By SOW and Zaza. Released in Japan by HJ Bunko. Released in North America by Bookwalker. Translated by Ari and John Werry.
Despite taking place in a fantasy Europe-ish world where peace is very shaky and there are grudges galore, Combat Baker has been a fairly heartwarming, lighthearted series. There is the occasional assassination attempt, Lud’s past is not really made fun of, and there’s always the possibility of a horrible bread–related tragedy, but I think most folks read these books to see Sven freak out about people getting close to Lud, Sophia and Daian, and the occasional cartoon villain, like Hilde from the last book. Indeed, the setup for this book seems to be taking much the same route, as we see Hilde try again to assassinate Lud, fail miserably, and be forced to work at the bakery. The reader can relax as they realize that hijinks are about to ensue.
(Narrator voice: Hijinks did not, in fact, ensue.)
I probably should have suspected something was up when I saw Sophia’s cute and plucky Private First Class Deadmeat, who did everything but take out a picture of her boyfriend and tell Sophia that she’s retiring in two days. Yes, that’s right, this is NOT a light and fluffy book in the series, it’s the first of an extended arc, and it ends up in a very dark place. We are reminded once more that a core premise of this series is that it’s in a world sort of ruled by Germany, and that the fantasy equivalent of the SS are looking to move up in the world. As such, our main villain Genitz is NOT in the hilariously awful mode like Hilde was – he’s a nasty piece of work who you will come to loathe, and he ups the body count in this book significantly. I have no doubt that he’ll get his in the end – he already has one scheme too many, in my opinion – but as far as Book 4 goes, the bad guys win.
It’s not ALL doom and gloom, of course – as I said, the first three fourths of this are pretty fun. Yes, Sophia and her troops are holding back a siege, but it’s OK, they still have Rebecca in reserve, and lots of experimental weapons like bazookas. More to the point, the book humanizes Hilde. I went into the book groaning a bit about this, as Hilde was so obnoxious in the third volume that I wanted nothing more than for her to vanish from the narrative forever. And some of her redemption is clunky – Sophia’s recollection of a young girl singing and being humiliated at a noble’s party years ago screams “please enjoy this exposition which will be important later” – but her emotional journey does eventually feel earned, and I liked the way that she and Sven compared and contrasted. Also, the author does have some excellent subtle tricks later on – I didn’t realize the past connection between two characters until right before I was supposed to.
Still, things are bad. Two likeable people dead, one main supporting character possibly dead, another missing, one captured by evil soldiers, and our main heroine will, I suspect, be brainwashed for much of the next book. Can Lud and company turn this around? Probably, yes. In the meantime, the bakery’s closed after this excellent but dark volume.