Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
The Irregular at Magic High School
Novels 1 & 2 - Enrollment Arc
In the future humans have not only learned to use magic, but also to make it into more of a science than a mystic art, and people who can use magic have become highly valued. To this end, there are nine specific high schools affiliated with a Magic University, with the best of them being First Magic High School. Tatsuya and Miyuki Shiba are siblings separated by only eleven months, both about to begin their first year at First Magic High. Miyuki has great magical aptitude and is placed in the more advanced First Course, while Tatsuya's powers don't show themselves as readily, putting him in the second course, which is looked down upon by Miyuki's classmates. But Tatsuya's got some secret skills that will make him much more in demand than anyone at school at first realizes. Being irregular might not be the easiest thing, but sometimes it's what you need.
After the release of its anime version and two manga variants, the original light novels of Tsutomu Satou's The Irregular at Magic High School have arrived in English, courtesy of Yen On. While they aren't likely to win over any readers who found the other versions unappealing, they are by far the best format for the story of a future where magic has become a technological advancement rather than the provenance of elves and wizards, with the first novel of the two-book Enrollment Arc being fairly strong. Both novels do suffer from the technobabble that plagues the anime, but with a better sense of the characters and a smoother flow to the story's progression, these do give credence to the idea that the original is always better.
The story takes place in 2095 and follows siblings Tatsuya and Miyuki Shiba as they begin their first year at the most prestigious institution of magical learning in Japan, First Magic High School. Although they aren't twins, the two are only eleven-odd months apart, putting them in the same academic year, although not on the same track: institutions of magical learning are divided into two courses of study, one for the more “gifted” students and one for those whose magical skills aren't as good. Miyuki is placed in Course 1, the gifted class, while Tatsuya ends up in Course 2 due to his poor practical skills – basically, it's the equivalent of a student excelling on the short answer questions on a test but failing the multiple choice; it isn't that he's not smart, it just doesn't show up well in standardized testing. Unfortunately there's a sharp divide between the two courses of study, with Course 1 lording it over Course 2 in true adolescent fashion. Thus through no fault of their own, the Shiba siblings find that Miyuki's classmates feel like she should cut ties with her “inferior” brother, something that you can guess does not go over well.
While the plot of the novels is ostensibly about how amazing Tatsuya and Miyuki are, what's much more interesting are the themes of bullying and not underestimating those society deems “irregular” or “worthless,” or rather “worth less.” This is largely seen in the juxtaposition between the start of volume one and the end of volume two – when the first book begins, Tatsuya and his classmates are harassed for daring to be near (or in his case, related) to Miyuki; when volume two finishes, those same reviled students are the ones who helped save the day while the so-called elites knew nothing about what was happening. Although Satou does not handle this as adeptly as we might like, and certainly does espouse some of the less charming attitudes we've seen in other school-set stories featuring bullies, he does manage to make his point, and Mayumi's speech about how the discrimination is deeply rooted in both Course 1 and Course 2 students' minds makes a good point. Of course, it neglects to mention that the Course 2 students feel inferior because both the Course 1 students and the school system keeps telling them that…The novels' general defense of a system that creates essentially a caste setup in its schools is troubling, but mostly it speaks to its author's roots as a salaryman rather than an educator.
Where in the anime Tatsuya came off as having very little personality, rendering his role in the story somewhat irritating, in the novels we can see that he does have emotions and reactions to everything around him, he just chooses to keep them to himself. Miyuki is the only one who can break through his shell, and even she can't always figure him out; when his classmate Mizuki notices something about what he's hiding in volume two, his surprise is palpable, as is his relief when he realizes that she hasn't figured everything out. We also see him react to the girls around him more in the novels, helping to make him seem socially odd rather than inhuman. That said, the relationship between he and Miyuki remains something of a sticking point, mostly because Satou doesn't seem to know how he wants to handle it. I think he's trying to make it titillating without being actually dangerous, but his constant backtracking in the language gives it less an air of “will they/won't they” and more the sound of an author who couldn't make up his mind. That he has difficulty describing the female body doesn't help – really, it would have worked much better if he hadn't been trying to come up with a euphemism for breasts and had just used the actual word.
This is not the only technical area where the books run into problems. Satou appears to be addicted to the parenthetical question mark (?), which gets very grating as you read. This is more of an editorial issue, perhaps, as it does tend to work a bit better online, where the novels began; the fact remains that it does make for some annoying moments. Likewise there is a lot of unnecessarily complicated and repetitive language, which is particularly odd given that Satou comments in the afterward that he knew when volume one came out that the two volumes would be published within a month of each other, thus eliminating the need for rehashing things. While much of the repetitive technobabble can be skimmed (if not skipped), it does detract from the overall reading experience, which is always a shame.
If you couldn't get through the anime the novel versions of The Irregular at Magic High School may not appeal to you much more, but if you simply didn't think that the show was great, it's worth giving these a try. The first two books are basically a single two-volume novel – even the chapters fit that, with volume one ending on chapter 6 and volume two opening on chapter 7 – so it's easy to just pick these both up and read them one after the other, which is nice. They're definitely written by someone who hasn't quite gotten the whole writing thing fully ironed out, but they are an interesting read, particularly in the way they take a fantasy subject and turn it into science fiction. This is a case where I wish I could give separate grades for both story and writing - the plot itself is more of a "B" grade, but the execution and technique falls more in the "C-" range. If writing style isn't going to bother you, then this is worth giving a shot, if only to see how the creator views his characters.
Overall : C+
Story : C+
Art : B-
+ Tatsuya shows actual personality, Erika and Leo feel decently developed. Plot progresses smoothly and the story has some interesting underlying themes.
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