Yaoi Review: Challengers by Hinako Takanaga

Challengers v01 (Boys\' Love)

Art and Character Design: Definitely above average. The characters are cute (approaching bishonen litheness while still seeming masculine), all of them look distinctive and interesting, the panels and action are easy to follow and the book provides a nearly textbook example of what Scott McCloud claims is one of manga’s special traits — its superior ability to reflect inner states. The expressiveness of the characters contributes immensely to both the comedy and my engagement as a reader.

Characters: A real strong suit here. Even though this is very much a comedy — sometimes bordering on farce — the characters feel three-dimensional and their actions feel motivated by who they are as people (as opposed to doing things just for laughs or for the convenience of the plot as often can feel the case in these yaoi comedies.)

Plot: A nice solid boy-meets-boy comedy. The obstacles almost exclusively come from those well-motivated other characters — but even the misunderstandings between our heroes feel completely motivated by how the characters are portrayed. Secrets are kept about as long as they would be in real life, so we don’t feel burdened by a bunch of false tension. (“If only he just told the truth, everything would be solved!” How often have you thought that while reading a yaoi book? Annoying, huh? Not here.) And the book is funny. I actually found it laugh-out loud funny — which is very rare for me. (Full disclosure: I do more of a sharp exhalation of air through my nose when I find something humorous while reading, so I guess it was more snort-out-loud funny. But I was snorting about every 3rd page or so which is high praise, indeed.)

Romance: Sweet. Believable. Fun. Characters you can root for.

Sex: This is a 16+ book so don’t get your hopes up. In fact, as this is the first book of four, don’t go in expecting a big romantic payoff at the end. There are some kisses and some drunken romping around in a bed, but again (though, for different creative choices) sex ain’t the reason to get this book.

Overall: I was in a very grumpy mood when I picked up this book and I was smiling when I was done reading. It’s sweet, well written, well-drawn and funny. You should buy this book.

Rated by the publisher for ages “16+”

Read the full review below the fold:

Plot summary from the publisher’s website:

Tomoe Tatsumi is a freshman attending university in Tokyo. Life couldn’t be better: he’s living in a really nice apartment for less than most people pay for a single room. This is all thanks to Mitsugu Kurokawa: salary man, landlord, and (hopeful) lover.

It is due to Kurokawa’s generosity that Tatsumi is able to live in Tokyo on such a tight budget. Kurokawa’s intention is clear: to love, honor, and cherish Tatsumi until his dying days! And if big brother Souichi Tatsumi has his way – that day will come sooner than not!

This is my first DramaQueen book and I had high expectations. The folks at DramaQueen seem to be some of the smartest — if not the smartest — small publishers in the yaoi space. They appear to be loved by both fans of yaoi and non-fans alike. And in a very short time, they have developed a reputation for producing very high-quality books with great writing, great romance and great value.

As you can see from my notes above, I wasn’t disappointed. This book is clearly a cut above the rest and has now become one of my favorite yaoi works. It’s obvious from the moment you pick up the book, that they do, in fact, put good effort in creating a physically nice product — a full-color dust jacket, a color page in the interior, good quality paper. Truthfully, that I have any technical complaints at all is surprising, but I do.

Now, I don’t know if it was my book in particular or if all the books are like this, but I often found I had to really pull the book wide open to be able to read the dialogue sometimes — oftentimes, the words dipped deeply into that “well” between the pages. Is it the binding? Was the “live area” of the art too large for the pages? I don’t know, but I wish I did — it’d be good information for me to have when I publish my own book. Also, if I were to quibble, some of the text is very, very small — bordering on illegible in some cases — and I think that’s something to be avoided. But perhaps I just think that because I am getting very, very old… 😉

Quibbles, aside, though, this book does not disappoint.

As I said above, the characters are a real strength. The seme is likable and believable — he takes charge, but never seems like a jerk. The uke is sweet and clueless (and you know I like that…) — but still an interesting, dynamic guy with his own values and life. Ordinarily I find seme/uke relationships needlessly simplistic but here — especially because it is a comedy — the heroes are fun to watch and it never seems creepy. The “obstacle/catalyst” characters receive the same well thought out attention. The “comic relief best friend” of the seme follows the best tradition of such characters — causing trouble for his own amusement, but still being in the end a good friend; consistent with his actions and motivations, as opposed to just moving the plot forward; and best of all, he’s truly, honestly funny. And the obstacle characters — an over-protective older brother and an openly gay rival — come off as real human beings who add to your enjoyment of the book. All I can say is bravo.

Also, as I’ve said above, this book is really funny. And I think a big credit for that needs to go to the translator DramaQueen chose, Libby Maxim. Yes, there is physical humor in this book — surprising well executed in the art, actually — but a lot of the fun comes from the witty language and word play. While reading this book I felt 1) that the language was funny, clever and natural and 2) that I was never being left out of the original jokes that the author intended. That’s quite a feat! Ms. Maxim uses a variety of conceits to accomplish this — for example, one of the obstacle characters is an American who clearly spoke broken Japanese spiced with English in the original book, here he speaks broken English spiced with Japanese. Now that’s a conceit that could have gotten annoying fast, but instead it adds to the character and sets up some funny plays on the word “homo” that actually teach you some Japanese. A risky, but good choice.

And speaking of homos — while the characters in this book are perhaps more accepting than their real world counterparts would be, this book does not live in some gay-ignorant vacuum. As a gay man, I never found it offensive and enjoyed its takes on a very out gay guy, a just coming-out gay guy and the reaction of his accepting, but still trouble-loving best friend. It’s definitely yaoi — and follows yaoi’s conventions — but it’s smart yaoi that’s fun for the whole family.

In short, this is a good, warm, funny book that makes me want to read the other three books in the series. If I was giving a first yaoi book to a friend, this would be it.

(EDIT: For an alternative [and quite funny] take on this book, check out Jen Parker’s review over at YaoiSuki.)

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5 comments

  1. Alex, this is a great review…and I'm going to tell you why! LOL!

    It’s definitely yaoi — and follows yaoi’s conventions — but it’s smart yaoi that’s fun for the whole family.

    I'm going to pass this on to my editor, because it is a good review. Challangers isn't my type of story, but I know many other who's read it have shared the same view as yours on why it's good.

    I'm more of a 'The Judged' yaoi-fan. ^_-

  2. Thanks for the props, Tina. I try my best to give quality, non-spoiler reviews and it's nice to hear when people enjoy them. 🙂

    (I hope your editor enjoys it, too. Like I said in the review, DramaQueen seems like a class act.)

    And I checked out "The Judged" on Amazon. Sounds interesting. Might have to take a peek at that myself…

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