You know, there are plenty of manga about princesses out there, but there aren't many out there like today's selection, where the role of a princess is less fanciful and romantic and more political and serious.
DAWN OF THE ARCANA (Reimei no Arukana), by Rei Tomi. First published in 2003 and first published in North America in 2011.
Senan and Belquat are two halves of the same island that have been at war with one another for ages. The two sides hope to forge a peace accord (no matter how temporary) by uniting the handsome Prince Caesar of Belquat with the spirited, red-headed Princess Nakaba of Senan. From the moment the two are wed, Caesar makes it clear that Nakaba is his property to command and berate at his will. Nakaba does her best to hold her own against him, but when her loyal servant Loki turns upon the king of Belquat she finds herself having to make a deal with her unpleasant new husband.
It's not everyday you see a shoujo story like Dawn of the Arcana. It's ostensibly a royal romance, but it's grounded far more in drama and politics than these sorts of stories tend to be. That's also the reason that I absolutely love it.
Right from the start, Nakaba shows herself to be no wilting violet waiting for her prince to come. She's fully aware of the fact that she is being used as a political sacrifice in the name of the greater good, but she accepts her fate with grace and shows quiet strength when she refuses to quaver under her husband's cold gaze or the whispers and comments of her in-laws. Tomi does a great job establishing the forboding atmosphere of the Belquat court, almost to the point where the reader feels just as stifled and annoyed at their actions as Nakaba is. That being said, she does lighten things up a little as we (and our heroine) learn more about Caesar and his own history. Bit by bit, his tyrannical facade starts to crumble. He learns to start trusting his new wife and Tomi makes this bit of progress feel truly substantial and well-earned.
A major theme of Dawn of the Arcana is racism and prejudice. Nakaba's hair color is actually a plot point, as red hair is seen in Belquat as a mark of a commoner. We see hints that this was true even in Nakaba's home land, based on her decidely non-frou-frou wardrobe and glimpses of a past where she was kept out of the public eye. Thus, she's already at a disadvantage based on the prejudices of others, including her own husband, and she has to work hard yet deftly to overcome them. A more obvious and further-reaching parallel is the treatment of the ajin. They are half-beast humanoids who are used for hard labor and as soldiers in the endless war, and both sides fear and despise them. This conflict is brought down to a smaller, more comprehensible scale thanks to the presence of Loki, who is himself an ajin and Nakaba's most trusted confidant. For a while I wondered if they were setting up his conflict to become part of a future love triangle. Thankfully, Tomi is wise enough to sidestep this predictable move (at least for the moment), instead letting it serve as both a demonstration of Nakaba's good character and even lets the reader in on some of Caesar's back story.
The best part is that while these themes are pretty obvious, Tomi handles them with a fair degree of subtlety. These problems just don't go away by volume's end and no one launches into moralizing treatises on why prejudice is bad. Tomi trusts the reader to grasp that message, true, but she also wants them to understand just how complex and serious Nakaba's situation truly is and how it will take much work on both her and Caesar's part to solve. This narrative is complex and ambitious in the best sorts of ways, as it never speaks down to the reader but neither does it lose sight of the burgeoning love story at its heart. I wish that more shoujo stories were like this.
Alas, Tomi's art is not quite as dazzling as her writing. Her characters are plain, although she takes great care in keeping them all realistically proportioned, well-shaded, and distinctly costumed. If anything, it makes the rare moments where everything goes chibi for the sake of comedy stand out like a sore thumb. Still, she knows how to frame them well in-panel and it often lends the story a certain cinematic flair. She also keeps the focus on those characters by eschewing the usual screentones, which in my opinion suits the serious tone of the story.
Dawn of the Arcana is one of the best-written shoujo series I've read since starting this site. It presents both a complicated romance and the serious political drama going on around it in a way that lend the story gravitas without straying too far into melodrama. If you're the sort of shoujo reader who enjoys more serious stories like Requiem of the Rose King, this is a must-read.
This series is published by Viz. This series is complete in Japan with 13 volumes available. All 13 have been published and are currently in print.