Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash
Novels 1 & 2
One day, Haruhiro awoke in a strange, dark room with eleven other people, knowing only his own name. He seems to be in some sort of fantasy world, but he doesn't know why he thinks that or why he's sure that it's not where he belongs. Forced to acclimate if he wants to survive, Haruhiro joins forces with Manato, Moguzo, Ranta, Shihoru, and Yume to form an adventuring party as Volunteer Soldiers in the land of Grimgar. But this is no simple game – Haruhiro and the others must learn to fight and kill if they want to survive here, even when tragedy strikes. What is this place? Why are they here? Even those questions begin to pale in the face of their daily trials.
Other-world stories (or isekai) have become familiar to consumers of Japanese light novels, and they rarely seem to come with grave consequences for their protagonists, at least not always life-or-death ones. Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash eschews that particular trope of the isekai series in favor of a fantasy tale that has much more in common with older Dungeons and Dragons stories. Our hero Haruhiro is neither overpowered, incredibly gifted, or somehow “chosen.” In fact, Haruhiro is as normal as a sixteen-year-old can get – he's confused, scared, and desperately struggling to maintain the image expected of him and make his way in the world. The harsher storyline surrounding this down-to-earth protagonist give Ao Jūmonji's fantasy light novel series a darker and more perilous edge than many of its genre brethren, and all of these factors only strengthen as the books go on.
The story follows a group of six people in their teens or early twenties (we never really get a firm age for anyone but Haruhiro) who awaken in a dark room with no memories. The lost memories are clearly lurking somewhere in their minds, as comments are made about their new life “feeling like a game,” despite the fact that they couldn't tell you what a “game” is or why the world makes them think of one. The focus is on Haruhiro, a sixteen-year-old who appears to suffer from low self-esteem and general feelings of being on the fringes of the world. He's an observer rather than an actor, which makes him well-suited for the role of point-of-view character. From the reactions of those around him, it seems likely that he's more competent than he thinks he is, but even when his actions carry the day, he doesn't appear aware of it. As it turns out, this is not uncommon for most of the main cast. Manato comments several times that he's not as nice a guy as he seems, Yume has an issue with malapropisms and self-esteem, Shihoru keeps saying that she's fat, and Moguzo may have severe learning disabilities or other similar issues. Only Ranta doesn't fall into that category, but that's because he's on the opposite end of the spectrum – he's either a narcissist or at least someone who acts as brazen as possible to get the attention he seems to crave. Looking at this group, as well as later addition Merry and some of the other transplants to Grimgar, it appears as if their personal issues may be a factor in why they're here.
At this point, the reasons for their transportation to Grimgar take a back seat, but volume one's prologue (which is at the back of the book but takes place before chapter one) introduces the concept of reuniting with the dead, with the implication that dying in Grimgar may return you to the “real” world. In volume two, Haruhiro is on the verge of dying when he begins to remember scenes from his previous existence that may support that theory – or it could indicate that everyone brought to Grimgar is already dead in reality, and this is their afterlife. As a mystery, it's plays second fiddle to the fantasy plot, but Jumonji's seeding of possibilities keep the question in our minds, particularly since death in Grimgar doesn't take long to arrive.
Viewers of the anime adaptation, which preceded the novels' translation by J-Novel Club, will remember the seriousness with which the show handled a character's death and the group's subsequent mourning. This is not nearly as present in the original novels. Time is spent dwelling on it, just not to the extent shown in the anime. (This may have been due to adaptation constraints; when volume three is released, it will cover entirely new territory.) There are no conversations with ghosts or prolonged scenes of everyone coping with the character's death; instead, there is lingering sadness but the knowledge that life has to go on, no matter who has fallen. (Merry stands as a counterpoint to this, since she has been in deep mourning for a long time.) While it does give Haruhiro and the rest of his party a new appreciation of what being a party means and of life in general, it isn't lingered on as a central focus. I'm torn as to which approach I prefer, but both work in terms of the story, and sufficient time is spent on the consequences of death for those left behind that the events in the Cyrene Mine do feel desperate.
On the whole, volume two is stronger than volume one, not necessarily because of the Cyrene Mine plot, but because Jumonji tones down the more trope-laden aspects of the story that were presumably hyped up for “comedic” effect in volume one. These largely consist of breast jokes and Ranta wanting to spy on the girls in the bath. Although it fits with his deliberately obnoxious character, his screaming matches with Yume over her “tiny tits” get old incredibly fast. They also feel disrespectful to the female characters by reducing them to physical characteristics and Yume's cutesy speech pattern. Luckily the girls become much more confident and competent by volume two, with Merry's inclusion helping to put them on more equal ground.
Much of the action in the books is based around the party fighting goblins and kobolds, and while it isn't excessively gruesome, there is still a lot of blood and death. Mostly, we see things as Haruhiro thinks about them (barring two chapters in volume two from Ranta's perspective, which definitely help his character). Haruhiro's focus as the books go on turns less to the gore and more to the strategy, letting his narrative descriptions evolve. As Haruhiro becomes a better fighter, he thinks about armor, organs, and his own skills rather than his fear or the horror of harming another living being. He's not hardening emotionally so much as learning to survive.
That's perhaps the largest consequence of the death partway through volume one: learning to survive. In their harsh new world with nothing but vague memories of the past, Haruhiro and his party have to start from scratch. Failure to learn will only mean death, and while we don't see the exploration of mourning and grief that the anime gave this story, they're all still carrying their dead. That's what helps them to move forward and makes this a darker, more satisfying take on the isekai genre.
Overall : B+
Story : B+
Art : B-
+ Hints about Grimgar seeded throughout the text, Haruhiro's growth as a character shown through subtle details, books get stronger as they progress, more serious than usual isekai fare
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