Quantum Devil Saga: Avatar Tuner, Volume 1

Quantum Devil Saga: Avatar Tuner, Volume 1Author: Yu Godai
Translator: Kevin Frane
U.S. publisher: Bento Books
ISBN: 9781939326003
Released: July 2014
Original release: 2011

Quantum Devil Saga: Avatar Tuner, Volume 1, a novel written by Yu Godai, was originally published in Japan in 2011. The English-language edition of the volume, translated by Kevin Frane, was released in 2014 by Bento Books. It is the first book in a five-volume series which is further divided into three parts. (The first volume consists of the first half of the first part.) Those familiar with the video game series Digital Devil Saga: Avatar Tuner, a spinoff of the Shin Megami Tensei games, will find Quantum Devil Saga to be familiar as well. The series isn’t a novelization of the video games, but it is based on the same original story created by Godai which became the underlying framework for Digital Devil Saga. Although I was aware of Shin Megami Tensei, which has quite a following, and Digital Devil Saga specifically,  I’ve never actually played any of the games myself. Even so, I was still very interested in reading Quantum Devil Saga, Godai’s first written work to appear in English.

The denizens of the Junkyard exist to die in battle only to be born again in a never-ending struggle to reach the promised paradise of Nirvana. The Junkyard is divided into seven territories, one held by the Church of the Arbiters of Karma while the other six are the domain of rival tribes of skilled fighters. Only when one group is able to obtain complete control of the entire Junkyard will the gates to Nirvana be opened. Serph is the leader of the Embryon, a small tribe that has quickly gained strength, numbers, and territory. During the Embryon’s confrontation with the Vanguards tribe, an unidentifiable device appears on the battlefield which dramatically changes the balance of power in the Junkyard, unleashing the combatants’ darker selves and transforming them into demons. Suddenly, the very laws that governed the world in which they live have changed. Established systems have begun to fracture, the cycle of reincarnation is interrupted, and the quest for Nirvana has become deadlier than ever.

Quantum Devil Saga isn’t a video game novelization, nor does it read like one. However, it is quite easy to see how the story and scenario could be suited for or smoothly adapted as a game. The narrative is fairly linear, generally following Serph’s point of view as he and his comrades strive to understand everything that has happened. The way that the transformations are handled and how skills and knowledge are gained in the novel could sometimes be reminiscent of game play or mechanics. The characters fight in a series of battles with increasingly high stakes and difficulty levels, ultimately ending with what cold be considered a boss battle. It’s clearly not the final boss, though, seeing as the first volume concludes with something of a cliffhanger. But none of these similarities are actually bad things and despite them Quantum Devil Saga doesn’t feel overly game-like. It is entirely its own work and exceptionally engaging one at that. The action is exciting and clear, the characters’ philosophical and psychological development is fascinating, and the translation is great, too. Once I started reading Quantum Devil Saga, I didn’t want to put it down.

What made Quantum Devil Saga particularly interesting and intriguing for me was its setting and atmosphere. The world-building of the series is heavily informed by Hindu and Buddhist cosmology and symbolism. (There is also at least one example of Mayan influence, but I found its inclusion to be rather strange given the context of the rest of the novel.) At first it seems as though these concepts are mostly used as a source of aesthetic inspiration, but they actually run fairly deep. However, readers don’t necessarily need to be acquainted with Hinduism or Buddhism to enjoy the story, although those who are will probably get even more out of an already great novel. The overall tone of Quantum Devil Saga is fairly dark. The demonic transformations that the characters are subject to have horrific and unsettling implications. Some of them wholeheartedly embrace their new powers and forms while others are desperate to hold on to the shreds of their humanity. They are forced to face their true selves and struggle with what they see. I enjoyed the first volume of Quantum Devil Saga immensely and can’t wait for the second volume to be released.

Cage on the Sea

Cage on the SeaAuthor: Kaoru Ohno
Translator: Giles Murray
U.S. publisher: Bento Books
ISBN: 9780983951384
Released: March 2014
Original release: 1998

Cage on the Sea is the first book by Kaoru Ohno to be translated and released in English. The novel, originally published in Japan in 1998, was released in English by Bento Books in 2014 with a translation by Giles Murray. It was Bento Books’ involvement that brought Cage on the Sea to my attention. Though he has written novels, Ohno is primarily known as a journalist and as an author of nonfiction works with a particular emphasis on Japanese military history and World War II. Cage on the Sea suits Ohno’s interests perfectly. Based on a true story and meticulously researched, Cage on the Sea is about a group of Japanese holdouts on Anatahan, a remote island in the Marianas, and their eventual repatriation after World War II. Their tale of survival was sensationalized by the mass media in the 1950s and has served as an inspiration for various other films and novels in addition to Ohno’s Cage on the Sea. Though once a well-known story, more than fifty years later relatively few people are as familiar with this particular history of Anatahan.

In 1944 three Japanese ships—the Hyosukemaru, Akebonomaru, and Kaihomaru—were destroyed by American air raids on the Mariana Islands, stranding the surviving crew on the sparsely populated island of Anatahan. They expected reinforcements and rescue to follow soon afterwards, but days, weeks, months, and eventually years passed before they would leave the island. Initially sheltered by employees of the South Sea Development Company supervising copra production on Anatahan, the more than thirty men quickly exhausted the food stores and supplies meant for less than a handful of people. With resupply increasingly unlikely and with the continued bombardment by the Americans, the group fled for the island’s forested interior, doing their best to survive off of the land by foraging and growing what they could and by capturing lizards and bats for food. After the war in 1950, James B. Johnson, a United States naval commander, began attempts to peacefully remove the Japanese holdouts from the island, hoping to prevent additional casualties on both sides. But by that point, due to injury, disease, and infighting, only twenty men and a single woman, Kazuko Higa, were still alive.

Despite the multitude of named characters (all of whom are based on actual people), Cage on the Sea primarily follows the perspectives of three men: Lieutenant Commander Johnson, Sugataro Nakai, a seaman aboard the Hyosukemaru and a balladeer, and Seargent Junzo Itami of the Kaihomaru, the highest ranking member of the Japanese military present on Anatahan. But the person with the most vital role in Cage of the Sea, the focus to the point of obsession for many of the men and the reason for so much of the group’s conflict and strife, is Kazuko Higa. Johnson’s account actually provides the framing story for the novel, looking back on the events surrounding the repatriation of the Anatahan holdouts from the perspective of his retirement. In particular, he wonders what has become of Higa. Nakai and Itami’s narratives deal more specifically with the efforts to survive on a nearly uninhabited island for seven years, capturing the constantly shifting social dynamics and alliances among the group—a mix of civilians, seamen and fishermen, and enlisted men.

Frequently, Cage on the Sea almost feels as though it’s a documentary. Ohno has put a tremendous amount of research into the work, motivated by the question of what it must have been like to have lived and survived from one day to the next on Anatahan Island for all of those years. He read the memoirs of Michiro Maruyama, one of the survivors; he spoke with and interviewed the holdouts and those who knew them; perhaps most importantly, he gained access to Johnson’s personal archives and to the materials recording the efforts to peacefully rescue the Japanese from Anatahan. Prior to the Anatahan mission, holdouts who resisted surrender were met with force. Johnson’s innovative approach unquestionably saved lives. In the end, Cage on the Sea is a novel, so to some extent the events and key players have been fictionalized and dramatized—but Ohno treats the story with realism, sympathy, and respect, avoiding sensationalism and presenting a much more nuanced version of the events and the people involved than had previously been seen.

Math Girls

Author: Hiroshi Yuki
Translator: Tony Gonzalez
U.S. publisher: Bento Books
ISBN: 9780983951308
Released: November 2011
Original release: 2007

Math Girls began as a series of stories that the author, Hiroshi Yuki, posted on his website. After receiving a good deal of positive feedback and encouragement to release Math Girls as a book, the novel was published in Japan in 2007. It went on to become a bestseller and the first in a series. There has even been a manga adaptation. In 2011, Math Girls as translated by Tony Gonzalez was the first book to be released by the newly established Japanese literature publisher Bento Books. Math Girls will appeal to those who already love mathematics. It’s been a long time since I’ve seriously studied the subject (AP Calculus, way back in high school), but I do enjoy it. If the sigma notation on the cover makes you want to run away in terror, then Math Girls is probably not for you. On the other hand, if it makes you grin a little (or maybe roll your eyes depending on how much of a romantic you happen to be), Math Girls is probably worth seeking out.

Math Girls follows an unnamed second-year high school student (equivalent to an eleventh-grader) who enjoys playing around with math whenever he can get a chance. In part because of his love for math, he attracts the attention of two very different girls: Miruka, whose knowledge of math and natural brilliance exceeds even his own, and Tetra, who is only beginning to truly understand math but who is earnest in her efforts. For better or for worse, the complexities of mathematics are nothing compared to the complexities of relationships. He agrees to tutor Tetra in math; she wants to learn, but she also has other motives for spending time with him. On the other hand, Miruka is constantly showing him a thing or two about mathematics and can be a bit possessive. Mathematics is important to all three students and it is through math that they become important to each other.

The protagonist’s love of math, and thereby the author’s love as well, is apparent from the very start of Math Girls. Couched in a light romance, the math is really the heart of the novel. Flipping through the book might be daunting for some readers as very few pages are without some sort of graph, formula, or math problem. I do agree with Yuki’s note at the beginning of the book: skip over the math if you need to, but try to follow what you can. It’s worth it and is actually part of the story. I found myself learning a few things as I read and was reminded of how much I delighted in math. However, some of the problems can be quite advanced. I probably wouldn’t recommend Math Girls to most readers who haven’t had at least some precalculus, advanced algebra, or trigonometry although some of the math included is below that level.

Mathematics is often compared to a spoken language in Math Girls which is entirely appropriate. Math can be used as a form of expression. In fact, the protagonist of Math Girls frequently describes his feelings in the terms of the language he loves and knows best—mathematics. The execution of this is both brilliant and effective. Math Girls provides a fun and engaging way to learn and review mathematical concepts. It may very well be the only novel that I’ve read that contains an index. Yuki has also included an annotated list of recommended readings, many of which are available in English. I’m not sure that Math Girls will necessarily win mathematics any new fans, but the characters’ joy as they explore and discover new and old ideas is infectious. If you already love math, there is a good chance that you will love Math Girls. To paraphrase Tetra, I may not have understood half of it, but what I did understand was wonderful.