As I was reading the latter half of this series, I thought that six volumes is a really nice length for a manga series. It isn’t so overly long that the author gets caught up in endless monster of the week fights or having the characters engage in circular plot loops. But it is long enough that the author is able to spend plenty of time setting up a complex plot and developing the supporting cast. There are spoilers ahead for the final volumes!
Key to the Kingdom Volume 4 by Kyoko Shitou
I started out being a little annoyed with the young sheltered hero of this manga, Asta. But as he makes his way in the world to Beltos, a country his older brother told him to visit if anything ever happened to him, Asta shows courage and ingenuity as he unravels the mystery behind the Key to the Kingdom. On the other hand, Letty, who initially seemed like a strong and vibrant girl is starting to act like a spoiled brat because her crush on her knight Alex isn’t reciprocated. She’s only 13 and is possessed by a demonic relic, so I suppose she has an excuse for acting like a brat. I still found her whining a bit annoying. I guess she serves as a good contrast to Asta’s journey towards maturity.
The competitors to the throne are scattered around all four points of the compass, seeking out invisible towers that are supposed to be accessible only on the summer solstice. There’s tension between Asta and Badd because the dragon man Gaius foretold Badd’s death on that day as well. Asta is confident that he’ll be able to change fate, and he uses his book smarts to figure out the deadly nature of the quest. The keys to the towers are actually the humans of royal blood, and their deaths will activate a powerful spell. After a couple volumes of character development and set-up, volumes four and five ratchet up the action, with battling dragon men, foiled kidnappings, and noble knights being good and wonderful.
Key to the Kingdom Volume 5 Kyoko Shitou
Badd’s dark prophecy comes true, and Asta is left alone to navigate back to his country. Of the five people who quested for the key, only Asta, Letty, and Fairheart are left after encountering the invisible towers. The dragon men reveal their true nature, and Asta is tempted by the opportunity to grab some power for himself. Asta’s aware of his own weakness but a magical way of gaining strength isn’t going to work out for him. The bond that Asta and Badd have built during their journey remains, but Asta will have to grow up even more without the guidance of his knight.
There’s a little more focus on Lord Fairheart in the last volumes of the seris. Even though he is all that is noble and good he somehow manages to be admirable instead of an annoying Dudley Doright type. When Fairheart learns some harsh truths about his ancestors he’s willing to ally with the abrasive dragon man Ceianus even though they’ve fought in the past.
Key to the Kingdom Volume 6 Kyoko Shitou
The final volume shows Asta being forced to confront what he always avoided, having to lead men into battle. He’s arrived at Fairheart’s lands, but the border lord hasn’t come back from his quest yet. The lords want to use Asta’s name as a rallying point to gather additional troops from neighborhood provinces. Asta reluctantly takes command, but his bookish way of waging war is designed to minimize the loss of life both for his men and the enemy. When his clever traps and strategy don’t prevent death, he wonders what he’s become.
While any sort of epic fantasy story involving dragons isn’t going to be entirely original, Shitou manages to put some unexpected elements in her story. She ties a creation myth and legends to Asta’s current problems and his intellectual approach towards dealing with kingdom building made him a little different from the “man of action” type hero you usually see in this type of story. One of the things I liked was the way the tone of the series shifted towards the elegiac at the end. While the beginning of the manga showed Asta starting out on his quest haunted by the deaths in his family, he and Badd quickly shift into a bantering type of relationship which Badd often provoked by boasting about his womanizing exploits. Badd’s fate and Asta’s reaction to it ensure that the manga ends with a melancholy and reflective moment, which isn’t what you might expect from a swords and sorcery fantasy manga. Key to the Kingdom was a solid, slightly quirky fantasy manga, which is just what I’ve come to expect from CMX.