American publishers have been trying to market light novels to manga fans for close to a decade, with mixed results. Though Dark Horse’s Vampire Hunter D books have sold more than 300,000 units, few other companies can claim similar success with light novels. TOKYOPOP, for example, launched its Pop Fiction imprint in 2006 with several high-profile series, among them The Twelve Kingdoms and Trinity Blood, but poor sales doomed the line to obscurity; by the time TOKYOPOP announced that it would be shuttering its North American publishing operation, it had scrapped its Pop Fiction imprint and drastically curtailed its light novel production.
Part of the problem was logistics: light novels pose a unique problem for retailers, who must decide whether the books should be shelved with graphic novels — where manga fans are more likely to find them — or with science fiction and fantasy books — where a broader readership might discover them. And part of the problem was quality: many of the light novels TOKYOPOP published were poor-to-middling, rendered in flat, functional prose that conveyed little of the energy or imagination of the best manga TOKYOPOP licensed. There were some genuine stand-outs in the Pop Fiction catalog, however, among them Kino’s Journey, a wistful travelogue about a young woman who wanders the globe on a talking motorcycle; Welcome to the NHK, a rude, hilarious expose on Japan’s hikokimori subculture; and Gosick, an old-fashioned murder mystery that’s equal parts Arthur Conan Doyle and Scooby Doo.
Described as a “modern twist on Holmes and Watson,” Gosick adheres to a tried-and-true formula in which a cold but brilliant detective is paired with a sincere but slightly dim sidekick who’s always a few clues behind the audience. In the case of Gosick, the Holmes stand-in is Victorique, the resident eccentric at the Saint Marguerite Academy in Sauville (a fictional European country, just in case you were about to visit the Wikipedia), while the Watson surrogate is Kazuya Kujo, the school’s sole Japanese student. Victorique is a little less degenerate than Conan Doyle’s greatest creation, favoring a pipe over a glass of absinthe; nonetheless, she shares Holmes’s contempt for small minds, superstitions, and emotionally driven decision-making. Her reputation for deductive reasoning leads the nearby town’s pretty-boy inspector to seek her advice whenever there’s a murder – which, given the size and geographical remoteness of the town, occurs with rather alarming frequency.
In the course of investigating a fortune teller’s death, Victorique and Kazuya board the Queen Berry, a ship which supposedly sank ten years earlier with a cargo of murdered children. The two endure a night of extreme violence and seemingly supernatural events as they comb the ship for clues about the old woman’s past. These scenes play like Ten Little Indians crossed with Battle Royale: the ship’s other passengers visit horrific deaths on one another, usually with sharp objects or booby traps. Interspersed with the carnage – which, despite my description, is pretty tame – are numerous conversations in which Victorique patiently debunks the notion that the Queen Berry is haunted, culminating in the kind of “if it wasn’t for those meddling kids I would have had my revenge!” ending familiar to Scooby Doo fans.
What sets Gosick apart from most of the light novels I’ve read — admittedly, a small and unscientific sampling — is the prose. As Carlo Santos noted in his review of volume one, “we get real paragraphs and sentences, with a good mix of description, dialogue and action to keep the story moving” instead of the “clipped, telegraphic sentences” characteristic of the Code Geass and Full Metal Panic novels. To be sure, no one will confuse Gosick with the stark lyricism of Snow Country or the biting snarl of Kamikaze Girls, but the prose is adequate to the task at hand. Aside from a few fussy and oft-repeated details about the characters’ appearance, most of the description focuses on the setting and the elaborate death-traps aboard the Queen Berry, keeping the readers’ attention squarely focused on the mayhem.
The plot may disappoint some contemporary mystery buffs; if you’re an ardent fan of Alexander McCall Smith or Tony Hillerman, you may find Gosick‘s parlor-room denouement too pat and old-fashioned to be genuinely satisfying. Readers who enjoyed Case Closed, The Kindachi Case Files, and Higurashi When They Cry, however, will find Gosick‘s exaggerated characters, Baroque murders, and slick illustrations right in their wheelhouse.
This is an expanded version of a review that originally appeared at PopCultureShock on 4/8/08.
GOSISCK, VOL. 1 • STORY BY KAZUKI SAKURABA, ART BY HINAKO HIRATA • TOKYOPOP • 192 pp.
Derek Bown saysMay 6, 2011 at 12:02 am
A light novel with competent writing? Why I do believe I spot an aviary piglet. That’s actually the reason I stick away from light novels, I like to read books written by some of the best authors genre fiction in the west has to offer, and the most likely intern run translations put out by Tokyopop leave much to be desired. Even then, I really like the Full Metal Panic novels, or at least want to, since I like the anime. I have a friend who reviewed the Gosick anime, and he really seemed to like it, so I might get around to giving this one a shot. Maybe. I’m actually reading through the collected Sherlock Holmes right now, so I just might be in the mood for some more detectivery.
Also, do you suppose now that Tokyopop is shutting down that someone else will pick up the license for the light novels they’re dropping, or am I going to have to sincerely learn Japanese?
Katherine Dacey saysMay 6, 2011 at 10:32 am
I’m the same way: I’ll read almost anything in manga form, but I’m much pickier about prose.
As for license rescues, I think it depends on who owns the rights to the original property. Kodansha owns The Twelve Kingdoms, and I could see them trying to find an audience for the light novels; there’s certainly interest, thanks to the anime and the few volumes that were released here in the US. The Full Metal Panic novels are published by Fujimi Shobo, a company that specializes in gaming-oriented properties. Right now, Yen Press is the only US company actively publishing any Fujimi Shobo titles, so maybe that’s where FMP and Gosick (another Fujimi property) will end up, though Kurt Hassler has stated numerous times that Yen is very selective about license rescues.
LG saysMay 6, 2011 at 1:11 am
I was never quite sure whether all the light novels I read (not many, but I think I’m in the double digits) were badly translated or just badly written, although I suspect there were at least a couple good books among the light novels I read that were ruined by crappy translations. I’ll have to see if I can get this one via interlibrary loan.
Katherine Dacey saysMay 6, 2011 at 10:36 am
I’ve often wondered the same thing! It doesn’t help that many of the novels I’ve read were written almost entirely in dialogue, which can be a real bear to follow.
The best book translations I’ve seen are by VIZ; they hired great translators for Dragon Sword and Wind Child, Kamikaze Girls, Missin’, and the entire Haikasoru imprint. None of those titles I just listed are light novels, of course, but they all benefit from having smooth, idiomatic translations that give some sense of the author’s unique voice. Makes a big difference!
LG saysMay 6, 2011 at 10:41 pm
Ooh, I haven’t read any of those (actually, I’m not sure I’ve ever read any VIZ light novels, maybe just Tokyopop) – I’ll have to add those to my list. The number of things I want to read and watch just keeps growing…
Somehow, despite the clunky writing/translations, I’ve enjoyed the books in the Twelve Kingdoms series, although I admit that my enjoyment was greater when I read the books after seeing the anime. I also thought the first volume of Spice & Wolf was passable. I think, out of all the light novels I’ve read, the one with the smoothest writing seemed to be Chain Mail: Addicted to You by Hiroshi Ishizaki, although with that one you have to be okay with a plot where everything hinges upon someone being crazy.
Miriam saysMay 7, 2011 at 3:11 pm
I am really interested in reading this novel and have been for a long time, however even before Tokyopop announced it was shutting down, this book has been impossible to get at a reasonable price, since it’s out of print, and I dare say it will not be printed again. I’m annoyed I’ll never be able to read this in English (my Japanese knowledge is basically ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’) as I’ve read so great reviews on it. :/
LG saysMay 8, 2011 at 10:17 pm
If your library has ILL (interlibrary loan), try getting it that way – you wouldn’t own it, but at least you’d get to read it. That’s how I’m planning on trying to read this. You have a better chance of getting something through ILL if you can provide an ISBN or one or more OCLC numbers (also called Accession numbers). In this case, the best accession numbers to work off of appear to be: 226903021 (which is specifically for volume 1 and has 19 library holdings attached) and 185123485 (which is not specifically for volume 1, so the 23 libraries with their holdings attached may or may not have volume 1). Those holdings numbers aren’t high, but at least they’re not in the single digit range.
Miriam saysMay 9, 2011 at 1:27 pm
Thanks for telling me, and I would do that straight away, but I like in England and we don’t have ILL, especially not where I live. But thank you for providing me with the information :)
Katherine Dacey saysMay 9, 2011 at 4:53 pm
If you don’t have access to an ILL program, you can do ISBN searches that might help you track down an inexpensive copy.
I totally understand your frustration; I’ve been trying to complete the full run of Sanctuary, a VIZ title from the late 1990s, and the one volume I’m missing is retailing for $50-100.
LG saysMay 9, 2011 at 7:53 pm
Ouch, that would kill my main way of getting to read OOP books and manga.
lovelyduckie saysMay 9, 2011 at 3:47 pm
“Readers who enjoyed Case Closed, The Kindachi Case Files, and Higurashi When They Cry, however, will find Gosick‘s exaggerated characters, Baroque murders, and slick illustrations right in their wheelhouse”
I love all three a lot…I’m starting to think you’re targetting me lately with your posts to sell me stuff. So yes SOLD I’ll buy the light novel and start the anime! Also I REALLY enjoyed The Twelve Kingdoms light novels, it was muich bettter than the anime. I wanted to start the Kino’s Journey light novels but found them OOP by the time I tried to purchase them. I was sad to see both their releases interrupted. Although if I remember right didn’y Tokyopop release the Kino’s Journey light novels out of sequence? And this greatly displeased those in Japan who licensed the series to them?
Katherine Dacey saysMay 9, 2011 at 4:50 pm
I’m starting to think you’re targetting me lately with your posts to sell me stuff.
All part of the friendly service here at The Manga Critic!
As for Kino, I don’t know why TOKYOPOP pulled the plug on it. Here’s what the Wikipedia in all its collective wisdom has to say about the ill-fated English edition:
Here’s the full entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kino%27s_Journey.
Rena saysMay 15, 2011 at 7:45 pm
I’ve been watching the anime (where I think he might be a little smarter because he manages to get through an entire mystery with only limited help from Victorique). I’ve decided to play “spot the story” for most of the mysteries, and regard it as a pastiche. I really liked the characters and the story line of the anime. If I can find the book, I’ll have to check it out.
Christina saysAugust 3, 2011 at 2:33 pm
Hey, I see the light novels have pretty decent reviews, so I was thinking of buying them, since the manga volumes aren’t available in my country…Only question is – and sorry if it sounds dumb, never had anything to do with light novels in my life! – does it have drawings? Don’t get me wrong, I love prose. I do. But I want to learn more from the drawing, since I adored the anime. I could live without reading another take on the Queen Berry mystery.
Katherine Dacey saysAugust 3, 2011 at 5:16 pm
That’s not a silly question! The Gosick light novels have a sprinkling of illustrations; if you remember reading books like Wind in the Willows, the amount of illustration is roughly equivalent, with one or two full-page images per chapter. Art-wise, the illustrations in Gosick are so-so; if you can’t get your hands on the Japanese edition of the manga, you might be better off doing a Google image search for examples.
Hope this is helpful!
Christina saysAugust 4, 2011 at 1:18 pm
Thanks a thousand for the answer! I’ll wait then for the manga version to ever become available, since I’m more interested in the art. [: