In their afterword, author Takemachi mentions that not only did this novel win them the prestigious Grand Prize of the thirty-second Fantasia Taisho awards, but that it has changed significantly from the original synopsis and title they submitted. Given that the initial title was The Spy’s Sweet Temptations – All the Other Students are Beautiful Girls, it seems fair to guess that the work has changed for the better. Not that there’s anything wrong with the stereotypical original title or its implication of a rom-com spy caper, but leaving out the spy bit, it sounds a lot more pedestrian than the book we eventually get: a story about a brilliant spy, but a terrible teacher, and the girls he plucks from the bottom of their spy schools’ ranks to help him on a mission that has a ninety percent chance of failure.
Although Klaus is the nominal protagonist of the story, we actually spend the least amount of time in his head. A brilliant spy trained by the top spies of the Din Republic, Klaus began as an orphan on the streets and is once again more or less orphaned when we meet him at the start of the main story: the spies who took him in have all been wiped out on a dangerous mission. The only reason Klaus survived was that he was on a different assignment at the time, and now he’s been asked to put together his own elite force to complete his family’s task. That’s where our point-of-view characters come in: Lily and Erna are two of the girls he scouts to join his team. Only instead of coming from the best-of-the-best of their respective spy schools, they, along with the rest of the young ladies on the team, are all the worst-of-the-worst, students who are barely scraping by despite having some unique personal skills.
Part of what makes this book work is that the girls are just as horrified by their new assignment as everyone who isn’t Klaus. While he does have a good reason for what he’s doing, he also appears to have an overinflated sense of how good a teacher he is, believing that he can simply whip the ladies into shape with his instruction. That turns out to be the exact opposite case, and Lily, who has a very healthy sense of self-preservation, is aghast. She knew she wasn’t a great student, but she never thought that she’d end up in a situation where her death was all but assured, and upon discovering that fact, she immediately attempts to force Klaus to disband the unit. Since being in her late teens makes her one of the older girls, it feels natural for her to take charge in this way, although the eldest of the bunch is really only one or two years her senior, with the youngest being fourteen. Mostly their ages serve to highlight the fact that Klaus is not only attempting a mission of high difficulty with amateurs – he’s doing it with amateur children. This makes him seem even more unhinged than his fixation on oil painting with only red.
Although not technically a mystery novel, Spy Classroom does operate a lot like a fair play (or honkaku) mystery. This means that Takemachi does, in fact, provide all of the clues you need to figure out the reveal well before it comes, and in some ways its designation as a spy novel rather than a classic mystery is enough of a misdirect to prevent you from even looking for those clues in the first place. Even knowing that they’re being seeded throughout the novel, it’s easy to overlook many of them, and that’s a major strength of the writing. Everything is an act of obfuscation or misdirection, casting the reader in the role of master spy as you try to sort out what’s serious from the comedy liberally larded throughout. It’s not an easy job, in part because so much of the story feels so patently absurd that it’s easy to get distracted. Lily can ooze poison from her pores? How is that any less weird than the disconnect between Thea’s sexiness and her attempts to implement it or Erna’s “disaster sense” that tingles when something bad’s about to happen? Like the word “family” at the bottom of Klaus’ painting, a lot gets lost in the vibrancy of the absurd details.
Less successful are some of the caper aspects, which can either feel dragged out or not well enough detailed. This is especially true of scenes involving all of the main characters, but at times both Lily’s and Erna’s sections can also fall prey to it, as if Takemachi is accidentally out-clevering even themselves as they write. Similarly difficult is the fact that only Lily and Erna get first names until the very end of the novel – all of the other girls are referred to by hair color, which gets old fast. There is a reason for this, as it turns out, but that doesn’t make it less annoying getting to that reveal. Again, it feels as if the author may be trying just a touch too hard, even if it does mostly pay off.
Also worth mentioning is that despite the gender make up of the characters – one guy and many girls – this isn’t a harem story. Klaus is frankly too weird and/or scary for any of the young women to develop crushes on him for most of the book, and he has zero interest in any of them as women. Unlike the James Bond school of spy novels, there’s no place for romance and barely any place for sex in this book, with the latter being relegated to a skill female spies are expected to master as part of their training. (Apparently no one has thought about what to do if the enemy agent is gay.) While this lack may turn some readers away from the novel, it could reassure others who aren’t fans of harems; but really it should be less of a deciding factor than the spy caper nature of the plot, because that truly is the book’s defining genre.
Spy Classroom definitely feels like a little something different in the field of light novels. It’s not wholly innovative, but it does embrace its genre and themes, and the fact that it borrows from fair play mysteries is a nice bonus as well. It does show some of the struggles of a first-time published author, but that’s largely outweighed by the fun factor, as well as the fact that the book really does have its heart in the right place. It isn’t perfect, but it is a good time, and that just may be the most important thing.