Female Merchant, who first was introduced as Noble Fencer, the sole survivor of her party who was saved from goblins by Goblin Slayer and the gang, is clearly one of the more difficult characters for author Kumo Kagyu to write. That's not to say that she isn't well-written, because that's not true; Kagyu does a credible job of working with the trauma she's suffered and seems keen on reframing her from “victim” into “survivor.” But the sheer number of times this shift has been the focus of the character and her role in the story makes it feel like it's something Kagyu is somehow stuck on, and in this volume it almost seems like Female Merchant is being used as a way to show Priestess and High Elf Archer as compassionate people rather than serving as her own character.
Of course, part of that may be due to the fact that she's the one who gets the plot ball rolling. Female Merchant, whom we know to be fairly high up in the aristocracy, is able to use her merchant career as a way to go places where a diplomat or other government official would be unwelcome, or at least be regarded with suspicion. This volume gets going when she comes into the Guild to ask Goblin Slayer's party to serve as her guards on a trip to the neighboring desert nation. There's something amiss there, the nature of which isn't really revealed until later on in the novel, and one of the markers of this is the sudden appearance of goblins. Since they're not a monster indigenous to the desert, and because she's got a troubled history with them, she wants an expert in their slaying to accompany her. Unsurprisingly, the moment he hears the word “goblin,” Goblin Slayer is in.
It's a sign of how far he's come that he is, in fact, at least a little nervous about going so far afield. Although he doesn't say as much, we can glean that information from the scene with Cow Girl at home before he departs. Cow Girl comes to find him in his room with his dinner, rightly assuming that he'll be consumed with preparations for his trip. What's important is that he doesn't make her leave or say that he'll be over to the kitchen to eat when he's done; instead he allows her to stay and lean against his unarmored back before they eat together in his room. It's a move equivalent to a formerly stray animal sleeping with their belly exposed around people for the first time, a sign that he's truly let down his guard and feels completely comfortable with her. Even if that's not your preferred ship, there's something really sweet about the entire scene. It makes sense that Cow Girl would be the first person he was able to rather literally come out of his shell for; after all, he's known her the longest and their shared childhood trauma makes her better equipped to understand him. But more than that, it's a sign that Goblin Slayer has finally found a place where he can feel at ease, and that means that, for the first time since we've known him, he truly has somewhere to come back when the adventure is over.
That's important for the other characters, too, because Priestess especially looks up to him as something of an ideal. She's fully aware of his flaws, and that does make him more of a person to her than when they first teamed up, at which point he was her savior. Priestess has found her place to belong in the adventuring party – and her skills just keep improving, as Guild Girl notes – but that's not quite the same thing as the idea of “home” that Goblin Slayer has embraced. Seeing him find that is an important step in Priestess' own development because it shows her the next step she needs to take, even as it drives home the reminder that, for all of his oddities, he's just a person like any other, not some goblin killing heroic figure.
This brings us back to Female Merchant, who is still very much in the hero-worshipping phase with most of the party. Priestess unwittingly reinforces that with her treatment of the other young woman; she says multiple times in this book that she feels that Female Merchant is like a little sister to her, by which she means that she feels she needs to take care of her and protect her. While that's certainly valid given how they met, it also could hinder Female Merchant as much as it makes her feel safer. High Elf Archer does something similar with her, and this is where it starts to look like Kagyu is struggling with the character a bit. It's absolutely wonderful to see these three women have a solid, mutual friendship that doesn't devolve into outdated ideas of girl-on-girl aggression (especially since Kagyu could have made at least two of them “rivals” for Goblin Slayer), but it also feels as if Female Merchant is hovering between being a fully realized character and one solely defined by her trauma. Since this has been the case for most of her appearances in the series, this novel drives home that fact and it begins to feel like a problem.
“A problem” is, in some ways, a good way to define the storytelling here on the whole. It's not a bad book, and the development of the desert nation is interesting, as are the new races who are introduced. But the interlude chapters in the first person feel disjointed and detached from the rest of the novel (as well as a bit confusing as to who's narrating) and Kagyu seems to get stuck in character snags, like with Female Merchant. There is still good work done with Goblin Slayer trying to reconcile with being the leader of the party and his self-image as a loner, and Priestess continues to move forward as she grows as a person. But most of the other characters are just sort of there, and the bulk of the book drags a bit.
Goblin Slayer as a dark sword-and-sorcery fantasy series is still strong. This volume isn't the best, but it does move the characters forward and is really trying with the overarching series plot. “Not as good” is still plenty enjoyable, so hopefully the series is back to full form by the next volume.