A number of people recommended this series to me, and I was fortunate enough to be lent all of the discs at the same time. For a series like this being able to watch it in big chunks makes it much better. Story based anime just works much better that way.
One of the opening scenes for this series is a furious, but chivalric, naval engagement. Musketeer's load round shot into their long firearms, cannon are loaded and readied for close range salvo's into the enemy force, and orders rattle down the copper voice tubes that connect the ships of the fleet. However the fact that this battle is taking place high in the sky makes it clear that the world we are being introduced to is not our own. The fact that the battle involves horrific casualties, and politically inspired betrayal, lets us know that human minds still work the same however.
The characters we follow are, as yet, completely uninterested in such a war. As free pilots of a city-state, earning their way by acting as flying couriers, passing through a war is just an occupational hazard. This young boy, and his female companion and navigator, are simply making a living while they train to follow in their fathers footsteps and challenge the grand stream, the mother of all storms, that splits their world in two. Their parents lost their lives attempting to carry a message, that would have saved thousands, across this howling gap and the two have vowed to defeat it in their parents place. However when they accept a job, on behalf of a dieing pilot, they find themselves dragged directly into a struggle which will determine the fate of the world and all those who occupy it. Strap yourself in, it's a bumpy ride.
I'm fairly convinced that this series was designed based on a visual concept. In other words some designer had an image, that seemed interesting, and the story grew from this. Specifically the image was derived from the genre sometimes called "steam-punk". In such a world the environment is derived from the past, generally Victorian England at the height of empire, but has high technology grafted onto it. Thus the opening fight is a classic naval battle, full of cannon salvo's and sinking ships, but it all occurs on the sea of the clouds. Our two leads fly a vehicle which looks basically like a classic car chassis, they navigate by dead reckoning and they communicate through primitive chest mounted microphones, but through the addition of high technology these two young kids enjoy the freedom of the skies. Heck, their job of delivering message cylinders depends upon the strange gaps in technology.
It turns out there's a perfectly logical reason for all of this. This high technology exists, and is still being produced, but the knowledge behind it is the property of a faction known as the guild. Some of this technology is lent to the two dominant nations of this world, but the guild is not interested in sharing it. Indeed they reserve the right to recall their "units", the source of flight, from any of the ships using it... with rather dramatically disastrous effects for the ship that used to have the power of flight. Their amazing technological advantage has given them immense power and wealth, with a matching arrogance and superiority complex compared to those not within their faction. They have also, of late, begun dabbling in politics and taking some odd actions. Clearly they have some plan in motion, and its probably not something intended to have mutual benefit.
On the other side are the free forces of the world. The vanship pilots have a certain freedom, but little military power. However certain individuals are beginning to chafe under the guilds oppressive power. Many of these people work within the existing kingdoms, although it can be hard to distract the rulers of these kingdoms from their pointless wars over the worlds shrinking natural resources. However one, the enigmatic captain of the "kill em all" Silvana, has both freedom and, as captain of a powerful battle-cruiser with an engine outside guild control, power. In many ways our leads, Claus and Lavie, are drawn into his story as it forms the central core of the series. He's a great character too, as are many of the ships crew... it reminds me rather a lot of Captain Harlock (although the creators probably wince at the thought). In reality it relies more on one aspect of the anachronistic environment in which the story is set. In this environment one man can be the absolute captain of a ship, and that ship can contain enough power to change the world. Of course Claus is a smaller version of the same concept, his ownership of a vanship and the skill to use it giving him a degree of both freedom and power.
That said the story does, actually, fail in a lot of ways. The strongly steam-punk flavor of the opening fades out quite quickly. The "normal" world is largely left behind as our leads join the crew of the Silvana, and even further as the guild comes to dominate the story. In essence the story moves towards being a far more traditional science fiction story. This can be seen because the "musket soldiers", shown in the opening, are only really meaningful in the very first episode. Likewise the "naval fleets" become increasingly pointless, towards the end serving primarily as things to explode for dramatic effect. This also affects the leads, their dream of crossing the grand stream seems sort of illogical when it becomes obvious that any of the capital ships can safely do so. Nor do they actually have that much importance to the story, and for many episodes their only role is to have psychological episodes, whether purely internally or with others.
Indeed by the end of the series the power level has pretty much reached the surreal, and style has faded in exchange for computer generated shock and awe. This leads to an impressive conclusion, but it is on such a scale and so unexplained that it is not entirely satisfying. For example a whole number of story threads, most dramatically Luciola and Dio, come to an abrupt but unsatisfying halt, especially considering the amount of character time and development they've had. There are also a fair few questions left unanswered, especially as to the nature of the world and the vehicle known as exile.
In the global sense however, it doesn't really matter. What the show loses in novelty it gains in sheer visual scale and dramatic intensity. This anime is an example of "big story" anime, it has an extremely strong central story thread that ties all the characters into momentous events. The interest in seeing how the story will play out, how all the mysteries will resolve themselves (thus the frustration when some don't) and how the characters we have come to like will whether the storm will have you always eager for the next episode. It might not have quite followed the original plan, but its a very exciting ride to take. The good writing, especially for intense characters and dramatic scenes, must be granted a lot of the credit. The unusual world in which it is placed, even if it fades somewhat, also gives it an interestingly different "flavor".
This is greatly enhanced by some very impressive production values. Computer assistance is immediately evident in the detailed hardware and some extremely impressive atmospheric effects. They love exploding things, thick smoke and howling storms and these all feature prominently. It works though, adding a lot of power to the visual presentation. And unlike most computer dominated shows the character artwork is also good, distinctive, expressive and fun to watch in addition to merging well with the complex environments. They also move well, although there's not all that many character action scenes. Most of the action is at the vehicle level, either the zooming vanships or the more ponderous battleships. Both have their own excitement though, there's an awesome scale and power to the large ships and room for exciting maneuvering in the smaller ships. It must admit I did get a little tired of exploding ships towards the end, and I can't say I'm that fond of the representation for exile. Design work is also excellent, there's all sorts of little details suggesting that care and thought has been put into the environment, and this expands into the culture and politics. As I commented this tends to get left behind a bit, I would have liked to have explored the world a bit more along the way, but it still adds greatly to the richness of the experience. The voices are superb, the English dub seems decent but they never have the same depth of talent especially for non-primary characters, Dios especially loses a lot in translation. The music is excellent as well (you expected otherwise from a high class production like this?) with a enjoyable and dramatic open and close and some source derived music for ambient work. The sort of half folk and half computer game music used at some points is especially effective.
Aerial battleships fight for supremacy in the skies of an alien land. The start is steam punk, but the energy that emerges during the title is playing at an entirely different level. This is world-building and story-telling on a large scale, lots of dramatic events and a large cast of surprisingly interesting characters. This is backed up by some extremely impressive production values. This ones definitely worth a try.
There's lots of partial reviews around, but precious few finished ones. And since big story anime depends a lot on how the conclusion is received I think I'll wait for some of the reviews to reach that point. The consensus is, in a total non-surprise, extremely positive.