For about a week, my library-rented copy of Dawn of the Arcana sits on a messy, disorganized side table, under at least a dozen other books I thought I would end up reading first. I didn't think much of it, assuming that I'd get to it after I had finally exhausted all my literary comprehension resources and maybe end up giving myself a break. Two days later, however, a certain contemporary turns out to be more boring than originally expected and this single hundred-something page manga is the one thing that salvages my reading life miles before it even becomes a slump. (When words fail, read some manga. It'll make you feel better about books.) Now, I sit cross-legged, perpendicular to a keyboard with four pages of praise for this novel piled to my right.
Now, I'll be completely honest with my readers: the summary on the back of the book is painfully deterring. Yes, it is compliant with the actual plot, but when reduced to a simple paragraph, the actual plot becomes practically soporific. Just a suggestion for future usage: the phrase "marry prince Caesar of the enemy country" has nudged me away from this book at least twice, maybe more. Its sole existence in a manga section filled with contemporaries was its only benefit at the time. (Which really sucks, because the book is actually fantastic.) I would assume the way a novel presents is one of the main reasons people pick it up, but Arcana doesn't do too well at that, frankly. That being said, I won't hold it against the book itself simply because the content is miles ahead of the portrayal.
With most books, I'll do a quick read through, rate it based on how I feel, and then go back and find evidence for it. My first instinct was to give this manga only four stars, but I might even be compelled to give it five, simply because I can't seem to find much that is actually wrong with it. Perhaps my qualms about giving it a perfect rating stem from the feeling that something is missing, which I'll easily confess to be one of my most common complaints about a hundred-something page manga, in which an author may only fit so much. Given the genre and limits that having a graphic element places on writing stories, Rei Toma fares rather well as a manga author. Even without the reading of her author biography, it's pretty apparent that this is in no way her first manga series.
The novel reads like a high fantasy, complete with a proper war-filled backstory and intriguing national politics. If the plot itself isn't your cup of tea, I dare you to tell me that this setting isn't fantastic. Everything, from the climates of the countries to the ordinary citizens themselves is compelling, making an incredible backdrop for a story that spans much larger than the characters speaking the integral words.
And as for the characters---brace yourselves. Our main players are well-developed and thorough, possessing turmoil-haunted backstories of their own. I will provide a fair warning, however, that the majority of perspectives in this novel are pessimistic and dark, but in a way that doesn't feel over-exaggerated or unrealistic. The pain is real and raw, from the expertly-portrayed characters to the influence of the past.
Speaking of expertly-portrayed characters, I'd like to take a minute to simply appreciate how well this manga is illustrated. Granted, it isn't often something I pay attention to when I, a humble book reviewer, am always itching to get straight to the literary devices and nothing but the literary devices. But, as I've written this review over a few days, I've had multiple chances to leaf through the pages and stare at them for several minutes at a time. Often, I've forgotten what words I am even searching for in favor of letting the gorgeous art put me in a stupor. There's detail in the lines, there's passion in the sketches. No, really: even the backgrounds, which largely consist of castle hallways, look amazing. Apparently Dawn of the Arcana gets to be a visual marvel as well.
But, despite all the praise I have sung for this novel, alas, I must disclose just a milligram of somber news: the plot is the overwhelming reason Arcana lost a star. Even with the existence of incredible characters and near-perfect pacing, certain events the author chose to place emphasis and tension on seem kind of trivial, especially as compared to the events of other fantasies. Though I was able to emphasize with the characters and their pasts, I wasn't able to feel the rush of getting pulled into a turning point as everything that previously happened in the book combined and swelled to a literary crescendo. (Which, mind you, is what every book climax should be.) Truth be told, I didn't care about certain things that held a high amount of tension in this novel. I certainly believe that the final chapter could have been revised and a little better done.
Still, I eagerly look forward to the second volume, which, because of the fantastic fantasticalness that was the first, absolutely must be in my immediate possession within the shortest time interval possible. Rei Toma crafts an unputdownable read with a great number of beautiful elements. It is, indeed, the logical expectation to think that volume two will be even better. (Please let it be even better.)