The story starts by introducing us to the warring countries of Senan and Belquat. Nations bound together on an island and eternally fighting. They only find respite when peace is forged by political alliances or royal marriages. Nakaba, a princess of Senan, has found herself in the midst of a turbulent peace. With her hasty marriage to Cesar, the second in line to the Belquat throne, Nakaba knows it’s just a matter of time before war erupts again.
I have to give Dawn of the Arcana a lot of credit for starting the volume with the marriage of the two main characters already concluded. Pageantry and anticipation are typical hallmarks of shojo, so I knew this series was trying to do something more when it threw the reader right into the thick of Nakaba’s circumstances. The tone of the story oscillates between expected shojo and political maneuverings. There’s interesting depth to Nakaba’s world. There are long-held prejudices against Ajin, the half-human, half-animal servant class and, oddly, redheads. Everyone understands that Nakaba’s arranged marriage was just to buy time while both sides take time to prepare for the next wave of the war. This means that even her husband will openly talk about assassinating her. As Nakaba is a redhead with a devoted ajin servant, Caesar makes it very clear how he feels about their marriage.
It takes Nakaba no time to demonstrate how little prepared the Belquat court is for someone of her passion. She won’t change the style of her clothes or hair, she cares about her attendants, and she will not take a threat without responding in kind. Suddenly, the marriage that was supposed to be a simple shift of a pawn transforms into an unpredictable power at the heart of the Belquat empire. Caesar, the bored prince, stumbles to reassess the woman he now calls wife.
While all of that is electrifying in a manga, it doesn’t take long for the story to pull back and put in the expected shojo favorites, as if there were a requisite amount. The tent pole of shojo is the love triangle. Nakaba’s other treacherous love is her servant, Loki, with whom she (obviously) shares a complicated past. She also is really great at confrontation until, of course, someone attacks her and one of her two hunky men can swoop in and save her.
Dawn of the Arcana tries to have its political cake and eat it, too. There’s a set up with royalty and persecution that’s more serious than a typical shojo, but the drama is stalled until the shojo tropes are shared. This stifles the pace of what began as a rather compelling narrative. It reforms to have more of an episodic structure, with small challenges to Nakaba’s claim as princess and then resolutions that usually end with either Caesar or Loki having saved her.
This same failure to commit to either story affects the art as well. Rei Toma has what you might call a great shojo “house style.” There isn’t really any quality that allows it to stand out, but that can also be a strength. The art simply delivers the story, with all the screen tones and emotions you expect intact. However, in picking and choosing shojo tropes, the art doesn’t always win out. For example, dressing up a tomboy to reveal she’s beautiful is commonplace in shojo. However, in Dawn of the Arcana, when they do those scenes Nakaba is reveled wearing pretty clothes, but not the overly ornate garb that most mangaka would slave over and their readers would marvel at. This isn’t necessarily a criticisms, it’s just not always easy to know where you stand with Toma.
This noncommittal story structure might explain Dawn of the Arcana’s popularity. It’s on the verge of being a very complex story, but has enough familiarity for the reader that it can still hit on the all of the wish fulfillment aspects that attracts the shojo reader. There’s looming war, a love triangle, a growing cast of invested characters, and the hint of a mysterious power in Nakaba’s possession. No matter how Tomi decides to share this story, she has definitely built an involved story. Its early promises of intrigue will grab at you and hold on as revelations are slowly loosed over many chapters.