Friday, December 25, 2015

Alice in the Country of Joker - Circus and Liar's Game, The Nightmare Trilogy (manga) story by QuinRose, art by various, translated by Angela Liu

I had two Alice in the Country of Joker sets in my giant pile of vacation manga, and I unfortunately chose the wrong starting point, The Nightmare Trilogy. Circus and Liar's Game did a much better job of explaining how the Country of Joker worked and what made it different from the Country of Hearts and the Country of Clover. Overall, though, I don't think the Alice in the Country of Joker stuff was as good as some of the past entries in the franchise. Either that, or I read way too many Alice in the Country of volumes during my vacation and just overdosed on the franchise in general.

Warning: There are spoilers from this point on. Also, yay, I'm finally done with my post-vacation reviews!

Circus and Liar's Game:

Alice in the Country of Joker: Circus and Liar's Game (manga, vol. 1) story by QuinRose, art by Mamenosuke Fujimaru, translated by Angela Liu – This volume includes a summary (flashback) of Alice's arrival to the Country of Hearts, with some hand-waving as far as the move to Clover and then Joker went, because Alice has repressed her memories of Julian and Gowland disappearing when she was in the Country of Clover. Everyone is reluctant to remind her about what happened, just as they are reluctant to tell her too much about Joker, who is always smiling but seems to have a sinister streak.  The Country of Joker is established as a place meant for Alice's entertainment, a place where she can spend time with all of the role-holders. The volume includes one extra: A flashback to the time when Alice had a crush on her tutor, and her heartbreak when he fell for her sister.

This volume felt super-condensed and a little confusing. It started off looking like Alice was remembering earlier events by reading her own diary (a clunky technique in general), but at some point it morphed into her present.

If you're looking for a good Country of Joker starting point, this would seem to be it. It covers a lot of basic stuff, like how the seasons work and the restrictions on Alice's movements. It also touches on the fact that all of Joker's employee's are toys (or Faceless who could be turned into toys?). Literally all of the role-holders are introduced, as well as most of their roles. In fact, so much time is spent introducing the characters and explaining how the world works that, at this point, it's unclear who, if anyone, Alice will be falling in love with in Circus and Liar's Game. (My initial guess was  Joker. I was very wrong.)

Alice in the Country of Joker: Circus and Liar's Game (manga, vol. 2) story by QuinRose, art by Mamenosuke Fujimaru, translated by Angela Liu – Alice cannot move from one realm to another without first visiting Joker, so everyone tries to help her out, from Blood to Peter. However, Alice decides to try visiting Joker on her own and is given bitter candy that brings up vague memories of a funeral she once attended. Later, Joker manages to bring Alice to his prison, bringing Alice closer to the dark truths everyone is trying to protect her from. She is saved by Nightmare. While Alice is having fun playing Halloween tag at the Hatter Mansion, Peter is with Nightmare, hiding Alice's diary in an effort to protect her from her own memories.

Someone tore out the first few pages of this library book. I did not appreciate that. People, I know the full-color pages are nice, but library books are not your personal property. If you want the pretty pages, scan them, make color copies, or go buy the book.

Once again, there wasn't much in the way of romance – just Peter's desperate puppy love and Blood's general sexual aggressiveness. The mystery is more prominent here, and it's interesting. What's Joker's game, and how do Alice's memories of Clover, the funeral (her sister's? except everyone seems to want to convince her it was the funeral for one of her parents), and Elliot's past experience as a prisoner tie together? Joker indicates that Peter's presence is reminding Alice of her past.

This volume was confusing, but intriguing.

Alice in the Country of Joker: Circus and Liar's Game (manga, vol. 3) story by QuinRose, art by Mamenosuke Fujimaru, translated by Angela Liu – As Nightmare begins having a Winter Festival in his domain, Alice tries to focus on the “now” and having fun. But she keeps flashing to a dark prison where a second Joker acts as warden. Everyone continues to try to distract and protect her, but things are coming to a head. The volume ends with Alice spotting her own older sister in Joker's prison.

The story feels like it's being unnecessarily dragged out, but I'm still interested in seeing where this goes. Everyone keeps saying that the Country of Joker is a lie, and I want to know why.

Also, I liked that Blood was super blunt with Alice, and she didn't try to backtrack and deny any of what he was saying. The residents of Wonderland are made to love Alice, and she does take advantage of that. And she does end up doing pretty much anything anyone suggests, so she doesn't have to make decisions on her own or think too much. The role-holders are keeping things from her and allowing her to hide from her own memories, but she's not exactly making their job hard.

Blood is one of the few Wonderland residents who pushes back and makes Alice think about the implications of a world were everyone is guaranteed to like her, no matter what she says or does. At the same time, though, he's not really trying to make her wake up and remember the real world. I think it mostly goes back to his history as someone who can remember a time before he became a role-holder – he can see the rules that govern him and the other Wonderland residents a bit better than some of the others.

Still nothing that looks like a romantic storyline, unless you count Blood and Ace's occasional flirtatiousness.

Alice in the Country of Joker: Circus and Liar's Game (manga, vol. 4) story by QuinRose, art by Mamenosuke Fujimaru, translated by Angela Liu – Peter breaks the rules to rescue Alice from the truth she's about to discover in Joker's prison. Alice finally attends Gowland's recital, and several Wonderland residents talk about how much they love Alice (no, really). Peter is happy as long as Alice is happy, even if it's not with him (although he would prefer she not fall in love with Blood). Boris isn't quite so hands off, but his love isn't very complicated either. Blood is more confusing. Alice thinks he's just playing with her and so she pushes him away, worried that she just sees her tutor in him, or that he'll say or do something to hurt her. The volume ends with Blood getting hurt while rescuing Alice from Joker's prison. Elliot's comments make it sound like Alice will have to kill Joker to truly escape him.

Wow, Blood is crude in this volume. When Peter says he only wants to make Alice happy, his response is: “With that baby carrot between your legs?” (By the way, in this volume Peter makes it clear that he's not a fan of kissing and sex because, ew, the germs, so many germs. His response to Alice: “But for you, my pearl, I'll force my sex drive. I'll take on your filth and surely survive!” She does not react well.)

It seems like the romantic storyline may have finally arrived, although Blood doesn't find the role of “romantic hero” to be a comfortable fit. Despite (or because of?) his coldness, he intrigues me, because he's the only guy in this series who seems to be even vaguely bothered by his compulsion to love Alice. He realizes that she might only be interested in him because she sees her tutor in him, and he makes things as uncomfortable for her as possible, telling her (sarcastically?) that it's okay if she uses him and pretends that he's really her tutor.

Alice in the Country of Joker: Circus and Liar's Game (manga, vol. 5) story by QuinRose, art by Mamenosuke Fujimaru, translated by Angela Liu – Ace and Boris both admit they love Alice, but Alice finally comes to the realization that she loves Blood – not as the shadow of her tutor, but as himself. She plans to tell Peter and Vivaldi and leave to go live permanently at Blood's place. However, Peter may have finally decided to become more aggressive about pursuing Alice. Also, Alice now has a mysterious key (possibly to her sister's jail cell?).

The more I think about it, the sadder this world is. While Blood isn't a comfortable character, not by a long shot, I can admire his determination not to let Wonderland turn him into a thing for Alice's amusement. He flat out admits that he had initially planned to kill Alice, just to see if he could do that to a beloved outsider like her. In a way, he reminds me of Ace, although for some reason he works better for me here than Ace did in Alice in the Country of Clover: Ace of Hearts.

This one, like Alice in the Country of Clover: Cheshire Cat Waltz, is on the steamier side. Unfortunately, there seems to be more steam than actual romance – Alice's declaration of love loses some of its oomph because Blood doesn't seem to be particularly affected by it. He's possessive and wants her to stay at his mansion, but that's nothing new.

One interesting bit of info: we learn that Peter has been lying to Alice all along. He told her that she could go home after she filled up her vial by talking to Wonderland residents. However, what the vial was being filled with was actually her feelings of guilt at not wanting to go home. She could have gone home at any time.

Alice in the Country of Joker: Circus and Liar's Game (manga, vol. 6) story by QuinRose, art by Mamenosuke Fujimaru, translated by Angela Liu – Alice tells Peter that she has chosen Blood and is going to live with him, but she gets a more aggressive reaction from him than she expected, which causes her to worry about how “off with their heads” Vivaldi will react. Also, Alice is once again worrying that Blood might only like her because she's an outsider. It doesn't help that she spotted an extra teacup in his private garden. Has he secretly been meeting some other woman? An attack on Vivaldi leads to Vivaldi declaring Alice an enemy and sentencing her to be beheaded. It shocks Alice, but for some reason she approaches her upcoming execution feeling strangely calm. Will Blood save her? Or maybe Peter? Or will she, feeling guilty at being happy that her sister doesn't exist in this world and therefore can't take Blood away from her, allow herself to be executed? The volume ends with a cute short in which Blood feels jealous that Alice keeps baking Elliot special carrot-flavored goodies.

After volumes worth of feeling like the story was being unnecessarily stretched out, now it feels like there aren't enough pages left to properly resolve everything.

Blood, with his mafia connections and occasional coldness, isn't really my favorite choice for Alice, but I like him as far as the larger story goes. He has stronger ties with Alice's real life than most of the other characters do, and his presence tends to bring out some of the series' more interesting storylines. This is not only true for Alice in the Country of Joker, but also for Blood's “route” in Alice in the Country of Hearts.

The relationship between Blood and Vivaldi comes as no surprise to anyone who's read the first licensed Alice in the Country of Hearts manga, so I couldn't bring myself to be very interested in Alice's worries about Blood possibly seeing someone else on the side, but everyone's utter coldness as Alice's upcoming execution managed to shake things up a bit.

The short at the end of this volume was pretty adorable.

Alice in the Country of Joker: Circus and Liar's Game (manga, vol. 7) story by QuinRose, art by Mamenosuke Fujimaru, translated by Angela Liu – With Blood's help, Alice escapes Joker's prison. She learns that Vivaldi is Blood's sister and that they planned the execution together for...reasons. Vivaldi gives Alice up to Blood, and Alice tries to adjust to the role of being an escaped criminal, Blood’s lady, and a member of the Hatter mafia. She becomes the Hatter family negotiator, slowly transforming the Hatter family into something that operates more legally, and she eventually marries Blood. It's a fragile ending, though, as Alice's brief involuntary move to the past, the Country of Diamonds, demonstrates.

The issue of Alice's choice isn't completely resolved (the regret and guilt that led to her envisioning her sister as Joker's prisoner is still there by the end), and there's a sense of impermanence to her life with Blood, despite the evidence that she's building a future with him. The move to the Country of Diamonds was very brief, very rushed, and kind of confusing.

Although I was disappointed about how fragile Alice's happy ending felt, I still enjoyed the sweetness of it (even if it didn't really fit the tone of most of the previous volumes in Circus and Liar's Game). There was some recognition that, the longer Alice stayed in Wonderland and the more she built a life there, the more the rules would apply to her as well. Both Alice and Blood made it clear that they wouldn't tolerate replacements – if either one of them died, they wouldn't accept a new “Alice” or new “Blood” created with repaired clocks. I suppose that's as close to a "happily ever after" as you can get in QuinRose's Wonderland.

All in all, this was a sweet ending for Circus and Liar's Game, but I disliked how unfocused the series felt. There were too many mysteries (and I'm still not satisfied with the explanation given for Alice's visions of the funeral) and, although Blood was a fascinating character, the romance wasn't given enough room to breathe and grow. Also, art-wise, I'd like to say that Fujimaru normally does a great job but sucks at drawing guns.

The Nightmare Trilogy:

Alice in the Country of Joker: The Nightmare Trilogy: Dream Before Dawn (manga, vol. 1) story by QuinRose, art by Job, translated by Angela Liu – Nightmare, who is weak, sickly, and often coughs up blood, wants to prove that he can be relied upon, so he goes on a survival trip with Alice. Then he agrees to play the violin for her, but no one shows up because everyone's afraid of him. Alice tries to help by disguising him, which causes Joker to accuse her of trying to erase him so that he'll be better liked. Extras: A brief story with Alice and Boris, set in the Country of Hearts. Then, in Country of Clover, a story in which Alice runs an errand for Blood and is followed by Peter.

I really, really hate Job's art style. It's messy, and people's faces look odd.

Also, this story is boring. First the survival trip, which felt like filler (who starts a story with filler?),  then the failed concert, and then a cruise. I know that this series is going to include romance between Alice and Nightmare, but it feels forced so far. And Nightmare is an inconsistent and confusing character.

Alice in the Country of Joker: The Nightmare Trilogy: Afternoon Dream (manga, vol. 2) story by QuinRose, art by Job, translated by Angela Liu – Alice feels awkward after Nightmare confesses that he loves her. He's behaving normally and hasn't even asked her out, while she's desperately trying to keep him from telepathically peeking into her head and seeing how he affects her. She learns about a mysterious locked book in his library that's supposed to show you whatever you want to see. She finally manages to open it, and it shows her a painful real world memory. Meanwhile, others have heard about the book and Alice's connection to the Hatter family and are after her. Extras: An Alice in the Country of Hearts short with Nightmare, and then an Alice in the Country of Clover short with Blood.

This trilogy is frustrating. The first volume was filled with what felt like filler stories. The second volume is suddenly all about some book that was never even hinted at in the first volume. Alice remembers her tutor but doesn't seem twisted up by his physical similarity to Blood. Instead, she's all upset about having once crossed the word “nightmare” out in her sister's dictionary. It might hurt Nightmare's feelings! ::eyeroll::

The romance is meh, and I still hate the artwork. Job does okay with larger panels but apparently can't be bothered to draw/ink more neatly in smaller ones.

Alice in the Country of Joker: The Nightmare Trilogy: Late Night Nightmare (manga, vol. 3) story by QuinRose, art by Job, translated by Angela Liu – Alice makes Nightmare accept an invitation so that he can maybe make friends, but it's actually a father hoping to arrange a marriage for one of his daughters. Alice feels jealous and distressed. Then Alice goes off to work as an assistant in Joker's circus, and Joker stabs Nightmare as part of a magic trick. Later, Joker stabs Gray and turns him against Nightmare. Things finally come to a head as far as Alice and Nightmare's relationship is concerned. Extras: A short in which Alice frets over the fact that Nightmare doesn't seem terribly interested in having sex with her. (Spoiler: he's interested, but he's being a gentleman.)

Alice is incredibly annoying, pouty, and jealous. She forces Nightmare to accept an invitation he was going to reject, and then gets jealous because she's not as pretty as the Faceless woman being shoved at him. Never mind that most of the role-holders barely seem to notice or remember individual Faceless, and never mind that Nightmare only met with the woman and her family because Alice herself insisted.

This wasn't worth the time it took to read it and if I were a Nightmare/Alice shipper, I'd be unhappy (oh you poor Nightmare/Alice shippers, you got nothing but crappy volumes, I'm so sorry). It didn't feel like this trilogy was written with any sort of plan in mind. Stuff kept happening, and then Alice and Nightmare fell in love. The end.

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