If the category of “light novel” is new to you — you are definitely not alone. Before we get into recommendations, I’m going to break it down a little for you before we get into my recommendations for Japanese light novels.
You’ve most likely heard of manga, so let’s start there first. Light novels and manga are both forms of books from Japan that incorporate illustrations. If manga can be seen as Japanese graphic novels or similar to comic books, then light novels can be compared to young adult novels or novellas.
The main difference between light novels and western YA novels is the presence of illustrations throughout, as well as the overall story, which a majority of the time, is divided into multiple volumes of the novel. Although, there are also stories with only one volume — these are called “one-shots.”
Light novels frequently are the basis for anime or manga versions. The first light novel can be traced to 1970s Japan, when it’s believed the first light novels originated. But it was the publication of SLAYERS in 1989 by Hajime Kanazki that really brought the popularity of light novels to new heights.
So, whether you just learned what light novels are or you’ve been interested in diving in, this list is for you. There’s a mix of oldies but goodies and newer releases, as well as a mix of one-shots and multiple volume stories.
One-Shot Japanese Light Novels
Calling You by Otsuichi and Tsuzuki Setsuri
This supernatural light novel is an anthology of three short stories, “Calling You,” “Kizu/Kids,” and “Singing Flower.” We meet a girl who has created an imaginary cell phone and then one day, it actually rings; two children who bond over one’s special ability to heal; and a patient who finds a mysterious flower at the hospital. If you like heartfelt stories with a touch of mystery and some supernatural flair, this may be a good option for you.
Mirai by Mamoru Hosoda
In this drama/fantasy light novel, Little Kun becomes worried after the arrival of his younger sister that his parents won’t love him as much. But everything changes after he’s visited by a teenage girl who says that she’s his baby sister from the future. Fun fact: Hosoda is also a renown film director and was nominated at the Academy Awards in the Best Animated Feature Film category for the theatrical version of MIRAI.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Isekai by Sakka Keihan
A joint effort by the Sakka Keihan writing group, this is a bind-up of short stories from authors Carlo Zen, Natsuya Semikawa, Hoko Tsuda, Tappei Nagatsuki, Katsuie Shibata, and Hyuganatsu. This light novel takes a slightly more comedic approach, with each author taking turns to tell their interpretation of the shenanigans that can ensue from being transported to a different plane of existence.
Completed Japanese Light Novels Series
Library Wars by Kiiro Yumi and Hiro Arikawa
This one has a bit of a more dystopian feel. We’re in a future world where the government has created a society that dictates what books are appropriate for people to read and to be available to the public. But the libraries aren’t going down without a fight, and they form a military group to protect their book collections. Iku has dreamed of joining the Library Defense Force but she’s quickly learning the job might be harder than she originally thought.
The Twelve Kingdoms by Fuyumi Ono
For a light novel a little more on the romantic side, Yoko is an ordinary high-school student but her world is turned upside down by the arrival of Keiki. The beautiful blonde-haired boy tells her that they need to return to their kingdom — which is news to Yoko…the kingdom part, that is. Yoko lets herself get whisked away, but is quickly disheartened when she’s left alone in a mysterious place with only a magic sword for protection.
Toradora! by Yuyuko Takemiya and Zekkyo
If you’re in the mood for a high school romcom feeling, this is a great option! Ryuuji has come to terms that his stern gaze and aggressive features are not conducive to making friends or getting a date. Things seem to be changing for the good when he gets placed next to Minori, the girl he’s liked for forever — but then he crosses Taiga, the most feared girl in school…who just happens to be Minori’s BFF.
Gosick by Kazuki Sakuraba
Taking a more historical angle, this light novel takes place in 1924 in the fictional European country of Sauville. Kujo is a student at the local academy, where stories of urban legends spread like wildfire. For the most part, Kujo stays out of these conversations, but that’s until he learns about the ghost ship known as the Queen Berry. He brings along his friend, Victorique, to help solve these mysteries. Think Holmes-Watson type dynamic.
Moribito by Nahoko Uehashi
Balsa is a fearsome warrior who likes to remain nomadic but has to immediately put down roots when she rescues a boy from drowning. She learns that she is now bound to protect the boy, who turns out to be a prince, in his quest to deliver priceless artifact. This is the story of their adventures as they travel across Yogo and learn more abut the legend behind the priceless item he carries.
Ongoing Japanese Light Novels Series
Goblin Slayer by Kumo Kagyu and Noboru Kannatuki
In this ongoing dark fantasy light novel, our story starts with Priestess, a young girl who is setting off on her first adventure mission. When her camp is attacked by goblins, she watches in horror as they are killed in various ways. She is instead saved by the titular Goblin Slayer who (yup) has an obsessive personal mission to slay all the goblins after his village is destroyed by them.
(CW here for general violence and sexual violence/rape)
If you’re wondering what exactly this light novel could be about, it’s a literal interpretation of the title. Mikami is in his late 30s when he unexpectedly dies at the hands of a robber. When he wakes, he finds himself reincarnated in a fantasy realm…you guessed it, as a slime monster. Formerly bored with his life and mundane existence, Mikami must now acclimate to his new form and try to make the best out of it.
The Magic In this Other World is Too Far Behind! by Gamei Hitsuji
I love how this book takes a popular fantasy trope and turns it on its head. When Suimei and two of his friends are transported to another world, they are shocked when they learn that their powers were actually stronger back in the world they left. Now they are forced to deal with the urge to become superheroes when they have less than super powers.
Is it Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? by Fujino Omori and Suzuheto Yasuda
Bell Cranel is a warrior in search of becoming a hero and in a land where those in search of fame and fortune can fight for their lives in a massive labyrinth known as the Dungeon, he knows what he needs to do. Bell is also doesn’t want to go through this adventure alone, no, he’s determined to pick up girls while in this deadly maze. Or maybe, they’re trying to attract him?
More Japanese light novel recs from Book Riot: