When I said I wanted to start reading alternate history stories again back in January, this wasn’t quite what I had in mind. About a month ago, I was browsing a small hole-in-the-wall forum and was intrigued by a few scattered mentions of a recent animé series set in a magically-charged version of the Great War. Since I’ve always been a sucker for alternate histories centered around the First World War, I threw the title into Google and was surprised to find a show from the Winter 2017 season that somehow managed to combine about a half-dozen of my interests into one package.
That said, this rambling post is not a review of that show. The Saga of Tanya the Evil, henceforth abbreviated to Tanya, started life in 2013 as a web serial written by the pseudonymous “Carlo Zen” with illustrations by Shinobu Shinotsuki. Since then, it has been republished as ongoing light novel series, and has been adapted into an ongoing manga and a limited-run animé series. While the animé is far and away the most popular version of the three in the West, I have decided to tackle the first light novel instead. There have been plenty of reviews and discussions of the animé in the past year, so I was more interested in approaching the material from a different angle, one that sticks closer to the (tidied-up and translated version of the) original text. I also find it much more comfortable and enjoyable to dig through a book than a television series, and judging from my daily statistics it seems like the feeling among all you guys in Internet Land is mutual.
The Saga of Tanya the Evil begins, as all great tragedies do, with a middle-aged Japanese salaryman. As he narrates in the book’s prologue chapter, there was little on the outside to distinguish him from his colleagues. He completed his assignments diligently, had a good working relationship with his superiors, and was advancing up the corporate ladder at a steady pace. Inside, however, was a different story. Influenced by both the Stanford Prison Experiment and the Chicago school of economics as a young man, he had developed a personality that could best be described as “ruthlessly consequentialist.” In his worldview, the ultimate goal of any human is to secure a comfortable life for themselves while maintaining their personal and intellectual freedom. To that end, he redesigned his life and personality in service of this ultimate ambition. In his eyes, the corporate world was a great interlocking mechanism he could master and manipulate, outwardly following the letter of the law while pursuing his own priorities. Even his interpersonal relationships were chosen based on their utility to his needs. With all these plans in place, his life should have been smooth sailing.
However, a disgruntled former employee and a high-speed commuter train had different plans, and he found himself quite literally meeting his maker. Suffice to say, the talks went poorly. The divine presence was less than pleased with the salaryman, bemoaning him as the tragic waste product of a world that had abandoned faith. By contrast, the salaryman refused to acknowledge the presence as his creator, dubbing him “Being X,” and attempted to argue his case while treating Being X as an incompetent middle manager. Matters reached a head when the salaryman argued that personal safety, scientific rationalism, and even his gender had provided a comfort that made faith unnecessary. Intrigued and piqued by his statements, Being X decided to throw his soul back into the cycle of reincarnation, and before he knew it, the salaryman was waking up on July 18, Unified Year 1914, in an orphanage in the Imperial capital of Berun, as a newborn girl named Tanya Deguerrechaff.
Tanya’s new world is an alternate history Europe built with a “top-down” approach. Rather than changing one event in the past and extrapolating its consequences, the world of Tanya is a version of 1914 Europe that has been reworked enough to give it a unique identity while still retaining the essence of its source. While western Europe is much as we know it aside for some name changes, central Europe is dominated by “the Empire,” a blobby polity that encompasses the old German and Austrian empires minus Bosnia, along with Russian Poland, Denmark, and possibly the Low Countries. In short, it is the sort of pan-German state that haunted A.J.P. Taylor‘s nightmares. Further to the east, the Balkans are dominated by a “Grand Duchy of Dacia” that covers the same territory as modern Romania and Moldova and an unnamed southern Slav state made up of Bosnia, Serbia, Macedonia, and Bulgaria, which sounds like a fistfight waiting to happen. Finally, Russia makes its appearance as the “Russy Federation,” a newly communist polity that controls almost all of the Russian Empire’s old territory.
The story proper begins in June of 1923, and things are in a delicate state. The peace in Europe is crumbling, with diplomatic brinksmanship and monthly “border incidents” the order of the day. The Empire is saddled with the same strategic problem Germany had of being surrounded by hostile neighbors with nothing to protect it but a massive highly skilled standing army. To alleviate this strategic conundrum, the Empire has adopted the “interior lines” strategy, an elaboration of the Schlieffen plan in which the Empire’s various fronts fight holding actions while the bulk of the army is shuffled around the country to defeat each of its enemies in turn. Technologically speaking the militaries of 1923 appear to be equivalent to those of the later years of WWI and the early 1920s, with motorized infantry in common use but with armored cavalry still a relatively uncommon sight. The one key difference between the armies of Tanya’s world and ours is the presence of mages. A relatively recent innovation, mages use personal “computational orbs” to channel their innate abilities to allow them to fly and use magically enhanced rifles in combat. The text likens them to attack helicopters, with their primary roles being observation and close air support. While all the nations have built their own aerial mage forces, none have been as aggressive as the Empire, which has dropped both gender and age restrictions in pursuit of supremacy on the battlefield, all of which explains how Magic Second Lieutenant Tanya Deguerrechaff finds herself watching the skies over Empire-controlled Scania for signs of the Regadonia Entente Alliance’s (Sweden with Norway still attached) army.
Deus lo Vult is a chronicle of the first year of war as experienced and interpreted by both Tanya and the Empire’s generals. The inciting incident comes with the Entente Alliance’s unprovoked and ill-conceived attack on Scania, an invasion that quickly devolves into a rout at the hands of the superior Imperial forces. However, as the Empire’s generals push farther into the Entente in hopes of eliminating the threat to their northern border, they trigger an attack from the François Republic aimed at the industrial heartland of the Rhine, pushing the war closer to a general European conflict. Of course, all this is great news for Tanya, who sees the outbreak of hostilities as a way to finagle a promotion to a comfy administrative position far behind the front lines. To accomplish this, Tanya brings all the skills she honed in the corporate world to bear on the ersatz-German military bureaucracy.
While there are plenty of scenes of aerial mages joined in battle, The Saga of Tanya the Evil is not really an action-adventure story. Rather than focusing on the thrill of combat, Zen is far more interested in dissecting the operation of social systems, particularly bureaucracy, the reaction of people to those systems, as well as the eternal questions of nature versus nurture and the roots of personal identity. The setting itself seems to have been chosen specifically to explore these questions. Unlike the more melodramatic Second World War, WWI tends to be seen as a war of systems. In the current popular account, it was caused by historical trends stretching back a century, sprang into being through seemingly autonomous mass mobilization plans, and grew to be a war where economic management and endurance were far more important than victories on the battlefield. The choice of the German military bureaucracy is also intriguing. Even before the war it was seen as a fearsome organization that inspired other nations to copy its example, and as such it has elements familiar to us in our everyday lives. However, as war is not commerce and national defense is not business, the military has its own language, priorities, and weaknesses a would-be careerist needs to master.
As a protagonist, Tanya is perhaps more interesting as a case study than a traditionally likeable lead. Certainly there is little in Tanya to find admirable. Along with retaining the icy worldview she developed in her previous life, Tanya has nursed a deep churning rage against Being X for placing her in this new body and world. Her fury is only compounded early in Deus lo Vult when the experimental computation orb she is testing for the military is blessed by another deity, granting her use of its increased combat potential on the battlefield at the cost of compelling her to praise the glory of God every time she activates it. (The theology of Tanya is a bit odd. While Being X is identified with the Christian God, he makes use of the Buddhist concept of reincarnation towards enlightenment, and he associates with any number of deities of other pantheons who are simultaneously below yet equal to him.) While her struggle against the bumbling deities who torment her does humanize her, the fury she brings to this conflict only serves to bring the worst aspects of her personality to the fore. Over the years her anger has merged with her utilitarian view of other people to produce a streak of genuine sadism. She is feared in battle for the fury with which she annihilates her opponents, to the point where the troops of the Republic have given her the moniker “The Devil of the Rhine.” As a cadet she came within a hair’s breadth of performing a field execution on a disobedient underclassman, and when given recruits of her own to instruct, she subjects to a regimen combining all the worst modern special forces training has to offer, all while happily taking potshots at them. And yet, because she knows the right things to say, the right people to talk to, and the right image to present, the bulk of the Imperial military leadership see her as a wunderkind, wise and disciplined far beyond her years, filled exactly the sort of patriotic zeal and combat skill the military needs these days. If nothing else, The Saga of Tanya the Evil is a horror story of the power evil men can accrue by putting on the right face.
But while the story is a tale of the villain’s progress, it is not a wholesale celebration of Tanya’s road to triumph over man and God. While much of Deus lo Vult is given over to Tanya’s inner thoughts, there are plenty of spaces in which to consider her critically. Perhaps the most interesting of these spaces is to be found in a gap within Tanya’s own worldview. As is all too common in the real world, Tanya’s “rationality” is something of a fraud. She considers her system of thought to be more than capable of comprehensively explaining the world, but it actuality it only explains a portion of it congenial to her, while everything outside it is either ignored or dismissed as irrationality. As she lives in a world ruled by honor, duty, camaraderie, and faith, she is forever vexed by people who “refuse” to act “rationally” and throw her plans into disarray. She attempts to negotiate a cease-fire with a group of Republican mages by appealing to their rational self-interest, not realizing that the people she’s been killing for months might not be very interested in talking to her. She tortures her recruits in an effort to scuttle a new program she’s been ordered to oversee, only to be disappointed when they rise to the challenge. While she adapts to the setbacks, she still finds the motives behind them to be an enigma. Additionally, while she is dimly aware of her own narcissism and sadism, she never interrogates herself to understand these tendencies, let alone change them. She is the sort of person who could argue “based on social and moral norms, I’m not nearly as horrible as you make me out to be” to God and not understand the problem with that statement. While she has a supreme talent for deception and manipulation, she isn’t as clever as she thinks she is, and one of the great pleasures of Tanya is in watching her fail rather than succeed.
Finally, while the age and gender issue isn’t used to its fullest potential, a few intriguing seeds are planted. In Deus lo Vult Tanya’s greatest issue is having to navigate the world with the body of a child. While her personality is more than enough to bulldoze anyone who tries to baby her, the simple tasks of finding a uniform that fits, a rifle she can carry, and even finding a high enough chair in the officer’s mess to be an endless trial. However, Tanya’s exact relationship to her body is somewhat unclear. In the text, the passages narrated by Tanya seem to be disassociated to the point where “Tanya” switches between being the narrator and being a outside party the narrator is describing, though this may be an artifact of the translation. Rather more curiously, while Tanya is often at odds with her body, her behavior does not suggest any of the traditional symptoms of gender dysphoria. While much of this is due to Tanya applying her ruthlessly utilitarian logic to her own biology, a tantalizing possibility exists that rather than being a man trapped in a woman’s body, Tanya may actually be a man’s memories trapped in a woman’s mind in a woman’s body. While Deus lo Vult only touches lightly on the issue, Tanya is at the cusp of puberty, and it seems more than likely that there are great changes afoot that will blindside her completely.
With much of Deus lo Vult taken up with the introduction and establishment of Tanya’s character and world, there is little space for side characters. However, a small group are introduced who seem poised to take on regular roles in the future. From the trenches comes Viktoriya Ivanovna Serebryakov, a teenage Russy emigré and fellow mage that Tanya takes under her wing as her adjunct. While Viktoriya sees Tanya as a terrifying yet inspiring commander, Tanya mostly views her disciple as a human shield and pack animal, although there are some hints Tanya may have some unconscious motives in selecting her. Our view from the top is provided by Brigadier General Hans von Zettour, a scholarly student of history charged with protecting his nation and charting a path through the new world of war. The most interesting character, however, is Major Erich von Lergen, one of the leading lights of the Imperial Army’s personnel division. Unlike most of the characters in Tanya, he has caught a glimpse of Tanya’s true nature, and is horrified by her meteoric rise. With his initial attempts to block or waylay Tanya’s career being easily rebuffed, Lergen spends Deus lo Vult in the role of Cassandra, albeit one his enemy does not yet notice and is still capable of fighting another day. Thematically Lergen has an intriguing place in Tanya, serving as both a mirror to Tanya and as a repudiation of her beliefs. In the prologue chapter Tanya credits the Stanford Prison Experiment with providing her the critical insight that a person’s environment has a far greater influence on their behavior than their personality. According to her, in the correct place and with the right conditions, anyone can become anyone. However, Lergen’s existence gives the lie to this idea. Functionally speaking, his title, line of work, and environment are functionally identical to those that Tanya held in her past life, but their personalities could not be more divergent. Rather than environment determining all, it seems that the problem with Tanya is, quite simply, Tanya herself. (There’s also the implication that modern capitalism is a fundamentally inhuman creation that turns men into monsters, but now’s not the time for that discussion.)
While there has been a great deal of discussion online about the animé adaptation’s dialogue with war fiction, the isekai genre, and magical girl stories, I found The Saga of Tanya the Evil most interesting for its relationship to western forms of alternate history. The basic premise of Tanya, of a modern person being flung into the past, is based on the well-worn alternate history trope of the timeslip. In its American iterations the timeslip has been combined with the old tropes of the edisonade to imagine tales of displaced people and groups using their advanced technology and native wit to survive and change their new world. Perhaps the most iconic version of this tale is L. Sprauge de Camp’s 1939 work Lest Darkness Fall, depicting the efforts of an American archaeologist thrown into the central Italy of 535 AD to use his technological know-how to prevent the collapse of urban civilization in the Ostrogothic kingdoms of the region and ultimately avert the Dark Ages. While stories of this type have been written constantly since 1939 (albeit with the number of people being sent back to maintain a certain technological base ever increasing), there has always been voices criticizing this particular fantasy. For every Lest Darkness Fall, there was a “The Man Who Came Early” (Poul Anderson, 1956), while Eric Flint’s 1632 series has its dark mirror in Robert Charles Wilson’s 1994 work Mysterium.
For myself, The Saga of Tanya the Evil intrigued me because its initial premise called to mind Michael Swanwick’s 1997 novel Jack Faust, one of my absolute favorite alternate history novels. In that novel, Swanwick combines the ideas of the timeslip-edisonade with the Faust legend to tell a story of how knowledge from the future becomes a poisoned apple that corrupts and eventually destroys mankind. While Deus lo Vult does something similar, it takes a different tack. First of all, rather than being transported from 2013 Japan into this alternate world hale, male, and hearty, the salaryman is dropped into the body of Tanya, one more of Berun’s countless orphan girls. While her old conscious mind and memories reassert themselves just after her third birthday, she is still constrained by the social codes and gender roles of her time, at least until her latent magical potential emerges and opens all manner of doors for her. Additionally, with her fixation on comfort and personal safety, Tanya’s primary goal is always to inhabit the world rather than consciously change the course of history. As long as she’s sitting pretty, the rest of the world can go hang.
Still, unfortunate accidents do happen. During Tanya’s time at the Imperial war college, a chance encounter with Zettour in the campus library prompts him to sound out her thoughts on the future course of the war. Seeing a chance to make a potential ally high up in the military hierarchy, she draws upon her knowledge of the First World War to give a carefully crafted response designed to broadcast the appropriate persona to Zettour. Without really noticing it, Tanya ends up describing the concept of total war to a horrified Zettour, who takes this revelation to heart and begins to reassess his whole conception of war in the modern age. The course of the war has been changed, and Tanya herself has no idea of what she has done.
At the close of Deus lo Vult the Empire is in a precarious position. Bogged down in Scandinavia and caught in a holding action to the west, it seems another conflict is about to break out in the southeast with the Grand Duchy over control of Imperial Dacia (Hungary). To manage the various crises, the Empire has fielded a specialized “primeval battalion” of some 48 mages trained as a rapid-response shock force, led by none other than Major Tanya von Deguerrechaff. While the course of the war is far from clear at this point, Zen has dropped some tantalizing hints with a few scenes following a group of English Albion journalists in 1967 following the trail of a mysterious Imperial unit that seems have participated in almost every critical battle of the war, only to be scrubbed from all save the most obscure official records. While I plan to cover the future installments of The Saga of Tanya the Evil as they are translated, for now we are left in the middle of 1924, where there is a great disorder in Tanya’s world and the situation is fantastic.