Finally, a BL Fantasy Light Novel In English! (Not Counting Danmei)

The title of this blog post says it all. I was really happy to read a You Can Have My Back in English! It ticked most of my boxes in terms of what I wanted/expected from the fantasy BL genre.

Before I get on with describing the book and what I liked about it, I want to talk a little bit about the dearth of BL and BL-adjacent light novels in English. I actually mentioned this before in an earlier blog post, but I feel an urge to root for these kinds of books even though they don’t appear to sell very well.

The ironic thing is that Chinese danmei novels are the bee’s knees right now. They are so powerful that they end up on the New York Times bestseller lists. I get the impression that, in the English market at least, Japanese light novels target a niche male otaku audience while danmei has made bigger inroads with YA readers. In other words, there is not actually that much crossover between the two markets. Even if a Japanese BL light novel comes out with a very similar appeal to danmei, it won’t end up on the danmei readers’ radars, and the male otaku definitely aren’t reading it. That is the unfortunate situation that You Can Have My Back has ended up in, even though I suspect that it was probably licensed because of the success of danmei, lol.

As someone who likes both danmei and Japanese light novels, this strikes me as a sad state of affairs. So, yeah, if you like danmei (especially of the angsty and smutty variety), you need to buy this book! This kind of thing exists in Japan too! Hurrah!

You Can Have My Back is a long and dense book. At 400 pages, the first volume is over twice the length of your average light novel. It takes its time developing the characters, their backstories, and an overarching political plotline that threads both past and present. It’s a slow burn at first, but by the end of the first volume, you get a very clear idea of the stakes. The emotional dilemmas of the characters are honestly very gripping, especially as their fates get more entangled.

To explain the basic plot, a young boy named Leorino discovers that he has memories of a past life where he was a soldier named Ionia. Ionia died on the day Leorino was born; despite having no similarities whatsoever in terms of personality and social background, the latter does inherit the same violet eyes. As he gets older, Leorino becomes motivated to uncover the political conspiracy that led to Ionia’s death and also get closer to Prince Gravis, the love of Ionia’s life.

The full tragedy of Gravis and Ionia’s doomed love only gradually becomes clear as the story progresses. Even in life, their social stations kept them apart. Ionia was Gravis’s bodyguard, but despite their physical closeness, they were never able to fully express their romantic feelings to each other. Ionia died with regrets, and Gravis was never able to fully move on. I freaking love bodyguard crushes and tragic unfulfilled romances, so I was a very easy mark for this relationship dynamic.

Leorino’s presence in the story complicates things. His relationship with Gravis can never be on equal footing, firstly because of the 19-year age gap between them, but also because he is a separate person from Ionia. However much he yearns for it, Gravis can’t experience a direct continuation of his relationship with Ionia through Leorino. These complicating factors make you question whether a romance between Gravis and Leorino would even be healthy. The answer, at least at this point, is no, and that’s the source of a lot of angst. The story deliberately takes its sweet time before the two characters even have their first conversation, which ultimately lends weight to their sweet yet dysfunctional relationship. You can easily understand what both characters are going through psychologically.

I mentioned the age gap earlier, and that is indeed a potential squick factor. The other issue is that Leorino is the most uke-est uke who ever uke’d. As a child, he was always dressed up in girls’ clothes. As he grows up, he is constantly described as “beautiful” and “angelic”, and all the men want to sexually assault him. A large part of the story is him trying to assert his agency (there is a touching plotline about him learning to walk again after falling victim to a tragic accident that left him immobilised), but overall his character is definitely the weirdest part of the book. Not him personally, but rather the creepy way that other characters react to him, like falling over themselves about his beauty when he was twelve at that point in the story. Like, um?

This weird dynamic of absolutely everybody and their uncle objectifying Leorino never lets up even as the book continues, which ends up tainting his relationship with Gravis. From the way his infatuation is described, you end up wondering if he’s just another creep. Gravis and Ionia make for a much more believable romance in comparison. On the other hand, aren’t stories interesting when they stack up all kinds of obstacles for the couple to overcome? The fact that Gravis and Leorino have a lot of baggage to work through makes the story more intriguing, in my opinion.

(Leorino is eighteen when the sexy times start happening, if that helps.)

This is definitely not a “porn without plot” kind of thing, though. The political conspiracy takes up a bigger chunk of the plot than you’d think at first glance, and also there are wars and stuff. There is a definite sense of political weight to all the characters’ actions, which subsequently adds more depth and emotional complexity to their relationships. The steamy scenes are surprisingly infrequent, although the ones that do exist are pretty hot.

Overall, this was a really solid BL fantasy. There were some weird parts, but I definitely enjoyed my time with it. This was one of my most anticipated light novels of the entire year, and I am happy to say that it mostly lived up to its promise.

Fingers crossed for more BL light novels in the future!

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