Reviewby Theron Martin,
Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? On the Side: Sword Oratoria
Orario, the world's premier city, exists for exactly one purpose: to cap the Dungeon, a sprawling underground labyrinth that has birthed a steady stream of monsters since time immemorial. Over time, a thriving economy has developed around the adventurers who plumb the Dungeon's depths, keeping the monsters in check and harvesting their magic stones to sell on the surface. Adventurers are organized into "familia," affiliations sponsored by gods who have descended from the heavens to live amongst mortals, giving their Blessing to their “children” to enhance their abilities. Among all familia in Orario, Loki Familia stands as one of the strongest, and one of their most powerful warriors is the Sword Princess Aiz Wallenstein, a beautiful blonde girl on a perpetual quest to get stronger. Though implacable in the face of the most unexpected threats from the deep Dungeon levels, she gets thrown for a loop by an encounter with a white-haired, red-eyed boy, a fledgling adventurer she rescued from a rampaging Minotaur only for him to flee from her in terror. As she goes about the normal business of her familia, Aiz also seeks an opportunity to apologize to the rabbit-like young man.
The DanMachi franchise has been successful enough that a spin-off novel series should come as no surprise. And no other supporting character is as worthy of a new storyline focus as Aiz Wallenstein, the inscrutable savior, idol, and love interest of original protagonist Bell Cranel. The result is this first novel of Sword Oratoria, a (currently) six-novel spinoff that runs parallel to the main story and occasionally interacts with it, similar to how A Certain Scientific Railgun complemented A Certain Magical Index, rather than spinning off in its own direction. That being said, its early parts provide a full enough background for the setting that experience with the original series or its anime version is not necessary to fully follow and understand this story. Even when it crosses over with the original storyline, it's mostly bones being thrown to established fans rather than necessary context.
In the original novels, Aiz has always been portrayed as a bit odd, a young woman who seems aloof, even detached, but not out of arrogance. Though she has some expressiveness, she seems emotionally stunted and more than a little simple-minded. This novel suggests in one brief flashback that she wasn't always that way, vaguely hinting that some kind of past trauma might have left her like this. We also learn that Aiz is nowhere near as internally calm as she outwardly projects. In fact, she's powerfully obsessive in her goal to get stronger, despite already being so strong that she can single-handedly face down a floor boss.
Perhaps most importantly, this novel clarifies much of why Aiz became so interested in Bell. She shares his drive to get stronger for the same reason; she is also trying to catch up to someone who once saved her in the Dungeon as a little girl. (Exactly why she would have been in the Dungeon at that age is not clarified, though previously revealed details have suggested that she became an adventurer at an age much younger than Bell.) Her desire to apologize for driving Bell off in a fright is what kept her looking out for him, but how much his situation resembled hers clearly resonated with her on a deep level. Hopefully this side story will continue to build on this connection as it progresses, but it already explains why Aiz is willing to help Bell train in later novels of the main storyline.
That's far from all that's going on here though. The first third or so of this novel is effectively a prologue to the main storyline, detailing a Loki Familia expedition to the Lower Levels that eventually results in a Minotaur being chased up to the level where it encounters Bell. This not only explains why Aiz was around to dispatch the Minotaur, it also suggests why the big Loki Familia expedition later on took along members of Hephaistos Familia to forge weapons for them on the go. (This experience taught them there were monsters on the Lower Levels that could destroy weapons and armor more readily than normal.) The rest of the novel details the same time period as the first main series novel, including the party that Hestia attends, the incident in the Benevolent Mistress, and the Monstephilia incident, just from a radically different perspective. Along the way, it gives a lot of attention to the Amazon twins Tiona & Tione and the elven mage Leyfia, (the one who makes googly eyes at Aiz in the anime). It also introduces a side plot thread that Bell never knew about: appearances by dangerous, previously-unknown monsters who exude ominous undertones. That has promise as a plot thread going forward.
In a technical sense, the writing style is very similar to the main storyline novels. Fujino Ōmori still has an irritating tendency to write unattributed dialogue and then explain what was going on and who was speaking afterward, though he's not as bad at this as some other light novel writers out there. On the plus side, he does an excellent job of providing a concise summary of the setting while weaving in plenty of extra details, such as how the Status of an adventurer can be “locked” by her goddess. (Hestia apparently doesn't know how to do this, though.) Omori also continues to do a good job with battle descriptions, and the peculiar speaking style of Aiz comes through quite effectively. The novel also doesn't forget that fanservice has been an occasional feature of the franchise, including a shower scene depicted in one of the illustrations. Speaking of those illustrations, the artist this time is different from the main series: Kiyotaka Haimura, who also did all of the original character designs for the Index/Railgun franchise. This makes for a noticeable but not dramatic difference in artistry, with characters tending to look a little thinner and more delicate. The cover art is definitely not a shining example of his style's strengths, however.
Yen Press's release of the novel mostly conforms to the standards seen in releases for the main series, with the main difference being that the cover isn't glossy. One illustration page, which shows the Loki symbol on Aiz's back, is followed by a trifold illustration depicting the top Loki Familia members on one side and the novel's last battle scene on the other. It ends with a profile page for Aiz and a two page Afterword where Omori explains that this spin-off exists because he was constantly warned about overusing Aiz in the main story, since she was too powerful.
Overall, the first novel of this spin-off is highly recommended reading for any fan of the franchise, regardless of whether or not you ever found Aiz to be interesting. It expands the narrow focus of the base storyline by looking at the setting from the perspective of characters who are already at the top of the adventurer food chain, rather than gradually working their way up from the bottom, while adding in or expanding a number of potential recurring characters and a new recurring plotline, as well as providing an alternate look at key scenes from the main story. It looks quite promising as a sidelight to the main story.
Overall : B
Story : B
Art : C+
+ Greatly fleshes out Aiz, introduces a number of new story elements while referencing established ones
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