November 14, 2015
Aki – Digital Manga Publishing – 2005 – 1 volume
I picked this up after being somewhat impressed by Aki’s Olympos. She seems to mostly focus on 1-2 volume series. There’s another one that recently came out from Yen Press called Angel of Elhamburg. It has great art and book design. Utahime is her debut work, so the art isn’t quite as lovely as it is in Olympos and Angel, but it’s still very pretty.
The kingdom is supported by a series of Utahime, songstresses that sing every night from various towns. They are born with their own very special gift of song, which can be heard from a distance and carries a protective power that keeps the kingdom safe. Utahime are always born female, and they always sing towards the capitol, where the Sovereign, another hereditary power-carrying position, always a man, resides. The first chapter lets us know that the current Sovereign is a woman (which is not unheard-of), and she knows of the existence of Kain, a male Utahime, which is so shocking that Kain and his friend Thomas have to keep his identity secret and maintain that his sister is the Utahime of their town.
What seems likely to be a romance between the Sovereign and Kain quickly enters flashback mode. Kain was born as a twin to his sister, Maria. Early on, they befriend Thomas, the son of their village’s chief. Thomas has no ulterior motives, but Kain is hostile and downright aggressive to him at first. We learn this is because he was taught to be weary of outsiders by his mother. The Utahime are imprisoned by the towns, locked in their towers and fed with food left at their door each day. To continue their lines, the female Utahime is raped when she comes of age, so she can bear the next generation of Utahime.
The children know this, yet Thomas is clearly guileless and doesn’t seem interested in taking advantage of them. Kain’s suspicion holds out for years, but Maria becomes friends with him. Kain eventually warms up to Thomas, but flees the tower one day when he realizes his hostility is not rooted in weariness (he knows Thomas would never hurt them), but is rather resentment and jealousy towards the fact Thomas is friends with Maria. Thomas looks for him for years, in hopes he can make Maria happy again. Maria is secretly pleased that Kain ran away, as he was getting between her and Thomas.
It gets sadder and sadder from here. Maria never questions Thomas’s kindness, but never leaves her tower again when a group of village boys try to rape her, and she begins to suspect Thomas is only nice so that he can have children with her. Kain grows up far away from his mother and sister, but learns while abroad that his voice identifies him as a genuine Utahime to any other Utahime who hears him speak. His mother never told him because she wanted him to run away and for the Utahime system to fail without one of its lynchpins. He also later realizes, after a visit to the capitol, that his sister is singing in his place every night, and that her discordant voice is an upsetting sour note, fouling the whole Utahime network song in the capitol. Though only an Utahime can hear the difference. Kain sees this as blasphemy, but he also begins to worry about the health of his sister, as he can also hear the strain in her voice. Meanwhile, Thomas takes devoted care of Maria through the tower door, but he cannot hear her voice failing her.
The only thing I didn’t like about this story was that there wasn’t a resolution. The story of Thomas, Kain, and Maria is told in flashback, but doesn’t really move on in the present after that. It gets more and more depressing as it goes. It also feels like this was a substantial enough idea to make into a longer series.
On the other hand, while it didn’t have a resolution, I did enjoy the story progression immensely. It’s a slow story, ethereal and very character-driven. I liked that it started as one thing and kept going as something else, and it did a great job of getting sadder and sadder. The romance was doomed and very beautiful. The art, while much simpler than in the other two books I’ve seen by her, also lends itself well to the atmosphere of the story, making this a fairly breezy, lyrical read despite the sadness. I also liked its nature as a short fantasy story. It’s rare that a short fantasy series like this is good, since you need time to build a world. But she kept it simple, and while I would have loved to see this as a 5-volume series, it worked well in this one big volume.
It’s worth tracking down and reading, if you’re so inclined. I’m happy we have more of her work available, and I’m excited to read the more recent Angel of Elhamburg now.