by Rebecca Silverman,

Wandering Witch - The Journey of Elaina

Novels 1-3

Wandering Witch - The Journey of Elaina Novels 1-3
Elaina is a girl blessed with great talent for magic. Inspired by her favorite book series, The Journey of Niche, Elaina travels the world as the Ashen Witch, discovering strange new city-states, meeting many people, and simply enjoying her journey along the way.

Beautiful as it is, the 2020 anime adaptation of Jougi Shiraishi's original light novels Wandering Witch - The Journey of Elaina is but a pale imitation of the source material. Mostly that's because, like many an adaptation before it, it simply has too many bits and pieces to fit into its episode count, but the good news here is that Yen On has been publishing Shiraishi's books so that you can experience the story in its original form. This isn't a guarantee that you'll love this one because you enjoyed the other, because there are stark tonal differences between the two as well as a less linear approach in the novels, but there's more than enough content in the first three volumes to make for an interesting comparison either way.

The first three novels comprise the series' original run; Shiraishi was initially told to end Elaina's story at that point so as to work on a different light novel set in the same world. While eventually this series would resume, the first three books do form a thematic whole to the point where it does feel very complete. (The anime largely draws strictly from these three novels as well.) Each book can be said to have its own theme, although the short stories within may or may not strictly reflect that. Regardless, they all follow the same basic pattern: Elaina either arrives at or is traveling to a new city-state (called “countries” in the text) when she discovers something odd about the place. Sometimes she helps to resolve that, others she merely observes and moves on, but the idea is that she has learned something new at each country she stops in. It's rarely a “lesson” in the Sesame Street sense – Elaina isn't transformed by what she's discovered or anything like that; rather she simply notes that the world is a vast place filled with different, sometimes annoying or baffling people, and then continues on her way. This is much more effective than if Shiraishi had opted for the very special lesson or journey of discovery style of writing, and often the best stories in a volume are the ones where no one has actually learned anything at all.

Probably the best examples of this are in the first and second books. “A Girl as Sweet as Flowers” in the first volume is a quiet, sad story with the terrible inevitability of lingering death, something that we see twice more in that book with “A Gentle Death Slowly Approaches” and “The Queen of an Empty Country.” All three look at the choices that people make and how those ultimately lead to where someone ends up – dying while waiting for someone who will never come, being slowly consumed by carnivorous flowers, or even hiding from your own truth in an empty, ruined land. All three pieces draw from folkloric imagery, with “The Queen of an Empty Country” being the most obvious in its tale of a predatory Sleeping Beauty. But the use of flowers, true love, and curses pervade all three, and while Elaina could be said to have learned something from each encounter, mostly that something is the sad realization that people are people who don't always make the best decisions. Interestingly enough, this theme is revisited in a story from the second book, “A Paradise for the Resurrected” in a much more sarcastic tone. In this piece, Elaina visits a country known as a horror theme park only to discover that it has been overrun by real zombies since the literature was last updated. Elaina tries to help the survivors, but in the end all of them refuse to escape with her, saying that they now know how to rebuild their zombified country. When Elaina checks back sometime later, it turns out that they couldn't, and the people she met are now the shambling undead themselves. Like the other three stories, it's a tribute to human folly, but this time seen through the eyes of an Elaina who knows better than to hold out hope or to allow herself to become too sad over the fate of people who couldn't be bothered to help themselves.

That's very much a part of these books as a whole – Elaina is not a grand savior figure, she's just an observer who chronicles what she sees. (Literally, as we find out in the final story of the third volume.) If she can help, she does, but generally that's really not her role. At times that can make her come off as stand-offish or conceited, but Shiraishi's writing does a good job of reminding us that she's more young than anything else, and her interactions with her erstwhile teacher Fran and later with a girl named Saya have not inclined her to trusting others. Neither Fran nor Saya have particularly large roles in these first three volumes, which is definitely something of a saving grace, because both of them come off as thoroughly obnoxious. Volume three has several shorter stories titled “Object Lessons,” two of which take place during Elaina's apprenticeship with Fran, and although Elaina can be read as conceited, Fran's interactions with her are so far beyond the bounds of what might be called “teaching” that it becomes easy to see Elaina's attitude as a reaction to her treatment by her teacher rather than her natural disposition. That these chapters do all end up being in service of the final chapter, which essentially looks at paths not taken and different possible outcomes of Elaina's journeys so far, is a statement of how well the book itself is planned and executed.

The third volume is the weakest of these three, in part because Shiraishi is trying for a more lighthearted tone, which makes the whole thing feel much more typical of fantasy light novels than the previous two. It's still good, but the stories are fluffier in a way that feels like a letdown after the more powerful pieces of volumes one and two; somehow Elaina fussing over her cut-off hair isn't as interesting as her interacting with a snow-bound family who may or may not be fully alive (“When the Snow Melts”) or helping a divine cat (“The Ancient Country and the Divine Cat's Reincarnation”). It does pull it together in the final chapter, but just doesn't have the same combination of Kino's Journey and Italo Calvino's 1972 masterpiece Invisible Cities that the other two books create so well. It does, however, have some interesting implications about Elaina's mother, which help to bring it up to the level of the previous two.

Whether you loved or were disappointed in its anime adaptation, the original novels of Wandering Witch - The Journey of Elaina are worth picking up. The decreased reliance on Fran and Saya, the less linear storytelling, and the sadder, quieter stories all make it a very different beast, with a heroine who comes off as young rather than arrogant. It's a fascinating read, and we should all be pleased that Shiraishi got to continue the series after this point in the end.

Overall : A-
Story : A-
Art : B

+ Quieter, sadder stories are well done, good mix of settings and story lengths. Interesting implications in the third book.
Third volume tries too hard to be lighter, Fran chapters are a bit of a slog. Not as skilled at lighter stories in general.

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Story: Jougi Shiraishi

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