series, I would discuss my thoughts on the final book in the last paragraph, since the ending is really important. But I’m gonna be honest, I lost interest in the story completely. When I had read book two, it was still new, so I had to wait for The Shadow Crosser to come out. And apparently, I just completely forgot a lot of the story. I know it makes me sound unprofessional, but that’s my honest experience. They kind of shoehorn in some MacGuffin (and these snarky twins) out of nowhere, while the characters spend a lot of time being all like “Oh my god the villains are so galaxy-brained what’re we gonna do!”
Final Verdict: 7/10
I’m sure that Cervantes put all her soul into this, but I don’t feel it. It’s even made me question whether or not I would still enjoy Percy Jackson if I reread it for the first time in over a decade! Honestly, I don’t know what The Storm Runner‘s many fans see in it. Like I said before, it does not give off a particularly fascinating impression of Mayan folklore. There’s no real harm in reading it, but I guarantee you that the Rick Riordan Presents I.P. has some way better stuff to offer (which I’ll get to when I get to it).
Sometimes, the title of a series is so generic and unremarkable that I almost feel like it’s a red herring. I ask myself, “It’s trying so hard to look boring, but does that mean it’s actually legitimately good?” That’s a gambit that I hoped would pay off when I read through The Adventurers Guild series, written by Zack Loran Clark and Nicolas Eliopulous.
A half-elf boy named Zed and a typical human named Brock are ready to join one of Freestone’s many Guilds. They are picked for the Mages and Merchants Guilds respectively; however, this series isn’t titled The Adventurers Guild for nothing. Alasabel Frond, the leader of the titular Guild, yoinks them right out of their respective Guilds and drafts them into the Adventurers Guild. Now they have to protect the world from monsters known as Dangers, and like true warriors, they get nothing for it!
The Adventurers Guild isn’t quite as generic as it looks (key words: “quite as”, but we’ll get to that later). They at least put some good effort into the magic system. Each element is tied to a specific spiritual plane (or something), and they all have a signature that Zed can detect. The writers also pull no punches when it comes to the Dangers’ designs; get used to tentacles coming out of faces and other areas. The prose is also all-around great, but V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic taught me that good writing and good storytelling are two completely different talents.
A lot of things irked me about The Adventurers Guild. One is that—like every modern fantasy and its grandma—there’s social commentary on a lot of bad -isms in society (none of which are commercialism). In addition to my problem with how heavy-handed it gets, The Adventurers Guild makes it unrealistic. And while I normally don’t mind a lack of realism, this case isn’t merely “Ooooh, magic! What is physics again?”; it’s a clash with the human mind itself.
You’d think that people’d get their sh** together to fight a one-dimensional evil alien threat to the whole species. And yet, the bad -isms are still in effect in the world of The Adventurers Guild! Every authority figure in Freestone tries to get Frond arrested because of sexism. And when a group of elves seeks refuge at the start of the second book, they’re treated with unconditional racism. It felt so arbitrary, that the bad -isms were only there for the sake of bad -isms. I’ll acknowledge that the hatred against Zed is justified to an extent. A half-elf warlock is what caused the Dangers in the first place, giving the whole race a bad rep. But that doesn’t excuse the cases of sexism or anything else, really.
Alright, alright. For the sake of argument, let’s just take the bad -isms at face value: a conflict in the story that needs to be resolved. But what is there to talk about? The thing with The Adventurers Guild is that beyond the social commentaries, the main plot really isn’t that interesting. Dangers are out there, go kill ‘em. That’s really it.
But it damn well tries to be different, that’s for sure. It succeeds to an extent in the two main characters, Zed and Brock. These two both have secrets that they keep from each other, and it’s all “Ooooooh” and stuff. Unfortunately, they have very plastic and flat personalities. The rest of the characters… are just as flat. They’re relatable, which—if you’re not anal about writing—would make them super-duper amazing and lovable. But besides the occasional dumb “kid-like” interactions they have with each during their down time, a lot of their dialgoue feels forced. For someone like me, who has grown to love narcissists like Senku from Dr. Stone, I couldn’t care less about the cast of The Adventurers Guild. I had to do ridiculous things like picturing a character as Lord Don’ator to not fall asleep! The third book does introduce a pretty witty new character, who exists for sarcastic comments, and shows up too late to offset everyone else.
And speaking of the third book, let’s talk about it in the least spoilery way possible. Remember when I said “beyond the social commentaries, the main plot really isn’t that interesting”? Well, that shows. Night of Dangers completely does away with social undertones and becomes a tedious slog that’s just as cliché as anything else, despite how the trilogy desperately tried to avoid it. The only saving grace is the admittedly enjoyable climax, but saying that it offsets everything else is a stretch. One character even deflects from the main issue super intentionally and it’s never explained why.
Speaking of intentionally, that word is everything wrong with The Adventurers Guild. Virtually none of it felt natural; each story beat was 110% deliberate. As much as having a plan for the narrative is good (in fact, it’s essential), you can’t plan literally everything. You need to have a stream of consciousness effect when writing, which allows some aspects of the story to tell themselves. And if you end up needing to pull something out of your ass, go back and edit earlier parts so that it has proper context. I can’t describe exactly why, but I just felt in my writer-brain that this whole series was… wrong.
Final Verdict: 6/10
The Adventurers Guild tried a lot of things, and it all felt flat to me. In the end, I have no idea what the takeaway of this series is. Is it that racism is bad, or that you shouldn’t keep secrets? Whatever it is, there’s definitely something out there that’s conveyed it better. While this isn’t the worst series on the market, it is still just about as bland as its name implies.
Escapist fantasy is often panned by critics and cynics as “childish crap for babies who want to avoid their real life issues.” But, you know, sometimes it’s important to just turn your brain off and stretch your neural legs in some fantasy world. The Map to Everywhere series, written by Carrie Ryan and John Parke Davis and published by Hachette Book Group, is just that; escapism at its finest.
On paper, Map to Everywhere is a pretty generic isekai. Marill Aesterwest is worrying about her sickly mother when she follows her cat to an abandoned drug store. In the parking lot is a magic body of water called the Pirate Stream, and she ends up going on a journey with a cool wizard guy and the unremarkable Fin to find the pieces of the Bintheyr Map to Everywhere. And even when they complete the it, that’s only the beginning.
If you couldn’t tell from the names I mentioned, the Map to Everywhere has a lot of clever word puns in it. It doesn’t stop at the words either; the multiverse of this series is one of the most imaginative that I’ve seen in a while. The Pirate Stream connects a whole mess of different worlds together, and they’re all very interesting setpieces, including an ice cap that’s so cold your breath will freeze into the words you say, and a sinking city that’s constantly reconstructing itself. Additionally, the Map itself is also more than just a couple of MacGuffins. The pieces of the Map actually have very meta functions, such as the compass rose finding other pieces, or the margins being able to hold impossible structures together.
The characters are also pretty darn good. I’ll get to Marill later, so let’s discuss Fin first. Fin is generic, but the authors twist the trope by making his genericness into a superpower; everyone he sees forgets about him. However, Marill doesn’t forget about him because… of love, I guess (their dynamic is my least favorite in the entire series). Supporting them is the wizard Ardent, shipwright Coll, and eventually the sassy Naysayer. But out of the bunch, my favorite character is Remy, introduced in the second book, City of Thirst. Remy is Arizona’s best babysitter, and she ends up tagging along on the Pirate Stream. She is the only other person who remembers Fin, and it’s simply because she’s a babysitter and not something as contrived as love.
The writing is pretty solid, with a lot of dynamic font style changes to represent different things. However, the multiverse of Map to Everywhere also shoots itself in the foot. While the setpieces are inventive and descriptive, sometimes they’re just too insane to describe in human language. One of the worst offenders is a place that has chunks of land literally getting sucked into a whirlpool, and the gravity fields there make Super Mario Galaxy look logical.
The multiverse of Map to Everywhere itself also has issues. Magic in modern fantasy often violates its established ruleset, and they end up expecting you to suspend disbelief because “it’s magic.” Map to Everywhere constantly tells you that the Pirate Stream behaves however it feels, and this enables the authors to kind of do whatever they want and get away with it.
But the biggest problem is freaking Marill! She’s not just generic, she’s also annoying. Her entire driving force in this series is to be able to cure her dying mother’s sickness, but her drive gets way out of hand. There are a lot of times where she argues with Fin over whether or not the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, and it’s as contrived as heck. It only gets more ridiculous in the final book, along with an additional Mary Sue stipulation, and ultimately solidifies how much I didn’t like her.
Final Verdict: 8.5/10
The Map to Everywhere is a flawed, but fun and corny fantasy romp that doesn’t overstay its welcome. It’s sure a heck of a lot better than stuff like Five Kingdoms! As long as you don’t require any insightful, intellectual life message to enjoy something, then there should be no harm in picking up the Map to Everywhere series.
Before I get into this post, I should remind you that J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter is one of the most popular franchises in the world. And popular means marketable. Therefore, many other authors have tried to duplicate the series’ success. Some of these Harry Potter wannabe cases have resulted in book series such as Keeper of the Lost Cities and The Unwanteds, which are only appealing on extremely superficial levels. But sometimes, a little touch of a thing called “thought” can actually give a Harry Potter knock-off some of its own merits. Let’s see if that’s the case with Holly Black and Cassandra Clare’s Magisterium series, published by Scholastic.
In the modern world, magicians select random adolescents to test for magic potential. Anyone who tests positive is taken to Magisterium to learn to fight the Enemy of Death and his Chaos magic. Callum Hunt is taught to fear Magisterium, and is compelled to throw the examination. But he doesn’t just fail; he fails so spectacularly, that he passes with flying colors, and it’s off to Magisterium for him!
As much as he’s told to resent Magisterium, it doesn’t take long at all for that Stockholm Syndrome to set in, for the school isn’t just “Hogwarts-again”. While it’s not as defined in terms of its layout, Magisterium at least has a well defined (and simple) system. The years are labeled Iron, Copper, Bronze, Silver, and Gold, in that order, which also happens to be the order of the books, making it easy to remember.
There is also the magic system: Fire, Water, Wind, Earth, and Chaos (spoiler, the fifth one is evil magic). It’s not very inventive, but it’s at least not like Keeper of the Lost Cities‘, “Hey, let’s have five billion different types of magic at once, because Sophie needs to be POWERFUL so that all the teenage girls will be inspired to be like her or whatever.” As you can expect, Chaos magic is the dark-type magic that can corrupt souls and junk.
The final decisive advantage that Magisterium has over the rabble is… that it’s SHORT! Hallelujah, holy shit! There are only five books in the series, at approximately 250 pages apiece, much better than Keeper’s “Lord of the Rings x10” length. This means that it can focus on just plot progression (i.e. what we actually care about), and not stuff like Keeper‘s stupid Sophitz Vs. Foster-Keefe drama, or Harry Potter‘s own #SaveTheDobbies subplot. And it’s actually a good plot to boot. The writing wasn’t the best, but it was at least enough to keep me wanting more.
Unfortunately, the short length also means that things end anticlimactically. Harry Potter had an epic final battle, involving so many characters that we’d seen since the very beginning finally duke it out with Voldy’s Death Pimps. But since the Magisterium books are so short, climaxes are here and gone. It’s not like Monogatari where they talk for so long that they forget to fight in the first place. There are battles, they’re just short and unceremonious. This also includes, sadly, the final battle, which I calculated to be around 15-20 pages in total. But hey… silver lining. Being short is still the better outcome.
In order to discuss the characters, I must spoil a reveal about our boy, Callum. This is a spoiler for the climax of the first book, so skip to the next paragraph if you don’t wanna read it. The thing about Callum is that he does not exist. At the end of book one, he is told that he is harboring the soul of Constantine Madden, who happens to be the Enemy of Death. This puts him through quite the moral conundrum; something that not even Harry Potter had to go through. Being the “bad guy” would seem to make him super unrelatable, since the kiddies want to project themselves onto the “righteous hero”, but he’s actually relatable in a different way, as he’s constantly suffering an identity crisis (typical of most kids as well).
We also have Aaron, who isn’t actually a Ron Weasely clone. Aaron ends up being a Makar, which is not the guy from Wind Waker, but instead the term for a Chaos magic user. The policy in Magisterium is “fight fire with fire,” as only another Makar can fight the Enemy of Death (I guess?). Call has to be his counterweight, which basically means that he has to make sure Aaron doesn’t get consumed (easier said than done).
The female lead is Tamara, and she’s basically Hermione, minus being smart. She’s kind of a typical tomboyish girl who doesn’t really have anything interesting going for her. The final main character is Jasper, who is basically Malfoy, except he actually becomes an ally after a certain point. But other than his frequent, unfunny jabs at Call, he’s not too interesting either.
In the end, the moral conundrum that they try with Callum falls flat. Sure, he has to deal with his whole crisis, but there’s always a defined antagonist to make him look good. Like I said in my review of Arc of a Scythe, not having a villain that the readers can sympathize with makes writing morally gray narratives really hard. Because of this, it never really feels like Callum has any issues whatsoever. I’ll admit that they do some stuff with Aaron later that’s pretty interesting, but it feels meh in the long run.
The only reason why there’s a moral conundrum is because Magisterium is run by twelve-year-olds. I get that it’s intentional, but it’s still dumb how the faculty are next to worthless. When Callum’s issue is inevitably revealed, at least half of them are like, “He’s a murderer, throw him in jail, arrgh!” with no hesitation. It makes sense for other students to be jerks about it, but the adults should’ve had a more rational approach because they’re… ADULTS. There’s also the policy on the Devoured, which is when a person gets too into their element. The Magisterium says that being Devoured turns you into a rampaging monster, yet EVERY SINGLE Devoured that appears in the story is WELL in control of their humanity. I get that’s also intentional… but that just makes it arbitrary.
Final Verdict: 7/10
Despite all its flaws, Magisterium is still the best Harry Potter knockoff I’ve read to date. The authors try some interesting ideas, but once again, it seems that teaching young’uns about moral ambiguity is impossible. No! Kids must be raised believing that there’s only one-dimensional good and one-dimensional evil in the world! Well whatever… Magisterium has decent entertainment value. If you were threatened at gunpoint to read through all of a Harry Potter knockoff, then pick this one.
I said in my 5 Worlds post that I haven’t had the best track record with Western graphic novels. But you know what, I’m still trying my best to understand the appeal of the medium. Today’s [hopefully not] victim is The Witch Boy series, written by Molly Knox Ostertag and published by Scholastic (the same publisher as Amulet… good sign already).
A boy named Aster comes from a long line of magic, demon-fighting wizards. The men of the family are good at turning into magic, the girls are good at literally everything else. Young Aster sucks at shapeshifting, but he happens to have a knack for girl magic. Too bad it’s forbidden.
The Witch Boy is an episodic trilogy where Aster hangs out until some conflict rears its ugly head, and thank goodness it is! If this was a stand-alone graphic novel, it would’ve felt rushed. While it does spend a decent amount of time setting things up, the plot suddenly kicks into high gear out of nowhere, and the entire conflict of the first book is resolved in a very anticlimactic matter.
It doesn’t get much better later on, though. The other two books, The Hidden Witch and The Midwinter Witch, are presented in a similar manner. There isn’t enough time to really grow attached to any characters before sh** hits the fan. Each of these arcs would’ve been two or three volumes in a manga. “They would be three or four volumes in a manga, because manga suck and waste time with filler,” you point out. That’s not an inaccurate point; I hate the stupidly long cavalry battle in Prison School as much as the next guy. But a truly good manga will give you the right amount of time to get immersed in the world and the characters in a way that feels organic.
To be brutally honest, I don’t think I would’ve grown attached to the characters even if The Witch Boy was three times longer. They’re all my least favorite character trope; normal human beings. And despite the series being called The Witch Boy, the titular witch boy’s entire arc is concluded in just the first book. The second and third books tackle the character arc of Ariel Torres. She’s better than Aster, but not by a wide margin. While she’s given the most development by far, there is a disconnect because it’s all from the perspective of Aster- an observer, so you never really get to see her tragic backstory in its full crotch-kickedy-ness (professional term). Maybe the series would’ve been better if Ariel was the main character the whole way through?
If there’s any character I disliked the most, it was freaking Charlie. She’s the embodiment of that slice-of-life equivalent of wish fulfilment fantasies: the magical, down-to-earth, hyper-supportive friend who just appears to “save” the depressed main character. In this case, she saves Aster in the first book, and Ariel in the second book, by just compulsively wanting to help them for an undefined reason. While it’s certainly possible for someone this compassionate to exist, it’s not likely- given how unstable most teens are- and as indicated in my Bottom-Tier Character Tomozaki post, I don’t think it’s a good element for a narrative.
I don’t feel like there’s any substance put into these characters, but that’s- again- a consequence of how short the whole series is. Also, like with the other Western comics I’ve read, you don’t get any monologue to really know how they feel. “Monologues waste time, like in those stupid battle shounen manga,” you argue. Again, in a bad manga, monologues can get excessive. But sometimes, it’s necessary in order to really get in people’s heads. “How about understanding basic human emotions and non-verbal cues?” Well, in that case, I’m sorry for not being good at social skills.
I get that there’s some underlying theme with genders, given the whole “boys do this, girls do that.” I don’t mean to sound ignorant, but as someone who had a My Little Pony doll for each of his LEGO sets, I couldn’t take such rigid labeling seriously, despite the fact that I do know it’s sadly commonplace. But due to Ariel’s priority over Aster, the series doesn’t even explore that theme in much depth to begin with.
In the end, my biggest issue- like with the other GNs I’ve read- lies in the artwork. I don’t really mind the simplistic, cartoony character designs, but I do mind the sparse use of motion lines. There are some motion lines, but they’re used for very trivial things, like hand gestures, and not during more urgent scenes, such as- you know- fighting a demon or something. “Use your imagination, you piece of crap,” you assert. Look, I read regular novels- which are almost entirely words- every day, and provided that the writing is good enough, I can paint a pretty vivid picture in my brain. The Witch Boy is targeted toward elementary schoolers, and going off of my experience as one, no kid would have the capacity to just “imagine” stuff with so little visual information.
My biggest issue with the art is how it’s used to tell the story, or lack thereof. I could’ve downed each volume in under an hour, but I took my sweet time and really tried to understand how the composition was supposed to, you know, work. But even with how much I stared at pages of this thing, I just couldn’t see it.
Like with other GNs, The Witch Boy uses half a page- or even an entire page- with a mere establishing shot. Otherwise, most panels are rectangular and arranged in uninteresting patterns. But the author at leasts goes a couple of extra miles; by changing the negative space around the panels to black when it’s dark, and by having “slime-shaped” panels whenever something eerie is occurring. Unfortunately, I still couldn’t get immersed in the story, its characters, or its world.
Final Verdict: 5.75/10
I didn’t enjoy The Witch Boy. I don’t know what it is, but trying to understand and appreciate these comics has been an absolute hassle for me. I exited my comfortable zone of Japanese culture and busty waifus, tried something unfamiliar, and it didn’t pay off. I’ll admit it, this negative review is entirely my fault. I apologize to the author for insulting something that they poured their heart into. Maybe someday, if I ever can enjoy a Western comic, I’ll come back to The Witch Boy, and realize just how great it truly was.
The U.K. has had a history of really popular writers: From William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens all the way through to the late, great Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett. So, is it any surprise that also-English Jonathan Stroud’s Lockwood & Co. series is fan-freakin’-tastic in every way? It was a surprise for me, actually. I read Stroud’s claim to fame, Bartimeaus, over ten years ago. I loved it at the time, but since I was an impressionable teen and a completely different person then, I didn’t expect too much out of Lockwood. However, I ended up falling in love with it.
Lockwood & Co. is basically a British (therefore better) Ghostbusters. A mysterious event called The Problem (it’s got a capital letter, so it’s a big deal- Discworld taught us that much) has occurred. As a result, ghosts have been popping up everywhere at the spots where they died in life. Fortunately, there are agents who investigate the sites that ghosts appear in and send them back to the other world by capturing their Source; a physical object that they’re tied to. This series revolves around the titular Lockwood & Co.: consisting of agents Anthony Lockwood, George Cubbins, and Lucy Carlyle.
The basic narrative structure of Lockwood & Co. follows the Harry Potter and Percy Jackson formulas: Self-contained arcs within each individual book, which all help build on the overarching plot that comes together in the final book. Each one makes our cast investigate some haunted sites throughout Britain in two distinct phases: mystery and action. In the mystery phase, they need to study up on the history of the area and the people involved in order to deduce what the Source could be. And in the action phase, they need to go over there and neutralize the Source.
Stroud’s writing talent makes this stuff really enjoyable. His worldbuilding is well thought-out, really keeping in mind how people would live everyday life with ghosts running around (and the rules are also very simple, unlike something like Keeper of the Lost Cities). He makes the encounters with ghosts genuinely terrifying and suspenseful. He’s also able to spend multiple paragraphs just describing stuff, while not making the pacing feel slow at all.
But in the end, the real Source of Lockwood’s greatness is in its cast of characters, and this Source cannot be neutralized. Lucy Carlyle, our narrator, is a tomboyish and proactive girl who gains strangely exceptional communication skills with ghosts. The head of Lockwood & Co., Anthony Lockwood, seems to be an aloof idiot, but when sh** goes down, he knows what’s up. George Cubbins is the comic relief guy, but he’s really good at researching stuff. Interestingly enough, these characters’ greatest traits end up playing into their biggest flaws. Lucy’s excellent communication skills cause her to empathize with ghosts, perhaps a little too deeply for what it’s worth. Lockwood, on the other hand, feels the exact opposite way, and there is most definitely a good reason as to why. George’s fascination with ghosts from a scientific point causes him to make some rather stupid and life-risking decisions as well. But despite their different viewpoints, their interactions- for the most part- are amazing. Stroud comes barreling right out of the gate with that nonchalant, sarcastic British humor. However, there is also some drama between the agents. While some of it made sense from a story standpoint, a lot of it felt sitcom-levels of contrived. A particularly sitcom-y development at the end of book three made me roll my eyes, and as a result, the fourth book, The Creeping Shadow, ended up being the weakest in the series for me.
Other characters outside of the main crew include agents from other companies, like Lockwood’s rival, Quill Kipps, and the salty spirit of a skull in a jar. There is also Flo Bones, Lockwood’s connection to the black market, and Holly Munro, who joins the agency in book three. Overall, this is one of the best casts of characters, of this genre, I’ve ever come across. Their chemistry is priceless, and it felt bittersweet to have finished all of their adventures. And best of all, no cringey romance!
Final Verdict: 9.5/10
This is one of the best pieces of non-Japanese literature I have ever read. From its strong writing, to its amazing cast, to its British humor, Lockwood & Co. is an underrated treat. If you love Ghostbusters or Goosebumps, then I daresay that this is a must-read. Otherwise, I highly recommend it to anyone who just wants flat-out, high quality literature.
Have you ever read a YA novel, like… Daughter of Smoke and Bone, for instance, that promised to be super dark and angsty with a badass, proactive protagonist, and then suddenly broke that promise like Link smashing an urn in somebody’s house? Well, I had that experience with the aforementioned novel and many others. Astonishingly enough, The Thickety, a children’s book series published by Harper Collins and written by J.A. White, is angstier than most YA authors could dream of writing. And here, I’ll detail why.
In the series’ opener, The Thickety: A Path Begins, Kara Westfall’s mother gets burnt alive for allegedly being a witch. Good ol’ Disney formula. However, village chief Fen’de Stone made a good call, for Kara’s mom actually WAS a witch. And one day, Kara finds her mom’s old grimoire, and it enables her to manipulate creatures from the forbidden forest known as the Thickety, which is the home of Sordyr, who is some tree demon man. The catch is that not only does she have to keep it a secret from everyone, but it also eats away at her soul for every spell she uses. Lovely.
While this sounds like a generic YA power fantasy, The Thickety is executed exceptionally well. The big thing is how the premise of the grimoire system is handled. Throughout the first book, you see firsthand what happens when you cast a grimoire’s Last Spell (which, spoilers, is something you don’t want to do). To compare The Thickety to Amulet, a similarly angsty book series which I didn’t like, that graphic novel- at least the portion that I read- never showed any visible consequences of Emily’s using the Amulet besides one other guy turning into a big monster thing. However, the scene was very unceremonious and the Amulet itself was never contextualized well enough to define any prerequisites for when it “takes you over” or whatever. Furthermore, Emily- like the Mary Sue that she was- seemed able to fend off the temptations ridiculously easily. Even if Emily might get taken over by the Amulet further down the road, Kara really struggles against the grimoire right out of the gate, and White’s writing talent shows that in full force.
The start of A Path Begins is rather slow, as is with most book series. Fortunately, once things escalate with the grimoire, it gets really intense and really scary. I was impressed by how disturbing some of the imagery is given the target demographic. And it only gets crazier in book two, The Whispering Trees, which is spent inside the titular Thickety itself.
The cast of The Thickety is its weakest aspect, but it’s by no means bad. Kara is a pretty generic YA protagonist, but fortunately, she’s not quite a Mary Sue. She actually has to deal with the consequences of the grimoire and her decisions. She’s an intentionally flawed heroine, but done right. And unlike most YA protags, she is actually able to kill in cold blood (gore warning, kids).
Taff, her younger brother, is my least favorite character by far. He’s the generic, rash and reckless adolescent male who goes through an underdog phase throughout the story. However, the aspect of him that I love- and probably the most important writing decision in the entire series- is simply him being Kara’s brother. With the male and female leads as siblings, there’s no romance! Her sisterly love for him feels more real than what most YA protagonists feel for their significant others, and without the cringey dialogues of those protagonists. There is Lucas, the designated childhood friend, but White seems to have gone out of his way so that he and Kara never get to spend much time together. Depending on your tastes, that’s either a godlike breath of fresh air or the worst news ever.
The biggest problem with The Thickety is that it kind of falls apart at the end. No… that’s too harsh. It really kind of fractures a bit. As much as I praised Kara’s struggle with the grimoire, that issue ends up being resolved rather conveniently at the halfway point. And after that point, Kara ends up devolving into a more YA-like, Mary Sue brat, while Taff- of all people- ends up becoming the voice of reason (wow, after saying how much better than Amulet this is, it suddenly BECOMES Amulet). Also, due to the pacing of the books, a lot of the setpieces in the latter half of the story kind of get glossed over. It also falls for the typical modern fantasy trap of “Yeah, I can put in this thing that hadn’t been contextualized before because magic!” in the fourth and final book (including a decently inventive but nonetheless existent use of time travel).
Final Verdict: 9/10
The Thickety, overall, is freaking incredible. Horrifying scenarios, tight pacing, and powerful prose bring an otherwise cardboard cutout fantasy series to life in full throttle. Although the author arguably cops out at the end, it’s nowhere near long enough for that portion to feel like a drag. At the very least, all plot threads get resolved in some way, which is something. I highly recommend it for someone who’s looking for fun, suspenseful, gritty fantasies.