Reviewby Nick Creamer,
The Ancient Magus' Bride
With her mother dead and father long gone, Chise Hatori has spent her childhood being passed unwanted from relative to relative, until she finally makes her unfortunate way to a strange and improbable auction block. Offered as a “sleigh beggy” to the highest bidder, Chise is purchased by the (literally) boneheaded Elias Ainsworth, who promises to take her on as his apprentice. Elias is a mage, and his world is one of dragons and faeries - but before Chise can begin to get accustomed to all that nonsense, Elias drops another bombshell. Apparently Chise isn't just intended to be his apprentice - she will also be his bride.
The Ancient Magus' Bride is a strange little story, and all of its most divisive strangeness is frontloaded in the very first chapter. The manga opens with a teenage girl up for auction, about as strong a statement of “things are different here” as you could imagine. The girl for sale is our protagonist, Chise Hatori; the man who buys her is our skull-faced guide, Elias Ainsworth. After whisking Chise back to England in a spiral of magical thorns, Elias explains that Chise is a “sleigh beggy,” a being whose affinity for magic makes all manner of mystical creatures gravitate towards her and lend her their strength. After first reassuring Chise that though he wants to make her his apprentice, he will respect her wishes on what she herself wants to become, he ultimately and almost offhandedly adds the troubling condition that he plans to marry her, as well. So. That's weird.
It's a tricky emotional speedbump to get past, that whole “I bought you and wish to marry you but am also one of the protagonists and your guide through this story” thing, but The Ancient Magus' Bride does a commendable job of making both Chise and Elias understandable and likable characters. Chise is the straight man in this magical world, offering occasional blunt critiques of Elias' behavior and giving us an opportunity to learn this world's rules as other characters explain things to her. Elias is alternately bumbling and imposing, with the edge of the show's premise nicely softened through the ways he consistently demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding over why other people might find his bride-purchasing kind of weird. Having this story go in a legitimately romantic direction would likely raise thorny issues of power dynamics and consent, but so far Elias is more of a weird teacher-father figure than someone we're expected to take emotionally seriously. And on her end, Chise's circumstances and emotions have been treated with great sensitivity so far, leaving me hopeful that the story will continue to thread the needle of its potentially troubling implications.
The real star here, the place where Magus' Bride shines, is the depiction of Elias' world. Magus' Bride takes cues from the old stories, and its magical world is equal parts mystery, danger, and wonder. Early on, Chise is almost stolen away by the fairy folk; later, she visits a dragon aerie and witnesses an old earth dragon die and be reborn as a majestic tree. The story of this first volume plays out as a series of setting-establishing vignettes, as Elias takes Chise along on a variety of errands that establish some of the players and variables of his world, but all along, a sense of mystery and wonder is retained. This isn't “magic as system of rules and powers,” this is “magic as unknowable ancient force, equal parts wonder and wickedness.”
The tone reminds me of the treatment of magic in Diana Wynne Jones' stories (the Chrestomanci novels in particular, but if we're sticking to anime references, she's also the original author of Howl's Moving Castle). A letter will rise from the table and reform itself into a paper winged bird; a jagged piece of glass can be reshaped through will into a glittering field of translucent flowers. Magus' Bride's excellent art does great work in impressing upon the audience the same sense of wonder Chise experiences throughout. The character designs are expressive and backgrounds ornate, and single page spreads unfold in beautiful detail as they depict the majesty of a dragon in flight, or the slow tumble of Chise sinking beneath a dark lake. The big visual setpieces and array of magical details are the highlights, but equally strong are Chise's wide variety of nonplussed faces and the overall sense of visual timing. Magus' Bride is a beautiful and impressively composed story.
Overall, this first volume leaves me eager to continue Chise and Elias' adventures. Seemingly of a piece with ideas like Neil Gaiman's “all fairytales are real” expanded universe, there are clearly more clever corners of this universe worth exploring, if early highlights like the King of Cats and dragon aerie are any indication. How the relationship between Chise and Elias will play out remains an open and important question, but when it comes to the world, this story's treatment of its material is nuanced and sensitive. This is a fading world, where the beauty of magic is constantly highlighted against its ephemeral nature - as Chise makes friends with a dying dragon, the aerie's keeper notes that “by the time she is a full mage, Chise herself might be a member of a final generation.” What conflict all these lovely details might be leading towards is a mystery so far, but the execution is so strong that I'm ready to follow wherever it leads. The Ancient Magus' Bride is a generous work, full of magic and mystery.
Overall : A-
Story : A-
Art : A
+ Vivid art and inventive storytelling; grounded by a strong sense of place and teeming with great magical details.
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