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Spend enough time immersing yourself in the world of manga and you will come across the term “light novel”. Seasoned manga fans will likely laugh and ask, “What is the premise of this new isekai series now?” But newer readers might be confused. Easy novels? Do you mean light-hearted novels? Do you mean short novels? By and large, not a big deal, but the misunderstandings can deter potential readers from even asking for light novel recommendations, which is a shame because there’s a good chance they’ll love light novels if they love manga.
In short, light novels are short prose novels that are closely related to manga. They contain many of the same themes, tropes, and character archetypes that you often find in your favorite manga. They are quick, pulpy readings designed to entertain and provide a welcome escape from reality. For a deeper look at light novels, here is an introduction to the format.
Where do I start with light novels?
If you had asked this question five years ago, it would have been easier to make good light novel recommendations. The choices were more limited, which meant a lot fewer options for starter light novels. It seems counter-intuitive. More options are good, right? Absolutely! But if you think that diving into manga for the first time can be overwhelming, exploring the world of light novels can be even more. Some of the premises appear to be similar. Some of the titles are super long. Are they all really people who are emigrating to another world?
This is where this reading path comes into play.
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Light novel recommendations for new readers
Boogiepop by Kouhei Kadono
Let’s start with a classic. Boogiepop is the show that started it all. If you’re a reader who loves to watch basic works, or “the canon,” this series introduced pretty much the entire light novel category in Japan.
But while ignoring its place in light novel history, boogiepop is a great place to start. It combines mystery, the supernatural and urban legends. His prose is also characteristic of classic storytelling in the style of a light novel: fast, easy and fast. But don’t equate simple prose with simple structure. Boogiepop isn’t told in chronological order, and part of the appeal is figuring out how all of the scenes, storylines, and characters intersect.
Rise of a Bookworm by Miya Kazuki
It would be a lie to say that Isekai – the genre in which the protagonist is transported to another world – does not dominate the light novel category. It does. And it would also be a lie to claim that many of these novels are not male power fantasies, but glorified harem novels. However, that’s not all that is available once you know where to look.
Ascendance of a Bookworm follows a college student who dies in an unfortunate accident. Fortunately, she is reborn in another world. Not so happy, the world she was born into values books. In fact, only the rich have access to literature. In her previous life, our heroine wanted to become a librarian, so the worst thing is to restrict access to books. In this new life, she makes it her life goal to design books in such a way that they are accessible to everyone. (But mostly for her.)
I’m in love with the villains of Inori
Not all isekai novels involve the transport of the protagonist to another world. Often the protagonist wakes up and finds himself on the pages of his favorite book or in the pixels of his favorite video game. As you can imagine, depending on the decisions and actions of the main character, the original plot of the book or game can go awry.
I’m in Love with the Villainess follows Rei who immigrates to her favorite dating sim. As with most dating Sims, Rei has the option of starting a romantic relationship with one of the available bachelors from the original game. But she doesn’t want any of it. It’s her favorite game, but Rei is a lesbian, and if she wants to chase someone, it will be her favorite character: Claire, the antagonist.
Solo leveling by Chugong
If we’re technical, solo leveling isn’t a light novel. Light novels are a form of media from Japan. In contrast, Solo Leveling is a Korean web novel. But there are many similarities between the two categories, and as more manga publishers license and publish Korean webnovels in English, readers will have more exposure and access to them. Another way of thinking is that Korean web novels are for Japanese light novels like Manhwa is for manga.
Solo leveling falls into a popular category of Korean web novels: gaming fantasies. They are not quite isekai, because often the protagonist does not wake up and finds himself in another world. What they typically include is a “system” – that is, an outside force that helps them navigate the world. Players will likely recognize the information given out by these systems. Solo leveling introduces this concept in a way that is accessible to non-gamers who are unfamiliar with the idea of character stats and level grinding.
The pharmacist diaries of Natsu Hyuuga
In a format full of isekai and supernatural stories, it can be difficult to find a series that doesn’t fall into either of these genres. Even gaming fantasies like solo leveling are closely tied to the Isekai genre.
Fortunately, there is The Apothecary Diaries. It shows a clever and no-frills heroine navigating the Emperor’s fascinating rear palace. Sounds interesting? What if I told you that she solves mysteries at the behest of the chief eunuch, who may not be a eunuch at all? And what if I said she was a pharmacist and a pharmacist?
86 by Asato Asato
Light novels are filled with warlike premises. Many protagonists eventually emigrate to another world because they have to save their new home from a threat.
86 is not an isekai. It’s a science fiction series about two nations at war. Everyone thinks war is being waged by automatons. That’s not true. One side uses people, and worse, these people are the socially oppressed. The series begins when a battalion of these socially oppressed peoples – known as 86 – is handed over to a new handler.
Bakemonogatari from NISIOISIN
You can’t compile a list of light novel recommendations without mentioning the most famous light novel writer of them all. NISIOISIN appears on many light novel lists, and for good reason. His writing is clever and funny. If you’re a regular manga reader and anime fan and haven’t picked up a NISIOISIN light novel, this is what you have to do. His works are full of references to anime and manga series.
Monogatari is his best known work. It shows a protagonist who survived a vampire attack – and was actually a vampire for a short time. (It’s okay! He’s now cured. Most of the time.) Surviving a vampire attack with humanity largely intact would normally be a cause for celebration, but now it seems like a magnet for girls with supernatural problems.
If you’re new to the format, hopefully you’ve found this list of light novel recommendations helpful. Even if you’re not new, you may have found something interesting to try. If you’re looking for more recommendations, here’s another list of light novels to check out. Or maybe you want to see the best light novels (and manga) to pick up in 2021.