It’s that time of the year again! Looking back on this year’s English light novel debuts, there were a handful of titles that I was really looking forward to but which ultimately disappointed me (Agents of the Four Seasons, The Ephemeral Scenes of Setsuna’s Journey, and Days With My Stepsister, to name a few), but I was also blown away by some unexpected surprises, which I’ll talk about below. This was a good year for romances, interestingly enough.
5) If the Villainess and Villain Met and Fell in Love
Print and digital from Yen Press.
To be honest, the villainess genre is oversaturated lately, but the premise of this one intrigued me, and I’m really glad I gave it a shot. Both leads are very archetypical characters here—Brigitte is an innocent victim who did nothing to deserve her reputation as the villainess, and Yuri is a guy who seems cold at first glance but is actually a sweetheart—but the important thing is that they play off each other very well. It makes for a charming romance.
The story begins with some ridiculously awful crap happening to Brigitte, but fortunately, the story isn’t a downer. After getting dumped by her dickhead ex-fiancé, she picks herself up, doesn’t wallow in self-pity, and immediately finds new and healthy goals. It’s honestly not the most realistic depiction of a girl who has had her worldview shattered, but not every story of this kind has to be dark and brooding. The appeal is in the light-hearted romance and banter anyway, which it delivers in spades.
4) “To Me, Who Loved You” & “To Every You I’ve Loved Before”
Print and digital from Seven Seas Entertainment.
This sci-fi romance duology is like the Pokémon Red and Blue of books. You can read them in any order for a standalone love story which complements the plot of the other. The gimmick works because the guy has two different love interests, whom he devotes himself single-mindedly to depending on which book you’re reading. You don’t feel like you’re treading the same ground all over again when you pick up the other book, nor is it difficult to grasp what the “point” of the story is.
It also helps that the two romances play out very differently. One is a tragic tale about a guy hopelessly trying to save a girl who is doomed to die in every universe (think Steins;Gate), while the other is a mundane story about a couple who experience universe-hopping as part of their daily lives but generally try to stick to the same universe. Taken together, it’s an interesting way of thinking about relationships, because it implies that people can have more than one soulmate, and even if you meet your soulmate, you won’t always become a romantic couple.
3) You Like Me, Not My Daughter?!
Digital-only from J-Novel Club.
This is a story about a twenty-year-old guy who has the hots for a thirty-year-old woman. Before you protest, “That sounds cursed!” remember that this is written by the same author as Are You Okay With a Slightly Older Girlfriend?, which is about a fifteen-year-old guy with a twenty-seven-year-old girl. This time, both characters are legally adults! Nothing to complain about here.
Much like Slightly Older Girlfriend, the older character is written to be the more relatable character. The story is told almost entirely through Ayako’s POV as she navigates motherhood, adulthood, and her burgeoning feelings for earnest young Takumi. You Like Me, Not My Daughter?! avoids any implication of grooming by making it very clear that Ayako had no feelings for Takumi whatsoever until he became an adult and confessed his love, so it’s really not a salacious story at all. If anything, it’s deeply vanilla. Mostly, it’s uproariously funny, so do give it a read regardless of what you think of the premise.
2) A Pale Moon Reverie
Digital-only by J-Novel Club.
I’m a fan of Kuji Furumiya, author of Unnamed Memory, so I knew I had to check this one out. Much like the previous series, A Pale Moon Reverie is a slow-burn romance in a fantasy setting. This is a novel with a very strong sense of place, which makes it fun to sink your teeth into and watch how the characters respond to the world around them.
The plot of the first volume is a bit thin, but it more than makes up for that with enjoyable character-building and banter. In particular, I liked how the series handled the age gap dynamic between the two leads. In a town where everybody can’t help but pressure Sari into taking a lover, Xixu is determined to give Sari the space she needs to figure herself out. She’s already smitten with him for precisely that reason, but she’s not going to admit that. The rich psychological dimension to the characters made this the most enjoyable romance of the year for me.
1) Butareba: The Story of a Man Turned into a Pig
Digital-only from J-Novel Club.
Butareba was the biggest surprise of the year for me. A story that I thought would end on a one-note gag developed into a dark fantasy adventure with some absolutely heartbreaking themes. Butareba has way more characterisation and world-building depth than your average fantasy light novel, that’s for sure. I wrote about the story in more detail in this blog post, but yeah, each aspect of the plot is just incredibly well thought-out.
On another note, this book is simply very fun to read. The pig protagonist’s internal voice is consistently funny and witty. There’s also a smart contrast between his otaku-pilled brain and the somber world he occupies, which constantly keeps you guessing about what’s going on beneath the surface. People have been sleeping on this series because the anime looks like crap and the premise looks trashy. It’s just a genuinely well-written fantasy story! Trust me on this!
Other Recommended 2023 Light Novels
You Can Have My Back: It’s really nice to see more BL in the English market, especially fantasy BL! While it does have some issues with non-con and other tropes that make it hard to recommend generally, the core emotional appeal is really solid. Read this blog post for more details.
Sentenced to Be a Hero: The Prison Records of Penal Hero Unit 9004: This is kind of the Suicide Squad of light novels, where a bunch of chaos-aligned individuals work together for the common good. The action scenes are really well-written and it’s getting an anime at some point.
You Were Experienced, I Was Not: Our Dating Story: A sweet romance about a gyaru and a nerd, with some good old positive messaging.
Associate Professor Akira Takatsuki’s Conjecture: Interesting exploration of Japanese folklore and supernatural phenomena from a scientific perspective. More details in this post.
Also, be sure to check out my recommendations for 2022 if you want some other cool light novels to read!
This is probably my last post for 2023. See you all next year! Hope you have a great one!