Dawn of the Arcana Volume 3

Dawn of the Arcana Volume 3 by Rei Toma

I feel like with the third volume things really started to come together nicely in this manga series. The first two volumes were promising, but the third one really has a nice mix of romance, politics, magic, and danger. Nakaba and Caesar start to warm up to each other, but things are even more strained between the red-headed princess and her faithful servant Loki. Things get even worse when Nakaba is instructed to dye her hair before some visiting dignitaries arrive. She chops off her hair instead in a gesture of defiance and Ceasar promptly does the same. The newlyweds now have identical ragamuffin hairstyles. Nakaba is ordered to be confined to her quarters, but she runs into the vising Prince Akhil, the fifth prince of Lithuanel. Akhil recognizes that Nakaba has the power of Arcana and drops some hints about the long-lost tribe that may feature in her origins. He wants her to come back to his country, but Caesar steps in to prevent it. Unfortunately when Caesar steps away later on he’s not able to prevent Nakaba and Loki from being locked up in a dungeon. Nakaba flashes back to Loki’s feelings and experiences when he was all alone trying to protect her when she was an infant and she realizes the depth of his lover for her.

One of the things that intrigued me the most about Dawn of the Arcana when I first picked it up was the situation of a reluctant princess facing down a hostile court. Nakaba had plenty of run-ins in this volume, and the secret passage leading out of her dungeon leads her to discover that her new country has weaponry that will upset the balance of power between nations. Loki immediately sees the weapons as a source of danger for his people, because when humans have better arms and armor, they will no longer need to rely on the strength of the Ajin. Nakaba and Caesar realize that their marriage was a ploy to ensure plenty of time for weapons construction, and Nakaba is determined to do what she can to save the Ajin like Loki. Her power doesn’t seem suited to such a task though, and she doesn’t know what to do.

Nakaba continues to be an engaging heroine, and seeing glimpses of her past with Loki helps the reader understand the deep connection between the two. From being a jerk, Caesar has grown to be a credible match for Nakaba. Part of what makes him more endearing than jerk-like after three volumes is that he doesn’t have the cunning to hide his character flaws. He’s impatient and possessive, but he lights up whenever Nakaba shows him a tiny amount of affection. Even though he isn’t the most well-mannered prince around, it is clear that he actually cares for the bride that he’s so eager to please. The displays of cruelty by the other nobles and the dangerous situations Nakaba finds herself in whenever she leaves her room continue to deliver plenty of dramatic tension. This series keeps getting better.

Dawn of the Arcana Volume 1

Dawn of the Arcana Volume 1 by Rei Toma

When I first saw that Viz had announced this title I was immediately intrigued because I am a sucker for fantasy shoujo series and I thought the cover art for this volume was very striking. After reading it, I found Dawn of the Arcana to be an intriguing new series that is well worth reading even if it isn’t executed perfectly. This is the first volume of manga from Rei Toma and as a whole it is very well-executed even if there are a few minor deficiencies in the plotting and art.

Two tiny nations that make up both halves of an island have been warring with each other for years. The political bickering is only interrupted occasionally by a political marriage. The latest poor maiden to be sacrificed to preserve the peace is Nakaba, a red-haired princess who is feistier than the reader might expect for someone who is willing to take part in an arranged marriage. Her new husband is Prince Caesar, an arrogant young man who is constantly referring to Nakaba’s red hair as a sign of her non-noble demeanor. Nakaba is accompanied into the hostile country by her servant, a man named Loki who is a member of the Ajin, an underclass of demi-humans. Loki seems more like a protector and partner than a servant to be bossed around, as seen in the first confrontation between the new husband and wife. Loki pulls a knife on the prince after Nakaba comments on his rudeness in manhandling her. Nakaba promptly smacks Loki across the face in order to prevent him from being killed or punished by anyone else, saying that since Caesar is her husband, “That makes him your master as well.” When Caesar stands there gloating Nakaba punches him in the face and comments to Loki “disciplining my husband is my duty.” With all the face-punching happening in the first few pages of the book, it made me immediately inclined to root for Nakaba.

As the volume progresses Toma lays out some plot elements that I can see will drive the manga forward for the next few volumes. Nakaba is haunted by memories and visions, suggesting that she isn’t exactly a normal princess. There’s conflict between Caesar, his father, and the older illegitimate brother who is the heir to the kingdom. Loki’s protectiveness of Nakaba may go way beyond their bodyguard/master relationship, and the political machinations of the nobility ensure that Nakaba’s first few weeks of marriage are going to be a test of survival instead of a honeymoon. I was surprised to see that Dawn of the Arcana appeared in the magazine Cheese! originally, because I always thought that Cheese! was the go-to source for more risque shoujo, but maybe things get more dramatic later on in the series. The art in Dawn of the Arcana is attractive but a bit generic. There isn’t really a distinct style to enjoy here, and occasionally several panels suffer from not having much going on in the background. This seems like a bit of a lost opportunity for some world building, but I’m hoping that the art will get more detailed as the series progresses. For a creator’s first collected volume, Dawn of the Arcana is quite accomplished. Not all of the plot details are conveyed with much subtlety, but I put down this manga very interested to see what would happen next with Nakaba’s story. This manga would also be an excellent choice for anyone missing the shoujo fantasy catalog from CMX, as the combination of quasi-medieval setting and political intrigue reminded me of several CMX series that I enjoyed very much.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Black Bird Volumes 9 and 10

I know Black Bird is wildly popular, but I have a hard time getting into it. I read the first couple volumes and couldn’t get into all the weird wound licking, although I suppose demonic wound licking is at least a twist on the whole vampire romance trope. My main problem with this manga is that I find both of the main characters unappealing. Misao is basically the ultimate trophy bride, since she is a human girl who gives extra powers to whichever demon claims her. The demonic Kyo is just generally unsympathetic.

In Volume 9 Misao and Kyo deal with the aftermath of her allowing herself to be “claimed” by Kyo. Now that she’s Kyo’s woman officially, all the demon clans are on the prowl after her. Kyo’s clan wants Misao for the healing properties of her blood and the other demon clans are fighting back because they don’t want to support the sudden imbalance of power in the demon world. As a result other humans are targeted in the demonic civil war. Innocent humans are possessed by demons and sent after Misao, and Kyo has to fight them off. Misao is filled with guilt, but her response to the situation is to have a nervous breakdown instead of doing something more productive. Kyo is as contradictory as ever, as he orders Misao to “choose humanity” and throws her at demon hunter Raikoh only to suddenly appear and put on a big show by asking Raikoh if he wants to watch him rape her. Now, I’m pretty forgiving of the horrible sexual politics in manga just because I’m willing to forgive a lot for a story that is either humorous (Ai Ore, Butterflies, Flowers) or has a certain over the top soap opera tone (Hot Gimmick). But Black Bird doesn’t have this lighter touch which is why I find myself utterly unengaged in the story after scenes like that.

Volume 10 starts off a little more promising as Kyo’s estranged father pops up to give Misao the lowdown on Kyo’s tragic family past. The wars between the demon clans start to get more serious and it turns out that Kyo’s evil brother is alive and wearing an eyepatch (so you know he is extra evil). Kyo continues to act weirdly schizophrenic as he brings Misao to tears by telling her that she can’t come with him on his mission to restore order to the demon village only to suddenly change his mind and say “Just kidding….silly.” Seriously, Ryoki “You are my slave!” from Hot Gimmick seems like Prince Charming compared to Kyo.

Sakurkoji’s art is fine, with distinct character designs and interesting yet easy to follow panel layouts. I actually liked her short two volume series Backstage Prince, so I just wish that she’s hit it big with a series featuring characters that aren’t acting like jerks or spineless wimps all the time.

Otomen Volume 11

Otomen Volume 11 by Aya Kanno

I’d collected a fair amount of Otomen when I stopped feeling the need to keep preordering it. I like it, but the episodic nature of the book means that most of the volumes revolve around the same conflict – will Asuka’s secret talents for feminine pursuits like knitting and baking be revealed and destroy his facade of manliness? The 11th volume is pretty much the same, but it wasn’t very hard for me to pick up on what was going on after skipping several volumes and Otomen is consistently funny.

Asuka is on a class trip/feudal Japan reenactment when he and his friends find themselves stranded in the wilderness. Asuka’s enigmatic and tomboyish girlfriend Ryo promptly starts foraging, while Asuka decides to lift everybody’s spirits by constructing lovely origami flowers. Ryo gets stranded in the woods and ends up cheerfully and capably rescuing Tonomine, who comments to Asuka “She may be a girl…but she’s a true samurai.” Other episodes in this volume includes Asuka attending secret baking lessons for men and a showdown at school over Valentine’s chocolate between Asuka and “Pheromone Prince” Suzaku Oji, the school nurse. Kanno’s sense of humor really comes through in her character designs, as Oji is drawn with flowing hair and a ruffled shirt worn under his white labcoat. He makes pronouncements like “come to me, my kittens,” and all the teenage girls swoon.

Asuka’s better nature begins to make inroads against the strict gender roles enforced by his school, but things are about to take a turn for the worse when his mother comes back from overseas. My major complaint with this volume was that there wasn’t enough focus on Ryo and mangaka Juta Tachibana. A bonus story of “Love Chick” the manga Juta wrote based on Asuka and Ryo with their genders swapped was included in the back of the volume. This was fun to see, since Kanno drew it in a deliberately more simple and insipid style.

Review copy provided by the publisher

Butterflies, Flowers Volume 8

Butterflies, Flowers Volume 8 by Yuki Yoshihara

This is the final volume! I’ve enjoyed this series, which I tend to think of as “stealth josei” because even though it was released under the Shojo Beat imprint it skews a lot older. This series about a rich woman working in an office under the direction of a former servant to her family who she winds up dating might seem incredibly frivolous, but it ends up being enlivened by Yoshihara’s offbeat sense of humor and the caring exhibited in the relationship between Choko and Masayuki.

After dating for some time, Choko and Masayuki face the ultimate test when Choko goes on an arranged marriage meeting and Masayuki appears to be doing nothing to stop it. Of course he reveals his objections in a dramatic and hilariously crude manner, but will this odd couple be able to take the next step in their relationship? Choko resorts to hiding marriage registration papers around the office, trying to get Masayuki to sign the documents in a moment of distraction. When Masayuki finally comes around and asks her to marry him, he’s unable to call her by her first name because he’s so fully internalized their master/servant relationship. Choko wants a relationship of equals, and wants to move forward but Masayuki seems pathologically unable to see her as his equal. There isn’t really any doubt that the couple will get together, but despite all the weird master servant jokes, otaku Gundam references, and random crossdressers, there’s a certain level of sweetness present when Choko and Masayuki are able to move on from their roles as lady and servant.

I wish more series like Butterflies, Flowers would be published over here. I don’t mind plenty of high school romance shojo, but it is nice to have a little bit of variety in the settings of romance manga. I hope Viz licenses more Yoshihara manga because her quirky sensibility makes this series unique and weirdly endearing.

Review copy provided by the publisher