Reviewby Richard Eisenbeis,
Frieren: Beyond Journey's End
28 years after the death of Himmel the Hero, the immortal elven mage Frieren is on a new quest: to travel to a hidden land where people are able to communicate directly with the deceased. To do this, she and her apprentice, Fern, will need to retrace the path Frieren took to defeat the Demon King 80 years ago.
However, with dragons and demons on their path, the two mages desperately need a frontline fighter to support them. Luckily, Frieren is not the only one of her former companions to have taken on an apprentice: the dwarven warrior Eisen has as well.
In general, Frieren: Beyond Journey's End is a manga that utilizes both serialized and standalone storytelling. Sometimes, events may flow naturally from one chapter to the next. Other times, we get a chapter that is unrelated to any overarching narrative. And there are also one-shots that relate back to previous one-offs in unexpected ways. This volume contains several standalone stories and two serialized ones (though the book ends halfway through the second).
The one-off stories in this volume focus mainly on fleshing out Himmel as a character (even as we learn more about both Frieren and Fern). Each chapter has at least one tragically beautiful moment of revelation all but designed to leave you a sobbing mess. Those centered on Frieren deal with her realizing that the mere 10 years of her infinite life she spent with Himmel and the others were just as important and life-changing to her as they were to the rest of the party. The most emotionally devastating of these moments comes when Frieren is faced with a demonic illusion formed from the memories of the person most dear to her. Rather than her long-deceased master standing before her as she expected, it is Himmel—who promptly tells her to kill him (and thus defeat the demon). It's a moment layered in emotion and complex storytelling. It shows us just how highly Freiren viewed her friend as an incorruptible hero even as she loved him as a person—all made even more tragic by the ever-present underlying fact that it's only decades after his death that she realizes this.
Of course, it's not all tear-jerking downers. The first serialized story of the volume introduces us to the new party's warrior, a young man named Stark—and it is through him that the author explores the nature of cowardice. Stark is an orphan who ran away as his family was slaughtered by demons. Found by Eisen, he was trained to be a formidable warrior. The problem is that his survivor's guilt robs him of anything even resembling self-confidence, and so his first instinct is always flight, not fight. Through a series of comedic moments, we get to learn about Stark as both a big-hearted person and as a coward. And, after a suitable amount of dramatic buildup, the story ends on a hilarious anti-climax as Stark faces down the dragon he's spend two years living in fear of—only to utterly destroy it before Frieren has the chance to do anything. As funny as it is, it also comes with a solid moral: courage is not the absence of fear; it is moving forward in spite of it.
Rather than focusing on the tragic or the comical, the other serialized story we get in this volume is almost entirely suspense and action as we are introduced to the main antagonists of the series: Demons. While we encountered one major demon in the first volume, this is the first time we get a look at demons in a more general sense—that is, their motivations and how they think. It's utterly fascinating.
In a lot of fantasy stories these days, demons tend to be less evil and more misunderstood and/or discriminated against. The idea is that they are sentient beings, regardless of horns and skin color, and therefore can be reasoned with. Such progressive ideas, while laudable, spell doom in Frieren's world, however. The basic gist of it is that the demons of this realm are all psychopaths who are completely devoid of empathy. They cannot understand the other races' desire for peace and safety or even concepts that are as simple as familial love (as they are solitary creatures by nature).
Of course, humans want to believe that if you can communicate, you can find common ground—and demons are eager to exploit this. To demons, language is not a means of exchanging ideas but rather a way to lure in their next meal. Worse still, they are smart enough to weaponize emotions even if they don't truly understand them. They can make seemingly heartfelt pleas for peace and amnesty with all the flair of a seasoned diplomat—but these are just well-rehearsed words designed to let them gorge on human flesh in the end. They are true apex predators in the sense that they possess the necessary evolutionary traits to hunt mankind.
This returns demons to their original role in fantasy as an utterly inhuman threat—despite their humanoid appearance. They don't care about any life but their own and have only the simplest of goals. They aren't keen on taking over the world and don't worship an evil god. They're hungry, and to them human flesh is the tastiest food. It's just that simple, which is what makes them excellent villains for our heroes to face.
All in all, this volume of Frieren: Beyond Journey's End turns out to be just as good—if not better—than the first. On one hand, it develops its characters, both those alive and long dead, through wonderful, tear-jerking moments. On the other, it does the same with scenes of levity and outright comedy. Yet, even while doing all this, it still manages to set up a truly terrifying enemy that exploits human nature to triumph both inside and outside of battle. The only downside of this volume is that it stops just before the big action climax—where we are watching our three heroes truly facing life and death danger for the first time. But I'll say one thing, it has me dying to pick up the next volume, if nothing else.
Overall : A
Story : A
Art : B+
+ Delivers both emotional tales and deep thematic explorations of human nature. Makes demons evil again.
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