Zen, with Hakka along for the ride, is on a quest to uncover his own past, so that he can finally be completely free. His first stop is the first place he can remember, the former location of the Zendo, a band of female thieves. There's a woman there (Zen calls her "big sis" because she insists upon it, and I don't think she's ever referred to by an actual name) who used to be the leader of the Zendo - she's the one who had her people take a half-dead Zen back to their camp and nurse him back to health. She doesn't know anything about Zen's past, but she does know that he started to say his name before he passed out - Ze--, which the women in the camp turned into "Zen," for "Zendo." Also, she remembers the cryptic tattoo on his arm and the black flame insignia on the uniform he was wearing.
At the time, Zen didn't care about the past he couldn't remember. Although the Zendo didn't usually allow men to join, Zen was allowed to stay - one, he was gorgeous enough to make all kinds of Zendo members giggle like little girls, and two, he was better at killing people than any other member of the group. Eventually, though, the Zendo broke up, and Zen left. Coming back prompts Zen to remember that he was shot by soldiers wearing uniforms with black flame insignias - Zen was a soldier of some elite mysterious unit, shot by his own comrades.
Whenever Zen sees something that reminds him of his past, it causes him to feel pain, so his next step is to track down anything else that has caused him that kind of pain in the past. The first thing that comes to his mind is the graveyard at Rian's family's summer house, so that's where he and Hakka go.
Meanwhile, Major Kyrie, now Rian's former fiance, has resigned from the army because of his failure to capture Zen. Colonel Barst Gia (the guy who seemed to know Zen in the first volume) has given Kyrie a private, secret mission, however - Kyrie is to continue going after Zen. Kyrie tells Rian that he plans to capture Zen before the army does, and Rian begs him to take her with him. Kyrie is reluctant, but Rian does end up joining him. For reasons that I don't think were ever adequately explained, Kyrie goes to the summer house at what happens to be the same time as Zen and Hakka (Big Coincidence?).
Things begin coming together. Zen discovers that the graveyard behind the summer house is a graveyard for nameless soldiers in the unit with the black flame insignia. Zen and Hakka theorize that it was a special, secret unit of the Galayan army, killed to keep knowledge of their existence from getting out. Kyrie refuses to believe that the Galayan army could do something so terrible. Zen takes Rian hostage and gets Kyrie to drive them all to the place where the Colonel wanted Kyrie to bring Zen after he'd been captured. Rather than being shocked at the situation, the Colonel seems to have expected it. He reveals that he is not, in fact, Zen's enemy - he wants to help him.
Back when Zen was part of the black ops unit, he and the others in the unit were raised without names (they were known by numbers - Zen was Zero), identities, and feelings. Every one of them was a superbly trained human weapon loyal only to Galay. The Colonel, who was Major Gia back then, was the first person to treat the members of this special unit as people. Before every mission he'd say, "Keep yourself alive, and we'll meet again." Major Gia was determined to eventually put an end to all the fighting and make it so that the unit would never again have to slaughter another village full of people.
Rian is shocked that her father had ordered such a unit created and had them killing innocent people. An additional shock is the Colonel's revelation that it was not he or the General (Rian's father) that had the black ops unit killed - no, Zen killed them all himself. Gia helped kill Zen, or thought he'd killed Zen, in order to stop Zen's rampage. The Colonel has decided that something must have been controlling Zen, is still controlling him now, but he doesn't know for sure what happened until he realizes that Hakka is actually Doctor Geno, the person who was forced to turn the children in the unit into human weapons. Doctor Geno implanted a hypnotic suggestion in Zen's mind that prompted him to kill anyone affiliated with Galay whenever he heard the words "Keep yourself alive, and we'll meet again" - exactly the words Gia said before every mission.
Geno really did tell Zen quite a bit of the truth. His wife was killed - what he didn't say was that Zen's unit killed her. The Galayan army had secured Geno's cooperation by threatening his wife, but, even though he did as they asked, they killed her and any other Amatan related in any way to Geno, in order to keep the black ops unit a secret. As part of his revenge, Geno engineered the destruction of the unit. His revenge will be complete once Zen kills the Colonel, so that's what he orders him to do.
The Colonel's pretty tough, but he also doesn't want to kill Zen, which puts him at a disadvantage. As Zen comes close to killing him, Kyrie shoots at Zen, but Rian protects him by throwing herself in front of the shots. Her actions bring Zen back to his senses. The Colonel asks Doctor Geno to join him in freeing the Amatans from Galay control. Geno declines and goes and blows himself up instead. Zen doesn't choose to join the Colonel either - instead, he'll go his own way, fighting against the Galay government whenever it tries to control him or restrict him.
So, final body count is three major-ish characters: Geno/Hakka, Rian, and Kyrie.
This is random, but I've just got to say it - if the series had been longer, if Rian had survived, and if Zen hadn't been such a cold-blooded killer, I could imagine Kanno eventually pairing Rian and Zen up. I felt a little bad for Kyrie actually - it was obvious Rian preferred Zen over him, which had to hurt a bit.
Anyway, I had fun with all the shocking revelations (I had absolutely no idea Hakka was going to turn out the be the one behind all of Zen's secrets and problems). Every time I thought I had things figured out, Kanno came up with some new twist. Once the existence of the black ops unit was revealed, I, too, figured that they were wiped out by the Galay army - the truth was way more interesting, if a bit twisted.
In this volume, it was almost like black became white and white became black. Hakka went from being an amazingly good guy to someone I didn't like very much. Yes, he had a reason for doing what he did, but I agree with what the Colonel said - the people in the black ops unit were victims, too. Instead of getting revenge upon those who were truly responsible for the death of his wife (the best target would really have been the General), he went after the black ops unit, which was filled with people who were brain-washed since childhood, and Gia, who, considering his true goals, should've been Geno's ally. I couldn't believe that the Colonel offered to let Geno join him after all he'd done - and then I couldn't believe that Geno chose to blow himself up instead. It made the past 20 years and all those deaths completely meaningless. The only thing that Geno accomplished that might at all be considered a success is Rian's death - if the General cared at all for his daughter, it'll be a blow when her body is brought to him.
For some reason, the Colonel reminds me a little of Roy Mustang from Fullmetal Alchemist. Both Gia and Mustang are part of a military whose leadership they hope to one day topple - Mustang wants to take over, and Gia wants to get the Galay government off of Amatan lands. I have to say, though, that things look better for Mustang than for Gia in some ways. Mustang has supporters, but it doesn't look like Gia has anybody - Kyrie and Rian are dead (I suppose this is just an assumption, and they may actually only be seriously wounded), Geno blew himself up, and Zen plans to do his own thing.
Overall, it's a very tightly done volume that's almost a little too neat for me. In order for things to work out so neatly, Kanno had to resort to a few convenient coincidences (everyone went to the summer house at the same time, Zen just happened to end up in Geno/Hakka's care after being separated from him for a while, etc.). The revelations were so fast and furious, I kind of wished that the series had been a bit longer, so that Kanno could've taken her time more. As it was, the revelations took up all the time, and the characters ended up feeling a bit like cardboard to me. Kyrie and Rian's deaths didn't upset me, because I didn't really care about either of them. Neither of them felt like people to me, although they had potential. Geno was the worst, though - Kanno couldn't seem to decide whether she wanted him to be a bad guy or not. Messing with someone's head the way he messed with Zen's seems like a "bad guy" thing to do, especially since Zen and the others had absolutely no choice about what they were doing with their lives. And yet, the Colonel forgives and forgets all of that once the fighting is over - I don't really feel that was justified. Zen's "threaten to shoot him in the head" reaction made much more sense.
There are a few author sidebars in which Kanno writes about what the series was originally supposed to be like and why it became the way it did. There isn't a lot of detail, so don't get too excited.
Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
- Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion (anime TV series) - In this alternate history (?), the Empire of Britannia has invaded Japan. Japan is now referred to as Area 11, and its people are 11's. Lelouch appears to be an ordinary, if extremely intelligent, high school student, but in reality he's hiding many secrets. One of those secrets is the power of Geass, which was given to him by a mysterious young girl who was some sort of military secret. Geass allows Lelouch to make anyone obey his orders, and he uses it a great deal as he begins living a double life as Zero, the masked leader of a rebellion to combat Britannia's tyranny. Those who'd like something featuring a similar political situation might want to try this - Britannia is similar to Galay, while the Japanese are similar to the Amatans.
- Daughter of the Blood (book) by Anne Bishop - Among the Blood (magic users) women rule and men serve. Usually, this is a harmonious and balanced system that benefits both sexes, but there are those who have perverted this system so that men are enslaved and young girls who might grow up strong are broken. If she can manage to grow up, Jaenelle could heal the rot in Blood society. Her family thinks she's unstable, and growing up and growing strong won't be easy, but she has some powerful allies on her side: Saetan, the High Lord of Hell (and, confusingly for some readers, a good guy) and Daemon, a dangerous (and sexy) man who's been waiting for someone like Jaenelle to come along for much of his long life. This series is not for the faint of heart (there's abuse, torture, rape and more). However, it still manages to be a bit lighter, at times, than Blank Slate. Those who don't mind that might want to try this. Daemon reminds me a little of Zen - both men are dangerous, sexy, and don't want others to control them.
- The Bourne Identity (live action movie) - A mysterious injured man with no memory is picked up by a fishing boat. Soon, this man, Jason, is on the run from assassins, using whatever clues he can find to piece together his own past. Those who'd like something else featuring a mysterious and skilled killer with no memory might want to try this.
- Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo (anime TV series) - Ok, I haven't seen all of this yet, but it's loosely based upon Alexandre Dumas's The Count of Monte Cristo. It takes place in the far future. Those who'd like another story featuring the terrible lengths to which someone would go in order to get revenge might want to watch this.