As someone who has been playing tabletop role-playing games for decades, I am always a fan of a good magic setting. I love exploring magic systems, learning about magical organizations, and thinking about spell possibilities. So fantasy series in anime and manga certainly scratch this itch. Kate and I usually give all but the most lecherous and/or despicable fantasy series a chance to see what they have to offer. While I love the standard sword and sorcery medieval setting my preferred setting is series where magic lies hidden beneath the world we know today. There is a strong appeal to the idea that magic is hiding just around the corner right outside of your vision. In my humble opinion, it is a reason Harry Potter is so popular. I know it is the reason I like Mage: The Ascension and Type-Moon material.
Therefore I was naturally inclined to see out The Ancient Magus’ Bride. It’s a rich magical world set in the shadowlands of England where a half fae mage takes in a young lady as his new apprentice and his wife. The Ancient Magus’ Bride is a stunning combination of fantastic art, rich world building, and subtle storytelling draw fans of fantasy into a beautifully melancholy dream of fairyland.
Chise Hatori is a young lady whose life has been filled with tragedy. She can see the world of magic which merely makes her seem like a madwoman in the world of the mundane. Her father abandoned her, her mother killed herself, and she was sold into slavery. Then she is bought by Elias Ainsworth, one of the last full mages in the world, as an apprentice and a bride. Now she is neck-deep in the wonderful and terrifying world of magic. While Elias is very kind to her he has also made the magical world very aware of his powerful apprentice. Is this where her luck turns around or where her cursed fortune finally destroys her?
The first thing everyone notices about this series is that it is beautiful. While the dialog scenes are competent and attractive the place where the series really shines is the magical money shots. Every chapter has at least one beautiful scene that reminds you that the series is set in a magical universe. It can be a fantastic landscape, an awe-inspiring creature, a powerful spell , or a horrific atrocity that spawns this incredible artistic moment simultaneously filled with both huge grandeur and intricate detailing. It is more than just scenery porn (although that is in there.) It gives the setting a weight it might not otherwise have with merely adequate art.
But pretty pictures are just an artbook with words if they don’t have a solid story to string them into a compelling narrative. Chise and Elias are a mentor and student whose roles change depending on the situation. Chise has always had more magical power than she knew what to do with but never had formal training. Elias, on the other hand, being a hybrid has never been a home in either the human or fae worlds. Both of them teach each other how to be themselves as they can’t find their way on their own. At the same time, Chise starts the series a near doll-like vessel who has given up on life. The story is also her reawakening into a full human being with passions and desires.
Overall the series has bright nature under its setting. Considering one of the main themes of the series is the inevitably of death that seems like a hard accomplishment. The series does a good job of balancing the merciless and inhuman nature of the magical world with the warm and kind accepts of the world. The series sees this combination of the Seelie and Unseelie Courts which allows the reader comfort that all of these aspects are in everything.
I’m also very glad there is an antagonist in the series. Cartaphilus as a foil to Chise and Elias as he seeks to warp the world into his ideal as opposed to seeking answers and growth within himself. It gives the series a sense of gravitas and drama so it does not slide into either the realms of healing manga or completely episodic tales with nothing more than a framing device. Cartaphilus appear enough that he is a constant threat but is divorced enough that he is not the center of the plot. It is a solid balance that makes the manga feel entertainingly heterogeneous.
A little warning before I wrap this up. While I don’t usually hard sell the series here since this is recommendations feature and not a full review I tend to play up the virtues of the series and skip over any flaws of the series I talk about. That said I feel it is part of my due diligence to mention one part of the series that might turn people off. The series does start with Elias buying Chise as a bride. While he never does anything unscrupulous with her that fact alone can easily turn a good number of people off. While I feel the series thankfully avoids a good deal of the sketchier parts of the premise the initial fact that Chise starts of as a purchased person is enough to make sure some people will never enjoy this series.
It does make sense it the context of the universe. This is not Flying Witch where the magical world in a happy and copacetic place of wonder. There is much beauty and amazement in the magical universe of The Ancient Magus’ Bride but there is an equally ugly, terrifying, and corrupt side of the world. In many ways, Chise being sold into slavery set the tone for the dark nature of this amazing world. But there were other ways to do the same thing. It comes down to a simple fact that while it is a defensible premise it does mean it will be a palatable or enjoyable story for every reader.
If you watched the OVA for this manga you know what to expect. This is pleasantly somber series that looks gorgeous and slowly builds wondrous stories. If you want to get lost in a magical cosmos then this is the perfect panacea for you.