Reviewby Rebecca Silverman, Feb 16th 2017
Novel 1 - The Boy in the City of the Dead
William is the lone human in a city of the dead. Born with vague memories of a past life in contemporary Japan where he failed to do anything useful, he is determined not to make the same mistake again, and that this time, his life will be lived. But what does that really mean? Raised by a group of the undead, William must discover what circumstances brought him to this city and these people as well as what it means to not just exist, but to live a full life.
Fantasy light novels have a deserved reputation for following the tropes of MMORPGs so closely as to feel like game novelizations rather than stand-alone fantasy fiction. With most of them falling under the heading of isekai, or “transportation to a parallel world,” they tend to feature hapless contemporary protagonists who suddenly realize that they've been brought to a world that functions like a video game, complete with levels, status updates, and quests. While those are certainly fun, there's also beginning to be a feeling of stagnation within the genre, even as titles like Re:Monster and Mushoku Tensei: Jobless Reincarnation try to shake it up by having the protagonist be reborn into the parallel world. All of this is why Kanata Yanagino's The Faraway Paladin is such a good surprise – not only does it take a much more serious approach to the isekai genre, but it also is devoid of the usual game-like tricks, reading instead like a sword-and-sorcery fantasy only barely recognizable as what we've come to think of as a light novel.
The story follows William, who first awakens as an infant to find himself being rocked by a giant skeleton while a mummy and a ghost look on. He's aware of his surroundings because he has vague memories of a wasted past life in modern Japan, at least enough to know that this is an unusual way to begin life. He's clearly human, and while at first he's frightened, he quickly realizes that these undead creatures mean him no harm, and in fact are caring for him as parents would. As he grows older, he learns that they are Blood, Mary, and Gus, the undead remains of a great warrior, skilled priestess, and famed sorcerer, and they have been living in the temple outside the ruined city for two hundred years. None of them are willing to tell him what brought them to their present states or what happened to the city, but Will learns to love them as his family and, with his memories warning him of the worthlessness of his previous existence, he strives to be the best son he can to them as they teach him about the world and their own special skills.
Although there is an element of isekai to this story, it reads much more like classic Western fantasy in the Dungeons and Dragons vein. Yanagino's version of ghosts, dwarves, and demons is much more in line with, for example, The Forgotten Realms than anything, and the gods of the world have a more Westerosi feel than anything from Japanese fantasy fiction. This allows the story to steer clear of a lot of the hoarier tropes of the genre – not just “leveling” and other game talk, but also in terms of the plot and characters. Mary, the mummy (who is simply desiccated, not wrapped in bandages), is the only female character and she is the mother figure, not a sex object or romantic interest. The adults in the story are heavily involved in raising Will, making them present and important to the story in a way we rarely see with parental figures, and Will's focus is on being a good person and child rather than on heading out into the world. What bothers him the most is why his parents and grandfather are undead and what brought them to the city in the first place, as well as how he ended up there with them, and both of those concerns are because he wants to help them, not because he has any delusions of grandeur; in fact, when the time approaches for him to set out on his own, he is already thinking about returning regularly to visit.
This air of family is a large part of the strength of the novel. It forms the emotional backbone of the book, driving all of the characters' actions and culminating in a battle that is as much about a family staying together as it is about defeating the villain. The characterization of “good” and “evil” is also more in shades of grey than we typically see, with the primary antagonist someone not driven by a need to destroy the world, but rather to preserve it in an unchanging state. It draws a parallel between Will's previous life and the one he hopes to lead now, bringing home the central theme of “living” versus simply “being alive.” Yanagino effectively uses fantasy storytelling to create a narrative that not only tells a good story, but also warns against a stagnant life absorbed only in self-pleasing pursuits to the detriment of others, pointing out that such things aren't evil per se, but rather so selfish as to render you blind to those around you.
Yanagino's writing lacks the awkward sentence structure and stilted feel that some light novels can have, regardless of translation, making it a smooth read. Of course, some of the credit for that goes to J-Novel Club's translation, which is very readable with no discernable errors and a vocabulary that feels natural to the book. Kususaga Rin's art is similar to so-bin's work for the Overlord novels in its use of smoky effects and bold blacks; unfortunately, the pictures didn't show up quite as large as I would have liked when I converted the file to read on my Kindle Fire, but that may be an issue with my tech skills rather than the file itself. The story flow is well paced, with everything leading up to a major battle in chapter four, and the included side story about Mary and Blood before the events that made them undead is a touching, yet sad, bonus.
The Faraway Paladin will continue, which is wonderful, but it also feels like it could have stopped here. There's a full emotional storyline and all of the answers are provided to the questions posed, so this stands on its own quite well. Fans of fantasy by not necessarily light novels should give this a chance, as it is good simply as a fantasy book and has the most potential to reach beyond the otaku niche of any LN thus far published in English. By turns exciting, heartwarming, and heartbreaking, The Faraway Paladin is a book that is worth your time.
Overall : A-
Story : A-
Art : B+
+ Quietly engaging story that doesn't overly rely on tropes or gimmicks, simply good fantasy fiction, art is very attractive
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