Reading Pile: Ran and the Gray World Vol 1-5 & Tribes of Kai HC
Reading reviews of this online is kind of a hoot because of how divided they are, and for understandable reasons. On one hand the series is incredibly whimsical and charming as it gives you a lot of great characters and a wonderful family dynamic, plus it has utterly beautiful artwork throughout. On the other hand, the main character of Ran is a young girl (9 or so) who has magic sneakers that turn her into an adult who in turn finds herself in some questionable romance arcs. It's always dancing around with that subplot in potentially problematic ways in the earlier volumes, but then it's not as much of a big deal in the later ones.
It's difficult to figure out exactly what creator Aki Irie is doing with that plot thread as she maintains Ran's innocence and misunderstanding of her situations throughout while also maintaining that the character who falls for adult Ran, Otaro, is in the dark about her true nature. Otaro himself is a self-centered womanizing ass, but he actually does seem to love her, so there's potential for a redemptive arc. Meanwhile, elements of the art are generally sexually charged as Ran's mother is depicted as voluptuously beautiful and other adult characters are depicted nude in later chapters. There's a unique balance between the childlike wonder and magic behind Irie's world building and the more mature themes and relationships that develop throughout. On one hand they enhance the world as a truly lived in place, but on the other they are constantly making you wonder where she's going with it all.
I still have two volumes to go in this series so for all I know it could go a creepier route (which I doubt with the way the subplots are building currently) or it could tie the age jumping sub-plot with a neat bow and a moral lesson at the end (fingers crossed). Despite that element, Aki Irie's storytelling is top notch and thoroughly engaging. I love the world she's created and the focus on Ran's family, and those elements make me want to recommend the series, just with the caveat that people should know about those more problematic aspects going in and they can judge for themselves. And hey, feel free to check back in and ask me how it all wraps up once I get the final volumes because my opinion could completely change by then.
I will always and forever love Ran's father though, he controls an army of crow men and he's pretty dang great.
Tribes of Kai HC
I kind of view this as an art book that just so happens to have a story, but it's such a light and simple story (with the exception of some of its overwrought narration) that you can basically ignore most of the plot and just enjoy the beautiful artwork.
The core story follows a tribe of big cat-taurs as they struggle to survive a lean hunting season and the coming of a war with a tribe of lizard creatures. Sure there's some conflict as the head of the tribe is going to pick a new leader and there's bickering among the cats and so on and on, but it's not terribly engaging and feels like a story I've read plenty of times. I think the overall package would have benefited a little more if it was just a silent story as Daren Bader's visual style is engaging enough. It's gorgeous and feels like equal parts Joe Jusko, Boris Vallejo, Julie Bell, and at times a little bit like Richard Corben.
Flesk Publications pulls together a really great looking package as it's an 8.25x12.5 hardcover with nice glossy pages to really capture the lavish nature of the art. At $24.95 it's a good deal for an art book, and if the story does anything for you then consider that a nice bonus.