This month we're going to take a sort of mental escape from the oppressive heat with a month full of fantasy titles, starting with a little-known title from CMX that should be better known.
On a totally unrelated note, my first review is up at Infinite Rainy Day! A while back I reviewed the first volume of Codename Sailor V. Find out what my thoughts were on the full series here!
Anyway! Back to the review...
THE KEY TO THE KINGDOM (Ohkoku no Kagi), by Kyoko Shitou. First published in 2003, and first published in North America in 2007.
The kingdom of Landor is locked into a seemingly endless war with its neighbors, where even the king and the eldest prince Winslott are out on the frontlines fighting for their nation. Meanwhile, Winslott's younger brother Astarion is content to study and play with his old friend Leticia. When news of the death of both his father and brother arrives, the kingdom is in disarray. Astarion had no desire to rule, and the people of Landor agree that he is an ill fit for the throne. Worse still, greedy noblemen see this as their opportunity to rule, and the country is all but fit for civil war. To stave off disaster, the queen issues a challenge. Those of royal blood may prove their worth by returning within two years with the mythical Key to the Kingdom. If found, that person becomes king or queen; if not, then Astarion becomes king after the two years has ended.
Now Astarion must set out with his brother's right-hand general Baddarius to find the Key and save their nation, but within a short time their quest uncovers secrets long forgotten. They discover the dragon men, crafty mythical beings said to possess knowledge of the Key. They also discover that the dragons themselves may not be as extinct as previously presumed.
There's something to be said for a genuinely well-crafted fantasy story, one that takes those well-worn tropes and stitches them together in such a fashion as to make something greater than the sum of its parts., along with a neat little twist or two along the way.
The biggest twist of them all is in Asta himself. He's not precisely the Campbellian ideal of a fantasy hero. He's no poor soul waiting for a chance to prove himself. If anything, he's prissy and a little bit spoiled. He dislikes debauchery and violence, he's frequently picked on by others, and has no real goal in life beyond study. He accepts his quest not out of desire for glory or power, but to keep it from those who are so blatantly evil that they might as well sport some mustaches for twirling. This is a character that has a long way to go before he's ready to rule anything.
Once the quest begins, the story becomes something more akin to a buddy cop feature, with Asta chafing against Badd's...well, everything. He's much more of a comic relief character, with the running gag about his many, many, MANY women on the side, and he loves nothing more than to tweak an uptight kid like Asta. Still, he's a good soldier, and when the chips are down he is a loyal one as well. Indeed, the very reason he's looking over Asta is because Winslott asked Badd to upon his deathbed, and near the end of the volume Badd literally puts his life on the line for Asta.
Another interesting twist on a character is Leticia, Asta's friend. When you first meet her, you expect her to be the love interest. She's pretty, bubbly, optimistic, and loyal to a fault towards Asta. Thus, it's surprising when she volunteers herself to join the quest for the Key. Even then, she's still supportive of Asta and wishes his the very best. She even shows a fair degree of intelligence under that perky exterior. Her group is composed of seasoned soldiers, and her first step is to seek out an old hermit said to know about the Key and the dragon men who made it. I'm glad that Shitou lets her be an active character of her own within the story, instead of simply cheerleading others from the sides.
If it isn't evident by now, Shitou puts a lot of emphasis on character building. Sadly this comes at the price of world building. We know only the basics about Landor and the war, and there's little context for where Landor is in context to its neighbors or precisely which way the different parties are travelling. There is one part of the world Shitou focuses on, though - dragons. Dragons play a major role in the mythology of this world. It was by slaying the dragons into extinction that Asta's royal house came into power. It was the magicians of old who crafted the key through the use of the dragons' magic, and it is their descendants, the dragon men, who still wield these powers and who know the secrets of the Key to the Kingdom. The dragon men are pretty much this world's equivalent of elves (the Tolkien kind, not the shoemaking kind). They are ethereally beautiful, androgynous, wise, secretive, and distrusted by humankind because of their tendency to talk in cryptic riddles. We meet two of them along the way, and it's clear by volume's end that they have an agenda and conflict of their own, and it is one that isn't really concerned with the quest of a few petty humans.
Much like the dragon men, the story keeps much information to itself, revealing just enough for the reader to understand without looking any sense of suspense. Like Asta, the reader is left wanting to know more. The ending also packs quite the punch, even for a cliffhanger, but sadly to explain more would spoil the whole thing. Still, it's a grand way to wrap up the beginning of a great little fantasy series. It's very much a shoujo story at heart, as the focus isn't on battle and bosses as it is on the characters and the relationships around them. There's a lot of familiar elements at play, but her investment in those characters give it just enough of a difference to intrigue the reader and leave them wanting more.
It was weird to discover that this series began its run in 2003, because if you had asked me before then when this series was published, it would have presumed it debuted a decade before then. Shitou's style is classic 90s shoujo, right down to the pointy chinned, jewel-eyed bishonen scattered about like so much confetti. Shitou's art is undeniably pretty with its exquisite little details. Hair flows and falls in delicate waves. Costumes are full of folds, ribbons, and patterns. Even the backgrounds, as sparse as the landscapes often are, are well-drawn. While there's a certain degree of flatness to it all due to Shitou's seeming distaste for shading, she does manage to strike a careful balance between letting her cast express themselves without sacrificing the beauty of the art. All too often, shoujo artists who focus on the pretty art end up creating a bunch of beautiful mannequins who do not act so much as pose across the pages.
It's hard to find much background information on Shitou, but I feel like I can pin down at least a couple of her influences. One of them is CLAMP, specifically their older works. This is hardly an unusual thing, but it would explain why Asta looks like he could be Subaru Sumeragi's identical twin brother. I also suspect she is a fan of Yoshitaka Amano, of Final Fantasy and Vampire Hunter D fame. They both share a certain degree of delicacy to their work, plus one of the dragon men looks very much like a bishie-fied version of D himself, right down to the costume. I do wish they could have included more color pages, because if the cover is any indication, it would be beautiful. I like the soft color palette she uses for it, along with her use of colored pencil for a medium - a rarity for color manga artwork.
While The Key to the Kingdom may have a very old-fashioned look, it's a look that has aged beautifully thanks to the artist's careful attention to detail.
The Key to the Kingdom is yet another underrated gem from the CMX library. It's a shame that Shitou had such a short career, with only two works to her name. Worse still, this is the only complete one we ever got on these shores, as the other saw only a single volume through ADV's short-lived manga line. If anything, though, it makes this series all the more precious in my eyes, and makes all the more worth seeking out.
This series was published by CMX. All 6 volumes were released, and all are currently out of print.
You can purchase manga like this and much more through RightStuf.com!