Ballad & Dagger: We Don’t Talk About San Madrigal

If you’re reading this post, then that means I have managed to complete the first YA novel published under Rick Riordan Presents: Daniel José Older’s Ballad & Dagger. But before we begin, we need to talk. No, I’m not breaking up with you! Anyway, the past two years have been really rough for me. COVID tore us apart physically, and the murder of George Floyd followed up on the mental side of things. The latter is what really broke me. Since his unfair death, some very influential, and politically extreme, individuals have been on a steady growth rate. And only a couple of months ago, I began to realize that almost my entire world—both I.R.L. and online—have been viewed through a lens provided by the political party that those aforementioned individuals follow. My parents insist that the followers of those people are few and far between. However, if they are really so few in numbers, how have they nonetheless influenced virtually every aspect of Western pop culture for the past two years? From South Park doing pandemic episodes, to childrens’ picture books teaching today’s generation how to be woke, the biggest conglomerates in the world now lick the boots of those people, regardless of their quantity. While I am struggling to comprehend life as I now understand it, one thing is certain: Ballad & Dagger will more than likely be the last novel of its kind I ever read.

In Ballad & Dagger, Mateo Matisse is a starving artist who just wants to play the piano. Sadly, fate has other plans for him. On a very special night for his little community in Brooklyn, someone announces that the long lost island of San Madrigal, where said community originated, will rise again. All it needs is the children who contain the three founding spirits’ souls. Naturally, Mateo is one of them. Oh, and some girl murders a guy for some reason.

Refreshingly enough, racism isn’t a big theme in this one. Or rather, you’re not constantly bludgeoned with it. The most brutal aspect of Ballad & Dagger is the fact that San Madrigal sank like Atlantis. As a result, the three big families that make up Brooklyn’s Little Madrigal are not inhabiting San Madrigal, and you’re supposed to feel miserable for them. The word “diaspora” is a favorite in the book, because apparently, the idea that home is where you’re surrounded by the people who love you is invalid. 

In case you’ve read some of the action-packed books from Rick Riordan Presents, just keep in mind that Ballad & Dagger is more like Sal and Gabi Break the Universe, in that it is way more slice-of-life oriented than other installments. While trying to find the two remaining demigods, Mateo lives his normal life, hanging out with his friend, Tams, and the famous folk rocker, Gerval. Without the occasional blurb of supernatural horror, it’s easy to forget there’s anything supernatural in the book.

Things do ramp up in the second half, though. Sh** hits the fan, to say the least, and Mateo’s little community starts crumbling out from under him. A lot of the sequences are legitimately powerful. However, you have to put up with a lot of fluff to get there. 

My biggest problem was that I couldn’t connect to almost anyone. Mateo is one of two characters who felt engaging at all. As narrator, his feelings come in full force, and he ends up with quite a lot of baggage in the second half. The female lead, Chela Hidalgo, is the aforementioned girl who murdered the dude in the beginning, and she’s alright. She gets some legitimate character development, but is a pretty standard YA protagonist through and through. And yes, their transition from friends to lovers is as sudden as any YA romance novel (oh spoilers, as if it wasn’t obvious enough that a YA novel has romance).

Everyone else felt like a plot device. Tia Lucia was there to be the wise old lady, Anisette was there to be the political extremist b****, etc. Gerval plays a pretty pertinent role, but in the end, his character arc will feel very familiar to anyone who’s seen a Saturday morning cartoon.

Sadly, I must also criticize the book’s worldbuilding. Riordan’s blurb says that San Madrigal is “as real as Wakanda or the Shire or Earthsea”, and I don’t get it at all. All that is divulged of the island, back when it wasn’t underwater, is that people worshiped the three gods who get trapped in the chosen ones’ bodies. Sure, its history plays a role in the plot, but that’s about it for the actual culture, beyond what you see preserved in Brooklyn. There is also next to no folklore present, except for some ghost who’s just there, and these weird mutant things.

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Final Verdict: 8.5/10

I do respect and admire Rick Riordan. If it wasn’t for him, I might’ve never gotten my fetish for Japanese culture and folk metal. However, almost every time I read one of the Presents books, I am utterly flummoxed at what he saw in it. Ballad & Dagger is a great read by the second half, but there are so many urban fantasies that are more than just fifty percent enjoyable. I don’t really know what to think about it, but I do know that I’m pretty much alone in my stance. Maybe you’d enjoy it more than I did!

The Pandava Novels: Rick Riordan Presents’ Wildly Inconsistent First Series

Rick Riordan’s new publishing imprint, Rick Riordan Presents, is a great chance for other cultures to shine in the arbitrarily all-important spotlight of American popular culture. It all started with Roshani Chokshi’s Pandava series. Is it a good first impression, or is it a hollow Percy Jackson knockoff? 

The Pandava novels begin  when the titular Aru Shah accidentally releases a villain named the Sleeper from a magic lamp in her mother’s museum. Fortunately, it turns out that she’s the reincarnation of one of five famous Pandava warriors, and she’s gotta go on a quest to whoop his booty before the Sleeper makes a big mess out of existence itself.

The writing of Pandava is a mixed bag. While the dialogue is fantastic (well, it’s fantastic if you like nonstop mainstream pop culture references), the descriptiveness of setpieces is a bit bare-bones, even if the ideas themselves show some level of passion and creativity. The action is exciting, which is at least something it has over the Storm Runner series. 

The characters are where Chokshi put most of the eggs into the basket, and they’re great, perhaps comparable to Percy Jackson’s cast. While Aru is a bit generic, everyone else is a real hoot. Her Pandava sister, Mini, is hilarious, due to her infinite knowledge of ways that they could die. Brynne is the typical, hot-headed, older-sister type, but she’s got a plethora of snide remarks to compliment her muscle. Brynn, introduced in book two, is a tomboy with some decent one-liners. Unfortunately, the weakest link ends up being the final two Pandavas: twins named Sheela and Nika. They occasionally move the plot forward, but when it comes to legwork, they do virtually nothing (and also have no personality).

The character who really won me over was Aiden, introduced in book two. As one of two lead male protagonists, he is super nonchalant, and he never fails to snap a cool pic with his camera, Shadowfax, regardless of the urgency of their situation. The other guyfriend is a naga prince named Rudy, who is as funny as his love for himself.

Sadly, that’s where the positives end. Oftentimes I found some aspects of Pandava to be… iffy. For starters, I felt like Chokshi was more concerned about putting as many characters from mythos in Pandava as possible. I get the excitement of wanting to share your culture with audiences, but cohesion comes first. If I was writing a book like this, I would’ve come up with the story first, then used my research to figure out which characters from mythos could appear at any given time.

There are also many, MANY times that Chokshi infodumps the actual tale of the folklore character instead of, you know, actually giving them a real character arc in the story. In doing this, she also fails to use the reliable technique of making us fall for plot twists through justified lying by omission. At least two developments are easily telegraphed because she tells us literally everything about them all too soon. In context, it’s probably meant to be a cruel irony; a major theme of the series tries to be how these characters don’t want to do what legends foretell and end up doing it anyway. However, I feel like that’s simply a poor excuse to use a smooth-brain twist on par with a Saturday morning cartoon.

While we’re on the topic of the characters from legend, i.e. what’s supposed to make us interested in the series to begin with, let’s talk about how awful they are. They are like Rick Riordan’s trope of “gods who could solve the problem but don’t” on steroids. They’re not only cynical and mean, but I forgot half of them over the course of me reading this series since 2019. Also, where was Best Girl Kali? You’d think that someone as mainstream-savvy as Chokshi would use one of the more iconic Hindu gods, but nope. Apparently that, of all things, would be selling out.

Another flaw is that I felt like Pandava got heavy-handed. From book two onward, Chokshi tried an interesting take on the portrayal of the antagonists of Hindu mythology, and created a morally ambiguous story. While the attempt is pretty good, the problem was how the results were handled, if that makes any sense. Basically, what I’m saying is that there are frequent instances of the narration itself telling the reader what questions they should be asking instead of letting them figure it out from context. I don’t know if Chokshi or the editors or someone else made this choice, but it definitely was a choice that comes off as undermining the intelligence of children. I’m sorry, but that’s something I cannot stand. Kids might be “dumb” at times, but that’s because of the many adults who numb their minds (and give them social media accounts).

And honestly, I felt like it went downhill from there (hot take, I know). There is just so much padding thanks to these numerous “trials” that keep getting shoved down the kids’ throats. With each book, I just cared less and less. And yes, it persists into the final book. Not gonna lie, I only resolved to finish Pandava because I wanted to roast the series on the Internet.

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Final Verdict: 7.5/10

The Pandava series is… fine. It has good humor, sometimes solid writing, and a metric-ton of love for itself and Hindu mythology. It’s just not the awesome thing that Riordan and a lot of people say it is. Like, have I been reading an alternate crappy version of it? At times, it’s ham-fisted, conceited, and has some annoying, smooth-brain plot developments. It would’ve been a rock solid trilogy, but as a quintet, it’s a slog. There’s no harm in reading Pandava, but I feel like it’s overall a net loss of time. 

Anyway, with that, I’m off to Disney AGAIN! Next post will be on May 7th, and it’s gonna be a doozie!

Blood Scion: This Might be the Most Brutal YA Novel of All Time

Other than the amazing cover art, I honestly don’t know why I decided to read Deborah Falaye’s Blood Scion. Sure, I’ve read many books that deal with the topic of racism. However, with the exception of Tristan Strong, I can’t tell you if my glowing reviews of books like Legendborn and Blood Like Magic were based on the actual quality, or the guilt-stricken White man who’s tried to run from his American heritage his whole life. Also, I’ve been getting more and more into folk metal. Thanks to this sub-genre of music, I’ve begun to feel like these diverse books give off an understandable but grim rage and hatred that have caused me extreme mental anguish these past two years. Yet, here we are, with you reading my review of this book.

Why do I even bother going over the premises of these kinds of books? If you’ve read any of the aforementioned books, this’ll sound familiar: a girl named Sloane Shade is Yoruba, a race of innocent folk whose lives were turned upside down by the White supremacist Lucis menace. What’s worse is that she’s additionally a Scion, descended from Shango, the Orisha of Fire; Scions are an extra no-no in this world, and the Lucis do not hesitate to off them. She, like her mother before her, has stripped herself of her culture and heritage to keep her rinky-dink little village (and grandfather) safe from the Lucis, who tend to execute the relatives of those they deem criminals. And if it couldn’t get any YA-er, she gets drafted into the Lucis military to fight as a child soldier against the Shadow Rebels, who are Scions that refuse to hide. Cool. Might as well infiltrate their archives and get to find out what happened to her presumably dead mom!

Are people so P.C. that everything has to give a disclaimer warning? This is the third book I’ve read that’s done it, and the other cases came out in 2021 at the earliest. Anyway, if you couldn’t tell, Blood Scion checks off a lot of items on humanity’s laundry list of social issues that give me despair from the fact that they’re all still ongoing. In case you’ve never read a YA novel that deals with these issues before, let’s go over them thoroughly. 

The big one is racism. The Lucis persecute the Yoruba, and treat them as slaves. Some are taken from their homes to rot on literal plantations. This also technically counts as colonialism, since the Lucis are invaders who happen to have better technology. On top of that, we also have what I believe is called internalized racism, since the Yoruba have been brainwashed into hating their own heritages. There’s also mysogyny and sexual assault, since the Lucis are very much portrayed as rapists, such as one who tries to do such a thing to Sloane in the first chapter before he gets burnt to death by her power.

There’s also the child soldier thing. Yeah, that’s a bit messed up, especially since Sloane has essentially been drafted to kill her own brethren. Anyone who goes A.W.O.L. gets shot dead, plain and simple. Basically, it’s Divergent but harsher. The final cherry on top is cultural appropriation, which is shown when the Lucis queen, Olympia, is casually wearing Yoruba garb for shits and giggles.

Despite how fascinating West African culture is, I feel like a lot of authors who dabble in it paint a pretty bland picture. In fact, Tristan Strong paints the only picture I would call lively. Fortunately, Blood Scion isn’t “just take typical Western fantasy tropes and change the name” like a lot of other novels. There is a bit of a science fiction spin on worldbuilding, since the Lucins have electricity and whatnot, while the dark skinned villagers don’t have crap. *Sniff* Aaaaaah… the fresh reek of colonialism. Thanks I hate it.

Blood Scion is written as you’d expect any YA novel to be; verbose, full of adjectives, and in the present tense. It’s effective, but doesn’t at all stand out from its contemporaries, especially when compared to Xiran Jay Zhao. Nonetheless, “effective” means “effective.” Blood Scion sinks the dagger into your heart and twists for maximum laceration. Falaye hams in the brutality of how Sloane’s people are treated; a brutality that you don’t have to look too hard to find in the real world.

I thought that with COVID, the war in Ukraine, and this being the eighth-or-so book of its kind that I’ve experienced, that I would be desensitized to Blood Scion. Nope, that didn’t happen. I found myself overcome with the all-too-familiar, soul-crushing despair caused by White supremacy.

Despite how brutal Blood Scion is, it still has a lot of the tropes that occur when the main protagonist is sent to some kind of disciplinary facility to train in some form. In order to make an underdog story, Sloane starts out as a bad apple in a bunch of cosmic crisps. On top of that, we have the “impenetrable fortress” with the most convenient blind spots. It takes suspension of disbelief when they have spotlights, guards, and trained jaguars patrolling the place, yet they magically don’t get caught when sneaking out one night. Also, everyone and their grandma has smuggled some kind of weapon into the camp, meanwhile when they see Sloane they’re like “Oh my god, TEA LEAVES?! Nope, we gotta confiscate that.” 

The biggest flaw of Blood Scion is its cast, in that if you’ve read any YA novel besides Iron Widow, you’ve seen them all before. Sloane is literally Bree, Zélie, Rue, and Voya; yet, to my luck, she’s probably the weakest among them. Like many YA girls, she’s all talk and next-to-no walk other than random, arbitrary spurts of badassery. Like I said before, she gets pummeled in camp in order to make her an underdog. On the other hand, Best Girl Zetian would’ve just torched the place and been done with it. Sure, there is an actual stipulation in that Sloane can’t risk getting caught, but she still ends up using her power at least once, to save someone who just so magically happens to be Yoruba as well. Most notably—minor spoilers—there is no catharsis with her character arc, at least not at present since there is a forthcoming sequel and all. The training regimen is meant to strip kids of their humanity, and sadly, that’s inevitable with Sloane. I don’t even want to say any more about this, lest I puke.

On to all the other relatable and wholly unremarkable characters! Malachi is a bully who at least has a believable motive to hate Sloane; his parents died in a fire she caused by accident. However, all that does for him is make him a Saturday morning cartoon bully who is interchangeable with literally any YA male of his kind. Sloane’s supporters are relatable teens named Izara, Nazanin, and Jericho. Beyond their tragic backstories, they’re kind of deadweights.

Among the White supremacist Lucis, we have the somewhat human Dane Grey. He isn’t the most racist guy at camp; instead of killing Sloane, he just humiliates her instead. The rest of the Lucis? From Lieutenant Faas Bakker, to Queen Facism herself, they’re monsters, and I hate them. I hate them because they exist in this world, and are running it to the ground.

There is a silver lining here. Blood Scion really goes off the rails toward the end. Falaye legitimately caught me off-guard with a lot of developments, and pulled off things that I didn’t think any YA author had the gall to do. It also really showcases how convoluted the issue of race has become.

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Final Verdict: 9/10

Is this even an impartial score? Despite its flaws, Blood Scion was pure pain and suffering for me. It was full of such sadness and rage, and Sloane didn’t even feel like a particularly empowering character (although that could be because any YA protagonist other than Zetian feels like crap). In all honesty, I don’t even know if I have the mental fortitude to read the sequel, let alone any more books on this topic. Is this really supposed to help with racial healing? If you wanna try and find out, then be my guest.

Tristan Strong: The Only Rick Riordan Presents I.P. I Truly Love

I’m a big ol’ weeb, but even then, I acknowledge that West-African culture is no slouch. Disney’s Animal Kingdom introduced me to how beautiful and creative it is. Naturally, I would be all for reading Kwame Mbalia’s Tristan Strong trilogy, published under Rick Riordan Presents.

The titular Tristan Strong is stuck at his grandparents farm out in the boonies when a weird doll thingy steals the journal of a dear friend of his. He chases it, and ends up punching a tree, which releases a demon into the magical world of African folklore. Oops. Now, he has to find this dude named Anansi and fix this mess.

In every YA novel I’ve read, it felt like there was a PSA about how bad racism is on every other page. In Tristan Strong, it definitely rears its ugly head, but in a thoughtful and creative way, such as a living slave ship as the antagonist of the first book. And relatively speaking, that’s the LEAST brutal it gets! Book two deals in violent protesting, which was very impactful during its initial 2020 publication. The final book gets unapologetically brutal; it is straight-up nightmarish (I don’t use hyperbole, so I literally mean that word by definition). 

Going off of Tristan Strong alone, I’ve found African mythology to be one of the most interesting in the world. Tristan Strong really caught me by surprise. I get that there must be some creative licensing, but the African folklore assets felt like more than just “Oh, some gods of such-and-such element.” The implementation of it has more creativity and personality than any of the other Rick Riordan Presents books I’ve read. Anansi the trickster becomes a smartphone app, for example, and there’s a rapping vulture in book two. That’s only the tip of the iceberg!

If there’s any flaw, it’s that the cast isn’t 100% stellar. I wasn’t too big of a fan of Tristan himself at first, but after reading Legendborn, I’ve come to appreciate the fact that he’s got more to him than just the P.C. culture trope of “Hey, I’m Black! Love me or you’re racist!” He has a compelling character arc, a lovable enough personality, and one of the more unique superpowers in the Rick Riordan Presents imprint. Tristan starts off as generic, but he eventually has to deal with trauma and his own anxieties. 

Sadly, most of the other protagonists feel kind of there, such as female lead Ayanna. Most of the gods, while very cool because of how some of them are historical figures, fall under the Rick Riordan trope of being exposition dumpers who can’t do anything and leave saving the world to a twelve-year-old. There are silver linings, though. Gum Baby, the aforementioned doll thingy, is amazing. She’s sassy, sappy (literally; she vomits tree sap), and memeable. Of course, Anansi is a great supporting protagonist. I felt it fitting to picture him as Miror B from Pokémon Colosseum.

Most Black empowerment novels I’ve read had a cartoonishly evil White supremacist as its main antagonist. Of course, Mbalia can write a truly evil villain without having to grab us with an easy hook like that. Tristan’s foe is simply named Cotton. That sumbitch proves himself to be one of the deadliest in any Rick Riordan Presents book—scratch that—in any book with Riordan’s name on it; including Riordan’s own books!

Tristan Strong did to me what few other books I’ve read have done: moved me to tears. While other books are appropriately brutal, they never once made me cry. Tristan Strong did. At some point in the middle of the third book, I just put it down and sobbed uncontrollably for several minutes. It was a necessary meltdown, because Tristan Strong only scratches the surface of the real injustices that have occurred throughout American history.

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Final Verdict: 10/10

Tristan Strong is awe-inspiring. Although the first book can be a bit of a slow burn, the series as a whole is practically perfect. It’s so good that the other Rick Riordan Presents books don’t remotely compare. There is only one franchise of Western literature that I enjoy more than Tristan Strong, and I mean that literally. I highly recommend this trilogy for anyone who has the heart to care about humanity.

The Haunted Bookstore: Gateway to the Shallowest Shinto Portrayal I Have Ever Seen

This is another light novel series I really wanted to read. I mean, LOOK at that cover art. Also, the description implies that it’s stuffed full of Shinto folklore, i.e. my kind of jam. For the love of Amaterasu, The Haunted Bookstore: Gateway to a Parallel Universe had better be a banger!

In The Haunted Bookstore, an ordinary woman named Kaori Muramoto lives in an extraordinary place: the spirit world. Despite the title, our titular haunted bookstore is an establishment within said spirit world; it’s not actually a gateway TO it. She lives there with a cranky old oni named Shinoname, and helps all sorts of people. But one day, a weird exorcist boy named Sumei appears, and ends up lodging with them.

The thing that makes this inherently appealing is the commitment to Japanese mythology. If you’re knowledgeable about this stuff, you’ll see some familiar faces. And if you’re an American who’s struggling to find accurate research material for it, then The Haunted Bookstore has you there as well. 

Uuuugh, as much as I wanted to love this, I have to say “that’s about where the positives end”. Being a slice-of-life isekai, everyone and everything is super-grounded, and there’s never any reason to feel tension whatsoever. While this can be done well in certain (rare) cases, The Haunted Bookstore is one of those that “pretends” to have heightened tension with numerous action sequences that just aren’t exciting because, by nature of the subgenre, we KNOW that everything will have to turn out all fluffy in the end. 

The book also does a slice-of-life isekai trope that I hate: arbitrarily trying to wax poetic. One example is a side story where Kaori looks after a pair of cicada spirits who have a similar situation to Hikoboshi and Orihime, but in the form of dying and reincarnating over and over again. It’s supposed to make you cry, but… they just come back, so what’s the point of the feels? The universal theme of the series is a big philosophical question of whether or not humans and yokai can coexist. They make a big deal about it, but you just need to look at real life to know that it’s a ham-fisted thing. In the context of actual Shinto, humans and yokai live together whether we like it or not. It could be brushed off as a creative liberty, but it’s not like yokai have completely cut themselves off from humans in The Haunted Bookstore; in fact, there are plenty that live in the real world just the same. Also, I’m gonna have the gall to criticize a Japanese person for being inaccurate, but… the author categorizes jorogumo as a type of tsukumogami, which I’m pretty darn sure is wrong, since those are limited to household objects, while jorogumo is a spider yokai. 

The writing could also be better. For how enchanting the cover art looks, stuff is described with about as much heart as expected in a standard isekai; i.e. the bare minimum of what you could call a description. It’s a real shame, especially considering that this world is supposed to be the appeal of the whole darn series. 

As usual with me, the characters are what I really can’t stand. They are all boring. While they have some semblance of personality quirks, the subdued nature of the series means that no one can really express themselves in a way that has oomph. Kaori is kind of tomboy-ish, but she’s also super special and entitled for no reason, given her ability to live in the spirit world. Suimei is a garden variety kuudere; by living with Kaori, he’s forced to experience feelings for the first time in his life. Shinoname is a grumpy old man and that’s about it.

The characters from Japanese mythology were also not very engaging. No matter what their personalities are in the actual legends, they are all equally as dull here. Also, there were no kami present whatsoever. I feel like it would’ve mixed things up, but nope.

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Verdict: 6.5/10

What a disappointment. I shouldn’t have expected a straight-up masterpiece, but I at least expected something that wasn’t just as mediocre as a standard isekai, especially with the legitimately cool ideas at work here. It’s not the worst thing ever, so I’ll try to keep up with it. But to be honest, there isn’t much appeal with The Haunted Bookstore. At this stage, I wouldn’t even recommend it to a fellow weeb.

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.

Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard: Read it Before Ragnarök

Lately, I’ve been questioning my admiration toward Rick Riordan, the author of Percy Jackson, a.k.a. “The Storyteller of the Gods”. I read Percy Jackson over ten years ago, and needless to say, it helped me become who I am today. I would’ve never wanted to study Japanese culture to the Nth degree if it weren’t for Percy. But I haven’t reread Percy to this day. In 2017, I attempted to read Trials of Apollo—completely skipping over Heroes of Olympus—and I never finished it. With every Apollo book, I liked it less and less. Furthermore, I kept getting disappointed at the books published under the Rick Riordan Presents imprint; books that all had to get his seal of approval. With me questioning the tastes and talents of one of the most defining people in my life, I was tempted to do a Percy Jackson retrospective. However, that series is five stinking books long, and I had so much crap to do as it was. Instead, I turned to another series of his: Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard. It was only three books, so it was doable. Although Norse mythology is the second most overused template for fantasy worldbuilding, I at least had some vague familiarity with some of its more nuanced aspects, thanks entirely to one of my new favorite bands, Brothers of Metal. Without further ado, let’s see if I can like something by Rick Riordan!

In Magnus Chase, the titular character has been homeless ever since his mom died in a fire. After living in the slums of Boston, he gets your typical visit by a long-lost, mysterious relative. This time, it’s his Uncle Randolph, who tells him the usual: he’s the son of a Norse god. Magnus gets this fancy sword thing that’s been lying in the Charles River, but then he dies. He awakens in Hotel Valhalla, where he must join the other halfbloods on adventures.

Rick Riordan is at least good at jumping into the action. All that I just described happens in the first forty-seven pages, when most books would take almost a hundred to start in earnest. And like in Percy Jackson, you get acclimated to Hotel Valhalla while everyone there shits on him and his Valkyrie friend, Sam. As expected from Riordan, he does a great job of blending Norse folklore with the modern day in his own signature style. Riordan’s snarky sense of humor is also very prevalent.  

While there are a number of obvious similarities to Percy, Magnus Chase is a bit different. Due to the power of red herrings, it’s never clear who’s on whose side. All we know is that Ragnarök = Bad, and that some people want it more than others. Sam ends up being the daughter of Loki, who’s supposed to be the bad guy, and she gets ejected from Valhalla for bringing Magnus in. Is she sus and working for Loki? Is Loki sus? Whoooooo knooooooooows?!

In terms of writing, Magnus is actually not bad. Riordan is about as talented of a storyteller as I remember, even if I didn’t take the story as seriously as my younger self did Percy. I could easily visualize everything as it appeared, which most authors fail doing. One thing I noticed is how wordy the books are most of the time. Well, it’s kind of a thing I’ve noticed in most Western literature, and it kind of fascinates me for some reason. I know that flavor text can bring more life to the story, but sometimes it feels excessive. As an aspiring writer, my problem ended up being that my stuff was too short. I’ve taken inspiration from the 1952 adaptation of A Christmas Carol, which Leonard Maltin described as “understatement and restraint.” That’s why I try to not go for BS hyperbole on my blogs. Anyway, sorry for that tangent; let’s get back to the review.

Since middle grade books have to be dummy thick, Riordan does have a number of scenes that don’t seem necessary. I had problems with this in The Storm Runner and a certain other Percy-influenced franchise that I’ll be reviewing in the foreseeable future. Fortunately, Riordan at least has the ability to make the filler fun in its own right. Instead of dumb, arbitrary trials that tell stuff about the characters that we already knew, Magnus has more fun and varied activities, like fishing up Jormungandr and bowling with giants.

If there was another thing I could always trust Riordan for was his research. Readers are expected to recognize Thor and Loki (thanks to the M.C.U.), and perhaps Yggdrasil and stuff since everything in every JRPG series is named after Norse mythology. But me, I had Brothers of Metal. I recognized the Norns, Heidrun, and more. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t help me pay attention to the story when they come up. I know it sounds bad, but I couldn’t help it. A lot of the time, I was just thinking of this:

And I may or may not have come up with the post just to plug the band.

Like with more-or-less everything I’ve ever experienced, the characters—once again—don’t quite win me over. There’s nothing particularly wrong with them. If you’re familiar with Percy Jackson, then you’d probably like them just fine. But that’s the thing; they pretty much are Percy Jackson characters in every way. I don’t 100% recall how the Percy characters were, but at least going off of my nostalgic memory, the cast of Magnus is inferior in a number of ways. Magnus himself is that typical wish fulfilment character, with his initial homelessness as an added bonus. At least he’s appreciative of being whisked away to the lap of luxury, for once?

Sam is pretty much Annabeth, which I suppose is inaccurate, since Annabeth herself is actually Magnus’ cousin (apparently, every religions’ gods coexist in the same universe?). Basically, she’s a tomboy and has not much else going for her. Sam’s sibling, Alex Fierro, ends up packing much more sass. As the offspring of good ol’ Loki, their whole character arcs revolve around getting over their abusive pa. Magnus’ other main cohorts end up being Blitz and Hearth, a dwarf and elf respectively. They’re good dudes.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t fond of everyone. There are several other kids in Magnus’…  er… class(?), but they have no presence at all. They crap on him super early on, but they just suddenly stop doing that, and I can only assume Riordan did that initially for shock value. Even with more of a role in the final book, they feel like half-assed characters, especially by Riordan standards. 

The assorted Norse mythology characters, as expected, end up being the cast’s strong suit. They’re full of sass, as well as having the duality of being ancient characters who are in touch with the modern world (something that would lose its novelty if someone were to write a series based on Japanese mythology, since that duality is already part of their culture). Sadly, I was the most disappointed in Loki. SPOILER ALERT, the god of tricksters is—in fact—the main antagonist. While he is an entertaining villain, his role doesn’t exactly shed a new perspective on Norse mythology in the way that other series try with their villains (even if those books fail at the attempt). The only attempt in Magnus’ case is made towards the end of the series, where Loki just says the same old “there’s no real good and evil” schtick that I’ve only seen in stories that fail to actually convey that through context. I’m sorry, but wanting to jumpstart the end of days for no reason seems to be pretty close to one-dimensional evil, just saying. 

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Final Verdict: 8.5/10

I don’t think Rick Riordan deserves to be hailed as the Storyteller of the Gods, but he is a very capable writer (even if his references are pander-ously mainstream). Magnus Chase isn’t life-changing, nor(se) does it subvert Viking culture, but it’s nonetheless a solid action-adventure trilogy. It’s also taught me how shallow a lot of the Rick Riordan Presents books feel by comparison, where they merely seem to emulate what people find appealing in Riordan’s books instead of finding their own voices. I recommend Magnus Chase if you like Percy Jackson, or if you want an actually good urban fantasy for once.

Peach Boy Riverside: Not Your Grandma’s Momotaro (First Impressions, Volumes 1-3)

This was a spur-of-the-moment decision for me. Normally, I tend to have a bulk of blog posts ready to go well in advance. But at the start of this year, I really dropped the ball. I started a lot of reviews but had no intention to post until the respective series were finished, like The Owl House for instance. I decided to pick up Peach Boy Riverside for three reasons: it’s by the creator of Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid (even if the artist is different), it’s getting an anime that I can hope to ride the hype of, and it’s about the legendary Momotaro… to an extent. 

In Peach Boy Riverside, Princess Saltherine (henceforth known as Sally) wants to go on a journey, despite her overprotective dad. Fortunately, a pretty-boy named Mikoto shows up and sweeps her off her feet. The thing is that he’s someone who came from a peach, and killed a bunch of ogres (yes they localized the name “oni” for some reason). 

Despite how shoujo the manga looks, Peach Boy Riverside ends up being very shounen, and surprisingly edgy. It’s pretty normal stuff for the most part, but when Mikoto gets serious, he gets all “SAO-villain-y” and has upside-down hearts in his eyes. 

To be brutally honest, the manga up to what I’ve read has been a pretty typical shounen fantasy. It starts off with being completely aloof, then Sally is suddenly like “I’m going to end all racism!” The Momotaro aspect isn’t even evident, beyond the whole “boy who fights oni” thing. The world doesn’t feel defined enough to even tell if it’s an alternate Japan or a straight-up fantasy realm.

And, of course, I wasn’t particularly fond of the cast. Mikoto is the bread and butter of this thing, because pretty-boys are popular and he’s super strong. He is kind of an ass, which sets him apart from other men of his ilk, but that doesn’t make him any more remarkable. In addition to him is Sally, who is pretty much your typical power fantasy girl, and Frau, a bunny girl who’s basically one of those tragic waifus that you’re supposed to fry buckets for. Volume two introduces a female ogre who ends up being named Carrot after going through the whole shounen “from bad to good” thing, but so far, she’s merely been the peanut gallery.

The art, sadly, is not by Coolkyoushinja, but someone else who’s nowhere near as good. The manga has a very basic, standard look with very “stock”-looking character designs across the board. The action looks nice, but even that is outclassed by other series.

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Current Verdict: 7.35/10

Peach Boy Riverside isn’t awful, but it’s not that engaging right now. Mikoto being a creep, and the unsubtle social commentary, are more-or-less what this manga is running on, and it could peter out at any moment. I recommend it if you like TenSura, since Mikoto is the same type of character as Rimuru.

The Storm Runner Trilogy: Percy Jackson but with Mayan Folklore

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!” 

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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).

Avatar: The Last Airbender Full Series Review (Yes, this was my first time watching the show)

My whole life, I’ve lived with the baseless impression that Western culture- specifically that of the United States- looks upon Japanese culture with disdain. Part of this is from the factual translation and- in some cases- censorship issues that plagued Japanese media when it first came overseas (for example, the One Piece dub that shall not be named). For these reasons, I completely ignored Nickelodeon’s fantasy epic, Avatar: The Last Airbender, despite it being lauded for the past fifteen years- by devout anime fans- as a true bridge between Eastern and Western animation. Well, it’s on Netflix now. I have no more excuses.

The only thing I knew about this show going into it was its simple premise. Four nations, each of which control the elements of Water, Earth, Air, and Fire, have existed together just fine. Then- to quote the show’s intro- everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked. The only one who could save the world was the Avatar, but he apparently disappeared because that ALWAYS happens in these kinds of fantasy series. Then everything changed when the Fire Nation- I mean- when two Water Tribe siblings, Katara and Sokka, found a balding boy named Aang, and his- giant pet platypus?- inside of a block of ice. Spoiler alert, he’s the last Airbender, and he embarks on a quest to become the Avatar and beat up the prepubescent prince of the Fire Nation, Zuko (among others). It’s pretty simple, tbh. I don’t know why they need to remind you in every single episode.

I guess it was a precaution for any kids who came into Avatar mid-season, but since it follows anime traditions, it has to be watched in chronological order (I get that newer cartoons have similar continuity, but I’m pretty sure that no other cartoon at THIS point in time had a continuous story). Wow, that was all one sentence. Anyhoo, the thing that’s impressive right off the bat is the fact that a large number of kids were able to put up with Avatar as it aired. It takes two episodes for any real action to occur, and for a kid, that’s like a year. I definitely would’ve turned away if I had seen the pilot episode on launch date. But at the same time, DBZ and Naruto were also airing, so relatively speaking, Avatar had to have felt like a rollercoaster ride.

Enough rambling! Since Aang needs to know all four elements to actually BE the Avatar, he’s gotta go to the other locations and learn them all! As such, the show is neatly split into a single “book” (season) for each remaining element to learn. The basic structure of Avatar is to go from Point A to Point B, train in Point B until he learns the element, fight something, and move onto the next one. Simple, right?

No, actually, it’s not. Appa Airlines (patent pending) is not a very efficient transportation service. And as such, the crew needs to make a number of stops along the way. This results in some episodes being less-than plot relevant. I can imagine that this was done with the intention of meeting viewers halfway, by marrying both the episodic and continuous narrative story structure of Saturday morning cartoons and anime, respectively. Look, I get that something like this had never been done before, but the execution still results in a very unfocused narrative. Sure, some of these stops are worthwhile, either for actual plot relevance, or giving us insight on one or more of the characters. But much of the time, it’s a series of self-contained, uninteresting plots.

Like any fantasy epic, Avatar doesn’t fire on all cylinders right away. My expectations for the show were shot by the end of season one. I’d even say that season one was straight-up bad overall. Fortunately, once season two starts, the show gets significantly more involved, with almost every episode having legitimate plot relevance.

The key word here is “almost”. While the story does follow a more coherent narrative after season one, there are still blips of those Saturday morning cartoon trappings. Due to how much more infrequent the filler gets, it stands out way more when it actually decides to rear its ugly head. These episodes can contain cute interactions, but break the pacing of the plot, especially when they occur immediately following a super intense episode with a cliffhanger (btw, who was the GENIUS who decided to put one of these episodes IMMEDIATELY before the FINAL ARC?! (but for the record, it was actually a pretty great episode)). But you know what, I’ll take even the worst episode of this series over the entire seasons’ worth of filler from the long-running anime that had been airing at the time. 

I must say that the show’s worldbuilding surprised me a little. While I didn’t really care much about the lore, they do some cool, clever stuff with the elements. It’s simple enough for kids to understand, but flexible enough so that it doesn’t become repetitive. If there’s any problem I have with the world of Avatar, it’s the fact that the evil Fire Nation is likely to be based off of Japan (maybe my baseless impressions were right after all…).

My biggest concern going into Avatar was if I’d laugh at the comedic bits. After all, it’s been a decade and a half; our sense of humor has changed a lot, especially compared to the 2010s cartoons I’ve seen lately. Overall, I found the humor to be kind of hit-or-miss. While I acknowledged a lot of the humor as funny, I didn’t laugh out loud anywhere near as often as, say, Gravity Falls.

Another concern was that the cast wouldn’t be so great. I figured that it would take a while to get me warmed up to most of the characters, but I was afraid it wouldn’t be enough. While most of the cast did end up growing on me, the attempt wasn’t exactly as successful as with Gravity Falls or DuckTales.

I’ll admit that they did a good job making Aang conform to shounen protagonist tropes; he’s very aloof, and tends to let his body move ahead of his brain. Furthermore, the show consistently reminds you that he’s just a kid, and that he’s been forced to do something much bigger than what his bald head can comprehend. Conversely, the Western aspect of the show makes him fall for some of the sitcom-like tropes of cartoons, such as the classic “hears negative things from his peers, leaves the room, said peers immediately say a positive flipside to those negative statements, but since he didn’t hear that particular part, he does something stupid”.

The Water Siblings are worse. Sokka is the better of the two, since he brings the bulk of Avatar’s humor to the table, and is ironically the most rational of the group. But the biggest issue with him is how they handle his character arc. Everyone has their own shortcomings to work through, but Sokka’s issues feel the most arbitrary. The first big moment in his arc rides entirely on a ship that was intentionally built to sink, and it’s pretty uninteresting during the brief time that it stays afloat. I’m sure that Sokka must’ve felt like a pitiable, tragic hero to the ten-year-olds who all related to him back when the show aired, but once you get to my age- and more modern times- the telltale signs of a NOTP are too obvious to ignore. Fortunately, it becomes a non-issue by season three.

And Katara… I don’t know what they were trying to do with her. I feel like they wanted to make her into a tsundere, but had a hard time because they weren’t allowed to use ecchi in their relationship. I appreciate that she has multiple sides- from being an absolute b**** to a complete waifu- but overall, I didn’t really enjoy her company for some reason, making her my least favorite character overall.

If I was spoiled by anything in Avatar, it was the addition of a loli to the main troupe. I gotta say I’m impressed that they hit that particular anime nail on the head, since it’s more so a niche community trope than something prevalent in the mainstream battle shounen anime at the time. Anyways, said loli- introduced in season two- is named Toph, and she’s a real wild card. With sassy one-liners and the perfect height, Toph is easily the best of the main protagonists… at least after the others work out the major kinks with her at the start of their relationship.

Then there’s Zuko. Hoo boy. First off, I reaaaaaaally didn’t like how his voice actor portrayed him; I used the word prepubescent to describe him for a reason. As a result, I may be biased in my criticism of the boy. He beats your face in with his one-dimensional irritability. But me, I put up with Bakugo… so, I had a feeling that I’d eventually like him better over time. And that feeling was correct. By season two, there’s a lot of big turning points in his character arc that show he’s much more emotionally distraught than what it looks like at first glance.

Abrasiveness seems to run in the Fire Nation’s royal family. Introduced in season two is Zuko’s sister, Azula. She’s rude, but unlike Zuko, who’s misunderstood, she’s fully aware of it, and enjoys it. Azula also has help in Aang hunting with her buddies, Mei and Tai Li. These two have fun spats with each other, but other than a certain scene late in the series, they aren’t too remarkable.

I saved the best character for last. Out of all the characters, I grew attached to Zuko’s uncle, Iroh, faster than just about anyone else. Most of my favorite scenes in the series are, tbh, interactions between him and Zuko. He supplies some of the best humor, but he’s also great when it comes to being serious.

If there was one thing they got right when it came to anime, it was the following mindset: spend money when it counts. Similar to anime, a lot of the animation in Avatar is kind of lacking. But when actual fights are happening, it looks excellent. Battles are incredibly well choreographed, especially for a kids show, and they pretty much always use the environment in some way. I can imagine that parents got angry over this show when it was airing, and I probably would’ve killed myself pretending to be a bender if I had watched Avatar as a kid. The hand-painted backgrounds also have a weirdly nostalgic look to them. The biggest issue with the art style is that although the character design is memorable, it is a bit bland. They could’ve done a lot more combining cartoon and anime styles; in fact, a lot of manga out at the time- such as One Piece– did a great job in that regard. Oh well, it’s just a nitpick anyway. Overall, the show still looks great, even when watching it in 480p and 4:3 aspect ratio.

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Final Verdict: 8.5/10

It’s predictable. It’s corny. Its sense of humor is dated as all heck, and it spews sappy lessons of friendship just as about as often as any battle shounen series. But despite this, I thoroughly enjoyed watching Avatar: The Last Airbender for the first time (even if I must respectfully disagree with anyone who calls it one of the greatest fantasy epics of all time; One Piece is still higher up there). I must also give the team appreciation for creating what was perhaps the most loving marriage of cartoon and anime at the time. It must’ve been mind-blowing for kids watching this while it aired, since I’m pretty sure it was the first cartoon of its kind. As much as I don’t like saying America is better at something that originated in another country (what is this, Beat Bobby Flay?), I must concede that Avatar is among the better “anime” I’ve seen. I recommend it if you like battle shounen anime, and/or youthful, silly fantasy with a number of wholesome life lessons.