Story & Art: Keiko Ishihara
Translation & Adaptation: Emi Louie-Nishikawa
Touch-up Art & Lettering: Sabrina Heep
Design: Yukiko Whitley & Shawn Carrico
Editor: Pancha Diaz
Shojo manga in North America is most heavily populated with high school love stories — modern, relatable, and dramatic. Here and there you get magical girls or more grown-up works centered around a career woman. Hidden amongst these is the classic fantasy tale, complete with warring kingdoms, knights, and damsels in dire straits.
Keiko Ishihara’s Prince Freya is one such fantasy story, following titular crybaby Freya, sweet and industrious, but easily overwhelmed. At the opening of the first volume, her adoptive “brothers” Aaron (tall, dark, handsome, and personable) and Aleksi (AKA, Alek —short, dark, handsome, and moody) return from their most recent quest on behalf of the Crown Prince of Tyr, Edvard. Freya feels much safer with these two around, and her sick and bedridden mother is also relieved to see them after many years. But soon Aaron and Alek must return to the castle — where unbeknownst to Freya, Prince Edvard is in terrible danger.
Aaron, Edvard’s “Black Knight,” returns to his post and informs his superiors that he was unable to find Freya, who bears such a striking resemblance to Prince Edvard that she was to be summoned to take his place, as he is fighting for his life after being poisoned. This lie, intended to protect Freya, is hardly necessary because the girl, who overheard a nefarious plot from the opposing Sigurdian forces, is rushing to the castle to warn her beloved Aaron and Alek. Once she arrives, she encounters Prince Edvard himself, who, with his dying breath, begs Freya to take his place and secure his kingdom.
And thus we have that favored shojo trope of the gender-bending, high-stakes disguise, as timid Freya chops off her flowing hair and picks up the figurative crown, stepping in to save the day. She pulls off her part, but in the chaos of conflict, Aaron sacrifices himself to protect her. She finds herself coerced into living out her life as Prince Edvard, with her loss and grief still all too fresh. She is overwhelmed by the enormous task of learning to be a monarch, not trusting her own abilities and fearing what might become of Alek, now her only link to her family and her home village.
Like Sailor Moon before her, Freya’s character walks the line between being a frustratingly weak, simpering protagonist and being a relatable heroine who just wants to find some normalcy in a frankly absurd situation. The first volume, available through VIZ Media on April 7, 2020, leaves Freya entangled in a mission to rescue one of her personal guards, seeming to promise that she will tap into her inner fire in subsequent volumes after all, giving readers a reason to stick with the series. While her somewhat familial relationship with Aaron and Aleksi makes the obvious romantic and overprotective feelings of the boys somewhat uncomfortable for the reader, it should be interesting to watch Alek, no longer in his brother’s shadow, mature and help Freya — while butting heads with Prince Edvard’s haughty and overbearing White Knight, Julius.
Ishihara, whose manga The Heiress and the Chauffeur is also available through VIZ, has a pleasingly timeless art style, one that is reminiscent of shojo manga of the ’90s and ’00s without feeling dated. She doesn’t hold back on the violence in this medieval-inspired setting either, and the juxtaposition of some truly gruesome moments and heated political intrigue with the presence of the soft, sweet Freya and her posse of pretty boy guards gives the manga a surprising edge.
Those who enjoy Yona of the Dawn or who fondly remember series like From Far Away will find a new heroine to root for with Prince Freya. Volume two is scheduled to come out July 7, 2020, with later volumes being released every three months.