In Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash Volume 1, shortly after the amnesiac Haruhiro and his equally befogged allies awake in a magical fantasy world, they eke out a hand to mouth existence in a way that veteran video gamers might call farming. The interlopers’ abject mediocrity at adventuring leads to fatal consequences for one of their number, while the survivors will get a sequel to all this grinding.
An often recycled theme of 21st century shonen manga is that of a VR game in which the players have become sealed within the narrative, and must treat the goals of their fictional characters as real life goals, often to continue living or to satisfy a demiurgic programmer who adores tormenting his subscribers. While reading Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash, with its less than charming inclusion of game mechanics and game manual jargon within its fantasy world, I wondered just when the goggles-wearing gamers would make their actual first appearance, and when Grimgar’s personalities would be revealed as chimerical nonentities; when I reached the end of the first volume to discover that the face value story was the only story, the prank was complete. While this may be retconned in future volumes, currently the heroes of Grimgar are not in a game, but a fantasy setting that is an homage to one, and when they discuss what sounds like game mechanics and game jargon (“I gotta kill things…that’s how I rank up!”) it seems to betray a metafictional understanding of their fictional setting. “It’s all pretty weird, isn’t it,” says Manato, “Swords and magic…just like a video game.”
Perhaps Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash is the blueprint for the form the high fantasy genre might take in the near future. It might become commonplace for fictional heroes to discuss their leveling anxieties. But when I imagine Frodo asking for his saving throw against the One Ring, or Schemndrick googling a cheat code to defeat the red bull, I hope that Grimgar is a cautionary tale, an example of how not to write a fantasy story.
Not that I don’t enjoy the fantasy subgenre of ‘RPG tourism’; in fact, I have long admired Joel Rosenberg’s The Sleeping Dragon, one of the earliest examples of that subgenre, if not the earliest. But Grimgar compares unfavorably to Rosenberg’s novel, in which college students are forced to come to grips with the harsh reality of the fantasy game world that they’ve arrived in, and must forget all their game manuals, as no one is comparing levels any more, just wielding weapons with deadly intent. Other reviews of Grimgar focus on the purported realism of this manga, and when I read these observations, I remember how Jason Parker aka Einar Lightfingers was kicking on the end of a spear less than a quarter of the way through The Sleeping Dragon. Not that realism is simply realistically depicted violence and the appearance of randomness; realism is the intrusion of the reality principle, which can only happen when stakes are personal, choices are causes, and consequences permanent, if not final. In Grimgar, the stakes are unknown; choices are aftereffects and reactions; only in the death of Manato do we get a measure of the fantasy world’s reality.
Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash arrived in stores on June 20th, 2017, and if you find it sold out, you can buy it through links on the Yen Press website.
Yen Press sent the review copy.