Rating - 3: worth reading once (borrow it from a library)
I am not necessarily in the best position to judge this book, because I started watching the anime before realizing that animation adds little to a series where the major action is writing in a notebook.
A bored death god tosses his notebook into the human world. If you write someone's name in it, he dies. Light Yagami finds it and decides to rid the world of criminals. He puts himself in a cat-and-mouse game with L, who is leading the investigation into the mysterious mass murderer.
The series works because Light is a megalomaniacal genius. He is a compelling villain protagonist whose idea is not so horrible in its outlines. We just came off a book with the Joker, the walking embodiment of the repeated, continual, inconceivable vast failure of non-capital punishment. Is it so horrible to think that deterrence is possible and desirable? Of course, Light also mentions early on that he also plans to kill off the immoral and those who engage in harassment, and then quickly moves into willingness to kill anyone who stands in his way. The slope is, in fact, pretty slippery.
You can see the ending from here, yes? The other bit that foreshadows nicely is in the art, Light's eyes when he is in Kira mode. He has an enraptured look. He has his vision, and he shall make it so, Hell take anything in his way.
Balancing that, slightly, he is in other ways a good guy. He wants to make the world a better place, he is a serious student, and he helps his little sister with her math homework. He is just the kind of guy you would want around, assuming he is not planning to kill you as part of a scheme.
This book is mostly world-building. We have the characters, their relations, and the basic rules of the game. As it builds, we are starting to see the complex schemes for which the series is well known. There is a plot within a plot which is part of a greater scheme, and presumably the characters already have some form of late-game in mind that they are building towards. I am looking forward to some absurdly layered scheming, and I am told that the next volume hits several high notes in a row.
Because much of the fun is watching the schemes play out, I will not spoil anything. Death Note was originally published in small increments, so you get pay-off quickly in each segment.
The art is a mostly realistic manga style. I do not really have much to say about it -- it is "standard good." The plot is the main driver, so it is in Light's expressions and body language that the art carries weight, primarily in his hands and eyes. And Light is a pretty boy that presumably spawned a thousand fanfics that I don't want to think about just now.
The arrangement differences between the manga and anime are interesting. Some of the events shift around. The anime tries to make it a bit more visual with bodies hitting the ground and writing that strives to be totally awesome. There is nothing huge that I have noticed so far, although a few lines are noticeably missing from the anime. Perhaps the anime is trying to make Light more sympathetic, less obviously dangerously insane. The translations are also different, which is mostly notable with key phrases, such as around the end of the first issue/episode. I am curious about the original Japanese, but not yet motivated enough to pursue, translate on my own, and compare.
I do not think I have sold it strongly enough. If you like cerebral action where the consequences are life and death, sort of an Isaac Asimov story only supernatural and set in a Japanese high school, this is good stuff. If this sounds interesting, you should know that the entire series is made of it.
And kids, don't make your own Death Note at home. Beyond the fact that it will not work, you should find a more original way to be an annoyance. Don't make your middle school administrators look up how the rules apply to your carrying a hit list.