Light Novels With Shōjo Manga Energyby Kim Morrissy,
Last year, I wrote an article about light novels with shōnen manga energy. It's a bit belated, but here is a list of light novels that feel like they belong in a shōjo manga magazine. (In fact, some of their manga adaptations actually are published in shōjo magazines!)
It is worth noting that, as per the trend for English light novels in general, stories in a fantasy world setting far outnumber the high school ones. The otome game “villainess” genre is very popular, although I've tried not to represent too many of those titles here to give this list some variety. In general, these light novels are a good place to start if you're looking for female-driven fantasy adventures like Yona of the Dawn or fluffy romance stories in a fantasy world like Snow White with the Red Hair.
This might be my favorite light novel on this entire list because it's just so darned cute. The story revolves around a socially awkward witch who is tasked with making a love potion for her crush, a handsome knight. Although much of the early story is preoccupied with our heroine swooning over the guy, it very quickly becomes obvious that he's the no-nonsense type who is easily exasperated, which makes for an entertaining relationship dynamic.
The romance becomes much more heart-pounding when the heroine completes the love potion, which happens surprisingly early in the narrative. The world-building details contribute well to the conflict, making for a story that feels satisfying and complete in just one volume. There is a second volume, which is mostly just an extra-long after story than a proper sequel, but it's still worth reading for the adorable fluff.
Soon to receive an anime, Unnamed Memory is an elegantly written fantasy romance tale. It follows the story of a cursed prince named Oscar who seeks out a witch named Tinasha to solve his predicament of being unable to have children without the mother dying. His bright idea is to marry Tinasha because she would be strong enough to withstand his curse, and also because she is hot. Tinasha balks at this proposal but decides to spend a year with Oscar so that she can remove his curse through more conventional means.
Unnamed Memory is a slow burn of a romance, and the storytelling is also rather episodic. But the foreshadowing comes together eventually, and the individual stories reveal interesting facets of the world and characters. This reads less like a light novel and more like an old-school high fantasy novel, albeit with a greater emphasis on character drama and relationships. I highly recommend it if you're looking for light novels with a slightly different flavor, or just good writing and prose in general.
If you're a fan of the adorably awkward heroines in Bocchi the Rock! and Mobile Suit Gundam: The Witch From Mercury, then Silent Witch is the light novel for you. Monica is the biggest appeal of the book; she's so terrible at public speaking that she literally taught herself how to cast spells silently. The fun of the series is that, despite the protagonist being overpowered in her way, the story wastes no time throwing her entirely out of her comfort zone.
This is a fantasy academy story, but it's much more interested in comedy than Harry Potter or the wave of light novels it inspired. There are some mysteries sprinkled throughout the story, but the main reason to read this is to watch Monica get into scrapes through her social ineptitude and use her unique talents to scramble her way back out of them. It's also sweet and heartwarming, with an emphasis on female friendships. If you're nostalgic for fantasy children's books like The Worst Witch, this is a great read.
This one may have more of a “josei” flavor than a “shōjo” one, given that the heroine is unambiguously an adult dealing with adult problems. The first book opens with Dahlia having to deal with her fiancé ditching her right before they were about to get married. Normally, the emotional fallout would be the biggest point of attention, but this book delves right into the nitty gritty of dividing possessions and property. Dahlia is quickly established to be a level-headed and career-driven woman who enjoys a glass or two of wine after dinner. Truly an icon among female characters!
There is a romance in Dahlia in Bloom, but it's noticeably downplayed, feeling more like a comfortable friendship between mature adults than a courtship. If you're in the mood for a low-key sort of story where the characters act like real people you might know, then this is worth checking out.
Easily the most famous of the “villainess” light novels, My Next Life As a Villainess is also one of the funniest. The basic premise of the protagonist spontaneously realizing one day that she is the villainess in an otome game has been repeated many times since, but My Next Life As a Villiainess holds up well because it derives most of its charm from its endearingly dense protagonist.
This is more of a “shipping”-centric story than a romance-centric one. Although all the major characters fall for Catarina (spelled “Katarina” in the light novels), including the original heroine of the game, none of the ships receive much serious romantic progress. It's more of a light-hearted parody of shōjo manga and otome game clichés. The story does lose steam after the original plotline gets resolved, but if you were a fan of the anime, then the light novels are well worth picking up.
Book Girl is the oldest series on this list, but that doesn't mean it's not worth checking out today. If anything, its excessive melodrama remains addictive, much like how the new Fruits Basket anime needed no changes from the manga's original plot to sink its claws into modern audiences. The best thing about Book Girl is how it uses classic works of literature as motifs for its plots, but then takes them in wildly different directions; you are guaranteed to be flabbergasted by at least one new development in each book.
The plot revolves around a girl who literally eats books as her primary way of reading and enjoying them. Despite that strange character quirk, none of the stories in this series are supernatural. This is pure soap opera stuff, the kind of thing that doesn't make it to the pages of light novels very often but feels immaculately suited to the medium nonetheless. Recommended if you like your shōjo stories on the melodramatic side.
This one is a “villainess” story of sorts, but instead of the usual otome game setting, I Refuse to Be Your Enemy! is set in a strategy RPG that seems inspired by Fire Emblem. The “strategy” part honestly gives the RPG part of the setting more flavor than the usual Dragon Quest or DnD expires that populate light novels because it means that there's more emphasis on large-scale battles with lots of moving parts. In the context of a fantasy romance series, these elements give the plot a sense of urgency and add a feeling of narrative weight to the central relationship.
Not only is I Refuse to Be Your Enemy! a fairly plot-driven series, but it is also only six volumes long and comes to a satisfying conclusion. There are love triangles and complications for the main couple, but the story doesn't string you along just to stall for time. This is a good read if you're looking for a fantasy romance that takes the “fantasy” part of the setting seriously yet doesn't skimp on the romance either.
While not a shōjo itself, The Apothecary Diaries was massively popular and influential among female readers, inspiring a wave of shōjo-esque novels set in a fantasy version of historical China. Raven of the Inner Palace is one of them. Like The Apothecary Diaries, it's a mystery series first and foremost, but it has more of a supernatural bent, and there's a slightly stronger emphasis on romance subplots.
While I recommend anyone interested in Raven of the Inner Palace to also read The Apothecary Diaries, the former is a lot more than a copycat. The novels have a gentle, melancholy tone, with many of the individual tales focusing on themes of love and loss. The stories are told with a matter-of-fact tone, giving an understated power to the emotions. It's simply a well-written series featuring deeply human characters.
This series might have a horny-sounding premise, but it's a shōjo through and through. The heroine has powerful healing capabilities, but it has the unfortunate side effect of sexually arousing both herself and the target. All of this culminates in a very standard plot beat in light novels inspired by the “villainess” genre: the prince calls off his engagement with the main character.
This story is filled with positive messaging, from respecting a woman's sexual autonomy to acknowledging that romantic relationships are not the be-all and end-all. The heroine does get a new love interest who helps steer her life in a new direction, but the plot is more about her forming new friendships and thriving in her own right. The horny bits add a bit of spice to what is generally just a sweet and heartwarming story.
At first blush, My Happy Marriage appears to be a simple Cinderella story. The heroine is abused by her stepmother and half-sister until she finds solace in her Prince Charming (here a stern military man from a reputable family). My Happy Marriage delivers on the catharsis of a Cinderella narrative, but it stands out for how deeply it delves into Miyo's mindset as a survivor of abuse. Happy endings don't come easily to someone dealing with lifelong trauma, and this series does not skimp on conveying Miyo's negativity-drenched POV.
Because of its heavy themes, My Happy Marriage may not be an easy read for some people, but the title should give you a hint that there is a great deal of sweetness in the central romance to balance things out, and Miyo's agency as a person gets the respect it deserves. There are also some fantasy elements to add flavor to the narrative—it is set in an alternate version of Meiji Japan where supernatural forces abound. There is an anime coming out on Netflix this summer, so do give that a look as well if it interests you.
Disclosure: Kadokawa World Entertainment (KWE), a wholly owned subsidiary of Kadokawa Corporation, is the majority owner of Anime News Network, LLC. Yen Press, BookWalker Global, and J-Novel Club are subsidiaries of KWE.
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