Altair: A Record of Battles seems tailor-made for fanfic: it’s got a cast of achingly pretty men, a labyrinthine plot, and an exotic setting that freely mixes elements of Turkish, Austrian, and Bedouin cultures. Like other series that inspire such fan-ish activity — Hetalia: Axis Powers comes to mind — Altair is more interesting to talk about than to read, thanks to an exposition-heavy script and an abundance of second- and third-string characters; you’ll need a flowchart to keep track of who’s who.
The first volume begins promisingly enough. While visiting the Türkiye capitol, a diplomat from the neighboring Balt-Rhein Empire is assassinated in the streets, an arrow lodged in his back. Though the murder weapon suggests that someone in the Balt-Rhein military engineered the hit, Emperor Goldbalt’s mustache-twirling subordinate Louis Virgilio points the finger at Türkiye, insisting they produce the killer or face the ultimate consequence: war. Mahmut, the youngest member of the Türkiye generals’ council, impulsively decides to visit Goldblat’s court in an effort to prevent bloodshed and reveal the true culprit in Minister Franz’s death.
No matter how intensely the characters ball their fists or glower at each other, however, their drawn-out arguments over troop mobilization, international diplomacy, and rules of order are only moderately more entertaining than an afternoon of watching C-SPAN. Author Kotono Kato further burdens the script with text boxes indicating characters’ rank and title, and diagrams showing the distribution of power under the Türkiye “stratocracy,” details that add little to the reader’s understanding of why Balt-Rhein and Türkiye are teetering on the brink of war. Only a nighttime ambush stands out for its dynamic execution; it’s one of the few scenes in which Kato allows the pictures to speak for themselves, effectively conveying the ruthlessness of Mahmut’s enemies without the intrusion of voice-overs or pointed dialogue.
The characters are just as flat as the storytelling. Kato’s flair for costume design is symptomatic of this problem: she’s confused surface detail — sumptuous fabrics, towering hats, sparkling jewels — with character development. With the exception of Mahmut, whose passionate intensity and youthful arrogance are evident from the very first scene, the other characters are walking, talking plot devices whose personalities can be summed up in a word or two: “brash,” “devious,” “enthusiastic,” “mean.” (Also “hot” and “well dressed,” for anyone who’s keeping score.) The shallowness of the characterizations robs the Türkiye/Balt-Rhein conflict of urgency, a problem compounded by Kato’s tendency to wrap things up with epilogues that are as baldly worded as a textbook study guide. At least you’ll be prepared for the quiz.
The bottom line: History buffs will enjoy drawing parallels between the Türkiye and Balt-Rhein Empires and their real-life inspirations, but most readers will find Altair too labored to be compelling — unless, of course, they’re looking for fresh opportunities to ‘ship some handsome characters.
ALTAIR: A RECORD OF BATTLES, VOL. 1 • BY KOTONO KATO • KODANSHA COMICS • RATED T, FOR TEENS • DIGITAL ONLY