I was originally going to preface this with a lead in explaining the context and so on but I want to write something longer on that context so I’m not going to repeat myself. So, over the last few days I read a series of light novels, seven of an ongoing series, and I want to lay out my thoughts on them.
The series, the unwieldy title of which you can see above, revolves around a modern-day nineteen year old being transported to a fantasy world where he has been summoned as a legendary hero. Only it turns out he isn’t traditional hero material but he sure is clever as fuck (the book is part of a genre called Isekai, the protagonist is nearly always insufferably over-powered). He’s a super “realist” who so impresses the king that after two days the king makes Souma, the protagonist, the king instead and throws in an engagement to the princess as a bonus. The first four books deal with Souma recruiting people to aid him as he goes about solving the crises facing the kingdom, e.g. food shortages, corrupt nobility, etc. using mainly his powers of super bureaucracy. The next three books deal with expanding the story outside the initial kingdom and are more about developing the kingdom.
The story originally started out as a webnovel (which seem super popular in Asia, particularly in China). It’s been re-written and improved for the light novel volumes after the author landed themselves a contract. Even so the books feel sort of sloppily written. It’s hard to say if this is a feature of the original or a problem with the translation. In this case I think it’s an issue with the original. While it doesn’t happen all the time it happens frequently enough to piss me off a bit. Lazy shit like instead of describing a character they just compare them to (insert pop culture reference here). I’m sort of getting ahead of myself. But fuck it its late and this is largely off the top of my head.
I initially came across the story in its managa adaption. Manga adaption of light novels are very hit or miss. They certainly aren’t the cesspool that Chinese webnovel adaptions are but they do often suffer from the same core issue i.e. the manga author tries to compress too much of the novel into too little of the manga. I found the manga adaption didn’t suffer from that issue and the artwork was really very nice looking (light years better than the art in the light novels in my opinion).
What really interested me about it was the kingdom building and development aspects. This set it apart from the more transparent power fantasy common to Isekai works and calm and calculating protagonist was somewhat refreshing. Though at this point it feels like so common an attempt to subvert hot-blooded protagonists that its commonplace. The problem with the manga was that there wasnt enough of it out for me. So I decided to give the light novel, which had official translations available, a go.
Honestly I think I might have preferred the manga version. The format in some ways worked better to cover the series flaws. But that might be a bit unfair. There is going to be a bit of whinging here so I’ll get it out-of-the-way first. While every book had bits that pissed me off and bits that wrenched my suspension of disbelief overall I enjoyed my time with the series. I wouldn’t say they were great and I’m not sure if I’d necessarily recommend them. On Goodreads I rated most of them a 3 out of 5 which according to Goodreads ranking system corresponds to “I liked it.” And that is true for the series overall.
So what are the flaws? Well in many ways the flaws are due to the things the series does to differentiate itself. The main character is written as unrealistically competent at administration and has an unbelievable range of knowledge and such for a guy who just finished secondary school. Honestly that’s fine. Its part of the genre so you just roll with it. But the book tries to present the protagonist as a “realist” without ever really achieving it.
Other than facile interpretations of Machiavelli, along with tediously long quotes from The Prince, along with some bits and pieces from Sun Tzu and Japanese history the books never show us Souma being a realist in a convincing manner (or for that matter really nail down what the mean by realist, for the sake of argument lets assume they mean it in terms of international relations and “Realpolitik”). Sure the author tells us that Soma is a realist but I would argue he very seldom shows us Souma being a realist. The various quotes also make it feel a bit juvenile, like when you read The Prince as a teenager and thought it was super cool but didn’t really grasp the fact that it is in the most part a satire which actively sabotages itself. Not being able to grasp this makes the main protagonist feel very shallow.
In fact this shallowness pervades the novels. A lot of the most interesting stuff revolves around the rebuilding and later development of the kingdom and the world around it. Unfortunately it comes across as a bit of a mixed bag. I will say that of the various “I use my amazing modern knowledge to shake things up” Isekai out there this one has some of the more believable progression. The real problem I feel is the extremely shaky foundations its built on. In short the society in the world makes no sense. While the book addresses the mixed technology with “magic” it fails to address more fundamental issues about how society functions.
Its knowledge of feudalism and medieval Europe, which the kingdom is largely based on, feels like it came from pop culture rather than any real research. It feels like the kind of fairly shallow fantasy kingdom you would see in an RPG or your standard fantasy novel. Which is generally fine because they are there as a backdrop so a bit of verisimilitude goes a long way. But when you are focusing on that society and how it changes then you should really do a better job in designing it. From the get go the protagonist is super busy with paperwork. Literally morning to night, even using his magic power to split his consciousness so he can do the paperwork of five people. So clearly the kingdom has a huge bureaucracy. But later we discover that it has a very low literacy rate. So where are all these bureaucrats coming from? In fact how useful is a giant paper based bureaucracy in a largely illiterate society? Better yet, where the fuck are they getting all this paper from? The social structures are also problematic, being an odd mix of feudalism with renaissance level economies and so on.
None of these are necessarily problems on their own but they all feel disconnected. They work for their time in the spotlight but fall apart when thought about as a whole. The novels are full of bits where while reading you might enjoy it and think, oh that cool, but upon reflection it feels like the author just threw it in because they thought it was cool. Which I’d say is exactly what happened. Actually that makes me think. There are very few moments in the novels where you think “Oh that’s clever.” despite a lot of the characters being geniuses. I think that is in part due to the writing style which often rushes to “spoil” those cool moments and then fill them back in with an expository flashback.
That’s my main problem’s with the series covered I think. I’m not a huge fan of the relationship stuff. By book seven the protagonist is up to five fiances. The cultures are all polygamous, for both sexes, based on power. By and large the relationship stuff isnt particularly prurient, the sex fades to black and his first fiance is actually pregnant. It just seems to waste a lot of time. Which is something of a problem with the novels I suppose. Admittedly exacerbated by reading them in a block but seeing the same descriptions of some stuff copy and pasted from book to book is a bit wearing.
I also didn’t like the “twist” in book six but I’ll hold of judgement till I know more. Oh and the author patting themselves on the back in the afterword gets wearisome.
So, to sum things up. The books deliver what you would expect from a light novel, pleasant entertainment. I am a bit disappointed that the kingdom building and societal reshaping aren’t “deeper” but they are still fun. I like the majority of each book I read and the writing definitely improves. I’ll keep buying the series to find out what happens so I suppose at the end of the day you can’t fault a series if it’s keeping you both entertained and invested.