I’ve been spoiled. Up until now, all the Japanese light novels I’ve read were ones that withstood a long and gruelling overseas licensing process. By the time a LN got licensed in the US, you could be pretty sure it met some (often low) minimum standards for story-telling and writing quality. I’m talking about things like Spice and Wolf, Kokoro Connect, and most of the Haruhi series. But beneath that surface layer you will find a lot of stuff that’s not much better than fan fiction.
It’s like UK television. All we see over here are the top end BBC works of art. When I lived in the UK, we got to see the really bad run of the mill ITN stuff. I can tell you that UK game shows are terrible, and that’s from someone whose wife watches an hour and a half of US game shows nightly. I am beginning to think it’s the same way with light novels.
You see, with the increasing popularity of LNs in the US, and an expansion of delivery modes, came a lowering of quality standards. Back when the publisher had to cough up the money to produce a physical product, they were more careful about what they would publish. Today, with digital delivery, the initial cost isn’t so high, and so publishers can take bigger chances. The best example of this is the new light novel distributor, J-Novel Club. For a monthly fee, JNC posts chapters of on-going LNs, roughly one per novel per week. When the novel is completed, it’s pulled from the website, except for an introductory first chapter and a purchase link. Currently, JNC is licensing twelve LNs, some of which are the second volume of a series. I am a member of JNC, and I have read at least parts of all twelve. Not all of them are of equal quality.
Using these twelve as a convenience sample of what’s out there, we find that five of them are in the hero pulled into a fantasy world genre. This is not to be confused with hero trapped in a video game, because there is no indication that it really is a game world, as opposed to a world with some sort of game mechanics. Obviously, what the Japanese call isekai stories are hot this year.
Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash: The most literary of the lot, and the only one of this genre to have an anime. A group of people wake up in a RPG style fantasy world, with no memories of their past, and find they have to fight for their lives. There’s a reason the first syllable is grim.
How a Realist Hero Rebuilt the Kingdom: A Maoyū Maō Yūsha ripoff, where he’s both scholar and hero, called into a fantasy world, where his high school level skills in ecology and urban planning help defend the kingdom he was handed. “You look like a nice boy, I’ll abdicate in your favor. Here’s my daughter.”
In Another World With My Smartphone: Like it says. He’s in an RPG style fantasy world, but his smart phone works, including the maps and ‘search nearby’ functions. In addition, he finds he has other advantages. “Oh, look. I just found this new magical skill that will cure the Duke’s wife of her mysterious illness.”
Arifureta: From Commonplace to World’s Strongest: He’s the low man in his high school class, but the smartest girl in the class really likes him. Suddenly, the whole class is pulled into an RPG style fantasy world. “I’ve loved you ever since I saw you getting the snot beat out of you back in middle school.”
Mixed Bathing in Another Dimension: Going downhill fast here, Our Hero gets called into a fantasy world, with the one skill of being able to create a Japanese style public bath-house wherever he likes. Finds some surprisingly useful applications. After all, it’s a limitless source of clean water. Also wet naked girls.
Two more LNs brush up against the edge of this genre.
The Faraway Paladin: HikkoNEET dies and is resurrected in a fantasy world. Doesn’t really count, because all he remembers is that he was a disappointment to his parents and he wants to do better this time around. His zombie priestess mother and ghostly sorcerer father agree. Reasonably well written.
I Saved Too Many Girls and Caused the Apocalypse: Our Hero starred in too many harem adventures in too many worlds without ever choosing a Best Girl. Now the multiverse will collapse unless he solves new problems in every world, which he does, by combining solutions across worlds and letting the problems cancel each other out. Neat concept, terrible writing.
The remaining five take place in fantasy/SF versions of our world.
My Big Sister Lives in a Fantasy World: High school high jinks. Our Hero can see labels over people’s heads, proclaiming what they are — Class President, Her Boyfriend, Mass Murderer, etc.
Brave Chronicle: The Ruinmaker: High school boy, something, something, is supposed to save the world, something, but only wants to protect his little sister. There’s a childhood friend.
Paying to Win in a VRMMO: Not trapped in one. Paying, not Playing. Our Hero wins all the time by finding the right in-game purchase. About as exciting as it sounds.
My Little Sister Can Read Kanji: A couple hundred years from now, his little sister is one of the few people who can still read kanji characters. She is in great demand, because everyone wants to grope her. Our Hero is fine with this. I’m not.
So that’s a chunk of what’s current on the LN front. Twelve novels, of which three are good (for a somewhat relaxed definition of the term good), and the rest are fanfic quality. I keep reading them because I hope they will improve, but they never do.