Thursday, March 22, 2012

Trese (Budjette Tan & Kajo Baldisimo)

Some books consume me completely. Sometimes it's because they are fiercely fantastical, like China Mieville's The Scar or Patrick Ness's Chaos Walking trilogy, with worlds that pull me in and don't let go. Sometimes they can be about ordinary matters but have characters or ideas that speak to me, like Valancy in LM Montgomery's The Blue Castle or the beautiful chaos in Italo Calvino's Cosmicomics. Trese's draw for me is a little of both as it combines Philippine mythology and local pop culture into creative, well-crafted mysteries.

I was lucky to purchase all four volumes of Trese at once; it made it quicker for me to devour the series in one sitting. Two days after buying the series, I had already read it three times. That's how I was completely immersed in Trese's world. Written by Budjette Tan and illustrated by Kajo Baldisimo, Trese follows Alexandra Trese, police consultant on paranormal crimes, through the dark and mysterious paths of Manila's under/otherworld. As a heroine, Trese is strong, compelling, and enigmatic. She's constantly flanked by her masked Kambal sidekicks and together with a recurring cast of allies and foes, she takes the readers on a wild ride around the city.

Each volume had its strengths. The first, Murder at Balete Drive, is a great introduction, immediately throwing the reader into Trese's world and circumstances. The second, Unreported Murders, cements the fast-paced, episodic action of the series. The third, Mass Murders, winner of the 29th National Book Awards for Graphic Literature, delves into Trese's backstory and culminates in an epic confrontation. The fourth and latest release, Last Seen After Midnight, is stylistically cohesive in story and in art. The black-and-white art improves with each volume: bold and dramatic, deliciously dark. It emphasizes a Manila you might see when you close your eyes, a Manila that hides in the shadows and won't reveal itself to just anyone. Each story also delves into a different part of the city, and the attention to detail that Mr Baldisimo uses to set the scene is amazing. One can easily recognize Katipunan or Quiapo in these pages; I'm looking forward to seeing Binondo or Intramuros or even Taguig next.

Despite the emphasis on the gore and action, moments of pathos also shine through. A lot of the stories are hinged on human emotions finding an outlet on a different plane. There are unreported crimes and unsolved murders. There are social injustices. There are commentaries on the lifestyles of the privileged. Mr Tan shows great skill in capturing these moments and structuring paranormal occurrences around them. "The Fight of the Year" (Vol. 4) and "Our Secret Constellation" (Vol. 1) appeals to very Pinoy struggles and pains -- almost melodramatic -- and the latter, a tribute to Mars Ravelo, proves to be my favorite story to date.

There are some stories that I felt would be better had they been longer. The gang war in "A Private Collection" never fully materializes as a red herring because it's quickly wrapped up in a few pages. True, it's good for a reader who hates devices like this but as a staple of mystery fiction, it has its uses. I can only imagine how rich a story detailing the aswangs vs manananggals would be, had this been further explored. Another story that I felt could have been better served by more pages was "The Tragic Case of Dr Burgos," which was over before I even really got into the story. I think the climax could have been stronger had it been given the same pace as the events leading up to it.

Still, that doesn't take anything away from what this series tries to do. It takes Philippine mythology and shoves it into the cracks and corners of our familiar streets, weaving the fantastic and the commonplace seamlessly. It's an excellently done urban fantasy that I would be proud to share with the rest of the world.

11 comments:

Chachic said...

Lovely review, Chris! I've been wanting to read this series for a while now and luckily, I received copies of all four recently. I read the first one and really liked it. Haven't had a chance to review it though, maybe after the craziness of Marchetta Madness is over. I wonder if these books are internationally available? Would love to promote them to readers abroad.

dementedchris said...

I mean to give a copy of the books to some friends in Canada. I don't think it's available yet, eh! I'm glad that you have all four already, it's really exciting! :D

Speaking of Marchetta, I owe you pa! I STILL haven't read it. Sorry, Chachic! :(

Kyameel said...

I love these series of books as well. :)

Celina said...

Excellent review Chris! I've only read until the 2nd one and I'm taking my time before I read the 3rd book (which a lot of people really liked because of the backstory).

"Our Secret Constellation" is also my favorite story so far.:)

dementedchris said...

@Kyameel
Such a great series. I'm not even halfway done fangirling haha.

@Cel
Loved that one. May kirot sa puso. A lot of people call the third their fave because of the backstory. Really great storytelling and art there.

Chachic said...

No worries, Chris! Just read it when you get the chance. :)

dementedchris said...

Thanks, Chachic! :D Will do!

Tin said...

Like Celina, I've read only until the 2nd book and Our Secret Constellation is also one of the few cases that I loved. :)

Oh, so that's why most people love the third book. Does it only feature Trese's backstory? How about the Kambal's?

The first two Trese books are not only making me want to get hold of the 3rd and 4th installment but it is also making me want to explore other local comic book titles. :)

dementedchris said...

The Kambal, too, Tin! :D It's brilliant how it all plays out. I can't remember where I read that Budjette initially wanted the Kambal to be half-aswang but their real story is actually cooler.

Dianne Khu said...

Chris! I'm so happy you're still blogging! I'm going to follow you (again) from now on!

dementedchris said...

Hey, Didi! Yes, and so is Cel :D (Check her out a few comments up)