Dawn of the Arcana, Vol. 1

“Today, I belong to the enemy” — so begins Dawn of the Arcana, a medieval fantasy in which a feisty princess marries into a neighboring country’s royal family. Nakaba characterizes herself as “a lamb,” sacrificed by her people to help two warring kingdoms maintain a fragile peace. Her husband, the handsome but insolent Prince Caesar, initially snubs his new wife; not only does she have red hair — a commoner’s color — but she also flouts palace conventions, wearing the traditional dress of her homeland, employing a male Ajin (humanoid) as her valet, and excoriating Caesar in front of his servants.

Adding fuel to this combustible situation are Caesar’s mother, a Lady Macbeth figure who urges her son to seek the throne; King Guran, her husband; Cain, Caesar’s half-brother; and Louise, Cain’s flirty fiancee. Nakaba is keenly aware of their contempt for her, and struggles to maintain her composure as they openly mock her and threaten her faithful servant Loki. Though Loki is devoted to his mistress, he, too, poses a danger to Nakaba, as he quickly antagonizes Caesar and Guran with his impulsive behavior.

As predictable as the plot may be — would you be surprised to learn that Caesar soon becomes smitten with his ginger-haired bride? — Dawn of the Arcana proves engaging nonetheless, a heady mixture of palace intrigue and romance. Nakaba, in particular, is a winning heroine: she’s tough and principled, but savvy enough to appease Caesar and his family when it suits her own agenda. (Early in volume one, for example, Nakaba slaps Loki after a tense stand-off between the prince and the valet, telling Loki, “Disciplining my husband is my duty!”) Nakaba’s enemies are two-dimensional at best, but each displays a Joan Collinesque flair for making Nakaba’s life miserable, spitting out their lines with gusto. (“You look wretched!” the queen exclaims upon seeing Nakaba in her people’s native costume. “Typical red-hair!”)

What gives Dawn of the Arcana its real dramatic juice, however, is the way in which Rei Toma draws parallels between Nakaba’s situation and everyday teenage experience. Anyone who’s ever transferred to a new school, run the gauntlet of a junior high school cafeteria, or been hassled for wearing the “wrong” clothes will immediately recognize herself in Nakaba’s shoes. Sitting at a royal banquet, for example, Nakaba squirms under the withering stares of her new subjects. “I can feel it,” she thinks. “The hatred. The curiosity. The sneers.” In an added note of realism, Toma depicts Caesar as two-faced, the sort of fair-weather friend who openly mocks Nakaba in public — where nasty comments score points with his family —while privately acknowledging her sincerity and courage.

If I had any criticism of Arcana, it’s that the artwork is unimaginative. The character designs are attractive, with careful attention to costumes and hairstyles, but lack personality; I’d have difficulty distinguishing Rei Toma’s work from other popular shojo manga artists’. The minimalist backgrounds are likewise disappointing, doing little to situate the story in a particular time or place. Perhaps that’s a deliberate decision on Toma’s part, an attempt to make Nakaba’s story seem more universal. Given the sloppiness with which the establishing shots are rendered, however, it seems more likely that architectural details and landscapes aren’t her forte.

Still, that’s a minor criticism of an engaging story — one that benefits from a terrific premise, an intelligent heroine, and a supporting cast that wouldn’t be out of place in a juicy historical soap opera like Rome or The Tudors. Recommended.

Review copy provided by VIZ Media, LLC.


15 thoughts on “Dawn of the Arcana, Vol. 1”

  1. Noura says:

    Great review. Thank you. I can’t wait for this to reach the bookstore here. I first knew about DAWN of the ARCANA after flipping through an issue of Cheese!, the magazine that is running in it. I like shoujo manga with strong heroines. We see a lot of whiny, annoying heroines but it is not very often that we see strong ones with strong personalities in shoujo manga.

    I still don’t know much about this series but I’m planning on getting the first volume. Hope I like it enough to continue collecting it. Nakaba seems like a character I’d like, so that’s a good sign.

    1. Katherine Dacey says:

      Thanks for the feedback, Noura! This series wasn’t on my radar at all; I had a dim memory of VIZ announcing that it had acquired the license, but at the time the news broke, it didn’t seem like a big deal. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Arcana had a heroine who’s consistently intelligent and capable — a big plus in my book!

  2. Derek Bown says:

    I think the minimalist backgrounds are kind of a staple for several shojo, aren’t they? I haven’t read much shojo manga, but those that I have reader either had almost non existent backgrounds, or backgrounds that didn’t stand out to the eye. Sailor Moon comes to mind (from what I remember).

    1. Katherine Dacey says:

      You’re absolutely right, Derek — a lot of shojo manga-ka don’t draw detailed backgrounds. In a fantasy manga, however, it seems as if the artist ought to be able to draw a credible castle or jousting scene, even if those establishing shots don’t play a major role in the storytelling.

  3. CJ says:

    I feel like the first volume of this went a bit too fast for me, it didn’t really grab me personally. I honestly don’t think I’ll continue with this series, I’ll be sticking with Bride’s Story for “bride in a foreign place” thing.

    1. Katherine Dacey says:

      For me, the brisk pacing was a big plus; I often find fantasy manga kind of ponderous, with too much exposition in the early volumes of a series. But I can see why other readers felt the first volume of Arcana was rushed; we don’t learn much about Prince Caesar, despite his prominent role in the story, nor do we spend much time getting to know Nakaba’s enemies. I’m hoping future volumes will fill in those gaps, as the characters show promise.

      As for A Bride’s Story… it’s in a league of its own. It’s so good I could cry. ‘Nuff said.

      1. CJ says:

        I like a decent amount of speed myself, but I feel like Dawn went too fast with revealing too little, kind of a weird mix between too fast and too slow, hard to describe I suppose. It seemed like even though a bunch of things happened to our main, we didn’t learn much about anyone or the fantasy world they inhabit, one or the other would have been nice (but both would be way too fast). For example, Kekkaishi, the world elements move like molasses at the start, but I feel like we really get to know the characters instead.

  4. Jade Harris says:

    I have to agree with CJ, comparisons to Bride Story are inevitable and this sounds like it comes up a bit slim. I’d have to hear about how the second volume goes before picking it up.

    1. Katherine Dacey says:

      In fairness to Arcana, though, it’s not really like A Bride’s Story. There’s a lot more intrigue, for one thing, and a supernatural element which is slowly introduced in later chapters. It’s also clearly written for teenagers, whereas Bride’s Story ran in a seinen magazine.

      1. Jade Harris says:

        From your descriptions, I suppose it does sound a little like Apothecarius Argentum too, which I could get into. That type of earnest shojo story is something I really miss from CMX.

        1. Katherine Dacey says:

          Your comment about CMX is on the nose: Dawn of the Arcana is exactly the type of shojo fantasy manga that they would have published. Now you’re making me nostalgic for the mid-2000s, when it seemed like DC was content to let CMX be. *Sigh.*

  5. LG says:

    I hadn’t known that this work existed until I saw your post. The cover image really caught my eye, so I went out and bought the first volume. I haven’t been able to decide whether I like it or not. On the one hand, the romantic complications and political intrigue could be a lot of fun, and the art doesn’t offend my eyes. On the other hand, right now I seem to like the series’ potential more than anything else. Plus, I’m not so sure I’m on board with a love triangle that includes Caesar. Initially, I could understand and was willing to forgive his treatment of Nakaba, because, hey, it’s not like this marriage is something he really wanted to do, and Nakaba having red hair must have seemed like a slap in the face. However, when he forced a kiss on Nakaba, he got a big fat mark in my personal negative column. I think it was the way Toma drew the scene – it reminded me of something out of more porn-y manga and turned the forced kiss, in my head, into potentially the start of something a lot worse if they hadn’t been interrupted.

    1. Katherine Dacey says:

      On the other hand, right now I seem to like the series’ potential more than anything else.

      I think that captures my feelings about the series, too. Arcana has the potential to develop into a juicy soap opera with a strong female lead, but it could also devolve into the kind of cheesy, “Now that you’ve forced yourself on me, I see that you’re really awesome!” romance that I generally avoid. When volume two is released, I’ll be sure to do a follow up post for folks who are on the fence about Arcana.

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