86 –Eighty-Six–, Vol. 7: Mist

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

The good news for this volume is that, after several promises from the author that did not quite pan out, we finally get a volume that is a breather and relatively lighthearted. The bad news is that this means that Lena falls to pieces, knowing she wants to confess to Shin but being tormented by her own self-loathing… which is something I accused Shin of in the previous volume, so it’s nice to see they have something in common. Things are not helped by a Republic officer showing up and basically being the worst thing ever, reminding her that she was one of the “white pigs” that everyone so rightly despises, and unable to see past that to her own growth. I mention this because it will last the entire volume, and you may find it wearying. Certainly everyone else in the cast does, as (with the exception of Kurena and Frederica) they all really, really want the two to finally get off their asses and confess. Fortunately, they’re in not-Switzerland at a resort, so have the time.

Our heroes are there because, despite a fakeout prologue that tries too hard, they have been on the battlefield FAR too many months in a row, and are entitled to some R&R in order to relax and not have to worry about the Legion attacking at any moment. That means going to a different country altogether, where they can enjoy bathing scenes (with all the fanservice you might expect, including literally lining up in order of breast size), delicious food… well, ersatz food, but some of it is real, spelunking in the nearby mountains, and, perhaps highest on the agenda for the top brass, questioning the Merciless queen, who was captured in the last volume but who doesn’t want to talk to anyone… except Shin. That said, she’s not very happy with the answers that Shin gives to her. But then, her own answers are seemingly not good news for anyone… except Shin knows they have a secret weapon.

Again, this is the closest we’re ever likely to get to 86: the Romcom, and it is very willing to hammer on those buttons – there’s even a pillow fight, fer chrissakes. We do get resolution at the end, I’m happy to say, though if I were the reader I’d avoid reading the Afterword, which has a sort of Monster at the End of This Book “YOU TURNED THE PAGE!” feel to it. There’s some interesting teasing regarding the other characters – I was going to grump about some heteronormative dialogue going on, but later on this is flipped around, and it’s implied we have at least one Eighty-Six who’s a lesbian. The serious stuff is good, I will grant you, and promises some interesting future crises. But I think the author was trying hard for a certain mood here, and mostly succeeds – heck, there’s even one of those “whoops, I walked in on your confession, don’t mind me” (leaves and gets beaten up by everyone else) scenes.

Next volume should resume normal service, I’m sure. Till then, enjoy Shin and Lena being big ol’ dorks and not spitting it out.

86 –Eighty-Six–, Vol. 6: Darkest Before the Dawn

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

In my review of the last volume, I mentioned that my favorite scene was the argument between Shin and Lerche about the nature of being a soldier and why someone should fight. It turns out that that scene is the linchpin on which half of this volume turns, as Shin is having a bit of a nervous breakdown trying to reconcile this argument and his own hatred of the world with his deep-seated desire to show Lena the sea, which of course means actually trying NOT TO DIE. It’s easy to see why he’s having trouble, given his entire life to this point, the conditioning he’s been through due to the war itself, the way others treated him in the Federation, and his own teenage emotions, particularly his growing love for Lena and his terror and self-loathing of the same. Not that Lena is handling things much better herself, but at least she’s moving forward. Fortunately for Shin, the second half of the series gets to be an awesome James Bond battle, complete with active volcano. He’s better at those.

Things are still looking bad for our heroes at the start of the book, despite the cheerful-looking cover. The Legion are still very much in the driver’s seat, and the plans that they think up do not go well at all… until Lena comes up with an idea straight out of the A-Team School of Plans, though there’s also a bit of The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress thrown in. After this, what remains is a harsh battle with the Eighty-Six, the Sirins, and the UK troops trying to stop the aerial machine cover killing their lands, take out as much of the Legion as they can, including a Shepherd who seems very familiar to Shin, and achieve what their goal was in the 5th book; capture the Merciless Queen. That’s not going to be easy, especially since the Phonix is back, and it really, really wants to kill Shin.

This book has more than one POV scene from the Merciless Queen, and it’s quiet fascinating, and shows off that they are not merely inhuman robots that just keep coming. The last quarter of the book is dedicated to a balls-to-the-wall battle between Shin and the Phonix inside the volcano, and it reminds you how fantastic the author is at writing action scenes – which bodes well for the upcoming anime, I hope. As for Shin, I think he’s finally turned a corner here, which is good, as he really was starting to get on everyone’s nerves – both the readers and the other characters. How this plays out in the future I’m not sure, but it is nice to see him actually make the effort to meet his grandfather at the end of the volume. On the down side, after seeing Kurena and Anju in the skin-tight plugsuits Lena wore last time, I fear this is definitely the work of the author rather than an editor.

The author promises – again – that the next volume will be a breather and more lighthearted, and the cover seems to bear this out. But war is never too far away from the Eighty-Six, and war is the reason this remains an absolutely riveting series – it’s still horrible, there’s still lots of deaths, and we need to do everything we can to work for peace.

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.