Fullmetal Alchemist, Vol. 18
By Hiromu Arakawa
Published by Viz
At the end of volume seventeen, Winry had been brought to Fort Briggs by the ever-slimy Kimblee as a means of controlling the Elric brothers, both of whom display how much they've grown over the course of the series by handling the situation with surprising restraint. Al, still locked up in the Briggs brig (yes, I just wanted to say that), carefully waits for his chance to escape while Ed, under orders to carry out mass murder (or else), chooses to put aside pride, bravado, and the ever popular lying-to-people-for-their-own-protection in favor of just straightforwardly telling Winry what's going on. Meanwhile, Lt. Hawkeye has discovered a chilling truth about President Bradley's young son--one she can't reveal even to Colonel Mustang. As the volume continues, Ed and Al encounter Scar once again with whom they must form an uncomfortable alliance, and Al experiences an even more disturbing encounter--with his own physical body.
Though it is a matter of characterization more than plot, the most exciting aspect of this volume is actually Ed's willingness to be fully honest with Winry about her role in Kimblee's machinations, something which he surely would have tried to "protect" her from earlier in the series. This actually puts Winry in a position to make her own informed decisions on well-earned equal ground, and though it may not (and does not) keep her safe, it gives her the opportunity to grow up just as her two childhood friends have, something which will inevitably benefit them all. Already her grounded fortitude is an asset, particularly to Ed, and though she's in peril once again by the end of the volume, there is no doubt she will continue to lend her strength to both brothers in the future. A romantic future with Ed also begins to feel inevitable (if undeniably distant), assuming they both survive, and this volume contains a surprisingly touching scene in which Winry gives her earrings (too dangerous to wear in the deadly cold outside Fort Briggs) to him for safekeeping, leaving him stammering after her. Arakawa plays this perfectly simple and matter-of-fact, which is somehow much more romantic than any labored, tearful goodbye could ever be. This is actually Winry's volume all over--another highlight being her confrontation with Scar, the man who killed her parents.
With each new volume, this series gets stronger and stronger. Arakawa's ability to maintain an incredibly complex plot with multiple locations and dozens of supporting characters, thick with moral and philosophical themes, while still turning out kick-ass shonen-style action sequences (of which there are at least two in this volume) is unmatched in my experience, and her story is as satisfying and honestly moving as anything I've encountered in any genre. I tend to consider Fullmetal Alchemist to be the most popular underrated series out there--tragically overlooked despite (or maybe because of) its massive sales numbers.
This volume ends with a sense of strong foreboding, as Al is trapped in a snowstorm, battling the effects of coming in contact with his real body, Winry is headed into a deadly trap, and Ed is stuck playing "human weapon" under Kimblee's watch. For fans of the series, this volume provides new revelations, strong character development, and some anxious anticipation of what's to come. For those who have avoided picking up this long-running shonen series, it's never too late to catch up. Head to your local library before volume nineteen arrives on July 21st!