Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Flight Into Danger

"Mirror, mirror on the wall"
"Snow White"

Oh, better point to the Honkaku Discord server again, in case you missed it because there have been a few more updates than usual these two weeks. And also: the cover art is gorgeous today!

Victoria is the youngest member of the Council of Eight Saints, the highest entity within the Church of Auresta. With believers all across the world, the Church is a powerful organization, making its Council a rather influential body. Which is why even Victoria herself wonders why she was made the eight Saint: unlike her fellow Saints, she can not even use magic and thus her record of helping their followers is rather limited. Her mentor and previous president of the Council however had powers of clairvoyance, and foresaw a future where Victoria would prove to be very important to the Church. Her mentor also saw great potential in the unique powers Victoria does possess: as the "Seer" she can actually *see* magic, capable of seeing magic flow whenever it is used, something not even magicians can do unless extremely powerful magic is being cast. And she can see ghosts of the deceased, though she can not summon them nor is communicating with ghosts easy. Yet, some in the Council have their doubts about Victoria's powers, and that's especially so with the new president of the Council, who was a rival of the previous one. She decides to attack the legacy of her predecessor by attacking Victoria: she accusses Victoria being a fraud and unfit of being one of the eight Saints, claiming she even deceived the previous president. Victoria is detained and has to await a trial, where it's all but certain she will be stripped of her title as Saint and be expelled by the Church. 

While awaiting her exile however, Victoria is suddenly visited in heer cell by the knight Adolas, who desperately needs the abilities of the Seer. Adolas is the nephew of the ruler of one smaller eastern countries within the Edelheid Empire and serves his uncle as a knight. When his mother was young, she serves as a courtlady-in-training at the Imperial Palace, but she got pregnant by a merchant and eloped. The merchant died, and eventually Adolas and his mother were taken in by his uncle, who by that time had become ruler of the country. Adolas' mother recently passed away, but among her possessions a shocking letter was found. It was written by the former Princess Klema, one of the many wives of the current emperor of Edelheid. The letter seems to suggest very strongly that Adolas is in fact Prince Emilio, son of Klema and believed to have died soon after birth. According to Edelheid law, the first ten born children of the emperor have equal succession right to the throne. Prince Emilio was the tenth child of the emperor, but after his young demise, Prince Fernando, the eleventh child who was born only a few days after Emilio, became the last potential successor to the throne. The letter suggests that Klema gave Emilio away because she feared for his life, as she knew Fernando's grandfater, the great statesman Lord Arnoth, would do anythingi to make his grandson the (future) emperor. Adolas' uncle, convinced his nephew is indeed Prince Emilio, plans to have all the eastern countries form a front to back up Emilio's bid to the throne, as the Emperor has been ill lately. Adolas himself however can not believe he is Prince Emilio and in fact, ever since the story came out there have been attempts on his life by agents he believes to be affiliated with Prince Fernando, but because both his mother and Princess Klema are already dead, he hopes Victoria can speak with their ghosts and clear everything up. Victoria agrees to travel with Adolas to the Edelheid Empire and see what she can do to help, but during their adventures which involves being chased by both the Church and assassins, they also get involved with a murder on the one person who could prove whether Adolas is truly Prince Emilio or not, and it is up to the Seer Victoria to find the truth in Seijo Victoria no Kousatsu - Auresta Shinden Monogatari ("The Insights of Saint Victoria - Tales of the Church of Auresta", 2021)

This story was originally published by its author Haruma Tatsuki via the website Kakuyomu, where members can upload their fiction and have other people read and rate them. The particularly outstanding ones have a chance to be published by publisher Kadokawa, who is behind the site. Earlier I reviewed Robber Rabbit Gets Dead (2016), which was also first published on Kakuyomu, while I have also discussed Isekai no Meitantei and Meitantei Sakurano Mimiko no Saigo, works which were first published on a similar site called Shousetsuka ni Narou. I don't make it a rule to check out these works by the way, but I can appreciate how you have these "grassroots" fiction breeding grounds that get a chance to be published by a big publisher which (especially in Japan) will get you a lot more exposure.

Anyway, a mystery novel with a fantasy setting: that's not the kind of mystery story we're very surrpised to see discussed here anymore, right? That said, I think this book leans a bit more towards fantasy than mystery compared to similar works I have discussed, like Isekai no Meitantei and the Alchemist series, though that is also partially due the kind of mystery these different series want to tell. For Isekai no Meitantei and the Alchemist series had really straightforward mysteries in the form of locked room mysteries, which were given some new allure by implementing magic or alchemy in the narrative: these supernatural elements were of course given their own set of consistent rules of what could work or not, and the result were unique mysteries that could only work because of the supernatural element. That is also true for Seijo Victoria no Kousatsu - Auresta Shinden Monogatari, but magic here is less strictly defined, and most importantly, the main mystery isn't built around the fantasy elements of the story, even if it is important to the actual mystery solving.

To be honest, I was getting worried about the book around the half-way point, as while we had heard about the main mystery of Adolas wondering about his true heritage, I couldn't really see why this had to be fantasy novel: couldn't this just be a "normal" medieval mystery novel if Victoria wasn't able to summon specific ghosts anyway? The first half of the story was also more focused on the adventure, starting with Adolas helping Victoria break out of prison and fighting off attempts on his own life by people who'd be very inconvenienced if Adolas was in fact Prince Emilio. I had to think back to Kadono Kouhei's Satsuryuu Jiken - A Case of Dragonslayer ("The Case of The Dracocide - A Case of Dragonslayer"), which also felt more focused on the adventure for the most part. So I didn't really understand why the concept of magic existed in this mystery story, as you'd only sometimes see magician-monks attempt to cast magic on the heroes or something like that. This feeling was strengthened by the nature of the core mystery: it was about the heritage of Adolas, a mystery that isn't inherently "magical" or anything like that. With a locked room mystery, at least you can say "this locked room is only possible if Very Specific Magic Spell is used" or even "this locked room is impossible, despite the existence of These Magic Spells That Work According to These Rules", but here the mystery was more like "Did Princess Klema give away her baby two decades ago or not?"  

Fortunately, I was pleasantly surprised by the mystery plot at the end of the book, and that was perhaps exactly because it approached the idea of a fantasy-mystery novel a bit differently. What is interesting here is that the fantasy setting (magic) is not used to directly explain the mystery, but magic is treated as a "given" in this world: some things can be done with magic in this world, and some things not. Minor incidents occur throughout the story, involving actions by characters that don't seem to make complete sense at first. Victoria's explanation of the events involves people taking actions, or not taking actions because certain kinds of magic exist in the world which people know about, which in turn influence their actions. For example: in this world I know using a pistol will make quite some noise, so that knowledge will influence whether I will pick it as a murder weapon or not. In Seijo Victoria no Kousatsu - Auresta Shinden Monogatari, the mystery plot revolves around people doing things that seem to be counterintuitive or just odd, but that upon second thought make sense because magic exists in this world, and that knowledge forces them to act in certain ways. In a way, it made me think of the Toujou Genya series, where the strong belief in folklore governs the actions of certain characters. In the world of Seijo Victoria no Kousatsu however, magic is a fact of life of course, even if not everybody is able to practice it. Anyway, the mystery is a bit chaotic at first, because it involves the actions of different characters at different points in the story, some in the present and some in the past when Prince Emilio was born, and part of the charm of this book is how Victoria manages to tie all kinds of seemingly unrelated events back to the  main mystery of Adolas' heritage, and to the murder of the one person who could prove who Adolas really is. I think that plot-technically, Seijo Victoria no Kousatsu is actually closer in spirit to the Ellery Queen-like novels I like so much, even if they are quite different: I wouldn't immediately recommend this book to Queen lovers, but the focus on the motive behind people taking certain actions, and how they all relate to each other, is definitely something fans of Queenian deductions can recognize here.

As for the book's merits as a fantasy novel: it is pretty much what you'd expect of a light novel fantasy novel. Easy writing, often a comedic tone with characters bickering with each other. No surprises there.

On the whole, Seijo Victoria no Kousatsu - Auresta Shinden Monogatari felt like a bit different from other fantasy-mystery novels I have recently read. The focus is (seemingly) more on the adventure, but there is a properly clewed mystery plot to be found here, and while it uses the concept of magic not as directly as you might expect for its plot, I would say the execution here is more than passable, and despite my worries earlier during reading, I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by the end product in terms of mystery. As I am writing this, there's already one sequel out, so I might pick that one up in the future too.

Original Japanese title(s): 春間タツキ『聖女ヴィクトリアの考察 アウレスタ神殿物語』

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