2015’s Apprentice Shrine Maiden, Volume 1 is the first installment in the second arc of Miya Kazuki’s Ascendance of a Bookworm book series. Illustrations are by You Shiina. The 2019 English translation is by Quof.
Reborn into the body of a sickly peasant girl named Myne, a Japanese bookworm is determined to return to her life of reading. This requires the invention of books, publishing, and the tech that supports publishing. In this, the second story arc, she is sent to serve in the local church, as apprentice shrine maiden. Myne embraces this opportunity as she does all others: headlong, without bothering to do any research.
The society into which she was reborn is a rigidly hierarchal one. In normal times, peasants would not be permitted to enrol in such potentially cushy positions as shrine maiden. But times are not normal and there are reasons to recruit her:
- Myne is unusually rich in manna, which fuels magic.
- While magic is usually restricted to the aristocracy, recent aristocratic politics were more than usually literally cutthroat. The supply of living aristocrats is currently poor.
- Lacking a sufficient supply of aristocrats, the church has to make concessions, one of which is snapping up people like Myne.
There are catches. The same abundance of manna that makes her useful to the church causes the wasting disease that endangers Myne’s life. As well, apprentices like Myne have actual duties (duties of which she is blissfully unaware and in which she is mostly uninterested). Finally, Myne has jumped the queue and the aristocrats in the church hierarchy don’t take kindly to the presence of this peasant. All it would take is one misstep for a rival to bring Myne down. Alas, Myne is too ignorant to avoid error.
Myne is given three assistants, two of whom are spies for senior church officials and the last of whom is a discipline problem who is bitterly resentful at being assigned to Myne. Interesting learning experiences follow.
Perhaps the most alarming discovery is that the church is deliberately starving the inmates of the local orphanages. The orphans are considered only as potential servants; being trained for anything else would impinge on the rights of families and guilds (but see ). The aristocrats having culled their own numbers so effectively, the demand for servants has declined. This means the current supply of orphans greatly exceeds demand. The church leaves the useless orphans to starve in untended squalor.
The church has not taken into account the presence of a soft-hearted Japanese woman…
I say “servant” but the orphans can’t choose their bosses and the word “sold” comes up from time to time. Slave might be a better description.
It takes Myne quite a while to understand that the church will allow unwanted orphans to starve to death  if there’s no way to profit from them. It doesn’t seem that this culture has any notion of charity. “Myne discovers that her new society has values alien to hers, ones that the rulers have no interest in changing” is a recurring theme in this series.
But … if someone else comes up with a way to save the orphans, the church isn’t going to stand in the way (so long as the solution does not inconvenience the upper classes). Myne intends to be that someone else. Which is a problem for her quest to surround herself with books .
This volume was somewhat less upbeat than the previous one. Myne has achieved a position of some small power, a position in which she is forced to come to terms with the inequities of her new setting . But at least she’s trying to do something about them!
On the one hand, not quite the light-hearted comedy for which I was hoping, what with the slavery, and wilful starvation of surplus orphans. On the other hand, still a lot more upbeat than my other recent read, Monstress ! Most of the malice folks show is negligent, not deliberate.
1: People can and do get adopted. Just how that works is a plot point.
2: Not only orphans are starving. One of Myne’s peasant friends mentions that he’s never had enough to eat, been really full, in his entire life.
3: She does, however, discover something that could up-end society, which is a small change from introducing novelties that could up-end society. Luckily for her, her friends and allies don’t want to see her head on a pike for the crime of inconveniencing the powers that be, so the discovery is hushed up. It is hoped that it will never surface again, in this series about unintended consequences. Ha ha.
4: In the previous arc, she did encounter girls who were eager to become some aristocrat’s child mistress. That was the least bad choice on offer. The starving orphans should not have been a surprise. They were, because Myne consistently ignores everything unrelated to books. Perhaps there’s a subtext here about being blinded by obsession.