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Fantasy

The Orphan King (Vol. 1)

Young Prince Kaidan is sent away to study with his Aunt Taleissa on the Isle of Women. He is bestowed the great sword Taliburn before he’s sent away as a reminder of his birthright. Upon returning home, he’s found his whole kingdom in ruins and himself on the run from the Knights of Vermillion. They want to hunt him down, as his resurfacing is a threat to the empire of Scathelocke. Kaidan, now passing himself off as Kay, is taken in by a band of people living in the forest. Anne, Robert, and Sturdy John seem like decent people… but are they truly on his side? With everyone hunting for him, who can he possibly trust?

I was pretty excited for this one, and it did not disappoint. It’s a riotous, rollicking adventure that doesn’t let up on the gas – yet, it’s pretty emotional too. Flashbacks with threads of Kaidan wanting to live up to his parents’ expectations, and rivalries from both his childhood in the kingdom and his time on the Isle of Women, have the potential to be explored in later volumes.

The tone was overall cinematic in scope, from both a writing standpoint as an action-oriented character study, and in the art. There is a phenomenal sense of place stemming from the medieval backgrounds and character designs. The colors are muted, with blues and greens dominating, further evoking the feeling of medieval England. Characters are drawn with emphasis on movement, with sharp expressions and angular linework.

Though this graphic novel is intended for middle-grade and YA audiences, this is one epic Arthurian retelling that folks of all ages can enjoy. I’m highly looking forward to the next volume.

– Kathleen

Chin-Tanner, Tyler, and James Boyle. The Orphan King (Vol. 1). 2021.

Witch Hat Atelier (Vol. 3)

The Knights question Coco after the accident at the riverbank. The power she and Agott displayed was too great for their level. They found nothing for now, but will come back later. The risk of the secret of magic getting out is too great, and they can’t afford to make exceptions for anyone. However, Quifrey finds a strange kind of ink in Coco’s bag. He takes her and the ink to a Mr. Nolnoa, who specializes in inks. They discover that it’s the same kind of ink that was used on the cobblestones in Coco’s adventure with the dragon – but what does it mean? And when Coco becomes plagued with nightmares and falls ill, can she recover with the help of her new friend Tartah?

The more I read this graphic novel, the more curious the story becomes. We see a darker side to the usually cheerful mentor Quifrey, and we have to wonder what game he’s playing at. There is also the mystery of the Brimmed Caps, which has deepened in this volume. I’m excited to discover more how it all comes together.

Tartah has been among the most interesting characters introduced so far. He has a condition called “Silverwash Syndrome,” which in this universe is comparable to color-blindness. He sees the world through a wash of silver, not in colors. When Coco falls ill, they work together so he can find an herb that will hopefully bring her fever down. There was some commentary about him fitting in, and how it’s a shame more accommodations weren’t being made to help him function and succeed in the world. By working together with Coco, they find a solution that gives both of them hope – not that he can become normal – but that he can learn to work around his affliction.

With the deepening mystery and interesting characters – now one with a disability that isn’t just magically fixed! – I’m looking forward to the next volume!

– Kathleen

Shirahama, Kamome. Witch Hat Atelier (Vol. 3). 2018.

Witch Hat Atelier (Vol. 1)

Coco is a young girl who lives in a world suffused with magic. She’s not a witch – witches are born, not made, everyone knows – but she wishes she was. She lives with her mom in the tailor shop they run. Upon a visit from a male witch named Qifrey, Coco discovers that magic is drawn, with a pen and ink, instead of spoken aloud as everyone had thought. She decides to try drawing from a book she had been given as a child – and accidentally traps her mother in crystal. Qifrey takes her to his atelier, his magic home, in order to train Coco as a witch’s apprentice and undo the spell.

The fantasy manga I’ve started so far all have a great knack for fascinating world building. The magic system of drawing, while not that new, is refreshing. I can always appreciate stories that show how hard work artistry can be 😉 What’s interesting to me is that a point is made to show that magic is everywhere in this world, but only a few people are shown how to use it… instead of the other way around where only a few people have magic within them in a non-magical world.

The art was cute, but thankfully, not over-the-top cute. It leans toward the cutesy style without being too much. There’s a classical quality to it, somehow. The light is either softly diffused or very dramatic, and a good measure of attention is given to the indoor scenes of kitchens and workshops and their respective tools.

Looking forward to the next volume!

– Kathleen

Shirahama, Kamome. Witch Hat Atelier (Vol. 1). 2017.

Witchlight

Sanja is in the market when a fight breaks out between a witch and some local ruffians. She interjects, only to get kidnapped by the witch, who goes by Lelek. In exchange for her freedom, Sanja offers to teach Lelek to fight with a blade. Lelek accepts, for she is on a quest to find the missing half of her soul. Together, the two women journey across the land, discovering who they are, and confronting their past in order to move forward.

The main plot point of the kidnapping really killed this one for me. If you can get past it, it’s a tale reminiscent of Beauty and the Beast in which two people are thrown together by circumstance and have to learn to love and accept first themselves, then each other. It’s made even more powerful by the fabulous representation of BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities. Fantasy sorely needs more representation and in that respect, this graphic novel delivers.

The art couldn’t decide between two wildly different styles: those being cartoony and ancient Asian. The figures were rounded with stylized features, but (as was often the case with ancient Asian art) the field of depth was often too flat for them to be effective. Their expressions were also very flat and ambiguous… honestly, it was very hard to tell what anyone was thinking or feeling a lot of the time. On the other hand, the landscapes and backgrounds worked very well with the blends of styles they used. The environments were more interesting to me than the characters themselves.

In my opinion, the only thing this graphic novel did well was its representation and diversity in characters. I found the main love story problematic because of the Stockholm Syndrome-esque elements. The art clashed two different styles to its detriment. I’m disappointed because this was well-reviewed even before publication. You’re not missing anything if you skip it.

– Kathleen

Zabarsky, Jessi and Geov Chouteau. Witchlight. 2020.

Magus of the Library (Vol. 2)

Now that Theo Fumis is seven years older, he is on his way to the great city of Aftzaak to take the Kafna Exam! He has not grown out of his desire to become a librarian, and wishes to give back the book that Kafna Sedona lent him when she visited his home village. Aftzaak is a long way away, and there are many grand sites and places to visit along the way. Of course, there are friends to be made as well: Mihona, another Kafna hopeful on her way to the exam; Alv, a street-wise youngster; and a citlapol (albino creature) with two tails that Theo names Uira. Together, they travel and arrive in Aftzaak. The Kafna exam is, by all accounts, a grueling experience… can Theo even make it through the first part?

I adore every part of this manga. Of course, I love it because librarians are central to the story 😉 But the worldbuilding is absolutely phenomenal. Each chapter of this volume takes place in a different city along Theo’s route. The chapter pages have illustrations and information about the city, or a monument or natural phenomena nearby. Each city has its own distinct artistic flavor that only grows in scale the closer we get to Aftzaak. It’s interesting to see not only Theo’s character, but the art and world evolve right along with him.

As mentioned in my review of Volume 1, it appears that much of the artistic influence was taken from Middle Eastern and Indian (by that I mean India the Asian country, not Native American tribes; my apologies for any confusion) cultures. It’s more of the same here, in costumes and architecture. In essence, a blend of all of my favorite things.

The grand scale of this literary adventure, coupled with my visual Kryptonite, ensures that I’ll be following this manga very closely.

-Kathleen

Izumi, Mitsu. Magus of the Library (Vol. 2). 2019.

Estranged (Vol. 2): The Changeling King

After the events of Estranged Volume 1, Ed and Cinder are both back in their rightful places. The changeling formerly known as Edmund Carter has now ascended the throne as Cinder. The human Edmund is back in the World Above with his human family. Though they are both back where they belong, they are each struggling to assimilate. Cinder is facing big problems as the magic in the World Below is fading unexpectedly. It’s revealed that the royal family needs to do a secret ritual at the Root of All Magic periodically, and it’s about that time again. Cinder invites the Carters to come down from the World Above to help him with his journey. Of course, Ed and Alexis know all about the World Below, and are excited to be going back, but their parents aren’t so sure. Can the Carters stick together through all the perils and unknowns?

There’s a bit of a time skip that happens between the first and second volumes. It’s not specified how much (unless I missed it when skimming again), but I’d say it’s within a few months, less than a year at least. There is enough time for Ed and Cinder to settle down in their new homes, but not enough for them to grow fully confident in their newfound roles. The main themes of this series, continuing from the first volume, are of identity, family, and finding one’s place.

The dynamic between the Carter family is very sweet. Sure, it’s true that Alexis, Ed, and Cinder bicker as siblings will, but they stand true to each other. Though their parents may not totally understand everything that’s going on, they love all their children very much, and accept and support them no matter what. This is a family that’s proven throughout the course of the story to stay together through thick and thin out of love and respect for one another.

My favorite thing about this series continues to be the art. The darkly whimsical feel is carried over from the first volume. I can’t get enough of the orderly chaotic lineart and muted watercolors. The ending seemed to be open for another adventure; I sorely hope this series is continued so I can continue gobbling it up 😉

-Kathleen

Aldridge, Ethan M. Estranged (Vol. 2): The Changeling King. 2019.

The Midwinter Witch (The Witch Boy #3)

Aster is a boy who practices the traditionally feminine witch magic. He hopes to compete in the Vanissen’s (very) extended family’s Jolrun tournament at their annual Midwinter Festival. He isn’t afraid to show who he is, but others in his family are afraid and even angry at him for trying. Ariel is a girl without a family, who has been somewhat taken in by the Vanissens due to her magical abilities. She is still uncomfortable with the prospect of so much family all of a sudden, and isn’t sure whether or not she’d like to attend the Midwinter Festival. She’s also been having strange dreams in which a mysterious witch appears, claiming to know more about Ariel’s past. How can Aster and Ariel fit in with their family and stay true to themselves at the same time?

I felt very… confused by this story. As in, I felt I was coming in at the middle of a bigger story. One of my co-workers informed me that this book is the third in The Witch Boy series, which explains why I felt that way! I hadn’t realized it was part of a series, or I’d have started at the beginning. Though I had to fill in some plot holes myself, not having read the first 2 books, I was able to follow along well enough.

Aster’s story was the most compelling, even if it felt like Ariel was supposed to be the main character. Aster and Ariel shared the stage about half the time, but Ariel had slightly more “screen” time. Unfortunately, I was much less interested in her story of trying to find her family, than with Aster’s struggle to break traditional gender norms. In this universe, witch magic is traditionally performed by women, and shapeshifting by men. Aster’s choice to study witch magic is unprecedented – and it shows. He is to some extent worried about what the rest of his family will think, but he doesn’t let it stop him. Others, who are afraid for him, afraid of him, and angry at him for not being “normal” are the ones who try to get in his way.

There are more characters who are representative of minority races and the LGBTQ+ spectrum. In my opinion, all of them were more interesting than Ariel. Perhaps I need to read the first two books to see where and how she came in, and what her overall significance is to the bigger story, but compared to Aster’s struggle, her well-tread journey seems, well, dull. I would rather her not have been in the book at all.

Because this is a middle-grade novel, the art is soft and skews to a cute aesthetic. The figures are rounded and expressive in a cartoony way. The backgrounds are soft and not too interesting, to keep the focus on the characters. All the colors are vivid and bright.

Overall this story was bogged down by Ariel’s character and inner journey. While there is certainly nothing wrong with it, she paled in comparison to Aster’s fight to break gender norms within his family. Middle-grade readers will appreciate the easily accessible art and the wealth of normalized representation.

-Kathleen

Ostertag, Molly Knox. The Midwinter Witch. 2019.

Magus of the Library (Vol. 1)

Theo Fumis is a young boy who is a little… different. He has long ears that are a different shape than everyone else in his village. He also lives in the slums with his sister, who works to put him through school. Theo is a smart boy, and more than anything else in the world, he loves to read books. Unfortunately, the library in his village doesn’t allow those living in the slums to use it, leaving Theo to sneak in and out whenever he wants to read. He longs for adventure, for a hero to whisk him away, and perhaps to join the Great Library himself someday. Four kafna – librarians from the Great Library – visit his village to check on the library’s status. One in particular, Sedona Bleu, opens his eyes to the great wide world ahead of him – and shows him that sometimes, we need to be our own hero.

I have to admit, I checked this out from work out of curiosity. A manga with lead librarian characters? Sign me up! I didn’t expect to like it as much as I did.

The setting is pretty interesting. It’s a mix of fantasy and history with Middle Eastern and Indian elements (which, if I’m being honest, is a cocktail of all of my favorite things!). The architecture and character’s clothes have the elaborate, decorative detail found in those cultures. Social standings of the characters appear to be determined by the Indian caste system. Though we know Theo comes from a poor family, his heritage remains a secret. In this story, humans and mythical creatures live side-by-side, so I am eager to both see more of this world and discover who Theo really is.

The linework of this graphic novel is incredibly tight and precise. It has to be, in order to fit all the intricate decorative elements mentioned previously, but the precision suggests that this is not Mitsu Izumi’s first rodeo. The only complaint I have is that sometimes the flow of the panels isn’t always intuitive. I got confused at more than a few parts by reading ahead or behind where I was supposed to. Perhaps this can be attributed by my novice manga-reading skills.

All in all I was just as impressed with the art as I was the blending of many different elements to create a promising story – which just happens to also star librarians 😉

– Kathleen

Izumi, Mitsu. Magus of the Library (Vol. 1). 2019.

Estranged

Not everyone knows there’s a world below this one, where the fae and other fantastical creatures reside. Edmund knows, and so does his changeling, only known as the Childe. Edmund was born fae, but swapped for the Childe, so they have each grown up in the other’s world. When the queen’s evil sister Hawthorne claims the fae throne for herself, the Childe and his wax golem, Whick, escape to the world above to find Edmund. He is the crown prince and the only other person with a claim to the throne. Edmund is reluctant to leave the only life and family he has ever known, even for his birthright. Now that the Childe has found is human family – he’s not so quick to give it up, either. Can the two boys work together to save both worlds – worlds that neither of them feel they’re really a part of?

Wow. I was astonished this is a middle-grade graphic novel. It dives deep into mature issues such as identity and family. There’s a much weightier substance to the story than I was expecting, and certainly more than what’s standard for the target audience. Mr. Aldridge has no qualms about asking the hard questions of his audience, and writes them in in a way that his audience will be able to understand. In case it gets too rough, the graphic novel is laid out in chapters so they can take a break and come back to it later. If any of the target audience is like me and was too absorbed to do anything but devour it in one go, however, chapter breaks won’t be needed 😉

As a fantasy story, the art is darkly whimsical. It’s sketchy and cluttered, to convey a lot of information, but doesn’t come off as messy. Instead it gives more of an “organized chaos” vibe. Thin watercolor washes are built up in layers to also bring a sense of reality to the story.

I was shocked that this dark, weighty fantasy story was a middle-grade novel, and trust me… you will be, too.

– Kathleen

Aldridge, Ethan M. Estranged. 2018.

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