“I am new to light novels. What should I read first?”
Cho: This is a question I often see asked online, so I thought to gather some of the internet’s top light novel bloggers and see if we could come up with a “beginner’s guide” to light novels.
Light novels encompass many different genres of storytelling–so whether you like fantasy, sci-fi, mystery, drama, comedy, romance, or horror–there is probably something out there for you. Though the number of light novels available in English is limited, at this point there is a large enough selection available that I think a list like this is warranted! So without further ado, let’s take a look (in no particular order) at ten light novels releasing in English that we think are worth checking out…
Sword Art Online
Justus R. Stone: Sword Art Online begins with a fully immersive game where players become trapped, and to die in-game means dying in real life! The ongoing series deals with the fallout from the incident, including the types of games that develop afterward, and the fate of the game’s survivors.
A light novel series easily accessible by gamers and fans of action or sci-fi. It has been adapted into anime and manga, and recently a North American television series has been announced. For existing fans of the anime, the novels have improved characterization and some minor events skipped by the anime, but the bulk of the stories from the first eight novels were covered. Volume nine begins Sword Art‘s longest, and many fans say best, storyline. That volume will be released in December 2016 in the English market. Also, if you find yourself wishing the story had covered the first Aincrad arc in greater detail, you can see Reki Kawahara’s sister series Sword Art Online: Progressive.
All You Need is Kill
Frog-kun: It’s not often that Hollywood makes a film out of a light novel! All You Need Is Kill is the basis for the 2014 hit movie Edge of Tomorrow, starring Tom Cruise. Except for a few names and the basic premise, the book tells a very different story from the film, and is well worth a read in its own right for its deeper exploration of the setting. The translation by Joseph Reeder brings out the gritty flavor of the novel and is generally well-paced and easy to read. Recommended for fans of fast-paced action stories and “time loop” fiction. Despite the video game-like premise, the story itself is light on anime tropes, making it one of the most generally accessible light novels readily available in English.
My Youth Romantic Comedy is Wrong, As I Expected
August Hail: I can firmly say that if you are looking for a standard high school romantic comedy filled with all the antics the genre contains, you won’t find it here. Instead, you’ll find a great series full of well-thought-out individuals with relatable personalities.
Every one of the characters introduced in the story brings up a typical teenage dilemma. From observing social cliques, to trying to find friends and hoping social groups will accept you, these individuals create a deep layer of authenticity as readers will be able to recognize or identify with these familiar personalities. My Youth Romantic Comedy presents a realistic representation of teenage life rather than a glorified picture of high school adventures, and its characters accurately reflect these messages.
The Devil is a Part-Timer!
Melody: While still rooted in light novel and anime clichés, The Devil is A Part-Timer! is a hectic and fun ride through the hijinks of a daily life seen through the eyes of a not-so-typical character.
It mixes an almost genuine representation of the lows and highs of just getting by on a minimum wage with the antics of being chased around by diabolical (or sacred) entities. It uses traditional writing combined with referential humor more targeted at occidental audiences than you might expect, making it pretty refreshing compared to other referential titles. An amusing read for anyone interested in unusual stories and just plain old fun.
Sean: The premise of Book Girl by Mizuki Nomura is supposedly about a young man, Konoha Inoue, who tries to quietly get through the rest of his high school days while recovering from a past trauma. He falls in with a young girl who eats books, Tohko Amano. But really, Book Girl is about the difficulty of moving past traumatic events, and how grieving and accepting things is both cathartic and also sometimes tragic. No one in this series is without their hidden depths, and the small cast are all excellent. But really, even beyond that, Book Girl is about a love of literature, both Western and Japanese, and the plots and settings of various famous books work their way through the novels. A series to curl up with in a corner of your library.
Justus R. Stone: High school student Koyomi Araragi finds himself drawn into the world of paranormal activity after being attacked by a vampire. The ongoing series of Monogatari deals with Koyomi’s attempts to help others he discovers who have been affected by spirits, curses, and monsters.
The series will appeal to fans of horror or urban fantasy. The first volume officially available in English, Kizumonogatari, is a vampire tale most Western audiences will find easily accessible. The mythology the series presents feels familiar, but also surprises with unique ideas blending Western monsters and spirits with entities drawn from Japanese folktales and legends. Even more than the story, readers will find themselves drawn in by the writing. The author, Nisioisin, is known for his play on words, engaging dialogue, and interesting characters who refreshingly play against common archetypes.
Spice and Wolf
Frog-kun: A perennial favorite among light novel fans, Spice and Wolf tells a surprisingly engrossing story about medieval economics. The author Isuna Hasekura is able to present even the most eclectic subjects in a light-hearted and engaging manner. Much of the appeal of the story, however, lies in the charming interactions between the traveling merchant Lawrence and the wolf deity he meets, named Holo. Recommended for any readers who enjoy character-driven narratives and slow-paced romances. Yen Press has also recently announced that they will be releasing the series in ebook format, so now may be a good time to pick up this series and give it a try.
Is it Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon?
August Hail: Is it Wrong to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? or DanMachi is a series that grows on you. Despite the premise being firmly rooted in the harem fantasy and action-adventure genre, Bell Cranel’s growth as an adventurer followed by the diverse cast of characters make the novels worth investing in.
While Bell’s determination to become stronger can move the story along, the real content comes from his companions that influence him. The relationships DanMachi creates have a level of intimacy that holds a lot of meaning, whether it’s a deep heart-to-heart conversation or a valiant act of saving someone. The action is also nothing short either. The battles have a fast-paced and reactive style that helps keep the pace of scenes. They also become a very good tie-in for the emotional moments that the stories lead up to. Overall, DanMachi is a well-balanced light novel series that only gets better as you read along.
Melody: Need a big scare? Another is the book for you! Using classical horror storytelling, it instills a sense of dread and keeps you entertained until you feel helpless in front of all the horrible things you could ever read in a light novel. It uses mundane settings in order to make the crawling horror more insidious, creating a one-of-a-kind atmosphere that creeps in on you. It shocks and dramatizes but still attracts. While the full story is a bit short, it stays good enough to work on any person reading it.
If you’re a fan of horror/thriller novels, then Another is an absolute. Even if you’re not too into horror, the book is well-written and feels creepy enough to assure you nightmares for the next few nights.
Sean: Most people are more familiar with Ryogho Narita’s other major series, Durarara!!. But Baccano! (which takes place in the same universe) came first, and has many of the same elements. Taking place over several time periods, Baccano! is about a group of immortals and how their lives intertwine with a prohibition-era gang in the 1930s. There is no one main character, but the heart of the series are Isaac and Miria, two thieves whose naivete and stupidity would be irritating were they not so lovable, heartwarming, and hilarious. The joy of Baccano! is seeing how various seemingly unconnected plots all intertwine by the end of each book, and watching a number of morally ambiguous characters live life to the fullest. Baccano! means “commotion,” and it’s the best kind.
Other Light Novels
Cho: If you wish to keep browsing, feel free to peruse the “catalog” of what’s available in English. I try to keep that list up-to-date, so you can check back regularly as new releases come out.
The majority of light novels in English are currently being released by Yen Press (via their imprint Yen On). Along with many of the titles shared above, anime and manga fans may quickly recognize big names such as Re:Zero, A Certain Magical Index, and The Irregular at Magic High School. They have released some lesser-known titles as well though, such as Kagerou Daze (an urban fantasy based on Vocaloid songs), The Isolator (a sci-fi drama by Reki Kawahara, the Sword Art Online author) and Kieli (a completed fantasy/sci-fi romance series).
Vertical is currently bringing us Nisio Isin’s Monogatari novels, and will be releasing the first volume of the author’s mystery series Zaregoto soon too. They have also been coming out with tie-in novels for franchises such as Seraph of the End and Attack on Titan.
Viz Media is also releasing tie-in novels (Naruto, Tokyo Ghoul). Also from Viz Media, you can find many novels from Japan under their Haikasoru label (which specializes in sci-fi and dark fantasy). If you want a good space opera, be sure to try the classic series Legend of the Galactic Heroes.
Smaller publishers are taking a stab at translating light novels into English as well, such as One Peace Books with their releases of The Rising of the Shield Hero, a “trapped in a fantasy world” series. For a couple takes on that premise geared more toward women, there’s My Favorite Song and The Violet Knight, being published as ebooks by Cross Infinite World. And if you are interested in reading more ebooks, you’ll want to take a look at J-Novel Club, currently coming out with titles such as Occultic;Nine, My Little Sister Can Read Kanji, and Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash.
If any of you have a light novel that quickly comes to mind when asked what a newcomer should try reading, go ahead and leave a comment here! And if you’re a newcomer looking for something to read, don’t hesitate to ask for suggestions, if there’s a more specific kind of story you’re looking for… Someone may suggest your new favorite book!