Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Tota Kone, grandson of Negi Springfield, lives in a quiet, idyllic country town...and he really wants to get out of it. An orphan living with teacher Yukihime, he has been told that if he can defeat her in battle, he and his friends can leave and go to the city. But there is more to Tota than Yukihime is telling him, to say nothing of her secrets hidden below the surface. When Tota learns the truth, he will have to decide if he's going to adjust his life goals, or just keep on heading towards them, no matter what.
Tangentially related to his series about Negi Springfield, Ken Akamatsu's UQ Holder! is fairly easy to pick up even without having read about Tota's grandfather. Yes, there are pieces of the world that will make more sense more quickly if you are familiar with the previous title(s), but Tota is a stand-alone character, strong enough in the shounen hero sense that he can carry the book without prior knowledge. A good, and short, introduction to Yukihime and her real name of Evangeline A.K. McDowell provides enough information to get us into the story's world, as well as doing a fine job of showing us the loneliness of an immortal life. Evangeline's backstory is very Tuck Everlasting, and it gives us a nice backdrop to what Tota will find himself facing as the series goes on.
The story begins in the small rural town Tota calls home. His parents having died in a car accident caused by Yukihime, she has taken responsibility for him, and has been raising him for the past two years. (There's an interesting bit of wordplay there if you know anything about Evangeline's nature.) Tota doesn't hold it against her because he doesn't really recall much of anything previous to the accident, and he's focused on his goal of getting out of town and going to Tokyo. He and his four buddies challenge Yukihime to a fight nearly every day in pursuit of that goal, as that is the town's condition for letting them leave. In UQ Holder!'s world, life isolated in the countryside is much healthier than bustling city conditions, and with the drastically reduced population, it makes more sense to keep people out of urban areas. This does nothing to stop the ambitious, and Tota and his friends are nothing if not that. Unfortunately for their plans, it is soon revealed that there is much more to Yukihime – and Tota – than at first meets the eye, resulting in the two having to flee the town. While this does mean that Tota gets to work towards his dream, he has to do it without his friends, which he is not happy about...for about five minutes.
Plenty of shounen heroes are plucky and have a never-say-die attitude, but Tota builds on that with a sense of endless optimism. Even when he learns that his life will never be the same as he had assumed, he refuses to see that as a bad, or even a disappointing thing. His boundless capability to make the best of a situation begins to rub off on his companions, even inducing Yukihime to give him more hope than she had initially planned on. We as readers see the flaws in his plans and the fly in his ointment, but his cheer and positivity is so great that we really, really want to ignore them and just believe that he can make everything work out. In a story with a lot of sadnesses and bleakness in the background, Tota represents hope. Not that this is a fully depressing story – Akamatsu does a good job of showing us that there is a bleakness to the story's world without making the book dark. We see the remainders and ruins of our society, yes, and Yukihime touches on the changes that have been made in the world, but mostly UQ Holder! is an adventure story about a fourteen-year-old boy who has big dreams and wants to make friends.
Akamatsu's art is as clean as it ever was, easy to read an attractive. He pays attention to differences in both the male and female figures, with everyone having a distinct body type. While the series has a fair amount of violence, gore is kept to a minimum, in some cases to the extent that you have to look back at what you just read to make sure that the arm was, in fact, ripped off. This does keep the series somewhat lighter than it could have been, but it is also a bit of a disservice in that the impact is somewhat lessened.
That, in some respects, is the major flaw of this volume of UQ Holder!. It is fun to have as upbeat a hero as Tota in a world that could be hopeless. But it also takes away from the more upsetting aspects of it, making the story more farcical than it needs to be. Some of the jokes do fall flat, and one gender one will get old fast if it is overplayed. There are definitely times when it would be good to see Tota take his situation more seriously, although on the other hand, watching him give Yukihime hope, something she appears to have been lacking, almost makes up for it.
UQ Holder!'s opening volume is lighter than it might have been but still carries a dark undertone. There's definitely a bitterness under the sweet, and it will be interesting to see how Akamatsu develops that. Tota can get a little annoying, but overall is a very likeable hero who doesn't let anything get him down, and sometimes in a post-apocalyptic (style) world such as we've seen before, that's enough to make the book worth reading.
Overall : B
Story : B
Art : B
+ Tota's enthusiasm is infectious, good use of the darker undertones of the world. Attractive artwork.
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