What we have here is a transitional volume of the Guin Saga manga, designed to get us out of one plot arc and into another. It spirits our heroes away from Stafolos Keep, out from the clutches of Count Vanon (if that is Count Vanon, but that’s another story), and ends the raid of the Sem on the fortress — leaving behind plenty of tools for survival that our heroes will need as they cross the River Kes and head for … well, more adventure. As Indiana Jones rather testily said the first time around when someone asked him for details on his plan to wrest the Ark of the Covenant away from its Nazi thieves: “I don’t know; I’m making this up as I go.”
It does sometimes feel like they’re making it up as they go. Even though I know for a fact this whole arc of the story was completed more than thirty years back, and over a hundred other books have been written for the original series since. One odd little advantage of coming back to the very first books and revisiting them as manga is how both the audience and the creators themselves know what’s going to happen. To that end I’m noticing a great many changes, albeit minor ones, that seem to be along those lines — although I’m at a disadvantage since I haven’t read that far ahead. I think the total number of people who speak English and read Japanese who have read that far ahead (that I know, anyway) could be counted on one hand with plenty of fingers left over … and I have better taste than to bug Yanni about what happens. God knows he’s busy enough with his publishing company.
And yet, slow episode or fast, modified continuity or not, condensed storytelling or compressed, you have to do a hell of a lot of damage to Guin to make it not-Guin. The quick glimpse I’ve seen so far of the TV show convinced me of that: it didn’t have the exact same variety of editorial compression as the manga, but it was in the same spirit. And it was, identifiably enough, Guin. There seemed to be enough reverence floating around in the decades since Guin first exploded onto bookshelves that to do a bad job of it would have been downright gauche. That or Kaoru Kurimoto’s supervision of the project was right on the money — and given that Guin is nothing short of her life’s work, it ought to have been.
Back to the story. Like I said, this episode’s mainly designed to get us out of one mess and into another, but it has its fair share of high points. The very literal leap into the unknown that concluded the first novel happens here — except that it’s about a third of the way through the volume, so it comes as more of a transitional moment within the action rather than a killer cliffhanger. No matter: it’s still a great moment, almost impossible to make unexciting, and it leads us back to one of the other great characters we met earlier: Istavan, the mercenary and perennial wiseacre who might know both more and less about things than he lets on. He does help Guin, Rinda, Remus and Suni liberate a raft from the ruins of Stafolos Keep and get upriver with it — although they very nearly end up as a platter of hors d’oeuvres for one of the nastier life forms swimming in the Kes. Two things are learned from this adventure: 1) Guin wielding an oversized oar reminds me of Musashi vs. Kojiro, in a good way, and 2) this crew cannot go the length of a book without getting soaking wet at least twice.
The other major reason to make your way through this volume is the introduction of Lady Amnelis, she who will soon lead the armies of Mongaul to cause no end of trouble for Guin and all his sudden new allies. Hajime Sawada did the right thing with her character design: she’s beautiful to look at, sure, but then you get in a little closer and realize she has the eyes of a predator — far more so than Guin has ever had in even his most blood-frenzied moments. It’s effective and subtle, even; it’s not something that really registers with you unless you go in looking for it. She knows precisely what she wants and is willing to go to great and terrible lengths to get it — to command armies, to invoke dark powers and to use the loyalty of anyone who comes into her circle. And she looks the part.
Volume 4 is already out in Japan — the blasted things can’t come out any quicker. Whatever minor quibbles I have with the presentation are just that: minor. Sometimes the designs of things look a little too generic and uninspired; sometimes a pose or a face will just seem wooden or awkward. Then I turn the page, and there’s Guin throwing himself into the maw of danger and death as freely as the rest of us breathe, and I forget my grousing. Fast.