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review 2019-03-04 21:15
Black Butler 6, 7, 8 – Over the Hills and Far Away
Black Butler, Vol. 6 - Yana Toboso
Black Butler, Vol. 7 - Yana Toboso
Black Butler, Vol. 8 - Yana Toboso

Tom, he was a piper’s son,

He learned to play when he was young,

And all the tune that he could play,

Was “Over the Hills and Far Away”…

 

It’s the CIRCUS ARC – and it’s all fun and games until people start to die.¹

 

I know I’ve said I wanted to review each volume separately, but these three books form one coherent arc that hangs too well together to be torn apart; and I couldn’t really review the third part without spoilers. I think I’m going to stick to this method for the next story arcs as well, till I reach the more recent volumes.

 

So, what gives?

Queen Victoria has used her appearance during at the curry competition to assign Ciel with a new case. All over England children are disappearing. The incidents have one thing in common: the appearance of a travelling circus troupe shortly before the children vanished. Now, Noah’s Arc Circus is visiting London, and, after installing Prince Soma and Agni as caretakers in Ciel’s London town house, Ciel and Sebastian are off to investigate. When visiting the circus show, Sebastian gets enchanted by a lovely, fluffy tiger – who isn’t quite as enamoured with the demon as he is with her and shows her teeth. But Sebastian knows how to use his chances, and before long he and Ciel are invited to join the troupe – which gives Sebastian ample opportunity to show off, and to delight in teasing his young master for his clumsiness and for being quite unsuited for circus life.

Yep, this story shows the two main characters at their most antagonistic again. But it also shows a more nurturing side of Sebastian: When Ciel falls ill and suffers from an asthma attack, Agni and Soma shame Sebastian into caring. Serving his master well is a demon’s aesthetics, after all. Of course, Ciel absolutely hates it.

 

 

bb tiger

I laughed way too hard at that scene.

 

The circus world is beautifully realised. Toboso’s artwork is striking, extremely rich and detailed. The troupe are a cast of varied, colourful characters; there’s Joker, the show’s host; Beast, the big cat tamer; Dagger, the knife thrower; acrobat Doll; and, not belonging to the troupe’s first cast, but a character to pay attention to, Snake, who names his snakes after famous poets and speaks only with and through them.

And there’s someone else, too. An old acquaintance, whose artistic skills match Sebastian’s: William T. Spears of the Grim Reaper Dispatch, and. Worst. Undercover agent. Ever. The shinigami is on a secret mission, because there are going to be a lot of souls to collect in the immediate future. Being the stiff upper lip, by the book bureaucrat that he is, Will is not exactly pleased with this assignment – and even less pleased with meeting demon Sebastian once again. The antipathy is mutual, at least. So, of course those two have to share a tent.

 

The horror!

 

 

After some fun shenanigans for Sebastian, and flashbacks and asthma attacks for Ciel, Sebastian interprets one of his master’s orders rather freely, and shows a bit more of his devilish side. His method proves to be successful and leads our spies to the man who could be behind the abductions. And that’s when the story takes a harsh turn to the dark side.

 

Tripping on the dark side comes with further flashbacks into Ciel’s past, introducing his father, Vincent Phantomhive, former head of the Aristocrats of Evil – who looks a lot like Sebastian. Or rather the other way round. Sebastian’s human form looks a bit younger, his hair is longer, but the faces are very similar. I can’t believe that’s a coincidence. (Maybe that's why Sebastian can't crop his hair, because then everyone would mistake him for Vincent.) But Vincent also shares Ciel’s mimic. That’s in fact really well done, kudos to Toboso. The reader also learns what the seemingly inept Phantomhive servants, Baldroy, Mey-Rin and Finnian, are really capable of. Seeing especially sweet little Finny going berserk is kinda scary. And very, very sad.

 

Erm, Bassy, do you call *that* "researching in the Code of Arms"?sebas beast

 

As sad as the rest of the story. Toboso does a great job of humanising the circus troupe. Not only do they come with the required Tragic Backstory™, the reader also experiences events from their perspective. They become people, kids with dreams and hopes for a better future; kids who end up as yet another set of chess pieces being moved by forces out of their control. This, Ciel’s breakdown, and the bitter, bitter end turn the Circus Arc into an intense, heartbreaking story. Even the shinigami shenanigans by William and his young colleague Ronald Knox can’t ease all the pain. (The anime adaption manages a better balance between heartbreak and dark humour – because Grell, just mentioned in passing here, actually shows up, and that’s more hilarious than it has any right to be given the circumstances.)

 

Team DEATH

team death

(Grell, Ronald, William)

 

This is a very strong story that connects well with the overall plot, manages to answer a few questions, and provides a few new ones, too. Like, what is Undertaker’s part in this game?

And it wouldn’t be Kuroshitsuji if there weren’t a chapter of cute fluff after all the intense heartbreak. Certain events during the Circus Arc have left the Phantomhive manor in a rather dire state, and a lot of Ciel’s clothes got destroyed. Elizabeth invites a seamstress and some fun times ensue. Well, maybe not so fun for Ciel.

 

The manga continues to be fun. But I’m not only into it because it’s compulsively readable, ridiculously entertaining, with beautiful artwork. I’m also drawn to it because I can relate. Ciel and I went through traumatic experiences at about the same age. Although those experiences are of a different nature, I know what it feels like to be so helpless, so utterly, completely powerless – and I know the desire to lash out, to retaliate, to hurt. At the end of the day, I’m not a very vindictive person, I don’t believe in repaying misery with misery; but then again, I never really had the opportunity. If I had had the means – who knows what I would have done? That is to say, I can recognize a bit of my 13-year-old self in Ciel. Not the most likeable kid, but I can understand him in a way.

 

 

¹This got adapted as season #3 of the anime, BOOK OF CIRCUS. Here’s the German trailer, giving you an impression of Bernhard Völger’s really, really very pretty voice. Unfortunately not of Undertaker, the ever reliable Michael Pan; I haven’t managed to find a non-spoilery snippet. (One of the joys of watching the anime in German is that Undertaker has the same voice as Saul from Breaking Bad/ Better Call Saul.)

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review 2019-03-02 19:41
And Chaos Died - Joanna Russ
And Chaos Died - Joanna Russ

And Chaos Died is an early work by Joanna Russ and an example of the trippy, experimental science-fiction of the late 1960's/ early 1970's. Part of the experiment consists of translating the disorientating experience of telepathy and other tele-practices (a valid SF-topic at that time) into speech. Unfortunately, I think this experiment is largely unsuccessful. Oh, it's disorientating, all right. But it lacks any emotional resonance.

 

The book gave me nothing - characters, place, themes, ideas - to care about. It seemed experimental for experiments sake, and ultimately rang hollow. That said, I liked the second part, set on an overpopulated earth suffering from the effects of climate change, a lot more than the first part. Russ is good when she zooms in on our society and deals with humanities very real short-comings. She's got wit, some of which even survived in the rather clunky German translation, and a scathing sense of humour.  There's no actual need for all that tele-stuff. 

 

Lots has already been said about the seemingly offensive sexual politics of the book. The gay main character, after crash-landing on a planet populated by people who all exhibit different tele-skills, learns to use those powers as well, slowly becoming one of them. But for that to happen, his homosexuality is "cured" - or rather erased. Through telepathic influence, he craves and has sex with woman. Not one of the sex scenes is consensual, btw. It's clear why stuff like that makes people feel uncomfortable and is seen as problematic. But I don't think that particular part should be confused with the author's actual opinion. There is a lot of discussion about why Russ chose to go down that path. Some good points were made in in the comments to Brit Mandelo's review on Tor.com

 

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review 2019-02-17 14:21
Black Butler 5 – Bring on the Food Porn
Black Butler, Vol. 5 - Yana Toboso

Seriously, this has more food porn than Hannibal. Unfortunately, no one eats Viscount of Druitt.

 

It’s the second part of the INDIAN BUTLER ARC and here comes the Queens.

 

Queen Victoria holds a curry competition. The winner will be rewarded with the Royal Warrant, a signature for high quality and almost guaranteed to boost sales. Ciel wants to expand his business and plans to participate. The curry will of course be prepared by none other than Sebastian, butler extraordinaire, gifted with wicked skill at handling cutlery and a demonic sense of smell and taste. But there’s one problem: Indian butler Agni is one of the contestants as well, and he’s not only Indian, that “Right Hand of God” of his is also able to concoct the perfect blend of spices. Whose curry will sway the jury? Who will be favoured by the Queen? And why do we have to deal with handsome-but-pervy Viscount of Druitt again?

 

Frankly, this whole thing is more than a bit cringe-worthy, culturally insensitive, and smacks of exoticism. My main gripe is how Mina, Prince Soma’s nanny, gets vilified by the narrative, because honestly, that woman has a few good points to make.

 

Saving grace are the very sensual descriptions of food, and that another layer is added to Ciel and Sebastian’s relationship. Yes, Ciel wants the Royal Warrant, but even more than that, he wants to see Sebastian lose. This volume drives home how antagonistic their back-and-forth can become and gives a first taste of what Ciel is capable of when he’s bored. I love the expression on Ciel’s face when he realizes that his butler has the real chance of actually winning the contest. He’s so pissed.

 

The curry contest also introduces Queen Victoria and one of her servants, John “I wear my totally not anachronistic sunglasses at night” Brown. The volume is sufficiently different from the anime to offer some surprises, contains the trademark inane humour, and a rather touching moment

when Agni calls Sebastian a “friend”, something Sebastian has never experienced before

(spoiler show)

but it’s far from being my favourite instalment. Thank the gods it’s rather short.

 

More next month; I think I’m not yet ready to go through the Circus Arc again.

 

Ciel, you little shit, I may like you after all.

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review 2019-02-15 21:04
Black Butler 4 – Let‘s Spice Things Up
Black Butler, Vol. 4 - Yana Toboso

← Oh Bassy, too sexy for your gloves, aren‘t ya?

 

It‘s the INDIAN BUTLER ARC and there will be curry. Eventually.

 

In his capacity as Queen Victoria‘s watchdog, Ciel has been called to London to investigate attacks on English businessmen and soldiers who have recently returned from India. Their search leads Ciel and Sebastian¹ to the East End, where they team up with Lau. When they are attacked by angry Indian immigrants themselves, two new acquaintances come to the rescue: Prince Soma and his servant Agni, who are looking for Soma‘s nanny Mina – and now Soma just won‘t leave Ciel‘s side.

 

Frankly, this whole story arc is a bit stupid and boring. Not much happens. (To his credit, even Ciel is bored by the case. This game doesn‘t amuse him much.) This volume essentially serves to do three things:

1. to explain what Ciel‘s role as watchdog to the Queen and as one of the Aristocrats of Evil actually means;

2. to provide the first flashback to the traumatic events that let him summon Sebastian (who apparently wears hooker boots when no one is watching);

3. to introduce some new regulars: For one we have Ran-Mao, Lau‘s… whatever she is, another favourite of mine. She doesn‘t talk much, but when she does, she has a point, and she‘s generally bad-ass. Then there‘s Prince Soma Asman Gandal, son and heir to the King of Bengal – pretty, impulsive, spoiled Soma, even more of a brat than Ciel. Last but not least we‘ve got Agni, aka „The Right Hand of God“, a human imbued with superhuman strength. Soma and Agni aren‘t among my best liked characters, but I can see their significance.²

 

They serve as a mirror for Ciel and Sebastian: Ciel summoned Sebastian in a time of need, theirs is a relationship born out of hunger, hurt and despair. Agni turned to Soma out of gratitude, when the Prince saved the formerly brutal and selfish man from being hanged for his sins. Ciel created Sebastian, gave him his name and I assume also his form; Soma created Agni by letting him die a symbolic death and declaring him reborn, giving him a new name and occupation as well. Both butlers are loyal to a fault, but for very different reasons: for Sebastian, serving a master well is a demon’s aesthetics, for Agni it’s about love and faith.

(spoiler show)

 

Agni is also the only one who can compete with Sebastian’s capability as a butler, and even bests him in some regards. Much to Sebastian's chagrin, he even manages to put the Phantomhive staff to good use – through the sheer superpower of positive reinforcement.

 

I wasn’t too in love with some of the panels here. Sebastian’s movements are smooth, fluid, and gracious. You can really see this, especially when the two butlers are fencing. Agni is supposed to be wicked fast, so he’s often depicted rather blurred, and - I didn’t really like the look of it? But the full colour panels are exceptionally beautiful, and there are still many, many details to appreciate, like the intricate china and most of all the clothes. Oh, the pretty clothes. I love Victorian attire for men anyway, and then we have Lau’s Chinese robes and Soma’s Indian dresses (not to forget Bassy’s hooker boots)³… it’s all so very, very pretty. I also love how Ciel’s eye patch changes from casual to formal depending on occasion, and he apparently has a separate one for fencing lessons, too.

 

This adventure will continue for another volume of not-much-happening, but at least it’s nice to look at. And it still has it’s moments of humour…

 

hell of a deer

(That's from the anime, obviously) 

 

And we get a taste of Professor Sebas-chan:

 

¹ That’s pronounced Se-bust-chiun, btw, not in the American way.

² Btw, never look at character sheets. I've spoiled myself for one of the Big Twists that way. But at least, knowing what to look for, I can now see how carefully Yana Toboso set it all up.

³ Eh, I’m just jealous. I’ve never learned to walk in really high heels. Hell, I’m glad if I find shoes that fit (the disadvantage of having very long, but very slim feet)

 

 

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review 2019-02-12 23:33
Black Butler 3 – Psycho Killer Qu'est-ce que c'est
Black Butler, Vol. 3 - Yana Toboso

You know they say that when you die, your whole life flashes before your eyes?

It‘s your Cinematic Record, being reviewed and judged by the Gods of Death.

 

It‘s the conclusion of the Jack the Ripper arc, and there will be blood. Even more blood than there has already been. And there has already been so. much. red.

 

**some character spoilers, but it's pretty much the first thing you find about this character anyway, so I'm not really giving away too much**

 

With the example of Madame Red, the author shows how adept she is at providing her characters with a Tragic Backstory™. It‘s a bit cliché and not totally unsurprising, but it actually gives Madame Red more depth and makes the reader feel for her. The Tragic Backstory™ will become par for the course, and this first glimpse is already tugging at the heartstrings. And can it be that there’s just the tiniest bit of foreshadowing, just the most tantalizing hint in what is left unsaid, for the even more tragic event that sat the whole story in motion?

 

The author doesn't leave much time to dwell on this question, because tonight it‘s butler versus butler in an epic battle to death.

Under the uncaring eye of a full moon, it’s icy black versus fiery red, cold calculation versus hot passion, mastery of movements versus the brute force of lust, Romeo versus Jul--- erm, okay, it’s Sebastian Michaelis versus Grell Sutcliff. Demon versus shinigami.

 

The German translation gets wonderfully Shakespearean here, punctuating Grell’s taste for drama, and the ensuing battle is a thing to behold.

 

Yeah, Grell. Far from being shy and clumsy, Grell (sometimes spelled Grelle) is a shinigami, a God of Death from Japanese mythology – or a Grim Reaper, as they are called in the English version. The mangaka adds a nice spin to the myth, turning the Reapers into a kind of bureaucratic organisation. Members of the Grim Reaper Dispatch are tasked with reviewing human lives, shown as Cinematic Records at the moment of death, and to decide if the person is worthy to go on living or has to die for good. To reap the souls they use their Death Scythes, costume made and often anachronistic tools. Grell comes equipped with a chainsaw, William T. Spears, a shinigami of higher rank who also appears on stage here, uses pruning shears. I especially appreciate the fact that all Grim Reapers are terrible nearsighted and get to wear costume made glasses.

Grim Reapers are the natural adversaries to demons, as both species go after human souls; Reapers to lie them to rest, demons to snatch them away and devour them.

 

The fight scenes between Sebastian and Grell are beautifully realised for the most part; there are just very few panels that I found to be confusing. The opponents are not only quite evenly matched – at first – Grell is also an outrageous flirt, much to Sebastian’s dismay. You can tell that Sebastian is just done with that shit. Not that Grell cares, because Grell has a major crush on the handsome devil.

 

Full colour Grell Sutcliff. I’m a little bit in love.¹

Grell

 

It’s this weird mix of blood & gore and hysteric, sometimes improper humour that made me love the anime so much and that also works very well on paper. In addition, the mangaka uses the symbol of chess to great effect, showing Ciel’s cold, calculating side, as well as Sebastian’s careful manipulations of the soul he plans to eat some day.

 

After an intense battle and a moving farewell, we get a cute chapter of fluff. Okay, it starts with a not so cute nightmare, and then it gets almost worst, as Elizabeth “call me Lizzy” Midford and her mum, Ciel’s aunt Frances, come to visit.² And you do not mess with Aunt Frances! The prim and proper lady won’t have the boys wearing their emo bangs, and she’s very adamant that Ciel proves his worth as Lizzy’s future husband. Apart from being fluff, the chapter shows a different side of Ciel, a side that still cares about the people dear to him, and provides another glimpse into what Sebastian thinks about his young master.

 

Also, Ciel is a Sagittarius! That could somewhat explain the whole "forgetting about the revenge plot when some other stuff comes along" kind of thing. Us sags are some easily distracted squirrels.

 

All in all, this was the strongest volume so far. (I read it in German, not in Spanish, but I'm too lazy to add the proper edition.)

 

Ciel is *not* a morning person.

Ciel in the morning

 

 

¹ Considering Grell's part in the Ripper plot, it seems quite a marvel that the shinigami is generally well liked with the audience, and that the anime gets away with essentially playing the character for comic relief. Well, I’m just into redheards. And I bet the over-the-top personality, going from good-natured, if a bit vulgar flirt to murderous psychotic rage in the blink of an eye, plays a big part in the Red Reaper’s popularity. In a cast of characters that are extra, Grell is EXTRA-extra. But like with most characters here – and that’s even true for Elizabeth “call me Lizzy” Middleford – there’s more to Grell than it seems.

² I can hear Elizabeth’s voice in my head! I don’t want to hear Elizabeth’s voice in my head!

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