Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
After successfully fighting off the Eye of the Midnight Sun and getting the Witch Queen's help, Asta and the rest of the Black Bulls are ready for a little break. Fortunately for them, it's festival time in the capital, which means not only a chance for Noelle to try to get closer to Asta (and for Charmy to find her food-protecting prince), but also the regular announcement of the knight squad rankings! Will the Black Bulls be dead last as usual? Or have Asta's actions in recent months helped put them one step closer to catching up to Yuno and the Golden Dawn?
Black Clover may not be the most innovative shounen series out there, but it has gotten increasingly adept at making the most of what it has. That's definitely something we saw in the previous two story arcs, at the underwater temple and in the forest of the Witch Queen, and now that Asta's finally being recognized by more people as being worthwhile, the series seems primed to truly take off.
That's why this volume is a bit of a disappointment. Not a huge one, because creator Yūki Tabata is still putting his new assurance with his characters and story to good use, but the new plotline introduced at the end of the book doesn't sound like it will be quite as compelling as previous arcs. In large part, that's because Black Clover as a manga feels as if it has outgrown the base storyline for the series, that Yuno and Asta will compete to see who can become the next Wizard King. It's a perfectly fine plot for a shounen action story, but it has ceased to feel particularly relevant as Asta has grown. In part this may be due to the fact that Yuno has been largely left out of the action – he shows up every so often and has grown in power as Asta has, but that feels as if it's just so that we can have a measuring stick to judge Asta's growth by. That's not a bad thing, but it does make him less relevant as specifically a rival figure for Asta, making that part of the story feel more like a catch phrase in plot format than a compelling piece of the story.
That said, this time Yuno does have more of a presence in the book. When Asta and the other Black Bulls head into the capital for the annual tally of the magic knight squadrons' rankings, Yuno and the Golden Dawn are also present. This means that Asta and Yuno get to hang out a bit, which if it doesn't do much to enhance Yuno's (lack of) personality, does allow for the volume to explore some interesting thematic elements. The big one here is prejudice, and Tabata uses the fact that Asta and Yuno are “peasants” to make a statement about overcoming ingrained biases. The nobility in Black Clover has a very set way of looking at the world and magic users, and in their eyes, only nobles may become magic knights and then are expected to uphold certain traditions in a specific way. That's why Noelle has been shamed by her family – she doesn't meet their criteria for how she's “supposed” to use magic, resulting in her sense of unwarranted shame.
So when Yuno and Asta are celebrated as the two most promising rookie magic knights, there's an outcry among the nobles in the city: how dare two peasant-class boys be given such honor! Obviously they're cheating! When the lower-class members of the audience jump in to defend them, there's very nearly a riot, and we can see how without certain characters (or the age of the intended audience for the series) things could have gotten dark very quickly. While Tabata resolves the issue a bit too neatly for the scene to really work, it is something that he may develop in future volumes, given that the new arc introduced at the book's end is a competition for a new, highly specialized squadron of magic knights. Should Yuno and/or Asta make it in, there's likely to be a lot of pushback that could make for interesting reading.
Of course, that requires getting through the less-than-thrilling sections of this volume, which include random volcano-scaling. While it is understandable that the characters need a break between exciting battles, especially given what Asta went through in the previous two, this feels a little clumsy as lead-up to the new plotline. That it is obvious that it is a transition volume perhaps says it all – it's painfully clear that Tabata is trying to segue from the Vanessa story arc into this new one, and that jars you out of the story a bit. While there are some really fascinating details here, such as the nods to Sleeping Beauty (specifically The Brothers Grimm version) in Charlotte's backstory, there isn't quite enough to make this one of the series' better volumes.
Despite this, Black Clover has risen to be a much better series than it began. Tabata's still feeling his way with long-format serialized storytelling, but Asta as a character has toned down and there's less reliance of both the art and stories of more recognizable shounen hits. If Asta's upper body is a little too ripped at this point, it's balanced out by the fact that he isn't just innocent or naïve but actually kind of an idiot, which gives him sort of a bizarre distinction among other heroes of similar stories. Black Clover may not have achieved household name standard in terms of its storytelling yet, but I think if we give Yūki Tabata enough time, it may get there yet.
Overall : B-
Story : B-
Art : B+
+ Asta's toned down well, some funny rom-com moments, nice end to the Vanessa story arc
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