Cantarella Volume 5

Written by You Higuri
Illustrated by You Higuri
Go! Comi

It's brother versus brother with a sister-in-law in the middle! As things quiet down from the recent war and the Pope uses his various children to solidify his power, a woman scorned heads right to the one place she knows she'll find a sympathetic ear. With the often humiliated Juan ready to take down Cesare once and for all, will Cesare finally give in to the dark forces surrounding him?

If he does, will Chiaro be able to fill his vow, or will evil run unchecked under the cloak of the clergy?

Intrigue builds on intrigue as betrayals and lies stack higher and higher on top of shaky claims of honor as this volume of the series returns to the things I liked best about it in the first place.

We still have a bit of angst, as characters bemoan their situations, both real and imagined, but the focus is strongly centered on the idea that just about everyone in this book is willing to do whatever it takes to have their way. From Sancia sampling just about everyone in the Borgia family to the Pope admitting he can't trust his "favored" son to do what it takes to using the power of their various offices and titles to do things they have no right to claim, this is a gathering of people who'd just as soon as stab you in the back as kiss you on the cheek.

Even those who seem to be following a stronger moral path have a few questionable motives. Does Chiaro really want to save Cesare from the demons that plague him if they start to take over, or is he really looking to get a rival for Lucrezia's affections out of the way? (Lucrezia herself is merely a pawn in all of this, which would normally bother me, but it makes sense within the historical context of the series.) And why is that sorcerer so keen on helping out, anyway? What's in it for him?

Figuring out the angles and how each character will react to the situations that Higuri sets up for them is part of the fun of reading this manga. We're drawn to Cesare primarily, of course, but watching the others run around behind each others' backs is quite entertaining. The fact that nothing that goes on in this manga, save the part about actual demons existing, is too far out of line for the time period is both a tribute to the author and a sad commentary on human nature.

For me, seeing the alternative history play out is the primary draw to Cantarella. However, I do appreciate that Higuri is working hard to make sure that the characters mature and grow as the volumes progress. Cesare's nature darkens just a bit every time, and we're definitely meant to believe that he's giving in to the demons. But is he? There's a long discussion about fate and our ability to change it that adds a depth to watching Cesare. Are the demons controlling him, as Chiaro fears? Or will Cesare take charge of his life instead, and use the horrible powers his father gave him to set his own course? I don't know yet, and part of the growth of the series is seeing that change over time.

Similarly, Juan moves up a bit here from being just a foppish jerk to a man who knows he's been emasculated by everyone. His move for a power play at this point makes sense, even if we all know he's not capable of playing in his father's league. Chiaro's devotion to the two Borgia siblings and the reasons behind it also progress here, and it looks like that might be trouble for the man known also as a top assassin.

Higuri's artwork continues to be finely detailed, working to keep the period feel while still making her characters have the beautiful look that we see in so many manga. I thought the action scenes were a bit hard to follow, but other than that, the panel construction worked well. I think we saw a lot about what the characters were thinking by the looks on their faces, something I always appreciate in a comic story. You can tell that a lot of research goes into the pages to make it look just right.

I really like Cantarella, both because it is a historical piece and the plot that Higuri works with is compelling and makes you want to keep reading to see what's going to happen. If you like historical comics or series with a lot of intrigue and scheming, pick this up. But you definitely want to start with volume one.