Wings of Ebony: I Can’t Come up With a Clickbaity Headline because it’s SO DARN GOOD

It takes a lot for me to pick up a YA novel. What compelled me to pick up J. Elle’s Wings of Ebony was not because of the main character being Black, but because the cover looked badass as f***, and the title wasn’t just “Noun of Other Noun and Other Other Noun”. The irony in my saying that is because I JUST SO HAPPENED to have read it during Black History Month, which I swear is a coincidence!

In Wings of Ebony, a girl named Rue is forcibly removed from her family through two methods. 1) Her mother is brutally shot to death, and 2) her dead-beat dad whisks her away to some magic continent, and away from her little sister, Tasha. Rue is—you guessed it—a special snowflake, who has magic genes and is the only Black girl on campus. You can probably imagine how things will play out…

…But you wouldn’t be entirely correct. I don’t normally go over character first, but Rue is what makes Wings of Ebony stand out amongst its massive ilk. She’s more-or-less unbreakable. Now, normally, when you have these YA girls who make like Melissa Bonny and be all “I Am the Storm”, they tend to break out into tears the minute something goes awry; just in time for the love interest to get them back into shape! That’s not the case for Rue, however. Ain’t no mountain high enough, and no valley low enough, ain’t no river wide enough! She’s fierce, angry, driven, angry, steadfast, ANGRY… Oh, and she loves Tasha. More on Rue later.

Another plus is that Elle knows full-well that we’ve seen this song and dance hundreds of times. As a result, she cuts out all the middlemen. The book opens after Rue’s first year in magic-land, with her having broken out to contact Tasha. Normally, this sequence would just be the first chapter; get us all confused, and then spend the bulk of the first book showing us how she got to her current situation via flashback. But nope, that doesn’t happen either. We get a few flashbacks, they’re all short and exist to introduce specific story beats when necessary. By cutting out all the stupid “high school drama” crap, we get right to the good stuff.

Unfortunately, nothing’s perfect, especially not in a YA novel. There are a fair number of grammatical errors and typos. I know that happens to be best of us, but it felt like there were more than usual. I also noticed at least one instance of an inconsistent character description. The n-word ends up presenting itself a lot, but Rue ends up being the one who uses it the most often.

Minor flaws aside, the writing in Wings of Ebony is some of the best I’ve seen in a YA novel. It’s fast, it’s impactful, and it hurts. It has a lot of the same clichés that most YA novels have, but the prose greatly offsets it. Even the death of some random red shirt has genuine emotional impact.

The characters are also some of the better I’ve seen in YA… at least for the most part. Rue, as discussed earlier, is a legitimately headstrong YA protagonist. At first, I thought she’d be so empowered that it would be pushed to the Nth degree. But don’t worry; she has a couple of breakdowns to show that she’s just a teenage girl. And these are real, necessary breakdowns, not the stupid “Oh my God, this palace is so luxurious! Trash like me doesn’t deserve this crap! Look at me I’m definitely not a self-absorbed brat!” which permeates most YA novels. Rue’s dad, Aasim, is also more than just the “lousy dad who abandons his kid so that kids with divorced parents can relate to the main protagonist”; he ends up being a pretty chill guy once you get to know him.

Unfortunately, that’s about it for the good characters. Most of the others are plot devices. Tasha exists to motivate Rue, some old lady from Rue’s neighborhood exists to hide Tasha, Rue’s wizard friend Bri exists to supply helpful gadgets, etc. The main antagonists are more-or-less your textbook racist White guys, and they don’t get any real characterization nor substance because we all know we’ll automatically hate them because racism.

And speaking of racism, the worldbuilding is perhaps the biggest disappointment. The secret magical continent of the week is called Ghizon, and it’s… there. They’re super racist against regular humans, the reason of which I don’t even recall being addressed. Furthermore, the big “secret history” of the place is extremely predictable through various context clues. I get that a lot of this stuff is meant to be this way for the sake of social commentary, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s been done about eight hundred times before.

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Final Verdict: 9/10

Wings of Ebony was a pleasant surprise. Luckily for me, there’s at least one sequel coming up. While I would normally post single reviews of the whole kit and kaboodle for these kinds of series, I think I’m going to take a risk and post a review of Wings of Ebony by itself. I have a feeling that the sequel will be very different, for better or for worse (hopefully, it’s different enough for at least six paragraphs). I recommend this book if you’re a young person who needs empowerment, or to anyone who actually wants to experience a legitimately great YA novel.

P.S. which has spoilers of the ending

Okay, I love this book, but screw Jehmal. Rue knows him for about ten minutes, and yet, she’s practically having sex with him at the end of the book. I hate it when they introduce a character who isn’t a love interest just to make them into a love interest at the last minute because “sex sells”. This is probably going to color my impressions of the sequel by quite a lot.

Vampires? Dystopia? Teen Angst? The Bloodline is Practically a YA Novel! (Volume 1 Review)

Sometimes it’s hard to write an intro. As I said in my review of Unnamed Memory, I’ve been disappointed with the new light novel releases pretty much all year. No one seemed to look forward to The Bloodline, published in English by J-Novel Club. And as someone who rarely posts about something popular, it seemed like a fitting choice for me. 

In The Bloodline, the world is ruled by vampires who feed off the common people’s blood. In the middle of some festival or whatever, a boy named Nagi breaks into some house and finds a girl named Saya. He saves her for no particular reason, and chaos ensues.

Sadly, there’s not much to say about the story thus far. The Bloodline is very generic across the board. Not only is it a typical “rob from the poor to feed the rich” dystopia (complete with vampires as if this was some YA novel), but it’s also a wish fulfilment fantasy. In about 30 pages, Saya thinks to herself: “I want to be with this boy.” I mean, sure, he saved you. But to be in love with him so impulsively? Not even Disney does it this fast anymore.

Time for me to sound like a broken record again. I don’t like the characters, not a single one of them! So far, Nagi is a typical whiny self-insert, and Saya is a typical damsel in distress. Keele is Nagi’s snarky brother, and this girl named Tess is the third wheel. I don’t even remember the names of everyone else, but they’re about as plastic as the rest of the cast.

But even with all these issues, The Bloodline is at least better than what I have read recently. Although the writing is about as negligent at describing people and places as a lot of light novels, the pacing and momentum is solid. There is some good entertainment value here, and honestly, that’s all I could ask for these days. Also, they don’t dump all of the lore on you at once in the beginning.

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Verdict: 7.75/10

Maybe I’m just desperate, but I actually have hope for The Bloodline. As bland as the story is idea-wise, it still appeared to be pretty well thought out by light novel standards. It’s no masterpiece at this juncture, but it could become close to one if it’s given enough love over time. If you like edgy dystopian novels, then this one’s for you.

The Adventurers Guild Trilogy: Social Commentary for Kids!

Sometimes, the title of a series is so generic and unremarkable that I almost feel like it’s a red herring. I ask myself, “It’s trying so hard to look boring, but does that mean it’s actually legitimately good?” That’s a gambit that I hoped would pay off when I read through The Adventurers Guild series, written by Zack Loran Clark and Nicolas Eliopulous.

A half-elf boy named Zed and a typical human named Brock are ready to join one of Freestone’s many Guilds. They are picked for the Mages and Merchants Guilds respectively; however, this series isn’t titled The Adventurers Guild for nothing. Alasabel Frond, the leader of the titular Guild, yoinks them right out of their respective Guilds and drafts them into the Adventurers Guild. Now they have to protect the world from monsters known as Dangers, and like true warriors, they get nothing for it!

The Adventurers Guild isn’t quite as generic as it looks (key words: “quite as”, but we’ll get to that later). They at least put some good effort into the magic system. Each element is tied to a specific spiritual plane (or something), and they all have a signature that Zed can detect. The writers also pull no punches when it comes to the Dangers’ designs; get used to tentacles coming out of faces and other areas. The prose is also all-around great, but V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic taught me that good writing and good storytelling are two completely different talents. 

A lot of things irked me about The Adventurers Guild. One is that—like every modern fantasy and its grandma—there’s social commentary on a lot of bad -isms in society (none of which are commercialism). In addition to my problem with how heavy-handed it gets, The Adventurers Guild makes it unrealistic. And while I normally don’t mind a lack of realism, this case isn’t merely “Ooooh, magic! What is physics again?”; it’s a clash with the human mind itself. 

You’d think that people’d get their sh** together to fight a one-dimensional evil alien threat to the whole species. And yet, the bad -isms are still in effect in the world of The Adventurers Guild! Every authority figure in Freestone tries to get Frond arrested because of sexism. And when a group of elves seeks refuge at the start of the second book, they’re treated with unconditional racism. It felt so arbitrary, that the bad -isms were only there for the sake of bad -isms. I’ll acknowledge that the hatred against Zed is justified to an extent. A half-elf warlock is what caused the Dangers in the first place, giving the whole race a bad rep. But that doesn’t excuse the cases of sexism or anything else, really. 

Alright, alright. For the sake of argument, let’s just take the bad -isms at face value: a conflict in the story that needs to be resolved. But what is there to talk about? The thing with The Adventurers Guild is that beyond the social commentaries, the main plot really isn’t that interesting. Dangers are out there, go kill ‘em. That’s really it. 

But it damn well tries to be different, that’s for sure. It succeeds to an extent in the two main characters, Zed and Brock. These two both have secrets that they keep from each other, and it’s all “Ooooooh” and stuff. Unfortunately, they have very plastic and flat personalities. The rest of the characters… are just as flat. They’re relatable, which—if you’re not anal about writing—would make them super-duper amazing and lovable. But besides the occasional dumb “kid-like” interactions they have with each during their down time, a lot of their dialgoue feels forced. For someone like me, who has grown to love narcissists like Senku from Dr. Stone, I couldn’t care less about the cast of The Adventurers Guild. I had to do ridiculous things like picturing a character as Lord Don’ator to not fall asleep! The third book does introduce a pretty witty new character, who exists for sarcastic comments, and shows up too late to offset everyone else. 

And speaking of the third book, let’s talk about it in the least spoilery way possible. Remember when I said “beyond the social commentaries, the main plot really isn’t that interesting”? Well, that shows. Night of Dangers completely does away with social undertones and becomes a tedious slog that’s just as cliché as anything else, despite how the trilogy desperately tried to avoid it. The only saving grace is the admittedly enjoyable climax, but saying that it offsets everything else is a stretch. One character even deflects from the main issue super intentionally and it’s never explained why. 

Speaking of intentionally, that word is everything wrong with The Adventurers Guild. Virtually none of it felt natural; each story beat was 110% deliberate. As much as having a plan for the narrative is good (in fact, it’s essential), you can’t plan literally everything. You need to have a stream of consciousness effect when writing, which allows some aspects of the story to tell themselves. And if you end up needing to pull something out of your ass, go back and edit earlier parts so that it has proper context. I can’t describe exactly why, but I just felt in my writer-brain that this whole series was… wrong.

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Final Verdict: 6/10

The Adventurers Guild tried a lot of things, and it all felt flat to me. In the end, I have no idea what the takeaway of this series is. Is it that racism is bad, or that you shouldn’t keep secrets? Whatever it is, there’s definitely something out there that’s conveyed it better. While this isn’t the worst series on the market, it is still just about as bland as its name implies.

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.