Luke has it rough. He was the result of a Maria possession — an immaculate conception — and his mom has been on the sickly side ever since. At just fifteen, Luke works to support them both. Still, he stays pretty positive until a stranger claiming to be his brother attacks him on the street. This is Malchus and he’s trying to get Luke to regain his memory so the two can fight to the death.
Malchus helpfully explains (while trying to kill Luke and successfully murdering his mother) how it works. He and Luke are basically gods, the heirs to a city in the sky. Luke, the “white lion king,” and Malchus, the “black lion king,” are destined to fight. The winner takes the “king’s soul” and fathers an heir. The losing brother falls into a long sleep. When the heir comes of age, the losing brother awakens to battle him for the “king’s soul,” and the cycle starts over. Thus has it always been.
But Luke has found an out. The “king’s soul” actually consists of nine souls. By using one of these up (and killing himself), Luke can be reborn as a human . . . via a Maria possession. This is how he came to exist as the teen we meet when the book opens. And when Malchus corners him, Luke’s memories come flooding back and he pulls the same trick again. Malchus must wait until the boy is of age, so Luke has another fifteen years to grow up as a different human boy. (Conveniently, every woman who gives birth to an incarnation of Luke names him Luke.)
With only nine souls to burn, Luke can’t keep doing this forever. He just really, really doesn’t want to fight Malchus. And after seeing his brother commit suicide SEVERAL TIMES to avoid confronting him, Malchus, too, begins to wonder whether there’s a better way. He adopts the newest Luke, a little boy neglected by the mother who never wanted him. Raising Luke might just change Malchus’ perspective, but so might the revelation of a terrible secret about Malchus’s real reason for existing.
The number one thing you should know about 9th Sleep is that it isn’t really yaoi, even though the cover says “Yaoi Manga.” There’s no romantic or sexual angle or content. Luke and Malchus may not be precisely biological brothers, what with Luke’s body-jumping escapades, but they act basically like brothers. Who sometimes kill each other and/or each other’s immaculately-conceiving mother-people. Indeed, the closest we see to a romance anywhere is in flashbacks to the feelings Luke had for one of the women he would later, um, Maria-possess.
The book’s creator even acknowledges this in a special bonus section at the end: “I apologize that this book isn’t true boys love! There isn’t even any kissing! I’m sorry!” I, for one, am mollified by the creator’s chibi drawings of herself begging forgiveness and asking readers not to send angry letters because of the lack of steaminess. (She includes a couple of bonus pages with gratuitous drawings of Luke and Malchus shirtless, but they’re pretty much just hanging out all platonic-like.) So, just in case you’re the type to send angry letters if your “Yaoi Manga” book doesn’t contain, oh, say, yaoi, let me advise you: this one doesn’t.
The art is fantasy all the way. Malchus and Luke (when not in human form) have pointed, slightly furry ears and slit-pupiled eyes. And, of course, long ripply hair. And big swords. (No, really, just swords. Like the blade kind. YOU THINK IT’S YAOI, BUT IT’S NOT.) There’s some violence, but it’s not extreme, and it’s strangely impersonal – after all, the big fight scenes result mostly from Luke and Malchus’s destiny, not from actual provocation.
The world of the story, and the plot, can be confusing. There are references to Christian mythos, folk beliefs (the nine lives of cats), and a vague sense of the setting being post-apocalyptic, but much more time is spent on characters’ reflections (and the occasional fight scene) than on world-building. Still, there’s enough there to be interesting and the illustrations bring it out nicely with an otherworldly feel.