One moment, Coco and her fellow apprentice witches from Master Qifrey’s Atelier are walking down a street in the town of Kalhn, the next, they’ve been whisked into an alternate world where they find themselves facing a fierce dragon. It’s a test – not only of their skill with magic (which is pretty basic in Coco’s case) but of their ability to trust and rely on each other in a dangerous situation. But it seems that it’s the mysterious witch from the banned order who has their sights set on Coco who has put them in this predicament. But has the lurking member of the ‘brimmed caps’ underestimated the young girls’ skills? Whatever the outcome, it’s clear that Coco is still in great danger from the forbidden sect.
Coco, resourceful and passionately in love with magic, later encounters Oluggio, a formidable dark-bearded witch and Qifrey’s ‘Watchful Eye’, appointed to ensure nothing forbidden takes place in the atelier. Oluggio threatens to report Coco to the Knights Moralis (‘The Order of Moral Spell-Casting.’) But before matters can be resolved Qifrey receives an urgent plea to rescue a group of travelling merchants whose carriage is trapped in a swollen river. All the members of the atelier hasten to help in the pouring rain. Coco’s roommate, ambitious Agott (the girl shown on the cover) is desperate to prove her magical skills – yet an unexpected consequence of her actions puts lives in danger from the swirling waters.
Even though Witch Hat Atelier is a fantasy that delights in its magical inventions and intricate world-building, a strong point in its favour is mangaka Kamome Shirahama’s skill in developing Coco and the people she meets. We get to learn far more about her touchy roommate, Agott and what drives her – and the considerable risks she’s prepared to take to develop her craft. We also see Master Qifrey’s teacherly concerns for his apprentices – while still questioning exactly why he’s so keen to train Coco as a witch; are his motives thoroughly noble or does he have another agenda? It’s very pleasing to find Coco’s story developing along so many different and promising lines; it’s a page turner of a fantasy, brought to vivid life by the mangaka’s distinctive graphic style which, while maintaining its links with the detailed illustrations of classic children’s books from the last century, blends this with manga conventions (chibi, sweat drops etc.) very successfully.
It’s so pleasing that Kamome Shirahama takes time to develop her characters in an engaging way; there’s a charming chapter in which Qifrey teaches Coco that practising magic can be put to excellent domestic use as he encourages her to help him prepare a meal, while revealing little secrets about himself. But, most important of all, is the way that Coco takes agency for her actions. She’s the least experienced of the apprentices, so watching the way she thinks ‘outside the box’ to find solutions to the very real dangers she encounters is engrossing.
The large format edition from Kodansha Comics really does enhance the wealth of details in Kamome Shirahama’s art; the landscapes in Coco’s world are vividly and convincingly depicted, as are the people and their amazing clothes. The translation from Stephen Kohler continues to capture the right tone of voice for a fantasy (it reads well but avoids contemporary slang, which is a blessing). I’m not entirely convinced by the rhyming blurb on the back cover…but it doesn’t affect the contents. And – picky me – I’m not entirely happy with the name ‘Brushbuddy’ given by Coco to the (undoubtedly cute) little furry worm that has become her companion. The name is ‘right’ but the alliterative ‘buddy’ jars – whereas ‘Raincleaver’ (the name of a magical sword wielded by Qifrey) sounds absolutely appropriate.
This accomplished second volume of Witch Hat Atelier continues to enthral and delight; it’s fascinating to watch Coco meet new challenges and new people. She’s one of the most engaging young heroines I’ve met in fantasy for a while and I recommend this series for fantasy readers of all ages (Kodansha suggest 10 upward…)