Before writing Reborn to Master the Blade, author Hayaken tells us in their afterword, writing a female protagonist wasn’t in the cards. Then they were thinking about their new work while watching Pretty Cure with their kids and suddenly it didn’t seem like such a far-off concept. As backstories go, this is a pretty good one, if only because it chronicles the moment when an author realized that gender didn’t have to dictate the kind of story they write, because no matter what her gender, Inglis Eucase can be a sword-slinging badass and a king reborn.
I say “king” because that’s precisely who Inglis was in her first go-round: the Hero-King Inglis, who built up a kingdom out of nothing with only his political savvy, excellent choice of advisors, and his sword. He was, as the title “hero-king” implies, very good at it, but it wasn’t necessarily the life that he would have lived had he had more of a choice, or at least felt less compelled by his desire for everyone to live in a stable nation. That’s why he asks the goddess who guided him for a second chance – it’s not that this life was unfulfilling, but rather that his status kept him from doing things he might have preferred, such as remaining a soldier on the front lines. The goddess agrees to Inglis’ request, and sometime in a far-distant future, Inglis reopens his eyes to find that his pronouns have changed and also (s)he’s a just-born infant.
Stories where a baby houses an adult consciousness within them can be tricky to write, in no small part because the level of disconnect is so high. Hayaken largely manages to skirt around a lot of the stickier elements by simply not describing too much. Baby Inglis (she has the same name, presumably having been named after herself in her past life) is frustrated by her lack of physical control, but she doesn’t get stuck on it. She can still manipulate mana and train her infant magic, so she can keep herself occupied, plus she’s interested in observing the world around her to see how it’s changed. The most striking thing she notices is that magic, used by actively manipulating aether and mana during her last lifetime, has gone the way of the dodo, and people now rely on runes inscribed onto their hands. This means that when Inglis uses magic (as an infant, a little girl, and later a teenager) no one has any idea what she’s doing; in fact, her ability to do so means that she can’t be marked by a rune. While this is fine with Inglis – runes often determine someone’s life path and she’s got zero interest in a proscribed life – it shakes up the rest of her extended family. Fortunately, they all know what Inglis is capable of, and since she’s not upset, they do strive not to be as well, because if there’s one thing that the goddess got absolutely right, it’s that Inglis’ family is warm, supportive, and loving.
Possibly a little too loving by some readers’ standards – they all very much want her to marry her cousin Rafael. Since the book ends with her still fifteen, that’s largely still just a pipe dream on the part of her parents, aunt, uncle, and cousin Rafinha, but what’s more interesting is the way that Inglis reacts. She’s not thrilled with the idea, but not because Rafael is her first cousin; it’s because, as she puts it, “her tastes haven’t changed” since her past life. We’re meant to understand this to mean that she’s attracted to women, but that doesn’t quite follow through in her actions and reactions; it really reads more like she’s not hugely attracted to anyone. She appreciates physical beauty no matter what someone’s gender is, but even in her past life she apparently didn’t marry, and she reads more as someone demi-sexual than anything. But what’s more important, and striking, is the way that she reacts to being a beautiful woman herself. Inglis is vastly uncomfortable with the male gaze (and female, to a degree; the obligatory bath scene where Rafinha gropes her breasts is met with much more discomfort on Inglis’ part than we usually see), and even thinks unhappily back to when she used to admire women’s bodies in her past life. She has a very real sense of being objectified and she doesn’t like it at all, suddenly realizing how awful it is to be the recipient of such things. Although this isn’t harped on, it’s absolutely one of the story elements that sets Reborn to Master the Blade apart from a lot of other light novels, because it’s a real lesson that has real-world implications – you don’t need to be a reincarnated fictional character to begin to understand that catcalling and ogling women aren’t good things to do and make women uncomfortable.
For all of its strengths and interesting decisions, Reborn to Master the Blade does have its issues as well. The volume is one of the more repetitious light novels I’ve read recently, with a lot of reiteration of the basic premise at the start of almost every chapter. While this is likely a result of serialization, it also drags the prose down and can make reading it a bit of a chore at times. We also don’t get a great sense of who the characters besides Inglis are; Rafinha fares a little better, but for the most part we have one character and a bunch of near-cardboard cutouts accompanying her. Even the rebel faction feels far too underdeveloped for the cause they’re espousing. Not knowing how we got from King Inglis’ utopic kingdom to a land where a steampunk floating island nation seeks to control all the people below is something that can be resolved with time; the characters not being developed is a bit less understandable.
Still, Reborn to Master the Blade is a good, fast read. It deals with some interesting topics and the juxtaposition of the sword-and-sorcery world on the ground with the steampunk Highland is good, and if Inglis is a little bloodthirsty, she’s still a good protagonist. This series has potential, and it’s worth getting through the less impressive parts to see where it’s going to go from here.