By Shelley Pallis.
And with an abrupt rip, like a needle scratching on a record, Kazuya is suddenly spirited away to a medieval kingdom under attack by a demon lord. For reasons not entirely clear, this completely normal Japanese teenager has been selected as the hero who can save the kingdom, and now he is stuck there. We are just about to discover How a Realist Hero Rebuilt the Kingdom, as told in novel form by the pseudonymous author Dojyomaru.
Fantasy novels rehashing role-playing games are possibly older than computer RPGs themselves, with ample evidence from decades past that numerous famous novels were inspired by children’s make-believe, LARPers in the pub, or fond reminiscences of someone’s game of Dungeons & Dragons. Back in the 1980s, there was even an entire sub-genre in Japanese games magazines of “replay” transcripts of the previous week’s dungeon crawl – eventually polished and tarted up, one became the basis for the series of Record of Lodoss War. Some such tales were obvious allegories – I recall, for example, Ian Watson’s Queenmagic, Kingmagic, which imagined what it would be like to be a pawn trapped in a game of chess, a clear forerunner for the Ryan Reynolds vehicle Free Guy.
But there is something unexpectedly refreshing about a protagonist in a fantasy novel who already knows the tropes of fantasy, as if arriving in a magical kingdom with a copy of Diana Wynne Jones’s Tough Guide to Fantasyland under his arm. This isn’t some clueless hero in a vampire movie who has never heard of vampires before, this is a knowing youth who immediately announces with a shrug that the whole set-up sounds a bit like a computer game, and that he expects he’s going to have to defeat a demon lord or something. Then again, a little bit of authorial effort wouldn’t go amiss – we are expected to believe that he’s been summoned to a magical land called… Landia. I was half expecting him to have a love interest called Princess Placeholder.
The book requires a specific type of reader: one who is happy to roll their eyes and indulge what amounts to little more than a teenager telling you what he did last week in Warcraft, but also one clued up enough on Japanese history to know what Kazuya means when he suddenly drops references to subjects like the “northern Fujiwara.” For while Kazuya’s touchstones for world-building do not appear to have strayed all that far from the sleeve notes to a PlayStation game, he is still a product of the Japanese education system, able to draw parallels between his situation and that of numerous samurai warlords. Sadly, such call-backs to Japanese history are not annotated in the text, so I expect I am probably the only English-reader so far to have a chuckle at the “Jewel Voice Broadcast” – in Japanese history, a fateful announcement to the nation by the Emperor, but in Kazuya’s world, an actual jewel-like magical palantir that can be used to address the king’s subjects.
Kazuya is supposed to be a sacrificial hero to be handed over to an evil empire as ransom. But as his meek summoners have already worked out, the moment they hand him over, they will have lost their only bargaining chip. Maybe, he reasons, they should see if his supposed heroic acumen can be used to their advantage?
And then, as if Archenemy and Hero had never happened, he sits on a sofa for two full days for a meeting about the country’s finances and assets. Although we don’t get to sit on the meeting, the result is that the king abdicates, betroths his daughter to Kazuya, and leaves him in charge.
Flitting pointlessly between first- and third-person narration, we are witnesses to the way that Kazuya turns the kingdom’s finances around, occasionally bickering with his fiancée, the military maiden Princess Liscia, and discovering that he has dull new magical abilities, like the power to transfer his consciousness to a pen (no, really). For Kazuya is that oddest of romantic heroes – a student who aspired to be a low-level government bureaucrat in our world, now handed the balance sheet of an entire fantasy kingdom to run. He goes looking for “buried treasure”, not by getting his hands dirty in a ghoul-infested dungeon, but by poring over balance sheets in search of expense anomalies.
For starters, Landia is giving over far too much of its land to plantation crops – Kazuya identifies huge fields of agricultural land that could be used to build a more stable food economy, but are being used instead to grow cotton that is ultimately sold to the enemy! And then there is the issue of a potential enemy within – three noble houses in control of his armed forces, the ducal leaders of which seem suspiciously reluctant to pay their respects. Kazuya is aghast to discover that his subjects have never heard of coppicing to maintain sustainable forests – since the English text refers to it as “periodic forest thinning”, my guess is that the translator hasn’t heard of it, either! So, anyway, that’s up and running, too, and before long, he is serenading sea-sirens with tunes from his smartphone, while trying to broaden his tax base and lift his people out of poverty.
All this, lest we forget, is underway with the threat of war from across the borders, and sedition rumbling in the armed forces, whose leaders smartly note that as a “hero” summoned from elsewhere, Kazuya lacks a sense of heritage or tradition – he is prepared to chuck literally anything on the trash heap in his quest to build a robust kingdom, and that includes certain cherished old ways and customs.
How right they are! Because Kazuya is not only well-read on Japanese and European history. As he reveals in the book’s closing pages, he is also a huge fan of Machiavelli’s The Prince, and is determined to show his country a little tough love, in order to make it the best country it can be. This first volume hence ends with a chilling presentiment of what is to come, as if Kazuya is set upon becoming the villain in his own story.
How a Realist Hero Rebuilt the Kingdom by Dojyomaru is published by J-Novel Club as a novel and manga. An anime adaptation is scheduled for July 2021.