Demon Lord 2099, Volume 1 – Cyberpunk City Shinjuku Review
The main feature of this award-winning light novel is the mixture of genres it provides: science fiction, in particular cyberpunk as this volume’s subtitle references; classic fantasy stories and the dominant manga genre of the moment, isekai, albeit not the conventional version.
The story begins with the evil Veltol Velvet Velsvalt, Demon Lord from the world of Alneath, finally being defeated in battle by the great hero Gram. As he is immortal, he does not completely die, and 500 years later one his servants, fire magic user Machina Soleige of the Six Dark Peers, is able to use magic to reincarnate Veltol.
However, Veltol learns that nearly 80 years ago, during the time he has been away, Alneath encountered a catastrophe called the “Fantasion”, in which his magical world merged with another world which was dominated by industrial civilizations: Earth. When the two worlds merged in what was the Earth year 2023, conflict and prejudice spread across the many races, national boundaries collapsed, and the creation of massive city states led to two City Wars. The world is now at a relative peace, thanks to people combining Earth’s industry with Alneath’s magic to create “magineering”, with all kinds of futuristic technology now being powered by magic.
Veltol learns that they are in what used to be Tokyo, but has now become the city state of Shinjuku. The inner part of the city, centred around a magical power plant/furnace, is for the wealthy elite, while the outer, colder part of the city is for the poor and the slum dwellers. Beyond this area, it is too cold to live. Veltol immediately decides to start again on his aim to rule the world, even if it is a new one, and tries to assemble the other Dark Peers. However, almost all are missing, presumed dead, except for Machina and one other, the vampiric blood magic user Marcus, who now runs the company Ishimaru Heavy Magical Industries (IHMI).
Veltol goes to meet Marcus, but learns that Marcus has actually always hated Veltol, and has designed his magic implant technology so Veltol cannot use it. What is more, Veltol gains his strength through faith from his followers, and as almost everyone has forgotten who he was as the years have passed, he is powerless when faced with Marcus’s magic. After a brief fight, Veltol ends up living with Machina as he tries once again to rebuild his powers. He does this with help from one of Machina’s friends: a magical computer hacker named Takahashi who hates IHMI. Together, they build up Veltol’s online profile by making him a video game streamer. As the novel progresses, Veltol encounters more people from his old world, and discovers that IHMI has been part of a conspiracy that threatens the lives of his allies.
Demon Lord 2099’s strength is the setting and world building. The merging of the two worlds to create a world which is both futuristic and magical at the same time makes for an engrossing read. Author Daigo Murasaki is at his best when describing the landscape. The passage where Veltol sees Shinjuku for the first time is wonderfully written, talking about the “endless lights” in a world more luminous that anything back in his time. Murasaki writes (p. 16): “Thick, black clouds obscured the darkness of night as polluted snow fell on the city, illuminated by the vivid hues of the lights yet sparse enough not to sound alarms from the nearby speakers.” Credit must also go to translator Sergio Avila for helping bring the text to life. No credit is given to a letterer, but the font does shift in the book when people communicate via tech, shifting to a more futuristic style.
The cyberpunk elements are all clearly visible, and anyone who has ever read such stories, seen the films or played the games will recognise many of the tropes: implants, artificial limbs, cyborgs, robots, shady mega-corporations and so on. Actually, sometimes it is a bit of a flaw, as the big scandal at the heart of the story is somewhat easy to figure out, but at times it is also entertaining. One nice moment is when Takahashi uses a visual hacking programme called “Laughing Man”, which I suspect is a reference to the Laughing Man from Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. The series is rather like that video game Cyberpunk 2077, but with far, far fewer technical problems – not that this novel is free of errors either, as I did spot at least one typo on p. 80 where they spelled Takahashi’s name as “Takashi”.
However, as well as the cyberpunk elements of the story, we also have the fantasy elements thrown in as well. This is a world dominated by magineering, so while I may mention cyborgs, in this world they are called “magiborgs”. There are a few things worth highlighting about the use of fantasy elements in this cyberpunk tale: first, it does make things much more convenient for the writer, as rather than go into huge detail about how all the technology is powered, he can just say it is all magic; and second, combining the magic with the tech makes for some great fight scenes; and third, the magic also allows Veltol to encounter people from his world that he thought should be long gone, but are still alive, and allow the writer to have some fun with fantasy tropes as well as those of cyberpunk.
On top of all this is the isekai element, or rather the reverse isekai as this is a character from a different world landing on Earth. As with any of these stories, the fish-out-of-water element adds to the more comedic elements of the book, and reverse isekai are especially good at this. While normal isekai see a human trying to get to grips with things that are often weird to most of us, reverse isekai are able to get more laughs from these otherworldly visitors not understanding basic human activity. Veltol certainly brings in this comedy, as someone who cannot use the new implants, meaning he cannot use the latest tech, leading to comic confusion. Much of the comedy comes from him not understanding the technology of this world – something that anyone who has tried to teach an older relative how to use any new tech today can recognise. Combine this with Veltol’s continued desire to rule the world, and you also get the humour from the lead’s overambitious desires.
As well as the writing, there are also the illustrations from the artist Kureta (the illustrator for The Otherworlder, Exploring the Dungeon, see review). The black-and-white artwork is rather rough, but the colour pages at the start are more engrossing. Overall, the art reinforces my feeling that I would really like to see this series being turned into an anime. I want to see these futuristic fantastical landscapes on screen. I admit, this is not a perfect work, but I think it would certainly have an appeal. As the novel won the Fantasia Grand Prize in 2020, I know that others would like to see it adapted too.