I have a few theories about why villainess isekai as a genre took off the way it did: the appeal of redemption, or of tangible rewards for being kind and decent. None of them, however, seem to apply to Villainess: Reloaded! Blowing Away Bad Ends with Modern Weapons, an unabashedly violent power fantasy where the villainess leans into being villainous.
I admit, I’m not an expert on villainess isekai, but my impression of the genre is that the villainess usually avoids death flags by being a decent person rather than the arrogant snot she replaced, thus avoiding becoming the kind of person everyone around her wishes death upon. Villainess: Reloaded! goes a totally different route by instead having Astrid, the main character, win the adoration and respect of everyone around her while secretly using magic to create and stockpile a huge armory of guns, grenades, and other modern weaponry so that she can make a preemptive strike and take out her enemies before they can do the same to her.
The book starts with a flash-forward to Astrid in the midst of enacting her revenge as she tromps through a battlefield, determined not to leave any survivors. When she encounters a general, she gleefully explains to him how she used blood magic to remove the part of her brain that allows her to feel empathy or compassion, turning herself into the perfect killing machine. It’s cruel and nasty and poorly-written to boot, and the way she casts herself as a victim while admitting to bullying the heroine reads, to my American eyes, like a mass shooter’s manifesto as she revels in the death and destruction she has caused.
The story doesn’t linger, however, and jumps back in time to when Astrid first awakened, or rather, had her personality overwritten by a college-aged military otaku at the age of four. Here, it falls mostly into the standard beats of a reincarnation isekai: she’s a prodigy in every possible way, with unprecedented stores of mana and the fastest learner any of her teachers have ever seen. She grasps difficult magic effortlessly. When she starts school, her classmates and teachers instantly adore her, and as a voracious reader she is soon able to answer the questions of even the advanced students, as she masters everything instantly.
She’s the kind of character for whom the term “Mary Sue” was invented, a girl who is so amazing and perfect and worshipped by every single person who meets her. This type of character has become more or less the standard isekai protagonist, which is baffling because they are not remotely fun or interesting to read about, especially when the prose is as prosaic as this is. The manga-style illustrations do little to add life to the story or the world, as they’re almost entirely generically cute anime children posed statically against a blank background.
Even after the story steps away from the glorified gun violence, it’s just not fun to spend time in Astrid’s head. She’s nasty, but not in a way that’s fun or interesting or clever. Two things separate her from the likes of The Rising of the Shield Hero‘s Naofumi or Redo of Healer‘s Keyaru: her gender and her obsession with the military. In her previous life, she was a college military otaku, so she knows a lot about guns and other tools of warfare, which she recreates using her magic with the goal of stockpiling a massive arsenal for the day she’ll face consequences for her villainy. Most misanthropic light novel protagonists are male, so Astrid being a girl is slightly unusual (at least among the series that get released in the US), but that doesn’t make her any more interesting or really give her much of a different perspective than her compatriots other than the gender of the characters falling in love with her. As the secondary characters fawn over her, her internal monologue toward them drips with scorn and venom. When they compliment her, she calls them “peace addicts” and not only anticipates but looks forward to killing them. Her interest in the military extends beyond technology and tactics and into excitement at the prospect of mass death and carnage. She’s just a mean, nasty person.
While the other characters aren’t as actively unpleasant as Astrid, I wouldn’t go so far as to call them “fun” or “interesting.” They’re the kind of secondary characters ubiquitous to this sort of light novel: everyone is either a hopeless simp or an incompetent asshole, without much personality of their own. Astrid’s best friend seems to exist purely to prop her up and try to set her up with one of the boys at the ripe old age of six years old (practically an old maid!). The boys, all of whom Astrid considers future enemies except for one of their magic teachers, are more or less indistinguishable from each other as they all angle to get close to her.
In their author’s note at the end, 616th Special Information Battalion notes that they hope they included enough details to satisfy the military otaku among their readers. I can’t say for sure, since I myself am not a military otaku in the least, but it’s hard to imagine that they did. Most things are pretty vaguely described, with specific details offered only a handful of times, and if I know one thing about curative fandoms like military geeks, they love specificity. There’s a failure of imagination here too; rich descriptions of things like strategy or the tactile sensation of firing off a weapon could go far here, but none of that is anywhere to be found, just the usual dull listing of actions one after another.
There’s some subversive appeal to the idea of a protagonist who, instead of denying the role she has been assigned and befriending those who would have been her enemies, leans into it and defeats her fate through some other means. It has potential to explore ideas like gender roles, societally acceptable levels of femininity, or good girl/bad girl dichotomies. However, that would require a degree of self-awareness that Villainess! Reloaded simply does not seem to possess as of this volume. Instead, it’s a mix of isekai, revenge fantasy, and magic high school that mixes the worst tropes of each genre, creating a story that is as sophomoric as it is poorly written.