To create, something of equal value must be lost. This is the principle of equivalent exchange.
Sounds like something you probably had to learn in chemistry class, doesn’t it? Well, you didn’t. Not unless you found a way to go live inside a book and then decided to spend that time in school. In which case: Seriously? School? You didn’t want to go ride a dragon or something? You know what, I don’t care. Next time you go, take me with you. I’ll pay good money.
So where is the Principle of Equivalent Exchange from? Alchemy. Specifically alchemy in the hit series Fullmetal Alchemist.
For those of you who don’t know, alchemy is a medieval, speculative form of chemistry based on the transmutation of matter. It’s a very interesting concept, but one that is sadly underused in books.
That’s why I’m so impressed with Hiromu Arakawa. The author and illustrator of Fullmetal Alchemist, Arakawa knows exactly how to create an awesome alchemy system and use it to fuel a character-driven series.
So far I’ve read the first three volumes and really, really want to tell you all about it. So buckle up. Here is the plot of the first three volumes, a paragraph-long description for each:
Vol. 1 – Alchemy: the mystical power to alter the natural world; something between magic, art, and science. When two brothers, Edward and Alphonse Elric, dabbled in this power to bring their mother back to life, one of them lost an arm and a leg…and the other became nothing but a soul locked into a body of living steel. An agent of the government, Edward uses his skills to obey orders. But, when he’s not needed, he spends his time searching for the Philosopher’s Stone: an object that can restore his missing limbs and bring back his brother’s body. When Ed and Al stumble across a village ruled by a corrupt alchemist who seems to be in possession of this stone, they must find a way to obtain this treasure and expose the twisted ways of the ruler.
Vol. 2 – After Ed and Al return to report to Colonel Mustang, he introduces them to a bio-alchemist who may be able to give them a clue as to how to restore their bodies. As they begin their research, a vengeful man known as “Scar” appears. His object? To hunt down and kill all State alchemists, including Ed and Al.
Vol. 3 – Accompanied by their bodyguard, a powerful alchemist assigned to them after Scar’s attack, our heroes set out to have their battered auto-mail bodyparts repaired. From here, their quest for the Philosopher’s Stone takes them to the great central library where they might be able to find the Stone’s formula…as long as a mysterious figure hasn’t gotten to it first.
This manga series starts out a bit slow. It is not as action packed as some shonen manga, and this gives us a chance to really get to know the main characters. And boy are they awesome.
Meet Edward: An extremely powerful State alchemist with an auto-mail leg and arm. Auto-mail is extremely painful to wear, but that’s not the main reason behind his burning desire to find the Philosopher’s Stone. No, his reason is simple: Al. When attempting to bring their mother back from the dead, his younger brother was almost lost to him. Ed was able recover Al, but not fully. Now, because of him, Al is just an empty suit of armor. He has a soul, but not a body. A sweet, caring young boy, Al is the last person on earth to deserve such a fate and Ed is willing to spend his entire life finding a way to restore his body.
It’s really sweet to see the relationship between Ed and Al. Ed is the big brother, reckless, brusque, easily angered, but full of love for Al, whose personality is almost exactly opposite to his own. The character development throughout this series is extremely enjoyable to watch.
I’m impressed with the way that these three volumes were able to bounce back and forth between touching, serious, and funny in a seamless way. One moment the manga is pondering the meaning of humanity or the beauty of friendship and the next moment Ed is flipping out on somebody for calling him short. It’s impressive. Seriously. How can a manga make you want to cry over its main characters one moment and laugh with them the next? I’m not sure. But I think it takes a lot of genius.
Oh, and the artwork: It’s good. The lines are very thick and defined, which makes it easy to distinguish between characters. This may seem like an odd thing to praise, but I’ve read quite a few graphic novels where the art is a bit too convoluted. Arakawa’s is very clear and straightforward, a fitting match for a story built on formulaic, sciency alchemy. Yes, I know “sciency” isn’t a word, and yes, I’m using it anyway.
The one downside to these first three volumes is that they don’t seem to have a clear direction. Yes, Ed and Al are searching for the Philosopher’s Stone, but it seems like a large part of the story is laying groundwork for something much, much larger. For instance, the three main villains are named Envy, Gluttony, and Lust. They’ve referenced others, but I’m not sure who those others are (though I’m going to guess there’s an Anger, Sloth, and Pride hanging out there somewhere). Oddly enough, Gluttony is the only one who lives up to his name. Envy seems entirely unconnected to jealous behavior and the only thing lusty about Lust is her unfortunately tight dress that looks really uncomfortable. So I’m not sure who these bad guys are or what they are after, but I’m assuming it’s something big. Maybe?
I have no idea. It’s kind of a bummer. The foundation-laying makes the story move a bit slow at points.
But that’s okay, because the alchemy will keep you fascinated for the most part. I mean, there’s an alchemist who specializes in fire. Fire. Doesn’t get much cooler…er…hotter…than that.
This is a series that I will continue to read, because of both the great characters and well-developed alchemy. I’ve heard from various otaku that both of the anime are outstanding. Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood apparently follows the manga more closely than the other one. Anyway, I’m interested to finish the series and then see how the anime compares.
Have you read or watched Fullmetal Alchemist? What do you think of it? I’d love to hear your thoughts! If you know of any other fun alchemy-related stories, please let me know!
Hannah Heath – bookworm and author