Crash Course: Light Novels

Light novels are a Japanese style of young adult novels. They have a wide range of topics, often include manga/anime style illustrations and are often made into anime!

If subtitles aren’t making you read enough while you watch anime, why not read anime in book form too? Light Novels (LN) are a hotbed of anime inspiration, with many series starting as serialized online stories that can become cult hits on readers’ phones as well as in bookstores after a publishing deal is struck. Popular titles such as Sword Art Online, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, and Slayers all started in the prose world before becoming best-selling anime and manga franchises.

“Those are just adaptations based on books,” you might say. “That’s not new.” That’s true, but LN operate in a league of their own. They tend to be written at a less than literary quality, feeling more like mass-market genre paperbacks you would find in a spinner rack at an airport, all through the prism of anime aesthetics. What do the results look like? What can you expect to find in the world of Light Novels? Here is what I have found so far after reading a couple dozen titles to try out the format:

Escapist Wish Fulfillment

Examples: Accel World, That Time I Got Reincarnated As A Slime, Overlord

There is a story genre known as Isekai that is explicitly about escapist fantasy. Its trademark features are a protagonist who is transported to another world, relative omnipotence or exceptional knowledge/skill among the residents of that world, and finding purpose and/or romance there. 

How those plot points tend to play out: videogames become real, leading to the formerly uncool protagonist drowning in fresh accolades and affection. It’s a fun fantasy. Sometimes the inciting event is death in the real world, which only makes the videogame parallels that much more existential and morbid. One imagines gamers stuck in dead-end jobs wishing they could just skip the underpaid labor part of their day and get to the empowering, fulfilling adventures. These fantasies often involve over-leveling one’s character in the game world to the point of supremacy. Anyone who bulldozed through a Pokemon game by using their starter for everything knows this feeling.

Do not let me undersell how horny some of these books can get. The protagonists tend to be teenagers, and LN do not generally skip the raging hormones part of that demographic. LN tend to have a handful of manga-style pages among their 200-300 prose pages per book. Sometimes the artwork is there to show off the cast or signature scenes. Other times, there is an illustration of a love interest naked in the shower or changing clothes. Depending on your tastes, these forays into steamy territory will either be a feature or a bug. LN are sometimes like the concept of “hi-lo fiction” taken to the Nth degree of puberty – high concept and low reading level, with the twin high concepts of “videogame power fantasy” and “babes who are totally into me.” 

For what it’s worth, two defiantly wholesome examples I have read so far include Ascendance of a Bookworm and Reincarnated As A Sword (the first volume of each, at least). There’s something for everyone out there!

Royal Road has a pretty thorough breakdown of Isekai subgenres if you would like to get really specific with where the main character goes and how.


Examples: Mirai, Penguin Highway, Your Name, Perfect Blue: Complete Metamorphosis

Adaptations are a two-way street: LN can lead to illustrated, animated, and even live-action versions, or they can be an adaptation from another medium. There’s not a lot to say about these LN except that your beliefs about books versus movies will probably be reflected here.

Translation counts for a lot in the sphere of LN. A light novel and its movie will of course have differences, but a qualified, caring translator is the difference between fascination and indifference. This is true (perhaps even truer) for original LN in translation. Flat descriptions and run-on internal monologues can turn off readers pretty quickly. The website J-En Translations includes a whole series of interviews with Japanese-to-English translators worth checking out, from LN to videogames, board games, manga, and more. Publishers, if you’re listening, please don’t automate and underpay as some kind of brute-force strategy to revolutionize the industry.

Prologues, Epilogues, and Side Stories

Examples: Demon Slayer: The Flower of Happiness, Tokyo Ghoul: Days, Your Lie In April: A Six-Person Etude, Final Fantasy XV: The Dawn of The Future, Vampire Knight: Fleeting Dreams, 5 Cm Per Second: The Other Side

If a given anime or game has loose ends and a large enough audience to justify publication, why not just write it out? Final Fantasy XV is an infamous example of this, as Square Enix kept adding downloadable content to the base game that fleshed out characters’ backstories and gaps in the plot. Development was eventually cut short, however, and the remaining extra game chapters were turned into The Dawn of The Future, providing some form of closure to fans regarding what could have been. 

More often, LN act as indulgences for anime fans. The examples listed above all visit various characters and perspectives related to the main story. They represent opportunities to hang out with characters one more time and hear some minor revelations that didn’t fit in the televised production. They do not tend to be good jumping-on points for their respective franchise. Your Lie In April: A Six-Person Etude is a neat examination of the core cast, but without meeting them and learning their purpose in the main story through the anime/manga, that examination may feel confusingly mysterious. I know that was the case for me when I read Vampire Knight: Fleeting Dreams and read a chapter about a romantically determined horse.

Really Great Series That Rival My Favorite Books

Examples: None

Okay, that’s a bit mean. I’m still finding my way through the hundreds upon hundreds of light novels available through bookstores, and I have enjoyed some of them! Reincarnated As A Sword is a fun, if bog-standard, isekai. Ascendance of a Bookworm teleports an adult bibliophile into a child’s body in a barely-literate society, a book-loving setup that’s appealing to me. The Tokyo Ghoul light novels I’ve read were okay, as was the translation of Penguin Highway. Did your parents ever make you read a book before watching its movie adaptation? That can still be fun with anime! Just look at Legend Of The Galactic Heroes*! Good in both forms! Just about all of Makoto Shinkai’s films have led to LN. Most importantly, speaking of forms of entertainment…

Read However You Like

Much like how manga’s boom periods were partially fueled by streamlining in the production process, LN have benefited greatly from advancements in digital reading and recommendation. Ereaders and ebooks have made it easier than ever to stockpile a large collection of books without turning one’s home into a paper tomb. Price-wise, ebooks of light novels are almost always cheaper than print copies, and the print copies aren’t so hard on the wallet either, especially when on sale. You could always reach out to your local library to find or request some for purchase, as well.

Among shopping options for the U.S, you might consider Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books A Million, BookWalker, J-Novel Club, Seven Seas, and Yen On for searching out titles and making purchases, whether in print or digital. There are sites for reading tons of light novels for free, including machine translation sites where the editing is barebones, but I’m sticking to official releases here.

Bottom line, LN is an ever-evolving crash course. Take my opinions on the books and genres mentioned with a grain of salt – there are so many authors and titles out there that nobody can make absolute prescriptions. The format is breezy enough that even the lackluster reading experiences don’t really slow me down, and I will keep experimenting with different authors, series, and adaptations. Dipping a toe into uncharted waters is always a good idea in a crash course, after all.

*LOTGH is not quite LN, but it did lead to a lucrative anime franchise, so I say it counts.

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