Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Beyond the Clouds
Theo has lived his entire life in the Yellow City, a steampunk metropolis covered in a grim yellow fog of industrial pollution that has made it impossible to see the blue skies or stars he reads about. An orphan at age sixteen, Theo enjoys ending his workdays by a taking a trip to the junkyard, or as he prefers to call it, the Island of Dreams, in order to find new parts to tinker with. One day, however, he stumbles upon an injured girl – a girl who has a feathered wing sprouting from her back. Theo takes her in and determines to make her a second prosthetic wing in the hopes that maybe, someday, the two of them can go beyond the clouds.
Beyond the Clouds is reminiscent of a lot of things while still managing to be its own series. It has elements of Juana and the Dragonewt's Seven Kingdoms in the relationship between Theo and Mia, some thematic and setting similarities to Made in Abyss, and its environmental issues and pseudo-steampunk technology both link it to other tales in the same genres. It therefore doesn't feel quite right to call it a unique work, but rather it's one that combines pieces of others and comes out with a story that, if not wholly original, is cozily familiar even when dangerous things are taking place. It's got the same comfort level as a bedtime story, not because nothing bad ever happens, but because it is told in such a way as to mimic the cadence of the sort of chapter book or middle grade novel that often serves as a nightly read-aloud.
There's a very good chance that this is a deliberate storytelling choice on the part of creator Nicke. Theo, the protagonist of the story, is a reader, and he kept himself company with books from the time he was little, forming many of his romantic ideals from the fantasies he read. When he brings Mia home, he teaches her that same love of story by reading to her every night from his collection, making it logical that his book would read like his old favorites. The soft quality of Nicke's art adds to this – the heavy use of gray space and the sketch-like look of much of the art has a hazy feel that enhances the sensation of reading before you fall asleep. While the amount of gray can be wearing on the eyes – especially if you're trying to see all of the many details Nicke puts in – it really does work for the tone she's trying to achieve.
That's a good thing on several levels, one of which is the fact that the plot in this introductory volume doesn't have a particularly steady pace. While it isn't fair to call this a slice-of-life series, it does flow like one at times, with Nicke taking time to describe some of the everyday minutiae of Theo's life that technically could have been left out, mostly in the chapters before he finds Mia and directly after. While the story is interesting enough, and a lot of thought has clearly been put into building the world (as evidenced by the included interview with Nicke and some of her production materials at the back of the book), she's not yet an adept enough storyteller to determine what twenty percent of that world building we the reader need to know. (General creative writing guidelines hold that the writer needs to know 80% more about their world than they ever show the reader in order to create fully-realized pieces.) Things really pick up when plot events start happening – finding Mia is more of a starting point for the story than an event that happens once it's already moving, so having Mia be targeted by lowlifes who want a mysterious one-winged girl for their own presumably nefarious reasons several chapters in truly marks where the journey begins.
That's in a literal sense as well as a figurative one. After the thugs burst in on Theo's attempts to test out a new wing for Mia, she shows evidence of some strange powers that no one suspected she had – and in the process exhausts herself to the point of becoming ill. This leads Theo to set out from the Yellow City in search of Sage of the Forest, who has medical knowledge beyond that which the people of the city possess. Not only does this give the volume a more traditional quest narrative (which in some ways it needed), but it also gives Theo a concrete goal that only he can accomplish. Technically, since he works for an accomplished engineer with two other people, he's not the only person who can build Mia a new wing. But he is the sole person who can go to the Sage and ask for the elixir, and that's something that stands to grow his character.
Apart from the steampunk (dieselpunk, given the pollution?) elements of the world, Beyond the Clouds is otherwise a fairly traditional fantasyland with a manga bent. The Yellow City's denizens are humans (called “humanoids”), Anthros (anthropomorphic animals), and Hybrids, people with animal ears and tails, but once Theo ventures into the forest, he encounters fairies, gnomes, and monsters, as well as animals with a decidedly Pokémon aspect, like the branch deer, a deer with flowering tree branches for antlers. The name “Yellow City” feels like a reference to the Emerald City in L. Frank Baum's Oz books as well, and in the opening pages of the volume it almost sounds as if Theo is reading Antoine Saint-Exupery's The Little Prince to himself. It's an interesting setting, and hopefully one that will be expanded upon in future volumes.
Beyond the Clouds may not be off to a perfect start, but it's still off to a good one. With a well-thought out setting, a plucky protagonist, and beautiful, soft art (to say nothing of gorgeous watercolor opening pages and cover), this isn't as immediately engrossing as Witch Hat Atelier or Made in Abyss, but still well worth picking up. It's a bedtime story you want to keep your eyes open for.
Overall : B+
Story : B
Art : A-
+ Beautiful art, well-built world. Story really picks up in second half.
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