Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Juana and the Dragonewt's Seven Kingdoms
Humans may have ruled the Earth once, but their time has faded into the realm of mythology. Now dragonewts, a lizard-like race of people, are the dominant species, with treasure hunters and archaeologists digging up relics of humans' tenure. Nid is one such treasure hunter, and one day while exploring the ruins of a church, he stumbles upon an amazing find: Juana, a young human girl, preserved in an egg. Nid's not sure what to do with his new pet (or even what gender it is), but when Juana sees a map, she points to a specific area. At his mentor's suggestion, Nid takes Juana and the two embark on a quest to figure out the mystery of the last human on the planet.
Everything eventually cycles back around. That's part of the philosophy behind the world building of Kiyohisa Tanaka's debut manga series, Juana and the Dragonewt's Seven Kingdoms: first there were dinosaurs, then there were humans, and now lizard-like beings have replaced humanity. There's even a theory that the extinction of humans was brought about by a meteor strike or something similar, and the dragonewts who now claim dominance have a paleontologist's fascination for their predecessor species, mixed in with some bafflement about how non-scaled people could ever have survived. It's an interesting set up, and one that hearkens back to earlier tales of throwback survivors of a bygone species, with Oliver Butterworth's 1956 novel The Enormous Egg being the first to come to mind because it, too, hatches its supposed-to-be-extinct character out of an egg. Of course, in Butterworth's book it's a triceratops, while in Tanaka's it's a young girl.
Juana and the Dragonewt's Seven Kingdoms follows the story of Nid, a young (roughly late teens) dragonewt working as a scavenger/treasure hunter for the owner of a curiosity shop. He specializes in relics of the humans' tenure on Earth, and one day when he's exploring what we understand to be the ruins of a church (in an amusing scene he wonders why he finds so many crucifixes and if tying people to crosses was some sort of weird old pastime) he discovers a large egg. When he approaches it, the egg “hatches,” revealing a little human girl. When he manages to communicate with her on a very rudimentary level, he discovers that the child is named Juana, and he brings her back with him mostly because he's not sure what else to do. Interestingly, “Juana” isn't just a name that Tanaka liked the sound of; she's actually Latina and speaks only in Spanish. There are no translations provided, so if you like to know what everything you read means, you'll definitely want to have either a dictionary or translation program close by while reading, unless of course you have at least a rudimentary knowledge of the Spanish language. (As an example, one of the first things she says to Nid is “tenes” (“you have”) with a gesture towards his head followed by “conejo,” meaning “rabbit.” The vocabulary never goes much beyond this level.) Nid doesn't understand anything she says (or even that she's female, which has some interesting implications about dragonewt anatomy since she's naked when he finds her), and they never do manage to find a common verbal language. This means that throughout the two books Nid and Juana rely on body language and their growing familiarity with each other in order to communicate, which does a nice job of showcasing their bonds growing.
The actual plot is a little bit garbled. Nid is clearly living away from his family on purpose (with the implication that it has something to do with the dragonewt culture wars between herbivores and carnivores) and feels some empathy for Juana because she's also on her own, even more than he is. He lacks purpose in his life, or at least feels that he does, which leads to him embarking on a journey to the place on the map Juana seems to recognize as home without him really stopping to think about what that means. He's impulsive and naïve, not a great combination, and even as they set out to travel the seven kingdoms, there's no real sense of purpose for Nid – he says its for Juana, but that never feels precisely true. That means that it's a bit difficult to say that these two volumes have much of a firm plot beyond Juana and Nid bonding and discovering that humans and dragonewts aren't all that different under the skin, scaled or not.
This feels like a relevant message, perhaps particularly now, but certainly one that has a timeless quality to it. People are people, and that's largely what Nid needs to fully realize by the time the series draws to a close in the third volume. What's interesting is that Nid is so trusting without fully understanding what giving someone your trust truly entails – he thinks that “trust” is equal to “understanding,” which is what gets him into trouble again and again. He's immature in a very basic, emotional way that we can see slowly changing as he spends more time looking after Juana, who looks to be about eight years old to his late teens; having to consider how things might affect her as opposed to himself is a driving factor in his maturation. That doesn't mean that this is a variation on the “single dad raises surprise child” genre that stories like Bunny Drop or even Sweetness & Lightning fall into; rather it's about Nid learning to consider anyone's circumstances rather than just his own.
It is a shame that this is only a three-volume series, because the world Tanaka has created is fascinating, and the art style is interesting and attractive. There's a misty quality to the landscapes Juana and Nid travel through that have a real feeling of times gone by, especially the “death cave” chapter in volume one and the seaside town in volume two. On the plus side, at only three volumes, this series isn't a huge commitment, so if you're just in the mood for something off the beaten path, this is worth picking up, even if it isn't fully perfect in what it wants to be.
Overall : B
Story : B-
Art : B+
+ Neat concept, dreamlike art
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