Many anime series' source material comes from manga, while a few like Code Geass are completely original. However, there's another medium regularly inspiring anime that continues to grow in popularity in the West: the light novel.
For those not in the know, light novels are very different from manga. They're essentially the same as regular books, but with single full-page images sparsely appearing throughout. Many current and classic anime -- from The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya to Bottom-Tier Character Tomozaki -- are originally derived from light novels. Let's take a look at five popular light novel series of varying genres that are enjoyable for newcomers of all ages.
The classic supernatural series widely credited as sparking the light novel's popularity in Japan, Kouhei Kadono's Boogiepop is a set of epic psychological thriller stories. When female students suddenly start disappearing from Shinyo Academy, most of their classmates believe they just ran away. But the truth is far more sinister -- and the supposedly fictional shinigami Boogiepop is somehow involved. As the stories continue, Boogiepop and many other characters must confront their true nature as the world around them comes into increasing peril from a mysterious otherworldly organization.
Originally published starting in 1998, the Boogiepop series has seen a resurgence in recent years, with the first six novels compiled into two English omnibus editions released in 2018 and 2019. A new version of the classic anime, titled Boogiepop & Others, also aired on Funimation in early 2019. For fans of the supernatural, horror, or a story that challenges the reader's mind, look no further than Boogiepop.
Spice & Wolf
Another widely loved light novel series (and anime) is the fantasy adventures of Spice & Wolf. The story follows traveling merchant Kraft Lawrence, a simple man learning his trade. He desires to settle down and run his own shop one day. That is until his life is turned upside down when he meets Holo, a wolf goddess with a teenage appearance but is actually over 600 years old. Holo had blessed the local town with good harvests for many years, but a few barren seasons left the townsfolk taking her for granted. Now, she desires to return to her homeland and see her family once again. Her traveling adventures with Lawrence spark many hijinks, clever schemes and conversations, and just maybe some romance.
The beloved anime only ran for two seasons, never fully adapting its original story. But fans and newcomers alike can enjoy Lawrence and Holo's tale from start to finish via Isuna Hasekura's set of 22 light novels (along with five spinoff novels titled Wolf & Parchment).
Sword Art Online: Progressive
One of the most popular (and debated) sci-fi/action-adventure anime of the 2010s and 20s, the original Sword Art Online follows protagonist Kazuto "Kirito" Kirigaya as he and 10,000 other players get trapped in the new VR game Sword Art Online. But this isn't a simple prank -- anyone who dies in the game also dies in real life. The series follows Kirito, fellow gamer Asuna Yuuki and their ever-growing cast of friends as they struggle to survive the game of death and enjoy many epic adventures beyond.
Sword Art Online: Progressive is a rewritten version of the "Aincrad" story arc from Reki Kawahara's original series. That arc was covered in just two novels -- and took criticism for feeling rushed in spots -- but Progressive spans six volumes so far and covers Kirito and Asuna's journey far more slowly and gradually as they advance through each individual floor of the game. In many readers' views, Progressive is the best way to begin with Sword Art Online.
A supernatural light novel series unmatched in terms of its wit, suspense, compelling storytelling, slapstick humor and pop culture references. Monogatari follows high school senior Koyomi Araragi as he's attacked by a vampire one night but survives, partially turning into a vampire himself. His newfound abilities bring him into contact with several female classmates and acquaintances as they deal with a host of yokai, ghosts, spirits and many other types of apparitions -- along with their own deep-lying personal troubles.
As of early 2021, the main series consists of a whopping 28 volumes, with the first 20 published in English via Vertical Press. The lengthy titles all contain the suffix -monogatari and aren't directly numbered, making it confusing to newcomers, but here's a guide to help with that.
The most recently published entry on this list, Asato Asato's military drama series 86-Eighty-Six almost defies the name light novel. An emotional story with an anime set to air in April 2021, 86-Eighty-Six follows two nations -- the Republic of San Magnolia and the Empire of Giad -- who have been at war for nine years. The Republic leaders told their citizens that the war has no casualties as it's being fought entirely by unmanned drones -- but that isn't true. In reality, these drones, called Juggernauts, are piloted by a race of people called the 86 who were discriminated against for their lineage and skin color and were sent to the battlefield to die.
A highly popular ongoing series, 86-Eighty-Six is a heavy story that deals in war, inner trauma, racism, corrupt politicians and teenagers who know nothing else but battle. Protagonist Shinei "Shin" Nouzen and his squad's new commander Vladilena "Lena" Milize never see each other face to face but fight together against impossible odds as they discover increasingly dark secrets about their home nation and the world around them.
All five of these light novel series are available physically via Barnes & Noble and Right Stuf Anime and are available physically or digitally through Amazon.