The Fall 2018 Light Novel Guide
October and November are relatively light months in terms of new series debuting, but that doesn't mean that there wasn't enough to keep our review team busy reading! The offerings this time do vary from recent isekai-heavy trends, with more books that are at least lightly parodic of that genre as well as some that forgo it altogether. Highlights include J-Novel Club's foray into the otome game novel (Cross Infinite World and Seven Seas released titles in the genre earlier in the year), the return of the Boogiepop novels in an omnibus edition, and two novels with film tie-ins. As usual, there is only one reviewer per book, as these take significantly longer to read than manga, so be sure to add your two cents in the forums.
Boogiepop Novel Omnibus
Synopsis: There's a rumor about a mysterious, androgynous being known as Boogiepop stalking the city. No one knows what they want or why they've appeared, but where ever Boogiepop shows up, strange deaths and behaviors are sure to be around. What people don't know is that Boogiepop is protecting the world from mysterious organizations and strange beings like the Imaginator or Spooky E, people who want to remake the world in their own image. Too bad for them Boogiepop isn't going to let that happen…The Boogiepop omnibus contains the first three novels, Boogiepop & Others and Boogiepop VS Imaginator parts one and two, all of which were previously released by Seven Seas in 2006 – 2008, available as of October 1st and selling for $18.99. The series is written by Kouhei Kadono and illustrated by Kouji Ogata. Numerous live action and animated adaptations have been made, with the most recent coming in January 2019.
Review: Boogiepop is an odd relic of the late 1990s, still fresh enough in terms of its take on science fiction but also feeling much darker and slightly more pretentious than more contemporary light novels. That's not necessarily a bad thing, as it allows the series to stand out in a field more likely to be populated with lighter, more fantasy-oriented fare. And this omnibus does stand out, not only because it's a good deal money-wise ($19 for three books when a single volume costs between $12 and $14), but also because it feels like the starting point for many similar dark urban tales. The easiest connection to point to is Ryhogo Narita's DRRR!!, which feels like a spiritual successor to Kadono's series with its mysterious organizations, extra-human beings, and buffet of rumors. These books are easily on par with those, if not perhaps a little better – with fewer repeating characters (or really, just a smaller cast in general), Boogiepop has an easier time drawing connections between people and pulling the symbolic threads of story through.
Those threads are, unfortunately, what does give the three novels in the omnibus a bit of a pretentious feel. Kadono is a little too fond of odd epigrams and nebulous statements about purpose and life, and that does get grating when all you want to do is read about mysterious beings interacting with humans in the city. The way each novel is told from multiple viewpoints is also a touch tricky at times – although it's fascinating and I really like the way we never hear the same narrator twice in one book, it can also feel like a fumbling attempt at a Rashomon-style narrative that doesn't entirely work, in part because of shifts between first and third person within each section. Again, we can point to this as being influential in later works – The Dark Maidens comes to mind – but here in its early form it isn't quite as polished as it will become.
Most of that doesn't truly detract from the weird fascination the story holds, however. Part mystery, part science fiction, part urban legend, the first three Boogiepop novels are captivating in a way that does get dark, but never grim. Mystery and science fiction fans should check it out, but so should those who are tired of cute girls in another world. Those stories are good, but this one provides a needed break from them.
Goblin Slayer: Year One
Synopsis: Before he was Goblin Slayer, our hero was a boy who lost everything when goblins attacked his town, killing everyone. One of two survivors, the other having been taken in by her uncle before the attack, the boy decides to dedicate his life to eradicating the monsters who killed his sister and ruined his life. After training under a Rhea and joining the Guild, the young man who would eventually be known as Goblin Slayer undertakes his first quests and begins his study of how to destroy his enemies. Goblin Slayer Side Story: Year One is written by Kumo Kagyu and illustrated by Shingo Adachi. It was published by YenOn in October. Available as both an ebook and a print book. The former sells for $7.99 and the latter for $14. A manga adaptation is also forthcoming from Yen Press.
Review: By now you know what you're getting with a Goblin Slayer story – gruesome action and a lot of off-screen violence of the more brutal sort. (Reminder: the novels imply rather than show most of the sexual violence.) The catch here is that rather than following Priestess as she learns to hunt goblins from Goblin Slayer or Cow Girl as she moons over him, we see Goblin Slayer himself as he shutters his emotions and begins the journey to becoming the character we know. Kumo Kagyu does a very good job with this – the boy's PTSD essentially stops him from feeling any attachment to people out of fear that they (or he) will die, and while Kagyu doesn't spend a lot of time exploring the boy's emotional state, it's clear that he doesn't necessarily feel like he should have survived. This opens the door for Cow Girl to become a much more interesting character. More than just a young woman with a crush, she becomes someone determined to help her friend find himself again, or at least feel that he has a reason to live. While she clearly does like him, it casts their entire relationship in the main series as something deeper, which may be the biggest boon this prequel offers.
The book does also give us glimpses into the early careers of the other characters, with Guild Girl standing out and Priestess' short cameo feeling very telling. There are still plenty of battles and a lot of trial and error as the boy learns how to become the Slayer – and watching him learn what we've already seen him teach Priestess is definitely interesting – and that's really the main reason to read this: to see how Kagyu envisioned his character becoming who he is. You do need to be familiar with the source books to read this one, but if you're a fan of the characters and the overall darker-than-average tone of the light novels, this is worth your time.
Synopsis: Four-year-old Kun isn't happy when his parents bring home Mirai, his new baby sister. He feels like she's stolen their love away from him, and he acts out accordingly. Then one day he meets a strange prince who claims to have had all of the love before Kun was born, and he begins to have encounters with family members past and present. Kun soon learns that there's more than enough love to go around and that family means more than he ever imagined. Mirai is the novelization of Mamoru Hosoda's film of the same name, written by the director. It was released in October by YenOn as a hardcover, and sells for $20.
Review: Even if you can't relate to the baseline relationship in Hosoda's novel (I never felt my sisters were “stealing” my parents from me, and I had a difficult time with that particular conceit in the book), Mirai is unquestionably a beautiful story. Told through the eyes of four-year-old Kun, we see him as his world begins to expand. The novel sells itself on Kun's meeting with a future version of his baby sister, the eponymous Mirai, but that's really only a small piece of what happens within the story. Mirai, both past and future, is the catalyst for him to begin to realize that “family” doesn't just mean his mom and dad. Yes, it includes his sibling, but it also incorporates his grandparents, great-grandparents, pets, and aunts and uncles. As the book goes on, Kun interacts with past incarnations of all of these people, learning that not only does everyone he loves have their own stories, but that each of those stories interconnects with his own.
That's heavy stuff for a toddler, and Hosoda handles it delicately. Everything remains within the way he is able to relate to the world, from the way he calls his great-grandfather “Daddy” because he looks like his own dad to how he understands his mother's childhood relationship with her own brother. Interestingly enough, we see that Kun's parents struggle even more than Kun as they welcome home Mirai, learning that they have to balance out the time spent with each child and that Kun isn't just going to immediately react like an adult, because he's absolutely not. Add in Dad's new status as the stay-at-home parent and things get even more difficult, something Kun struggles to understand even as he handles it perhaps a bit better than he might have. As a family story, this is a lovely work, and while I can't speak to how it compares with the film, it's worth reading on its own merits.
The Reprise of the Spear Hero
Synopsis: Motoyasu Kitamura was summoned to Melromarc, a world bearing a distinct similarity to a game he once played, as the Holy Spear Hero. Unfortunately for him, a series of missteps led to him aligning himself with the wrong people, and just as he was correcting his mistakes, he died. Much to his surprise, he finds himself right back at the moment of his summoning, this time with all of his new knowledge intact. Motoyasu determines to do better this time, save Naofumi the Shield Hero from persecution, and, most importantly, find the filolial of his dreams! The Reprise of the Spear Hero is written by Aneko Yusagi with illustrations by Minami Seira. It was released by One Peace Books in October and sells for $13.99 for a print copy or $9.99 for digital. Its source series, The Rising of the Shield Hero, will receive and anime adaptation in January 2019.
Review: Even if you're not a Motoyasu fan, which I certainly wasn't going into this, The Reprise of the Spear Hero is an interesting spinoff of Aneko Yusagi's The Rising of the Shield Hero light novel series. As you can guess, this time the point of view character is Motoyasu Kitamura, the playboy who was summoned as the Spear Hero, and who royally screwed up in the Shield Hero novels. (No more than the other two Holy Heroes, it should be noted.) At a time we either haven't reached in the main story or won't reach (as in, an alternate timeline), Motoyasu dies and is sent back to the beginning, and this time he's determined to do things right. That's what drive his every move in the book, almost more so than his deep, abiding, and creepy love for filolials, the giant birds who can take human form native to the franchise's world.
What that means, apart from informing the story, is that he can be a little off-putting. Back in the main series, Motoyasu sees failing Naofumi and being betrayed by Witch himself as his major sins, so this time he has a full-on aversion to human women (except Éclair), seeing them all as pigs and only hearing squealing when they talk. That's definitely troubling, although given how he died back in our world, it does make some sense. He's also so devoted to Naofumi, whom he refers to as “Father” because of his crush on Filo in the main story, that it gets a little grating. Since we're seeing things from his perspective, again it's easy to see where he's coming from, but that doesn't make it less irritating. The same goes for his love of filolials, which absolutely gets super creepy, especially during the tone-deaf “peeping” chapter.
That said, he is kind of lovable in his way, and more than determined to make up for past mistakes. Yusagi does her best to make the novel readable for those who aren't familiar with the Shield Hero books as well, although I definitely wouldn't suggest going into this one cold. Knowing who Naofumi is in the main story is part of what makes this different trajectory for him interesting and tempers Motoyasu's less charming traits.
Synopsis: Hitomi is dozing in her family's electronics shop when she suddenly finds herself in a derelict amusement park populated by strange, uncanny beings, including a girl with a television for a head. There are four other people there with her – Utena and Torii from school, her childhood friend Kousuke, and a young actor from the city. Meanwhile, back at home a woman named Sayuri discovers that her daughter has died in town. How are they connected? And will Hitomi ever escape her carnival hell? ECHO is written by Akira with illustrations by Oguchi. It's based on a Vocaloid song and will be released by J-Novel Club as an ebook in November, selling for $6.99.
Review: Like many of the other novels based on Vocaloid musical tracks, Echo is a touch too self-aware to be really readable and good. Akira, however, who also wrote the Yume Nikki novel, is a canny enough author to be able to compensate for some of the deliberate weirdness of the franchise's novelizations, and about mid-way through the book, it begins to feel like the light novel version of Jean-Paul Satre's Huis clos (No Exit). Given Akira's work on the Yume Nikki book, that seems very deliberate, and while it doesn't quite pull it off, the literary reference saves the book from drowning in its own self-importance.
The setting is another piece that really succeeds. Set in a purgatorial amusement park of the damned, there are plenty of hints as to what likely happened to land the characters where they are, but also enough confusion to keep it from feeling handed to you. As a mystery/horror hybrid, Echo does better with the horror side of things, and it definitely comes with a gore warning for tender stomached readers, but the mystery is handled decently enough that it doesn't feel shoehorned in. The “echo” subchapters (the others are called “channels”) from the point of view of Sayuri, the mother of one of the girls in the park, contribute the most to the mystery aspect, and when things come together at the very end, it is satisfying, albeit bittersweet.
While I'd recommend The Dark Maidens before Echo for the genre, this is still an interesting novel, and one that gets increasingly so as it goes on. In the hands of a different author, it might not have worked quite as well, which is a testament to Akira's skill rather than a deprecation of the story itself.
How Do You Like Your Mom and Her Two-Hit Multi-Target Attacks?
Synopsis: Masato Oosuki finds his mom a little clingy and annoying, but what fifteen-year-old boy doesn't? That's not what the Japanese government thinks, and when he accidentally puts his name on an anonymous survey for the Cabinet Office's Department of Policy on Cohesive Society survey about mother/child relationships, he finds himself sent with his mom Mamako to a game world. That's bad enough, but now she's not only super-protective, but also massively overpowered. Does Masato have any chance of keeping things remotely normal? How Do You Like Your Mom and her Two-Hit Multi-Target Attacks is written by Dachima Inaka and illustrated by Iida Pochi. YenOn will release the first volume November 27th and it will sell for $14. An anime adaptation by J.C. Staff has been announced.
Review: This is one of the more confusing light novels I've encountered, not because the concept itself is confusing, but because the author can't seem to decide if he wants to be skirting a line between a helicopter mom and one who is way too attached to her son. The way-too-aptly named Mamako is one of those mothers who looks far too young to have a high school aged son, and she's also prone to forgetting that he's fifteen now – or at least, unaware of what the fact that he's fifteen actually means for them. It almost certainly means that she shouldn't be upset that he doesn't want to look up her skirt at her thong, but it also means that she ought to respect his discomfort with her bathing with him or making weirdly sexual overtures. It's very uncomfortable to read.
In part, that's simply because Inaka makes it that way. He dedicates the book to his mother and mentions that he's got a child himself, so that might explain some of his apparent discomfort with his own subject matter. There's also a bona fide love interest introduced for him in the form of Wise, another girl who was forced into the game with her mother to foster a better parent-child relationship, so it seems more like half-hearted titillation with Mamako thrown in for funsies. If that's your thing, that's fine, but Inaka's inability to commit to it just makes it awkward. (As a point of interest, this is not the first novel to use the premise; Vivian Vande Velde's User Unfriendly takes a much more family-friendly approach, though.)
As for the story itself, it runs much like any other isekai/trapped in a game tale. The conceit that Masato needs to form a closer bond with his mother is a twist, but it's one that ignores that Mamako is the one making that difficult for her son, placing most of the blame on him. That's not to say that he can't be a jerk, and his discontent at Mamako being more powerful than him is definitely bratty, but it really feels like the story doesn't understand itself or have a clear idea of where it's going. Iida Pochi's cute art does help to make things a bit better, but unless the term “mom com” is an immediate draw, this one can be safely left alone.
The Hero and His Elf Bride Open a Pizza Parlor in Another World
Synopsis: When Kaito dies on his way to lunch, a very harried goddess offers him three rebirth options: amazing swordsman, great mage, or pizza chef to the elves. While he's debating between the first two, she gets a phone call that lands him with number three: the High Calorie Hero. Since he's stuck, Kaito decides to make the best of it, even if the job appears to come with a potential bride with the appetite of your average Labrador retriever. A hero's a hero, right? The Hero and His Elf Bride Open a Pizza Parlor in Another World is written by Kaya Kizaki and illustrated by Shiso. Yen On will release it in November, and it sells for $14.
Review: The tongue is firmly in cheek for this one. Author Kaya Kizaki comments in the afterward that an isekai story wasn't really something they were interested in, but they decided to do it anyway and throw in something that all guys of the demographic for the story love: pizza. Thus our hero Kaito is reborn in another world in order to make pizza for elves who aren't eating enough calories. The reason that's happening? Their new queen advocates a vegetarian lifestyle, which really feels like a commentary on the recent glut of weight-loss stories. (Well, glut in English release, anyway.) Or it could be that she's a teenage girl trying to look good; in either case, pizza is long overdue for the salad-weary elves.
Fortunately for Kaito his new job comes with a magic bag and the requisite knowledge implanted in his head. Less fortunately is the fact that the village chief is remarkably unsubtle about marrying his (annoying) daughter Lilia off to Kaito, something he gets no say in. There's a definite feeling that he gets worn down the longer he knows her rather than actually falling for her, which also feels like a commentary on the kind of passive, yet irritating, heroine we see in light novels frequently. What's more troubling is that she's often described using language we reserve for dogs, and Kaito even uses dog commands to talk to her, setting them up for a very unequal relationship. Again, this is likely part of the slyly sarcastic aspect of the novel, but it is still difficult to read at times.
For the most part, however, Pizza Elf, as I've been shortening it, is a really fun read. It knows the tropes it's skewering but is well-written enough that if you like those tropes, or aren't aware of what Kizaki's up to, you can enjoy the novel on its own, non-ironic merits. With cute art and a breezy translation, this is a surprising amount of fun, and at under two hundred pages, it's also just right for when you don't have time to savor something longer.
I Want to Eat Your Pancreas
Synopsis: During a visit to the hospital, a high school boy picks up a book only to discover that it's the diary of one of his classmates – and she's dying of pancreatic disease. When Sakura realizes that he's now aware of her secret, she recruits him to be her friend, the one person she can be totally honest with and work towards fulfilling her final goals during her last year of life. As the two become closer, however, it becomes clear that Sakura isn't the only one getting something out of this relationship as they explore what it means to really live together. I Want to Eat Your Pancreas is written by Yoru Sumino and will be published by Seven Seas in November, with a price of $14.99. An anime film adaptation, a manga version, and a live-action film adaptation were both released in 2018.
Review: Although teen trauma novels are not among my favorites, there is something very appealing about I Want to Eat Your Pancreas. Mostly this is the way that the characters approach the trauma, in this case Sakura's impending death, without melodrama. Sakura's demise is established right from the start, so even though she's impossible not to grow fond of, you do so with the full knowledge of where this is going, and that her death isn't really the point of the story. Instead, Sumino uses Sakura's end as the impetus for the narrator's beginning. Rather than a novel about early death, it instead feels more like an exploration of the cycle of life, and while it is still tragic, that tragedy takes a back seat to other emotions.
The title ties into this. Although it at first seems like a bid to shock readers into buying the book, it's actually a reference to a folk belief extant across multiple cultures that consuming a healthy organ will help heal a sick one, as well as the related belief that to eat a piece of someone's body is to make them a part of you. Since Sakura's illness is in her pancreas, that first part makes perfect sense, but it's actually the second that's more important in the context of the novel's thematic elements: through his interactions with Sakura, the narrator (whose name is kept out of it until the very end of the book) internalizes pieces of her, ultimately using them to change himself into someone more comfortable in his own skin.
The device of not using the narrator's name until the final chapters is one of the defining features of the writing, and it isn't all that smoothly executed. Unlike something like Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca (the go-to example of the unnamed narrator in fiction), Sumino tries to cover up the lack of name by having characters say things like “[classmate I'm getting along with]-kun,” which is frankly awkward. That's the only major writing issue, however, and Sumino's prose is effective without feeling preachy or melodramatic. If you're in the mood for a sad story that's nevertheless uplifting, this is worth your time.
My Next Life as a Villainess: All Routes Lead to Doom!
Synopsis: One day she was just an ordinary otaku tomboy with serious tree-climbing skills, and the next she's waking up as a character in the otome game she was playing just before she died. The catch? Our heroine's been reborn as Katarina Claes, the villain of Fortune Lover, and she is not interested in meeting a gruesome end. Armed with her knowledge of the game – which she's smart enough to write down as soon as she realizes what's going on – Katarina sets out to make sure that she can survive the wrath of the heroine's love interests…with some unexpected consequences. My Next Life as a Villainess: All Routes Lead to Doom! is written by Satoru Yamaguchi with illustrations by Nami Hidaka. J-Novel Club released it as a digital-only book in November and it sells for $6.99.
Review: If you liked Obsessions of an Otome Gamer and Accomplishments of the Duke's Daughter, do not pass this book by. Even if you never read those two others, this is a delightfully entertaining story. Katarina (original name forgotten) happily wreaks havoc on the stated order of the otome game she was playing before she rode her bike into traffic, largely in the hopes of getting a mere bad end and not a catastrophic one. Because her new life is as the villain of the game, she doesn't see any way she could possibly end up okay, but she also really isn't into dying via magic or at sword point. What she doesn't realize is that the combination of her efforts to merely end up exiled and her modern-day sense of self and knowledge instead combine to turn her into the new heroine of the piece, and all unawares she has been assembling her own mixed-gender harem.
Katarina's obliviousness, and frankly lack of imagination that she could change the story that much, are part of what makes this so much fun. She goes about charming her fiancé, his twin brother, her adopted brother, a couple of girl rivals, and one of those girls' brother without even really being aware that she's doing it, and that makes their love for her feel more reasonable (and palatable) than if she actually set out to take the heroine's place. We're aware, not just from seeing everyone's reactions in Katarina's narration, but also because each chapter ends with a first-person segment of whoever Katarina was interacting with. Yamaguchi's a good enough writer that the voices of each character do sound relatively distinct, and the repetition of key dialogue from the other participant's perspective also helps to give a good idea of what's happening internally. Even more interesting is how Katarina basically uses modern psychology (although she's not all that aware of the fact) to make everyone feel better about themselves, but persists in seeing herself as looking “evil,” something she tries very hard to help other characters overcome. The person who can help her in turn, therefore, just may be who she ends up with…assuming she ever figures out that she's got so many people vying for her heart.
Apparently It's My Fault My Husband Has the Head of a Beast Vol. 1
Synopsis: The classic fairytale gets a makeover with a few more magical twists and while the 'Beast' has never been much of a Prince Charming, it's our Beauty's lack of appeal that makes Shiduki's retelling hard to flip through.
The story follows a small-country princess and shut-in named Rosemarie who, ever since a fateful visit to the neighboring country of Baltzar as a child, is able to see individual's true intentions. Things like jealousy, anger, and deception manifest physically as beastly traits and so Rosemarie hides herself from the world and the monsters that inhabit it.
That is until she's specifically requested to attend a ball in Baltzar and she meets Crown Prince Claudio, a handsome man whose countenance never changes. Rosemarie assumes that this means he's a person of pure intentions and the two are quickly engaged and wed. It's on her wedding night that Rosemarie discovers who her husband truly is: a lion-headed beast. Only she can't see his beast form because she absorbed his mana as a child. Claudio will do anything to get his mana back even if it means terrorizing Rosemarie until he and his trusted advisors figure out how. Apparently It's My Fault My Husband Has the Head of a Beast is written by Eri Shiduki. J-Novel Club publishes it as an ebook for $6.99.
Review: So this is a classic romantic bait-and-switch set-up where a well-meaning heroine ends up in whirlwind relationship with the seemingly perfect partner only to discover he has a dark secret or dangerous side. You could call it a Do-S light scenario that's meant to get reader' hearts racing as the male romantic lead bangs a fist against a wall, acts possessive, or throws temper tantrums all in the name of how much he actually cares. He's also usually shown to be highly capable in a professional sense to help illustrate that he's a good provider so he's both safe and edgy at the same time. Claudio fits this description to a T, so while I wouldn't put him in the same company as the vampires in Diabolik Lover, he's comparable to leads in the josei manga of say, Midnight Secretary.
He's wealthy, handsome, and demeaning while also hoping to pull a few sympathy points due to his condition. And sure, if I suddenly had a lion head and was literally dying from lack of magic, I wouldn't be so nice either. However, Rosemarie doesn't serve as a counterfoil to Claudio and for most of the book I felt incredibly bad for her. She enjoys none of his attention, in fact, she doesn't enjoy interacting with other people at all. Rosemarie is constantly bewildered by her circumstances, mistreated by the characters around, morbidly embarrassed, or downright terrified. She exists in constant fear of what people, strangers, anyone thinks of her. She's manhandled by her husband who resents her for inadvertently taking his magic from him and cowers in nearly every scene. There's one point where she requests Claudio allow her to live in her room in the castle without being able to leave. It's that whole scene where Beast locks Belle in the tower jail but in this version she doesn't want to leave.
Dangerous love affairs are standard romantic fantasy fodder, but you've got to give me a heroine I'd want to experience the situation through for it to work. A girl that wants to live her life terrified with a bucket on her head isn't it.
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