Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor: How is it Even MORE Anime than Iron Widow?!

One of the first things they teach you about the Internet is that anything you say on there is permanent. While I never made the mistake of giving away private information to strangers on social media, I have made posts that I now regret. One really damning post was my glowing review of Xiran Jay Zhao’s Iron Widow. Several months after reading the book, my outlook on it has completely changed. I could write a whole additional post about what I’ve been going through that made me love it at the time, and how I’m only just starting to face my personal issues head-on, but I won’t bore you (if you want context, you could read my other YA novel reviews and see how increasingly depressed I got over time). 

In any case, I’m not going to hide what Iron Widow is anymore. I still stand by Wu Zetian being one of the few proactive YA protagonists, and the book overall being great as a mindless, anime-like romp. However, if taken with anymore than a grain of salt, it is a toxic and unhealthy tome of Feminism to the most violent, hypocritical extreme. Regardless, I still think Zhao is one of the most promising rookies in the field. With all that being said, let’s see if their middle-grade debut novel, Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor, improves on their writing style while potentially being less of a loaded gun than Iron Widow was.

In Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor, the titular Zachary is a passionate fan of Mythrealm, an AR-game that combines Pokémon Go with ancient mythology. One fateful day, he meets a boy named Simon Li, who is the host of the spirit of one of China’s past emperors. Zachary himself is also able to be possessed by the spirit of China’s First Emperor, Qin Shi Huang, via his AR headset. The timing of this couldn’t be better, because his mom is captured by demons and needs saving.

I hate that my blog has gotten so political lately, because I wanted to be a breath of fresh air from said politics. However, when you’re reading a book by Xiran Jay Zhao, it’s impossible to not get political. Unsurprisingly for a book published in 2020 onwards, Zachary Ying is a victim of racism; people assume things because he’s Chinese, and he’s even ashamed to eat his authentically homemade Chinese lunch at school. This means nothing for the plot, but it’s there anyway because it’s topical. To be fair, this is significantly tamer than Iron Widow. Of course, almost everything is tamer than Iron Widow in terms of political undertones, meaning that Zachary Ying will still feel very political in and of itself.

Let’s stop getting political for a bit and discuss what makes the book interesting in the first place: its very anime premise. Like in Iron Widow, Zhao is at least able to come up with creative ideas and execute them well. In a world where so many stories involve VRMMOs, the rare instance of an AR game is novel already. One of the biggest criticisms of Iron Widow was that the mechanics weren’t thought out well enough, and Zhao actually learned from that mistake! The basic principles of Mythrealm and the whole spirit thing are simple: the powers of the spirits are determined by how they’re thought of by people in the living world, including their portrayals in videogames. It’s an easy way for Zhao to go all-out and make Zachary Ying maximum anime.

In addition to being more anime, the book is significantly more action-driven than Iron Widow. There’s a fight scene in almost every other chapter, and said fight scenes are absolutely nuts. This is good because subtlety is about as good as it was in Iron Widow, i.e. non-existent. Zhao tells you exactly how to feel, from political views to how to view the spirits pulling the reins. They at least pull a moral ambiguity angle, something that was SORELY needed in Iron Widow, where a mass murderer was considered a messaiah. 

So… the characters. Ohhhhh boy. Let’s discuss Zack first. He’s kind of a wimp, even when he has phenomenal cosmic powers. He’s meant to be an audience surrogate protagonist; the Asian-American who knows nothing about Chinese culture and history, and is therefore an incomplete human being. I’m not even exaggerating that last bit; part of today’s “woke” culture is the idea that every person is duty-bound to know and understand their “racial identity” to the Nth degree. Like almost all other books of this kind that I’ve covered, he gets stronger not by becoming more self-confident, but by learning random stuff about Chinese history.

Simon Li feels like he’s kind of there. He basically serves as an infodumper when the ghost of Huang doesn’t happen to be doing it himself. He has a brother in the hospital, but it feels like a shock value thing to make you like him. Oh, and here’s a kicker: the guy possessing his body is the real-life inspiration for Iron Widow’s drunk delinquent, Li Shimin. 

Speaking of Iron Widow, recall its protagonist, Wu Zetian. She’s here too, and I honestly felt PTSD from her reappearance. Zetian possesses the body of Melissa Wu, and their personalities are so identical that you can’t even tell who’s speaking out of Melissa’s body at any given time. Surprisingly enough, she’s not as much of an extremist this time around. She’s still the Best Girl, though, if not better because she’s not yelling P.C. P.S.A.s every five seconds.

Every time I review an urban fantasy like this, I’ve said that the actual mythological characters are boring. Fortunately, the many mythological and historical figures that Zack encounters on his journey are some of the best I’ve seen in a long time. They are memorable and faithful to their sources, and have the self-referential humor that you’d think more authors would take advantage of but don’t. 

If there’s anything I learned from Zachary Ying, other than a LOT of Chinese history, it’s that I still don’t get Xiran Jay Zhao at all. They say some things that are true, like how Chinese people aren’t all exactly the same as individuals, and a line about not caring about what other people think. However, they definitely portray Americans as a single, racist entity that hates Chinese culture, contrary to hard evidence that proves otherwise. Also, today’s culture literally revolves around people having to be “seen” by America in order to exist. Zhao seems to be establishing themself as a guru of Chinese history, but because of how political they are, and how things are in general these days, I don’t know if their interest is born of passion or civic duty. Their bio says they were “raised by the Internet”, which makes me feel like that their motives are purely the latter. Zack is often condemned for not knowing Chinese culture facts, and to be honest, I felt condemned by the author as well. That’s not how you should feel when learning about a foreign nation’s rich culture.

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Final Verdict: 9.85/10

I think I really like this book. It’s a significant step up from Iron Widow, at the very least. Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor is way more creative, and ties into Zhao’s vision to make the world learn Chinese history. It’s just a shame that it still has sprinkles of agenda throughout, otherwise it’d be almost perfect (although many would argue that the political aspects make it perfect). 

Regardless, I need to stop getting political. Other than a few rants I may or may not publish, I’m going to try my damndest to stop being obsessed with politics, and to stop reading these politically charged books. I might still find myself consuming more of them (including but not limited to the sequels to books I’ve covered), but if I do, you won’t be seeing them. Anyway… Zachary Ying is great. Just be wary of the potential to get triggered.

Magistellus Bad Trip Volume 1: SAO Meets GTA Meets Monopoly Meets Ready Player One

I hate myself so much. I swore off all light novel series I haven’t read (and some I haven’t finished), yet this one—Magistellus Bad Trip—beckoned me into its world. It wasn’t even the cover art that got me, but the premise. It was something so inherently appealing that it couldn’t possibly suck. Despite having read a lot of LNs with fool-proof premises that end up sucking, I took the plunge once more.

In Magistellus Bad Trip, Suou Kaname is filthy rich in the world of Money (Game) Master, a VRMMO where your worth is measured in stonks and bonds. As good as he is, however, he’s not satisfied with his currents setup. No, he wants to track down the Legacies, which are ridiculously OP equipment left behind by a legendary player. Can he do it? Probably. It’s just a matter of when.

What immediately makes Magistellus Bad Trip appealing is its setting, Money (Game) Master. It is an open-world sandbox game where you buy properties, and make bank by utilizing the world’s wildly fluctuating stonk market. Of course, you can blow up in-game facilities and other players to give yourself an edge. But since every VRMMO series is morally bound to have some allegory to our actual society, the in-game currency in Money (Game) Master has ramifications in the real world. And with the Legacies in hand, one can effectively rule over all mankind.

However, the real world isn’t much better. In Magistellus Bad Trip, A.I are on their way to assuming full control of the world. And while low-income families are funded by these A.I., this effectively makes them slaves until their debts can be paid somehow.

Of course, good writing and storytelling matters the most. Fortunately, this is one of the better-written light novels I have read. There is a lot of thought put into the nuance of the world and its logic. Plus, there is no shortage of over-the-top action, which can be compared to the spectacle of Platinum Games.

And, for once, the characters aren’t completely unremarkable! Kaname is the best character for sure. While his uncanny sense of danger comes off as an overpowered protagonist trait, the stuff he does fits within the logic of the game world. Oh, and by the way, every player has an A.I. partner, the titular Magistellus. His is a succubus named Tsileka. And while her character design is what you’d expect, she actually has a fun relationship with Kaname that isn’t at all sexual. Unfortunately, that’s about it. The other plot-relevant characters are pretty meh, especially Midori, the sister of the legendary player that created the Legacies, who fulfills the role of waifu that needs protecc-tion.

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Verdict: 8.75/10

I’m actually glad I gave Magistellus Bad Trip a chance. The series promises to be intricate and engaging; a rarity in the light novel market. It’s also one of the scariest cyberpunks I have read, since it expands upon stuff that already exists right now. Let’s just hope I can figure out how to juggle it with the rest of my life.

Weeb Reads Monthly: August 2021

Well, here it is. Another irrelevant monthly post because it isn’t August whatsoever. But hey, at least being super picky with light novels means that I’m going to have glowing reviews of all of them, right?


Do You Love Your Mom and Her Two-Hit Multi-Target Attacks? Volume 10

This could’ve been the final volume. But NOPE. Instead, for the penultimate installment, we get a bunch of filler stories. But like other filler volumes, the final chapter alone is actually plot relevant, so you can’t skip it! The filler chapters aren’t bad, but it’s the principle of the thing. As I’ve said numerous times, this is an expensive and time-consuming industry. Well, whatever. 

Verdict: 7.25/10


Eighty-Six Volume 8

Right at the start, we get our goal for this volume: to capture some base somewhere, which will have some information about the secret base that has the secret shutdown code that can end the war. Oh, right, Frederica is a princess for some reason that may or may not have been properly foreshadowed (knowing light novels, probably not), and she’s the key to all this.

Clocking in at two-hundred-seventy-seven pages on BookWalker, I believe this was one of the longest volumes… and one of the weakest. Even when things ramped up in the second half, it just didn’t feel engaging. I just couldn’t get a sense of 3D space in the base they went to (I could’ve just been tired though). Also, this area really has zero purpose. The ghost operating the boss of the volume doesn’t even have a name or character. I see no reason why they couldn’t push for the hidden base. They could’ve spent the whole volume training for it, and I would’ve liked it better.

Also, spoilers here. The volume has a fake death, along with a Deus Ex Machina… either that or I was just REALLY tired (or bored) of it. Nothing quite says “I tried to be cynical but I failed” more than a fake character death. I swear, if the final arc doesn’t start with the next volume, I might end up dropping what I had originally considered one of the best light novel series out there.

Verdict: 7.5/10


Otherside Picnic Volume 5

It’s business as usual here in Otherside Picnic; episodic chapters where weird stuff ensues. It’s surreal and creepy as always. Well… not exactly “as always”. I took a week-long break from reading stuff, and it felt really nice. So, it might be the stress of having to keep up with this stupid and expensive market that’s coloring my impression of today’s volume of Otherside Picnic.

But regardless, it might just be one of the weaker volumes. And that’s mainly because it’s not really that creepy compared to previous installments. The odd-numbered chapters in particular were very unceremonious. Weird stuff happens, but they’re situations where the protagonists weren’t in danger. Runa Urumi regains consciousness in this volume, but as huge as that sounds, it’s put to the wayside. Fortunately, the even-numbered chapters are as weird and scary as expected. This was not a bad volume by any means, it’s just that half of it doesn’t meet the series’ standard.

Verdict: 8.65/10


Durarara!! SH Volume 2

Now that we established the main premise, it’s time for Durarara!! SH to start in earnest. Unlike most light novels, time isn’t wasted as our new unlikely trio investigates the disappearances. It’s obvious that Celty didn’t do it, and she arrives to tell them that right off the bat. Also… I effing love Celty. 

Basically, this volume concludes the arc that was established in the last volume. We get some more development with Yahiro and Himeka, and more teasers as to whether or not Izaya is still alive. I don’t know if it’s the aforementioned stress from reading, but I didn’t enjoy this volume as much as the first one. Due to the sequel curse, SH is destined to not be as popular. I wouldn’t consider it bad, though. It just came out at a really bad time for me.

Verdict: 8.65/10


Conclusion

I’m really letting the stress get to me, aren’t I? It’s already stressful keeping up with an industry like this that has no subscription service dedicated to it. Part of me wants to swear off light novels forever. Even the ones I really, really love. But in better news (at least for me), there are no light novels I care about being published this month! If one or two happen to sneak by (because Yen Press likes dropping release dates short notice), they’ll be covered in the October 2021 installment.

The NPCs in This Village Game Sim Must Be Real! Volume 1: A Really NEET Light Novel

Okay, sooooo I kinda said that I wouldn’t be covering light novel debuts for a while. However, at the time, I had completely forgotten that I was looking forward to The NPCs in This Village Sim Game Must be Real! (along with one other series). Look, Japan puts out thousands of these every year; I’m not the only one to completely forget something I knew I wanted. So, after this and that other series, I’m DEFINITELY not covering any light novel debuts for a while. I think?

In The NPCs in This Village Game Sim Game Must be Real!, a NEET named Yoshio receives a strange package, containing a game in its alpha build: The Village of Fate. He must test the game, but the fact that it’s classified is really weird. That, and the fact that it has the most realistic graphics ever despite how well it runs on his older computer. Oh, and the fact that the characters seem all too human. 

Right off the bat, Village Game shows a lot of promise. The author clearly put a lot of thought into the game mechanics, but it’s definitely not something most people would play. Basically, imagine a village sim roguelite, which sounds pretty kickass just from that description. However, there are some things that seem like utter BS, and intentionally so. For starters, Yoshio gets only one run, and the game permanently soft-locks, in addition to the permadeath that can happen to the NPCs. Also, he cannot directly control them. The only way to command them is to write a prophecy as the villagers’ god. And this feature only refreshes once every twenty-four hours of real time. He can accumulate Fate Points (FP) to unlock powerful and necessary upgrades, but the upgrades are expensive, and—here’s the real kicker—the game has micro-transactions. 

This series seems to be setting up a character study that can—hopefully in an intellectual manner—examine people and how easily they can lose their sense of reality to that of a game world. And in addition to that, Yoshio undergoes some real growth that most characters of his ilk do not. Since he’s stuck in the real world, he has to face his insecurities head-on. As questionable as The Village of Fate is, it has compelled him to go outside. He even has to get a job because, as expected in a game with microtransactions, The Village of Fate is pay-to-win. And I don’t even mean that from the standpoint of making a grindy game less grindy; it is simply impossible to gain enough FP to keep up with the crap the game throws at you.

The problem lies within The Village of Fate itself, and I don’t mean how intentionally sadistic its design is. The game’s worldbuilding and denizens are about as bland as any substandard isekai. Our cast of the game is a family of three, whose little daughter has an unhealthy crush on a fourth main character named Gams, a significantly older man. They’re… there. I don’t see how Yoshio got so invested in them outside of how realistic they look in the game. 

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Verdict: 8.9/10

I didn’t expect The NPCs in This Village Sim Game Must Be Real! to be good at all. And yet, it pleasantly surprised me. I highly anticipate how much more advanced the game will get as more stuff happens, and Yoshio’s character arc is very engaging. I recommend it not to isekai fans, but slice-of-life fans, since it’s pretty grounded for a fantasy series.

Weeb Reads Monthly January and February 2021

I didn’t think I’d have to lump multiple months together AGAIN. Geez! Only two volumes (excluding debuts) piqued my interest in January; nowhere near enough to put it in a Weeb Reads Monthly. So, here we are. Hooray for being relevant.


WATARU!! Volume 2

Holy crap!!! Another volume of the masterpiece, WATARU!!! …said no one except for me. MyAnimeList doesn’t exactly have a page for this series, and I haven’t read any reviews on WordPress, if there are any. But honestly, I can say with full confidence that I’m in the minority in loving WATARU!!! I mean, it’s so simple and superficial with no story; all violations of the arbitrary rules of good literature!!!

But if you are one of my fellow uncultured swine and love the first volume of WATARU!!!, then the second volume is just as good. There’s more insane hijinks and meta-humor than ever. They also introduce a new character named Elphabell. It seems like she could become a yandere in the future, but she’s not even remotely as insane as Best Girl Aria. According to the afterword, WATARU!!! isn’t too successful, which kinda sucks. Light novels can get axed just as easily as manga, so there’s a chance that this could be the end.

Verdict: 9.65.10


The Bloodline Volume 2

“Wait, why’d you use the first volume’s cover as the thumbnail?” you ask. Well, for whatever reason—be it the licensing or the artist being lazy—the cover of the second volume is just a zoom-in of the first cover!

In any case, my feelings for the volume are mixed. The first half is slow and boring, with a lot of uninteresting dialogue. There’s a really contrived development, thanks to Nagi being smooth-brained, and a ridiculously predictable Top Ten Anime Betrayal. The ending of the volume has a clever twist, but… there’s a chance that this is the end of the whole series. BookWalker doesn’t say “Completed” or anything, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the series is ongoing. I admit I’m curious about what could happen moving forward, but it’s just as likely that it’s over. If it is, then I’ll just say that The Bloodline had some good ideas marred by boring writing.

Verdict: 7.25/10


Konosuba Volume 13

I was concerned about Konosuba slowly falling apart, and honestly, I might be correct. The first half of this volume is almost the same as the first half of volume twelve: more shipping war stuff. As much as I love these characters, their interactions are getting incredibly redundant, and this is coming from someone who loves One Piece. The second half of the volume concerns Wiz, and this guy stalking her. The way it turns out is as silly as you can expect. But at this point, it’s obvious that the endgame plot is looming and it’s just a matter how long the author can beat around the bush leading up to it.

Verdict: 8.25.10


Do You Love Your Mom and Her Two-Hit Multi-Target Attacks?! Volume 8

The first thing you see when you open up this volume is a group of idol moms. Despite how silly that first impression is, this is actually the most emotional volume yet! If you recall from last time, we learned that Porta is the Fourth Heavenly King of the Libere Rebellion. To be honest, it should’ve been obvious, since we’ve strangely never seen her mother.

Fortunately, that gets rectified in this volume! The mastermind behind the whole thing is actually Porta’s mom, who is also one of the key devs behind the game world. Porta feels obligated to join the Libere Rebellion, despite the fact that her mom seems to be a real b****. Ahhhhh, familial bonds!

The theme explored today is independence. In fact, that’s the whole reason behind the Libere Rebellion itself. Porta’s mom hardcore believes in the philosophy of letting the child grow entirely on their own. And as such, we learn of the point that every mom has to deal with: when to let their kids go. Overall, it’s a perfect storm of emotion and humor, making this my favorite volume up to this point. One concern I have, however, is that this is pretty much the end of the Libere Rebellion plot thread, yet the series is confirmed to have three remaining volumes. After the cliffhanger ending, I can’t imagine how it would go beyond a ninth volume.

Verdict: 9.25/10


ROLL OVER AND DIE Volume 2

This volume immediately begins with a discussion between several high-ranking demons, where we get more context for the series’ lore and the purpose of those crazy Uzumaki things. After that, Flum stumbles upon some strange child named Ink, who raises even more intrigue. 

The main conflict of this volume revolves around Dein Phineas being an ass, as well as the church’s latest monstrosity attacking the town. I’m not even going to describe this calamity, but it follows in the last volume’s footsteps by being incredibly effed up and gruesome. The ridiculous part of the scenario is that the church’s evilness is so well known that even the nuns acknowledge it. This series is really ham-fisted on dissing Catholicism, which I’m okay with as an agnostic, but some subtlety would be nice.

Verdict: 9.75/10

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Conclusion

When it comes to light novels, this is definitely a great start to 2021 (*insert pretentious and not-at-all overstated comment about how it’s better than last year even though nothing’s changed here*). Since I’m going to take a month’s hiatus in early March in order to avoid Attack on Titan finale spoilers, I’ll be lumping March and April’s posts into one. Hooray for that!

SAO’s Unital Ring Arc is Off to an Overwhelmingly Okay Start

Fans and critics of the massive and iconic Sword Art Online franchise can easily agree that it’s been a wild ride. From waifus to gratuitous sex to inherent appeal to contrived B.S., it’s been a very fascinating series of ups and downs. With the anime caught up to Alicization, only one arc remains exclusively in light novel territory: Unital Ring (I’m pretty sure it’s the final arc, too). I would normally wait until it’s finished and cover it in one post (since individual volumes tend to make no progress), but I just HAD to get my first impressions out, since there’s a ghost of a chance that this one is actually good.

In Unital Ring, Kirito is hanging out in Alfeim with his waifus, Alice and Asuna, when they suddenly find themselves playing Minecraft. Like, literally, the game just changes to something completely different. Since their stats also get reset, Kirito is no longer Mr. Perfect… right?

The titular new game is, for all intents and purposes, the most well-realized in the series (which isn’t saying much but still). The game is very intuitive since it plays like Minecraft; you find resources and build stuff. However, SAO is SAO, and Unital Ring has some issues. While a large number of items can be instantly crafted through the menu, as to be expected, the game tries to capitalize on its “V.R.” gimmick and makes it so some things have to be crafted by hand. This would sound cool, but the problem is that you need real-world knowledge on how to make this stuff, and there isn’t exactly anything in the game that can teach you. 

Unital Ring also has a weight system, where items in your inventory will actually, well, weigh you down. While this does allow for some creative situations in combat of all things, since you could drop materials from high up and let gravity take care of the rest, I feel like this mechanic was created solely to make Kirito have to spend the early parts of this arc in only his underwear (i.e. “manservice”). 

This volume is, as expected, merely the characters getting acquainted with the game world and its basic mechanics. Beyond that, there’s no real plot progression. Bizarrely enough, this is probably one of the best volumes of the series. The only sexualization is of Kirito, and there’s relatively low exposition dumping. Since Unital Ring seems to be all wilderness, it at least doesn’t look like there’ll be any rape-faced villains in this arc. The volume ends with the introduction of a new character and a returning character whom I don’t remember at all, and since it’s a cliffhanger ending, they’re likely to be important moving forward in this arc.

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Verdict: 7/10

SAO has really grown up. It’s gone from tedious and pseudo-intellectual to just above average. Unital Ring might not be as impressive of a start as Alicization, but since this is the first entirely new arc (as opposed to the original web novel), Kawahara will be going into it from scratch as a full-fledged adult with an adult brain who might actually be uncomfortable with sexual assault as a plot device. Next time I post about SAO, it’ll be a review of Unital Ring from start to finish, so stay tuned for that!

Weeb Reads Monthly December 2020

Well, this post’s a bit late. The reason is because the latest volume of Otherside Picnic came out too close to  the end of the year. But hey, at least I got this out on the same week as New Year’s Eve, right? Anyway, let’s do this.


Sorcerer King of Destruction and Golem of the Barbarian Queen Volume 2

I had a sliver of hope for this one. After all, it started out as a pretty lonely, post-apocalyptic isekai. However, it doesn’t take long for Nemaki to reach a town. At this point, Sorcerer King pretty much turns into your run-of-the-mill slice-of-life isekai.

If I was a more generous reviewer, I’d say it’s fascinating to see the fact that Nemaki doesn’t exactly understand Gol. She’s very trigger happy, and her clothes are more than just cosmetic. Nemaki genuinely does not know what she’s capable of, nor what makes her tick, giving a genuine sense of mystery and concern. Unfortunately, I’m not a more generous reviewer. From rubbing cheeks to looking at her underwear, Nemaki’s interactions with Gol are no different than that of a typical isekai waifu. It seems like she was made as a golem just to pretend that Sorcerer King is subversive. And with the usual stiff writing, I have little to no interest remaining in this series.

Verdict: 6.5/10


May These Leaden Battlegrounds Leave No Trace Volume 2

Before getting into this volume, I must clarify that I did not cover The Eminence in Shadow Volume 2 like I planned. First off, I ran out of money because, well, Christmas. Second off, I had too many doubts about that series. The fact that Cid’s made-up enemy turns out to be real, along with them actually skipping how his own organization comes about… It’s just plain stupid. Combine that with the subpar characters and you have another series that, in my opinion, does not at all deserve to place on the Kono Sugoi Light Novel rankings. 

I also had doubts about May These Leaden Battlegrounds Leave No Trace. Like most time travel narratives, Leaden Battlegrounds is kind of… iffy. But for some reason, I enjoyed it because I was curious as to how stupid it could get. So here we are!

The main premise of the volume is Rain and Air getting into a scuffle with some Western soldiers, one of whom is a cute girl named Deadrim, and the other person is… there. Once again, most of the volume proves to be boring, but there’s just enough intrigue at the end to make you wanna buy the next one. The only other noteworthy thing is that fact that Air should be using the Devil Bullet on Rain, but that whole aspect of their relationship goes in the direction you’d expect.

Verdict: 7.2/10


DanMachi Volume 15

It feels like it’s been forever and a day since we had a new DanMachi volume. Unfortunately, this one’s a filler volume. Sure, DanMachi has had some of the better filler in light novels, but not this time. We do get more backstory to some of our main protagonists, in addition to the backstory we already got, but it kind of feels excessive. For example, the first chapter is literally about the inn that Bell stayed at until he found out about Hestia. Do we really need that? In any case, most of the stories are pretty good, though not the best that DanMachi has to offer. 

Verdict: 7.9/10


Infinite Dendrogram Volume 13

After the relative nothing that happened last time, we finally have an event that’s been building up for a long time: a conference between Altar and Dryfe. In order to participate, Ray forms a clan with his friends and gets a new job. This new job, as always, is something wild that nobody likes which ends up being really useful for his build. In any case, it’s not even a spoiler to say that the conference goes south, and a big fight breaks out.

The one gripe I have is something that’s happened twice now in Dendro: withholding information from the reader that the main character, who’s narrating, happens to know. It’s a cheap way to build anticipation and I don’t know why any writer would ever think this is a good idea. Nemesis, once again, evolves into a new form after a small time-skip leading up to the conference. We also don’t get to see it, since this volume ends in the middle of the action. Other than that, Dendro still meets (and exceeds) expectations.

Verdict: 8.75/10


Otherside Picnic Volume 4

It feels like it’s been forever since we got some Otherside Picnic! With the anime in development, I cannot wait for yuri fans to get super toxic and scare off potential viewers. But in the meantime, we have this. As usual, it starts off [relatively] chill, with the girls going to the cult HQ from the previous volume to clear it of supernatural gook.

Other than that, it’s pretty typical stuff. Sorawo and Toriko’s relationship gets more intense, and we learn a bit of the former’s past, but that’s about it. There’s no new goal established. However, I’m fine with that, because Otherside Picnic is a CGDCT at heart, and core narrative doesn’t really matter in those. As long as the suspense is still off the rails (which it is in this volume HOLY CRAP), then I’m good.

Verdict: 9.3/10


Conclusion

Overall, we had a pretty good lineup of light novels to close off the year. Unfortunately, it looks like I’m going to be skipping this January’s Weeb Reads Monthly because there are only two volumes that I actually have interest in, excluding the upcoming debuts. February might be skipped too, because I only see ONE volume of interest on BookWalker’s Pre-Order page at the time of writing this post. Regardless, whatever I skip will all be lumped in with another month eventually!

In the Land of Leadale: A Chill Isekai with No Strings Attached (Volume 1 Review)

They say you can’t judge a book by its cover. But in defense of doing just that, having great cover art is important for generating interest. And that’s exactly what drew me to a new isekai licensed by Yen Press: In the Land of Leadale. There’s something eye-catching about really tall towers in the middle of fantasy landscapes… and let’s hope my eyes weren’t caught by another marketing scheme.

In In the Land of Leadale (well, that sounded wrong), a girl named Keina Kagami dies in her hospital bed and is transported into the VRMMORPG, World of Leadale. She has taken the form of her avatar, Cayna, and has pretty much all of her (OP) abilities. However, two hundred in-game years have passed since she last played! …Which means nothing.

I don’t know if this is a case of slow burn, but Leadale seems like another dime-a-dozen isekai. Unlike others of its ilk, this one at least has a few positives. The author managed to put some decent worldbuilding into the game, even if most of it is cosmetic and has no effect on the plot. According to the lore dump, World of Leadale was made by some incredibly trollish devs, and apparently, you need to be a god-tier player who can cast ten spells at once just to cure poison. Poison, one of the most common ailments in RPGs!

But worry not, for Cayna is one such god-tier player, at Level 1,100. She can down a massive bear by merely kicking it in the face, and is super rich. Oh, and that whimsical tower that’s normally a goal in these games? That’s her house! So yeah, don’t expect stakes. There’s supposed to be a goal where she goes to the other guardians’ towers, but there’s no urgency to it, and Cayna herself even says that she’s only doing it because she has nothing better to do.

Also, don’t expect to be able to visualize anything. It seems to be customary with most light novels to only provide the bare minimum description of anything, and sadly, that’s the case with Leadale. They also don’t bother describing anyone who isn’t a lousy NPC, which would be nice, except the NPCs tend to have more screentime than major characters in this volume. 

The cast is as cardboard as usual. Cayna tries to be a subversive protagonist by being a girl and a mother, but those traits seem to distract from how little personality she has (Also, expect the volume’s only sense of humor to consist of people having over-the-top reactions to her identity. Over and over again). Her three kids (read as: custom-made NPCs á la Overlord) aren’t very interesting either. Out of the three, I had a lot of hope in her son, Skargo, because he looked like someone who’d have an Oedipus complex and make this more controversial. But alas, he just ends up being annoying. 

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Verdict: 5.5/10

In the Land of Leadale is either pulling a long con, or it’s your typical, boring isekai. Some people will probably like it enough just from the main character being a mom, but that’s not enough for me. I recommend it if you like Mushoku Tensei and stuff.

Kuma Kuma Kuma Bear Volume 2 and Infinite Dendrogram Volume 12 Reviews

Kuma Kuma Kuma Bear Volume 2

Last time on Kuma Kuma Kuma Bear, a girl named Yuna logs into her favorite MMO, World Fantasy Online, during a new update. She is given some game-breaking bear-themed equipment as a gift for playing for a long time, and is sent to an unfamiliar part of the game world in said bear equipment, with her level reset to 1. She saves a girl named Fina from wolves, and the two of them head to the nearest town with the mob loot. They sell it at the guild, and Yuna spends her hard-earned cash at the inn. The next day, Yuna- guess what- registers at the guild, but only after- guess what- beats some red-shirted upstarts. She then buys a ton of throwing knives, along with a sword and butchering knife, as well as some normal-people clothes. She also acquires bear-themed magic, which she practices on some wolves. She beats enough of them for it to instantly promote her to E-Rank at the guild. Some of the friends of that guy who she beat up start slandering her, and as a result, she is forced to undertake a goblin-slaying quest with them. The required amount is fifty, and she offers to fight them all herself and give them the credit so they stay off her back. She goes with the female adventurer, Rulina, defeats them all herself (double the required amount and a boss), and earns respect among the other group. Over time, Yuna defeats so many monsters that she becomes D-Rank with no effort, and hires Fina to butcher the spoils. They go on a quest to fight tigerwolves, which go down easily. Lastly, Yuna spends a heap of cash on an empty plot of land, and constructs a bear house to live in.

The bear-themed antics are just as bear-themed and… un-antic-y (professional term) as last time. Honestly, I struggled to write anything of substance in this post, and that’s why I’m pairing it with a review of Infinite Dendrogram Volume 12. The second volume of Kuma Kuma Kuma Bear is almost exactly the same as the previous one.

At the current rate, it seems that it’s going to commit to being an episodic CGDCT isekai, which for some (many) people, is enough (especially with the bear onesie). Yuna visits some noble guy, which- I’ll admit- her apprehensiveness to the request was actually kind of funny. But afterwards, Fina’s mom is sick, and Yuna- being the OP protagonist she is- restores her to perfect health almost instantly. Everything happens so unceremoniously that it bores me to tears. Furthermore, the “let’s tell you the same chain of events you just saw but from Fina’s perspective” thing does not die down in this volume.

The issue really is the bland and basic writing style. While there comes a point where TOO much finesse can make you sound like a pretentious hack, not enough will make your work seem lifeless. I couldn’t be immersed in any fashion, and I could barely visualize anything besides Yuna.

You know what, Yuna really is the only thing that matters, isn’t she? She doesn’t just look adorable, but she also helps people for no reason. WHAT AN AMAZING AND NOT-AT-ALL IDEALIZED PERSON. I feel like the author expects people to love her because of how good she is. Well, us critics got a name for girls like her: Mary Sue.

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Verdict: 6/10

Kuma Kuma Kuma Bear is so superficial. It’s cute, it’s relaxing, but it relies entirely on Yuna’s cuteness. If she didn’t have a bear onesie this thing would not sell. All of her powers are typical stuff, but they just have the word “bear” tacked on to them; they aren’t even puns! Compare it to Invincible Shovel, which actually uses shovel-like properties, such as “digging” through people’s memories, or “burying” entire castles. My chances of reading more Kuma Kuma Kuma Bear are next to nil. I’m going to be so salty when the anime airs because I KNOW that people are gonna be all over Yuna’s bear suit and her good will, WHILE SOMETHING LEGITIMATELY GOOD AND ORIGINAL LIKE TO YOUR ETERNITY WILL GET SHAFTED BECAUSE FUUUUUUUUU-! Anyway, if you like CGDCT and isekai, then Kuma Kuma Kuma Bear will do just fine.


Infinite Dendrogram Volume 12

Last time on Infinite Dendrogram (volume 10), Ray goes to college while also having a new accessory made for him that would help him resist poison. That’s it for him. In Caldina, Hugh Lesseps gets involved with some crazy woman named AR-I-CA on a quest to find a bunch of sealed boss monsters that were stolen from Huang He. A powerful mafia called Mirage goes after them, but they become a non-issue real fast when Dancing Princess Hiuli defeats them all by herself. Gerbera, in the Gaol, also gets stronger as she trains with her new friends in Illegal Frontier, led by the King of Crimes, who is incidentally involved in what is going on at Hugh’s end. Things are looking intense, AND WE FINALLY GET TO SEE WHAT HAPPENS NEXT.

Er, well… not quite? The stuff that happened last time felt like setup, and this volume feels like… more setup. The developments last volume end up being ignored in favor of some new ones. First off, Figaro’s yandere girlfriend, Hannya, is released from the Gaol. She hates couples… which is why it’s so perfect that she was released during the time of a lovey-dovey festival in Gideon.

There’s also some new political developments, mainly this arranged marriage with Princess Elizabeth and one of Huang He’s princes. In order to butter them up, they hang out during the aforementioned festival. They also hint at a potential alliance with Caldina in the future, but nothing seems to come of it yet. 

The volume starts with some more insight on Kashimiya, this iai-fighting dude that we only got to see a blip of once upon a time. But after that, the bulk of it is the lovey-dovey festival. And yeah, it kind of feels like a filler volume, even moreso than the Gloria prequel fight. The interactions between the characters are genuinely cute, but this is the first time I’ve seen the overarching story get backseated this violently in Dendro

Things do ramp up toward the end; Dendro always has to have a crazy fight scene or two. But as far as character development goes, it’s really only Figaro and Hannya who get it. We do get introduced to some new Dendro A.I. but we’re still kept in the dark; in fact, the prequel volume told us more than this one did! And as usual, we still don’t get to see any of Legendaria nor Ray’s sister. 

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Verdict: 7.5/10

I don’t know what it is, but this is probably my least favorite Dendro volume so far. It’s a cute little mini-arc that set some stuff up, but it’s been a long time since something intense happened. Something big needs to happen, and fast, or this great series could REALLY become the next SAO (and I mean that in a bad way).

Pokemon Sword and Shield: Isle of Armor DLC Campaign Review

The eight Generation of Pokemon has been perhaps the most controversial in the series’ history. Pokemon Sword and Shield has gotten a bad rap since they were first announced, when it was stated that there would be no National Pokedex for the first time in the franchise. And the games themselves have… issues. In my own review of Pokemon Shield, I praised the graphics, quality-of-life improvements, somewhat decent character development, and enjoyable difficulty level. However, it also had a lacking postgame, and perhaps the emptiest region design in the entire series. Plus, the Wild Areas- which could’ve made Pokemon a more open-world and grandiose JRPG- were just vast expanses of nothing. Despite all this, the new DLC might make Gen Eight more viable. Today, I cover the first part of the Sword and Shield DLC: Isle of Armor, specifically, the Shield version.

In this DLC campaign, your character is mysteriously given the Armor Pass, which allows them to go to the Isle of Amor. As you enter the train station, you end up fighting against a Galarian Slowpoke (unless you played the update beforehand in which case you already did that months ago), and catch a glimpse of a strange character heading off to the aforementioned Isle. When you arrive there yourself, you are challenged by this person and compelled to train at this Master Dojo place on the island.

With this being DLC, the story here can’t intrude on the main story; consider it filler in an old anime. The Pokemon here average at around level 60, and with battles exceeding level 70, making it seem like you are meant to go here during the postgame. But tbh, there really isn’t much of a story. You go there, fight some people, get a new Pokemon. The dojo master does foreshadow some kind of undisclosed event at the end, but I’m going to assume that’s Crown Tundra territory, since I couldn’t find anything of plot interest after the campaign.

This DLC does introduce some new faces, and one of them is determined by your version of the game. My new rival on the Isle of Armor was an eccentric, tye-dye-clad psychic named Avery. He is a lot like Kukui from Sun and Moon; someone with a secret other personality, and the tendency to use Pokemon moves’ names in their dialogue. His character arc was short, but sweet. The Dojo Master, Mustard, is also a great character with that lovable “old-fart-who’s-actually-really-strong” personality.

I don’t know about you, but I spent a lot of postgame doing Dynamax hunting, and since I was stuck with poopy A.I., I jacked up my team members’ levels to average at the mid seventies, way too high for the Isle of Armor. So, I made an entirely new team, with Pokemon caught specifically in the Isle. While some were carried over from the main overworld, there were definitely a lot of missed faces from previous Generations, such as Sharpedo and Jigglypuff. I was able to use Pokemon that I had never used myself in a serious campaign, and I was glad at this opportunity from the Isle of Armor. Since it’s short, I might just take the same team to Crown Tundra.

Design-wise, the Isle of Armor shows some great positives. After you fight your first battle, you’re told to head to the Master Dojo immediately. In most Pokemon games, you’d be blocked every which way various NPC, such as poachers who tried to force you to buy their Slowpoke Tails. But here, you are actually able to explore the whole perimeter of the island to your heart’s content. There’s also a lot more biomes in this area than in the main Wild Areas.

Unfortunately, the Isle of Armor is still an island, and an unsurprisingly small one. It only takes about a couple of hours to scope out the whole area, and that’s if you try to catch every new Pokemon as you see them. The individual biomes themselves are also similarly bland to the Wild Areas, with Pokemon placement just as haphazard as before.

But just because it’s small, doesn’t mean that there isn’t a lot to do. Unfortunately, a lot of that “lot” is helping out the Diglett Trainer. There are ONE HUNDRED FIFTY Alolan Digletts all over this place, and he wants you to find them. It’s nowhere near as bad as the Red Lobster thing in Xenoblade Chronicles X, and for a number of reasons. For one thing, the game actually tells you how many are in each area. And more importantly, ALL OF THEM EXIST AT ONCE. But if you don’t have 20/20 vision, good luck finding them. Your only visual indication is the three little hairs that stick out of the ground, which blend in in a lot of places. You obtain a regional variant Pokemon for hitting certain milestones. I didn’t find all of them because my last reward was Alolan Eggxecutor and that was good enough for me. There is also a new mechanic with the Watts. After a certain point, you can donate them to spruce up the dojo. It takes HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS to get all the upgrades, and I honestly didn’t have that kind of time.

In addition to this is the Armorite Ore mechanic. You earn these by doing Dynamax battles on the island, and they can be used on this one dude to dig for more Watts, a guy at the dojo to teach some exclusive new moves (as in entirely new to the series), and on this one lady in an all-or-nothing gamble for additional Armorite Ore. The first and latter mechanics are all luck-based. Also luck-based is the Cram-o-Matic. You can insert items and pray that you get a better one. Using berries can make TRs appear. Additionally, Apricorns return to this game, and using them can get you a rare Poke Ball… if you’re lucky.

A welcome addition is Max Soup. This stuff can take any Pokemon whose species is capable of Gigantimaxing, and enable that to any of that species that can’t Gigantimax. This is a really good mechanic. However, it requires Max Mushrooms, which are easy enough to find, but only respawn after Dynamax Battles. And as someone who needs to rely on A.I. trainers to win them… I didn’t exactly get to use Max Soup too often.

The new Pokemon are the biggest reason to play Isle of Armor. First up is Galarian Slowbro. There are two reasons why it’s one of my favorite regional variants yet. The first reason is that I’ll never forget the time when Chuggaaconroy trollishly made Lucahjin and MasaeAnela draw it during TheRunawayGuys Colosseum Direct before it was ever revealed. The second reason is that it’s flat-out really good. It comes with the unique Poison-Psychic type, and the effect of the Quick Claw as an ability. I paired it up with an actual Quick Claw… and have no idea if the effects stack. But hey, it makes me feel good!

The other new Pokemon is Kubfu. It starts off as a typical Fighting-Type, but after MUCH level grinding, you can use it to take on one of two towers. Whichever one you beat determines which version of Urushifu it evolves into. Urushifu is definitely a great Pokemon, or at least my version is. It comes with an ability where it ignores Protect as long as it attacks with a direct contact move, plus a signature move with great base power that always crits.

As I said before, there isn’t anything of story interest after you finish Isle of Armor (unless I missed it). But there is one thing that does appear: Restricted Sparring. This is a competitive battle gauntlet, much like the Battle Tower, but you can only use teams with a matching Type. It’s really interesting, especially as someone who’s always wanted to do entire campaigns in this manner. But since it has teams built around competitive battling… yeah, I didn’t dabble in it too much.

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Final Verdict: 7.65/10

The Isle of Armor improves a lot of Sword and Shield mechanics, and shows the potential for what a hypothetical Generation Nine can hold. However, it’s short-lived and relies on grindy mechanics in order for you to get the bang for your buck. It’s worth playing if you’re a series’ veteran, but it’s more rational to wait and see if the Crown Tundra can justify the Expansion Pass’ cost.