12 August 2014

'Quantum Devil Saga: Avatar Tuner, Vol. 1'

There have been numerous reasons my blog hasn't been updated lately, and this is one of them. For the past several months, I have been really, really excited for this book. I sat on pins and needles, watched a few interviews with the translator Kevin Frane, helped hold a small contest to promote the book, and pre-ordered this as soon as I could. Now that I finished it in just a day a week ago, I have no regrets.

Quantum Devil Saga: Avatar Tuner is a five-volume novelization of a story Yu Godai created when approached to create a scenario for Digital Devil Saga. Though she didn't work with Atlus long enough to finish her work for the RPG (although she is still credited), she planned to write her own version of the story, as it was her original idea. The fact Quantum exists has fans of the Megami Tensei franchise who adored Digital Devil Saga squeezing with delight.

And it's translated into English. Well, volume one at least, thanks to translator Kevin Frane and Bento Books. Since I want the other four volumes released outside of Japan as soon as possible, I owe it to myself to stand on my podium and rant away on this tiny little blog.

Spoiler: I really, really, REALLY love this book. And some spoilers are here, sort of.

I don't want to judge this product based solely because I have played Digital Devil Saga. Because I have, however, some of my bias might shine through. That being said, Quantum Devil Saga is not a point-by-point novelization of the video game. It takes on similar backstory, characters, themes, and ideas, but how the story is told is very, very different. You don't need Digital to enjoy the book, and you don't need Quantum to enjoy the game.

That being said, the book does far more in providing backstory and characterization to a story than the games ever have. This is due to the mediums being vastly different in nearly every single way from mechanics to the relationship with the person approaching and enjoying the medium. One uses words on paper; the other needs words, sounds, music, and images simultaneously. The game has way too much to focus on that not everything can be delivered as effectively as the book. For example, Quantum Serph can talk and has his own personality that agrees and conflicts with his allies and friends in the tribe. Meanwhile Digital Serph is a mute silent protagonist avatar for the player that lets other characters speak for him. Quantum also has the added benefit of not having three hour sessions of dungeon crawling and dying by Atlus's bullshit bosses and random encounters.

But I digress.

At the heart of both works is the premise, which works well in both mediums. Today, however, I will only tackle Quantum. Digital will have to wait quite a long while for me.

In the Junkyard, a post-apocalyptic wasteland with endless rain, many technologically skilled tribes fight each other to conquer territory so the victor can reach the promised land of Nirvana. The seemingly endless fighting ceases when a strange anomaly appears before two waring tribes, the Embryon and the Vanguards, and spreads a virus that initiates a bloody, mindless carnage. The remaining Embryon survivors of the encounter find a frail young girl with black hair where the anomaly once stood and bring her back to their tribe to care for her. Upon the girl's mysterious arrival, Serph and his four best men discover the virus has infected everyone in the Junkyard, giving them the potential to turn into creatures with elemental powers that withstand conventional warfare. The rules of the fighting have changed. For a tribe to survive and reach Nirvana, the people of the Junkyard must rend, slaughter, and devour their enemies, as their newly awakened monsters, called Atma, desire.

While having a seemingly mundane "anime"-sounding premise, Quantum Devil Saga is not for the faint of heart. The new powers breed all sorts of issues for the characters to deal with. New feelings, seemingly alien to them, awaken and ways of coping with being human and not eating allies recklessly become difficult for each person. Someone quiet but violent like the fire-haired Heat easily accepts this new way of life and holds no remorse for his Darwinist thinking. Compassionate Argilla and Jinana refuse to cannibalize in an attempt to find more normal and peaceful ways to fight for paradise. Then we have Gale, so stoic and expressionless, he might as well be a robot thanks to genetics, but he might have the most difficulty and inner turmoil of everyone.

And there is blood. Lots and lots of blood. And entrails. It's not torture-porn levels of bad, I assure you, but the descriptions tend to be... fairly graphic. Rest in pieces, Nue swarm.

Actually, no. I'm glad they got their just desserts.
It's not so bad if you enjoy some horror and violent fiction, but it's not to the extent that diehard fans will lavish in this. Quantum is a nasty book at times, but it's still stomachable. Arguably sitting around a rated R film.

Of course, the bigger appeal to this novel is in creating world with some sci-fi elements dictating how everything works. Guns, genetic modification, and terminals are present, but fantasy and Hindu mythology weighs heavily over the setting. A seemingly poetic and spiritual veil creeps into the tone of how the world works, from the influence of the Church ruling the Junkyard to the explanation for the endless rain aiding in reincarnating the souls of fallen soldiers. Volume one does exceptionally well at creating the foundation of the Junkyard and introducing the characters so the increasingly stressful conflicts have time to grow.

The characters here generally have very distinct personalities, responding to the awakening of their powers and emotions in unique fashions. Cielo has a young, cheerful presence this gruesome narrative needs, providing some of the more lighthearted, sillier moments. (Him first trying out his Atma powers was mildly humorous given the grim, violent context. "I'm flying!") On their own, the five main characters are compelling, but when they're together, it's heartwarming and entertaining. Serph, Gale, Heat, Argilla, and Cielo all have great chemistry together.

Serph stands especially well as a character, serving as the less extreme embodiment of Heat's views of survival and Argilla's wish to remain human. He truly thinks and embodies the ideals of a leader, a friend to his people - and newcomer Sera - and a skilled soldier. Numerous time he describes the style of combat his tribe uses compared to the others and describes how successful that has made the Embryon in the fight for Nirvana. At the same time, Serph is honest and trusting to the point he makes an easy target for enemy tribes to potentially take advantage of him, much to Heat's chagrin and Gale's concern. He gets a lot more character and focus here than in Digital Devil Saga, and that's all a positive in my books.

As a whole, Quantum is amazing. It explains so much about its world that you won't get lost. It's very descriptive, rich, and flowing with character that I'm sure those who like reading books will enjoy this on its own. Again, playing Digital Devil Saga is not necessary to appreciate Yu Godai's original tale, over a decade in the making.

I want the other volumes so badly so I have more to consume and talk about. Because everything is build-up, not a ton of things happen. To make up for it, the cool setting, characters, action, and mythology kept me hooked.

And of course, thanks to Kevin Frane for helping make the English release of Quantum Devil Saga possible. Such a thing happens rarely for Japanese books that have connections to or are supplements to video games. The first chapter is available to read for free, in case you want to try this out. :)

4.5 out of 5

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