2016’s Apprentice Shrine Maiden, Volume 4 is the fourth and final volume in the second arc of Miya Kazuki’s Ascendance of a Bookworm secondary fantasy world series. The 2020 English translation is by Quof.
Urano has built — well, more stumbled into — as comfortable a life as she could expect under the circumstances. Reborn after a fatal book-related accident into the body of a sickly peasant girl named Myne living in the city-state of Ehrenfest, she has used her memories of a wide variety of arts and crafts to enrich herself by upending the local economy. The malady that threatens her health also makes her a prodigious source of valuable mana; this has earned her a position as a shrine maiden despite the social impediment presented by her adopted family’s low status.
She is about to get a pointed lesson about power and law in the archaic society in which she is living.
A recurring theme in Myne’s life is that while she is very widely read and while her original mother’s habit of pursuing hobby after hobby exposed Myne to a wide range of crafts, her knowledge is superficial. Bridging the gap between knowing that something can be done and knowing how it can be done is time consuming. Thus, her current exploration of colored inks results in Myne arranging for someone else to carry out the research and development. It is just another step on the path to becoming this world’s first mass publishing magnate.
Her steady march towards this goal is derailed by social reality. The society in which she now lives is rigidly hierarchical. The only reason she has been allowed to ascend as far as she has done in the church bureaucracy is because a recent purge of aristocrats left the nation short of the high-mana individuals needed for necessary magic. Even so, her presence in a role usually reserved for well born people is an affront to certain aristocrats, most importantly Bezewanst, High Bishop of Ehrenfest.
Myne’s boss and ally the High Priest has been pressuring Myne to permit an aristocrat to adopt her. Adoption is not the only option open to an aristocrat who wishes to make use of a high-mana peasant1. Peasants who sign contracts of submission can be used as living batteries. Contracts are backed by magic that does not care whether the person signing the contract was willing. If Myne can be forced to sign such a contract before she is adopted, she will be a slave for life.
The High Bishop and Count Bindewald are confident they can enslave Myne to Bindewald, provided only that they choose a moment when her ally the High Priest is not around. If Myne escapes enslavement? Well, peasants have no legal rights. If Myne will not submit to the High Bishop and the Baron, she will die.
Myne does not submit. Myne dies.
A minor complaint: previous volumes had short sections from the perspective of characters other than Myne. This is no doubt because Myne is resolutely oblivious to everything not directly related to her main goal of creating a book industry from the ground up. There’s background material the author cannot convey through Myne because she simply would never notice it. This volume has a comparatively high fraction of its pages devoted to other viewpoints. I didn’t find the other characters as interesting as Myne, although the sections in question certainly underline how disruptive her activities are.
Finally, consequences! Myne has always behaved as though she was confident that her status as the protagonist of an ongoing series would keep her head off the end of a pike. In this volume, she finally has to acknowledge she exists in a social context that will notice her even while she tries to ignore her context. In particular, the legal system is a form of judicial Calvinballwhose purpose is protecting the aristocracy while binding the peasants. Even self-defense is a capital crime if it inconveniences a noble. If a peasant really annoys a noble, their entire family can be put to the sword.
Readers who have flipped ahead2may suspect that Myne or at least Urano survives, because this is the seventh volume in a twenty-eight-volume series and it would be at least a little odd if twenty-one of those volumes involved people talking sadly about how the protagonist died in volume seven. Although … I can think of a series where the apparent protagonist died in the first volume3 and I am sure there are others.
Without going into too much detail, Myne really is officially dead. She even had a funeral and her family has a legitimate cause to mourn. Myne’s exit from her old peasant life may have some significant advantages but it also has a tremendous cost. It just goes to show that being a protagonist will only protect you so far.
1: High mana levels aren’t limited to the aristocracy, though they are more common there. Peasants can be born with high mana levels. However, having high mana predisposes one to a potentially lethal condition called the Devouring. It can be treated, but the treatment is expensive. Most aristocrats can afford the treatment; peasants cannot.
2: Having only just now scrolled down the list of titles for future arcs in this series, I note with some interest that the final series is called “Incarnation of a Goddess.” Gosh.
3: Fonda Lee’s Green Bone Saga.