If you told me five years ago that we’d have a thriving light novel market in North America, I would have looked at you with skepticism. I’m a long-time manga reader. I’ve watched publishers release some of the best light novels, and I’ve watched those same releases go out of print because the audience was not there.
But we’re in a different place today than we were in the early 2000s. The market can support those light novel releases. In fact, there’s a hungry audience for them. And because of that, the best light novels are now available for us to read in English.
Classic Light Novels
Light novels are a relatively young format. The category as we know it today emerged during the 1990s. Even the pulp novels that would later become known as proto light novels — like Vampire Hunter D — were published after 1975. By contrast, manga as we know it today took off after World War II. So when I say classic light novels, I mean in the context of the format.
Boogiepop by Kouhei Kadono
First published in the late 1990s, Boogiepop is the seminal light novel series. Its popularity kickstarted the entire category. Without Boogiepop, we wouldn’t have a North American light novel market today. Told via a nonlinear narrative, the series follows a supernatural spirit — a shinigami, to be precise — named Boogiepop that appears when the world is threatened. Most people think Boogiepop is nothing more than an urban legend. But he’s very real, and he’s returned.
Full Metal Panic by Shouji Gatoh
At its core, Full Metal Panic is the story of a boy who meets a girl. In this case, the boy is Sousuke, a member of an anti-terrorist military organization, and the girl is Kaname, who is being targeted by many different organizations for unknown reasons. Their meet-cute? Sousuke has been charged with protecting Kaname. The problem? Sousuke has only known the military life ever since he was a child, so joining civilian society proves quite challenging.
Slayers by Hajime Kanzaka
Anime fans of a certain age are probably familiar with the anime adaptation of this comedic fantasy. It was everywhere during the 1990s. The series revolves around Lina Inverse, a powerful teenaged sorceress who wields some of the most destructive magic in the world. Together with her companions — including OG himbo Gourry — she goes on a variety of adventures, ranging from the ridiculous to the potentially world-ending.
Strawberry Panic by Sakurako Kimino
Strawberry Panic was the first yuri light novel released in North America, and its anime adaptation is considered by many to be a staple of the genre. The series follows the students of three affiliated all-girls schools and their relationships. Some of these relationships are platonic and some of them are decidedly more than that.
The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya by Nagaru Tanigawa
High school student Haruhi Suzumiya loves supernatural phenomenon. Together with her friend and classmate Kyon, she starts a club that investigates mysterious events. The irony? The other members are supernatural figures. In fact, they joined the club to watch over Haruhi because she has some supernatural abilities herself. Too bad she’s not aware of it, because her powers can change reality itself.
Popular Ongoing Series
Despite the variety you’ll find in older series, most of the best light novels today are dominated by a single genre: isekai, in which the protagonist is transported to another world. There are some exceptions, but they’re outnumbered.
If you’ve watched anime during the last few years, you’ve probably heard of this series. It’s about a salaryman who dies during a stabbing and gets reincarnated in another world as — yes, you guessed it — a slime. Through a series of events, he befriends other monsters, and they form a kingdom. Of course, a kingdom of monsters attracts a lot of unwanted attention.
Ascendance of a Bookworm by Miya Kazuki
One of the best light novels to put a new spin on the isekai genre. It introduces us to Urano Mototsu, an avid reader who dies when a pile of books crushes her to death. Her dying wish is to be reborn in a world where she can read all the books she wants. The dream! We stan a dedicated bibliophile. Her wish is granted, but in her new world, books are rare and only available to the nobility. The injustice! So Urano sets out to change that.
The Saga of Tanya the Evil by Carlo Zen
When a coldhearted salaryman is killed by a disgruntled employee, he comes face to face with God. Alas, he’s an atheist and denies God’s existence to its face. As punishment, God reincarnates the salaryman as an orphan girl in a war-torn country. God probably intended the salaryman to repent and ask for divine aid. But as you can guess by the title, that is not what our protagonist does.
Prodigy Misato has difficulty making friends due to her genius abilities. When she dies while saving a child, she gets the chance to be reborn in another world. All she asks is that she be born average. She’s tired of being exceptional. Unfortunately, she wasn’t specific enough with her request. In this world, “average” takes into account the strongest being and the weakest being, human or not. And in this world, the strongest being is an ancient dragon. As a result, Misato — now known as Adele — is much stronger physically and magically than any other human. Oops.
Modern Classic Light Novels
Katanagatari by NISIOISIN
NISIOISIN is probably better known for his famous light novels in the Monogatari series, but that’s not to say his other works are obscure. Not by a longshot. NISIOISIN is arguably the most famous light novel author. Katanagatari follows a swordsman who fights barehanded and a young woman seeking twelve legendary weapons. Despite the series’ title, you might think those weapons are katana. They’re not. Not all of them anyway.
Spice and Wolf by Isuna Hasekura
Merchant Kraft Lawrence travels the land, peddling his wares in hopes of earning enough money to open a shop. One day, he finds a wolf goddess asleep in his cart. The goddess, Holo, asks to accompany Lawrence in exchange for helping him with his business aspirations. He accepts the deal but soon learns that traveling with a 600-year-old goddess comes with its own set of problems.
Newer Light Novels
The Saint’s Magic Power Is Omnipotent by Yuka Tachibana
Tired of reading light novels about dudes who isekai to another world and embark on a male power fantasy that somehow always involves them getting a harem? This series is for you. It features an office lady who gets summoned to another world as their savior — but another girl gets summoned alongside her. Their summoners prefer her cute, younger counterpart, so she opts to live her best cottagecore life instead. Except, as it turns out, she is the world’s sole savior.
The Apothecary Diaries by Natsu Hyuuga
Maomao worked as an apothecary and pharmacist in the red light district. Or she did until she was kidnapped and sold off into service to the imperial palace. There, she attracts the attention of the eunuch overseeing the rear palace — the home of the emperor’s concubines — and ends up working for him. But Maomao isn’t really a commoner who grew up in a brothel and the eunuch isn’t actually a eunuch either.
The Executioner and Her Way of Life by Mato Sato
In most isekai novels, we follow the person who transmigrates to another world. In this series, our heroine hails from the world people isekai to. And lots of people do isekai to this world. And like most people who isekai to other worlds, these travelers get new abilities when they arrive. But in the perspective of the world’s denizens, these transmigrators aren’t heroes or saviors. Their powers are destructive and terrifying. Enter our heroine. Who kills them.
I’m in Love with the Villainess by Inori
Our heroine used to be an average office worker but in a comment on late-stage capitalism, she literally works herself to death. Reborn as the heroine of her favorite dating sim, Rae Taylor decides she doesn’t want to follow any of the game’s traditional romance routes. She has no time for that heterosexual nonsense. Instead, Rae chooses to romance the game’s antagonist, Claire.
Otherside Picnic by Iori Miyazawa
Looking for something other than isekai? Try this sci-fi series about a pair of girls who explore the Otherside, parallel worlds that are connected to our world via portals. What’s so interesting about the Otherside? Internet urban legends and creepypasta come to life here.
Unnamed Memory by Kuji Furumiya
Prince Oscar bears a curse that leaves him unable to father children. A big problem when you’re royalty and expected to have heirs! So he seeks out a powerful witch named Tinasha, hoping she can break the curse. Tinasha agrees to spend one year studying the curse and finding a way to circumvent it. But Oscar soon thinks that maybe it’d be better to marry Tinasha herself. She’s powerful and she’s beautiful. But she’s also near-immortal — meaning she has more than her own fair share of secrets.
Culinary Chronicles of the Court Flower by Miri Mikawa
Princess Rimi has spent most of her life preparing food for a god’s altar. But because she is a princess, she gets sent to become the emperor’s latest concubine. In addition to dealing with culture shock, Rimi must cope with an emperor who hates her. Thankfully, she takes solace in preparing the food of her homeland and a scholar who she takes a forbidden interest in.
Romance of the Imperial Capital Kotogami by Yamori Mitibusa
This rare standalone novel takes place in an alternate Taisho era Japan. The major difference? The supernatural exists alongside humans, and yokai can get sealed into books. Akari couldn’t care less about these sealed yokai known as Kotogami. She certainly doesn’t want to become a Narrator — a person with the ability to summon Kotogami from the books that contain them — but when a rogue yokai destroys her apartment, she meets a Kotogami who wants her to become his Narrator.
Bond and Book by Mizuki Nomura
Mizuki Nomura is well-known for her previous series, Book Girl. Bond and Book has similar themes, so fans of that series will want to check this one out. It follows a boy who can hear the “voices” of books. One day, he encounters a children’s book that wants to return to a specific person. What can he do but help this book out?
I hope you found something that piqued your interest from this list of best light novels. 2021 saw the launch of some great ones! If you’re interested in more stories from East Asia, check out this list of best manga and this list of best manhwa.