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Story:

Momo is an unusual shinigami. She wears all white, can’t remember who she was, always interferes in human life, and cries for every soul she takes. Her cat familiar Daniel can’t stand this, but loves Momo enough to stick with her. Together they perform their duty of guiding souls to the afterlife, providing comfort, care, and companionship when they can.

Impressions:

First, I would like to think Seven Seas for sending me a review copy of this book. This volume will be out on March 31st.

That being said, I’m glad I got this for free because that means I don’t actually have to waste money buying it. Ballad of a Shinigami was an absolute chore for me to read through, the worst thing any book can do in my opinion. I literally had to force myself to read it to do this review. The book is uninspired and meandering; a cliche-filled romp into overly sentimental melodrama.

First there’s the stories present in the book. BoaS is not so much a novel but a collection of four short stories, each one involving death, which is kind of the problem. Even the summary on the back says “First encounters with Momo always end in farewells.” So from the beginning there’s no doubt on how these stories will end, or at least what they involve, immediately cutting away any suspense the stories might of had. The trend is bucked in a couple places but overall they all read like a bad date: unpleasant, awkward, and the ending a foregone conclusion. The emotional lesson each story tries to tell is just laughable, artificially worked in and sounding more preachy than anything else.

The characters themselves don’t alleviate any of the problems of the narratives. They’re all cookie cutter at best, molded into what the story demands. Most of them are weighed down with all the troubles and unique situations that the story requires for emotional weight, rendering the characters that much more unbelievable. Momo, ostensibly the main character or at least the unifying one, is never given much depth, but maintains a mystery to the end. All we know is that she likes to meddle, cries, and has an annoying cat familiar named Daniel. I hated every interaction between Momo and Daniel, each one filled with awkward dialogue and Daniel always coming off more as an annoying kid to me.

Then there’s the author’s, K-Ske Hasegawa, writing style, which can only be called passable at best. He appears to ignore the old axiom of all creative writing “show not tell,” relying on constant narration by some omniscient narrator to drive the stories. He chooses to wrap up every story at the end with a summary of the events, laying out everything so there is no ambiguity on the reader’s part, rendering the stories creatively dull. Aside from the narration the rest of the style can be characterized as unexceptional and cliched, often trying to grasp at more complexity or meaning but failing.

The presentation of the book itself is a mixed bag. True to its word, Seven Seas is printing all of its new light novels exactly like they are in Japan, meaning they’re small, and by small I mean tiny - like those books of jokes one always see when checking out at Barnes and Noble. Overall it creates a jarring effect, as I had to get used to the size of the book before I can even read it, and now it just looks ugly standing next to all my regular sized light novels. I really think this plan is going to come around and bite Seven Seas on the butt, as these books would look very out of place on any manga bookshelf in stores. Maybe that’s the point, but I think it’s just going to lead to them lying around in some hidden part of the store. I will give Seven Seas points for the color inserts at the beginning of the novel, similar to what was done with Boogiepop. I wish Tokyopop would take up this practice. The actual art in the book, by Nanakusa, is clean and nice but ultimately forgettable and lacking of any true distinction.

I usually try to find something good in the light novels I read, since I know they’re not high art but just entertainment, but I cannot find anything that deserves to be called good in Ballad of a Shinigami. The whole work is mediocre, written by a novice who apparently is in dire need of a creative writing class. Wiki tells me there are eleven BoaS novels in Japan. Either K-Ske Hasegawa got really good starting at the second novel or the Japanese just tolerate bad writing a lot more. I’m not going to check the second novel to find out.