Monsters galore!

Monsters: our greatest fears and our greatest friends. Two manga from CMX put beasts on both sides, as helpers and horrors of humanity, making use of the standard mystery elements that make both a compelling read.

Good monsters and scary ones are showcased in two new manga, "Monster Collection,"in which monsters display heroic qualities, and "Sword of the Dark Ones," filled with mean monsters bent on destroying mankind.

A small warning: Starting with the recently released second volumes of both series, "Monster Collection" and "Sword of the Dark Ones" are being shrink-wrapped as per CMX's new policy of wrapping manga that contains potentially objectionable material.

In "Monster Collection," by Itoh Sei, we meet the gifted monster summoner Kasche Arbadel. But she's also reckless, impulsive and tends to go overboard with her actions. In fact, when we first meet her, she's in a devil of a hurry to talk to the summoning school's master, so she calls up a huge griffon to fly a distance of only about a few hundred yards -- in a crowded city that lacks space to accommodate a griffon's wingspan.

And she smashes smack-dab in the middle of a meeting with a magic inspector who's berating Master Prophecy for all the expenses for damage being racked up by his department, all due to -- guess who?

The reason Kasche is in such a hurry is because the summoning department's treasure vaults have been broken into. Only one item was taken, a statue that stories say is the key to opening the legendary Encyclopedia of Verum. The encyclopedia is said to contain the true names of nearly every magical creature -- the ultimate prize for any summoner.

Obviously, the statue must be retrieved. Unfortunately, all the department's most powerful summoners are out of commission, leaving the master no choice but to send the rash Kasche after the thief.

Aided by a pack of wolves, Kasche easily finds the thief. By the time she's finished with him, you can't help but feel sorry for him being on the receiving end of her fanatical attacks, which include the wolves, the griffon (albeit in a narrow place again), sword-fighting and good old-fashioned punches and kicks -- most of which miss, but whose collateral damage is just as bad as if they had actually hit their target.

This is definitely one woman you don't want to mess with.

But the bandit, who calls himself Cuervo, turns out to be just a tool used by a mysterious summoner. Kasche pushes on to find him with the bandit in tentative alliance, amid attacks by the unknown wizard, a rebellion brewing in the region of Wallace and Cuervo harboring a few secrets of his own.

Kasche's over-exuberance would be the death of her if not for her quick reactions, knowledge of magic and general toughness, which save her life numerous times.

Despite her recklessness, Kasche no doubt has charm. Her heart truly is pure, and she cares dearly for not only people, but also for the monsters she summons and encounters. Her wolves' supposed deaths at the hands of Cuervo fuel her insane rage, and she treats the griffon (affectionately named "Griffy") as a beloved pet.

She even saves a half-reptile, half-woman creature called a lamia, which attacked them under the orders of the mystery summoner. Kasche does this by joining her spirit with the lamia's and eliminating the last remnants of the wizard's consciousness from the creature's brain.

In all this, Kasche's Achille's heel is her unusually deep spiritual affinity with her summoned beasts, which is a double-edged sword: while monsters might obey her more readily, she also physically feels the blows dealt to them. Long ago, when she was just a girl, one beast died while under her control, causing her excruciating pain.

But instead of balking, she threw herself into summoning and, despite knowing the consequences, continues forth as a fearless and fiery young woman.

Meanwhile, in "Sword of the Dark Ones," by Kotobuki Tsukasa and Yasui Kentaro, monsters are the bane of humankind and would have wiped out the race if not for mercenaries. Skilled soldiers that usually belong to a guild, mercenaries are most often hired as escorts when people travel to other towns, protecting their clients from the so-called Dark Ones.

Among these fighters is a young man named Leroy Schwartz, who wields a magical talking sword called Ragnarok. He no longer belongs to the mercenaries guild, but his skills once earned him the second-highest guild rank of S.

Although a mercenary's services are invaluable, Leroy has made plenty of human enemies in the course of his work, and one of those past situations threatens to embroil him again.

He guards a carriage of prostitutes from the Scarlet Lady brothel to the town of Alpas, and while there, runs into the assassin Lena, whom he despises. But he reluctantly agrees to rescue her sister, who she says was kidnapped and forced to work at the Scarlet Lady. Leroy is already suspicious of the people at the brothel, so Lena's plea is simply another reason for him to check things out.

Once there, the plots against him erupt violently: from Ashley, who is under orders from her master, the mysterious Harman Cartel, to capture him; and from Yuri Paris, who is intent on revenge because of a years-long grudge against Leroy that he isn't even aware of.

Since it's clear that both Leroy and Ragnarok are more than they seem, it is Cartel and Yuri who end up capturing most of the attention, despite the focus on the former duo. The development and motivations of cartel and Yuri are much more engrossing and profound than Leroy's self-conflicts.

While Cartel's attempts to fight his inner demons may be noble, the means he uses to do so are not . He is caring but also ruthless, and he seeks harmony within himself and with others by creating an assassins guild.

Despite the obvious tragedies, "Dark Ones" lacks deep, true emotion.

The characters' mysteries are intriguing but fall short of inspiring much sympathy. After Yuri's frenetic revenge takes its toll, and Leroy and Cartel's torments are revealed, the story loses most of its passion, and the two foes spout off a plethora of clichés on the meaning of life without sincerity. It's an unexpected letdown after being swept up in the rigors of the story's earlier intensity.

But with Lena still an X-factor and other forces threatening to converge, the final volume of this three-book set, due later this month, promises to inject some energy back into a disappointingly listless story.

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