Overlord Vol. 1: The Undead King - Light Novel Review

The glory days of the legendary guild Ainz Ooal Gown in the MMO Yggdrasil might have passed, but a new world is left ready to conquer as the game becomes a reality for its last remaining player in the hit novel series which inspired an anime adaption.

The Lowdown

For twelve years, the 41 members of the guild Ainz Ooal Gown reigned as legends of the MMO Yggdrasil. But those glory days have long past, and many of the guild-members have quit, leaving skeletal overlord Momonga as the last remaining member on the last day of the game. Momonga logs in one last time to revel in the splendor of Ainz Ooal Gown’s fortress, the Great Tomb of Nazarick, as the servers go dark, and longs nostalgically for a time since departed. However, as the game comes to a close Momonga finds that fantasy has become reality, and that the game he devoted so much of his life is now his home. With his astounding powers intact and an army of powerful and loyal demons at his command, Momonga sets out to explore this new world which just might be his for the taking.

How Was It?

One might be forgiven for being skeptical of Overlord as another typical “trapped in the game” series akin to Log Horizon or Sword Art Online, but this would be a drastic simplification of the merits of this series. Instead of focusing on players trying to clear the game, Overlord explores the ultimate power fantasy of any MMO player as an all-powerful being in a world ripe for the taking. While other stories are preoccupied with exploring social dynamics among players of the games as relative equals, Overlord’s protagonist, Momonga, is the only player (that we know of) left in the game, and as a result his skills turn him into a sort of demi-god among the residents of Yggdrasil with the power to influence the affairs of the surrounding world. This was an immediately interesting premise because of the way it explored the proclivities of MMO players from a very different angle than has been done in numerous other stories.

Overlord’s initial chapter is one of its finest and most gripping in introducing us to the world of Yggdrasil through the lens of Momonga observing the last fading moments of the game. I really loved the way Momonga’s nostalgic recollections of Ainz Ooal Gown’s glory days introduced the world’s structure in a way that was immediate familiar and relatable, avoiding the narrative dumps early on that often slow down these types of stories. It was extremely fascinating to witness the last throes of an RPG with so much internal history, and I really loved how much thematic richness was imbued by little things such a Momonga slowly reflecting on his guild as he walked through the halls of their grand headquarters. Momonga’s recollections were interesting because of the way they highlighted memories of his that he found personally precious, conveying a compelling sense of yearning that invested me emotionally in his character and the past adventures of Ainz Ooal Gown before the game ends with Momonga sitting on his thrones to witness it. This was an incredibly rich and personal way to introduce us to the world of Yggdrasil and I found myself enthralled early on with this story.

Of course, the end of Yggdrasil doesn’t play out quite the way that Momonga expects when he finds that the game has become real, and as such the next several chapters follow him slowly feeling his way through a world that is familiar yet distinctly different than the one he knew. The defining trait of this new world is that all of the NPCs who served him have become fully autonomous being based on their backstories, and much of this volume is spent depicting Momonga’s process of interaction with them to figure out the way this new world works. Interestingly, all of the NPCs recognize him and the rest of his guild-mates as gods of sorts, giving Momonga a hilarious amount of unquestioning reverence and adoration.

Momonga’s internal response to the actions of his servants was continually fascinating as he tried to manage his servants by attempting to live up to their expectations of him as a great and terrible leader in his interactions with them. He immediately sets out to cautiously gauge how many of Yggdrasil’s mechanics remain in this new situation by talking with his servants, and this felt realistic in the sense that this was done with a tactful degree of trial and error on his part. This was actually quite funny to watch because of the way that Momonga’s occasionally fearful internal monologue clashes with his actions, and although the pacing felt a little bit overladen with exposition during these scenes this was balanced out by a few really funny yet poignant moments as he adapted to this role.

This was made more entertaining by the way his crew of elite servants called “floor guardians” were each given their own distinct personalities, making their interactions with Momonga uniquely fascinating. One of the best scenes to cement the personalities of the floor guardians was a small segment which showed floor guardians commiserating by themselves after a grand address given by Momonga. Besides being darkly funny, I really enjoyed the way this put their loyalty to Momonga in interesting perspective independent of his narrative lens to explore their relationship with him. For example, Momonga’s most powerful servant, Albedo, was modified to be frantically in love with him, leading to some hilarious scenes in which she would over analyze his actions in the most literal of ways. In turn, Momonga’s internal observations continued to be interesting while he slowly got a grasp on the world, creating a gripping dynamic between him and his entertainingly deferential servants.

The bulk of the book’s second half spends time slowly setting the table of the world immediately surrounding Nazarick. I liked that we immediately got the sense of a living and breathing world with people going about their lives that existed independently of Momonga’s little fiefdom. We also get introduced to the political dynamics of this world, and although they weren’t anything too special or interesting I definitely wanted to see Momonga get himself involved in them for interests sake. And that he does after a village situated near Nazarick is attacked by bandits, giving Momonga the opportunity to gauge his powers relative to the residents of the world as well as gain information. This was quite heavy on the dialogue overall just as in the first half of the volume, but it felt like comparatively less happened in this space, making this segment feel like a little bit of a slog at times despite being interesting on the whole.

Naturally, Momonga’s expedition led to a couple of fierce battles which were interesting because of Momonga’s struggle to balance fitting into this world clashed with his desire to demonstrate his overwhelming power to influence the world around him. However, once Momonga’s power relative to the rest of the world was demonstrated, the battles lost a lot of their tension. This caused this volume’s climatic battle to fall a little bit flat because it felt quite dragged out in comparison to what actually happened in it, and as a result it felt as though the second half of this volume probably could have been trimmed down by quite a bit to avoid dragging along. It was still quite fascinating to watch Momonga do his plotting and slowly gain confidence, but the political dynamic explored didn’t feel quite as interesting as I thought it might have. However, this was still primarily about setting the table for Momonga’s future adventures, so I wasn’t overly bothered by this second half because I still felt that it did a good job portraying Momonga’s slow process feeling out this new world.

As a side note, Yen Press did a fantastic job with this physical release by including all of the illustrations and character profiles in colour. The illustrations are absolutely stunning, and are definitely unique in compared to the anime-inspired illustrations most other light novels have. The book is also printed on higher-quality paper than their usual light novel releases, giving this volume a premium feel.

Final Thoughts

Overlord Vol. 1 is a compelling look at the Momonga’s process of coping with being given virtually unlimited power in a richly developed world. I really enjoyed the way Yggdrasil was introduced through Momonga’s wistful recollections of the glory days of Ainz Ooal Gown, and this gave the story a personal feel that made me emotionally invested both in Momonga’s own story as well as that of his burgeoning kingdom. The characters are given interesting personalities, and I really liked seeing their interactions with Momonga for the way they cemented his unique position within the world. Although the second half of this volume drags a little bit at times, I liked the way that it introduced the broader world that Momonga will be inhabiting. This volume was all about setting the table for Momonga’s future adventures, and it definitely succeeds in characterizing him in a fascinating and impactful manner.


Overlord Vol. 1: The Undead King was translated by Emily Balistrieri and published by Yen Press on May 24th, 2016. Authored by Kugane Maruyama and illustrated by so-bin, the series is currently ongoing and published by Enterbrain. The series received an anime adaption by Madhouse in Summer 2015 lasting for 13 episodes. Volume 2 is scheduled to be published in English on September 20th, 2016.

Verdict:

A-

Date of Publication: May 24th, 2016

Translator: Emily Balistrieri

Author: Kugane Maruyama

Publisher: Yen Press



Matt

Matt is a broke law student by day, broke law student by night, and one of the co-founders of Taykobon in his dwindling spare time. Although his favourite series tend to be shonen adventure series, he also has a soft spot for slice-of-life shojo romances. He enjoys following the manga industry, and is a fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Toronto Blue Jays in other nonexistent spare time. 

Favourite series: Bakuman

Favourite author: Io Sakisaka