Blood Like Magic: A Family Drama With a Cyberpunk Twist

I don’t consciously try to read books about racism. But when I began Liselle Sambury’s new series opener, Blood Like Magic, I was greeted with a disclaimer that basically said: “This book is about racism.” Well, let’s see how soul-grinding this one is.

In Blood Like Magic, families of witches get magic by having their periods (and Westerners think anime should be banned?). A young’un named Voya Thomas just had her period, and the next step after that is to have her nigh-impossible-to-fail Calling. Assuming you’ve had experience with urban fantasy before, what do you think happens when it comes to the main protagonist attempting some sort of magic test that everyone else in the world could do just fine? If you think Voya fails, you’d only be half-right. She calls Mama Jova, who—of course—happens to be the Dark Souls of the Thomas family.

So, the disclaimer at the beginning implies that Blood Like Magic is even more heart-rending and brutal than any other urban fantasy out there. It’s not. There is one scene (arguably two?) where racism is referenced at all. The scene in question is brutal, but it’s extremely out of left field. The reason for it is because Blood Like Magic is set twenty-eight years in the future, and in this future, racism isn’t that prevalent. Voya says that she has never been called a racist slur, nor conditioned to feel ashamed of being Black.

However, the book is still—to some extent—about racism, or at the very least, the fancy term known as “systemic racism.” Despite it not being in-your-face like in Legendborn, it still abounds in society itself. An example is showcased by NuGene, a big genetics company with a lot of weight in society. Apparently, if your genetic code implies that you might have a violent personality, you’ll be treated like a serial killer without even committing any crimes (or something), and this just so happens to be more punishing when it comes up in a Black person. The company’s employees insist on doing the whole “use gender identity at the end of their names” thing, but it turns out they’re hypocritical homophobes, which is shown when Voya’s transgender cousin is given the wrong set of chromosomes in their official record. 

The cherry on top is that Voya, as narrator, still uses those same race labels, despite the fact that they should be archaic given the context. In a way, Blood Like Magic more cynical than any other books of its kind. No matter how much progress we make, those in power won’t change. In that way, Blood Like Magic has left me emotionally distraught not in the moments of reading it, but when reflecting on it afterwards.

ANYWAY, let’s discuss the actual story! If you’ve read a YA novel, Mama Jova’s task will seem straight out of the edgiest urban fantasy ever: Voya must kill her first love. Fortunately for her, she joined a gene-matching program by the aforementioned NuGene, and was paired with Luc Rodriguez, the sponsor son of NuGene’s CEO. Of course, they hate each other as soon as they first meet. Key word: “first”.

After being given her task, Blood Like Magic becomes part-romcom, part sci-fi mystery as she juggles a classic tsundere relationship with Luc, and this weird stuff her family’s been hiding from her. It’s balanced surprisingly well, especially since YA novels this thick (just under five hundred pages) tend to drag. I read it with my butt clenched waiting for that inevitable conspiracy to be revealed.

Normally, I’d criticize the characters, but this time… I don’t actually hate them even though I should. By themselves, pretty much everyone is either unremarkable and/or very snarky. But together, their chemistry made them among the more tolerable YA casts I’ve seen. I loved Voya and her cousin, Keis, bouncing witty remarks at each other, or Granny—who basically runs the Thomases—asserting her absolute authority. Even what would be a cringe-inducing, formulaic tsundere relationship between Voya and Luc ends up seeming more legitimate and believable than “I hate you! I hate you too! *Proceeds to viciously make out*”.

Despite all its novelty, Blood Like Magic still has a lot of those annoying YA tropes. If you guessed that Voya falls in love with Luc and can’t kill him, then congratulations! You’ve read at least one YA novel! At the very least, the story manages to play out in a way that’s quite unexpected for the genre.

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Final Verdict: 9.5/10

I’m probably wrong and off-base about a lot of what Blood Like Magic is trying to say. But regardless, the thing to be invested in is without a doubt the families’ relationships. And I use a plural possessive noun because I don’t just mean the Thomases; I’m referring to their relationships with each other, as well as with the other witch families. Overall, I’d recommend Blood Like Magic just for the emotional story of Voya’s family.

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.

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.

Dual Alter World Continues to be One of Japan’s Most Underrated Prog-Metal Bands with their World Distonation EP

One of my first posts ever was introducing three new voices in Japanese music from 2019, with a very underrated metal duo aptly named Dual Alter World being one of them. Personally, I’ve changed a lot since that post; I cringe at having been a Queensrÿche OG lineup purist, now that I’ve grown to like the current lineup in its own way (which is why I’m NOT posting a link to the old post *shivers*). Also, Dual Alter World really isn’t that much like Queensrÿche. My tastes have expanded so much since then, that I now have a better idea of how to describe their style. So now, let me rectify what I said before by reviewing their new EP, World Distonation.

For those who don’t know what this band is (which you probably don’t because these bands don’t like marketing), Dual Alter World (henceforth known as DAW) is kind of a poppy prog-metal band that formed in Japan in 2019. I don’t know much about the members’ backgrounds, except that lead vocalist Kotori Koiwai is a voice actor, and the guitarist—simply named Ryu—is a veteran of the trade, having been in a band called Blood Stain Child, which dates back to the 1990s. DAW’s debut album, Alter Ego, was a concept album about an android (I think?) and it was actually really good and underrated. Think of Amaranthe meets Dream Theater and you’ll sort of get an idea of what DAW is like.

World Distonation has the same electronic metal style as before, but more refined. It also seems that the weird “futuristic record scratch” synth effect (whatever it’s called) is going to become a staple sound in their music. There is still that poppiness in their choruses, but the vibe is way more prog this time. They even went as far as to hire other voice actors to narrate and sing with Koiwai. I don’t know all of them, but people would definitely recognize Asami Imai, the voice of Best Girl Kurisu from Steins;Gate.

I really can’t say much more, other than World Distonation is really good, even more so than Alter Ego. Not only do you have your usual narration tracks, but they also have narrated bits at points in the actual songs. I have no idea who has the creative input here, but whoever it is knows what they’re doing. They’ve really been going all-out. 

It’s just a real shame that they don’t seem to be that big, even by “under the radar” standards. For starters, the official hashtag for them cannot be typed on a non-Japanese keyboard; it’s in hiragana, followed by the letters DAW. I know most Japanese labels don’t seek out international fans, but that’s just excessive. Also, the fact that this is probably a side project means that I have no idea how long it’ll last. From what I could glean of both members’ social media, they seem to act like DAW doesn’t even exist until a new release is announced. This could be their last album, or just the beginning; that’s the risk with following a young band like this.

Another big issue that only pertains to non-Japanese fans is the language. Normally, music itself is universal and transcends language. However, DAW’s albums aren’t just both concept albums, but possibly part of a linear story; the only other bands I know that do that are Gloryhammer and Dark Sarah. Concept albums are very heavily reliant on the lyrics, and without being able to know what they’re saying, DAW becomes a very hard sell. 

Overall, if you can at least appreciate the effort they put in, World Distonation is an incredible EP. Dual Alter World is a great little band that doesn’t get the traction it deserves, and probably never will. If they were more popular, there could even be an anime adaptation based off these albums (as if adaptations of concept albums have never failed before). I recommend checking them out, especially if you can fluently understand Japanese.

Back to Usual Shenanigans – SAO: Moon Cradle Arc Review (Volumes 19 and 20)

Volume 18 of Sword Art Online marked the end of the massive Alicization Arc. Now, we can finally go to a new arc, in a new wor- wait, why is there a map of the Underworld inside volume 19? Oh my God. Of course… This is Kawahara. We can’t go to a new proper arc without some filler in between! This review covers the two-part filler arc: Moon Cradle.

Moon Cradle is set during the two hundred year time period that Kirito and Asuna are trapped in the Underworld, after they beat up Vecta and Poopoo (Laughing Coffin guy), and turn Alice into an android (or something). Everything’s all well and good, until a goblin is accused of murdering a civilian. It’s up to detective Kirito once again! After all, he’s solved a whopping one other mystery in his life; he’s perfect!

The first volume is basically figuring out who the murderer is, and the second volume is catching the booger. Like other SAO filler arcs (besides the Asuna one), Moon Cradle is incredibly boring. Furthermore, Kirito and Asuna get free plot armor, since we’ve SEEN them return from the Underworld in the previous volume. He also showcases more of his OP-ness from scenes like being able to force open a Vecta-only door with no problem. 

The characters don’t get much better either. Sure, Kirito and Ronie (who’s role in the Alicization Arc I completely forgot) get to spend some time together, but it’s more so a kick in her crotch, since Kirito and Asuna will always be THE couple. But hey, at least Kirito is as “good” and “inspirational” as he always is (*proceeds to wretch*).

And similar to most of SAO, despite the urgency of the situation (which ends up escalating to both a murder and a kidnapping), the characters find some time to goof off. “Should we solve this mystery?” “We should, but I think we should have a picnic lunch first!” This is almost Log Horizon level of characters actively choosing to not advance the plot. 

But the term “advance the plot” is applied loosely here. Most of the investigation is them discussing the nuances of the Taboo Index over and over and over again. And the one time they do something investigative, they just whip out some magic that allows them to witness the crime as it occurred! At this point, I’ve lost all knowledge (and care) of how the magic system in the Underworld works, so if you can prove whether or not the spell they did was possible within the world’s logic, then have at it and explain it to me in the comments section.

To end off the arc is a less-than-stellar climax. It builds up to the possibility of a team of two women fighting the bad guy, which would have been a nice change of pace. I say “would have been” because Kirito shows up right at the end and takes all the credit like the scientists who stole that one lady’s discovery of DNA. The actual conflict isn’t even resolved, and Kawahara even points that out himself in the afterword. But despite this, he’s chosen to start a completely new arc because… reasons?

Verdict: 5/10

Alicization was the first remotely descent arc in SAO, and now we have this. I’m sorry for being so rude, but I was seriously, lividly tired of that blasted Underworld! Well, it’s over now. So let’s hope beyond hope that Unital Ring is even worth half the pain of putting up with everything that leads up to it!

No Guns Life First Impressions (Volumes 1-5)

An unspoken tradition in the world of anime and manga is to make things into guns. Swords are among the first weapons to become guns, for example. Even Western anime like RWBY honor the tradition by turning scythes, boots, and even suitcases into guns. Honestly, it’s surprising that it took until the manga No Guns Life, published in English by Viz, to turn an entire person into a gun.

In No Guns Life, people get all kinds of augments. The people with these augments are called Extended. Juzo Inui is so Extended… his freaking head is a gun! Although there is no war, things are not safe in the city, and he does all sorts of odd jobs to get by. But one fateful day, a dude hires him to protect a child named Tetsuro Arahabaki. Turns out that the dude was being remote controlled by Tetsuro due to a special ability called Harmony. Because of this, the megacorporation known as Beruhren tries to climb up Juzo’s ass. But that doesn’t matter; if the client pays, he’ll do the job.

At first, it seems that No Guns Life is a typical “cyberpunk starring a hard-hearted war veteran who was used as a tool, is outcast by society now that he’s obsolete, and is sucked into a massive government conspiracy while he comes to terms with his past and makes us wonder what makes us human”. And, well, that’s because it’s just that. Like Levius, there really isn’t anything particularly special about the manga in terms of ideas.

Fortunately, it does have a good sense of momentum. So far, No Guns Life has behaved similarly to Ghost in the Shell, where we observe Juzo take on various jobs, each of which tells us a little more about the world and the overarching story. The plot is engaging, and full of intrigue, even if it’s all stuff we saw in every piece of cyberpunk media ever published. 

Unfortunately, its cast is not too special. Juzo is the most likeable by far; he’s that nonchalant bad-ass type. There’s a number of parts where he gets livid just for someone messing with his favorite brand of cigarettes (as a small side note, there is a chance that the fact that it is implied that his smokes are essential for his Extended body to function could be interpreted as the manga endorsing substance abuse. But I’m the last person who wants to be “that guy” so I’ll leave it to your discretion). But other than him, we have some typical cyberpunk tropes. Tetsuro is basically a shounen protagonist disguised as a supporting character, and his personal engineer, Mary, is the sisterly figure who exists to tune him up while sometimes being a waifu.

The antagonists aren’t much better either. If you couldn’t tell from the rundown of the premise, Beruhren is the typical evil, monopolizing conglomerate that “symbolically represents Apple and Google and their massive conspiracy to take over all our personal data and allow the world to be controlled by Chinese censorship since they’re the biggest market in the world and all they care about is money” (side note: I’m being sarcastic and I personally don’t believe any of that). There’s also the organization, Spitzbergen, that is against the Extended (and guess what: they use Extended to kill other Extended which represents “the hypocrisy of the government and/or every organized religion”). And as far as individuals are concerned, at this point they’ve mainly been war veterans who got all cuckoo as a result of PTSD which “represents what Juzo could potentially have become which makes them morally ambiguous for some reason”.

At the very least, No Guns Life has great art. It has a rough style, with plenty of action. Even if the antagonists are lackluster, they at least have some legitimately creepy character designs. And speaking of character designs, Juzo definitely stands out as a protagonist given his unique head shape.

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Current Verdict: 8.4/10

I hate saying this as a sci-fi fan, but cyberpunk has definitely lost its luster since the 1990s. At the time, sure, it was cool to be like “Whoa, what if we’re living in a simulation?” or, “Does pimping ourselves up with machinery make us no longer human?” But now, in this day and age, questions like that are about as cliche as a hentai protagonist being popular among cute girls. Despite how much the genre brings to the table, it’s deceptively restrictive. Personally, I believe that sheer entertainment value is all that cyberpunk has left in terms of appeal, and No Guns Life delivers (took me long enough to get to the topic at hand). I recommend it to any cyberpunk fans, as well as edgelords who think having a gun-head is cool.

Levius/est First Impressions (Volumes 1-3)

PREFACE: This manga is a sequel series. As such, there will be unmarked spoilers of vanilla Levius in this review. Click this link to read my review of Levius if you are interested in this franchise.


The sci-fi boxing manga, Levius, proved to be a hidden gem. With its cyberpunk themes, and phenomenal art, I was hooked from start to finish. But the story’s only just getting started. In Levius/est (published in English by Viz), we get into the real meat and potatoes of Levius

Set a year after the titular character’s battle with A.J., both people are hospitalized. But that’s the least of their issues; the return of Amethyst has caused a huge change in the world at large. War is on the verge of breaking out, and as a result, steam technology is banned… except in the Mechanical Martial Arts Ring. As such, whoever wins the Grade 1 bracket that Levius is now in… gets to decide the fate of mankind.

Right off the bat, Levius/est gives us much more context for, well, everything than the original series ever did. In addition to starting off with a more detailed flashback of Levius’ tragic backstory, we also get an explanation of how the steam technology actually works, as well as more information about the war. It helps flesh out the world of Levius a lot, and it’s very appreciated.

But as far as boxing goes, the first couple volumes of Levius/est are in the designated “drama” segment that comes before a lot of the fighting. Fortunately, this gives us a big chance for some major character development on Levius’ part. But sadly, this doesn’t really help offset his trope-ish, “dark and disturbed” personality. 

Sadly, the other characters aren’t so great. Zack is still the same old drunkard. Meanwhile, A.J. ends up becoming a classic amnesiac (which, thankfully gets resolved pretty quickly). There are some new additions, one of which is arguably the worst character in the series: Natalia Cromwell. I don’t remember if they foreshadowed her, but she’s apparently Levius’ childhood friend, who gets taken in by Zack, and wants to become an M.M.A. fighter like Levius. If you couldn’t tell, she loves him, and gets friendzoned. While she’s cute as all heck, her personality adds a lot of out-of-placed humor to Levius/est, and also forms a rather annoying love triangle between herself, Levius, and A.J. 

Another new face is Oliver G. Kingsley, the current champion of the M.M.A. Since he’s the champ, he’s incredibly important in the overarching narrative of Levius as a whole. But as far as personality is concerned, he’s a pretty typical “boxing champion”, i.e. a jerk. The real clincher, however, is that we finally get to see A.J.’s brother in action. And as you can expect, this helps launch the story into high gear.

As to be expected, the art of Levius/est is fantastic. The fights are spectacular, and the closeups are wrought with sheer emotion. The panel flow makes it fun and engaging to read as always, despite the reverse order of the pages. 

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Current Verdict: 9/10

I sounded like I was complaining a lot, but honestly, in terms of sheer entertainment value, Levius/est is looking to be the best cyberpunk manga since Battle Angel Alita. Sure, it’s edgy, and has some bland characters, but the series as a whole oozes a unique personality that makes it stand out. I recommend it to any boxing and cyberpunk fans.

Levius Manga Review

Boxing narratives are all well and good, but they kind of tend to be the same. The main character loses, trains, gets told by several peers that he’s killing himself, trains anyway, manages to beat the bad guy with sheer force of will, then lather, rinse, and repeat until the fanbase is tired. But can some cyberpunk overtones make it a bit more interesting? Let’s find out in the short manga, Levius, published in English by Viz.

In 19th Century… somewhere (lol I don’t actually know), the titular Levius Cromwell is constantly haunted by the scars of a cyber war, which resulted in his mother ending up in a coma. For reasons that are a combination of him wanting money to fund her recovery, mysteriously seeing her as a child, and the organization that caused her coma being involved, he takes up mechanical boxing.

It’s a bit hard to follow at first because it takes a while to get acclimated to how the world is, but overall it is as straightforward as boxing gets. Fortunately, it doesn’t beat around the bush, and starts the story off with Levius at the second highest grade of boxing. He also gets a head start to enter the highest grade once a famous boxer from that bracket passes away. The fight to see which person enters that bracket is basically the entirety of Levius.

Of course, it’s not that simple. Remember that organization I mentioned? It’s called Amethyst, and its people are quite mean. They create some emotionless cyborgs that specialize in killing. As expected of a boxing narrative, Amethyst is a pretty one-dimensional evil organization for the time being. 

And the characters, sadly, match that description as well (the one-dimensional part, to be exact). If you’ve seen Rocky, you’ve seen the cast of Levius already. Levius is a typical, brash boy who’s AAAAANGRY at Amethyst and SO AAAAAANGSTY all the time. His uncle, Zack Cromwell, is the coach who constantly tells Levius to not kill himself. The female lead is an Amethyst machine: A.J. Langdom. She’s a cute girl who’s been heavily modded, and basically serves as a damsel in distress. The main villain, Dr. Clown Jack Pudding, is literally Battle Angel Alita’s Desty Nova cosplaying as Final Fantasy VI’s Kefka, and he’s pretty great. 

The art for Levius is rather unusual. First off, the manga is published backwards (forwards in a Western sense). “CENSORING JAPANESE CULTURE, IN 2020?! TRIGGERED!” you exclaim. Look, I have no idea what the factual reasoning is, but according to a comment on Viz’s page for Levius, it was actually published backwards in Japan as well because it’s supposed to be set in the U.S.? I don’t know… But regardless of the direction, Levius is a manga through and through. The panel composition is still what you’d expect for a battle manga, so you don’t have to worry about it being too Westernized.

But it’s not just the format that’s unusual, it’s the actual drawings, too. Levius has a very sketchy and gritty style for a sci-fi manga, even more so than Attack on Titan. For what it is, it looks fantastic, with great action, and phenomenal close-ups. The color pages are also amazing as well (PS: nudity warning, by the way).

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Verdict: 8.75/10

It might not be wholly original, but Levius is a pretty solid read. But notice that I don’t have “Full Manga Review” in the title or “Final Verdict” in this section? In case you haven’t noticed, Levius was not axxed; no, it’s only just beginning. There is an ongoing sequel, Levius/est, and I am hyped to read it. For now, I recommend Levius to fans of boxing, battle shounens, cyberpunk, and steampunk.