“When push comes to shove, the Kannagi can’t choose you,” Alto’s cousin Sushka to Alto. “Stop hurting people with your love.”
WARNING – SPOILERS for Volume 1!
Alto first met Elva when he was a child and he’s stayed by Elva’s side since then. Night after night, the white-haired Kannagi of the South (battle shaman) protects his island village from the monsters that haunt the Black Sea. The kannagi live tragically short lives, exhausting themselves and become covered with a creeping black stain that saps their life force – but something about Alto’s physical presence seems to be beneficial to Elva, stopping the stains from spreading. Alto is different; he seems to be unaffected by the Black Sea. However, Alto has gone missing; he fell into the Black Sea on his way home from a visit to the Monastery where the kannagi are trained – and no one has seen a trace of him since then. Elva is so worried that he leaves his clifftop home to search, along with his Monastery supervisors, Letty and Konoe.
Alto has been rescued from the Black Sea by the spirited Kannagi of the West, Manieri. Manieri is eighteen (the same age as Alto) and full of questions when Alto describes himself as the servant of the Kannagi of the South. Alto is still puzzling over the transformation that took place when he saw a condemned prisoner possessed by the Black Sea (something he tried to prevent before falling in himself and being swept away). Manieri, in spite of his cheerful exterior, breaks down in front of Alto, telling him that he feels abandoned – and when Alto leaves to go home, he offers to take letters Manieri has written to his friend Sonya. However, when Alto arrives, it’s her wedding day and she’s understandably reluctant to accept these reminders of her past.
When Alto returns to the village, there’s a strangely muted reunion between him and Elva. It’s the night of the new moon, the only night of the lunar month when the monsters don’t appear and Elva can leave his post. They’ve both learned things about themselves, although Sushka’s harsh words to Alto have made him think again. Is his unquestioning love for Elva bringing more suffering to the kannagi in the long run, because of his predestined role as a self-sacrificing warrior? And then, who should appear at the village harvest festival but Shiyan, the local lord and Elva’s onetime boyhood companion? What secrets does he know about Elva – and why is Elva so displeased to be recognized by him after so long?
One of the strengths of Lullaby of the Dawn and the reason it’s such a compelling read is the way Ichika Yuno gradually reveals the story, widening its boundaries without ever overloading the reader or failing to give important moments sufficient weight in the narrative. Yuno’s gift shows through when it comes to finding interesting, eye-catching ways of showing what’s happening through the panelling without it becoming obtrusive; each time it serves to move the story along, introducing more strands to the mystery of the Black Sea and more unsettling questions in the reader’s mind. The last pages are especially ominous…
And in spite of the charming cover image of Elva and Alto, relations between the two are often strained in the book as first one and then the other is influenced by the opinions of others (both are encouraged to find a bride) and are warned off getting closer to one another. This is very painful for them and painful to read as there’s always the ticking clock in the background, reminding us of the brief span of a kannagi’s life that may well be getting much shorter in Elva’s case. But it’s in no way a grim read and the story is lightened by many little moments of character-driven humour (Elva’s untidiness, Alto’s occasional obliviousness) and the main characters are convincingly and sympathetically drawn. The rating is still 16+ which reflects the fact that although the sexual tension between the two leads is very palpably portrayed, the very real constraints placed on them by duty and their society are a genuine impediment (not to mention other people intruding at just the wrong moment).
There are two brief bonus stories at the end (of a more light-hearted nature). The translation for Tokyopop is by Riley Keenan and again delivers a smooth reading experience. As usual with Tokyopop LoveLove releases, this appeared first in digital form in September 2023 and the paperback will follow in January 2024. Volume 3 is due out (digitally) in mid-December 2023 and hopefully, we’ll get Volume 4 in 2024.