Fifteen-year-old Oz Vassalius is a typical son of a noble – spoiled and selfish. He gets up to mischief, teasing his servant and best friend Gilbert and gaining favours from his indulgent uncle Oscar. Then, on the night of his coming-of-age-ceremony, time freezes and Oz is forced into the Abyss by mysterious strangers. Trapped in this nightmarish alternate dimension, he meets a strange, devilish young girl named Alice, who is really a ‘Chain’ – a monster of the Abyss. To save themselves and help to get away, they form a Contract. Alice decides to help Oz return to his world, while he promises to help her search for her missing memories. The mystery there begins as Oz unravels the truth behind Alice, the Abyss, and the strange organisation known as ‘Pandora’.
As you can probably tell from the title and elements of the synopses, Pandora Hearts is littered with Alice in Wonderland allusions and thematic motifs, which is a nice touch but, in typical Alice in Wonderland style, things get just a bit crazy. The unique lure to Pandora Hearts is how it can get beautifully confusing to the point where you, just like Alice, have to just press on and hope for the best. Your ideas on the plot and your perspective of dimension will be toyed with and distorted. You’re at first lured in, following young Oz down the proverbial rabbit hole, to have all your initial ideas pulled out from underneath you and leaving you just a little disoriented. Trying to follow a deliberately non-linear storyline is not something that every reader can just accept and press on with – it’s a dangerous technique that may put off a few people from following this one through to the end.
Pandora Hearts maintains a bit of a gothic feel, not unlike that of other series’ like Black Butler. Many characters in this manga are linked to the theme of loss from the outset. This, as well as the struggle to find acceptance is by no means new within manga, but in Pandora Hearts these themes are addressed in a noticeably sensitive, original, and surprisingly light-hearted manner. Though emotionally gripping this manga is rarely dark and angst-ridden and usually favours quirky, likeable characters and a humorous, tongue-in-cheek storytelling style.
If something ever crops up within the storyline as being particularly innocuous or out-of-place, you know that it will be playing a more significant part in the plot further on down the line. Everything is so intricately linked and related that there never seems to be any forgotten potential plot-holes even though things can get layered and off-the-walls sometimes. Everything seems to fit perfectly by the end. As mentioned before, it does require a lot of faith and patience on the part of the reader, but the reveals are worth it if you stick with it.Everything is gloriously interconnected to the past and set on its path from the actions of a menagerie of exquisite characters. You need a good memory to keep up with all the changing reveals, motivations and information that gets thrown out at you – especially when you frequently get told that all that information is wrong. There are unreliable narrators, surrealist moments and tricks and twists aplenty, so this isn’t a manga that you can sit down and relax with; you have to be prepared to engage and anticipate else you’re in danger of the narrative leaving you behind.
Some of the character’s motivations are quite unique and make them stand out on their own amidst a sea of gothic and quirky personalities. A few of the characters play to the archetypal villain for effect, but their true goals are always far more complex and surprising. I always enjoy it more when a manga fleshes out antagonist motives that make the reader realise that things aren’t always just explicitly set in the boxes of good and evil. Another stand-out element of Pandora Hearts is the art. Aside from its gothic and slightly haunting style, the art is wonderfully detailed, particularly when coloured (I do love the artwork on the front of the volumes). The period costume crossed with more modern influences produces outfits that any manga artist would envy.
As for this series’ flaws… it’s got to be Oz. As the main character, sometimes he seems unable to carry the series. Whenever he starts getting melancholy or angst-ridden, the storyline drags along with his mood. His inner retrospectives are deep, but a little unnecessary and time-consuming when you’re more focused on the action unfolding around him.
Pandora Hearts is a great read, but one that you have to prepare yourself for. It’s not one that you can re-visit at any time and pick up from where you left off. You have to dedicate your time to it and let its crazy world and reasonings consume you – else you’ll have a wasted journey. Make sure you’re equipped for the read as the rewards are great!