Friday, June 28, 2019

Light Novels: The Arrows of Time

Up to this point, this light novel survey has been focused on stories set in the writers' present. The recent history of the medium can be organized into three great periods: the secondary fantasy worlds of  the 1980s and 1990s, the primary fantasy adventures of the 1990s and 2000s, and the isekai portal fantasies of the 2000s and 2010s. More than twenty years of popular fiction has used the present as its staging ground, as primary and isekai fantasies are concerned with the affairs of the present--or, at least the present at the time of writing. But fascinations with the past and with the future are universal, and light novel writers have explored history and visions of the future in addition to the preoccupation with the present.

With that said, the arrow of time normally points forward in light novels. History tends to fuel the settings of the secondary fantasy worlds, as in the quasi-medieval Germany of Spice & Wolf, with classical China, Heian and Warring States Japan, and Continental Middle Ages Europe providing the common milieus. Historical figures do tend to be re-imagined into primary fantasies as well, such as in the complete re-imagining of the characters of Twenty Years After of the d'Artagnan romances into the isekai magical academy of The Familiar of Zero. As a result, those looking for historical adventures similar to the Sharpe series or the Three Musketeers might be better served by manga as Cesare, Vinland Saga, or Ruroni Kenshin. However, a handful of history themed light novels have made their way into English publication, including the previously mentioned Full Metal Panic, by Shouji Gatou, a military mecha adventure fueled by an alternate history of the Cold War, and Ryohgo Narita's Baccano, a Great Depression mobster fantasy that combines the farce of Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels with European alchemical magic.

Science fiction is far more popular, but not quite in the same form as American audiences may understand the genre. Japan has a storied history in the genre, with weightier Campbellian and Wellsian speculative social fiction finding a home in more traditional novels, while Continental-style (1) futurist fantasies fill the pages of light novels. As a result, light novel science fiction embraces the genre-blending of "science fantasy", incorporating any plausible or implausible element as long as it can be dressed up in polished metal and shining composite plastic--especially in the use of magic, whether it be in the sufficiently advanced technologies of telepathy, telekinesis, and other forms of Esper mentalism, or the application of computers to Sandersonian hard magic.

Perhaps no genre better illustrates the blended futurist fantasy quite so much as the Battle Academy. These near-future settings combine the magical academies of places like Hogwarts with computers and other forms of technologically-assisted magic. Students at these academies strive to climb the rankings in their class, often through the familiar trope of fighting tournaments. Meanwhile, dark conspiracies play out at the academy, using the students as pawns. As combat and intrigue rage around the often troubled and ostracized hero, he earns respect and a place in the school's social scene through his prowess. The Irregular at Magic High School, by Tsutomu Sato, follows this outline best, with The Asterisk War, by Yuu Miyazaki, a more light-hearted take on the formula. Kazuma Kamachi's A Certain Magical Index adds a layer of complexity--and the occasional whiplash from tone changes--by forcing the hero to navigate delinquents, predatory professors, and a silent war between scientific Espers and magic-wielding churchmen.

However, those looking for more familiar genres of science fiction will not be disappointed. Space opera looms large, with the True Tenchi Muyo novels expanding on the worldbuilding of the original anime's OAV continuity, and the classic Crest of the Stars (reviewed here). Haruka Takachiho's classic The Dirty Pair follows the Lovely Angels, a pair of intergalactic crime fighters who tend to forge an unmistakable--and unintentional--path of destruction. Asato Asato's 86 taps into the strong dystopian vein of Japanese science fiction as it investigates the forsaken soldiers forced to fight in their government's "bloodless war". And while video game isekai brushes up against many of the same themes as cyberpunk, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex further explores the setting and themes of the classic cyberpunk manga.

The arrow of time flies onward, and readers find themselves at the end of the isekai age, as the popularity of the genre and the web novels that fueled it are waning in Japan. What might replace it, no one knows. It could be a return to the detailed secondary fantasy worlds, the low fantasies of the current day, or even the grand space operas of the 1970s and 1980s. Meanwhile, English publishers such as Yen Press, J-Novel Club, and Vertical are bringing the vast backlog of this medium to a growing and enthusiastic English-speaking audience.


(1) "Ah, well, you’re now taking the German view that any romance about the future is science fiction." C.S. Lewis, "Unreal Estates". Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

The Great LibertyCon 99-Cent Book Sale

(h/t: Hans G. Schantz)
With the LibertyCon Science Fiction Convention about to convene in Chattanooga, Tennessee, some attending authors and friends are offering a few of their most popular ebooks for only $0.99. For most books, the sale begins 12 am PDT Wednesday 6/26 through 12 am PDT Wednesday 7/3 on Amazon, (12 am GMT 6/26 through 12 am GMT 7/3 on  The author’s chosen start and end dates may vary – always confirm the price before you buy. 
Get a great deal on a liberty-friendly book, and help support the creators. Here’s the full list (including both some familiar Ratburger favorites and new discoveries), alphabetical by author…
The full list can be found at The Ratburger. While I am working through this list, I can say that Pirates of the Electromagnetic Waves, by Fenton Wood, is a must read, and Hell Spawn, The Hidden Truth, and The Powers of the Earth, the 2018 Prometheus Award winner, are all climbing my To Read pile.

UPDATE: Soda Pop Soldier, by Nick Cole, Fade, by Daniel Humphreys, and Honor at Stake, by Declan Finn join the sale to make 10 books available at 99 cents each.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Light Novels: Secondary Fantasy Worlds

Previous entries in this light novel recommendation series have explored Tolkien's primary and secondary worlds, with the aim of explaining the mechanics of isekai portal fantasies that take characters from the present and fling them into fantasy worlds. As a result, the selections have dealt with heroes from the primary world--our world. But self-contained and internally consistent fantasy worlds such as Westeros, Selenoth, Newhon, and Discworld have captured the imagination of readers around the world, and it comes as no surprise than Japan's light novels have their own treasured adventures in such fantasy worlds.


During his travels, merchant Kraft Lawrence comes across a village harvest festival centered around a wolf and wheat. Despite the enthusiasm of the celebration, the village treats these rituals as little more than superstition. Later on that night, Lawrence stumbles across the harvest goddess, Holo the Wisewolf, who makes a request of him, in her own maddening way. Progress and the church have pushed out the old ways, and Holo wishes to see her hometown in the North once more. Lawerence agrees, and as they journey north, the cunning Wisewolf helps him toward his own dream, earning enough money to settle down and open his own shop. To get to the North, they must navigate the intrigues of merchant houses, church politics, the occasional would-be suitor, and the growing May-December bond between a mortal man and an immortal goddess.

Occasionally nicknamed "Wolf and Economics" for the deep dives into medieval trade deals, Isuna Hasekura's Spice & Wolf is a long courtship between Kraft Lawrence and Holo the Wisewolf. Contrary to early American marketing attempts, Spice & Wolf is not a fanservice book, as the romance is driven by poignant character interaction and not Holo's state of undress. Unlike most light novel romances, not only is marriage the intended resolution, but the romance is full of more than just the give and take of Holo's teasing. Over the course of their journey to Holo's hometown, Lawrence and Holo's growing trust in each other is tested, broken, rewarded, and reconciled as Lawrence attempts one audacious sales deal after another. Amazingly for the genre, some of the obstacles in Lawrence and Holo's path stem not from the looming threat of the church, but out of their reluctance to wed. Unfortunately, the 2000s distrust of organized religion that filled many Japanese anime, manga, and games is present, simmering as wary caution instead of outright hostility. Fortunately, Lawrence's sales broker schemes are quiet duels of wit and resolve, buoyed by Holo's cunning, instead of academic accounting exercises. As a result, the travelling merchant has been a role more and more light novel heroes have adopted in their adventures.


Never let marketers name books. Contrary to the expectations of the genre, Fujino Omori's Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? is not a harem story, regardless of the marketing team's efforts to frame it as such. Rather than the adventures of a rake, Bell Crandell decides to be an adventurer but has to get rescued when he gets in over his head. He crushes on his rescuer, the renowned Sword Princess Aiz Wallenstein, and the puppy love drives him to become a hero worthy of fighting by her side. Along the way, Bell's determination, growing skill, and an entire warren of rabbits' worth of luck draw fellow adventurers to the familia of his patroness goddess, Hestia. But the city's dungeon holds ever-growing dangers for adventurers, and Bell's grandfather might have placed a heavy responsibility on Bell's shoulders.

While Bell strives to improve through determination and practice in a way familiar to fans of Shounen Manga such as Naruto, My Heroic Academia, and more, the main theme is the close, almost familial bonds of friendship. Every member of Hestia's growing familia is an orphan or an outcast who finds a home by Hestia's hearth. This allows for two rarities in light novel fantasies, male friendship towards the hero and romantic subplots that do not involve the hero. While Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? bears the video game trappings of the genre lightly, the influence of Final Fantasy VII is unmistakable. For those interested in reading from the beginning, the pretentiously literary prologue is sandpaper rough--after the attempt to tie the story to the marketer's title, Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? soon demonstrates why new volumes are bestsellers, even in English fantasy lists.


Instead of notable mentions, this week brings two classic light novels that continue to shape fiction and even gaming to this day.

Ryo Mizuno's Record of Lodoss War may have started as a transcript of 1980s Dungeons & Dragons tabletop RPG sessions by Japanese game designers, but it quickly became one of the foundational fantasies for the light novel market, popularizing Western-style fantasy in Japan. Like the Dragon Quest games, it set many of the conventions of future fantasy--including the fascination with the trappings of Western fantasy. What Lord of the Rings is to the portrayal of elves in English language fiction, so too is Record of Lodoss War to elves in Japan. Up until recently, these stories were only available in English through the anime series and manga. However, like Legend of the Galactic Heroes and other light novel classics, the English publication of Record of Lodoss War was overshadowed by the glut in isekai portal fantasies. However, this epic fantasy is highly regarded, and worth seeking out.

Hajime Kanzaka's Slayers, on the other hand, takes a comedic approach to sword and sorcery. Sorceress Lina Inverse hunts treasure, and, in truth, she's not too different from the bandits she charbroils with her magic to get that treasure. Yet this carefree sorceress finds herself a constant pawn in the intrigues between gods and demons. The levity of the humor is balanced by the world-shaking scope of the events and the tactically sound magic battles. Fans of the classic anime will find a few familiar faces missing, but the dim yet strangely perceptive swordsman Gourry is Lina's constant companion. English volumes of Slayers are difficult to come by, thanks to the 2000s manga contraction nearly bankrupting the publisher. Hopefully, with the newly announced third series of Slayers soon hitting Japanese shelves, Slayers may be rereleased in English. Until then, Amazon and used book stores are your best bet to find these books.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Galaxy's Edge Insider

But the galaxy is a dumpster fire. A hot, stinking dumpster fire. And most days I don’t know if the legionnaires are putting out the flames, or fanning them into an inferno.

With those words, Jason Anspach and Nick Cole hooked science fiction readers on Galaxy's Edge, a reworking of everything people loved about Star Wars through the lenses of traditional science fiction and War on Terror veteran sensibilities. Their first book, Legionnaire, proved to be the Black Hawk Down of science fiction, taking a place alongside Starship Troopers, Armor, and The Forever War as a classic of military science fiction. Through nine volumes, the Legion fought against insurgents, rebels, and a strange, impossibly magical warlord who proclaimed himself Emperor. While the fimal volume of the main story, Retribution, might have seen rushed, until a reread of the series reveals how much foreshadowing was set in place from the start, it provided a satisfying ending, a rarity in today's day of endless serials.

Since then, Ansspach and Cole have opened their world to a number of prominent independent military science fiction fiction authors through their Order of the Centurion series, published first as audiobook exclusives through Audible. Anspach and Cole have also dropped hints about upcoming series that cover the Savage Wars, the Galaxy's Edge equivalent to the Clone Wars, bounty hunter contracts fulfilled by the legends Wraith and Tyrus Rechs, and a serial bridging the fall of the Empire to the next grand saga in the Galaxy's Edge universe.

Many a fan might be able to wait patiently for these new stories in the expanding universe of Galaxy's Edge. But for those of us who are impatient, there's Galaxy's Edge Insider.

Insider is a $10 per month subscription services which provides a number of perks, such as swag, discounts, exclusive podcasts, a Tuckerized cameo in future stories, and more. Most important to a reader, however, is the ability to download electronic advanced ready copies (eARCs) of upcoming Galaxy's Edge books. Now, paid eARCs is a not a new service, as Baen is known for selling upcoming new releases as eARCs for $15 each, or about 1.5 times the new release ebook cost to receive the book 3-6 months early. However, for the Galaxy's Edge fans, Insider is far more lucrative. This month offered the ability to download five new Galaxy's Edge novels, including the stunning Savage Wars, and two installments of Takeover, the aforementioned serial. That's $90 of eARCs, or $30 of ebooks in one month.

Future months will bring in additional installments of Takeover, the newest volumes in three spin-off series, and new books in Anspach and Cole's non-Galaxy's Edge projects. But even at one month, the Insider subscription is an excellent deal for fans of the series.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Crest of the Stars

In the far-distant future, mankind has traversed the stars and settled distant worlds. But no matter how advanced the technology of the future becomes, it seems the spacefaring nations cannot entirely shed their human nature.

Jinto Lin finds this out the hard way when, as a child, his home world is conquered by the powerful Abh Empire: the self-proclaimed Kin of the Stars, and rulers of vast swaths of the known universe. As a newly-appointed member of the Abh’s imperial aristocracy, Jinto must learn to forge his own destiny in the wider universe while bearing burdens he never asked for, caught between his surface-dweller “Lander” heritage and the byzantine culture of the Abh, of which he is now nominally a member. A chance meeting with the brave-but-lonely Apprentice Starpilot Lafier aboard the Patrol Ship
Goslauth will lead them both headfirst down a path of galaxy-spanning intrigue and warfare that will forever change the fate of all of humankind.

It's refreshing to read a light novel not encrusted with 20 years of bad fannish in-jokes. However, Hiroyuki Morioka's Crest of the Stars was also written at a time when linguistics was a writing craze on both sides of the Pacific Rim, so the book serves as much as a crash course on the Abh language as it does a story. The J-Novel Club translator uses an interesting strategy to minimize this, by bolding sections of the English text when corresponding Abh words have already been introduced to the reader. It's still jarring, but not so much as the same text half-written in another language. A reader should not have to hold degrees in neologistic linguistics, history, psychology or anthropology in order to understand the story. Fortunately, once the exposition-heavy introductions are complete, the interruptions settle to a more manageable rate. But that's still one massive hurdle, one that many readers might balk at.

On the plus side, there's a real Vorkosigan Saga feel so far as the story follows Lafier and Jinto on what will become their first mission in an interstellar war. There's mild Ceteganda influence to the Abh, with a society disrupted by genetic manipulation and a uterine replicator on steroids. Lafier's obsession with the proof and status of being a "Daughter of Love", a child created from an act of passion instead of laboratory procedure, is a glimpse at the first cracks in the Abh's air of supremacy. Neither Lafier or Jinto are on the manic level of Miles Vorkosigan, but then again, few characters are. Jinto displays a pragmatism forced on him as the only non-ethnically Abh noble, a mayfly among elves, while Lafier is a hammer with a strong sense of obligation that weighs heavily on her shoulders--more so than the privileges of her lofty position. Instead of an odd couple, they are complementary and will rely on each other's talents as they speed to warn the rest of the Abh fleet of invasion and war.

Crest of the Stars is the first third of a novel split into three books, and, in the 1990s, needed three years to find a publisher willing to take a chance on space opera at a time when space opera was a dying trend. The extra time was spent in refining the prose and the story, creating a space opera tale that is not just a good light novel, but one that can take its place among the better space operas world-wide. It helps that Morioka was a science fiction short story writer, not a fannish writer clinging to trends and in-jokes, and, with the exception of a Tom Swiftie or two, his prose, even when translated, is up to Western standards. This is aided by a rare but consistent use of dialogue tags, which more light novels should employ. Because of all this effort spent on the text, Crest of the Stars can be recommended as a proper science fiction novel, not just a young adult pulp.

Friday, June 7, 2019

Dungeon Born

Conquering dungeons and using them to grow has long been the most efficient way to become a powerful adventurer. The only thing keeping the process from being easy is the Beasts that inhabit these places. Questions plague those entering this particular place of power: Where do the ‘rewards’ of weapons, armor, and heavy gold coins come from? Why is a fluffy bunny charging at me? For abyss-sake, why are there so many monsters?

Cal has all of the answers to these age-old questions for a very simple reason. He is a Dungeon Core, a soul forced against his will into a magical stone. With the help of an energetic friend, Cal grows a dungeon around himself to bring in new sources of power.

When a threat he doesn’t fully comprehend bares its many teeth, Cal is determined to survive the attempt on his life. Unfortunately for adventurers, the only way for him to achieve his goal is to eat anyone that enters his depths.

The first novel in Dakota Krout's Divine Dungeon series, Dungeon Born starts as a pretty formulaic dungeon builder story, in the same vein and general plot as Bone DungeonA murdered man is reincarnated as a Dungeon Core, the chief intelligence in the creation and building of dungeons. Along with his fairy-esque assistant, the newborn Core branches out underground, absorbing wayward creatures and careless adventurers until he attracts the attention of the Adventurer's Guild. The Guild debates destroying the young dungeon, but the drop of a legendary treasure persuades them instead to use it as a training ground for novice adventurers. Along the way, the Core stumbles into a special relationship with one of the young trainees, which will become a lifesaver to them both.

Here, the Core's name is Cal.

Again, pretty standard stuff so far, although Dungeon Born has a sharper edge than the more whimsical Bone Dungeon. Yet Dungeon Born maintains the lighthearted approach that makes many dungeon builder stories a popcorn read.

What does set Dungeon Born apart from other lighthearted gimmick fantasies is its replacement of the traditional dungeon-builder game mechanics of HP, MP, and XP with the chi energy cultivation system of Chinese xianxia. This moves the actual dungeon building exposition from arbitrary mechanics to abstract, but more logically consistent methods. Issues of purity, contagion, and energy flow can affect what Cal is currently able to create, with breakthroughs coming from cleaning up energy paths and new ways to adjust the flows. Chi cultivation also allows for worldbuilding hooks into the plot that mere XP and MP do not allow. Surprisingly, this distinctly Chinese magic system is used without any other chinoiserie elements, which indicates a further progression of xianxia towards the English-speaking fantasy mainstream.

However, Dungeon Born does have issues when it seeks to move past the narrow scope of the dungeon. Since the popularization of The Lord of the Rings, epic scale fantasy has been the flavor of the decades. An intelligent cave just is not mobile enough to visit, much less influence, cataclysmic events, and Dungeon Born, like its fellow dungeon builders, wants to play in the cataclysmic. And rather than train heroes, Dungeon Born wants Cal to be the hero. The result, played out in its sequels, is the power creep familiar to fans of shounen manga. There is also a lack of purpose to the story, as Cal grows stronger to draw more energy to grow stronger in a cave's power fantasy. Every bit of cleverness is tied to a rather weak purpose with few obstacles in the way. The result lends itself to the open-ended approach of kishotenketsu's development-twist-consequences cycles instead of dramatic structure. Dungeon builders in general need more focused plots and more modest stories that take advantage of a dungeon's immobility and allure to adventurers.

As mentioned, Dungeon Born is a lighthearted beach read with aspirations to something grander that stands out more as a transitional story in the growing evolution of American xianxia than on its own merits.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Combat Frame XSeed: CY 40

“I will enjoy speaking with the architect of HALO’s success.” 

The four XSeed pilots exchanged glances. “You probably won’t.”

Before the asteroid drops, combat frame battles, betrayals, and ultimate victory of the Systems Overterrestrial Coalition (SOC)--described in the Xseed CY1 novel and the CY2 short story--Senzan Kaimura discovered something in the Martian ruins. When he used this secret to turn Elizabeth Friedlander into the self-proclaimed Goddess of the World, Sekaino Megami, he birthed a monster that terrorized humanity--a monster that lived on past Megami's death. As new intrigues threaten another SOC-launched cleansing of Earth, the Human Liberation Organization strives to free Earth from SOC control.

How can you fight a monster, but by creating one of your own?

The Brussels HLO cell, led by Tom "Arthur Wake" Dormio, is an unusually effective cell, costing the local SOC governor nearly 50 officials and ten million credits in damage. During one of their raids, they receive a strange message which leads them to a mysterious benefactor--and four of the most powerful combat frames ever. Equipped with these series 100 XSeeds and aimed at both the SOCs and Megami's monster, these partisans rampage against the SOC forces, easily taking down all opposition by their oppressors. But a growing unease builds among the XSeed pilots, as Arthur Wake might just be a monster as well.

Like with Brian Niemeier's Soul Cycle and the previous XSeed, a simple summary is not enough to capture the twists, shifting intrigues, and stunning revelations in Combat Frame XSeed: CY 40. But where CY 1's plot explored shifting loyalties between two stark moral poles, CY 40 is a grayer martial thriller. While the nationalist Earthers are portrayed as the sympathetic side in the XSeed saga, their methods in CY 40 are no longer as pure as they once were, dealing out atrocities just as severe as the ones inflicted on their people in the past. Black-hearted monsters fight with the good guys, while honorable opponents fight for the no less evil SOC, just as the SOC's paternalism for their conquered peoples is exchanged in hopes of a more final solution to the Earther problem. Yet Niemeier does not dip into the cesspool of grimdark nor the bloody thrill of atrocity. Revenge is a powerful motivator, and hot-blooded lapses of judgement return to haunt both HLO partisan and SOC alike.

Perhaps the most sympathetic characters are Simon Trent and Malov Strauss. Trent is a young student whose aptitude for programming lands him a front seat (in an XSeed, no less) to the real costs of driving the invader out of Earth, an innocent behind a gun. Trentt's struggle is how to remain good in wicked times. Malov, however, is a hound of justice, consistently snapping at the heels of the HLO. Sneered at by his bosses as a Cassandra, Malov's uncanny abilities exposes him to Arthur Wake's cruelties, which push him firmly and understandably into Megami's monster's camp.

While I raved about the original XSeed (CY 1) and its side story (CY 2), it is refreshing to see CY 40 offer new scenarios and new types of action and intrigue, instead of rehashing the successful CY 1. The underlying 60 million year-old mystery begins to be fleshed out in ways that make speculation even wilder. Like all of Niemeier's stories, careful reading is rewarded. However, it is so easy to be swept up in the breakneck pace of the action. Perhaps rereading might be more appropriate and fun.

CY 40 ends with another of the grand space battle set pieces common to Niemeier's fiction, mixed with new revelations and one heck of a desperate gamble by the Adele Mundy of HLO. Fortunately, more XSeed is on its way,, so we won't have to wait long to see what happens next.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Light Novels: Video Game Isekai

As video games increasingly become the most common method of interacting with fantasy, the portals to fantasy worlds have sent heroes into video game worlds. Not just the fantasy worlds of the favorite games, but inside the games themselves, continuing the trapped-in-a-computer-game stories made popular by Jumanji, The Matrix and cyberpunk. While the influence of the Dragon Quest video game series on Japanese fantasy has already blurred the line between game world and fantasy world, a distinct genre of video game isekai portal fantasy has developed. 

Unlike more traditional isekai fantasy, the conventions are most often based around those of MMO role-playing games, with the mechanics of the game prominent in the story. These include the player menus always in the character's vision, talent trees, an ever-improving collection of gear and items, instance dungeons and raids, a strange loathing for player-versus-player combat, and the ever-present threat of permanent death for those trapped inside the game, often against their will by deranged versions of Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, or Bill Gates. Influenced heavily by cyberpunk, these video game fantasies have in turn become an important influence to today's popular litRPG genre, especially the Russian resurgence of the form. 

Strangely enough, video game fantasy portals work in one direction, from the present primary world to the secondary video game fantasy world. Reverse isekai in video game settings are almost non-existent.


Rising of the Shield Hero, by Aneko Yusagi

When Naofumi is suddenly summoned to an alternate world to be one of four legendary heroes, he is handed the Shield, and a country's hatred as well. Then his companion betrays him, leaving Naofumi penniless and ostracized. To rise to the challenge of defending his new world, Naofumi must pull himself up by his bootstraps--even though only unsavory options remain open to him.

Rising of the Shield Hero has attracted a fair amount of controversy Stateside, from portraying some women as liars and daring to punish them, to sudden delays in translation causing over a year between releases. This continues to the storytelling itself, as some praise the prose of the translation, while others point to the exposition-heavy plots and constant recap chapters as a sign of poor writing. What is clear, however, is that the continued process of adaptation from the original revenge fantasy web novel into various media is polishing the story and the characters while drawing curtains around the more vicious incidents. Naofumi manages the delicate dance between anti-hero and hero with some sympathy, although with complete acknowledgment that many of his actions are motivated by weakness instead of heroism. Starting with a firecracker opening arc, Shield Hero does get bogged down by the same old fault, the reliance on new characters, villains, and lands leading to languid kudzu plots. Like with the Wheel of Time, the first six books are worth the effort, with the remainder depending on your buy-in on the series.


Log Horizon, by Mamare Touno

For twenty years, the MMO Elder Tales has been the most popular and ambitious MMO, eclipsing even World of Warcraft in its player base. As Elder Tales’ twelfth expansion, Homesteading the Noosphere, rolls out, a socially awkward engineering graduate student known as Shiroe finds himself trapped inside the game along with hundreds of thousands of players worldwide. As the trapped players struggle to adapt to the new reality inside Elder Tales, a growing malaise, poor food, and decaying relations with the non-player characters known as The People of the Land cloud the game world. Together with his friends Naotsugu and Akatsuki, Shiroe sets out to rekindle hope and create a place that the gamers can call home.

Time has not dulled my praises for Log Horizon. It is a welcome return to stories featuring young professionals instead of middle school students, strategy over power, and, most importantly, hope--both for the future and the present. Instead of seeking character improvement, Shiroe and his companions grapple with creating and improving the community around them, even if that means exploiting the game to do so. But what sets Log Horizon as a light novel apart from the rest is in the supplemental information included in each volume. Most light novels are content to illustrate a scene every chapter. Log Horizon chose to include character sheets, maps, stories, game guides, and even comics with the novel itself in one of the most art-intensive series currently available. These materials flesh out the Elder Tales game, allowing for a more streamlined story, as much of the background exposition and the rules crunch are reserved for these entertaining vignettes. Most importantly, the art and strategy guide extras reinforce the all-important visual aspect to a game world. Log Horizon has recently returned after a long hiatus, so it will continue to raise the bar on the use of art to supplement story.


My Next Life as a Villainess, by Satoru Yamaguchi

After a blow to the head jogs Katarina Claes's memories of a past life as a Japanese student, she finds herself face-to-face with a horrible revelation--she is inside her favorite game, a relationship-based choose-your-own-adventure visual novel. But Katarina is not the heroine, but her foil, a conceited bully of a duke's daughter, destined for death or exile when the true heroine finds happiness. Katarina must draw on her knowledge of the game and its characters to avoid certain doom.

While My Next Life does serve as a classic example of the sensationally long and unwieldy light novel title, it is a rare example in English of a female-oriented light novel and a visual novel isekai. Like other female light novel heroines, Katarina's struggle is for security instead of popularity, romance, or acclaim. Yes, she is practically the epitome of a Mary Sue, all wonderful and quirky and caring, but that's because she has to be to avoid her fate. It's balanced out by her sometimes frustrating obliviousness to the loyalty her efforts at self-preservation through helping others have inspired. While the presentation is clad in the conventions of a certain segment of female Japanese fandom, the idea that helping others in return helps you is refreshing in this age of proud independence. Hopefully, more Katarinas wake up to that fact.


Notable Mentions include: Infinite Dendrogram, by Sakon Kaidou, for exploring an immersive MMO setting without trapped in the game tropes,  the .hack ("dot hack") franchise, which follows players affected as programs within an immersive MMO game slowly develop life and will, and Overlord, by Kugane Maruyama, which puts a far darker spin on the trapped-in-a-game trope as the main character is in charge of a kingdom of monsters, villains, and cutthroats.

The elephant in the video game isekai room is Sword Art: Online, by Reki Kawahara, the popularizer of this particular genre. Reactions to Sword Art: Online are divided, many love it while others take issue with the characters, power fantasy, and worldbuilding. However, references to Sword Art: Online in other media and novels are multiplying, so it is mentioned for completeness.