BtT Light Novel Club, Chapter 20 (Part 1): Tearmoon Empire, Vol. 1

Oh boy are you all in for a treat this time around. Our discussion on Tearmoon Empire, Vol. 1 was so huge, I decided that, for the first time in Light Novel Club history, we will have a two-part discussion! The second part will go up tomorrow, but for now, I hope you enjoy this first part of our discussion. After all, if we had so much to talk about that we needed to split it between two posts, you can bet that this was a really good novel.

And if you’re just joining us and wondering what this book is about, here is the official volume synopsis from J-Novel Club:

Surrounded by the hate-filled gazes of her people, the selfish princess of the fallen Tearmoon Empire, Mia, takes one last look at the bleeding sun before the guillotine blade falls…

Only to wake back up as a twelve-year-old! With time rewound and a second chance at life dropped into her lap, she sets out to right the countless wrongs that plague the ailing Empire. Corrupt governance? Check. Border troubles? Check. Natural calamities and economic strife? Check.

My, seems like a lot of work.

Hard work and Mia don’t mix, so she seeks out the aid of others, starting with her loyal maid, Anne, and the brilliant minister, Ludwig. Together, they strive day and night to restore the Empire. Little by little, their tireless efforts begin to change the course of history, pushing the whole of the continent toward a new future.

And why did the selfish princess have a change of heart, you ask? Simple—she didn’t. She’s just terrified of the guillotine. They hurt like hell, and Mia hates pain more than work.

Lazy, selfish, and a complete coward, the ill-equipped princess of the Tearmoon Empire, armed with memories of her past life and a diary from the future, tries to avoid dying at the guillotine again and changes the very course of history in the process!

Joining our discussion this time are Jeskai Angel and Gaharet. Let’s begin!


1. What are your overall impressions of the novel?

Jeskai Angel: I already went on record making an awesome ’80s pun and saying that reading this volume was a life-changing experience. That’s something I can say of very few books, let alone light novels. And as I reread the volume for this discussion, my high esteem for this book felt validated. It’s extremely funny, makes excellent use of its historical inspiration, has a whole posse of heartwarming characters, and raises deeper issues to ponder.

Gaheret: The story grew from the beginning, where the schematic nature of the Empire in comparison to France and the blindness of the narrator -which Jeskai had point out in his article- were harder to swallow, and things felt too convenient. After all, it is not as if by behaving good, or trying to, the outcomes will always be good. But around the time she visited the church, I started to identify a lot with Mia. Like her, I´ve always trying to live in a world by deduction, taking examples and lessons from books and teachings and trying to apply then to deduce the outcomes or at least knowing what the right path was. As I didn´t always understand what I was reading, this led sometimes to absurd results, sometimes to a comedy of errors, and sometimes to good results whose goodness I perceive only in time, including exaggerated or erroneous views of people about me. In that sense, Mia was quite like me.

By the time she encountered Abel, I started to feel truly moved. The role of an inspiring woman in the life of a young man cannot be underestimated, and it helped me in the same way Mia helped Abel. I felt very identified with his good-for-nothing opinion of himself, and I was glad to see him trying his best. He may be my favorite character in the book.

The battle against his brother with Mia watching was the best point for me.

Concerning the central comedy of errors of the book, the one concerning Mia´s self-interest in contrast with both what the characters think of her and what the narrator thinks of her, I think that ultimately, maturity and virtue for us sinners are an effort to humbly “grow into the mission”, even grow into the character.

The Empire felt more convincing in time. I came to like the prejudice against agriculture, the causes of the plague, the diplomacy, the Ministeries and the various issues concerning the future economic crisis. As for now, I´m really interested. I wonder how it will all turn out.

The Academy felt too Japanese high school at first (at least don´t call them clubs or student council! And hot baths! And lunchboxes called such are just unforgivable!), but both the dance and the fencing tournament felt very convincing, with complex power dynamics. By the end, I wanted more of all the characters: the merchants, the petty nobles, the Duchess of the realm Jeskai aptly describes as a sort of Papal States, and the servants too. And more so, I want to see how Prince Abel ends up.

Jeskai Angel: Japanese high school equivalents in fantasy worlds are so ubiquitous that I just kind of take them for granted now. But I agree that some aspects of the setup felt out of place.

“things felt too convenient. After all, it is not as if by behaving good, or trying to, the outcomes will always be good.”

Ooh, ooh, yes! This introduces something I was hoping we’d talk about! (Don’t worry, I’ll get back to question 2 eventually.) At one point in the story, the narrator says of Mia that “After thoroughly experiencing the kind of suffering she’d inflicted on others, she came to understand an essential truth: you reap what you sow.” Later, the narrator expands on this:

“After three years of dungeon life, Mia had come to understand an essential truth, or rather, she thought she had. What she didn’t know was that she only understood half of it. You reap what you sow. Those words do indeed ring true, but the scythe cares not for the nature of the grain. Should you sow the seeds of malice, then malice shall be your harvest. But should you sow the seeds of kindness…Just as how bullying will be repaid in kind, so will acts of benevolence.”

Now, that’s great, but what does it mean? The metaphor of sowing and reaping is all over the Bible. There’s the vivid image of judgment in Hosea 8.7: “For they sow the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind.” In 2 Corinthians 9.6 there’s a pretty general statement of this principle: “Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.” And perhaps most important of all, Galatians 6:7-8 says: “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.”

The biblical concept of sowing and reaping is strongly oriented toward the resurrection and judgment. God doesn’t guarantee us good things in this life. The scriptures show there’s limited correlation between doing good/evil and experiencing good/bad things, but it’s far from ironclad. If anything, the Bible points the other way, saying we should NOT expect this life to work out so conveniently. The scriptures abound with good people who face undeserved suffering – Jesus above all others! Likewise, the Bible depicts many wicked people seemingly getting away with their sins in this life. God promises us that he’ll sort it all out someday. Until then, we must endure in hope.

But this sowing-and-reaping talk can also bring to mind the concept of karma, which from what I understand originates in Asian religions but today seems more like a global pop culture concept. (That is, most people have heard of karma, but don’t necessarily understand every nuance of, say, the Buddhist definition of the term.) Leaving aside the more technical meanings used by world religions, in popular use, it seems to me that karma evokes an expectation of prompt, earthly correlation between doing good/bad and experiencing good/bad. While not exactly biblical, this is a view we find in the Bible: its leading purveyors are Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, the so-called “friends” of Job. They carry on about how the fact that Job suffers is proof that he is evil, and that as soon as he stops being evil, everything will be good again. Job is a…complex book, but one point that is absolutely unambiguous is that Job’s friends were wrong. The suffering Job endured was not some cosmic payback for some wicked deed, and the good things Job enjoyed before and after suffering were not contingent solely on Job living righteously.

The novel is somewhat ambiguous, but in the context of a Japanese novel, it seems likely that the author’s conception of sowing and reaping reflects the idea of karma, rather than focusing on God settling everything in eternity. But the fact that different worldviews can use very similar language is exactly what makes it so interesting to consider what’s going on in this story.

stardf29: First of all: this novel is absolutely hilarious. The way all of Mia’s actions get reinterpreted as her being some genius saint is great, and while normally misunderstandings in stories can be annoying because of how they slow down plot progression, here it’s used to move forward the story (and in very funny ways) so I really enjoy that. The snarky narrator adds to all of the amusement, of course.

Beyond that, this story has a fascinating cast of characters, some solid worldbuilding, and a whole lot of charm to it. I’ll definitely be getting into the specifics that I liked as the discussion goes forward.

Regarding “sowing and reaping”: So, out of curiosity, I actually went ahead and asked the translator of the novel on the JNC forums for what the original Japanese was, to see if it was just a localization with a familiar English phrase or some kind of common Japanese saying that might have actually originated from the Bible (in Japanese). (It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve seen this; the phrase “the scales fell from my eyes” is a common Japanese phrase and does indeed reflect the corresponding event of Paul’s conversion in Acts.)

In this case, it looks like the original Japanese is just a sentence saying “the seeds you planted have to be harvested by you as well”, rather than a common saying. That said, I did look up Galatians 6 in Japanese and it seems the verse in question also has a similar sentence (from my very limited Japanese knowledge), so maybe it has managed to find its way into more common Japanese knowledge somehow, or maybe the author looked up the verse or something. Hard to say for sure without having access to the raw texts, but it’s definitely something interesting.

2. What do you think of the characters?

Ludwig

Jeskai Angel: Ludwig is a great nod to historical civil servants like Turgot and Calonne who served the French monarchy in the days before the French Revolution. As a character, he’s admirable because he’s so incredibly faithful. In the original timeline, despite having little reason to care for Mia or the royal family, he strenuously attempted to stave off disaster. And even after revolutionaries took over, he kept trying to save Mia. She lost everything, was abandoned by almost everyone, but he continued to care up the way up through the day of her execution. None of this brought him any benefit, yet he persisted.

One of the major issues in Mia’s life is her inadequate upbringing: she seems to receive no parental love or guidance, is terribly spoiled by those around her, and has no real friends. It’s no wonder she turned out dysfunctional. But Ludwig is one of the rare exceptions. When he greets her by rebuking her for how much it costs to feed her, as well as on other occasions, it makes Ludwig one of the few people in Mia’s life who tries to teach her any sort of discipline. His mentor-like role highlights the void left by her uninvolved parent(s). It’s a mark of how Ludwig cares that he actually makes the effort to teach her. As an aside, the tomato-chef is another (albeit much more minor) example of this: he’s one of the few adults who cares about Mia enough to provide even a sliver of discipline in her life.

At one point in the original timeline, Ludwig tells Mia, “You’d better take a good, hard look at yourself and reflect on your mistakes, Your Highness.” Whether or not she had those words in mind, that’s exactly what she does in her reset life, and lot of it is thanks to Ludwig. Mia didn’t fully appreciate Ludwig’s lectures in her previous life — but she did LISTEN to them, and retained that knowledge! The narrator makes of point of insisting that Mia is as ignorant ever, that she’s merely parroting things OG Ludwig said. Bah, humbug! Have you ever graded student essays? I have. Even just repeating back the things a professor or textbook said is impossible for a student who never actually understood the material. A clueless dolt who didn’t grasp a complicated lecture about economics and taxation wouldn’t be able to regurgitate it in any kind of intelligible fashion – especially not years later. Ludwig is brilliant and, despite his cantankerous appearance, impressively patient as he teaches Mia, while Mia is a quite a bit sharper than the narrator gives her credit for. Yes, she got everything she knows from OG Ludwig, but all the best students owe a great debt to their teachers. She deserves credit for understanding and remembering Ludwig’s teaching well enough to apply in her reset life.

stardf29: Ludwig is an interesting case because, in the original timeline, it seems like he had every reason to dislike Mia, and yet made every effort to try to save her regardless. Maybe he saw Mia as an unfortunate spoiled brat who simply never got the proper upbringing to know any better, or maybe he figured that, as selfish as Mia might have been, executing her would only make things worse for the country. Whatever the case, his willingness to see a different side to things and remain loyal to Mia gets repaid in the current timeline with Mia saving him from being banished to the boonies and getting an advance on his future knowledge courtesy of Mia.

And yes, Mia gets credit for actually remembering all of that knowledge that past-Ludwig gave her. And she even gives him just the tiniest bit of credit in her diary entries towards the end of the volume. (She sounds almost tsundere-like with her whole “it was really just the tiniest little bit, okay?”)

Gaheret: Well, I thought that was because of Imperial ethos of loyalty and pietas. Even the sovereign you don´t especially like, you try to love and support with your best efforts.

tearmoon1-smugmia
Smug Mia is more adorable than she has any right to be.

Anne

Jeskai Angel: Okey-day, first, I want to point out that “Mia” shares all its letter with “Marie,” while “Anne” shares all its letters with “Antoinette.” I commend the author’s cleverness.

Anne is great. Her faithfulness to Mia is incredible, and her loving service becomes a major element in Mia’s own transformation (which interestingly comes back around as Mia influences Anne in the second timeline). When Mia recognizes Anne and seizes the opportunity to reward OG Anne’s service, it’s a hugely effective way to show that Mia has changed. “Why do you still devote yourself to me?” Mia asked the day she died.

OG Anne was remarkably Christ-like as she served Mia despite deriving no benefit from doing so. Feet aren’t mentioned specifically, but when the story notes Anne even washes Mia in prison, I couldn’t help but think of the foot-washing at the Last Supper. In answer to Mia’s query, Anne says “I just couldn’t leave you alone.” The brief but vivid portrait of Anne’s love for Mia is at the heart of how the story sells us on the idea that Mia has changed. Some of Mia’s last words before her first death are to beg Anne for forgiveness for how she treated the maid, how she regrets being unable to act on the gratitude she now feels. It’s wonderfully satisfying when Mia gets the chance to say, “Now… I can finally repay you for your loyalty.” Notably, Mia is thoughtful enough to not only promote Anne, but also ensure she doesn’t face harassment from coworkers. In the bath scene later, Mia scrub Anne’s back, reflecting how the “foot-washing” lesson OG Anne taught her has taken root.

Later, there’s a neat echo of the conversation in the prison flashback. “Um, have I done something for Your Highness before?” Anne wonders. “No, and you need not. I know you to be deeply loyal, and I am repaying you for your devotion. That is all.” OG Anne has changed Mia for the better, and it’s beautiful.

Gaheret: Anne and Ludwig, the faithful servants who stayed when everything crumbled, are admirable just by that fact, and Mia is right to recognize their loyalty and put her trust in them. Yet, it seems to me that this has had the unintended side effect of depriving them of knowing Mia´s character -which is not so bad as the narrator makes it to be-, and thus, of a relationship like they had last time. I find it kind of sad: Mia still needs Ludwig´s clear judgement and Anne´s kindness to correct her blind spots. But now, like an Ami Kawashima of sorts, she can only do it by remembering what they said and did in the past, because they do not know her blind spots anymore. And as a result, Mia is terrified and alone, and she cannot but come to feel like a fraud. I always had people to open up to. She doesn´t, not one. Worse, when she knows that they are loyal enough to love her and commit to her despite her flaws.

stardf29: I don’t have much to add here that hasn’t already been said, but yes, I absolutely love how loving Anne was in the previous timeline to a Mia that was otherwise almost universally hated. And that was at least a major influence on Mia in the current timeline being kinder herself… which leads her to making that timeline’s Anne her retainer and friend… which in turn has her supporting Mia faithfully in this timeline, even behind the scenes. There’s a very beautiful (and amusing) poetry to this circle of kindness here.

Abel

Gaharet: Concerning Prince Abel, I enjoyed a lot seeing him grow from prodigal second son to a man wishing to be an able rival to Prince Sion, and his transformation from that point on felt believable. I think it adds points to the story that she primarily approached him at first due to strategic reasons: literary conventions aside, that was how it was done. A virtuous noblewoman would try to choose well between the options which were strategically good (if she could even do that much) and then try to love and inspire the man, as Mia did. I like how there is evil in his character and his barely avoided destiny remain with him in a way, and also that he has no idea of how to behave in front of Mia. I think he will be a good, loyal support for her in times of need.

Jeskai Angel: While Mia has a positive effect on many characters, arguably the one who changes the most due to her influence is Abel. The story introduces us to current Abel in a way that really helped make his multiple possible futures believable. One can totally see how current Abel could have given up on life and settled for being a shallow playboy. But in the new timeline, his efforts to grow, inspired by Mia, are also believable. I feel like he’s actually an extremely fitting match for Mia. Prince Mary Poppins, I mean, Sion, is and always has been practically perfect in every way. But both Mia and Abel are people with serious flaws who met sad ends in Mia’s first life. And now, in Mia’s second lease on life, Mia and Abel are getting second chances to do better – together. It’s super sweet and poetic and I’m so rooting for them to get a happy ending together!

Involving Abel but pertaining more to Mia, the entire fact that Mia pursues a relationship with Abel is a huge sign of Mia’s newfound humility. In her first list, she thought herself entitled to the most prestigious boy in her class. It signifies how much he’s changed that in her second life she cultivates a relationship a mere second prince from a minor kingdom. Even with pragmatic, guillotine avoidance motivations, Mia had to set aside her pride, change her priorities, to even consider Abel.

stardf29: First of all, the name Abel is strangely fitting in various ways: note that his brother is named “Gain”, which is very close to “Cain”. Almost makes me wonder if the name choice was intentional (along with the sowing/reaping reference, maybe the author knows their Bible quite a bit).

Anyway, yeah, Abel definitely changes a lot when Mia shows interest in him and encourages him to not give up on bettering himself. Putting her motivations aside (and here they’re not even all that “selfish”; she’s actually considering what’s best for her country as well as whatever country’s prince she decides to marry), she sees Abel not for his current shortcomings, but as a person with the potential to grow and change. That’s a very gracious, God-like approach here, and its impact on Abel’s life is huge. Seeing how he takes inspiration from her in the swordsmanship tournament is great.

And on Mia’s part, she’s definitely not completely immune to Abel, either, as we can see from the part where she notices how hard he has trained for the tournament and tells him she wants him to win. This is actually quite a sweet romance, all things considered.

That said, there is an interesting bit of irony here. Mia originally chose Abel because he was a second prince and not very likely to become king… but now, one can argue that Abel is more suited to becoming king than his brother. Could Mia’s plan backfire on her in this way? That might be an interesting obstacle for her to work around…

Jeskai Angel: Since “ka” and “ga” use the same character in hiragana / katakana, isn’t the spelling of Gain / Kain / Cain not merely close but practically the same?

This gets me thinking. If Gain’s hatred of and jealously toward Abel take him down the path of his namesake, he could easily turn into a major antagonist for Mia in her second life. In the new timeline, Gain is arguably the most overtly wicked named character. The bullies go unnamed. Sion is…flawed…but while OG Sion was horrible, Sion of the new timeline hasn’t really done anything wrong yet. Assuming that Mia is going to face some kind of major antagonist, it seems like it’ll be either Sion (based on what we know of him from Mia’s first life) or Gain (based on his name and the fact that he’s the nastiest character Mia has met in this timeline).

Ooh. Now I kind of want / don’t want a scenario where Gain as antagonist captures & tortures Mia (or, rather, tries). I don’t want Mia to suffer, but there could be an awesome scene where Gain tries to torture her, an unphased Mia thinks to herself “This is nothing compared to the torture I faced in my first life,” & then Gain has a complete meltdown when he can’t get a response from her, let alone break her.

stardf29: Heh, that would be pretty amusing. Though if the story does go down that path, I hope that Gain ultimately reforms after all of that, maybe after he misinterprets Mia’s indifference as showing some kind of unconditional love to him or something.

Other Characters (besides Mia)

Jeskai Angel: Regarding Sion, “Sunkland” is a pretty amusing play on “England.” I appreciate his thoughts about how leaders “must always take pride in their integrity and hold themselves to a standard such that they might be examples to their subjects.” It’s painfully relevant as we suffer through a presidential election in America this year. I also like Sion’s pithy observation, “When witnessing the oppression of the powerless, anger was the correct response.” I’ve wrestled a lot over the years with the appropriate place for anger in a Christian’s life, and I think Sion is right on target.

Tiona isn’t in focus as much as some of the other characters, so while she’s a solid character who has an important role in the story, she didn’t really leave a strong impression on me. I look forward to her and Mia getting closer when Mia goes for the visit we’re promised.

I did find it amusing how, because OG Sion and OG Tiona literally presided over her execution in the previous timeline, Mia just assumes Sion and Tiona already hate her guts and are eager to kill her, before she’s even met them in this life. It’s a curious blindspot: she thinks she can change her fate, but doesn’t consider that she might change Sion and Tiona’s opinion of her along the way. However, the fact that Mia has no serious desire to take revenge on Sion and Tiona also reflects Mia’s capacity to forgive (or hints that she’s developing such an ability).

Keithwood mostly serves as a foil to the other characters. He’s our source of insight into Sion, and the one sane person who keeps the lunchbox fiasco from going completely off the rails. Keithwood is also one of the more perceptive observers of Mia. He comes surprisingly close to the truth when he ponders whether Mia is a saint, schemer, or seductress. Other characters tend to lean heavily toward the saintly view, while the narrator insists Mia’s is a schemer. So although Mia is hardly a seductress in any meaningful sense, Keithwood is right to consider that there might be ways to understand Mia besides just the extremes of “saint” or “schemer.” Mia, like all of us, is a strange mixture of good and ill, and Keithwood comes closer than anyone else to grasping that reality.

Gaheret: Prince Sion, on the other hand, is the kind of character I despise. Virtuous, yes, but harsh with others. The kind of man who (original timeline) approaches an imperial princess in disgrace during the crisis of her Empire just to say “I despise you”. The kind of person who consents a young woman to be bullied by the mob and in suffering for three years, even being force-fed those tomatoes just because they discover that she hates them to the point of vomiting, then executes her just because she is the symbol of the old régime. The sort of pretty boy who turns down a vain girl in a painful way, because she is vain and deserves a lesson. And worse, he does all that with peace of mind, because she is bad and stupid, and he is not. Let´s just say that I found the way Mia gave him the cold shoulder wise and prudent: it is best to keep him at distance. The narrator says that Prince Abel and Prince Sion will meet each other in battle. So be it.

I liked Tiona, on the other hand. She was a victim, called a “saint” by the Revolution, and she had endured a lot. I´m glad Mia had to establish a friendship with her, even if she was reluctant at first. As Jeskai says, we still not know the most important things about her. In whose side of the Revolution will she be, now that Mia is not involved in her bullying, but is a friend and a defender? She clearly still likes Sion in this version of the story, but this time he seems not to notice her, what happened in the original timeline? Though they came visit Mia together.

Concerning the minor characters, I would have liked more emphasis on Chloe and her merchant background, and we do not hear much about the character of Tiona´s maiden. Balthezar, Ludwig´s friend, and the noblewoman from the agriculture background look like promising characters. And lastly, duchess Rafina, a future ruler and priestess, the moral inspiration of the Academy, who is said to be the spiritual inspiration and a force silently backing the revolution, strikes me as a terrifying figure, almost in the same way as Sion. The novel depicts her as kind and just, but I see her always judging from above, and subtly making moves through her influence. I could totally understand Mia´s anxiety when she has to explain to her how she has dealt with the offending nobles. There is a “Church” which is mentioned when dealing with the plague: if Rafina is its head (as the Papal states analogy would suggest), this would be something entirely different from the French Revolution.

Oh, I almost forgot Keithwood. And yet, he is the one closer to the truth: as the “wise servants” that abound in literature, in a somewhat Shakespearian position in which he can see above the tale, he is not blinded by his position and can observe. He is deeply committed to Prince Sion, who we know will battle against the Empire, and almost unbelievably wise for his years (I say “almost” because I have known some young people who are indeed wise). Yet, he is clever and just, and even if he doesn´t see through Mia, he knows something to be off. If someone realizes what is happening, it will surely be him. And his moral character seems solid, without the threatening aura of Rafina and Svion.

Jeskai Angel: Okey-day, I agree with Gaheret. Great points. While I do like the quotes I mentioned earlier, Gaheret‘s commentary helped me realize that I’ve been just kind of lumping Sion and Tiona together as the two ringleaders of Mia’s death, when really I should have been looking more closely at them as separate characters. Sion really is a self-righteous Pharisee with no real reasons to like him ever presented. On the other hand, Tiona is a hardworking, long-suffering victim, and while that doesn’t necessarily justify executing Mia, it certainly makes Tiona more sympathetic. She has valid grievances, even if we may disapprove of how she deals with them. Also, it seems relevant that we never actually see OG Tiona acting cruelly toward Mia the way OG Sion did.

Mia’s efforts to befriend Rafina in the previous timeline are truly pitiful. She never had real friends, was never taught how friendship works, and thus tried her hardest and got nothing but scorn. That’s not all Mia’s fault: it’s the result of a sad upbringing. You can tell Mia is scarred by her past failures to make a friend; in the new timeline, she just dreads Rafina, knowing her as someone impossible to please. As someone who spent many years of childhood and adulthood painfully struggling (and often failing) to make friends, Mia’s plight is super sad and super relatable.

On the topic of Sion / Rafina in particular, one aspect of the story I appreciated was the unfair judgments Mia faced in her first life. OG Rafina held Mia responsible for the harassment of Tiona, even though Mia had nothing to do with it. OG Sion went out of his way to be mean to Mia, despite the fact that even if she was annoying, she never really did anything to harm him. It’s actually a nice reflection of the IRL French Revolution. Now, the revolution was a complex phenomenon with multiple causes, but one factor was corruption among the ruling class, some which was real, but some of which was just perceived. For example, Louis XV was a notorious womanizer whose behavior tarnished the image of the French monarchy. His grandson Louis XVI was, as far as I can tell, a faithful family man, but the perception of corruption weakened the monarchy. Similarly, Marie is arguably most famous for responding, when the people had no bread, “Let them eat cake.” Except that she totally never said that. However, the French royals came to have this frivolous image that provides a context where Marie’s fictitious callous words sound plausible.

stardf29: There’s definitely something curious about how Tiona ended up becoming one of the starters of the revolution in the original timeline. If you ask me, Tiona seems a bit too nice to have started a revolution just because she was bullied by Mia. Something else probably happened (beyond her kidnapping, which only really served to endear her to OG Sion) that drove her over the edge. It’s definitely something curious that I hope we learn more about.

Now, Sion… yeah, something about him rubs me the wrong way. He does seem like a Pharisee who prioritizes “justice” (or what he thinks that is) over grace, and on top of that he just has that smugness to him that makes me hope he gets taken down a peg. So far, that hasn’t quite happened yet, but there are some cracks starting to show, and I’m looking forward to seeing how Mia interacts with him later on.

Keithwood is a character that seems to be somewhat common in these medieval settings: the knight that is a close friend of a prince such that he is able to speak more frankly to him, without as much regard to position. He’s a good foil to Sion, and just a good guy overall, especially with helping the girls out with making the sandwiches.

As for Rafina: Score one for Tearmoon Empire for actually having a sympathetic religious authority figure of sorts. Though it does feel like, had that meeting with Mia not happen, she would have very well turned out to be the sort of judgmental, graceless religious figure that we normally associate with fantasy religious figures, as the past timeline shows. However, Mia’s examples of grace (however unintentional) shows her a different way of doing things, and she becomes a friend rather than an enemy. I definitely hope to see more of her in the future.

Mia

Gaheret: As I said, I felt very identified with Mia. I’m familiar with jerk thoughts which go unnoticed, the transformation was fun and her role as a sainctly queen oddly reminded me of people like Blanche of Castille, Marguerite of France or Katherine of Aragon and her daughter Mary Tudor. She may be aided by special, comic Providence, but I count that as a plus. I like that her transformation is mostly outward, and the inner changes are slow: that is realistic. All women confronting powerful foes, searching for allies, trying to do good and trying to operate in a world of nobility, interests and threats of different sorts, like Mia. I´m invested in her relationship with Prince Abel: whatever the narrator thinks, there are signs that she is inspired by him, as he is by her.

Jeskai Angel: Mia is amazing. She reminds me a little of Bakarina, though she’s quite a bit more practical and realistic in her efforts to avoid impending doom. I empathize with Mia on a personal level in multiple ways, but she’s a great protagonist for many reasons. Thanks to the colliding perspectives of the narrator, various other characters, and Mia’s actual words and deeds, Mia comes across as a delightfully complex human being. She’s not the dolt that the narrator claims, and also not the genius other characters think she is. She’s not as petty and selfish as the narrator says, but she’s also not the purely virtuous saint some of the other characters mistake her for. And so on. Nobody – not Anne, not Abel, not the narrator – has a complete grasp of Mia’s character. Just as IRL humans, past and present, are quite complex.

Mia’s story is full of wonderful moments that could only happen because Mia really did live through the revolution of the original timeline. A great example is the story at the end of the volume where she eats the stale cookies, joyfully reminisces about the time she ate them in prison, then hears they are years old and immediately jumps to thinking about how her country could benefit from this food preservation expertise. Mia didn’t have a bad dream, nor a vision of the future. She lived this other life before dying on the guillotine and being reborn at twelve years old. For a twenty-year-old woman, she isn’t especially mature, but that’s fair, given her background. She grew up spoiled, friendless, lacking parental love and guidance, and spent the last three years of her life in a dungeon. None of that can be blamed on her.

But that’s not even the really good part. Before dying at twenty, Mia learned virtues like gratitude and compassion. These lessons came too late to save her in the first timeline, but she retained those qualities when she traveled back in time. It wasn’t inevitable that Mia learned such lessons: she could have used her suffering to become obstinate, bitter, angry, repaying hatred with hatred. She could have fallen into despair. But she allowed the suffering to refine her, help her grow. The fact that Mia is capable of realizing she was a terrible person in the past indicates a strong level of introspection.

Mia is at the center of a whole web of reverberating positive influences. Mia herself changed thanks to Anne’s kindness and Ludwig’s lectures…and also thanks to the hatred and derision of Sion, Rafina, and the revolutionary mob. There’s a sense in which everything different in the new timeline ultimately originates with Mia’s own different choices, caused by the lessons she learned in her first life. She makes a positive difference in the lives of Anne, Ludwig, the people of the slum, Elise, Tiona, Abel, Chloe, etc. Sometimes this even comes back around, as when Mia’s influence on Anne raises the maid’s expectations of her mistress, helping give Mia the extra push she needs to step up and help Tiona. Iron sharpens iron, indeed. Watching the ripples of Mia’s influence brings to mind the Vulcan proverb “One man can summon the future” (Star Trek: Enterprise, season 4, “United”). Mia’s story is an inspiring display of how one person can make a difference for good. I am totally cheeing for her in whatever future adventures she faces.

Another cool side to Mia’s character is how her “really 20 yrs old” nature is portrayed. The narrator rightly notes that the circumstances her first life “somewhat crippled her mental maturity in certain aspects,” but she also gets some great moments where her age experience from her first life shines through. My favorite is when Abel’s brother tries to act threatening and Mia’s reaction is basically “LOL, Senator Little Boy, you’re no Jack Kennedy revolutionary mob.” Her disdain is so complete that even as we repeatedly see her make extra effort to get to know people and remember their names, she doesn’t bother with the name of Abel’s brother.

stardf29: Honestly, I don’t know what to say here that hasn’t been said by others, so I’ll just say that, on top of all of that, she’s just really fun overall. She has a strange but effective sense of practicality (might as well sell this expensive hairpin so it can’t be stolen by brutish revolutionaries), while also being prone to moments of silliness (the horse-shaped sandwich). Even her more selfish and petty moments are more cute than malicious, like a kid trying to get what she wants while being aware that certain actions can hurt her later on. So yeah, she’s a really great character, well-developed while also being straight-up entertaining in and of herself.

tearmoon1-miahorse
Horses love Mia, too. Or at least they like to sneeze on her.

3. What are your thoughts about the narrator?

Jeskai Angel: I already wrote an entire essay about the narrator of this story, so I don’t know what to add, but just be aware that the narrator has such a distinctive voice as to qualify him as a major character in his own right, despite having no direct involvement in the events he narrates.

I’ve ragged on the narrator quite a lot (including an entire separate post!), and I do think he’s often at least partially wrong about Mia and the other characters within the story. But he has some good points.

Although the narrator stands outside the main story, he joins Ludwig one of the only voices who legitimately critiques Mia. Mr. Narrator often goes too far in his attacks on Mia and the others, but there are also nuggets of truth in what he says. I also appreciate the author’s choice to make the narrator so over the top in his view of Mia. A more deadpan narration would have given the impression that readers ought to believe everything he says. But this narrator is ridiculous enough to imply that readers shouldn’t blindly accept everything he says. My favorite example is a comment he makes after “explaining” the”real” reason Mia said what she did while standing up for Tiona. He tears apart Mia’s “true” motivations, paints her negatively…and then admits, “Now, all of this might seem supremely counterintuitive.”

As already noted, this book is incredibly funny, and lot of that hinges on the narrator. Also, this book had some of the funniest chapter titles I’ve ever seen, and I like to imagine the narrator came up with them all.

The narrator also gets to make some profound points, with no snark, no Rube Goldberg-esque convoluted explanations, just sharp observations. After Mia awakens following her death, she tries to convince herself it was just a childish nightmare. But as Mr. Narrator incisively notes, “…she didn’t realize one, very simple, fact: real children don’t think of their nightmares as childish.” In the big picture, this is one of many moments that help confirm Mia really lived & died in the other timeline, that she didn’t just have a weird dream or vision. But it shows that the narrator has some genuine insight into Mia and human nature more generally. I also loved a moment before the tournament as Mia and Abel talk: “After some meticulous calculating, she looked to Abel… ‘I await your victory, Prince Abel.’ …And let slip her true thoughts.” This statement helps us understand Mia’s true feelings; she might sometimes try to be a schemer, but she’s not actually devious and dishonest enough to pull it off. But this the narrator’s commentary; we have him to thank for this insight. So, yes, the narrator goes to nonsensical lengths to criticize Mia and almost everyone else, and should be called out, but I’ve concluded that his snark sometimes overshadows his perceptiveness.

Oh, another thing I liked about the narrator is his occasional flash-forward moments, where he says “This was the moment that changed so-and-so’s life,” or “Thirty years from now this turned out to be super important,” or whatever. Leaving aside the fact that he knows about multiple timelines, they are fun interjections that contribute to the feeling that one is reading history (and yes, I mean that in a good way, LOL).

Gaheret: The derisive narrator was certainly fun, if sometimes excessive. It was almost like revisionism. In a way, it felt as if a more mature but excessively self-conscious Mia (who else would have known all that?) had found the biography of Anne´s sister excessive, and had wanted to tone things down, sometimes exaggerating in the other direction. I´m not a fan of the detailed flash-forwards: Firstly, because they already have the alternate timeline to convey that kind of information, secondly, because that sort of thing should be done vaguely, and it not always is. I liked one: “a destined battle among men”, as Uraraka would say. But, for example, the hagiography I just mentioned means that the Empire, at least the general public, never learns the true character of her Empress. As this is one of the main points she is working towards, I would prefer not to know if she achieves it beforehand. And I would have liked more intrigue and uncertainty concerning the transformation of Prince Abel. It would have made all the rivalry more uncertain, and we wouldn´t know for sure that he and not Sion is the love interest. That said, the author cares about his characters, and it shows, and I have come to like the worldbuilding, and also the different aspects in which the crisis of the Empire develops, and I liked the novel a lot.

Jeskai Angel: Ah, but therein lies the whole question. What IS Mia’s true character? The story gives us conflicting perspectives: the narrator’s claims, the opinions of other characters, and even the reader’s own interpretation of Mia’s actual words and actions. To say that Elise’s biography doesn’t capture Mia’s “true character” is to assume a certain interpretation of Mia that may or may not be correct. Though, in fairness, a biography written by a monarch’s paid retainer is naturally suspect.

This has prompted me to realize that thinking as a historian has led me to privilege to the opinions of the other characters (Anne, Ludwig, Elise, Tiona, Abel, Keithwood, etc.) above the narrator. When I research history, I give the most weight to contemporary primary sources, that is, accounts written close to the time of the topic by people with firsthand knowledge of the topic. As I read Tearmoon Empire, I am interpreting the perspectives of the other characters as primary sources. What Ludwig or Keithwood or whoever thinks of Mia at a particular moment is an eyewitness account direct from the time of the events. So though I don’t think the views of Mia held by Anne, Abel, et al. are to be uncritically accepted, they deserve great weight. Elise’s biography is also a primary source, but is much more suspect, being written years later and coming from a person with a vested interest (though it still could have much truth to it).

If Elise’s biography is hagiographic, the narrator seems more polemical in tone. And both tones are reasons to take care and read with a critical eye. The narrator comes across as an entirely distinct voice separate from the main story and characters. He speaks as an outside observer from some later point in time. While clearly not a normal scholar (he knows about the different timelines!), I’m inclined to see the narrator as the equivalent of a historian of some later generation. Thus I regard the narrator’s voice as a secondary source. He’s not an eyewitness, and he’s (probably?) not a contemporary of Mia and company.

Whatever the case, this leads to an issue of plausibility. The narrator’s views may be well founded on thorough research, but as a historian, I’m going to give more weight to the contemporary impressions of eyewitnesses than to a later writer’s claims. This is especially the case when the two interpretations diverge greatly. What is more likely? That numerous people with firsthand knowledge of Mia all constantly misinterpreted everything she said and did? Or that a scholar in a later generation is pushing an unduly harsh view of a past monarch? As more and more characters form positive opinions of Mia, I grow more doubtful that they are all just deluded like the narrator claims. It seems to me far more plausible that the narrator is being too harsh than that all Mia’s contemporaries so greatly misunderstood her.

On this topic, one point I find fascinating is that narrator doesn’t accuse Mia of deception. In all the situations where other people interpret what Mia said or did as benevolent, clever, or otherwise positive, the narrator NEVER suggests Mia was deliberately leading anyone on or cultivating a false image. Instead, the narrator just insists, over and over, that despite appearances, Mia really intended something different and all the other characters are just weak in the head. Again, I ask: is that plausible? More plausible than trusting the eyewitnesses’ immediate firsthand thoughts?

tl;dr My background as a historian influenced how I read this book, and incline me to trust the other characters more than when the narrator speaks distinctively in his own voice (though I believe both should be read critically). As a result, my view of Mia tends to be closer to (though not as extreme as) the perspectives of the other characters.

stardf29: I definitely like this sort of questioning about who exactly the narrator is. Personally, I like the idea that the narrator is Mia, several years older and looking back on this period in life and feeling super-embarrassed that her actions of self-preservation got blown out of proportion. However, she can’t ruin her image as the Great Sage for reasons, so she just wrote a more private account to relieve her own embarrassment or something. It’s interesting to think of because, first-person stories aside, we rarely think of who exactly is narrating a story, so for the narrator to have their own clear voice and personality, it invites this sort of speculation.

Jeskai Angel: Mmm… Interesting alternative theory of Older Mia as the narrator.

Yeah, narrators are usually either first-person with a distinct identity as a character within the story, or omniscient impersonal third-person with no distinct identity. It’s much less common to find stories featuring a third-person narrator that has its own voice and personality.

I know all we have at the moment is the first volume of the series, but with what we know from reading it, do you think the series will eventually identify the narrator more fully? Do you want it do so? Or would you prefer that he/she remain ambiguous? On related note, do you think the series will, and do you want the series to, ever address how/why Mia traveled back in time? Or is that better left a mystery in your opinion?

I think the narrator definitely has potential for further development, whether or not we actually definitively learn his/her identity. Like, learning the narrator’s identity might be cool (depends a lot on who it is / how it’s revealed). But we could also see the narrator’s views of Mia and/or other characters change over the course of future volumes, which could be quite interesting.

Gaheret: The diary is interesting, and now I´m thinking that it may be the source of the narrator. That or Mia herself. As you have said in your article, this narration feels a bit like self-derision sometimes. As for Mia´s true character, I think it´s half what she was, half what she is becoming, but it does not lessen her to be sometimes self-conscious, or bratty, or just fearful, or saved by luck. She has a more strong, impulsive personality that she shows. It´s only natural, and the good things she does are good even so. Even by the narrator´s account, she is working hard, trying to repare her debts with loyalty and gratitude and sincerely falling in love.


And that’s the first part of our discussion! As you can see, we already had a lot of discussion already, and we still have more to talk about, so join us tomorrow for Part 2 as we go even further into this light novel!

(Links to buy Tearmoon Empire, Vol. 1: Amazon / Other links )

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