January 27, 2011

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Nightschool Volume 4

Written by Svetlana Chmakova
Illustrated by Svetlana Chmakova
Yen Press

Things are moving fast for Alex. Not only has she lost her sister, now she's lost her home. On the run, even Alex's friends start to turn on her, for fear of the danger. Meanwhile, the young Hunters want revenge for the death of their friends and are in hot pursuit. As if that's not bad enough, the secret lurking within Alex and others finally reveals itself, as the time to take over the world has come. Can anyone stop this mess? Is anyone actually who they think they are? It all comes to an explosive conclusion in the final volume of...Nightschool!

After volume three seemed to be a bit stuck in place, it was a tad odd to get into volume four and find that someone had jammed the accelerator. There is so much action in this final volume that it's almost too hard to keep track of everything that's going on. The third trade acted like we had a lot of time to complete the series, then suddenly there's a rush on to reach the ending. I have to admit that's a pacing problem that does cause me to like this series a little less than I did before. I don't know how much of this was from the author and how much was a decision by the publisher, but I feel like this manga would have been better served going to five books instead of four.

The story itself, however, does a good job in the space allotted trying to tie everything together. All of the characters we've met play a part in the conclusion, and I don't think there are any loose ends. There's only one problem--the way this story ends is, well, kinda unfair. If you've already read the series, I think you'll know what I mean.

Without saying too much, I'll try to explain. Chmakova opts to do something that I've always felt cheapens the reading (or viewing) experience in order to make sure that everything works out okay for her characters. That takes away the sense of danger for me, which really hurts the overall feel of the manga. Why should I care if Alex or one of the hunters is in danger of death if the author isn't willing to actually kill someone? Further, the dramatic ending doesn't seem to have any costs attached to it. There's some serious magic going on in the final pages, but it doesn't seem to have any price to pay, other than leaving the people involved pretty tired.

I don't care for Orson Scott Card, but I agree with something he wrote about putting together fantasy or science fiction: Magic must have a price you pay. Otherwise, it's not realistic. That may seem a bit silly at first blush--after all, magic powers, vampires, and shape-shifters aren't going to appear in our world anytime soon. But there must be a sense of realism within the world to make things work. Magic on the scale of the conclusion of Nightschool needs to have a cost, and I didn't see one. I'm afraid that's a big problem for me.

It's really a shame that Nightschool ends on a cheat with no consequences, because I loved how most of this volume proceeds. The action is ramped up page by page, certain mysteries are explained, and we even get a great set of battle sequences. Chmakova does a really nice job of making normally innocent characters look creepy and keeping the action sequences as clear as possible, even while using a whole ton of shonen action lines. The pacing of the battle also felt just about right, with characters entering and exiting the fight in a way that felt natural to me. As each wave of participants falls, a new set takes their place, leading to the dramatic climax--that really wasn't.

Chmakova promises more in this world, and I think I'm up for reading it. I'd like to know more about what the hunters do, if the evil contained in this part of the story will return, and how characters will deal with their knowledge of what went on over the course of those days. On the other hand, I'm no longer as excited to read it for fear of another entirely too convenient ending. The problem with the Nightschool is that it has enough danger and violence to be a teen-level manga but has the finishing touches of one written for all ages. I hope that in her next foray into the series, Chmakova will pick an age level to work with, preferably an older one that allows her to be darker and allows bad things to happen to her characters.

Nightschool is worth reading, but be aware that the ending is a bummer. Strong art and characterization pushes it past this problem, and it's still the best OEL manga I've read so far. Yet I can't help wondering what might have been had Chmakova been willing to take more risks with her characters, and that's what keeps this from being something that I highly recommend, despite it being on last year's favorites list. It's still a good series, but it also has some serious flaws in the ending. Be aware of that before you start reading. I do, however, look forward to more manga from Chmakova, who is definitely quite talented. Once you read this series, I think you'll agree. This is a good start to what I hope will be a long and fulfilling career for her. Nightschool is worth reading so you can say you've been here from the start.