The Water Dragon’s Bride by Rei Toma

Those who like Rei Toma’s other series, Dawn of the Arcana, will find many of the same themes here. Oppression, adults preying on children, helplessness, moments of kindness, ambivalence, pain, and callous torment/despair. Indeed, the overall theme here in this dark fantasy is even more oppressive than Dawn of the Arcana, which is saying quite a bit. But at the same time, so many conventions were ejected by author Toma to create a wholly unique story without the platitudes one would typically see in the shoujo genre.

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Story: Little girl Asahi is happily living with her family in the modern world – until the day she approaches a pond and is taken from the present to one resembling a feudal era Japan. Confused, scared, alone, she is found by a boy her age – Subaru. He brings her home to his village to protect her. But his mother sees an opportunity to use her as a sacrifice to the water dragon and ensure prosperity for the village. Saved by the water dragon god as a source of possible entertainment, Asahi is confusing to the god and he is unsure how to even keep her alive. Now a pawn of the gods of the realm, Asahi seeks to return to the village and eventually to her own home in modern Japan. But the villagers don’t take kindly to a sacrifice returning – and Subaru may not be able to save her from the villagers cruelty once again.

The recurring theme here is that humans are greedy and the gods are capricious. This is no heartwarming story of a god who falls in love with a mortal; Asahi is nearly starved to death and emotionally tormented by the gods who are unsure what to do with the mortal in their midst. Petty jealousies and rivalries among the gods makes this feel more like a Greek tragedy than a Japanese shoujo manga.

In the feudal era human world, motivations are purely for survival and then subsistence. Sacrificing a child for the ‘greater good of all the villagers’ is an acceptable act, of course. Subaru objects but is easily manipulated and gone around by his mother, the instigator of much of Asahi’s torment. An “if the witch burns she must be evil” type of scenario only adds to the ugliness of the scene.

The pain of being with ambivalent gods and cruel mortals definitely creates a pall that can make this title very hard to read. It’s one cruelty after another heaped on our young lead character and then Asahi’s utter confusion and even despair in understanding why her wonderful life was supplanted without warning.

Because of the very heavy themes, I have to admit I’ll probably not continue this series. The writing is excellent, the illustrations well done, and this is just as good as Dawn of the Arcana. But at the same time, I tend to read manga for adventure and as a feel-good experience. This is just a bit too harsh an indictment on life for me. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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