A system of gears only works when they are properly slotted together. If even one gear is missing, the entire machine fails to function.
Kongpob, a freshman engineer, has clashed head-on several times with Arthit, the head hazer of the faculty (under the SOTUS system at their university). But after undergoing the harsh trials Arthit has devised, Kongpob has come to realize that the senior is concealing a caring and endearing personality beneath his severe exterior. (He has a particular fondness for pink milk!) However, as the end of the trials draws ever nearer and with it, the aim of achieving the treasured ‘gear’ that all the engineers strive to win that proves they’ve been deemed worthy of being engineering students, there’s no sign of any allowances being made; the freshmen must keep working hard to pass the final tests and win their gears.
Meanwhile, Arthit and the other hazers are called out in front of the freshers by the sophomores for imposing such an exacting series of trials on the freshmen. He volunteers to run fifty-four laps around the track on top of the other push-ups, squats etc. they’re told to do. When the freshmen are dismissed, Kongpob wants to check on Arthit. “Serves them right,” says one of his fellow freshmen. “No way he’s going to do all of them.” Yet later on it starts to rain and Kongpob has a niggling feeling that, knowing how stubborn Arthit is, he’s probably still out running in the dark and the wet, so he goes out to see for himself. And he’s right. Arthit is struggling on but with only five more laps to go, he refuses point-blank to stop – in spite of Kongpob’s insistence – as more and more students arrive to watch him finish his marathon. Afterward, he’s exhausted and with a sprained ankle, has to keep to his room – but by chance, Kongpob finds himself delivering food and pink milk. Concerned for his upperclassman’s welfare, he’s surprised when Arthit is angry and embarrassed to be seen in such a weak condition. He also notices that his own college room can be seen from Arthit’s window…
Meanwhile there are still more challenges to unravel for the freshers, culminating in ‘The Scramble for the Flag’ – will they be able to work together to unlock the final clues?
There’s no escaping the fact that the university undergraduate hierarchy and its strict traditions depicted in SOTUS seem quite alien to anyone who’s studied at a UK university. (Or maybe not? Maybe as an arts graduate I missed out on all this?) Anyway, even though the hazing set-up is extremely elaborate (and intensely time-consuming) the point seems to be that it will establish strong bonds in the new group of freshmen in the engineering faculty, as well as teaching them to respect their elders, who are imposing all these challenges. But as the whole plot revolves around the hazing, a small but significant four-panel extra at the end in which Prem asks Arthit how the latest test went, only to receive the answer, “Don’t even ask”, reminds us that they’ve had to give up much of their own time to train the first-years on the SOTUS system.
The awkward couple that are not yet a couple, Kongpob and Arthit, keep rubbing each other up the wrong way whilst at the same time growing more attached to each other. So while many of their interactions tend to consist of Kongpob’s attempts to break down the barriers between them being frustrated by Arthit’s determination to keep him at arm’s length, the mangaka Kei is very good at showing us through their facial expressions that they’re attracted to one another and what they’re saying is not what they’re really feeling. When, after midterms, the upperclassmen take the freshers on a trip to the beach for a welcome party, Kongpob finds himself thinking about Arthit, Does anyone else know how cute you are? Does anyone else know how kind you are? Anyone other than me? I don’t want anyone else to know your secrets. And then there’s the bet Kongpob made with Arthit – and won – that he could ask for anything. What will Kongpob ask for?
The second volume of SOTUS is ably translated by Leighann Harvey and lettered by Winster. Again, I would have liked a translation note or two (i.e. why does Arthit hate his nickname ‘Ai-oon’? ) but as the series comes in the smaller mass market paperback size, maybe there wasn’t room for extras. Nevertheless, there is a cute colour chibi illustration at the front. The third and final volume has been announced by Yen Press for September 2023.
As a reader who hasn’t watched the Thai TV series this is based on (or read the original novel by BitterSweet) and who finds the whole hazing plot bizarre, I like the second volume much more than the first. The Boys’ Love theme underlying the action is still understated (it gets an OT rating) but the attractive art by Kei helps to convey what’s really going on in the characters’ hearts and minds.
Our review copy from Yen Press was supplied by Diamond Book Distributors UK.