I have a tendency not to read the backs of books or any summary blurbs on anything. They’re often written in a way that is totally off-putting to me (a perfect example of this is the first sentence from the back of my favourite movie Trust: “The film concerns the unusual romance/friendship between two young misfits wandering the same Long Island town.” Triple yawn!) and they usually give too much of the story away for my liking. I get that these blurbs are there to convince people to buy the book/movie, so you have to give the people something, but I much prefer walking into something totally blind. (This is also why I only read reviews once I’ve read/seen the work or for works I have no intention of ever reading/seeing.) So all I knew about Wombs before I started reading it was that it has a seemingly ridiculous title (which is actually a perfect title now that I’ve read it) and that it’s by Yumiko Shirai.
Yumiko Shirai! Remember her? I loved her debut work so, so much that I was pretty much willing to try anything else she wrote, even if it starred accountants doing tax returns for other accountants. Fortunately, she is not forcing us to read about accounting with Wombs. Instead, it is another war-related story, although this one takes place while the war is still ongoing. And I have to say, I’m pretty sure this is the weirdest premise for a story I’ve ever come across. Basically, women are impregnated with aliens so that they can teleport. For real.
The first immigrants to the planet Hekiou are at war with the second wave of immigrants, and have been for the last twenty years so that most of the new drafts have no idea of a life without this planet-wide battle. The Firsts are grumpy that they did all the work of terraforming the damned planet from an uninhabitable wasteland into something a little more people-friendly and then the Seconds just sail in, acting like they own the place. The Firsts would be losing this war if it weren’t for their elite “transfer corps”, a division of the military made up entirely of women whose purpose is to teleport soldiers and materiel to and from the battlefield and various secret bases called nests. They noticed that the female of a native species of the planet has the very unusual characteristic of being able to teleport, but only when she is pregnant. So people being people, they figure out a way to implant the fetus of this species into human women and build their military around the ability to simply pop up out of thin air where they want to be.
Shirai makes this very weird premise and story work by zooming in from the bigger picture of this war to a group of new transfer corps recruits and to one new recruit in particular, Mana Oga. So the reader is introduced to all this technology and war and weirdness through the eyes of young women who also have little idea what the hell is going on or what is going to happen to them. There’s a lot of anti-transfer corps sentiment out there in the real world (and a nice commentary on racism tucked in there), and many people think that the women actually have sex with the alien species, so the new recruits come in with a lot of misconceptions that need dispelling. We follow Oga through her first “cycle” from training with fake pregnant bellies and smashing into some ugly discrimination to actual implantation of the fetus and then onto the battlefield.
Of course, the art is just as beautiful, if not more so, than in Tenkensai. The same washes and brush work, lines that sharpen and loosen as required by the story, and so, so much movement. Some of these panels threaten to leap right off the page and run away across your living room. Shirai also creates this craggy, weird world that is both alien planet and war zone, plus the strange space the women move through when they are teleporting. I wanted to see just pages of her doing landscape paintings of these great backgrounds. And the faces! You will not get confused about who is who, despite the very large cast in this series. Everyone feels totally unique, perfectly expressive in a way that is true to and enhances the characterization created by the story and the dialogue.
And these are great characterizations too! The tough sergeant in charge of Oga’s squad is not just that one-dimensional hardass, she’s revealed to us over the course of the story as someone with other things on her plate than being Yelly McShouterson all the time. And Oga herself has a great arc as she tries to do what’s expected of her even when she’s not entirely sure what that is. But the side characters also have serious grounding and stories of their own that give the whole thing depth and make it so satisfying to read. All of which is to say I am basically waiting for Shirai to publish something new so I can give her my money. Even if the next thing is about accountants, she will make it amazing.
UPDATE: I wrote about the final volumes of WOMBS here.