The Asterisk War: The Phoenix War Dance

By Yuu Miyazaki and okiura. Released in Japan by Media Factory. Released in North America by Yen On. Translated by Melissa Tanaka.

The Asterisk War, quality of writing or no, has a tendency to be overly cliched. Sometimes, in fact, it’s so cliched it actually throws me off my game and surprises me. We’re introduced to a pair of sisters here, who end up fighting Ayato and Julis towards the end of the book. Given that we first meet the older sister literally chained up in a subbasement, I expected her to be the barely controllable psycho one gets chained up in subbasements. As it turns out, she loves to fight, but is far nicer than it would seem (though she was right to ditch the weapon trying to overpower her mind). As for the younger sister, I naturally expected her to show that the sweet girl act was a facade, and that she was really the evil one and the brains of the outfit. Hope. She’s just as sweet as she seems, and is there to cook and be rescued. You can second guess yourself on how cliched this book can be.

This is not to say I did not enjoy the book – I did. It’s as deep as a puddle, but that’s not what I’m looking for. Actually, the one time I think that the book really succeeded in creeping me out was when Claudia (who gets the cover art this time) explains the price she pays for the ability to use her weapons, and what it does to almost everyone who isn’t her. One wonders just how much of the flirty yet manipulative student council president is an act – though probably not much, I’ve already learned my lesson on second guessing myself. As for the rest of the harem, Julis is tsundere, though as always it’s a mild case; Saya is cool and seemingly stoic, and Kirin is shy, and they all still like Ayato a lot. I suspect we can also add Priscilla by the end of this book. Ayato is, of course, completely unnoticing, not getting at all why the girls want him to rub their head.

As you may have gathered, we’ve entered the tournament arc part of the story, and it appears it’s going to last more than one book. This allows us to see Ayato and Julis curbstomp a few opponents into the ground, as we know that they’re going to make it close to the finals as, well, they’re the heroes. In fact, given Julis’ wish, I suspect they pretty much have to win. Not so for Saya and Kirin, and I was pleased to see that they also live to fight another novel. Of the new characters, easily the most memorable – even more than the sisters who are the focus of the book – are the two AI robots, who seem deliberately written to be cartoon cliches. In fact, their interaction reminded me a lot of The Poet and Sickle from the later Baccano books, though thankfully Ardy does not speak nearly as floridly as the Poet. They to pummel their way through the contest, and I suspect we’ll get a confrontation between them and our heroes soon.

To sum up, this book is much like the last two books – hilariously unoriginal and yet fun to read in spite of that. It’s the perfect book to take on a vacation – just be aware the books are short, you’ll likely need to take something else as well.

Ghost Diary, Vol. 1

By Seiju Natsumegu. Released in Japan as “Kaidan Nikki” by ASCII Media Works, serialized in the magazine Dengeki Daioh. Released in North America by Seven Seas. Translated by Krista Shipley, Adapted by Shannon Fay.

For a while now, there has been a war going on in manga, though some may not have noticed it. Here at Manga Bookshelf, though, we pride ourselves on observational skills, and have watched the fallout with much interest. I am referring, of course, to the battle between manga being licensed about yokai and manga being licensed about monster girls. Both seemingly involving the same thing, but in reality these are very different beasts. Monster Girl series, with one or two exceptions, show us various types of creatures living alongside humans in society, while yokai series tend to involve humans investigating said creatures as dangerous and mysterious phenomena. Ghost Diary ran in Dengeki Daioh, so honestly I was expecting the former, but make no mistake about it, this is a relatively serious work, and its dark turns surprised me.

The plot involves a group of high-school occultists who go around searching for mysterious things. That said, most of the club are there to fill out the cast, and the real stars are Kyouichi, a teen exorcists who is haunted by a tragic past, and Mayumi, the standard cardboard cutout tsundere who likes him. Kyouichi’s older sister disappeared after a battle with a yokai that was coming after Kyouichi himself, and he’s vowed to find her. Luckily, he has help. Unluckily, it’s the worst kind of help. Chloe is a grim reaper who seemingly wants to find Kyouichi’s sister as well so she can get her memories back, and offers to help him out when he needs it, to the point of moving into his house. Unfortunately for Kyouichi, Chloe is not going to be one of those quirky mentors you see so often in these sorts of series.

As you may have guessed by my brief snarkiness in the prior paragraph, I wasn’t all that impressed with the love interest in this series, and the rest of the club is also a bit underwhelming (even the shy girl who speaks through her doll has been done better elsewhere, though I admit the overweight yakuza is new). But make no mistake about it, you want to read this manga for the relationship between Kyouichi and Chloe, as she kills his friends (then resurrects them, to be fair), destroys what might otherwise have been a heartwarming chapter about a dead baker who was moved by Kyouichi’s sister, and otherwise behaves like she may be the villain of the series. But she may not be – certainly at times she does behave very much like the mentor she wants to be, and it’s unclear if she’s the antagonist of the whole series or just a horrible creature. I want to see more of her.

This series is not for everyone – the last chapter has some disturbing rape threats from a man trapped in the body of a prepubescent boy – but overall I was pleasantly surprised. This is a dark take on a genre that already gets pretty dark. And it’s only three volumes, so I’m definitely interested in finishing it. Let’s hope that Kyouichi can survive it.

Baccano!: 1932 Drug & The Dominoes

By Ryohgo Narita and Katsumi Enami. Released in Japan by ASCII Mediaworks. Released in North America by Yen On. Translated by Taylor Engel.

This was the final Baccano! light novel that was used in the 2007 anime adaptation, but even if you’ve seen the anime you should read this anyway, as it’s startling how much was left out and how much was changed. The anime needed a little bit more plot to add to its “let’s move back and forth between various time periods” style, and Eve’s subplot seemed to fit the bill. They had little to no use for Roy Maddock and his drug addiction, though, and so he was completely eliminated. Which is a shame, as while I have little use for Roy himself, who is not as interesting as virtually everyone else in this book, his girlfriend Edith is awesome, and having Roy also means we meet Kate Gandor, Keith’s wife – and actually hear Keith speak more than a few lines of dialogue!

Eve Genoard, younger sister to ne’er-do-well Dallas, is front and center on the cover, and I’d wager that she gets to have the hero’s journey here – as I said before, Roy is a bit too flat for me to really grant that to him. You could argue that Luck Gandor may also qualify – he’s worrying that he’s lost an essential humanity since becoming immortal, and it’s through dealing with Eve and the Runoratas that he comes to accept who he is now and realize that he hasn’t changed as much as he thought. He’s certainly unrepentant about what he did to Dallas – who, let’s remember, killed several men in the Gandor mafia clan – but he allows Eve a chance to possibly rescue Dallas from his watery grave. (Luck wonders why he was so soft-hearted, which is hilarious given that earlier in the book, all three Gandors were terrified about the idea of having to punish a woman, mafia-style, for betrayal – they end up giving her a haircut.)

This happens right after the last two books – in fact, the first third of it actually happens before the last two books, as it begins in late December 1931 and ends in early January 1932. And we do see characters from the previous books. Isaac and Miria have a smaller role than usual, but it’s their theft of the Gandor Family Fortune which sets most of this in motion, and their obsession with dominoes that gives us some more comedy, though I think it’s REALLY OBVIOUS that Narita only added that plot so he could use the title, which comes from Eric Clapton’s band Derek and the Dominoes. Firo spends most of the book grumbling and whining, which seems a bit out of character for him. And we also see a few people who look like they’re being introduced for future books, such as Tick, the Gandor family’s smiling torture specialist, and Maria, a walking Mexican stereotype who can’t stop saying “amigo” but who is a lot of fun anyway. The Daily Days also get a lot more here to do than usual, and the one morally dubious guy of their bunch gets his after a ride on the Rail Tracer express (not lethal, for once).

That said, the book ends with a sort of tragedy, and it involves another immortal who appears throughout the book – Begg, who seems to have been one of Maiza’s group who became immortal back in 1711. He’s now the Runorata family drug expert, and spends his years trying to perfect a drug that will make everyone live in their own happy world, with no problems or worries. Given the halting, jittery way he speaks, you get the feeling he’s tested a lot of drugs on himself. And, despite an attempt at a heartwarming scene with Czeslaw (which is also rife with foreshadowing), in the end we see him at the start of the 21st century, burned out in an institution, barely able to respond to Maiza. Immortals may live forever, but they can still damage their mind, and it’s sad to see, even if you question the entire premise of what Begg wanted to achieve.

All in all, a good addition to the series, with lots of fun stuff happening, though I don’t think it hits the heights of Book 2. Next time we’ll move forward a bit – quite a bit – and see what the cast is up to in 2001.