Kazuki Hoshino meets transfer student, Aya Otonashi, but somehow he feels he’s met her before. That’s before she declares she’s met him thousands of time and declares war on him. Welcome to the Rejecting Classroom. Born of a wish and seemingly unescapable.
There’s a few books where just reading them becomes an experience in and of itself, and The Empty Box and Zeroth Maria is certainly one of them for me. I went in to this one totally blind (quite literally as I pre-ordered it only because it was recommended to me after buying another light novel and it was on a major sale so I didn’t even really read the blurb before it arrived). And going in blind is a really good idea so I’ll forgive you if you decide to pass on the questionable pleasure of reading my review and just go buy the book. If you want the short and completely spoiler free version of my thoughts: this was fantastic.
While I will try to avoid massive plot spoilers for the remainder of the review, this story revolves around a mystery so pretty much anything I say is going to mean you aren’t finding things out when the story wants you to know them and it is seriously worth going in blind.
Okay, I’ll be up front that the reason I liked this book so much was because it actually really surprised me. About half-way through I thought I had it figured out. Normally I can predict plot lines and even when I’m wrong, what happens is usually within my field of possibilities. This one started heading exactly where I thought it was going to go and then delivered a fantastic twist (and that was less than two thirds of the way through). I actually commented to someone I didn’t know what they were going to do with the rest of the book because it all seemed kind of resolved when the story managed to overturn my expectations twice more before the end without feeling stretched or forced.
Now any story can just randomly shift gear. This didn’t. Each twist, while I utterly failed to see it coming, managed to beautifully fit everything we had been told before and actually make things make more sense. Seemingly random scenes or inconsequential bits of dialogue in one time loop or another were given new significance and basically everything ultimately served a purpose. Even the most mundane of observations.
Part of this is achieved through some really clever choices with the narration and who the protagonist of the story actually is. While Hoshino narrates the lion’s share of the story, at times we shift narrators (evidenced by a different tone and style as well as the use of fonts/italics). Yet this shifting narration is used to expertly lead you down one line of thinking before pulling the rug out from under you in what was probably the best plot twist I’ve ever seen in adolescent literature.
Basically, this story works because everything has weight and there is nothing that you could cut out without the entire story falling inward on itself. So if you get annoyed early on at the girl asking about her mascara, or wonder why a certain character’s reaction might seem off, these things matter even if you don’t know why until far later in the story.
This even manages to mostly avoid the trap of most time loop stories or having us rewitnessing the same scenes over and over by having the narrator also made bored by the repetitions and when he is aware of them he acts in different ways or adds his own commentary to the scene that is vastly different to the previous iteration. Therefore, while the characters aware of the time-loop seem worn down by the endless repetitions, they never make the audience feel worn out by the same process, giving us new and different possibilities each time.
The other excellent choice is in not actually playing the loops in order. We jump forward and backwards through the sequence of time loops, each clearly labelled as the loop numbers work more or less as chapter markers, and they sequence them in order of what the audience needs to know. Some loops we get barely a sentence and others we read the entire day as it happened.
The cast in this classroom are quite interesting though with characters disappearing throughout the loops you will only have a handful that you get particularly close to or have any real need to know anything about. In case you are wondering which characters to care about, the artwork on the first few pages introduces the main group that you should focus on and these are realistically the only characters of substance as the others exist only to give the classroom a sense of reality.
This isn’t a story about growth though. This is a story about wishes. Aya Otonashi has made a wish, though it didn’t turn out exactly as expected. Someone else in the class has made a wish and it has resulted in the looping classroom. Those who remember the loops are slowly going a little crazy through the endless repetitions, and everyone else is either slowly vanishing as the loops continue or totally oblivious and going through the same basic motions again and again.
In a way, the ending kind of reminds me of Kokoro Connect. There was a lot that was fantastic about that anime, but we never did find out the nature of Heartseed and why he put them through everything (other than he could and was curious). There’s a similar feeling when we get to the end of this book. It is satisfying because even though you didn’t endure close to 30000 loops stuck in the classroom, the conclusion definitely ends that situation, but there is still so much about the boxes and the giver of the boxes that remains unknown the information given leads to so many possibilities it just kind of makes you smile at the thought.
Here’s another reason to like this book. Other than one ‘guess what colour panties’ moment, there’s almost no random fan-service sequences. I know, I couldn’t believe it either that a high school story managed to restrain itself even with a male narrator who knew at times that none of the females would remember something anyway. Yay for focus on plot and tone without shoving a random changing room sequence in for the sake of it.
I will point out there are some violent moments and moments of gore. While the story doesn’t go for blood bath there is a traffic accident that occurs in almost every loop and occasionally we get a fairly detailed description of it. There’s also some student on student stabbing as we get closer to the climax. I didn’t mind these parts of the story but I know some readers may hesitate to take them on.
Basically, The Empty Box and Zeroth Maria sets up a great mystery and goes about resolving the situation in a fairly satisfying way that will keep you guessing all the way to the end. Yes, there’s plenty of room for volume 2 (which I think is about three months away from release or something like that), but this particular story provides enough closure. Definitely worth checking out.
If you’re interested in reading The Empty Box and Zeroth Maria Volume 1 it is available on the Book Depository.