Review: Song of the Hanging Sky, vol. 1

Song of the Hanging Sky, vol. 1
By Toriko Gin
Rated OT, Older Teen 16+
Go!Comi, $10.99

This is an odd little manga with lovely art and a story that goes beyond the usual genres. By the end of it I was not sure what to think, but I was definitely looking forward to the next volume.

The story is set in the mountains of some unspecified land, where Jack, a former field medic, has taken refuge from the wars that rage below. Gentle, bespectacled, skilled in medicine, Jack is a dreamy alternative to the usual sullen guys of shoujo manga. When we first meet him, he is hunkered down before the fire in his snow-covered cabin, writing a letter to his far-away sweetheart.

This cozy reverie is interrupted by frenzied barking from his dog Gustave, who senses something is not right outside. Sure enough, Gustave and Jack head out and soon find a strange child lying in the snow. By “strange,” I don’t just mean that Jack doesn’t know him; the child has feathers instead of hair and a huge set of wings growing out of his back. In fact, Gin explains in an excellent bit of pseudo-science, the child is one of the bird people, a living fossil whose ancestors branched off in some odd way from the evolutionary tree.

In this opening sequence, the child appears to be a wild animal. He speaks in screeches and tweets, not words, he reacts with fear to his first sight of Jack, and he refuses to eat the food Jack offers. Eventually, though, he does succumb a bit to Jack’s kindness and starts to settle in. Just as they start to get along, two mysterious figures appear from the night to claim the child, and Jack says goodbye.

Then the scene and point of view shift, and we see life from the child’s perspective. He and his companions speak in complete sentences, have complex customs and emotions, and generally act, well, civilized. Not like wild animals. The resemblance to Native Americans is obviously intentional; the Bird People wear feathers and beads and fringed capes, live in teepees, and are on the run from extinction. They eat pancakes. Suddenly the little boy (his name is Nuts) seems a lot less feral.

In addition to the feathers that grow on their heads, the Bird People are distinguished by their massive wings, which are feathered when they are children and lose their flesh and feathers as the characters grow to adulthood. Gin uses this as an indicator of age and shows different characters with their wings in various stages of health, but it also serves as a visual reminder of the tribe’s fate: The warriors look healthy and vigorous, but their creaking wing bones carry connotations of old age and weakness.

The Bird People are a closely-knit clan; most of them are related to each other in some way, and their relationships and tensions are revealed as the book goes on. Unfortunately, their names have a who’s-on-first quality that takes a bit of getting used to. The leader of the tribe is named Cave. Across the River is the tribe’s shaman and healer, and the warriors are Crazy Horn, Another Bear, and Fox. Nuts is eventually renamed Hello, at which point the dialogue started sounding quite odd in places.

One of the things that makes this book interesting is that the tribe is going through a time of transition. The Bird People are not timeless; they are evolving as they struggle on the edge of extinction. They have rituals and traditions, and they argue about the importance of keeping them. They do things they don’t like in order to conceal their existence from the rest of the world, and they debate whether that is necessary, too.

And when the point of view shifts from Jack to the Bird People, Jack becomes the threatening, unintelligible outsider. To me, this is one of the best parts of the book—the way it tells the story from both sides of the cultural divide. The reader knows that Jack is good-hearted, but the Bird People, across the linguistic and cultural divide, don’t get that. Jack is almost killed before Hello succeeds in bridging the gap and bringing him into the tribe. And when he does, Jack is in the subordinate position. It’s an interesting reversal of the usual Europeans-versus-native-peoples narrative, which this book is obviously set up to imitate.

There is one National Geographic moment, which probably serves to give the book its 16+ rating: The Bird People bathe topless, and Jack gets all flustered when he sees the lovely Fox doing her morning routine. It’s really more of an Adam and Eve moment, now that I think of it, because the Bird People are not ashamed of their bodies. The scene isn’t in the least bit salacious, and given the overall quality of this book, it would be a shame to keep it away from readers in their early teens.

Gin’s art is detailed and convincing. The characters’ wings look like they really could support them, the characters’ faces are expressive, and the backgrounds are just detailed enough to create a sense of place without being overwhelming. The one place where she overdoes it a bit is with hair and costumes, but that’s feature of manga in general, and it does give the book an interesting look.

This volume is a pretty minimal production by Go!Comi standards; the cover is lovely, but there are no color pages or translator’s notes, just a one-page omake by the artist. The paper is not high quality, but it is good enough to carry the art.

Song of the Hanging Sky goes far beyond standard shoujo manga, with an intriguing premise, complex characters, and a shifting point of view that not only entertains but also provides food for thought. If the quality stays this high in the next two volumes, it’s destined to be a classic.

This review is based on a complimentary copy provided by the publisher.

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  1. This sounds so interesting! I’m so happy you reviewed it, so that I could find it. :)

  2. Wow, I agree with Melinda’s comment. I hadn’t heard of this, but it sounds delightful and I’ll definitely be on the lookout now :D Thanks!!

  3. I believe it is officially released this week, which is why you may not have seen it. There’s a nice preview at the Go!Comi website, which I linked to in the title of the book.

  4. I just got my copy in the mail a day ago, and I’m thrilled with it :) I’ll probably have to post a review of it.