Japanese "Light Novels" are something I've been wanting to cover on this blog for quite some time. Essentially a cross between pulp fiction and YA, they've grown hugely popular in the last few years, and are starting to affect the western book market, especially in fantasy. Like LitRPGS? You can thank Sword Art Online and Log Horizon for that. Like Sufficiently Advanced Magic?
Recently, a show based on one of these Light Novels popped up, and has garnered both praise and controversy. Like the LN Goblin Slayer before it's become very popular very rapidly due to some of the initial backlash it's received. And since it's somewhat topical at the moment, I've decided to dive into Shield Hero to dissect both the good and bad of Light Novels, and what western writers can learn (and avoid) from them. After watching a couple episodes, I feel Shield Hero is one of the best series for dissecting the tropes and elements of Light Novels, and what western authors can gain from them.
If you want to read the book, you can get it on Amazon here. If like me, you plan on watching the show, you can do so legally on Crunchyroll. There are massive spoilers ahead, so unless you're okay with that, I recommend you check out the source material first (Crunchyroll is free but ad-supported).
For the sake of my more book-focused audience, I'll be staying away from any terms or anime-specific wording, and will treat this as if I were discussing a western fantasy book or story. The one exception to this rule is the term "Isekai," a LN genre where characters from Earth get transported to another (usually fantasy) world, often after dying and being reincarnated. The Chronicles of Narnia and Thomas Covenant series are kind of similar, but Isekai has its own tropes, such as the earth-heroes being reincarnated, or the world looking less like Middle-Earth and more like Dragon Quest.
Anyway, with that out of the way, let's get on to the episode's summary.
The story stars Naofumi Iwatari, a university student who spends his free time reading fantasy and LitRPG novels and playing video games. While he's not a shut-in, he's also a bit awkward and bookish, preferring to spend his time reading more than anything else. While looking for some new novels, he stumbles across a strange tome detailing the story of four Cardinal Heroes of legend. A hero of Sword, Spear, Bow and Shield. After thumbing past the Shield Hero's page, he's met with a blank space, and the book suddenly lights up and summons him to another world, Narnia-style.
Upon entering the new world, he's shocked to find three other young men who are just a surprised as he. The four are brought before the king, and informed that they are the new Cardinal Heroes of legend, summoned to defeat a great evil. Each one finds that they have a corresponding weapon, with Naofumi gaining the Shield. Strangely enough, it seems that every other Hero has a basic grasp of what's going on, save for Naofumi, and from the start, we sense that something's majorly off. Upon speaking in private to the other Heroes, Naofumi learns that the world they're in is similar to a video game the others have all played, where the Shield class is by far the worst. It's here that Naofumi begins to suspect the entire world is stacked against him. But hey, he's a Hero, right? Even if he's the crappiest protagonist, he's still a protagonist, just like in his LitRPGs...right?
As it turns out, reality isn't like a novel. When the time comes to assign party members to the Heroes, nobody wants to team up with the Shield Keeper. Having no offensive capabilities whatsoever (his magic shield literally prevents him using any other weapon), he's understandably pissed, and seemingly left to hang until a young, beautiful woman agrees to help him. This woman is Myne, an adventurer who at first glance, seems like a really sweet and helpful person. She teaches him about the new world, helps locate some good armor and weapons shops, and helps him farm experience points (while it IS a real world, RPG mechanics are essentially the "magic system"). Over time though, her intentions seem less and less innocent, and more predatory in nature. Myne goads him into buying expensive items for her, acts romantically interested in him, and assures him that he'll be a great hero, even when nobody else seems to care. After going to sleep in an inn however, Naofumi wakes up to find the place is evacuated, and all his items and clothes are gone.
After being brought before the King, Naofumi learns that Myne accused him of rape, the worst offense in the kingdom. Unable to argue his case before an entire kingdom that already suspects him (shield heroes have a bad reputation already), he's informed that he'll never have a normal life, and that all will discriminate against him until his death. Falling into a deep depression, Naofumi decides that if he's being cast as a villain, he might as well assume the role. Thus, begins to build a reputation as a dangerous man, threatening cheapskate shopkeepers and making people too afraid to bother him or refuse service. The show ends with him essentially going from a shy geek to a massive jackhole, utterly hated by society for a crime he didn't commit. Deep down though, there's still a part of him that wants to do good, that wants to help people, and as the show moves forward, we'll see which side of him wins out in the end.
Before I discuss what I like about the setting and this episode, I'd first like to address the show's controversy. There's two main things that caused outrage in some corners of social media, mainly the inciting incident with the false rape accusation, and the depiction of slavery in the show's fantasy world. Despite this, even a noted lefty anituber who sparked much of the controversy around Goblin Slayer said it was overblown. If it really was as bad as most people were saying, I'm sure he'd be joining in along with them. But after watching the show for myself...I honestly have to agree. It's not terrible. Like...it's really not.
Well, it's true that Naofumi's downfall is caused by a woman who lies about being raped. But far from being some r/incels condemnation of all women as some have insinuated, the show/book goes out of the way to show that she's an utterly psychotic and deranged individual. Without going into spoilers for the show, I'll say that there's a very clear line between responsible, capable and well-adjusted women, and this one person who happens to be seriously messed in the head. Watching her essentially prey on his ignorance and manipulate him honestly made Myne a really effective and creepy villain character. And again, if she were some stand-in for all women, the show probably would be terrible. But it's really not, and I'm not alone in that assessment.
The depiction of slavery is also something that on first brush, a sounds pretty skeevy. Like other things in the show however, context matters. Towards the end of the episode, Naofumi is approached by a slaver, who takes all the terrible accusations about him at face value and assumes he'll be a regular. Although he's initially disgusted, Naofumi realizes he has no party members, and eventually decides to buy a slave. However, he does so knowing that it's essentially the only way to free her (she's a sick, mistreated child), and (mild spoilers) is basically the first person in a while to treat her like an actual person. Normally in a scenario like this, the hero would spring into action, open up the cages and cause some slave riot, but Naofumi is basically a social leper at this point. Not only does he have no offensive capabilities, anything he'd do for the slaves would likely make them (mostly beastfolk or animal/human hybrids) even more shunned and ostracized in society by association. So he may not have been able to save them all, but in the end, he's at least able to save one from malnutrition and death. And it's made very apparent by episode 2 that saving is the key word here.
Now onto the stuff I liked about the world and setting. I'm not the biggest fan of LitRPG-style stories (Log Horizon is one exception), but I think it's pretty cool how the game mechanics are integrated into this world, a bit like a magic system. Ordinary people in the world are aware of abstract concepts like stats, levels, experience points and more. At the same time, death is permanent, and things like items and money still need to be carried physically. It's a strange concept, but the execution is admittedly kind of cool.
For me though, the coolest thing in the show is the way the weapons of legend work. By fighting monsters and discovering plants and various items, Naofumi can "feed" them to his shield. This allows it to take on new forms and abilities, such as a Leaf Shield when exposed to a special herb. This takes the form of a skill tree-esque "menu" that shows branching form paths for his weapon. While not at all realistic, the video gamey elements are still kind of cool, especially when Naofumi learns how to "exploit" the rules of the world. As the Shield Hero, he naturally has a high level of defense, meaning he can do thinks like let small monsters grab onto him, and use them as projectile weapons in a pinch. And honestly, nothing I say will do justice to seeing the real thing. It's pretty kickass.
There's also a really cool scene where all the heroes from earth meet up in a room to discuss their plans after being summoned. While I won't spoil what occurs in there, it's seriously, seriously cool, and shows there's more under the hood then generic fantasy fare. That said, if you're expecting this "other world" to be anything other than the stock Japanese fantasy game setting, then look elsewhere. Mistborn this is not. In the end though, that's not really the focus. The focus, much like a zombie or post-apocalypse film, is to show what ordinary people do in extraordinary situations. It's the human drama, not the magic system, politics or deep worldbuilding that's the focus. This is pretty par for the course for Light Novels...hence the name.
That said, I think there are elements that any fantasy writer can potentially crib, even in "crunchier" settings.
So this section here is where I'll put elements I feel western authors can learn from this popular series. And one thing this story's really good at is making sure the protagonist's utterly boned in the beginning. Truly good stories require character arcs and struggles, both internal and external. And even from this first episode, Naofumi deals with both. While you don't have to include elements as controversial as Shield Hero's, putting the character pysically or mentally at rock bottom creates that that drive in the reader to see how the protagonist makes it out in the end. Granted, that's not exclusive to Light Novels by any means, but it's worth a mention given how effective of a hook it is in this show. Don't be afraid to rip off your main character's head in the first chapter, throw it down a mountain, and then come up with some wild and crazy way for him to SOMEHOW make it out alive.
Another thing worth keeping in mind is the gamification of fantasy. Though this might seem like blasphemy to the Sanderson-style writer, RPG tropes in fantasy books are becoming more and more popular. And when you really sit down to think about it, it kind of makes sense. Back in the 60's and 70's, pulp fiction and Tolkien were basically it when it came to this genre. But now fantasy's exploded, and by far the most exposure people have with it is through video games. World of Warcraft, Kingdom Hearts, Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, Path of Exile, Guild Wars 2, and so on. Pretty much every one of these games has sold millions of copies, more than Malazan Book of the Fallen, Black Company, Elric, or any other series that's not Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter.
With that in mind, it's not surprising to see authors increasingly incorporate "video gamey" elements into their stories. Dungeons, "Classes", Adventuring Guilds, heck even "questing" a la Goblin Slayer. And given the recent renaissance that tabletop games have had among "casuals" thanks to Stranger Things and Critical Role, I'd say this is a trend to keep an eye on. This doesn't mean you need to go full LitRPG and include stats and levels for your characters, but there are minor things you can include to widen the appeal of a setting. For instance, the idea of gear progression can be used as a narrative device. The main character could start out with ratty clothes, and work his/her way towards epic sets of gear made to have a thematic connection to your story. It's a plot device literally as old as the Greeks (what is Herc's Nemian Lion cloak but a kickass armor drop from an epic boss?) but has an intrinsic appeal to gamers. Or you could have an explanation for why Guilds, Adventurers and such have an actual function in a more realistic world (maybe it's just a term mercenaries used to sound less scungy, or they're state-mandated pest control for trolls with a "heroic" title, etc).
How far you want to go with this is up to you, but it's worth mentioning. Because the fact of the matter is, these kind of books are selling. Shield Hero literally has a TV Show, it's that popular. And American writers are watching and adapting to the market.
My point isn't that your book needs to be like this, or that trends are to be blindly followed. They can however, be useful to understand. And before you poo-poo such things, may I remind you that Nicholas Eames' excellent Kings of the Wyld, while not directly inspired by LNs, contains many "gamey" elements (Final Fantasy was a direct inspiration), and is a critically acclaimed bestseller. And speaking of which...I'm in several SFF writing groups where both indies and trad authors/agents talk shop. And I can tell you for a fact that Kings has made waves, and agents are starting to look for cheery high fantasy stories with light, RPG-inspired elements. Heck, I even talked directly to an active professional in the publishing industry who confirmed directly to me that this is the case.
I didn't expect to get that deep into the Inside Baseball element of SFF writing when discussing this show of all things, but it's given me quite a lot to talk about, it seems. And there's a lot more I could get into, but I'll save those for other episodes. This post's gone on long enough as is.
But yeah. I'm enjoying this so far, so we'll see how long I want to continue this. It's possible it'll pull a Sword Art Online and disappoint me to the very core of my soul, but if that happens, Log Horizon's waiting for a watch-through. And boy does that series deserve one...