A Beginner’s Recommendation Guide to Fantasy Manga: Shonen (Adventure Fantasy)
You know, it’s interesting to take a look at genres from different perspectives. Here in the West, we have a very particular view of the Fantasy genre, one forged by hugely influential works such as Lord of the Rings, Conan the Barbarian and, more recently, A Song of Ice and Fire. But what about other countries? How do they view the fantasy genre and what major works influence their modern-day writers?
An interesting question indeed. Also not one I’m really answering here. I’m basically using this as an excuse to let me talk about Manga.
Manga, for those uninitiated, is the Japanese equivalent of the comic book. However, while comic books themselves are largely a niche medium in the West, stereotyped as being mostly about spandexed heroes and vastly dwarfed in popularity by their cinematic equivalents, manga is significantly more mainstream in Japan and covers a lot more in terms of genres. I’m certain most of you have heard of infamous sci-fi anime like Ghost in the Shell, Akira and Astro Boy, all of which started life as manga. And there are also a lot of popular, top quality fantasy manga to look at, many of which I hope to cover in the next few months.
But let’s start with a more general beginner’s recommendation guide; an introduction to help you dip your toes into the genre and the wide variety of series that have been produced. Some of these you might have heard of, possibly thanks to the anime adaptations. But the original manga is more than worth reading as well. So let’s take a look, shall we?
Today, we’re going to look at some fun adventure Fantasy Manga in the Shonen style. After all, as much as Dark Fantasy is all in vogue at the moment, sometimes you just want a nice exciting read with plenty of laughs and love.
For those unfamiliar, Shonen manga are series usually aimed towards young teens. Said series are usually fairly long running and are serialised with weekly or monthly chapters. As such, they tend to have long-running storylines, divided into ‘arcs’, each telling a smaller story. However, despite being aimed at teens, Shonen Manga are rather easy to enjoy regardless of age. And there are plenty of fantasy selections to choose from. So I’ve picked out three today. And we’re starting in a very big way with our first entry.
One Piece by Eiichiro Oda
As far as amazing light-hearted adventure series go, you really can’t get much better than One Piece. Eiichiro Oda’s cheerful series about a group of pirates in search of a legendary treasure is the best selling manga series of all time in Japan and it’s not hard to see why. The characters are fun and likeable, the action is dynamic, the stories compelling and it runs the gamut from hilarious comedic to emotional pathos with a casual ease.
But one of the best things about the series, in my opinion, is the setting, which is one of my favourites in all of fantasy-dom. Why? Because it has everything. The world that Oda creates is one where anything can happen and there are entire islands dedicated to strange cultures. One moment you might be on a war-torn Desert Kingdom, the next you might be in a Sky Rainforest powered by magic seashells, the next you might be on an island made of candy and so on. The journeying aspect of the plot means that the cast visit a lot of different strange places and cultures and they’re all laid out in fascinating detail. It’s an adventure series where you’re just as interested as the characters in seeing where they all end up next.
On the more negative side of things, the series is very very long. It has been running for around 20 years now and has over 850 chapters to date, with the ending still clearly a long way off. Fortunately, the fact that the story is divided up into ‘arcs’ means that it’s not one continuous narrative, but it still might be a bit offputting to some readers. Not to mention, it takes the series a few arcs to really find its feet at the beginning. But fortunately, once it gets into the groove, it’s almost consistently an amazing series and one I’d highly recommend.
+ Fun characters, story and action.
+ Amazingly varied setting.
+ Consistently high quality, despite its length.
– Very, very long. (850+ chapters and counting)
– Takes a few arcs to find its feet.
Magi: Labyrinth of Magic by Shinobu Ohtaka
For my second choice, I thought I’d go for a slightly less-known series in a slightly less common setting. Magi: Labyrinth of Magic is an Arabian Knights-inspired series set in a fantasy world where mysterious Dungeons have appeared around the globe, with promises of power to those who complete them. To complete one of these dungeons, a young merchant seller named Alibaba (I did mention this was Arabian Knights inspired, right?) teams up with a strange young boy with a magic flute, named Aladdin. (Veeery Arabian Knights inspired…) This series is a little more down-to-earth than One Piece, but makes up for it by being willing to tackle surprisingly complex and morally grey characters and themes. It’s still ostensibly a cartoonish adventure series, but it does have a darker tinge to its many proceedings and is willing to go into complexities of politics and class that, quite frankly, many so-called ‘adult’ fantasies don’t begin to reach up to. I’ve heard it compared favourably a number times to ‘Game of Thrones if it was a Shonen manga’ which I think tells you plenty.
However, while I have nothing but praise for its handling of darker themes, I will admit it is a bit lacking in some areas, specifically the action department. The action Magi tends to get a bit confusing and difficult to explain, especially as the series goes on and the power creep gets larger. Plus the adventurous dungeon aspect tends to get dropped as the series movies into more in-universe political territory. However, it’s still a series with a fantastic and complex setting, some great characters and overall plenty to like. It’s currently in its final arc and getting close to the conclusion, so the ending is up in the air, but there is plenty to enjoy.
It also has an excellent prequel/spinoff series following Sinbad, one of the major characters, and his adventures, which I’d also highly recommend.
+ Interesting desert setting
+ Excellent characterisation
+ Willing to tackle darker themes and ideas while still remaining fun.
– Not as long as One Piece, but still fairly long
– Action becomes more difficult to follow as series goes on.
Fullmetal Alchemist by Hiromu Arakawa
Fullmetal Alchemist is another series you might well have heard of, if you’re familiar with anime and manga at all. The series, about two brothers seeking to regain their bodies after an attempt to bring their mother back to life goes horribly wrong, is pretty much considered a classic. It finished in 2010 and has had two hit anime to its name, the first of which actually created its own original ending to make up for the fact that the manga had yet to finish. (Just in case you’re wondering where Game of Thrones got the idea.) And does it live up to the hype? Most certainly, yes. It’s funny, touching, action-packed, intelligent and is willing to explore themes like racism and genocide, without it ever feeling too out of place. It’s honestly one of my favourite series and biggest influences as a Fantasy writer.
The setting itself is actually rather unique as far as Fantasy goes, being set in an early 1900’s-styled land, post Industrial Revolution. As a result, the fantasy itself feels rather modernised, giving it a very very unique flavour. Instead of magic, you have Alchemy, a mystical science based around the tenet that you cannot gain something without giving something equal in return. Instead of dark wizards, you have homunculi, seemingly unkillable figures working behind the scenes and manipulating people to their gain. And instead of the magical Mcguffin, you have the Philosophers Stone, a thing of legend with a darker past than you may imagine. The series is not exactly steampunk, automail arms aside, but not exactly straight fantasy either. It’s its own thing and all the better for it.
+ Excellent Story, Worldbuilding and Characters
+ Unique Setting and approach to Fantasy
+ Able to handle both Comedy and Pathos with skill
+ Is actually complete!
– Honestly can’t think of much. This series is really really good.
Well, okay, I think that’s quite enough suggestions for the meantime. Hopefully one of these picks will take your fancy. However, if you prefer your tastes a little more bloody and brutal, join me next time when I recommend a selection of Dark Fantasy Manga to enjoy…