Chronin Vol. 2: The Sword in Your Hand by Alison Wilgus
Chronin Vol. 1: The Knife at Your Back introduced readers to Mirai Yoshida, a wise-cracking time-traveling university student who became stranded in the city of Edo (current-day Tokyo) just before Japan’s Meiji Restoration period. Posing as a male ronin and running errands for the locals has kept her alive and fed, but she was never intended to spend years living in the past, and the danger that her multiple secrets could be exposed is very real. While acting as bodyguard for Hatsu, who works in a local tea shop and needs protection on her way along the Tokkaido Road to Kyoto, Mirai encounters new and familiar faces — not all of whom are pleased to be in her presence.
As Mirai quickly discovers, other time-travelers have used this futuristic technology to their own gain, changing key events in Japan’s past and making it impossible for her or any other travelers in this time-stream to return home. It will take a tremendous plan and the cooperation of unexpected allies to set things right, but even with all of their resources pooled, success is not guaranteed, and Mirai might never see the year 2045 again. Meanwhile, Hatsu’s own secrets are intertwined with those of a powerful and ambitious man who is determined to forever change the course of Japan’s future; Kuji — Mirai’s fellow student and erstwhile lover — has become the head of a rebel group that seeks to overthrow the shogunate; and Gilbert, a helpful British student from Mirai’s own future, has some explosive secrets of his own.
Chronin Vol. 2: The Sword in Your Hand (2019) continues and concludes the CHRONIN duology succinctly; Alison Wilgus keeps the story compact, focusing the reader’s attention on this terrified group of people caught up in a whirlwind of conflicting histories and potential futures, each of whom has individual motivations for participating in a counter-revolution against the man who seeks to guide Japan down what he thinks is the correct path. Interestingly, Wilgus also gives time for this man to explain himself and his own motivations, creating ambiguity and doubt in the reader’s mind as to whether he’s a dyed-in-the-wool villain, someone who truly wants the best for his country and its people, or somewhere in between. At the same time, there’s no argument that his methods are authoritarian and result in great bloodshed, or that the castes of people suffering under the shogunate will continue to suffer in his new Japan.
Wilgus’ character dynamics strengthen and deepen in this second volume, and though some characters fall prey to the dreaded curse of near-insta-love, it’s all part of the romantic ronin manga tradition that lured Mirai into the Time Studies program in the first place. Queer relationships are presented with little to no fanfare, exactly the same as non-queer relationships, and preconceptions about traditional gender roles are gleefully tweaked. Dialogue remains snappy and keyed to each character, making it possible to identify exactly who’s speaking to whom even if speech bubbles have to meander around a panel in order to accommodate for key details. I have some lingering questions about the specifics of time-travel technology and how, exactly, some timelines are brought together, but the ways in which story arcs resolve are still deeply satisfying, despite the relatively short amount of exposure readers have had to characters like Mirai, Hatsu, Kuji, and Gilbert.
The artwork further replicates the manga-feel of this series, with a continuation of the woodblock-style of each page’s panels and, at key moments, a slight exaggeration of character faces and body language, more prevalent in The Sword in Your Hand than in The Knife at Your Back. This isn’t a complaint, mind — Mirai loves the Ronin Ken series, I’m a big fan of various manga series, and it makes perfect sense that Wilgus would incorporate manga elements into her duology. It all works together to create a specific mood and ambience, and I think Wilgus succeeds wonderfully. Moreover, Wilgus’ figure drawings are top-notch: each person’s body proportions and face are distinct, while her keen eye for anatomy and musculature are on full display.
I enjoyed every page of the CHRONIN duology; The Knife at Your Back was a wonderful introduction to Wilgus’ style and talent, while The Sword in Your Hand upped the stakes before bringing the story to a gratifying close. I’ll definitely seek out Alison Wilgus’ work in the future, and I look forward to whatever inventive story she chooses to tell next. Highly recommended.