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Byrthnoth

A Novel kind of Bentertainment

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I apologize for the misleading title, but lately I've been reading novels online. Specifically, I've been reading translations of web novels from Korea/China, which has apparently become a thing people do now.

These translated web novels are pretty different from almost any kind of book I’ve come across. They rigorously stick to the bare bones heroic journey. The authors have no apparent goals beyond telling the story (e.g. they aren’t telling the story to make a point about society). Characterization happens through actions and interactions rather than description. The stories are designed to be essentially unending, so the main journey can take forty books.

I’d argue the average English-language YA fiction is better designed and edited, but they need to wrap up the journey in ~700 pages or less. These translated novels don’t have that limitation. Combine that open-endedness with their penchant for action / scorn of description and you end up with a lot more plot in each story. That’s not to say these stories are necessarily faster progressing than an American novel, but it’s a more action-packed journey. Like, the entire Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon movie could probably be as few as 15 chapters in a web novel… or it could be 100 chapters, depending how much they like narrating fights.


Since discovering this novel form of dorky media, I have sampled several novels. Some are good; most are tolerable; all are free. There are many different possible ways to group them, but I prefer to lump them into two categories:
  • Stories comparable to DBZ (Xianxia / Wuxia)
  • Stories centered around VRMMOs
Before we go too much further, I’m going to acknowledge some common problems with these stories, so you don’t waste your time if any of these are major turn-offs for you.

These novels rely on web viewership on a chapter-by-chapter basis to make a profit. This creates two immediate problems. First, the authors can’t do things that will discourage readers. This limitation is similar to American sitcoms, where there has to be a resolution every one or two episodes to keep people happy and not feeling emotionally overextended. These novels strive to never leave the reader with a really bad taste at the end of the chapter, and thus all the main characters have strong plot armor. It’s rare for the main character to lose a fight or fail to achieve a goal. It can feel like they’re both invincible and infallible, but some authors conceal it better than others.

Second, the chapter-by-chapter nature of these stories encourages inoffensive filler chapters. Most commonly, these filler chapters center around tournaments. Remember Dragon Ball Z? These stories sometimes do the same thing, where you’ll go two chapters and still be on the same fight or ten chapters and still be in the same tournament. Fights rarely advance the plot or improve your understanding of important characters, so even if their descriptions aren’t outright boring or offensive they still obstruct the progression of the story. It is filler, but at least it is action.



Another way for these novels to make a profit is if they happen to be adapted into another media (manga, TV, movies, etc.) Some of these stories obviously write with such an outcome in mind and read more like author’s notes for future adaptations than a novel, which is really unfortunate because none of the web novel adaptations I have seen are worth a shit. I find that Japanese web novels are particularly guilty of this, to the extent where they’re almost unreadable because half the words translate to “clumsy maid falling down” sound effects. It’s like they’re writing about watching an anime adaptation of a novel set in a fantasy world. On that note, I don’t think I’ve read a single Japanese web novel that I could recommend.


My last two critiques are more critiques of the target demographic than critiques of the actual writing. First, some of these novels have characters so one dimensional that I’m pretty sure they were borrowed from Lineland. I’m sure some of the subtleties of the prose are lost in translation, but this is such a consistent problem that I attribute it more to a cultural tolerance for purely archetypical characters than a lack of skill on the part of the author or translator. This is an issue for me, because I don’t care about what the characters are doing if I don’t care about the characters.



The final issue is the rampant sexism present in almost every story. Most (all?) of these stories are unambiguously sexist. When women aren’t being treated as objects, they’re being protected by the men and dreaming of getting married. The MCs are male in every translated web novel I’ve found. You could argue that it’s a product of the setting (typically medieval) or the target market for the stories (single asian men), but the bottom line is that notable female characters are few and far between. If you want something less medieval, yet still free, translated, and online, google “Tower of God.”

If you’re still interested, then without further ado, here are the stories:




DBZ stories ("Xianxia"/"Wuxia")


This class of stories focus on martial arts with energy attacks and have a tiered power system (somewhat comparable to Super Saiyan 1, 1.5, 2, 3, whatever, but generally with more sublayers). Typical plot progression for one of these stories will be something like this:
  • Main Character (MC) is born/reincarnated
  • MC finds out they're either awesome or horrible at martial arts
    • If they are horrible, it is inevitable that they'll become awesome after they fix whatever is wrong
  • The hero's journey, wash, rinse, repeat, etc.
  • Power levels spiral upwards and they continue finding new adversaries


Examples:

Coiling Dragon (~650 chapters translated) avoids becoming intolerably repetitive, despite the massive chapter count, by minimizing battle narration. It has been a foregone conclusion that the MC will win every fight for so long that they almost don’t bother explaining how he won anymore. Thus, the chapters are mostly actual plot development and characterization. The author also avoids introducing too large a cast of important characters. If you want to kill a week, this is an ideal weapon.


Against the Gods (152) falls into the “starts out weak” variant. MC is occasionally sadistic and overall pretty awesome. Characters are good. The only downside at the moment is the relatively low chapter count. I’d say it’s still probably worth getting in on the ground floor with this one. Might be my favorite at the moment.


Douluo Dalu (153) has a well developed world with emotionally simple characters. It’s generally pretty solid. It suffers a bit from the tournament narration trap, and you could condemn the emotional simplicity of the characters, but for some reason I enjoy it. There was also a recent set of badass chapters, which hasn’t hurt. Chapters are long.


Battle Through The Heavens (159) has an interesting cast of characters. I suspect it will be good eventually, but at the moment the hero has just begun his journey. I would recommend giving it another hundred chapters before touching it.


Shen Yin Wang Zuo (167) suffers from 1D characters and the tournament trap. I feel the simplicity of the characters (including the MC) was probably intentional and plot-motivated, but it’s still bothersome. Even though 167 chapters are out, the MC is just starting his journey. It’s not horrible, but it has just started. Overall, I’d let this one grow another hundred chapters before touching it.


Martial God Asura (397) has some issues. The MC has ridiculously strong plot armor, the characters are 1D, and it falls into the tournament trap a few times. At the same time, this story is kind of fun because the main character is just such a bastard. When he’s not bedding sisters, he’s wiping out entire clans and generally being a pompous ass. It’s still hard to overlook the problems with the story, and thus this story is translated at about the rate I want to read it.


Stellar Transformations (330?) has a pretty limited cast of characters, but it treats them well. As a disclaimer, I only read the first arc because I was getting tired of this type of story. I enjoyed the first arc well enough and the world building was progressing nicely, but I just didn’t want to continue the next rotation of the upward spiral. If I had read this earlier in my binge, it’s possible I would have kept reading.


Chaotic Sword God (116) is a pretty typical, low-tier entry into the genre. Apart from the MC, all the characters in the story could be completely described with one or two adjectives and a noun. The MC is also only just beginning his adventure, so it’s kind of hard to judge how this one will be. I’d give it a hundred more chapters and then check in.


I Shall Seal The Heavens (160) is probably my least favorite currently translated novel. The characters are either opaque or transparent and the MC has both strong plot armor and an uninspiring story. The main upside of this novel is that the translator absolutely cranks out the translations. Some people love this story, but I can't see why.




Virtual reality stories


These stories use virtual reality as a portal to fantasy environments and spend variable amounts of time on real world plotlines. The VR games all feature continuous worlds, player killing, and capless leveling systems. Except when inconvenient, NPC AI and the virtual reality are both perfect. These are basically just fantasy novels with leveling up, quests, loot, and the occasional RL break. There is no real set plot progression for the genre, but most of the stories have one overarching goal (often literally a quest) that is used to motivate a variety of other quests/activities.

Examples:

Legendary Moonlight Sculptor (255) is pretty fun, if you can get over all the Korean soap opera tropes he throws at you (or can’t recognize them). Even if not, give it a chance. This is probably my favorite novel out of all these. The MC is a bastard. Supporting characters have unique personalities. The chapters are long because it’s actually a novel. Recommended.


Ark (213) is Legendary Moonlight Sculptor’s less interesting twin brother. Really, almost exactly identical MC backstories, personalities, level/skill systems, even the summons are taken directly from LMS. It is also genuinely a novel, so the chapters are quite long. The upside is that this story will probably be completed before you can finish reading it (translation is nearing the end). I’m only about half way through it, myself, and it’s my entertainment source of last resort on the bus at the moment.


Zhan Long (343) does strange things with the RL/VR divide, and not in a good way. In a sentence, the MC is a super awesome ex-military badass who spiraled downwards to the point that he agreed to protect someone’s hot daughter at college (where he will also be enrolled), but they both spend almost all their time playing a VRMMORPG instead, except when he has to use his superpowers to kill weird hybrid fishmen in the reals. It tried to go too many directions at once and ended up without any compelling plot lines. I wouldn’t recommend reading it unless you feel the need to personally confirm that my summary sentence is true. I'm not even going to link it.


Shura’s Wrath (86) has a pretty awkward few opening chapters and then slowly narrates a bunch of fights to let you fully feel how “super stronk” the MC is. Setup is interesting, but slow, and the vast majority of chapters are just the MC killing things (tournament narration trap). Overall I enjoy how detailed the world-building is, but the content is lacking thus far. I am planning on checking back on this one in a hundred chapters to see what happened.


The King's Avatar (Quan Zhi Gao Shou) (120) doesn’t technically involve VR (it’s a keyboard and mouse game), but it still works with an online game and occasionally narrates from the perspective of the characters in game, which gives it the same perspective as the other VR games. In terms of the story, it strikes a more even balance between VR and RL. I catch up on this sometimes, but it's kind of "meh" for me.




Novels that don’t fit cleanly into the previous two categories :


The Alchemist God (45) is a crossover between the two defined categories. The prologue is a VRMMORPG novel, but then it segues into being a xianxia novel almost immediately. They took the interface of a VRMMORPG and put it on top of a xianxia novel. Kind of .hack-ish, but they don’t perseverate on the fact that the MC can’t return to reality. Anyway, at 45 chapters it’s hard to get a feel for it, but I’m hopeful.


Skyfire Avenue (62) is a europhilic novel about a mecha pilot who has to guard a rich girl by acting as a school teacher. Although it’s written by the Douluo Dalu guy, it doesn’t seem to have any kind of obvious training system and they waste a shitton of pages discussing the proper way to serve or consume european delicacies. I guess there might be a market for this kind of novel in China, but I’m not sure what to take from it. The writing is not particularly offensive and it’s free, so perhaps check back in a hundred chapters?




Summary :
There are plenty more novels being translated that are not listed here. /r/noveltranslations tends to find them, and they almost all have RSS or Atom feeds once you find ones that you like.

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