Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Requiem of the Rose King
Henry has been captured and is being held by the Yorks, and while he and Richard still don't know each other's true identities, hearing their voices through the door has made Richard question his own feelings and masculinity. Meanwhile Henry's son Edward plots to regain the throne as King Edward's marriage to Elizabeth is beginning to look like a more fatal flaw than he ever imagined. Richard and George both appear to be on the verge of rebellion, which makes them easy targets for Warwick and his political ambitions. George may be a willing pawn, but what about Richard?
There's always a question when reading historical fiction and something that says that it's “based on” previous well-known works: how close will the author stick to the established path? Aya Kanno's Requiem of the Rose King has been a bit of a puzzle in this sense, keeping many of the major details of both history and Shakespeare's plays Henry VI and Richard III while playing fast and loose with others. With the approach of another battle between Lancaster and York we'll soon see how much she intends to follow historical or Shakespearean record, as this fourth volume really feels like a mix of both.
While there are several ongoing plots – from Lancastrian scheming to reclaim England to Warwick's hubris in assuming that he really is a Kingmaker – the major focus of the series remains Richard. With his brother's ascension to the throne he became a duke, but that doesn't appear to have changed much for the conflicted youth. His major issue could be summed up as a conflict between his masculine and feminine sides in a much more literal way than we tend to see – rather than make Richard suffer from spinal deformities as he did in real life, Kanno has made her Richard intersex – his upper body is female while his lower body is male. Odd a choice as this may have initially appeared (although it does make sense that the protagonist of a shoujo manga couldn't be physically unattractive), Kanno has used this as a way to illustrate Richard's emotional problems. Rejected by his mother and haunted by a vicious Joan of Arc, Richard only feel secure with a sword in his hand, cutting down enemies. This alone makes him feel powerful and safe in his observed masculinity – if others see him as male, that must be who he is. Richard's greatest moments of weakness are when his breasts are observed by others (barring the last chapter of this volume) and he once again feels the sting of rejection, even if they are unaware of his lower half's anatomy. We can read this less as being about his physical body and more about his conflicting feelings about love and being loved. His mother, who ought to have loved him, rejected him utterly, and continues to do so. Mostly he has found comfort and affection from other men – his father and Henry, specifically. Does this then mean that he is what would have been seen as emotionally unnatural as well as physically different? Richard's inability to distinguish between romantic love and familial seems to arise from this issue, and even when he begins to allow himself to care for Anne, Warwick's elder daughter, he cannot separate love and friendship enough to remain close to her.
In this sense, Requiem of the Rose King is just as much about gender roles and norms as Kanno's previous series, Otomen. While that works with Shakespeare (Richard at times seems about half a step from Lady Macbeth's “unsex me” speech), it is a little odd in the context of the War of the Roses, as if Kanno took the idea of George R.R. Martin using that part of history as the basis for A Song of Ice and Fire a bit too seriously. Kanno's points about gender roles and biases in the middle ages are interesting and do carry over quite well to today; this just doesn't seem like the best context for them, particularly given her Shakespearean take on Joan of Arc, who has very few appearances this volume. Likewise the “everyone is in love with Richard” situation feels like it is getting a little out of hand, with Richard having officially amassed a harem at this point, at least by harem romance standards, which point to at least three romantic interests circling one individual – Richard has Henry, Edward of Lancaster, and Anne…and possibly Catesby? His return to the story is one of the most interesting aspects of the volume, and the point at which he comes across Richard feels significant in terms of the romantic/emotional conflict.
Regardless of whether Kanno is following history, Shakespeare, or simply using both as a means to explore gender issues that interest her, Requiem of the Rose King remains one of the more interesting series to make its way into English. Knowing the basics about who the characters are in real life definitely helps while reading, although it isn't strictly necessary, and Kanno's art has continued to refine so that there's a delicacy to everyone, even as she creates detailed period costumes. Backgrounds tend towards the sparse, which can either give the entire book the feeling of a stage play or just that everything is happening against a void depending on how wedded you are to the concept of this being based on four of Shakespeare's histories. (Henry VI is three parts long.) I'd hazard that this is for a more niche audience than most other titles by Kanno, or being released by a major publisher like Viz, and if that niche happens to be yours, this is a fascinating take on one of the more controversial monarchs of Late Medieval England.
Overall : B
Story : B
Art : B+
+ Interesting exploration of gender norms and roles, Richard's conflict is understandable. Art is appealing, story's world is broadening.
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