Reviewby Casey Brienza, May 6th 2009
The Key to the Kingdom
The competition to be the first to find “The Key to the Kingdom” continues, but the young prince and presumed heir to the throne Asta, along with his companion Badd, has learned a terrible secret: rumors of the Key are a trap laid by the King of the Dragon Tamers, and those competing for it are unwittingly racing headlong to their deaths! Will Asta be able to save any of them…when not even the beautiful but mysterious Dragon Men to help? Or is he destined to lose Badd, Leticia, and everyone else left alive who remains dear to his heart? And what of the invading armies that still threaten his nation's borders? If Asta ever hopes to assume the throne, Key or no Key, he is going to need to work a military miracle…
It's quite the challenge to think of even a single negative thing to say about The Key to the Kingdom mangaka Kyoko Shitou, but after considerable deliberation, this reviewer is pleased to report that she has arrived at something: Kyoko Shitou makes the bulk of the contemporary mainstream shoujo manga-producing world look bad. And by “bad” I mean really, really bad. Like, borderline incompetent. In fact, for those prolific manga readers who may have cut their proverbial fandom teeth on any number of forgettable shoujo manga series available in English from various publishers large and small, the six volumes of the The Key to the Kingdom are, despite a profusion of sinister, supernatural politicking and high fantasy warmongering, like a ray of golden sunlight reflected off a dragon's scales.
This is a review of the final three volumes of the series, and they are an excellent trio of books overall. It is in the fourth and fifth volumes that the meat of the story's central mystery is revealed; not to get too specific about it, but there turns out to be an exceedingly good reason—or, rather, reasons—for the apparent schizophrenia of the Dragon Men. They are not always themselves. The truth of matters is actually pretty horrifying for a shoujo series with color artwork in soft shades of pastel, but dems da breaks, as they say, and much of volume five shows some of the less sympathetic competitors for the Key heading downwards (literally) to their deaths.
Perhaps the strongest aspect of the manga, though, is the development of the characters of Asta and Leticia. They are destined for each other, of course, but that obvious fact of manga reading life does not impede enjoyment of their trek toward maturity. Leticia needs to get over her childhood crush on her guardian, and she behaves in a very immature way that risks his life on more than one occasion. When these antics eventually go a step to far, you get to see her older, wiser—and sadder. Asta, for his part, has to come to terms with his inevitable inheritance of the throne, and he has to learn how to use the strategies of military combat in order to retain peace for his kingdom. Needless to say, he also loses his guardian, though not strictly to death, and Badd's ultimate fate—not wholly unexpected for those paying close attention to previous chapters—is among the most poignant I have seen in a fantasy title in quite a long time.
The final volume is, sadly, the weakest part of the storyline. After a deliciously well-paced, deliberate buildup, the climatic moment where Asta and his friends take on the bad guy seems rushed and perfunctory by comparison. This does not it mean that it was bad—far from it—but it does not quite live up to the greatness and affective impact that previous volumes would have led you to expect. The subplot involving the interference of the King of the Dragon Tamer's son felt particularly random and probably would have worked better had it been better executed. After such a standout performance through the main stretch, Shitou seems to have lost her momentum just before the end. It's quite a shame that The Key to the Kingdom did not go out with more of a bang. It could have been “A+” material if it had done so.
However, irrespective of whatever minor shortcomings of the story one might encounter, the quality of Shitou's artwork in this series more than makes up the distance. She draws in a detailed old-school shoujo style that has been subtly updated for the twenty-first century. Her use of asymmetrical layouts and novel angles of perception are truly masterful, and each page is pleasingly unified in style and quality of line. In addition, characters and their various fantastical outfits are always gorgeously detailed, and she specializes in symbolic panels that represent and idea or theme as opposed to an event. CLAMP fans should love it…and then they will wonder why they have heard of CLAMP but not Kyoko Shitou.
All in all, The Key to the Kingdom is one of the best manga series relatively few fans in the English speaking world have actually considered reading. Nevertheless, be assured that its six volumes are thoroughly engrossing, and best read in a single sitting.
Overall : A
Story : A-
Art : A+
+ Brilliant high fantasy storyline and breathtaking art. A superb package all around.
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