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Fantasy

Witchlight

Sanja is in the market when a fight breaks out between a witch and some local ruffians. She interjects, only to get kidnapped by the witch, who goes by Lelek. In exchange for her freedom, Sanja offers to teach Lelek to fight with a blade. Lelek accepts, for she is on a quest to find the missing half of her soul. Together, the two women journey across the land, discovering who they are, and confronting their past in order to move forward.

The main plot point of the kidnapping really killed this one for me. If you can get past it, it’s a tale reminiscent of Beauty and the Beast in which two people are thrown together by circumstance and have to learn to love and accept first themselves, then each other. It’s made even more powerful by the fabulous representation of BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities. Fantasy sorely needs more representation and in that respect, this graphic novel delivers.

The art couldn’t decide between two wildly different styles: those being cartoony and ancient Asian. The figures were rounded with stylized features, but (as was often the case with ancient Asian art) the field of depth was often too flat for them to be effective. Their expressions were also very flat and ambiguous… honestly, it was very hard to tell what anyone was thinking or feeling a lot of the time. On the other hand, the landscapes and backgrounds worked very well with the blends of styles they used. The environments were more interesting to me than the characters themselves.

In my opinion, the only thing this graphic novel did well was its representation and diversity in characters. I found the main love story problematic because of the Stockholm Syndrome-esque elements. The art clashed two different styles to its detriment. I’m disappointed because this was well-reviewed even before publication. You’re not missing anything if you skip it.

– Kathleen

Zabarsky, Jessi and Geov Chouteau. Witchlight. 2020.

Magus of the Library (Vol. 2)

Now that Theo Fumis is seven years older, he is on his way to the great city of Aftzaak to take the Kafna Exam! He has not grown out of his desire to become a librarian, and wishes to give back the book that Kafna Sedona lent him when she visited his home village. Aftzaak is a long way away, and there are many grand sites and places to visit along the way. Of course, there are friends to be made as well: Mihona, another Kafna hopeful on her way to the exam; Alv, a street-wise youngster; and a citlapol (albino creature) with two tails that Theo names Uira. Together, they travel and arrive in Aftzaak. The Kafna exam is, by all accounts, a grueling experience… can Theo even make it through the first part?

I adore every part of this manga. Of course, I love it because librarians are central to the story 😉 But the worldbuilding is absolutely phenomenal. Each chapter of this volume takes place in a different city along Theo’s route. The chapter pages have illustrations and information about the city, or a monument or natural phenomena nearby. Each city has its own distinct artistic flavor that only grows in scale the closer we get to Aftzaak. It’s interesting to see not only Theo’s character, but the art and world evolve right along with him.

As mentioned in my review of Volume 1, it appears that much of the artistic influence was taken from Middle Eastern and Indian (by that I mean India the Asian country, not Native American tribes; my apologies for any confusion) cultures. It’s more of the same here, in costumes and architecture. In essence, a blend of all of my favorite things.

The grand scale of this literary adventure, coupled with my visual Kryptonite, ensures that I’ll be following this manga very closely.

-Kathleen

Izumi, Mitsu. Magus of the Library (Vol. 2). 2019.

Estranged (Vol. 2): The Changeling King

After the events of Estranged Volume 1, Ed and Cinder are both back in their rightful places. The changeling formerly known as Edmund Carter has now ascended the throne as Cinder. The human Edmund is back in the World Above with his human family. Though they are both back where they belong, they are each struggling to assimilate. Cinder is facing big problems as the magic in the World Below is fading unexpectedly. It’s revealed that the royal family needs to do a secret ritual at the Root of All Magic periodically, and it’s about that time again. Cinder invites the Carters to come down from the World Above to help him with his journey. Of course, Ed and Alexis know all about the World Below, and are excited to be going back, but their parents aren’t so sure. Can the Carters stick together through all the perils and unknowns?

There’s a bit of a time skip that happens between the first and second volumes. It’s not specified how much (unless I missed it when skimming again), but I’d say it’s within a few months, less than a year at least. There is enough time for Ed and Cinder to settle down in their new homes, but not enough for them to grow fully confident in their newfound roles. The main themes of this series, continuing from the first volume, are of identity, family, and finding one’s place.

The dynamic between the Carter family is very sweet. Sure, it’s true that Alexis, Ed, and Cinder bicker as siblings will, but they stand true to each other. Though their parents may not totally understand everything that’s going on, they love all their children very much, and accept and support them no matter what. This is a family that’s proven throughout the course of the story to stay together through thick and thin out of love and respect for one another.

My favorite thing about this series continues to be the art. The darkly whimsical feel is carried over from the first volume. I can’t get enough of the orderly chaotic lineart and muted watercolors. The ending seemed to be open for another adventure; I sorely hope this series is continued so I can continue gobbling it up 😉

-Kathleen

Aldridge, Ethan M. Estranged (Vol. 2): The Changeling King. 2019.

The Midwinter Witch (The Witch Boy #3)

Aster is a boy who practices the traditionally feminine witch magic. He hopes to compete in the Vanissen’s (very) extended family’s Jolrun tournament at their annual Midwinter Festival. He isn’t afraid to show who he is, but others in his family are afraid and even angry at him for trying. Ariel is a girl without a family, who has been somewhat taken in by the Vanissens due to her magical abilities. She is still uncomfortable with the prospect of so much family all of a sudden, and isn’t sure whether or not she’d like to attend the Midwinter Festival. She’s also been having strange dreams in which a mysterious witch appears, claiming to know more about Ariel’s past. How can Aster and Ariel fit in with their family and stay true to themselves at the same time?

I felt very… confused by this story. As in, I felt I was coming in at the middle of a bigger story. One of my co-workers informed me that this book is the third in The Witch Boy series, which explains why I felt that way! I hadn’t realized it was part of a series, or I’d have started at the beginning. Though I had to fill in some plot holes myself, not having read the first 2 books, I was able to follow along well enough.

Aster’s story was the most compelling, even if it felt like Ariel was supposed to be the main character. Aster and Ariel shared the stage about half the time, but Ariel had slightly more “screen” time. Unfortunately, I was much less interested in her story of trying to find her family, than with Aster’s struggle to break traditional gender norms. In this universe, witch magic is traditionally performed by women, and shapeshifting by men. Aster’s choice to study witch magic is unprecedented – and it shows. He is to some extent worried about what the rest of his family will think, but he doesn’t let it stop him. Others, who are afraid for him, afraid of him, and angry at him for not being “normal” are the ones who try to get in his way.

There are more characters who are representative of minority races and the LGBTQ+ spectrum. In my opinion, all of them were more interesting than Ariel. Perhaps I need to read the first two books to see where and how she came in, and what her overall significance is to the bigger story, but compared to Aster’s struggle, her well-tread journey seems, well, dull. I would rather her not have been in the book at all.

Because this is a middle-grade novel, the art is soft and skews to a cute aesthetic. The figures are rounded and expressive in a cartoony way. The backgrounds are soft and not too interesting, to keep the focus on the characters. All the colors are vivid and bright.

Overall this story was bogged down by Ariel’s character and inner journey. While there is certainly nothing wrong with it, she paled in comparison to Aster’s fight to break gender norms within his family. Middle-grade readers will appreciate the easily accessible art and the wealth of normalized representation.

-Kathleen

Ostertag, Molly Knox. The Midwinter Witch. 2019.

Magus of the Library (Vol. 1)

Theo Fumis is a young boy who is a little… different. He has long ears that are a different shape than everyone else in his village. He also lives in the slums with his sister, who works to put him through school. Theo is a smart boy, and more than anything else in the world, he loves to read books. Unfortunately, the library in his village doesn’t allow those living in the slums to use it, leaving Theo to sneak in and out whenever he wants to read. He longs for adventure, for a hero to whisk him away, and perhaps to join the Great Library himself someday. Four kafna – librarians from the Great Library – visit his village to check on the library’s status. One in particular, Sedona Bleu, opens his eyes to the great wide world ahead of him – and shows him that sometimes, we need to be our own hero.

I have to admit, I checked this out from work out of curiosity. A manga with lead librarian characters? Sign me up! I didn’t expect to like it as much as I did.

The setting is pretty interesting. It’s a mix of fantasy and history with Middle Eastern and Indian elements (which, if I’m being honest, is a cocktail of all of my favorite things!). The architecture and character’s clothes have the elaborate, decorative detail found in those cultures. Social standings of the characters appear to be determined by the Indian caste system. Though we know Theo comes from a poor family, his heritage remains a secret. In this story, humans and mythical creatures live side-by-side, so I am eager to both see more of this world and discover who Theo really is.

The linework of this graphic novel is incredibly tight and precise. It has to be, in order to fit all the intricate decorative elements mentioned previously, but the precision suggests that this is not Mitsu Izumi’s first rodeo. The only complaint I have is that sometimes the flow of the panels isn’t always intuitive. I got confused at more than a few parts by reading ahead or behind where I was supposed to. Perhaps this can be attributed by my novice manga-reading skills.

All in all I was just as impressed with the art as I was the blending of many different elements to create a promising story – which just happens to also star librarians 😉

– Kathleen

Izumi, Mitsu. Magus of the Library (Vol. 1). 2019.

Estranged

Not everyone knows there’s a world below this one, where the fae and other fantastical creatures reside. Edmund knows, and so does his changeling, only known as the Childe. Edmund was born fae, but swapped for the Childe, so they have each grown up in the other’s world. When the queen’s evil sister Hawthorne claims the fae throne for herself, the Childe and his wax golem, Whick, escape to the world above to find Edmund. He is the crown prince and the only other person with a claim to the throne. Edmund is reluctant to leave the only life and family he has ever known, even for his birthright. Now that the Childe has found is human family – he’s not so quick to give it up, either. Can the two boys work together to save both worlds – worlds that neither of them feel they’re really a part of?

Wow. I was astonished this is a middle-grade graphic novel. It dives deep into mature issues such as identity and family. There’s a much weightier substance to the story than I was expecting, and certainly more than what’s standard for the target audience. Mr. Aldridge has no qualms about asking the hard questions of his audience, and writes them in in a way that his audience will be able to understand. In case it gets too rough, the graphic novel is laid out in chapters so they can take a break and come back to it later. If any of the target audience is like me and was too absorbed to do anything but devour it in one go, however, chapter breaks won’t be needed 😉

As a fantasy story, the art is darkly whimsical. It’s sketchy and cluttered, to convey a lot of information, but doesn’t come off as messy. Instead it gives more of an “organized chaos” vibe. Thin watercolor washes are built up in layers to also bring a sense of reality to the story.

I was shocked that this dark, weighty fantasy story was a middle-grade novel, and trust me… you will be, too.

– Kathleen

Aldridge, Ethan M. Estranged. 2018.

The Serpent-Bearer and the Prince of Stars

I have long read and admired the blog tours that Shannon of R&R Blog Tours puts together, but typically the books didn’t match the type of blog that Kathleen and I write- until now! When Shannon let me know a manga book was in her wheelhouse, I happily accepted a spot on this blog tour. Read on to find out my thoughts on this manga novella!

The Serpent-Bearer

Welcome to The Serpent-Bearer and the Prince of Stars blog tour! Read on to learn more about this beautifully illustrated graphic novel by C.S. Johnson, and a chance to win a copy for yourself!

The Serpent-Bearer and the Prince of Stars

Publication Date: November 7th, 2018

Genre: Manga Style/ Graphic Novel

Length: 30 Pages

A tiresome task.
A deceptive dragon.
A prince that changes everything.

Ophiuchus is a celebrated warrior of the Celestial Kingdom and a warrior among the Stars. He has been always been a dutiful servant of the Prince of Stars. So when the prince asks him to watch over the crafty serpent, Naga, Ophiuchus agrees. But as time passes and discouragement—both from Naga and others—Ophiuchus wonders if the Prince of Stars was right in asking him to take on the burdens of his task.

Will Ophiuchus honor his duty, or give in to his heart’s weariness?

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My thoughts:

This short manga packed quite a punch in its allegorical tale.  Ophiuchus is a warrior that has been tasked with keeping the devious dragon Naga in line. The two have been battling for a millennium and Ophiuchus is weary and feels even the Zodiac creatures do not support him. When the two are inviting to a party by the Prince of Stars, Naga tries to plant doubt in Ophiuchus’s mind about his duty and the nature of the dragon. In a moment of weakness Ophiuchus believes Naga’s claims, but when the Prince meets with Ophiuchus he is given clarity and strength to once again take up the burden of fighting Naga.  This fable about good vs evil is clear and has Christian overtones that strengthen this novella.

The black and white art was drawn in anime style with tight panels that did not show much background. The animals and fantastic creatures of the Zodiac were well drawn with extra care to make Naga both beautiful but deadly. An opening scene showed a castle, and I would have liked to see more world-building in the scenes as the art was lovely and would have added to the story.

I enjoyed this manga, and I would recommend it to readers who are struggling and might find strength in the story. This dialogue-heavy tale could lead to deep discussions if shared with others concerning the nature of our burdens and the help we can find in our friends and in our faith.

Excerpt

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Available on Amazon!

About the Author

Author Pic

C. S. Johnson is the award-winning, genre-hopping author of several novels, including young adult sci-fi and fantasy adventures such as the Starlight Chronicles, the Once Upon a Princess saga, and the Divine Space Pirates trilogy. With a gift for sarcasm and an apologetic heart, she currently lives in Atlanta with her family. Find out more at http://www.csjohnson.me

CS Johnson | Twitter | Facebook | Instagram | Pinterest

For a chance to win your own copy of The Serpent-Bearer and the Prince of Stars, click the link below!

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The Serpent-Bearer

Blog Tour Organized By:

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R&R Book Tours

Sleepless: Volume Two

I recently discovered the lush romantic fantasy series Sleepless and quickly read the duology. I just wish it had been a longer series, as I enjoyed the love story between Poppy and Cyrenic and think it could have at least been fleshed out into three volumes.

The second volume opens almost a year after the first, with Cyrenic awakening from his sleep after being released from his magical vow of eternal wakefulness. Poppy is being forced into a marriage of political convenience to Lord Helder, the very man she suspects of trying to kill her, but the king has blinders on and pushes her to go through with the wedding. Surprisingly the marriage ceremony does occur, but Poppy has her own reasons for going along with it. However, the wedding night spins out of control and Poppy and Cyrenic are on the run.

As Cyrenic is the first sleepless knight to be released from his vow, and deals with his recovery afterwards, there were some interesting perspectives from the other knights about if they too would like to be released. There were some thought provoking reasons as to why some of them would prefer to stay sleepless. The last half of the book is a long action sequence, and an additional villain is revealed, but the reasoning behind this second person wanting vengeance against Poppy felt ridiculous. During their escape Poppy and Cyrenic reaffirm their love, but it was rushed and could have been so much more.

The artwork was as lovely as ever, with the wedding scene being especially well done. The patterns and brocades of the clothing worn were exquisite. I felt the illustrations really lent to world building, for the interiors from the throne room to the kitchens combined into a believable kingdom. The coloring also added to the atmosphere with jewel tones for the courtly attire, decorations and poppy motif to earth tones for much of the action. Plus, Bini the fox was as adorbs as ever. An added bonus at the conclusion was alternative covers by other artists and some process pages that showed the evolution of the artwork throughout the story.

I do want to point out two glaring oddities. There was much made that Poppy’s mother is in her home country and can not return due to political issues and many letters are exchanged between the women. Although a wedding gift from her mother helps Poppy during a crisis,  we still do not meet her, even at the end when all has been resolved. And look at the picture above- these two are falling about 50 feet and land on a pile of bones. This would have killed them, instead they act as if it was a cushion, and then there is some throwaway conversation about the caverns and bones needing to be researched.

As a whole, this was an excellent short series. But there was definitely enough plot threads that could have been expanded upon that a third volume would have been very welcome. Author Sarah Vaughn created a beautiful fantasy world that artist Leila del Duca built upon, and I’m glad that I visited their magical realm!

-Nancy

Above The Timberline

Above The Timberline by Gregory Manchess is a unique book, that isn’t quite a graphic novel, instead it is a highly illustrated book, a so-called “painted novel”. Very reminiscent of the Dinotopia book series (minus the dinosaurs but add polar bears) by James Gurney, this large sized book has 240 pages of lush paintings that transport you to another time and place.

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Set in the year 3518, a cataclysmic event approximately 1500 years ago (that just happens to match our current date!) caused the Earth’s mantle to spin faster than it’s crust, resulting in huge tectonic shifts. Continents broke away and collided with others destroying cities and plunging them underground, with the original equator thrown towards the poles, and the poles at the new equator. Society was disrupted and much technology was lost as a new extreme ice age descended upon everyone. Now the current population seems to be in the early 20th century with British overtones, but bits and pieces of past mechanization such as airships remain so the entire setting has a steam punk vibe.

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Polar bears as pack animals and allies

The premise of this alternate future has the son of a missing famed explorer searching for his father who had been seeking a lost city under the snow. We have past journal entries from the father, Galen, that provide clues for Wes to follow. Soon into his journey through the Phantom Waste he meets up with some nomads and it just so happens that a lovely young woman of the tribe, Linea, helps him escape. Her knowledge of the terrain is invaluable as they work together to find Wes’s father, ahead of a former friend now turned villain who wants the glory for himself.

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Rhinos had to adapt and now have furry coats!

The artwork is exquisite. Manchess is known for his art in Newsweek, Time, Atlantic Monthly, and National Geographic and the beauty of his work can not be understated. He vividly creates a believable tundra landscape, and paints his characters, animals and interior backgrounds with precision. Although Manchess has contributed art to other books, this is the first he has authored, and at times the characterizations were thin. However, the narrative is set up for more adventures so I’ll definitely check out what further exploits await Wes and Linea!

-Nancy

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