Reviewby Carlo Santos, Aug 3rd 2009
Edward and Alphonse Elric's quest to alchemically restore their bodies has brought them to the well-guarded territory of Briggs. However, the tables have turned now that ruthless military officer Kimblee has taken over the snowbound fort and Major General Armstrong has been summoned to the headquarters at Central. Edward will have to battle Kimblee one-on-one to get out of this predicament, while his closest companions—Alphonse and Winry—must take on the equally challenging task of simply surviving the cold. If they should make it out alive, a number of shocking revelations await: the secrets of the transmutation circle that could destroy the nation, Armstrong's daring move to infiltrate the military conspiracy, and the origins of Von Hohenheim, father to the Elric brothers ...
When it comes to sheer quantity of jaw-dropping "Oh snap" moments, it's hard to match the 19th volume of Fullmetal Alchemist, which seems to be on a hellbent quest to blow out everyone's minds with one dramatic reveal after the next. After all, anyone who's read this far deserves some kind of payoff, and this volume delivers splendidly in that regard. Von Hohenheim's raison d'etre explained at last, the giant Amestris transmutation circle just about complete, and a stunning "declaration of war"—the series has always been packed with high-flying adventure moments, but you can just tell when you run into the ones that really matter. And this is one part of FMA that really, really matters.
At first, this volume may not seem like anything spectacular: Armstrong shows up at Central as expected, while Mustang and Hawkeye have this long-winded, space-filling conversation that seems to go nowhere. But as is so often the case in this series, everything happens for a reason—and by the end of the first chapter, the bombs have already started dropping left and right. The flashback on Hohenheim's life is especially masterful, a complete fantasy epic in itself that fills a very big and mysterious hole in the story (and not a moment too soon). If that's not enough, the last chapter-and-a-half continues the barrage of dramatic revelations, including the contents of Scar's brother's research and the intentions of present-day Hohenheim. What's especially appealing about many of these plot points is that they're often hidden in clever little puzzles and codes, providing entertainment for the reader on multiple levels.
Then again, there's also the reader who just wants to be entertained on the most visceral level, and that's what the middle chapter is for, where Ed takes on Kimblee and his henchmen in an all-out brawl. This is the other thing besides deep world-building that Hiromu Arakawa does so well: breathtaking fight scenes, with move after acrobatic move and lots of ingenious alchemy in action. But despite the impressive scope of everything that's going on, there's still the nagging worry that the story could collapse under its own complexity: the scene transitions between Ed's side, Al's side, Hohenheim, and Central HQ highlight the mind-boggling number of subplots, and this wouldn't be the first time that characters go missing for several chapters at a time because there's just too much going on elsewhere.
Complicated twists and turns aren't an issue, however, when it comes to the series' straightforward art style. As always, Arakawa's clean lines and matter-of-fact approach tell the story that needs to be told, avoiding any confusing visual gimmicks or pointless flourishes. Even eye-popping acts of alchemy function within the context of the scene—special effects are used to enhance the visuals, not overpower them. In addition, the dozens of character designs still remain distinctive and easy to tell apart. There are times, however, when this straightforward artistic approach almost defeats itself—like in expository scenes where the characters spend several pages talking and not doing a whole lot else—but that's easily offset by the sheer virtuosity that goes into battle sequences like Edward's showdown with Kimblee and his men.
With the story getting as multi-threaded as it is, the dialogue and text must take on the challenging duty of being informative, clear and entertaining all at once. Fortunately, this translation handles the balance well: all the relevant story points are explained without verbally tripping over themselves, while the characters are still able to infuse color and colloquialisms into their speech. The sound effects, meanwhile, are all completely replaced with English equivalents, and while this can be visually distracting at times, it never actually interferes with the artwork.
There are times when Fullmetal Alchemist seems to drag out its storyline to the point of exasperation, and there are times when Fullmetal Alchemist delivers one powerful punch after another. Guess which one this volume is? The turning point of the Briggs arc may have come a few chapters ago when Armstrong was called back to Central, but this is something much more critical—the turning point of the whole series itself, at least if Hohenheim's story is to be believed and if the discoveries in the last couple of chapters are the real deal. We'd like to hope that Edward and Alphonse will, someday, get their bodies back as they have vowed. But for now, just seeing the grand stage of battle unfold is a climax in itself; cliché as it may be to say it, the fate of Amestris truly hangs in the balance right now. This installment of the series is one that was worth waiting for—and the next may be even better yet.
Overall : B+
Story : B+
Art : B
+ Delivers one jaw-dropping plot revelation after another and still manages to squeeze in a killer fight scene.
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