The Demon Sword Master of Excalibur Academy was an interesting outing for me as a reader. This is my first time actually reading a light novel, so on that front alone it was a novel (ha) experience. I am certainly aware of many of the tropes that are associated with modern light novels, but as with many things in life the reality can be quite different in practice.
In terms of credentials, these are all new names for me but I imagine old hat for more experienced fans. Demon Sword Master is written by Yū Shimizu of Seirei Tsukai no Blade Dance fame, with art by Asagi Tōsaka who has done designs for such works as Girly Air Force. Roman Lempert translated it, having previously translated works like 86.
It is very clear that this has a strong “volume one” vibe. Demon Sword Master is, thus far, leaning on a broadly recognizable set of conventions and tropes to ease readers into its world and characters. Generic fantasy world as a base for comfort, which is then hand-waved into the future so it can play off tropes while still creating uncertainty. There's a magic school with power rankings, spell levels, school bullies, teenagers trying to understand their powers, and all the things that come with the territory. Leonis is truly ancient but stuck in a child's body – a familiar trope. We have a “last bastion of humanity” vibe in the Assault Gardens, but there are still modern conveniences, shopping districts, and “normal” life of some sort so it does not feel totally alien. There is a perfectly acceptable powers gimmick in the Holy Sword – powerful pseudo-magical items that a user can manifest – with enough mysterious question marks to give the author leeway to implement nearly any new power idea.
This is the general mood of the majority of the first volume. All the groundwork is being laid with plenty of familiar tropes to get all the pieces in place. Most of the early chapters in particular feel more like a guided tour that covers little more than surface detail at best. Ostensibly we are being told the story from Leonis' perspective, but we seldom get deep insights from him. Most of his dialogue is a variation on one of the following lines:
“Strange, that is not how things used to be.”
“I am a dark lord, I am not to be treated this way!”
“Hm, I guess I can use some of my power.”
In fact, there is very little characterization to speak of. Riselia gets a fair amount of focus, mostly on her new status as a freshly undead(?) servant of Leonis. Her shyness and reluctance in most social situations contrast well with her proactive nature when it comes to protecting others in battle. She and Leonis have an interesting dynamic where they are each covering for one another in different areas, developing a literal and figurative symbiotic relationship. Riselia is mostly passive throughout the volume, but does eventually awaken enough of her newfound power to substantially contribute in the final action sequence, which was nice.
The rest of the cast is sadly quite threadbare. Other than the school bully whose personality is simply “I am a bully,” the majority of the cast members are differentiated by hair color and bust size with little else to go on (Leonis even goes so far as to make a few comments on this). Most of them, like like [Assistant] and [Kimono], only get a handful of lines at best. Even Leonis' shadow assistants Blackas the wolf and [Maid] the assassin, who are characters you would expect to get slightly more attention, do not receive much spotlight in this volume.
The one major exception is Elfine Phillet, the platoon operator. Elfine's backstory gets just enough coverage to feel meaningful, while also doing a good job of developing the Holy Sword lore further since her power has become weakened/withdrawn in the wake of a tragic situation.
The prose itself is solid and not overbearing. How much description is too much or too little is highly subjective, and Yū Shimizu tends towards the lighter end of the equation. Environments, character actions, and battle sequences all move along at a brisk pace and the descriptive text never dwells too long on any one element. However, the descriptions could feel a bit thin at times, to the detriment of conveying common situations like Leonis casting a spell. Here is one such example from the text:
The magic was an eighth-order gravity-type spell, the Grand Pressure Wave, Vira Zuo. The Void's appendages twitched desperately from within the increased gravity, but the creature was unable to stand.
There's nothing outright wrong with this section. It's clear what is happening: Leonis is casting a gravity spell and it pins down the monster. But there is not much to go off of beyond that. What does Leonis' spellcasting look like? Are there hand motions, magical incantations, or mystical implements? What changes are apparent in the environment or characters when the spell is cast? There are no descriptors of color, sound – not even a strange feeling in the air when it happens. Basic contextual questions like “what does an eight-order spell mean” are also left unanswered. My brain is naturally inclined to think in D&D terms, so an eighth-level spell is presumably very powerful, but that is an assumption I am bringing to the text which I have no way of verifying.
I assume the lack of heavy descriptions is a combination of stylistic and adaptation leeway. Too much detail would lock in the narrative early on and allow less flexibility later, and these leaner action descriptions keep the story moving at a steady clip. Additionally, this lack of highly detailed text allows maximum artistic freedom for any future adaptations in manga, anime, etc. WIthout describing what these specific events look like, there is less burden for future adaptations to make them look, sound, or feel a particular way. I could also see the quicker pace being a benefit for others who do not like for an author to go on and on about a single scene or moment. Personally, I would have preferred a heavier emphasis on the superlatives and descriptive elements – at times it almost felt as though I was reading a screenplay, in which actions are stated and attack names called out but little in the way of environmental descriptors, extended metaphors, or internal dialogues – but that is simply a personal preference.
The illustrations are of excellent quality. I was not sure what to expect as this is my first light novel, but the art is superb in terms of execution. However, it is also highly character-focused and mostly of Riselia; I was expecting more landscapes or battle scenes to go along with the text but I am not sure if that is the norm or not. There aren't a large number of illustrations per se, but it did not feel like there are too few either. Again, as someone who has never read a light novel before I wasn't sure how many illustrations there should be in one, but I was expecting more than it turned out to be in this work.
I think the real highlight of the first volume is the final battle sequence. It is definitely a big set-piece battle, with Leonis and company fighting against an ancient enemy who has become a monstrously-mutated eldritch horror tapping into nearly limitless power. The leaner prose style was a huge boon here as it allowed Yū Shimizu to detail all of the various moving parts of the battle with ease, resulting in a very evocative mental image. That final fight also gave Riselia a chance to come into her own, as well as fleshing out the world and Leonis' character more with the very unique qualities of his grand gesture using the sword. I think this fight shows off the potential that the series has, and I hope it is an indicator of what will come later.
Overall, I found The Demon Sword Master of Excalibur Academy Volume 1 to be a safe start to what could be an interesting series. The groundwork that has been laid out here relies on pretty tired tropes and archetypes to get its story going, but there's enough potential here that it could be the start of something really unique.