Welcome to the special Reader’s Choice edition of the Light Novel Club! This was a great chance for each of us to pick our own novel to read, and it looks like we all had quite a few thoughts on our choices. So without further ado, let’s dive into our books!
Jeskai Angel’s choice: Log Horizon
Jeskai Angel: Good: Shiroe is an interesting protagonist. He seems a bit introverted and shy, and refuses to join a guild. On the other hand, he gravitates to the inherently social roles of support and tactician, building his character in a way that demands working with others. It’s a good tension and helps make Shiroe a more well-rounded character. The book also manages to make Shiroe seem smart without falling into the trap of making everyone else an idiot.
Bad: all the characters besides Shiroe seemed pretty one-dimensional. Each one has a niche and sticks to it. Naotsugu is the cheerful pervert, Akatsuki is the taciturn ninja, etc. They lacked complexity and struggled to hold my interest. I didn’t connect emotionally with any of them. Other than general love-your-neighbor philanthropy, why should I care about these characters? This volume doesn’t have an answer.
Good: the world is intriguing. This volume sets up a pretty huge mystery: what exactly happened to transport all these people into the game world, physically transforming them in the process? Hopefully later volumes have some kind of payoff on that front. There are also various smaller mysteries relating to making sense of this new world. For example: is there a secret to cooking tasty food? The point that the former NPCs are now virtually indistinguishable from “human” players also hints at interesting possibilities for the story to explore. The novel does a nice job working through practical ramifications of going from playing a game on screen to physically being present within it. And there’s the backstory of the Debauchery Tea Party to consider. This volume sets up a plethora of interesting plot threads and directions for the narrative to go.
Bad: the info dumping. I realize that the author has a lot of information to share, and the setting is interesting, but it’s important to find an elegant solution, weaving the information into the narrative in such a way that it doesn’t FEEL like a series of info dumps. With this volume, I felt like every so often the author just said “Cut! Now let’s talk about game mechanics for a few paragraphs. * * time passes * * Okay, now back to the story.” At least for me, the info dumps felt more like distractions from the story than contributions to it.
Meh: I’ve heard Log Horizon touted as a superior counterpart to Sword Art Online. However, I confess that after volume 1, I find Log Horizon fine, and…that’s it. The quality of the writing and characterization is acceptable, but unremarkable. It’s not deeper or better written or anything. Of course, the very first volume of SAO isn’t the greatest, either, so that doesn’t mean Log Horizon is a bad series. I’m just saying that given how I’d heard Log Horizon praised, my expectations were a little higher.
In Conclusion: unlike series that pulled me in and had me eager to devour the next volume (Invaders of the Rokujouma, Infinite Dendrogram, SAO Progressive, Abilities Average, etc.), I find myself uncertain as to whether I want to continue with Log Horizon (especially with the hurdle of needing to buy more expensive physical copies since there’s apparently no Kindle version). I enjoyed this volume, don’t get me wrong, and maybe the series builds on its passable start to become something great. Do the non-Shiroe characters become more interesting? Does the big mystery get explored? I would love to hear from anyone who has read the series whether it goes to satisfying places from here.
stardf29: So about that: I will say that the Log Horizon anime definitely took a while to really get going, and that applies for the light novel as well, with the really interesting developments only really starting in vol. 2. It’s only then when the story really seems to figure out what kind of story it wants to be; it definitely felt to me like vol. 1 was really more just setting the basic story beats up. That said, the direction the story starts to go in is very interesting, at least to me. I’d say it’s worth at least going into vol. 2 and seeing its developments to see if it is turning into the kind of story you’d like.
I’ll say that I don’t really like comparing this series to Sword Art Online, because it’s a very different nature of story, especially after vol. 1; if I say I like Log Horizon more than SAO it’s because I like the kind of story LH is more than the kind of story SAO is, not that I think LH does what SAO does better. (It might be worth thinking of LH more like a traditional isekai, which I wouldn’t categorize SAO as.)
Jeskai Angel: Agreed. While there are superficial similarities in terms of the “trapped in a game” premise, SAO is very much still a game, existing in the context of a physical reality much like ours. On the other hand, LH is an isekei story whose world happens to be based on a game. This leads to very different stakes for each story.
TWWK’s choice: Re:Zero Ex
TWWK: Speaking of popular isekai series, I decided to go with volume one of Re:ZERO Ex. As a fan of the Re:Zero anime, I was excited to read this novel, which among others focuses on one of my favorite characters, Crusch Karsten. And as I started the novel, I thought I’d made a good decision as it seemed to perhaps reveal an epic story about dragons and kings and queens and love lost. There was some of that the story actually, and maybe there’s more in later volumes, but this one ended up being not quite so epic as I hoped. Worse, it was jumbled and at times poorly written. There was a whole lot of “Look! Crusch and Ferris and the new character, Fourier, have a wonderful friendship! Look!” It all felt very forced.
The last half was better than the first though. There was an exciting passage involving Ferris facing his past, and that was far more readable than the first half, so it at least ended on a high note. Have you guys ever read a spin-off light novel?
Jeskai Angel: Sword Art Online Progressive is basically a spinoff of the main SAO series, retconning Kirito and Asuna’s time in the original Aincrad. I think the series is great, possibly even better than the main series.
TWWK: Besides being a good read, did it fill in details that make the original SAO more enjoyable?
Jeskai Angel: SAO Progressive fills in the background of Kirito and Asuna’s relationship in a really satisfying way. In the original novel, their romantic relationship comes across as kind forced and out of the blue. Progressive shows them developing a deep respect and fondness for each other long before the events of the original novel, and the events of SAO vol. 1 are more believable in light of Progressive’s relationship development. Progressive also gives a lot of insight into Kirito’s thoughts — he’s a deeper character than I think he’s sometimes given credit for.
TWWK: That’s really interesting! Re:ZERO Ex gives us a bit more about Crusch’s motivations, which is nice, but doesn’t add any depth to her character like Progressive does with Kirito. Instead, it’s Ferris we learn more about, which would be fine except that I feel he’s an uneven character in the book, written almost like bad fan fiction—he was sometimes the Ferris I recognized from the anime series and sometimes not at all.
stardf29’s choice: The Alchemist Who Survived Now Dreams of a Quiet City Life
stardf29: I chose this book hoping for another nice, laid-back slice-of-life fantasy story, and at its core that was exactly what this story was. There’s no major conflict; it’s all about the main character Mariela trying to adjust after she wakes up after 200 years of “suspended animation”, with everything and everyone she knew gone or changed drastically. Now, for me, the most important part of a slice-of-life story is its emotional core: getting into the thoughts and feelings of its characters and how the small changes in life affects them. In that sense, this novel does pretty well. It gives a good picture of Mariela’s feelings of being in an unfamiliar place, and the relationships she develops with the people around her, especially Sieg, is very nice. Overall, this novel definitely has a lot of things that would normally make it among my favorite novels, but…
The big issue I had with this novel is that it has a ton of info-dumping. Obviously, as a story about an alchemist, this novel goes into the process of using alchemy, but it really goes into the details of everything: the processes, the background of the ingredients used, and lots of other things. It feels like the author wrote this story mainly to come up with some intricate world of alchemy rather than as a character story. And it definitely had the same issue that Jeskai had with Log Horizon in that it completely interrupts the flow of the story. Though it’s even worse here because, at least with Log Horizon, my interest in gaming makes the actual info being dumped of interest to me. And even in something like cooking novels with lots of cooking-based info dumps that I’m not as personally interested in, at least there’s a sense of “well, maybe this info will be of some use at some point in life”. But with all this alchemy info-dumping, involving magical processes and fantasy plants and animals, there’s absolutely no practical use to this info, so unless you want to be as invested in this fantasy world as the author is, it really drags down the book.
And then there’s the… special thing about this book. Early on in the story, Mariela buys a slave, Sieg, supposedly to save him from a worse fate. Yes, this is another fantasy novel in which the main character is a slave owner. That said, the owner this time is a girl, so at least we can now declare this trope equal opportunity… The flip of the usual gender dynamics does make things a little more interesting, but for the most part it still hits the usual tropes: Mariela doesn’t like slavery but she feels that buying him is the only way to save him, and while he initially appears ragged, with some cleaning up he turns out quite handsome, and of course he falls in love with her. I suppose that, since she at least doesn’t come from our world, she’s at least not expected to follow our society’s view on slavery, though it’s still a bit weird to read how she’s apparently uncomfortable on being waited on when she still orders him around to take care of assorted tasks. And, of course, while the relationship between Mariela and Sieg is otherwise very nice, the whole slave aspect does put a pretty big asterisk next to it.
Jeskai Angel: Can I just say this reminds me of one of my favorite things about the Reincarnated as a Sword series? The two main characters have a policy of “kill on sight” when it comes to slave traders, and all three volumes so far have included at least one occasion for them to kill slavers. It’s refreshing to have such a staunchly negative portrayal of slavery.
I wonder what is the appeal slavery as a plot device in LNs / anime. Obviously, Japan doesn’t have the same history with slavery that we do as Americans, but it’s not as if IRL Japan is pro-slavery. I’m tempted to say “It’s all about power” but that feels trite and inadequate, considering there many ways to write a power fantasy that don’t involve slavery. Is it, hmm, virtue fantasy, as in “Normally slavery is wrong, yeah, but my main character is so good and righteous that they can do slavery right,” perhaps?
stardf29: Going to your first paragraph first: If there’s one thing that does make Mariela’s case just a bit “better”, it’s that Mariela doesn’t really have the power to oppose slave traders. She does have a “cheat” in being the only remaining alchemist we know of, but that doesn’t really give her any combat or (at the moment) political power (it mainly just gives her a lot of money). I probably get most annoyed at cases where the character has the power to oppose the slave trade but chooses not to for some reason.
As for the appeal of slavery as a plot device, I do think it is that combination of power fantasy + virtue fantasy. There’s definitely a sense of “my main character is so good to slaves” while still having that element of power in there. But hey, now that we have a girl with that power, at least now we can throw out the idea that it’s just a “male power fantasy”, right?
Jeskai Angel: I mean, depends. Do women fantasize about having power over men? Or do men fantasize about being slave to a beautiful woman (because the women in these situations are inevitably good looking)? I can’t answer those questions, but if it’s the latter, then even though the scenario may not be strictly be a male power fantasy, it could still be male-oriented fantasy / fanservice.
stardf29: I do think “being a slave to a good-looking woman” does exist as a male fantasy, but I doubt that’s the case here, if only because Mariela isn’t drawn to be particularly attractive; she’s not bad-looking by any means, but she’s not drawn to be sexy or even extra-cute. (That is actually one of the big pluses of this novel; Mariela is a great female main character that doesn’t get caught too much in common female character tropes.)
As for whether women fantasize about having power over men: there’s this other light novel called Sexiled that suggests to me that they absolutely do. (Or at least the power to oppose men.) But if you ask me, both genders like power fantasies, and while I can’t say for sure how many direct their power fantasy specifically toward the opposite sex, I do think that there is an innate psychological desire to have control that plays into why fictional power fantasies are so popular.
TWWK: I don’t want to go too far down this rabbit hole, but I think the slavery aspect touches on sexual fantasies involving the same, as well as the idea of dominating another and of servitude. While none of the series I’m familiar with go down that route necessarily, that might be why this works for the readers and writers—a “kind” slavery relationships seems both palatable and fun.
In the west, the mention of slavery typically ignites a strong, strong sense of disgust. I’m not sure how Japanese audiences feel, however, and what that society’s history is with slavery. I can’t imagine they have near the same on-going societal repercussions as we do.
That’s unfortunate about the info dumping in your two selections, guys. Info dumping can be interesting and stardf29 mentions, or it can be boring. It can be a good plot element or a lazy one. But for the it to be both interesting AND a good plot element, I think it needs to be done on the hands of a very strong writer; plus, light novels readers are maybe used to or expecting such writing, so even with a good writer, this might just unfortunately be part of the game.
That’s it for our own choices, but what about your choices? Post in the comments about what new novel you read and what you thought about it!
This is our last regular Light Novel Club discussion for the year, as we let people take a break for the end of the year. However, we will have some side content coming, so look forward to that! And join us on January 2nd of the new year, when we announce our next titles! (You read that right: that’s “titles” with an “s”.)
Volume one of The Alchemist Who Survived Now Dreams of a Quiet City Life, Log Horizon, and Re:Zero Ex are all available for purchase. Featured illustration by 佐倉おりこ (reprinted w/permission).