The Spring 2021 Light Novel Guide

by Rebecca Silverman & Kim Morrissy,

Isekai may still dominate the light novel game as presented by English-language translations, but we're certainly seeing more variations on its theme. That's immediately noticeable in the batch of volume ones we're reviewing this time around. Alongside the more traditional stories like Drugstore in Another World, which features an ordinary guy figuring out how to use his unique skill when he's transferred to another world, we have no fewer than three reincarnated-as-the-villainess tales, each with their own spin on things, and two stories about simply being reborn in the character's original world with no isekai factor at all. It can feel like a lot of the same, which makes the books that don't fall into these categories stand out, like the alternate Taisho fantasy Romance of the Imperial Capital and Bofuri, a series you may already be familiar with from its anime version. There may not be quite something for everyone, but there's still a lot to enjoy, from the fluffy to the dark. Stop by the forums and let us know what light novels you're reading or looking forward to!

April

Ask Iwata: Words of Wisdom from Satoru Iwata, Nintendo's Legendary CEO. Edited by Hobonichi. $11.99 digital, $22.99 print.

Synopsis: Reprints of essays by Satoru Iwata not previously available in English, including the thoughts of those who knew him upon his death.

Rating: (Rebecca Silverman)

Ask Iwata isn't a light novel, or a novel at all, but since the three-month period we're covering in this Guide is somewhat lacking in new series, I thought I'd include it. And while it isn't fiction – it might better be shelved under “business” – it is a fascinating book and a surprisingly good read. The slim volume contains a variety of short essays written by the late Satoshi Iwata, a legendary figure in the game world. While they all pertain to his experiences in the game industry, there's a surprising amount of solid life advice dispensed throughout. Mostly it boils down to things like “respect people” and “don't be afraid to ask for help when you need it,” but the way that Iwata phrases things and the context he puts them in makes these seemingly trite lessons feel much more like hearing them from an old friend or maybe a favorite uncle than like you're getting them from a self-help book. There's also a very real sense of loss when you are reminded that Iwata died, because he feels like someone you know by the end, and the eloquent way that his peers write about him strengthens that. The short snippets at the end of each chapter, little quotes or pieces of advice from Iwata, are some of the best bits in the book, but overall this is just both interesting and good. Even if you have no interest in game development or business, it's worth reading to get to know Iwata.

Bofuri: Since I Don't Want to Get Hurt, So I'll Max Out My Defense. Story by Yuumikan, art by Koin. Yen On, $8.99 digital, $12.99 print.

Synopsis:
IS SHE THE GAME'S LAST BOSS?! Though she doesn't play many MMOs, Maple has either a natural talent or impossibly good luck, because by pouring every last stat point she has into Vitality, she's created a character who can't be hurt! Whether it's physical attacks or magic or status effects, nothing poses a real threat. In no time at all, news spreads across the server about the adorable terror who can't be defeated. While Maple may just be having fun, her broken build is sure to attract lots of unexpected attention…

Rating: (Kim Morrissy)

The thing that sticks out about Bofuri is how darn short it is. I know they're called “light novels,” but they're not normally this light. This book only takes around two hours to read, and the prose itself is light and fluffy in a way that feels like it's aimed at younger readers. In fact, it's one of the few light novels that I would say is genuinely appropriate for a pre-teen audience.

If you've seen the anime, you probably have a good idea what the appeal of this series is. It's a comedy about a first-time gamer accidentally creating an overpowered build for her character due to a combination of the game's unbalanced system and her own obliviousness. The main character might be overpowered, but she's not exploiting cheats or playing for any reason other than her own satisfaction. The humor and low stakes make for a breezy read.

That said, I don't think the writing is quite clever enough to carry the story past the initial concept. There's a certain charm in seeing Maple stumble her way into success, although this only really applies for the first third or so of volume 1. After that, she makes friends who show her the ropes and she starts consciously thinking about how to improve, which isn't quite as fun to read about. Despite the book's brevity, there are dull stretches that are mainly concerned with grinding skills and levels. The light tone and short descriptions keep it all from becoming wearisome, but they also reinforce how insubstantial the overall story is.

For what it's worth, I did enjoy reading this book, but this is one of those cases where I find myself wondering if the price tag is worth it for the amount of content I consumed. If it were longer, or if it had a few more ideas to carry it past the opening, then I'd be comfortable recommending it. Otherwise, I recommend just sticking with the anime.

Hazure Skill: The Guild Member with a Worthless Skill is Actually a Legendary Assassin. Story by Kennoji, art by KWKM. Yen On, $8.99 digital, $12.99 print.

Synopsis:
Roland is the world's greatest assassin, but after killing the Demon Lord at the request of the king, he's ready to hang up his daggers. He's never known the glories of a normal life, and when the king offers him anything he wants as a reward for doing the job, he asks for just that: normalcy. Somewhat baffled, the king agrees, and along with his cat (who is actually the Demon Lord robbed of her powers), Roland embarks on his greatest challenge: convincing everyone that he's just a normal guy.

Rating: (Rebecca Silverman)

It's a good year for light novel author Kennoji, as this book marks the first of two releases of his work in English. Like Drugstore in Another World, Hazure Skill focuses on the everyday life of a young man and his female companion, but unlike that other book, this one is a bit more on the mature side. That's mostly book code for “has more sex in it” (protagonist Roland sleeps with at least two and possibly three ladies), but it's also due to the fact that Roland is a retired assassin, and he can't quite manage to set his old profession aside entirely. He desperately wants to, though, because his chief desire in life is to just be “normal,” something he never had the chance to be before. He was apprenticed to his assassin master at an early age, trained to be something beyond human, and now in his mid-twenties, he's ready to see what he's been missing. The biggest problem? He has almost no idea what “normal” means.

One thing he in no way expects is that “normal” is actually different for everyone. He figures out a few of the basics – after he embarks on his quest of normalcy he spends everyday alternating between eating, sleeping, and having sex because that's what he thinks is “normal” until he's reminded that “having a job” is another key component. This leads him to apply to work at the local Adventurers' Guild branch as a receptionist, which in some ways makes this the male-oriented version of The Sorcerer's Receptionist. (This is a bit better written, though.) At the Guild he manages to make a place for himself, and by the end of the volume, he's figuring out what he wants his “normal” to look like. The path there leads him in some unexpected directions, the most shocking of which (to Roland, if anyone ever pointed it out) is that he's actually an incredibly nice guy who goes out of his way to make sure that other people are safe and taken care of. We see this not only when he takes in a little girl he finds starving on the street, but also in the way he helps new adventurers get their feet on the ground and spends time figuring out what everyone can do best. He's a good teacher, a nice person, and so ridiculously overpowered that he has trouble seeing the forest for the trees.

This isn't a grand adventure story. Even the adventures that Roland ends up going on are kind of anticlimactic. But that's what makes this more fun and possibly more appealing to a larger readership than your average slice-of-life book. It's a nice blend of genres if you're looking for something more laid- back but that still has action – and, of course, a talking cat who turns into a sexy demon lady.

Since I Was Abandoned After Reincarnating, I Will Cook with My Fluffy Friends: The Figurehead Queen is Strongest at her Own Pace. Story by Yu Sakurai, art by Kasumi Nagi. Cross Infinite World, $7.99 digital.

Synopsis:
When her fiancé the crown prince throws her out, the shock of being pushed into a fountain startles Lady Laeticia into remembering her previous life as a corporate drone in Japan. Since she's already realized that Prince Fritz is really not worth her time, she's content to let him dig himself into a political hole by not only renouncing their engagement in favor of scheming commoner Sumia, but also to be banished. It isn't perfect, but now she'll have time to return to her previous life's hobby of cooking – and if she has to become the figurehead queen of another nation to do that, well, at least she'll also get to indulge in her love of dogs with the royal wolf pack. A life with homemade strawberry ice cream can't be all bad!

Rating: (Rebecca Silverman)

I Will Cook with My Fluffy Friends (that title desperately needs shortening) is an interesting combination of two distinct light novel genres: the reborn-as-a-villainess story and the isekai cooking tale. Those sit together much more comfortably than you might think – Laeticia, the heroine, isn't really a villainess, but rather is being cast as one by a rival ducal family looking to overtake her own in power, and if the prince she's engaged to wasn't such a fool, he'd be able to see that. But since her hobby back in her previous life was cooking, something she can't really indulge in as a duke's daughter, she's not terribly upset by the change in her circumstances, especially since her meeting with Truck-kun came before she got to eat the strawberry ice cream she'd made. That her death also took her away from her beloved elderly Shiba Inu Jiro is more of a blow once she regains her memories, but since her father's plan for the family to save face (and keep Laeticia safe) involves a marriage to the young king of a nation with a royal wolf pack, things really do work out quite nicely. Now Laeticia can befriend fuzzy animals and cook in perfect peace.

In part this is because she's only the temporary, figurehead queen while the king tries to buy some time before having to choose between the four warring factions within his own kingdom when he picks a bride, so Laeticia gets to live apart from him, which suits her just fine. (She's unaware she's getting royal visits in his secret wolf form, naturally.) It's already clear that the king's not just going to let her go after the two years are up, and that sets up an interesting potential love rivalry, because Ilius, the son of that same rival ducal family back in Laeticia's home country, was actually planning to use Sumia's assumption of Laeticia's place as the prince's fiancée in order to marry Laeticia himself, not because he's a jerk (although he may be), but because he likes her. While the plan going sideways worked out for Laeticia, Ilius is far from happy, and there's some sense that he's not just going to sit back and go along with his father, the idiot prince, and the unpleasant Sumia for much longer. This is honestly just a fun story, with equal amounts of political intrigue, furry pet snuggling, and cooking, and I'm hoping that we don't have to wait too long for volume two.

May



Accomplishments of the Duke's Daughter. Story by Reia, art by Hazuki Futaba. Seven Seas, $9.99 digital.

Synopsis:
Iris, an otome game addict with no time for romance, gets hit by a truck after getting out of work–but instead of dying, she finds herself in the world of a game she'd played just hours earlier. However, she's not reborn as the game's protagonist, the main heartthrob of the harem. Instead, she starts her new life as the antagonist, right at the moment she's being sent to live in a nunnery–for the rest of her life.

Rating: (Rebecca Silverman)

Come for the story of a woman reborn as a villainess in her favorite otome game, stay for the economics lessons! Seriously, if you were a fan of the economic aspect of Spice & Wolf, it's worth checking out the original light novels of Reia's Accomplishments of the Duke's Daughter for that element of the story alone – Iris' redemption relies heavily on her past life as an accountant in a tax office. And even if you don't find economics fascinating, it's still very nice to see a woman rely solely on her brains to get herself out of the mess she finds herself in. Iris awakens to her past life memories just as things are about to go south for her in the world of her favorite otome game, but fortunately in enough time for her to quickly work with to salvage the situation. She fully acknowledges that her behavior as Iris has been dreadful, then uses the other characters' behavior against them, managing to tar everyone (herself included) with the same brush, similarly to how Laeticia's awakening works a few entries above. In this way, Iris manages to avert the worst of the villainess' fate, and she gets herself “banished” by a sympathetic father back to the family's remote estate, where she's to serve as the acting ruler of the province.

What's striking about this book as opposed to so many others in the same vein is that it's made clear that Iris may not have remembered her past life until recently, but she's always been herself, rather than the original Iris from the game. We see this in the way she asked her father to take in orphans from the slums in lieu of gifts, in the kind way she interacted with them, and the loyalty and friendships she inspired. Now as the ruler of the family duchy, she's able to rely on the people she's always known and treated well as well as her past career; her memories simply enhance how she acts rather than changing it completely. Interestingly her workaholic tendencies from Japan's corporate culture also show up, and unlike some other protagonists, she doesn't see those as a bad thing or as having contributed to her untimely demise in the past. (It was, we're told, a traffic accident unrelated to work.) Instead, Iris and those around her see it as part atonement, part excellent political move for her to be so engrossed in her work, and while it may not be healthy, it is something that helps the book to stand out in its field.

It's worth noting that this is distinctly less romantic than most other light novels in the same vein. There is a romance subplot being hinted at (and mildly spoiled in one illustration), but the heart of the book is Iris reforming a feudal duchy into a modern capitalist society. It's dense but fairly well-written and worlds above its manga adaptation, which preceded it in English translation. If you're tired of mushy novels and want something a bit more serious, or you just really like people learning what banking is, this is worth checking out.

Culinary Chronicles of the Court Flower. Story by Miri Mikawa, art by Kasumi Nagi. J-Novel Club, $6.99 digital.

Synopsis:
Rimi has spent most of her life making food for the protector god of the land. She is suddenly sent as a tribute to the great empire of Konkoku, becoming one of the emperor's concubines. She comes close to losing the taste of her home country, but she is saved by the cuisinologist Shusei. As she dreams of a reunion with the kind scholar, she does her best to survive in the envy-filled rear palace with the help of her natural cheerfulness and her skill as a cook. Then out of nowhere, she is arrested and sentenced to be executed on the charge of disrespecting the emperor! How will Rimi get out of this mess? Find out in this China-inspired fantasy story about a princess and her love for food surrounded by gorgeous men.

Rating: (Kim Morrissy)

Culinary Chronicles doesn't have the same deft writing and down-to-earth appeal as The Apothecary Diaries, but it's still an interesting court drama about a plucky girl finding a place of her own in fantasy China. It helps that the food aspect is more interesting than usual for light novels with that theme; instead of introducing your usual mayonnaise and other modern dishes to a European fantasy world, the focus is firmly on historical Japanese and Chinese foods.

Much of the appeal in Culinary Chronicles is in the blending and clashes of culture. In the opening scene, Rimi causes trouble because of language misunderstandings, and this is a recurring theme throughout the book. I appreciated details like her struggling with vocabulary and translating words literally from her native language, making her accidentally come across as too direct and rude; this felt very true to life. The food discussions also fit this theme, sometimes in clever and ingenious ways.

On the other hand, the book does have the common light novel problem of repetition and constantly explaining what the characters are thinking and feeling. It ultimately feels like padding to make the story fit the typical bunkobon novel length. The plot does eventually come together in a satisfying way, but the early chapters definitely could have been trimmed for brevity.

At least in this first volume, the fantasy elements are limited, mostly existing to allow for character interactions that would have felt implausible in a more rigid historical setting. There's a sparkling shojo feel to the character designs and writing, with all the male characters fitting the usual archetypes. I recommend it most for shojo fans who want a taste of historical East Asia and food culture rather than the other way around, as the storytelling may be a little half-baked for those craving a deeper exploration of the setting.


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