The Key to the Kingdom Volumes 1-3 by Kyoko Shitou
CMX can always be counted on to license good fantasy titles. The Key to the Kingdom follows a fairly typical fantasy adventure quest, but the characters and background details in the world Shitou created captured my attention. I picked up all six volumes in this series after reading a review from one of the manga bloggers on livejournal. It took a couple attempts for me to get into this series, mainly because the first few pages introduced a main character I didn’t initially care for. Once all the pieces were lined up for the quest to start I was eager to read about the rest of the journey.
Asta is an indifferent prince. He prefers to spend his time reading in the garden, and declines when his best friend Letty offers to teach him how to use a sword. Unfortunately when Asta’s father and older brother die in battle, his responsibilities are going to have to change. Just listening to all the ministers debate about who will be regent makes him sick (Asta is only 13) and he bursts out yelling that he will refuse to take the throne. The older nobility decide to hold a contest. If anyone with the right bloodline manages to find the legendary Key to the Kingdom within 2 years, they will be given the throne. If no one completes the quest, the throne will revert to Asta. Letty is the first to raise her hand to participate in the quest. She’s a lively girl, and her father gives her an entourage of handsome knights to help her in the hope that he’ll also get a son-in-law. Also competing are the older, potentially evil Duke Alan and General Bardus. Asta decides to participate in the contest too, mainly as a way to research a comment his brother said to him before he died about the need to journey to a nearby kingdom. Asta is aided in his quest by his brother’s right-hand man, a womanizing soldier Baddorias, nicknamed Badd.
Shitou’s art seems a little old-fashioned, but I enjoyed all the androgynous characters with their long flowing hair. She does keep things from being too pretty, as Asta and his rivals for the quest encounter strange creatures when they start to research the history of the legendary Key and its ties to dragons and dragon tamers. There’s a half-elf, half plant with dire prophecies that provides an element of the grotesque that is an effective counterpoint to all the shining armor and long eyelashes. Badd takes his responsibilities to the young prince very seriously, and decides to expose him to the world by removing him from the entourage that would pamper him as they start their quest. A mysterious dragon man named Gaius seems to be following Asta and Badd as they begin their journey.
While the first volume sets up the characters and the central quest, the second volume begins to explore the mythology and backstory of Asta’s Kingdom. Who are the dragon men? Are they dragons in human form or something else? How is the power of the key related to the legendary human dragon tamers, who drank the blood of wyrms in order to receive magical power and immortality? While the participants in the quest tend to scatter, sometimes Asta and Letty meet up. Letty has developed an attraction to one of her Knights, and Asta sees that his avoidance of the martial arts might not be such a great decision when he wants to protect the girl he likes. For the record, Letty is perfectly capable of defending herself, so it was nice to see an example of a somewhat headstrong girl in Key to the Kingdom, even though she does seem preoccupied with her first crush. While the dragon man Gaius might be benign, there’s another dragon man out there interfering with the quest. Ceianus has a well honed hatred for humans, and he doesn’t hesitate to use his mystical powers to strike out at them.
In the third volume Asta encounters the mysterious fifth participant in the quest, a border noble named Lord Fairheart. Asta begins to learn the disturbing truth behind his country’s history, as Fairheart shares some family legends with him. Different participants in the quest learn conflicting information and the dragon men seem to visit everyone to tell them about their destinies. While it isn’t an unexpected story arc, I enjoyed seeing Asta grow more mature as he is forced to confront the world beyond his castle walls. Asta and Badd are struggling in their individual ways with the aftermath of the Crown Prince’s death, and they look out for each other. Asta manages to be resourceful when drawing on all the knowledge that he’s amassed due to his reading habits, and Badd will do anything to protect the young prince. While the whole “quest to find the legendary object” plot is pretty shopworn, the combination of attractive art, sympathetic characters, and the mystery of the dragon men added up to an enjoyable first half for this manga series. Now I just need to set aside the time to read the next three books.