With the English-language release of Mysterious Journey to the North Sea (originally written in 1988), the Vampire Hunter D series begins to get that much more ambitious. And, I have to admit, I had mixed feelings: the VHD series worked because it was light, fast, unpretentious fun, and didn’t get bogged down in the ponderousness that afflicts most written fantasy these days. On the other hand, I could also see how after a high point like Pilgrimage of the Sacred and Profane, the series might end up eating its own tail and repeating itself in the worst possible ways. The most likely scenario was an endless treadmill of: “D meets bad guy; D stands stock-still; bad guy attacks; D kills bad guy without mussing a hair; lather-rinse-repeat.”
Thankfully, Hideyuki Kikuchi did want to try to play that much farther over his head, as he admits in his postscript to the English-language edition of the book. With Sea, he started to expand both the length and scope of each individual story beyond the single-volume treatments he’d been giving them so far. And since he was already no stranger to multi-book epics, the time was probably more than ripe to try it out here.
From what I can tell the work has paid off. Sea Pt. 1 is easily as good as Pilgrimage in most ways. And if the second half lives up to the promise of the first, it’ll be the best adventure in the D-verse thus far. Like the other VHD books, it’s a torrent of fantasy, horror, pulp SF, gun-fu and sword-swinging/swashbuckling tropes, with the perennially unflappable D as our ever-reliable linchpin in the middle of the action. The far-future setting’s practically a character in itself, too — a world ravaged by centuries of dominion by the “Nobility” (i.e., vampires), now finally piecing itself back together but haunted by the legacy of the Nobility’s reign.
Sea Pt. 1 opens with a staple pulp-fantasy element, a Damsel in Distress — the lovely red-haired Wu-Lin — and immediately intermixes it with a fistful of others: the Mad Scientist, or perhaps better to say a Mad Old Wizard (“Professor Krolock”); the Dashing Rake (“Toto”), and of course, D himself, who steps out from behind a tree to save her neck. The poor girl’s attracted their attention no thanks to an artifact she’s carrying — a silvery bead with some oblique connection to the Nobility — something that a great many people seem all too willing to jump out of the woods and kill her for. This leads to an attempted ambush in a forest, and one of the best lines in the whole book — when Wu-Lin thinks to herself “Why is everyone always popping out from behind trees?”
Unfortunately, they do end up killing Wu-Lin — an act which causes D to do something that comes the closest we’ve ever seen him to an act of revenge on his part. Before she dies, however, she entrusts her treasure to D and gives him a deathbed mission: Bring the jewel to her sister, who lives on the far side of the North Sea. D takes the job, probably as much to his own surprise as ours, especially since he’s the sort who has never been caught dead doing a favor before. It’s another one of the tiny hints that Kikuchi periodically drops about D’s inner nature that we don’t get to see often.
D’s trip across the ocean pairs him up with the very person he was meant to deliver the jewel to: Wu-Lin’s sister, Su-In. Su-In’s as feisty, headstrong and in-your-face as Wu-Lin was reticent and demure — a heroine in the same mold as many of the best that have co-starred in the VHD books (like Lina from Raiser of Gales). They each give about as good as they get: at one point she tells D, point-blank, “Don’t you ever lighten up?” and he replies “Been like this since I was born.”
Trouble follows both of them back to Su-In’s village in the form of a gallery of bizarre killers whom are determined to do away with both of them and take the bead back to their master. Each of these rascals sports, in the best VHD tradition, a power that’s as cinematic as it is dangerous: one nemesis can transform a small patch of surf into a massive battleground that envelopes his enemies. But there’s more going on than just the struggle over the bead: there’s a local mystery in the form of a Nobility named Baron Meinster and his massive abandoned laboratory in which he conducted ghastly experiments. And that’s right about where the first part of the story breaks off, a perfect spot for a cliffhanger — even though there’s a sneak preview of Part Two at the end of the book.
Art: This being a novel there would nominally be no art, but like the other D books, there’s both cover art and interior illustrations by none other than design and illustration legend Yoshitaka Amano. Of course, they’re gorgeous: check out the portrait of D on page 164, and the two-page spread on pp. 22-23 showing D in action against multiple opponents. (No prizes for guessing who wins that battle.)
Translation: Kevin Leahy has been supplying the translations for all the D novels so far, and in every case Kikuchi’s storytelling voice comes through with great clarity. (I should say that the earlier books suffer from some narrative clumsiness that’s clearly not Leahy’s fault; he’s simply being faithful to what Kikuchi wrote, and what he wrote there was a bit stodgy.)
The Bottom Line: Last time out I recommended Pilgrimage as being a fine place to start the series with if you haven’t already, since it was that good. I’m hedging my bets with this one being even better until Part Two is out, but if you don’t mind being in suspense by the end of the book, dive right in. Now let’s see if Part Two fulfills the promises of Part One.