Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash, Vol. 2

By Ao Jyumonji and Eiri Shirai. Released in Japan by Overlap, Inc. Released in North America digitally by J-Novel Club. Translated by Sean McCann.

As I have observed many times in the past in my reviews, I am not all that much of a gamer. Sometimes this makes it hard to follow various aspects of Japanese light novels, many of which depend on knowledge of how RPG systems work. But it also means that I may not have the patience for the sort of level-raising behavior that these games, and subsequently these light novels, involve. This second volume does a lot of character building work, and by “a lot” I mean that Haruhiro, Ranta, and to a lesser extent Merry get more development. It’s good development too, as this series has a lot of reflection on the best way to act like a leader or a team player. This does not obscure the fact, however, that the plot of this second volume involves “kill things” for the entire length of the book.

For all that I complain about Ranta, sometimes Haruhiro can also be annoying fro different reasons. He’s never really had to lead before, and has no idea how the mindset of a leader works, and so is constantly doubting himself and criticizing his decisions when things go wrong. He seems to think that this is just him rather than the norm, but I think the problem may simply be that “leader” types never get the inner monologue that we get from him here, and in fact also think about these things all the time. Stepping back and looking at things from an outside perspective, we see he is getting better at making decisions, takes responsibility, and his battle skills are also improving. I think Merry can see this best (I don’t see this series as having much romance, but if it did, they’re the obvious pair).

Speaking of Merry, she’s able to put a few of her own demons to rest in this book, though she notably does not get an inner monologue. Ranta does, though, which confirms a lot of what we already know about him. He’s hotheaded and stubborn, but also tends to act this way as a pose half the time, and is frustrated that the rest of the group doesn’t understand him better – especially as Haruhiro seems to understand the other party members fine. But Haruhiro and Ranta have a complex relationship, more than just boke and tsukkomi, and only time is going to fix that. Luckily, the near loss of Ranta at the climax of the book seems to have united them a bit more closely (if he gets paired with anyone, it’ll be Yume, who’s already sparring with him in best Ranma and Akane tradition).

So good characterization, and the fights are pretty good. That said, if we don’t get something actually happening in the third book besides “kill things, level up”, I may let this series go. It’s a good examination of how “trapped in an RPG world” would go if it were realistic, but it’s sometimes simply too realistic, i.e. it’s a slog.

Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash, Vol. 1

By Ao Jyumonji and Eiri Shirai. Released in Japan by Overlap, Inc. Released in North America digitally by J-Novel Club. Translated by Sean McCann.

These days, if you have a genre that’s popular enough you’re going to get deconstructions of it. And the Japanese genre of ‘people sent to another world where they fight in RPG-like circumstances’ is hugely popular in Japan. We’ve seen the odd attempt at doing something different with this genre before (Re: Zero comes to mind), but Grimgar in particular seems to follow another very popular way of thinking: the “grim and gritty” school. I don’t know if the name was deliberately chosen to mirror the mood of the book (likely it’s coincidence), but this first volume is a lengthy look at a group of people who are forced to fight monsters together and find, that with a lot of training and sacrifice… they can still be pretty terrible at it.

We meet a group of 12 people who find themselves in a castle in fantasy world X. They appear to be modern Japanese people, but have lost their memories, knowing only their names and the basic “I have plot amnesia” things. They’re taken to a man (who is unfortunately written in “scary gay man” mode) who tells them to survive, they need to become volunteer soliders. For the moment, they’re trainees. One group immediately forms of what seems to be the top people in the group. This is not their story, though we see them later on and find they are indeed the top people in the group. Our group consists of our narrator, who is “generic protagonist” with an occasional line in snark and a tendency to have no self esteem; a cheerful happy girl who has a complex about her small breasts; a painfully shy girl (with large breasts); the leader, a smiling sensible type who screams “I won’t last the book” and indeed does not; a big awkward guy; and Ranta.

I signal Ranta out by name for a reason. Grimgar is a well-written book, with good fight scenes and a dark but compelling plotline. Its weakness is the characters, who are a bit more generic types than I’d really wanted. Ranta is a type as well, the irritating hot-headed loudmouth. The difficulty is that this is turned up to 11 – he’s easily the most irritating part of the entire book, and it’s more grating because you know he’s written this way on purpose. He makes the whole party dislike him, and it takes the arrival of another stock type, the cold beauty with a tragic past (she replaces the doomed guy I mentioned above), to make everyone accept him because well, they’re a team and teams have to get along no matter what.

The awkwardness of this cast is, of course, the selling point. You won’t find a Kirito here; this team is mocked for going out to smash up low-ranked goblins all day every day, and they’re not terribly good at doing that either. None of them arrive with any game-breaking powers. They do gain some powers by joining guilds (again, this is very RPG), but leveling up is tough and slow. It’s a “what would this sort of story be like in reality?” type of tale, and as such it does its job quite well. Of course, this makes it a bit of a slog at times as well. I am hoping that fortunes turn upward for this group in future books, but won’t get my hopes up – that would defeat the purpose a bit.