The theme song for the last handful of Danmachi volumes was AC/DC's Hell's Bells, because it's been hell for Bell as he battled a souped-up monster, nearly got killed by an absurdly overpowered monster, and then fell into a den of bloodthirsty monsters. The lad's had it rough, so he takes time off for some much needed R&R, and while he's kicking back, he and all the other main supporting characters reflect on who they are now and what their tough first days in Orario were like.
Volume 15 shares its formatting with volume 8, being a collection of laid-back short stories, except 15 isn't set to the backdrop of a rival nation laying siege to the city, so right off the bat the pacing's chill, which, after 14's nonstop streak of fights, one of which had a page count in the triple digits, is a breath of air when the most exciting going-on is two characters playing shogi. Not fresh air, mind, because the characters' backstories don't provide much information we don't already know. The series hasn't been shy about laying out a character's humble or troubled beginnings, so all this volume does is elaborate upon the finer details. It does offer up morsels of new fun facts, but it reads like an Earthsea novel in how it's more summary than scene, and a lot of what's summarized is padding that can be summarized into the brief summary we had before.
The minimum standard for what all the backstories should've met would have to be the past of Bell's adviser, Eina. First off, it does teach us some new things about her, so it checks that box. But more importantly, it provides her motivation for why she's so ornery about educating Bell on anything and everything there is to know about the Dungeon, even if it's way ahead of his current skill level. It fumbles what could've been a great wham! moment by gently leading the reader into a tragedy rather than just slapping them in the face with it, but for what it is, Eina's backstory is the only instance of a tangible takeaway.
Probably the biggest fault with this volume's telling of its characters' backstories is that it's telling its characters' backstories. The series has always had an over-eagerness for explaining that a background character who wants a discounted lamp is a greedy pig, but it's become especially oratorical in preaching to us how the characters have grown or changed. Like, no duh Bell's better off fifteen volumes in. I've only been reading since the first volume. That's something I should be able to reflect upon on my own when I'm making my midnight visit to the fridge, but the series decided to block my path and flex its biceps to show how much iron it's been pumping.
The steady worldbuilding is one of my favorite aspects of this series, but the worldbuilding dips into the uncanny when, during the epilogue, the city holds a nightlong festival to mourn the Adventurers lost in the Dungeon, and I couldn't put my finger on why this holiday didn't sit right with me. At first, I thought it was because it didn't match the volume's before/after theme. Then I recalled how this series has never had a strong suit for emotion, delivering its feverish moments like a high school actor trying too hard to put on a convincing performance. Legitimate faults, but I would've begun this paragraph by describing the epilogue as jarring or awkward rather than uncanny if I could settle with either pick. I hemmed and I hawed until it got dark and I needed to switch on my bedroom light, and that was when I had my “Aha!” moment: the reason this new bit of worldbuilding is unsettling is because it butts heads with the preestablished worldbuilding.
At least, I thought it was an “Aha!” moment. Maybe it still is. The series has done great at constructing the rough an' tough culture of Orarian Adventurers, and it's this “pick yourself up by your bootstraps”-centric attitude for Dungeon crawling that has been the fuel for Bell's growth from fearful boy to fortified young man. So the mawkishness of the holiday doesn't line up with the typical vibe to death of “They know what they signed up for.” But on that same hand, hardening oneself doesn't automatically push out sentimentality, especially sentimentality for those who lost their lives chasing after the high life, a life of fame and riches, better known in Orario as glory. Though that glory, when you break it down, is just slaying monsters and collecting the rocks in their bodies to sell to the central government, which then turns them into light bulbs.
The society of Danmachi is fundamentally flawed, being a joint of imperfections whose hinge bends at an uncanny angle, and I find it difficult to decide if it's right to criticize its citizenry for the values it holds. It's one thing if everybody were hot for human trafficking, but the Orarian glorification of monster-slaying is, on its surface at least, justifiable, and I feel like there's a healthy, fruitful conversation with a sociologist to be had about this combative culture and the competition between familias which costs lives that might otherwise be saved. People are flawed, and therefore so are their civilizations. It's not like a senator in ancient Rome stood up one debate and said, “You know. Women are people, too,” and everybody else went, “Yeah, I think you might be on to something.”
The fifteenth installment in the Danmachi series isn't terrible, and it isn't boring, but it does feel inconsequential. Hardly anything is new, and what's new is sparse on details. There is backstory I've been genuinely curious for, about the vagabonds from not-Japan, but the book squanders that opportunity by kicking it to the curb and presenting a present-day summary on a foxy mama's clumsy transformation into Hestia familia's personal maid and reluctant sex slave to Bell. With the string of close calls the party had in their last Dungeon dive, this volume might've been better spent with Bell and the others reflecting on whether being Adventurers is what they want to do into their futures in spite of the risks, with the epilogue holiday and its call to action for a hero cementing Bell's determination to become that hero and ultimately defeat this series's final boss.