Reviewby Carlo Santos, Jan 18th 2014
Magi: The Labyrinth of Magic
Aladdin is a little boy surrounded by mystery: he commands a powerful djinn named Ugo and can see glowing magical particles called rukh, but doesn't know where he came from or what his purpose is. Right now, he just wants to reunite with his intrepid, dungeon-conquering friend Alibaba. However, Aladdin has been spirited away to a distant land, where he must help the tiny Kouga tribe protect themselves from the clutches of the mighty Kou Empire. The princess of Kou, Hakuei Ren, hopes to negotiate a peaceful alliance with the Kouga people, but her ruthless military general has other ideas. Can the two sides broker a deal, or will they resort to all-out bloodshed? Aladdin's magic and his kindly heart may prove to be the deciding factor!
The world of Magi is wide and vast, so it's understandable that one might feel a little lost after plunging into Volume 3. After two volumes of dungeon exploration and fighting for justice in a fictional Middle East, one of the main characters is suddenly dropped off in the fantasy equivalent of Central Asia, with no other explanation other than "because something magical happened." This change of scenery can be disorienting at first, but the story itself is solid—a tale of feuding nations, hot-blooded battles, and deep mysticism lurking in unlikely places. The setting may be different from what's come before, but Magi's spirit of adventure remains the same.
A new setting also means new story ideas: gone is the threat of roaming bandits and greedy merchants, or the lure of treasure hidden among mysterious ruins. Instead, Aladdin faces something even bigger: a powerful empire modeled after feudal China. From here, it would be easy to take the lazy route and paint this as a black-and-white conflict between a monolithic enemy and a scrappy little community—but instead, the storyline defies expectations in various ways. The princess of the Kou Empire actually wants to strike a peaceful deal, and the leader of the Kouga tribe is willing to accept if it means saving lives instead mindlessly going to war. The real enemy, it turns out, are those who have prejudices, who expect the worst of others, and who use deceit and aggression to succeed. This story may have the usual action-adventure elements—midnight kidnappings, tragic deaths, and magical duels—but the message has more nuance to it than just good triumphing over evil.
While all this is happening, another subplot continues to chug along: Aladdin is still trying to figure out who (or what) he really is. This story arc features several flashbacks, and even adopts a "myths and legends" tone as the Kouga tribe leader reveals some ancient mysteries about the universe. However, none of it really explains Aladdin's origins in full; his memories are still mostly snippets that don't have all the connecting parts yet, and the mythological definition of a "Magi" only serves as useful background information, not an actual plot point that compels Aladdin to do something. Plus, he hasn't gotten any closer to reuniting with Alibaba—instead, the series takes another detour in this volume's final chapter, with the freed slave Morgiana stepping in as the next featured character. (So that's why she's on the cover!)
The fantastical qualities of Magi also come out in Shinobu Ohtaka's crisp artwork: whether it involves grand displays of magic, or simply flaunting the well-researched costumes and landscapes, the visuals rarely disappoint. The sight of the headless djinn Ugo charging into battle is always impressive, while other elements of magic in the series, like the flow of rukh or blasts of energy, also show plenty of creative flair. The character designs, at the most basic level, adhere to familiar genre tropes—a wizened old mother-figure, a classically beautiful princess, a tall and menacing military leader—but the elaborate outfits, pulled straight from the history books, set them apart with a unique, cross-cultural look. This detailed art style has its drawbacks, though: the limited space for each chapter (blame the Weekly Shonen Jump schedule) causes some of the best scenes to be condensed into small-to-medium-sized panels. Thankfully, the layouts are clear enough that the action isn't hard to follow—just hard to appreciate sometimes.
Even the amount of dialogue has an impact on the artwork, with text bubbles crowding out certain scenes. It's not like anyone is launching into any long speeches—the characters simply have a lot to talk about. This is particularly noticeable in the early chapters, where the Kou and Kouga camps are still trying to negotiate rather than fight. Their back-and-forth arguments are compelling, but it might test the patience of fans who were expecting more action. The "ancient legend" scenes are also driven more by text than imagery, but in this case, the storybook eloquence is meant to make the writing stand out. The English translation is strong enough that it also captures distinctions between the characters' personalities: Aladdin comes off as optimistic and innocent (without any forced cuteness), the Kouga tribe sounds natural and outspoken, while the aristocracy of the Kou Empire has a slightly formal edge to their speech.
It may be confusing at first to see Magi go in a completely different direction from the first two volumes, but Volume 3 remains consistent in one respect: it's still about discovering new places, new people, and new things. On top of that, it's even got the main character discovering more about himself. Not all of these discoveries tie in directly to the current storyline, but they do help to fill in the details of how magic and mythology work in this universe. Besides, the storyline is satisfying enough as it is—an underdog-versus-oppressor tale with more nuances than one would expect from the genre. The cleanly drawn artwork adds to the appeal, portraying a unique world where different cultures collide. As this volume of Magi proves, it's okay to get a little lost sometimes—you never know what you'll find.
Overall : B+
Story : B
Art : B+
+ A fresh story arc introduces new people, places, and conflicts—with unexpected nuances and creative visuals to keep fans interested.
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