I was genuinely interested in this next one, as it proudly trumpets that it's from "the creator of Alice In the Country of Hearts!" As I've noted before, I was pleasantly surprised by Alice and I am doubly happy to see that it's a big seller, to the point where Yen Press and Seven Seas have snatched up and put out every possible spin-off possible. So, it makes perfect sense that Seven Seas would also license a new series based on another game from the same company. Can Crimson Empire compare to its predecessor, though?
CRIMSON EMPIRE: CIRCUMSTANCES TO SERVE A NOBLE, adapted from the game by QuinRose, with story and art by Hazuki Futaba. First published in 2009, and first published in North America in 2013.
Sheila's like has always been one long struggle. Born into poverty, her mother sold her into slavery, and in turn was sold to a guild of assassins. The leader believes she'll never amount to a proper assassin, but she'll do as a bodyguard to some noble. As such, Sheila is now serving as the bodyguard to Prince Edvard, the heir to the throne, disguising herself as his head maid. Edvard is outwardly blithe, but his handsome face and charming manners conceal a ruthless nature and an awareness that many wish him dead. First and foremost on that list is his own older brother, Prince Justin, but he's far from the only person who wants Edvard dead and far from the only person with a secret bodyguard. Thus, Sheila and her fellow maids have their hands full between their duties as maids, the antics of the minor nobility around them, and their constant struggle for them and their charges to survive.
It's extremely difficult to NOT compare this to Alice In the Country of Hearts, because aside from their similar histories the two couldn't be more different. The biggest problem is that as far as the story goes, Crimson Empire does everything wrong that Alice got so unexpectedly right.
For a professional assassin who very literally sold her soul to a demon, Sheila's kind of a dull character. The story is spent mostly having her react to the antics of others, along with the odd flashback to her past. She's not incompetent - she has a no-nonsense attitude towards life, and she's just as capable as a maid as she is as a killer. It's just that she feels lost within what should be her own story. Also, the concept of an assassin maid feels a little bit like the story trying to have its cheesecake and eat it too: they get to have a strong deadly woman who also gets to prance around in a frilly, fetish uniform.
Of course, it's easy to Sheila to get lost in her own story because there are simply too many damn cast members. Aside from the three already mentioned, there are two other maids, a few other minor nobles, a couple of wizards, a handful of assassins, and a demon, and they all have to come out at least once and do whatever wacky thing they are supposed to do. Hell, I'm not entirely sure we learn everyone's name outside of the cast list. Meanwhile, what little plot there is stops dead in its tracks. Sure, things pick up in the last quarter of the volume, but then that leaves the reader wondering why all these people were introduced in the first place, aside from the fact that they were in the game.
With all those cast members to parade before the reader and only so many pages to fill, it's little wonder that there's isn't much time for character development, and as such they tend to tell, not show, what these characters are like. Not even the princes are immune, as we depend on Sheila to tell us about how hard Edvard has had things and how much the public loves him, but we see little of Edvard doing anything that justifies his adoration beyond being handsome. The only character with any explainable motive is Justin, and that's mostly because he's bitter at being passed over for his brother. That lack of time for the character also means that romantic tension is nonexistent between Sheila and pretty much everyone. There's obviously supposed to be some sort of love triangle between Sheila, Edvard, and Justin, but beyond Edvard commanding Sheila to stay with him always there's no point where they act like they are anything other than acquaintances.
Overall, the story is confusing and dull, and so much time is spent trotting out the cast that neither they nor the plot can develop properly. As such, the story simply washes over the reader leaving little to no impression.
The artwork for Crimson Empire is as unremarkable as the story, but it's harder here to determine how much of this can be blamed on the artist and how much can be blamed on the original game designs. The character designs are conventional - girls are wide-eyed and cute, men are narrow-eyed and expressionless, which far too many manga artists confuse for being 'aloof.' Many of the men tend to be based around the same bishonen face, which are then dressed up in the goofiest fashion possible to distinguish them. The cast as a whole tends to have rather stiff expressions, and the few bits of action are equally stiff and often framed in odd ways or obscured with screentone, which only adds further to the stilted storytelling.
This series is printed in a large format, which is meant to better show off the art. It includes a couple of color splash pages in the front, along with a cast list (including the seiyuu from the original game). On one hand, I'm thankful they included this because you'll need it to keep everyone straight. On the other hand, the blurbs below each character tells us more about the characters and their relationships than the actual manga, which is a very telling flaw. I also wonder why a North American audience would care about the seiyuu, considering that the game this is based on has not been released here (and even if it were, would they leave the speech in Japanese?).
They say lightning never strikes twice, and that is most certainly true for QuinRose adaptations. There's too much cast and too little story, and there's nothing in the story or visuals to charm the reader and keep them reading.
This series is published by Seven Seas. This series is complete in 3 volumes. 2 volumes have been published so far, and both are currently in print.
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