The premise turned subgenre of ‘Norman McBoring gets transported to fantasy world’, and it’s near identical brother ‘Average Joe gets trapped in video game’ is, all things considered, fairly new. Sword Art Online was the first series to really kick this trend off, yet the anime adaptation of that only came out a measly five years ago but already, these types of series have been popping up very regularly since then. It’s gotten to the point where even some of the most casual and fresh of anime fans role their eyes in fatigue at the thought of watching/reading yet another series like this. However, a few tried and true series are able to rise above their peers and prove that they are indeed worth plucking out from among the dozens of copycats and snoozefests. The question, however, is if the series I’m going to tell you about today is one of those shiny gold nuggets amongst all of the grubby copper.
The short answer? It doesn’t even come close.
The Rising of The Shield Hero is a light novel series written by Aneko Yusagi and illustrated by Minami Seira. It started as a web novel series in 2013 but was eventually picked up by Japanese publishing company Media Factory, who began to release the series as a full fledged light novel soon after. One Peace Books soon picked the series up for a North American release, which is where I grabbed my copy. To quickly sum up the physical release, it’s perfectly acceptable. A very simple and to-the-point paperback book, nothing too good or bad about it. Now, to the juicy bits.
The series stars your typical, run-of-the-mill otaku protagonist, Naofumi Iwatani. As he’s reading a book titled ‘The Records of the Four Holy Weapons’ at his college’s library, he is suddenly transported to the fantasy world of the book . There, he and 3 other young men have all been summoned to inherit the aforementioned Four Holy Weapons and to save their new world from it’s prophesied destruction. The only problem being that Naofumi was given the legendary shield, by far the weakest weapon of the bunch. Immediately labeled useless and, after being betrayed by his only comrade, a criminal, Naofumi is broke and alone. Left to his own devices, Naofumi must train up to hopefully survive the incoming destruction and save the world.
When I first stumbled upon this series, two things caught my eye. One was the premise. The dynamic of the four weapons and the main character having the weakest one was a fairly novel idea and could probably provide some fun and cheesy plot lines about overcoming adversity. The second was the art. Many light novels have fairly standard art, art that generally highlights new characters or particularly interesting scenes i.e. Spice and Wolf or The Isolator. They usually get the job done but never quite go above and beyond. Minami Seira’s art however, is highly polished with tons of detail and solid focus on the background instead of just the foreground. Sadly, I’ll have to end it there with the positives.
I had a laundry list of issues with this book when I was only a little over halfway through and the latter half didn’t do much to redeem it. My first major problem was with the characters. Nearly every character is, simply put, a jerk in one way or another. Some are pompous and arrogant while others are conniving and sinister. The only somewhat likeable one is Naofumi but he quickly turns into a coldhearted prick once he is betrayed early on. He becomes spiteful of everyone around him and often takes joy in thinking about seeing others in pain. It’s fairly obvious that the author intended for the readers to think negatively of Naofumi, as he was probably going for a slowburn sort of story arc with him, who would learn to love the world around him as the series went on. However, purposely making a character unlikable is not the best idea when your audience is supposed to be rooting for him.
You could argue that Raphtalia, his animal girl (but of course) sidekick and heroine of the series, is a decent character. Sure she’s kind despite her tragic past and grows to like Naofumi even though he bought her as a slave (I won’t get into that by the way, whole other topic) and sees he’s positive side while everyone else is against him but I found her bland. She had all the makings of a decent character but I never grew to like her as she felt very cookie cutter and safe. Nothing outstanding about her. As far as side characters go, none of them are fleshed out or interestingly written. Nearly all of them are bad guys as well, mostly looking to belittle or shun Naofumi the first chance they get. Even Naofumi’s fellow Legendary Heroes are nothing but pompous jerks who look down on everyone around them. I could maybe forgive unlikable/boring characters if the series had a decent plot/writing style to hold it above water but Shield Hero has neither of those things.
Speaking of plot, it’s extremely basic and honestly what you would expect of a series like this but it’s not the plot itself that bugs me, it’s what the author does with it. He does the absolute bare minimum in terms of creativity, with much of this new world’s rules and features feeling as though they are ripped straight from a video game the author happened to be playing at the time. There are levels, experience points, and it even goes so far as to have all the characters have a little heads-up display in their peripherals at all times to display their stats and whatnot. In a series where it’s supposed to be in a somewhat realistic setting (which Naofumi reminds the reader of constantly), it’s hard to take seriously when it feels like it takes place in an uninspired role-playing game. Everything regarding the rules of the world feels sloppily put together and when one of the main hooks is a new and exciting fantasy world, that is not a good thing at all.
My final, and probably biggest gripe with Shield Hero, is the writing. I’m not joking in the slightest when I say that Aneko Yusagi writes like a 12 year old. He completely lacks the ability to describe anything in any sort of detail beyond extremely basic adjectives. He doesn’t even try. Most of the time he simply has two characters talk to each other for pages at a time as if he’s some sort of brainless court reporter. He clearly has the scene set up in his head but he doesn’t give you the slightest indication of what the characters thoughts are or what they are doing while they speak. This, coupled with the fact that the entire book is written in the first person perspective of Naofumi (and that Naofumi is the only somewhat realistic and well written character in the book), tells me that Yusagi has a very hard time writing outside his own mindset and models Naofumi very much after what he imagines he would do in these situations. Light novels get a bad rap for being male-ego power trip books and this one unfortunately fits that description pretty well.
The Rising of the Shield Hero volume one has a solid presentation but falls flat quickly as you begin to actually read it. Unlikable characters abound, lazy world building and a writing style that is borderline infuriating makes for a reading experience that is mostly bland and uncreative. I do have to hand it to Yusagi though, he writes some of the characters so mean spiritedly that I was tempted to buy the next volume just to see them get their comeuppance but alas, that isn’t enough to keep me coming back for more. It’s not healthy to be as spiteful as Naofumi, after all.