The Fall 2019 Light Novel Guideby Rebecca Silverman,
Light novels may not necessarily be getting out of the isekai phase any time soon, but we're definitely beginning to see a lot more variety in how they use it, not to mention an increase in the type of titles translated into English. The releases for September through November give us a couple of direct parodies of what remains the most popular genre along with a more by-the-books version, and also a couple of real gems. Among those is a magic realism novel by mystery master Keigo Higashino that you absolutely shouldn't miss, a romance with a heroine who has her head on straight, and a charming story about a girl out of time doing her best to figure things out. There's some good titles here, with more to come in later months, making this a fine time to be a light novel reader indeed.
Combatants Will Be Dispatched!
By Natsume Akatsuki, illustrations by Kakao Lanthanum. Yen On, $15 paperback, $6.99 digital.
Agent Six has been working for a self-proclaimed evil organization since he was tricked into signing up in high school, and he's actually found it reasonably fulfilling. But now that the Kisaragi Corporation has pretty much finished taking over the world, it's time for them to set their sights higher: conquering other planets. Six has been chosen for this glorious first mission, and alongside a highly developed pretty girl android named Alice, he's teleported to a new world to scout it out. But to everyone's surprise, the new planet is basically the equivalent of a Medieval fantasy world. What kind of light novel nonsense is this, and how is Six supposed to carry out his mission?
Given that Combatants Will Be Dispatched! comes from the same man who brought us both Konosuba and Kemono Michi: Rise Up, it should come as no surprise that the novel has a parodic take on the still- pervasive isekai genre. In this case that angle is a sort of science fiction versus fantasy set up, with Agent Six (he can't remember his real name) and Alice being teleported (sci fi) to a knights-in-armor kind of world where the chief danger is the demon king rather than plague and famine, making it fantasy. Essentially, it's mechs against magic, and that's a fun set up to jump into. The problems, then arise when we look at the characters. While Six is in the mold of Kazuma from Konosuba, he's somehow also worse, because Kazuma at least has to pretend to be a good guy, while Six identifies as bad. This means that he's perfectly happy humiliating and preying on the women he encounters in scenes that are clearly intended to be funny but always have a sort of distasteful edge. The rest of his party is also just a little too familiar for readers of Akatsuki's other novel series to ignore – Alice's obsession with her exploding function (self-destruct), Snow's not-quite-competent swordswoman, and Grimm's impractical magic make them all basically different forms of the same three characters we already know. That does detract from the humor a bit, as do a few questionable word choices in the English translation, which sort of work because they're being used by people who identify as evil but still feel a little unfortunate. All in all it isn't as much fun as Akatsuki's other works, but for readers who haven't experienced either of them or who have a soft spot for sci fi vs fantasy, it's decent enough to merit reading.
The Genius Prince's Guide to Raising a Nation Out of Debt (Hey, How About Treason?)
By Toru Toba, illustrations by Falmaro. Yen On, $15 paperback, $7.99 digital.
Crown Prince Wein of Natra has taken over for his father as regent, and it's not a job he loves. Wein wants nothing more than to sell off the country, kick back, and live the easy life, but all of his plans go sideways when it turns out that he's really good at ruling. Try as he might, everything he does turns to gold and he's more popular than ever. Will this lazy prince ever get to take a break?
The Genius Prince's Guide to Raising a Nation Out of Debt is a bit like a cross between Irresponsible Captain Tyler and How a Realist Hero Rebuilt the Kingdom: Prince Wein is stupidly good at what he does, but he really, really doesn't want to be. I realize that this doesn't sound like what I just said, but it's something in the way he forms plans that always end up working out perfectly while managing to be resignedly practical that brings the comparison to mind. It's a combination that works, in any event, making this a surprisingly breezy read for a novel about governance and war. Part of that is due to the fact that although Wein himself tries to be as awful as possible, he really doesn't have it in him; he may talk a good game about kicking back and doing nothing, but at the end of the day he truly does care about his people. Only his sister gets to see that fully demonstrated, but Wein's interactions with other people on his staff and more specifically with Ninym, his aide and childhood friend, show the truth of who he is.
This is where Toru Toba's worldbuilding comes into play as well. Ninym is a member of a race of people who are almost universally discriminated against, and Wein is ready to defend her at all costs. But this is more than just a plain old romantic set up (although it's probably that too); it's about showing not only how Wein is a decent person but also how Natra differs from the other countries around it. Only Natra treats all of its people with fairness and doesn't have a slaveholding system, and the implication is that this may be part of the reason why Wein is so much nicer than he wants anyone to think he is. Although we only see him interact with two other nations, it's still very telling, and it feels like a safe bet that he's going to end up a beloved ruler long before he gets to put up his feet and relax. It's his loss, but it may very well be our gain if the series can keep things going in future books.
The Miracles of the Namiya General Store
By Keigo Higashino, Yen On, $20 hardcover, $9.99 digital.
Back in the mid-twentieth century, if you wrote a letter to the Namiya General Store and dropped in in
the mail slot, a reply with advice would be waiting for you in the milk delivery box the next morning. The
owner passed away in the 1980s, but for one night only, on the thirty-third anniversary of his death,
time will freeze inside the store and letters may once again be sent. When three young men headed
down a path of delinquency find themselves using the derelict store as a hideout after committing a
robbery on that very night, will the magic of the store help them to see their way out?
There's no easy way to describe Keigo Higashino's novel The Miracles of the Namiya General Store. It has elements of magic realism, but that's not a comfortable genre fit; it interweaves a mystery with its narrative, but again, that's not quite what it is. It resembles nothing so much as a beautiful puzzle-box, and each subsequent chapter, which could almost be termed a short story, reveals a new spot to press or piece to turn until the final pages give us the last answer, and the box falls open. Given that author Keigo Higashino is best known in the west for his Detective Galileo mystery novels (the first of which was nominated for a coveted Edgar Award), that's perhaps not surprising – Higashino has a long-established reputation as a puzzle master. And really, there's a level of planning that clearly went into this story that's truly impressive: what begins as a series of interconnected short stories evolves into a single narrative in a slow, heartfelt glide that ultimately comes together as a piece about how people can impact others with their words and actions, and also about the need to feel loved and safe. Higashino drops breadcrumbs along the path to help us come to those conclusions on our own; this really isn't a book that's interested in just feeding you the answers the author seems to want you to reach.
Quite honestly, I loved this book so much that it's difficult to come up with the words to tell you why. To a degree, reading it is a bit like reading Erin Morgenstern's <i>The Night Circus</i> in that it's a beautiful book, blending genre elements to remind us about everyday miracles and those which are a little harder to come by. Just read it. I don't think you'll regret it.
By Iori Miyazawa. J-Novel Club, $6.99 digital.
Sorawo has been exploring the strange dream-like world she calls the Otherside ever since she stumbled upon it during her days as an urban explorer, but her most recent trip has gotten her into serious trouble. That's when she meets Toriko, a strange young woman searching the Otherside for her missing friend. Toriko helps Sorawo out of her predicament, and Sorawo falls into helping Toriko in her mission. But each journey into the Otherside brings strange new dangers and skills, and Sorawo isn't sure that the search is worth it. Will one more trip turn out to be too many, trapping them?
No one quite captures the uncanny nature of dreams, nightmares, and urban legends come to horrible life like Iori Miyazawa. Her previous work, Side by Side Dreamers (also released by J-Novel Club) was a fascinating exploration of dreams, so it makes sense that Otherside Picnic would be about nightmares. The story's other world is based on internet “true ghost stories,” narratives of modern folklore that sit somewhere between urban legends and ghost stories, and the strongest part of the book is absolutely the descriptions of Sorawo's experiences of them. She's at an advantage as a protagonist as a cultural anthropology student and former urban explorer (which is how she stumbled into the Otherside in the first place), and she forms the brains of the Sorawo/Toriko duo initially; when other characters are added into the mix, Sorawo becomes the emotional intelligence as well, able to understand illusions and their impact on the people who experience them.
Miyazawa builds this aspect of the story slowly, which can make the book slow going at times, but ultimately helps to create an intensely haunting atmosphere. By the end of the novel (and there is a second volume due out in January) we don't quite understand everything that's going on or if there's a happy ending possible for anyone, but our investment in the story and the characters has grown so organically that the last page comes as a jolt. Scarier than her previous work but every bit as absorbing and with mild yuri undertones, this is a haunting read that almost makes you hope that everything you've just read turns out to be nothing more than a nightmare the characters were having after all.
Our Last Crusade or the Rise of a New World
Story by Kei Sazane, illustrations by Ao Nekonabe. Yen On, $15 paperback, $6.99 digital.
The Empire and the Nebulis Sovereignty were once a single country, but when magic was developed, fear caused the persecution of magic users, and the two split, with the Sovereignty being created for the mages. Now years have passed but the wars rage on, with the technology of the Empire being pitted against the magic of the Sovereignty. Iska, a young Empire soldier, and Aliceliese, the princess of the Sovereignty, meet on the battlefield and soon realize that there is more at stake than old grudges, and the two begin to think that perhaps the best way out of endless war is to foster understanding – together.
Is true love even real if it isn't felt by star crossed lovers? Obviously the answer is yes, but you might not know it from teen fiction, and Our Last Crusade or the Rise of a New World is the latest to follow in the footsteps of your choice of classic doomed lovers. The difference between Iska and Aliceliese is that they're both in a position to do something about the acrimony between their two countries, Iska because he's a powerful soldier with some very special swords and Alice because she's the presumed crown princess of her land. It's difficult to decide if they're in an enemies-to-lovers story or one of insta- love, but in either case, it's very clear from this first novel that their feelings are going to have to prove stronger than historical bad blood. Despite this admittedly melodramatic set up, the story here is actually pretty good. It does spend a bit too much time on genre tropes, specifically the two trying very hard not to admit that they're attracted
to each other, but it also engages in some good world building that really helps to set the stage. It's clear that there's a lot more going on that Iska suspects and Alice has largely been unaware of, and the slow reveal of these machinations is part of the draw of this book. There's a real sense that this is simply a prologue to what's to come and that the truth about the start of the war is in no way as simple as history has it. While the book isn't amazing, it definitely has some potential and it could shape up to be an engaging saga as it goes on.
Root Double: Before Crime * After Days
Story by Sōki Tsukishima, Tora Tsukishima, and Yeti Regista, illustrated by Mikeou. Cross Infinite World, $8.99 digital.
Watase awakens in a strange facility with few memories of how he got there. When he meets up with a few other people, he learns that he's the captain of a rescue squad sent into the facility to save the survivors of a strange explosion and reactor meltdown, but the longer he and his fellow rescue workers search, the less that story adds up. What is LABO, and what secrets is it hiding? Why are there four high school-age students present in the facility? Why does the lockdown have such a specific duration? And finally – is there any way out that isn't death?
Although I have not played the source game for this light novel, that is no impediment to enjoying it. (Doubtless those familiar with it will pick up on more clues, however.) That's because it's a solid mystery thriller with enough hints and oddities to keep you wondering, and the pressing question of the reliability not just of the narrator himself, but also of the other people feeding him the information he's basing his decisions on makes this feel very taut. That the narrator/protagonist has amnesia only adds to this, because he's got no way to truly figure who is feeding him what information and how truthful they are but his own instincts, and there are members of his group who seem dedicated to making sure that he doubts those as well.
All of this can get a little wearying as the book goes on and it becomes clear that there's not going to be a perfectly rounded ending to the proceedings (there's at least one more novel coming), but for readers who enjoy a puzzle, this is a good one. That there are some major ethical questions about what LABO has been up to in their hyper-secure facility adds another layer to the mysteries, especially since as we get closer and closer to the novel's end fewer and fewer things seem to add up when you look at the available information. Someone is clearly pulling the strings here, and even if we don't learn who that specifically is, there's enough to make a couple of educated guesses. That makes this a solid read, with the added bonus of numerous color images (albeit in a moe style that hearkens to the game but doesn't quite work with the prose), and one worth checking out whether you know the original visual novel or not.
The Alchemist Who Survived Now Dreams of a Quiet City Life
Story by Usata Nonohara, illustrated by OX. Yen On, $13 paperback, $7.99 digital.
Mariela was a young alchemist in the Citadel City eking out her living as just one of many and living in the cottage in the forest left to her by her master before he vanished. When beasts stampeded through the land, she used a special magic circle to put herself into a state of suspended animation until it was safe to emerge from the basement, but due to an error, when she awoke, two hundred years had passed. Now Mariela is in an unfamiliar world where her hometown has been transformed and alchemists have all but vanished. Nevertheless, she is determined to make a life for herself and to find a new family in this strange new time and place.
At almost four hundred pages, The Alchemist Who Survived Now Dreams of a Quiet City Life is one of the longest light novel releases in recent memory, sharing the honor with The World's Strongest Rearguard. Fortunately for readers, it's also a good read, combining a fantasy story with mild romance and extensive world building – it's very clear that Usata Nonohara thought not only about each time period in the story (both the past of two hundred years ago when Mariela went to sleep and the present day), but also how the one would turn into the other and how those things would affect Mariela herself. She's therefore able to use some of her old knowledge to find the herbs she needs for her alchemy potions and physical items by going to where she knows things used to be, but sufficiently off-balance that she comes off as not all there to people who have no idea what she's been through. It's a neat concept that works, and that Nonohara also includes some character profiles and potion recipes in the back also goes to show us just how much thought went into this series.
The downside of this is that there is a lot of repetition and lore in each chapter, all of which bogs the narrative itself down. Some pieces we absolutely need to know, like what led Siegmund to be sold as a penal worker (yeah, a slave; please, light novels, won't you quit using slavery as a plot device?) and how he has changed as a person, and information about the Fell Forest and spirits is also key to understanding the plot. But other things just feel extraneous, and that's an issue since the book is otherwise very readable and the characters engaging. Mariela herself is a good heroine; she's not stuck in some “strong female character” mold and is clearly a sixteen-year-old girl who feels overwhelmed but is trying to cope, and that makes her quite sympathetic. Siegmund also becomes an interesting character as he struggles to come to terms with his past and his growing (and confusing) feelings for Mariela. This is definitely a solid fantasy story in the lighter vein, and I have to say that I'm very much looking forward to reading the next novel.
Sexiled: My Sexist Party Leader Kicked Me Out, So I Teamed Up With a Mythical Sorceress!
Story by Ameko Kaeruda, illustrated by Kazutomo Miya. J-Novel Club, $6.99 digital.
Tanya is a powerful mage, the top graduate in her year at the Academy, but she's consistently undervalued by the men around her. She thinks she just has to put up with it, but one day Ryan, her childhood best friend and current party leader, tells her that he's making her leave the group because she's a woman. Furious, Tanya goes out in the wastelands and begins casting powerful spells as she vows revenge…and in the process, she frees Laplace, the legendary sorceress sealed away three hundred years ago! Laplace turns out to be nothing like the rumors, and the two women team up to take on the sexism that trapped them both, one jerk at a time.
I'll just put this out there: Sexiled is a good book. Not only can it be very funny in places, but it also calls out a good number of misogynist issues in both the real world and in terms of fantasy tropes, from a magic academy with admission practices that the author directly ties back to the Tokyo Medical School Scandal to that stupid idea that men can be fully covered while women have to wear battle bikinis. In a genre where we're much more likely to see male power fantasies, it's a nice change to have a female one, and if it comes down a bit too hard on the men (as in, there isn't a single decent male character in the novel), the mere fact that this isn't a harem, a reverse harem, or anything else we've seen recently makes it better. And it is worth mentioning that this never has the feel of “all men suck;” Kaeruda seeds in some hints that the shift from three hundred years ago, when Laplace implies that the world was much more equal was the fault of a few very specific men and that now it's become so indoctrinated that no one thinks to question it. The people participating in the oppression aren't absolved, but they also don't seem to have been taught any better.
While the translation is generally very good, I do wish that the title had been chosen differently. If you go into book databases (Amazon, Goodreads), the first title that comes up is a book described as “erotic suspense,” and any time I've mentioned it to anyone, the title is their sticking point. I'd love to say that that's their problem, but it would be a shame if it kept this very enjoyable feminist fantasy from getting the reading it deserves.
There Was No Secret Evil-Fighting Organization (srsly?!), So I Made One MYSELF!
Story by Hagane Kurodome, illustrated by Katto. J-Novel Club, $6.99 digital.
When high school student Kinemitsu Sago suddenly develops telekinesis, he thinks that his time as a hero has finally begun. But…no aliens or demons show up, no beautiful girls fall from the sky or appear to tell him he's the chosen one, and ultimately nothing ever changes except that now he's a telekinetic.
So after graduating high school and college and getting a dull corporate job, Sago decides to take
matters into his own hands and create his own team of good guys. Of course, that also means that he'll
have to create the bad guys to fight, but at least he'll finally start living his light novel dreams. That
makes it all worth it, right?
With such a fun premise, it's a shame that this book isn't nearly as clever as it thinks it is. Hagane Kurodome's tale of a guy who's just a run-of-the-mill ESPer who decides to train his powers to nth degree and then has to figure out what to do with them really should read like a send-up of all of the similar shounen stories that have come before. Unfortunately satire isn't really the author's strong suit, and it instead reads as a book that is far too invested in its own genre self-awareness, relying on the readers' knowledge of tropes and conventions without doing quite enough with them. Of course, it could also not be a satire at all, but a flat-out wish-fulfillment narrative, in which case it's actually even less appealing and well done, spending far too much time on repetitive descriptions of Sago developing his powers, learning how to transfer his powers to others, and telling us over and over again how hot his adjutant is.
This isn't to say that there's nothing good about it, of course. The storyline with the marmot Ig is actually heartwarming and lovely while not feeling too much like the author is trying to shoehorn in a mascot character, and the epilogue with the CIA agent shows that Sago hasn't quite thought everything out as well as he thinks he has. The idea that Sago also has to create (and be) the bad guys he's fighting is also interesting, and his actions involving the two middle schoolers he ropes in definitely make the argument that he may be more evil than good in general. As Kurodome becomes more skilled as a writer this could begin to be the story he already thinks it is. But this first book is a disappointment, and that's really too bad.
The World's Strongest Rearguard
Story by Tōwa, illustrated by Huuka Kazabana. Yen On, $15 paperback, $7.99 digital.
Arihito Atobe's corporate ski getaway ends in tragedy when his bus crashes, killing him and thirty or so of the other passengers onboard. The next thing he knows, he's in a line waiting to be sent to the afterlife, which is this case is a more-or-less reincarnation into The Labyrinth City as a Seeker – a dungeon-delver charged with seeking out relics and treasures. When asked to choose a job, Arihito opts for the previously-unknown role of rearguard, which turns out to be a highly-specialized support class that not only buffs his party members, but increases their affections for him as well! As he falls into an all-female party (including his former boss), it's starting to look like this will be a pretty good afterlife…
The World's Strongest Rearguard is one of those books that starts out feeling like it's going to do something different with the usual light novel formula only to lapse right back into it. What it does do
right is eliminate any trace of a revenge motif. That's important, because when protagonist Arihito finds himself starting his new life, he's with his former boss, a woman he has every reason to want to treat badly now that their roles are reversed. Instead, he does his best to help her out, even if it occasionally makes him feel kind of odd, because his entire goal in taking up the job of rearguard is to help the members of his party. She may have made his life hell before, but he's not going to return the favor, and that helps to remind readers that not only is he a bona fide adult rather than a teenager, but also that he's a decent guy when you get down to it.
Sadly things take a turn for the generic when you move away from Arihito as a character. His rearguard role has him at the center of a harem, with his trust-raising buffs having the side effects of also raising the ladies' lust (how that works is a little unclear, honestly), and like many other light novels, this one dabbles in notions of slavery, with Arihito first renting and then purchasing a female lizardman. (She's called a “mercenary,” but she's still basically sold to him.) The action also relies heavily on game mechanics and dry recitations of stats and choosing the right skills when new skill points are acquired, which at this point is a major issue within the isekai genre. If you enjoy those aspects or at least don't mind them and want to see how a twenty-nine-year-old guy handles the situation, this is a decent book, but if any of them send you screaming, this may not be the novel you're looking for.
Of Dragons and Fae: Is a Fairy Tale Ending Possible for the Princess's Hairstylist?
Story by Tsukasa Mikuni, illustrated by YukiKana. Cross Infinite World, $7.99 digital.
Mayna is a flowerfolk, the result of a marriage between flower fairies and humans, and that gives her an edge in becoming a fantastic hairstylist for Princess Patricia. (That and her obsessive love of styling hair.) While accompanying the princess at a gathering, she happens to meet Ray, a dragonkin (descendant of the marriage of dragons and humans), who immediately declares that she is his Bondmate – his destined true love. Mayna, who has never thought much about romance before, starts to fall for him as well, but shortly before he returns to his home country with his prince, Ray disavows Mayna and tells her that he was wrong! She's furious and vows to forget him, which would have been fine, had not Patricia become engaged to the dragonkin prince and taken Mayna with her to the very place Ray is!
Mayna is one of the most delightful heroines in recent light novel memory. She's got a no-nonsense attitude, the strength of purpose to just move on, and while she may be a little slow to catch on to some things, she's also not stupid and does eventually figure everything out. That makes her a particularly fun heroine for a romance novel, because so frequently the heroines suffer from forced stupidity or naivete in order to move the plot along. Mayna, however, takes Ray at his word when he acts like a total jerk
and just keeps on with her life, eventually figuring out what most of the readers did rather more quickly – that Ray was not, perhaps, being entirely honest with her.
At the heart of all of this is not just the question of romance, but of cultural differences. The dragonkin are an insular people, heavily influenced by not only their racial capability of recognizing their one true loves (Bondmates), but also by one particular work of classic literature upon which they've pretty much based all of their perceptions of other races. This is a deeply ingrained cultural trait in the dragonkin kingdom, and it causes problems not just for Ray and Mayna, but also leaves the princess open to attacks based on the fact that she's Other – as a human, there are dragonkin who absolutely don't want to trust her. The kingdom she and Mayna came from has a much more egalitarian attitude towards different races, so all of this comes as a shock, and most of Mayna's work within the story (apart from figuring out Ray) is making sure that people are seeing she and Patricia for themselves, not as Other based on some old tome. That gives this story an edge among other romance light novels, and the fact that it's breezily written and smoothly translated certainly helps. (Plus the author clearly did her historical research about hairstyles.) It's a sweet, fun read, the kind of book you can read in one afternoon and feel like your day was well spent.
Suppose a Kid From the Last Dungeon Boonies Moved to a Starter Town
Story by Toshio Satō, illustrated by Nao Watanuki. Yen On, $15 paperback, $8.99 digital.
Lloyd is from the town of Kunlun at the edge of the kingdom, which was founded by the greatest heroes the world has ever known. This means that all of the villagers are ridiculously strong, and poor Lloyd is the weakest among them. But he still dreams of going to the capital one day and becoming a soldier, despite the fact that all of his friends and family are afraid that he's too weak. But weak is as weak does, and when Lloyd does make it to the city against their wishes, it turns out that the only thing that's weak is his self-esteem, because even the least strong resident of Kunlun is something out of the ordinary compared to everyone else.
Don't take the title of this book too literally – there are no dungeons, game stats, or anything remotely similar in this story. Rather the title is meant to give you a basic idea of how protagonist Lloyd compares to everyone not from his crazy-strong village; he looks like he just came from a boss battle to live in the beginners' start point. In reality, however, he's just from a rural town founded by super-strong heroes and has spent his life fighting demons and now he's living among the normal folk of a regular old city, all of whom are shocked by his skill and strength, things he's totally unaware of. It's a pretty funny concept, and it works as well in practice as it does in theory. Lloyd takes obliviousness to a new level in basically all aspects of his life, and from his naïve statements about killing “bugs” (i.e. giant bug monsters) to his total lack of understanding about all the girls throwing themselves at him, the whole thing is an exercise in crazy humor that works.
What's less great are those girls, for the most part. They're obviously supposed to be parodies of genre tropes, at least to a degree, but a couple of them go just a bit too far for things to work. The so-called Belt Princess is the extreme who works decently well, living primarily in her delusions about she and Lloyd as destined lovers (she's just a teensy bit yandere), but the “loli grandma,” who Lloyd thinks of as his actual parent, crosses a lot of lines in her romantic pursuit of him, not to mention gets pretty annoying very quickly. Lloyd definitely doesn't consent to any of the romantic actions the ladies try to lay on him, and that takes away from the humor. Fortunately the rest of the book is a good time, so if you can stomach that aspect of it, this is a fun way to spend some time.
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