Reviewby Nick Creamer,
The Ancient Magus' Bride
A crisis has come to Joel Garland and his leannan sidhe. Though she loves him, her very presence drains the life from her love - and so Chise embarks on a difficult task, that the two of them might truly meet one last time. But Chise's body is not able to bear the strain of magic, and so danger is followed by near-tragedy, as Elias carries his apprentice into the fae realm to save her in turn. The beauty of magic is marked by perilous thorns in the fifth volume of The Ancient Magus' Bride.
The Ancient Magus' Bride's recent volumes have been reasonably focused affairs, prioritizing Chise and Elias' collective character development over the whimsical vignettes of the manga's early chapters. This fifth volume marks a return to episodic storytelling, as the leannan sidhe we met in the third volume returns with an urgent request, and Chise bears the consequences of granting that wish. And yet this self-contained focus takes nothing away from the story's continuously evolving core relationship. The Ancient Magus' Bride is defined by confidence at this point, and this return to small adventures only emphasizes how far it has come.
This volume's first tale is all melancholy tenderness, as the leannan sidhe “haunting” Mr. Garland learns that her presence has finally brought him to the end. This segment is lifted in part by the sharp poignancy of the leannan sidhe's expressions. Kore Yamazaki's art has always been noteworthy for its beautiful background setpieces, but the character art has tended to be a little more rough, and the expression work in particular not the most precise. That is not a problem here; Joel's mixture of fatigue and contentment are clear in the faded lines of his face, and the leannan sidhe transitions gracefully from terror to bitter sadness to the insecurity and shock of their final encounter.
Accompanying that expression work is a more structurally impactful implementation of the manga's traditional visual highlights. There are visual wonders here - a jar erupting in bloom as Chise struggles to manage her powers, or Chise wreathed in tangling vine as her magic works its course. But those highlights are far stronger for this volume's tangibly improved panel composition. The transitions from magical explanation to visual catharsis are almost always marked by cluttered panels giving way to stark, page-engulfing ones, and small, highly-detailed panels of magical alchemy are often used to create breathing room between the thoughts of the various characters. More and more, it seems that Yamazaki is realizing how much can be conveyed without dialogue at all.
That evolution is even more apparent in the next vignette, when the consequences of Chise assisting the leannan sidhe force Elias to rush her to the fae realm. The last two volumes worked hard to emphasize that while Chise and Elias' relationship may be one of dependency, they are mutually dependent - Chise relies on Elias for confidence, Elias relies on Chise for warmth, and each of them only have a home in the other's arms. What both of them need is confidence in their own identity, and as Chise wakes from her convalescence, the manga articulates their first steps towards that growth in clear, compositionally thunderous terms.
The two are framed in parallel scenes through this segment, pages flipping from one to the other as Elias meets with Titania and Chise walks with her caretaker. As the scene continues, the transitions become more rapid, letting Elias' concerns regarding where he might call home run next to Chise's increasingly dangerous journey. By the segments' peak, Elias' emphatic defense of his choices, and deliberate embracing of the human world, are visually contrasted against Chise struggling for her own life, Chise expressing her clear sense of self-worth in frantic images as Elias articulates his in dialogue.
It's a rousing turn for both of these characters, and though it doesn't “solve” their emotional dilemmas, it puts them on equal and parallel terms without anything having to be literally explained. The volume calms down from that peak, and returns to more gentle explanations of Elias' world, but even these sequences are confident and beautiful. Chise's growing familiarity with Elias' world seems to almost run parallel with Yamazaki's increasing confidence in depicting the beauty of this place; highlights are more incidental now, an idle turn in the forest perhaps offering a glimpse of an old and inscrutable winter god.
The Ancient Magus' Bride continues to be one of the most enchanting and evenly well-executed manga of recent years. Its characters are multifaceted and always growing, and its world is littered with fantastical treasures. It's an absolute must-read.
Overall : A
Story : A
Art : A
+ Kore Yamazaki's art and storytelling are at their absolute best, beautiful and emotionally vibrant
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