Speaking of forgotten BL publishers, it's easy to forget that Media Blasters once dabbled with the genre themselves during that brief period where they tried publishing manga in general. Most of the titles are of no particular interest...save for one, that is.
CRIMSON SPELL (Kurimuzon Superu), by Ayano Yamane. First published in 2006 and first published in North America in 2007.
Prince Vald only wanted to save his castle from a rampaging demon, but in the process he was cursed by a magic sword. He sets out to find a cure for his condition, only to find the sorcerer Halvir instead. Halvir soon discovers that unless restrained, Vald's curse turns him into a savage beast brimming with magical energy and the only way to calm it down is to tire with lots of gay sex. As time goes on, Halvir starts to care for Vald, but it seems that Halvir has issues from his own past that he must resolve if their quest is to continue.
Fantasy is something you don't see a lot of in BL. I suspect the biggest reason for that is that decent fantasy requires some degree of commitment to devising a suitably creative world and story. This is in conflict with the expectations most fans have for BL works, which is to offer as much smut as possible as frequently as possible. Amazingly, Yamane managed to exceed my expectations and deliver a series that balances the two parts perfectly in Crimson Spell.
That being said, we're not dealing with a George R. R. Martin-level masterpiece here. The basic plot is fine - there's nothing wrong with a good old-fashioned hero's quest - but Yamane's creativity only stretched as far as her randomly smashing letters together until she came up with something vaguely Nordic for all the proper names and such. She also likes to shove in as many magical things as she can: magic swords, magic shape-shifting familiars, even an entire school of wizards frozen in time. Still, it's well-paced so that the progress of the story always feels like it's matching the progression of Vald and Halvir's relationship. She saves the smut for the lower-key parts of the story which means that it never derails the story like so many other, lesser works.
If you're familiar with Yamane's best-known work, Finder, then you'll know that Ayano Yamane is noticeably more kinky with her works than most BL mangaka. Crimson Spell is no exception to this, but she does adapt her kinks to work within the fantasy setting. That means that instead of traditional rope bondage, she uses magical bondage as well as the sadly inevitable tentacles. Of course, that's on top of Halvir's rather sketchy notion of consent as well as the question of how much this would count towards bestiality. I can't say how palatable any of this will be to any given reader, but the kinkier elements are incorporated in a way that doesn't jar the reader from the story at large and it's used infrequently enough that it never becomes too awkward or tiresome.
Our leading pair is also kind of basic as far as fantasy characters go, but she put a surprising amount of thought into making those personalities complement one another. Vald is a veritable Boy Scout of a man, one so hopelessly innocent and noble that verges upon naïve. Still, his goodness is tempered by the guilt he feels over the damage he's done in his cursed form, a creature that is nothing but base and violent desires. Over time it also comes to include his growing fondness for Halvir. He might not fully understand why he's so attached to the man, but he'll fight to protect it (and Halvir) nonetheless. In comparision, Halvir is sly and cynical. He joins Vald's quest not out of the goodness of his heart, but because Vald's curse intrigues him. He's also more than selfish enough to take advantage of Vald's curse (and his body) to sate his lust and top off his magical energies, knowing full well that Vald is completely unaware to what happens to him in his beast form. Mercifully, Yamane stops Halvir from becoming a complete monster of a man when he's forced to confront both the mistakes of his past and his own feelings for Vald and start doing right by both. In some ways it's just another example of opposites attracting, but those additional bits of depth allow them both to stop becoming less like a typical seme and uke pair and more like partners on equal footing. That also means that they both have character arcs of their own and thus their story doesn't necessarily end when they confess their love. That along with all the other factors noted above give Crimson Spell an edge that few BL series possess, one that makes it an enjoyable read.
Yamane's come a long way as an artist since stuff like Finder, and it shows on every page. Her character designs may still trend towards the sorts of lithe bishonen seen in BL works everywhere, but there's a sense of life to these characters that I don't often get from BL art. The men may be lithe but they actually have some muscle on them, which gives them a bit more dimension then one usually gets. She also handles the action scenes well, as the sweep of spells or an attack have a sort of lively energy about them that makes them genuinely fun to behold. She also manages to strike a good balance between man and beast in Vald's transformation. He's still pretty humanoid in form, but there's just enough difference in the details as well as Vald's body language to sell the concept to the reader without straying into awkward furry territory.
She also makes excellent use of artistic angles to bring energy to her scenes, and this is no more evident than during the sex scenes. They go by in montages shown from every sort of angle, and it gives the impression that the two are wildly thrashing about in passion, shifting positions on a dime. Other times she makes great use of perspective as a sword or staff pokes its way out of its borders or communicating the speed and strength of Vald's beast form. I've rarely seen panel composition used so well to communicate both mood and movement and it's almost criminal that I find it in a series of gay fantasy smut. Still, I can't help but admire her skill.
My review is based off the SuBLime reissue of this series, not the original one from Media Blasters. It's hard to find a lot of details about the previous release, but most reviews of it indicate problems that were endemic to Media Blaster's manga releases. That means plenty of weird font choices, amateurish dialogue placement, and a few odd spelling errors and inconsistencies. In comparison, SuBLime's translation is smooth as silk and highly consistent with the rest of their works.
Crimson Spell will never be mistaken for high fantasy, but it stands above the crowd thanks to a well-balanced couple and some incredibly dynamic bits of art. It's easy to see why SuBLime rescued this series and it's one that's well worth any BL fan's time.
This series is currently published by Viz under their SuBLime imprint, and formerly by Media Blasters. This series is ongoing in Japan with 6 volumes available. The 2 volumes from Media Blasters are out of print, but 5 volumes from SuBLime are currently in print and available as e-books from Sublimemanga.com.