It’s become cliche in anime discourse to discuss how contemporary isekai shows are bland and far too numerous. However, I, along with DoctorKev, Thatsmapizza, and Requiem are here to wax poetic about one of the best isekai of the last few years: Ascendance of a Bookworm! Join me and my intrepid lads as we reincarnate into a world of books (yay!), class-based discrimination (oh no!), and shampoo (y a y !)!
Note: This review covers both seasons of Ascendance of a Bookworm, so expect spoilers throughout. You have been warned!
I’ve mentioned numerous times before on AniTAY how sick I am of isekai. So many shows fall into the cookie-cutter mould of “modern day Japanese gamer/otaku/businessman/whatever dies/is reincarnated/magically transported and finds himself in a stereotypical Medieval/JRPG world.” Unlike older stories like Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, The Chronicles of Narnia, or Fushigi Yuugi, these contemporary characters often have no desire, or no reasonable ability, to return to the world of their origin. Does that speak to the modern Japanese mindset that being reincarnated in a stereotypical videogame fantasy world complete with stats, leveling, and magical skill acquisition is preferable to modern life with its extreme pressure to conform to strict societal roles and expectations? Better to be dead than a soulless salaryman, right? Better to be an overpowered isekai protagonist who bulldozes through his enemies via the strength of Plot Armour and Otherworldly Knowledge, right?
On the surface, Ascendance of a Bookworm isn’t that different. It ticks many of the right boxes - protagonist Myne was previously a trainee librarian in modern Japan before she was crushed by an avalanche of books. Now reincarnated into the body of a child in a fantasy world, she retains the memories and skills from her previous life and sets out to dominate her enemies and slay the Demon Lord. Except that’s not quite what happens. Myne is handicapped by her frail body that falls frequently ill. With no strength or stamina, she relies on the understanding and love of her family and friends to achieve her goals. And those goals… are somewhat atypical for an isekai protagonist. Instead of running straight to the Adventurers’ Guild to register herself as a bloodthirsty mercenary, she painstakingly builds her way towards making her own books and establishing a library in a world where illiteracy is the norm.
Languidly paced but never boring, Bookworm focuses on Myne overcoming obstacles through compromise, sharp wits, and reliable friends. Even then, she makes frequent mistakes due to her ignorance of her new world. Far from being overpowered, her special knowledge makes her vulnerable to predation from unscrupulous businessmen, haughty nobles, and officious clergymen alike. By season’s end, we find her in more traditional fantasy territory: battling evil tree monsters and interacting with magical knights. However, the show doesn’t forget its humble roots, and Myne’s focus remains on her family, her friends, and her books.
The final episode returns to the opening of the first, with Head Priest Ferdinand discovering Myne’s secret and musing whether she is a boon to his country or an unprecedented threat. The only sour point of this show was the methods with which he retrieved this information - by essentially “slipping her a roofie” and invading her mind via magical diadem while she slept, revealing a bizarre psychedelic world reminiscent not only of Neon Genesis Evangelion’s controversial final two episodes but also the scene where an angel mind-rapes Asuka. It’s not consensual if she only says “yes” once you’re already inside, Ferdinand. Even if Myne experienced a net benefit from this experience by gaining closure regarding her past life, it was… uncomfortable to say the least.
There seems to be much more of this story to be told. I’m not entirely sure that the emotionally clueless Ferdinand has Myne’s best interests to hear — he seems entirely too utilitarian for that. Let’s hope a further season of this unusual, interesting show is forthcoming.
TL;DR: Gentle fantasy show starring a loveable little geek girl who wants to teach the world to read (or at least obtain her own library).
With the recent isekai boom in anime, I’ve found it difficult to find an actually decent fantasy series in the seasonal anime lineup. Despite being an isekai, Ascendance of a Bookworm surprised me with how good it is as both a general series and fantasy. Bookworm does a phenomenal job building its world and characters in a simple yet deep way that sucks you in so that you’ll spend 3 straight days catching up with the light novels that have been localized to the US… or that may just be me.
Unlike many of its contemporaries, Bookworm’s lead is actually a fantastically written and fun character. I absolutely adore Myne because her obsession with reading books pushes her and the story into many interesting scenarios. Myne’s single-minded pursuit of books forces her to experiment with many different types of primitive paper-making endeavors. Watching her get increasingly excited as she nears her book-making dream is a delight. Seeing Myne deal with all the problems that impede is engaging because she can’t solve these problems on her own, which gives more insight into who Myne was and what she valued. Plus, seeing Myne hit her wits’ end and then overcoming the problem is always cathartic. I had such a fun time watching Myne that I was always looking forward to what other hijinks would happen and what people she’d meet because I knew that those knew events and interactions would be a blast to watch.
What makes Bookworm so engaging is that it has a loving amount of detail put into its world and characters. We learn about how each character fits into the world of the show and how their position affects their worldview, setting up an ever-evolving set of situations that snowball into amazing climaxes. My favorite moment was how it handled Lutz discovering that Myne was reincarnated from another world. This confrontation was built up throughout the first few episodes by showing us how Myne’s otherworldly knowledge and actions up to this point were out of the ordinary for the daughter of a low-born soldier. When Lutz confronts Myne about her actions, the resulting heartfelt discussion about identity and purpose instantly convinced me to check out the rest of the series after the show ended. The considerate amount of detail put into Bookworm leads to such enjoyment that every single episode had me chomping at the bit for more greatness to grace my ears and eyes.
Ascendance of a Bookworm is a series with a loving amount of detail put into it; I can’t recommend it enough. Myne is such a great lead and Yuka Iguchi adds so much life to the character. The world is such a joy to learn about and explore due to how much thought was put into it and how each element plays off each other. If you decide to watch Bookworm, you’ll have a great time.
TL;DR: Bookworm is an isekai that follows one nerdy girl trying to read a single gosh darn book in a lovingly crafted medieval fantasy world.
Pop quiz, hotshot: what if you got reincarnated into another world… and you got kinda shafted? No powers, no special blessing from a god, no smartphone. You’re in a feudal, not terribly advanced world, and you’re all the things that don’t come with advantages here: poor, a commoner, a child, and a girl. Oh and also you’re sick all the time. What do you do? What do you do??
If isekai has earned a (not undeserved) reputation as a dumping ground for lame LN adaptations with cookie cutter setups, OP protagonists, and bad harem humor, Ascendance of a Bookworm is proof there’s still life in the format and that isekai can still produce interesting premises. Having the main character thrust into their new world with no real advantage outside her knowledge from her previous life makes everything more interesting narratively. What’s remarkable is how well the writing is able to keep your attention by focusing on relatively low stakes. Myne doesn’t fight demon lords or save kingdoms; she “invents” shampoo and hairpins and tries to navigate a world whose rules she’s learning on the fly.
The brilliance of Bookworm is in its exploration of how being isekai’d would actually work. Some people would definitely notice you weren’t right, and thus we get the brilliant scene with Myne and best friend (and the real MVP) Lutz, which is brilliantly handled and something that more shows should explore. Lutz is unquestionably this author’s favorite character, as he gets a magnificent amount of development over 2 seasons, but the cast is chock full of quality, three-dimensional characters. The Head Priest (not to be mistaken with the High Priest, which wasn’t confusing at all) is another standout, dropping in for second season as both a mentor and foil for Myne, with the end of the season indicating their relationship would continue to be interesting and central to the plot. From Myne’s parents to her friends and attendants, it’s a stellar collection of characters all used effectively.
Bookworm is not a visual knockout, but it never has to be; the character designs are clean and attractive, and the show is carried by the outstanding writing and excellent VA performances. I can’t speak to the dub, but the Japanese VAs brought their A-game. It can’t be reiterated enough how strong the writing is; how much drama it wrings from things like trying to make paper and negotiating intellectual property rights. What a damn good show.
TL;DR: Great writing, memorable characters, and a clever premise help infuse life back into the sometimes moribund isekai genre. A definitive can’t miss series.
Ascendance of a Bookworm is the best isekai since Re:Zero and one of the best isekai I have ever watched. It redefines what isekai means through a focus on empathetic characters, a pleasant and inviting tone, and a story both grounded and grand that gradually and believably raises the stakes while maintaining a sense of identity.
Now, despite me using “isekai” three times in those previous two sentences, I want to avoid discussing what makes Ascendance of a Bookworm a good isekai for the rest of this review. Defining this show purely by its broad premise robs it of how it moves beyond and above being an isekai, beyond being compared to those it finds itself beside. Ironically, what makes Bookworm great is what makes many isekai so forgettable: its protagonist.
Myne is Ascendance of a Bookworm’s center in more ways than one. She is who we follow throughout both seasons, and rarely does the story stray from her perspective and the events that surround her. This grants us an intimate, complex, and sometimes paradoxical look into who she is and how she deals with being a stranger in a strange land. Moreover, she is the show’s thematic core, carrying its primary messages of empathy, growth, and the balance between personal wants and society-borne needs on her small, but mighty, back. What is most remarkable about her is how she resists becoming wholly infallible through her realistic and recognizable flaws. Myne is empathetic, caring, and thoughtful, yes, but she is also selfish and often immature despite being an adult inhabiting a child’s body. We aren’t meant to always agree with her actions and motivations.
Her reasoning for helping the orphans in the second season, for example, stems not from a righteous want to see mistreated children given a better life but from the guilt of not doing something distracting her from her reading. It, and her budding understanding of the complex and inherently inequitable noble society, paint shades of grey onto a character that, in a lesser series, would shimmer white.
Aside from Myne, I also want to pay special attention to the show’s tone. DoctorKev called Bookworm “gentle fantasy,” and I can think of no better phrase to describe the show. Its focus on how small victories beget large changes and how the day-to-day lives of its characters matter as much as their importance to the plot allows the show’s inherent charm to shine. Moreover, its art and animation are delightfully just-above-average, adding to the show’s folksy vibe.
Though Myne’s selfish reasons eventually breed empathy and mutual understanding, it takes her time to get there. It takes the series two seasons for her to prove herself in increasingly high-stakes scenarios and, in the process, grow beyond the want for knowledge towards the want for justice. The final scenes of the second season hint at what’s to come, and I hope we see these seeds cultivated into a third season and beyond.
TL;DR: Ascendance of a Bookworm’s first two seasons form the very best that anime has to offer, mixing empathy with a down-to-earth, realistically escalating story alongside a “Myne” character who stands as a shining example of how our complexities, quirks, and desires both selfish and altruistic make us who we are and take us where we want to be.
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