I hear about most new releases from Twitter and newsletters now, and take special note of the ones I keep seeing reappear again and again on my feeds. The King’s Beast made it onto my noteworthy list considering I had been hearing about it for a while even before it came out this month. Then Viz Media reached out to me to give the first volume a chance and possibly do a review on the blog, in return for a free copy. Looking at the story and context of the manga, I thought it might be a good fit for the blog, fitting nicely into our romance niche. However, what I didn’t realize was the series was written by Rei Toma, the mangaka of Dawn of the Arcana and The Water Dragon’s Bride. I had previously reviewed her Water Dragon’s Bride series here on the site, admitting that I honestly didn’t find it that interesting. Rei Toma has a specific kind of story that she writes that can be a little off-putting to some readers. This new manga had the same problem for me. In the end, I really couldn’t get into the story or the characters of The King’s Beast, but Toma has a very striking art style that I don’t mind admitting I enjoyed.
The King’s Beast is set in the same universe as Toma’s other series Dawn of the Arcana, just set inside another country. Relations between the races of humans and the partly-beast Ajin have devolved into abject slavery. Male Ajin are forced to serve in the military and female Ajin are relegated to sex work or domestic service. When an Ajin is found to have special abilities, they are taken to become a servant to one of the Imperial family. Rangetsu’s brother is taken away one day to serve a prince of the royal family after he is found to have special abilities. However, news reaches her a few years later that he has been killed, with suspicions resting on the Prince. Rangetsu puts aside her female identity, joins the military, all to become the Prince’s next servant in order to exact her revenge.
Despite my complaints about Toma, I do really like her art style. The character designs and face shapes remind me a little bit of Fruits Basket, especially Prince Tenyou, who reminds me a bit of Shigure. The style very much takes after some common shoujo styles in regards to face shapes, eyes, effects, and the way some of the pages are designed to show off the characters. The design of Rangetsu is very stylish and androgenous, with her hair kind of everywhere in front of her eyes, although it does wind up ending in a weird rat tail at the back which I’m not sure how that became a stylistic choice here. Rat tails are always a weird style choice; they just make me think of the 90s. But with her eyes kind of piercing through her bangs and her giant animal ears, she definitely comes across as fairly striking, especially when she is introduced with her fox mask on.
In terms of page design, I would say that it is fairly standard when it comes to a shoujo manga, and it works fairly well to get the story across. The way she sets up the panels, cutting off parts of faces, highlighting expressions and mood, works well for the kind of darker themes she’s exploring. I think we get a fairly good sense of Rangetsu’s mood and the intrigue going on behind the scenes through how the pages emphasize certain points and characters. None of the pages feel crowded with text or exposition, and the important moments that Toma wants to emphasize are given room to breathe and comes across fairly clearly.
My biggest issues with this manga come from the story itself. It seems like Toma is trying to find a balance between romance, intrigue, and darker themes but can’t quite get it right. By the end of the first volume I couldn’t quite decide what I was supposed to think of the series. Was I supposed to see it as mostly romance or was I supposed to see it as integrating more political intrigue into this supposedly romantic storyline. I could see the romance aspect as becoming clearer in the future, but I was having trouble seeing the political intrigue. It was sort of there, but it just did not feel developed enough to really be interesting. The whole point of the story is that Rangetsu disguises herself as a man to get close to the Prince who supposedly killed her brother. Yet, she reveals her purpose in the first volume. This pretty much ruined it for me. It felt like all mystery was gone and Toma wasn’t putting any effort into the intrigue aspect that could have made these series interesting.
A series that I would say is sort of similar would be Yona of the Dawn that does the political aspects of the story so much better. We see plans unfold over time and some characters are multi-faceted enough that we don’t quite know their true intentions. The King’s Beast seemed too unambiguous for me in terms of how fast Rangetsu revealed herself and the way in which the Prince went about confronting one of his brothers. I love stories that incorporate this kind of political scheming, which is why I love Yona of the Dawn so much, but this series just does not do it for me in this area.
The other major issue is the setting and context that Rangetsu finds herself born into. Now I’ve never read Dawn of the Arcana so I don’t have an extensive background on this universe, but from what I saw here, it probably would not appeal to me. Toma has a habit of writing stories with very dark themes or backgrounds with questionable ethics. In this series we see a system of slavery as the backdrop of the story, forcing Rangetsu to run away from a brothel at an early age, hide her identity, and kill members of her own race to gain renown enough to get the attention of the king. Sexism and racism are a focus here where maybe they don’t need to be.
There are good and bad ways of incorporating slavery into your stories, and I really did not like how Toma uses it here. I’m not familiar with how Dawn of the Arcana uses it but I did see that it focuses a lot more on fighting for equality than I’ve seen so far in this series. The King’s Beast, at least in volume one, seems to be using slavery as a plot trope to make the story seem more edgy rather than addressing and discussing the ramifications of slavery as a practice. In fact, I think the plot could work just fine without the slavery narrative. Rangetsu can still find herself working under the prince, her brother could have still been killed, it would just be a little less dark, and I probably would have preferred that. And if a story can work just fine without slavery being incorporated, it doesn’t need it.
To me, the first volume just could not hold my attention and I found myself criticizing the plot, lack of depth, and just general shallowness to how the story plays out. If you are a fan of Toma, then you might like this series, but I apparently am not. It’s a beautifully drawn manga. However, I cannot recommend reading this if you are looking for a political intrigue-laced romance. There are some better series out there for that.
Let me know what you thought in the comments below. I welcome some discussion on this first volume and what some Toma fans may have thought.
~~Thanks for Reading!~~
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