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Friday, September 6, 2013

The Story So Far: Pandora Hearts

Pandora Hearts volumes 1-17
Art/story by Jun Mochizuki
Published in English by Yen Press

The air of celebration surrounding fifteen-year-old Oz Vessalius’ coming-of-age ceremony quickly turns to horror when he is condemned for a sin about which he knows nothing. He is thrown into an eternal, inescapable prison known as the Abyss from which there is no escape. There, he meets a young girl named Alice, who is not what she seems. Now that the relentless cogs of fate have begun to turn, do they lead only to crushing despair for Oz, or is there some shred of hope for him to grasp on to? (Source: Yen Press)
"This world is like a dark night that swallows everything."
Pandora Hearts, despite what some might think, is not some Black Butler pastiche gone wrong (hell, the plots aren't even that similar). It's not an Alice In Wonderland-inspired Gothic tale in the vein of, say, Alice In The Country Of Hearts. Pandora Hearts may live within a realm of Alice inspired references but it is not limited to Lewis Carroll's 'verse. This is a bloody, dark hearted kind of fairy tale where safety is an illusion, everyone is a lie, and back stories are meant to be blown wide open by the terrible truth.
Honestly, if you get up to volume seventeen in Pandora Hearts - the most recent release by Yen Press - and you don't find yourself cursing out Jun Mochizuki and her deliciously deceitful ways, you might want to read something else. To love Pandora Hearts is to love having your heart pulled out and stomped on on a regular schedule, and enjoy it. I can't remember reading a volume which didn't have me at the end of it stomping my feet, frustrated that I didn't have the following volume already in my hands.

Pandora Hearts is the story of a young man named Oz Vessalius who spends most of his time confused and frustrated, being thrown from one odd situation to another, his life subjected to the endless whims of a cruel universe and the occasional baddie in a black hooded robe. His companion is the headstrong Alice, whose drive to find her memories is only rivaled by her love food eating and teasing Oz. Between them is Oz's valet, Gil Nightray, who pretty much spends most of his time scowling or being irritated by other people's eccentricities.
The truest, purest drive behind the main story of Pandora Hearts is self-discovery. Alice is looking for her true self. Oz is looking for the truth of his existence as well as the tragedy that has propelled the entire series, the infamous tragedy of Sablier. Other characters are just busy figuring out what they want to do and what their purpose in life is. There is also the mystery of the Baskervilles. What is their purpose? What is in the Abyss that they want? The Abyss is another one of those strange mysteries that gathers more questions than answers, all spiraling towards an unseen conclusion off in the future.
I should also point out that Pandora Hearts is bloody. It makes sense; several of its major events are basically bloody massacres. Its villain-coded characters have no problem whatsoever slaughtering whatever is standing in their way, human or not. The fact that this violence is dressed in Lewis Carroll references - Alice and Mad Hatter and rabbits and so forth - just makes these scenes all the more otherworldly, as strange and unknowable as the Abyss itself.
Jun Mochizuki is a fantastic storyteller, constantly weaving a vast array of story-lines in and out of each volume, but she is also a wonderful artist. The artwork in Pandora Hearts is top-notch Gothic horror with a fantasy spin, especially the color art. She puts so much work into the characters, the costumes, the backgrounds, the architecture - it makes you want to put your hands on the related art book right away.
The only reason that I haven't been reviewing Pandora Hearts on an actual regular basis is that each volume is so continuity heavy, so laden with flashbacks and references to past events, that there is no truly 'beginner friendly' volume for someone with minimal to no knowledge of the series to jump in at. But it is a fully developed, very involved series that you'll know if you like it by the end of the first book - and if you love it by the second.
The thing about Pandora Hearts is, don't expect knowing everything that is going on, even by book seventeen. You have to be able to go along for the ride, enjoying every sharp turn and speed bump along the way. Mochizuki can burn through plot pretty quickly; there's just a ton of plot to burn through before the end.
As more questions stack up against the small amount of answers available, we feel like Oz Vessalius himself, unsure of who he is or what the truth is about his world. Unlike Oz, we see everything that happens; it's a shame that this doesn't help unlock all the mysteries of the dark Abyss and its inhabitants. But damn, it's fun to try and guess the answers all the while. If only it were this fun for Oz and Alice, poor kids.

You can read more about the Pandora Hearts series at the Yen Press website. Hat tip to Saa-chan's fangirlings for the art book scans.