The Combat Baker and Automaton Waitress, Vol. 4

By SOW and Zaza. Released in Japan by HJ Bunko. Released in North America by Bookwalker. Translated by Ari and John Werry.

Despite taking place in a fantasy Europe-ish world where peace is very shaky and there are grudges galore, Combat Baker has been a fairly heartwarming, lighthearted series. There is the occasional assassination attempt, Lud’s past is not really made fun of, and there’s always the possibility of a horrible bread–related tragedy, but I think most folks read these books to see Sven freak out about people getting close to Lud, Sophia and Daian, and the occasional cartoon villain, like Hilde from the last book. Indeed, the setup for this book seems to be taking much the same route, as we see Hilde try again to assassinate Lud, fail miserably, and be forced to work at the bakery. The reader can relax as they realize that hijinks are about to ensue.

(Narrator voice: Hijinks did not, in fact, ensue.)

I probably should have suspected something was up when I saw Sophia’s cute and plucky Private First Class Deadmeat, who did everything but take out a picture of her boyfriend and tell Sophia that she’s retiring in two days. Yes, that’s right, this is NOT a light and fluffy book in the series, it’s the first of an extended arc, and it ends up in a very dark place. We are reminded once more that a core premise of this series is that it’s in a world sort of ruled by Germany, and that the fantasy equivalent of the SS are looking to move up in the world. As such, our main villain Genitz is NOT in the hilariously awful mode like Hilde was – he’s a nasty piece of work who you will come to loathe, and he ups the body count in this book significantly. I have no doubt that he’ll get his in the end – he already has one scheme too many, in my opinion – but as far as Book 4 goes, the bad guys win.

It’s not ALL doom and gloom, of course – as I said, the first three fourths of this are pretty fun. Yes, Sophia and her troops are holding back a siege, but it’s OK, they still have Rebecca in reserve, and lots of experimental weapons like bazookas. More to the point, the book humanizes Hilde. I went into the book groaning a bit about this, as Hilde was so obnoxious in the third volume that I wanted nothing more than for her to vanish from the narrative forever. And some of her redemption is clunky – Sophia’s recollection of a young girl singing and being humiliated at a noble’s party years ago screams “please enjoy this exposition which will be important later” – but her emotional journey does eventually feel earned, and I liked the way that she and Sven compared and contrasted. Also, the author does have some excellent subtle tricks later on – I didn’t realize the past connection between two characters until right before I was supposed to.

Still, things are bad. Two likeable people dead, one main supporting character possibly dead, another missing, one captured by evil soldiers, and our main heroine will, I suspect, be brainwashed for much of the next book. Can Lud and company turn this around? Probably, yes. In the meantime, the bakery’s closed after this excellent but dark volume.

The Combat Baker and Automaton Waitress, Vol. 3

By SOW and Zaza. Released in Japan by HJ Bunko. Released in North America by Bookwalker. Translated by Ari and John Werry.

As readers of fantasy manga and light novels know, one of the go-to ways to create a new world but also invest it with countries that the audience might care about is to make it like Europe around the time of the first and second world wars. Be it refighting the conflict with mecha or girls in powered suits, extending the way forever thanks to the efforts of a twisted God and twisted little girl, or focusing on post-war issues and fallout, everyone loves to write not-Europe – particularly not-Germany. Combat Baker is no different, which has made this book, one where Germany essentially won the war, a bit discomfiting. But for the most part it’s been subtle, and as long as the author doesn’t try to work in the Jewish people in an incredibly unsubtle way with a stereotypical character, I think we’re — (telephone rings) Hello, yes? What? (hangs up) Oh dear.

Before I get into Shylock (yes, really), let’s take a look at the rest of the book. Jacob is the focus of this volume, as his mother wants to move to a bigger city but he wants to stay behind with Lud and company. Meanwhile, the military is dealing with the equivalent of the SS troops, a separate group attached to the powers in charge which is trying to become more powerful than the government’s own military. In order to achieve this they have sent an immature teenage brat with delusions of regaining her family’s honor, one token “just plain evil” soldier, and a corporal in a mask who looks like he wants to stop these people, but also has something to hide. And of course we still have the occasional harem antics, as Sven frustratedly realizes that she cannot control women from falling in love with Lud, mostly as she hasn’t actually confessed yet. Can this group survive a Bake-Off as well as a kidnapping?

I should note here that I’m not Jewish, so this is just my own personal feelings. I think I see what the author wanted to do with his insertion of Shylock, a businessman who grew up abused by people simply due to his ethnicity and has tried hard to run his business and support his country. We see a bit of the catch-22 involved when he thinks that giving money to the state would get him in trouble, only to be arrested for not giving money. I suspect some of my reservations would be allayed if he weren’t literally named Shylock, and his nickname is “Greedy Shylock” to boot, a businessman who controls most of the weapons manufacturing in not-Germany. When you’re writing a fantasy novel which is dealing with the horrors of war in many ways, you need some subtlety in your writing and background. Shylock was as subtle as a boot to the head.

Apart from that, this is a decent enough Combat Baker. Jacob gains some depth here as a child who’s had to grow up far too fast, and occasionally acts like the child he’s supposed to be for once. And once again it’s hinted that Lud knows exactly who Sven is and is just rewriting his own mind to forget it. There’s also new translators, and the book read a lot smoother this time around. If you’ve been reading Combat Baker, you’ll want this one as well. And yes, there is also delicious bread (though the book does not come with free bread with purchase – Bookwalker might want to look into0 that.)

The Combat Baker and Automaton Waitress, Vol. 2

By SOW and Zaza. Released in Japan by HJ Bunko. Released in North America by Bookwalker. Translated by David Musto.

It took me a while to get into this volume of the series, but once the main plot got into gear it practically flew along. I felt uncomfortably like Sophia while reading this. She’s the soldier and childhood friend of Lud’s who wants him to return to the military rather than trying to atone for his crimes by baking bread in some town in the middle of nowhere. Lud, over the course of the book, realizes that’s not why he’s doing this, and that being a baker and seeing people happy *is* what he wants going forward. That said, I have to admit that the book really comes alive once the terrorists arrive and things turn a bit Die Hard. Lud may be a baker, but he is also an excellent soldier. That said, I was also pleased that a large amount of the saving the day fell to both Sophia and Sven, who have no need for Lud to come and rescue them.

The book starts off at the bakery but doesn’t stay there long, as fantasy not-Germany is trying to win over its conquered people and therefore is having a party on the not-Hindenburg, and the\y want Lud’s bread to be part of that. Of course, there are a few small problems. 1) Lud will have to give an interview, and his smile still terrifies people. Luckily, Sven takes over with help from some hair dye and glasses. 2) His former commanding officer/childhood friend is there as well, and she wants him to join the military again so he can be with her… um, I mean do what’s he was meant to do. 3) This is all a publicity stunt, so once Lud actually boards the airship he finds himself cruelly mocked and belittled. And of course 4) Terrorists have boarded the ship and are going to crash it into a major city, killing thousands. Add in Milly, the angry girl from the first book who now has a massive crush on Lud, and has stowed away, and you have a lot going on.

There is, of course, a bit of a harem here, but given Lud’s personality, nothing is really going to come of it. That said, I wonder how much of Lud’s obliviousness is genuine – there’s a clear moment here where he reveals he knows exactly who Sven really is, to her surprise, but it’s just as quickly forgotten. I suspect he’s trying to keep things as they are, which is always a dangerous thing to do in Japanese series – “I wish things could stay like this forever” is a classic death flag. The series also has some very interesting worldbuilding in regards to the supposed “peace” after the war, and how fragile that really is, especially if some of the soldiers who know nothing else are trying to stir up war again. I could have done without the dickhead terrorist stripping and threatening Sophia with rape, the go-to standard for “I want readers to see my villain is eeeeeeevil”, but at least she kneed him across the room and stepped on his goolies, rather than get rescued by Lud. Sophia can take care of herself.

I still wish I could change the font in Bookwalker’s app to a different one, but the translation seems much improved in Book 2. It also comes with a very short story about the world of the series. If you’re looking for a light novel that’s not quite the same as the “standard”, but still has enough tropes to be comfortable, this is an excellent series to read.