D-Frag! vols. 1-2

d-fragReading D-Frag! is like listening to an excited four-year-old talk about their first trip to Disneyland: their elementary grasp of language makes it difficult to give you a full, coherent recap, leaving you to smile and nod. The problem with D-Frag! is that it’s hard to tell what is going on; the rudimentary elements of its plot are pulled in so many directions by its characters that by the end of volume two, I had no idea what I was reading. Is this the manga equivalent of Seinfeld, a “manga about nothing,” if you will?

Kazama Kenji is a high schooler looking for trouble. A self-described delinquent, he roams the halls of his high school boasting and picking fights like Stephen Chow’s character in Kung Fu Hustle. Flanked by two of his childhood friends, the portly Yokoshima and the Groot-like Hiroshi, Kenji is willing to do whatever it takes to be top dog. In an attempt to put on a show of strength, he invades the school’s Game Development Club with the intent to steal their games. Instead, he happens upon a group of girls accidentally starting a fire. After putting it out, he is forced to join the club, much to his displeasure.

Left to brood, Kenji is soon overwhelmed by his club members’ behavior, as the girls are incredibly wacky and eccentric. Their games are similar to LARP, as they fight one another using their affinity “powers.” Outside of magical combat, the group spends time playing and designing games. Given the 8-bit flavor of the manga’s packaging, I was expecting/looking forward to chapters devoted to girls playing video games as a means to celebrate the medium. Instead, “gaming” in the context of the series spans video games, live action role play, pub games (like darts), and board games. Not a bad direction to take, though it would have been cool to see the girls program their own video games (and it would have made pushing the series for STEM content all the more easier). In volume two, the club’s first major creation is a board game with the objective to be the first to collect the most alien pornography.

The girls themselves are designed to be intentionally peculiar. On the surface, they are nothing more than gender swapped tropes of high school boys. There’s a jock, a nerd, the introvert, and the pervert. It’s nice to see the male character (playing the role of the straight man) outnumbered by females but the characterizations feel a bit empty and superficial. The teens here act the way real teens would, especially the club’s designated pervert. There’s a decent amount of scenes that pray at the altar of breasts, with numerous characters drawing attention to another classmate’s bust size. During a confrontation between Kenji and a gang that plays rhythm-based video games, the group fights over who plays the smutty board game by exchanging candid photos of the Game Dev Club girls. The photos are clean, with the impression that these boys admire beauty over naughtiness, and the manga doesn’t take the easy way out with random nudity.

Artistically, D-Frag! is drawn like most modern manga. The girls are cute and the guys are handsome and lanky. Tomoya Haruno uses straight, clean lines to create people and build the world they live in. Haruno shows a steady and elegant hand, though the style has the same emotional resonance as architectural drafting. But because this is a Japanese manga, the characters are allowed to express themselves in colorful ways when something excites, confuses, or enrages them. Character faces are either simplified or morphed into cute chibi expressions for comedic effect.

The central issue I have with D-Frag! is that I am confused with what it wants to be. The girls of the Game Dev Club clearly enjoy their hobby, but there isn’t enough activity to define what exactly they do. Kenji’s role in the series is his quest to be king of the hill by beating up other problem kids. There are moments where the interest of both parties align, giving Kenji the insight he needs to understand the girls who have come into his life. However, D-Frag!’s overexcitement makes for an exhausting read, as it favors slapstick comedy and fight scenes that have neither hide nor hair to do with whatever the story is supposed to be about.

D-Frag! vols. 1-2
by Tomoya Haruno
Vol. 1 ISBN: 9781626920705
Vol. 2 ISBN: 9781626920712
Seven Seas, 2014
Publisher Age Rating: Teen

Arpeggio of Blue Steel, vols. 1-2

98-coverSeventeen years ago, strange, ghostly ships and submarines appeared all over the world, quickly decimating the navies of every country on Earth. Dubbed the Fleet of Fog, these ships are nearly indestructible. They rule the waves, shooting down aircraft and even satellites, disrupting shipping and communication.

But the Fleet of Fog isn’t quite invincible. The AI systems of powerful Fog vessels can manifest “mental models,” which look and act like humans; all females, they are sentient to the point of displaying human emotions. Japan has captured one Fog submarine/ship hybrid, the I-401, and Iona, its mental model, has since become devoted to her new human captain: Chihaya Gunzou, nicknamed Blue Steel.

I-401 is powerful enough to take down other Fog ships, and her loyalty to Gunzou means that she’s willing to fight for humanity’s cause. However, the government of Japan isn’t sure whether to trust Gunzou—after all, his father stands accused of betraying humanity to the Fleet of Fog. But now, Japanese scientists have invented a new technology that could turn the tables on the Fog… if they can get it to America, the only country that can manufacture it. That means crossing the Pacific, and the only vessel that stands a chance is I-401.

This is a fairly straightforward shonen manga packed with lots of action. Naval combat and subterfuge are central, featuring lots of futuristic technology like Compulsion Wave-Motion Armor and Super-Graviton Cannons. Subs and ships square off and are sometimes sunk, but there’s no gore factor—the Fog ships do not seem to have crew, unless you count their mental models.

A note from the creators at the end of the first volume explains that the series was inspired by news of a new torpedo technology and their next idea was to “Throw in some gorgeous girls! Yeah!” Despite this origin, Iona and the other mental models are not blatant fanservice. They are varied, powerful, and interesting characters with different agendas, none of which include panty shots. There’s even a reasonable rationale for their gendered identities: tapping into human communications, the Fog heard ships referred to as “she” and assumed that they were supposed to be female.

The artwork is detailed, yet easy to follow, making good use of light and dark for contrast and clarity. For example, the sea may appear from above as a rippling gray expanse, but when I-401 dives, the water quickly darkens to black, making the submarine stand out in the panels. The characters are distinctive and settings like sub control rooms and the decks of ships have a similar level of detail, making the manga visually rich.

Gunzou’s crew is a handful of good-hearted oddballs. The characters aren’t highly nuanced, but they’re loyal and brave with a fun camaraderie, and they’re also quite good at their jobs. There’s a touch more complexity in the political characters who quarrel over the handling of Gunzou and I-401, creating a source of conflict that’s less clear-cut than “humans versus the Fog.” Yet despite its clear enmity towards humankind, the Fleet of Fog remains mysterious in its intentions and even some of the ships’ mental models seem unclear about their mission. Readers will enjoy seeing these plots unfold, and shonen fans will find it easy to root for our heroes as they battle to save the human world.

Arpeggio of Blue Steel, vols. 1-2
by Ark Performance
Vol. 1 ISBN: 9781626920682
Vol. 2 ISBN: 9781626920767
Seven Seas, 2010
Publisher Age Rating: Teen

Zero’s Familiar Omnibus 1-3


Louise Francoise le Blanc de la Valliere is a noble in the land of Tristain, in which all nobles possess magical abilities and are served by commoners. She attends the Tristain Academy of Magic, but unfortunately for poor Louise, she’s a bit of a loser. All her classmates call her “Louise the Zero” because it seems as though she has no innate magical abilities. Whenever she does manage to cast a spell, people had better run the other way, as it usually results in explosive destruction.

The manga opens on the day of an important coming-of-age ritual: in front of the entire student body, young magical students must summon the familiar who will serve and accompany them for the rest of their lives. Louise’s classmates summon some cool familiars: bookworm Tabitha gets a wind dragon, while attractive Kirche gets a fire-breathing salamander. However, when Louise casts her spell, she summons Saito, a human boy from Earth! Mr. Colbert, one of Louise’s teachers, promises to investigate the weird binding mark that has appeared on Saito’s hand. Meanwhile, Saito desperately tries to get others to listen to him; he isn’t a Tristain commoner and he wants to go home!

The omnibus edition collects the first three of seven volumes in a hefty tome at nearly 500 pages. However, it reads pretty quickly, setting the stage for future books through little vignettes about the world in which Saito finds himself. These adventures include a fight between Saito and playboy Guiche that leads Mr. Colbert and Headmaster Osmond to think Saito has a connection to a famous familiar; Osmond’s secretary Ms. Longveville asking discreet questions about the school’s treasure room and a magical weapon called the Staff of Destruction, later stolen by a thief known as Fouquet the Sculptor; a sword-buying excursion in which Louise purchases a cheap talking sword for Saito and Kirche purchases an expensive sword for him as a sign of her affection; and numerous instances in which Louise treats Saito like a dog because she sees him as a servant and not a human. The collection ends with the introduction of Princess Henrietta, an old childhood friend of Louise, who is being forced into a political marriage. Henrietta asks Louise and her friends to retrieve a rather private letter that could destroy her engagement and risk the safety of her people. Readers also meet Viscount Wardes, a dashing older gentleman who has a secret past with Louise. These little stories set the stage for the wider conflict of the series: a potential war between the Kingdoms of Albion and Tristain.

This fantasy series is really fun and I highly recommend it for fans of Harry Potter who are interested in manga in the same vein; Louise is basically a girl version of Neville Longbottom. For those who want more, Seven Seas has also published a spin-off series, Zero’s Familiar: Chevalier, which is complete in four volumes. A third series was also published in Japan, but there is no word if Seven Seas will be publishing an English version.

Zero’s Familiar Omnibus 1-3
by Noboru Yamaguichi
Art by Nana Mochizuki
ISBN: 9781934876077
Seven Seas, 2013
Publisher Age Rating: 12+

Witch Buster Vol. 1-2

witchbuster_vol1-2Tasha Godspell arrives in a new town only to find himself immediately thrown into jail. There he meets a young girl named East, who tells him the townsfolk are suspicious because of an ongoing war between humans and witches. East then proceeds to break out of jail, fight off the Witch Hunters with her golem—in this case, a gigantic mecha robot—and escape. Tasha responds by berating the Hunters for handling the girl’s capture so poorly—he should know because he’s one of the best Hunters around!

Tasha goes on the hunt with his partner, Halloween, who happens to be a sword-wielding Jack-o’-Lantern with an attitude. Halloween’s cooperation with Tasha is unique, as only witches tend to have Supporters. The pair locate East with the intention of arresting her, but she provides Tasha with information that might prove worthy of her release: she knows the location of the Red Witch, who Tasha has been hunting, and she’s willing to work with anyone to stop the Red Witch’s evil plans. With the help of two other Hunters—Xing Bairong, an infamous girl chaser who steals all of Tasha’s money, and Taras Doberg, an egotistical jerk—Tasha and Halloween set out to find the lair of the Red Witch, located in a war zone. It turns out that the Red Witch is Aria, Tasha’s little sister; years ago, he failed to protect her and she turned into a witch, killing their father in the process. Now she’ll do anything in her power to sway Tasha to the side of the witches, with the end goal of turning him into her Supporter so they can be together forever.

In the second volume, Tasha’s bag—with Halloween in it—is stolen by a young thief who attempts to lose Tasha many times, only to be tracked down again and again. When she gives up, Tasha informs the girl that Halloween is more than a puppet and reveals himself to be a Witch Hunter. Excited, she tells him that her name is Monica and she’s experiencing a strange problem: one month ago, young people in her village began to die of old age! Monica has the ability to see black “threads” connected to other people, and when someone’s threads begin to turn red, she knows they are going to die. Meanwhile, Xing and Taras hear rumors about this city and suspect that a witch is involved. When they arrive, they detect the presence of a witch… right next to Tasha. Could Monica be a witch? And if she is, could she actually be a good witch?

While this is a fast-paced read, the beginning is a bit confusing. Characters revealed early in the story are not fully explained; it is clear who Tasha and Halloween are, but East doesn’t even have a name until the end of the first volume. The dual identity of the Red Witch as Aria is not especially clear and, at several points, I thought they were different people—perhaps Aria is a servant of the Red Witch? I initially confused Aria’s guardian and teacher, Varete, with the Red Witch when she was introduced at the end of volume one. Librarians may need to encourage teens to push through the confusion and stick with it until they figure out who is whom.

Witch Buster’s original name in Korean is Witch Hunter. I am not certain why Seven Seas changed the title of the manhwa, but continued to call Tasha and his colleagues Hunters instead of changing their job title to Busters. This book will probably appeal to fans of series like Soul Eater and D-Gray Man, and it’s a good choice for western readers new to Asian comics, since it is published left-to-right instead of the right-to-left format of most manga. The only content that might cause some controversy is the typical fan service shots—Xing is a woman chaser and many of the girls’ clothes are short and revealing. While Witch Buster is not an essential purchase, the fact that the series is released in two-in-one omnibus editions does save some money and space in small collections. I recommend purchasing this title if you can’t keep manga on the shelves and you need a new series for your teens.

Witch Buster Vol. 1-2
by Jung-Man Cho
ISBN: 9781626920224
Seven Seas, 2013
Publisher Age Rating: 14+

Kisses, Sighs, and Cherry Blossom Pink: The Complete Collection

  Romance is in the air at all-girl high schools Touhou and Sakurakai. When a pair of best friends is split between the two schools, it spurs them to become more than just friends; a girl who plays the captured princess in a school theater production falls for the cool older student cast as her rescuer; and even the ghost of a former student finds a way to express her love to the school nurse, who was once her classmate and friend. Not everyone gets a perfect happily-ever-after—one girl is afraid to tell her best friend that she wants them to be a couple, while another is pursued by a classmate even though she thinks she might not be into girls—but in most of these fourteen short stories, love conquers all.

Kisses, Sighs, and Cherry Blossom Pink is a collection of connected yuri stories, nine of which feature the same couple, Nana and Hitomi. As the two begin dating and grow closer, they must survive relationship drama and deal with issues like coming out to friends. Some of their classmates think that lesbian relationships are “nasty” or laughable, while others support the couple. The rest of the stories follow other students at Sakurakai or Touhou, and as the characters’ social groups overlap, they sometimes pop up in one another’s stories. In addition to showing relatable emotion in many characters, the book offers fun glimpses of Japanese culture, like the Valentine’s Day/White Day celebrations.

Like any teens in love, Hitomi and Nana have questions and concerns: will they stay together through college and beyond? What are they comfortable doing sexually? What do they expect from the relationship? Nana wonders, “When girls do it, what exactly do you have to do for it to count as sex?” and wishes someone could answer her questions. The girls also butt heads over Hitomi’s protective and occasionally patronizing attitude; Nana says that she doesn’t want Hitomi to be “the man” in the relationship and expects the two of them to be equals. Romance fans will likely appreciate the strong bond and good communication we see in the central couple, and enjoy the sometimes-wacky stories interspersed with Hitomi and Nana’s.

The artwork is delicately drawn and pretty. Backgrounds tend to be unobtrusive and minimal. Characters are easily distinguished from one another, though mostly by hairstyle, given that their body types are similar and their faces tend to have the same exaggerated cuteness so common in romantic manga. The artist pays great attention to characters’ clothes, differentiating between the two schools’ uniforms as well as plenty of other cute outfits. The girls’ bodies, though all quite slim, are refreshingly realistic compared to many found in manga.

Hitomi and Nana do have sex, though this is neither shown nor described in detail. There are a few nude images of the girls holding each other, lying together, or bathing, but they are not actually doing anything sexual. These images don’t seem gratuitous as the poses are natural and they don’t feel designed to put the girls’ bodies on display for readers. There are a few mild sexual references—one girl playfully gropes her girlfriend’s chest while both are fully clothed—but otherwise, it’s mostly kisses and a whole lot of longing.

The book explicitly dispels some myths and misunderstandings about lesbian relationships, including the idea that they aren’t serious or exist as a placeholder until a girl can get a boyfriend. The stories show a variety of relationships, yet spend enough time with one couple to watch the relationship progress, achieving depth and character development. The characters are respectfully treated and at no point do their bodies or their relationships feel exploited or trivialized. Kisses, Sighs, and Cherry Blossom Pink could be an especially good read for girls who are interested in other girls and anyone who wants to read about lesbian relationships that are taken seriously while remaining sweet and fun.

Kisses, Sighs, and Cherry Blossom Pink: The Complete Collection
by Milk Morinaga
ISBN: 9781937867317
Seven Seas, 2013
Publisher Age Rating: Older Teen (16+)

Girls Und Panzer, vols. 1 & 2


Most high school girls spend their time studying, making friends, or carousing with cute boys. The girls of Ooarai Academy, however, have chosen to enlist in the school’s revitalized tankery club to practice World War II-style tank combat with reverence and enthusiasm. Like any other school sports club, Ooarai engages in friendly competitions with other schools through skirmishes set within radically diverse combat zones. In this story, the concept of tankery has nothing to do with wartime combat training—instead, it is considered a treasured martial art, one that will turn a young girl into a sophisticated, cultured, and desirable woman.

This manga was adapted from the original anime series that aired in 2013. With no prior experience with the property, I had only one preconceived notion: fanservice. I mean, an all-female cast of characters piloting tanks? Come on. I’m reminded of my experience with Highschool of the Dead: I expected something akin to The Walking Dead and instead found pages and pages of gun fetishization, perverted teachers, and girls with perpetually torn clothing. Were those elements bad? Not necessarily, but I wasn’t prepared to see them given the story’s premise. With Girls und Panzer, I half expected to see girls wearing tight, revealing military uniforms as they straddle gun barrels and splay out over tank treads. But the truth is, as far as volumes one and two are concerned, Girls und Panzer is clean and friendly to all readers. In fact, fanservice would get in the way of the glorious tank porn. Operating as a visual history of mobile warfare, the featured tanks are painstakingly drawn from their real-world counterparts and treated to the same close-up camera angles you’d find in the swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated.

Lengthy combat sequences are bookended by scenes in which the girls interact with one another, cementing their friendships through shared experiences. Enriched by their unique personalities and zeal for tanks, the girls learn important lessons as tank commanders and teammates who must communicate with and rely on each other. Girls und Panzer features the most meaningful friendship development that I’ve seen in any high school situational story. There is historical precedence for tank crews forming fierce bonds of brotherhood because of the close quarters and their reliance on one another to keep the machine maintained and running. While other high school stories feature girls who are united by their interests, activities, and school adventures, the friendships forged through tank warfare are far stronger and more intimate.

The moments shared by the girls are endearing and sweet, but the real stars are the tanks. Battle scenes are presented in rich detail as the machines tear through the terrain, chasing after one another in feints, flanks, and ambushes. Chief among the cast is Yukari, an excitable girl who has been obsessed with tanks all her life and boasts an encyclopedic knowledge of war machines; count on her to deliver specs, armor strength, and maneuverability statistics for every vehicle the group encounters. Yukari’s extensive knowledge of military tactics also makes her the narrator of each engagement as she spells out every movement, plan, target, and hazard.

For a school-sanctioned activity, tankery looks as dangerous as it sounds. To win an engagement, the tank teams must incapacitate a flag tank and take out support tanks along the way; the only frightening element is the use of live ammunition. Miraculously, the girls escape serious injury from shrapnel, internal fires, and proximity explosions. The really weird part? No one seems especially concerned about injury or death. Who is responsible for the girls if they are killed? How is it possible for first-time tank drivers to successfully drive a World War II antique without any visible means of training? With the exception of Yukari and tankery veteran Nishizumi, no other girl on the team is given much backstory for her skills.

Girls und Panzer seems like the sort of material army bases would keep on hand to introduce new recruits to tank warfare. While it depicts the friendships that form between the members of the Ooarai tankery team, these two books read like a beginner’s study in tactical tank combat. Little time is spent outside the tanks and thus far we haven’t seen the girls participate in any academics, cultural festivals, or summer trips. Without experiencing the anime, I can’t say if the focus on tanks is exclusive to the manga, but the unconditional love of the machines is a great twist on the high school genre. The fanatical recreation of tank designs, vocalized combat logs, allusions to major tank battles, and precision military tactics are awesome and intelligently presented, making Girls und Panzer an exciting read.

Girls Und Panzer, vols. 1 & 2
by Girls Und Panzer Projekt
Art by Ryichi Saitaniya
ISBN, vol 1: 9781626920569
ISBN, vol 2: 9781626920644
Seven Seas Entertainment, 2014
Publisher Age Rating: Teen

World War Blue, vols. 1-4

86-coverConsume is a continent at war. The Ninteldo empire has nearly crushed the smaller nation of Segua and other countries are scrabbling for territory. But the tide may soon be turning: a Seguan boy named Gear could change the fate of the war with his super-speed and mighty determination.

World War Blue is a story about the video game console wars. Every nation represents a game company and each major character represents a hit game. Ninteldo is ruled by Marcus, whose familiar mustache, dinosaur steed, and brother Gluiji lend a strong resemblance to Nintendo’s famous Mario. Besides being unnaturally fast, Gear has spiky blue hair and his nickname is “The Blue Sonic,” just in case anyone hadn’t already connected him to Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog.

Not all of the references are so obvious: other game companies include Data East as the kingdom of Decoran, Hudson Soft as the Republic of Habeed, and more. Each boasts at least one hero who represents a game made by that company. For readers who haven’t picked up on the subtext, the series periodically includes a section in which cartoon characters discuss the real-life history of video games and the companies that make them. Of course, these sections drop heavy hints about the companies and games that are represented in the plot.

The series falls into the shonen genre, full of battle and heroics, but it’s also full of highly sexualized portrayals of women. Opal, the female character who gets the most page time, is a powerful warrior who wears a skimpy tube top, a loincloth, and laughably, one armored shoulder plate. While it’s true that male lead Gear is shirtless for the entire series, he is never shown in sexy poses, groped, or threatened with rape—all things that regularly happen to Opal. Gear’s outfit is not impractical for a speedster, and many real-life men wear long shorts to go running. Opal’s outfit would be impractical in any situation, but especially in combat; indeed, she takes at least one serious wound to her fully-exposed back.

Tejirov, a lecherous mage, represents the game Tetris—prepare for comments about having a piece that’s just the right fit for a hole. He frequently talks about self-pleasuring, and while sometimes this turns out to refer to something non-sexual, other times he really is talking about masturbation. As Tejirov trains Gear and Opal, he teaches Opal a magical technique that he knows will drain her energy. When she collapses, he explains that using this technique could leave her helpless, and demonstrates by gleefully groping her. The next time Opal sees him, she is clearly uncomfortable, but Tejirov’s behavior is played for laughs with no hint of consequences. We are meant to see him as a good guy, even though we eventually discover that Opal’s original fighting trainer—portrayed as abusive and gross—groped her during their training sessions. When Tejirov does the exact same thing, he’s just “that wacky lecherous mage!”

Additionally, the army’s female leader, Ramses, suddenly appears naked during intense emotional moments (no naughty bits visible). This is likely a metaphorical representation of her mental state as the other characters don’t react, but it still seems out of place. One volume also features a side story in which a girl with supernatural strength is enslaved and threatened with rape before being rescued by a man; she then begs to be allowed to serve as her rescuer’s “horse.” The only prominent woman who is not constantly sexualized is Nel. Described by the series’ creators as a “little sister character,” even she gets to experience Tejirov’s disgusting comments.

The artwork has a spare, sketched-in look and the action sequences feature a lot of motion lines with big, scribbly-looking explosions. Characters vary from the typical attractive anime types to weird, monstrous creatures that represent strangely-animated characters from early games. For example, our heroes face off against D. Fisher, a sharp-toothed, bulky man with a vaguely scaly appearance modeled after the fish-like protagonist of the arcade game Darius. D. Fisher is described as being three times as wide as a normal person, a reference to the extra-wide screen used by Darius, which requires a special setup of three adjacent screens to play. For additional context, character bios and maps appear in each volume.

This nine-volume series has been made into an anime, which may increase its appeal for some readers. Otherwise, fans of video games—especially old and obscure games or consoles—will find a lot to interest them. Shonen fans may find the story slightly weak, as plot logic is sometimes stretched to make connections to video games, but they will probably like the can-do fighter Gear. There’s just the rampant objectification and casual treatment of sexual assault to keep in mind.

World War Blue, vols. 1-4
by Anastasia Shestakova
Art by Crimson
Vol. 1 ISBN: 9781937867966
Vol. 2 ISBN: 9781937867973
Vol. 3 ISBN: 9781937867980
Vol. 4 ISBN: 9781626920057
Seven Seas, 2013-2014
Publisher Age Rating: Teen

Alice in the Country of Clover: Ace of Hearts

87-coverTeenager Alice Liddell recently found herself stranded in the Country of Hearts, which is Wonderland with two important twists: nearly everyone is armed and trigger-happy, and all of them are in love with Alice. Still, Alice had begun to get used to Hearts—just in time to wake up somewhere else. Most of her friends from Hearts are here, and they assure her that magical shifts like this are normal. They’re now in the Country of Clover, with a different landscape and different rules, and some of Alice’s friends from Hearts didn’t make the move with her.

Back in Hearts, Alice spent a lot of time with the clockmaker Julius. Julius is cranky and deeply introverted, but Alice still counts him as a friend, as does the whimsical knight Ace from Hearts Castle. Doing side work for Julius was Ace’s only escape from his regular job, which he hates, so Alice is concerned when she and Ace make the move to Clover while Julius is left behind in Hearts. But strangely, Ace seems more cheerful than ever and he’s a lot more attached to Alice…

QuinRose has created many series of Alice manga with different plotlines. All are based on Japanese computer games that focus on romance between Alice and the player’s choice of handsome Wonderland suitors. The QuinRose manga mimics this experience by providing alternate storylines for various romantic interests. Ace of Hearts is a stand-alone volume in which Alice is paired with Ace, a carefree but dangerous knight. Outdoorsy and cheerful with a flirtatious streak, Ace can be hard to read when it comes to serious emotions. He can also be scary. He’s definitely interested in Alice, but he doesn’t always seem sure whether he wants to date her or kill her, and he’ll say as much with a smile on his face.

Alice and Ace’s romance takes up a little over two-thirds of this volume. The rest is occupied by a long preview for Crimson Empire, another QuinRose manga based on a different relationship-centric computer game, and a shorter preview for Zero’s Familiar. The art in Ace of Hearts is elegant and pretty, as it is in all of QuinRose’s Alice manga series. Characters are emphasized, their postures and expressions taking center stage. This leaves little room for background detail, but the scenery that does appear matches the characters in style. The art changes in the previews at the end: Crimson Empire feels less delicate and more solid, while Zero’s Familiar has a style best described as “chibi Harry Potter characters.”

Ace of Hearts is a lighthearted romance with humorous blunders and misunderstandings that bring out a silly side. It includes less sex and violence than some of QuinRose’s other Alice manga series; both are implied, but neither is shown explicitly or contemplated at length. Crimson Empire shows even less, but implies more, at least when it comes to sex; an entire chapter of the preview is about the protagonist’s pregnancy scare. Even in such a short space, Ace of Hearts also keeps readers aware of the violence endemic to this version of Wonderland. Alice’s life is threatened more than once, and she is caught in the crossfire of other characters’ deadly spats.

Readers who like some action with their romance (or some romance with their action) will likely enjoy this story and the other Alice manga. Fans of Ace in particular may also like the ongoing QuinRose series Alice in the Country of Clover: Knight’s Knowledge, which features the same pairing as this stand-alone volume.

Alice in the Country of Clover: Ace of Hearts
by QuinRose
Art by Mamenosuke Fujimaru
ISBN: 9781937867409
Seven Seas, 2013
Publisher Age Rating: Older Teen (16+)

The Sacred Blacksmith, vols. 1-3

sacred blacksmithWhen the Valbanill War ravaged the land, humans discovered that they could harness a terrible power, sacrificing parts of their bodies in order to create demons to fight for them—a ritual that became known as a Demon Pact. But that was 40 years ago, and since the end of the war, the people have begun to rebuild and Demon Pacts have become taboo.

This is the world of The Sacred Blacksmith, a manga series that is based on a string of Japanese light novels. The storyline is simple: like her father and grandfather before her, protagonist Cecily Campbell is a knight. She wishes to carry on the name of the aristocratic Campbell family and defend Housman, the Independent Trade City founded by her grandfather. When her ancestral blade is broken in a fight with a vagabond who has made a Demon Pact, she is rescued by a young man named Luke Ainsworth who wields a curved blade called a katana.

If none of this sounds original, it’s because The Sacred Blacksmith is a clichéd sword-and-sorcery story, complete with stock characters and a bland plot. Cecily is the spunky female fighter who constantly monologues about proving herself, only to be defeated by every opponent and then rescued by Luke. Luke himself is void of personality and emotionally withdrawn, likely due to past betrayal. It is clear from the dialogue that the writer wishes to set these two up as romantic interests, but their lack of chemistry is laughable. Finally, there’s Lisa, an adorable, nymph-like ethereal being who serves as Luke’s assistant. She helps Luke to forge his katana weapons, and naturally, she has an unrequited crush on him.

Speaking of Luke’s katana, Cecily really wants one—no matter that the book opens with Cecily’s refusal to use any steel other than the blade passed down through her family. As soon as she sees Luke’s katana in action, she seems to abandon her blood loyalty, begging him to forge a katana of her own. Later, she forsakes this desire in order to wield a demon blade, a living weapon created by a Demon Pact. Unfortunately, the anthropomorphic weapon trope has been used more effectively in dozens of other series.

Although the artwork isn’t bad, the character designs don’t stand out in any way. Cecily has large breasts, short hair, a tiara on her head, and her armor consists of a breastplate with one left shoulder piece; at one point she appears in a maid’s outfit. Dark-haired Luke sports a permanent gaze of indifference, while tiny Lisa has pointy elf ears and a childlike expression. If one were to place them in a lineup with other anime and game characters, they would easily be lost.

The creators’ overreliance on common tropes continues as they often resort to cheap fan service for comedic relief. Several characters fall into Cecily’s breasts, which become exposed in battle after her clothing is shredded; and of course, there are panty shots and an obligatory bath house scene in which the female characters grab each other’s breasts.

The books include some extras, including fan art and creator commentary. The most notable add-on consists of Lisa explaining the ancient Japanese art of katana forging, which lends some historical value to the series. Lisa and Luke use magical means to create their weapons, but Lisa’s lesson provides a thorough historic and scientific explanation of the real katana and the use of folded steel. Though this is a nice supplement, it does little to make this a shelf-worthy series.

The Sacred Blacksmith, vols. 1-3
by Isao Miura
Art by Kotaro Yamada
Vol. 1 ISBN: 9781937867324
Vol. 2 ISBN: 9781937867652
Vol. 3 ISBN: 9781937867836
Seven Seas Entertainment, 2013
Publisher Age Rating: Older Teen

A Centaur’s Life, vols. 1-2

centaurslife1A Centaur’s Life is a “slice of life” manga set in a world where humans are genetically mixed with animals like cats and snakes, and mythological creatures such as centaurs, angels, dragons, and satyrs. Sweet, naïve Kimihara Himeno, known as Hime, is the titular centaur who must deal with issues like being the lead in the school play; what to do when a boy expresses interest in her; whether she enjoys kissing her female friend too much; and what a drag it is to practice ritual archery for the annual festival at the Centaur shrine. Familiar “slice of life” situations are altered to fit a fresh new type of fantasy world, a mix of genres that is designed to pique interest.

However, the series suffers from another kind of mixed message. The opening chapter of the first book differs so much in tone from the rest of the first and second volumes that it seems more like a one-off, aimed at an audience wanting a titillating schoolgirl story. Certainly, it deals with a real topic of concern: young people can feel nervous and wonder whether their genitals are supposed to look a certain way. For Hime, this fear is even more overwhelming because she has less access to her nether parts; she was frightened by a visit to a dairy farm and a view of a cow’s posterior. To alleviate her fears, Hime and her friends conclude that the solution is an equal-access group peek under everyone’s skirts. The chapter wobbles across the line from the sensitive portrayal of a real fear to a weird fanservice version of a girls’ sleepover.

To compound the mixed messages sent by the first volume, Seven Seas decided to put a preview of the hentai comic Monster Musume at the end of the book—specifically, a scene featuring a monster woman being pleasured, perhaps for no other reason than it was licensed in English at the same time as A Centaur’s Life. I don’t believe this accurately gauges the audience for this series, judging by the majority of its content. Hime and her friends are concerned about romance, dating, and puberty, but they are not written as vehicles for sexual storylines. Their adventures usually take on a sensual bent, which makes sense, as the series was originally written for a seinen manga magazine. Murayama’s character designs are adorably shoujo and only occasionally awkward, e.g. when a centaur is trying to sit on a bench.

Overall, A Centaur’s Life is a great example of worldbuilding, and a thoroughly entertaining mix of “slice of life” and fantasy genres. Various plot points allow Murayama to slip in facts about the genetics and other details of the world, such as the material that comprises the angels’ haloes and the differences between wings of each type of winged folk. The world design shows how cars are adapted for centaurs, what a mermaid school would look like, and there’s even a storyline about a dog with a human face. Where do these creatures fit into this world and how did they come to be? Further volumes will have a lot to explore.

A Centaur’s Life, vols. 1-2
by Kei Murayama
Vol. 1 ISBN: 9781937867911
Vol. 2 ISBN: 9781626920002
Seven Seas, 2013-2014
Publisher Age Rating: OT (16+)