Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Gakuen Alice (manga, vol. 2) by Tachibana Higuchi

Mikan is now officially a student at Alice Academy, having proved in the previous volume that she possesses the extremely rare Alice of Nullification. In this volume, Mikan learns a little bit more about how Alice Academy works, and not everything she learns is good and fun. Many of the students have become more accepting of her now that she's proven that she has an Alice, but there are still several students who are determined to hate her. Mikan learns about the academy's star ranking for students and soon becomes the only student in her age-group to get the lowest star ranking possible. This makes her situation especially miserable, since a student's star ranking determines just about every luxury they get in their life, from the food they get to eat to the condition of their bedroom. For some reason, one of Mikan's teachers hates her and seems determined to make sure that she doesn't have an easy time at the academy. However, Mikan begins to enjoy herself a little more when she is assigned to her ability-type class and meets a lot of kind and friendly students there. By the end of the volume, however, Mikan discovers another upsetting fact about the school and begins to wonder whether her favorite teacher, Narumi, is really the friend she thought he was.

By volume two, I'm still feeling good about this series. Once again, this series mixes together lots of humor with just enough seriousness, and it works really well. Mikan, as usual, is determined to be cheerful and optimistic - I think she's actually less annoying in this volume. She wasn't too annoying in the first volume, but it's still nice that some of the more self-centered aspects of her character were toned down just a smidgen. However, Mikan is still an idiot. Despite the fact that she learned in the previous volume that students at Alice Academy aren't allowed much contact with the outside world, she's incredibly shocked when she discovers what Narumi's been doing with her letters. She's a very trusting girl who doesn't always put two and two together.

I liked the little revelation in this volume that there was a previous student at this school with the Alice of Nullification who apparently caused a lot of trouble. Although Higuchi isn't always great at writing about mysterious things and actually keeping them mysterious (I figured out what Mikan's Alice was way before Higuchi officially revealed it in the manga, for instance), this is one mystery that does sound really interesting and mysterious. I look forward to finding out more.

The ability-type class was a nice addition, too. Up until now, Mikan's pretty much been hanging onto Hotaru as much as possible, but her ability-type class will provide her with the opportunity to develop good friendships with other people - that means there'll be more characters for us readers to get to know and like. Mikan's ability-type class seems really nice, and I imagine there's more than a few readers who'd love to end up in that class. Natsume's class, on the other hand, seems a little scary. Considering that his class is the "dangerous ability type" class, and considering what one of his teachers said about a mission having come up, I have a feeling that the government is already using children like Natsume to do their dirty work for them, without even waiting for them to graduate first. There might not be a lot of dark moments in this series so far, but the ones that come up seem to be pretty intense.

This paragraph might not be the best thing to read if you haven't actually read this volume yet, so consider skipping it if you haven't. Anyway, I'm kind of wondering if Narumi is Mikan's father. This speculation is probably a bit premature, but this volume drops several clues that I've been playing around with. First, the school used to have another student with the Alice of Nullification, who I think might possibly have been Mikan's mother. I don't think anything's been said so far in the series about her parents - she lives with her grandfather. Second, Narumi seems to be really focused on Mikan. This might be due to the fact that he brought her into the school, but I'm wondering if there's isn't more to it than that. He's the one who first noticed what her Alice might be, he goes out of his way to be friendly to Mikan, and he protects her pretty fiercely at the end of this volume. Third, Narumi's the one who suggests that Mikan call him dad - sure, he might have made the suggestion in order to get out of being called grandpa, but I still think it's telling that he was the one who made the "dad" suggestion. Fourth, at the end of the volume Higuchi shows us the Mikan was apparently adopted by somebody. Narumi could've been her father and not known it, because Mikan's mother could've given her up for adoption before Narumi found anything out.

Oh, speculation is fun, and I think the ability to speculate about things is a sign that a story is engaging and interesting. I can't wait for my public library to get more volumes of this series.

As far as extras go, this volume has an author freetalk sidebar in the form of a short comic, a more in-depth explanation of Natsume's power limiters as well as a few other kinds of power limiters, a few character profiles, and in-depth descriptions (with illustrations) of the Junior Division uniforms.

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (book) by J.K. Rowling - After spending 10 years with his uncle, aunt, and their bully of a son, all people who hate him, Harry Potter learns that he is a wizard and has been invited to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Although things don't exactly become easy, as he tries to deal with a new magical world he knows nothing about, his celebrity status in the world of witches and wizards, and a powerful enemy who tried to kill him when he was just a baby, Harry still manages to enjoy himself and make friends. Those who'd like another fantasy series with a school full of children with special abilities and a detailed fantasy world might like this book, which is the first in the Harry Potter series. Like Mikan, Harry has a teacher who despises him for unknown reasons. Also, similar to the "ability-type classes" in Gakuen Alice, this book has different Houses, which each have their own special characteristics.
  • Arrows of the Queen (book) by Mercedes Lackey - Talia is part of a very restrictive community that she doesn't feel she fits in with. She dreams of being able to leave and serve Heralds (sort of like travelling peace-makers, although they do much more than that) and their Companions (beings that have bonded with humans and that look like horses, but that are at least as intelligent as humans). Talia's wish is granted when a Companion finds her and bonds with her, taking her away to be trained as a Herald and the new Queen's Own (emotional advisor to the queen). This is the first book in Lackey's Heralds of Valdemar series. Those who'd like a story with a school for special children and teens might like this book. At one point, Talia attends classes that teach her about her own special abilities - these classes remind me a little of Gakuen Alice's ability type classes. Like Mikan, Talia never even knew that she had abilities that could get her into such a school.
  • The Strange Power (book) by L. J. Smith - This is the first book is Smith's Dark Visions series. Kaitlyn Fairchild is a psychic whose drawings predict the future. The only problem is, her drawings usually don't make sense until after whatever they predict has happened. When she finds out about the Zeetes Institute, a place where she can learn to control her abilities, she decides to go, but the institute may have have more sinister intentions than Kaitlyn realizes. Those who'd like a story with romance, psychic abilities, and a school with secrets might like this book and series. Like Natsume, the main male character, Gabriel, is dark and dangerous, a complex character.
  • Fruits Basket (anime TV series); Fruits Basket (manga) by Natsuki Takaya - Tohru had been living with her grandfather after her mother died, but circumstances and Tohru's own desire not to be a burden meant that she ended up living alone in a tent for a while. However, she gets taken in by the Sohma family, who are hiding a secret - certain members of the family turn into animals in the Chinese zodiac when they're weak or hugged by a member of the opposite sex. Both the manga and anime are good - the anime follows the manga pretty closely (except for a few things, and the last episode), but it ends well before the manga does. Those who are looking for a fantasy manga series that is mostly light-hearted (at least at the beginning), with a cheerful, likable, and determined heroine who has a tendency to be a bit oblivious, might like this series. The manga series gets a little darker later on, as the author starts revealing various characters pasts and secrets, but this is overall a light and gentle series. The anime series also has its darker moments, but it stops well before the story's biggest secrets are revealed.

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