Light novels are a huge and popular medium in Japan, and increasingly so in the West as well. The more good ones pour in, however, the harder it gets to sift through and find the best light novels to read. What you’ll find here is a selection of the best light novels currently available in English translation. Many of these are long-running series, and even more have exploded in popularity following a successful anime adaptation.
In fact, whether you’ve read any of these light novels or not, you’ll recognise the names of at least a few — such as KonoSuba and Re:ZERO — thanks to their popular anime adaptations. Before we dive into the list of best light novels, and just in case you’re wondering and unfamiliar, let’s ask and answer the question: what are light novels?
What is a light novel?
Put simply, a light novel (literally ライトノベル in Japanese) is a novel. But to meet the definition of light novel, it needs to have certain features.
A novel is typically defined as any work of prose over 30,000 words in length (roughly 100 pages). Anything shorter is often defined as a novella. Light novels usually come in at around 50,000 to 60,000 words, so they definitely are novels.
But what also defines a light novel is its target audience: teenagers and young adults. Light novels share a lot of themes, tropes, and style with the broader YA genre of literature. Another feature of light novels is that they are often serialised, rather than standalone works. Some of the best light novels go on for as long as some manga, spanning dozens of volumes.
However, because they’re breezy in tone and light on word count, they’re quick to get through (hence the name “light novel”). Reading ten volumes of a light novel isn’t the same as reading The Wheel of Time or A Song of Ice and Fire.
Another feature of light novels is that they feature art in a manga style. Usually, every few pages, there will be a full-page manga panel depicting the current scene. There aren’t hundreds of these, but usually a few per chapter. As already mentioned, the best light novels are also frequently adapted into both manga and anime. It’s easy to watch a popular anime series and never realise it was first a light novel series, and often then a manga as well.
A common trope with some of the best light novels is their comically long titles (especially if they’re of the isekai genre). The anime will then also share that title, and fans must find a way to shorten it (like shortening That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime to Tensei Slime, Tensura, or Slime).
The already mentioned KonoSuba is a shortening of God’s Blessing on This Wonderful World! (Kono Subarashii Sekai ni Shukufuku wo! or この素晴らしい世界に祝福を！).
So there’s your definition of a light novel. To recap:
- A word count of around 50,000 to 60,000 words (150-200 pages)
- Occasional manga-style illustrations throughout
- A middle grade or YA audience and style
- Multiple volumes in a series
- Often adapted into manga and/or anime
- Often very long titles, especially if they are isekai
The Best Light Novels to Read Right Now
With that definition out of the way, here are some of the best light novels to read right now. Of course, a few of these are isekai light novels, but many are not. All are popular and beloved light novels, whatever their genre.
The anime adaptation of 86 EIGHTY-SIX was one of the best anime of 2021, leading a lot of new fans in search of the original 86 EIGHTY-SIX light novel series, which is easily one of the best light novels ever penned.
If you’re unfamiliar with the anime or the light novel, 86 is set in a pseudo-dystopian world, in a country known as The Republic of San Magnolia. This country is divided into eighty-five human districts.
The titular 86 is the name given to the home district of an abused race of people: the Colorata. They are considered to be subhuman by the rest of the republic, which is made up entirely of a race known as the Alba.
For nine years, San Magnolia has been at war. The people believe that this war is being fought by autonomous machines called Juggernauts, and no human lives are being lost. It is soon revealed, however, that the Juggernauts are in fact piloted.
However, these pilots are still not considered human, since they are all from the eighty-sixth district.
One person, however — our protagonist, Lena Milizé — has spoken out about the monstrous treatment of the Colorata of 86.
As a member of the military, Lena is assigned as the overseer (or Handler) of a group of Colorata soldiers. This particular group are elite fighters, and Lena vows to get to know them on a human level, and to continue speaking out against the republic’s fascistic behaviour.
86 is one of the best light novels of recent years. A non-isekai series full of personal drama, political themes, smart social and political commentary, and a female lead who is well-written and multi-layered.
Having run from 2012 to 2015, and spanning a total of 25 volumes, Mushoku Tensei is one of the most influential isekai light novels to have ever existed.
The reason isekai looks the way it does today is because of this light novel series. Whether that’s a good or a bad thing is up to you. Either way, many agree that Mushoku Tensei is one of the best light novels of all time.
As its title states, this light novel series follows the fantasy reincarnation of a man who, in his previous life, was a jobless Japanese hikikomori in his thirties. We begin with him being cast out after failing to attend his parents’ funeral.
In a moment of clarity about his wasted life, our nameless NEET performs one good deed which leads to his death. From here, he is reincarnated into a fantasy world of knights and magic as Rudeus Greyrat.
While some isekai transport our protagonist into another world as though they have been teleported, Rudeus is quite literally reincarnated from scratch, but with his previous memories intact.
This light novel’s subtitle, 異世界行ったら本気だす (translated to “If I go to another world, I will get serious”) gives you an idea of the themes here. In his new life, our protagonist has been given an opportunity to do better — to be better — and he is going to try.
Rudeus, however, is not a likeable protagonist at first. He retains all of his previous perverted tendencies. But he is trying. This is a story about redemption, and that’s a long road.
With both a manga and an anime adaptation, That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime has proven to be one of the most popular isekai series’ of all time, and for very good reason.
Not all isekai is good (far from it) but Tensei Slime is an example of how to do isekai well, while still enjoying and revelling in the genre’s most notable tropes and features.
Tensei Slime begins with Satoru Mikami, a single and lonely but relatively content salaryman who is one day stabbed on the street by a random attacker. Before he knows what’s happening, Satoru finds himself reincarnated in a fantasy world as a slime.
Thanks to the Dragon Quest series of video games, the slime monster is a popular figure in Japanese media, and that’s exactly what Satoru has now become: a foot-tall wobbly blue blob of slime. Mostly cute and mostly useless.
Except for one feature: his Predator ability, while allows him to easily devour, absorb, and take on the skills and aesthetics of anything and anyone he comes across.
Overpowered protagonists are a tired and boring trope of lazy isekai stories, but here in That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime that feature is used to surprisingly clever effect.
Newly named Rimuru Tempest by the dragon Veldora Tempest — whom he frees, devours, and befriends — our protagonist then ventures out into the world to make friends and build his own society.
In terms of its worldbuilding, Tensei Slime is one of the best light novels to read. It does a wonderful job of playing off fantasy and isekai tropes to form something fresh and brilliantly well-plotted.
The world of this light novel is immaculately designed and it draws you in like few other light novels can.
I know it’s another isekai light novel but oh what a charming and warming one it is. Ascendance of a Bookworm (本好きの下剋上 or Honzuki no Gekokujou) is one of the best light novels for readers who want a good time.
It begins, as all good isekai light novels do, with a death. Our protagonist is college student and wannabe librarian Urano Motosu, who is crushed to death by a falling stack of books.
Reincarnated in the body of five-year-old Myne, a girl who lives in a medieval fantasy world of princes and paupers, all Urano (or, rather, Myne) wants to do is go back to reading.
In this world, however, books are only for members of society’s upper echelon. And so, using her skills and knowledge from her past life, Myne sets out on a journey of papermaking and bookbinding.
For bookworms like myself, fascinated by the history of the written word as well as the craft of making books, Ascendance of a Bookworm is like a soothing balm.
At times, this isekai light novel reads like edutainment, providing detailed information about bookbinding. But even then, it remains engaging and endearing through and through.
Ascendance of a Bookworm is a celebration of reading, perfect for those of us who thrive off literature.
As a side note, the anime adaptation of this light novel is a slow burn, but it retains the original’s charms and colourful tone.
Spice and Wolf is easily one of the best-known, best-regarded, and straight up best light novels ever written. A beloved classic at this point, and not an isekai.
Although it isn’t isekai, Spice and Wolf is still a fantasy light novel, but one that sets itself far apart by not being about knights and mages. Instead, it’s about a trader and a harvest goddess.
This is a premise that, as a fantasy fan, has intrigued me for a long, long time: writing a fantasy story that follows a more ordinary kind of character. A journalist, a postman, or an artist for example.
That’s more or less what you get here with the Spice and Wolf light novel series.
Spice and Wolf (狼と香辛料 or Ōkami to Kōshinryō) started all the way back in 2006 and opens with the travelling merchant Kraft Lawrence. Having apprenticed through his teen years, the 25-year-old is now a fully fledged trader.
The world-building begins right away as Lawrence briefs the reader on the town he’s headed to, as well as recent municipal shifts and also the spiritual traditions of this town. We get the impression that he’s a worldly man with a lot of associates.
In the town of Pasloe, there is a superstition surrounding the harvest and the local god of that harvest. Suddenly, however, that very god is asleep in the back of Lawrence’s cart.
Holo presents herself as a young girl with wolf ears and a tail, but she can also transform, werewolf-style, at will. As the world around her is changing, both spiritually and economically, Holo is at a crossroads, and so she barters a ride with Lawrence.
The relationship between these two, as well as the excellent fantasy world-building on display here, and the fact that this is not the tale of a noble knight or a chosen one, makes for a really fresh fantasy light novel series.
Tanya the Evil is, without a doubt, one of the smartest and most compelling, and therefore best light novel stories out there. A genuine must-read for fans of the isekai genre.
While most isekai manga and anime drop their protagonist into a traditional fantasy world (think swords and sorcery, and a setting inspired by Middle Ages Western Europe), Youjo Senki went a different route, and it’s this route that makes it so smart and so damn unique.
Beginning with a salaryman facing an unexpected death, our protagonist’s soul is quickly confronted by God, a being whom our protagonist does not believe in. As punishment, God (Being X) reincarnates our protagonist into the body of a young girl named Tanya.
Tanya is an orphan who lives in a world inspired by Imperial Germany circa 1920. If she is killed, she’ll be sent straight to hell for her sins. And so, she uses her savvy to gain a safe and tactical position within the Empire’s army, thus living up to the name Tanya the Evil.
Youjo Senki is a fantastically clever isekai light novel series, led by heavy moralistic themes that engage the reader consistently, volume after volume.
Overlord is another twist on the often predictable isekai trope. This is doubly impressive given how this light novel series started back in 2010, proving that it was very much ahead of its time.
Overlord begins in the future, with the servers of an advanced MMORPG known as YGGDRASIL about to be shut down. The last remaining guild decides to stay online until the end, but when the end comes the guild leader — Momonga — finds himself stuck in the game’s world.
As a powerful guild leader, with almost limitless power, Momonga is now trapped in an isekai prison; the twist being that he is the strongest thing in this world. To put it simply, Overlord is the ultimate in isekai power fantasies.
If you choose to pick up the Overlord light novels, you’ll find a series of books with beautiful cover illustrations but little else. This is an impressively-sized series of some of the best light novels you’ll ever read. The Overlord manga, on the other hand, has some really stellar artwork for you to enjoy.
Which one you choose simply depends on whether you prefer isekai manga or light novels. The novels feature more written detail, but a picture speaks a thousand words. Reader’s choice.
Otherside Picnic is one of the best light novels I’ve ever read. For me, at least, it blends many of my favourite genres and themes: science-fiction, surrealism, horror (or perhaps ‘terror’ is a better word), and queer relationships.
Our protagonists are Sorawo and Toriko, two young girls who travel through magical doorways into horror-inspired parallel worlds known as the Otherside. The horrors of these different worlds are inspired by infamous urban legends and internet creepypastas.
Sorawo meets Toriko after a near-death experience facing off against one of the monsters of the Otherside. From here on, the two adventure together, collecting artefacts and meeting other people in the Otherside; all the while their journey begins to twist them as individuals and tangle them together as a pair.
Amongst light novels, Otherside Picnic is something truly unique, and its attempts at blending genres and styles really pays off in a myriad of satisfying ways.
Kino’s Journey is another classic, and one of the absolute best light novel series ever written, beginning way back in 2000. Being a classic, it’s unsurprising that Kino’s Journey has seen multiple anime TV and film adaptations, as well as a manga.
The light novel’s titular protagonist is Kino, who, accompanied only by her talking bike Hermes, travels across a fantastical land. When she pauses to rest and explore a new area, Kino always spends exactly three days there.
She argues that this three-day rule because three days is always enough, but also admits that it’s because she has a fear of settling down. This is something that hit me, as a reader, particularly hard. I never stay in one place for long, either, and have lived in many different cities and countries.
I, and many other readers like myself, feel a kinship with Kino; her fears and her philosophy. Beyond that, there are also similarities to Spice and Wolf. This is a fantasy adventure that doesn’t hinge on war and the end of the world. This is about world-building, exploration, and introspection.
When the anime adaptation of Rascal Does Not Dream of Bunny Girl Senpai was released, it made an enormous splash with the anime, manga, and light novel community. And for good reason. It also made a lot of new fans sit up and pay attention to the source material.
Rascal Does Not Dream of Bunny Girl Senpai is one of the best light novels of recent memory. However, the less that’s said about it, the more impactful it’ll be for new readers.
This light novel series begins with a teenage boy,Sakuta Azusagawa, noticing a girl, dressed as a bunny, wandering through the library. Nobody else pays her any mind. In fact, they can’t see her at all. But he can. Why? Who is she?
I won’t answer those questions. This is a powerful slice-of-life light novel series that is best explored fresh. It asks us to consider and relate to the experiences of teenagers as they struggle through that tumultuous time of life called adolescence. It looks at loneliness in all its forms, many of which don’t even look like loneliness at first.
There’s a lot going on, thematically, with Rascal Does Not Dream of Bunny Girl Senpai, and it’s a light novel series seriously deserving of your time.
Shortened from the Japanese Kono Subarashii Sekai ni Shukufuku o, KonoSuba is an isekai light novel series which leans on, and extracts from, the tropes of isekai to make one of the best-laugh-out-loud series’ in light novel history.
Spanning multiple light novel series’ manga adaptations, and a popular isekai anime, KonoSuba is huge. In fact, it’s likely to have been many readers’/viewers’ first isekai experience, which is weird given its status as a parody of the genre.
KonoSuba, one of the most iconic and best light novels in the isekai and comedy genres, follows Kazuma Sato, a boy from modern Japan who dies and is reincarnated into a fantasy world. So far, so familiar.
What sets KonoSuba apart — and makes it such a successful isekai comedy series — is its central party of characters. In order to succeed in this fantasy isekai, Kazuma must forge a party, and what he chooses is three women, each stupid in her own way.
The first is Aqua, the goddess who reincarnated him in the first place, and whom he quickly outsmarts. The second is Megumin, a magician who can do little but make things explode spectacularly. The third is a masochistic crusader named Darkness.
Together, this band of adventurers make one hilarious party that bring some real fresh comedy to the isekai genre — comedy that toes the line between stupid fun and clever parody.
While it is another isekai light novel, what makes Re:Zero smarter, and also one of the very best light novels, is the way in which it plays with its own premise, rules, and the concept of isekai itself. Couple that with some really detailed world-building that rivals the best fantasy novels of our time.
Re:Zero is another isekai manga that features an unlikable loser protagonist in Natsuki Subaru, but this one presents its protagonist with more of a wink and a nod that lets the audience know: he will improve.
Subaru wakes up in a fantasy world built with complex interwoven politics, history, and lore. Very quickly, however, he is killed.
This moment reveals the unique crux of Re:Zero. Subaru is, for some mysterious reason, fated to restart after death, revived time and again several hours or days back in time, with the world as it was but his memories of that timeline still intact. It’s traumatising to say the least.
Classroom of the Elite is a high school drama of a different sort, set in school of the future called Tokyo Metropolitan Advanced Nurturing High School, a school in which students are awarded a lot of personal freedoms but are also set on the path to incredible success (provided they excel).
Our protagonist, Kiyotaka Ayanokouji, is smart but he has still wound up at the bottom of Class-D: the reject class. He’s an unassuming kid, but in his classroom he meets Suzune Horikita, a student eager to climb the ranks in order to arrive at the top: Class-A.
While Kiyotaka expected an ordinary, by-the-numbers school experience, his new friendships quickly shift his tracks entirely.
This is one of the big ones: the Monogatari (Story) series. Monogatari has had a profound impact on the world of light novels, and it began with its first arc: Bakemonogatari (Monster Story). Beginning back in 2005, the Monogatari series concluded in 2021 after 28 light novel volumes.
Bakemonogatari begins with Koyomi Araragi, a high-schooler who just spent a short stint as a vampire. But he shook it off with the help of a bizarre man who lives in an abandoned cram school.
From here, Koyomi soon crosses paths with a classmate of his: a girl named Hitagi who weighs almost nothing at all. He learns this about her when she falls down the stairs at school and right into his arms. And so he takes Hitagi to the man at the cram school in order to cure her of her oddity.
Bakemonogatari is a light novel series about the supernatural, and the people suffering with supernatural-related oddities. It’s a long one, but a great one.
This is another heavy hitter. One of the biggest and best light novels of all time. The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya was immortalised by legendary animation studio Kyoto Animation, but the original light novel (and its follow-up books) is also one of the original greats of the light novel genre.
The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya is a trippy story. Its title character is the wide-eyed Haruhi Suzumiya, a girl with reality-warping powers (though she doesn’t know so).
We begin with Kyon, a boy whom Suzumiya has wrangled into helping her set up a club (the SOS Brigade) with the goal of investigating supernatural and mysterious events (ghosts, monsters, UFOs, etc).
Soon enough, three new members join the club. Behind Suzumiya’s back, they reveal to Kyon the thruth: that they are actually there to keep an eye on Suzumiya. They know of her powers, and fear that she could use them to end/change the world forever.
And so, with Kyon’s help, our club must keep Suzumiya amused by giving her the adventure and excitement she is always craving.