Raiser of Gales, the second of Hideyuki Kikuchi’s Vampire Hunter D novels, did two things that impressed me: It kept and renewed my interest in the series, and presented me with a story and a set of characters that are that markedly more absorbing than the original installment. In fact, I somewhat regret this not being the first book: it’s, all around, a better story than the series-opener. If it weren’t for the fact that the first book sets up most everything we need to know — everything from the idiosyncrasies of D’s livelihood to the weird being that seems to live symbiotically inside his hand — I’d recommend that people skip directly to Gales. It’s a more rewarding read, even for people who open the D books not expecting anything more than a thrill ride.
To be honest, I never went into the D books expecting more than that, but there are elements in the series that periodically elevate it above more than just genre product. Most of those things come that much more to the fore in Gales — instead of just giving us a series of disposable targets for the improbably handsome (and near-immortal, and gifted, and so on) D to tangle with, we have an actual character that is at least as interesting as he is and in some ways more so. The only problem is that we run smack into one of the limitations of the D books as a whole — the fact that it’s a series, and that D himself is really the only character we can count on to show up regularly. In the end he always rides off into the sunset alone — much like Tora-san, underdog hero of yet another long-running and equally inexhaustible episodic series out of Japanese popular culture.
Gales has D riding into the village of Tepes (Kikuchi never bothers to hide his influences), once the site of a great castle that held a member of the “Nobility” — the term vampires use for each other in the D universe, much as gangsters call each other “gokudo” in yakuza movies. The villagers avoided the abandoned castle, speaking of it in the same ominous tones as the Bates Motel. One day, ten years ago, four of the village’s children vanished; only three returned, and none have any idea what happened or why. As it so happens, one of those four was Lina, a character that inspires at least as much interest from the reader as D does. Against the wishes of her village elders, she wishes to study the Nobility (or rather, what remains of them), and her persistent curiosity and irascible spirit are among the book’s real pleasures.
D has been hired in by the town’s mayor, after an incident (the book’s opening chapter) where a vampire apparently attacked a Hunter in broad daylight and got away clean. If Nobility are now able to move around in the light of day, then humankind’s days are doubly numbered — and D being half of each and probably one of the first to be exterminated should the Nobility regain power, has good reason to be concerned. The mystery of the missing children is of course part of the investigation, and before long he has gained Lina — somewhat begrudgingly on his part — as a co-investigator.
The best things about the D series so far have been the colorful setting and the fast pace of the writing and action. I’ve mentioned that a couple of Kikuchi’s descriptive habits undermine the thrust of his prose — for instance, sometimes he describes a moment of action in the most abstracted possible terms and then goes back to re-explain what just happened, which is more jarring than anything else. He keeps that to a merciful minimum here, and he also supplies a few more insights into D as a character instead of just a perpetual figure(head) of mystery. At one point he and Lina sit knee-to-knee around a campfire, and D speaks of his immortality and his particular burdens in a way that is quaintly poetic, if only because it is surrounded by a story that has commanded our attention well.
It’s stuff like this that draws me into the D books, and makes the bizarre battles between D and the mutant spiders or electricity creatures that he faces off against here seem like mere exotic window dressing for the real story. I can’t complain, though, at how entertaining Kikuchi makes all this — and he even gives us an ending that is tinged with real regret. Not just on D’s part, but mine: I was genuinely sorry to see the book over, and all the more eager to tear into the next volume in the series. Unfortunately, the third book, Demon Deathchase — the story from which the movie Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust was derived — is easily the weakest and least interesting installment in the series so far. Not bad enough to completely undermine my interest in the story, though, but striking in that it shows how far the series can come down from the heights here.