Tag Archives: shapeshifters

A Crown of Dragons (Unicorne Files #3)

Title: A Crown of Dragons

Author: Chris D’Lacey

Series: Unicorne Files #3

Michael is no closer to understanding the mystery behind his father, his own powers, or the secret agency UNICORNE that seems to hold all the answers. But when the dragon scale his father was hunting impacts his life once again, he’s pressing for answers. Even if finding out might change his life once again . . .

I didn’t think it was possible for the book to give some answers that actually made sense of some of my more aggravating questions, but it did. For starters, why would anyone try to make Michael into a secret agent when he clearly has little aptitude for the role? Although plot-wise, I think the second book could basically be skipped as it contributed very little, and the first and third books do a better job presenting the overarching plot with Michael, his dad, and Freya.

That said, I still had to force myself to finish. Michael feels like the wrong protagonist for a story like this. He’s got fun powers, but barely uses them at all except to pull a total rewrite for the end, and that feels cheap—he’s never really controlled them, and part of the fun was seeing the unintended consequences, like his sister becoming a musical genius, that always accompanied whatever he was ACTUALLY trying to do. Add to that he’s not showcasing much except incompetence and an ability to get into trouble (and not in a particularly entertaining fashion), and the adults who know more are basically jerking him around for the most part.

It’s not really badly written. It’s just that I ended up hating the main character, who I actually liked well enough in the first book, because it’s really hard to find things to like him FOR. I did like the ideas, particularly in this book, and its take on dragons. But I can’t see myself reading these again. I rate this book Neutral.

The Bloody Valkyrie (Overlord #3)

Title: The Bloody Valkyrie

Author: Kugane Maruyama

Series: Overlord #3

Shalltear has rebelled? Backing up a bit, this book begins a little bit before The Dark Warrior ended, after Shalltear left Nazarick along with Sebas and Solution. Their plan is to learn more about the martial and magical artes of this world by finding strong warriors—preferably criminals whose deaths or disappearances won’t be noticed. But a chance encounter causes everything to go wrong, and Shalltear is now under a mind-control her undead status should have protected against. Ainz is furious, but also cautious, and heads out himself to stop her . . .

It says a lot about this series that the first serious threat Ainz faces is his own NPC-turned-rogue. That said, Shalltear is an NPC more or less built to attack players similar to Ainz, so he’s got a fair number of disadvantages going into the fight. Furthermore, Ainz’s paranoia about considering this a deliberate attack, and therefore possibly a trap, causes him to forgo some of the easier ways he could tackle the fight, because he’s too concerned about ambushes and the possibility of his god-tier gear ending up in the hands of enemies to properly equip.

The heart of the novel is this fight. The book does contain one significant scene with Albedo’s sister that the anime cut, but otherwise everything is by and large the same. I do like the smaller additional details, though. Sebas’s alternate form gets mentioned, and now I REALLY want to see him use it. I also like the explanations of game mechanics behind things like Ainz’s skill The Goal of All Life is Death. It feels better that he has so many huge abilities when there’s more context about how hard he had to work to get there (and, amusingly enough, that skill in particular was more of an accidental Easter egg, but still the result of fully developing a particular branch of magic). And the player-versus-player explanations are fuller in the book, drawing out more of Ainz’s experiences and strategies.

I like this a little less than the previous two books, though. Partially because I’m not as fond of Shalltear, and partially because the fanservice scene near the end has Ainz sneaking a peak at what’s physically about a 14-year-old kid. Nothing described in too much detail, thankfully, but still, did we have to go there?

All in all, though, there’s far more to enjoy than not. I like this different take on fantasy, where Ainz is almost a villain by default and not because he has any particularly bad intentions, and if Shalltear does anything really well it’s bringing out his mixed feelings at having to take down someone he sees more like his child. He’s absolutely not going to leave her in the hands of an enemy, but when he can’t cure her there’s only one option left.

I do really, really hope Ainz finds the culprit, though. He’ll make Clementine look like she died peacefully.

This is the final episodes, 10-13, of the anime (at least the first season). I think both the anime and the books do a great job, but regardless which one you like better, at this point in time the only way to get more story is to keep going with the books. And it’d be a shame to stop here, when Ainz is clearly only getting started. I rate this book Recommended.

The Dark Warrior (Overlord #2)

Title: The Dark Warrior

Author: Kugane Maruyama

Series: Overlord #2

Momonga (now Ainz) is fully aware of his own lack of knowledge about the world he now inhabits. He’s still uncertain how much his former-NPC’s loyalty can be trusted, and the world contains things both from the game Yggdrasil and things he’s never seen before. So Ainz goes undercover as the dark warrior Momon. Together with one of his battle maids, they pose as adventurers in the hopes of learning more. But other plans are afoot in the city, and Ainz may have inadvertently tripped over a few of them . . .

For those coming from the anime, this novel was adapted in episodes 5-9. Again, the adaptation was faithful and the differences are minor (although my favorite addition was the extra information about just what Ainz did with that Jewel of Darkness).

Once again, Momonga/Ainz is proceeding into the world with extreme caution, even though he’s so high leveled that he can afford to seal away most of his magic and simply wave swords around and still be stronger than pretty much any human adversary. But the fun, of course, is in watching HOW everything plays out. The plot really likes putting him in embarrassing situations as well as situations where he can show off.

For example, ogres. Ainz can dispatch ogres with a single blow. His technique is terrible, but his strength allows him to ignore the basics any actual warrior would know. Ainz knows this and is uncomfortable at the amount of awe his “mighty deeds” generate, because to him, ogres that low-leveled would never pose a threat.

This gets even funnier when Ainz decides to challenge the Wise King of the Forest, hoping for a faster way to spread his renown.

Here, too, Momonga’s inner loneliness comes through a little better than the anime. He’s hurting for the friends he used to have, which he sees reflected in a small party of adventurers he teams up with for a time. Their camaraderie reminds him of what he lost and wants to have again, and spreading his name is a way of crying out for them to notice that he’s still here, waiting for them. It’s a little sad he can’t take Touch Me’s example to heart and go out and befriend others, even if they are weaklings, but his paranoia about keeping himself, his former NPCs, and Nazarick safe precludes any overtures.

I like how the game world details keep coming, and also how the various techniques and abilities that pop up show that this is NOT the game Momonga played. That leaves him with plenty to discover (and plenty of new things to embarrass himself with, I’m sure). Again, for those who liked the anime, this is a great way to dig deeper into the world, and to see some of the technical explanations about spells and so forth that never made it to the screen. The book also contains several nice pieces of art on the interior. I rate this book Highly Recommended.

The Undead King (Overlord #1)

Title: The Undead King

Author: Kugane Maruyama

Series: Overlord #1

Momonga has one pleasure in his working life: the DMMO-RPG Yggdrasil, where he and a group of friends created number nine of the top-ten guilds, which they called Ainz Ooal Gown. But that’s over now. The guildmembers themselves have mostly quit, and the game is shutting down at midnight. Momonga is the only one of the four remaining who decides to stick it out right up to the very end. And then . . . the end looks a lot different than he expected. Now he’s become his character from the game, the NPCs are alive, and their dungeon Nazarik has been transported to unknown lands. Momonga has no idea what to do, but the former NPCs are convinced he’s the Supreme Ruler . . .

First, for those who watched the anime first (or who intend to watch the anime in the future), this book was episodes 1-4, although the events are arranged slightly differently. It’s otherwise a faithful adaptation, but the book provides additional worldbuilding.

I liked this way more than I expected. Normally “trapped in a game world” is not my thing, but this series has a couple of unusual differences that made it really work for me. Momonga’s not desperate to get out, for one. Yggdrasil WAS his life, or the only part of it that really meant anything to him, and he writes off the “real world” pretty quickly. What he does want is to find his friends and former guildmates, and he holds on to the hope that some of them might have come to this world too.

Another fun subversion is his character itself. Momonga played an undead skeletal caster: an evil sorcerer. He was by no means a heroic character. And now that this is ACTUALLY him, the only morality he can hold on to is based on tenuous supports like “I don’t want to let down the memories of my friends” rather than standards like good and evil. He’s more worried about letting down the former NPCs (or losing their loyalty) and less worried about whoever gets killed or tortured in front of him or even for him.

Momonga’s sheer power also makes him a lot of fun to follow. In his heart, he’s still mostly an ordinary human (at least for now), and he’s keenly aware that he has no real backup other than the NPCs. So he reacts to situations as though everything is capable of killing him . . . only to usually find out he’s read the clues all wrong. The fight at Carne village is one of my favorites of the series so far because it does a great job showcasing both his nervous disposition and how he reacts to arrogant enemies. Momonga is big on experiments . . .

Overall, even though I’m not too fond of some of the more fanservice-oriented elements, I had a lot of fun with this. If you’re curious about the series, it may be easier to check out the anime first, as that’s available for free streaming, but even though the book covers the same material, the additional worldbuilding and character details is definitely worth it. I rate this book Highly Recommended.

Alexander’s Army (Unicorne Files #2)

Title: Alexander’s Army

Author: Chris D’Lacey

Series: Unicorne Files #2

Michael was hoping joining UNICORNE would allow him to find out more of what happened to his father. But answers are few, and UNICORNE has another mystery they’d like him to investigate first. A comic shop has some weird things going on, and they want Michael to check into it. He’d rather deal with Freya, or his own powers, or his dad, but he reluctantly agrees. But he’s not actually very good at the whole undercover operative gig . . .

I finally figured out what my biggest problem was with this book: I don’t like any of the characters. Michael was fine in the first book, where his weird reality-bending powers kicked in on a regular basis, and he was being eased into a world beyond the world he knows. But in this one, he’s downright terrible at figuring out anything, his powers activate less often (and the book kind of cheats by having a different power take center stage), and there isn’t any real progress made on most of the continuing plot threads.

Michael doesn’t really WANT any of the missions or adventures he’s involved in, and he’s pretty much incompetent at running them too. Freya went from sympathetic to cold and harsh (and though she tries to explain it away, it still doesn’t make the book easier to read). I sort of get the impression the two of them are supposed to eventually become boyfriend/girlfriend for real, but there’s nothing THERE. At this point he’s helping her mostly because he’s got a giant guilt complex about how she died and he inadvertently made her live after death.

Aside from that, the plot definitely veers closer to horror/thriller territory (I was hoping for more of an adventure, because the first book set up what could’ve been a couple of different directions). Although I liked the unusual bits of the supernatural that showed up this time, I can’t help but feel there’s never going to be a point. Michael isn’t offered any kind of framework other than “stuff just happens, and sometimes it’s wacky.” Since he’s not digging into other people’s powers or his own, just trying to get out of whatever he’s been volunteered for this time, I wasn’t as interested.

This isn’t necessarily a bad book, just not for me. I’m not certain at this point if I’ll make it through the third book, but I may give it a shot since I have it on hand. Perhaps if it is the last one Michael will man up and actually do something instead of forcing everyone around him to push him forward. I rate this book Neutral.

Firebolt (The Dragonian #1)

Title: Firebolt

Author: Adrienne Woods

Series: The Dragonian #1

Elena Watkins is tired of her dad’s paranoia. Moving every three months, never settling down or making friends, never able to experience a normal life . . . and then the dragons attack, she wakes up in a magical country, and she realizes “normal” will never define her life again. No one knows who was after her (or was it her father?) or why. Now she’s struggling to fit into a world where the ordinary humans surrounding her might be dragons in disguise, and her own role might be bigger than anyone expects.

This book has a lot of solid parts, but it’s also kind of jerky. The first bit is a thriller, with the abnormal home life devolving into an attack that leaves Elena all but dead . . . and then the plot just forgets about that and moves on. Elena’s feelings for her father gets a few brief mentions but otherwise nobody brings up anything about that time, which felt really bizarre. The enemy doesn’t appear to have been killed, so the lack of follow through was puzzling. Elena doesn’t ask any questions about it. No one offers any answers. No one even offers to guard her against the possibility of future attacks.

Once we get past that, it’s pretty definitely a YA fantasy/paranormal romance. There’s one main romance (I can’t honestly call it a love triangle yet) although this is hampered by Elena’s emotions and will running one way and the plot clearly pointing her in another direction. I’m pretty sure the prophecy, for example, has a lot more to do with her romantic choices than anything else.

I did like Elena’s female roommates. They’re neat characters, and Sammy in particular was a lot of fun. I liked the dragon shapeshifters, the various types of dragons, and the various abilities. I wasn’t at all fond of the whole “dragon personality completely changes when claimed by a human,” which was disturbing to watch in action (even if it does clean up his character from jerk to decent guy). Especially since it’s a given this is going to happen again with Blake.

It is pretty easy to spot the overall way things are going, though, which makes Elena’s romance uninteresting and to my mind unimportant.

****SPOILERS****

Elena is clearly the daughter of the late monarchs, with her “mother’s” disappearance and its timeframe, and the prophecy about Blake, being some of the strongest evidence. Blake, equally clearly, is her Destined Soul Mate, so anything not involving him is basically doomed by Authorial Fiat, because the prophecy says the monarch’s child will claim the Rubicon. Elena even has a PICTURE of her “mother”, which she never bothers to bring out but would likely be instantly recognized by some of the older dragons who actually knew that dragon.

****SPOILERS END****

I was also a bit annoyed that so many of the riddles present in the book are just reusing rather famous ones. Particularly Elena’s last and hardest one. Given that it was part of a myth, the two pages devoted to her thinking it over had me wondering how she hadn’t run into this before, since her father likes riddles and this is hardly a new one.

I’m torn about continuing this series. I would probably read more on Kindle Unlimited, but I don’t think I like it enough to buy it outright (if this was in my library, it would get a rental). I feel like the story is dropping some interesting angles in favor of a love story it’s too obviously telegraphing can’t work anyway. On the other hand, the world was fun, and the dragons are by and large more fun, so I wouldn’t mind seeing more of them. I rate this book Neutral.

Twelve Kingdoms (Anime)

Title: Twelve Kingdoms

Episodes: 1-45
Rewatch

Youko has a quiet, ordinary life–except for her monster-filled nightmares. But when a strange man shows up at her school and whisks her and two of her friends to another world, her life changes forever. She didn’t want this. She’s not ready for this. Going home is not an option. If she’s going to survive, she’ll have to confront murderous monsters and a jealous king, and in the process discover her destiny . . .

It’s hard to put into words everything about this that makes it my favorite series. The first time I saw it was like the first time I read Dark Lord of Derkholm by Diana Wynne Jones—the kind of story that just makes your soul resonate. This had everything I liked in stories: fantastic creatures (bonus points for being intelligent and able to talk!), magic, swords, shapeshifters, getting taken to another world . . . and also the core of deep character building, where Youko is forced to confront herself and rise above, to become a queen in actuality and not just role. Also a huge plus for me personally was the lack of romance. With the exception of Youko’s initial crush on Asano (which he doesn’t return), the story ignores romance in favor of action and intrigue.

Youko wasn’t my favorite character initially: that was always Sugimoto, the fantasy lover, whose utter delight at finding herself in a world like her books contrasts sharply with Youko’s tendency to cry over every setback. But Youko grows up, facing herself as well as her circumstances, and Sugimoto is again her dark mirror as she sinks ever deeper into jealousy and frustration. And the story doesn’t give Youko many breaks. I was shocked at the encounter with Taki the first time I saw this, and Taki is merely one of many who may help or hinder in ways not initially obvious.

But when Youko does confront herself, and later the embedded corruption in her country, she doesn’t do it halfway. That meek little people-pleaser hid a backbone of steel. She’s constantly confronted with her own weaknesses, her own stupidity, her own limitations, but that isn’t going to stop her from pouring everything she has into the decisions she eventually makes. I love her second story arc (episodes 23-39) because they tackle a fascinating question I hardly ever see in secondary-world fantasy: having been given the throne, how does an outsider actually rule well? Youko isn’t just ignorant about government, she’s ignorant about geography, history, climate, inhabitants, everything. And that ignorance, through no fault of her own, costs her dearly.

As much as I enjoy Youko, she’s not the only excellent character. King En and Enki are two that never fail to amuse. I love Enki’s accusation that En enjoys playing the bad guy way too much–right after decking his own king in front of other people. I love that En’s introduction is “Kill monsters first, ask questions later.” He and Enki both are hands-on, stubborn, and full of surprises. En is so unconventional. It’s one thing to go down to hang out with the lay people in disguise—it’s another when your ministers are constantly needing to bust you out of jail for getting into bar brawls. En seems to exist to drive his ministers insane. (See: nicknames. En is a giant troll.) But behind that teasing, En is working out plans on a level no one expects. He and Youko are very similar in a lot of ways, but there’s also a profound gap between them. En is a leader born and raised, and he gets how people work.

And I love Taiki. One of the biggest frustrations I have is that the anime doesn’t finish adapting out Demon Child (Mashou no Ko), which gives at least a little closure to the horrible situation Taiki finds himself in. The intersection of past and present in the anime does lend an element of horror that isn’t really there in the books—because it’s obvious from the outset that something went drastically wrong if Taiki is now back in Japan with no memories of his time in the Twelve Kingdoms. (The blood on his face does provide a clue that it’s due to his horn being damaged, but the books are clearer on that point.) And I like the anime’s decision to use Sugimoto to pry into his history, because she’s a foil for him. Her venture into the Twelve Kingdoms taught her she couldn’t grab for a world that wasn’t hers, and she assumes Takasato is the same, although the situation isn’t supporting her assumptions. Taiki is also unusual in being the only kirin to really struggle with being a kirin. He’s too used to being human to really get most of what is supposed to be natural to him. And I like that Taiki unwittingly showcases Keiki as a gigantic stick-in-the-mud. Even other kirin think Keiki is too much, heh. (If you’re interested in reading Demon Child to see some additional scenes, the translation can be found here: https://tu-shu-guan.blogspot.com/2006/08/demon-child-prefacing-poem.html)

I’m less fond of Suzu and Shoukei, but I do like their character arcs. Both of them are extremely self-centered, but it plays out differently. Suzu is unconsiously addicted to being miserable, whereas Shoukei has a massive entitlement complex. Youko, compared to them, is starting from a much better place, but she’s still clawing herself out of the pit of pleasing others rather than forging her own way ahead. All three of them suffer from ignorance (though in Youko’s case, it’s at least excusable because she just hasn’t had time to get caught up on how this world, much less her kingdom, actually works). I love the challenge to Suzu about the different reasons why people cry–and that she’s stuck in a child’s mindset despite having been alive over 100 years. (This is a show very much not afraid to outright TELL its characters “Grow up.”)

And that’s just the characters. I also really like how the show approaches destiny and the will of the heavens. There is absolutely an element of choice for everyone involved—but those who challenge heaven find themselves in the way of heaven’s justice. And it raises some fascinating questions about Keiki’s first queen, and who she might have been if she hadn’t crumbled, and other questions along those lines. Destiny can be denied, thwarted, foiled at the individual level. But the heavens aren’t, long-term. Or take Youko’s struggle to figure out what makes a ruler a good one. Every time I watch this, I see some new facet that leads me to wonder about something else.

I get that this series may not be for everyone, but for myself it’s basically perfect. I only wish we had more. Even with Demon Child’s happier ending, Taiki’s situation remains grim (and what DID happen in Tai?). Whether the stories would be about Youko or someone else, I’m always happy to visit this world. I rate this series Highly Recommended.