Abi Umeda’s Children of the Whales chronicles the war-torn lives of the residents of a floating island called the Mud Whale. Residents of the Mud Whale are divided into two categories: the Marked (who possess a magical power called thymia) and the Unmarked (who lack said power). Vol. 4, published by Viz Media, collects chapters 13-16 of the series and features major character death, intricate line-work, and ruminations on the interconnectedness of humanity. Is it good?
Visually, this volume is a mixed bag. Umeda is a very talented artist, and she packs a ton of detail into every page. Sometimes this works to the volume’s benefit. Panels full of cascading flower blossoms, for instance, make the bountiful look beautiful. The designs of various lore elements are also impressive, from characters’ armors to the structure of the Mud Whale itself. The intricacy of Umeda’s line-work makes these aspects of the world feel alive.
Unfortunately, there are also times when Umeda’s style has the opposite effect. There are occasions, particularly when thymia is involved, where so much happens at once that I mentally check out. I’m all for attention to detail, but the artwork frequently becomes overstimulating in this volume. The characters’ magical powers are rendered with an abundance of lines that don’t actually convey any additional information, making it difficult to follow trains of events across cramped panels. I also have qualms with this volume’s shading. The darker values of adjacent objects are sometimes hard to distinguish from one another, making the visuals look muddy and unclear.
Thankfully, the volume’s writing has strengths that help make up for the art’s weaker moments. Anytime Umeda spends considerable page-time on a character’s thought processes, Children of the Whales becomes much more enjoyable to read. The most well-written scene in the volume is one involving major character death. Without spoiling who dies or how others react, I’ll just say that the way the living handle their loss and its accompanying challenges is poignant. There is also a well-crafted scene in which one of the characters ponders just how possible or impossible it is for one person to truly know another. When Umeda hits her stride, this volume becomes impressively reflective and poetic.
In terms of the volume’s overarching plot and structure, however, I’m less enthused. Much like the art’s worst moments, the story just has too much going on. This is especially the case in the volume’s opening chapter, which switches focus so rapidly that one can’t get a grip on any of the characters shown. There are a lot of cool ideas in this series’ lore, but some of them lack the development necessary to feel effectively integrated into the story. This is especially problematic with thymia, which has huge societal implications on the Mud Whale but never stands out as more than generic fantasy magic.
Overall, Children of the Whales Vol. 4 is more a showcase of potential than it is a polished story. The artwork and writing both have moments of greatness, where the attention to detail and human thought processes impresses. Unfortunately, the artwork also has a tendency to become overstimulating; a lot happens but the events aren’t engrossing enough to be worth fully parsing through. The thymia element is also quite boring, and there are long stretches of “meh” quality between the volume’s more standout moments. This isn’t a bad read, but it’s not an essential one either.