Authors derive inspiration from the stories they enjoy themselves, and in our modern world, there's more to take inspiration from than ever before. Now that anime, manhawa, JRPGs and Chinese xianxia novels are becoming a more common source of entertainment worldwide, it perhaps shouldn't be unexpected that genres are hybridizing and incorporating influences from across mediums, countries and languages. It's not entirely a new thing, after all: The Matrix was famously inspired by Ghost in the Shell, and the author of My Hero Academia frequently pays homage to Star Wars in his work.
What is a more recent development is the emergence and rising popularity of the "progression fantasy" subgenre. Coined through conversations between the authors Andrew Rowe, Will Wight and Jess Richards, progression fantasy is notable for being a cousin to the LitRPG and Chinese xianxia fantasy subgenres, yet also being its own distinct entity in the world of literature.
Stories that fit into this subgenre can be described as those which focus on a character's journey to become stronger over time, with a measurable increase in their power and skills as they advance through the narrative. Progression fantasies don't just have characters becoming strong though -- they make it a centerpiece of the story, dedicating significant attention to training scenes, a power scaling system and figuratively "leveling up."
All of this makes it the perfect subgenre for anime fans. Power-scaling systems and characters going from zero to hero are staples in shonen anime, after all. You don't have to look any farther than Dragon Ball to find an example. So, for anyone out there searching for a new literary fix that still features much of what you love about anime, here are five standout books in the progression fantasy subgenre.
If you love anime tournament arcs, you're probably going to like Iron Prince. Written by Bryce O'Connor and Luke Chmilenko, the story is set centuries from now in a future where humanity has spread to the stars and colonized several solar systems. Reidon Ward has always dreamed of being able to compete in the Simulated Combat Tournaments -- where humans bonded to alien technology engage in fantastical combat -- but his rare disease and lack of training funds make that dream a long shot. His perseverance gets him accepted into the most prestigious training academy in the Astra star system, however, and with enough determination and grit, he may just have a chance at clawing his way to the top.
One of the highlights of Iron Prince is that, unlike many shonen series, its supporting heroines Aria and Viv get their own time in the spotlight to prove their competency. In fact, it's one of the rare stories set in an elite school where it's believable that all the characters were admitted in the first place. It's the only book in the series so far, but it's off to a promising start.
Into the Labyrinth
Into the Labyrinth, the first novel in the Mage Errant series by John Bierce, tells the story of Hugh of Emblin. A lonely boy at the Academy of Skyhold who struggles to cast even the most basic spells, for Hugh, becoming a formidable spellcaster seems impossible. But when a strange mage sees something in Hugh that he doesn't even see in himself, he's selected as an apprentice and given his first real chance to excel. He's got a lot of catching up to do, however, if he's going to survive his final test of the year at Skyhold: venturing into the depths of the labyrinth beneath it.
This novel is the only one on the list commonly classified as YA, with many of its usual pros and cons. What makes it unique is its deep magic system, as well as its emphasis on skill and knowledge rather than the strictly delineated power tiers common in progression fantasies. Every mage has specific affinities that decide what type of magic they can use, but rather than just the usual elemental powers, there are literally thousands of affinities out there. Hugh mastering his magical strengths and overcoming his weaknesses is key for him to make it through both his classes and the ancient dangers of his world.
Mother of Learning
Zorian Kazinski isn't the typical teenager -- he's always been more interested in studying than wasting his time with friends. Yet despite all the hard work he puts in at the Royal Academy of Magical Arts, he's never been able to escape the shadow of his famous brother Daimen. Those family troubles suddenly become the least of his concerns when he's killed on the night of Cyoria's summer festival. Awakening a month in the past, he finds himself trapped in the midst of a mysterious time loop that wasn't created for his benefit. It's learn or die for Zorian, because when the time loop runs out, it won't just be his life hanging in the balance.
Mother of Learning is written by Domagoj Kurmaic and has the rare distinction of being the only complete tale on this list, with the rest being the first installments in ongoing series. Its puzzle elements make it an intriguing read, as Zorian lives out each loop differently to try to surpass his peers and uncover a deadly conspiracy hidden in the shadows of Cyoria.
Sufficiently Advanced Magic
Years ago, Corin Cadence's brother vanished into the deadly Serpent Spire. Those that pass its trial of judgment earn an attunement, a sacred magical power gifted from the goddess, while those legendary few who make it to the very top are whispered to be granted a boon of their choosing. Corin is determined to uncover the fate of his brother and get him back even if it means climbing into the heavens. But first, he's got to get stronger -- and make it through the Serpent Spire's trial himself.
The wondrous spire setting of Andrew Rowe's Sufficiently Advanced Magic is what makes this novel a compelling read, as is the unique voice of its protagonist Corin. He's a nuanced, clever yet flawed character who is easy to root for, though unfortunately the rest of the cast (particularly the lead heroine Sera) can feel a bit flat in comparison. All the same, it's fun to see Corin slowly come into his own while using every trick in the book to get an advantage over his adversaries.
Unsouled is the first novel in the Cradle series by Will Wight. Set in a world full of sacred artists who can use their souls to channel the natural forces of the world, Lindon is ostracized by his clan for lacking a natural affinity for any of their magical Paths. This doesn't deter Lindon, however. Determined to create a Path of his own if no one in his clan will teach him the traditional ones, he leaves his homeland in pursuit of power. It's then he discovers that the world is much bigger than he ever imagined.
Though the series features a colorful world and page-turning battles, its true strength lies in its cast. Lindon may be walking a path to power, but he isn't walking it alone -- his companions such as Yerin and Eithan are intriguing characters in their own right, and it's refreshing to see the supporting cast not left in the dust by the protagonist's leaps in power. (Series like My Hero Academia and Solo Leveling could really learn from this.) Best of all, it's always a delight to see reaction point-of-view scenes from shocked allies and indignant enemies whenever Lindon and his companions pull off their latest wild stunt.