J Novel Club
Fuminori Teshima/Hako Itagaki
Zagan is a sorcerer with few peers - immensely powerful, shrewd and ultimately lonely, his world changes when he attends an auction and falls in love with an Elf slave up for sale. Spending every last gold coin in his vault to secure her, he learns that once in his possession, he has no idea how to relate to her. For her part, the Elf girl he names Nephy has no idea how to talk to a master that isn't planning to sacrifice her in some brutal fashion. And so begins the story of two people with a crush on each other with no inter-personal skills whatsoever.
Off the bat, this is a first for me - the manga is only available digitally and I love the feel of a real book, so picking this up was a total whim of mine based on the artwork (lovely designs by COMTA). The premise, it turns out, is a very typical male fantasy about white-knighting for a slave-girl. I can already see twitter twitching angrily in the distance...
Despite this, the book has some relatively tender moments. Nephy's fate reminds Zagan of his own start in life, as an urchin on the streets of an uncaring city, which goes some way to explaining his desire to free her. He treats her well off the bat (though he does accidentally unnerve her with his destructive magical abilities) and tries to work through his nerves in order to reveal his affection for her.
Nephy is kind-hearted and eager to please, very much resigned to the fact that her role in life is to die at the hands of a wizard. The perfect willing and nihilistic protagonist for our hero to lust after in fact.
The manga has a few saving graces. Zagan may be the ultimate mage with amazing powers and the ability to save passers by on a whim, but there's enough meat on the bones of his personality that he isn't a total Mary-Sue. He has flaws, self-doubts and even gets taken by surprise by rival wizards, so he's a relate-able hero in that sense.
Nephy is a bit more troublesome and needs some fleshing out. I'm sure this will come as the story moves past the opening stages, but initially at least she's a demure, willing little lamb that's basically up for anything her master desires, and that includes total control over where she sleeps, what she eats and even what she wears. Hm.
Technically the art is good if not outstanding. There's a lot of tone used for background in place of detail, making pages devoid of texture at times, but when backgrounds are used (usually for establishing location) they're well framed and realised.
The writing is occasionally witty, but the underlying story makes it uncomfortable at times. There's nothing really new here, and if you're looking for a romantic master/slave dynamic then Rise of the Shield Hero undoubtedly has more depth and a more rounded worldview. This feels trite by comparison, with little of note going on beyond Zagan's obsession with Nephy. Even Ah! My Goddess, which binds the Goddess Belldandy to loser-in-love Keichi and took an age to go anywhere had a supporting cast that kept interest. There's none of that here, and as such Elf Bride has a very "first draft" feel.
The story of a captor falling for her jailor (see Beauty and the Beast for example) is an old trope and pretty out of touch for today's more socailly aware audience. These sensibilities have yet to find their way to Japan, so stories like this are still fairly mainstream. It's a male power fantasy with everything that entails. This alone should put some readers off, but even those who give it a go are going to struggle to find much to get their teeth into.