86 –Eighty-Six–, Vol. 5: Death, Be Not Proud

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

It’s only taken a few volumes for this to rise to near the top of my list of favorite Japanese light novels, and there are several reasons for it, but I’ll focus on one here: the author is very good at strong, memorable set pieces. I’ve talked before about how the most ordinary ideas can become magic with good writing and strong characterization, and that’s true here as well, though given the books we’ve seen lately trying to ape 86, perhaps the ideas aren’t that ordinary. But the best light novels also have one or two scenes that blow the reader away, something that when you are recommending the book to someone else you cannot help but gush over. 86 is particularly good at this, and there’s more than one in here, both dramatic and horrific. (If you’re looking for humor, this is not the series for you.) But a conversation between Shin, our hero, and Lerche, who is… well, a spoiler, upends the entire picture of what war is to an 86, and how war should be fought. Because don’t forget the main thrust of this series: war is awful.

The 86 and Lena are sent to the United Kingdom, which is a bit on the nose for books like these, but hey – which is also battling the Legion, and is now desperate enough to call in France… erm, the Federacy… because they’re running out of time to fix things. Fortunately, they have another genius to help guide the combat in Prince Vika, who will be leading an army of young women who are dead soldiers who have been resurrected, sort of, as essentially androids. They are there to fight the war, and are happy to do so, given that they’re not actually alive. The 86 find this a bit disturbing, but also do not seem to see the parallel between these girls and themselves. As for Lena, well, she’s still struggling with several issues – she still can’t understand Shin and tends to lean towards pity, that face that she’s clearly from the Republic earns her hatred, and perhaps worst of all, she’s forced to wear a skin-tight suit in order to better communicate and lead the soldiers under her command.

The last part is probably the one low point in this book – you get the sense the editors ask for one fanservice scene per book that they can hand to the illustrator. The high points in the book are numerous. The battles are vicious and nasty, with the Legion proving to be exceedingly clever even though they lack a personality. The way that the Sirins solve the problem of the siege is mesmerizing in its grotesqueness. There’s a secondary romance in this book starting between Anju and another soldier that manages to get farther than Shin and Lena have in five books. Indeed, by the end of the book they seem farther apart than ever, as Shin realizes that he knows absolutely nothing about Lena. But the highlight, as I said, is that scene between shin and Lerche, where Lerche, despite seemingly being an automaton, gradually grows more furious hearing about Shin vowing to continue the fight because if they let others fight for them they’d be “cowards”. It is, in its own way, an argument between two tools. But only one of these tools can stop being one and become human again.

This is still a brutal series, and if you dislike war-filled battlefields you may want to skip it. But it’s seriously one of the best books currently coming out, and I can’t wait for the 6th volume.

86 –Eighty-Six–, Vol. 4: Under Pressure

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

The author brags about how this volume of 86 is much lighter in tone than the previous three, and I guess that’s true? Certainly the first quarter of the book makes a determined effort to be amusing, sweet and heartwarming in turns, with the only big drama being the arrival of Annette and her realization that her childhood friend Shin does not recall her at all, which makes atoning for her guilt rather difficult. Lena and Shin are VERY shippy here, despite the fact that Shin has difficulty getting that sort of thing. Frederica and Kurena play the part of the wacky jealous not-girlfriends to a T. But there is a plot here, which leads to the battle and action sequences, and that’s when the reader realizes that even in the lightest of 86 novels, things are still going to take a turn for the very dark, as we find out exactly what the Legion has been doing all this time, and how hard it’s going to be to defeat them going forward.

After the two-volume interqual, Lena is finally reunited with her former team, and she’s brought friends, as we add to the cast a great deal of the 86 who were fighting with her after Shin and company left and ended up in the Federation. Things are… still not great in terms of the Republic. In fact, they’re still monstrously bad, with lots of “give us back our animals they are not people” racism from their side – 86 has never been subtly about such things, and that doesn’t change here. Unfortunately, just because Lena (and Annette) have reunited with Shin doesn’t mean things are going to be happily ever after. Leaving the Legion aside, it’s pointed out that the 86 have had to cut away everything that is not related to battle in order not to go mad. If Lena wants them to regain that, she’ll just be forcing them to feel the unbearable pain again. Can she live with that? And as for Annette, isn’t this all just about her?

The second two-thirds of the book are an extended battle against the Legion in an underground subway complex with shopping mall attachment, which is annoying to our heroes as their powered suits don’t function as well there. The fight introduces a new variety of bad guy to the stage, and they’re pretty lethal right up front, taking out all of Annette’s bodyguards and almost managing to kill Shin. The exact nature of how they came to be, as well as how the Legion used the republic to get to that stage, I shall briefly gloss over except to say that it was disturbing and also disgusting. It’s well-written, though I was a bit annoyed by the return of the Legion with Kaie in them to taunt our heroes. We already got a sequence where they destroy the possessed Legion and seemingly send her to the afterlife properly, I didn’t need it all over again.

Future cover art makes me think the lighter tone will stick around, and none of the named cast that we remember died here, so in that respect this is a bit of a breather novel in the series. It’s also extremely well-written as always. Fans of the 86 won’t be disappointed.

86 –Eighty-Six–, Vol. 3: Run Through the Battlefront [Finish]

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

True to its title, this is the second half of the story that began in the second volume. The Legion now have a massive Railgun that they used to destroy 40% of the Federation’s forces. Given that the Federation lacks Kamijou Touma, they need to defeat it by more military means. Fortunately, the railgun was slightly damaged when it was dealing out masses of deaths, so there’s time to send a strike force. That said, the chance the strike force survives and takes out the Railgun is basically 0%. It’s essentially a suicide mission. And so, as you likely guessed, it’s time to send out the 86, who are not fitting in well with the other soldiers and don’t seem to want to retire somewhere and grow potatoes. It’s very much a “if you love war so much why don’t you MARRY it?” sort of attitude, and our heroes just sort of shrug and get on with it. They’re the only ones who can really do this anyway. But will they have help?

As you might expect, a great deal of this book is very grim. We see soldiers with wives and families tragically blown to bits, and drivers shielding their superiors and ending up as corpses. There’s also the 86, who are, as is pointed out, still children, but we’re not really in a position in this war when they can avoid using them. They want to try not to be like the Republic… but when things go badly and someone has to be sacrificed, it’s all too easy to go with the ones who everyone already pities, especially when they’re so… well, stoic. Especially Shin, who in this book contrasts himself with Kiriya, one of the Legion’s main forces but still with memories of Frederica, his “princess”. We get POV from both of them in the book, and near the end Shin realizes that the main difference between them may simply be that Shin isn’t dead… something he’s not confident is a good thing.

Fortunately there is a bit of… well, I won’t say humor, but less bleak stuff here. I did laugh out loud at the reveal halfway through the book. We all knew it was coming, but it’s still really funny seeing every single one of the 86 (yes, including Shin) scream “ARE YOU AN MORON?!” at the same time. We also get the appearance of Lena, who has been fighting a losing battle against the Legion on her own end, and ends up meeting with Shin at the final battle with the Railgun. Neither one know who the other one is, though Shin eventually figures it out. It’s a reminder at how good Lena is at strategy, and I look forward to her actually joining the main cast again after this. She’s also a reminder that Shin actually was more emotional and occasionally smiled in the first book, something we haven’t seen at all in this two-parter. Frederica has helped, to be sure, but maybe Lena is just what the 86 need – someone who accepts them without pity.

The author has said the next book will be lighter in tone, something I don’t believe for a minute, but it should at least be another one-volume book. In any case, if you enjoyed the first two book in the series this is still a very good read. It’s not quite as good as the first, but that’s a high bar.