86 –Eighty-Six–, Vol. 12: Holy Blue Bullet

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

During the course of reading 86, we’ve been following soldiers who are very, very good at their job. Sometimes that job is simply not dying, but that doesn’t matter. They get the job done, they know what to do, they follow orders, but they also think about what’s behind them. They’re good folks. But of course we’re in the middle of total war right now, and the entire Federation cannot be made up entirely of really fantastic elite soldiers. Someone else has to fill out the ranks, to be bodies or ticks on a ledger. Someone who may not have the right schooling or tactical training, but can drive a truck or count supplies. They’re also very frustrated with the war, and increasingly upset with those in charge of it, especially after the hideous events of the last book. All this plus a company made up entirely of a low-level noble and those who follow her unquestioningly, and what do you have? A nightmare is what you have.

The repercussions of last book’s disaster are still being felt throughout the Federation. Everyone is feeling guilty and on edge. Lene is so burned out that she’s sent on enforced leave, and sits this entire book out. But there’s still work to be done. Years ago dams were built to change the course of a massive river, but the war has gone on, the habitats that were in the basin created by the dams are wiped out, and the best way to impede the legion now is to blow up the damn and reverse the effect. That’s what the Strike Package is here to do, and it should be quick and easy, since the Legion don’t know they’re there. Sadly, a rogue regiment called the Hail Mary have decided enough is enough, they’re going to win this war their own way, by stealing some leftover radioactive material left at a nuclear power plant and using it to make a bomb. Um. Yeah.

The books continue to examine prejudice very well, trying to show that it’s not simply a matter of “all the bad guys do it, all the good guys do not”. The Federation is supposedly all about freedom, but freedom also comes with responsibility for having that freedom, and that can be a very hard idea to get across. The people rescued from the Republic have not magically become good and kind after being rescued, and in fact are actively making things worse and using abused children to spy on enemy movements. And the soldiers formerly in the Republic who are now in the Federation army, like Lene, Annette, and others, are faced with resentment and anger, which simmers in the background of this whole book. On the bright side, once the Hail Mary Regiment are brutally dealt with, the actual dam mission goes swimmingly, and they defeat the Legion easily, giving everyone a big mood pickup. Maybe this isn’t a spiraling failure after all.

This series is now basically once a year, so we’ll wait a while for the next book. Till then: war is hell.

86 –Eighty-Six–, Vol. 11: Dies Passionis

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

And so we go back to the beginning of the series, and back to the Republic. Honestly, I’m sure many fans would have been perfectly happy to never have to see the republic again. That said, the 86 series is not about giving fans what they want, as the opening epigraph certainly shows. It’s about the horrors of war, what war can do to people as individuals and as a group, and the depths to which people are willing to sink to justify their moral righteousness and cowardice. This book is very well-written, delivering a series of emotional gut-punches. That said, holy Christ, it’s depressing. At the end of this book the entire cast is left wondering what the point of the previous ten books was, and if they’ve really achieved anything whatsoever. It’s a question that I’m asking myself as well. What do I want out of 86? It’s well-written, but is this going to be a “this will go full tragedy and everyone will die” series, or will their be a glimmer of future hope? Signs point to no right now.

The book starts off with bad news right from the get go, as the Legion starts dropping satellites from orbit onto the Federation and its allied countries. Devastation follows, and everyone is forced to retreat from the gains they’d made over the last several books. Oddly, there is one country that did not get bombed from above: the Republic. And now the 86 have perhaps their least appetizing assignment of all: go to the Republic and evacuate everyone. And yes, they’re aware that it’s likely a trap, but what other choice do they have? Needless to say, back in the Republic we are reminded of why we hate the Republic so much, though we also get glimmers of good people just trying their best. Unfortunately, we are also reminded that a lot of Legion soldiers are made up of Former 86. And they REALLY hate the Republic.

The last third of this book should probably have a content warning, as there is mass death and slaughter, with innocents napalmed, butchered, and otherwise murdered in a variety of ways. And this doesn’t even get into the fact that our heroes are there to escort some very reluctant Republican citizens to another country, and grateful is not part of their vocabulary, to the point where Lena has to essentially make herself an even bigger source of hatred to motivate them to not just sit down and die whimpering. By the end of the book, we’re as exhausted as the cast. This is the sort of book where the only thing that will make it feel better is to read the next book in the series. And that’s not out yet in Japan, so expect about a year till we hear from them again.

I don’t want to downplay how this is a very good book. The action is well-written, the emotions are powerful, and the heartbreak is real. It’s just… as with real war, it’s hard not to come out of it wondering why you’re here at all.

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.