Reading the first volume of Children of the Whales is like an exercise in patience. It starts off like it has no real idea of where it’s going other than forward, with its setting and characters doing the legwork to draw the reader in. By volume’s end, it certainly winds up somewhere — but it feels like a few important stops were missed along the way. If you’ve ever played a long prologue in a JRPG or watched a movie with a first act that really drags on, this volume has that feeling in spades. That may be off putting to some, but there’s plenty of merit in the series’ opening chapters-and a lot of potential just waiting to be mined.
Children of the Whales follows the life of a young boy named Chakuro, who has the unenviable compulsion to write down anything and everything he observes. This medical condition (seriously, it’s either that or a curse) proves helpful when it comes to cataloging the daily life on the Mud Whale, a giant island drifting through the mysterious Sea of Sand. The Mud Whale is made up of two types of people: The Marked, people cursed with powerful magic who rarely make it past age 30, and the Unmarked, average people who nonetheless hold the most political and social power on the island. When a brand-new island shows up in the Mud Whale’s path, Chakuro joins a scouting mission to record as much information as he can-same old, same old. Once there, he stumbles upon an injured girl named Lykos, taking her back to the search party and then the Mud Whale itself. That’s when things start to go awry for Chakuro and co., with prison escapes, dark secrets being revealed, and the possibility of more visitors on the horizon.
One of the biggest strengths of the manga so far is its worldbuilding-which, granted, isn’t too difficult to do when your world is one specific locale. The Mud Whale is an isolated entity, but it isn’t desolate. Geographically, it’s got everything from mountaintops to grassy knolls and even a working housing system. It’s well fleshed out and no panel goes unfilled, outside of when empty space is integral for tone-setting. Politically, there’s the obvious class hierarchy between the Marked and Unmarked, but you also have the different players on the board all trying to uncover (or mask) the truth behind Lykos and her past. It’s clear that there’s been tension on the Mud Whale long before Lykos arrived, though the actual story of why the island became the way it did are left tantalizingly vague for most of the volume. As well, we’re given the bare minimum of the Marked’s thymia abilities, including their connection to emotions (which becomes very important when the emotionally drained Lykos enters the picture) before we’re shuffled onto the next major plot point. The lack of information may be intentional to help build intrigue, but its success at that is varied; it has more hits than misses, all things considered.
The main characters are serviceable so far. The major players in this volume, Chakuro and Lykos, are very easy to understand when you get right down to it. One’s a young, naive idealist who loves everybody and wants to know more about the world around him. Lykos is a traumatized survivor with a stoic attitude, for reasons that are both heartbreakingly real and completely off the wall simultaneously, and a chip on her shoulder the size of the Mud Whale itself. This personality pairing is common among this type of fantasy story, but it is that way for a simple reason-it works. The ways they change each other, even if briefly, help make the volume’s end land a lot harder when both see the consequences of these changes.
The art is also a high point, with the backgrounds making an especially strong impression. The Mud Whale’s various landscapes make for engaging panels, particularly in the volume’s splash pages. The Sea of Sand is fascinating, with literal waves of grain helping to both expand the world and emphasize just how lonely it is. The character designs feel a bit more standard by comparison, but not in a bad way-their varying facial features and the distinct differences in style between the kids and adults do leave their impact. The magical abilities that the Marked use can be make scenes cluttered sometimes, leaving it difficult to tell who’s doing what and exactly what’s being done without a quick reread. Still, it’s an overall pleasing read to look at despite its smaller faults.
It’s just a shame that for all its worldbuilding and great sense of aesthetics, the manga feels devoid of real characters. While Chakuro, Lykos, and a few select side characters get some solid development (particularly mayoral candidate Suou and delinquent Ouni), we know the rest in brief for a few pages out of four chapters at the most. It’s clear that there was an attempt made, with a few scenes with the Mud Whale’s citizens just going about their lives, but they’re really just more set dressing to Chakuro and Lykos’ stories. It is nice to see that the Mud Whale is populated by people rather than mannequins with names, and giving even some focus to characters outside of the main protagonists adds to the worldbuilding quite a bit. That’s the issue, however: we’re given tiny looks into these characters lives, which work well enough, but even just another volume’s worth of build-up would have made them a lot more fleshed out and memorable.
Children of the Whales really wants to be an important, dramatic story, and it certainly lays the groundwork for one in this first volume. It’s got a strong sense of style and place, and the main characters work well with what they’re given. However, it seems to treat exposition like a taboo, erring on the side of caution by giving us just enough scraps to make a coherent plot out of. It does well in building up intrigue and mystery, while simultaneously letting its less important characters fall to the wayside. However, with this volume, the first act is over and done with. Now comes the good part.