The Spring 2020 Light Novel Guide Part Iby Rebecca Silverman,
While the field of light novels has always been decently expansive in Japan, there has been somewhat less breadth to what got translated into English. That's really starting to change for the better, as this crop of translated titles attests. In fact, the bulk of what was published in March and April is aimed at a female audience, and while they absolutely can be enjoyed by male readers, it's a really nice shift to see. Another place we're seeing expansion is in yuri novels; while Strawberry Panic! was translated years ago, we're seeing much more interest in bringing over other books in the genre, with Seven Seas' release of Adachi and Shimamura following the Bloom Into You novels and J-Novel Club's Otherside Picnic. And finally we're seeing more formerly digital-only titles make the jump to print – My Next Life as a Villainess: All Routes Leads to Doom and Obsessions of an Otome Gamer have both hit the physical shelves, and later this summer we'll also see The Werewolf Count and the Trickster Tailor make the same transition. So however you prefer to read and whatever you prefer to read, light novels are doing a better job of making sure that it's there for your delectation.
Below are the first six novels up in the guide—make sure to check back on Monday for the second half!
By Yui. Illustrations by Satsuki Sheena. J-Novel Club, $6.99 digital.
Lady Elianna is betrothed to Prince Christopher, but the shy young lady is convinced that it's all for show – after all, she's neither pretty nor polished and she's an incurable bibliophile, so how could he possibly have chosen to marry her for love? Unless, of course, she's grossly underestimating her own appeal on the intellectual front…is it possible that the prince loves her and is simply trying to protect her in his own way?
Bibliophile Princess is the kind of sweet book that isn't particularly difficult to figure out but manages to be highly enjoyable nonetheless. Elianna is a much more secure heroine than many others in her position (see Marielle Clarac and Viola from this article), and even though she takes a page from almost every other young adult romance by grossly underestimating her own appeal both physical and intellectual, she's perfectly fine with being who she is. And who she is is an insatiable reader; in fact, the prince only gets her to agree to marry him because he promises her access to a part of the library only royals are allowed in. This takes Elianna a step further than other book-obsessed heroines, because she really will read anything, and her memory is good enough that she can remember most of it. It turns out that this is hereditary among the Bernstein family, and thus even if he wasn't in love with her, Prince Christopher would have a good reason to keep her around. She's certainly a bit naïve, but that's balanced out by how otherwise stable she is, and given the antics of many other heroines (and heroes, really), that's a major draw for the book. The first half is definitely stronger than the second, with its more considered storyline, but the whole thing reads like it was actually written by a bibliophile for bibliophiles rather than as a cheap trick to draw readers in. It's sweet and pleasant and just a lovely way to spend an afternoon.
Can Someone Please Explain What’s Going On?!
By Tsuredurebana. Illustrations by Rin Hagiwara. J-Novel Club, $6.99 digital.
Viola's family is in financial trouble, so when Cercis, a wealthy young nobleman, comes courting, she can't quite believe it's true. And as it turns out, it isn't – at least not in the traditional sense. Cercis has a mistress he can't marry but won't give up, and he wants Viola to essentially be his trophy wife. She gets to live a wealthy, pampered life, he'll pay off her family's debts, and they barely have to see each other. What's not to love? Well, Viola's not all that into just sitting around, for one, and for another Cercis is starting to think that maybe he'd like to be her real husband after all…
Sometimes a perfectly good story is hampered by the way it is written. Can Someone Please Explain What’s Going On?! is one of those. Purportedly taking place in the distant past (Cercis “works” as a horseback-riding soldier/knight, so that means we're at least in the 19th century), the text is riddled with modern slang and references that our narrator Viola would have exactly zero knowledge of, including early 21st century science. If this were an isekai story, that would be fine, but it's not, and that makes Viola an extremely irritating narrator while adding a needlessly nonsensical tone to the text. Now add in that Cercis is an absolute tool while Viola's YA-heroine-style self-esteem issues help to make her oblivious in a way that's far more annoying than Katarina, and you have a book that sounds much better in its summary than it turns out to be upon execution. It certainly doesn't help that the author indulges in a few cutesy affectations, such as the kingdom in question being named “Flür” and everyone having flower names, along with one character who randomly speaks French, although when compared to the issue of the narrative voice, that's small potatoes. There are certainly aspects that work – Viola's refusal to just sit tight and be a lady makes her more engaging, and the servants she befriends are good characters – but by the end of the book, reading becomes more of a chore than a pleasure. While everyone's mileage will vary, this novel has the dubious distinction of being one I actually liked less the longer I thought about it.
Obsessions of an Otome Gamer: The Elementary School Years and The Middle School Years
By Natsu. Illustrations by Shoyu. Cross Infinite World, $14.99 print. ($7.99 digital)
When Mashiro falls into a hole and dies, she wakes up as the protagonist of the otome game she was obsessively playing, a music-based game with only two romantic options: Kou and Shou. Mashiro isn't entirely sure how to best navigate the game's routes, but she decides to live her life in it to the fullest, becoming a pianist and eventually encountering both boys. Will she successfully be able to avoid bad ends and romance one of the targets? And is this really her new life, or is there something else going on?
Although it has been available digitally for some time, Obsessions of an Otome Gamer has only now become available in hard copy, which means that if you prefer your reading that way (and I know I do), you now have the chance to pick the series up. It's definitely worth it – unlike most of the reborn-in-an-otome-game genre, Mashiro is the protagonist rather than the antagonist, and she hasn't had a chance to play the updated version of the game she's been reborn in. That means that although she knows the characters – two male love interests and the original version's heroine, who is also present – she doesn't know how to navigate their routes at all. The game was particularly punishing, too, so the decisions that Mashiro has to make aren't without the kind of risks other novel heroines face. But what's particularly wonderful about this series is how emotional the writing is – there are points in both the elementary and middle school books that are enough to truly tug on your heartstrings and the decision about which boy she should end up with honestly gets harder and harder as the series goes on. Luckily for us, there are two separate “routes” for high school and beyond, one for each boy (Shou will be coming first), but Natsu is more than capable of making us feel badly for the other one even if we know he's got his own novel(s) – and the suspicion that Mashiro might not be as dead in the real world as we thought adds to that. If you missed this before and are a fan of shoujo light novels, seriously, give this series a try. It's simply a good series.
The White Cat's Revenge as Plotted from the Dragon King's Lap
By Kureha. Illustrations by Yamigo. J-Novel Club, $6.99 digital.
Ruri has a problem, and her name is Asahi, who insists on thinking that they're “friends.” Whenever Ruri's with her, everyone around them treats Ruri like dirt while fawning over the other girl, and that got old way back in elementary school. Now in college, Ruri has finally managed to mostly get away from Asahi, but disaster strikes when she gets caught up in Asahi being summoned to another world! Quickly fed up with Asahi's new status as the Princess Priestess, Ruri runs away from the palace and ends up living in the forest with a witch, where she acquires a magic ring that allows her to transform into a white kitten. This allows Ruri to get close to Jade, the king of the dragonfolk, and she begins to realize that Asahi might not actually have been the Princess Priestess after all…
There are parts of this novel that really work. Ruri being nineteen is certainly one of them – she's not a wilting schoolgirl and she doesn't act like one. Instead she's a young woman trying desperately to strike out on her own, hampered by her unusual looks (her mother is foreign) and the fact that Asahi latched onto her in elementary school and just won't let go, no matter how hard Ruri tries to get rid of her. Asahi is the sort of annoying character who pops up all the time in fiction: wide-eyed, butter wouldn't melt in her mouth, and intensely annoying even when she's not supposed to be. (I think we see her most often as a shounen romantic interest, honestly.) So to see her here as the bad guy, or at least one of them, is kind of refreshing, and definitely a point in the novel's favor. The story's at its best when it's dealing with the fallout of Asahi and Ruri's relationship and the socio-political crisis brewing among the countries of this otherworld, which means that things falter a bit when Ruri is learning magic with the old woman in the forest or just wandering around the capital city of the Dragon King's country. It isn't bad or boring, but it's definitely much more run-of-the-mill, and to a degree that's also true of Ruri falling for Jade when she's in her kitten form. There is a certain frustration to those scenes as well, but it's one Ruri at least shares with the reader, because she's not sure how to tell Jade that she's not actually a cat and she really, really wants to. Simply put, this is a good enough first volume that paves the way for subsequent books to be better, and if it isn't the best one that came out during these months, it's certainly still good enough to be a decent read.
Adachi and Shimamura
By Hitoma Iruma. Illustrated by Non. Seven Seas, $13.99 print, $9.99 digital.
Adachi and Shimamura are both low-key delinquents, dying their hair and skipping classes. They meet in the loft above the school gym, and before too long strike up a friendship. But Adachi is starting to develop feelings for Shimamura that may go beyond that, and she's not sure what to do with them, or with the fact that the object of her affections has other friends who make her uncomfortable. This is one road to love that is going to take a while to run smoothly, if it ever gets that far at all.
Adachi and Shimamura is Hitoma Iruma's second English-language release (he also wrote the Bloom Into You novels) and third story to make it over here in some form, as the anime of Ground Control to Psychoelectric Girl TV series got an English release. The latter turns out to be more related than you might expect, which to be perfectly honest is the only major problem with this book – for some unknown, self-indulgent reason, Iruma throws a character from Ground Control to Psychoelectric Girl into Adachi and Shimamura, and not only is she super annoying, but she also takes away from the comfortable, laid back romance developing between the eponymous leads. Fortunately, that one poorly-placed character isn't quite enough to ruin the novel overall, which does many other things right. We get to see the relationship from both girls' perspectives with chapters in each one's first person narration, and Iruma is a good enough author that they both have distinct voices, which isn't always true of light novels. Adachi is the more interesting character because she suffers less from the sort of teenage ennui that Shimamura subscribes to and overall seems to have a lot more going on in her life. Not that we get to know much of it – Adachi is introverted and a bit shy, and even when she's the narrator she keeps her thoughts pretty close to her vest (so to speak). We know that she doesn't have much in the way of family life, whereas Shimamura seems to resent hers in a much more typical trope. Adachi also suffers from homophobia to a degree, which may or may not be an issue going forward, especially as she's starting to come to terms with her feelings for Shimamura. There's a lot of potential here for a slow and cozy story, and with an anime series forthcoming, this is worth checking out.
At Night, I Become a Monster
By Yoru Sumino. Seven Seas, $13.99 print, $9.99 digital.
Every night, a strange transformation overtakes middle school third-year Adachi – he becomes a six-legged, eight-eyed black monster. He's not sure why it suddenly began to happen, but he uses it as an opportunity to explore the town at night. One evening he goes to school to pick up some homework he forgot and he runs into Yano, a girl from class. Yano's lack of social skills has made her the punching bag for their class, and Adachi really doesn't want to get too cozy with her and risk his own social standing. But the longer he spends with Yano, the more he has to wonder: does he turn into a monster at night? Or has he been one all along?
At Night, I Become a Monster is from the same author who brought us I Want to Eat Your Pancreas, and there are some notable similarities. Chief among them is the fact that this is a second novel where an ordinary boy has an encounter with an unusual girl who somehow changes his life. This is especially interesting because seen through a different story's lens, Yano could fall into the “manic pixie dream girl” category in a lot of ways…but because this is a story set in an ordinary middle school, all she is is a target for the bullies because she's different. In fact, she almost reads as if she's on the Autism spectrum with her difficulties understanding social cues and personal space, although there are any number of other explanations for those behaviors as well. But because the story is told exclusively through Adachi's point of view, alternating between day and night and therefore what form he's in, we never learn anything that he doesn't already know about Yano – and he's not curious enough to ask. What we do know is that Yano's difficult behavior (and she does cross lines a few times with classmates) has made her the target of the other students to the point where Adachi and others worry about being too nice to her lest they, too, be subjected to bullying. It's unsettling to read about and all too real of many a middle school classroom, and one of the strengths of the book is the way that Sumino is able to so perfectly capture the attitude of the general group and how they all think that their behavior is a totally normal and safe response to the odd one in their midst. We as readers pick up on the key theme – that Adachi's nighttime form is really just a manifestation of his interior self being complicit in bullying Yano – but it takes him much, much longer to realize it. The novel falters in a few places, leaving unanswered questions about many of their classmates and lacking subtlety overall, but it's a strong story overall. It's not a book I necessarily enjoyed, but it is one that I found myself respecting after turning the final page.
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