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Lew's First Reviews
by Sideshow Lew
©2003 Sideshow Lew -- all rights reserved

written by Tom La Farge
published by Green Integer Books
ISBN 1-931243-06-9; $13.95 list; paperback, 338 pp.

Although set in the same world of his furry epics, The Crimson Bears and A Hundred Doors, Tom La Farge's Zuntig can be enjoyed by readers unfamiliar with the varied species and cultures of Bargeton. It also forms a satisfying sequel to the earlier books. The divisions between the animal folk that caused so much trouble in the earlier books is healed in revelation of the existence of the Changers.

The story is told by a young female Swamp Ape Zuntig, who is plotting to be chosen her matriarchal tribe's Dispenser when Nildwize, the elderly current Dispenser, reaches the end of her term. It's an enviable position -- the Dispenser arranges marriages, sleeps in the finest bower, gets lavish gifts on her birthday, makes all the rules and best of all, she can break any of the rules she sets. But when she discovers the Dispenser's dark secret, Zuntig is tricked into touching the dead, a taboo punishable by death. The skeleton of Nildwize's murdered baby is tied round her neck and Zuntig is tossed into the Flood River to die. But under this great duress she discovers she has the ability to shapeshift. Zuntig becomes "some ottery, eely thing" and escapes, assuming a kaleidoscope of shapes as she tries to put as much distance as she can between herself and her watery fate. She ends up a skink (a type of lizard) in the Biljub Desert. Although she is pleased at first with her new form and new life, she is troubled by strange sensation in the bones of her right leg. The ghost of Nildwize's daughter somehow merged with her during the shapeshift, and now their contrary destinies are intertwined. Zuntig only desires to live in peace, but the ghost, which she nicknames 'Leg', wants to continue on its journey to the Drowned City, the Swamp Ape's final resting place. Leg sabotages each new form Zuntig assumes, taking over her owl's wings, a patch of her fish-form's skin, her lemming's womb, as she tries again and again to drown Zuntig, who shifts shape at the critical moment to escape. But Zuntig doesn't realize that all her changes are merely evasions, and she always remains what she truly is, never free of Leg's death wish until she finishes her unfinished business back in the Swamp in her ape form.

Just as Zuntig does not restrict herself to one shape or one fate, La Farge does not stick to the conventional narrative form. Although Zuntig starts out in conventional first person, with each new form comes with a new style of writing. Her tragic double life as a dovekie and a skua is reviewed as a performance of the Bargeton Pig Opera, complete with untranslated passages in pig language. When she becomes a fish swimming upstream to spawn the reader is plunged into a (literal!) stream of consciousness consisting of paragraphs full of sentence fragments, conveying the urgency and limited capacity mental capacity of the creature. Most amusing is her stay as a Lemming, told as a hysterically funny pastiche of a Victorian matchmaking romance of the sort Jane Austen might write. The genteel gossiping language contrasts sharply with the actual nonstop rutting. The Crimson Bears and A Hundred Doors were written in an utterly authentic Victorian voice, giving them the feel of a classic transformation fantasy like Alice in Wonderland or The Island of Doctor Moreau, and like Zuntig, the story was enhanced by an essay on a play vital to the plot, memoirs, minutes from a meeting, and passages from books read by a character. But here the shifts in voice and tone do more than create a convincing world, they enhance the experience of Zuntig's metamorphoses.

La Farge is obviously having a load of fun, and for a reader willing to keep up with him, Zuntig proves to be one of the most charming and rewarding transformation-themed novels you could find.

Futaba-Kun Change
written and drawn by Hiroshi Aro
published by Studio Ironcat, L.L.C.
individual issues $2.95 apiece; 'graphic novels' (i.e., 6-issue collections) $11.95

If you're at all interested in TG fiction, you're surely aware of Rumiko Takahashi's fantastically successful manga and anime series Ranma 1/2. The comedic story of a boy cursed to turn into a girl has won millions fans both here and in Japan. Futaba-Kun Change, a new manga series by Hiroshi Aro, at first seems to be a blatant ripoff. In both romantic comedies, the teenage male main character changes into a cute girl at the worst possible moment and is pursued by amorous classmates of both sexes. But there are several important differences between Takahashi's and Aro's works that make Futaba-Kun Change a unique addition to the sex-change comedy genre.

In Ranma 1/2, Ranma Saotome is cursed by sheer bad luck (falling into a magical spring) and many episodes deal with him trying to find a cure for his condition. He changes into a girl when splashed with cold water and back into his male self with hot water. But Futaba's condition is genetic, and there's no talk of a cure. His father and sister are also gender benders; in fact, it was his father who gave birth to him! He changes whenever he becomes aroused, which is making his crush on cute schoolgirl Misaki very difficult to take to the next level.

Ranma 1/2 is structured like a typical sitcom. Even though Ranma is looking for a cure, you know he'll never find it, not as long the merchandising can squeeze another yen from the legions of Ranma fans. More and more characters are added but the basic situation between Ranma and love interest Akane keeps spinning its wheels. But by the sixth Futaba-Kun Change manga (the most recently available), Misaki has discovered her boyfriend's secret and starts coming to terms with it.

The biggest difference between the two manga, however, is surely the level of raunchiness. Takahashi is very innocent about her hero's sex change. Ranma's breasts might get grabbed or joked about and that's about as far as it goes. When it comes to changes 'down there', Ranma is as sexless as a Barbie doll. But one of the first things Futaba does is explore his new female body, and in detail. Unlike Ranma, Futaba has to deal with having a period (and the possibility of becoming pregnant, as evidenced by his father). Futaba's older sister, Futana, raises the kinkiness to new levels. No matter what form she wears, this self-assured gender bender chases after girls and loves 'teasing' her brother by sexually assaulting him.

If you're not familiar with Japanese comics, you might be unaware that they are read right to left, instead of left to right, like Western comics. Depending on the publishers, the art may be left alone, or flipped and retouched to make it easier for Western readers. Naturally, there are rabid defenders of both techniques. With Futaba-Kun Change, Studio Ironcat seems to be trying to please both camps at once. The dialog has been flipped to read left to right, but the art remains unflipped. So, for example, if two characters are facing each other across a panel, Character A's dialog, which should be read first, is on the left but over Character B's head, and the little word balloon tails seem to point off into random directions. This can be disorienting even for someone who is used to switching between Western and Japanese style comics.

Studio Ironcat also translates some of the unfamiliar terms without which some of the jokes wouldn't be apparent (Futaba's last name, "Shimeru", is the Japanese pronunciation of "she-male"). But in a few places there are so many explanatory footnotes it shatters the flow of the story. The artwork is well done in the traditional 'big-eye' Japanese style, although several episodes seem to be inked by different methods and some look like they are reproduced from color originals.

Futaba-Kun Change will probably be best enjoyed by fans of Ranma 1/2 who are looking for a manga that deals with male-to-female changes with more biological realism but still crave the zany humor and silly situations of a typical romantic comedy manga.

A Voyage to Arcturus
written by David Lindsey
currently available for reading at Litrix.com
hardcopy editions available through Amazon.com

Despite the pulpy sci-fi title and setting on a distant planet, A Voyage to Arcturus is a enjoyably elaborate fantasy about a traveler's discovery of both a new world and unexplored depths within himself.

The book opens with a disturbing seance during which the medium materializes an aberrant but oddly attractive manlike creature. Two of the attendees, Maskull, a bearded, passionate giant, and Nightspore, a strange man with a wild and distant air, are invited by the treacherous Krag on a voyage to Tormance, a planet circling the star Arcturus, where the summoned creature came from.

Maskull wakes on Tormance alone and discovers he now possess new organs: A breve, a plum shaped lump on his forehead which allows him to read minds; two knobs below his ears called poigns which let him understand and sympathize with all living things; and a magn, a thin, flexible tentacle dangling from his chest that communicates love with the creatures it touches. He also learns the twin suns Branchspell and Alppain produce two new colors, ulfire and jale. "Just as blue is delicate and mysterious, and yellow clear and unsubtle, so he felt ulfire to be wild and painful, and jale dreamlike, feverish and voluptuous." It is probably no coincidence these adjectives perfectly describe the sensations elicited by Lindsey's novel.

Maskull searches for his friends, vaguely following the 'Drum Taps of Sorgie', a pounding that seems to lead him towards the blue sun. In each land he enters, his new organs mutate in shape and purpose, allowing him to perceive different aspects of what he examines, gifting or cursing him with novel instincts, and changing his mental outlook. In this way he explores Tormance more thoroughly than he ever could have imagined, becoming one of its strange pageant of creatures.

As he progresses, Maskull struggles to comprehend this world which obeys the dictates of the mind rather than the laws of physics, and to solve the riddle of it's mysterious creator-god known variously as Crystalman, Shaping, and Faceny. The people he meets are inhuman, so it isn't quite fair to call them unrealistic characters. Their perceptions and desires are alien, and Lindsey does an admirable job of portraying them as creatures who have a unique mindset as well as bizarre organs of perception. A personal favorite is the scene where Maskull finds the source of Tormance's life and observes new animals precipitating out of thin air. This book should be savored for its dreamlike, lyrical prose, the mystical wonders of Tormance and its odd inhabitants, and the joy of the author's sheer imagination and skill in description.

A Voyage to Arcturus is long out of print, but it is fairly easy to find secondhand copies. [Editor's Note: And if you can't wait for the book to be shipped to you, you'll find it available for your reading pleasure online as well]

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