Book(?) Report: Sparkler, Year One

Published January 26, 2018 by Iphis of Scyros

So, to start with, a little background.  Sparkler is a monthly electronic magazine, modeled after the massive Japanese manga monthlys (the most famous in the West being Shonen Jump) and aimed primarily at a female readership, though I think male readers would enjoy it, too.  I became aware of the magazine when I stumbled across their Kickstarter to support Year Five.  (I shudder to think how much of my money Kickstarter has redistributed at this point…)  I ended up backing it at a tier that not only gave me a subscription to Year Five, but also gave me all the back issues.

All twelve covers!

That was actually a mistake, I think; I should have gone with “read as ebooks” rather than “read as a magazine.”  Trying to remember all the ongoing plots is sort of frustrating, and I think I was probably losing a lot of details in my head in the meantime….

Anyway, so my overall review is “yeah, this is a very cool idea, and I think when I’ve read the other four years, I’ll definitely feel like it was worth my money…though I think I may download as many of the free-to-members ebooks as I can to catch up rather than just counting on the back issues.”  But I thought I’d give you some individual reviews of the titles that I’ve read enough of to have a good grip on.  (Like, see the really cool cover on Issue 12, there, with the gorgeous art?  I couldn’t possibly review that one, ’cause I’ve only read the one chapter.)

I’ll start with the one that finished first.

This one is a graphic novel (which is actually pretty uncommon in Sparkler so far; most of it’s been light novels) and it was actually well into its second volume before Sparkler started up, so part of my Kickstarter reward was the part that was already out there before the magazine started.  (This is not an isolated incident.)  It’s a very quirky little story about a boy who compulsively writes down the details of everything he sees in a series of notebooks (which now that I put it like that sounds rather like the hero of Future Diary, though the similarity ends there) and becomes fascinated by the new arrival in his neighborhood, another boy his own age, who is quite mysterious.  The art isn’t entirely to my taste, but it is well-drawn, and the writing is delightful; the characters are full of life and have intriguing quirks.  The ending, however, I felt to be highly anti-climactic.  Not that it was a bad ending, just that there were a lot of questions left unanswered.  I had hoped maybe there was more coming, but apparently not.  It’s definitely worth a read, though.  (Hey, and the same person does the art and the writing, so it’d work for Read Harder 2018 Challenge #4, if you’re in need of recommendations!)  Off-Beat ran a total of 3 volumes.

This one is a novel that somewhat defies description.  A young woman named Clio (why she’s named after the muse of history instead of having the more normal spelling of Cleo is never addressed, btw) finds herself trapped in a mysterious place called the Gauntlet, where she has to survive increasingly bizarre situations as she struggles to find her way back out.  It’s very tense at first, but as Clio’s situation changes, the entire tone of the novel changes.  Repeatedly.  The uneven pace and tone make it a rather jarring read, though that effect was probably somewhat lessened (heightened?) by reading it chapter by chapter with various other things in the middle.  As with Off-BeatGauntlet had a lot of unanswered questions at the end, and it doesn’t look like there’s been a sequel.  I should probably look around and see if there’s any fan fiction trying to answer some of those questions.

I had to use a screenshot of the .pdf for this one, because I wanted you to see the cover art that ran in front of every single chapter of this thing.  That cover art freaks me the heck out.  *shudder*  Pardon me while I scroll my screen up so I don’t have to keep looking at it.  Crud, it won’t scroll far enough.  Right, so typing fast.  This novel is, essentially, a horror mystery, two genres I don’t like at all, so if it wasn’t in the magazine, I absolutely wouldn’t have read it.  But it’s quite good, so I don’t regret reading it.  I just don’t want to have to look at that cover art anymore!  (Probably a lot of other people felt that way, too, since the collected ebook has a different cover.)  Anyway, dead endings does have a sequel, which is currently running, according to Sparkler’s front page.

Last and most complicated.  This one was actually partway through Book 2 when the magazine started, and Book 2 just ended in what I’ve gotten through, while Book 3 is still running now.  Unlike most novels I’ve encountered — even ones that were never intended to stand alone without the rest of their series — there’s no real sense of completion or conclusion at the end of the two volumes.  (Though apparently Book 3 is supposed to be the end of the story.)  In that sense, it’s very like manga.  That and perhaps also in the breathless pace, as the protagonists have so little chance to catch their breath that it’s somewhat torturous to read.  Especially because of my main complaint about this series:  despite claims to the contrary, it is so not set in Japan.

The characters have Japanese names, as do the places, and the occasional dietary concession is made, but it takes more to set something in Japan than giving your characters Japanese names and having them eat onigiri.  The teenagers who make up the central cast of this series are painfully American.  They act, think and talk like Americans.  There’s a lot more to cultural differences than names, food and whether or not Christianity is the dominant religion.  Delinquent teens do not act the same way in every country.  No one in Japan would ever get permission to build a night club that catered only to teenagers — especially not one that was going to be open during the week!  No place in the world (that I know of) would ever have co-ed restrooms in the lobby of a hospital, and Japan is pretty high on the list of countries that would avoid that like the plague.  (And I’m not talking about one-seaters where only one person is ever in there.  I’m talking about your average, multi-stall public restroom, which was intended for both sexes, going so far as to have urinals in a room that women were also supposed to enter.  No, no, no, no, no!  Maybe you could have something like that in New New York, but outside of Futurama, that just couldn’t happen.  And Japan is a country that has such a problem with women being sexually harassed that they actually have female-only subway cars during rush hour, so who could ever believe they would give men that kind of an opportunity for something so much worse than just groping?   It was an important scene in the first book, but there’s no reason one or the other of the characters couldn’t have been in the wrong bathroom.)  People in Japan swear differently than Americans do, because there is not one-to-one correspondence between English and Japanese profanity.  At one point a criminal complained about “the feds” despite that so far as I know (admittedly, not exhaustive by any stretch of the imagination), there is no Japanese equivalent of the Federal Bureau of Investigations.   And speaking of police, there’s one point when a couple of characters are arrested.  The police barge in, repeatedly shouting that they have warrants.  That punched a lot of “wait a minute,” buttons with me, because I couldn’t think of any anime or manga in which I’d ever seen a Japanese police officer talk about having a warrant.  Five minutes with Wikipedia suggests that Japan indeed does not have the equivalent of the American warrant system.  They do have an equivalent of the Miranda rights, though, which was not present in that arrest scene.

On top of all that, there are no demons.  No, not yokai, either.  There are characters with what I can only call superpowers, and people who have other powers, due to non-human DNA:  the former being the equivalent of Mutants and the latter being the equivalent of Inhumans, to assign them all Marvel terms.  (Though that’s another problem:  at one point a character was trying to explain these various powers to one of the teenagers, and mentioned the concept of mutation, which the teenager couldn’t wrap his head around.  Why the heck not?  The X-men movies opened in Japan, too.  And the comics are translated into Japanese (some of them, anyway), as well as having manga counterparts.  There was even a Wolverine anime.  Unless they occupy a world without Marvel Comics, they have no real excuse.)

So, you may be wondering why I even bothered reading the chapters if they ticked me off so badly?

The thing is, apart from the fact that this is so obviously set in a Western nation, and that there are no demons in it, it’s actually pretty good.  Nothing I would ever read again (due to the afore-displayed frothing rage at all the ways that it is so not in Japan), but I do want to know what’s going on, what all the secrets are, and how it’s going to end.

Honestly, if it was just set somewhere else and was a little more honest, I’d probably love it.  So if they just re-named the characters and called it Detroit Inhumans or Saskatchewan Mutants, I’d have no problems with it.  (Of course, part of that is definitely that any title is automatically cooler with the name Saskatchewan in it.)

Anyway, despite what I said last time, I’ve decided that I have enough time left in January to finish another book before February, so I want to leave my February-appropriate reading to wait a few days, and have instead started work on Challenge #1.  Might be a little tight, but I think I’ll be able to finish it soon enough.  Maybe not precisely by Feb. 1, but it shouldn’t take me past the 2nd, or 3rd at the outside.

Not sure when I’m going to get back to reading the rest of Sparkler (in part because they still haven’t sent me download links for years 2-4!) but I think what I’ll do for future reviews is to just post reviews of individual titles, rather than try to sum up a whole year like this.  I think I’m also gonna download any free-to-members ebooks of completed works now so I can just read ’em at my leisure.  Then when I get to those chapters in the magazine version, I can skip over those chapters.  Makes sense, right?

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