Re: ZERO -Starting Life in Another World – Ex, Vol. 1

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

We’ve already seen DanMachi get a side story novel series licensed, but much as Aiz is theoretically the star of the novels, Bell Cranel is always lurking just around the corner. This side series for Re: ZERO is a different kettle of fish, taking place before Subaru’s arrival in Lugnica, with each volume (there are only two to date) focusing on a different side character with no chance of Subaru appearing. Given that my main issue with Re: ZERO is Subaru himself, I welcome this development with open arms. Instead we get the backstory for Crusch and Ferris, showing how they grew up together, along with a third member of their group who had just as big an impact – Fourier, a Prince of the Kingdom who has a crush on Crusch that is clearly visible from space, but hasn’t actually done about it. Of course, Re: ZERO readers know what happened to the entire royal family from the main series. Uh oh.

That said, the first half of this novel is relaxing and fun. Fourier reminds me a lot of Tamaki from Ouran High School Host Club, both in appearance and personality, and he makes a perfect third in the friendship with the emotionally reserved Crusch and the snarky tease Ferris. Also like Tamaki from Ouran, we see that when he gets serious he can move mountains, which helps immensely as the book eventually does turn deadly serious. The narrative implies that he has a special power that comes out in a crisis; unfortunately, as the entire Royal Family ends the novel dead (this can’t really be a spoiler, right? We already know it from the main series), we will likely never know what that power is. The final scenes of the novel are still heartbreaking even if you do know it’s coming, with excellent writing and one of the most tear-jerking “out of context” color pages I’ve ever seen.

Of course, Crusch and Ferris are the characters we know from the main series, and they’re good too. Ferris gets an abusive childhood that makes sense in terms of the plot but is still wretched, and his father is really a nasty piece of work. There’s also a plot twist I won’t spoil, which if nothing else shows you how abusers can justify their abuse even when covering up its true intentions. Crusch is, unsurprisingly, badass throughout, but the ability to see her inner monologue at times is very helpful, and obviously we now know what’s really driving her in her campaign for the Kingdom. There’s also some good development here for Julius, the knight mostly known in the main series for getting into nasty fights with Subaru. Here we see him get a sense of what being a Royal Knight really means, as well as seeing how clever people can sometimes hide behind “acting the fool” in order to not attract attention.

Basically, this is a must-read for any Re: ZERO fan. The second volume will feature Wilhelm and his own tragic past, and I cannot wait.

Re: ZERO ~Starting Life in Another World~, Vol. 5

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

I admit that after four volumes of Re: Zero, and without having actually seen the anime (which, let’s remember, adapts the first NINE books), I wasn’t really sure what all the fuss was all about with Rem. I didn’t see why, aside from maybe general personality, she became basically the entire reason to watch the show for many fans. Having now read this 5th book, I think I’ve hit the point where I can say “Oh, yeah, that’s it”. Now that Emilia has broken off with Subaru and returned to the mansion, Rem gets her turn in the spotlight, showing a love and devotion to Subaru that almost goes to extremes. This can be heartwarming (as when she tries to get him to maybe stop hating himself a bit) and also disturbing (a lot of other times), but it’s hard to deny that Subaru transformed Rem’s life, and she’s never going to forget it.

It’s a good thing that someone’s in Subaru’s corner, because the reader certainly isn’t. Yes, it’s time to trawl through another book with the worst protagonist ever, as Subaru shows that after his epic beatdown from last time, he has not learned a single thing, assuring us that he will return to Emilia, save the day, and everything will be great again. Needless to say, that doesn’t happen. In fact, it doesn’t happen twice, as we’ve got another save point, meaning Subaru is free to start brutally dying again. It’s not just him or Emilia this time, though, as seemingly the entire village and mansion is slaughtered by our new enemies, the Witch Cult, led by Petelgeuse, a truly freaky nightmare who seems to revel in being insane because it’s over the top rather than any other reason. Subaru’s (feigned?) mental breakdown halfway through the book may give Rem some much needed spotlight, but it doesn’t do him much good. Even in the very end, we see his rage and fury and think: Yup, still hasn’t learned a goddamn thing.

That said, aside from Subaru I am still enjoying this series a great deal. The election continues apace, and we see once more just how hard it is for Emilia to get anywhere in it when even our grumpy abble seller and Rem show they have an instinctive fear and hatred towards her. Crusch remains an awesomely cool character, and we get some tantalizing background details of how she met Ferris that we want to hear more about. (If only there were a spinoff novel coming out in less than two weeks that would tell us that story!) There’s also a very interesting revelation about Subaru that Petelgeuse makes, which, combined with the witch miasma that pours through him whenever he resets to his save point, makes me wonder just how much of a typical “I am a normal Japanese man in another world” protagonist he is.

So my advice for this new volume of Re: Zero is the same as last time: try not to grind your teeth down to nubs as you read Subaru’s stubborn idiocy, but enjoy the rest of the worldbuilding, the scary villains, and Rem being pure and good and badass (I hope Emilia gets her turn next, but I have a feeling it may be a few more books.)

Re: ZERO ~Starting Life in Another World~, Vol. 4

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

It took me far longer than I’d expected to finish this volume of Re: Zero, mostly because I had to pause and stop reading every time Subaru was an absolute idiot. Now, one might argue that the entire premise of the series is that Subaru is an idiot and grows and learns through a series of bitter, horrible experiences, and they’d be right. But this book in particular was filled with (mostly) well-meaning, decent people trying to help Subaru, and his ignoring and steamrollering through them because, deep down, he’s sure that he’s meant to be the protagonist of a story starring him. And in the end it all comes crashing down around him. He’s not dead, but he’s lost Emilia, and to him that may well be worse than death. Fighting against the injustice of the worst is very gritty and shonen, but it does help if you are something other than just this schlub in a tracksuit.

I’ve often said that the fourth book in a series is usually where you can tell the difference in writing between “maybe this will be a success” and “this is a success”, and Re: Zero is no exception. The cast, which had by design been small and intimate in the first three books, grows exponentially, as we’re introduced to all the various factions that are presenting themselves to lead the country – including Emilia, of course, who is understandably worries and upset and really does not need her pet loose cannon dropping in. As expected, Emilia is getting the cold shoulder for her heritage and her looks. That said, the other four candidates each have something that also makes the committee to help choose them want to scream and shout,l so she’s in with a better chance than you’d expect. Oh yes, and we see the reintroduction of Felt, the backalley thief from Book One who was spirited away. Spoiler: she’s a long-lost princess! Luckily, she’s still the Artful Dodger at heart.

In this mess we have Subaru, who was told by Emilia to stay behind and get healed while she deals with this alone, which he agrees to and then promptly disobeys the second she leaves. She knows that if he watches the ceremony at the palace, he’d only get really upset and make a scene. Then he ends up at the ceremony, gets very upset and makes a scene. To be fair to Subaru, he is kicking against the right people here. The knights are arrogant and elitist. They’re also badasses, and he is not. His ending fight with Julius is ridiculous and pathetic, showing that grim determination can only take you so far, and serving to destroy his bond with Emilia once and for all (or at least till a future book).

The book is well-written, and I genuinely want to see m ore, especially as it’s now been two whole books since Subaru last died. And I also want to see more from Rem, who is still far and away the most popular character in the series but is barely in this volume. So I’d call the book a success. But read it in small stages, and you may need to see your dentist afterwards. Let’s hope Subaru gains wisdom next book, though I’m not holding my breath.