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After Lucy, Erza, Natsu, and Gray say good-bye to Erza's “family,” they return home to find the Fairy Tail guild house rebuilt to new heights of glory. It's so glorious, in fact, that a reporter from “Sorcerer Weekly” magazine comes to write about it and the new stage is used for a special Miss Fairy Tail contest. But all that goes awry when Laxus returns with a bone to pick about the way the guild is being run...and he's got the friends to make things get ugly.
Ah, filler. It's like marshmallow fluff on a peanut butter sandwich – nice to look at, but it kind of sticks in your teeth and gums up the experience. That is what the first three-quarters of this volume are like: nice-looking, but ultimately messing up the content. To be fair, the first two chapters are the wrapping up of the previous volume's Erza storyline. While not as emotional as the main part of the arc, Erza has become a more human character and her emotions come across clearly. She's still the strong, stoic one in our main group of four, but she has a softer side to her now that's nice to see.
At chapter three, however, we start to wander into filler-land. A tour of the new Fairy Tail guild house is visually interesting, but ultimately takes us nowhere. The most important part of this section is the introduction of former enemies into the Fairy Tail fold – readers already suspected that Juvia was going to join the crew, but another Element Four member also joins up. Juvia, it should be noted, is given a make-over, and may not be immediately recognizable. This is a bit of a problem in a story already saturated with named characters. Crowd scenes are great for closer study after the initial reading is done – or if you get bored touring the facility – they have a “Where's Waldo?” quality to them that's a lot of fun. But readers are expected to remember/recognize a dizzying number of Fairy Tail members, and with new ones introduced each volume, we've got enough to worry about without changing the look of one of the players.
It is hard to look at Mashima's art without thinking of Eiichiro Oda's One Piece. It's been said before, and now it's been said here – Mashima's art is derivative of Oda's. Fine. But that does not detract from its ease on the eye and a simplicity of panel flow that makes for fast, easy reading. Mashima uses minimal tones, which makes crowd scenes and landscapes brim with detail, and his people aren't bad to look at either. He likes to draw his women showing a lot of flesh, and nearly all of them must have serious back pain from their bosoms, but he gets credit for at least understanding that breasts are not filled with air. This is not to say that there isn't some noticeable sexualization going on: Lucy seems incapable of falling with her legs closed, the preview of the next volume shows a lot of T&A, and part of this volume is devoted to the Miss Fairy Tail beauty pageant. It's pretty harmless overall.
Kodansha's liner notes for this volume are particularly interesting, especially for readers of this site. One of the characters, the reporter Jason, is based on Jason Thompson, while another is based on a Del Rey employee. This fun trivia makes the western reader feel like a part of the series – we may not get our fan art in the back of the book, but we still have an impact! (This is particularly nice here when it is revealed that the pageant is an excuse for Japanese readers to vote on their favorite Fairy Tail female.) Other notes are also a bit more useful than the usual run of cultural gloss, with an especially good one about kanji standing out.
As the story gets into its next arc, with Laxus and friends pitting guildmates against each other in order to save the guild, the plot picks up and the last quarter of the book pulls in the reader. Unfortunately we are supposed to remember Laxus from earlier volumes...and many readers won't. Not only has it been awhile since Del Rey's release of volume 12, there is no summary of events/characters to bring us up to speed. Again, this is a problem with just having too many characters.
In sum, the end of the book starts ramping up the action, but the first three-quarters have that filler flavor, with Natsu sleeping, Gray and Erza sitting on the sidelines, and Lucy being kind of annoying as she tries to get noticed. If you were bored of the series already, this will not win you back, but if you like Mashima's magical adventure, rest assured, the end of the volume makes it look like things are going to get better.
Overall : C+
Story : C
Art : B-
+ Pleasantly complicated backgrounds, nice-looking characters, and an ending that looks promising.
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