One thing we can say about BL manga creator Tsuta Suzuki is that they aren’t stuck in a storytelling rut. Their previous English translated title, A Strange and Mystifying Story, drew inspiration from Japanese folklore, while Barbarities is loosely based on what the back copy calls Renaissance Europe, although in practice (or at least in costume), it looks more like the 18th century. Both main characters are human this time, too, although Adam is preternaturally beautiful. Adam is a foreign noble, a viscount, who has taken up a job as bodyguard for the scholar Lord Montague. Coming from a recently ennobled family, Montague’s closeness with the young king and his unwillingness to embrace the new religion sweeping the continent have marked him as persona non grata for someone, and Adam is tasked with keeping him alive. His purpose, however, is slightly blunted when he encounters Montague’s “nephew,” Joel, with whom he falls desperately in love.
The barely-hidden secret here is that Joel and Lord Montague are one and the same: the idea behind the charade is that no one would take a young man seriously in the same way that they would an elder. It makes sense, especially since the king Joel advises is still a child of about ten. Arguments that the country can’t be run with two babies in positions of power would be easy for usurpers to mount, and playacting as an old man gives Montague added security. It also drives off anyone looking to use him romantically, or at least we could see Joel thinking that – enough mention is made of the ugly bag wigs that it’s clear his disguise keeps people from looking too closely. (The repetition of “It’s traditional!” also turns into a good running gag.) Adam, however, is neither repulsed nor particularly fooled, and his intense pursuit of Joel is what drives the romance plot.
It’s a little disappointing, although not entirely bad, that the romance between Adam and Joel isn’t nearly as enjoyable as some of the other elements of the story in this first volume. It’s a familiar tropey BL romance: Adam is pansexual and drawn to everyone sexually but feels love for the first time with Joel. Joel is either repressed or demisexual and not keen on sex or romance. Adam aggressively pursues him, dubious consent happens, and the will-they-won’t-they drives the plotline. It is alright (except for the dubcon for some readers), but it isn’t unique. Meanwhile, a secondary romance between the heir to a different throne and his manservant – a former fighting slave – is much more complex and fraught. At the same time, the politics of all kingdoms involved are convoluted and intense.
The latter is the real gem here. It’s clear that Suzuki has done research into European politics of the Renaissance through the 18th century, and we can see many familiar elements as the story unfolds. The most obvious is that of sacred versus the secular rule. In Barbarities‘ world, a new monotheistic religion is sweeping the continent, and Montague’s counterpart in the government is the head priest of this sect. He wants Montague to be less secular and isn’t thrilled that his science-minded and pragmatic views are getting equal weight and time to his faith-based opinions. This sets up a major conflict, one that we can see is already beginning to strain the kingdom’s fabric, and if I had to put my money on one side being better backed, it wouldn’t be Montague’s. That Adam is there to help protect him and that his romantic interest in Joel could be used against them is worth keeping an eye on.
The religion itself is also fascinating and adds another layer to the story’s world. It’s goddess-based, with the singular deity being a great mother in heaven rather than a male god. This, as we find out, allows for the better treatment of women in society, although there’s almost certainly a double-edged sword, and it’s hard not to notice that the heads of the church are still all men. Suzuki may not be aware of the symbolism or the implications – the afterword suggests that they prefer a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants approach to creating – but again, this is worth attention as the story continues.
The art of Barbarities is a major attraction. Backgrounds are detailed and full of small baroque details that give an excellent sense of place and time, and even the carriages and horses’ tack is given attention. Costumes are also well done, with details like fasteners and neckcloths well drawn. Women’s gowns are a little less consistent than men’s clothing, and hairstyles are only sometimes period-appropriate, but it’s still clear that a lot of research was done and effort was made to make this as accurate to old Europe as possible.
Barbarities‘ first volume is an interesting opening to a political BL tale. The politics and the side romance may be a little more intriguing than Joel and Adam right now, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth reading. We don’t get a ton of manga in this sort of detailed historical setting (the worlds of Arte and Seven Shakespeares come to mind, along with a few others not in English translation), and that alone is almost enough to make this a book to check out.