Reviewby Nick Creamer,
The Ancient Magus' Bride
Tasked by her master Elias to exorcise an ancient grudge, the young sleigh beggy Chise finds herself caught up a tale of love and darkness spanning generations of violence. Then, with her first task as an apprentice mage completed, she enters a deep sleep, only to be woken to the sound of surprising visitors from the land of the fae. It's just one thing after another for Chise, as her introduction to the world of magic leads to great dangers and new wonders at every turn.
When Ancient Magus' Bride left off, Chise was caught in a trap set by another mage, unable to complete her task of exorcising the darkness of the lake. This volume opens with a rush of action, as Chise quickly frees herself and then stumbles into the memories of the blight itself, learning of the love that spurred its creation, and the violence that led to its anger. The woman trapped in the blight pleads for oblivion, but Chise wants to grant her peace; thinking quickly, she relies on the power of her fairy companion to spread seeds, and blows the memories of the two lovers and their dark secrets onto the wind.
That resolution is par for the course in Ancient Magus' Bride, reflecting its classic but still refreshing attitude towards magic. In this world, magic is not an instrument of direct violence - it can cause violence, yes, but that generally results from its misuse, or for trusting too much in your own ability to master it. Instead, magic is more of a natural force, one that can be guided by creativity but never truly tamed. Trickery is wrapped up in its use, and horror as well - this story is touched by stark and terrible images, creating a sense of lurking danger underlying the immediate wonder of its stories.
The ambiguity of magic is reflected in every element of this manga's construction. Chise herself embodies the fickle nature of magic; its creativity and wild strength, as well as the danger and terrible cost of its flippant use. As we learn early on in this volume, Chise's nature as a sleigh beggy means she is destined to die young, overwhelmed by the cost of her power. Elias knew this, but he chose not to tell her, figuring he'd either let her know when she was ready or avert her fate before then. His deception is one more strange note in the uneven relationship these two share, a relationship that builds wonderfully across this volume. Elias is a gifted mage, but in many ways he's like a child - stranded halfway between the human and fae worlds, he can never quite understand humans, leaving Chise to sometimes act as his interpreter. And for Chise's part, her absolute loyalty to Elias comes across as an understandable tragedy, but something she might eventually grow past as she masters her own powers. Their relationship is simultaneously ambivalent and endearing, possessing both an earnestness and darkness that makes it perfectly suited to a series dabbling in this kind of Old Magic.
The Ancient Magus' Bride's art remains gorgeous and well-suited to the story all throughout this volume. From stark full-page panels of dead cats and lost brides, the story shifts to whimsical forest scenes, with Chise shrouded in carefully articulated flowers as she sleeps off her magical debt. The manga makes strong use of heavy blacks, from the darkness of the first arc to Titania's long hair to the black dog of the final story, and the incidental objects of the mages' everyday life are rendered in beautiful detail. The backgrounds are lush and faces expressive, and the whole style has an ornate looseness to it that works perfectly for this kind of fantasy storytelling. In spite of all the darkness and danger, there's a consistent sense of coziness to this world, expressed in the backgrounds, the idle details of daily life (like the constant focus on chores and meals), and the tone of the central relationship.
Overall, Ancient Magus' Bride is only becoming more enchanting as it continues. In my first review of the manga, I expressed concerns about the nature of the relationship between Chise and Elias - at this point, the ambiguities of their relationship actually seem like one more fitting piece of a world where every relationship is ambiguous, be they between the characters themselves or related to the ways each character interacts with their magical world. The story skips lightly from fantasy touchstone to fantasy touchstone, alighting on legends about cats and blood sacrifice, the fae court, and the black dog that hearkens death along the way. If you have any appreciation for this style of classic fantasy storytelling, Ancient Magus' Bride is a can't-miss production.
Overall : A
Story : A-
Art : A
+ Gorgeous art and well-told vignettes create a deeply compelling fantasy universe; the central relationship is becoming a simultaneously endearing and unsettling cornerstone of the narrative.
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