Spoiler alert – she avoids dying again!
Having managed to avert her first death flag, Erika Aurelia nevertheless knows from her experience of playing Liber Monstrorum in her previous life that she still has quite a few more to duck before she can even consider resting easy. Thus, as much as she is looking forward to spending the holiday of Adventmas in the capital, she’s also wary of the possibility of signing her own death warrant should she not be careful. Avoiding leveling a cruel insult at the heir to throne should be easy enough, but ensuring that the boy, Prince August, does not barter his own soul for the ability to ride dragons proves far trickier, even with the aid of her new ally, Tirnanog, the very beast who tried to kill Erika and her friends during her last adventure.
In contrast to the other reborn-as-villainess stories available in English, Deathbound Duke’s Daughter comes across as much more of a fantasy adventure story, albeit one that reads as if it’d likely appeal more to a younger audience were it not for the first volume’s grim backstory (Erika was murdered in a prior life by a man she turned down). Its all reminiscent to me of Harry Potter, actually, if you’ll forgive me for bringing that up given the odiousness of its author. There’s a bit more focus on the combat tactics of magical battles than I recall being the case with HP, but the dynamic of kids ending up fighting for their lives versus magical beasts after trying to untangle mysterious happenings sure rings familiar. In fact, this volume here sure is a lot like the second volume of HP, as both hit their climaxes in hidden chambers, driven there by children forming ill-advised relationships with fantastical figures. There’s a similar moral simplicity to both series, too, which holds me back from comparisons to the few other fantasy series I read as a child (and very few it was, as it wasn’t a genre that was much to my tastes back then; in retrospect, I think it’s Narnia’s fault, as I think those were the first fantasy books I read and I didn’t like them).
So, DDD ends up as a series being something which is both very clearly built off of the bones of otome game conventions while also presenting a very different kind of approach and feel than the other otome isekai outings available in English currently. Even with Erika’s focus remaining on a desire to not die, a desire which is itself steered by her knowledge of her new world as video game, it was easy for me to forget for long periods of reading time that this is an otome isekai. Erika isn’t much fixated on specifically avoiding being villainous herself, and opting to not say something rude to someone doesn’t feel like much of a moral quandary. When she does at last have to roll her sleeves up, things have traveled well past the point wherein her own decision to be decent would’ve meant much.
Nevertheless, the harem does continue to accrue, although it is a bit difficult to take it seriously when the principal players haven’t even started hitting puberty yet. Admittedly, there’s a lot that’s hard to take seriously given how young the cast is – I sure am accustomed to anime logic when it comes to ages (she says, turning to stare at the Gundam franchise), but Erika’s would-be champion Claus, age ten, being tasked as part of a magical secret mission and also brought along on interrogations is even a bit much for me. Future story arcs also will involve adult characters falling for a teen Erika, so a solid base of kids being entirely too competent and skilled, and of possessing the kind of analytical skills I wouldn’t even expect of seventeen year olds, makes me deeply, deeply uneasy.
I’m a bit on the fence about this series. I appreciate that its taking a different tone than its otome isekai stablemates, and this particular installment ranges from decent to pretty good, but there are elements which continue to trip me up just when I seem to be settling into engrossment. I mentioned the kids being a bit too precocious, but the narrative also seems unable to entirely break away from tiresome and sexist elements. The villain in this outing is the first female character we’ve come across who is depicted as sexy, and she’s using her immense powers for evil stuff ’cause she is hoping to be able to marry a pretty boy. Erika’s in another situation wherein her merely saying something to someone could guarantee her gruesome death… and it’s implicit that it’d be her fault for speaking… a story element which is all the more troubling in turn as it seems to frame Erika’s miserable experience in her first life as having been her own fault for somehow not figuring out how to recite the correct sets of phrases to head off cruelty there. There’s also a fuss toward the end of the book involving Erika’s face being cut, because OHH NOOOOO BUT YOU’RE A GIRL YOUR ONLY VALUE IS BY BEING PRETTY OH NOOOOOOO YOUR FACE OH NOOOO IF IT SCARS YOU HAVE NO VALUE.
One thing I have not yet mentioned is that this volume does move decisively to place the adventures Erika and her friends are experiencing within a larger framework involving goings on in the kingdom which will presumably tie in with the as-yet-unmet heroine of Liber Monstrorum. Despite the issues I have with the series, I am intrigued by this larger framework and would like to learn more about what’s going on in a deeper sense. But I think next volume will bear more in common with the focus on the episodic like the first two did; there are five arcs of the story available in Japanese, but Erika doesn’t get to start school until the fourth one. There will… also probably be a big gap between this volume and the next, as only the first two arcs have had official releases so far – this started life as a webnovel before it was picked up by publisher Futabasha, and the next three arcs have not yet been published.
As usual, a good release from J-Novel Club… I’ve hit the point where I struggle to say something about the quality of release with JNC’s titles since they’re almost always well-handled. The sorts of series I tend to read, too, all avoid what was my biggest opposition to bothering with LNs – awful, clunky prose, often a product of anglophone fans’ demands for “authentic” translations which read as if they were machine-generated. After reading a couple dozen LNs in the past year, it seems safe to say that decent prose isn’t an exception to the rule for English-translated LNs anymore… but that does make it something which feels less worth specifically making note of for other would-be readers. DDD’s second volume reads well, which means translator Roy Nukia and editor Taylor Fonzone have done a good job with it, even if I do also feel like a broken record for saying so when it is a JNC title under consideration.
Since I’ve mostly mentioned what I didn’t like about it, its fair to wonder if I either liked it or think it’s worth picking up. To the first, yes, I did like it… mostly. It’s far from being one of the stronger LN series I’m currently following, but I do appreciate that it manages to do something markedly different with its popular premise. I also find its world-building surprisingly strong – there isn’t a huge amount of time spent on it, but author Terasu Senoo’s done a great job of clearly establishing it simply by having its characters experiencing it. Another quirk I really enjoy is how Senoo’s demonstrated within the story’s world how legends, myths, and religious stories end up being confused, conflated, and misremembered over time, leading to encounters with supernatural beings who vary significantly from the received narratives about them. But! As much as I like all of that, I’m really displeased with the sexism that the story just will not shake loose from, all the more irksome when the heroine’s backstory is of death by toxic masculinity. I’m not expecting these elements to be dropped at this point, either, so I’ll freely admit it may only be a matter of time to when I end up dropping the series. But it probably is worth giving a shot for fans of otome isekai who’d like something a little different than what’s presented in the likes of My Next Life as a Villainess or Tearmoon Empire.