Ascendance of a Bookworm Might Cure Your Isekai Exhaustion

Two years ago, Kodansha banned isekai stories from their annual light novel competition. If that’s not a sign of the times, I don’t know what is. The isekai genre — in which the protagonist travels to an alternate, usually fantasy, world — has been a tried-and-true formula for centuries around the globe. But in modern anime, stories of largely useless male nerds getting hit by trucks and reincarnating in video-game type worlds where all the girls want to date them are… kind of everywhere.

Once in a while you get a twist on the format, but rarely one that keeps it from being too samey. So the arrival of Ascendance of a Bookworm was, in order, a shock, a relief, and a salve.

Don’t get me wrong, this is absolutely a reincarnation isekai, with our protagonist originally being a recently licensed librarian crushed to death by her own bookcases during an earthquake. Her final thought? She’d be happy anywhere in her next life, so long as she’s surrounded by books. She wakes up in the body of Myne, a sickly six-year-old in a medieval-styled fantasy world. Unfortunately, the lower classes of this world can’t read — and some don’t even know what books are.

We piece apart this new world along with Myne, who retains her memories from our world. She eventually learns that books do exist, but only for the elite, and only at a high price. No matter: if she can’t buy books, she’ll just make her own.

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So far, Ascendance of a Bookworm seems to fall into another anime sub-genre: iyashikei, or “healing.” The show has a strangely calming mood to it, partly thanks to the absolutely adorable opening and ending themes. In the first episode, the most violent thing that happens is a chicken gets decapitated offscreen and Myne faints in shock. The rest is dialogue and world-building, along with a framing narrative of a scholar attempting to understand this weird peasant girl’s obsession with the written word.

It’s actually a little shocking to find an isekai anime that’s just… nice. There’s no guy surrounded by a harem of girls who all deserve better. Myne’s not fetishized, even at the times when her adult mind conflicts with her treatment as a child. It’s all just friendly, adorable, relatable content about someone who really likes books. There’s a sense, given Myne’s physical condition, that there are dark days ahead for her. But somehow, even that feeds into the wholesome atmosphere. And yes, “wholesome” is the right word here.

Ascendance of a Bookworm just premiered on Crunchyroll to kick off the fall season, and it’s one of the most promising shows in this season’s batch. Even if you’re weary of isekai, this may well be worth your while. And be sure to show it to your bookworm and librarian friends — they’ll love to see someone like them as a fantasy hero.

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