Good fantasy stories follow rules. Which is to say, the stories take place within worlds that bend reality’s rules yet remain internally consistent. In some cases, these stories even go so far as to make their world’s rules central to their narrative – which is the case in Kamome Shirahama’s Witch Hat Atelier.
However, the best fantasy stories are not content to spell out and stick to their rules. Instead, the best fantasies break their rules in surprising, dramatic, and often foreshadowed ways. Which again, is what Witch Hat Atelier does. More than anything else, it is Witch Hat Atelier‘s constant, clever focus on breaking and bending its own rules that makes it worth reading.
(Beware: Spoilers for the first volume of Witch Hat Atelier follow.) The first rule Witch Hat Atelier lays down and summarily discards is that only certain denizens of its world can perform magic. As we and the book’s protagonist, Coco, quickly find out, anyone at all can perform magic. All it takes is a pen, some ink, and knowledge of the secret seals that witches use to cast spells. This is a fundamental rule of Witch Hat Atelier‘s society; it is a piece of knowledge that shaped Coco’s life up to this point. It is tossed aside by page 40 of Witch Hat Atelier‘s first volume.
And, as is always the case when a great rule is broken or shown to be false, there are consequences.
The second rule Witch Hat Atelier lays down is subtle. As you read the first volume for the first time, you may not even note the second rule as a rule. But it is a rule, and it is perhaps the most important rule in the book. Witch Hat Atelier‘s second rule is that Coco will not leave her mother.
This rule, of course, is broken, too. Witch Hat Atelier would have no story if it wasn’t. But the fact that the rule exists, and that it is broken in such dramatic fashion, supercharges Coco’s journey. It heightens every challenge Coco faces as she enters the world of magic. Because if Coco fails, she will never be able to return to her mother – which is what she wants most of all.
I’ll circle back to talking about Witch Hat’s third essential rule, because its breaking is central to volume one’s cliffhanger ending. But first, we have to talk about the challenge Coco overcomes to prove herself “worthy” of the world of magic. And more specifically, we have to talk about why Coco is sent to complete that challenge, as well as how she completes it.
Those who use magic follow rules. They follow rules for casting spells, keeping secrets, and inducting people into their society. These rules are so many, varied, and detailed that examining and/or extrapolating upon them (think “if this … then that”) comprises the bulk of Witch Hat Atelier Vol. 1’s back half.
Now, imagine you are a ten-year-old prodigy who has gotten ahead by studying, mastering, and adhering to those rules. Imagine that, one day, you see some stranger waltz into your place of learning and, without even knowing the rules, much less following them, attempt to claim a place in the world you thought you understood. A world that claimed to follow rules.
It is Agott’s inability to bend or comprehend a world outside the rules she was taught that causes her to send Coco to the Dadah Range. Just as it is Coco’s ability to think outside the rules that allows her to succeed there.
Which, again, proves my point: Rules are everything in Witch Hat Atelier. They are essential because they give the story a framework to both lean into and pivot away from. They allow Shirahama to offer a reader comfort in one moment and then brilliantly snatch it away in the next.
At the end of volume one, Shirahama uses Witch Hat Atelier‘s third rule, established back on pages 85 and 86, to snatch readers’ comfort away. The third rule is that there are spells all witches have agreed should not be cast. So who, then, casts a spell of teleportation on Coco and her friends, leaving them standing face-to-face with a shockingly fearsome-looking dragon? I, for one, will be picking up Witch Hat Atelier Vol. 2 to find out – as well as to find out what other rules Shirahama skillfully breaks.