Reviewby Nick Creamer, Jan 26th 2016
The Ancient Magus' Bride
A clash in the church graveyard leads to an awful transformation for Elias, as he rallies back against the forces threatening his young bride. But what does Chise truly mean to Elias, and what does he mean to her? Their relationship is based not on trust, but ownership and necessity; and as Chise becomes more comfortable in her magical world, the question of what her future holds runs into the brick wall of her dependency on Elias. The mysterious mage has stated he will support her in whatever she does, but how much can those words mean when Chise herself lacks the strength to find her own path?
The third Ancient Magus' Bride opens in blood and thunder, as the attack on Chise that closed out the last volume prompts a wild response from Elias. Shedding the trappings of his nearly-human form, Elias billows across full-page spreads in black and bone, spine breaching and limbs creaking with their own otherworldly length. It's a dramatic visual feat, and one that prompts the alchemist's apprentice to marvel “that thing is all monster… it could never, ever be human.” But when Chise awakes, she falls into his arms, unafraid. In response to Elias' uncomfortable apologies, she only says “you're so tall right now that you'd have trouble getting through the front door. Your usual look is more convenient.”
The strange, unbalanced relationship between Chise and Elias stands at the heart of Ancient Magus' Bride, and this volume interrogates it directly. The first two chapters see each of them at their most destructive, as Elias undergoes his frightful transformation to protect Chise, and Chise in turn nearly destroys herself to defend the black dog (a church grim, fae guardian of graves) she'd only just met. Chise understands the church grim; he too has spent a life waiting for affection from a stone, though his love once really did love him back. And so the two form a pact, and Chise finds her familiar, the great and protective black dog Ruth.
Those opening chapters are this volume at its most dramatic, full of beautifully horrifying spectacle and bloody conflict. The Ancient Magus' Bride is very good at portraying the dangerous duality of “old magic” - those chapters come across as perhaps slightly rushed, but they're elevated by images like Elias' inhuman form, or the patchwork corpse-spider that had been made of Ruth's former love. That duality of magic is even expressed in the base mechanics of this world; as the artificer Angelica later explains, every act of magic puts a strain on the user's body, and is an exchange that must be undertaken with care. Great power implies great cost.
Angelica's advice to Chise is that she “not try to do everything herself” - but later, when Chise states that she's perfectly happy living under Elias' wing, Angelica also chastises her for her complacency. The mage Lindel echoes this concern, asking Chise “why do you feel it's acceptable for him to keep you as if you were a pet?” The contrast between those two needs, and how they reflect the past and future of both Chise and Elias, are the core questions of this volume's later chapters. Pulling away from the overt magical vignettes, these pages focus primarily on Chise as a person, reflecting on how her childhood of neglect has left her perfectly willing to be an accessory to Elias. The manga doesn't frame this as a good thing; there's definitely a valuable warmth in their bond, but lines like “I'm not scared of him… because I'm cursed” stab at the unhealthy nature of their bond. Chise can be strong willed, but she lacks self-worth; love of another is beautiful, but it must come of respect both for the other and the self.
Elias ends up being highlighted in contrast through these chapters, as the new insights about the give and take of magic, and the need to rely on others, indirectly reflect his own trials. In the wake of accidentally shifting to his inhuman form, he struggles to maintain his original shape - but every attempt of Chise's to help and understand is firmly rebuked. Elias' feelings of responsibility for Chise mean he cannot see her as an equal, and thus cannot accept her help. Elias could use a few sharp words from Angelica as well.
The Ancient Magus' Bride's art remains generally excellent throughout these chapters. The manga excels in its diverse yet internally consistent creature designs, crafting creatures that are alternately adorable and horrifying. Detailed full-page spreads are often the highlights; in contrast, the dorky everyday faces can sometimes feel a little too similar to each other, and the panel flow isn't the best. The story's occasional failure to coherently draw the eye forward is only a slight problem during the lighter conversations, but it can make for a confusing spectacle during the action scenes; the individual panels are all nicely drawn, but it can be difficult to parse the sequence of actions taking place.
But those are minor complaints in a volume that's quite strong overall. There are fewer new magical details in these chapters, but they're surrendered to an excellent cause - the interrogation of Ancient Magus' Bride's most central and difficult relationship. A relationship between a mage and his boughten bride is an inherently thorny subject, but Ancient Magus' Bride seems intent on doing right by its characters.
Overall : A-
Story : A-
Art : B+
+ Early chapters offer wonderfully creepy magical battles, while later chapters turn to a welcome interrogation of the manga's core relationship.
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