April 23, 2022
By Shelley Pallis.
And then he died. In his sleep, because of a particularly powerful sneeze. Ryoma Takebayashi wakes up at tea party in heaven with several gods, and accepts his fate with customary light-novel equanimity. A downtrodden salaryman in a dead-end job, he had seen many of his co-workers die from overwork and a bad lifestyle, and so is completely unsurprised that death should catch up with him early, too.
But Ryoma has had a hard life because the gods will it so. They had rather hoped that all his frustrations would have turned him into a serial killer (which explains an awful lot about Japan, to be honest…) but instead he has rolled with all the punches, and made it through without being a dick to anyone, and his reward is to be (wait for it) reborn in another world and given another chance.
I haven’t heard that pitch for a light novel in at least ten minutes, but “Roy’s” series By the Grace of the Gods lifts a number of new elements. For a nice change, Ryoma is not reborn as a booby soubrette, but as a ten-year-old boy, on the understanding that people in his new medieval world will accept the idea of a motherless child wandering out of the forest and not ask too many questions. But also, he is being shunted into a fantasy milieu in a weird replay of the energy crisis, on the grounds that a world with thinning magical resources requires new injections of implacable, unstoppable Earth energy.
So Ryoma is in a new world, with superhuman strength like John Carter of Mars, and the ability to contact the gods (this time through prayer) like the heroine of In Another World with My Smartphone. And he can do magic or something, like everybody else in every light novel ever. The By the Grace of the Gods series is more interested in the magic than anything else, since that is what Ryoma is learning as he goes, and the author displays a gamer’s fascination with the implied skill-tree and elemental mechanics of spell-casting.
Possibly realising that a prolonged tedium of early levelling-up is just about to happen, even the author cannot be bothered to sit through it, and instead leaps three years ahead to Ryoma now an accomplished rules-lawyer, ready to take on the world and make it a better place with some creative applications of practical magic.
That’s where Ryoma’s story comes into its own, as although he does occasionally get involved in battles and conflicts, his main interest is in simply improving the world around him. Much as the heroine of Ascendance of a Bookworm sees a series of handy spin-offs from her constant quest for books, Ryoma acquires a menagerie of slime familiars, and starts putting his Earth-born knowledge to use adapting the spell book with technological innovations. What a waste of time it is, using a Gust of Wind spell to blow over opponents, when with a little jiggery-pokery, it can be used to create a perpetual-motion windmill. There are the makings here of a fascinatingly off-the-wall D&D campaign, in which a group of low-ranking wizards are put to work trying to prevent crime and improve public health, armed only with the cantrips and squib spells of a low-level magic-user.
Touchingly, author Roy reveals in his afterword that he is not a native Japanese-speaker, but an expat from an unspecified country, who moved to Japan and sought out the light-novel community as a means of overcoming loneliness and learning Japanese. This adds an extra subtext to his tales of a small boy walking out the forest and trying to make it in an unfamiliar society, and hope for all of us that learning Japanese to a competent level is something that requires hard work and application, and not something that can be instantly remedied with a magic spell.
By the Grace of the Gods is published by J-Novel Club and available in the UK from Anime Limited.