It’s a striking cover image, to be sure. The sight of a knight in full plate armor charging towards the reader on a horse with his spear outstretched with German text and a design sense that screams “middle ages” lets you know that this isn’t like your usual manga. However, on the back cover there’s a picture of a woman in a more conventional manga style licking her thumb while cooking and looking otherwise “sultry.” The inconsistencies between these two images give you a pretty good idea of what to expect on the inside. While the setting and some of the design elements help the book stand out a bit, the storytelling and characters are pretty familiar.
In the early 14th century, three cantons in the Alps formed an alliance to protect their shared trade interests and were swiftly put down by the lords of Austria led by Duke Leopold I. Austria’s actions only served to inflame the populace and a fierce rebellion was carried on throughout the contested areas. However, all three cantons were effectively boxed into the Alps through one main passage: Sankt Gotthard Pass, a.k.a. The Wolf’s Maw -- Wolfsmund. Lorded over by a bailiff with an uncanny knack for ferreting out falsehoods from those who try to pass through, it’s the most feared checkpoint in all of Austria, with the bodies of those who would try to pass through unscrupulous means on display for all to see.
This first volume contains three stories. The first involves a knight of the rebellion trying to get the daughter of one of its leaders through the pass, and also introduces us to the bailiff Wolfram. In the next, an extremely capable swordswoman is charged with getting a signet ring to one of their allies in Italy. Finally, we meet none other than William Tell (or “Wilhelm” since we are in Europe), hero to the rebellion and now tasked with raising and training an army beyond the pass provided he and his son can make it out of there themselves.
“Wolfsmund’s” biggest failing is that it’s fairly easy to guess how these stories are going to end. When you’re setting up this checkpoint as the biggest and nastiest place on the Alps, which also happens to be overseen by someone who KNOWS (yes, the caps are sadly necessary) when you’re lying, it doesn’t do to have people triumph over incredible odds. This wasn’t published in Shonen Jump, you know. While the pessimism this series trades in is refreshing to an extent, seeing the stories result in either a total loss or a kind of pyrrhic victory gets repetitive before this volume is over. I can only hope that mangaka Mitsuhisa Kuji has some plans for mixing things up in subsequent volumes.
A good place to start would be with Wolfram himself, as he comes off as more of a plot device than a character in his own right. That he’s able to ferret out untruths without even raising an eyebrow (and rarely an eyelid) would make for a compelling character trait... if we had any idea of how he did it. The book itself feels to be fairly grounded in the real, thanks to Kuji’s attention to detail in the architecture, clothing, and the bits involving mountain climbing, so I’m tempted to rule out any supernatural basis for his abilities. However, if he really is that cunning, then we need to see some example of how he just KNOWS that someone is lying to him. In this first volume it would appear that he just has a real knack for knowing who the protagonists are and acts accordingly. Even if his character isn’t the main one, Wolfram is the thread that ties all of the stories together and he’s clearly going to be a main player in whatever story is going to be told here. Unless Kuji has some plans to give this guy some depth, I can’t see my interest being maintained for a significant length of time.
So while the three stories here are fairly enjoyable examples of competent craft and attention to detail, the series isn’t really a must read yet. In their own way, the fact that the structure for these stories is fairly rigid and somewhat obvious here makes me hopeful that Kuji is simply getting the obvious ones out of the way first. I’d like to think that any creator with an ounce of sense realizes that this setup is going to become repetitive quite quickly and has bigger plans for things that will become evident sooner rather than later. In this case, I’m expecting “sooner” to mean “in the next volume.”