Summary: Guideau: a feral girl with long fangs and the eyes of a beast. Ashaf: a soft-spoken man with delicate features and a coffin strapped to his back. This ominous pair appears one day in a town that’s in thrall to a witch, who has convinced the townsfolk she’s their hero. But Ashaf and Guideau know better. They have scores to settle, and they won’t hesitate to remove anyone in their way…
Thoughts: I’ve talked before about how touchy I can get when witches appear in media. “Witch” is still used as a soft replacement for when adults want to say “bitch” but don’t want delicate child ears to hear a naughty word. Witches are Halloween costumes, monsters in fairy tales. Witches are teen girls who discover empowerment for the first time but then get slapped down when they discover that goddess-worship comes with fantastical powers and a steep price. More recently, “witch” has become an aesthetic term, a sort of “I wear dark clothes and am a strong independent woman,” descriptor.
Why take exception to a lot of this? Because a witch is a practitioner of a particular religion or umbrella or religions, and yeah, it kind of stings to see my own religious practices and terminology get misused. It’s not exactly, “We’re a culture, not a costume,” but it is, “We’re a religion, not a costume, cautionary tale, or clothing style.”
I do, however, tend to make exceptions when the term is used in secondary-world fantasy, even when the witches there are purely negative characters. That world isn’t this world, it has its own dynamics, and I also tend to assume that any fantasy world I’m reading about does not have the English language and all of its history and connotations, and so everything is being “translated,” in a sense, for the reader’s benefit. Sometimes you go with the closest term that already exists. Sure, you could use the word fsnargletump to describe the same thing, but when you’ve got a convenient word your readers already understand, why not use it?
Besides, witches in fantasy worlds don’t tend to be, you know, part of a legitimate religion.
In The Witch and the Beast, witches hold great magic power and generally use that power to abuse those weaker than them, causing mayhem and destruction and all manner of badness. Guideau and Ashaf are part of a guild that hunts down the magical evils of the world and eliminates them. Guideau has a personal vendetta against witches in particular, intent on finding and destroying the witch who cursed her some years ago. Their attention is directed to a witch who might be the one who cursed Guideau, but rather than finding a vicious tyrant, they find instead a young woman who seems to be the darling of the town, who helps others rather than hurts them.
That’s how this volume starts, though the story does progress a bit past that first, “Let’s figure out what’s going on with this witch,” encounter. And I have to say, it subverted my expectations more than once, which was rather nice. I expected a bunch of the story to involve Guideau being convinced that she was wrong to hate all witches, that witches are really just misunderstood, etc. But no, even the nice witch has a lot of darkness to her, and cheerfully uses people as pawns when it suits her whims. I’ve said before that sometimes stories can be notable for what they don’t do as much as what they do do, and The Witch and the Beast set me up to think one rather stereotypical plot twist was going to happen, only to toss it aside for something else.
I didn’t see it coming, so I will give it that. Ironic, seeing as how what I didn’t see coming was something Guideau had been saying all along. It’s funny the traps of assumption that we can get into, when we’ve seen enough stories play out. Even as we hope for something a bit different, we tend to assume that things will play out as we’ve come to expect, and then get surprised when we’re actually given something else.
I swear, reading manga makes me reflect more on myself as a reader than it does on the manga itself, sometimes…
Either way, the story within The Witch and the Beast is compelling enough that I want to continue reading to see where it all leads. I want to know more about Guideau’s curse, about the witch that cursed her to begin with, about just what the heck is up with Ashaf. We might not get to see much of them in a single volume, but there’s enough to convince me that there are interesting things ahead in the story, enough hints dropped that things in the next volume will be something worth reading. The subject matter and art can be a bit disturbing at times (I won’t say it’s not for the faint of heart, because I’ve definitely see more graphic violence in manga, but be warned that there is blood and violence aplenty in here), but nothing that particular stuck with me beyond the moment. I’m counting that as a good thing.
So overall, a pretty good start to a series, and one I’m looking forward to continuing when I get my grubby little hands on the second volume.
(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)