Poor Claire. As the eldest of the duke’s two daughters, life should have been perfect: she had a loving family, was betrothed to the crown prince of her nation, and at age fifteen was destined to be blessed with great magic powers. Charlotte seemed to be an adorable younger sister to a doting Claire, and let’s just say that rarely has a person’s character been so misjudged. In the blink of an eye, Charlotte has supplanted Claire in basically everything, including everyone’s affections, causing Claire to pack up and run in both horror and shame – along with a healthy dose of fear, because dear, sweet Charlotte is clearly astoundingly ruthless. And that’s when Claire starts to have the dreams…
In many ways, Formerly, the Fallen Daughter of the Duke is a standard work of villainess isekai. It follows the law of fiction that if the villainess is good the heroine must be bad, Claire’s dreams are of a modern Japan where her story is played out in a very literal sense in the in-world otome game Start Eternal Love, and it’s up to her to use her wits to avoid her projected bad end. But it’s also not quite as glib as some of its brethren, and in fact is most similar to I Swear I Won’t Bother You Again!, which is one of the genre’s darkest stories currently available in English translation. Like that novel, Claire is displaced by a half-sister, the child of her father’s mistress/second wife, and absolutely none of what happens to her is her fault. In fact, Claire’s only misstep is so severely misjudging her sister, and that comes down more to Charlotte’s extraordinary ability to be two-faced than Claire’s credulity. The story isn’t quite as grim as Reina Soratani‘s series for one very specific reason: unlike Violette, Claire isn’t in a time loop, she’s entered the world of a game.
In some ways, this is also one of the most interesting aspects of the manga, and we’ll see if it’s due to a poor manga adaptation or if it really is as nebulous as it seems in this volume when J-Novel Club releases the light novel. The dreams Claire begins to have are of Minami, a Japanese university student she recognizes as herself, and there’s some question as to whether she’s dreaming herself in Claire’s world rather than having dreams of her past life. This is particularly intriguing because of the similarities it would have with Penelope Farmer’s 1969 children’s novel Charlotte Sometimes, where a girl named Charlotte switches places with a girl named Clare, who lives in 1918, eventually becoming trapped in Clare’s body in the past. While it certainly could be mere coincidence that author Saki Ichibu chose the names Charlotte and Claire, the not-quite-clear quality of Claire’s dreams also may imply a switching of realities similar to how Farmer’s novel tells its story, and that’s something to keep an eye on – especially since Minami/Claire seems to have some of the same identity issues that Charlotte does while trapped in Clare’s time and body.
This potential link aside (and The Cure wrote a song based on Farmer’s novel, so we can’t underestimate its influence as a literary work), the story is relatively familiar. Claire very quickly falls in with a group of travelers from another country who turn out to be rather more than she expected, and one of them, Vik, is set up as her love interest, with her Minami dreams noting that he appeared in the fandisc of the original otome game. Vik’s country is considerably better off than Claire’s, implying corruption on the part of her native land’s government, and more importantly, his nation has charge of a small island kingdom that fell to marauders in the not-too-distant past. This stands to have a major impact on Claire’s own story, given some information she obtains through dreams, and there’s a real sense that things are just barely getting started for her and the overall story. That means that this volume does give the impression of being an imperfect adaptation, with the pacing feeling just a little too rushed, as if the goal was less to tell the story and more to get Claire to a very specific place in the narrative.
The art is very nice and makes some interesting decisions with costumes; rather than the more typical Victorian or 18th-century looks, the women’s clothing takes a decidedly Regency (Empire) turn, with high-waisted gowns with narrow skirts. None of this explains the baffling and jarring decision to give job agency employee Sun a modern skirt suit, however, and even if you aren’t a costume snob, her outfit completely derails the flow of the story, as does the way that the agency runs more like a modern corporation than anything in a fantasy-flavored past.
There’s enough here, however, to merit picking up both this and the second volume when it comes out, and it certainly makes a good case for reading the original light novel. Claire is a young woman struggling to make sense of what’s happening but unwilling to let it keep her down for long, and that makes her a character worth following. If you’re a fan of villainess isekai, this should already be on your radar, but even if it’s not your genre, it’s worth giving a chance.