So, I haven’t done a book review in half of forever, huh? That isn’t because I haven’t been reading…rather it’s because of what I’ve been reading. I’ve been too burned out to tackle a serious sci-fi or fantasy piece, so I’ve been indulging heavily in one of my half-secret guilty pleasures. Specifically, Japanese light novels. I specify the Japanese bit because light novels are also common in much of the rest of Asia, China and Korea being two major creators/distributors. I just happen to mostly prefer the Japanese LNs due to Japan’s culture being considerably more westernized. The Chinese and Korean LNs can get really really weird, really really fast.
As for why it’s a bit of a guilty pleasure, the answer to that is that the content is almost always rather…simple. Not in the sense of lacking complex worlds and stories, so much as in their tone. They are much more straightforward in their storytelling than anything you see in modern western literature. There are rare exceptions, deep or dark light novels, but most of the stuff that’s been translated into English is more the quirky sort of adventure novels you could probably compare with the better Young Adult sort of works. The feel of the early half of the Harry Potter series comes to mind as a reasonable comparison. Though, such comparisons don’t really work, since light novels can be geared at just about any age range (much like anime for those familiar with that. Indeed, many anime are adaptations of light novels). The truth is that there simply isn’t a comparable type of novel in western writing.
Regardless, I tend to enjoy the occasional light novel series because they are:
- Often very different. While there are many many clones/themes in the light novel industry, there are also whole genre that have no direct contemporaries in U.S. literature. The book reviews that follow this entirely-too-long exposition on the topic are a couple of good examples of that fact. Given that I focus my own writing on “unusual perspectives,” it’s hardly shocking that something just plain different is relaxing for me to read.
- At least the ones I read tend to be overwhelmingly positive in a way that western literature tends to, regrettably, deride as childish. Not ‘positive’ in the sense of ‘nothing bad happens,’ but rather in the sense that the protagonists tend to be dreamers or old-school heroes (none of that dark batman crap). While it is not uniformly true, many protagonists of LNs tend toward being light hearted adventurers or champions of causes. That sort of thing. To be fair, this is really only true of the stuff that gets professionally translated, the actual Japanese market can produce stuff just as dark or creepy as anything Stephan King writes. Regardless, for the stuff translated to the western market, the overall tone of light novels tends to be more positive. The best comparison I could give for a western audience is that the tone is similar to many super-hero comic books…only these are novels (albeit short ones) and thus there is a great deal more depth and detail to them than most comic book series can manage (ignoring, of course, unfair examples like X-men or Superman that have been running for decades in order to establish that depth).
- They tend not to be brain-draining reads. While there are exceptions, most light novels are meant to be simply fun rather than force philosophy or deep thoughts down your throat. In this way, they’re kinda a mindless, zero drain type of enjoyment. Like watching an action movie instead of CSI:Wherever. I can’t help but analyze any ‘serious’ read, looking for all the connections, admiring the worlds, etc. With the light novels I simply don’t feel the need to do that, just reading for pure enjoyment instead.
Anyway, all of that was merely one-time setup for the review(s) this time, trying to familiarize you with the idea of LNs a bit. Why? Because I realized that many of the LNs I was reading…are fantasy and sci-fi. Not all of them, but quite a few. No real shock there, I suppose. It was in realizing that, though, that I hit upon the idea of providing a review for a few of them. Maybe they’ll interest people, maybe not, but offering a way to expand people’s horizons is good, right?
Also, you know, I wanted to review something but these are what I’ve been reading. So…yeah.
Without too much further ado, I’m going to review two light novel series that are currently being translated into English to good result.
Is it Wrong to Pick up Girls in a Dungeon?
Yep. I know you probably just looked at the screen and thought ‘WTF?’ really hard. But that’s seriously its name, and oddly enough it’s not a comedy either, which is what I personally expected from the title. I also thought that I’d likely read a few pages and pass on it. I probably pass on reading 4-5 LNs for every one that I read, possibly more, and the name alone made me think I was probably going to skip this one.
I was wrong. Very wrong.
Not only is the writing actually quite good and the characters compelling, but there’s also a much deeper, richer world to this LN than I typically expect to see. Yet, it manages to reveal that depth in such a way that it doesn’t lose the points that I read LNs for in the first place.
First, a bit about the world for prospective. The story uses a concept that has become popular in recent years for LNs, that of a fantasy world having a video-game like system to it, with levels, stats, experience and so on. Don’t let that turn you off, though! While that pattern is immersion breaking in most LNs, the way this series presents the idea makes it fit surprisingly well. Basically, the ‘gods’(drawing from numerous mythologies, Greek and Norse being the most prominent) descended to the world of Genki(literally, ‘the lower world’) centuries ago. Mostly out of boredom. There, they willingly abandoned most of their power in order to entertain themselves among mortals without…breaking all the mortals. They retain only a few powers, such as their immortality and their ability to grant blessings.
These blessings are the source of the game-like behavior. Adventurers join a ‘Familia,’ essentially a group of people under the blessing/patronage of one ‘god.’ The blessing they are granted gives them a ‘status,’ which provides them with superhuman levels of ability that can be improved by either training or combat with the world’s monsters. Familia and their patrons come in all shapes and sizes. Some are in direct control of countries, with the soldiers being those who have received the patron’s blessing. Others may only have 1 or 2 members besides the ‘god’ or ‘goddess’ themselves. The gods and goddesses are also a mixed bag, some tend to be benevolent, other selfish or cruel.
Moving on, the protagonist of this series is Bell Cranel, and he’s a brand-new adventurer who has only just received his blessing…from a goddess who was late in coming to the lower world and has no other followers. Since, with their powers restricted, even the gods and goddesses have to either work for a living or be supported by their followers, the Hestia Familia is quite poor, even living in the single restored room of an abandoned church. Bell is quite young (14 at series start) and fairly shy. It is from him that the book takes its odd and very misleading title. For Bell came to the adventurer’s city of Orario to fulfill the dreams of being a hero that his recently-deceased grandfather instilled in him with numerous tales from a famous book of heroes. Since his grandfather always highlighted the idea of saving a girl while exploring the dungeon and her falling madly in love with the hero…Bell has a half-baked notion of finding a girlfriend in the dungeon! Hence the title…which is completely disrupted within the first chapter of the first book -_-. So yeah, humorous for a title, but thankfully more than a bit misleading.
Without going into too much spoiler-type material, Bell finds himself as the one in need of saving and a beautiful adventurer is the one to recuse him in the nick of time. The desire to become as strong as her replaces his previous shallow dream and the story of his adventures go on from there (all of that happens in the first couple of chapters, so don’t worry that I’ve spoiled anything too much!). He eventually meets other companions, recruiting a few into the Hestia Familia, and more of the world is laid out for the reader as he expands his horizons.
Ultimately, I’ve been seriously impressed with the seamless way the game-type system was made to feel like part of the world, and I’m even more impressed with how well-written the various major characters are. Add in a fascinating world, with ever more intricate layers being revealed as the series goes on, and I’m happy to rate this series 4/5 for pure enjoyability. I’m not going to use my usual system…as that system is intended to rate fairly ‘serious’ sci-fi and fantasy novels and wouldn’t handle a LN well. Suffice it to say, if you’re looking for a purely enjoyable adventure-type read, I can recommend this series.
The first of the novel’s 9 currently-translated volumes can be found HERE. Regrettably, as these are translated foreign works, they can be a tad on the expensive side for their length. Still, the kindle version isn’t too bad. There is also a ‘side story’ series that is very nearly as good as the main series. You most certainly should NOT try to read the side story series first, it will only confuse you. Do things properly! 🙂
In Another World With My Smartphone
Yet another odd title, which isn’t always the case with LNs, I promise. Anyway, unlike with the review above, this title is quite accurate all the way through. It’s also a lot simpler to explain, on account of it being a much less complex concept. Which, as I think I mentioned, is generally true for LNs. Is it Wrong to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon is the expectation in that regard, whereas In Another World With my Smartphone is a bit more typical. In truth, it’s actually a bit more complex than the ‘average’ even so, but it’s a much closer representation of the type at least.
In short, this light novel is about a young man who died due to a mistake made by god and was offered a second chance on another world as an apology. Specifically, god fumbled a lighting bolt and Touya Mochizuki just happened to be standing where it fell -_-…. Yeah, I know, pretty stupid start to a novel. Still, pushing past the silliness of that, the author actually puts a clever twist on the idea. Namely, that god asks him if he wants anything else, since he feels bad that he can’t send Touya back to his original life. Doubly so as Touya immediately forgave him for the accident, proving himself to be a rather humble and unassuming youth. Back to the point, though, Touya thinks about it for a bit before pulling out his smartphone and asking if it could be made to work in this new world. It’s then that he discovers, due to an explanation of how it could be done, that this new world he’s going to is a fantasy-type setting of swords and magic!
All of that, of course, is really just the setup for the series. After his arrival in the new world is taken care of in the first few chapters, Touya…really makes the series. What I mean by this is that he’s actually intelligent, and makes excellent use of his advantages. In example, he uses the map function of his phone (which god adjusted to the world for him) in combination with a search spell to remotely target a small army with a sleep spell. While some people will likely be put off by the fact that this makes life fairly easy for him, for me it was simply enjoyable to read about a protagonist that I didn’t want to strangle to death for his/her stupidity. It’s also not overdone to the point of being horrible. He doesn’t figure everything out all at once, he occasionally finds things that are difficult for him to fight and has to think his way around the situation, and various character interactions provide difficulty for him as he’s a bit too nice for his own good. Ultimately, both the characters and world are fairly enjoyable.
Having said that, however, this series isn’t going to get as strong a recommendation from me, for it has some flaws. First and foremost is an issue that is admittedly partially cultural. Namely, that the ages in the novel are depicted as being too young for me to really feel comfortable with. It’s not a critical issue, there’s no underage sex or anything like that, rather there’s simply a bit of a disconnect for me as a western reader. The entire thing would have read much better to me if the average age of the main characters was pushed forward at least 2-3 years. Add in some common tropes uses in Japanese anime, manga, and LNs, and the novel’s going to struggle to appeal outside a specific niche of westerners who are already familiar with these tropes. Next, there are times when the author goes off on wild tangents and diversions from the main story…or what passes for a main story. In truth, there isn’t a strong central plot of any kind and this makes the occasional tangents much worse. There’s also some fairly blatant wish fulfillment from the author thrown in, just to further muddle the issue (I.E. The world commonly practicing polygamy and Touya finding himself with a harem if fiancées imply because it’s ‘normal’ in that world). All in all, while it’s enjoyable as a fun, mindless read, with decent characters and solid humor…I can’t give it more than a 3/5. Perhaps that’s unfair, given that I’m listing cultural differences as a flaw here, but I’m rating it in light of a western audience. As such, I’ll stick to that rating and recommend Is it Wrong to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon over this series.