Re: ZERO -Starting Life in Another World – Ex, Vol. 4

By Tappei Nagatsuki and Shinichirou Otsuka. Released in Japan by Media Factory. Released in North America by Yen On. Translated by Kevin Steinbach.

Ah, side stories, beloved by fans and feared by publishers. It may be dismaying to light novel fans, but most series coming out over here are running a year to several years behind Japan. This includes Re: Zero, whose 14th volume is due out here in October 2020, but it came out in September 2017 in Japan. When Re: Zero EX started coming out here, I noted that the timing was off, that we got the Ex books before the main titles that they were supposed to be supplementing. We have the opposite problem with this book, which came out in Japan last Christmas. It’s meant to be a supplement to the 6th arc, which begins with the 21st volume, which had just come out a couple months before in Japan. Here, we’ll likely see Vol. 21 in 2022. Fortunately, the book still does read as a stand alone, so the English speaker need not worry about spoilers here. They may, however, wonder why so much attention is being paid to a goofy samurai with a flair for drama.

The cover may be packed with people, but the most important one is right at the front. This is a book meant to give a strong role to Julius and show off how great he is when he isn’t around Subaru. The story takes place a few months before the start of the main series, and Julius, Reinhard and Ferris are bodyguards for two elder politicians who are going to negotiate with the nearby Empire. Having recently lost the entire royal family (see: Re: Zero Ex 1), they are in a very precarious position, so are trying to negotiate a non-aggression pact. Unfortunately, the Volakia Empire has “strength is the most important thing” as their watchword, so things are already unlikely to go their way. Then Reinhard is framed for murder, and he, Julius and Ferris must flee with the Emperor in tow and avoid everyone else in the Empire trying to kill them.

The Ex books are not meant to be as much of a meta commentary on isekai titles as the main series is, mostly as the isekai hasn’t happened yet – Subaru isn’t around. As such, the author is allowed to write what is essentially a straightforward swashbuckling tale, with an added air of mystery – our heroes must figure out why they’re being framed, who framed them, and how much backstabbing and double dealing is actually going on. Ferris gets a few moments to shine, but is mostly there to allow someone to be emotional, which Julius (stoic) and Reinhard (blase) have trouble pulling off. Reinhard is there to show off how monstrously strong he is, but as ever he only works because he’s something of a cipher. As such, it’s Julius who gets the heavy lifting, along with the Empire’s Cecils, the goofy samurai I mentioned earlier, who is the Empire equivalent to Reinhard and whose overdramatic flair masks his dangerous abilities.

So not as astonishing as the main series, but it’s a fun, solid romp, and fans of fighting and sleuthing will have a great time here.

Re: ZERO ~Starting Life in Another World~, Vol. 13

By Tappei Nagatsuki and Shinichirou Otsuka. Released in Japan by MF Bunko J. Released in North America by Yen On. Translated by Jeremiah Borque.

I took a liking to Emilia from the very start of Re: Zero, and have been patiently waiting for her to live up to the potential she had. It’s been hard, let me tell you. This story has very precise and long-running character development, and when it pays off it’s marvelous, but it can take forever. The far more popular girl getting her important character development first did not help either, let’s face it. So I was ready for Arc 4, where I’d heard we would finally start to focus on Emilia. And… let’s face it, it’s STILL been hard. Seeing Emilia fail her test over and over, screaming and crying, has basically been playing into the hands of her detractors. It hasn’t helped that she doesn’t seem to have any allies. Yes, I’m including Subaru, who has been busily trying to find a way that Emilia doesn’t have to take the test, to the point where I wanted to punch him in the face (this made me nostalgic, let me tell you.) But here, in Vol. 13, we get the payoff, and the start of something new.

Admittedly, first of all we get the climax of the Witch’s Tea Party, which gets a bit Umineko after all, with Subaru at one point trying to bite his own tongue off to get out of there. The witches are, all, for once, relatively united in their desire to stop Subaru being self-sacrificing above anything and everything, and they try to explain (mostly to no avail, but it works a tiny little bit) that he needs to be selfish once in a while. That said, Echidna’s removing his ability to take the Tests is the best thing that happened to Subaru frankly. Now he can try to create a Faustian bargain with Roswaal, which tells us that we’ve seen the last of his Return by Deaths in this arc… or at least we hope so. Moreover, it helps Subaru to come to a realization: he doesn’t think Emilia can do it. He doesn’t believe in her. Neither does Roswaal, but Subaru’s the one who supposedly loves her.

This culminates in what may be the best scene in the entire series, where Subaru and Emilia confront each other in the tomb. (And yes, I am leaving out a lot here. Everything about Satella is jaw-dropping. The fight against Garfiel and seeing what drives him was wonderful. Otto is amazing and awesome and if you don’t love him we can’t be friends. Ram is fantastically sharp-tongued but also knows what Subaru is really like. And we see Puck again, probably for the last time, as Emilia is allowed to recall her tragic past and thus try to move beyond it.) Emilia is bitter and angry because Subaru promised he’d stay by her side as she slept and then he promptly left so that he could set up his multi-layered plan. The two of them have a wonderfully childish fight, appropriately given Emilia’s “mental age” is that of a teenager, and she eventually seems to accept that there aren’t conditions or logical reasons for Subaru loving her. I cannot wait for all of this to be animated.

So we’ve turned the corner 2/3 of the way through this arc, and I suspect that the next book will delve deeply into Emilia’s past. We get a bit of it here (oh dear, more Petelgeuse?), but there’s clearly a lot more to come. What’s more, I want her to triumph just as Subaru needs to. I want them to crush Roswaal’s spirit. And oh yes, stopping Elsa might be nice too. Why is there always so much packed into each volume of this. In any case, this remains one of the best light novels coming out right now. Give it to your friends who hate isekai to show them how it’s done.

Re: ZERO ~Starting Life in Another World~, Vol. 12

By Tappei Nagatsuki and Shinichirou Otsuka. Released in Japan by MF Bunko J. Released in North America by Yen On. Translated by Jeremiah Borque.

Subaru is much improved as a protagonist in these newer volumes of Re: Zero, to the point where I find I barely have to yell at him in my head at all. Most of the times that he dies and has to return by death are the fault of external forces or things he doesn’t know about, rather than his being a stubborn dumbass. And he gets two points here where he shows that his love for Emilia and Rem (still in that order, sorry Rem fans) is more than just saying it – he can tell when their own responses are either distorted or out-and-out falsified. That said, the last third of this book did a great job of reminding me just how flawed a protagonist Subaru can be. After all, every time he dies and starts again at his save point… he leaves behind a dead Subaru. And those who cared about him. Something he learns all too well when he gets to take the Second Test.

The cover art features our villains of the book, one very familiar to us, one not so much. Unfortunately, despite returning to the mansion in record time, I think Subaru is going to have to come up with another plan, because time is not on his side no matter what. It does, however, given us another very emotional confrontation with Beatrice. I knew going in that this fourth Arc would give some time to Emilia, but it must be back-loaded, as so far there’s been very little. Beatrice, though, also gets an incredible amount of attention and care, showing us how much she is suffering and also showing how little Subaru can seemingly do about it. It also throws into stark relief the end of the book, where Echidna offers to make a pact with him – the fact that he’s desperate enough to accept it despite EVERY OTHER WITCH saying it’s a bad idea shows he’s still very, very fallible.

Speaking of the other witches, Echidna, who had been nice, police and helpful so far this arc, is starting to show her true colors and her stunning lack of empathy – well, no, it’s not really that stunning, we knew this was coming. I will give kudos to the author for making the Witch of Lust a crybaby moe sort of girl, and the Witch of Sloth the one who has the Red Hot Mama vibe you’d normally give to Lust. The cliffhanger ending shows the 7th and final witch showing up at the tea Party, which may end up being as bloody as Umineko’s sometimes were. On the bright side, she’s probably come as herself this time – the earlier parts of the book features a Satella who had literally possessed Emilia, and it was not a pretty sight. (That said, the prize for creepiest moment of the book easily goes to the scene where Emilia, her mind utterly broken by the tests, gives Subaru a lap pillow and a kiss – a kiss that he gets right as he dies. Brr.)

We’re now halfway through this arc, and I get the feeling, revelations about Roswaal aside, we’re not much closer to getting a happy ending. Still, fans of the series will definitely enjoy what they get here, though as always it can be difficult to read. Everyone suffers: The Novel.