Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Knights of the End Preview + Thanks

Being that tomorrow is the release of my first ever novel, I decided to make this post in celebration.

The Prologue:
Teddy MacIsaac stood atop the junkpile, victorious. In his hands shone a golden coin with a perfect circumference flashing against the afternoon sun. This was his treasure; this was what he would use to save the world.
The coin twinkled as he inspected both sides. No markings had been embedded on the flawless treasure. It fit perfectly in the palm of his hand. It spoke to him.
He was only a fourteen-year-old eighth grader, but Teddy knew greatness when he saw it. This was more than greatness. This was a gift from the heavens.
He climbed down the mountain of trash. His left arm shielded him from the light of the sun as he descended. His boots crunched into old Styrofoam and rotten food. He brushed himself off as he reached the trash strewn road at the bottom of the hill. Despite the shower he would undoubtedly need, his trek through the junkyard was still worth it. His nose would hate him forever, though.
It was almost unbelievable. The dreams had told him that unimaginable riches awaited him in the trash. He had searched that junkyard for over a year because of those dreams, and, in every moment he spent there, he knew he would find it. He never lost the faith.
Wind blew his strawberry blonde hair back. He brushed it clean.
He patted down his old green jacket to make sure no trash clung to him, and slid the coin into his pocket. Walking through the trash was worth it, even if he stunk like rotten milk and the taste of copper filled his mouth.
He removed his boots and put them into his backpack just like he did every day. There was nothing important in there, anyway. Just school books.
As he changed back into his red sneakers, a heat traveled through him and up his spine. Gooseflesh sprung up all over.
He stood up.
Theodore MacIsaac,” a voice spoke into his mind. “Press your hands together, and heed the call.”
Skepticism overtook him but momentarily. He knew the words. He didn’t know how he knew them, but they echoed through his mind like a Prayer of Devotion that old warriors chanted before they charged into battle. Visions of lonely nights he’d spent over the last year flashed through him, and the familiar voice soothed his fears. This was his chance. He wouldn’t waver now.
Teddy clasped the coin between his pressed together palms like a prayer or a stance in a martial arts movie. Heat shot into his hands and through his body.
“I beg you,” he said, “bestow on me the glory!”
A flash of light overtook existence. Nothing remained but dabs of black against a white canvas. He was gone and then he was back again within a second, standing alone in the junkyard.
He blinked. “What did I just do?”
Teddy checked himself over. His old blue jeans and black shirt were still there, as was the rest of him.
But the coin was gone.
“No. No, no, no, no!”
He patted his pockets. He searched the garbage covered road around him. The coin had vanished.
He debated putting on his boots again and going back out into the trash. It was getting late, but this was a treasure worth more than being grounded. He wouldn’t go home empty-handed. Not after finally learning the dreams were real.
“I think MacIsaac came out here,” Stieg Johns said.
“I thought I heard someone yelling over there.”
Teddy froze. They’d found him. He cocked his ears and listened for the voices again.
“What would he be doing in the junkyard, anyway? Do all you eighth grade losers have brain damage or something?”
Teddy followed the sounds of the voices south down the narrow path between junk piles. He circled around as they drew near, making sure to keep their view obscured of his presence. Sure enough, his first inclination was right. They rounded the bend, joking away with each other. Teddy recognized the group of five teenagers. They were led by Stieg Johns and Corey Hoffman.
“You just don’t know MacIsaac, Corey,” Stieg said, in his best suck-up voice. “I’ve known the loser for years. Never throws a punch, runs from everything, still plays make believe in the woods. Hanging out at a junkyard is the exact sort of thing he would do. Besides, the garbage guy in the truck outside said he spotted a short kid with blonde hair hanging out here almost all summer. Who else would it be?”
Stieg Johns wore a non-threatening bowl-cut hairdo, a thick jacket two sizes too big for his average size, and had the face of a horse. If he didn’t latch on to Hoffman’s gang, he would have been even lower on the food chain than Teddy was.
There was a time that Stieg Johns was Teddy’s friend. That was before seventh grade started. Things changed. Teddy didn’t put much stock in friends anymore. They all ended up like Stieg.
“He is a freak,” Hoffman said, gazing around the piles of waste. “Man, it reeks here. Can’t stand it. Let’s just get him tomorrow. I know a guy that can make this much easier.”
Hoffman was burly, most of which was fat. He wore a thick black jacket and perfectly stylized spiky hair to complete his appearance as a thug. He’d been held back a year, which was fairly obvious to anyone who spoke with him for more than three seconds. It didn’t change the fact that he was the second most feared kid at school. Corey Hoffman was no wuss.
Stieg shrugged. “If you say so.”
“I do, Johns. Just because freaks hang out here, doesn’t mean I’m gonna. I’ve got places to be. Now, shut up and let’s get out of here.”
Teddy didn’t stick around to watch them leave. He sprinted over to the fence by the exit while they were still talking. He knew this place too well by now.
Without pause, he scurried over the fence. As he landed on the other side, a pang of regret knocked into him.
He didn’t want to be like Stieg. He didn’t want to fall in line and hand over his life to the first fat thug that sneered at him. He wanted real friends, and he wanted to be needed.
Teddy wanted to be a hero. He wanted to save the world. He wanted to be the monster-slaying hero from all those games they played as kids. Evil rises, Good slays it. No matter where the monsters struck, and no matter who the innocent was, there would always be a hero to make things right. That is how the world works. That is how it is supposed to be.
Teddy was going to be that hero.
He leaned against the fence. His palms itched when he glared at them. He still stunk of sour milk. The whole situation was pathetic.
Teddy was no hero. He was still playing pretend.
And that wasn’t good enough anymore.
Finally, after wasting enough time, he decided to head home. His mom would kill him if he wasted anymore time.
The world was not what it had been when he was a kid. Was this the way things were supposed to be? Would it continue like this forever? A voice in the back of his head answered with one definitive statement.
Heat built up inside Teddy MacIsaac’s body. If he didn’t know better, it was like he was ready to explode.

If that is not enough of a taste, here is another excerpt:

From Chapter 1:

Teddy excused himself from the table. He ducked out into the hall and up the stairs before anyone said anything. Drums rolled in his head.
His legs were lead. Each step to his room grew heavier. He shouldered open his door.
The pillow on his bed was much too perfect. He was out in seconds.
Then he was awake.
“What is all this?” he asked into the endless wind.
He stood atop a dune of ash in the middle of endless night. Blackened wind blew under the sunless sky. The land before him was dead.
Only rolling dunes of black slag remained in this scorched world. No scent of maples, pines, or the sights of the tall redwoods remained. McLeod was gone.
He took several steps forward. The pain had vanished, but his weariness had not. He tasted the dust in the back of his throat. A sense of magnetism tugged him onward.
“Up ahead, Theodore MacIsaac.”
There was a history here. Long dead voices whispered their forgotten tales in the ashen breeze. Something like magic had once filled these lands. But now, only death remained.
A thread of inevitability ran through him. Was he seeing the past, or the future?
But, then, he spotted it. A narrow object peeked out at the top of a hill of ash thirty feet away. It glinted like metal. A pipe? No. It was something far cooler than that.
“A sword!” Teddy shouted.
He sprinted through the whistling wind of the dead world. Up ahead was the last light shining through it. A chorus of endless voices ran through his mind. They guided him onward. He reached the top of the ashen mound, excitement replacing weariness.
The sword stared back at him, plunged into the darkness of the cinders. The hilt was shining white, unlike the flame-licked blade. Its presence pierced the void with white heat. He knew what it was. The Red Sword, a blade of stained crimson red, was calling him forward.
“Theodore MacIsaac, are you ready to heed the call?”

Want to read the rest? Check back tomorrow!

I had a lot of help to get through this one. L. Jagi Lamplighter, my editor, was the most important in shaping this story up. Being that I wrote this in a NaNoWriMo, I edited it quite a bit, but somehow never took a scalpel to the prose.

That was a mistake.

Due to the insistence of my editor, I ended up rewriting from scratch, and using the help of several others (including my parents and my friend, Randy) to help me improve. I learned a lot from them and will be making sure my next work is better tempered before I send it to my editor. Thanks to all of you.

And thanks, Jagi. You really helped me shape this story up! I apologize for making it difficult on you.

Tovio Rogers did my cover. I quite liked his art and how it matched the visual design I had in mind when writing. Check out his art when you get the time. He's got quite a unique style to his work. Thanks, Tovio.

Dawn Witzke helped lay out the design for the text and print book cover. She did a great job. The speed in which she received my request and finished was remarkable. Thanks, Dawn.

Also, thanks to advice from Brian Niemeier, I enlisted the help of Polgarus Studio to format my story for print and e-book.

I would also like to offer additional thanks to both the aforementioned Mr. Niemeier and Declan Finn for both helping with my blurb, and for their general inspiration as independent writers. Thank you for showing me that there is only one rule in writing: please the readers. I hope I have followed through on that.

There are many other people I would like to thank, but that list is way too long. If you have ever chatted with me, linked to my blog, or just posted about your own love of stories, then I will also give you my gratitude.

And thanks to Jesus Christ, our Lord and Redeemer. I would certainly not be able to write this without Him.

Please be sure to check out Knights of the End when it releases tomorrow. December 1st is when we light the world on fire.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Announcing "Knights of the End"

Cover art by Tovio Rogers
Cover design by Dawn Witzke

I'm finally ready to unleash my first novel into the wilds, after many false starts and just as many edits. I have a lot of people to thank for this, and will in my next post. This book has been a long time coming.

Knights of the End is a young adult novel that was written after I thought about how drab most YA was these days. Being that S.E. Hinton was the author that first got me into reading, I felt called to write something of my own in the style. Why not just write the book I wanted to read when I was thirteen? No one had written that yet. And that was how this story began.

The premise of Knights is that an evil force from a different world has landed in ours. Over the years it has hidden in the shadows, slowly building its forces for the day it can take over. They are the Order of the Ash, and they are out to reshape the world. That is where this book starts.

The titular Knights of the End are a group of warriors from the old world tasked with bringing the Order of the Ash to an end. Fourteen year old Teddy MacIsaac soon finds himself as the new Pyre Knight, the Knight of Flames, and the first line of defense as his town comes under siege. Can he finally be the hero he always wanted to be, or are heroes really just fairy tales?

The #1 goal with this story was to make so many different parts work together. You'll see elements of shonen manga, magical girl, Gargoyles, Ronin Warriors, superheroes, 80s action and fantasy movies, S.E. Hinton, pulp action, and a battle between good and evil that transcends worlds, all blended into one story. I tried to make this a love letter to all the things that inspired me.

Needless to say, it took a long time to put this together.

This all came about after years of disappointment from the modern entertainment industry. The type of stories I liked growing up in the late 80s and 90s has all but vanished from the landscape. Books had ceased being fun, especially in the fantasy, horror, and science fiction arena, and YA books, meant to stir the imagination of kids and teenagers, had also begun to revel in despair and "important ideas" instead of adventure and fun. I wanted to write something different than all that.

I wrote Knights of the End to see if I could capture that feeling of excitement I got from the stories of my youth. Whether I succeeded or not depends on the readers, so please let me know what you think by leaving reviews.

It will be out December 1st, God willing, so please keep an eye out! I'll be making a post for its launch.

Thanks to all the blog readers, and those who have linked here. You have given me the impression that maybe the stories that have inspired me are still wanted nowadays. This one is for you.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

"The Weaker of Us Will be Culled" ~ My Hero Academia Volume 6 Review

*Be aware of spoilers!*

My Hero Academia starts a new story arc in this volume, and it is widely considered one of the best parts of the series so far. That cover isn't just for show. Much happens in this volume, which means there is much to go over.

The Sports Festival has ended. Because of the massive success the students had made the events, they are now being sought out for recruitment by Hero Firms for internships. Things are getting real. They are allowed to pick their official hero names, and chose the place they will be working for a week. Midoriya surprises everyone with his hero name and his turning of an insult into inspiration, and Tenya Ida wrestles with his own identity as a hero as he stews over his brother's near-death at the hands of the Hero Killer. Meanwhile, the villains have approached that very murderer for help in their next diabolical scheme . . .

This volume introduces some very important characters in the My Hero Academia world. The first is the aforementioned Hero Killer Stain who even the author admits his English name was chosen for a very important reason:

"Stain has a very specific meaning in English. Slowly but surely, this character is making his mark on the story."

To go into his meaning more would be to spoil events further in the story. But Stain is, to put it bluntly, the grey area between black and white. Unlike the cool image such characters have been given in comics since the 80s, Kohei Horikoshi does not fuss around with the monster that an anti-hero can truly be. Stain is the result of pure consequentialism and working for the greater good taken to its obvious end point. I could go further into this, but that would require speaking of future events, and I want to save that for reviews down the line. Long story short, Stain is one of My Hero Academia's best characters, and one that truly helps color in the battle of good and evil that pulses through the story.

Another character that appears is All Might's teacher, the retired hero Gran Torino. He takes Midoriya under his wing to help him control his power and teaches him how to fight villains on his own. This mentor is a curious character. One thing I must applaud Mr. Horikoshi for is not making Gran Torino the typical perverted master type that has been so prevalent since Dragon Ball. He is instead a crafty old codger who feigns senility to take his opponents by surprise. Given that he has intense speed as his power, it is an incredible advantage he affords himself in battle.

Gran Torino's introduction is a sort of mirror of Stain, at least conceptually.

The color coding between the characters is quite brilliant. Main villain Shigaraki wears dark clothes and black to clash against his pale skin, Gran Torino wears all white aside from his mask, and Stain wears mostly black with white bandages and a red scarf. It is a nice contrast between all three characters and where they stand in the grand scheme of things.

Volume six, aside from centering on Midoriya's training, is also about Ida's quest for revenge. He chooses a Hero Firm in Hosu City specifically because that is where his brother was attacked, and where the Hero Killer has been spotted. He refuses to let his friends in on his anger, and abandons his post in a crisis to find Stain instead of doing his job. Ida, normally the most emotionally stable of the group and the moral compass, has become obsessed with finding the man who ended his brother's career as a hero. He soon finds Stain about to execute a hero, and attacks the villain who crippled his brother. Where this all leads is to one of the best encounters in My Hero Academia to date.

As the volume shows with an encounter between Shigaraki and Stain, there is more going on here than meets the eye. Shigaraki wants to use Stain to topple society and instill chaos. He declares the hero world a failure and wants to see it scorched away. Stain wants to use Shigaraki as a way to cull the weak heroes, the ones not in it for pure self-sacrificial reasons, and rebuild a pure hero society over this failed one. Naturally, the two villains hate each other, and can never actually co-exist. This is what leads to the assault on Hosu City.

Stain, for all his talk, is a warped idealist. He is a man who could only see the cracks in the boards and never the impeccably constructed foundation which holds up the entire structure. His quest for pure heroes is impossible as even All Might, despite his public persona, is a flawed man striving to be better and to live up to his image. That the Hero Killer even thinks to kill a teenage boy for not living up this unrealistic standard is reprehensible. Not to mention that said teenage boy is only after him because of the evil Stain caused in the first place.

The Hero Killer is put to test when, after easily dispatching Ida and nearly killing him, Stain is confronted not only by Midoriya, but Shoto Todoroki as well. Todoroki is the same boy who had to live under Endeavor's roof, Endeavor being the exact sort of hero Stain hates with a passion and Todoroki has been trying to get away from. Here the two forces meet in an alley with the lives of two downed heroes on the line, and the hope that the pro-heroes can arrive in time before someone dies. The cliffhanger this volume ends on is truly brutal.

All told, this encounter is one of the best in the series, and the beginning of a stain that will linger on the series for stories to come.

Once again Kohei Horikoshi knocks it out of the park. Fan of superheroes and good manga? Pick this series up.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Paradise ~ A Review of David Gemmell's Wolf in Shadow

Every once in a while a book comes along that makes you say, "This is what I'm talking about!" and has you struggling to find the words to explain just why that is. Wolf in Shadow (formerly "The Jerusalem Man") by David Gemmell is just such a book.

As far as this reviewer can ascertain, this novel is not the one he is known for. That would be Legend and the general Drenai series of works. It is not without reason. Legend is a phenomenal story with an incredible cast and an ending that is hard to top, and I assume other stories in that universe are taken with just as great care as his first. Morningstar, as this reviewer has mentioned, was a great sword and sorcery story that fell a little short in a few key areas but was otherwise an unquestionable recommendation. How does Wolf in Shadow stack up to those?

The story takes place in a post-apocalyptic world teetering on the edge of annihilation. Jon Shannow, the Jerusalem Man, is a gunslinger ridding the land of brigands and the godless on his way to find his home. In other words, this story is very much a western as much as it is sword and sorcery. Shannow soon finds himself up against a demonic cult that sees him as a threat to their existence, in addition to leading a band of nomads to their promised land of Avalon.

Though it is impossible for either to have had influence on the other, the story this reminded me of most was the Trigun anime. It has similar themes; Shannow has much in common with Wolfwood's conflicted killer and has near the skill of Vash, and the ending is similarly powerful. He is also tested by demons, hated by townspeople, and thought of as a monster. His interior struggle mirrors his exterior one, just as it does the characters of Trigun.

And these are all very, very, very, good things.

The character growth of Shannow from a man on the brink of despair and full collapse to slayer of evil, and his search for the Lord of Hosts, are both believable from a Christian standpoint as well as from the quest's narrative. He questions his motives, but does what must be done, and never shirks from evil. Battered and bloody as he might get, there's a reason Satan wants him dead. But he just won't die. Jon Shannow might be my favorite character Mr. Gemmell has written.

Of course I can't mention the positives without talking about the negatives. Though there isn't much to mention.

The beginning chapter is a tad slow. The relationship Shannow has with a woman is fairly pathetic on both sides, but understandable from their perspectives and how the story develops. The problem with the relationship is that is forgotten by one party in a way that makes them unlikable for a good portion of the story and the other in a way that makes you wonder if there was a point for them even getting together in the first place. There is another character who is entirely wasted, being rescued at one point then killed later without any development in between. It was a lost opportunity to not utilize said character in the final act when everyone else is given excellent ends to their character arcs. This person gets the short end of the narrative stick.

That is about all there is to say negatively. Any issues this reviewer has are incredibly minor compared to everything else.

The action in this book is incredible. David Gemmell knows how to stage a confrontation. The action in Legend was top notch, but it is combined here with a western tinge that is wholly Mr. Gemmell's own. The author has a way of making the hopeless appear natural in his setting, characters, and action scenes, while never succumbing to despair and inevitable doom. There is always a crack in the door. It is a magnificent trick.

Of course this being a work of the 1980s infers several things. For one, it is unapologetically violent without reveling in the resulting carnage and aftermath. For another, discussions about Jesus Christ are not whitewashed one way or another into strawmen. Finally, the good guys are unflinchingly good, and the bad guys are definitely evil. There is no banal love of grey here. This book is a battle between good and evil, and doesn't shirk from how messy a war that is.

This is technically the third book in a series (of 5), though it was written first. I haven't read any of the other books yet so I can't say anything about them except that they aren't necessary to read Wolf in Shadow. This book tells a complete story, and I never found myself confused once. But I am still planning on reading the other books in the series.

I'll be frank about this. Wolf in Shadow is why I read stories in the first place. David Gemmell has done it once again. It's the full package.

Are you a fan of post-apocalyptic westerns with biblical themes, demonic cult magic, gun fights, adventure, and a hero you can put your chips in with? Then you should absolutely read Wolf in Shadow. If you don't like those things then maybe imaginative stories aren't for you. You might consider taking up ditch digging instead.

Needless to say, after this and Legend, I will be continuing my journey through Mr. Gemmell's works. I can't imagine what else awaits me.

God bless you, David Gemmell. You truly are one of a kind.

And Wolf in Shadow is a one of kind book.

Highly recommended.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Light Shining out of Darkness ~ A Review of Brian Niemeier's Souldancer

This is the second book I've read of Mr. Niemeier's and undeniable proof that he is a unique voice in the world of science fiction and fantasy. His stories blend science fiction, horror, and fantasy, in a way that is rarely seen or attempted. There is nothing quite like Souldancer or Nethereal. But originality does not mean quality. Does all this mean Souldancer lives up its predecessor?

The first thing I can say is that I'm glad Nethereal was the first book in the series. The introduction of the way the circles and universe works in that book made it easier to digest much of what occurs here. It was an easier story to digest. There is also a larger cast of characters in Souldancer, many with different beliefs, mentalities, and goals, which are easier aligned when you are familiar with how things work in this insane place. It's much like how Dune works so well because of how Frank Herbert introduces everything to the reader at a steady pace without overwhelming them; Mr. Niemeier does the same here. You are not thrown into the deep end. His characters are the same. Sulaiman, for instance, wouldn't be half as understandable if I hadn't first met him in Nethereal first.

However, Souldancer also stands alone as a complete story. You do not need to read Nethereal to understand what happens Souldancer. So this will also be the last time I bring up the prequel for comparison purposes in this review.

Souldancer is a story about Xander Sykes, a member of the Nesshin who is exiled from his tribe. He soon finds himself wrapped up in a plot that spirals out into something far bigger than he first thought. Along the way he meets a motley crew of characters that all have goals of their own. Oh, and a cobbled together being of pure fire. One that wants to burn everything. To ash. This cast is on a quest to seek peace, and answers. But not everyone is interested in both.

If anyone has ever played a Japanese RPG from the 1990s, then you probably have an idea where this is going. This is a story set up certain fans know well. It soon turns out that there is a god that needs slaying.

But it would be selling this novel short to call it a rehash of those stories. It doesn't go quite how you think it will. Which is a good thing.

Stories like Lunar were a bit dopey, honestly. "We don't need gods anymore!" they cried, after surviving solely on magic, health restoration, and a planet, all provided by the goddess in question. Yes, the evil is slain, but what if another rises in its place? How will they deal with it then when they couldn't even do it alone the first time? These are questions simply not answered or thought through enough.

Souldancer's cosmology is a bit more complex than that. By the end you are wondering if the main characters really have hit the roof after all that has happened. It stacks quite high. And the answer at the end might surprise you.

There's also a space opera element of a giant cast of characters weaving through the tapestry of a much larger story unfolding before them. What started and ended in the previous book comes into full fruition here. This plot idea works better in the context of the Soul Cycle series. There is a bigger plan at work, and this reader is sure interested in seeing where certain characters end up.

But who cares about all that? You want to know the important things, like if stuff blow up.

Well, dude!

There are swords, spaceships, magic blasts, and more body horror than you can shake a stick at. Sick! There's this one part where this dude with a flaming sword takes on a demon in the wreckage of a spaceship while wolfdude corpses litter the sand. Like, come on. What else do you want. Come on.

Okay, maybe a super shotgun fight with a Cyber-Demon, but you can't have it all. I'll settle for incineration by fire sword. It's not like it still isn't epic!

Souldancer is an all around great read. It has a healthy cast of characters, a unique setting that I still have yet to tire of, and an overarching theme that is beginning to come into focus. It also remains its own thing. Think Jack Vance meets The Weathering Continent and you might come close to it, but you'd still be off by quite a few degrees. The Soul Cycle series is its own thing.

Are there negatives? There are some points where events can be a bit fuzzy, and some characters sort of come and go without fanfare (the Earth Souldancer, especially), but it is otherwise remarkably strong.

Oh, there was also a distinct lack of Vaun. I really missed that soulless genocidal shell of a monster.

Tired of the bland mainstream fantasy, science fiction, and horror markets? Then pick up the Soul Cycle books. They are the shot in the arm that's been so desperately needed to the genre since the 80s. Fresh blood, fresh execution, and fresh results, make Souldancer an even more rewarding read than the original. Pick this up! You won't regret it.

Now to wait for book 3.

Friday, November 11, 2016


In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Top 5 Manga Recommendations

I've been reading Japanese manga for most of my life though I find it difficult to talk about with strangers. Manga (the name for Japanese comics) has spent most of its life in North America overshadowed by anime from basically the word go. Years later, as the anime market is drying up in selection, some might be thinking about manga they missed. Others out there might even be wondering if there is any manga out there worth reading outside of the world of anime. So I decided to write this list. These are series for sure that are worth your time that you might not have read.

Though my interest in anime has waned a lot due to what is coming from Japan these days, my interest in manga is not as stifled. There are still too many I have missed out on. So, here's my list of series you might have missed.

My apologies if you don't like action.

Actually, scratch that. I'm totally not sorry.

Manga had been trying to break ground in North America since the 80s, only finding a niche audience at the time. It only really broke through with Dragon Ball Z's success and the release of the original manga in the 90s. Shonen Jump's monthly magazine release with series such as the aforementioned Dragon Ball Z, Yu-Gi-Oh!, Yu Yu Hakusho, One Piece, and Naruto, was a tremendous success as well. It wasn't long before manga became mainstream with anime. Since then there have been hundreds of releases. There is no shortage of choice. But time has changed the manga industry as much as the anime. So where is it at now?

Unfortunately, the manga industry is drifting more and more into the same trap as anime with uniform character designs and art, fetishistic obsessions, and plots built on cliches instead of story ideas. There is less I'm interested in reading, but I still do. I subscribe to Weekly Shonen Jump online ($20 a year for weekly series releases is too good a deal to pass up) but I otherwise don't keep up with much out there. I mostly read older stuff. That's my way of telling you where this list will bend.

Without further pause, here are my favorite manga series.

"Monster" by Naoki Urasawa
Publisher: Viz Media
Length: 18 volumes, 9 volume "Perfect Edition" omnibus re-release
Genre: Thriller
Years: 1994-2001
Availability: Amazon

Monster was the first release of Naoki Urasawa to make a splash over here. He'd been writing since the '80s, was successful overseas, but Monster was a whole new beast for him. It was his first thriller. Not only was the manga the first to make a name for him in North America, but it was the first that really established him as a force in Japan. He'd written series before this, but Monster was the one where everything came together to make a pretty amazing piece. And it still holds up great years later.

The story stars a brain surgeon named Kenzo Tenma, living in Germany in the 1980s, whose career is on the rise. Things are looking up for him, but he becomes conflicted after he is repeatedly told to blur the lines between right and wrong. Then, after a series of events, he ends up saving the life of a certain individual who ends up becoming a monster. Nine years later, it all begins to come back to haunt him.

This is a hard series to talk about without spoiling due to much of the enjoyment coming from twists and turns, but you get to follow many characters from a washed out detective, to a bitter woman whose life has fallen apart, to a bodyguard with a heart of gold, to a man with a literal monster living in him, to a man who kills his soul to be proficient, and more. This intertwined cast of characters swirl through a plot of good vs evil as the good guys desperately fight to stop an evil force that is on his way to destroy society from the shadows. It all culminates in an ending that is one of the most satisfying I've seen in a thriller.

Naoki Urasawa makes this series works because he has a strong concept of right and wrong and good and evil. His second series even features a priest as a major character, and the Pope as a good guy! The problem I have with a lot of series like this is that most tend to plummet into depravity or nihilism and pointlessness rather fast. There are just as many writers in Japan as here that equate depth with the grotesque, but Urasawa never takes that easy way out. His characters go through the grinder, but fight to stay whole and are never ridiculed for doing so. Good is a very good thing to be!

If you are a reader of thrillers then you should be reading Monster. It is quite incredible.

"Rurouni Kenshin" by Nobuhiro Watsuki
Publisher: Viz Media
Length: 28 volumes, 9 volume "VizBig" omnibus re-release
Genre: Action
Years: 1994-1999
Availability: Amazon

Kenshin Himura is a rurouni, a wanderer, in the 11th year of the Meiji era where society has undergone a massive shift, and he was one of the ones responsible for the change. He is a swordsman of a master class, has lost everything he cared for, and now only fights to ensure that this new world he helped create does not fall into disaster like the old one. In a world where swords are banned, he carries a sakaboto, a reverse blade sword, to avoid killing. He does this because he was one of the greatest killers of the war, the Hitokiri Batousai, the man slayer, and cannot stand the sight of blood and death any longer. This is the story of how Kenshin Himura rights the wrongs of his past, and moves on to the future.

Oh, and there are a lot of action scenes to go with it. Kenshin might be a pacifist, but he'll raise his sword in an instant to protect the defenseless.

Rurouni Kenshin is not an unknown series to anime fans, but what they don't tend to know is how much better the manga is to the anime. It's faster, more fluid, is all around sharper, and contains an ending to the series that is not only excellent, but was never animated. There have been live action movies, original animated OVAs, and spin off manga in the years since. Despite the massive popularity of the series, there has never been an adaption that surpasses the original manga. It is the all around superior product even near 20 years on. There's no contest.

For fans of Trigun, or similar action anime, Rurouni Kenshin is considered a classic now, and not without good cause. Pick this series up and understand why,

"Dragon Ball" by Akira Toriyama
Publisher: Viz Media
Length: 16 volumes, 5 volume "VizBig" omnibus re-release
Genre: Adventure Comedy
Years: 1984-1989
Availability: Amazon

First comes the elephant in the room. Yes, I'm aware that Dragon Ball was published as a 42 volume series that ran from 1984 to 1995. However, when it was released here it was released in two chunks to correspond with the way the animated series were split up: Dragon Ball covers the first 16 volumes of the series while Dragon Ball Z covers the remaining 26 volumes of the series. Why did I list it like this? Because the first 16 volumes are about as perfect a comedy adventure manga can be. The remaining 26 volumes of the series (split with a time jump) starts off incredibly strong, but stumbles after a certain point. Dragon Ball is near perfect while Dragon Ball Z loses a lot of its spark after the Namek arc and never really recovers. But if it bothers you that much that I split them like this then just include the whole series for this ranking.

How does one talk about Dragon Ball? It's insane, wacky, frenetic, funny, and dramatic when it wants to be. The series does everything splendidly. Akira Toriyama's Dragon Ball is considered typical anime and manga by the mainstream, but it has always actually been an outlier. Even Toriyama's previous series, Dr. Slump, is an entirely different affair as more of a standard style gag manga. There is nothing like Dragon Ball in its combination of such disparate elements.

I grew up differently in regards to this series. I watched the first 13 episodes of the original series when it came out and it has always painted my view of the series long after Dragon Ball Z hit and gave the franchise the image it has now. The outright joy of youthful adventure and wonder at the world is something Dragon Ball Z completely loses when Goku becomes an adult and is why I've never enjoyed it quite as much as the original kid Goku's wacky adventures.

I'm also big on the ending of the first part of the series which implies *SPOILERS* that now that the adventure of Goku's youth is over, he is now off on a new adventure-- family and marriage! What a perfect way to end an adventure series, no? *END SPOILERS* This makes it feel like a complete tale on its own and one that can be read even without knowledge that the series continues. It's just a joy to read.

The series has some dirty sexual humor and some messy violence so it's not quite appropriate for the very young. Ironically, the childish appeal doesn't fit with actual kids. It's more for those looking back on childhood as an experience of wonder and adventure. It ages better as the reader gets older.

And it is still one of my favorites.

"Flame of Recca" by Nobuyuki Anzai
Publisher: Viz Media
Length: 33 volumes
Genre: Fantasy Action Adventure
Years: 1995-2002
Availability: Amazon

Shonen manga (boy's comics) have always been the most popular manga style worldwide. It has a stigma as juvenile, silly, escapist, upbeat, and genuinely positive. Indeed! Four of the five manga on this list are shonen! The reason they are is because I don't consider any of those descriptors flaws. The average shonen is not as nihilistic as the average seinen (men's comics), as fluffy as the average shojo (girl's comics), or as long-winded as the average josei (women's comics), but has the spirit of all the best tales that are enjoyed worldwide. These are tales of persistence, passion, friendship, love, and good against evil with clear boundaries between right and wrong. There are a few series that epitomize what makes shonen stick out so much, but Flame of Recca comes closest

The story is about a teenage boy who wants to be a ninja and meets a girl he wants to protect as his princess. Along the way he meets psychotic flame masters, science experiments infused with magic, the problems of being a teenager, and a conflict half a millennia in the making. The energy never stops until the last panel of the final chapter.

Bereft of the plot holes of Naruto, the pacing and general nonsense of Bleach, and the never-ending epic that is One Piece, Flame of Recca is sharp, action packed, and fun! Who doesn't want to read about ninjas and psychos dueling with magical weapons for the fate of the world? People who are dead inside, that's who.

Manga made these days frequently don't have a fraction of the freewheeling joy Flame of Recca brings, and that's a real shame. Readers of fantasy and action comics really should give it a shot. It really is that good.

If you are interested in seeking out this series I only have one warning: Avoid the anime. It cuts the story in half, destroys characters, and saps all the life out of the series. The superior manga version is the only choice.

"My Hero Academia" by Kohei Horikoshi
Publisher: Viz Media
Length: Currently 11 volumes in Japan, 6 volumes in North America
Genre: Superhero
Years: 2014-???
Availability: Amazon

My Hero Academia is a series that came out of nowhere for me. Those who have kept up with my reviews are fully aware of why it is such a great series, but I think I should put it into the context of this post. Those that know, know My Hero Academia is the best action series currently running.

There has been a trend in most recent manga to do one of two things. The first is to focus on cute females to the expense of any story or action. The second is to blur the lines between good and evil and to claim that it all really depends on perspective . . . usually while an objective evil still threatens to wipe out existence. It's all gotten so old.

But My Hero Academia has none of that. Kohei Horikoshi is a rarity in the manga world as a storyteller as obsessed with Western comics as he is Eastern comics. The unabashed over the top hotblooded action you enjoy from classic manga is as present as the sense of justice and heroics of classic comics is. It's a collection of everything that works in both.

There are influences at play here. Horikoshi was inspired by Naruto, which explains the story's set up of an outcast struggling to be normal, but so are there shades of Spider-Man in how he also struggles to not waste his abilities and to do the right thing. Beyond the influences is a distinct lack of perversion and nihilism so prevalent in modern comics and manga and a sense of joy and celebration of good that has been missed for so long.

Sure there are perverted characters and despairing edgelords in the series, but they also exist in life. The important aspect is that they aren't bandied about as correct or even normal things to be. The point is to be the best you can and to never despair or fall to pride.

For my money, there is no better manga currently coming out of Japan. Get on this one ASAP. Oh, and be sure to check out the anime if you can. It has the writer for Trigun behind it so you know it's worth seeing.

If you're looking for something different to read then you can't go wrong with these five. Other favorites of mine include Planetes (Science Fiction), Vinland Saga (Historical), Slam Dunk (Sports), 20th Century Boys (Science Fiction), and Blood Blockade Battlefront (Fantasy/Science Fiction/Horror), which would complete a top ten if you wanted more. Some can be found digitally, but others yet are still only available in print. Older series are slowly being put up digitally, but it is taking a while.

For now at least, these are some of the best series you can legally find on this side of the pond. Read up, and enjoy!

Friday, November 4, 2016

Another Update!

I'm still in the middle of organizing, though I hope to be done by the end of November, so I'm not really involved in NaNoWriMo this year. I am writing something on the side, but it's going on the back-burner as soon as I hear back from a certain third party. You know who you are. Needless to say I'm not officially involved this year. Good luck to those of you who are.

Currently I'm past the halfway point of Souldancer by Brian Niemeier and just finished Wolf in Shadow by David Gemmell. I hope to review both soon enough, but long story short they are both well worth your time.

I was also quick enough (a rarity in itself) to cut off a cold before it sprung up which took a lot of my spare time this week. Hopefully I should have a longer post next week.

Oh, and for those about to vote:

I salute you!