Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Level Up's Top Ten LitRPGs

Conor Kostick, of the up-and-coming litRPG publisher Level Up, offers a list of the top ten eleven fantasies that mix literature and crunchy game mechanics.
Once you’ve been bitten by the LitRPG bug, you’ll want to keep reading works in the genre. And the good news is that there are hundreds of LitRPG titles to choose from. So many, in fact, that a common question in forums is to ask what are the best LitRPG books ever? Here’s my own answer to that question. Of course, it is highly personal and I don’t claim some kind of objective authority. But these are the ones that I enjoyed reading, that are well written, have engaging characters, strong plots and, of course, a game or game-world in which the drama unfolds.
I don’t include our own Level Up titles in the list, this is a compilation of great LitRPG reads made as a guide to promote the whole genre, rather than our books in particular, but I do think Level Up books would be there or thereabouts. Hopefully, you’ll see them crop up in other lists of the best LitRPG books! 
Having chosen my top ten LitRPG books of all time, I realised I had missed one out that I really wanted to include, so apologies for not having the heart to cut any to make room. I also didn’t include Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, even though it would have been up in my top five, because while there is a game of sorts in the virtual world of OASIS, searching for Easter Eggs doesn’t give LitRPG fans the engagement with game strategies and levelling that many look for.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Light Novel Recommendations: Reverse Isekai

The portal between fantasy worlds works both ways. Not only do characters leap from our primary world to secondary fantasy worlds, characters from those secondary worlds can cross into ours for fish-out-of-water adventures. These fantasies are known by the systematic and admittedly unimaginative label of "reverse isekai" fantasies.

However, the approach between classic isekai portal fantasy and its reverse reflection differs more in just the direction of travel between worlds. Where isekai tends to shove its protagonists through the door between worlds, only to lock the door behind them, reverse isekai stories tend to install a revolving door between worlds. Furthermore, since reverse isekai do not need to rely upon the main character as a stand-in for the reader exploring the world, these stories are far less reliant on wish fulfillment fantasies. This allows reverse isekai stories to offer a wider variety of kinds of stories than the tried and true hero fights against a villain found in traditional isekai portal fantasy.


The Devil is a Part Timer, by Satoshi Wagahara

After the final, climactic battle in another world, the Devil King and his last general are banished to another world: ours. But without magic, they can neither return to their own world, or conquer ours. Forced to make ends meet, the Devil King survives as a lowly fast food employee, with designs of working his way to the top of the company, and then the top of the world. But they aren't the only otherworlders in Japan. The Hero has arrived as well, and she knows where the Devil King works.

A bit of a guilty pleasure, The Devil is a Part Timer combines reverse isekai with the devil/monster genre. Here, Maou is treated more as a demi-human than a proper devil, and the burdens of making ends meet in a low-paying job actually humanize him to the point that he's no longer the same power-mad end boss he once was, much to the consternation and confusion of the Hero, Emilia. The unresolved tension between Maou and Emilia fuels much of the comedy. It is refreshing to see an adult cast evenly divided between the sexes, with actual male friendships that aren't handwaved off screen in favor of harem hijinks or romanticized for fetishes.  The worldbuilding leans heavily on Kabbalah, which some might find off-putting, but becomes important when the powers that be in the old world won't leave Maou and Emilia alone in ours. The Devil is a Part Timer is a humorous refuge from wish-fulfillment and harem fantasies that still brings sword and magic action to the table.


Notable mentions for straight isekai portal fantasies include: Re: Zero--Starting Life in Another World, by Tappei Nagatsuki, where a teen from our world finds himself in a new world with the mysterious power to reverse time by dying--a lot, and the recently released Mushoku Tensei, by "Rifujin na Magonote," where an unsuccessful man in his thirties resolves to do better in his new life, even if it means challenging a god.

Reverse isekai notable mentions include Outbreak Company, by Ichiro Sasaki, in which a fandom-obsessed teen is tapped by the Japanese government to export fandom to another world, and Restaurant in Another World, by Junpei Inuzaka, which combines cooking stories and slice-of-life stories as it follows the stories of adventurers from other worlds that have found their way to a restaurant in ours.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Light Novel Recommendations: Isekai

With laughter and mockery closing off wish-fulfillment fantasies set in the familiar world around light novel readers, light novel fantasists escaped into other worlds, taking their everyday Japanese characters with them. These in another world fantasies, sometimes called portal fantasies in English but better known as isekai in Japanese, soon became the dominant genre of light novels, enjoying popularity for close to a decade with no end yet in sight.

Isekai portal fantasies offer a bridge between two types of fantasies, primary world fantasy and secondary world fantasy. Primary world fantasy, as described by J. R. R. Tolkien in "On Fairy-Stories", takes place on Earth, typically in the present at the time of writing. Examples of primary world fantasy include American Gods, The Dresden Files, and Who Fears the Devil?, with Soloman Kane, The Lord of the Rings, and arguably The Wheel of Time providing primary world fantasies in the past. Secondary world fantasy takes place in another world than Earth, such as Narnia, Westeros, Discworld, Lankhmar, or the scattered worlds of the Cosmere. Isekai takes main characters from the primary world and thrusts them into a secondary world adventure. Whether through a rabbit hole, a wardrobe, answering a strange personal advertisiment, or uploading one's consciousness into the internet, this transition between worlds is the defining feature of isekai. As this transition typically takes place in the first chapter, the story lives off the secondary world introduced to the reader.

While Western portal fantasies typically draw from sword-and-planet fantasy, myths, or fairy tales, Japanese light novels tend to draw from games for their conventions, with Dragon Quest being the primary influence--as discussed earlier on this site in "Blue Slime Fantasy."  While isekai portals into actual MMO worlds are common, today's recommendations look at adventures in fantasy worlds unconstrained by silicon, even if the leveling and the looting remain.


Death March to the Parallel World Rhapsody, by Hiro Ainana

Programmer Ichiro "Satou" Suzuki falls asleep in an overtime patching session he calls a "death march", only to wake up in a world that resembles the game he was working on. While the leveling and skill systems come straight from the game, he soon finds the world too real, and starts delving its secrets.

Sometimes a recommendation is on this list not because of quality, but because it is the purest example of the form. And since isekai stories are currently caught up in a search for novelty, twisting and riffing on the conventions of isekai, an example of what everyone is trying to subvert is required. Death March gets the nod over titles like In Another World with My Smartphone for navigating the traditional isekai conventions of ever-increasing cast, lands, powers, and quests while dropping the least characters and plot threads along the way. While Death March incorporates gaming tropes, it straddles the line between game world and fantasy world as other characters are Japanese souls reincarnated into the new world.

Death March also is notable as a "burnout" fantasy, where the main character is an overworked salaryman thrust into a new life, as opposed to the under-socialized teens that commonly fill light novels. The result is a more idyllic journey through the video game-inspired fantasy world, as Satou grows to enjoy the moment instead of just being married to work. Satou's age and maturity, compared to most isekai protagonists, filter out a number of pandering tropes as well.


Konosuba: God's Blessing on this Wonderful World!, by Natsume Akatsuki 

When perennial loser and MMO junkie Kazuma Satou dies trying to save a girl from a runaway tractor, he finds himself in the waiting room of heaven, where, after a goddess roasts him for being an idiot, she gives him a choice. Kazuma can enter heaven, or take a continue in an MMO-inspired world as an adventurer. Kazuma naturally chooses the second option, complete with the customary choice of a starting cheat in the form of a legendary item or skill. Wanting to wipe the smug smirk from the goddess’s face, Kazuma selects her as his special perk. After all, what could be more powerful in a fantasy world than a goddess? To her horror, heaven agrees to his request and sends them both to the fantasy world. Now Kazuma and the goddess Aqua must quest to defeat the Demon King before either can return home.

A light-hearted comedy, Konosuba follows the other tradition of isekai light novels, that of flipping over one or more conventions. Here, the wish-fulfillment seen in many light novels gets turned on its head, as Kazuma's crusade against the Demon King is quickly laid low by misfortune and misfits, with none more dysfunctional than the goddess at his side, Aqua. The comedy is situational instead of gag-based, fueled by subverted expectations and a rare willingness to let the characters indulge in their faults--including the women. But no matter how genre-savvy Kazuma may act, he never treats his new world as just a game. Although my first review was rough on the series, later volumes do become more enjoyable, another trait common with many light novels.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Light Novel Recommendations - Secret Worlds

Like Alice chasing the White Rabbit, protagonists in the once popular secret world setting follow a bit of strangeness in an otherwise mundane life, discovering instead vast conspiracies and earthshaking revelations that upend the main character's understanding of what the world is and how the world works. For the shadows of everyday life are full of alien infiltrators, secret societies, living urban legends, ghosts, and other mysteries, each with a hand on the tiller of the world and each trying desperately not to be noticed. Swept up in that madness, suddenly a mundane life becomes something far grander and the world never seems quite so small--or safe--ever again.

These "secret world" fantasies are primary world fantasies, taking place on Earth in the present at the time written, and always offering a peek behind the curtain at Fortean secrets most people are unaware of. Popularized in light novel form by Boogiepop and Others, these secret world novels are a common setting for horror, as well as the main outlet for a pop science fiction junkie for the better part of a decade.

The height of the secret world books came to an end with the popularization of the term chunibyo ("Eighth Grader Syndrome" or middle-school delusions). Many of the stories of secret aliens, superheroes, and living legends found in secret world matched the delusions of grandeur common to a certain phase in a young teen's life, and realism and ironic detachment settled into the genre. Instead of being swept up by grand and hidden secrets, the main characters instead turn to rescue friends from their delusions. And if the delusions turned out to be real secret worlds, the characters view everything through a genre-savvy and often snark-filled lens. The point becomes to move past these delusions and accept life as it is, instead of thirsting for wonders unseen.

Those looking for wonder--or a place to revel in the fantastic unmocked by their peers--soon turned to settings beyond the constraints of the current day, to the video game-inspired settings of isekai portal fantasy.

As always, recommendations are limited to what I have read.


The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya - Nagaru Tanigawa

Kyon is ready to start high school after putting aside childish things such as belief in UFOs and superheroes. Then, on the first day of class, he is introduced to Haruhi Suzumiya, a strange girl who has no interest in anything except the weird. Haruhi is unwilling to speak to anyone other than aliens, time-travelers, and psychics. But, after a chance conversation convinces Haruhi that Kyon shares her interest, he gets swept into Haruhi's strange club. A club full of aliens, time-travelers, and ESPers all trying to keep their identities a secret. For Haruhi also has a strange power to influence reality, and it's best for all that she never knows about it.

Admittedly, Haruhi puts the manic into manic pixie girl, but the real charm of the series is watching Kyon play the only sane man among his co-conspirators as they deal with time-traveling hijinks, dimensional shifts, homicidal aliens, and even rival clubs behind Haruhi's back. Over time, Haruhi adjusts to normal high school life, while Kyon warms up to the weirdness that surrounds Haruhi at all times. Kyon narrates the various mishaps in a deadpan that never lets up, no matter what pocket dimension, past era, or alternate timeline he finds himself in. Unfortunately, the complexities of simultaneous alternate dimension and time travel became too much for Tanigawa to navigate, so it is doubtful if the series will ever be finished past the tenth volume.


Bakemonogatari, by NISIO ISIN

After a particularly monstrous Spring Break, Koyomi Araragi's eyes are open to the various curses, monsters, and aberrations that cling to the people around him. When he catches a reclusive girl in his class after she floats down a staircase, he discovers that she is cursed with weightlessness. Freeing her from this curse only ensnares Koyomi in a strange web of living urban legends and monster tales.

I have reviewed Bakemonogatari both at my own blog and for Castalia House's, and find the series a complex mix of reward and frustration. NISIO ISIN brings two important elements not found in many light novels; a literate playfulness with the Japanese language and a deep love of mystery literature. Keen-eyed readers will see nods to American and Japanese mystery traditions, including a story structure familiar to fans of Doc Savage. Not only does Bakemonogatari play with language, but it is also rich in symbolism as well. The literate approach adds depth and gravity to the living ghost stories. Unfortunately, Bakemonogatari gets a little too taken with its own cleverness at times, and the less said about its pandering to some of the least tasteful trends of late 2000s Japanese pop culture, the better. But if a reader can overlook what for a light novel are minor foibles, the monster tales of Bakemonogatari are among the best in the medium.


Invaders of the Rokujouma, by Takehaya

Koutarou thinks he's found the perfect place to stay while his father is away. The apartment is close to school, and most importantly, the rent is dirt cheap. However, he soon finds out why, as a ghostly girl, two aliens, an honest-to-the-Moon magical girl, and an underworld princess crash through the door. Each invader wants Koutarou's apartment for their own purposes, but Koutarou is not willing to give up his room without a fight.

Let's get the obvious out of the way, as Invaders has sandpaper rough prose guaranteed to grate on the nerves of anyone with the slightest desire for style. However, what the series may lack in grace, it makes up with a surprising amount of heart. Instead of appealing to the young professionals who enjoy most light novels, Invaders is aimed at a junior high audience who might yearn for a little science fiction-flavored excitement. Freed from the demands of acting cool, the characters are given the chance to revel in the moment, whether it be the classic high school culture festival or ship vs. ship combat between rival space princesses. Uncluttered by the typical demands of fanservice, Invaders instead has room for a slow burn through an ambitious plot through time and space, with the invaders of Koutarou's apartment at the center. Also slowly burning is a rather sweet romantic rivalry as the invaders switch from invading an apartment to invading Koutarou's heart.


Honorable mentions include Full Metal Panic!, by Shoji Gatoh, an alternate history where the Cold War never ended in the 1980s and schoolgirl engineering geniuses are protected by mecha pilot mercenaries without social graces, and A Certain Magic Index, by Kazuma Kamachi, where an unlucky young man gets thrust into an X-Men-style clash between Science and Magic when he meets a young nun.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Light Novel Recommendations: An Introduction

Light novels have been a frequent topic here, combining the evolution of the pulp magazine with Japanese pop culture to various degrees of success. In the 1970s, Japanese publishers combined pulp magazines with anime-inspired illustrations aimed at teens and young adults. Since then, the market for these short, pulpy and fannish novels (about 50,000 words or so, like the hero pulp novels), has exploded in Japan and abroad, with recent English publisher J-Novel Club releasing over 200 translated volumes in two years.

Success has changed light novels from their pulp origins. Rather than an episodic series like the Shadow or Doc Savage, the average light novel has returned to dime novel serialization, with many light novels amassing a dozen volumes of story and more. And, to fill the demand, publishers have been offering contracts to newer writers and web novel writers. So the polish expected of the pulps has started to rub away. But enthusiasm, novelty, and an editor's not-so-gentle prodding have carried many a light novel writer to success despite the deficiencies of technique. Currently, just as in American Young adult, the medium has been following their readers as they grow older. But the heart still remains--mystery, action, and a heavier leavening of the spicy than even Martin Goodman would consider wise.

Like in any medium that has been around for longer than a fortnight, writers have chased various trends. Currently, isekai portal fantasy and harem romance have been the rage, influencing Russian litRPG and the recent glut of American harem fantasies, to the point that many readers are searching for their next novelty fix. Prior to that, the fad of the day included, at various times, "devil" stories, sword and sorcery, space opera, magical battle academies, and high school secret histories.

Over the next few posts, I'll take a closer look at these admittedly broad categories and make recommendations in each, based on what is currently available, starting with my personal favorite category, the secret worlds.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Quick Reviews: Shadow Heart and A Thousand Li

Irma wishes to be the perfect girl: chaste, feminine, and generous. But when a giant monster stomps through her hometown, her plans crumbled right along with the stores and apartments.
In the chaos of acrid smoke and panicked civilians, the private military company Shadow Heart snatched her friend out of the crowd and took her captive.
Now Irma must pilot the Grand Valkyur, a mechanical titan of steel more powerful than any weapon made by human hands. With a brilliant sword that could cut any matter and gleaming armor that could withstand any weapon, the Valkyur challenges all who dare to fight it.
But piloting the Valkyur means using violence — and to Irma, violence is men’s work.How can she rescue her friend without betraying the feminine elegance she prides herself on?
The second novel from the #AGundam4Us circle of mecha enthusiasts, Rawle Nyanzi’s Shining Tomorrow: Shadow Heart embrace the giant robot vs. kaiju monster traditions of Ultraman. But where that past few years of big kaiju anthologies have treated these heroes with a double-helping of camp, Shadow Heartinstead plays the heroic struggle straight. This alternative history future, similar to The Man in the High Castle but with Japanese hegemony instead of German, provides a backdrop for the deadly intrigue that sets the main character Irma on the path to becoming the masked heroine Shoujo Red. But before Irma can settle the clashes threatening to sweep the world into another war, she must first resolve the conflict between the constraining demands of a prim schoolgirl and the needs of a larger-than-life warrior. While the action easily fits the grand expectations of the genre, the star of this novel is the almost alien Japanese-American hybrid society, complete with the rigid expectations for Irma and the rest of society.

Long Wu Ying never expected to join a Sect or become a real cultivator. His days were spent studying, planting rice on the family farm and spending time with his friends. Fate, however, has different plans for Wu Ying and when the army arrives at his village, he and many other members of the village are conscripted. Given the opportunity to join the Verdant Green Waters Sect, Wu Ying must decide between his pedestrian, common life and the exciting, blood soaked life of a cultivator.
Join Wu Ying as he takes his first step on his Thousand Li journey to become an immortal cultivator.
Chinese xianxia fantasy continues make inroads into English audiences with Tao Wong’s A Thousand Li: The First Step. Like many series before it, A Thousand Lifollows the life of a young boy into manhood as he struggles to master the intricacies of chi cultivation, the internal martial arts, and the world around him. Tao Wong brings some Western sensibilities to the genre that make this fantasy more accessible to Western readers unfamiliar with the legends around Chinese internal martial arts. The growth in cultivation levels, and thus in hero Long Wu Ying’s magical and martial abilities, are tied to concrete achievements, such as clearing chi meridians, instead of random increases in levels of chi. This sense of accomplishment carries over into Wu Ying’s personality and story arc. Many xianxia fantasies are power fantasies, with arrogant heroes effortlessly surpassing the conflicts in their path through natural talent. Wu Ying starts as a disgraced peasant of above-average ability, and is repeatedly thrown into perils where he must either adapt and overcome or die. This gives him a sense of accomplishment and humility that many of his peers lack. Wu Ying’s adventures through the Chinese magical academy make for an excellent introduction to the xianxia genre.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Dragon Award 2019 nominations

With the Dragon Awards picking up steam in discussions as of late, here are my current choices for the categories. The Award eligibility period is July 2018-June 2019, and the nominations remain open until 19 July, 2019. Unlike other awards, there is no cost for nominating or voting.

Not all categories have selections, especially gaming, TV, and movies. Also, unlike the Hugos, voters only nominate one title per category, which means that there are a couple hard choices to make. Fortunately, there's still a couple months before the deadline.

Best Science FictionCombat Frame XSeed, by Brian Niemeier, or Pop Kult Warlord, by Nick Cole, if Brian declines.

Best Fantasy - Sword of Kaigen, by M. L. Wang or Sowing Dragon Teeth, by James Alderdice. 

Best Young Adult - Is it Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon, vol. 12, by Fujino Omori. It's a decent novel, horribly misleading title. Rather than the adventures of a rake, a young teen decides to be an adventurer, but has to get rescued when he gets in over his head. He crushes on his rescuer, and the puppy love drives him to become a hero worthy of fighting by her side.

Best milSF - I like Retribution better, but Jason Anspach and Nick Cole want the fans to get behind Galaxy's Edge: Order of the Centurion

Best Media Tie-In - Realmslayer, by David Guymer

Best ComicsAlt-Hero Q #1

Best Graphic Novel - Conan le Cimmérien - Le Colosse noir, or Elric, the White Wolf, vol 1. by Julien Blondel, et al.

Best Science Fiction or Fantasy Mini Game - Warhammer 40,000: Kill Team


A few comments on the Dragons. It is good to see a fan-oriented science fiction award that fits the current practices of other Internet Age awards. That said, short fiction exists, and it would be nice for the Dragons to acknowledge this admittedly atomized field. Maybe in the future?