Chronin Vol. 1: The Knife at Your Back

Chronin Vol. 1: The Knife at Your Back by Alison Wilgus Chronin Vol. 1: The Knife at Your Back by Alison Wilgus

Chronin Vol. 1: The Knife at Your Back by Alison Wilgus The time: July 1864. The place: a tea shop in Edo; what modern folks would call Tokyo, Japan. After some reluctance on his part, a tea mistress named Hatsu hires a reticent samurai, Yoshida Minoru, to act as her bodyguard while she travels outside the city on a private errand. What Hatsu quickly discovers, and what the reader already knows, is that Yoshida Minoru is no samurai at all — but is actually Mirai Yoshida, a university student from New York City in the year 2042.

Mirai was part of a special group of students, all of whom were chosen for their academic excellence and dedication, who were given access to time-travel technology in order to better study historically significant events. Their trips to the Tokugawa Shogunate period were supposed to be as unobtrusive as possible, spending just a little time interacting with locals before returning home via special beacons. But if Mirai and her fellow travelers were only going back to the year 1860 for brief stints, why is she still there four years later, living as a samurai? What secret is Hatsu hiding? Who were the mysterious men who attacked Mirai and a group of others in the opening pages of Chronin Volume 1: The Knife at Your Back (2019)? And with a country on the cusp of revolution, will Mirai’s knowledge of the changes to come be a boon or a burden?

Alison Wilgus does an excellent job of incorporating period-appropriate fashion, architecture, and cultural practices into the story, and tells a solid story at the same time. Even if readers aren’t familiar with the politics of 1860s Japan and the transition from shogun-mandated national seclusion to European trade (which is a nice way of saying Western powers threatened Japan with all-out war if Japan didn’t share their trade goods, and at prices favorable to Europeans), Wilgus folds those details into dialogue and plot in approachable ways. She avoids portraying the revolutionaries trying to overthrow the shogunate as purely altruistic, and at the same time, doesn’t shy away from discussing the very real iniquities enforced by the shogunate and which directly lead to the need for social change during the Meiji Restoration.

Alison Wilgus

Visually, Wilgus’ art style is strikingly reminiscent of Japanese woodblock prints (think Hokusai’s Great Wave off Kanagawa or Hiroshige II’s One Hundred Views of Japan), with soft-pencil drawings of a single key item or subject marking the separation between the graphic novel’s segments. Though she relies completely on a black-and-white color scheme, Wilgus’s panels are always clear and concise, and most importantly, completely readable. She differentiates the foreground and background of each panel through thickness of lines and clarity of character features, and does an excellent job of making characters distinct through facial features and hairstyles. Moreover, the anatomy of her characters is really well-done, as in the basic physical differences between, say, Hatsu and Mirai — Hatsu is small and more traditionally feminine in appearance, while Mirai, even before she becomes trapped in the past, has a more muscular, masculine frame. It helps to explain how she’s been able to pass herself off as a samurai, as well as hinting at aspects of her personality and her possible reasons for wanting to experience another life beyond her love of the “Ronin Ken” manga.

Hatsu, herself, is far smarter and more resourceful than anyone gives her credit for. Her journey with Mirai is an illuminating one for each of the young women, as they discover they each share a history with a brash, naïve young man assisting the revolutionaries, but also as they find they have a lot in common despite the cultural and temporal distances between them. I was glad to see that as much as Mirai might have prepared for her excursions into the past with university classes like Intro to Edo Dialect I and Costume of the Late Tokugawa, she’s utterly out of her depth once outside the district she’s been haunting for the past few years, which is a far more realistic approach to time-travel than most authors seem to want to admit. And Mirai fully admits that shortcoming on her part, though she does point out that her current situation was supposed to be avoided. The exact specifics leading to her being stranded in the past are hinted at, but not fully revealed, in The Knife at Your Back, though I expect all will be made clear in the other half of the CHRONIN duology.

Some of The Knife at Your Back’s elements will be familiar from other time-travel narratives, and it’s often so easy to pick out time-travelers among a time period’s native inhabitants that it’s a wonder that the program is allowed to continue. But Wilgus’ dialogue is fresh and snappy, the story moves with purpose, the characters are deeply conflicted, and there were far more surprises than I anticipated. I definitely want to see how it all comes together in Vol. 2: The Sword in Your Hand, due to be released in September 2019.

As a special treat, we have an excerpt from Chronin Vol. 1: The Knife at Your Back! (Click to embiggen.)

Published in February 2019. Alison Wilgus’s Chronin Volume 1: The Knife at Your Back: is an action-packed, time travel adventure–first in a graphic novel duology. Her name is Mirai Yoshida. She was not born in Japan. She is not supposed to be in 1864. But, through a time-travel mishap, Mirai is stuck with no way out. Help may be found when she befriends Hatsu, a humble tea mistress harboring a dangerous secret. Yet time is running short for the entire nation, because Mirai knows that the shogunate is about to fall. Learning the way of the sword might be her only path towards survival.

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JANA NYMAN, with us since January 2015, is a freelance copy-editor who has lived all over the United States, but now makes her home in Colorado with her dog and a Wookiee. Jana was exposed to science fiction and fantasy at an early age, watching Star Wars and Star Trek movie marathons with her family and reading works by Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury WAY before she was old enough to understand them; thus began a lifelong fascination with what it means to be human. Jana enjoys reading all kinds of books, but her particular favorites are fairy- and folktales (old and new), fantasy involving dragons or other mythological beasties, contemporary science fiction, and superhero fiction. Some of her favorite authors are Bradbury, James Tiptree, Jr., Madeleine L'Engle, and Philip Pullman.

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