...and from hope to desperation. Books 46-60.
After Water Seven the Strawhats embark into shadowy waters, where they meet the living dead (Brook) and eventually the Warlord Moria on Thriller Bark. He steals their shadows, but they get them back, along with Brook's - and with him they get a new crew mate!
They have a run in on a second member of the Seven Warlords at the same time: Bartholomew Kuma, yet thanks to Zoro's extreme show of conviction he leaves them alone. Not yet healed from wounds of the previous battle against the World Government, Zoro saves the crew and almost dies in the process... and they don't even know about it! Well, apart from Sanji, Brook and Robin. Even if I know about his sacrifice, I'm glad some of the crew do, too! It makes for a heartfelt moment.
Already, we are getting a taste of things to come. That maybe they're not really ready. That maybe, they need more than just luck - which they have had plenty of thus far. It's not until right before the New World that things really start getting serious however. None of the Strawhat's actually die (technically Brook is dead hmm), but Ace does, and though their whole story of brotherhood feels like something fabricated for this particular segment of the series, it's a tragic loss: to Luffy, and Whitebeard, and many more. Well, moving back to the story:
After they leave Thriller Bark, they arrive at the Sabaody Archipelago, a gathering place for everyone seeking to make their way across the red line, again, and into the New World that lies beyond. We are introduced to a bunch of rookies collectively known as the Worst Generation who have traversed the same sea via parallel islands. These 11 villains include Trafalgar Law, Eustass Kid, Scratchmen Apoo, Basil Hawkins, X Drake, Killer, Jewelry Bonney, Capone Bege (he doesn't seem to be in the same generation at all though) and Urouge. Luffy, Zoro and Blackbeard are the other three in this 'group'. They also meet an important veteran, the Dark Knight Silvers Rayleigh - second in command on Gold Roger's old ship! And plenty of revelations with him.
They meet with an old f(r)iend too, and a mermaid who soon gets kidnapped, and all of a sudden things start happening very quickly. In the process of rescuing her Luffy punches a World Noble. Big deal? Yeah, pretty big deal! One of the admirals gets sent in, and suddenly the place is crawling with marines. It doesn't help that the marines have their HQ close nearby. Kid, Law & Luffy team up and break their way out along with Rayleigh (who they meet at the same time).
For a moment it seems they've managed to get away, but Bartholomew Kuma makes a repeat appearance, and along with an army of robots and the admiral Kizaru, things soon seem pretty hopeless. Their lack of strength is apparent, and when Kuma appears, Luffy's friends start disappearing one by one. He is the last one still there, and he couldn't do a thing to save them. And then, he disappears as well.
Turns out however that they're all blown off to remote islands; Luffy to the land of Amazon Lily, where the Kuja tribe lives - a tribe of only women where no men are allowed! That gets him in some trouble of course, but he gets through it and makes a friend in Boa Hancock, who turns out to be one more of the seven warlords! Through a newspaper he learns that Ace is about to be executed (and no, he didn't read it himself), and in a hurry they head off to Impel Down, the most secure prison facility in the world, to break Ace out of prison.
It's a hellish journey, but along the way he reunites with Buggy, Mr.3, Mr.2 (Bon Kurei), and later with Daz Bones (Mr.1). At the very lower levels of this infernal pit they meet Crocodile, Emporio Ivankov, Inazuma and another warlord of the Seven - Jinbe. Luffy fights the big bad boss of Impel Down (the monstrous Magellan) and almost dies, but his willpower (along with Emporio Ivankov's hormone injections and Bon Kurei's incredible friendship) keeps him alive. Together with over two hundred prisoners they break out and, against all odds, escape!
Stuck in the government-only stream that goes between the great prison Impel Down, the gates of justice at Enes Lobby and the marine headquarters at Marineford, there is only one destination they can choose. Ace is being taken to the Marineford, so that's where they head, friends and foes alike, and dangerous prisoners, not all with a common goal but all with one common destination!.
As always, Luffy enters with a bang. He has a chat with the legendary Whitebeard, almost meets up with Shanks, and is unexpectedly saved by Trafalgar Law after almost being killed by Akainu. Ace saves his life, after he's just been saved himself, and is killed in the process. RIP.
The battle at Marineford is incredible in the manga, and not so dissimilar from the anime, just not quite as impressive in dragged out form. And in the anime... didn't Whitebeard just get his mustache cut, not his entire face? There are certain differences, but overall the anime is a more truthful rendition of the manga than I had expected, in many scenes boosted by voices and sounds, and occasional melodies (like Brook's Song). So many people told me otherwise!
Reading the manga again (I mean, after just watching the animated counterpart), it's also clear that Ace dying is not Luffy's fault. He may have been weak and powerless, running headfirst into a battle in which he surely had died was it not for the help of the others. But were it not for him... had Ace been saved at all? Though it's the strength of the others that ultimately takes him to Ace, it seems to be his willpower that constantly leads them on. It's a memorable fight, which ends in tragedy. Blackbeard comes in and steals the show for a moment, killing Whitebeard once and for all (no doubt he would have died either way) and stealing his power, and then Shanks walks in... and the war is over.
Not longer after the war, Luffy and Rayleigh visit Ace's grave. Luffy covered in bandages, but with a message tattooed on his arm:
3 D 2 Y. We get a glimpse of the trials the other members are going through, and how they react to the message. Just as I did, and knew they would, they all understand. Their meeting at the Sabaody Archipelago in three days has been postponed... to two years! And there, the timeskip begins, and my books end.
I haven't reached to the Fishman arc yet, or the Dressrosa one I'm currently hooked on in its animated form. Don Flamingo was hinted so early on, already in the Bellamy arc, so it seems this latest one is really going to be MASSIVE. I can't wait to keep reading, but until I get my hands on the newer books, this is probably the best possible place to take a pause. From the Grand Line to the New World (well, almost)... it's been one hell of an adventure!
And it's not over yet.