Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
My Next Life as a Villainess: All Routes Lead to Doom!
Now that the government knows that someone is using port towns as a hub for human trafficking, the Magical Ministry is on the case. Katarina, Maria, and Sora join Larna on a trip to a harbor town to investigate, hoping to find both the traffickers in general and the kidnapped daughter of a baron specifically. The job requires them to go undercover, and Katarina manages to find her niche as a waitress. At least that's another job she can do if she can't fully avoid her bad ends…assuming she doesn't accidentally get herself kidnapped first.
After a return to form in volume eight, My Next Life as a Villainess: All Routes Lead to Doom! takes another slide downhill in the ninth novel. It's not nearly as egregious as what we saw in books six and seven, the two stories that set up the idea that there was a second Fortune Lover game after Katarina's death in her previous life, so this is really more of a slip than an out-and-out tumble. In large part that's because, like with the eighth book, the focus remains mostly on the cast of the earlier novels, just pared down to Katarina's two main coworkers at the Ministry: Maria and Sora.
This is, in terms of the love interests, very much their book. Not that Katarina is aware of it; she's still convinced that Maria needs to end up with one of the targets from Fortune Lover and has decided that the existence of the second game means that one of those guys are going to be her true love. She thus takes this trip as a sign that Sora and Maria are going to make progress in their romance, blissfully unaware that the only romance either of them are interested in progressing is with her.
It's a definite strength of the novel that author Satoru Yamaguchi stops flirting around with Maria's feelings and finally just flat-out admits that Maria is romantically attracted to Katarina. (There doesn't seem to be a sexual component, differentiating her from Mary.) Even Sora notices Maria's feelings, which certainly seems to indicate that Maria herself has reached the point where she's ready to admit to herself what her emotions are. Not that she hid them before, but it really feels like she herself becomes fully aware of her own emotions in this volume. There's something very rewarding about that, even if Maria and Katarina aren't your preferred ship, because it feels like the first real character development Maria's gotten in a while.
Interestingly enough, neither Maria nor Sora feels like they have an actual chance with Katarina. Both of them appear to agree that the lead contenders for her heart are Jeord and Keith. Jeord certainly makes sense; he's her actual fiancé and he has not been subtle about reminding people of the fact. Keith feels a little more surprising on the surface. After all, as far as anyone knows he's her brother (I'm not sure anyone really knows he's adopted; even if Mary, Alan, Jeord, Sophia, and Nichol know, Raphael, Maria, and Sora may not), but he's also the person with the most unfettered access to her, as well as the most outspoken opposition to Jeord. But this idea that only two of the many aspirants to Katarina's affections have any real chance feels very much like a marker of Maria and Sora's late entry on the scene. I think you'd be hard-pressed to find Mary expressing any such thoughts. From the point of view of the new characters in this volume, however, Sora looks like the top contender – mostly because he's a man and people who aren't Sora misinterpret Maria's actions as being platonically motivated. (Sora harbors no such illusions.) This doesn't seem to be anything but a statement about in-world biases, though, and neither Maria nor Sora take Maria's gender into consideration when they're thinking about who has a chance with Katarina.
Even though Maria and Sora are the romantic interests who get the volume with our clueless heroine, the storyline isn't technically about them. The plot is that the Magical Ministry has tracked down the coastal town where the human traffickers are active, and Larna takes the other three along with her to investigate. They're meant to work undercover at a restaurant managed by another Ministry member, listening for any news while Sora also works at the docks to do the same. Everyone is nervous about letting Katarina, the daughter of a duke, do manual labor (apparently they forgot the farming?), but she's insistent, and as it turns out, she's a much better waitress than she is a noblewoman. But more importantly to the plot, she also befriends Arneau, a member of the trafficking gang, which leads to her actually getting the main job done.
What's important to note is that Arneau doesn't become another member of her harem. He likes her, but not romantically; it's more that he's impressed with her kindness, since as an orphan in the slums he's barely experienced any. There's also a link between Arneau and Sora, which means that even if he did have a crush on her, Arneau would never act on it. He's not a second Nichol, however – he's actually a very sad case, someone who doesn't believe in his own worth and thinks that he doesn't deserve any joy in his life. Katarina's role isn't to charm him, it's to help him to understand that he's not as bad as he thinks, and even then, it's more Sora and Cezare who do that. Arneau isn't a throwaway character, but he also is markedly different in the way that he treats and feels about Katarina.
The ninth novel in the series isn't terrible. It has some very sweet moments, some funny ones, and it shows Yamaguchi attempting to branch out a bit in terms of writing style. But it also isn't quite as good as the previous book, and while Maria is sweet and lovely, she's not assertive enough to play against Katarina in the way that the other characters are. The page count also feels a bit lower than other novels, so there simply isn't the space to do as much storytelling as the plot deserves. It's still an entertaining book, just not up to the heights of the earlier volumes. Hopefully it'll return to form in novel ten.
Overall : B-
Story : B-
Art : B-
+ Maria and Sora get some more page time, Arneau isn't an immediate aspirant for Katarina's heart.
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