This year also brought us something that I was looking forward to: a new one-volume wonder from Olympos creator Aki, and a brilliant one at that.
THE ANGEL OF ELHAMBERG (Elhamberg no Tenshi), by Aki. First published in 2010, and first published in North America in 2015.
Lavlan and Madeth have been friends since childhood and from all appearance that doesn't seem to change even when Madeth wins a kingdom at Lavlan's hands. Appearances are deceiving, though, and this seemingly perfect friendship is torn apart by resentment by both parties and jealousy and suspicion on Madeth's part. Years later, Lavlan is called upon to try and mend both his friendship with Madeth and the rift between Madeth and his son before it destroys everything they worked to create.
As much as I liked Olympos, my biggest complaint was that it lacked impact and that the cast was too distant for its own good. The Angel of Elhamberg is an improvement on all fronts, an ephemeral yet emotional story about just how wide the repercussions of a broken friendship can go.
The heart of the story are the relationships between Lavlan, Madeth, and Madeth's son Perseus. Aki was clearly more preoccupied with the emotions going on between these three men than she was on the details behind them, the war that brought them to power, and even the name of kingdom. Still, she manages to get a lot across just through the tone of conversations and some well-chosen expressions or bits of body language. The only character who get to know with any degree of intimacy is Lavlan, and that's mostly because he is the only one who gets the privilege of an inner monologue. Even then, some things are left a mystery. We never learn why only Lavlan can see the angel that lingers around the castle. We never learn the true nature of the relationship between Lavlan and Madeth's queen. To Aki, the hows and whys of this world are not important. It's the feelings of these characters that matter above all.
That's a good thing because there's a lot of emotions to go around and most of them are not pleasant. Yes, there is joy and loyalty, but there is also envy, sadness, confusion, regret, and so much more, and these are the emotions that drive the characters' respective arcs. For Madeth, it's about how these negative emotions lead to his loss of innocence and eventually ruin his life and reign. Perseus is the biggest victim of Madeth's actions, and his need for love and acceptance serve as a weakness that allows an interloper to try and take over the kingdom. As for Lavlan, he's long had to live with his quiet resentment that he did all the bloody work while Madeth reaped all the benefits. Still, he's the only one with enough maturity to step back to try and preserve the peace as well as pick up the pieces when it all goes to hell, and that's why he's the only one who get anything resembling a happy ending.
The Angel of Elhamberg is proof that Aki can write a solid and affecting narrative without losing the soap-bubble lightness of her previous works. Its focus on emotion makes it a bit moody at times, even a touch dour, but the tight focus on her three leads and their relationships gives this story the structure it needs to become something more substantial.
The artwork here is nowhere near as whispy as that of Olympos, but it's excellent nonetheless. The character designs tread a fine line overly fussy and generically pretty. Her faces are lovely, if a bit samey, and she clearly loved drawing the ornate robes of the royalty, Lavlan's armor, and especially the angel. The angel in particular threatens to drown in its own lushly feathered wings and long, swirling hair, and it fills up every panel it appears in. That's probably for the best, as the backgrounds tend to be rather vague. I guess that's no shock considering how vague she is about the setting in the dialogue - why would she get anymore specific here? Instead she tends to use intriguingly bold screentone patterns and flourishes of exquisitely rendered flowers. Luckily, her style is sparse enough that such flourishes work instead of becoming gaudy excess.
If you ever find yourself in the mood for emotional yet understated art with plenty of sparse yet good-looking art, then The Angel of Elhamberg is a work that you shouldn't miss. Aki continues to prove herself as a mangaka worth watching, and hopefully we'll see more of her in the future.
This book is published by Yen Press. It is currently in print.
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