By Kenjiro Hata. Released in Japan as "Hayate no Gotoku!" by Shogakukan, serialization ongoing in the magazine Shonen Sunday. Released in North America by Viz.
This is very much a book of two halves, or rather a book of 1/3 and 2/3. The first third of this volume has our usual wacky butler antics. Nagi tries to secretly rent a porn video, but gets things mixed up and ends up with a horror video instead, which gives her nightmares. We get a flashback showing us exactly how Sakuya hired Chiharu to be her maid. Hina has been tricked into dressing up for a kids' sentai show, and has to hide her identity from Hayate and Nagi. And Nagi makes an attempt to buy a camera, in order to capture some memories of the time she and Hayate first met.
Each of these chapters has some great Hayate bits in them, the sort of humor that works because we know these characters, and have spent 17 volumes seeing their growth. Hayate and Maria discussing Nagi's attempt to buy adult videos while Nagi pretends to be asleep. Sakuya's butlers reacting to her walking out in just a bra, and realizing their ojousama is all grown up. Hina's embarrassment, which has gotten to be the sole reason for seeing anything with her in it. And of course the heartwarming moment when Hayate, Nagi and Maria finally get a good picture taken. Nagi smiles, and notes she and Hayate will be together forever.
Ghlk. We immediately see Hayate's twitchy reaction, and though he covers it up well enough after that, we see him that evening (in a very rare shot of Hayate actually attempting to sleep) thinking about his past, and we finally move into what's been implied for some time: an extended flashback showing him with the princess-curled young girl who he said was his first girlfriend, Athena. This is the rest of the volume (and will be wrapped up in 18), and if a totally different mood to the start. There is still the odd bit of humor (mostly revolving around Athena's jealousy of Hayate, even as a little boy, being a chick magnet - the sequence with Izumi as a little girl is both touching and adorable), but for the most part this is a gauzy, fairy tale romance, albeit with a grim spectre of drama hanging over it.
The flashback starts with Hayate in elementary school being accused of stealing the other children's lunch money. He didn't, of course, but his parents did. It has to be said here, and I can't emphasize it enough - Hayate's absent parents are some of the worst in all of anime and manga. We never see their faces, only shadows and silhouettes, which is deliberate on Hata's part - they aren't meant to be real people, who you might remotely sympathize with, but offscreen monsters. Everything they do, every time we see them in flashbacks, they are gambling, they are stealing, and they are ignoring their child. It's heartbreaking. And so when Hayate runs away, and finds himself in a strange garden with a castle in it, it reads as it's meant to - like a fairy tale. There's even a princess.
Athena herself is meant to juxtapose with Nagi. There are a few similarities - they both get jealous very easily, and tend to have a bit of the 'brat' quality to them when they do so - but for the most part Athena is a contrast, being far more mature and driven than your average 6-year-old has any right to be. She is alone in the castle, and Hayate staying to be her butler is beneficial for both of them. We also see that Hayate's strength is not merely the result of years and years of incredible training and ludicrous jobs - although that helped. No, Athena did some magic, which gave him some of his incredible strength and stamina. What's more, she then teaches him swordsmanship, proving to be a most adept fencer even at her young age.
There is notably no fanservice here, even though we see Athena kiss Hayate, and they share a bed. Athena may be mature for her age, but the two are still six, and this is meant to show an innocent friendship - in fact, Hayate's first friendship. Unfortunately, Hayate still has a six-year-old's issues. He already knows what a monster his father is, but hasn't seen what his mother can do yet - and wonders if she misses him. He doesn't want to live in fairy tale castle land, he wants to live in the real world. And when he suggests Athena come with him, things turn even more serious. Athena gives him a ring, noting it's part of a set, and asks that they wear them "once they grow up". Hayate, delighted that this means she'll leave with him, exits the castle to tell his parents. And we cut back to Athena, staring at Hayate with the most heartbreaking expression you've ever seen, and one of the rings lying on the floor. As if we didn't get it, Hayate's narration notes she looked like she knew the future with them together would never come to pass.
This is where the volume ends, on a nasty cliffhanger. We *know* that something horrible is going to happen, most likely with Hayate's parents. Still, the purpose of this volume was twofold. First, to introduce Athena, another of the series' main characters. And to show that Hata can write a serious, even tragic storyline via extended multi-chapter flashback and not lose his readership. I think he succeeded on both counts, though your mileage may vary. The series is not going to turn into an angst-fest completely, and the humor will return with a vengeance. But from this point on, we do get more and more serious arcs. We have to wait 6 months now between volumes (curse you, poor sales!), but it will definitely be worth it.
And for the curious, I ship Hayate/Hinagiku, Hayate/Ayumu and Hayate/Athena about equally. :)