ANN; official website; Tokyopop; TV Tropes; Wikipedia
Caution: spoilers! (But mostly so I can keep track of everything that might be important, for my own benefit as much as anyone else's.)
Well, this is an Original English Language manga, though actually the author, M. Alice LeGrow, may consider it a graphic novel, and not even manga-influenced. Perhaps the only reason I or anyone considers it manga at all is because it's published by manga distributor Tokyopop, in manga's typical tankobon format. Though personally, I think the art style is certainly reminiscent of Japanese manga, it's more definitively meant to have a Victorian Gothic appearance (which, as it happens, is itself a popular kind of fashion in Japan). Anyway, the art style is what initially attracted me to the series, and it's one of the main reasons I continue to read it. But of course, I wouldn't continue if the story itself wasn't also interesting.
Volume 1 begins with a small newspaper article about a mysterious auto accident in Drury, Pa., which killed Catherine and Jonathan Wherever, and left their eight year old daughter Dinah orphaned. Custody was given to Dinah's maternal aunt, Jane Addison, who inherited property in the small town of Bizenghast, Ma., from her sister. This property was a defunct lot of buildings, formerly St. Lyman's School for Boys, which had burned down, except for the main house. An article appearing later in the volume says St. Lyman's was established in 1848 as one of three branches of the State Reform School of Massachusetts, for the mentally feeble and criminally ill. St. Lyman's had itself taken over a plot and buildings from a former asylum called Blackrow House.
The story actually starts when Dinah is 15. It seems to be set in the present day, though it can be easy to forget this because of the Gothic way Dinah and her friend Vincent Monroe dress, which is matched by the property which is the primary setting of the story. But there are modern cars, cell phones, the internet, etc. And certainly, Dinah and Vincent speak in the way of modern teenagers, pretty much. Anyway, Dinah's Aunt Jane is worried about her, as is Dinah's psychiatrist, Dr. Richard Morstan. Dinah claims to see ghosts, and she has fits, and refuses to take her medicine. She and Vincent both claim she doesn't have her fits anymore, but Jane and Dr. Morstan don't believe that. And they'd rather Vincent not visit her, though his presence always seems to calm her down. (Oh, I suppose I should also mention Jane now goes by the surname Audrey. I believe Addison was her married name, and she went back to her maiden name when she got divorced. I read that on Wikipedia, not in the actual manga, which as far as I've gotten yet hasn't explained why two different surnames were mentioned for her.)
One evening Dinah and Vincent go out together, through the woods. And they discover a hidden graveyard with a sunken mausoleum. Dinah doesn't want to enter it, but Vincent assures her he'll protect her. Inside, they find a contract in which the undersigned will be owned until they have managed to free all the tormented spirits within the mausoleum. And the contract has Dinah's signature at the bottom, though it doesn't seem as if she actually signed it. She only touched a key on a plaque with its own curious inscription. They then meet a huge, anthropomorphic spider type of creature named Bali-Lali, who tells them if Dinah doesn't honor the contract, she'll die. So, outside the mausoleum there are a bunch of markers, each with a riddle, which when answered, leads to a vault, and each vault contains a spirit Dinah has to awaken, and help pass on. They may be sad, or angry, and certainly they can be dangerous. And she'll have to help a different spirit every night. Of course, Vincent decides to help her. Oh, and their clothes sometimes change to fit the scene of whatever illusory reality they find when they enter each vault.
Well, most of the story involves the various spirits they must free, but we also get to learn a bit more about the main characters, as well as their world. For example, Vincent's parents are always travelling. They send him money for expenses, and there's a gardener to take care of the place. Dinah thinks it must be nice to live by himself, but he doesn't really seem happy about it. And he lives outside his house, in a house he built in the yard out of stuff he scavenged from all over town. Which is something else Dinah doesn't understand. Also, she says she hates Bizenghast, though he seems to like the town.
Well, after Dinah and Vincent have helped 10 spirits pass on (though we only get to see four of those missions), they meet the first of four tower guards, Edaniel. Who appears as a strange-looking cat. He's kind of crazy and sarcastic and can really be quite hilarious, though our hereos find him rather frustrating and annoying. He's supposed to help them on their missions, provide information. After 10 more spirits have been freed, they'll meet his brother, Edrear, and later on, there'll be his sisters to meet, to help them out. Of course, the further they go in their missions, the harder the missions get, so they'll definitely need all the help they can get. Anyway, Edaniel explains to them what the mausoleum is all about: it's a place where ghosts are stored until they can be processed, and that's Dinah's job. Since the mausoleum's staff, including the manager (a hooded angel statue that's never actually spoken to them), the four tower guardians, plus Bali-Lali and her crew of cleaners (trespassers who've become zombielike spider-creatures), are all spirits, they can't interfere with the ghosts' dreams, which is why they need help from human agents. And if Dinah fails to complete her job, she could become a cleaner, herself. On the other hand, if she succeeds, she could get a big reward. Edaniel also tells them that Vincent (whose name he always gets completely wrong) could take up Dinah's contract, and she'd be free to go. He offers to do this, but Dinah insists upon keeping it herself. She refuses to be scared anymore. And that's the end of volume 1.
So, volume 2 begins with some stuff about Dinah. She had an appointment at the Row Sanitarium in Watertown, with a Dr. Weller, which had been foreshadowed by a note from Dr. Morstan in the previous volume. Also a story about a head in a jar that Dinah found when she was seven (which is odd, since she didn't come to Bizenghast til she was eight; a minor technical oversight, I imagine). Anyway, we get to see a few of their adventures, though again, not all of them. There's one Vincent does alone, in which he meets a girl named Erzebet. I don't think any spirit actually got released that night, it was actually a lesson for Vincent about what's truly valuable... but I won't get into that. In another mission, there's a ghost of someone who had borne a plague that killed everyone he cared about, though he was immune to it. Vincent succumbed to it, so Edaniel took Dinah to Lazarus Island, where there was a tree with apples that can cure anything. This is when she learned that members of Guilds, such as Edaniel, have both human-like and animal-like forms, and she got to see him in his human form (though he still had a tail). On the island was a woman named Nareesha, who Edaniel called the most beautiful woman in the world. And he made out with her a bit. Later he tried to make out with Dinah on the way home, since there was nothing better to do, but she wouldn't let him. Oh, but... a crow or something told Dinah to secret take a second apple, just in case, in spite of Edaniel's warning to take only one. Anyway, they saved Vincent, and I guess set the ghost free, but Dinah was affected somewhat by the experience, is out of it for awhile. (It's also at this point that she starts referring to her aunt as her mom.) Then, on their final task before meeting the second guardian... well, Edrear shows up unexpectedly, and seems to finish the task himself, because Dinah and Vincent were too busy bickering to finish the job, and he was not impressed with them. So ends volume 2.
Volume 3 starts with Vincent at school. Of course, Dinah isn't allowed to go to school because of her mental problems, she's barely allowed to leave the house at all, and Dr. Morstan would like her to be committed. (Aunt Jane is against this, and hopes to move away from Bizenghast with Dinah, once she's saved up enough money.) But anyway, Vincent overhears a couple of girls talking about Dinah being crazy, and so he yells at them, though no one understands why.
Of course, Edrear appears in human form, unlike his brother Edaniel, who prefers his animal form. Edrear is supposed to be the muscle of the group, so hopefully things will become less dangerous. Which is good, since every time they get a new guardian to help them, it also means the coming vaults will be more difficult... Anyway, Edrear seems much more courteous than he did when he first appeared in volume 2. He's happy to be serving Dinah, and she likes him, too. Though Vincent says he doesn't like him, he's obviously just a bit jealous. There are, as always, more missions for our heroes. We also get to see an especially deadly soul called an "Unbearable," which must be specially destroyed, being transported to the mausoleum, which is the most senior Guild in the U.S. It'll be stored there until it's time to transport to the seniormost Guild on the planet, Neptune's Gold, which is at the bottom of the ocean (so they only transport spirits there quarterly, as it's so much trouble).
Later, at home, Dinah apparently sees the ghost of Addie Clark, a teacher at St. Lyman's who had disappeared around the time of the fire. Her name has popped up more than once before, and now Dinah wonders if she's an Unbearable. Anyway, she tries to show Dinah something in her closet, and Dinah finds a keyhole where there's no door, so she can't find what Addied wanted her to see. So she and Vincent look thru the attic, where they find a painting of Addie.
Later, on another mission, the team splits up to look for their target. Edrear goes with Dinah, which of course sparks Vincent's jealousy. Meanwhile, he goes with Edaniel, who at one point has to transform to a human to rescue Vincent. Then Edaniel hits on him, much to Vincent's annoyance. Also in this volume, we learn that Dinah has started going back to school, which she's excited about, but we don't actually get to see her there, yet.
In a later mission, the four of them get separated again. Dinah has an illusion which tries to appeal to her vanity, Vincent has one which appeals to his greed, and Edrear has one in which Dinah wants him to kill Vincent so the two of them can be together. (Edaniel, meanwhile, just gets bonked on the head.) Though they're tricked for a time, when Edaniel comes to, he snaps them out of it. As they leave, Vincent finds a stone tablet that was missing from a group of stones he saw before when he was alone with Erzebet, who he's been unsure whether or not she was even real... And so ends volume 3.
So anyway. Interesting premise, some decent characters, cool and beautiful artwork, creepy stories, and a fair amount of humor. (Everyone has their moments, of course, but Edaniel's definitely the funniest.) Um, I often thought the tasks, however difficult at first, could end up being a bit simplistic, too easily solved after all the trouble they caused. But they're not that simple, actually. Certainly they're strange enough, usually. Still, I think the larger mysteries of the series may be of greater interest, in the long run. Anyway, I look forward to seeing how it all ends. Oh, and I should also say that volume one had bonus stuff before each chapter, but the other volumes I've read don't. Every volume has a bonus section at the end, though, with fan art, cosplay, etc.
...I'm not sure when I'll get around to updating this further. I have the first six volumes, so I have no idea why I haven't anything about vols 4-6 yet (I just noticed this oversight when looking at this review a few years after I last worked on it). But I probably won't bother doing that until I've bought the last two volumes in the series, and I have no idea when I'll get them. And there are a few related books that I don't imagine I'm likely to ever get. But seriously, I will get around to finishing my review eventually....