Witch Hat Atelier, Volume Two is the second tankōbon of Kamome Shirahama’s Witch Hat Atelier fantasy manga series. Witch Hat Atelier (Tongari Bōshi no Atelier in the original Japanese) has been serialized in Kodansha’s Monthly Morning Two magazine since July 2016. The English translation of Volume One appeared in 20191.
When last we saw young witch-in-training Coco, she and her schoolmates (Agott, Tetia, and Richeh) walked into a trap while shopping. Coco wanted a better pen. What she and her chums have is an angry dragon.
The quartet are not merely uncomfortably close to a dragon. They are trapped in a pocket dimension with it. Playing hide and seek with a ravenous dragon will keep them safe, but only for a short time. Survival requires escaping from the pocket dimension, something none of the four knows how to do.
Iguin, the Brimhat2 witch responsible for trapping the four, doesn’t really want them to die. The trap is more of a test, intended to see if Coco really has the potential Iguin hopes that she has. Putting Coco in a position where she must embrace forbidden magic would be even better.
As so often is true in stories like this, the key to escape is not forbidden magic, but a combination of keen observational skills and each student’s particular specialties. By combining their strengths, the four survive3 long enough for their teacher Qifrey to retrieve them from the pocket dimension.
Rescue from the dragon does not solve one of Coco’s most pressing challenges, which is that she is a non-witch (an unknowing) learning witch magic. This is forbidden, something to which Qifrey resorted because Coco’s memories may hold within them the key to confounding the Brimhats. When threatened with exposure, Qifrey is adept at using persuasive argument and the occasional memory-erasing magic to deal with the potential whistle-blowers.
Qifrey’s approach has a flaw. Should the Witches Council ever notice his extraordinary student, they might well erase Coco’s memory on the spot without giving Qifrey the chance to plead Coco’s case. Given Coco’s propensity for unleashing magic without grasping potential failure modes, it is inevitable that she will run afoul of the Council.
While Qilfrey’s interest in Coco is pragmatic (she’s essential to his political objectives), it’s quite clear that he is also acting out of kindness. The roster of his other students suggests that he specializes in problem cases, students who for various reasons were poor fits for their previous teachers. (I note that sympathetic characters who have to struggle with their character flaws or magical limits are an excellent source of plot).
This volume introduces Qifrey’s watchful eye, Olruggio, whose duties include making sure that Qifrey follows the rules. Since Qifrey sees the rules as a sometimes thing, having a live-in compliance officer could be extremely inconvenient — except that poor Olruggio’s other obligations keep him overworked and distracted. Also Qifrey has a lot of experience arguing Olruggio around to his way of thinking.
Maybe the Council should periodically reassign their watchful eyes…
Witch Hat Atelier falls within what could be termed hard fantasy4, the sort that, having established the rules of its one impossible thing, explores the consequences. In this case, the author is playing with magic: its own rules and the rules the Witch Society has adopted to protect its members. If magic is rune-based, how might witches deal with its inherent limitations? Given the Council’s commitment to security by obscurity, how do the witches perform magic without betraying to the unknowing how they do it?
The setting and the plotting are enjoyable, but are not the only things to like in this manga. The art is beautiful. The manga has a rich, diverse cast of characters. Coco manages the difficult trick of being sympathetic even though she is inadvertently dangerous to those around her. Plot twists are frequent and entertaining. Best of all, if I am judicious about rationing volumes, it should be 2023 before I run out of new volumes to read.
1: Witch Hat Atelier’s North American publisher Kodansha USA clearly understands they’ve got hold of a potential cash cow here, having translated and published nine Witch Hat Atelier tankōbon since April 9, 2019.
2: Quick recap: having discovered the hard way that giving everyone magic results in mass carnage, the Council restricts all knowledge of to a chosen, trustworthy few families. Common folk — the unknowing — who learn too much are subjected to mind erasure. A few witches find these rules onerous. Since the Council has an itchy Mind-Erase finger, the rebels wear hats with face-concealing brims. Thus Brimhats.
3: Don’t worry about the dragon: rather than working out how to kill it, the four provide it with an exceptionally comfortable magical bed of innovative design.
4: There is at least one other branch of hard fantasy, exemplified by Poul Anderson’s On Thud and Blunder, in which verisimilitude is sought by focusing on realistic mundane elements.