Last time, on Strawberry Panic: Hikari and Amane ran away after being disqualified from the Etoile competition and Nagisa, intimidated by Shizuma's old relationship with Kaori, decided to withdraw. Spica's Makoto and Lulim's Kagome are the only strong Etoile candidates left, but their prospects don't look good either. Kagome hates Makoto because Makoto made fun of her for carrying a stuffed bear.
Amane brings Hikari to her beachside mansion. They make out, and things seem peachy until Hikari says Yaya's name, effectively dumping cold water on Amane. Hikari explains what happened between her and Yaya during the Faceless Devil competition, honestly thinking that it was Yaya's way of supporting her as a friend- you know, being a lesbian. (Didn't you know? We lesbians use breast-groping as a greeting and ass-grabbing as way to say "How do you do?") Even Ms. Internalized Homophobia, Amane, knows that Hikari's being delusional. Surprisingly, she isn't angry at Yaya- but she is determined to win the Etoile competition and prove that she's a better partner for Hikari than Yaya.
Here, my shipping branches away from my Strawberry Panic anime ships. Because of Hikari's extreme stupidity, my Hikari x Yaya ship disintegrates in this novel. Yaya gets over Hikari, and I like to think that she will find someone who deserves her. Even though I never like the man-hating lesbian trope (softened in this case by the fact that this series is a knowingly dumb, tongue-in-cheek parody), I still like novel-Yaya more than novel-Amane because she is more honest and self-aware than Amane (I'll take "Yeah, I like girls and I love Hikari" over "I love Hikari, but girls liking girls is wrong...but I'm still going to date Hikari and run away with her") and says some amusingly
Amane and Hikari return to Spica using the Miator helicopter- courtesy of Chikaru, whose mother is the Chancellor of Miator and the ultimate authority of all three schools. It's comforting to know that Chikaru will someday run Astraea Hill.
Even though this scene tries to convey how admirable and princely Amane is, it merely convinced me that Chikaru is the real heroine of this series. After pushing her mother to readmit Amane and Hikari to Spica (Chikaru's mother wants Amane to transfer to Miator instead), Chikaru explains that she decided to attend Lulim to be free from her similarly eccentric mother's meddling. Still dreaming big, she punches her fist into the air declaring that "I'm never giving up my dream of creating my own harem!"
Even though Spica's students are, as a whole, more idiotic than their anime counterparts (for their attitudes towards Hikari and Yaya), they partially redeem themselves by repenting for their treatment of Hikari and rallying for Hikari and Amane to be re-admitted to Spica. Thus, Hikari and Amane re-enter the competition.
Makoto resolves her issues (a backstory ripped right out of Oniisama E) and, with Chikaru's help, leaves to see her long lost sister Misaki in Vienna. One of my favorite bits in this book is the reveal of why Makoto's sister ran away as a student. Even though the students at novel-Astraea Hill almost all face arranged marriages because they come from wealthy, powerful families (a shout out to the early twentieth century period in which Class S novels came into vogue, when education for girls was strictly meant to prepare them to be good wives and wise mothers), Misaki's ability to leave for the life of her choosing shows that their fates aren't inevitable. Even in the early twentieth century, Nobuko Yoshiya lived the life she wanted with her wife Monma Chiyo.
This post is a bit misleading, because I spent so many paragraphs writing about the Spica side of the story (because it includes some problematic tropes that I wanted to address- and Chikaru being Chikaru) when the Miator side is my favorite.
Nagisa and Shizuma spend most of this volume apart. Now that she has broken things off, Nagisa finally realizes that, yes, she is in love with Shizuma. Her realization is surprisingly sweet. Tamao convinces her not to leave Astraea and tries to win her over. Nagisa continues to be clueless (at one point she's like, "Gosh, Tamao seems depressed. Maybe I should give her a massage! She must love massages since she's always offering to give me them.") and Shizuma, thinking that Nagisa hates her, tells her goodbye once and for all. In an utterly "Wtf" moment, Shizuma also reminds Tamao that they once dated and kisses her in front of Nagisa to make the point that she has moved on, even though she hasn't. Poor Tamao. After that incident, Miator students start gossiping that Tamao is Shizuma's newest girlfriend.
The most interesting difference between the Strawberry Panic novels and the Strawberry Panic anime for me is the nature of Shizuma's relationship with Kaori.
As far as these novels show, Nagisa never learns the truth about Shizuma and Kaori. But when she learns that Shizuma is leaving to study abroad, she decides to get her back already, damn it. As in the anime, Tamao nobly gives Nagisa the extra push she needs, even using her family's (haha) helicopter to take Nagisa to the airport so she can intercept Shizuma before she leaves on her private jet.
Shizuma is moved to know that Nagisa still loves her, and they reunite with a kiss. We get a really cute little epilogue in which Amane and Hikari step out as the new Etoile in a ceremony reminiscent of the wedding in Disney's Cinderella, and everyone else- including Shizuma and Nagisa who, happily, don't care about winning anymore- enjoy the Etoile festivities.
Verdict: These novels definitely have their cracks, but they're fun. The Strawberry Panic novels have essentially the same outcome as the Strawberry Panic anime, but the journey there is very different, so it's a must-read if you like the Strawberry Panic anime.
Seven Seas' translation is, as expected, excellent. I saw several typos (mostly in the third novel), but not enough to really bother me. The first four pages feature character intros (called the "Astraea Directory") followed by a map of Astraea Hill. The next two pages feature notes on the Japanese name order (thankfully) preserved in the text, the use of honorifics, and a guide to the French used in the series.
The color pages at the beginning of the novels, which were kept in color when Seven Seas published the first two novels individually, are now in black and white. My biggest criticism of this omnibus release is that it makes for unwieldy reading compared to the smaller individual first two novel volumes- but I'd rather get an omnibus than have another Hayate x Blade situation and leave this series unfinished in English, so I'm thankful for getting this omnibus.
In the back you'll find translation notes used for terms and references that most readers won't get (like Chikaru, Kizuna, Remon, and Kagome's cosplay based on the characters from Poe no Ichizoku, or what dokudami cha is) and a wonderful "About the Author" blurb: "Familiar to many as the creator of Sister Princess, a sister moe title that became a sensation in the bishoujo realm. In this series, she writes a pure, traditional yuri story freely drawn from her experiences at an all-girls school."
Story: "Sometimes Shizuma would fall in love- a mysterious feeling that only appeared when she was with her damsels, during the little games she would play with them. That thick, sweet, gentle, peach-like aroma that only floated in the air between two girls..."
Final rating: B
The novels are fun, but the anime is still my personal favorite version of the SP-verse.