The Best (and worst) Isekai Light Novelsby Kim Morrissy,
An average person wakes up to find themself in a world unlike their own… and yet one that is also strangely familiar. Their new world is one of monsters and magic, usually inspired by medieval England, like something out of a fantasy-themed roleplaying game. If this premise sounds familiar to you, then you've probably seen at least one isekai (“other world”) fantasy in recent memory. And that would be unsurprising, given how popular that genre has become among today's light novel and web novel authors.
Stories about a person from the modern world transporting to a fantasy world have been popular in Japan since at least the 1800s, thanks to books like Alice in Wonderland (1865) and Senkyō Ibun (1822), which is an ethnographic study of a fictional world by a Shinto theologian. Isekai light novels have been around for as long as light novels as a distinct category of literature have existed (that is, the 90s). But the recent boom of isekai light novels in the 2010s is closely tied with the rise of web novels—the two most popular stories on Shōsetsuka ni Narō in 2009 literally had isekai in the title (“The Magician of the Other World” and “The King of the Other World”).
Ironically, one of the most influential novels of the genre is not considered a representative example by its own author. Sword Art Online’s Reki Kawahara recently remarked on Twitter that interviewers keep asking him how he feels about the isekai trend as a pioneer of the genre, and he always tells them, “I'm not a pioneer! SAO is set in the real world!” Nevertheless, it can't be denied that SAO's success as one of the very first web-novels-turned-light-novels inspired thousands of web novel authors to write their own video game-esque worlds.
There are a few things that make isekai stories appealing to write for young authors. The tropes are well-worn and established; you can safely assume that your reader has played Dragon Quest or some other fantasy JRPG, so you don't have to go into much detail describing the monsters or the aesthetic of the world. In fact, many authors literally just write, “It looked like something out of a game,” and move on. In many cases, the “other world” setting functions less as a focal point and more as a pivot into whatever kind of story the author wants to write, unconstrained by genre or editorial influences.
For better or worse, anything can happen in an isekai story.
The Worst of Isekai
The general quality of web novels is what you'd expect from amateur fiction posted online. Although there are some gems, the majority of what you'll find is poorly written. Even the most popular stories aren't necessarily “the cream of the crop”, and are almost always edited extensively when they get a print publishing deal.
The worst isekai stories are simply dry and boring. They read like game logs for a game that doesn't exist and sounds generic anyway. This was my experience reading Death March to the Parallel World Rhapsody, for instance. Whenever the protagonist leveled up or obtained a new “skill”, the narrative would get constantly interrupted with notifications, often taking up pages at a time. To make matters worse, entire chapters are dedicated to the protagonist level-grinding or obtaining skills that are completely irrelevant to the overall plot.
This is also the worst thing about the provocatively titled Slave Harem in the Labyrinth of the Other World, which is too dull to even be offensive. It's a story where the protagonist buys girls as slaves and has sex with them, but it takes ages for any sex to happen because the protagonist spends every chapter level-grinding in a dungeon and narrates his exploits like a drone. Any sex that does happen concludes after roughly a sentence, which makes you wonder which fetish this story actually appeals to.
Isekai web novels are also frequently criticized for being the worst culprits of the “overpowered protagonist” trope, but, to be fair, there are as many isekai stories with weak protagonists as there are strong ones, and there are also stories where the protagonist only becomes strong over time. Mushoku Tensei is infamous for being the most self-indulgent of self-indulgent power fantasies, but the protagonist is born into the fantasy world as a literal baby, and it takes many years for him to reach the peak of his powers. Likewise, the protagonist of Arifureta spends an entire volume struggling with life-or-death situations as the weakest member of his class, but it's satisfying to see him curbstomp everything forever after. These types of stories do eventually outstay their welcome, but I think of power fantasies as less of a bug and more of a feature in this genre space.
In short, if you're opposed to reading self-indulgent works that glorify their protagonists, you probably aren't going to like many of the titles that have come out of the current isekai boom. There's even a specific tag on Syosetsuka ni Narou for this type of story: “Cheat.” Personally, I don't mind cheat stories as long as they're not presented in a boring way, but I'm also not going to pretend that Knight's & Magic or No Game No Life are great literature, no matter how fun they are.
Fortunately, bad light novels can be improved by their anime adaptations. In the first version of this article, I criticized The Rising of the Shield Hero for also being written like a boring game log, but the anime cuts a lot of the menial details and gets straight to the plot. I also think that No Game No Life's anime is a significant improvement on its source material. On the other hand, well-written light novels receive shoddy adaptations sometimes, which can hurt the novel's reputation. (Looking at you, A Certain Magical Index III.) So let it go on the record that an anime adaptation isn't always a true indication of the original novel's quality.
The Best of Isekai
Not all isekai light novels have to be so stereotypical. Some of the standout series in recent memory don't make things easy for their protagonists at all. Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash and Re:ZERO in particular are famous for this. In later volumes, both series also make the worldbuilding and the mystery of why the characters were sent to another world key plot points, which adds a layer of depth and immersion to the plot.
Nor do isekai fantasies always have to focus on male viewpoints. The 12 Kingdoms is a classic which came out at around the same time as other hugely influential shojo isekai fantasy manga and anime series like Magic Knight Rayearth, Fushigi Yugi, and The Vision of Escaflowne. One of my favorite light novels with a female protagonist is Babel, which is about a university student who travels around the fantasy world to understand why she can speak the same language as everyone there.
Today, female-oriented light novels are rife with stories about girls who end up in another world and attracting the attention of various handsome men. The most popular example of this subgenre is My Next Life as a Villainess: All Routes Lead to Doom!, which is an amusing story about a girl who is reincarnated as an otome game villainess and sets out to avoid the possible bad ends by being a good person instead. I'm partial to the more down-to-earth tale of Accomplishments of the Duke's Daughter, which is about a girl who starts off her new life in the middle of the bad end of an otome game, and immediately sets out to prove her worth as an independent woman.
The isekai genre is also ripe for social commentary, since the stories are often about people disillusioned with their previous lives before they get sent to another world. The Witch of Tata won the most recent Dengeki Taisho because of its intelligent dissection of Japanese millennial problems. Hundreds of students are transported to a fantasy world and have the wishes they wrote in their middle school yearbooks granted, but it turns out that the students who wished for the stable career paths their parents and teachers wanted for them are useless in another world, while those who made imaginative wishes like “I want to become a wizard” gain the power to save their classmates.
By their nature, isekai stories present a clash of cultures, and the better novels explore the implications of this in depth. Outbreak Company uses its premise of a Japanese otaku evangelizing anime and manga in a fantasy world to comment on cultural imperialism. The protagonist is confronted with cultural attitudes that are alien to him, and has to grapple with issues like racism and classism if he really wants to spread the appeal of anime and manga across the world.
A darker, more disturbing take on isekai is presented in JK Haru is a Sex Worker in Another World, which is published by Hayakawa Shobo (a traditional sci-fi publisher, not a light novel publisher), but is clearly written as a commentary on modern isekai light novels. The protagonist is thrust into a violently misogynistic fantasy world and turns to prostitution to survive. Meanwhile, her male classmate gets cheat powers and easy access to sex. It's a reflection of how the medieval fantasy worlds in this genre often are restrictive for women, but the male protagonists aren't confronted with this due to their privilege. However, as Haru observes, her life as a teen sex worker isn't that much different from Earth.
Sometimes, isekai novels can tell very powerful personal stories about people full of regrets. Even power fantasies like Mushoku Tensei are about unemployed men who get the chance to make peace with themselves in another life, and these parts of the story are often more memorable than the fantasy shenanigans. Some of the best parts of Re:ZERO also involve the protagonist's deep self-loathing, and how going to a fantasy world won't fix his problems. But my favorite story about death and second chances is The Faraway Paladin, which is about a depressed man who is raised by undead parents in his next life. It's also the only light novel to date that has made me cry.
The “slow life” subgenre is an offshoot of this idea, as the stories frequently depict a character who has been overworked (sometimes even to death) in their original life and just want to take it easy in their next life. These stories can be both relaxing and cathartic to read due to how they address the darker side of Japanese work culture. The Ideal Sponger Life has the seemingly trashy premise of a guy who marries a queen and gets to lounge around while she does all the work, but the novel is surprisingly thoughtful about the motivations of both parties and the political reality behind it.
My favorite “slow life” isekai is I've Been Killing Slimes for 300 Years and Maxed Out My Level, which features a protagonist who is fed up with the concept of overwork and wants everyone to live within their means. It wouldn't be a good yarn if there weren't shenanigans getting in the way of the protagonist's easy life, however, and I've Been Killing Slimes delivers them in spades.
Another fun subgenre of isekai is "Japanese person brings their esoteric hobby/interests to the other world and wows everyone with it." This often takes the form of foodie stories, like Restaurant to Another World, but I prefer reading about the less obvious interests. For example, in Sūji de Sukū! Jakushō Kokka (Saving a Weak Nation with Numbers), the protagonist attempts to use game theory to fight a war. All the math explanations are engaging and easy to follow even for people who hate math, and things get even more interesting when things don't turn out how the numbers predict due to the human factor. How a Realist Hero Rebuilt the Kingdom is also a fun read due to the sheer breadth of knowledge the protagonist displays. It uses the fantasy world setting to present mundane information about running an administration with a fresh perspective. Isekai novels can be educational from time to time!
And finally, some of my favorite isekai are the ones that simply make me laugh. Konosuba is the most successful of these in recent years, and with good reason—it never takes itself seriously. The Devil is a Part-Timer! is also a funny and clever spin on the isekai concept by having the characters from the fantasy world come to modern Japan. Then there's the recent spate of silly isekai premises like Do You like Your Mom? and “protagonist gets reincarnated as a slime/vending machine/insert other goofy thing”. My favorite of these is So I'm a Spider, So What? because of the female protagonist's perpetually peppy attitude despite being turned into a monster spider.
The possibilities in the isekai genre are infinite. It's frankly amazing how far the genre has developed in just a few years. Although I do admit that certain types of isekai stories are oversaturating the market right now, the current boom has produced tons of interesting stories. As a light novel fan, I'm a bit saddened at how isekai has turned into the butt of jokes. As with any genre, there's good and bad, and there's more to isekai than the bestsellers that get adapted into anime or translated into English.
What are some of the best and worst isekai stories for you? Let me know in the comments!
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