Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Attack on Titan: Harsh Mistress of the City
Novel 1 - Part 1
After the fall of Wall Maria, a panicked effort at evacuation took place and was only moderately successful. A battle outside the town of Quinta, nestled along the Wall, resulted in the deaths of civilians and all commanding Garrison officers, leaving newly-minted soldier Rita the highest ranking member of the guard...and in charge of a city full of wary, frightened citizens. Unprepared for command, Rita comes to realize that she'll have to come up to scratch or face the destruction of her city and those she holds dear – and not necessarily at the hands of the Titans.
In some ways, Hajime Isayama's Attack on Titan series can be read as an expression of human fears. As the assumed dominant species on Earth, the ones with the brains to outwit the predators who are better physically equipped to hunt us with tooth and claw, we can get complacent about our place in the food chain. Attack on Titan pits humans against bigger, stronger versions of themselves, putting a recognizable face on the ultimate monsters, something emphasized by the fact that each Titan has a distinct facial expression that does not have anything to do with their actual emotional state. While manga readers and anime viewers know that there is much more to the story than this, for the characters in the so-called prequel novels translated into English and released by Vertical, the knowledge that the manga/anime characters have is still unknown. That allows author Ryo Kawakami to play with the themes of fear and the human-like inhumanity of the Titans and what their effect on the people first facing them after the fall of Wall Maria is.
The Harsh Mistress of the City is divided into two 200 page novels, and this first one is largely set up – but it doesn't feel that way. Exciting and telling a full, if not complete, story in its own right, this book introduces us to Mathias, the scion of a wealthy merchant family, and Rita, the daughter of an apothecary who has joined the Garrison. Both are from Quinta, a town nestled alongside the Wall that takes a hit when the Titans arrive. Mathias, as a noble, is evacuated early with his father, but Rita has to stay to defend the town and help get the people out before they become Titan chow...a mission which is only partially successful. Relatively inexperienced at actually fighting Titans (despite the now widespread use of the Vertical Maneuvering Equipment, the soldiers are unable to get everyone out and suffer heavy losses themselves, leaving fifteen-year-old Rita, a raw new soldier, the highest ranking officer in Quinta. While she tries to cope with suddenly being solely in charge of the welfare of an entire town, Mathias realizes that neither she nor her parents have made it out and sets off in dubious company to track her down.
What is striking about both of these characters, who share the third person narration in alternating sections, is their naiveté. The world has always gone Mathias' way, and he sees no reason, or rather, no real reason why it should not continue to do so. Sure he needs to ally himself with highly suspicious people to evade his father's watchful eye and get to Quinta, but surely they'll honor the deal he made with them, right? He barely even pauses to consider what going to those outside the law might mean for his own well-being, which is a testament both to his own innocence and how much he cares about Rita...with more of an emphasis on the former. It is difficult to really blame him for his decisions, but at the same time his foolish, faulty reasoning makes you want to hit your head against, if not a wall, than at least the book. We see his doom coming, even as Mathias himself is blithely unaware of it, leading to a final scene that is not likely to aid in his cause.
As for Rita, her struggle is both less written of and more understandable. Where Mathias blunders headfirst into his troubles, Rita is very much straddling the line between victim and survivor. She doesn't have the maturity or the experience to cope with encountering Titans face-to-face, much less to see her friends and coworkers, to say nothing of her superiors, eaten and vomited up by them. We get the feeling that she can barely process what's going on as she struggles to cope with her new reality, from the fact that no one is really willing to help her contain the city to the lack of supplies, since the fleeing upper class took everything with them. She is totally unprepared but trying to work around her fear and inexperience, and I wish that she'd gotten more time in the book as the focal character, because while Mathias' journey is more physically perilous for most of the novel, hers is the more interesting predicament.
Ryo Kawakami, an award-winning novelist, is more than up to the task of bringing Isayama's world to life, even if the novel feels like it skews younger than previous entries into the series. The descriptions remain strong (aided by Range Murata's beautiful illustrations), but are , much less visceral and graphic than in the previous novels, making for a book much friendlier to younger readers. While Rita and Mathias don't make hugely convincing fifteen-year-olds, they still do feel believably young and befuddled, although most of the supporting characters are very stock, like cardboard cutouts recruited to show off the protagonists. Nevertheless, this novel reads quickly, almost impulsively, and raises issues and questions that should make volume two a meatier read.
Attack on Titan: Harsh Mistress of the City Part One is easily the most readable AOT novel to come out in English, and despite its issues is very hard to put down. You'll have to read both parts to get the whole story, but given how easily this one goes down, that feels more like an enticement than a punishment. While you do need at least a familiarity with the original in order to really understand this, it does stand alone within the franchise as a good story in its own right, and series fans should give it a try, even if the other novelizations didn't thrill you.
Overall : B+
Story : B+
Art : A
+ Good job playing up the symbolic aspect of the Titans, reads really easily. Both Mathias and Rita are interesting characters, less gross than previous works, which may make it easier reading for some.
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