In young Coco’s world, magic is a gift you are born with – and she is not one of the chosen few. Although she has a special magic book that she bought from a mysterious masked witch when she was a little girl and she wishes she could unlock the spells within. But be careful what you wish for… When witch/magician Master Qifrey comes to her mother’s shop to buy cloth, Coco can’t resist spying on him as he practises his art – which leads to unforeseen and terrible repercussions. Coco finds herself apprenticed to the magician (alongside three other young girls) and discovers an extraordinary hidden truth: anyone can learn to practice magic. In order to keep the peace, the practitioners of the art have kept this fact secret, zealously wiping the memories of anyone who discovers the truth. The skill lies in the way magic is wielded, not in having an innate talent. The book of forbidden magic that Coco bought has set her on a dangerous path – but with her indomitable spirit and unquenchable enthusiasm, she’s determined to learn all she can to put right the devastating wrong that she unwittingly caused. However Qifrey realizes that Coco’s book of forbidden spells links her to a dangerous dissident sect ‘those of the brimmed caps’. Who can Coco trust? Are Qifrey’s motives in taking her as his apprentice wholly selfless?
Witch Hat Atelier is one of those rare fantasy manga that can be enjoyed by readers of all ages. Coco is an engaging and sympathetic protagonist; her starry-eyed enthusiasm for anything and everything magical is appealing – but she’s no pushover, already displaying qualities of grit and determination when in adversity. Kamome Shirahama’s art is exquisitely drawn, bringing to mind the work of illustrators from the golden age of UK children’s literature such as Ernest H. Shepard (Winnie-the-Pooh and The Wind in the Willows) and H.R. Millar (E. Nesbit’s Five Children and It and The Railway Children) – and yet entirely her own. Not surprising, really, as she trained in the USA and works for Marvel and DC Comics when not drawing manga! But the amount of detailed world-building and the ingenious way she’s constructed the magic systems show that she’s a skilled fantasy writer as well as a gifted illustrator. Above all, it’s the characters that draw us into a story – and we’re introduced to a fascinating cast, from Agott, the sulky, proud-natured apprentice with whom Coco must share a room to kindly Master Qifrey.
I really admire the ingenious and inventive ways translators deal with the problems that we SFF writers throw at them and Stephen Kohler is especially adept at this in his delightful translation. Having originally read this series in French from Pika Editions, I’ve noticed the different and ingenious ways that French translator Fédoua Lamodière and Stephen Kohler approach the names created by Shirahama-sensei. For example: Coco’s first magical challenge is to go to the summit of the Dadah Range to pick the Diadem Herb or, in French, to go to the Monts Surréalistes. The Dada art movement from the early 20th century formed the basis for Surrealism – so, both versions work well!
The Kodansha Comics edition comes in large format which shows off the detailed artwork to excellent effect – with the added bonus of four glossy colour pages at the beginning. The mangaka provides extras detailing the meaning of sigils, casting seals, the places Coco visits, all beautifully illustrated.
Witch Hat Atelier plunges the reader into Coco’s world and enchants and alarms the reader in equal measure; this first volume blends inspiringly magical art with a fascinating story and comes highly recommended.
Read a free sample at Kodansha Comics here