Reviewby Nick Creamer,
Tota's training under the mighty Witch of the Rift continues! Having survived the first segment of her brutal regimine, Tota and his friends find themselves tossed far away from her tower, and tasked with making their way back and finding a special tome within just one month. But Tota doesn't have a month - in fact, if he wants to make his next meeting with the time-displaced Kitty, he'll have to best this challenge in only four days. Can Tota make this reunion with his doomed teacher, and even if he does, will he able to save her from her fate?
UQ Holder! has always been an inherently strange shounen property. With its focus on a team of heroes who are all gifted with some form of immortality, the manga has at time had trouble offering compelling opponents for its protagonists. And main character Tota's individual talents only exacerbate this issue; though he has no fluency with magic, he's still blessed with ridiculous tricks like the Magia Erebia that served as precursor work Negima's “ultimate power,” along with the most unfair team of allies and tutors imaginable.
Ken Akamatsu has done an uneven job of navigating the inherent challenges of his own manga's premise, and volume nine demonstrates both the strengths and weaknesses of the manga so far. On the negative side, it's hard to avoid the fact that this volume is ultimately one more set of somewhat inconsequential training arcs. There's plenty of material here dedicated to Tota and his friends getting stronger in the most banal, genre-common ways, and Tota being an absurd superbeing continues to limit the manga's dramatic stakes. This volume's big fight, where Tota faces down a lightning elemental that's allegedly on the same power level as his legendary grandfather, feels more inevitable than thrilling. Tota continues to rise to challenges basically immediately, and through very little personal effort or sacrifice, making what should be some of the manga's most exciting moments into its least interesting. There's little thrill in following a character who has all of the cheat codes enabled from the start.
Fortunately, this volume is also a fine showcase of all the ways Akamatsu has risen to beat this premise. First off, at nine volumes in, UQ Holder! has finally established a solid central cast. While Tota continues to be a relatively boring character, companions like Kirie and Santa add a lot of personality to this volume's down time. Tota is essentially the shounen straight man, the classic “gotta train and get stronger!” character, and so having smarter and snarkier characters to bounce off him makes for a far more engaging narrative. Banter across an ensemble cast is definitely one of Akamatsu's strengths, and it's nice to see UQ Holder! has finally arrived at that point.
And beyond the general camaraderie of Tota's friends, this volume's focus on Yukihime's younger self adds some interesting direction and complexity to the manga's narrative. The further UQ Holder! goes, the more apparent it becomes that this is absolutely a sequel to Negima, with Yukihime/Evangeline representing the most clear tether point. Yukihime is a far more ambiguous and frankly interesting character than Tota, and the slow elaboration of her turn from fatigued immortal to enemy of the world to beloved leader is all the more interesting for its minimalist approach.
The interesting Yukihime material also echoes the ways UQ Holder! continues to mine unique drama out of its premise. As a senior immortal with great experience in living for way too long, Tota's new master Dana offers consistently interesting reflections on the unique trials of immortals. After Tota survives a near brush with actual, permanent death, Dana remarks that it might have actually been kinder to let him die there. Questions like “what will you do when the human race has all died out” are directly addressed with both humor and melancholy, and Dana continues to impress upon her charges how important it is not just to become strong, but to present strength. Mortals won't fear an immortal who dies in agony and is reborn comatose over and over - but if you can hide your pain and present a strong face, you can make showmanship one of your principal strengths.
When you couple all that with Akamatsu's consistently excellent art, you have a volume that largely succeeds in spite of being yet another training arc. And with the grand tournament finally approaching, it's looking like UQ Holder!'s heroes will soon get a chance to put all that suffering to work.
Overall : B
Story : B
Art : B+
+ Draws plenty of charm out of the manga's established cast, Yukihime-focused material emphasizes the compelling edges of the premise
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