Reviewby Carlo Santos, Jul 20th 2008
Natsu is a fire-wielding wizard hoping to make a name for himself with the illustrious Fairy Tail guild. Accompanying him on his adventures are Lucy, a fellow magic-user with summoning powers, and Natsu's pet cat Happy. Their latest mission has put them in grave peril, however, as they must stop the sinister Eisenwald Guild from killing hundreds of people. As Natsu, Lucy, Gray (an ice wizard) and Erza (a magical weapons specialist) come face to face with the wizards of Eisenwald, they discover that the Dark Guild's plan is something far deadlier than just mass murder—and even if Fairy Tail's wizards manage to win, what will they do when the cursed artifact stolen by Eisenwald takes on a mind of its own?
Imagine if Harry Potter had vanquished Lord Voldemort by about ... Book Two and a Half. That's the kind of magical potency on display in Fairy Tail, where our plucky young heroes think nothing of making mincemeat of some Seriously Evil Wizards, and even an ancient demon. Sure, this volume follows every action-adventure convention by the book, but damn if it doesn't put on a good show along the way. With each major character fighting at full strength and pulling off some clever moves, this is a special-effects extravaganza not to be missed. Why, it's almost good enough to distract you from the lack of story and character development going on.
In fact, fans might say it's more than good enough to compensate for the lightweight story—especially since Hiro Mashima has such a strong grasp of pacing for large-scale battles. The fight against Eisenwald could easily have been a multi-volume drag, but instead it's an efficient, fast-paced sequence of one-on-ones that typically take no more than a chapter each; even the highlight of this volume, where Natsu takes on the wind-user Erigor, is maybe a chapter and a half at the most. Some shounen series take an entire chapter and a half just announcing someone's attack and how it works! Mashima also brings in a variety of magic styles—fire, wind, ice, shadow, summoning, weaponry—and carefully shows how each technique is unique to the user. Natsu's brute force with fire, for example, is worlds away from Erza's precise ability to "requip" weapons and armor. The multiple locales for each fight also add to the variety: a train station, a railway bridge, a rural town. See, even something as genre-driven as a magical battle requires creative effort.
But for all the creativity, there is still something mechanical behind the process: namely, the utter reliance on the formula of escalating battles and increasingly difficult opponents. Oh, you defeated the chief evil wizard? Congratulations, the evil artifact he was using is still powered up! That's hardly even a spoiler, because it's been done so many times in so many other fantasy works. And meanwhile, Natsu and his friends are so busy hacking away that they don't get time for any dramatic emotional flashbacks or anything—nope, these characters are defined entirely by their arsenal of magical attacks. (Magical attacks with fancy names that must be said out loud while using them, of course, because God forbid anyone should miss that cliché.) In the end, all this volume accomplishes in the story department is to show that the heroes win a really big fight and stop a really terrible tragedy—which seems just a bit shallow despite the brilliant pyrotechnics.
Those who came specifically for the pyrotechnics, though, will certainly not be disappointed as this volume shows off Mashima's artistry in alpha mode. With combat being the focus, there are speedlines and special effects galore, from Erigor's numerous wind-based spells to Natsu's fire magic to everything in between (see, that's where the variety of magical techniques comes in handy). Yet despite the frenetic artwork, the layouts miraculously avoid the usual pitfalls of clutter; the panels are spaced widely enough to be readable, and the action scenes clearly show how the characters are moving in relation to each other. Ah, if only other other artists realized that readers actually do like knowing what's going on in a fight. The only downside of this is the inevitable monotony of an entire volume's worth of battle: all the attacks start to look the same after a while, and Mashima's other artistic strength—background and landscape—doesn't get much of a chance to shine. And since we're seeing the same few characters that were introduced late in Volume 2, there isn't much of an opportunity for fresh character designs either.
As an action-packed fight manga, the text in this volume boils down to mostly screaming at each other, taunting, and announcing the attack names. The expository dialogue is often weak as well, stating the obvious as each battle rages on, but at least this translation puts a lot of energy into each character's lines. Touches of wordplay like Natsu being called a "flaming brat" help to add some humor, and as the glossary in the back explains, that pun (as well as other linguistic flourishes) can be found exactly as they are the original text. Not surprisingly, sound effects are a big part of this volume too, and readers will find the original Japanese characters intact with small translations (sometimes almost too small) placed next to each.
Sometimes, it pays off to do one thing and do it well—the third volume of Fairy Tail shows what can be done when an ambitious artist pours all his effort into making the most dynamic, most exhilarating sequence of fights possible. Coming up with different systems of magic is one thing, figuring out how they contrast and conflict with other is another, and finally compiling it into a fast-paced, multi-chapter arc is a true display of skill. Just one little problem: everything else about the characters, the world they live in, and the goals they hope to achieve has pretty much gone ignored. So if you don't mind the shallowness (for at least one volume), then go ahead and pick this one up—it's about as good of a magic show as you'll ever get.
Overall : B
Story : C+
Art : B+
+ With dazzling visuals and perfectly timed fights of ever greater intensity, this is as good as action-adventure gets.
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