By Makoto Yukimura. Released in Japan as two separate volumes by Kodansha, serialized in the magazines Weekly Shonen Magazine, then Afternoon. Released in North America by Kodansha Comics.
At last, after years of fans begging for a license, we have one of the most anticipated titles of the year. Makoto Yukimura was released over here previously with his sci-fi garbage scow series Planetes, but that was another “critically acclaimed poor seller” that fans love and publishers hate. Nevertheless, the author’s skill is demonstrable in that series, and his art and storytelling have only improved since then. This tale of Thorfinn, a reluctant Viking warrior/prisoner-of-war and his tragic backstory is absolutely riveting, and makes you yearn for the next book in the series to come out so you can read on. Honestly, if it weren’t already in an omnibus (a handsome, hardcover one, by the way, looking very nice), I’d feel even more impatient.
We open with Thorfinn already a young adult, then flash back to tell his backstory. This helps to amp up the tragedy as we can see what a cold-blooded killer Thorfinn can be… and how he pales in comparison to the captain who controls him, Askeladd. For all that this series may be Thorfinn’s, Askeladd is the one who captures the reader’s attention right off the bat, and I suspect he won any reader polls Japan had. Cheerful, clever, sly, and ruthless all in one, Askeladd makes a great anti-hero to contrast with Thorfinn’s sullen warrior. He even has his own moral code, such as it is – one we see in the second half of the book, when we find out just how Thorfinn lost his father Thors and was captured.
By the way, for those who love Berserk, you’ll love this too. It’s not QUITE as bleak and ultraviolent – at least not in this first volume – but there’s a lot of the same feel, and the battle scenes are fantastic (despite the presence of one of the worst Star Wars jokes I’ve ever seen). The art isn’t only good in the battle scenes either – the author has taken great care to be as historically accurate as possible in a fictional manga world, and I loved the attention to detail we see here.
I was expecting this to be a totally male-dominated book – and honestly, it still may end up that way – but there are two very good female roles here. First of all, the book’s only light relief is provided by Thorfinn’s older sister Ylva, a tsundere trapped in 11th century Iceland, who has all the boys of the village falling at her feet but would much rather stomp around and be grumpy. As for Thorfinn’s mother, she mostly exists on the sideline supporting her husband… till we see a flashback to Ylva’s birth, where Thors is prepared to simply nod and leave, and his wife looks like she’ll leap out of the bed and throttle him unless he names their child. The manga is filled with little moments like this.
This is not going to be a cheery romp – expect the majority of the cast to die – but it’s gripping stuff, and incredibly hard to put down. I really enjoyed Planetes, but you can see how Yukimura has evolved further here. The story carries you along effortlessly, makes you care about these people even as it then hurts them horribly, and is simply filled with badass men being badass. It was worth the long wait to get this.