Originally Posted: July 26, 2020
“‘Then it’s decided. You are now the Ashen Witch, Elaina. Do your best from now on, okay?’ She clapped a hand on my shoulder. I inhaled deeply and responded, ‘I will.'” – Elaina
There was a beautiful girl with alluring ashen hair and deep violet eyes. She wore a black robe and signature pointy hat. To any and all, she was definitely a witch. Who was she? That’s right. It’s Elaina.
Wandering Witch: The Journey of Elaina, Vol. 1 is the introductory volume to the fantasy light novel series that takes the perspective of the titular witch as she aimlessly travels about her world (i.e. wanders). It takes the premise and anthology-like story structure from Kino’s Journey and adds the fantastical element of magic. While this may seem like a small change, it allows for a greater variety of scenarios. Unfortunately, I have only seen the anime for Kino’s Journey and will make no further comparisons in this review. Aspects of drama, adventure, and action are woven together by Jougi Shiraishi in a fantastical setting to create a unique experience.
Our protagonist, Elaina, is a young witch (around 18) that wants to see the world, eat good bread, and rest at decent inns. As Azure’s illustrations hopefully depicted, she is pretty, cute, and dresses well. (H- Hey! I’m not jealous or anything!) The entire novel is told from her perspective, meaning her inner monologues play a significant part in the telling and presentation of the stories. Unfortunately, Elaina usually offers less than interesting thoughts/insights and a small fraction of time is spent exploring her past and development. This leaves her as a character with a shallow motivation, lack of deeper characterization, and snarky tone (the last being more of a personal gripe). This particular issue is magnified in chapters where she takes up more of the role of a simple observer rather than an actor. Alongside her shallow insights, there are times where she acts less than admirable. She’s human, so it’s understandable, but it can be disconcerting to only have her perspective at those points. In the chapters where her presence does change the course of the plot and/or magic takes a more prevalent role, her history as a witch adds a lot more flavour. Using her background as a witch in ways to deepen the world and create new perspectives could be a huge draw for the series. Considering Elaina and the fantastical elements are the selling points, I hope to see more of that in the future. Furthermore, as we spend more time with Elaina in successive entries, her motivations and characterization will hopefully be better explored.
Next from Elaina, the most important component of the stories are their settings. As chapters are fairly isolated, Jougi Shiraishi must build up each destination from scratch. This allows for each setting to have unique traits that distinguish them and the ability to explore a wide range of themes. However, this approach requires a lot of work to make them convincing and realistic. Of course, this load can be lightened by having a strong common base setting. Unfortunately, in Wandering Witch: The Journey of Elaina, the world is one of generic fantasy and many chapters do not spend enough time for their settings to be meaningful. Instances of ‘small countries with no defining characteristics’ both exemplify and exaggerate this shortcoming. The few times where the setting is decently done are those with a connection to Elaina or explores the ‘magic’ aspect of their world. In doing so, we achieve a deeper understanding of our character and elevate magic beyond a simple gimmick to advance plots. As it stands, there is much to be desired and we will hopefully see further improvement in the next volume.
After the protagonist and settings, it is the stories that take shape. There are a total of 14 chapters in this 229-page volume. Each chapter is mostly self-contained; the exception being three connected by an over-arching plot (a side-story, each constituent chapter is relatively short). A few references improve connectivity but they lack the impact required to form a cohesive world. The disconnected nature of the chapters means each set-up, climax, and conclusion must be relatively strong. Unfortunately, for most of them, I was left unsatisfied by the end. This can be for a variety of reasons, such as:
(1) the story’s climax/reveal was a little too lacklustre/obvious,
(2) me being unable to find a greater meaning to the story (maybe I’m as thick-skulled as rumours say), or
(3) the deeper implications of the story were uncomfortable.
While (3) is perfectly fine if it’s intentional, (1) and (2) mean a story needs a little more to develop. A particularly poor example for (3) is the frequent allegorical uses of ‘pig’ to refer to larger-set individuals. On the other hand, the ending of a certain chapter is unsettling and fine as is. Similar to our review of the settings, the strongest stories were those that featured Elaina-development and where magic takes a larger role in the plot. In those cases, the reward/meaning is the insight provided and large climaxes/reveals are not required. Overall, each story could be a lot stronger and this could be fixed through longer chapters and better weaving of Elaina/magic-development with those of setting and plot.
Now for the final notes. The writing style is clear and simple. For light reading, this is a plus. Descriptions of the world invoke well-defined physical images of the fantasy setting, and side characters have distinct enough personalities and roles that they don’t feel simply conjured up to progress plots. These factors help develop and fill out the world, slowly but surely. Lastly, the artwork for the book is sparse but beautiful and skillfully placed. I would like to see more and that just attests to their quality. If possible, illustrations containing landscapes or depictions of settings can better enhance the immersion of the fantasy setting.
Overall, the light novel has its charm and is well-suited for easy reading during a commute or similar. Given the disconnected structure, it might be best to read a chapter, take a break, and digest before moving forward. Elaina requires better development and has a potential for insight as a witch that has not been realized. Settings are well-described and full of distinct characters but lack a certain depth that would better suit their stories. Similarly, each story needs to be stronger; whether that is through better climaxes, deeper meanings, or more cohesiveness. Despite these shortcomings, I want to like this series. Fortunately, the writing style and chapters focused on Elaina are worth the read. I am excitedly waiting and hopeful for the next entry!
3.7 / 5 – Somewhat Recommended
Readers looking for a series of somewhat-fantastical short stories through the lens of a witch.
Lovers of silver-haired, purple-eyed, magically-inclined girls.
Hello! Thank you for taking the time to read my review (even if you scrolled straight to the bottom). I hope that you take home even a little of what I’ve written down.
If you’re looking for a good reason to start/continue Wandering Witch, it’s looking like there’s a lot of growing up for Elaina throughout the series (physically and otherwise). An interesting change from what I’ve seen in Kino’s Journey.
I’m 春華 or Haruka, aspiring novelist, light novel reviewer, and the recently titled “Effortlessly Effervescent Embodiment of Eloquence.” I’ve only started diving into light novels, so please bear with my naiveté. You can follow my Twitter for updates on my reviews and writing progress. And if you want to talk about light novels with me and many others, consider joining our Discord here! Let’s all get along!