I’m faced with a bit of a dilemma when it comes to The Seven Magi. Do I urge people to dive into this book now, or do I recommend they pick up at least the first book in the outstanding fantasy series it’s derived from? You’ll have a fine time either way, but you might enjoy The Seven Magi all the more if you have some idea of where it’s coming from.
You know what? Don’t hold back. Go pick up Magi, as it’ll be worth diving into now and re-savoring later when — not if — you read the novels. A good manga is worth your money no matter what its backstory, especially when it’s from an outfit of real taste and daring (like, say, Vertical, Inc.)
The Seven Magi is the first in a three-volume manga series taken from the ongoing adventures of Guin, the mysterious warrior with the body of a gladiator and the head of a leopard. When he appears at the beginning of the first novel, he has no memory and no allies, but over time (and over the course of dozens of the books) fights his way all the way up to becoming king of the province of Cherionia. Magi is adapted from the first of a set of gaiden, or what you could call “side-quels” — interstitial stories written later on down the line that fill in spaces between earlier novels.
You can see why you’d want to do some homework before delving into a story like this. But then again, if you go into Magi with an open mind and just start reading cold, the very alien-ness of it all may work entirely in its favor. This is, after all, a story of another time and place, and as David Lynch once said a little alien-ness is not a bad thing when you’re going into a completely new world. (That was, in a way, the biggest problem I had with Firefly: Why take us all the way out into the universe only to recapitulate hoary clichés lifted intact from old Westerns?)
Magi opens with Guin storming down the dark alleys of his nation’s capitol as a ghastly black plague ravages its citizens. The prevalent folk cure is to bathe in the blood of a healthy person, and there’s a horrible little flashback where Guin remembers having discovered this “cure” being put into effect courtesy of a freshly-butchered teenage girl. Guin is sure folk medicine won’t fix this, and so he’s gone looking for a more extreme remedy to such extreme illness: a magi, one who might be found in the capitol’s infamous “Alley of Charms.”
Guin doesn’t have far to go before acquiring a couple of compatriots, whether he wants to or not. Right up front he meets “Als the Torq Rat,” a lowlife who makes the terrible mistake of trying to mug Guin as he enters the Alley of Charms. Mugging your own king is usually not a hot idea, low-life or no, and Guin is thoroughly unimpressed with him, even if Als is trying to find a plague cure for the sake of one of women. (“You would make a better jester than a pimp,” Guin tells him.) Not long after that they add another to their company: Valusa, a “dancing girl” (it’s not hard to figure out what that’s a euphemism for) who flees straight into Guin’s protective grasp when her madam’s severed head ends up chasing her right out into the alley.
Strange things are unquestionably afoot, something that’s doubly affirmed when they’re attacked by a giant spiderlike monster and have to take hasty refuge in, of all places, a pocket dimension provided by one of the alley’s magi. It’s a protean place where everything from the furniture to the form of their very host — the Black Witch Thamia — can shift and change at a whim. (Side note: While there’s relatively little sorcery in the Guin series proper — it’s mostly confined to scrying or fortune-telling — the gaiden stories apparently have a good deal more of this sort of thing, and it lends itself nicely to manga-style visuals.)
Thamia has an eye for winning over Guin himself, especially since he’s apparently been rejected behind closed doors by the very woman, Sylvia, he took for his wife and queen.) It takes more than a little effort on Guin’s part to bargain for their release, and to find the man he’s really looking for: Yelisha, another mage of great power, who also does a trick with his own severed head that needs to be seen to be fully appreciated. Yelisha has dire words for Guin: whatever evil has come to visit his hand, comes there for him. What better way to attack him than by attacking the very things he prizes most — his own people?
“You are the source of it all,” Yelisha intones, “the great good fortune, and ill, of this land … and since you are the source, none can brush away the dark and restore light but you.” And from there Guin strides forth to confront an evil that covers the sky with its face — a face disturbingly reminiscent of the Behelit from Berserk — and to deliver himself into the arms of whomever, or whatever, wants Guin for himself.
I gravitate towards anything off the beaten paths, things that has been waiting for years (or decades) to surface. Guin deserves the recognition, and I’m glad to see all of its different manifestations slowly reaching English-speaking audience. The first volume of the manga makes a good companion read to the first volume of the novel, but again, you don’t need one to appreciate the other. And I’m eagerly awaiting future installments for both novel and manga when they come later in 2008.