Reviewby Nick Creamer,
The Promised Neverland
Having learned the horrible truth about their lives at Grace Field House, Emma and her friends are now desperately seeking an escape from their cruel fate. But with Mom having brought in an ambitious assistant and their own lack of knowledge regarding the outside world, it'll certainly be an uphill battle - even before Emma's insistence that they save all of their young siblings. And if all that weren't enough, it seems clear that Mom is getting information from someone on the ground floor. Emma may want to save all her friends, but what if one of them is working for the enemy?
The Promised Neverland's first volume was a stunning combination of novel premise, pulse-pounding storytelling, and evocative visual design. Introducing us to Emma and her friends at Grace Field House, the story quickly moved from chilling horror to a sturdy prison break narrative, as Emma, Norman, and Ray worked to escape being harvested as “high quality meat.” And beyond its success as a visually compelling and generally exciting page-turner, The Promised Neverland's first volume also felt like one of the most searingly relevant allegories of modern manga, literally presenting a world where children are promised idealistic futures, judged according to standardized tests, and ultimately mulched in order to satiate their deceitful elders.
In spite of all that praise, I ended that volume somewhat anxious regarding where Neverland might go next. Unlike many of its Shonen Jump brethren, Neverland hasn't really established a world that makes for convenient dramatic expansion - it's a focused escape narrative in a post-apocalypse setting, meaning concepts like “a new villain suddenly appears” wouldn't work at all. Neverland is a story where every action has consequences, and though that makes for a thrilling and consistently inventive ride, it also means the story is constrained by its own mechanics, and can have trouble going through more conventional shonen motions.
Both the strengths and limitations of Neverland's approach are clear in its second volume, which drops any pretensions of social commentary in order to focus on the nitty-gritty mechanics of Emma and her friends' escape plan. There are chapters in this volume, like an early one where Emma and her allies “train” their younger siblings through tag, that feel like awkward nods to the training arcs and emphasis on physical excellence that define stories like My Hero Academia or Naruto. And similarly to how Neverland's narrative often seems more naturally suited to YA prose than shonen manga, illustrator Posuka Demizu's artwork often seems more suited to illustration than comic storytelling. Neverland's chapter covers are an altogether stunning collection of images that perfectly capture its mix of fragility and body horror; its panel-by-panel visual execution is far less compelling, and Demizu's dramatic expressions all have a tendency to look too much alike.
That's not to say this is a bad volume, though - just that it can't entirely escape some negative consequences of its very bold choices. But on the whole, those bold choices result in an incredibly dynamic and consistently thrilling narrative. This volume is pretty much wholly dedicated to planning for Emma and her friends' escape, but the game of cat and mouse being played between them and their overlords is taken in all manner of exciting new directions throughout. In terms of both narrative style and payoffs, the closest parallel might be Hunter X Hunter's Kurapika-focused arcs, which tend to dispense with fighting in order to set up ludicrously complex chessboards of contrasting strengths and motives. Emma's friends Norman and Ray understand that any mistake leads to inescapable doom, and the care and creativity with which they handle obstacles like the presence of a traitor ultimately becomes one of Neverland's greatest hooks.
That traitor arc takes up the second half of this volume, and returns Neverland to, if not social commentary, at least a committed focus on the battle between pragmatism and idealism. Caught between Ray's thoughtful plotting and Emma's earnest belief in everyone, Norman ends up shouldering much of the emotional burden through these chapters, and rises to the occasion. As new characters rise in prominence and the day of escape approaches, it's clear that The Promised Neverland will have to reinvent itself yet again in order to continue following these children's strange tale. But if it can keep executing that story half as well as it has so far, I'm absolutely along for the ride.
Overall : B+
Story : B+
Art : B
+ Unique and altogether thrilling story offers fun tactical drama and striking visual set pieces
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