Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
A Certain Scientific Railgun
In Academy City, a section of Tokyo set aside for students to hone their psychic powers, the student group known as Judgment handles all law enforcement. Mikoto Misaka isn't a member – but that doesn't stop her from taking down the various villains who cause trouble. She may not be part of Judgment, but she is one of only seven students ranked Level 5 in terms of power. Known as “the railgun,” Mikoto is out to do whatever she has to to keep Academy City under control.
The most important thing to know before picking up this book is that it is, if not really a sequel, a spin-off. The first series set in this world is A Certain Magical Index, and readers unfamiliar with that series may have a difficult time understanding, or simply getting into, this one. Seven Seas' translation doesn't try to hide the fact either – in two places there is mention of A Certain Magical Index, in one case referring to it as “the main series.” Why Seven Seas chose to present A Certain Scientific Railgun to the English-reading world is unclear, as Funimation has licensed the previous series.
In any event, A Certain Scientific Railgun centers on middle school girl Mikoto Misaka. She is one of only seven students in all of Academy City to be ranked Level 5, meaning that she is among the most powerful wielders of psychic powers in the city. She worked her way up from level 1 and is generally held to be an example of how students can succeed through hard work. Mikoto's powers are electricity based – she can fire a rapid blast of electrical energy through a metal arcade token. She can also use the latent electrical power present in the air or other items to create a sword out of particles. The former power leads to her nickname of “railgun.” People are more in awe of her status as a student at the prestigious Tokiwadai school than her electrical abilities, which perhaps says more about the world of the story than the characters themselves.
For other characters, we have Mikoto's roommate Kuroko, a member of Judgment who seems obsessed with getting an indirect kiss from our heroine. She also teleports into Mikoto's shower stall to grope her in what is by now a tired gag. Uiharu attends a different school but is also a member of Judgment. She comes with Saten, another friend who seems to have an unhealthy sexual fixation, in this case flipping Uihara's skirt up to see her underwear. Uihara pleads with her to stop but is cheerfully ignored, giving their scenes an air of actual sexual harassment rather than the intended fanservice joke. In some ways this feels like the story of aggressive lesbians, an off-putting conceit in what should be a sci fi adventure. Not that the two must be mutually exclusive – they simply don't mesh well here.
A good portion of the book focuses on Mikoto's rivalry with A Certain Magical Index hero Kamijou Touma. When he is brought into the story it is clear that we are supposed to recognize him, though he does get an official introduction later on. Mikoto seems unnaturally displeased with the fact that his, for lack of a better phrase, nullification powers enable him to beat her in a duel, and she is hell bent on reversing her luck there. This leads to some needless fight scenes that could have been spent developing the series' over-plot. Mikoto comes off as irritating during these fights, and you find yourself almost feeling sorry for Kamijou, who must have been lifted out of a series that was more profitable for his character development.
Fortunately the larger plot is interesting. It deals with some mysterious item that can raise a person's power level without work, sort of like psychic steroids. Mikoto and the girls of Judgment are beginning an investigation into it as the book ends, and if volume two focuses more on this than on handsy schoolgirls and a boy from another series, we could see vast improvement. Unfortunately this volume does not only that but also has strange expository segments about downloading MP3s and synesthesia, which are both out of place and out of the blue. The MP3 discussion is particularly jarring – aren't we supposed to be in a futuristic setting? The book's original publication date is 2007, so music downloading was already a common phenomenon. What reason does it have to be there?
Artistically, the book lands on middle ground. Motoi Fuyukawa does a decent job drawing girls with varying figures and hairstyles. Uniform designs are distinct if not creative, and the action scenes do have motion. Clothing and hair are not always as mobile as bodies, but it works well enough. People do seem to come in one of two thicknesses – stringy or beefy. The general rule of thumb seems to be that the bad guys are bulked up while the good guys could slide between the bars of an old-fashioned jail cell. It isn't a bad affection, but it is a bit odd. Finally, there are a lot of varied backgrounds here, for which Fuyukawa certainly deserves credit. No two places look entirely alike, giving the impression of a vast city made of many neighborhoods.
Overall this is a choppy, somewhat uncertain book. Mikoto's battles with Kamijou keep her from being really likeable, the story itself knows it's a spin-off and never really tries to go beyond it, and some of those supporting characters are very annoying. The main plot is good and could be worth reading if only Kamachi could stick to it and stop side-tracking into unimportant territory. In some ways reading this is like being told a story by someone who can't stay on topic – you know the plot's in there somewhere, if he could just get around to telling it.
Overall : C
Story : C-
Art : B-
+ Good master plot, every background is distinct.
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