Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Book Review: Death Note, Volume 1

Death Note, Volume 1
Story by Tsugumi Ohba
Art by Takeshi Obata

Death Note was my first manga, and I enjoyed it rather more than I thought I would. I'm not a visual person -- in reading a book with illustrations, I often don't even notice the illustrations the first time through -- so it did take some getting used to slowing down to pay attention to the art. Once I adjusted, however, I discovered how much the artwork adds to the story. It also seemed strange at first reading the book from right to left, as is sometimes the case with manga translated from Japanese, but I adjusted to that as well. (I found it amusing that if you open what would be, to an American, the front cover, you're greeting with a large headline proclaiming, "You're reading in the wrong direction!"

In Death Note, a brilliant teenager named Light finds a book dropped by Ryuk, a Shinigami or death god. The book is called a Death Note, and if you write someone's name in the book, and keep their face in your mind, that person will die. Details can be added such as cause of death, but if nothing is specified, the person will die of a heart attack.

Light begins to use the Death Note to kill off violent criminals, with the goal of making the world a crime-free utopia. He is opposed in this by the police worldwide, but also by an equally brilliant but mysterious detective named L. No one knows L's identity or even what he looks like, so Light is unable to eliminate him using the Death Note. Ryuk acts the role of the trickster in this battle, adding an element of uncertainty, as it becomes obvious that Ryuk has not revealed at first all the rules and implications of the Death Note. Ryuk appears to be on nobody's side, and has apparently set all this in motion for his own entertainment.

Although the premise sounds quite macabre, this isn't a book about "killing people," as would seem from the description. The pleasure in reading Death Note comes from watching the battle of wits between two brilliant minds, Light and L, as each tries to find out the identity of the other. The book also raises interesting philosophical questions, such as, is it wrong to kill criminals who have committed horrible crimes and probably will again, given the chance? And how does doing that change the person doing the "vigilante" killing? It's fascinating the Light, the protagonist, is a real anti-hero: most of us would consider his actions horrific, yet we can sympathize with his goals.

Never having read a graphic novel, I expected it to have less depth than a "regular" book because it has a much lower word count to develop the story and characters. I was surprised, however, at just how much depth there is in this book, not only in the psychological and philosophical underpinnings mentioned above, but in the character development. The artwork and the words really work together to build up a complete picture, such as after Light uses the Death Note for the first time. When the reality of what he's done hits home, his initial reaction is horror at what he's done; he's shown bent over with his hand covering his mouth, as if he's just vomited, or is trying not to. As it progresses, he moves from revulsion to acceptance to determination, shown in his actions and his body language as well as in his words.

Obviously the subject matter makes this a book that would only be appropriate for mature readers. In addition to the subject, there is some minor profanity.

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Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Book Review: Exodus

by Julie Bertagna

Mara Bell lives on a small island called Wing in what used to be known as the North Atlantic. Now, the whole world is flooded from the melting of the polar icecaps, and as far as the people of Wing know, they are the only ones left in the world. But even Wing is shrinking, as year by year and month by month, the sea rises, swallowing up what little land is left.

Then Mara, who has been using a defunct technology to explore the dead remnants of what used to be a global information network called the Weave, discovers that there may be others still alive: New World cities built above the water in the days when the seas started to rise. With no hope left and nothing to lose, the Wing islanders set out in small boats in hope of finding the New World city of New Mungo.

Mara's boat reaches New Mungo at last, only to discover that things are far, far different than they expected. Mara learns just how much she does have to lose. But no matter how bad things get, Mara can't give up. In the midst of devastation and despair, Mara is determined to find a way to help the people she cares about.

Although global warming is the topic of this book, Exodus is not a message novel. It's just an amazing story that will keep you enthralled and touch your heart. It's a story of the power of individuals to change the world. There are messages in the story - such as the need for individuals to take responsibility for their world - but Bertagna never lets those messages get in the way of what is, first and foremost, a good story. Mara displays unimaginable courage. Some of the things that she did literally made my heart race, and I can't imagine that I would ever have the courage to do the things she did.

There's so much that I loved about this book. I love that there's no black and white absolutes. The character who is ultimately responsible for the evils of the New World is someone who started out trying to do the right thing but who made some bad decisions along the way. I love that Mara is, later in the book, faced with the same decision that she most blamed him for, although on a smaller scale, and that she comes to understand that it's not such an easy decision.

I loved that, while there is a prophecy that seems to apply to Mara, it, too, is not black and white. Does Mara do the things she does because they were foretold? Or is it just a coincidence that some parts of the prophecy seem to match up with her? How much of Mara's actions are predestined, and how much are just because she is a courageous, creative, and determined individual?

I loved the way the drowned city of Glasgow is portrayed, and how it is remembered by the people living amongst its ruins. I love that Mara questions why the "dreamswomen" are not remembered by history like the men.

Bertagna has done an outstanding job with world building. She created not one, but several richly developed cultures, from the treenesters living in harmony with nature, to the high tech city of New Mungo.

The story and central conflict in Exodus are wrapped up in a satisfactory way, but there is room for a sequel, and according to the excerpt in the back of the book, one is on the way. I look forward to reading Zenith when it's released in the U.S. in April, 2009.