So. Once upon a time, there was a time where I really enjoyed Japanese animation a.k.a anime. (That time is now.) From watching anime, I grew interested in Japanese manga, basically graphic novels by western standards. (Still interested.) From manga, I became aware of light novels, and from there I learned about web novels. Thus, I traced a backwards arc of media development; as series become popular, they can evolve from web novels into light novels, and from there into manga or anime. So yes, IPs in Japan are exactly like Pokemon. I am sure this is not a coincidence.
Setting all that aside, I have mostly been reading light novels recently. So, what is a light novel?
Well, I’m no expert, but as I understand it, light novels are an evolution of Japanese pulp fiction traditions. They are basically short novels, possibly even novellas, and they tend to be aimed at a young adult demographic. (I am not young. But I remember being young.) In a departure from (current) western traditions, the books will quite often have a few pieces of manga-esque artwork within. Somehow, they are very appealing, and big business in Japan.
“But, good Jackel,” I hear you say, “what does that have to with you, or us? We can’t read Japanese. Can you?” Sadly, I never progressed my Japanese studies to the point of literacy either. But fortunately, the world abounds with people who are less lazy, and many of these interesting works of literature are becoming available to read translated into English.
There are two basic sources for these translated tomes. One is completely legal, the other is… well. If you have a problem with legal gray areas and moral relativism, definitely do not follow this link to Baka-Tsuki, a repository of fan-translated light novels. The quality can be… inconsistent… both in translating and in, y’know, actual English readability. On the other hand, it can also be pretty well done, depending on how hard the ameteur translation teams are willing to work. And you’re not paying for it, so don’t complain. In fact, no one is getting paid, including the original author. Thus, the moral relativism.
But Dark One, who could hate moral relativism?
Now, now. It was just a hypothetical. But should you be a person of such high moral fiber that you must put down capital in order to enjoy a product, first of all my hat is off to you, sir or madam. Those of us with pretensions toward writing appreciate all the support we can get. But more importantly, there are properties available properly licensed, professionally translated, and available in major booksellers. Let me mention a few specific titles.
A Certain Magical Index by Kazuma Kamachi
This series is big. As in, 24 main volumes, two spin-off series, manga adaptations of all three, an anime, and a sequel series. In genre, it is something of an urban fantasy/sci-fi hybrid, entirely by design; the background is an open conflict between magical/religious powers with magicians and science/technology organizations represented by espers. Neither side is cast in a particularly pleasant light, and both sides hate the protagonist, whose right hand has the power to negate both magic and psychic powers (as well as his own luck, the poor bastard.)
Interestingly, despite the title, the story is set in a stronghold of Science known as Academy City. Therefore, threats from the Science side of things are a lot more immediate than influence from the rival Magic faction. The heroine of the title, Index, spends quite a lot of time out of focus, to the point that one wonders why the series was named after her. (At least early on; I admit to not having read the whole series, or investigating what happens too closely. I’ll get to it someday.) In any event, it is a very fun read, in a well-realized world. So yeah, check it out.
Accel World by Reki Kawahara
For some reason, I really like this one. It’s a near-future sci-fi, where young people can join a ‘game’ that gives them access to virtual reality avatars (as well as super-human processing speed) who then compete to reach the highest level – but if you lose all your points, the program will forcefully uninstall itself and alter your memories so that you don’t remember the ‘game’ at all. Rather than the common battles, then, the real tension of the series is the mystery of how the ‘game’ works, and who might be behind it. Well, that and…
The main character is a small, fat, bullied young man, who is introduced to the ‘game’ by the school idol, who takes an interest in him. The problem is, his biggest bully is his own mind, which is convinced that he is worthless; therefore, he can’t really comprehend that others could possibly care about him. Frankly, improving his sense of self-worth is the biggest uphill battle of the series. And the most interesting, in my mind; I have a good deal of sympathy for the young man.
Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon by Fujino Omori
Ah, a series that illustrates a number of common themes in many Japanese light novels. Firstly, it is a fantasy with role-playing game elements, which is extraordinarily common these days in one form or another. In a way, this one is unique in that it doesn’t involve a main character who was a common high-schooler summoned from Japan. (I’m serious, summoned heroes are really big right now.) Secondly, it’s a harem fantasy, with the main boy finding himself pursued by a number of different girls, usually without quite realizing it. (Technically Accel World was like that as well, but that detail seemed less important than everything else going on.) (Oh, and frankly speaking, no one but the main heroine seems to have a chance with him anyhow.) Thirdly, the protagonist has an extremely overpowered skill, magic, or ability, wrecking game balance and making you wonder why they bothered putting it in RPG terms anyway. (Technically Accel World was like that as well, but that detail seemed less important etc.)
Anyway. In the end, it’s a pretty simple story: the main character becomes an adventurer and invades a dungeon in order to impress girls. However, he is nearly killed and saved at the last moment by another, more powerful adventurer, who also happens to be a beautiful girl. He resolves himself to become stronger in order to make that girl notice him, not realizing that she has already taken an interest in him. Things snowball from there.
On a complete side note… What the hell, Winter? It’s two-thirds through December, and we haven’t had a decent blizzard yet? How am I supposed to maintain my Northerner cred when you’re taking it this easy? Will I have to move to Canada to get some decent terrible weather around here?
Ok, one more.
The Devil is a Part-Timer! by Satoshi Wagahara
You know why I like this one? Because it’s a complete inversion of the formula I mentioned earlier: instead of a young man being summoned from Japan to another world to fight the Demon King, the Demon King flees his own world and enters Japan, becoming a young human. And, because humans need to support themselves, he gets a job at
McDonalds MgRonalds. Comedy gold, and we’re just getting started.
What I love the most about this series is the goofy characters. For instance, the narration makes clear that the Devil King was originally just as evil and destructive as you could imagine; but somehow, living in Japan has warped his personality in such a way that he is now the best and most helpful worker at his store. Oh, but he still intends to conquer Japan, and then his home world… by working his way up the corporate ladder. The details of this plan are understandably vague. Also worth mentioning is the Hero: after defeating the Devil King in their own world, she pursued him to Japan in order to finish him off… and ended up working as a call center girl. So begins the conflict between a fallen Hero and a Devil King who fell even further. Well, there are other demons, angels, and humans worth mentioning as well, but then we’d really be here all day.
So, those are my favorite light novels, all published by Yen Press. I’m not sure if that counts as a coincidence or not, as Yen Press seems to have a tight grip on the current English-translated light novel market. They aren’t the only horse in the race, but they’ve got a good position, I guess.
Setting all that aside, I have some other things to get to, so I’ll leave this here. You should all go read something now. It’s good for you.
Next Time: If you’ve heard of this one, I’ll be seriously impressed.