From the stack: Sand Chronicles vols. 9 and 10

If Hinako Ashihara had contented herself with the conclusion of the main story of Sand Chronicles (Viz) in the eighth volume, I don’t think most fans of the series could have reasonably complained. We’ve seen our heroine, Ann Uekusa, grow from pre-teen to woman, through a stormy adolescence packed with setbacks, disappointments, and rewarding steps forward toward maturity. Ann’s is a fully realized character arc, one of the most complete you’re likely to find in comics.

I’m a bit of a glutton, and I’m a sucker for side stories, so I was thrilled to learn that there were two more volumes of material, checking in with supporting characters and giving readers a look at Ann’s life after “happily ever after.”

In the ninth volume, Ashihara gives us a glimpse into the troubled adolescence of Ann’s mother, whose beauty and gentleness make her the object of jealousy and the subject of rumor in her very small town. As tricky as the core conceit of the story can be – she’s too pretty and fragile for this world – Ashihara grounds it with surprising skill. It highlights the underlying emotional brutality that bubbles up in Ashihara’s work, and while it doesn’t fully excuse Ann’s mother’s later choices, it does give those choices additional context.

The second half is given to a chance encounter between Ann’s friend and rival, Shika, and one of Ann’s exes as they build lives for themselves in New York City. Given the tendency of some shôjo mangaka to exile the ostensible bad girl to a faraway land where she can build a new and better life – you generally see her in a panel, reading a letter from the heroine, who has graciously forgiven her – it’s nice to see that new life in detail. It’s a generous impulse, and it results in a sweet, redemptive encounter for the characters involved.

The tenth volume returns us to our heroine, Ann, and her true love. I’m reluctant to go into too much detail, since who that true love turns out to be is a significant plot point through the series, but the volume-length story shows us the satisfying adult relationship that evolved from turbulent, youthful love. We see Ann’s partner adapt to adult responsibilities, and we see her as a supportive, functioning person, which is a lovely gift to longtime readers.

Aside from being gracefully written and beautifully drawn, these volumes repay patience and investment that resulted not from flash but from sincerity and craft. It’s like a sumptuous brunch the morning after the wedding of a couple you rooted for but were never quite certain would make it to “I do.” They’re essential reading for fans of Sand Chronicles, and they’re additional inducement to read the series from beginning to end if you haven’t already.