This is a title that I’ve been wanting to write about for longer than Yen Press’ announcement that they had licensed it for release out here. That’s because I’ve been reading it for quite a while in scanlated form. Regardless of their legality, the main thing everyone needs to consider is that manga creators get no money when you read these online. So I’ve limited myself to talking about scanlations on this site only in cases where it’s clear that the series in question will NEVER be license-rescued or will NEVER see a legal release in the U.S. (I realize NEVER is an absolute term here… but if you think something like “Onani Master Kurosawa” is going to see a legitimate release in the States then I have a bridge in San Francisco I’d like to sell you.) While I thought that “Delicious in Dungeon” wouldn’t make it out here without an anime to raise its profile, I was glad to be proven wrong. Even though I’ve already read the stories in this volume once before, the entire package still ranks as one of the best things I’ve encountered all year.
It may not seem like the story gets off to a particularly inspired start, however, as mangaka Ryoko Kui sets up what appears to be a bog-standard fantasy story in the first few pages. You’ve got your standard cursed dungeon ruled over by a mad wizard, and adventuring party made up of familiar archetypes. Yet it’s all part of Kui’s plan to couch the narrative in the familiar before pulling the rug out from underneath the reader by having the party defeated by a dragon… all because they were hungry. While most of the party is returned to the surface by a last-minute spell, its caster Falin, a human cleric, is now being slowly digested by a dragon.
Left to rescue her are human fighter (and Falin’s brother) Laios, elven mage Marcille, and halfling rogue Chilchuck. The problem is that they’re lacking in funds to make a proper dungeon dive. That’s when Laios hits upon the idea which will serve as the core of the series: They’ll survive by eating the monsters they come across in the dungeon.
Rustling up a walking mushroom and giant scorpion for their first meal comes easy enough, but the party is stumped when it comes to figuring out how to turn them into something edible. Enter Senshi a dwarf who has been living underground long enough to have acquired great knowledge regarding the rules of dungeon cuisine. Whether it’s creating dried slime, using man-eating plant fruit in a tart, or whipping up a mandrake-filled basilisk egg omelet, he’s got the know-how to keep everyone fed no matter how strange the monster they encounter is.
Even if the nature of the quest at hand is bog-standard, “Delicious in Dungeon” is that rare work that finds a refreshingly unexpected angle in looking at something. There have been plenty of manga (and a few American comics) about dungeon crawls, but never one that has applied a foodie sensibility to the plot. When Laios points out early on that the dungeon is a fully-functioning ecosystem you realize that his plan could actually work. Kui then gets a chance to display her ingenuity in each chapter by taking a familiar monster and showing us their culinary value.
These insights range from noting how man-eating plants grow fruit to attract their prey. You can also cook in antidote herbs to add flavor and a cure for basilisk poison. Can fire traps be used for stir-fry in a dungeon? You betcha, provided you can find the (olive) oil they use first. In the volume’s best story, we find out that suits of living armor are also edible in their own way. It’s this kind of creativity that makes the volume a joy to read and has you eager to learn what new wrinkle Kui will add to these familiar fantasy specimens next.
It’s also worth mentioning that while the humor is generally good-natured, it can get unexpectedly dark at times. The ultimate fate of the party that our heroes help out with their roast basilisk is one such example. Same goes for finding out what happened to the dogs that Marcille and her class used to collect mandrakes. There’s also the revelation that while resurrection is a thing in this world, an economy has also sprung up around it as well. This is to say nothing of Senshi’s plan to cook up the red dragon… hopefully before it fully digests Falin.
The humor in the series does work pretty well thanks to its cast… for better and for worse. They’re a familiar bunch with Senshi and Chilchuk fitting into the roles of dwarf who is not overly concerned with social graces and the halfling who is methodical and level-headed until something upsets him quite easily. Laios is the character who doesn’t fit the established fighter stereotype of being all brawn and no brains. In fact, he winds up being endearingly weird in his eagerness to display his knowledge of these monsters and find out what they taste like.
Then there’s Marcille who winds up with the short end of the stick here in that she’s the one member of the party who has serious reservations about eating these monsters. While it’s perfectly understandable that someone would have these reservations, she winds up coming off as resistant to the premise of the series. Which doesn’t do much for her likability. Neither does the chapter where she attempts to apply her book-smarts to harvesting mandrakes and comes off as annoying for most of it.
It’s not that her character is bad. In fact, she’s pretty necessary for the story. There wouldn’t be as much tension if everyone was all gung-ho about this. Marcille also provides an effective counter to Laios’ most energetically weird moments, particularly in the utterly withering stare she gives him when he points out how the plant she was being held by at one point should’ve been incredibly comfortable given how its vines hold its prey. Yet Marcille’s role is that of the killjoy who winds up being proven wrong about her assumptions nearly every time. It’s kind of disappointing to have that role fall to a woman here as it usually does for fantasy (or really any kind of fantastical genre) stories.
The good news is that Marcille’s character does become more rounded in her objections as the story goes on. In fact, the main story regarding the mystery of the dungeon also becomes interesting in itself and not just a vehicle for the characters to find more interesting monsters to eat. This may be the first review I’ve written where I don’t have to speculate on the potential of a new series. I can say with absolute certainty that, as good as this volume is, “Delicious in Dungeon” only gets better from here on out. The only test for me will be whether I’m able to refrain from re-reading the scanlations as I wait for each new volume to arrive. Yet as the cast of this volume can attest to, while waiting for the basilisk to cook or the stir-fry to properly brown, good things come to those who wait.