Reviewby Theron Martin,
A Certain Magical Index
In some respects 16-year-old Touma lives a cursed existence. As a student in Academy City, a place where psychic abilities are actively fostered in its youths, he stands at the bottom, a Level 0 on a scale that goes up to Level 5, because his peculiar power – Imagine Breaker, the ability within his right hand to cancel out all manner of abnormal phenomenon – is impossible to measure independently and mostly useless in a day-to-day sense; though it could “kill God” and thwart even the city's third most powerful esper, it does not help him study or get girls. It also, he eventually learns, is the reason why he is extraordinarily unlucky, because it also cancels out divine blessings. That unluckiness most strongly manifests when he discovers a girl in a white nun's habit draped across his balcony one morning. The girl, who calls herself Index, claims to be fleeing sorcerers who want the knowledge of 103,000 magical tomes that are crammed into her head. Even though Touma doesn't believe her at first, that does not prevent him from getting drawn into a series of magical conflicts and dilemma which put his very life at risk. And that happens in part because he has a power which won't help him with school or getting girls but can kill God.
With all of the anime-associated light novels which have been filtering into the U.S. over the past few years, a series which founds a franchise consisting of close to 100 full-length episodes, five short episodes, and a movie seems like a natural choice. Hence Kazuma Kamachi's original novel about an esper boy who falls in with a petite, magic-affiliated nun has finally made its way to the States in translated form, courtesy of Yen Press.
For those familiar with the anime version, the first five episodes of the first season of A Certain Magical Index, as well as most of episode 6, are a tight adaptation of this 214 page novel, to the point of replicating the original dialogue word-for-word in many places. (In fact, the way various scenes are staged and described, the writing gives the impression that Kamachi may have specifically had an eventual anime adaptation in mind when writing it.) Some minor details are changed here and there and the dialogue is, of course, dropped to smooth out timing, such as an exchange where Touma makes up a fake background for Mikoto and a reference or two to Lolita complexes. In only one place, though, is such an omission significant: Mikoto making a reference to having “sisters” created for military purposes during her early scene on the bridge with Kamijou, a point which does not first come up until many episodes later in the anime.
So is there really a point to reading the novel if one has seen the anime? Yes, because the novel provides additional context on one important point: it explains far better than the anime ever does about how, exactly, Academy City is going about its Ability Development program – i.e., fostering psychic powers in its students. Unlike the anime, the novel clearly indicates that administering special drugs is part of this process, and it further indicates that all students are enrolled in a special Curriculum which includes both that and special therapies and trainings, including implied use of selective electroshock in some cases. It further points out that Level 0 youths are actually the majority of the 2.3 million students in Academy City (60%, in fact), something which the anime series implies to the contrary. This running elaboration on the Curriculum definitely helps makes more sense of some points that come up both during the equivalent anime episodes and in later parts and other franchise series as well. It also better explains than the anime ever did exactly why an esper cannot use magic: because whether chemically or electrically induced, there are fundamental changes to the brain that result. On the downside, the novel also points out the ages of both Styl and Kanzaki, and especially Styl's does not make sense; he is certainly portrayed as being much older than that, and references to him and Kanzaki having done things once a year on what seems to be multiple previous occasions do not add up. Index's personality also does not come through as clearly in the novel as it does in the anime.
The concept and setting are clearly what carry the novel because the writing quality does not. Oh, it's good enough to get the story across, but it is done in a very casual style, one that relies overly heavily on dramatic statements and conversational language. Granted, some of this could be the result of the translation, but if so then the translators made some odd choices in the way slang and idioms are used. (A similar phenomenon can be seen in the Crest of the Stars novels, which were released by an entirely different company.) Fully retained are some cultural references, presumably to history or classic Japanese stories, that will fly over the head of even most seasoned anime/manga fans. The relatively frequent inclusion of two solid lines of dots to indicate pauses also gets irritating after a while. Additionally, either Kawamachi or the Yen Press adaptation team or both make some weird uses of boldface type; sometimes this is used in lieu of italics for lines that are meant to be emphasized, but in other places the use of boldface seems random.
As has been typical for other light novel release, Yen Press retains the standard format of several glossy pages at the beginning which depict scenes from the book and a scattering of black-and-white full-page illustrations throughout. None of these illustrations are above mediocre in quality and all are distinctly improved upon by the anime. Also standard is the two-page Afterword by Kamachi, which, based on its date, was probably written for the novel's original Japanese release.
Evaluated as a standalone read, the novel's greatest strength is how it defines and describes an intriguing (if also illogical) setting, one where the development of psychic powers is the norm rather than the exception. Adding a complex magical system which exists side-by-side but still outside the knowledge of most allows for even greater diversity and to see how the two might interact. Touma, as a protagonist who must endure the disadvantages of his power but can also put it to indispensable use in the right situations, also impresses, and the storytelling does do an effective job of keeping him from seeming overpowered, as the same ability which can break any supernatural offense or defense also prevents him from using or being benefited by them, too. The potential for expanded stories to spring out from this first effort is also enormous. Hence, while the writing quality may not be the greatest, how this novel could have established a major novel/anime/manga franchise is quite clear.
Overall : B
Story : B
Art : C+
+ Setting concept, does an excellent job of keeping the lead protagonist balanced.
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