Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Re:ZERO -Starting Life in Another World-
After finally breaking the cycle of his time in the capital city, Subaru wakes up in the guest room of a mansion in the countryside. It belongs to Roswaal, an eccentric nobleman who supports Emilia in what Subaru learns is her quest for the throne. She's one of several candidates to be the queen after the death of the royal family, but for reasons Subaru doesn't quite understand, Roswaal is her only backer. As Subaru tries to figure out his place in both this new world and Emilia's life, the world itself seems determined to get rid of him. Will he be stuck in this new loop of life and death forever?
Immortality sounds great, but it's much more of a double-edged sword. Usually we see the sadder side of it in literature, such as Natalie Babbitt's Tuck Everlasting, but sometimes an author decides to go for the more depressing or frustrating aspects of the inability to die. Tappei Nagatsuki's hero Subaru in the Re: Zero franchise usually puts a good face on things, quite possibly for his own mental health, so when things take a turn for the awful, such as they do in this volume, there's that much more impact on the reader. While volume one of the original novels had its dark moments, the increasing darkness of this second book puts that to shame.
The novel opens with Subaru waking up in a new place. He's successfully thwarted Elsa, the assassin who hired thief Felt to steal Emilia's badge, and now with everyone alive, Emilia has taken him to her patron's home in the countryside to heal. Having broken what he thinks of as the capital loop, Subaru is ready to press ahead. Interestingly enough, although he recognizes that the world he finds himself in is a real world (just not his), he still thinks about his actions as if he were in a game. In part this is because, as a consumer of contemporary pop culture, Subaru is fully aware of how prevalent the “guy trapped in a game world” story is. Many of his comments or names for things are little jabs at that genre, such as when he thinks of his plastic grocery store bag as his “starting gear” or even just referring to his power as happening in “loops.” This makes him both a fish out of water and a uniquely well-informed protagonist in this sort of situation – although he knows how things generally play out in fiction and acknowledges the similarities, he's also aware of the genre pitfalls and on the look-out for them. Mostly this comes out in his sarcasm and flippant remarks, but as the novel goes on, we can see that these are primarily coping mechanisms that he has developed.
With the change of setting, the cast of characters is completely revamped. Although Emilia and Puck remain, the rest of the previous players are gone. Of most interest to anime viewers will be the entrance of twin maids Ram and Rem, alongside Beatrice and the aforementioned Roswaal. (As a note, this novel is covered by episodes 4 – 6 of the anime.) Beatrice is the most immediately intriguing in her position as not-quite-human guardian of the Roswaal family's archive of remarkable books, and she continues to be so as the story goes on, but it is Ram and Rem who rise to prominence as the novel progresses, coming even to eclipse Emilia. This is because their motivations and personalities are by far less clear than those of Beatrice, Emilia, or Roswaal. While they play the perfect servants, there is clearly something underneath the surface that they're doing their best to conceal, and it seems like generally trusting Emilia is completely unaware of it. Roswaal, on the other hand, may have hired them for just these reasons, and the strong implication in one chapter that Ram is sleeping with Roswaal (possibly unbeknownst to her sister) would seem to solidify it. This fact also calls into question Ram's offer to teach Subaru to read – did it come from her or from Roswaal? What purpose does it serve in terms of their goals and the endgame for Emilia? Discovering these layers of the twins is as much a part of Subaru's quest as figuring out how to break free of his loop, although he takes longer to figure it out. He's learned not to judge the world at face value; the people are another thing entirely.
The twins also fare a bit better in terms of their linguistic quirks than some of the other new characters. While their speech reads as stilted at first, it quickly becomes apparent that that is intentional in their “maid” roles. Roswaal's drawl fares much less well – English has yet to find an effective way to Romanize that particular Japanese speech affectation, and the character's lines quickly become annoying to read, although unlike some other translations, this one does lengthen the syllables that would be drawn out in English more naturally. Beatrice's speech pattern is likewise a bit irritating, but it smooths out the more she talks; whether that is a result of us growing used to it or the translator getting more comfortable with writing it is debatable. Other than that, the translation reads well, not suffering from quite as much of the overwriting that other light novels do and achieving a real sense of Subaru's trauma as the story progresses.
Although volume one went to some dark places, volume two is where the story really gets into the more frightening and alarming aspects of Subaru's Return by Death power. More a curse than a gift as he is burdened with memories everyone else lacks, this second loop begins to wear on his soul in a way that feels more real than you'd expect. Re: Zero knows how to poke at its genre's tropes and roots while still telling a story that pulls you in deeper with each subsequent volume.
Overall : B+
Story : B+
Art : B
+ Art is delicate and lovely, story considers the repercussions of Subaru's power more than you might expect, knows its genre and plays with it
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