2017’s Witch Hat Atelier, Volume 1 is the first volume of Kamome Shirahama’s secondary-universe fantasy manga series. Titled Tongari Bōshi no Atorie in the original Japanese, Witch Hat Atelier has been serialized in Kodansha’s Monthly Morning Two magazine since July 2016. The English translation of volume one appeared in 2019.
Coco has been fascinated by magic since she was a little girl. Heart-broken to learn from her widowed mother that only those born into magical families can use magic, a small part of her continues to hope that perhaps she will be the exception. Thus when a mysterious masked witch gives her a grimoire and a pen, Coco accepts it. Thus when the witch Qifrey assigns Coco the task of ensuring nobody spies on him as he carries out a quick magical repair, she uses the opportunity to spy on him herself.
Qifrey unwittingly provides Coco with the vital piece of information she lacked; now Coco can practice magic herself.
Witch magic involves written runes. Although Coco is unclear on many of the details, she has her book and more importantly her very special pen1 to practice writing runes. She proceeds by experimentation, carefully noting the effects of each unfamiliar rune. All things considered, it takes Coco a surprisingly long time to inadvertently kill her mother by transforming her and her household into stone.
Perhaps Coco’s mother could be turned back to a living person. Coco has no idea how to do this and neither does Qifrey when he discovers what happened. Witch protocol calls for Qifrey to simply wipe the grieving orphan’s mind of its illicit magical knowledge. Instead, he offers Coco a place at his school, where she can learn to use magic safely.
Qifrey is not entirely altruistic. Some witch illicitly provided Coco with the means to teach herself magic, even though this is (as it proved) quite dangerous. Coco’s memories may help the elder witch track down the witch responsible2.
Aghast at having petrified her mother, Coco is never the less ecstatic to be taught the ways of magic. Determined to earn her way into the ranks of the witches, Coco accepts at face value a fellow classmate’s claim that Coco must pass an onerous test. As the hostile classmate knows, but Coco does not, not only it is unlikely an ill-prepared Coco will pass the test, the odds of her surviving it are quite dismal.
A cynic might expect that the witches maintain their monopoly on magic to keep themselves in power. Perhaps that’s true, in part, but the ostensible justification, also true in part, is that the last time rune magic was widely known to the public, so many people experimented with WMD spells that the world was nearly destroyed. The witches limit their number to the number who can be trained to be ethical witches. This seems to be working as well as one might expect (not at all).
There are some grim bits in this manga (Coco’s mother’s death, some witch or witches handing dangerous magic to children3), but this series seems be upbeat on the whole. Or at least volume one is a reasonably cheerful volume. Coco gets to learn some proper magic, and it turns out that one of her previous skills — dressmaking — is directly applicable to magic. It’s like a dream come true for her.
The author manages to present this as Coco being sunny and outgoing rather than so self-centered that she can put aside the fact that she killed her mom.
Not only is this manga engagingly written, not only are the characters appealing, I love the art.
This may well be my favourite manga discovery of the year so far.
1: The ink is magic.
2: It seems unlikely that Coco’s mother can be restored to life. Magic that affects living bodies is easily misused and is banned. Even healing magic is forbidden. Qifrey has no idea which spell doomed Coco’s mom, hence knows no antidotes, and would break the ban if he were to use one.
The single exception is memory-erasing magic used to protect the secret of how magic really works.
3: The volume ends on a cliff-hanger in which Coco is revealed as a chosen one of sorts. Not only is she team evil’s savior (maybe), it seems reasonable to suppose that the plotter/plotters handed out a lot of starter grimoires and magic pens. Coco is special because she survived.