Creator: You Higuri
Translation: Kayoko Dietsche
Publisher: Go! Comi
Age Rating: Older Teen
Genre: Action
RRP: $10.99
Cantarella v1
Reviewed by Brigid Alverson

You can’t go wrong with the Borgias—as long as you don’t have dinner with them.

Ambitious, ruthless, and possessed of a family recipe for a subtle but deadly poison, the Borgia family of Renaissance Italy have fascinated writers for centuries. In Cantarella, artist and writer You Higuri takes a fresh view of this fabled family, bringing them to life with real emotions and a touch of the supernatural.

The book begins with the birth of Cesare Borgia, the son of Rodrigo Borgia, a powerful cardinal of the Roman Catholic church, and his mistress. From the very beginning, the book hints that Rodrigo has made some type of dark deal involving the child. Sensing that something is amiss, Cesare’s mother tries to strangle her baby but ends up perishing in a fire instead. You don’t mess with the Borgias.

The story moves rapidly and with plenty of action: sword fights, chases on horseback, conspiracies in the hallways, secret trysts. At the center of it all is Cesare, who is curiously likable for someone who is doomed to a life of evil. Higuri keeps him from becoming a stock villain by allowing him to become close to several people—then showing his bitterness as they are taken away, or betray him.

Halfway through the book, we meet Cesare’s counterpart, Chiaro. Like Cesare, Chiaro comes across as a basically good guy who is doomed by circumstance: His father is a former assassin, now imprisoned and insane. Chiaro cares for him but is also forced to carry on the family business of killing for hire. Dispatched by one of Rodrigo’s rivals to kill Cesare, he instead finds himself at the point of Cesare’s sword. Cesare lets him get away, but Chiaro continues to pursue him.

Higuri makes dark forces in this book visible, and thus puts them at arm’s length, for both men. For Chiaro, the locus of evil is the assassin’s mask, Michelotto. When he puts it on, he is transformed from the kind of person who steals bread to feed his insane father to the kind of person who willingly kills a total stranger. Cesare is surrounded by dark demons that look like puffs of smoke with hideous faces. They watch him silently, and he is more annoyed than frightened by them. As the story proceeds, Cesare learns that a few others can see his demons, but only Chiaro can make them go away.

The end of the first volume fulfills the promise of the beginning. As Cesare stands in the rain, waiting for an audience with his father, and Chiaro lurks in the woods, waiting for the chance to finish him off, Cesare’s brother Juan tricks their father into revealing the truth: He has made a pact with the devil, selling his son’s soul in exchange for the papacy. When Rodrigo becomes the pope, the devil will come to claim his due.

Renaissance Italy is a rewarding setting because it offers not only dark intrigues but also visual richness. Cantarella is a costume drama, and Higuri gets the flow of the fabric just right while at the same time detailing every pearl and pleat. With crisp economy, she sketches in backgrounds that evoke the architecture of the time, using the patterns of arches, rafters, and building stones to heighten the dramatic effect. Occasionally she cuts loose and gives us a richly detailed scene, but too often she simply leaves the backgrounds blank.

Higuri really works the architecture of the page to move her story along, mixing tight close-ups with birds-eye views and the manga equivalent of voice-overs. Reading this book is almost like watching a movie. The shapes and arrangement of the panels, the switches in point of view, even the way that the last panel on the page often marks the transition to a new scene—all help keep the eye moving.

The Go! Comi people put a lot of emphasis on the quality of their product, and it shows. The paper quality is good and the inside art is sharp, although the printing of the cover is a bit too fuzzy to do justice to the gorgeous artwork. There are plenty of extras, including historical information on the real Cesare Borgia and an author’s note on the process she went through to develop the book.

Dining with the Borgias may not be a good idea, but Cantarella is a gorgeous appetizer of a story that whets the appetite for more.

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