Infinite Dendrogram: Clash of the Superiors

By Sakon Kaidou and Taiki. Released in Japan by Hobby Japan. Released in North America by J-Novel Club. Translated by Andrew Hodgson.

It is very common, in both light novels and manga, for a volume to be augmented at times by various side stories and extra chapters. Particularly if content is running a bit short. For the most part, I’ve found that these extra stories are not as good as the main fare – either they’re totally unrelated, in which case they read as the author’s attempt to get their early work collected, or they’re a bit more fanservicey and subpar, because they’re meant to be taken as stand-alone and not have an impact on the main storyline. That said, there are exceptions, and I’m pleased to say that Infinite Dendrogram’s third volume is one of them. The main bulk of the book takes up the first 2/3 or so, and is perfectly serviceable, though the reader may be annoyed that it’s all setup, with the payoff being in the next volume. The stories afterwards range from very good to excellent.

In the main storyline, we see Ray dealing with the aftermath of his heroics in Book 2, and finding that even though most players didn’t give a rat’s ass about the piles of dead NPC children, the actual NPCs certainly did. As a result, he not only gets a huge reward, but also many tearful thanks for taking out such reprehensible killers. Ray handles this with his usual awkwardness, and then goes to see what Marie used their other reward money for, which turns out to be box seats for a fight between two Superior Players – something that’s unprecedented. As it turns out, Ray’s brother is also very involved in this, as Figaro, one of the fighters, is a good friend of his. (It’s becoming quite clear Ray’s brother is one of the top fighters in the game, but he’s hiding that from Ray for now.) The fight is quite well-written, and I liked the Chinese-styled opponent as well. But, as I noted, it does end on a bit of a cliffhanger.

The two side stories do a great deal to expand on the others Ray met in the first book. The first deals with Rook trying to get a new monster for his party. We get some hints of a disturbing backstory for Rook’s real-life person, who seems to have been through a lot, and also shows off he is far more than the cute innocent boy who is the perfect underage ‘pimp’ – Rook will go far. Even better is Marie’s story, which dovetails up with some of the other events in Book 2, i.e. the missing princess who was thought to be kidnapped by the child murdering gang. I don’t actually want to spoil this one too much, but suffice it to say that Marie shows off immense depth in both her online player persona as well as her real life character. I don’t game, but honestly the way that she created a character and built up traits based on her past felt very real to me. Plus there are many stupid thugs getting handed their asses, which never grows old. I also liked the denoument, even though the mystery wasn’t really the point of the story.

I’d been waffling back and forth about this series, which seemed to excite other readers more than me. The third volume is a definite step forward, though, and I can honestly say I’m greatly looking forward to the next one.

Infinite Dendrogram: The Beasts of Undeath

By Sakon Kaidou and Taiki. Released in Japan by Hobby Japan. Released in North America by J-Novel Club. Translated by Andrew Hodgson.

Much as people criticize the warnings on the back of manga noting when there is sex, nudity or violence, sometimes I do think it’s worth telling people in advance, particularly if it’s something that would upset a fairly significant chunk of the audience. So let’s get that out of the way first. This second volume of Infinite Dendrogram contains multiple grotesque and graphic murders of children – in fact, for the first half or so, child kidnapping and murder is the plot. It reaches his zenith when Ray and Nemesis come across skeletons and zombies with the remaining souls of the murdered children inside, and have to destroy them all to move on. This ties in with the main theme of the book, which I’ll get to in a bit, but boy howdy could I have used a warning. So, warning: LOTS OF MURDERED CHILDREN.

That said, of course, they’re not ‘real’ children, but ones designed by the game developers. I spoke before about the fact that Dendrogram is about the only light novel around that has a normal hero playing a game without getting caught in it, or the game being the actual fantasy world, or any one of a thousand other light novel game tropes. Ray still has to log out and eat/sleep, though that’s given somewhat short shrift here. And this means that we the reader view this as a game a bit more than we do in, say, Sword Art Online. Ray’s death means that the quest may not be completed, and some NPCs may suffer, but it doesn’t mean his actual death. As a result, Ray and his new friend Hugo find that no one has actually tried to stop the child murder scheme because it would be a pain in the ass to fix and likely not worth the cost. That said, Ray (and Hugo, it turns out) are of a different stripe. The “maiden” support they have, in the form of Nemesis and Hugo’s companion, means they are “too caught up” in the story. They’re the sort who would rescue the doomed children in a game, even for little reward and high difficulty, because it’s morally heinous.

Ray is helped along here by his brother, whose actions we helpfully see in a flashback. Ray’s brother hasn’t done much in the series besides introduce him to the game and make bear puns, but we see that he is definitely “the protagonist of another story”, as he gets a grievous injury right before a martial arts match, then goes on to win it anyway through the sheer power of GUTS! I take that back, he’s not the hero of another story, he’s the cool mentor who gets killed off midway through – ominous sign. But it does also signpost why Ray acts the way he does, and why he comes to the conclusion that it’s OK to treat the NPCs as real people. Admittedly, his main concerns may need to be the other players – the final scene in the book reminds us that there are various sections of the map all poised to wipe out Ray’s section, in a very ‘Horde vs’ Alliance’ sort of way.

Dendrogram is well-written, with a likeable hero, and I’ve even gotten over the underage pimp and his PG-rated pimp squad. It’s worth a read, but I have to admit the main thing I took away from it was “wow, that was some graphic child murder description I did not need”.

Infinite Dendrogram: The Beginning of Possibility

By Sakon Kaidou and Taiki. Released in Japan by Hobby Japan. Released in North America by J-Novel Club. Translated by Andrew Hodgson and Nick Nomura.

The cliche has become that every single light novel released over here in the past four years or so has been a variation on “fighting monsters in a fantasy role-playing game”, but each of them have had their own little variations to separate them in some way. There’s the old ‘trapped in the game’ variation, like Sword Art Online or Log Horizon. We’ve had ‘the mechanics of the world are game-oriented but it’s just a fantasy’ like Danmachi and Death March. We’ve had ‘resurrected into fantasy worlds that are clearly based around cliches’ like KonoSuba and Isekai Smartphone. It’s been rare that we’ve actually seen a light novel that is just ‘let’s watch the hero play a new VRMMO game’. Playing to Win is closest, but even there the conceit is not that of the average guy playing a game, it’s that Ichiro is a arrogant rich guy. With Infinite Dendrogram, we finally have a book that (at least so far) is only ‘let’s explore the new game’.

Our hero is not playing the game the day it comes out – he had to study to pass college exams first. So it’s about a year and a half later, and he’s well behind his older brother, who’s been somewhat impatiently waiting for him to join. Once he does, Reiji (aka Ray in the game) picks out his weapon, his home base, and his Embryo, which is basically a sentient weapon/defense that grows along with the player’s character. His turns out to be a sword (later a halberd) which can also become a cute girl (because of course – come on, it is still a light novel) who essentially serves as his partner – though sometimes reluctantly, especially when dealing with zombies and the like. Together they try to level up while dealing with player killers, the fact that the home base they chose is rapidly losing its population due to wars, and the usual inconveniences that come up in a game.

The idea is that the game has more variations than almost any other known to man – we see a journalist as one of the minor characters, not a normal character type in a game like this, and one player is even a pimp with his own succubus. (This is actually the most amusing part of the book, as the player is underage, so his succubus specializes in things like really soothing backrubs because of the age restrictions). That said, Ray and Nemesis (his Embryo) are fighting types, and while there are indeed signs that he is a Very Special Hero indeed, for the most part we see him fight, explore, learn, and fight some more. The fights are quite well done, and the book as a whole reads very well. If there’s one thing that disappointed me, it’s that I was expecting more of a twist, I suppose? There are suggestions that the game is meant for some higher purpose, but here in the first book it’s just a lot of cool fights, RPG exploring, and endless bear puns. There’s no ‘gimmick’ yet.

Still, if you like this genre, and want something uncomplicated, this is an eminently readable book. Recommended for light novel and RPG fans.