Reviewby Nick Creamer,
The Ancient Magus' Bride
Chise continues to step further into Elias's magical world, but if she is to succeed in this place, the path she takes must be of her own choosing. As the ambiguities of their relationship continue to place both walls and bonds between them, Chise is tasked with creating her own wand, a duty that takes her away from Elias' side. In the aerie of the dragons, she learns more about her teacher's past, secrets he surely wanted to keep locked away. But without honesty, there can be no trust between the two of them - and with each of them a child in their own way, they will be needing support more than ever to face the trials to come.
While Ancient Magus' Bride's first and second volumes focused primarily on the magical world surrounding Chise and Elias, the manga's third volume turned inward, highlighting the emotional baggage that inspires both of their actions. This fourth volume essentially splits the difference between those two approaches, continuing to explore the very specific bond between the two leads while also making time for various offhand moments of magical whimsy and wonder. It seems a sign of confidence, in the end; the manga is establishing a more sustainable forward-thinking mixture, balancing explorations of intimate emotional bonds with depictions of a uniquely beautiful fantasy world.
Much of the conflict in this volume is prompted by Chise's return to the aerie, where Elias's old companion Lindel tasks her with creating her own wand. Though the sculpting of that wand is a reasonable fantasy device, the highlights here center on what new information we learn about Elias, and how this trip affects both of the story's principal characters. Elias' backstory is as mysterious as everything else about him - though he knows he once fed on humans, the Elias that we know simply found himself wandering in the woods one day, journeying until he was rescued and named by Lindel. Like Chise, Elias's past is something of a black stain - and as their time apart adds up, we see that memories worth forgetting aren't the only emotional bond they share.
The personal secrets unveiled in this volume are welcome and necessary additions to both Elias and Chise's characters. On Elias's side, the fact that he's essentially a child in many ways goes a long way towards equalizing his relationship with Chise. He's always been humorously odd, but now his various human-speak faux paus have a specific personal context. And the manga's depiction of his halfway state is consistently credible; he feels like a character stuck between the human and fae worlds not just in a narrative sense, but in an emotional one. Human emotions are as strange and inexplicable to him as magic is to Chise, but they're rising within him in spite of himself.
On Chise's side, her sculpting of a wand and subsequent return to Elias continue to demonstrate her complex mix of growing competence, insecurity, and rash personal confidence. The feelings she grapples with are complex issues with no easy solution; she cannot rely on Elias, but she also can't assume emotional vulnerability will always leave her abandoned. The ways she acts on her feelings are often impulsive and misguided, but her actions are perfectly understandable as coming from a coherent psychological place. She is a complex and troubled young woman navigating a personal situation that defies simple remedies.
And all around this compelling personal drama, Ancient Magus' Bride continues to sculpt a world brimming with magic and mystery. While the Elias flashback and wand-whittling are relatively subdued affairs, scenes like Chise's fiery return to Elias and the flight of the woolybugs offer some great fantastical highlights. If I have a visual complaint, it's that I feel this volume skimps heavily on background art compared to some of the previous sequences. One of the great things about this manga's visual highlights is the amount of thought that seemingly goes into the small details of Elias' world - but when characters are stranded against backgrounds of pure white or grey, there's not much sense of a place at all. Even theoretical visual setpieces here, like Chise's last meeting with the elder dragon, feel lesser for their inconsistent background art.
Still, The Ancient Magus' Bride remains an easy recommendation in its fourth volume. Not only is the manga's fantasy world more rich and compelling than many similar settings, but the manga is never content to simply rest on that premise. Its exploration of its characters is the equal of its worldbuilding, making it a top-shelf narrative all around.
Overall : B+
Story : A-
Art : B+
+ Ancient Magus' Bride continues to give equal focus to its strong central relationship and lovely fantasy world.
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