Reviewby Rose Bridges,
Ascendance of a Bookworm Episodes 1-26 Streaming
Urano has been a bookworm her whole life, and now she's finally offered her dream job—working as a librarian! Unfortunately, before she can start, an avalanche of books falls on and kills her. She awakens in a new world that is a far cry from modern Japan: and where she is now Main, the sickly younger daughter of an illiterate soldier. In her new home of Ehrenfest, books only belong to the nobility, and she isn't. So Main sets out to create her own books to bring literacy to the masses. There's just one problem: she can't seem to shake her new body's weakness, and there may be more to this disease "devouring" it than anyone realizes…
One of the first things I thought upon reading this anime's premise was: "Oh geez. That sounds like my own personal hell." I love books nearly as much as Main does, so I'm not sure how I would survive in a world where I was denied them. But Main manages to do as best she can, and that's not just because she is smart in the usual way of anime heroes. What Main also has—and what makes her so admirable right away—is her resourcefulness. It's not just that she brings the modern world to them, but that even by the standards of the modern world, she was already crafty and practical. How many of us have learned how to make our own shampoo? Main does, and it's one of her first innovations—and the first indication to her family and community that there might be more to her than meets the eye.
And that is why, despite the harsh circumstances of her world, Ascendance of a Bookworm generally takes a more light-hearted tone throughout its runtime. There's something very soothing, very iyashikei, about watching Main create more and more cool things to make life for her poor family a little better. When a local merchant, Benno, takes notice and Main begins selling it, it feels like everything is on the up and up for her. Yet Ascendance of a Bookworm never loses its forward momentum, because it knows how to turn things darker when necessary. And we keep going because of two big threads: one is Main's magical potential that is slowly killing her. The other is the way that this particular medieval fantasy world handles class.
Most medieval fantasy worlds attempt to reflect the highly stratified feudalism of the real-world European Middle Ages to at least some degree. It's a stratification so heavy that it reflects even in how records were kept of that time; as I tell my music history students every year, there is a reason that everything we study from then was either written by the church or nobility. But medieval fantasy always tries to get around it in order to give us the wish fulfillment of watching the hero succeed. Either it just ignores class divisions by making the hero already royalty or nobility, or if they come from humbler origins, they manage to rise above through a special power, resilience or just plain dumb luck. At first glance, Main's story may seem to place her in the latter category—but it's a bit more complicated than that.
While Main's sharp mind and immense magical power may get her some breaks, the reality of her class never completely escapes her. Consider, for instance, the way that she's admitted to the temple as an apprentice priestess. First we learn that even if she was accepted, the apprentices are still separated by social class: with only the "blue robed" nobles truly getting the education Main craves, while the "grey robes" are their servants. Even after getting a hint of her magical power, she still has to go above and beyond to demonstrate it in order to be admitted as a blue robe—and remain in contact with her parents. Then, even once she becomes a blue-robed apprentice, the priests and other students alike still treat her differently. The grey-robed students assigned to her are reluctant to carry out their duties, until they're won over by Main's charm. Even her greatest defender in the temple, the High Priest Ferdinand, only starts to realize how special—and worthy of studying magic—Main is close to the end of the story. And he can't even protect her from other nobles when he takes her on a mission.
So Main never fully triumphs over her class. She can pass one hurdle, but there is always another one waiting. In the world of Ascendance of a Bookworm, class is always going to be the first thing that others identify about you. There is no fully "transcending" it, but just convincing each individual, one at a time, that you're worth taking a chance on anyway. Main can grow in power and knowledge but she'll never fully escape where she came from, and she wouldn't want to; if she had to hide her loving but poor family away, that wouldn't be worth it to her.
It's a very thoughtful way to approach the society of a story like this, one that hews much closer to real history than a lot of other medieval fantasy. And it makes it all the more interesting that it comes in the form of an isekai series. In other series like it, the protagonist often has a clearly defined "role" in this world from the get-go, but Main has to figure it out for herself. And in that process, Ascendance of a Bookworm gets in lots of sneaky worldbuilding. We don't get maps or long drawn-out history lessons, at least not right away: Instead the series manages to build its world slowly and organically, by showing the everyday lives of ordinary people. Worldbuilding should ultimately be about making a world feel as lived-in and natural as our own, and you don't need maps or complicated noble family trees for that: You just need to show its people living. And with her worm's eye view of it from the bottom of the ladder, Main gives us every facet of that for the ordinary townsfolk of Ehrenfest.
I can see, however, how some might find the first half of the series too slow. Main's arts and crafts, agricultural discoveries and fledgling merchant career didn't feature much genuine conflict and could get repetitive. The darker storyline about the "Devouring" taking Main's life—and that it did that with the previous occupier of her body—certainly can be pulse-pounding, but lacks stakes because of how unlikely it would be for a show like this to kill off its main character. It's when Main arrives at the temple and begins exploring the other sides of her power that the "magic" side of the plot really begins.
But if you're fine with letting its daily grind take you for a ride, you might find it a lot more exciting than at first glance. The soothing, lackadaisical nature of Main's daily adventures turns out to be the perfect tonal choice to make its brutal world feel much less so. If you roll with it, you might find yourself surprisingly invested in Main selling her shampoo and hairclips. Hey, some of this advice is pretty practical, too: who couldn't use some tips on how to make their own toiletries in times like these? And if you stick with it, it will reward you with what's promising to be a much richer and more remarkable fantasy story. Main may never be able to fully undo her society's strict stratifications, but she's well on her way to finding her own place within them.
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : A-
Art : B+
Music : A-
+ A cut apart from other isekai with its practical heroine, iyashikei tone, and surprisingly smart commentary on class divisions
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