Iron Widow: To Make a Great YA Novel, Just Add Anime

There is no shortage of Feminist power fantasies these days. In fact, I read one such novel back before COVID broke out: part one of Suzanne Young’s Girls With Sharp Sticks trilogy. It was good, but it was so generic and predictable, I’d rather not spend my time finishing it, because I figured a better Feminist power fantasy would come up. Sure enough, that happened in 2021, when Xiran Jay Zhao published their debut novel: Iron Widow.

In Iron Widow, we are taken to an alternate version of China, set hundreds of years in the past but with futuristic technology (what is this, Star Wars?). The alien menace known as the Hundun threatens the nation of Huaxia. Fight fire with fire, as they say, and by “fire”, I mean they build Gundams out of defeated Hundun. These mechs, known as Chrysalis, must be piloted by a male and female team. However, unlike those anime where the mech is powered by sex, the Chrysalises are powered by sexism, and the woman pilot more-often-than-not can’t handle the strain of her husband’s qi. Wu Zetian’s older sister was killed, not in battle, but murdered by her husband Yang Guang. Naturally, Zetian voluntarily sells herself to him just for an opportunity to murder him. What could possibly go wrong?

Unlike Blood Like Magic, the disclaimer at the beginning is fully needed. No, that’s an understatement. The only other book this viscerally brutal that I read was Legendborn, and even then, the searing social commentary was only prevalent like 60% of the time. In Iron Widow, every page is a reminder of the twisted world in the book, not too different from the twisted world that men created. I won’t spoil anything more about this aspect of Iron Widow’s worldbuilding, but just know it’s beyond brutal.

The main draw with Iron Widow is the very anime-inspired SF world, versus Girls With Sharp Sticks’ nothing. Zhao did their homework with this one, that’s for sure. The terms are easy to follow, and there isn’t an overabundance of Things That Have Common Nouns With Capital Letters As Their Names. I admit that I was enthralled by the mechs, especially Guang’s, which is a kyubi; Zhao knows the fastest way to a weeb’s heart is to make a yokai Gundam. 

The writing is great to boot. I had a great sense of 3D space and what stuff looked like. Plus the battles were spectacular, with no shortage of anime flair. Like I said before, the portrayal of sexism is unrelenting and bludgeoning, written with exquisite and tormented poetry. The only problem I had is that I couldn’t quite picture the Hundun. They seemed to be a generic robot menace, though. 

Anyway, how’s the plot? Well, it’s a YA novel, so it’s predictable. However, Iron Widow manages to be one of the best YA novels of 2021 all the same. Like in Wings of Ebony, the book cuts out the fat to get to the good stuff. Exactly seventy pages in, Zetian successfully murders Guang during the first major battle. She then becomes the rare instance of an Iron Widow (title drop), which is something that is—naturally—covered up. In order to maintain control of her, she is paired with the strongest guy they got: Li Shimin, who happens to be a convicted felon. The bulk of the story is her building a relationship with Shimin, while trying to survive the system that’s so jerry-rigged against her.

Boy-o-boy, the cast is… something. Zetian is so manufactured it’s almost funny; but you know what, women get so much crap, I’m not even mad. She is as uncompromising and fierce as it gets. Nothing—and I mean NOTHING—breaks her. She’ll slander anyone who disagrees with her, and has no remorse when she murders Guang. Most of the men are one-dimensional sleazes, but like in Girls With Sharp Sticks, there’s that one likable guy. And it’s Shimin of all people. Whoda thought that the guy who’s hyped up to be a monster… isn’t? I never predicted that exact thing as soon as his name came up for the first time. Another predictable thing is Gao Yizhi. He’s the childhood friend, who spends a good portion of the book abandoned by Zetian so she can pursue her goal. However, he uses money to get into the camp, and exists as the good boy to contrast Shimin’s naughty boy. This sounds like the start of a cringy relationship, but to my pleasant surprise, these three protagonists’ relationships with one another ended up being one of the best takes of the love triangle trope I have ever seen.

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Final Verdict: 9.8/10

Xiran Jay Zhao has single-handedly made me give a crap about YA novels again. Iron Widow puts them in my book as one of the most promising new writers going into this decade. My butt’s already clenched waiting for the sequel, and more importantly, the possibility that Zhao can actually follow-up. If only they would write a middle-grade novel to tide me over… oh wait, they are, and it’s coming out later this year. Anyway, Iron Widow is my favorite YA novel of 2021 (too bad it isn’t 2021 anymore so no one cares), and I highly recommend it.

Cynicism in Entertainment: When is it Too Much? Can There be Too Much?

This is probably something you can type into Google and find a scholarly Harvard thesis on. But since this topic has been bugging me for quite some time, I thought I could put in my two cents. I feel like the amount of cynicism in entertainment, or lack thereof, has been largely under debate since forever. And it’s something that’s come to a head for me on a personal level since the start of the pandemic, and as of finishing Volume 8 of RWBY. For this post, I’ll try to lay down both sides of the coin in a civil manner. There will be spoilers for RWBY and Re:ZERO among others throughout this discussion.

The first thing to bring up is the fact that darker times are hard to face in real life. And for some people, the SOLE counter to that is in Escapist fantasies such as those put out by Disney. That company has continued to inspire hope for generations, and is almost at the one-century mark of its running. On the flipside, Disney doesn’t make the bad things go away in real life. You will not only be faced with personal issues, but societal ones as well (more on the latter later). Even if you watch something like Soul for example, which has the lesson of living life to the fullest, you’ll still have to toil at school or a job even if you take that lesson to heart. 

But let’s flip it back again, and discuss the question I asked at the beginning: When is cynicism too much? At the point I’m at in Re:ZERO and RWBY, there have been so many deaths that it has completely desensitized me. The fourth (or is it fifth?) arc of Re:ZERO starts with a child being thrown from the top of a building, after which an entire crowd of people explode into blood and guts. This happens after the main character has died and respawned after at least a dozen gruesome deaths, including being eaten alive by hundreds of demon rabbits. And RWBY? There’s death everywhere! RWBY is particularly controversial because it started off as a very silly battle shounen, then took an incredibly dark direction following the passing of its creator. And for the record, it has legitimately made me depressed. While I have no doubt that any American drama is still darker, RWBY is the most cynical work of fiction I have ever consumed. It has literally made me think to myself: “Life was not God’s gift to us; it was a punishment.”

To define how cynical a narrative work is, you should first find a definitive answer to how dark real life is. The problem is that everyone suffers in different ways and amounts. Re:ZERO seems exaggerated, since I definitely haven’t lived a life where I watch a close friend die right before my eyes every single day. But what about someone living in the Middle East? There are refugees for a reason, you know.

But here’s the kicker. While I have written off stuff as “torture porn”, and accused people of reading too much into social media, I must admit that I’ve become like that as well. The pandemic has affected the lives of pretty much every human, yet instead of bringing people together, it bolstered existing issues and—in essence—ruined everything. It doesn’t take long to find news about fully vaccinated people dying of COVID, countries re-entering lockdown (heck, the bands I follow are still having gigs cancelled left and right), governments stripping unvaccinated people of human rights, California slowly burning to the ground, the slaughterhouse that was Travis Scott’s Astroworld concert, and other human failures. You don’t even need these past couple of years to see how miserable life has always been. America has violated its own Constitution, and created racist and misogynist propaganda since its birth. How can I write off series as torture porn, when they seem perfectly apropos to actual life?

The argument I see the most in favor of cynicism is that it makes the story more mature and intellectual. But sometimes I feel like it’s actually more childish than even Disney. One example that comes to mind is Dungeon Busters, which is an urban fantasy that shows the political ramifications of RPG tropes existing in the real world. I want to say it’s a really thoughtful series, but I’m not sure I can. Trump is portrayed in it as a whiny brat who wants to nuke everything. I don’t know if that portrayal is actually mature, and since we’ll probably never know what Trump was truly like during his term, I can’t say that Dungeon Busters’ Trump is effective. Also, there’s a scene where a supporting protagonist shows a deep prejudice towards Americans entirely because of America’s past crimes against Japan, such as the atomic bombings at the end of WWII, decades before her birth. You’re meant to sympathize with her. However, in real life, Japan allows and welcomes American tourists with open arms (at least before COVID). I can’t judge if such deep-seeded grudges are actually mature or not. I just can’t.

Another example I can place is the famous videogame, A Way Out. I’ve seen three playthroughs of it on YouTube, and that final plot twist will always be infamous. You know, the one where Vincent was actually a police officer trying to nail Leo, and Harvey—the game’s villain—at the same time? It’s SUPER cynical, because it basically implies that your closest friend will stab you in the back someday, that no one can mutually agree on anything, and that there’s no point in ever trying to be nice to anyone. They completely throw away logic (such as parts where Vincent commits other crimes while undercover and endangers civilian lives) in order to make a purely cynical gaming experience, and cause mental whiplash for the people playing by turning the game from co-op to PvP right at the end, with a different—equally sad—ending based on who lives. Does that really make it better, though?

There is no end to different examples of arguments over whether or not cynicism is too much. But regardless, I’m starting to think that there can never be too much of it. Thanks to what COVID has done to me, in conjunction with social media being itself, I have lost all hope. How much cynicism can you handle? Let me know in the comments!

Legendborn: This Book Broke Me

I definitely have not hesitated to come down with constructive criticism on stuff that deals with racism. However, I’m only showing one side of the coin. As confidently as I make quips like “It’s too ham-fisted” or “It’s just torture porn”, I don’t entirely feel that way. To be honest, every commentary on racism—no matter how well it’s framed—has broken me, especially after the George Floyd incident. And Tracy Deonn’s Legendborn is no exception. This book made me hate my own existence. In fact, I’ve actually read—and started writing this review—not long after the book was published; I was just so indecisive about how to go about writing it. I still don’t know if the post is proper even now. Oh well, it’s here.

In Legendborn, a girl named Briana Matthews (henceforth known as Bree) has been on an incessantly long road of recovery after the tragic death of her mother. She’s been attending this super-highschool-early-college academy place, and gets herself almost immediately expelled when she joins a dumb teenager-y gathering. During this gathering, a bizarre incident occurs, and she witnesses a strapping young man slay some kind of demon thing. This dude, named Selwyn Kane, is one of many Legendborn, and is able to alter people’s memories. It’s at this point that Bree realizes that they have a connection to the cause of her mother’s death, and with the help of fellow Legendborn Nick Davis, she’s going to find the truth even if it kills her.

As much as I’d like to say that Bree’s Blackness is irrelevant, I can’t because I’d be wrong. It’s ham-fisted, but necessarily so, considering its 2020 release year. Bree is frequently harassed by authority figures and other people in the Legendborn’s secret society of angsty special teens. That’s to be expected, but it goes further when some developments regarding slavery and the Civil War come up later. It’s so on-the-nose that it absolutely crushed my nose, and the momentum from that weight crushed my soul as well. 

But as integral to the plot racism is, the social commentaries feel like a vehicle to make otherwise uninteresting worldbuilding interesting. Beyond the racism, Legendborn’s basic lore is just Jujutsu Kaisen meets Last Round Arthurs. The reason for its resemblance to the latter is the fact that the Legendborn’s Order has King Arthur symbolism. They use lengthy exposition to make it seem like a really deep system, but the basic idea is that some kids are descended from King Arthur and his knights and can awaken those individuals’ powers once the demons decide to reenact the Battle of Camlann Hill (or something). This, along with Bree’s character arc, exists to cater to that fascination that individuals have with their family histories. The Order’s enemies are the Shadowborn, which are the same old “demons that feed off of human negativity” that have been used billions of times.

Despite my nitpicks, I have found Legendborn to be one of the better YA novels I’ve read. They ham in the mother’s death in that blatant “start with a tragic event as an easy emotional hook” scheme, but it’s done exquisitely. The writing is very descriptive, and gives the action sequences some punch that is often lacking in the genre. And although the story is pretty generic, it’s still fun to read. Last but not least, its portrayal of racism and its history is bone-crushing. My soul was broken, and the pieces were ground into dust. To be perfectly blunt, I barely remember how the book ended, mainly because the raw emotion of it took complete hold over me.

Bree is perhaps one of the best YA protagonists simply because she actually is what most YA authors try and fail to make their female leads. Her struggles are real, and her ability to be strong through all this grief is something else. Unfortunately, she is a case of “has unique powers for no reason”, but that doesn’t dampen her arc.

Most of the other characters aren’t that interesting. Nick Davis is an exception; his Prince Charming-esque relationship with Bree feels legit because neither of them exactly wanted the hands they were dealt in life. Selwyn, however, is your super-edgelord, and I have a bad feeling that he will reluctantly be part of a love triangle with Bree and Nick (since there is an upcoming sequel and all). That’s kind of where the likable characters end, as everyone else is either unremarkable and/or racist.

~~~~~

Final Verdict: 9.2/10

Legendborn is a dime a dozen, but it’s a really, REALLY well-polished dime (wait, is that right? Well, you know what I mean). I am excited for the sequel, but I don’t exactly know what direction it could go in. As of now, Legendborn is more than worthy enough to be in a list of best #BlackGirlMagic books.

Weeb Reads Monthly March and April 2021

Man, going on hiatus stinks. I’ve been backed up with so many posts, that I don’t know what to do! As such, this is going to be a massively long Weeb Reads Monthly. Fortunately, I only had one book for April. Nonetheless, you’ll want to grab some popcorn here!


Re:ZERO Volume 15

It was nice being ahead of the anime. At this point, the second season has likely finished the Sanctuary Arc and started a bit of the next arc. Fortunately, us losers who read the light novels at least get to complete the former before we’re left behind. 

So, in this volume, Subaru and Co. have to beat Elsa, the moe-blob beast tamer whose name I keep forgetting, and get Beatrice, the most stubborn waifu ever, to leave the stupid library. Oh, and Emilia has to FINALLY finish the dumb trials! That’s a lot to do, and it’s impressive that it’s all wrapped up here.

The only real flaws are that the fights are awful. They always were, in my opinion, but it sucks that they haven’t gotten better. You really have to like Re:ZERO for the story or you won’t like it at all. The other issue is that Beatrice really is a stubborn little b****, and they waste time by reiterating her tragic backstory over and over again to make us have feels for her. I liked this arc, but man, it overstayed its welcome!

Verdict: 8.9/10


Combatants Will Be Dispatched! Volume 5

In this volume of Combatants Will Be Dispatched!, we finally get to see the Demon Lord. It wouldn’t be an ecchi light novel if said Demon Lord wasn’t a cute girl, and as such, she’s a cute girl. The new character is named Viper, and she’s basically a parody of the overly self-sacrificial sad waifu. Remember kids: committing suicide is bad! Obviously, she’s no Grimm, but to be honest, she’s probably my least favorite character so far. Her martyrdom is kind of annoying, even when compared to the ever-scummy Six and Snow.

Anyway, the main conflict is them having to fight the Sand King. Action was never this author’s strong suit, and the fight in this volume is pretty unceremonious. There is a fun twist towards the end, but other than that, it’s pretty typical Combatants stuff.

Verdict: 8.35/10


Infinite Dendrogram Volume 14

As expected, the entirety of this volume is the fight that ensues at the summit thingamajig. After being withheld from seeing Nemesis’ fourth form, we waste no time seeing it now. It’s another cool and unusual power that further cements Ray as having one of the most interesting fighting styles among self-insert LN protagonists. The first major battle is against the King of Beasts, whom we’ve been building up to for a long time. And to no surprise, the fight does not disappoint. 

If these fights showcase anything, it’s that Ray still has a long way to go. I mean, c’mon, Dendro really is unfair when it comes to the one-of-a-kind, game-breaking boss drops. Nonetheless, the fights are incredible and engaging. 

Most LNs with all fights would be just that, but Dendro isn’t like most LNs. In the aftermath of the summit war (not to be confused with the Summit War in One Piece), we get some crazy new developments. Sadly, we aren’t going to know what happens next for a while, because apparently, something else was happening at the capital of Altar at the same time. Hopefully, it’ll give us some context on what the hell is going on.

Verdict: 9/10


So I’m a Spider, So What?! Volume 11

This series was finally getting good. A swathe of plot revelations have been brought up: our intrepid hero is a creation made by D, out of sheer laziness, and said intrepid hero becomes an intrepid villain. Ooooh, moral quandaries, even though no one else in the series is likeable so it doesn’t really work! Anyway, with this volume, So I’m a Spider, So What?! should finally be banging!

Having hope was my fault. 

Where the spider stands now, Shun’s red-shirted brother Julius is eleven years old. That means this volume is all about him. Look, I’ve seen all kinds of opinions that I disagree with, but this is a rare time where I’ll question your character if you like this volume. People seem to think that any and all character development is good, but I think this is an example of BAD character development. Sure, we learn about this man and his emotional insecurities or whatever, but… who cares?! It’s not just the fact that we know he’ll die; it’s that his existence has no bearing on the story. Good character development is, you know, ANY character in One Piece. This is just filler disguised as something good. If you have a good reason to defend this volume, let me know in the comments.

Verdict: 4/10


Cautious Hero Volume 6

So, the end of the previous volume was a thing. We have an established final boss, for starters. Oh, and Seiya gets sent back to earth, and is not allowed back. However, that last part is not in play for long. You see, the aforementioned final boss, Mersais, makes a big mess of reality. In order to fix it, they need to defeat her. But since the spirit world is out of commission, they need to restore three of the messed up worlds to establish a connection with where Mersais is, the first of which is Gaeabrande. 

Seiya is better than ever, obviously. But without a spirit world, where can he train? Fortunately, he is able to set up shop in the underworld. There, he lives with these twins who vomit blood on a regular basis. Also, everyone in the underworld is horny for deities. Good thing Cersceus comes with them; he can be used as a meat shield.

Overall, this volume is as good as usual. And despite the fact that we’re reusing assets, Seiya still learns new, interesting powers that further vary his fighting style. Also, there’s a sense of nostalgia for going back to these old worlds, even if the realities aren’t real.

Verdict: 9.35/10


Last Round Arthurs Volume 4

In case this series didn’t love Fuyuki enough, this volume is about her too. Or rather, the lack thereof, for she has a run-in with the leader of the Dame du Lac, and her existence is erased from everyone except Rintaro’s memories. The solution ends up being a quest for the Holy Grail, which Arthur himself couldn’t even get.

To put things bluntly, this volume is about as banger as usual. The action is intense, and the chemistry with the characters is just so darn good. The premise of Rintaro battling his “emo inner demons” has been becoming a bit of a running theme, but it looks like that’s FINALLY resolved here. Also, based on how this ends, there’s a good chance that the next volume will be the finale.

Verdict: 9/10


Eighty-Six Volume 7

It took seven volumes… No, not to capture the Merciless Queen, but something much more important: fanservice! We have a scene of them swimming in the mixed bath, which is supposed to be justified by some bigwigs wanting them to get a whiff of normal life after their constant sortieing. It’s about what you’d expect.

Fortunately, it’s not all filler. After some more of the typical reminders that Eighty-Six is actually a social commentary on racism, we finally get to speak with the Merciless Queen. Unfortunately, due to the fact that she has to be the “enigmatic character who withholds information for no reason”, we don’t get legitimate answers until three quarters into the volume.

Of course, the most “important” part is the party at the end. It would’ve been enjoyable, if I liked more than two of the characters. At the very least, we finally get to see resolution with a certain something (i.e. the something that fans are intended to have wanted the most out of Eighty-Six).

Verdict: 7.85/10


Rascal Does Not Dream of Siscon Idol

Ugh, this crap again. I have no idea how I stuck with it for this long, considering I don’t really like it at all. Anyway, Mai switched bodies with her failure idol of a stepsister, Nadoka Toyohama. While Sakuta has to figure out how to fix this, the girls have to get used to life as each other.

Man, this volume… to be blunt, I hated it. Sakuta doesn’t even do anything to figure out the problem; he kind of just goes with the flow. And honestly, this whole thing is a perfectly normal sibling rivalry drama. 

I just don’t get it… I understand the appeal of relatable issues, but I don’t understand why people laud writers who just take those same scenarios and put a supernatural spin on them. It’s the same thing, but with a cosmetic difference, yet it’s widely considered to be different. I’m any case, it’s safe to assume that I’ll be giving up on Rascal Does Not Dream for good.

Verdict: 5/10


The Invincible Shovel Volume 4

In this volume, every orb is collected. All that’s left is to defeat Zeleburg. Unfortunately, since Lithisia evolved into a shovel, the orbs don’t consider her part of the royal bloodline anymore. SO… they’re useless.

Fortunately, they just march into town and fight him with shovel powers. The usual antics ensue, and Catria gets shoveled more than ever, thanks to a shovel resisting device that needs to be recharged by her getting shoveled. We are also introduced to the shapeshifting demon, Elise, disguised as the pre-shovel Lithisia. Catria takes a liking to her, but sadly, Elise inevitably digs her own grave, just like everyone else.

Overall, it’s a great volume. However, the author might have dug themselves into a corner. You see, the volume ends on an insane cliffhanger, and after that is an author’s note saying “What the hell am I going to do with this?”. I have no idea how much longer the story goes on for, but chances are that Invincible Shovel is going to shovelplode on its shoveself.

Verdict: 8.25/10


Torture Princess Volume 6

This has been one of my favorite light novels of all time since release, but apparently, not enough for me to not miss a volume. In fact, it’s been four months. By the time you’re reading this, volume seven will have come out. But for the sake of being able to talk about it without spoiling THIS volume, I have to save that blurb for May. 

Anyway, shit’s hit the fan. Elisabeth and Jeanne were all means to an end, that end being to have God and Diablo bring about the apocalypse. Kaito has to take matters into his own hands, which is actually easier done than said, since he’s gotten so powerful at this point. Because of how things stand, he gets a real chance to wear Elisabeth’s shoes for once. It’s quite engaging, if I do say so myself.

As expected with Torture Princess, this volume is utter bonkers. We don’t just get insane new plot developments, such as the Saint’s backstory; there’s also a ton of battles against truly nightmarish critters. The ending is, well, a mindf***. And according to the author, this was just the first arc. So, I guess it was a blessing in disguise that I only had to wait one month for the start of part two. 

Verdict: 9.85/10


Conclusion

Boy, that was long! Hope you enjoyed this little college thesis. I’ll be back next month with the seventh volume of Torture Princess, and hopefully other good stuff. Oh, and that’s assuming I don’t end up mashing May with the June stuff (which is just as likely).

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.