It’s time to dive yet again into the world of Infinite Dendrogram! While the anime adaptation may not have won us over, the original light novels still look to be great, so in we go to volume 3! (By the way, if you have only been watching the anime adaptation, as of the time of posting, the adaptation has stopped just before reaching the material in this volume, so everything here is still spoilers.)
Before we begin the discussion: This novel can basically be divided into two parts: the first part features the “main story” from Ray’s perspective, and the second part features some side stories from other characters’ perspectives. As such, the questions will be split accordingly.
We have a bit bigger of a discussion group this time around: @jeskaiangel and @gaheret are both joining me this time!
What are your overall thoughts on the main story of the volume?
Jeskai Angel: The first half of this book is basically one big prologue to the next volume — I wonder if it should have just been numbered vol. 2.5 instead of 3. It deals with the aftermath of the Gouz-Maise showdown in the previous volume, and then sets the stage for things to come. Compared to the first couple volumes, the pace is a lot slower and the stakes are much lower. In the Xunyu-Figgy fight it didn’t really make much difference who won, unlike the climactic confrontations with Gardrandra and Gouz-Maise where a lot of lives (albeit tians) were on the line. I don’t hate this part of the book, but I don’t really love it either. It’s fun enough, but it also felt like the Xunyu-Figgy fight was just a needlessly drawn out plot device contrived to provide opportunities for foreshadowing (of which there is a TON).
stardf29: Yeah, I definitely agree that there’s not really anything significant happening and that all this is basically a huge prologue. (I mean, I did say I had trouble thinking of questions, so…) The fights are a nice diversion and a highlight of the battle system outside of what Ray and co. would likely be involved with (and should make for decent anime material for the action fans), but it’s definitely not the high point of Dendrogram.
Gaheret: For my part, I liked the main story, and will go on reading. I find the wordlers-ludos dilemma a quite difficult one, and also quite compelling. Not having read the previous two volumes or having any experience as a gamer meant that everything was quite new to me, yet it managed to give me an enjoyable time. I had to rely on my memories of Stephenson´s “REAMDE” at first, but everything (Masters, kingdoms and geopolitics, monsters, tians, powers, jobs, embryos, ultimate movements, levels of power, money, consequences of dying, death penalty, statistics, interactions, time, tournaments) was explained quite clearly and organically.
I liked the personalities of the main characters (Ray, Nemesis, Hugo, Marie, Shu), and even the minor ones have distinct voices. The international aspect of the VRMMORPG was very interesting for me, too. The focus of the characters who are players on appaerance and theatrics, and often roleplaying, is to be expected given the concept and was a very interesting aspect of it all. As people can change how they look and focus on the impression they want to give, they are for the most part idealized (and creative) versions of themselves. I was in the theatre club in University, and have participated in some roleplaying games and events, so the psychology of the performers is an aspect which I´m definitively interested in.
It is mentioned, for example, that Ray´s brother is a rich NEET in real life, while he himself knows in his head, but rejects in his heart, that this is a game. Certainly, to have a young prince of the Hermit Kingdom, seemingly a conscious and free personal being, ill from a plague with could kill him for good, or a child-murdering cult like the one described, could make it difficult to log out and, say, go to work or do homework. As for the tournament itself reminded me of Boku no Hero Academia, which I find to be a good thing.
This is truly half gamer, half isekai story, which means there are two contradictory logics for everyone involved. The fact there are ludos, “worldlers”, and even cults involed, and that the tians undoubtly have conscience means that there is something very interesting going on here from a philosophical and ethical point of view (torturing your enemies increases your Grudge ability? That´s kind of messed up). I found myself enjoying also the mysteries such as the real in-game status of Ray´s brother or that of Marie. I was astonished, in particular, for the level of detail devoted to the magic-technology explanation of the game mechanisms and the insights on the tian civilizations and societies, and the impact of the contemporary players in them.
In this volume, we start to see Hugo now as part of the Triangle of Wisdom, with plans to attack Altar, and we see his interactions with Ray given that. What are your thoughts on this?
Jeskai Angel: Ray is a weirdly / amusingly smart-and-dumb protagonist. Sometimes he proves quite perceptive and clever, and other times he’s painfully dense. I particularly noted instances of the latter in this volume, and one example of that is his dealings with Hugo. We the readers have meta reasons to expect Hugo to be important to the plot (his role in vol. 2, being a maiden’s master, etc.). I know Ray doesn’t have the benefit of our perspective, but he still comes across as strangely oblivious. Like, I don’t expect him to be so suspicious that he goes 1-v-1 in the middle of town, but couldn’t you be a little more observant / inquisitive when someone with a potentially suspicious (i.e. hostile) background starts saying / doing suspicious things?
stardf29: Ray’s obliviousness definitely is something. He’s definitely too trusting overall, but perhaps it’s that trust that starts to get to Hugo a bit.
Hugo’s side is more interesting to me, as he’s starting to wrestle with how he will soon be Ray’s enemy. I think that now that he’s actually gotten to interact with a Maiden’s Master like himself, but in Altar, he’s starting to realize how people might get hurt by the plan he’s part of. This is all still build-up right now but it definitely interested me in how it would play out later on.
Gaheret: I like good stories concerning friends at opposite sides of a conflict, such as Marvel´s Civil War. Someone who fights alongside you against a child murderer or an alien invasion might fight you when it comes to questions of what is the best here and now, and there may be legitimate ground for doubt. I think I would have liked to discover Hugo´s loyalties at the same time as Ray, too. I also find quite perplexing how he feels it morally necessary to give his friend a hint about something as important as an invasion, though perhaps knowing that this is a game is a part of it. But again, I have yet to read the second volume.
What do you think of Xunyu?
Jeskai Angel: Xunyu is weird and cool. Wiping out the bandits in the beginning, combined with showing all the deference from the court officials and even royalty, works quite well for establishing that this character is a big deal. Xunyu doesn’t seem to be strictly what we’d call “handicapped” (although I’m not really clear on that point), but she does rely on prosthetic limbs, which is a rather interesting touch to see in a video game, especially one that leans more fantasy than sci-fi. I also loved the hilarious confrontation where Ray mistakenly thinks Xunyu is kidnapping the ambassador, faces them down only to be nearly killed, but then Shu shows up, and the situation ends with Xunyu FLIRTING with Ray!
Tangent: I can’t help but wonder how Xunyu’s odd diction is represented in Japanese — that language doesn’t have upper / lower case letters like English, after all. I was also reminded of the way the easterners talk in the Cooking with Wild Game series; in that case, the translations deploy excessive / inappropriate commas to help convey the feeling that their diction is unusual.
stardf29: Yeah, Xunyu is an interesting one. Particularly once you find out who she is in real life (which is said in the premium-exclusive stories for this volume but not in the normal releases, so I probably shouldn’t go any further into that). She does have some fun interactions with Ray already and I want to see them “playing together” later on.
Gaheret: It is interesting how having to cope with inhuman abilities the human body is not exactly designed for apparently gives high-level players a somewhat inhuman instance. Xunyu, with her operistic behaviour, her violent, gory tactics, her implication in the politics of the Hermit Kingdom (it is very natural for tians to resent these immortal, theatrical, somewhat hedonistic strangers who play such important roles in their society, can avoid physical pain and achieve insurmountable powers in a few years, as the tian assassin narrator of the last story shows) and her monster-like appaerance, may be the most interesting case. It must require a lot of work to step into that role. At least, that cacogen-like way of talking seems to be a product of the talisman, not of her acting.
What do you think of Figaro?
Jeskai Angel: We already knew Figaro was powerful, so that comes as no surprise. What was more interesting to me was seeing how he’s buddies with Shu, and that’s more significant for what it says about Shu than about Figaro. Like, Figaro is super strong, best of the best. And Shu hangs out with him in animal costumes calling him “Figgy.” Especially considering that we also know Figaro is a solo player who doesn’t join parties, for Shu to pal around with him as he does implies something about Shu’s own status within Dendro (which has also been hinted at in other ways, of course). I also thought the reveal that Figaro’s embryo was his in-game avatar’s heart was pretty cool — we’ve heard that embryos can be nearly anything, but Figgy’s is the most creative, outside-the-box one we’ve learned about so far.
stardf29: Yeah, that is definitely the most unique Embryo yet. I’d wonder what kind of Embryo it is but we know that there are more types of Embryos than the ones we’ve been told of, and his may very well be one of those special types.
As for Figaro himself, one thing about him is that he’s one of the most “pure gamer” players we’ve seen so far. Given his dedication to solo play, such that he doesn’t get involved in the country’s wars, and only resolves the player-killer incident earlier because it intrudes on his dueling interests, he actually makes for a contrast with Ray, at least as far as we know.
And yes, it’s definitely quite telling that Shu is so close to Figaro. I’ll say that, as of reading this volume I pretty much had Shu’s identity figured out with all the clues, but since it is still technically a spoiler at this point, I’ll have to bear with it a bit longer…
Gaheret: I rooted for Figaro during the battle. Insanely powerful as he was, his powers had a more human vibe, and as a local champion against the high authority of an Empire, he was the underdog. The heart embryo seemed more integrated and organic than the multiple arms of his opponent, and as taking your enemy’s heart is a very ugly tactic, it was poetic justice that this turned out to be the case. Aesthetically, he being up against faster-tan-eye tentacular, lethal arms and a power that can extract organs, resist, then fight back was a satisfying experience. About his character, I got the sense that he is a veteran around Shu’s age, and more of a wordler.
What are your general thoughts on the side stories in this volume?
Jeskai Angel: It’s a ton of fun and I enjoyed reading it much more than the first half. The second half of the book is a pair of shorter stories about what Ray’s party members Rook and Marie were up to back in vol. 2 while Ray was off doing the whole Gouz-Maise thing. They turn out to be surprisingly heartwarming tales, as Rook befriends a cowardly slime and Marie befriends a little girl. Each story provides some excellent character develop for its lead, and really helps sell me on Lucius / Nagisa, err, Rook / Marie, being realistic, relatable people (especially Marie!). It’s also cool seeing the author show off the ability to narrate for an extended period in voices besides Ray’s. The way Rook narrates his story feels different than how Ray narrates in the main story, and Marie’s narration is likewise different.
stardf29: I really like these sorts of side stories that look at another character’s perspective in any story, so these short stories are great.
Gaheret: To be frank, I’m not sure they are a good idea. I enjoyed Marie’s, but I think I would have enjoyed it more if it had happened as a part of the main story: the hints, maybe an encounter with Princess Elizabeth or the nobleman as the protagonist looks for clues about the Death Shadow, an indirect conversation where she reveals the reason why. That sort of thing. I think the sense of mystery about this kind of character is better served by evocation sometimes. It works for me in the case of Shu, for example.
So with this volume, we get the big reveal that Marie is actually the Superior Killer. What do you make of this reveal?
Jeskai Angel: First, Marie’s constant jokes and pop culture references were great. I’d forgotten what a strong narrator Marie is, and now I really want a whole volume told from her perspective. The main story has dropped a number of hints that there’s more to Marie than meets the eye, so a revelation was inevitable. Knowing what goes on vol. 4, I think it was smart of the author to place Marie’s big reveal here, where it can stand out and be exciting on its own, rather than get, err, overshadowed… (see what I did there?) by all the other big things occurring in the next book. The manner of the reveal is also satisfying. Marie’s story keeps teasing us with an escalating series of hints; it’s obvious something is up but the reader is still left a bit uncertain about where this is going, and it’s cool to see all the clues finally come together. One fun hint that jumped out at me this time, that I overlooked on my first read, was that Marie mentions that she used to publish a manga about a female journalist, and that’s what her Dendro character is based on. Later, Marie mentions that it was a shounen manga. And you blink and think, wait, what kind of shounen manga stars a female journalist? The switch to the tian assassin’s narrative POV was also used quite well, facilitating a suitably dramatic reveal — “I’m not using a high-rank job.” We confirm that Marie is indeed the Batman…err, the “Superior Killer,” and get the fun surprise of learning she holds the Superior Job Death Shadow (a super ninja-assassin). This volume really did save the best for last.
Gaheret: I suspected something like that (not specifically the Death Shadow/Superior Killer, but something of the sort) since she recognized the status of Shu. As strange as the tought of a girl wearing a suit and sunglasses in a medieval-like world is, I like Marie´s perspective, focused in the character she wants to roleplay, which is also significant for her as an artist, and a cool, idealized superhero (I didn´t connected this much with Rook or Rook´s story, I must confess). She is more of a “wordler” than Ray, and that is enjoyable in itself: she is acting, he is not, and she finds that interesting. Her decision not to tell Ray of her identity to keep the game interesting makes sense from a gamer perspective, but I wonder if Ray would think the same.
That said, her ironic distance makes me wonder sometimes, as well as the cold-blooded demeanor with which she lets the paralyed killer explode in flames after taunting him, and the conversation between her and the depressed nobleman. In the first case, she may have been protecting the princess, but even so. He was harmless now, and she points out how he could have been put in custody by the guard. Even if one doesn´t believe (against all evidence, at this point) that these are real people, to take life-or-death decisions while roleplaying cannot be helpful. It is a fine line to walk.
Jeskai Angel: I got serious Batman vibes from Marie. She’s got a secret identity, she metes out vigilante justice to street thugs while dressed in dark clothing, and when Marie left the assassin to get blown up by his own bomb, it reminded me of how Ra’s al Ghul dies in the movie Batman Begins (watch the scene at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EJCxgt7Qb6k). Ra’s and Batman are fighting aboard an out of control train (which Ra’s set up) that’s about to crash. Ra’s taunts Batman about whether he’s willing to “do what’s necessary” and kill him. Batman answers “I won’t kill you, but I don’t have to save you.” Then he jumps out of the train, leaving Ra’s to experience a fiery crash of deadly flaming death. Is Marie morally obligated to save the man who is actively trying to murder the princess and her from his own bomb (a bomb he set off trying to kill her)? It’s an interesting dilemma, one I don’t know has a clear answer. How far does the idea of loving one’s enemies go?
Gaheret: That’s an interesting question. I would say that when you can save an enemy from a deadly threat without personal risk, not doing so is equivalent to actively killing him. That is, it would be moral when he is a credible and deadly threat to oneself (given her abilities, he is not), or others (maybe this protects the princess?), or a war operative warring against one’s people (as he commands an army, I would say Ra’s fits here). Just as one may shoot a person in those cases, provided that there are no other feasible means to stop him, one may let them burn or explode.
In a medieval world, perhaps it would be also legit as a mean of execution, where there are not functioning authorities (or at the authorities command). As was done with pirates on the sea.
What seems troubling, in this case, is that she explicitly notes that he would be taken care of by the authorities, were not for his stupid act. Plus, she is a player, so I don’t think she has a right to self-defense, if we consider him an intelligent being. But she may not consider him so, as he is an IA. In sum, this world is quite a paradox.
stardf29: If you ask me, the fact that there was an activated bomb in play is more than enough of a threat of danger that I would say that no one in Marie’s position was morally obligated to save that person. I would also say that, even given that players don’t “die” when they are killed, they still have some right to self-defense. After all, the effective 72-hour lockout can be very crippling, especially if there is a tian the player is trying to protect. In this case, Marie is trying to protect the princess, and being out for three days could result in serious danger to said princess–to say nothing of the chaos Prof. Franklin is about to wreak.
But yeah, I believe it is not selfish to prioritize self-protection over risking your life to save someone, if you are in a position where you can potentially save more people by remaining alive. There may be specific cases where someone should risk their lives, but in this case, given that the choice is between remaining alive to protect someone important to the country and risking her life to save a random criminal, I didn’t even see any sort of moral quandary for Marie here.
As for Marie’s reveal in general, it is easily the highlight for me here. Not just in how well it was executed overall, but also how we get to see her own story, how she got into Dendro and how she got interested in Ray.
One interesting thing about her is how her approach in the game seems to be role-playing a particular character of hers, that is largely different from herself in real life. I know this is a popular way for some people to play games: rather than treating it completely like just a game or playing as an extension of themselves, they play as a way of bringing a separate character to life. I think that fits nicely somewhere in between the pure “gamers” of the world and those like Ray who see the world as real.
What are your thoughts on Rook and his side story?
Jeskai Angel: I don’t recall Rook being the subject of as much foreshadowing as Marie, so it makes sense that his story doesn’t have the same kind of major reveal that Marie’s does. If anything, Rook’s story itself serves a vehicle for dropping clues that there are hidden depths to this character. Reading about Rook’s efforts to tame the Mithril Arms Slime, I was struck by how influential The Lord of the Rings is. Tolkien’s fictional metal, originally found only the Mines of Moria (Khazad-dûm to all our dwarven readers), has since turned up in a surprising number of other worlds (including, in this instance, a Japanese work). I wondered if Rook’s penchant for naming his creature after famous actresses is just a joke from the author that implies nothing about Rook himself, or if Rook the character is in-story choosing to name all his monsters after actresses. It was also amusing to be reminded that Rook really does take after Ray a little, in terms of being super smart and observant sometimes, but in other cases (e.g., “Catherine”) seeming oblivious to the weirdness obvious to everyone around him.
stardf29: Rook’s story is definitely fun to see how he goes about his taming work. Also, I am quite amused and curious about his fear of mice… That has to have an interesting backstory to it.
Jeskai Angel: Regarding Rook’s mouse incident, it’s interesting how Babi comforts him, and he says it reminds him of his mother. That feels like potentially a hint about why Rook ended up with the embryo that he did.
Gaheret: I usually do like stories about the bond between master and beast, but not in this case. I guess that when I hear «slime», I do not associate it with the wilderness, the animal life and the balance between the animal nature and the Master’s nature that make the proccess of taming so enjoyable. I’m not a fan of the pimp, neither as a concept nor as it played out here. I like Rook just OK.
What do you think of Elizabeth, the young escape artist princess?
Jeskai Angel: Elizabeth was fun, and I’m impressed at how the translation was able to convey that she speaks in a manner both childish and formal at once. The way she talked really sold me on the idea that this is a person raised as a prim and proper princess…who’s also still a young kid. I wonder how much of that is on the author vs. the translator.
stardf29: Elizabeth definitely seems like the sort of royal girl who feels constrained by her upbringing and responsibility and just wants to get away from it all for a bit. And we really do get a feel for just how “realistic” her character is. I bring that last point up because this week’s episode of the other VRMMO anime, Bofuri, had an example of what NPC sidequests would normally be like, with the NPC spouting pre-programmed lines even when they don’t quite match what actually happened. So yeah, that was a nice reminder of what games are generally like, and by contrast, how realistic Dendrogram is.
Gaheret: On the other hand, I found Elizabeth to be a very interesting character (even if the concept was a bit formulaic, as Marie herself notes). Aside from her being a tian, I like stories about family and royalty, which entails responsibility, danger and also a legacy, and the different traits of the three princesses are enjoyable, while the politics are complicated enough to make this interesting. I liked her better for coming back on her own after the fun. He being in danger made the story feel relevant and urgent.
Thanks for joining us for our Light Novel Club discussion! Because of how this volume was, it ended up being mainly about the various characters, which I think is fine since Infinite Dendrogram has so many great characters. Let us know in the comments what you thought of these characters!
Next week, we will be announcing our next two titles, so look forward to that! Here’s a quick teaser of what our next titles will be:
– Definitely doesn’t drink Dos Equis
– Back to where it all started
See you next time!