Shame on me. Somehow, I managed to read and enjoy The Rose Princess without managing to write a review of it. Blame it on the end-of-the-year rush, an influx of other things all competing for my attention, or a proliferation of desk clutter that makes Fibber McGee’s closet look like a paragon of personal management. I not only forgot to write about the book but needed to go back and re-read the whole thing for the sake of being able to pen a review that wasn’t just Oh yeah, new Vampire Hunter D book, it’s way awesome, go pick it up, what more can I say?
Rose Princess comes billed with one of the best back-cover blurbs I’ve seen in a while: When you make a pact with the Devil, what happens when the Devil wants out? That’s one of the several plot seeds that Hideyuki Kikuchi plants into the perennially fertile soil of the VHD universe for this book, and as always he uses D himself as the gardener to cull what comes up. Strained metaphors aside, this is a good, solid installment in the series — about on the level of a book like The Stuff of Dreams, which gave us poetic images and striking encounters in lieu of a broader understanding of the D-verse (or, for that matter, D himself).
The book opens in the village of Sacri, which is aptly named: the villagers are about to sacri-fice one of their own to a vampire princess, or a “Noblewoman” in the book’s parlance. The ceremony’s interrupted when a young man tries to avenge his beloved — she’s the one intended for the vampire’s fangs — and his weapons are just wide of the mark. He’s no hero to his village for this, though: these sacrifices are payment of a sort for protection of a sort. The princess’s four colossal knight guardians protect the land around her castle (which includes Sacri) from all manner of brigands and natural dangers, so giving up someone to her now and then hardly seems unfair payment.
Not everyone agrees, of course, and a small contingent of villagers has arisen to do away with the knights and the princess. Among them is Elena, a tough motorcycle-riding young woman — not a Hunter, but she follows the pattern laid down in many previous D stories for the headstrong women who end up at D’s side at one time or another. This is where D himself comes along as well, also hunting for the princess’s head — but instead of a clean kill, he finds a more complicated issue at hand. The princess, as it turns out, doesn’t feel like being bound to this village and its people — and her four squires. Unfortunately, the four knights are determined to continue fulfilling their duties to her, whether they (and she) like it or not.
As Kikuchi explains in his afterword for the story, the book has the content of a classical fairytale — a princess and her knights threatened by a dark stranger — but with each element stood on its head and given left-hand twists. The setup implies that D will eventually clash with all four knights in turn, but what’s unexpected is how each knight — Red, Blue, White and Black, so named for their armor — are given opportunities to be full-blown characters and not just targets in a shooting gallery. They have their reasons for doing what they do, just as D has his, and there are more than a few moments where we realize it’s a shame these people ended up honor-bound to kill each other. Worse still is the possibility that the very people D is trying to protect may end up opting for the kind of life the princess leads as a way out of their own predicament.
The D books work best as explorations of a hitherto unknown world, with D as our tour guide of sorts. It works best, though, when Kikuchi also gives us situations and characters that are at least as memorable as the monsters and forbidden territories. Rose Princess is actually least interesting when it’s about the rose princess of the title. The things she sets into motion — like the unexpected dilemmas faced by her four servants — make up the meat of the book, and deserve (and get) most of our attention. Beyond that, though, are all those wonderful individual moments that make me wish someone would make a live-action movie series from these books. I loved a scene where D enlists the help of a blacksmith to create a replacement for his ruined sword — and the follow-up, where D actually takes up the weapon and uses it in battle, is even better.
I’ve mused before about the various inspirations Kikuchi draws on for the D books. He’s long been a fan of the Hammer Studios horror productions (meaning essentially anything with Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee) and TV shows like Dark Shadows. He also borrows at least as heavily from Westerns for his details about the great, unsettled swaths of wild lands in his world, and from the non-Tolkien branch of high fantasy authors for many of the more supernatural leaps of imagination and some breathless, evocative prose.
For all of the SF and horror (and Wild West) trappings in D, though, it remains fantasy first, each volume replete with six impossible things before breakfast and a hero who is mystery personified.
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. As a side note, even though this isn’t a manga, there are several black-and-white full-page illustrations (and a cover design) by D’s visual godfather, Yoshitaka Amano. My favorites for this book include the plate on page 43 — D vs. the rose princess herself, each depicted in that elongated and dreamy style that couldn’t be anyone but Amano’s.
The Bottom Line: All the D books thus far have had something to recommend them — a flashy villain, a particularly bizarre bit of unnatural biology, or just D himself in his perennially glacial badassery. This time around, it’s an ethical dilemma wrapped in a fairy tale turned topside-up. Who’d’a thunk it?