This is the second half of the glorious resurrection of the light novel section, started a couple of days ago. Maybe it’s more of a last gasp. Anyway, on to the books!
Title: Baka to Tesuto to Shoukanjuu v02
You may remember my review of the first volume of this comedy series, which by now has managed to get itself animated and fairly popular. I was a bit harsh last time, but knowing what to expect, I picked up volume 2 which a more positive attitude, wanting a fun, light read to cheer me up. It works, yet again. BakaTest is consistently funny, with a steady machine gun rate of jokes thrown out by the amusing cast of characters.
It stands as a sharp contrast to the unfunny garbage Seitokai no Ichizon, which tries a similar approach and fails. But even if my impression of BakaTest v02 is good, I can’t help thinking it should have ended about 50 pages sooner, because it starts to drag a bit during the finale. I’ll probably keep reading this series every now and then to relax between heavier novels.
Amazon link: Japanese
Title: Durarara v01
Narita is an interesting author. He started out with Baccano in 2003, a series which has piled up as many as 14 volumes, and had a much loved anime in 2007. In the meantime he’s also managed to write 5 volumes of Vamp, another 5 volumes of the Etsusa Oohashi series, 3 volumes of Hariyama-san, and finally 7 volumes of Durarara, which is currently being adapted into an anime. The illustration is handled by Yasuda Suzuhito, who’s also drawing his very own manga, Yozakura Quartet.
Unlike most light novel series, Narita has a tendency to focus not so much on a specific protagonist and plot, but rather the development of a subculture with a large cast of interesting characters. The narrative will jump between these people, simultaneously telling separate stories, which at first seem completely unrelated and confusing. Gradually you see glimpses of what direction they’re heading, and tension will grow as all threads finally collide into one huge moment of utter holy shit epicness, when everything suddenly clicks.
The first volume mostly handles things from the point of view of Ryuugamine Mikado, a youngster who’s just moved to Ikebukuro in Tokyo to enter high school, after years of being spurred on by his childhood friend Kida Masaomi’s extravagant chat reports of adventures there. In alternating chapters, we’re also introduced to a mute apparition in the form of a headless rider by the name of Celty, who smuggled herself into Japan on a quest to find her stolen head and the lost memories within.
The whereabouts of this non-vital bodypart, along with the machinations of a mysterious organization called the “Dollars”, are what fill the majority of the pages, but we also run into some ten other memorable characters before it finally wraps things up. With some solidly written and charming dialogue, Narita succeeds in creating a great gallery of individuals, who in all their unique quirks combine to form a living, breathing world. The problem is that the prose between conversations is sub-par, with the depiction of events often feeling like it’s scribbled down by a bored blogger summarizing anime episodes, completely void of flair and finesse.
In spite of the writing, Durarara remains an excellent read, since after all the pages of build-up, the pay-off is just so fantastic that flipping the pages left me with a huge grin on my face that refused to fade.
Amazon link: Japanese
Title: Durarara v02
Going into the second volume, I told myself there was no way he could top the amazing finale of the previous book, but oh how very wrong I was. It somehow got even better.
The spotlight turns to shy Sonohara Anri, Mikado’s bespectacled classmate, whose ample chest gets her into trouble with a lewd teacher. While Masaomi saves her temporarily, she decides to seek out a girl rumoured to have been involved with the teacher, but who suddenly switched schools in the middle of the term. In other parts of town, a reporter is trying to figure out who is strongest in Ikebukuro, a trail which leads to Heiwajima Shizuo, the man with a dozen bartender suits. And in the dark, a vicious slasher is attacking people seemingly at random, with shining red eyes and a bladed weapon.
A mix of action comedy, detective work and supernatural thriller, boosted by better pacing with the early appearance of Saika, I have to rate Durarara v02 even higher than the original novel. Some of the setting seems to have changed between books, but it serves to build stronger supporting characters, so I don’t really mind. The only worry is that the series will start to show signs of power inflation.
Amazon link: Japanese
Title: Durarara v03
As you can see in the line above, this volume was a hundred pages thicker than the earlier installments, and it’s not a good thing. It is Kida Masaomi’s turn to be protagonist (if you can call it that; the true main character is probably Celty, who gets a decent amount of exposure in all three novels), and his battle with the past. This leads to a ton of flashbacks meant to flesh out his character, and at the same time sheds some light on the mischievous information broker Orihara Izaya. We also get more details about the otaku van gang lead by Kadota, as the emerging colour gang “Yellow Turbans” make their presence felt.
It should be interesting and exciting and whatnot, but in the end it feels like all build-up and no proper climax. Unlike the previous books, it’s a slow jog all the way through, and never really lifts off the ground, despite some nice flashes here and there. Finishing Durarara v03 left me burnt out on the series, and I’ll be taking a break from Narita for a while.
If anyone’s wondering, the anime seems to be running the stories of all three volumes simultaneously, sometimes adding completely anime-original characters and events, which makes for a fairly fresh view despite knowing what will happen.
Amazon link: Japanese
Title: Sugar Dark v01
Heralded as the Next Big Thing, destined to change light novels forever, Sugar Dark rode the waves of being the first title to win the Sneaker Grand Prize since Haruhi way back in 2003. I ordered it instantly, of course.
Written and rewritten by Arai Enji, who couldn’t shake the feeling that he could create something brilliant with the theme of grave diggers, the resulting novel is set in an alternate universe, where humanity has been struggling against The Dark, an evil that takes the shape of huge monsters that seemingly stepped right out of your nightmares. This force of annihilation has kept humanity’s progress shackled, until one day when someone discovered that the immortal creatures could be stopped, if buried in human cemeteries. One of these places sees the arrival of our main character, Prisoner 5722, a young man of 16 years and formerly in the military, who has been stripped of his name, wrongfully accused of murdering his superior officer, and is now condemned to work as a gravedigger. Struck by the graveyard’s eerie atmosphere, his suspicions grow as he’s ordered to dig enormous holes. One night he runs into a beautiful girl, introducing herself as Meria, the grave keeper. Intrigued by her nocturnal appearances, and aided by an enigmatic boy who tells him of these hidden battles, our hero chooses to wade deeper into the dark.
While giving off a dark and fascinating aura with the setting, Sugar Dark buries itself in a terribly slow pace, with long descriptions and similes in ambitions of reaching literary heights. An entire page was spent on telling the reader how the main character walks up to a tree. Some people no doubt find this poetic and delightful, but I quickly get bored to death as nothing ever happens. The book could easily have been 50 pages shorter if they’d attached an editor who cared. God only knows why they gave it an award.
An even bigger problem than the pacing is how bloody juvenile it is. I was 16 once, so I know what it’s like to have your mind stuffed with cute girls and fluffy bunnies, but it doesn’t make it worth reading about as an adult. Repeatedly hitting us over the head with how beautiful a girl is doesn’t make her a good character, and Meria generally comes off as a retarded moe kitten more than a romantic interest. Moreover, the antagonists and conflicts fail on an emotional level. It’s impossible to feel engaged when the enemy is simply labelled “evil” and described as “scary”. They may as well be fighting shadows, because these faceless monsters are as solid as mist to the reader. Personally I crave a reason that drives the opposition, so I can understand their side of the conflict, giving it substance.
With all that hype it was probably inevitable, but I was left disappointed.
Amazon link: Japanese
Kougyoku’s debut work Mimizuku to Yoru no Ou had me enchanted and hungry for more, so I was happy to dig into her next novel, MAMA, which seems to take place in the same world, but is otherwise unrelated in story. Once again the theme is about man-eating demons, but not necessarily evil ones.
Born into the prestigious Salvador clan, famed for its line of great magicians, little Toto is seen as a failure. She doesn’t have much of a talent for magic. Bullied by the other children, she hides from their jeers, and comes to overhear teachers discussing how she might be better off adopted away, so as not to sully their reputation. Understandably upset, she rushes to the comfort of the library, but trying to stay out of sight of the adults, she unwittingly opens the door that seals a legendary demon in the form of a little boy her own age. In order to fight off her crushing solitude, she decides to become his… mother.
I’d been wondering if the true style of Kougyoku was the mesmerizing inventiveness of the first half of Mimizuku, or the less interesting second half, and with this novel I think it’s safe to say that she usually writes the dull kind. The setting and atmosphere are charming enough, bringing to mind Neil Gaiman, but the characters are rather flat, and the prose is overly simple and repetitive. I wouldn’t go as far as to say it’s bad, but after her previous novel, I hoped for so much more.
Amazon link: Japanese
Title: Ben-to v02
To end on a positive note, here’s the sequel to Ben-to, a series I praised in an earlier review, about people who go all out fighting each other for those precious half-priced boxed lunches in the local supermarket. Convinced it was one of the most brilliant new light novels I’d encountered, I had expectations set high when digging into the second volume.
This time our hero Satou You finds himself dragged into a war between the West and East side, where the powerful Monarch has the entire city mobilized in a scheme to be crowned strongest of all the wolves who prowl the half-price hours. This volumes sees the introduction of a new major character, Satou’s blonde and blue-eyed cousin Shaga Ayame, a half-Italian girl born on the same day in the same hospital as him, and the two were practically raised as twins, leading to embarrassing memories and intense familiarity, not to mention that she knows exactly where he hides his porn.
If this setup sounds cliché, let me assure you that the novels are anything but. Ben-to features some of the sharpest writing available, with exceptional sections written to evoke how delicious a meal is, while at the same time containing the very best action scenes I’ve ever seen in light novels. The unparalleled absurdity of the setting, with characters putting their lives on the line in ferocious competition for microwaved meals, the passionate way they talk about honour, and the over-the-top poetic descriptions of how people act, it all comes together in a perfect blend to produce some of the most hilarious content you can find. I literally laughed so hard I cried. And then clenched my fist in sympathy.
There’s a wealth of factors that make Ben-to superior to whatever else you’ve been reading: Satou’s casually sadistic anecdotes, Shaga’s wicked erotic challenges, timid Oshiroi’s homo-erotic fiction starring Sa(i)tou, protective Shiraume’s brief explosions of extreme violence, an opponent’s indignant outrage at Satou’s ill-fitting girl’s clothing. Most of all, it’s the fantastic battles that stand out. Where other fictionalized action is about 1-on-1 showdowns, Ben-to uses group brawls to build up incredible tension, with combatants briefly flickering into view to deal and be dealt punches, then tumble out of range as someone kicks them from behind. It’s written in a clear and confident manner, which only serves to heighten the absurdity level of the situation.
I’ve probably gushed enough now. Toward the end it lingers a bit too long on inner monologues, and the final fight could be shorter, but on the whole, I absolutely loved the book. With the 6th volume scheduled for an April release, you should start reading this series right now.
Amazon link: Japanese
Thank you for the overview.
My Japanese is not coming as fast as I would like however some day I hope to be able to enjoy these. Far off that is. Yes indeed.
Do they sell these light novels in the US in translated form? Would love to read some of my favorite anime stories in the original source material (like Shana) but dont read or read/write japanese.
Thanks for the reviews.So the durarara light novel rocks like the anime ,that’s good to know.
I was just wondering if most light novels are intended for children? (I know one series that definitly isn’t but maybe that’s not usual.)
Splash, I don’t think any of these titles are available in the US (yet), but stuff like Haruhi, Twelve Kingdoms and Spice & Wolf is.
Booyah, most are aimed at teenagers.
Spice and Wolf Light novel translated WHERE? I wanta look for the translated book now.
Pw3age, at Amazon, for one.
Did you dislike Durarara v03 because it had a very slow narrative or was Kida story was boring to read?
Arabesque, mostly the narrative, I think. It’s a bit hard to separate, but I don’t think the story as such was boring. I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns out great in the anime.
…I can’t say I recall having fluffy bunnies on the brain when I was 16.
And yeah, Yen Press has some light novels translated. As does Tokyopop.
A few volumes (?) of Shana have been published in english, but most light novels have been cancelled in the US (like awesome Kino’s Journey). YenPress is trying to revive / keep alive the genre. We’ll see how it turns out.
“The Twelve Kingdoms” is a must read though and still being published in english.
Buy them and support light novels in english ^^
an overview – light novels available in english are in bold:
@minikuiThanks for the list! I just ordered some light novels today from rightstuf, Spice and Wolf and Zaregoto. I was inspired by this post to start reading them =) I bought the first two in Moribito series (not light novel, but yeah..) I still got to finish that.
If you like Moribito I cannot recommend enough “The Twelve Kingdoms” as well. Both are awesome fantasy series.
I wouldn’t call Seitokai no Ichizon “unfunny garbage”… It is true that Seitokai is harder to understand than Baka Test, which has apparently done a better job to cater more fans… I think the fun of Seitokai lies in Netas, which are indeed unfunny to laymen’s eyes…
I wonder what level of Japanese comprehension skill is required for one to read and understand these light novels. I’m aware that it varies greatly between different series, but, say, what about something like BakaTest or Durarara? Is it sufficient enough to recognize most kana and to just arm oneself with an arsenal of dictionaries?
Eater-of-All, it took me three years before I dared to try a light novel, and I tried a few titles and had to give up because they were too hard. While you can get through a lot on dictionary power, it stops being fun when every page takes 10 minutes. Then I discovered Zero no Tsukaima, and suddenly I flew through the pages. BakaTest is so heavy on dialogue that it’s a fast read as well, but I would recommend staying away from Spice & Wolf or Zaregoto. You should probably make sure you feel comfortable reading advanced manga like 20th Century Boys and Monster before trying a novel, since there’s just so much text, and no visual context to help you out.
@Patrik: Oh okay thanks. I suppose it’s better to study a bit more and gain some experience instead of manhandling through the reading, lol.
Seitokai is probably better as an anime, because I watched it and it wasn’t really that bad. But hell, I wish I could read light novels (it’d make my inner book nerd soooo happy), but I settle for what I can get. 😉
Patrik, are you gonna start up with regular reviews again? I did like them a lot. It’s nice to see light novels getting a chance in the blogging world. (Again, YAY book nerds!)
Oh, and I know I’m opening up a worm hole here, but what’s your view of the Haruhi series? Just wondering and all since they’re finally releasing the 10th volume now.
queenie, I’ll probably review random books if they’re interesting enough to give me something to write. I haven’t read (or watched) Haruhi yet, so no opinion there.
well, honestly, i totally agree with u, i find ben toa rally amusing novel.
take this as a solicitude or a critic, but i think u should read Kara no Kyoukai , Nasu`s poetic prose it`s just pure beuty, although his french simbolism and surrealism influence make his history just … well just read it