Review: Fullmetal Alchemist – Under the Faraway Sky (Vol 4)

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One year after leaving their hometown in Risembool in search for a way to get their bodies back, Edward is stuck in bed with a cold. Coincidentally running into an old friend in the small town they’re stranded in, the older Elric takes the time to reflect on how quickly he’s had to grow up under the circumstances of their life. In the second story, Roy is stationed to a remote military base for training purposes. Excited about the idea of a vacation away from Eastern Command, he finds himself instead swamped with even more frustrations at the sloppy training of the recruits. Only a visit from Hughes and Armstrong give him hope to find some relaxation, but when they find a town of children in the woods, there’s more going on than he realizes.

The fourth book of Makoto Inoue’s Fullmetal Alchemist light novels was originally published in Japanese in 2004, followed by Viz’s English release in 2007. Based on Hiromu Arakawa’s original manga and featuring her artwork, an once again translated by Alexander O. Smith.

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We return to Inoue’s interpretation of this beloved shounen with the title story Under the Faraway Sky. Like the previous books in this series, each is set in the earlier, unexplored adventures of the younger Elrics—when Ed and Al are still searching across Amestris for a way to restore their missing limbs. Only thirteen, Edward has been a ‘military dog’ for a year and has barely started his journey. Even so, as he’s stuck in bed with his fever, he had the time to reflect on how much he has had to mature since the death of his mother, since the failed attempt of human transmutation, since joining the military. When he and his brother run into Pitt, a friend from Risembool they had grown up with, he’s taken aback at how much the other boy had grown up too—now a doctor’s assistant learning to mix natural herbal remedies, like his father before him. Pitt is introduced as a direct rival to Edward, who always competed with him as they grew up. Grades, fighting, eating, even height, the two have always tried to out-do the other. This is typical rival character antics and I’m honestly surprised the original series never really had a similar character, considering the popularity of the trope in shonen.

There’s an expected plot framework of a flooding river, a girl stuck in a mineshaft, and conflict between parents and Pitt’s alternative medicine—all of that is incidental though, as the real focus is on how Ed, Al, and Pitt have all had to leave their childhood behind. The conflict is an inner one—the memory of burning their house down, leaving the rolling hills of the country peace behind (presumably) forever. It’s especially highlighted in Alphonse’s own thoughts about himself; how isolated he’s felt from kids his age since becoming a hulking set of armor. It’s a bittersweet look at how different he’s become and builds fairly well from the personal struggle he had in the last book.

The second half of the book is a Roy-centric piece called Roy’s Holiday. Colonel Mustang has been called from his duties as commanding officer at Eastern to brush up on his leadership skills, much to his subordinate’s grief as he leaves his mountains of paperwork behind. Posted to a small military outpost for training, he’s expecting an easy-going vacation where nothing happens but discovers that the peace has made the soldiers there lazy and unorganized. Instead of the laid-back weeks of nothing, Roy’s faced with growing frustrations as he’s put in charge of building up the training standards. He’s on the edge of snapping when his long-time friends Leuitenant Hughes and Major Armstrong come to visit; in the area after a tip-off on someone hiding illegal weapons.

The two drag him out on a hike to escape the constant questions from the incompetent soldiers, but they find themselves stranded on the local mountain after the rope bridge collapses. With hopes to find their way back to civilization, they discover a town in the woods full of children—not an adult in sight. Their appearance seems welcome by the kids aside from the oldest, who finds them suspicious and demands them to work for their keep. Doing so, Roy finds himself with the oldest girl of the group, in charge of helping with chores and cooking for the veritable army of children in the town. Slowly and through much trial and error, Roy starts to realize his own failings at the tasks he’s been set, and the calm way the younger girl answered his questions and responded to inadequate skill. This story, like the previous, is a reflective piece, and it’s a humbling moment for the Flame Alchemist. When they return to the military base (after some dramatic conflict as it’s revealed that the town was the spot the weapons were being hidden), it’s with a refreshed sense of perspective.

The book continues the trend of fleshing out the Fullmetal Alchemist setting with suitable, but mostly superfluous stories. The actual plotlines to these books are rarely worth the mention, but Inoue continues to capture the bittersweet and often maudulin atmosphere and emotions the manga so often has. Like with the past three books, only super fans of the manga will find these necessary, but they’re fun and easy to read. Again, perfect for younger readers who enjoy the characters. The books and their translation don’t always hold up under scrutiny compared to more modern examples, but Viz did well for the time.

Gee’s Rating: Maybe recommended for pre-existing fans.

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