Spy Classroom Short Story Collection: The Spy Teacher Who Loved Me

By Takemachi and Tomari. Released in Japan as “Spy Kyoushitsu” by Fujimi Fantasia Bunko. Released in North America by Yen On. Translated by Nathaniel Thrasher.

(As a warning, this book deals with the sexual assault of an underage girl near its end, and this review briefly discusses that.)

Spy Classroom has, as one of its main goals, to strike a careful balance between gripping, and frequently deadly, spy drama and the wackiest and goofiest of comedy. Sometimes it manages to hit this goal a bit better than others. The first story in this book is a good example: it’s almost entirely light-hearted, then gets more serious towards the end, then gets very serious as we’re reminded how screwed up Annette is. By contrast, the Erna story pinballs between very dark themes and “ha ha, Erna suffering emotionally is funny” so fast that I could not keep up, and it jars. That said, on the whole these short stories are stronger than the first collection, both tying into the girls’ backstories (Thea especially) and expanding on some of the books – the 4th short story is blatantly “there wasn’t room for this in the fourth volume”, as the author admits. And, as a Lily fan, I’m pleased with this, though it does not really remove my irritation of how she’s treated in the actual 4th book.

The wraparound story has Thea trying to decipher a note left to her by Hearth, the spy who mentored Klaus and also rescued Thea from kidnappers. Unfortunately, several of Lamplight get a very wrong idea about the note. In between this, we see Annette being the best waitress ever in order to see if a former spy front is now a legitimate restaurant; Sara gets a secret admirer and Thea tries to make sure that she has the best date ever while also making sure the guy is good enough; on the cruise to not-America in preparation for the 4th book, Erna discovers a suicide cult that makes her their leader; and during the events of the 4th book’s climax, we see how Lily managed to escape getting brutally murdered by Purple Ant’s people.

Some of the comedy in this is very amusing – Annette being a fantastic waitress, and everyone’s reaction to this, is probably the highlight. I think I’d have appreciated Erna’s story more if the suicide cult had not been… well, a suicide cult, and its attempts to show off how the war destroys the underbelly of society needed greater depth, I feel. Sara essentially takes over Thea’s story, and we are reminded that she is the one girl in Lamplight that everyone loves unreservedly. Reading Lily’s story I wondered if the author has read the Excel Saga manga, as Lily very much reminds me of Excel at times (what are you, Steel God Jeeg?), and her truly monstrous stamina is terrifying. And then there’s Thea’s backstory, as she confronts repressed memories of being raped by her kidnappers. Fortunately, the author knows this is NOT the time to insert some laughs, and it’s handled fairly well.

So yeah, good stuff. That said, I’d like to read the next few books of the actual series soon. How are things with our FILTHY TRAITOR? :)

Spy Classroom: Pandemonium, Thy Name Is Sybilla

By Takemachi and Tomari. Released in Japan as “Spy Kyoushitsu” by Fujimi Fantasia Bunko. Released in North America by Yen On. Translated by Nathaniel Thrasher.

The author mentions in the afterword to this volume that they were worried about Avian’s impact on the reader, and in particular whether Avian would be likeable enough. It’s a good point. From the moment we met them, they felt like the unpleasant, annoying mirror to our heroines, and it was not helped by the fact that they were better than all of them at everything. Of course, the ending to the previous volume also seemingly cut off any further development there… or so you’ think. But the author’s main strength has always been manipulating the written word and literary tricks (this is one reason the anime failed so hard for me), and so we get judicious use of flashbacks here to show off that really, Avian weren’t as bad as all that. In the end, they’re another bunch of wacky, eccentric spies. Of course, another way of helping to make your new characters sympathetic is to introduce even more new characters and make them worse. The spies we meet in this volume are worse.

The book starts off with Sybilla getting captured by these new characters. Belias are an English team of spies (OK, it’s the “Spy Classroom” version of England, but come on, this is sort of like Tanya the Evil’s version of England) who are trying to find the one surviving member of Avian, who are accused of trying to assassinate the Prince. Sybilla has also been trying to find Lan in order to discover how Avian were all killed so easily. The two have wildly different ends, but the same goal, so they agree to team up – or rather, Belias forces Lamplight to team up with them. This will involve going to an exclusive ball where they will have to dance to attract attention – meaning that Sybilla and Klaus will have to be on the same page, something they’ve been failing at since the series began. Then things get worse, as the Prince really is assassinated.

As I mentioned in the last review, this series can get pretty damn dark. The girls all being flakes is probably the best way to distract from that. I had been wondering if Avian being dead was another fakeout, but no, all but Lan are indeed dead. What’s more, Belias aren’t the real bad guys either, being a classic example of “we were only following orders” spies who don’t bother to question things lest it lead them to realizing that they’re being manipulated. Which naturally makes it easy for them to get manipulated by Lamplight. Avian may be dead, but before they died they managed to train the girls in ways that Klaus has entirely failed to, and they’re now really coming into their own. They clean Belias’ clocks and get the intel Avian left for them before dying. Good end! I mean, provided they aren’t betrayed by one of their own, of course. That would be terrible.

So yeah, another vicious cliffhanger. And a longer than usual wait for the next volume, because we’ve got a second book of short stories coming first. Till then, enjoy a world that is so tragic that Sybilla has to create a happy backstory to keep her going.

Spy Classroom: Fool Erna Once

By Takemachi and Tomari. Released in Japan as “Spy Kyoushitsu” by Fujimi Fantasia Bunko. Released in North America by Yen On. Translated by Nathaniel Thrasher.

It should go without saying, but the series Spy Classroom involves spies. And spies can sometimes be not nice people. Downright unpleasant, in fact. We’ve seen that in previous books, with villains working for other countries ranging from weak to comically evil. But for the most part, we know our girls. Those wacky, lovable scamps who are all dropouts but come together in the end with the power of friendship. Surely they’re all different! Well, OK, not Annette. We already know fro previous books that Annette is one of the only girls in Lamplight who can, when push comes to shove, do something cruel. But she may not be alone, as we learn in this book that focuses, for once, on the character the anime tried desperately to adapt and failed miserably. The character that even the publisher tried to avoid drawing for the longest time. A girl plagued by misfortune. Which even extends to this review, because sorry, Erna, Sara is my favorite character in this book.

After the triumph of the fourth book, and becoming an official team, things are not going very well for Lamplight. They’ve been screwing up mission after mission, and believe it or not, it’s not JUST Lily. Things take a turn for the worse, though, when they meet two members of another spy organization working for their country, Avian. If Lamplight is composed of dropouts and washouts, Avian is composed of only the top graduates of spy schools. And recently, their handler was killed, meaning they don’t have a leader. After discerning that Lamplight are pathetic and awful, Avian decide that Klaus should be their leader instead, and Lamplight can all go back to spy school where they truly belong. Of course, the girls are not going to take this lying down, and it ends up becoming a competition to see who the best spy team really is!

If you thought that my description of Lamplight in the last paragraph was a bit mean, you ain’t heard nothing yet. Avian may be just as eccentric as Lamplight, but they’re far, far more skilled, and they have a heaping helping of arrogance to go with it. They’ve also had actual completion of spy school, which means they have an extra technique the Lamplight girls do not, and much of this book amounts to our heroines “trying to reach their second form”. Sara comes close, and actually manages to kick ass and take names (yes, Sara, the animal girl), but of course Erna is the star of the book, for spoilery reasons, and it’s her own development that provides the big climax. It also allows Klaus to have a paternal talk with her, which I appreciate, as Klaus as a hottie everyone wants to bone is not my favorite thing. (That also comes up here, alas.)

All this plus one of THOSE epilogues, the ones that really like to kick you in the teeth and then make you wait for months or so for the next book. This book, though, was good, and arrives just in time for the second half of the anime, which… has nowhere to go but up.