It’s time for “The Sincerity of the Shield”! Agott is summoned to remote Romonon Cape to face the second part of her examination, so Master Qifrey takes Coco, rebellious Richeh (whom he has secretly signed up to take test too) and Tetia along as well. There they meet Master Kukrow who has brought his apprentice Euini to take the examination – for the third time. Poor Euini, unconfident and self-deprecating, reluctantly joins the two girls as Alaira, the witch supervising the test, leads them off into the darkness on the ancient and treacherous Serpentback Road (shades of Dragon Ball Z…?). The challenge? To take the winged myrphons safely through the Serpentback Cave to their nesting grounds. We’ve already seen that Richeh is struggling with coming to terms with the differences in the way she wishes to develop her magic to express herself and the constraints imposed on the young trainee witches by the Knights Moralis. How will she fare?
There’s a dark and tragic history to Romonon Cape, Qifrey tells Coco and Tetia as they wait above on the cliffs. Long ago, the people of the Cavern Nation of Romonon used their magic to make wonderful golden art – until they became so obsessed with their own importance that they cut themselves off from the outside world and misused their magic in cruel and inhuman ways on their fellow citizens. This story sends shivers through Coco as she remembers her mother…but worse is to follow when she thinks she glimpses a distant figure watching them from the lonely promontory. Is one of the banned order of the Brimmed Caps shadowing them?
Four volumes in to Witch Hat Atelier and we’re getting to see sides of the resourceful young apprentice witches that we haven’t seen before as they encounter unforeseen dangers. One of the strengths of Kamome Shirahama’s storytelling lies in the fact that we watch Coco and her fellow apprentices grow in confidence as they’re forced to be creative with their magical skills and think for themselves. Euini, in particular, evokes first our pity – and then not a little frustration at his lack of belief in his own abilities. Much hinges on what he does – or doesn’t do – when an stranger appears, trapping the three and their myrphons in the darkness below ground.
One of the more critical observations I’ve seen recently about Kamome Shirahama’s graphic art is (given her work in Western comics) that it’s not manga! But manga has always been a wide field and in telling a fantasy tale which uses Western-style names and backgrounds, overusing some of the more familiar manga tropes (chibi characters, sweatdrops etc.) might have undermined the fairytale atmosphere she was aiming to evoke. The important question here is: does Witch Hat Atelier work as a graphic novel? Is the mangaka developing the characters and increasing the readers’ involvement with their stories? And, in this fourth volume, the plot certainly thickens – and darkens. Coco is an observer most of the way through (although she makes some very pertinent observations which impress Master Qifrey) – yet we get to discover more about Richeh and, most of all, the reluctant examinee newcomer Euini. It’s impossible not to feel sympathy for the boy, forced by his vain and insensitive master to retake the challenging test. (Haven’t we all been in that kind of situation at one time or another and desperately wished for a way out?) However, in many ways, this is a transitional volume, setting up a dramatic confrontation with hints of many revelations to come – and a cliffhanger that will leave readers (me included!) desperate to find out what happens next.
The Bonus Chapter at the end is a very sweet extra from the point of view of Coco’s ‘brushbuddy’ who starts by telling us, “As yet I have no name” and there’s also a page devoted to ‘The Plants of Witch Hat.’
Stephen Kohler’s translation continues to deal well with all the magic terms invented by the mangaka to bring her world to vivid life. (This is by no means a criticism on my part but I’m fascinated with the different ways the translators into French and German deal with the character names: Coco isn’t a problem but Agott/Agathe or Euini/Yinny and especially Trice/Richeh are relatively different, even allowing for native pronunciation. I’d love to know if the mangaka had her own ideas as to how the names should be romanized.)
Another volume of this involving fantasy will keep Coco’s fans on the edge of their seats – but also impatient to wait for Volume 5 (not due out until February 2020) to find what happens next!