Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
The Rising of the Shield Hero
Self-proclaimed otaku Naofumi Iwatani realizes that he maybe should have read Fushigi Yugi before picking up an old, obscure text about four heroes summoned from another world to fight demonic hordes: shortly after he begins to read it at the library, Naofumi finds himself transported to another world with three other guys. They are meant to take up the mantles of the legendary heroes, and Naofumi is the Shield Hero, equipped with a magical shield that won't let him use any other weapon. That's not his only disadvantage, though – all of the young men seem to come from different iterations of reality, and in the other three, the world they find themselves in is an MMORPG...and in Naofumi's it doesn't exist. Framed and tormented by his fellow heroes, Naofumi finds himself on his own and in a very precarious position. These magical world stories aren't all they're cracked up to be...
You could be forgiven for writing Aneko Yusagi's The Rising of the Shield Hero novel series off as something you've read before, but that isn't entirely fair. Yes, it is another series where virtual reality becomes the new reality in a game-like world, and yes, the hero of the series must become the ultimate hero in order to save himself/his friends/the world/whatever. But plots are recycled so often that it becomes pointless to assume we know a story just because it has a similar premise to something else we've read, because each author takes a different approach to the subject matter. So please, don't avoid The Rising of the Shield Hero because you think you read it before – there are much better reasons not to read it.
Some readers familiar with One Peace Books' troubled history of grammatical errors may have been concerned when it was announced that they would be translating this series, and regretfully those fears are well founded. The start of the novel is actually relatively error-free, with just the odd type-o such as you might find in any book. By three-quarters of the way through, however, spelling errors, homonym switches, and just flat out wrong words show up with annoying frequency, making me wonder if there wasn't a different editor for the latter part of the novel. Happily the language (when it is correctly written) does have a more natural English flow than the average light novel, making this a breezy read in terms of ease and language. In part this may be helped by the page layout – One Peace Books uses a smaller trim size than Yen On, the major purveyor of light novels in English as of this writing, which makes short paragraphs and floating sentences much less noticeable.
The story itself walks a fine line between being just another in-game fantasy and taking the genre and turning it around a little. The major difference between The Rising of the Shield Hero and the two best known genre examples, Sword Art Online and Log Horizon, is that Naofumi is decidedly less heroic than Kirito or Shiroe. Upon arriving in the magical land alongside three other young Japanese men, Naofumi is almost immediately framed for a crime he did not commit and ostracized from the group. From that point on he is treated as the villain of the novel, and even though we know this isn't true, his anger and some of his choices make it difficult to remember that he really isn't the bad guy at times: when he can't get any party members after his betrayal, he buys a slave girl to help him, for example. While he does treat Raphtalia very well and genuinely seems to care about her well-being, he also makes comments about knowing she can't betray him because of the “slave spell” laid upon her by the dealer. Yes, he was badly treated and is allowed to be suspicious of others now, but he seems to take it a little too far at times, and there are a few uncomfortable moments. Naofumi is increasingly powered by his anger as the book goes on, and while he does always do the right thing when it comes down to the wire (more than the other heroes, in some cases), his deeply rooted anger also makes him kind of unlikable. On the up side, that's pretty unusual for the “special snowflake” character, which Naofumi clearly is, his method of getting to this world being remarkably different from the others'.
It doesn't help that Aneko is not a terrific writer. There is no real overwriting, which tends to be an issue with light novels, but the basic world is so cookie cutter that there's little sense of adventure. It feels a bit like reading the tutorial of a game, getting the layout of the land and the walk-through of the first few quests, and the totally unimaginative nature of the monsters Naofumi and Raphtalia fight sets things back as well. (Killer balloons? Really?) We do feel annoyance if not outrage at the unfairness of Naofumi's treatment, and it is easy to understand why Raphtalia is fond of him, particularly after reading the short story from her perspective that ends the book, but beyond that the craft is really pretty mediocre.
The pictures, on the other hand, are very attractive, and Raphtalia's tanuki ears do look like tanuki ears rather than cat or dog ones. Naofumi's design is just off enough from the typical hero to work, and there's a nice level of detail, to say nothing of a good number of pictures as well. There are four color pages in addition to all the black and white pictures, which is nice. Along with the Raphtalia story there's also one from Spear Hero Motoyasu's point of view as well, which helps to clarify the character, and I do hope that trend continues in the other novels.
The Rising of the Shield Hero isn't great fiction in either its execution or its story, and none of that has anything to do with the similarity of its plot to other books'. From less than amazing writing to unimaginative world building, to say nothing of editorial glitches, this is the kind of book you read and then leave on the airplane. It's good enough to finish once you've started...but that's about it.
Overall : C
Story : C-
Art : B+
+ Naofumi is an unusual enough hero to make it readable, Raphtalia has potential as a character. Lovely illustrations and the additional short stories help to develop other characters.
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