The Ancient Magus' Bride (Vol.1-2)

Shoujo fantasy isn’t something you see a lot of these days.  I’m not talking about fantastical romances – those are a dime-a-dozen.  No, I mean proper, old-school fantasy stories, where a hero or heroine must face epic quests, strange monsters, powerful mages, and all that good stuff.  It gets even harder if (like me) you choose to exclude the rash of ‘girl gets sucked into magical world’ manga that sprung up in the wake of Fushigi Yuugi.  Sadly, the few we did got over here (mostly thanks to the late, lamented publisher CMX) failed to make any impression with manga fandom at large and most have faded from collective memory.  So you can only imagine my surprise when this series was licensed by Seven Seas, and you can imagine the even greater surprise I felt at the fact that The Ancient Magus’ Bride might be the best manga I’ve read all year.  In fact, it might be one of the best shoujo series released here in years.

The story is about Chise, a young Japanese girl with the ability to see all sorts of spirits.  Her life has been nothing but a tragedy since the death of her mother.  She’s spent most of her life passed around from one reluctant relative to the next, living more or less as a social outcast.  At her lowest moment, a strange man offers to give her life purpose, but that offer leaves Chise being locked up in chains and sold like a slave at a strange auction house.  Her buyer is a giant skull-faced man called Elias Ainsworth, and his first act is to free her and welcome her in his home.  Elias is a legendary mage in a world where talented young magic-users and alchemists are in short supply, and he wishes to make Chise his apprentice.  Thus begins the biggest adventure of Chise’s life, as she is immersed in the world of magic.  It’s not without its dangers, though.  Chise is a sleigh beggy, a being capable of absorbing and generating vast amounts of magic.  It gives her the potential to become a powerful witch, but it also means there are plenty of others who would want to use her powers for their own selfish or nefarious purposes, and she and Elias must learn from and trust in one another if they both are to survive.

The Ancient Magus’ Bride beginnings are rather low-key.  The first volume in particular doesn’t so much set the plot in motion so much as it engages in a bit of world-building .  We follow Chise and Elias as they travel to Elias’s cozy English cottage, meet a few of his old friends, and head off on a few magical errands for them.  While these scenes serve their purpose as far as getting Chise (and thus the reader) up to speed on the rules of this universe, they also help to give the world around her some depth and scope without necessarily resorting to the dreaded infodump.  We see different forms of magic at work as well as all sorts of magical creatures.  Some are explained in-story, but many others simply drift through a frame or scene without comment.  It gives Chise’s world a sense of life and history beyond what we’ve seen, and between this quality and the English setting it’s easy for this manga to remind one of the Harry Potter universe.

That’s not to say that it’s all magical fun times.  As the story advances into the second volume, we see that many of the troubles that Chise and Elias face are in fact set into motion by the machinations
of an ageless alchemist who is more than willing to use human and beast alike for their own means. They also try to throw a wedge in one of the other charming elements of this story: the growing relationship between Chise and Elias.  As the title suggests, Elias declares more than once that he not only intends to make Chise his apprentice, but also his bride.  He never pushes the matter, though, and he mostly leaves the matter at just a few teasing comments.  This is probably for the best, as so far Elias generally acts more like a gentle father figure to Chise than like a lover and Chise is too blunt and wounded to hold any sort of romantic notions.  Still, they spend enough time together that Chise’s trust in Elias feels rightfully earned.  At first she’s simply glad to find someone who makes her welcome and couldn’t care less about Elias’s intentions.  Over time, though, she trusts in him more and more, and her body language makes it clear that she’s starting to care for him, even if she’s not said a word as to the nature of her affection.  That trust makes the potential of a romance between the two a lot more palatable, and it’s a credit to Kore Yamazaki that she can weave it into the story so effortlessly.

She also deserves a lot of credit for her artwork.  The character designs are rather simple, with plenty of large, lush-eyed women and oddly attractive, beady-eyed men.  The exception to this is Elias himself, and it’s amazing how expressive Yamazaki makes him despite the fact that Elias has a goat-horned dog skull for a head and is thus incapable of changing expression.  She can get a lot out of just his subtle movements and the widening or narrowing of the light within his eye sockets, and that’s no mean feat.  That’s far from the only reason I can praise the art, though.  Yamazaki favors a lot of ornate and lovingly etched detail in just about everything, be it the backgrounds, the wardrobes, even in little things like the strands of Chise’s hair or the feathers on a fairy’s wing.  She not only captures the beauty of the English countryside, but she breathes life into it.  Magic itself flows through the scenery in swirls, blobs, and sparks of light.  Even the chapter splash pages are a delight to the eyes, as Chise is inserted into all sorts of fanciful , beautifully etched scenes.  The Ancient Magus’ Bride is a beautiful looking manga, and it’s the perfect complement to the story.

The Ancient Magus’ Bride has fascinated me in a way that few manga have in recent years.  It’s an enchanting mix of imagination, character, and art about a world that I want to immerse myself into like a warm bath.  It’s the kind of manga that leaves me yearning for the next volume as soon as I finish the last.  I’m glad that Seven Seas spared some of their filthy Monster Musume lucre for this series, and it’s a series I would recommend to anyone who likes good shoujo, good fantasy, or just good manga in general.


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