Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash
Following the battle and Moguzo's death, things are hard for Haruhiro and his party. Forced to reckon with the passing of a second party member, as well as Choco, the girl Haruhiro knew in the real world, it is easy to slip into anger and depression. Despite this, they persevere, seeking out new alliances and considering how to move forward – because even with two original members gone, the rest of them still have to live.
If you watched the anime version of Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash, chances are you remember the extended exploration of the grieving process following the death of Manato. In the novels, his passing was treated with much less detail, focusing instead on the “moving on” that the remaining members of his party engaged in and introducing Merry, their new priest. That was a bit of a disappointment, but now in this fourth volume of the series, we finally see that the anime writers weren't just making that up and throwing it in for their own reasons – they took it from Ao Jūmonji's own writing, just in a later book, transferring the grief for Moguzo to Manato.
Whether you agree with that decision or not, it's still powerful, especially since this novel opens by giving you the hope that perhaps Moguzo survived his wounds. It's a cruel trick, but one that fits in with the overall themes of how grief works that Jūmonji is working with – if I still expect to hear from my late grandmother every year on my birthday, surely Haruhiro can wake up and be struck afresh each morning that he sees Moguzo's empty bed. Manato, the story implies, may have been the head of the party, but with Moguzo's death, they learn that he was its heart, and with him gone, everyone starts to drift apart as if their bonds have been sliced through. It's different for everyone – Mary, feeling guilt that she couldn't properly protect him as a healer, goes out and gets wasted; Ranta, missing the one person in the party he felt truly friends with, eats himself sick. Shihoru's reaction is perhaps the most interesting, because it's a form of grief that is rarely examined or understood in either fiction or real life: she feels nothing and then guilty for it. Rather than understanding that she is, in fact, grieving by essentially negating her own emotions, Shihoru assumes the worst of herself, feeling that she must be a terrible person for not showing the same outward signs of grief that the rest of the party does.
Shihoru may actually be the most emotionally complex of all of the characters, as this volume's occasional forays into her thoughts show us. We know that she (wrongly) thinks of herself as fat, and with the conflict she feels over her reaction to Moguzo's death, we get further confirmation of her generally low self-esteem. Shihoru seems to set herself apart from the rest of the group deliberately, not feeling like she deserves to be a part of it, and you get the feeling that even when she's talking to someone, she's holding a piece of herself back, observing her own words and actions and judging how they're being received. As the caster of the group, she has to be protected so that she has time to chant her spells, and while she's undeniably important, she may not see that, but rather think that she's essentially hogging resources. That may be part of the drive behind her learning not just new spells this time, but an entirely new field of magic, relying on a different element.
If Manato's death made the rest of the party realize that they needed to be more equal in their division of labor, Moguzo's forces them to reconsider how they use their skills and interact with each other. Even as Haruhiro continues to question his fitness as a leader, he's busy looking out for others, something that the rest of the party isn't quite able to see. Interestingly, the sole survivor of Choco's party, a paladin named Kuzaku, sees Haruhiro as someone he can depend on – even before they're truly looking for another tank (the initial thought being that Ranta can learn to fill that role), Kuzaku asks if he can join the party. He has his share of survivor's guilt, essentially putting him in the place Merry was when we first met her, but unlike Merry, he sees Haruhiro's group as a true second chance.
With all of this going on, there are really only two major flies in the ointment. The first is, as per usual, Ranta, who ups his horrible to what feels like a new level. The fact that he knows that he's obnoxious barely helps – he's unable to contain himself. With his binge eating after Moguzo's death, there is a strong implication that he simply has no impulse control, and it is worth thinking about his unlikability in terms of what function he serves as a character, as Roxane Gay points out in her essay Not Here to Make Friends. But it is impossible to ignore how he torpedoes scenes with his crude remarks to the girls and his overweening conceit, all of which seems to be getting worse, not better, as the story goes on. Hopefully it will serve some sort of purpose later on, because it's not just getting old, it's getting beyond obnoxious.
The second issue may be one of translation. After Kuzaku is admitted to the party and everyone feels able to move on, they decide to head out into the desert to new hunting grounds, far away from their memories. That place? The Wonder Hole. Even if the name doesn't make you giggle with immature glee, it really isn't particularly eloquent. In a series filled with fantasy names and serious depictions of death and mourning, “wonder hole” sounds like a bad joke thrown in because someone thought it was funny. Of course, this comes with the caveat that I don't know what the original Japanese name was, and that there really aren't many better equivalents that I can think of – “Cave of Wonders” is taken, and the list of alternatives that I came up with ended up looking like a list of bad euphemisms for aspiring romance novelists. Regardless, the name is jarring every time it comes up, no matter how engaging the fight scenes that take place within it are.
With the new setting and party member, to say nothing of the new alliance that Haruhiro forms, Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash continues to be a series worth reading. It handles its dark moments and emotions well while giving us a peek into the minds of different characters with each new book. It may be isekai, but there's more to it than just that. If you like dark fantasy and haven't picked this up yet, you're missing out.
Overall : B+
Story : B+
Art : C+
+ Good exploration of grief, Shihoru gets some character development, new setting is interesting...
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