Before the world ended, there was high school.
Title: Guren Ichinose: Catastrophe at Sixteen
Publisher: Kodansha (JP), Vertical, Inc (US)
Creator: Takaya Kagami
Illustrator: Yamato Yamamoto
Translator: James Balzer
Original Release Date: January 26, 2016
Ten years before the main events in Seraph of the End began, Guren Ichinose was a first year high school student with talent, powers, and a grudge against the Hiiragi family. As a member of the Ichinose family, Guren hates how the Hiiragi’s have complete control over his family and his life. Guren tries to fail the entrance exam to the school the Hiiragi’s want him to attend but he ends up there anyway, hiding his true strength and biding his time until he can rise up against their corruption and cruelty.
Guren is a very different type of main character from Yuu, the main character in the Seraph of the End manga/anime series. Yuu is the type of shounen protagonist you either hate or tolerate; he’s loud and slow but does eventually mellow out as other characters figure out the best way to channel his energy. Guren is arrogant and close to a Gary Stu; at 16 he’s already ridiculously powerful in terms of magic and combat ability and he has a personality that could be described as irritating in his best moments. Despite hiding his magic, playing the fool, and the fact that nearly his entire school hates him, Guren somehow still manages to attract a handful of other characters through nothing stronger than cliched tropes. This double volume installment serves as an “assembling the team” story for Guren in addition to setting up some background for the Seraph of the End story proper.
It should be noted however that Seraph of the End as a whole isn’t very good at establishing its setting. When I first tried the anime and manga I was under the impression that humanity only truly grasped magic and demons after The Apocalypse and that the virus which decimated humanity was spread by the vampires (given that the vampires clearly despise humans). There were a few weird things about this setting, namely that the Cursed Gear weapons were developed surprisingly soon after the virus and that there was a magical organization that was already entrenched enough to have main and branch families, but nothing stated in the story ever explicitly denied or contradicted these ideas.
Here too we learn that magic was already practiced well beforehand (to what specific end I do not know, the story is also very vague about if magic is common knowledge or if it’s kept secret) and that even though vampires do hate humans they probably did not unleash the virus. That event is still several months off, although Guren has knowledge of it befitting his protagonist status, but the story is strongly implying that the virus will be accidentally created by humans in their quest to meddle with forbidden truths.
For a two volume installment, Guren Ichinose: Catastrophe at Sixteen really hasn’t contributed to the overall Seraph of the End story so far. It looks as if the story will provide more details on how humanity managed to bind demons into weapons (centering around Mahiru, older sister of everyone’s favorite master snarker Shinoa) but we already know the basics about that from the original series. And despite the great translation, everything just falls flat. The characters warm up to Guren for no proper reason; he’s already stronger than almost anyone else at only 16. Frankly he’s been given a larger role in this universe than a high schooler with only vague plans of revenge should have, especially when the characters giving him orders are fully aware of this. Yuu still isn’t super relevant to the fate of the world as of the last anime episode — in many ways he’s still just a foot soldier. Guren is already being treated as someone more important just because the plot says that he is and combined with the other insufferable parts of his character, this makes him a dull person to read about.
There is nothing in this novel that would prevent a newcomer to the franchise picking it up and following along, however, there is nothing to hook in a new fan. The pacing may be fine but with a barely established setting, dull characters, and hard to follow fight scenes that even the translation couldn’t save, this is simply a boring read.