Thirteen-year-old Asumi Kamogawa dreams of nothing else than becoming an astronaut, and while it may seem a lofty ambition at the best of times its one that carries an extra burden for the young school girl. When the first Japanese manned spacecraft Shishigō exploded mid-flight, the falling debris – both political and physical – decimated not only the nation’s ambitions in space but also left Asumi’s mother dead. Now she lives with her struggling father, scared of telling him that she has been accepted into the Tokyo Space School, and is about to be taken from his life by the same thing that took his wife.

It’s a powerful set up for Kou Yaginuma’s Twin Spica, a manga series that made an equally strong impact when it debuted in Japan in 2001, spawning not only an anime series but also a live action TV drama. As such it is perhaps – with the obvious exception of the forthcoming Chi’s Sweet Home – Vertical’s most commercial or mainstream license to date. But rest assured; based on this first volume it lives up to the high standard of quality and maturity that have become their trademark.

At its heart is a tale of the battle between nostalgia and progress, both for the space program and Asumi herself. Helping the teenager get to grips with the split of loyalty between her father and her dreams is Mr Lion – apparently a figment of Asumi’s imagination or the spirit of an astronaut that perished in the Shishigō disastor – and seemingly an interesting nod towards Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro. What makes this struggle between the two even more interesting and absorbing to read is how Yaginuma allows it to dictate the style of both his art and writing; contrasting the warmth of family life with the cold isolation of simulated space in the school’s training program. In this way it often reminded me of Makoto Shinkai’s Voices of a Distant Star, with its frenetic space battles contrasting with childhood memories, though here it’s the more mundane but equally deadly threat of another space disaster, the fear of which the Tokyo Space School attempts to drill into its students.

It is this that dominates the second half of this volume, as Asumi finds herself thrown into a daunting test along with two other girls. To give away the details of what they must do would spoil one of the cleverest aspects of the plot, but it’s enough to say that it allows Twin Spica to show how it effortlessly blends shojo drama and hard science fiction, as the girls must overcome both personal difficulties and the harsh practicalities of space travel. It is also where perhaps Twin Spica shows one of it’s very few weaknesses – the other students Asuma meets at the school seem at first glance to fall into very familiar manga stereotypes – the over confident pretty boy, the uptight otaku, the bitchy and elitist girl – but hopefully as the story progresses these characters will open up as relationships are formed and barriers dropped.

As always for Vertical prints the preview copy I was supplied with is of fantastic quality, though felt surprisingly light compared to their other recent, tome-like offerings. Not that I’m complaining at all; it’s a quick and engaging read, and I mainly mention it because it left me thirsting for more. The preview copy also includes two short, one-off pilot stories Yaginuma wrote introducing the events and characters – one of which is available on Vertical’s website. The coupling of sci-fi and personal drama is reminiscent of Makoto Yukimura’s Planetes – a personal favourite of mine – but with a more teenage and female orientation, providing a refreshing alternative to both the staid shojo works and dark science fiction manga I have read recently, with the book clearly poised to become a sure-fire hit with fans of both genres.