My Next Life As a Villainess! All Routes Lead to Doom!, Vol. 5

By Satoru Yamaguchi and Nami Hidaka. Released in Japan as “Otome Game no Hametsu Flag Shika Nai Akuyaku Reijou ni Tensei Shite Shimatta…” by Ichijinsha Bunko Iris. Released in North America by J-Novel Club. Translated by Marco Godano.

It’s been a while since we last saw the light novel version of this series. Since last July, the anime has started to air and seems to be quite popular despite the fact that casuals will now ask novel fans why they spell Katarina with a K; the manga has started its second story arc, adapting the third novel; and a second manga has started with a spinoff idea of “what if Katarina fell and hit her head… when she was already bullying Maria at the Academy?”. Looking at my last review, I had wondered if the series would finally allow everyone to graduate next time. Well, the answer is no; this is a short story collection, taking place all over the Bakarina timeline, and therefore we don’t see her entering the Ministry of Magic or anything here. Instead we get a wide variety of tales, some good, some dull, and a few manga interspersed (the artist of the light novel illustrations is also the artist for the main manga series).

To start with the duller stories, Keith is a nice guy but tends to lead to tedious story beats, and that holds true here. Alan is slightly more interesting but “have a picnic and climb a tree” is still very slight. Raphael’s story seems to be there to remind us that that section of the cast exists, and the manga sections are fun but also very slight. The end of the book has a lot of tiny little stories from various minor members of the cast, showing how Katarina has impacted their lives. That said, there are also some very strong stories here. Katarina runs into a self-proclaimed rival who reminds me a bit of Nanami from the Utena series, and fares about as well; Nicol starts an arranged marriage process because he feels it’s his duty, only to run into a bunch of women who strangely don’t find “I’m doing this because I have to” enticing; Katarina and her girl friends/girlfriends all talk about romance; and Katarina’s snake making may upset her fiancee, but is a potential moneymaker.

The series is still ongoing in Japan, and I imagine is continuing its balancing act with Katarina being too dense to realize that everyone in her orbit is in love with her. That said, I do wonder if it’s showing signs that it might actually resolve with her making a choice, mostly as there are minor signs of “pairing the spares”, so to speak. Nicol’s final fiancee interviewee actually seems to go together very well with him, despite neither one wanting to get married to each other. Mary, usually one of the most hardcore Katarina fanatics, shows a brief moment of doubt after Alan rescues her from a creeper. That sort of thing. That said, that balances with the other thing this book hammers home, which is that Katarina is the best at it, but is certainly not alone in misreading the obvious intentions of everyone else. Even her own mother gets into the act, seeing only the annoying perpetual 8-year-old part of Katarina and missing the fact that she’s managed to become the most influential person in the entire kingdom.

So worth picking up, but lacks some of the impact of the other volumes. It’s also quite short. Will the next book finally have Katarina in the working world? And will she ever show any romantic feelings towards anyone at all? I look forward to finding out. Till then, there’s still the anime to watch.

My Next Life As a Villainess! All Routes Lead to Doom!, Vol. 4

By Satoru Yamaguchi and Nami Hidaka. Released in Japan by Ichijinsha. Released in North America by J-Novel Club. Translated by Shirley Yeung.

This is a stronger volume than the previous one. The reader gets the sense that the author has decided on a forward path after previously ending the series with two volumes and then extending it out. Now, arguably there might be some frustration with Katarina getting confessed to at the end of the last book – and the end of THIS book – and being able to forget about it merely by being mildly distracted. It borders on disbelieving. But this is the sort of series we are reading, and we all know that the moment Katarina realizes everyone loves her and she has to do something about that, the basis of the series would stop. So on that front, things are much the same. Fortunately, we don’t add another person who falls madly for Katarina’s dense yet forthright personality this time around. We do get what seems to be an ongoing villain, though, and we also see that Katarina might be able to do more than just be really nice at people until they give in.

The premise for this book is that Keith is kidnapped by forces unknown, who leave behind a note saying he is running away from home. No one really believes he would do this, except of course Katarina, who is already getting hammered by her mother and servants for being too… well, too much like herself. So she resolves to go find him, and a crack team heads out composed of herself, Jeord (who is still trying to get her to react to his declaration of love), Maria (whose light magic is super useful here), Larna (who remains entertained by Katarina, but also wants to see what’s really going on) and Sora (the villain from last time, he’s now there basically to get in Jeord’s way so everything remains status quo). Oh yes, and Alexander the Ugly Bear, a magical device/familiar that really does not like Katarina, and the feeling is mutual. Can they find and rescue Keith/ And is there more dark magic at the cause of this?

As I noted above, the book feels more confident in its characters. Katarina can still be a blockhead much of the time, but there is a sense that she is maturing, just not in the field of romance. She has minimal talent in Earth Magic, but one scene towards the end suggests that, with the help of certain artifacts she happens to buy at a flea market, she can do a lot more to fight the forces of evil. This is important going forward, because clearly she’s going to join the Ministry, and “because she makes me laugh” was not really a good enough reason. There needs to be more to Katarina’s life besides “who will she end up with?”, and this is a very good start. I also liked the brief look we got at the series’ new villain, Sarah, who feels incredibly creepy and broken and who I suspect might be a tough nut for Katarina to crack.

Not quite as deeply silly as it has been, I still greatly enjoyed this volume of Bakarina. Will everyone finally graduate in the next volume? I want to find out.

My Next Life As a Villainess! All Routes Lead to Doom!, Vol. 3

By Satoru Yamaguchi and Nami Hidaka. Released in Japan by Ichijinsha. Released in North America by J-Novel Club. Translated by Shirley Yeung.

The author admits in the afterword that the series was supposed to end with the second volume, which was pretty obvious (see my review of said volume), but presumably the series did well enough for more. As such, this is the “difficult second album” for Bakarina, with the first half of the book in particular spinning its wheels and showing us the same sort of thing that we’ve seen before. Katarina goes around the school festival with her classmates, eating lots of food, and coming across her friends one by one as they attempt to either flirt with her or cut off others flirting with her, which Katarina herself remains blithely oblivious. And, of course, we then get to read it again, because one of the conceits of the book (which I sometimes quite enjoy – see the second half of the volume) is that we see Katarina’s POV followed by other POVs of the same scene. It can be exhausting.

The best part of the first half of the book is the play, where one of the actresses falls ill and Katarina has to take on the role of the wicked stepsister. (I thought this was a ploy by Jeord, but apparently not.) Since she blanks on her lines, she just decides to act the part on instinct, and everyone is amazed at how well Katarina can play a villain! It’s metatextually delicious, frankly. The meat of the book, though, is in the second half, as Katarina is kidnapped as part of a plot to get Jeord to give up his claim to the throne. This is supposedly engineered by the second price’s fiancee Selena, but she’s more an easily led dupe. (Her idolization of Katarina also shows that our heroine is not the only one in the cast to completely misinterpret everything.) In reality, it is the smiling “butler” Rufus who is doing this, theoretically on behalf of the eldest son.

There are no real surprises in Bakarina, to be honest – even the secret identity of one of the characters was easily guessed once I saw their reaction to Katarina being Katarina (hysterical laughter – she’s clearly a reader stand-in). You read this series because you enjoy seeing Katarina being dense, and also because you enjoy seeing Katarina converting everyone around her with the sheer power of her niceness. This world, as it’s an otome game, runs on tropes, and this gives Katarina, who has memories from the real world, an advantage at times in dealing with people unable to understand why in God’s name she’d go this far for someone. That said, we may have finally hit a turning point regarding the main relationship, as after being scared out of his wits by Katarina’s kidnapping, and also seeing that Rufus (who now loves her, of course) bit her on the neck, responds by kissing her, and explicitly stating his love. Even Katarina can’t ignore this. Right?

There is some setup for future books here, as graduation is coming soon and we’;re clearly going to have Katarina working for the Ministry with Maria… and no doubt the rest of the cast. Still, this was an enjoyable book despite all its flaws, and got better as it went along. It’s definitely a book where you see the smoke pouring out of the author’s brain as they write, though.