Reign of the Seven Spellblades Vol. 1 Review: A New Generation of Magical High School Series?
Some of my favorite fantasy stories center around magical high schools, and I am always looking for a new series to rekindle that old sense of wonder. Despite the genre’s storytelling potential, the light novel medium is full of bargain-bin spellcasting adolescents and their forgettable misadventures, leaving me disinclined to pick up new series without prior investigation. However, I was intrigued when Reign of the Seven Spellblades, another magical high school series, won first place in last year’s Kono Light Novel ga Sugoi! rankings. The award selection process is as much a popularity contest as it is a critical evaluation, so a high placement does not guarantee distinctiveness. With this in mind, I had fairly low expectations when I picked up a copy of the first volume from my local bookstore. Fortunately, the first entry in the Spellblades saga is far more enchanting than I initially predicted thanks to tight storytelling and engaging characters.
A Magical High School Like No Other?
The opening pages of the first chapter begin with a parade. Kimberly Magic Academy holds an opening ceremony for the brand new first-year students at the start of the academic calendar, and this year is no exception. However, a wrench is thrown into the otherwise routine performance when one of the magical creatures on display suddenly attacks first year Katie Aalto, forcing several of her classmates to spring into action. This bizarre turn of events, the first of many, becomes the impetus for a budding friendship between the unfortunate Katie and the five other students who just happened to be next to her in line.
Unlike many other settings in the magical high school genre, Kimberly is not themed after a Japanese high school, instead successfully opting for a Hogwarts-style approach. The possible comparisons are endless: students attend for seven years, the school building is a maze of ever-changing corridors, and the potions (“alchemy”) professor is an asshole. Author Bokuto Uno also shares Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling’s penchant for charming world-building flourishes that breathe life into Kimberly’s halls — the school cafeteria’s eccentric soda menu being one such memorable moment. Its unlabeled mystery drinks often turn out to be disgusting flavors, a detail reminiscent of Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans from Harry Potter. The sheer number of similarities to Hogwarts makes Kimberly feel a bit derivative at times, but it is also charming and carefully organized in its own way. Uno has a knack for strategically placing seemingly inconsequential details throughout the story that eventually prove important later on, successfully avoiding an annoying trend common in other series such as The Irregular at Magic High School. Nothing is more obnoxious than an over-reliance on mechanics introduced ad hoc to be used for some immediate plot development in the same chapter; such a writing style betrays its author’s lack of long-term planning. In contrast, Spellblades’ amusing anecdotes organically evolve into important plot points over a much longer period of time, making Kimberly feel far more elaborately designed than some of its competitors.
Despite surface-level similarities to Hogwarts, Kimberly also has some tricks of its own. Students do attend Kimberly for seven years, but roughly fifty percent of them die or go insane before graduating. The school building is a maze because it is literally built upon a sinister, constantly-shifting labyrinth that houses a variety of vicious demons. The unpleasant alchemy professor’s apparent role as an antagonist is upended in a shocking plot twist that will surprise even Harry Potter enthusiasts. In short, Spellblades is already a lot darker than its distant cousin’s early days and is unafraid to take a few narrative risks. The daily danger to students’ lives is substantial, and the stakes to the overarching story are already far-reaching; even this first volume is a proper page turner.
When Cultures Collide
The relationship between series protagonist Oliver Horn and exchange student Nanao Hibiki is a focal point of the novel that benefits heavily from their respective backgrounds. Oliver is a precocious magician whose remarkable skills come from untold hours of enthusiastic arcane experimentation. His efforts are not always directed toward practical techniques, but his tendency to prioritize niche comedian-style magic is endearing and injects organic levity to what is otherwise a more serious story. Oliver’s occult wit is no match for the raw physical talent of Nanao, however, who prefers magical swords in combat. In contrast to Oliver’s more deliberate nature, Nanao is very frank and impulsive, which causes her to stumble over the many unfamiliar and elaborate customs of her new home. These differences become even more profound when taken within the wider context of Spellblades’ world.
Kimberly Magic Academy is located in Oliver’s home country, Yelgland, while Nanao is from a foreign region called Azia. It does not take much imagination to figure out which real life places serve as a model for these two names. This not-Earth world-building method easily populates a fictional setting with cultures and terminology familiar to most readers while avoiding the messy politics of reality (or at least trying to). The challenge becomes how Uno chooses to populate his not-Earth, or, in other words, how he makes use of not-England and not-Asia/Japan. Fortunately, his attention to detail for Kimberly Magic Academy carries over to Spellblades’ world at large, as well.
Nanao’s not-Japan is modelled after the warring states period (1467–1600) of real-life Japan. The warring states period was a brutal time where a breakdown of central authority resulted in over one-hundred years of intense regional warfare. Despite her tender age, Nanao has seen far more battles than Oliver can even imagine and has the scars to show for it. Her approach to combat has surface-level similarities with Oliver’s approach to magic, but martial and even existential cultural differences between them create challenging communicative barriers, making their philosophical divergences a central conflict in their relationship. For one, Azian warriors do not train in the arcane arts, meaning that Nanao’s magical abilities are mostly subconscious augmentations of the warrior principles she learned in her homeland. It is difficult for her to suddenly attempt to learn the theory behind something she has always used naturally. Furthermore, her ability to abandon earthly attachments in the heat of the moment is a powerful tool in combat, but it also complicates her interactions with Oliver, whose energy for fighting is fueled by his own ambitions and concern for others around him. It takes some time for them to even begin to understand the other’s perspective, and there is still much room for improvement. Nevertheless, Oliver and Nanao’s relationship deftly fluctuates between mutual perplexity and semi-romantic partnership, and the depth of their complicated feelings for each other is a powerful highlight of the novel.
Joining Oliver and Nanao are demi-human rights activist Katie Aalto, agricultural aficionado Gai Greenwood, first-generation magic user Pete Reston, and wealthy heiress Michela McFarlane. Refreshingly, Uno does not immediately abandon the entire group in favor of Oliver’s adventures. Oliver and Nanao’s relationship is certainly a focal point of the story, but the novel’s primary conflict heavily involves the entire cast and is most directly connected to Katie’s political activism. There is never a boring day at Kimberly, a point driven home by the rapid-fire series of incidents that occur around Oliver and his new friends. The overarching conflict only crystalizes after several smaller events help deepen the dynamic sextet’s bonds and develop their characters. Nanao’s tragic past, Pete’s second-class status as a newcomer to the world of magic, and Michela’s longtime aristocratic frenemy are just some examples of the many moments that give each character time to shine. Clocking in at slightly over 400 pages in the Japanese edition, Spellblades’ first volume is already slightly longer than the average light novel, but its multiple climaxes and intertwined events make it feel even more substantial without feeling bloated. Perhaps most importantly, the constant involvement of all the main characters makes Kimberly actually feel like a school that all the characters attend together every day. The first volume is remarkably skilled at balancing its core cast of six friends, and the story reaps the benefits.
Putting the Spellblades in Spellblades
One can hardly conclude a review of Spellblades without properly addressing its titular weapons first. As one professor informs Oliver and the gang in their first practicum, a dexterous magical sword user can outpace even the most alacritous of incantations, inspiring many magicians to equip themselves with both a wand and a magical blade. Spellblades certainly add a dramatic oomph to battles; with everyone both a long-range magic archer and a close-range paladin, combat is dynamic and captivating. These unique battles are unfortunately somewhat squandered by Uno’s tendency to overly rely on deus ex machinas to move action sequences along. Nanao epitomizes this problem, as the book never really clarifies the limits of her abilities in any meaningful way. Her natural talent is both entertainingly flashy and an important plot point, but her undefined power results in her annihilating just about everything with minimal explanation. Her overpowered finishing blows do not lend themselves to particularly suspenseful combat, marking an unfortunate contrast to Oliver’s more thrilling strategizing.
Spellblades is not always entirely original, but it also deviates from the norm in crucial ways that leaves even a battle-weary magical high school naysayer like myself applauding its efforts. Its Hogwarts-esque setting is a surprisingly underrepresented approach in the Japanese light novel industry, and Uno has the writing chops to make it both well-realized and appealing. It also shines where other similar stories falter thanks to powerful character performances. The six-member core cast all receive a surprising amount of development, and each plays an important role in the primary conflict. Similarly, the relationship between Nanao and Oliver is a consistent highlight, avoiding the tired “damsel in distress and her savior” pitfall that so many other genre stalwarts fail to properly navigate. Instead, their dynamic is a surprisingly meaningful exploration of cultural and philosophical differences that play out in both dialogue and their teamwork in climactic battles. It will not win over everyone, but Spellblades is an easy recommendation for light novel fans and fantasy veterans alike.
*A special thanks to TheMamaLuigi for proofreading this piece!!
Written by: Bokuto Uno
Illustrated by: Miyuki Ruria
Translator: Alex Keller-Nelson
Publisher (Japan): Kadokawa
Publisher (USA): Yen Press