Reviewby Nick Creamer,
The Ancient Magus' Bride
A dramatic event is approaching the home of Chise and Elias, promising all manner of turmoil. It's Christmas! Christmas is on its way, and Chise has no idea what to get for her strange and resolutely ungiftable teacher. Fortunately, her new alchemist acquaintance Alice is equally flummoxed by gifting, so the two head off to find presents together. After that, a new neighbor runs into trouble with some very old magic, and Chise will have to put her powers to the test once again. Caught between the magic and human worlds, Chise is suspended by a thread, and the slightest push could send her tumbling to oblivion.
At this point, The Ancient Magus' Bride has thoroughly explored the nature of the bond between Chise and Elias. The two of them are vaguely codependent in a way that isn't necessarily good or bad for either, but could easily spell trouble depending on how their relationship develops. Their link is the bedrock of Ancient Magus' Bride, a steady foundation on which all else rests. Until dramatic new events shift their relationship, things will stay relatively even-keeled from here on out.
This volume doesn't do any of that status quo disrupting, though there are more vague hints at Chise possibly pursuing schooling. Instead, these chapters mostly solidify Chise's other relationships, working to build up something of a support structure outside of just Elias. The early chapters begin this work in earnest, as Chise rushes off to London to meet with her new alchemist friend Alice.
The Alice material here is both welcome and a little underwhelming. On the positive side, it's very nice to see Chise find a friend she can talk to on equal terms. Not only is Alice roughly the same age as Chise, but they occupy very similar positions in the magical world. Both of them were unwanted foundlings who stumbled backwards into an apprenticeship, and both of them feel a great debt to the masters who saved them.
Seeing Chise bond with Alice is definitely rewarding, but this segment is somewhat hampered by its vague storytelling. Alice's story is tragic, but also unconvincing - in spite of apparently growing up as an addict on the streets, Alice's memories lack the visceral detail or sharp perspective of experience. Her backstory is a generic “I grew up on the streets” narrative given roughly two chapters to explain itself, and we ultimately don't come out with basically any new information on Alice's fundamental character. Alice's character would be stronger if we could feel the lived truth of her experience, but her dialogue isn't specific or evocative enough to sell the idea of a character who's suffered through a real addiction.
Fortunately, this volume's second arc returns the manga to its comfort zone: evocative and sometimes terrifying adventures on the edges of Elias' world. A little girl visiting Chise's town for the holidays finds her brother stolen by a whimsical spirit, and Chise is forced to take charge of the rescue efforts. These chapters see Chise embracing her own strength in a variety of ways that don't directly lean on her power, from haggling with woodland spirits to making use of her various magical artifacts. It's a classic adventure in Magus Bride's most convincing mode, a strong example of the series at its best.
Yamazaki's art remains as consistently beautiful as ever through this volume. The heavy focus on mundane conversations between humans doesn't give this volume as much room to stretch its legs, but there are still gorgeous setpieces scattered throughout. The intricate beauty of Elias' magical objects remains a consistent wonder, and the second arc's journey through the woods allows for great background art and some nicely inventive paneling. I particularly liked a two-page spread detailing the end of Chise's hunt, where their arrival at the kidnapper is conveyed through a snowy expanse whose silence is clear in the panel's stretching gaze.
Overall, this is a relatively solid, if not terribly remarkable addition to the Magus' Bride canon. The manga remains thrilling in its fundamental variables, and though Yamazaki's reach somewhat outstrips her grasp at times here, she seems to understand what this story is best at. I'm excited for Chise to eventually move beyond her current role, but I'm still very much enjoying the ride.
Incidentally, this volume's limited edition also comes with a booklet housing a bonus chapter. This extra material is limited in both narrative and visual scope, but it's still a nice addition that offers more endearing conversations between Chise and Elias. If their rapport is your favorite part of the story, I'd make sure to pick it up.
Overall : B+
Story : B
Art : A-
+ The second arc is a thrilling and beautiful evocation of everything Ancient Magus' Bride does well
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