“Safely rescue your masters… and reach the garden exit as a pair within the allotted time. There will be obstacles along the way.”
Kate, a young Noble Shade and her living doll Emilico, have been invited to the debut for potential ‘faces’ alongside four other young hopeful pairs. But Edward, an adult living doll who is arranging the test, seems to be making it as confusing and difficult as possible for the living dolls. Their young Shadow masters and mistresses have been spirited away and hidden (imprisoned) in the vast, labyrinthine garden of Shadows House and just with maps and a rather bizarre choice of tools to help them, the living dolls must find and free their Noble Shades within a two hour’s limit – or fail the debut.
Emilico is not down-hearted. Her sunny nature means that – in spite of being unkindly called ‘daisy-brain’ by scornful Ricky – she’s prepared to try anything to rescue Miss Kate. She partners up with painfully shy Rum and off they go to the rescue. Meanwhile, independent-minded Lou has taken garden shears as her chosen tool and is single-mindedly cutting her way through the tall bushes that make up the intimidating maze to find her mistress, Miss Louise. Luckily, Rum and Emilico encounter sensible Shaun (the three worked together on night-cleaning duties) and they make a good team together. However, Edward is watching, aware that other Noble Shades are also watching this elaborate game that he has devised from high within the mansion. Is he also being evaluated?
All goes well at first for Emilico, Shaun and Rum as they solve various puzzles – but an unexpected encounter with a large cluster of coagles (the aggressive cat-sized soot monsters) puts them in danger. Time is running out. How can they locate their Noble Shades before the deadline arrives if they’re fighting off coagles? Could the way that each Shadow exudes soot help in the search? And there are extra rules that must not be broken: living dolls’ faces must not be damaged and Shadows’ clothes must not be soiled – an almost impossible condition to fulfil, given the sooty nature of the Noble Shades and the fact that they’re in a garden.
As for Miss Kate? She’s been confined in a giant birdcage, suspended by chains. But the more soot she exudes to try to let Emilico where she is, the more it seems that the chains are released, one by one, as the soot builds up. She’s in very real danger if Emilico can’t reach her in time.
Another fascinating and gripping volume of this imaginative and creepy fantasy is over too soon, as we’re left desperate to know if Emilico’s efforts will have been in vain. (If you’ve watched the anime series, you’ll know, but there are so many details and extras in the manga that it’s more than worth your time.) Somato’s drawings are exquisite, filled with details and helpful extra pages explaining coagles, garden terminology (including knot gardens and labyrinths) and the constant lingering atmosphere of dread adds an extra frisson to each page. There are so many unexplained mysteries to be answered. Why is the flamboyant Edward so determined, it seems, to hinder the living dolls and make them fail his elaborate test? His motives appear to be twisted and obscure; does he bear them a grudge? And who are the Noble Shades watching from the third floor? They know a great deal already about the five pairs making their debut.
The attractive Yen Press edition again contains eight detailed colour pages, four at the front and four at the back. The translation is again by Taylor Engel who provides a clear and very readable version, capturing the different voices well, helped by Lys Blakeslee’s lettering. Volume 4 is due out from Yen Press in July 2023.