Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Liila is too pretty to be a maid – every job she has she loses because she spurns the advances of the men she works for. Her last chance is at Aldebaran Castle, the supposedly haunted home of a family known for its bloodthirsty past. Unafraid of the stories, Liila quickly becomes fond of the castle and its mysterious young lord, Alferdo. But all rumors have at least a little truth to them, and as Liila is about to find out, the grim past of the castle and its ruling family may be more dangerous than she ever imagined.
Readers of Harlequin's line of manga adaptations of their romance novels may recognize Chieko Hara's name and art style from her work for them, but she's much more than just an adaptor of light romance fiction. Hara debuted in 1976 alongside other shoujo manga greats like Riyoko Ikeda (The Rose of Versailles) and Yumiko Igarashi (Candy Candy), and she has an impressive seventy-five titles to her name, including her Harlequin work and several manga versions of the novels of L. M. Montgomery. Amber Silhouette, alongside Legend of the Rainbow, is her first original work to be released in English, and if you're a fan of classic shoujo or Gothic fiction, it's certainly a digital title you'll want to check out.
The story is pure 19th century Gothic in the style of Charlotte Brontë (as opposed to the 18th century-style Gothic best known from Ann Radcliffe's works), featuring a haunted castle, a mysterious young lord, and a servant girl who isn't all that good at leaving well enough alone. Liila is our plucky protagonist, a pretty young woman who has come to work at Aldebaran Castle as a last resort. She's actually too plucky and pretty for being a good servant – her beauty attracts the men of the household, who believe that because she works for them, they should be able to sleep with her, and her pluck means that she tells them “no” and smacks them, all of which has gotten her fired from a lot of jobs. But because of Aldebaran's reputation for being haunted she's taken on without question (and probably without references), and this time Liila is determined to make it work. She's a devoted servant, willing to work hard and do anything that doesn't involve sleeping with the master (or his relatives), so Lord Alferdo's reputation for being odd and creepy is actually a draw. Here, she figures, she can just do her work and be left alone.
Because all Gothics contain an element of romance, however (and that goes double for shoujo Gothics), Alferdo turns out to be young, handsome, and largely misunderstood. He has recently lost his fiancée, Sofia, and he's since shut himself away with his pet panther, moping through his days in the castle. When Liila arrives, his pet immediately takes to her, and when she turns out not to be afraid of the big cat, Alferdo finds himself drawn to her. (It of course doesn't hurt that she looks a bit like Sofia.) Their budding romance is more of the sweet and relatively innocent variety, very in keeping with light romance fiction in that they haven't even kissed by the end of volume one, although they're both well on their way to admitting (to themselves) that they're falling in love. What's more interesting is that Alferdo and Liila both save each other on various occasions; Alferdo protects Liila from both a murderous woman and the sexual predations of his cousin, while Liila saves Alferdo from himself and the strange supernatural urges that haunt the Aldebaran men. While these are fairly typical gender roles within the confines of the genre, it's worth noting that Liila is no wilting lily of a maiden; Alferdo only steps in when she actually physically can't save herself and she shows impressive strength of character when faced with the supernatural horrors that she is strangely attuned to.
Given Hara's art style, Liila as a character is actually the best indication that this three-volume series was created in 1997. Hara's art is very much of the mid-1970s, particularly in terms of character designs. While they are a bit toned down from her work in the 70s and 80s (see Legend of the Rainbow for a comparison), Liila and the other conventionally beautiful women have lashes you could sweep the floor with, masses of thick, wavy hair, and wear dresses fit for the fanciest of costume dramas – even Liila's work clothes. Backgrounds are similarly detailed and gorgeous, with each brick on the castle's façade being drawn in, leafy vegetation in the gardens, and a sense of windblown elegance. Hara also, it is worth mentioning, does differentiate between time periods when she draws scenes from the past; rather than just giving everyone big floofy gowns, a tragedy from the Medieval period has clothing of that time, and other scenes show distinctly 18th century dress, while the main story is reminiscent of the mid-19th – something that holds true for both men and women. Despite the level of detail, the panels are very easy to read, and K.K. HarperCollins Japan's translation is smooth and largely devoid of errors. The language is kept relatively modern rather than attempting a 19th century style, which is a little disappointing but probably for the best.
Older shoujo (or any genre, really) isn't always an easy sell, but Amber Silhouette is worth giving a chance. Hara's story is good Gothic fun and the art is beautiful, and at roughly $5 for a little over 200 pages as of this writing, it's quite a good deal, digital release or otherwise. It's a nice mildly spooky read, and if it isn't her absolute best work, it's still an awful lot of fun.
Overall : B+
Story : B
Art : A-
+ Good Gothic tale, Liila's an engaging heroine. Beautiful art.
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