99-coverThings are not going well for Nai. Karoku, his only family, has disappeared, and without him, Nai has no idea what to do. Around twelve years old but remarkably naïve and ignorant for his age, Nai’s only goal is to see Karoku again. He has one clue: Karoku’s bracelet, which was left behind when its owner disappeared. However, the search is going pretty badly at the moment, because Nai has just been kidnapped.

Enter Gareki. He’s a surly loner, a teenager with a tragic past… oh, and he’s an explosives specialist. He uses his skills to burglarize the mansions of people who became rich through shady activities. While stealing from the wealthy and infamous Lady Mine, he stumbles across her prisoner, Nai. He quickly realizes two things: first, Karoku’s bracelet is an ID from Circus, the secretive and powerful national defense force; and second, Lady Mine is not just a criminal, she’s an actual monster.

Escaping with Nai, Gareki finds himself grudgingly trying to help the clueless kid. Nai doesn’t understand money, doesn’t recognize blood, can hardly follow simple instructions, and seems to attract danger. Where did he come from? Why are so many people—and monsters—after him? Who is the mysterious Karoku? When Gareki and Nai are rescued from monsters by Circus, it looks like they might finally get some answers. But things are stranger than they seem—for one thing, Circus’ “national defense” duties are largely comprised of slaying monsters—and answers only lead to more questions about Nai’s past… and Gareki’s.

Karneval effectively combines whimsy and silliness with cruelty and tragedy. The bad stuff is real; Gareki’s past, for example, involves being sold by his parents. The monsters, which seem to be sadistic mutated humans, are quite creepy: one harvests human eyeballs; Lady Mine wants to “play with [Nai] in bed,” despite his being underage and unwilling (though he escapes before anything can happen); and other villains, too, are implied to be sexually unsavory. No sexual activity or frontal nudity is ever shown; the only nudity is one panel in which a character in the background is shown from behind as they get dressed.

The manga has its fluffy, fun side, too. Circus balances their deadly combat skills with performing in an actual circus. In addition to killing monsters, they put on shows to entertain townspeople. This is explained as a way to comfort citizens after the trauma of a monster hunt in their community. The Circus agents we meet therefore divide their time between heroic battles and doing tricks in entertaining costumes. There’s also a lot of humorous interaction between members of Circus with conflicting personality types, not to mention that the agency’s security system consists of robots in the guise of—why not?—cute sheep in top hats.

The art is elegant and detailed. We see a fair amount of combat in the two volumes contained in this first omnibus, though less than one would expect from conventional shonen manga. It’s not bloodless, but not terribly gory. Circus agents fight with flashy, acrobatic moves, making some battle scenes more showy (or even funny) than gritty-violent. Again, the monsters are creepy, but not nightmare-fuel grotesque, and most of the other characters are cute or pretty. Outfits are elaborate and dynamic while settings, as well as the interesting high-tech devices used by Circus, receive a similar amount of attention and detail. Lots of variation in shading and panel layout adds visual interest.

Karneval‘s odd premise, circus flair, and its amalgamation of prettiness and action make this a good pick for fans of QuinRose’s Alice manga. It may also be a hit with fans of complex, slow-burn fantasy adventure.

Karneval, vol. 1
by Touya Mikanagi
ISBN: 9780316383097
Yen Press, 2015
Publisher Age Rating: Older Teen

  • Nic

    | She/Her Youth Services Librarian, Wake County Public Libraries

    Reviewer

    The child of two artists, Nic grew up loving art, reading, and those oh-so-special books that combine the two. Nic got her MLS from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her thesis was on the best shelving scheme for graphic novels in public libraries; the proposal won an Elfreda Chatman Research Award. She spends her free time reading, drawing, blogging, and writing fiction. She is a Youth Services Librarian at the Wake County Public Libraries in Raleigh, NC.

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