The Mertikan empire grows ever stronger, Rumika’s industrial prowess is bringing it new influence, and Quloo is literally sinking into the Mists. Welcome to a world of islands floating in the sky, where airships carry trade and war and magic is cast by swordcraft.
A new Serial Box production is always sure to catch my attention, and Born to the Blade had me at hello with its epic fantasy pitch. Arrivals, the first episode, has an awful lot to do: build a complex world from scratch, complete with relevant recent history; sketch out a magic system; illustrate the political framework that maintains the fragile peace; oh, and establish its cast of characters with enough personality and charm that they leave a solid impression.
Delightfully, Arrivals broadly succeeds in its enormous task. Floating islands is always a fabulous concept (now I want to know all the things: how did people reach them? Did they all start off on one island and migrate to the others over time? How big are the islands? How does the weather work? …I can’t wait to learn more as the season develops), but Michael R Underwood managed to get three squeaks of excitement and surprise out of me as other details emerged.
First up: magic is literally cut into the air with swords. I could just barely visualise what that might look like, but with at least three combat sequences in the opening episode alone, I had a much better idea by the end of it. I can totally see me developing opinions (I know, you’re shocked) about what types of blades our characters prefer to use after the epic duel at the end of the episode.
Second: there are monsters in the Mists. Flying monsters that are not dragons (but maybe there will be dragons? Can I hope for dragons?) but that are still hella scary and dangerous. This was an excellent opportunity to illustrate the nature of our two young aspirants, with over-confident Kris Denn all about showboating (I lied: there were four squeaks. There was some honest to goodness swashbuckling involving Kris flinging themselves off an airship on a rope, and I’m a sucker for that sort of thing) while young Kakutan Oda no Michiko is all common sense and efficiency.
Third (okay, fourth) I can’t possibly tell you about as it would be a massive spoiler, so suffice to say I was both surprised and delighted by a certain turn of events at the end of the episode. Young Michiko is given an awful lot to think about, which is good as there was definitely some indoctrination and naïveté that needed shaking up.
I have some minor gripes – I don’t need to be told everybody’s skin colour (while I think the point is to wipe away any defaults, I found it quite intrusive) and I’m always going to give the side-eye to purple eyes (yes, I’m happy with flying sky monsters and an island of gender-fluid people who can change from male-presenting to female-presenting bodies at will, but not with purple eyes. Tell me off in the comments if you wish).
But by the end of the episode, in spite of my various questions about climate, geography and agriculture (…these islands are big enough to have prairies? Really? Or was that a dodgy descriptive choice?) I had a surprisingly clear impression of how the world works, and of the current political situation. I have also – perhaps unsurprisingly – got a clear idea of where my loyalties lie in the complex web of politics that Michiko and Kris find themselves entering (yes, I shall be cheering for Ojo and Quloo, obviously. Honour and integrity in the face of despair, and dual-wielding curved blades to boot? BRING IT MY LOVELY).
It’s a heck of an achievement for a single episode, because I’m definitely left gasping for next week to see all how this develops.