Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Yona of the Dawn
Yona is the princess of the Kohka Kingdom, only daughter of its king. Her life up until her sixteenth birthday has been filled with both love and material comforts, but all of that changes the night of her birthday: she is betrayed by someone she loves in an unforeseen rebellion. Now she must flee the life she knew with no clear goal of where she'll go or what she'll do. With her heart crushed, is there any hope for Princess Yona?
Spoiler Warning: if you don't want to know the identity of Yona's betrayer before reading the book, perhaps skip this review.
All of us know that life is full of changes, some good, some less so. Very few, however, actively plan for those changes or understand emotionally that they could happen at any time, especially if things have been going well for a while. That is the position Princess Yona of the Kohka Kingdom finds herself in when this book opens – she's the only daughter of kind King Il, raised in love and luxury. Despite her mother's violent death years ago, she is now secure in her life, enjoying the companionship of her bodyguard and childhood friend Hak and her beloved cousin Su-Won. She's about to turn sixteen, and the biggest blight in her world is that her father is opposed to her marrying Su-Won, who, much to Yona's disappointment, only seems to see her as a little girl anyway. But Yona is sure that she can convince her dad to change his mind, so even this looming “horror” is no big deal, and she has no real reason to suspect that anything worse will take its place as the bane of her existence. But then, like all good fairy tales, everything changes when she turns sixteen.
This first volume of Mizuho Kusanagi's shoujo fantasy adventure manga is focused exclusively on the night that everything falls apart for Yona and the reasons (besides the obvious) why it is such a tragedy. Those who have seen the 2014 anime based on the series will already know that things are going to be quite different moving forward, but Kusanagi's original book is mainly concerned with showing us just how drastically Yona's world has fallen apart. Not only does this set things up for her to grow into the character implied on the volume's opening pages, but it also allows for a more in-depth look at the man who brought all of this to pass, Yona's first cousin Su-Won. The majority of the character development in the book actually belongs to both he and Hak, with Su-Won's being the more interesting in terms of trying to figure out what actually drove him to the point where he would murder his uncle. There are basically two Su-Won's in the book: Yona's kind, slightly dippy cousin and the vicious betrayer. When Hak asks Su-Won what happened to the former, he is told that that man never existed, which would seem to indicate that Su-Won has perhaps been a sociopath all along. This does seem somewhat possible, although the fact that he does appear to have cared about Yona enough to try to push her away romantically as he aged, likely because he knew that the day would come when he killed her father or died trying, does indicate that he is capable of some empathy. It seems the likely trigger for his behavior was the death of his own father, which he claims was at the hands of King Il. This seems suspicious given Il's personality, although it is possible that Su-Won's father was somehow endangering Yona or was responsible for her mother's death; we don't yet have enough of a timeline established to know. Regardless, the one time we meet Su-Won's father, he tells his son to “slaughter” the cold he has caught, indicating that Su-Won grew up learning that violence was the answer.
Hak, on the other hand, is a slightly more typical shoujo hero. He fits the childhood friend mold in his feelings for Yona, which he has harbored for at least three years but is unwilling to act on them. Instead he resorts to teasing her, although when she needs him, he's there for her, ready to defend her with his life. He is forced to take on more this role even more fully when they flee the castle, as Yona is nearly catatonic after the events she's witnessed. This leaves Yona herself as the least developed character of the volume, although that does work in the story's favor: if she can overcome her emotional stupor, she'll have taken the first step towards breaking the princess stereotype she's lived her life in, with her biggest problem being the unusual color of her hair. The finale of the book indicates that she's on her way there, and that Hak's presence will be instrumental to her learning to overcome.
Kusanagi's artwork, while not excellent, does a very nice job of creating a non-country specific Eastern fantasy world. The clothes are a combination of kimono and hanbok (traditional Korean garments, typically a little fuller-skirted and with a higher waistline than Japanese), and the setting adds some ancient China into the mix. Names have a much more Korean flavor, which does make the decision to Romanize Su-Won as such, rather than as “Soo-Won,” a little odd if you're used to reading written English versions of Chinese and Korean names. (“Su” tends to be used for Chinese names and words.) Apart from this the translation reads smoothly and the panels are easy to follow, with the added bonus that Kusanagi is able to make characters recognizably themselves at various ages.
Yona of the Dawn is just getting started, and this first volume only gives hints of what's to come. With its questions about what drove Su-Won to commit the acts he did and how Yona and Hak will manage to survive, however, its beginning is anything but slow. Whether you've already experienced the story through the anime or not, this is an intriguing start to the series, and one fans of other shoujo fantasy series like Legend of Basara or Dawn of the Arcana will not want to miss.
Overall : A-
Story : A
Art : B
+ Lots of interesting questions posed about Su-Won and the royal family's past, interesting setting and artwork. Sets up the story to come nicely.
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