Reviewby Theron Martin,
The Republic of San Magnolia has been at war with the Empire of Giad for nine years now. Though it initially suffered devastating losses to the Empire's autonomous mechanized Legions, The Republic has since developed its own autonomous units, called Juggernauts, which are directed remotely by a Handler. Hence there is no more loss of human life – at least officially, anyway. In actuality, the Juggernauts are piloted by 86s, the designation given to minorities whohave been systematically dehumanized and forced to live in internment camps in the unofficial 86thWard. Only military service gives them any hope of bettering their lot.
Lena is a purebred Alba (the dominant race of the Republic) who at the mere age of 16, has earned the rank of Major in the Republic's military. She is assigned to be the Handler of the Spearhead squadron of the eastern front, an elite unit composed entirely of 86s veteran enough to have earned names. (86s are not otherwise allowed names officially.) It's also a unit known for scaring off previous handlers and even driving some to suicide. As she interacts with the squad and its leader, nicknamed Undertaker, she starts to learn the truth about the harrowing extent of the Republic's actual predicament, the horrifying extremes to which the Republic has violated the principles on which it was founded, and the dire reasons why the Republic can't afford not to take its persecution of the 86s to the logical endpoint.
This novel is probably going to be most commonly classified as a military science fiction story, but it should be considered at least as much a horror story. While a few true horror elements do creep into the picture in the middle, when a phenomenon the 86s call Black Sheep is finally explained, the novel deserves that classification much more for a profoundly disturbing exploration of racism. In other words, this isn't a light read at all.
The story isn't the slightest bit subtle about its themes; it even goes so far as to collectively name its minority races – all those not belonging to the pale-skinned, silver-haired Alba – as Colorata. Anyone with a basic knowledge of 20th century European history should quickly recognize that The Republic is a conglomeration of traits from various early 20th century nations (especially in its naming conventions), but draws most heavily from 1930s Germany, which author Asato Asato outright admits to in the Afterword. The biggest difference is that in this case there is no Hitler-like demagogue behind everything, though the logic used by The Republic's government borrows directly from Hitler's playbook: scapegoat a minority population and systematically ostracize them to improve the standing of the majority race and give them a target to blame for their problems. In this case, there are draconian practical considerations as well, since The Republic is also suffering from a lack of available resources.
The result is a mostly blissful existence for the Alba and misery for everyone else. With The Republic's military depleted in the initial attacks and the “autonomy” of the inferior Juggernauts not really present, someone has to control them directly. Fighting in them is virtually a death sentence, but the 86s are left with no other options since they are closed off from all other avenues for survival. Systematically classifying the Colorata as “pigs” also means that the Alba can get away with any manner of inhumane treatments, including fatal experiments, killing 86 soldiers just for fun, and so forth. 86s aren't allowed graves and their records are purged when they die, and the eventual reasons behind this are sickening but all too realistic.
Given this backdrop, racial tension is a pervasive element of the story. Lena isn't bigoted on the level of her peers, but she is painfully naïve, which results in many rough exchanges with Undertaker and the other 86s that she serves as Handler for. They don't give her anything but the most begrudging of acknowledgments even when she's trying to help them, and it's easy to understand why. Advances on this front are painfully slow but the story wouldn't have been credible if they weren't. The war of prejudice being as great a struggle as the battle against the Legions makes several scenes late in the novel all the more satisfying.
Sculpting a scenario like this requires some deft world-building, which the novel does have in its favor. Without info-dumping too much, Asato structures an environment where knowledge is dispensed as a result of circumstances, allowing for reasonable revelations to occur to characters at the same time as the reader. Asato spends time detailing the distinctively different classes of Legion automatons and their strengths and weaknesses, but they are mostly run-of-the-mill machine baddies. The most interesting inclusion is the pseudo-scientific para-RAID system, which assumes both the existence of a collective human unconscious and a technological way to establish a telepathic connection between people, allowing not only communication at long range that can't be jammed but also some sense of what the other person is feeling, depending on the strength of the resonance. Both the telepathy and the somewhat related Black Sheep do stretch the limit of what can be called science fiction, but it never trips the line into full-on fantasy either.
Even beyond the world-building, Asato's writing skills are decidedly above average for light novels. Characterizations are mostly simple but clearly-defined and convincing, as are dialogue exchanges which use bold-face type for characters speaking through the RAID system. Asato shows an excellent sense of dramatic pacing and timing and handles character deaths (of which there are several) sharply and succinctly. The one minor flaw in Asato's writing is that the switch from races living side-by-side to severe persecution happens startlingly fast; if the book had established a deep-seated streak of racism in The Republic then it would be more believable, but no prior persecution is established.
The novel from Yen Press clocks in at 253 pages, not counting the glossy trifold front page depicting prominent cast members on both sides. Illustrations are a mix of character shots and technical specs, with the former being very anime-typical but of good quality. A second novel is coming, so as dire as things look at certain points, the story will continue. I'll be curious to see how the story is handled going forward given how volume one ends, as it will have to focus on different themes. But even taken as a standalone, Eighty-Six is a straightforward but surprisingly compelling story.
Overall : B+
Story : B+
Art : B+
+ Interesting setting, good character interactions and action scenes
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