By Yui and Satsuki Sheena. Released in Japan as “Mushikaburi-hime” by Ichijinsha Bunko Iris NEO. Released in North America by J-Novel Club. Translated by Alyssa Niioka.
The great thing about first-person narration is that not only is it a good way to get inside the head of the main character, but it can also be used to obfuscate, and even to fool the reader entirely. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie is probably the most classic example, but Japanese light novels are also filled with narrators who conceal and/or lie about their own thoughts. Fortunately, Elianna Bernstein is not that sort of narrator. No, instead her narration is sort of like a puffball, floating alongside events while missing the point of most of them. This is especially true of the first half of the book, when she tries to figure out why everyone is avoiding her – particularly her fiancee, the prince, who seems to be charmed by another woman. Now, it should come as no surprise to the reader that this proves not to be the case (indeed, so little surprise that I’m spoiling it here). But the journey it takes to get there is funny and sweet.
Elianna comes from a family of book-lovers – indeed, they’re famous for it, and their family are also knowledge brokers of a sort. She does not seem, at first, to be the same – indeed, it’s hard to get much of a sense of personality out of her beyond “loves to read”. She herself tells us about kids calling her “the library ghost” due to her pale complexion, and the current nickname of Bibliophile Princess is only a mild step up. Now she’s seeing her fiancee with another woman. This is it, right? The end of their engagement. Even if it means… shudder… giving back the book that Prince Christopher once gave to her. But is that what’s really going on? What’s more, is Elianna really just an insular book-loving heroine? Or is she actually changing the entire nation in many and varied ways… and then promptly forgetting about what she said as she’s moved on to her next book?
The book is in three parts. The first is Elianna’s narration of the “cheating” story, and reads like a standalone short story that an editor told her to expand into a novel. The second comes from other narrators, showing us other perspectives on Elianna, particularly the prince’s. Then we’re back to Elianna, mostly, for a third chunk which also reads like a short story, about a traveling book fair and its people. The first part was the most fun, but I think the last story was the strongest, as it gets into themes of racial prejudice and poverty, as well as seeing Elianna suddenly become an action heroine when she hears someone is about to burn a pile of books. It also shows Elianna gaining depth beyond the fun airhead we saw at the start – her uneasiness as she realizes that she can’t remember the first meeting between her and Chris is well handled.
Not only did the first chunk of the book read like a done-in-one short story, but the book feels like a standalone novel. Still, there are more novels in the series, and I’ll definitely want to read more. Elianna is fun to read, even if, as the author notes, when not reading a book she seems to look at people with a question mark over her head.
Also, Christopher, and particularly Prince Chris, reads terribly to me. I wish he’d been an Edward.