About a year ago, our own stardf29 ranked the light novels he’d read. I thought that sounded fun, but felt it would be for kind of lame to just write a copycat post immediately after his. So here we are. I call this a taxonomy of light novels because although it involves some rankings, I’ve also broken things down into categories that don’t necessarily relate to one another in terms of “rank.” You probably don’t need another run-of-the-mill light novel tier list, but I hope maybe I can classify light novels in informative ways that tell you something you didn’t already know.
“Now let me be clear,” this system of classification reflects my subjective personal experience with these stories. The most basic division between LNs is “the ones I like” and “the ones I don’t.” I am not claiming the LNs I like are objectively great literature, nor that the LNs I disdain are necessarily badly written. Take this for what it’s worth. Let’s start by knocking out the negativity: the light novels I’m not a fan of. Also, in some cases, a light novel might qualify for more than one of my sections, but for convenience, I’m only mentioning them once.
The Worst: I Read 2+ Volumes but Don’t Plan to Continue
Among light novels I can’t claim to like, this is the most ignominious category. Unlike, say, a book I gave up on after reading the prologue, I have at least two volumes’ worth of data informing my judgment of these series. The less I’ve read of a light novel, the more potential it has to surpass my initial negative impressions. Contrariwise, the more of a series I’ve read, the lower the chance anything in a later volume is going to overturn my judgment. That said, most of these light novels aren’t necessarily “bad,” just “not for me.”
In the case of Spice and Wolf, Campfire Cooking in Another World with My Absurd Skill, and A Wild Last Boss Appeared, I basically got so bored that I didn’t feel like continuing. That Time I Got Reincarnated As a Slime grows increasingly dark (as non-readers learned in the most recent anime season), and I stopped enjoying it (I’ve actually enjoyed the anime much more than the books).
The “Why did I do that to myself?” award goes to Accel World, a series where honestly I’m not sure why I stuck with it as long as did. That’s because it’s basically one of my most despised books ever: Lord of the Flies, except that it’s been stretched out over dozens of volumes and changed the setting from a tropic isle to dystopian future Tokyo. The Master of Ragnarok & Blesser of Einherjar actually has some really fun ideas…but it also gets too close to ecchi for me.
This category also includes some series for which I’ve served as a paid proofreader. My first paid QA assignment ever was Record of Wortenia War (volume 3); I’ve worked on each volume since then, and also gone back and tried vol. 1 when it was free on Bookwalker a while back. Wortenia has some interesting elements, but the unpleasant setting and characters make for a story that is more grimdark than I choose to read for my own pleasure.
I’ve also done some QA for Outbreak Company, and again I don’t find it “likeable” even though it has some truly likeable aspects. My lack of enjoyment with this series also requires a HUGE caveat: I only started doing QA with vol. 13 of Outbreak Company, meaning I haven’t ever read THE FIRST TWELVE VOLUMES. I had seen the anime, so I was familiar with the story and characters, but there’s no question I missed a ton and this almost certainly negatively affected my experience with the later volumes.
Remember how I said most of the books in this category aren’t bad, just “not for me”? We’ve reached the exception, the light novel I actually think is objectively terrible. I’ve only read multiple vols. of Black Summoner because I got paid to proofread them. Besides being a phenomenally bland wish fulfillment isekai, in vol. 1, the adult protagonist has sex with a minor who also happens to be his emotionally traumatized slave. The story may treat it as a warm fuzzy moment, but in light of the power dynamics and the girl’s traumatic personal history, there’s no way that was truly consensual. Bleh! And the series doesn’t really get any better, at least not in the next few volumes.
These series are, for me, “the worst” because reading multiple volumes gives me with a fairly confident sense of what they are like and makes it unlikely I’ll ever change my mind or pick them up again. The next two groups both rank higher than this first category because my negative stance on these light novels doesn’t have as much data to back it up.
The Ones I Decided Not to Read
I want to mention this group because it’s pretty sizeable, but I’m not actually going to name names for this ranking because I don’t know that my opinions on them are all that meaningful. There are plenty of light novels that I just choose not to read. Sometimes, just a light novel’s description is enough to talk me out of reading it. Other times, I read a review, or check the series’s TV Tropes page, and conclude it’s not my kind of story. Maybe I read those little previews on Amazon, or J-Novel Club’s prepubs, and decide I’m not interested. Or I might actually purchase the book, start reading it, and drop it without even finishing vol. 1.
As for why I choose not to read such books, there are many possible reasons: an obnoxious MC, being too ecchi/fanservicey, uncomfortably gruesome descriptions of violence, over-the-top-extreme profanity, being too grimdark, terrible writing, etc. Whatever the case, something about these books left me with no desire at all to read them. If there’s a light novel you like that I don’t mention anywhere else in this post (and it was published at the time I wrote this post), there’s a decent chance it’s actually in this category.
I Read the Entire First Volume but Don’t Currently Plan to Continue
Like the preceding I-never-read-it group, I still can’t say I like books in this category, but there’s still hope for most of them. The fact that I finished vol. 1 means means I didn’t have as much of a problem with them as I did with the last category, while the fact that I’ve only read one volume means there’s a chance they get better in later volumes.
Don’t misunderstand, though: in terms of quality, this is a harshly divided bunch. Even with only vol. 1 to inform my judgment, I think Suppose a Kid from the Last Dungeon Boonies Moved to a Starter Town and Redefining the META at VRMMO Academy are absolutely terrible and would actively advise you to avoid them. The others aren’t so objectionable; they just failed to hold my interest. In no particular order, they include:
Can Someone Please Explain What’s Going On
The Tales of Marielle Clarac
Why Shouldn’t a Detestable Demon Lord Fall in Love
My Instant Death Ability Is So Overpowered, No One in This Other World Stands a Chance Against Me!
My Youth Romantic Comedy Is Wrong, As I Expected
Culinary Chronicles of the Court Flower
Reincarnated as a Dragon Hatchling
My Status as an Assassin Obviously Exceeds the Hero’s
I Became the Secretary of a Hero!
I found these light novels underwhelming. They aren’t particularly offensive or badly written, they just weren’t enjoyable enough for me to continue following the series long-term. There’s actually a chance I’ll come back to some of the light novels in this list. There have been previous cases where I read the first volume of a series, wasn’t impressed, but months or years later tried the second volume for some reason, and became a fan.
Now tally ho! Onward to light novels about which I can say something more favorable! From here on out, the LNs I mention are ones I can recommend, at least to some extent.
Standalone Stories I Enjoyed
These books are unusual in that they aren’t multi-volume series like most light novels. I’ll go in rough order of preference, starting with what is probably my favorite of this category: Gear Drive. I quite enjoyed it, and featured one of the most unique superpowers I’ve seen for a light novel protagonist. Unfortunately, the series was cancelled, meaning vol. 1 is all there will ever be.
Yokohama Station SF is an unusual example of a pure sci-fi light novel, with mystery and thriller elements. Of Dragons and Fae is a sweet fantasy romance with mystery elements, but the writing isn’t always the strongest. And Past Life Countess is a reverse isekai story that is likewise uneven in terms of the quality of the writing. Sometimes one just wants some light (novel) reading that can be knocked out quickly and won’t invite a commitment to read the next twenty-five volumes. If that’s the droid you’re looking for, I suggest these books.
Stories with No Fantastical Elements Set in Our World
Holmes of Kyoto
Bottom-Tier Character Tomozaki
The Angel Next Door Spoils Me Rotten
Our Crappy Social Game Club Is Gonna Make the Most Epic Game
These are among the most prosaic light novels I’ve enjoyed. There are no time travelers or sapient robots: each of them could pretty much take place in the world as we know it. It’s also worth noting that these all qualify as high school romantic comedies, but they aren’t necessarily pure romcoms. For example, Holmes of Kyoto is part romcom, part mystery, and part guided tour of Kyoto. Also, I said these take place in our world, but Social Game Club is a slight exception, in that it involves a bit of fictional tech, but it’s not anything that keeps the story from feeling grounded in our world.
Stories with No Fantastical Elements but Set in a Fictional World
The Genius Prince’s Guide to Raising a Nation Out of Debt
Altina the Sword Princess
The Apothecary Diaries
These are…well…exactly what the heading says: light novels that lack truly fantastical features such as magic or aliens, but take place in a fictional setting. These stories tend to draw a lot of inspiration from real history and deal with topics like diplomacy, military strategy, economics, or political intrigue.
Isekai / Isekai-Adjacent
The next grouping is the largest: isekai or isekai-adjacent light novels. Like Visa, isekai is everywhere you want to be. “Adjacent” let’s me include stories that are awfully close to “isekai,” but don’t quite conform to the stereotypical isekai model. With so many stories in this grouping, there’s a pretty wide range in terms of quality. Some of them I love love love. Others merely amused or intrigued me just enough to get me to keep reading, without really distinguishing themselves as anything special.Since this category is so huge, I’m actually breaking it down even further.
FUNA Light Novels
I decided to make a special sub-class for Didn’t I Say to Make My Abilities Average in The Next Life?!, Saving 80,000 Gold in Another World for my Retirement, and I Shall Survive Using Potions!. What none of these isekai have in common is an American publisher. What they do have in common is their author. They’re also all about comically OP female protagonists who wish they had larger busts and tend to crack wise and make goofy pop-culture references.
Expect lots and lots of giggles from these books, but not profound character development, an engrossing plot, or deep world-building. If you read and got a laugh out of vol. 1 of any these of three series, odds are the other two will make you chuckle just as much. I find FUNA’s stories are best in moderation: reading one volume after another can become repetitive and boring, but as a once-in-a-while indulgence when one is in the mood for this sort of story, these lighthearted isekai tales are excellent.
Isekai-Adjacent Light Novels
As mentioned above, there are a number of stories that overlap heavily with isekai despite not strictly being your stereotypical “person from our world winds up in a fantasy world” story. In this category, the best of the bunch are probably Infinite Dendrogram, The Extraordinary, the Ordinary, and SOAP!, and Welcome to Japan, Ms. Elf.
Even after more than a dozen volumes, it’s still somewhat ambiguous whether the setting of Dendro is isekai, but regardless, it’s a fantastic series. With SOAP!, the MC is a native of the fantasy world, but another major character is isekai’d from our world; this story is also notable for having an absolutely wonderful happy ending (the whole LN is only three vols.). Finally, Ms. Elf is half-isekai, half-reverse isekai; the MC freely traverses between our world and the fantasy world…and ends up bringing along elves and dragons to visit present-day Japan. I think Ms. Elf sometimes gets closer to ecchi situations than I’d prefer, but it’s otherwise so outstanding that I’ve kept reading it.
This next bunch are probably all about equally good (or rather, how I’d rank them varies daily). The isekai-adjacent protagonist of The Magician Who Rose from Failure: Tales of War and Magic isn’t technically from our world, but he does gain memories of some guy from our world. Merely putting Obsessions of an Otome Gamer in this category is a spoiler, so I’ll say no more. And Fushi no Kami: Rebuilding Civilization Starts with a Village stars a reincarnated MC, but so far hasn’t definitively established whether he reincarnated from our world (and in fact he’s made some comments that sound as if he might NOT be from our world). Bofuri: I Don’t Want to Get Hurt, so I’ll Max Out My Defense is technically set in our world, but most of Maple’s goofy adventures take place in a VR fantasy world, so it belongs in this group.
At the bottom of my isekai-adjacent grouping are The Devil Is a Part-Timer and I’ll Never Set Foot in That House Again!. The former is a highly comedic reverse isekai that feels much like one of FUNA’s stories: super funny, but weak enough on plot and character development that I wouldn’t advise reading multiple volumes of it in rapid succession. In fact, if I hadn’t decided to given FUNA stories their own section, they’d be part of this paragraph. I’m having difficulty articulating what it is that I find unsatisfying about Never Set Foot; it’s enjoyable, but somehow not on the level of the stories in the previous two paragraphs. It’s in this category because although the MC is a fantasy world native, another major character turns out to have reincarnated from our world.
Pure Isekai with Notable Flaws
I think that at bottom of the Pure Isekai group, I’ll place the isekai stories I think are good despite having some notable flaw. Kuma Kuma Kuma Bear is the comical adventures of an OP female MC. It’s a bit like a FUNA story, though it focuses on the protagonist’s friendships with the locals a lot more than FUNA stories tend to do. Still, I think it sometimes starts to feel stale and repetitive; it’s good enough that I’ll keep reading it, but it definitely feels inferior to the some of the later titles I’ll mention.
Is it a conflict of interest for me to say anything about My Next Life as a Villainess: All Routes Lead to Doom!? I’ll be honest: I kind of hated vol. 1, but later ended up reading the rest of the series for work and gradually came to enjoy it (though still I can’t say it’s Tier 1 isekai). In my opinion, vol. 2 is vastly superior to vol. 1 (and the same is true of quite a few of the subsequent volumes). That said, it still sometimes gets tiresome how dimwitted Bakarina can be, and a couple of her suitors keep acting like creepy, manipulative stalkers and never get called out for it. Still you should totally buy this series because as of vol. 9 I’m the editor for it. *wink wink*
How a Realist Hero Rebuilt the Kingdom is another light novel where I really disliked vol. 1 but later tried vol. 2 and thought it was dramatically better. Of my various complaints, the one that bugs me the most is how the author relies on incredibly clumsy, awkward writing to keep information from the reader. For example, imagine the king and his most trusted advisor are alone in a secure, private location, and then the king says “Is the plan for that person to use the you-know-what to do the thing at the appointed time at that certain place on schedule?” I’m serious: for the sake of ineptly “surprising” the reader, some of the dialogue literally really that stilted. It’s a testament to Realist Hero‘s good qualities that I’m still reading it anyway, but that doesn’t change the fact that the story’s transparent, heavy-handed attempts to “surprise” the reader annoy me pretty much every volume.
Many isekai take inspiration from RPGs to some extent, and Reincarnated as a Sword is no different…except perhaps in degree? The overabundance of RPG stats and abilities gets boring and/or overwhelming at times. I also think the plot is rather slow and meandering.
Pretty Good Pure Isekai
This next section is “better” than the last insofar as no glaring flaws jump out at me when I think of these light novels. That doesn’t mean they’re perfect, just that in my head, the flaws of these stories aren’t such defining aspects of them. Quite a few stories fit here, so I’m just going to give you a list, in no particular order:
Middle-Aged Businessman Arise
Der Werwolf: The Annals of Veight
The Great Cleric: White-Collar Survival in Another World
In the Land of Leadale
The Faraway Paladin
Trapped in a Dating Sim: the World of Otome Games Is Tough for Mobs
Since I Was Abandoned After Reincarnating, I Will Cook with My Fluffy Friends
The World’s Least Interesting Master Swordsman
I Refuse to Be Your Enemy!
Reincarnated as the Last of My Kind
The White Cat’s Revenge
By the Grace of the Gods
Accomplishments of the Duke’s Daughter
Reincarnated as the Piggy Duke
Meikyuu: Labyrinth Kingdom, a Tactical Fantasy World Survival Guide
The Reincarnated Princess Spends Another Day Skipping Story Routes
Dahlia in Bloom
All of these except Businessman, White Cat, and Meikyuu are reincarnation-type isekai. And although these are all isekai I like, there’s still a fair amount of variety in the quality and kinds of these stories. I want to reiterate my warning about vol. 1 of some series. For example, I thought Leadale‘s first vol. was kind of weak, but appreciated its second volume much more. Contrariwise, I thought Master Swordsman‘s first volume was excellent, but the rest of the series has been slightly inferior (though still plenty enjoyable). A noteworthy aspect of Businessman is that’s only two volumes long, so it might satisfy the same desire as the aforementioned single-volume LNs.
A Judicious Selection of My Favorite Pure Isekai Stories, as of Right Now
As you probably know if you’ve seen the currently (Spring 2021) airing anime adaptation, The Saint’s Magic Power is Omnipotent is just super warm and sweet. I should also note that anime has diverged from the source material in some surprising ways, so expect at least a couple differences if you try the LN after seeing the anime.
Cooking with Wild Game is pretty unusual among the isekai I’ve read: it has no explicitly fantasy elements (aside from the the protagonist getting isekai’d at the beginning of the story), giving it a different flavor than most isekai. Of course, it has a fictional world with fictional people, places, animals, plants, etc. But a dozen volumes in, there’s no magic, no RPG mechanics, no monsters. No traditional fantasy elements at all.
Among the light novels I choose to follow, Seirei Gensouki is one of the darkest. This is a world where some really wicked people get away with doing some really wicked things, while the protagonist and other victims experience great suffering. Surprisingly (at least for me), I don’t think this detracts from the story, but rather enhances it. Knowing both how evil the antagonists, the stakes feel higher in Seirei Gensouki than in the vast majority of pure isekai stories. The good characters also shine all the brighter thanks to the dark world they’re living in.
Finally, Ascendance of a Bookworm is so so so good. The character development, world-building, pacing, humor, plot twists…it’s all wonderful. The first volume is a little on the slow side, but it’s still a strong first entry, and each volume thereafter just builds on the excellence of its predecessors.
Non-Isekai “Fantasy” Light Novels
Whew, congrats on making it through my discussion of isekai / isekai-adjacent stories. While fantasy light novels definitely tend to be isekai, there are also quite a few fantasy stories that are NOT isekai. One way for a story to be non-isekai is to be set in what is essentially our world. The Rascal Does Not Dream series is a paranormal mystery romantic comedy. There’s magic in Chivalry of a Failed Knight, and both sci-fi and magic elements in Date A Live. I’m entirely not sure (as of vol. 1) whether The Detective Is Already Dead is more sci-fi, fantasy, or both. The protagonist of The NPCs in this Village Sim Game Must Be Real! is firmly situated in this world, but the fantasy world has an odd way of bleeding over into ours. And the delightful Spy Classroom seems to skew more toward sci-fi than than fantasy
The other way for a story to be non-isekai is for it to present a world and characters that have no connection to our own. The following are all just pure, non-isekai fantasy stories with no connection to our world:
An Archdemon’s Dilemma: How to Love Your Elf Bride
Our Last Crusade or the Rise of a New World
Mapping: The Trash-Tier Skill That Got Me into a Top-Tier Party
The Sorcerer’s Receptionist
Banished from the Hero’s Party, I Decided to Live a Quiet Life in the Countryside
Reset! The Imprisoned Princess Dreams of Another Chance!
The Emperor’s Lady-in-Waiting Is Wanted as a Bride
If the RPG World Had Social Media
A Tale of the Secret Saint
Dragon Daddy Diaries: A Girl Grows to Greatness
My Daughter Left the Nest and Returned an S-Rank Adventurer
Return from Death: (very long subtitle)
Besides these straightforward fantasy stories, I would put I Swear I Won’t Bother You Again! in this category, with the caveat that as of vol. 1, it has no fantasy elements outside an initial act of time travel, and thus it only barely qualifies for this category. I also decided to mention The Combat Baker and Automaton Waitress separately from the list above because it’s an odd fit for this category. Although Combat Baker has fantasy elements, its sci-fi aspects are more prominent, and while it’s not set in our world, it takes tons of inspiration from real history (mainly post-World War I Europe). It’s good, but don’t expect a standard “fantasy” experience. 86–Eighty-Six is much same, with the paranormal aspects overshadowed by the sci-fi ones. Of special note, The Sorcerer’s Receptionist is another completed three-volume series.
S-Rank Light Novels
This last category is for the light novels I consider the best of the best, my favorites.
Going in order of current series length, I’ll start with Invaders of the Rokujouma!?, an incredibly long but incredibly great series that defies all genre constraints. Currently it’s up to thirty-something volumes, making it by far the longest light novel I’ve read. With all those volumes, it takes plenty of time rich character / relationship development with its huge cast.
Sword Art Online comes in second, with twenty-something volumes. When I say SAO, know that I’m including the Sword Art Online Progressive sub-series as well as the main series. “Now let me be clear,” I love the SAO anime, think it’s a strong adaption, but there’s one hugely important thing that doesn’t carry over from the light novels: Kirito’s first-person narration. It turns out he’s a lot more endearingly dorky than the anime, lacking his inner voice, can convey.
Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? is up to around fifteen volumes so far. There’s a lot of really cool world-building and foreshadowing that goes on in the novels but isn’t as apparent with the anime adaptation. As an aside, these three series have my favorite male light novel protagonists: Koutarou, Kirito, and Bell are awesome, inspiring, truly good heroes.
You can probably guess this last one if you’ve followed BtT much in the past year. We at Beneath the Tangles have gone on at great length about how Tearmoon Empire is totally awesome. It’s got four volumes at the moment, and they’re all excellent. The humor, the historical allusions, the character / relationship development, the plot… You’re missing out if you don’t read this series.
And now we’re finished. This isn’t a true tier list, but it does indicate a lot about my preferences. Hopefully it also groups together some stories in ways you wouldn’t have expected, or made you aware of a light novel or two you hadn’t heard of. Did I have any “hot takes” as the kids these days say? Do you have any favorite light novels that I didn’t mention? Or do you strongly disagree with my (positive or negative) evaluation of any of these series? Thanks for reading along!