86 –Eighty-Six–, Vol. 10: Fragmental Neoteny

By Asato Asato and Shirabii. Released in Japan by Dengeki Bunko. Released in North America by Yen On. Translated by Roman Lempert.

First of all: yes, it’s a short story collection. And, for the most part, it’s entirely about Shin, so if you’re looking for the others, well, you’ll only get them as we get closer to the end of the book. These stories are meant to fill in a bit of the gap between Shin being sent off t war and where we joined his story in the first volume. Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Isn’t this just an excuse to write a bunch of grimdark stuff where people are nice to Shin and then die horribly?” And hey, that’s just rude. There are also people that are mean and nasty to Shin who die horribly. That said, I was pleased that not EVERY story in this volume ended with the entire cast dead except for Shin… but most of them do. That said, it’s an excellent look into Shin’s mind, and into how he got to be the person he is today, even though everything but the final story and a few interludes takes place just after the events of the first volume.

The stories show us a freshly recruited Shin, already going far too hard into everything he can, being worried after by his commanding officer Alice; Shin being used as a scapegoat to attract the hatred of the rest of the unit so that it doesn’t spread to others; Shin getting the help of the mechanics to save a scavenger he found that seems to have a mind of its own; Shin discussing the nature of the afterlife with his comrades, as well as coming up with the handle of Undertaker; The Spearhead Squadron’s daily life just before they got Lena as their handler; and Shin, Raiden, Theo, Kurena and Anju marching off to their deaths, only to find that there is still life worth living out there, however dangerous and difficult.

I’ve left out two stories which are the best of this group. The story of Fido, told in several parts, is deeply heartwarming and tearjerking at the same time, and also gives us a much closer look at shin’s family before everything went to hell. Fido’s backstory is a revelation that will put a smile on most people’s faces, I think. The other interesting story is the final one, which appears to be a shared dream between Annette and Shin showing us what life would have been like if they really had managed to find unmanned units to fight the war for the Republic, and Shin and the others could have a normal life. It’s deeply bittersweet, and requires remembering what everyone looks like to get the most out of it (the main cast appears, but dream Shin doesn’t know who they re, so we only see their description), but it also shows us a Shin who regrets a lot of things but is ready to move forward. It’s a Shin prepared for the end of the series, which the author assures us is coming soon.

to sum up: this is how you do a short story volume. We get a lot more about Shin here, some backstory that wouldn’t really fit elsewhere, and yes, a lot of dead people. Come on, it’s still 86.

86 –Eighty-Six–, Vol. 9: Valkyrie Has Landed

By Asato Asato and Shirabii. Released in Japan by Dengeki Bunko. Released in North America by Yen On. Translated by Roman Lempert.

There is an awful lot going on in this volume of 86, but we have to start by talking about Kurena, who pretty much owns this book. When we last saw her at the end of Book 8, she was in a very bad place, her screw-up having cost lives, and throughout this book we see her fragile psyche try to recover from it. She’s grasping for a renewed purpose, which for the most part in previous books has been “Shin”, but now that she’s finally acknowledged that he’s in love with Lena she needs something else. It could be the war – after all, getting back her mojo and becoming the best sniper of all the 86 is certainly something that would be an excellent goal for this book. But, as she realizes to her growing horror, having something war-related as a goal is not cutting it anymore. It’s not what the others are doing. They’re all trying to END the war, to find a future that does not involve constantly fighting the Legion. And I’m gonna be honest, that nearly breaks her.

Our core unit that we’ve known since the first book is now down a member, as Theo is forced to retire from military service, something that he tries to cope with over the course of the book. As for the rest of the group, they’re all headed to The Holy Theocracy of Noiryanaruse, a country whose religion and military needs have combined in a disturbing way, and whose general is an odd mix of high priestess and idol singer. Several countries are sending units to try to take care of the Noctiluca, the Legion’s main weapon from the previous book, which has settled in a ruined and ash-filled area of the Theocracy. The battle will be tricky. The ash turns out to be very hard to navigate in, the entire plan hinges on a sniper who’s having a crisis of faith, and, most importantly, when you combine several countries to try to achieve a task, they may not always be on the same page – or even in the same book.

As usual, the bulk of the back half of this book consists of a large battle, which I can’t really review except to say “hey, nice combat, 5 stars!”. So I’ll go back to 86’s core theme, which is that war is terrible, the idea of “constant war” is an easy one to slip into, and that to prevent that everyone needs SOMETHING that they can think of doing when this war finally ends – because otherwise it never will. Shin has Lena, Anju has Dustin, Raiden… will be getting a book to himself soon, I expect, and this entire book is about Kurena’s journey to find a purpose in life. As for Theo, while I doubt we’ve seen the last of him, I suspect we’re going to see him about as often as we do Annette (who does show up here to rally his morale). His future is not in battle, much to his dismay. As for the war itself, our heroes are faced with actually having to fight soldiers who are not Legion… and they hate it.

This feels like we’re headed towards a grand finale, but we’re not there yet. Nevertheless, this is a fine entry in a very fine series.

86 –Eighty-Six–, Vol. 8: Gun Smoke on the Water

By Asato Asato and Shirabii. Released in Japan by Dengeki Bunko. Released in North America by Yen On. Translated by Roman Lempert.

As expected, after last volume’s romantic comedy shenanigans, we’re back to normal service with this volume of 86. Oh sure, the aftermath of Shin and Lena is still hanging around, and needless to say, the reader wants to strangle Lena. Don’t expect resolution in this book, though, because instead our heroes join up with a group of countries who normally try to avoid the threat of massive sea monsters, but sadly the Legion have proven to be even more dangerous to them, and finally, after ten years of slowly getting destroyed, they’re forced to call other nations for help. On the bright side, this means everyone gets to see the sea! On the down side, the sea is not really the gorgeous blue Mediterranean they had expected, but more of a cold Norway-style sea. What’s more, thanks to the cliffhanger from last time, there is a possibility that the end of the war could be in sight. Which means… thinking past the war. This proves difficult for some, especially Theo, the focus of this book.

I’m not great at remembering character appearances in this series beyond Shin and Lena, so when the cover art to Vol. 8 came out, I joked that 86 was crossing over with Isekai Quartet. But no, that’s not Tanya on the cover, it’s Theo, and he’s not having a good time. Several of the 86 are doing a much better job than he is at imagining a future for themselves that does not involve constant war and battle. He’s still haunted by the death of his former captain. And the Island Nations folks are weighing heavily on him, as they’ve thrown away their pride in order to protest what’s left of their people against the Legion. Given the 86 are supposedly left with nothing BUT pride, this baffles Theo. Fortunately, about 3/4 of this book is a huge sea battle against an unstoppable enemy that always looks dead but isn’t, with the potential for everyone to die horribly. So no change there, then.

As you might gather, the battles are excellent, but I can’t really say a lot about them, as military fighting novels are not my metier. Indeed, it’s still surprising how much I follow this series given that it hits a lot of my “no thanks” buttons, and it’s credit to the author. There is a Situation towards the end which deeply affects a number of the main cast, and while the reader has no doubt that all will be well, it does allow for some additional character development to be pulled off very well. That said… look, I’ve been waiting for another major cast member to die since Book 1, and have been very surprised it didn’t happen. And, spoiler, it doesn’t happen here either. That said, death is not the only way to leave a fight, and also not the only way to winnow down a cast. I suspect the majority of the 9th book is going to be dealing with the 86 having to cope with the events in this book.

So yes, fans should be pleased with Gun Smoke on the Water, despite an annoying lack of Frank Zappa and the Mothers. Will the war end anytime soon? I’m guessing no, but small steps is fine.