Reviewby Rebecca Silverman, Dec 21st 2011
Dawn of the Arcana
Sharing a single island, the countries of Senan and Belquat have been enemies forever. At times their bouts of war are briefly stilled by a royal marriage between princes and princesses of each land. But such unions usually end in blood and the battles begin anew. Our story takes place during the most recent time of potential peace with a marriage between Prince Caesar of Belquat and Princess Nakaba of Senan. The two are nothing alike and Caesar's possessive ways seem likely to damn the relationship. But Nakaba is no delicate flower and the people of Belquat may have bitten off more than they can chew.
This story is no fairy tale. Or rather, maybe it is a fairy tale in the sense of the originals, which were filled with blood, arranged marriages, and unpleasant people. Rei Tōma, an author better known for her high school romances, makes her English language debut with what is her first fantasy series, and while it is clearly going to take her a little while to really get things rolling, Dawn of the Arcana looks like it has a lot of potential as a sweeping epic in a nonexistent land.
Our story begins with the marriage of protagonist Nakaba to Prince Caesar of the prosperous southern country of Belquat. Belquat, Toma explains, shares an island with the less affluent kingdom of Senan. Because Belquat has the better fields and warmer weather, it also has the stronger economy, affording it a larger and better equipped army. This has led to years of warfare between the two nations, and Senan has brokered a temporary peace by offering Princess Nakaba's hand in marriage to Caesar. Nakaba isn't thrilled by this, but she is willing to at least pay lip service to her duty. Unfortunately she is, as the cover shows, a redhead. In the fantasy world of the story, royalty always has black hair, so her Titian locks are suspect. Caesar makes a good show of not caring, but it quickly becomes apparent that Nakaba has not landed herself a prince charming.
Luckily for readers who dislike series with aggressive and borderline abusive male romantic interests, Nakaba has come to Belquat with her faithful servant Loki. Loki is an “ajin,” one of a race of people with animal ears and tails. Toma plays this as disgusting to the human population, a refreshing change of pace from the neko-mimi craze that has swept anime and manga. The ajin are treated as inferior to the humans, despite their enhanced physical attributes, such as superior strength and senses. Caesar can't understand how Nakaba and Loki can be so close – in his mind, watching them together is like an interracial romance in the American South before the Civil War. It is unclear whether Nakaba does have romantic feelings for Loki, but at this point one can hope that perhaps she does, as Caesar comes off as almost entirely unlikable.
Then again, this is clearly an introductory volume. In fact, Toma herself says so in her freetalk spaces: the story is not moving as quickly as she had thought it would because of all of the required world building. While this is fairly typical of epic fantasy, it also means that most of this volume is establishing the basics of the three main characters and the make up of Toma's fantasy setting. It is still a good read and very interesting, but it is short on action and uber-plot. Fortunately the world Toma is building has some unique features that should intrigue fantasy fans. Apart from the ajin, the differences in Belquat's and Senan's cultures is highlighted, with distinctly different fashions and attitudes. Senan, it seems, may also harbor a race of psychics, although that has barely been touched on at this point. Belquat's king is clearly leery of such people, perhaps indicating a key cultural difference between the two.
Toma, a regular contributor to Shogakukan's Cheese! magazine, has a pleasant art style. Characters are distinct with simple designs and attractive faces and bodies. Clothing is more distinct than individuals, with Belquatians sporting late medieval garments and Nakaba's people in middle eastern garb. Backgrounds are present but unremarkable and movements can be a bit stiff, although when the action is romantic there's more of a sense of motion. There isn't much romance present in this volume, although it is worth noting that because Cheese! has an older audience than the magazines where most English translated fantasy manga originates, some of the scenes are a bit more explicit.
Dawn of the Arcana has immense popularity in Japan, and even though this is not the most exciting volume in the world, it is still easy to see why. Nakaba has what is arguably one of the coolest lines ever given a shoujo heroine, Loki is fascinatingly strong and brooding, and Caesar looks to have hidden depths that may make him more sympathetic. With hints of magic powers, complex international relations, and a variety of twisted pasts, fantasy and romance fans alike will want to pick this up, particularly with the promise that this series will only get more interesting as it gets going.
Overall : B+
Story : B+
Art : B
+ Strong heroine, interesting fantasy world with real world relevance, attractive art.
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