king in limbo from ai tanaka, cover
Kodansha, 2024

Writer and Artist: Ai Tanaka
Translator: Ajani Oloye
Lettering: EK Weaver
Editing: Ben Applegate
Publisher: Kodansha (print and digital)
Publication Date: January 16, 2024
Rating: Older Teen (16+)
Genres: Manga (Japan), Action, Science Fiction, Thriller

After their debut in the English market with Apple Children of Aeon in 2022, King in Limbo is Ai Tanaka‘s second work to grace Kodansha‘s library. Completed with six volumes in Japan, Kodansha chooses the 2-in-1 omnibus format for their release.

Adam Garfield is a petty officer in the navy, and he lost his father to a contagious virus that causes ‘the sleeping disease’, leaving his siblings under his care. The illness is also referred to as ‘memory cancer’, and unless it’s treated immediately there’s no chance of recovery. This costly treatment requires two compatible people to ‘dive into’ the patient and is, evidently, available to people who can afford it.

king in limbo from ai tanaka, adam wakes up
Kodansha, 2024

Eight years after the disease’s eradication and everything seemingly back to normal, Adam ends up in a hospital bed after an undetonated mine explosion during a mission. The vice admiral’s visit puts the cherry on top: Adam’s lost a leg and his military pension is nowhere near enough to sustain his family. It’ll be either him trying to find employment in the state he’s in, or continuing to work for the military as a ‘companion’ to a ‘diver’. Much to his surprise, the diver he’s extremely compatible with turns out to be the King of Limbo, the one who made the eradication of the virus possible.

Adam is introduced as an easygoing character who doesn’t dwell on things, even when facing situations where a bit of thinking would do him good. For example, his first thought after finding out he’s been out for 2 weeks is whether this counts as paid leave or not. These instances are delivered in a comedic tone, save for when the vice admiral mentions his father. It is hinted that his dad was violent in the dream sequence that opens the manga. They had a strained relationship and the loss was simply complicated for Adam rather than a very sad one. In short, he’s the act-first-think-later one in this odd couple.

We meet the King of Limbo later in the volume, as he refuses to cooperate and to go back to diving. Contrasting Adam, Rune Winter is reserved, cynical, and prone to face-palming every five minutes thanks to Adam stirring something up. The vice admiral leaves bringing him back to Adam saying he’ll know the moment they meet, a gut feeling the parties get as if they are ‘soulmates’. Rune’s not an easy person to persuade, but Adam is determined to bring him aboard.

king in limbo from ai tanaka, first meeting with rune
Kodansha, 2024

At first glance, apart from the fictitious disease and the treatment method, the world King in Limbo‘s characters inhabit isn’t at all different from our own. Tanaka doesn’t rush to dump every little detail on the reader from the get-go and takes their time to introduce us to the setting. The duo’s first dive is a bit heavy on explanation, but I think it’s necessary information regarding the dive; what exactly are they searching for in the patient’s memories, the do’s and don’ts, and the consequences of both the diver’s and their companion’s actions. 

Adding Adam’s no-thinking-in-this-household policy to the equation, these chapters are particularly dense. However, the overall balance of the volume was great. Considering we’re just meeting the characters and the world they live in, it’s unavoidable to not have exposition here or there. Thankfully, the tone is not preachy and the experience doesn’t feel like I’m sitting in on a lecture.

The idea of entering into someone else’s mind is nothing new, not only in science fiction but in anime or manga as well. However, I found the way it’s handled, the intricacies of the process of diving, and Rune’s talent and approach smart and thought-provoking. Tanaka places its theme in the center of a web woven by military, medicine, and politicians together. This brings how difficult a balancing act it is to handle such a pandemic to light; informing citizens to take precautions vs. hiding the truth to not drive them into panic. Treatment vs. saving resources. Each side of the equation, due to their profession, has differing views regarding such matters or which course of action to take. It was interesting to read when and where they clash or support each other. Or how interwoven these establishments truly are behind the scenes.

I was mesmerized by the variety of King in Limbo‘s characters, both in terms of their facial structure and body type, including body language. All of the characters, the ones we met very briefly included, were memorable and could be told apart easily. Female characters clearly aren’t an afterthought; they find a place in the story as scientists, politicians, or medical staff. It was pleasant to see them in all walks of life, even if it’s a cameo in a couple of panels.

king in limbo from ai tanaka, adam physical therapy
Kodansha, 2024

Aside from one-on-one conversations, King in Limbo doesn’t lack background as well. Be it the lush flora in the dream sequences or the communal areas in the real world, panels with intricately drawn interiors and exteriors truly bring the city alive and give the reader a clear sense of the space the characters roam. 

Tanaka’s style is clean with slick lines, and keeping the panels themselves simple, they generally choose to divide actions or expressions into smaller panels. While wider panels or whole-page illustrations are fewer in number, when they are present, they are breathtaking and immersive.

In the end, the only qualm I have with King in Limbo would be Adam’s introduction. After going through an explosion on such a scary scale, I’d at least expect him to acknowledge the situation he’s in, but he brushes it off too easily. A possibility would be that this will be addressed later on as a traumatic experience he repressed, along with his relationship with his deceased father. I’m eagerly looking forward to reading how Adam and Rune’s pasts and personal circumstances will intersect with the societal and political landscape of their time.

king in limbo from ai tanaka, adam flashback
Kodansha, 2024

To conclude, Ai Tanaka‘s King in Limbo shouldn’t escape your radar, especially if you’re a lover of thriller, political intrigue, and science-fictional elements in your manga. I have to highlight EK Weaver’s excellent SFX lettering and Ajani Oloye’s smooth-sailing translation that made reading this volume a joy. Highly recommended!

King in Limbo by Ai Tanaka will be out from Kodansha on January 16th, both as digital and in print.