Reviewby Casey Brienza,
The Key to the Kingdom
The Kingdom of Landor has been at war with its two neighboring countries for hundreds of years, and a recent skirmish has left the king and his eldest son dead. The next in line for the throne is Prince Astarion (“Asta”). But he is a frail pacifist who seems unfit to succeed, and civil war seems inevitable. So, to prevent Landor from tearing itself apart, a contest is devised: whosoever of noble blood to find the legendary Key to the Kingdom, provided they can do it within two years, will be king. Numerous contenders, including Asta's childhood friend, a villainous nobleman, and the descendant of a disgraced family, soon emerge. Asta, for his part, has other plans, but he cannot escape his destiny. And what do the mysterious and mighty Dragon Men have to do with all this?
American manga publisher CMX became known early on for its iconoclastic selection of vintage classics of shoujo manga such as Swan and From Eroica with Love, and you might be pardoned for thinking that The Key to the Kingdom is the latest in this licensing vein. After all, an unabashedly epic narrative coupled with unabashedly exquisite art in the service of high serious ambition feels so very retro these days. But you would be quite mistaken. Despite the distinctively nostalgic style of its visuals and subject matter, this gorgeous series only began its run in Asuka Fantasy DX about five years ago!
Yes, indeed. Genius mangaka Kyoko Shitou draws shoujo manga of the old school. If it weren't for the lack of bellbottoms on the characters or broad lines of ink on the page, reading The Key to the Kingdom is just like getting lost back in the late 1970s. Which, as any connoisseur of manga knows, is emphatically not a bad trip. They don't generally, as the (modified) saying goes, make manga like they used to. Thank goodness the occasional welcome anachronism like Shitou has had a prolific career thus far. Unfortunately, American audiences have not been heretofore overly blessed with English translations of her work. ADV Manga discontinued their release of her marine-based science fiction tale Blue Inferior after a single, lonely volume. Thank goodness all that has changed now that the occasional publisher like CMX sees fit to bring over welcome anachronisms like Shitou.
Anyway, ignore the baby-soft pink and purple color scheme of the cover. This is a series that anyone of any age—male or female—who loves high fantasy for all ages grounded in Western history and mythology in the tradition of Tolkien or C.S. Lewis needs to pick up right quick. Shitou's world building in particular is pitch perfect. It's not so simplistic that it feels derivative, yet it's not so complex that takes attention away from the fundamentals. And fundamentally, the story is a coming of age tale. Baby-faced, bookish brat Asta is going to have to grow up, get real, and save his kingdom from the dire threat of the Dragon Men, most likely by reconciling Landor with its two neighbors. Along the way, a large and colorful cast of characters enter into his orbit, most notably loyal guardian (read: babysitter) Captain Baddorius. The handsome captain, aptly nicknamed “Badd,” is a hilarious and hopeless womanizer whose hobby appears to be collecting as many girlfriends as possible. His deepest affections, however, seem reserved for Asta's deceased brother and Asta himelf.
Indeed, like many of the classic shoujo manga which this one seems to emulate, it is chock full of homoeroticism. Besides the usual knight's devotion to his liege, Badd has an ambiguous, tense relationship with Vampire Hunter D dead ringer Gaius, a Dragon Man who wants Badd. Not, presumably, in a sexual way, but since this is one of the story's central ongoing mysteries, readers are invited to let their imaginations fly free. The two exchange fraught, significant looks on several occasions.
The fact that they—and virtually everyone else of importance in the manga—are beautiful and charismatic beyond just description simply makes it all even better. The art is drawn with a light yet precise hand, laced with dynamic, fantasy-rich detail. The pages are all laid out in textbook perfect montages that as often as not eschew the use of straightforward panels. Symbolic sequences are a particular strength, but even the swordfights and other action scenes are more than solid.
By the end of volume two, relatively little of the overarching plot has been revealed. There is apparently a link between the Key, the families of dragon tamers that have served the nobility until there were no more dragons to tame, and the Dragon Men…and all three are somehow linked to the potential destruction of humanity. Something horrible humans did in the past to the dragons drove certain powerful individuals to take on human form, and whatever it was they have not yet forgiven. Meanwhile, Asta continues his journey in accordance with his brother's final wish, but it's clear that the competition to find the Key is going to sweep him up into its momentum sooner or later. Key to the Kingdom has been an entertaining and unforgettable reading experience thus far. Future volumes will surely be more of the same.
Overall : A
Story : A
Art : A+
+ Exquisite artwork, entertaining storyline and characters. A top-notch package all around.
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