Phantom Dream is the second manga series by Natsuki Takaya, of Fruits Basket fame, to be published in English, but it is actually the first serial work she wrote. Published four years before its more famous predecessor, this five-volume series followed Tamaki Otoya a monsu (head monk) who is also the shugoshi who is charged with excising the negative emotions that take over people and turn them to monsters. His lover, Asahi, supports him as best she can, though she appears to have no powers and has been told by the Otoya family that she will never be allowed to marry Tamaki because she has no power. Opposing Tamaki and working hard to create even more demons are the Gekka. Led by Eiji, they claim they want to save the world by recreating and seek to reawaken their king, Hira, to fulfill this goal. As the battle intensifies, Tamaki must come to terms with having to kill to save the victims of the Gekka, but even his rapidly increasing powers may not be enough to save the ones he loves the most.
Often when I read a series written by someone who I've already read works for, I find that the characters are similar, and their stories frequently have similar themes. This, thankfully, is not the case with Phantom Dream. Despite the misleading front cover of the first volume that is stylized to resemble Kyo, the characters of Phantom Dream stand on their own and bear little resemblance to the later Fruits Basket. They are, for the most part uniquely designed and distinct, and well drawn. Asahi, in particular, is beautifully rendered, as is Hira. If there was one recurring theme from both series, it would be the inclusion of a few cats, though I must admit, I found the ones in Phantom Dream were actually better drawn than those later seen in Fruits Basket.
Storywise...well I can only say that Takaya is a masterful spinner of tales and if this is what her first work was like, I will be giddily waiting for her to write a new series! Phantom Dream may be short, but it spins a powerful story, as the past is brought to light. Both the characters and the events are mired in shades of gray, with few being clearly right or clearly wrong. As the motivations of the Gekka come to light, one can't help but feel sympathy and even understanding, even as you know they must be stopped. Tamaki himself reflects this internal struggles wonderfully, with those around him acting as the foils for various viewpoints one could take. The romance between Asahi and Tamaki is no less beautiful for having already been established before the start of the series.
The only major criticism I would give this series is that it felt too short and a bit rushed. I think it could easily have been stretched out another volume or two to flush out some elements only hinted at or quickly glossed over. In particular, one revelation near the end could have used some serious foreshadowing to make it less "whoa, WTF BBQ." As it is, it came out of left field and while Takaya managed to gloss over why there were no hints of it in the rest of the story, I still would have liked at least a clue or two. A longer series would also have helped flesh out some of the side characters, as this series has a pretty full cast for its size and as such, some were left on the sidelines more as background versus having a real roll to play.
All in all, I would certainly recommend this series both to Takaya fans and those who have yet to enjoy Fruits Basket. Just have a little tissue ready for the final volume or two. :-)