Chivalry of a Failed Knight is one of those light novels that fans have been waiting for ever since the anime aired in 2015, and now Sol Press has delivered. The story is an interesting mix of the bog-standard and something much more engaging than that, and if it wears its relatively outdated tropes on its sleeve, it also seems to be at least marginally aware that it is using them. And despite the fact that it really is all too familiar on a few levels, Riku Misora‘s work manages to do a few things absolutely right, making this not only very easy to read, but also enjoyable.
The story opens on one of the most standard premises of the shounen light novel: the male protagonist walks in on the female protagonist changing clothes and is immediately branded a pervert and blamed. In this case, that would be Ikki unlocking the door to his dorm room and finding Stella inside in her underwear; both are so flustered that neither is able to make the connection that if the door was locked, both of them must have a key to it. The scenes that immediately follow are certainly a bit cringe-inducing, with Stella loudly proclaiming that her innocence has been violated, Ikki attempting to figure out what the hell is going on, and the two of them fighting a duel over Stella’s purported loss of marriage market value. The difference is that underneath all of Stella’s screeching and the school director’s lackadaisical attitude towards the whole thing, we begin to piece together the rest of the story. Stella is a princess from a small European country looking to prove herself worthy of her title, which is why she’s at school during the summer. But Ikki is there because he has no where else to go – having less than the requisite amount of magic to be a worthy scion of his family, he’s been on his own for four years, since he was twelve, and no one in his family lifted a finger to help him. When they did deign to notice him, it was because he’d gotten himself enrolled at Hagun Academy, a mage-knight training school, and they threatened and bribed the school’s previous administration into failing him so that he couldn’t “embarrass” them by existing as a mage-knight. Ikki has built himself from the ground up, and it’s only his own determination that’s gotten him this far; there’s no way that he’s going to let Stella manipulate his situation into getting him removed from the school.
It is this undercurrent of pain that drives Ikki as a character, and even when the story is indulging in plot devices like his long-lost little sister being in love with him or Stella’s too-obvious tsundere ways, it keeps the story itself from feeling stale. Ikki’s not an oblivious protagonist, he’s someone who is trying his hardest to prove himself worthy of existing, and that’s what begins to draw Stella to him. Yes, she finds him physically attractive, but she sees more than that, and her growing, unwavering support becomes the foundation for his ability to keep believing in himself, even when a school-sanctioned battle (leading up to a major inter-school competition) begins to make him doubt himself, Stella is able to remind him that he’s not just fighting to graduate – he’s fighting to prove that he’s not garbage. Again, while Ikki is also attracted to Stella physically (as semi-painful descriptions of her breasts remind us), it’s who she is as a person that is the real draw for him. Although the romance develops quickly – this is not a long book – it still feels believable within the context of Young Adult fiction, and much more so than many similarly-themed light novels.
The book also deserves praise for its treatment of Alice, a transgender character. Alice is never made out to be a joke; she is presented as a girl and as such the appropriate pronouns are used. Shizuku, Ikki’s sister and Alice’s roommate, immediately accepts her as female (albeit because her theory is that gender doesn’t matter because 99.9% of people suck), and Ikki and Stella, although at first thrown by her appearance, very quickly come to understand that no matter what she looks like or what her legal name is, Alice is a girl. Given that transwomen are still often treated as a running gag in many forms of Japanese media, this stands out as a major point in Chivalry of a Failed Knight‘s favor, as does the fact that Alice quickly becomes a valued and important member of the core group of characters; without her special skill, defeating the terrorists in the mall would never have been possible.
On the less positive side, when this is derivative, it’s very derivative. Most notably it shares a lot of similarities with The Asterisk War, and given that that series began in 2006 and this in 2013, it is difficult to believe that those shared aspects are a coincidence. Even if they aren’t directly borrowed, the cookie-cutter parts (how Ikki and Stella meet, the magic knight training school, the grand battle between schools, etc.) are so unoriginal that if you didn’t have the characters’ names right in front of you it would be easy to forget which light novel series you were reading. These moments are tempered with the aforementioned positives, but I wouldn’t recommend reading this right after or before another magic fighting school series.
That aside – along with illustrator Won‘s unique idea of how breasts fit into clothing – Chivalry of a Failed Knight‘s first novel is a good read. Fast-paced with a solid emotional base, the book is complete in and of itself while still leaving us with enough questions that reading the next volume feels imperative. It’s been a long wait for these books, but as of this volume, it looks like it may have been worth it.