Whuh oh, hold up a second.
This isn’t just a lewdness warning,
this is a gore warning.
This series features heavy themes (such as child abuse),
nudity, generally offensive content, and extreme violence.
The author rates this comic 15+, and I’d say it’s not safe for work.
If you are pure of heart, or don’t have the stomach for gore,
you may want to turn back.
…Wait, wait a second. That’s…left to right? Hmm??
That’s right, this isn’t a manga, or I should say (since “manga” just means “comic”) it’s not Japanese. It’s not a traditional comic, either (for the most part), although for what it’s worth it’s clear to me that at least visually it’s anime/manga-inspired. Unsounded is a full color webcomic by Ashley Cope that has been physically printed, but most of it is online and furthermore, it does some things that you just can’t do on paper. I’d like to have at least the first volume in my hands to tell you how those things work when in a bound book (allegedly, the pages are “retooled” for print), but sadly the first volume has been sold out for a while and costs about 50 bucks used. Ordinarily, it’s $20, and you can still purchase volume 2 as of this writing, but I’d personally feel odd about buying the second volume first…that’s just me! Anyway, the comic.
(got the physical copy, after reading it I must say I prefer it in physical, but for a first read you should definitely read this online to get all the weird things it does)
I consider this a manga review site for Japanese mangas. Of course, that doesn’t mean I won’t review independent webcomics such as this (I’ve reviewed The End of Goldfish Kingdom, after all; and like Goldfish Kingdom, Unsounded is just a comic that happens to be online), but Western things should be outside of my scope. They are, really; I don’t read pretty much any of them. That said, there are a few webcomics I’ve indulged in, and Unsounded is one of the best of those, easily, if not the best (I have a hard time choosing between this and Rice Boy/the works of Evan Dahm). As it began being updated again recently, I decided to reread everything that’s come out so far and at the end of it I thought, “man, I have to review this”.
Unsounded is a fantasy adventure series that often mires itself in tragedy. It also takes place in an incredibly unique setting that possesses a super interesting form of “magic”. It features a decently sized cast of characters who often take “protagonist” type roles, but our main character is a little girl thief with sharp teeth, a lion’s tail, and a slummy accent who never wears shoes and is accompanied by a highfalutin wizard zombie who has somehow not completely lost his mind and can also be very broody. The term “gray morality” is often thrown around by people in a positive sense. People love “good people doing bad things for the right reasons”. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of gray morality; I feel like the twisted scenarios that arise from it aren’t so common and I’m a bit tired of them. There’s a little of that in Unsounded, but what I like about it is that most things aren’t what I’d call gray. People do good and bad things, or have bad and good thoughts, objectively, so this is a world I’d call largely black and white. Our deuteragonist, the wizard zombie, seems like a very good guy until he starts spewing off extreme religious dogma and burning idols (among other things). There’s another character who helps out slavers for a quick buck and slaughters relative innocents who can’t properly fight back, but he’s actually one of the secondary protagonists. I’d say that every character in the series has good and bad to them, and I find this wonderfully uncomfortable, as it forces you to think of them as characters beyond just “nice” or “not nice”. Only two characters escape that claim: one who is wholly kind, and another who is wholly awful. Technically speaking, they work together.
So for story/setting/characters, webcomic or no I hold Unsounded in incredibly high regard. It can be quite funny, too. I should also say the art is gorgeous, and as a webcomic it likes to spill that art over the borders of the “page” to great effect, often breaking the fourth wall. Smartly this is done immediately in chapter 1 and goes even further in chapter 2, making you quickly get used to expecting weird format breaks. Pay particular attention to the title bar while reading online, it sometimes changes or is directly interacted with. Very cool. Now, before I get into the review proper, I will say that Unsounded doesn’t explain itself all at once, and there is a lot to know. If you want to see for yourself how it gets across all the information regarding its world and characters, go ahead and read it right now. However, if you’d like some context and more reasons to get invested in this one, read on. I’ll be technically revealing some things that either take a while to understand fully, or aren’t explicitly made clear in the comic, but context actually helps this series a whole lot. I had much more fun reading it a second time, knowing what I know, than when I read it the first time — and I did love it the first time. By the end of this review first time readers of Unsounded should, for instance, know what wrights are, and why they ought to cut Sette some slack.
Sette Frummagem (“Sette” is pronounced like “Set-tee”) is known as a criminal princess. The Frummagem crime empire is well-known as an incredibly nefarious enterprise, festering in the heart of Sharteshane, Sette’s home, and her father is particularly well-known for seemingly being a criminal genius. Nary-a-Care Frummagem seems to know absolutely everything, and the extent to which his predictions and schemes go might surprise you as you read. That said, there’s definitely something suspicious in him sending his only daughter and supposed heir out with only an undead mage (who desires human flesh at night, like a regular zombie/”plod”, and needs to be bound and chained for safety at those times) to settle some debts on the other side of the continent. His proclaimed reason in sending her is to see if she’s ready to fill his boots as the next Thief Lord, but anyone looking can see that’s probably not true, Sette included.
You might not believe that first seeing her, though.
Sette is a divisive character. I’ll say outright that I love her, and characters like her, but I’ll also say that I seem to be in a minority with that. Sette is brazen, overconfident, bratty, and rude. Furthermore she possesses a thick and muddled accent. I love all of these things. I mean heck, I wrote a character quite similar to her myself and she was one of my favorites. I love accents like hers as well, and have no issue seeing it portrayed in text. I think the beauty of language is that there is never one absolute kind of it, so my favorite ways of talking are always the ways people tend to insult. I find these dialects almost musical — full of life and personality and charisma, but that is my opinion. I’ve seen many complaints about Sette.
But I’ll talk about her more later. First, let’s focus on the second protagonist instead: Duane Adelier.
Duane is kind of like a “lawful good” paladin in all the best and worst ways, which I love immensely. He’s gentlemanly and honorable, but he’s got some, eh, thoughts. It takes a lot of moxie to have one of your main characters be actually flawed in bad ways — not just something that you could call a “character flaw”, but something that makes you go “oh, that isn’t nice at all”. For instance, aside from his zealous faith, Duane has an obvious anger problem (one he’s always had, it turns out), which makes him do some awful things as the story continues. Anyways, he’s a follower of a religion called Ssaelism that claims its god, who was once human, SLAYED the gods of the more popular religion in the land and transcended. Duane has a terrible opinion of this other religion, Gefendur, and the country that practices it most fervently, Cresce. It gets close to the point where you might think he’s a racist, and it’s even a bit hard to separate that given Cresce is populated in majority by a dark-skinned, clearly physically African-inspired race, but his problem is one of ideals rather than physicality. That said, his ideals can come across as very, very obnoxious. He’ll openly claim “your gods are dead”, blaspheme, curse and insult the monarch of Cresce, preach the values of Ssael (his god), and viciously insult the idea of women leading men. That last bit comes from the fact that he hails from a country in the North of the big continent the story takes place on, a country mostly vilified everywhere else called Alderode. Alderode is half-comprised of the Ssaelit faith and is thus rather culturally tied to the religion. After thinking about it quite a bit, I have come to the conclusion that in this world of Kasslyne every country sucks, and Alderode and Cresce just suck the worst.
Cresce is this bizarre society that I could go on about for a long while, but some key points would be: warmongering, grave defilement (they use dead people as undead zombie labor), twisted economy that confuses “value” (they don’t have “money”, it’s weird), and some cannibalism as a part of the Gefendur religion. That isn’t something you’d know from the comic to my knowledge, but in the author-sanctioned wiki we learn that this religion practices cannibalism of younger twins, assumably due to the significance of twins in the religion (have I mentioned I quite like how insanely imaginative the religions of this series are?). As for Alderode, half of it practices the same faith, but more importantly it’s a rather strictly patriarchal society that has castes, and caste systems should always be looked upon with wariness. Basically, due to some artificial magic dickery, there are a handful of distinct races in Alderode with specific lifespans, the lowest caste living for 30 years and the highest caste living for 400. Naturally, there are preconceptions about each race, favor given to those “superior”, blatant racism, mistreatment of lower castes or odd cultural norms and so on. Now Duane, I won’t say what caste he was part of before becoming a zombie (just that his fancy manner of speaking does not accurately reflect his station, which makes a lot of sense when you learn more about him), but he probably has good reason to dislike the caste system and many of Alderode’s values. Despite this, he adores his country and is a total patriot of Alderode. He was once a priest of the Ssaelit faith, he fought in war as a soldier-mage, and he generally holds complete reverence of Alderode values. In this story, he is not in Alderode, and presently it seems his country is prepping for war again, so prejudice against him and his is higher than normal, not that it stops him from being ballsy.
So that’s Duane, and it’s obvious that he, being undead and yet intelligent (the only “being” of his kind), has some sort of twisted past. He does indeed, and we do learn it over time. No spoilers for you, though.
Other than Duane and Sette, there are other major dramatis personae. For instance, this cute boy is Matty. I like him a lot, and he’s the character I referred to as “wholly kind” at the start of this article. Matty is a Plat (Platinum) from Alderode, so he’s part of the lowest caste and will be dead in about 20 years. He’s blind, adorable, and friendly. This is his dad:
Mathis Quigley, Matty’s dad, will be dead in about 10 years (which means he conceived Matty when he was 14 or 15…hm…) and is probably the character I dislike the most. It’s a hard choice between him and Nary, another father (we need to see more of Nary before I make the call; he currently only lives in flashbacks). I’m not saying he’s a bad character, because he’s very well-written and all his actions make perfect sense, but that doesn’t mean I have to like him. Quigley has a unique culture due to his “race” living for such a short amount of time, probably showing most obviously in how he treats his son (to be fair, he tries). He also has a rough past; to hint at it, he wasn’t always a single parent and his son wasn’t always blind. Like Duane, he’s a “wizard” (a “wright”), except at the start of the series he’s working for criminals mostly willingly, so long as they pay enough. He’s a very gloomy, very mean, very angry man possessing greed and a habit to blame everyone but himself for anything that happens. His habits and personality especially make sense if you read a certain pair of short stories, but I’ll talk about short stories later. He helps some slavers out carting some adults and children for something obviously more awful than mere slavery, assisting them with the giant science/magic friendly ogre construct that his wife made. The construct, Uaid, prefers his son. As do I.
One of the reasons it’s obvious that this little gang of criminals is doing worse than just slavery is that a long ways out from Cresce, the Queen has decided to send her Peaceguard after them. The Crescian Peaceguard is basically elite military police, and what’s more the person tailing these slavers is Captain Emil Toma, a renowned hero of Cresce and the man pictured above. Emil is my second favorite character in the series, and one of the more “all around good” types that we follow. He travels with two others, although one has to retire shortly after the comic starts. The remaining companion is Elka, the woman pictured above, who is rather mannish and rough/rude. She’s the third major “wright” in the series, and in the page above she is talking about something Duane did earlier in the comic.
Let’s talk a little about magic.
The world of Unsounded is surrounded by an afterlife-thing called the Khert, kind of like a world on top of and filling their own where departed souls are torn apart and their memories taken, and the rules of the world are set. The art of manipulating this field with an ancient language of names for certain materials is called pymary, and the people who perform pymary are called wrights. Basically, the system involves taking concepts/aspects from the surrounding world and turning them on others. For instance, you could take the aspect of heat from the air and create fire, or beauty from some flowers to make a “glamour” (a disguise for you or others), or you could outright steal someone’s voice (their “sound”). This alone is very interesting to me, and to my knowledge the only magic of its kind in fiction I can think of (not saying it’s the only one period, I wouldn’t know). You also probably shouldn’t call it magic, since it’s actually a lot closer to a science. Wizards in fiction often research magic, but it’s still mostly weird and beyond usual understanding. The Khert in Unsounded is real. There are strict rules to manipulating it, and there are characters in the setting who fiddle with it and make new discoveries from it. For instance, there’s this quirk of nature wherein some things, called First Materials, came from a world before the current one, and thus are unaffected by the Khert (since they’re technically not following the rules/came about before rules could be made for them, you can’t take aspects from them for spells). Using that concept, you can make enchanted items called pymarics that can “hold” pymary in the First Material (since the Khert can’t take the spell out of it), or you can explore the idea of the unique properties of a First Material to create something like anti-magic.
It’s especially cool since it can be a basic sort of system, or a “think outside of the box” system. Like above; would you ever think to take the concept of a leaf’s “edge” to create something that can cut? That’s just cool, mate. Concept-based powers are cool.
So that’s about that for the basics of the world of Unsounded. When I first read it, it took me a while to actually understand what was going on when magic started flying. You can get an impression of what’s going on, but I don’t think it’s immensely obvious. The explanation from the pages above comes in chapter 5, just about a third of the way through the series (later chapters are longer than earlier ones), so when I saw some things that were pretty cool, I think I had less appreciation for them since I didn’t fully comprehend the system. Now, if you’re reading for the first time, you can, and with any luck that will help your liking of the series. At any rate, the pages above also feature a battle between Duane and Quigley. The reason they’re fighting is that Duane discovered a horrible thing, and recent findings indicate Quigley is involved with that horrible thing.
Someone’s cutting up kids and men, extracting their organs, and filling them with something else instead, discarding the organs afterward (meaning this isn’t just black market organ trading or something). That discovery is just about the true kickoff of the story. With chapter 2 and the followup of 3 we get the motivations of the three groups of characters, some goals set, and a plot moving. From the outset, it seems like an adventure from East to West to find a wayward criminal cousin and get money owed from him, but it turns out to kind of be that, plus a plot of political intrigue and mystery, plus lofty beyond-god tier science at play, plus growing as people, plus a heaping helping of misery.
Let’s get back to Sette.
Sette has many odd physical quirks. Not only is she sharp-toothed and tailed, but her nose is seemingly superior to a hound’s — allowing her to literally sniff out pursuers or “smell” spells (pymary; according to her, it smells awful). Thanks to all this, she is considered a freak at home. It’s not so subtly hinted even early on that her father beats her regularly (like grabbing her hair or face or smacking her around, leaving black eyes and bruises), and it’s suggested that everyone else treats her worse (the extent to which everyone abuses her, her “Da” included, is more heavily suggested later on). She may be a “princess”, but you can safely call that horse shit. It’s not even a sure thing that she’s Nary’s daughter, she’s small and weak and people consider her stupid, she’s unable to read, and outside of her home she’s automatically judged for being from Sharteshane (known for its criminals). Nobody expects her to take Nary Frummagem’s place, and she’s aware herself that her mission to settle a debt is at the very least a mere way to prove that she has a use for her father. Long story short, I’m fairly sure Sette might just have led the worst life in the series, and her adventure in this comic ain’t sunshine and roses.
Most of the time, she doesn’t let this show, and in flashbacks we see visual representations of her actively suppressing memories of being abused. There’s a scene much later into the series that I think is very telling. She explains to Duane how she’s the best at lying, and that “Lyin’ ain’t about lyin’: it’s about pickin’ the best world and livin’ in it no matter what.” At the time, she’s not actually trying to talk about herself, but if you take this belief of hers and apply it to many of her scenes, much of her behavior, and her past, things start making a dramatic amount of sense.
Sette likes to believe she’s the absolute best, because thinking anything less would mean accepting what others say about her, which threatens to likely make her fall apart in a matter of seconds. She’s a little girl and a thief. She isn’t black-hearted, and while she lacks nobility she still possesses a lot of sympathy. She forces herself to do some incredible things several times in this comic, often proving to be very resourceful, intelligent, and clever. Still, it feels obvious that the life of a crime lord is not for her. The mess and the dark aren’t things she does well with. She might be a thief with very sticky fingers, but she doesn’t deal in truly abhorrent acts, and often looks to take extreme mental damage when encountering them. But, she forever chooses to live in the best world. She continues to follow the word of her so-respected Da because, for what it’s worth, he is indeed an immense person, but she doesn’t want to acknowledge that he’s thoroughly no-good and probably considers her disposable.
I can’t hate Sette. She’s a trooper and a miserable case but she keeps at it. She tries to be fierce and tough and in some cases, she even succeeds, but her life is still total shit and even if things went the exact way she wants, she’d basically be getting into some deep shit by becoming the head of the Frummagem family, shit she clearly has no tolerance for. Basically, on top of having a kind of zeal and way of carrying herself that I inherently like, Sette has an extremely complex web of circumstance and emotion driving her, while still possessing initiative and drive of her own. It should come as no surprise, then, that I consider her my favorite character in the series. People often find her very annoying, but I really can’t. I can’t blame her for being unreasonable, for being rude, or for pushing Duane toward the country he hates for her own goals, or being violent and so on. It all makes sense and to me it makes her lovable. She recently went through some big discoveries and harrowing experiences after a very climactic arc, so I’m eager to see where her story goes from here.
Like Duane, a lot of weird “magical” mystery also surrounds Sette, so we can look forward to learning more about her uniqueness. There’s a lot I’m not even mentioning that we learn over time, her most fascinating aspect coming in rather late. A small thing of note is that she seems to have deft command over pymarics — enchanted things/spirits. This has been noticed only once in passing by another character, but I wonder what that’s all about. Also, pay attention to how she looks in the opening of chapter 4. Really, think about what you’re seeing.
With that, I’m just about done singing Unsounded‘s praises. The only other thing I can say is that we eventually get to see the Khert and it is fucking awesome (as in, inspiring awe) to look at. I almost consider it a selling point of the comic, but it is shown late in the series and comes as a bit of a surprise. Here’s a [link] to what it looks like; one of my “are you sure you want to see this?” pics, where you’ll have to change the URL if you really want to see the thing. I will say, it’s chaotic and very unique. Seriously, the art of Unsounded is just sooooo high up there, and the action it portrays is usually quite good, often taking daring and unusual approaches to paneling the scenes.
So as we end, how about a touch of criticism? I’d actually say that sometimes Unsounded goes too far in its daring paneling, such that occasionally I am confused as to what’s going on or how to read a sequence. I would also say that sometimes dialogue can get a little too fancy or poetic for my liking, being good lines but not necessarily lines I’d imagine people to say. Most of this comes from Duane, though, and Duane’s overly complex speech is part of his character so I don’t know how seriously to criticize that. Besides, both of these issues I have are comparatively rare, and I can’t be very annoyed with an author who used to roleplay (my own not so secret past) and references Devil May Cry (the scene referenced). Also a fan of Legacy of Kain. Suddenly everything makes sense. By the way, you should really play those games; the stories are amazing.
My next criticism is one I don’t type lightly, and one which should be taken with a pile of salt. Frankly I don’t think you can call it criticism but instead a “flaw” that one can do almost nothing about. I believe Unsounded is too slow to update. Lord oh Lord, do not get me wrong.
Unsounded has been running for seven years now. A lot of it has come out, too. Over 905 pages of comic by my count, which is the rough equivalent to five volumes of your average manga. Of course, getting to five volumes of your average manga ordinarily takes about a year or two, but hold it right there.
There is a full color manga called Kuro by Somato/Soumatou which I might review one day, but I really disliked the ending so I dunno. Anyway, it’s a good example for comparison since it started as a web series as well. But, even when it started being officially published, if I remember right it was at one page per chapter. It took a long time and finished at around 200 pages after about three years of publication. That is presumably with the author having some help (payroll and possibly assistants), and at that rate, with him working officially for a publication, Somato-sensei still wouldn’t have made near as much progress as Ashley Cope in seven years. Full color comic books are goddamn hard to do: time consuming and physically draining. And like Kuro, the coloring in Unsounded is splendid and super beautiful. So again, when I say the series is too slow to update, I am not saying it lightly. Really, I just think it’s an unfortunate fact that can hardly be helped.
Far as I can tell Ashley Cope is working on Unsounded by her lonesome, so writing, drawing, coloring, and some extra art and short stories. The comic is donation-funded through Patreon, and she published two volumes of the series physically using Kickstarter campaigns. Unsounded isn’t super popular or well-known, though (not near as much as it should be, at least). And even so, I imagine that even with a whole lot of time and money, there is simply a hard limitation with how much a single person can do. Ashley puts out a whole lot of comic; a standard three pages a week schedule, where occasionally there will be several pages per update in order to make a sequence flow better (thanks for this). She’ll take breaks to create a page buffer (of about 60 to 80 pages) after a chapter has been completed, and according to her the entire plot of the comic is planned, written, and at the ready. It is going to take a hell of a lot of time to come out, though, and sadly for a story-driven comic book the wait hurts. Ideally, you should read each chapter of Unsounded in its completed state (chapters can be anything from 40 to nearly 170 pages, usually hovering around 100). You can even join a mailing list to get an alert when a chapter has been finished, but no exaggeration, I’ve been alerted through that mailing list twice: both at the end of a year, and each time I returned to the comic while I did enjoy it I’d realize that there was a lot I’d forgotten about, which is damaging to flow. You can read it update to update instead, but again, this is something best read all at once and it reads that way…really, there’s nothin’ you can do about it! I suppose the actual ideal, if you wish to follow this as it’s created, is to read it as it updates, and then reread the latest chapter in full once it’s done. That way, you can retain more information and still can read the whole chapter without breaks eventually. Might lose some impact for some things best seen the first time, but what can you do?
And with that, now you know all you ought to know about Unsounded. Should you read it? Yes, I highly recommend it. Twisted and full of multi-layered characters with a rousing plot and endless mystery. It’s an easy favorite of mine and it was good enough to break my unspoken “rule” on this site. Even if the comic takes a while, with the coming of the latest chapter it feels like we’re in a new “part” of the series. What I’d call “part 1” has completed and reading the whole thing start to finish is very satisfying. Don’t like Western comics? Shut up, read it.
And so ends my longest review yet (the count is over 5000 words; World Trigger eat your heart out). Unsounded is dense, and no I did not cover everything to be seen here, just described setting details and tried to contextualize some more contentious characters. I might suggest that around, say, chapter 6 (but not 7, do this before 7) you should read up on Alderode on the wiki (don’t dive too deep into the wiki, unmarked spoilers abound) and then read the side stories (which I consider well-written) that supplement the series (under “miscellany” on the site). There are three side stories, Interior Emanations (about Duane), Orphans (about Quigley), and Vienne of Seferpine (about his wife). The info about Alderode really helps to solidify how the country works, and the side stories add a little more to what goes on in chapter 7, also doing a good job of explaining Quigley better. And uh…that’s it? That’s it.
I’ll give you plenty of links for how you can support Unsounded just below. Thanks for reading this, and indulging in my fancies. Next time, it’s another webcomic, and again it’s not Japanese. Eastern, though. Is this a theme week? Kinda. See you then.
Chapter 1, Page 1 <- Start here.
Mailing List that alerts you when a chapter is completed.
Volumes 1-2 | $20 for full color, long comics is a great deal, really.
Volume 1 contains chapters 1, 2, and 3; Volume 2 contains chapters 4, 5, and 6; Volume 3 contains chapters 7, 8, and 9.
Volume 1, used
Patreon page | A way to donate money for the comic; offers higher resolution versions of the pages if you donate $5 (which is superb, given the original pages are 600×900 and the Patreon pages are 1000×1500) as well as exclusive extra content, such as other side stories.
Vote for Unsounded on Top Web Comics | Helps give the series exposure.
Wiki | be careful, spoilers
Official website, front page; BUT WAIT I really suggest you stay away from this until you’re caught up; author comments on the pages sometimes give things away. Spoiler Alert, basically.
Pay attention to the lizards.