Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Novels 3 & 4
Ray Starling has heard about the last war in the VRMMO Infinite Dendrogram when Dryfe killed the king of Altar, the kingdom he's aligned with as a “Master” in the game. What he doesn't know is that Dryfe is getting ready to stage another attack, this time in an attempt to fully conquer Altar. Lead by a player called Mr. Franklin, Dryfe times their attack when most of the most powerful players will all be watching a gladiator match known as The Clash of the Superiors. But what they don't count on is Ray and his friends Rook and Marie – and the fact that level isn't always the best indicator of power in a game.
We readers have been aware that another major conflict between Dryfe and Altar has been brewing since volume one of Sakon Kaidō's Infinite Dendrogram novel series. That makes it easy to forget that our protagonist Ray Starling hasn't had the same insight into what's coming – as far as he's concerned, he's been busy saving the day on a series of quests and finding his way through the game. That gives the attack, which commences in the end of volume three, The Clash of the Superiors, an extra edge. By the time Ray himself gets involved in volume four (Franklin's Game), things have reached a fever pitch.
In large part this is due to the way Kaido presents the characters and their motivations. While it is easy for us to forget that this is all taking place in a game (in part because of the surfeit of isekai novels taking place in game-like worlds), Kaido never lets us go too long before he reminds us. Interestingly enough, that doesn't decrease the urgency of the situations as Franklin's attack heats up. The way this is accomplished is by reminding us that most of the people who are playing this kind of immersive game have a very real reason for doing so – not just that they're curious or that they enjoy playing RPGs, but that they're trying to learn something about themselves or to work something out…or maybe trying to escape from a reality they don't care for. While Ray is more just a gamer in this sense (albeit one who is able to see his time in the game as an isekai experience), that's not true for most of his in-game friends. At first the inclusion of two short stories in the back of volume three, one focused on Marie and one on Rook, feels like a delaying tactic to get us to buy book four, but that's very quickly disproven: knowing who Rook and Marie are in real life is vastly important to how they play the game and what their roles will be in Franklin's wargame.
Rook is perhaps the most surprising character in both novels. When he initially appeared with the unfortunate game class of “pimp” and a low level, it was easy to just write him off. He seemed like the sort of doofy foil to Ray, the guy who wasn't quite as good at the game as Ray was and maybe had some sort of shady motivation for his class and playstyle. His last name, however, provides a hint as to his actual origins, and it's in direct contrast to Marie's as well: Rook Holmes and Marie Adler. Although they hail from different countries and hadn't met prior to the game, their names conjure up the ghosts of Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler, which should give us insight into their true natures. It also begs the question of whether or not there's a Watson figure lurking about or if perhaps Ray is meant to be his representation. In either case, it at the very least signifies that both Rook and Marie are hiding some very special skills underneath their unassuming exteriors.
That Rook is ultimately the one to challenge Ray's friend Hugo Lesseps, a Dryfe pilot, speaks to his character quite a bit. (It's also worth noting that Hugo's name comes from both Victor Hugo the French author and Ferdinand de Lesseps, a 19th century French engineer.) Far from being the retiring pretty boy he at first appeared to be, Rook's true self is revealed to be much more calculating and intelligent than his appearance and class suggest, making him a formidable enemy for Hugo. Their battle in the fourth novel is impressive not just because Kaido is able to describe it so that we can really see and feel the action, but also because Rook is so far ahead of everyone else…and no one is even close to realizing it. That Hugo is already feeling conflicted is just sauce for the dish Rook is cooking up, and their mental battle is just as fascinating as the physical one.
Battle scenes are a particular strength of this series, and these two volumes are no exception. The arena battle in volume three is intense, with stakes being raised to impressive degrees. That we know that no one can actually die – either in the game or real life because of arena battle protections – doesn't decrease the tension, and Kaido's at times grim descriptions give the entire scene a visceral feel. By the time Mr. Franklin puts in an appearance we're already on edge from what we've learned about the Superiors duking it out, so we're primed for the increased peril of his attack on the city of Gideon. That we've mostly been seeing the world through Ray's eyes, and Ray believes that the tians (NPCs) are as much people as the Masters (players) is what helps to drive this home; it's also not bad that the players will suffer a “death penalty” of being unable to log in for a set amount of time if killed – if you've ever been really into a game, that's a very real punishment.
Franklin himself is an interesting villain, not only because he's so driven by what appear to be his own selfish motivations with no regard for other players (or lives, if you consider the tians), but also because of what tangential information we get from the chapter written from Hugo's perspective. If what we can infer from Hugo's real life is true, both Hugo and Franklin are dealing with feelings of powerlessness brought on by an abusive family life. This not only goes a long way to explaining how they play, but also who they play: their characters seem to be deliberate choices that make them feel more powerful than in their real lives. That's what contributes to both Hugo's admiration of Ray and Franklin's disgust of him – in Ray they see someone who is easily able to attain what they cannot, and that gives rise to some very conflicted emotions.
While these books are generally well-written and translated, there are still a couple of issues that at times rear their ugly heads. Kaido has a very difficult time giving their characters distinct voices, so even when we're reading someone else's first-person narration, it still sounds very much like Ray's “voice.” While it's easy to tell whose perspective we're in based on content, it is a major weakness of Kaido's craft. Meanwhile the translation continues to use the words “retard” and “retarded,” which is troubling. It isn't that no one uses those terms, especially online, but surely there are other words that could be substituted, as that one is widely accepted as a slur that may ring too harsh for the tone of these novels. There's also one small grammatical issue with Hugo's French attack name (la porte de l'enfer should be la porte d'enfer, since “enfer” is masculine), but the books are largely free of other errors.
Infinite Dendrogram is one of the most exciting light novel series currently being published in English in terms of sheer adrenaline, and it's take on the VRMMO genre is unique in that it truly does explore why people play. Even if you've been burned by the genre before, these are worth checking out – especially since we've got one more book to put Franklin in his place.
Overall : A-
Story : A-
Art : B
+ Great battle scenes, interesting and thoughtful backstories for characters
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