“Then let us pursue without asking what we chase, and when we catch it, let us chase again.”
Saturday, August 29, 2020
Sunday, August 16, 2020
Monday, August 10, 2020
I've been rather taken with the Black Moon Chronicles, the French dark fantasy comic from François Marcela-Froideval, Olivier Ledroit, and Cyril Pontet that uses humor to disarm the horrors of a decadent Melniboné-style empire falling to the apocalypse. At turns aiding the fall and resisting is the half-elf Wismerhill, the unwitting pawn of the evil Black Moon. But how did fate draw Wismerhill's companions to him? And who better to start with than the jovial giant, the fearsome half-ogre warlord now know as Ghorghor Bey?
The first of The Black Moon Arcana serves as a direct prequel to The Black Moon Chronicles: The Sign of Darkness, detailing the rise of Ghorghor Bey from outcast to the scourge of the Empire as he is in the days before he meets Wismerhill. While the prequel sheds little new light into the twists and turns of the Black Moon's world-dooming invasion or Ghorghor's revolving door relationship with death, it is a welcome insight into a beloved character who tends to get only a panel to two to mug in each new volume.
However, this prequel checks the boxes on the standard villain's back story. A half-ogre child born from rape and unwanted pregnancy cruelly shunned by his adopted father and the rest of the village. When his mother dies, the half-ogre is expelled from the village and forced to live on his own--
Yes, I thought so too.
The boy, Ogur, falls in with the circus, where he finds acceptance and love among the freaks and performers. He learns the strongman routine and finds the loves of his life in a pair of Siamese twins. Here, he has the family he was denied.
Until a lord double-crosses the circus. The lord enslaves most of the circus, and drives Ogur and the rest of the freaks into the swamp. While there, a Divorak swamp kraken attacks, devouring Ogur's loves. Ogur slays the monster, and swears a blood oath to avenge his friends and lovers. And when he slays the leader of a band of highwaymen, Ogur has the opportunity he has sought. Now calling himself Ghorghor Bey, the half-ogre raises his standards, and rogues, orcs, and ogres rally to him. The new warlord scourges the local nobles, returning the brutality that the lords had visited upon him. Yet he never loses the whimsy that surrounds him, a whimsy that never turns to cruelty.
Finally, the warlord returns to the lands of the lord who wronged him. Ghorghor Bey single-handedly breaches the castle and, one by one, pitches the defenders over the walls. No quarter will be given until he frees his friends. After the lord is slain and the chains on the circus performers broken, Ghorghor Bey turns his fury against the nobility, scourging the Empire in the first of many apocalyptic invasions that will tear it apart. And, along the way, he runs into two bandits, the mad elf Heads-or-Tails and magic-touched Wismerhill...
As I said, standard villainy fare. But the Black Moon Chronicles tries to make a distinction between being bad and being evil, between falling and fallen. Ghorghor Bey is undoubtedly bad, driven to his own cruelty by the cruelty of others, but he never crosses into the demonically evil. That terror is saved for Wismerhill. And for unrepentant, soul-devouring evil? Wait until we meet Haazel Thorn.
There is a rough honor to the brutal and cunning Ghorghor Bey, who later becomes Wismerhill's trusted lieutenant. There's also the bit of the clown, of intelligence, whimsy, and the subversion of expectations, including a surprising gentleness. The performer never left the warlord, as he can be found mugging in the background of many a panel. But the one thing he is not is the dullard brute that many ogres are portrayed as in fantasy. That Ghorghor Bey is given a chance to shine once more outside Wismerhill's shadow is welcome. I just wish there was more meat to these formulaic old bones.
So, at the start, The Black Moon Arcana is for the fans already invested in the signs and portents of the Black Moon. But maybe when we get to the true holy knight Parsifal, the story will pick up. In the meantime, please check out the more palatable Elric-type story that is the Black Moon Chronicles.
Tuesday, August 4, 2020
It's a simple premise, but one of growing popularity in Japan. These princess improvement stories also serve as a strange contrast to the everpresent "The Princess Saves Herself in This One" titles common in American stores. For in these light novels, the girls learn the soft power of inspiration, devotion, and persuasion as opposed to the sword and other accouterments of the action girl. After all, who is more powerful, the one who acts or the one who can move a hundred to act in her place?
Yes, these princess improvement fantasies are still feminine power fantasies. But they are fantasies of feminine power, of living up to the stories of fairy tale princesses, of persuasion instead of fists, and selfish girls faking virtue until they make it.
There's a strange undercurrent to recent Japanese light novels, both those aimed at boys and at girls. Compared to the many idealized young women in these fantasies, the portrayal of Japanese girls is almost disparaging. Readers could be forgiven for mistaking these brash, immodest, and self-absorbed girls who turn the attitudes of all around them against them for Americans. One could chalk this up to a form of frustration in the male-aimed light novels, but the portrayal exists in girls' shoujo light novels as well. Perhaps the princess improvement novel came about with trying to figure out how to make a selfish wastrel into a good girl. But how to get through to a character who only pays attention to herself?
The threat of death does focus the attention wonderfully. But, as in all fairy tales, that dragon eventually gets slain. Even if the plans are overcomplicated and occasionally obsessive.
Generally, the main characters of a princess improvement story are comfort seekers so caught up in their own delights that they lose their security--and then their lives. But by concentrating on their security, they find even greater comforts than sweets and soft clothes. And by helping others, these girls help themselves. These books are illustrations that no woman is an island and of C. S. Lewis's "First and Second Things" wrapped up in a fairy tale package that owes more to Cinderella than to The Tale of Genji.
The best known is My Next Life as a Villainess, by Satoru Yamaguchi, thanks to a recent anime adaptation. Katarina's naivety is charming, but her misadventures in a magical academy are too quickly resolved. As the genre codifier, My Next Life as a Villainess inspired many imitators, such as Deathbound Duke's Daughter and I Refuse to be Your Enemy. Each one has pushed the genre further into its Western fantasy trappings. Deathbound Duke's Daughter, for instance, features detailed and loving descriptions of magical wands that could only be written by a Harry Potter fan.
The best of the genre, though is Tearmoon Empire, by Nozomu Mochitsuki, which completely removes the story from the previous trappings of the anime/manga/light-novel sub-culture. Its heroine Mia might not change her spots that much, preferring the fake-it-until-you-make route to Katarina's more Damascus-style moment. However, there is a surprising amount of depth unexpected in a light novel, and little snippets of wisdom for the reader to glean. Tearmoon Empire masters the old adage that before you can educate, you first must entertain, so the smuggled proverbs and misunderstandings in Mia's favor never seem like the dreaded lecture one expects in a self-improvement book.
It is good that the princess improvement novels are displacing the tales of burned-out salarywomen. And if they inspire a reader to improve herself, so much the better.