South Korea – Solo Leveling

You cannot visit East Asia and not read a light novel or web novel. I’m sorry you just can’t. Especially if the entire reason you’re visiting is to sample the local literature. It doesn’t matter if you only plan on visiting for a few hours. The stories contained in these novels will keep you indefinitely trapped in a fantastic world of magic, monsters, robots, guns, aliens, AI, advanced game systems, or anything else the author’s fevered imagination comes up with. In other words, we’re talking Asian pulp novels that go on forever (with the added bonus of no stereotypical Asian characters).

Light novels are the Japanese text-based cousins of Manga and Anime, and web novels are basically the same concept except they are written in South Korea and China. They are  serialized web stories that are very popular among teenagers and young adults who find them very easy to read thanks to the short paragraphs and simplified language. Also these novels often take hundreds of hours to read, which was definitely the case in Solo Leveling, a 270 chapter South Korean web-novel that took me around two weeks of power-reading to finish.

Job Requirements: Kill Monsters

“[Daily quest is now available]”

10 years ago, gates began opening up, monsters started invading, and humanity was threatened. However, with the gates came magic that was capable of awakening regular human beings and transforming them into Hunters, superpowered beings who could face the monsters on equal footing and kill them before they had a chance to emerge from the dungeons behind the gates.

Hunters are ranked from E to S. E level hunters are the weakest and are used mainly as cannon fodder and for clearing out low-level dungeons. S level hunters are superman level fighters who can easily take down giants or team up to kill a dragon. The S levels are also billionaires as they have first dibs on any loot found in the dungeons, and of course higher level dungeons give out more valuable loot. Seong Jin-Woo, our protagonist starts the story as a pathetic E level hunter.

Life has treated Jin-Woo pretty roughly. His dad abandoned him when he was a kid, his mom is in a magic-related coma at the hospital, and his only sister is studying to be a doctor, which means he’s got a lot of bills to pay. Fortunately, the Hunter’s association provides excellent medical coverage (even though the salary sucks) so it’s worth it for him to continue toughing it out, and hopefully not get killed. And then he survives a rare dual dungeon and is transformed into a “player”, capable of increasing his stats and levelling up.

Leveling up does not exist on Earth. Once a hunter’s power is awakened, they’re stuck with it for life, although rarely some hunters who manage to survive near-death experiences have a chance to reawaken their powers and become stronger, but this is rare. Jin-Woo’s new “player” status is a unique ability, which with time will enable him to surpass even the strongest S levels, assuming he survives.

The Game is Broken

“[Daily Quest: Preparations to become strong]

Press-up, 100 times: Incomplete (0/100)

Sit-up, 100 times: Incomplete (0/100)

Squat, 100 times: Incomplete (0/100)

Running, 10 km: Incomplete (0/10)

※Warning: Incompletion of Daily Quests will result in appropriate levels of punishment.”

This novel is basically a one character story. The protagonist is Seong Jin-Woo, and the overwhelming majority of the 270 chapters focus on how he gradually becomes stronger, until there is no one left who can beat him and then he gets to save the planet from the gates, which is good because his abilities are broken. 

As a player, Jin Woo has stats that he can increase daily by completing a quest, and also whenever he levels up. Also, he has access to a bunch of overpowered skills. There is no cap on stat points, which means that towards the end of the story Jin-Woo becomes capable of raising armies of several thousand soldiers all fanatically devoted to him and all capable of levelling up. All thanks to a very high intelligence stat. But that’s okay. The computer game is broken, and that’s what makes this story so addicting, but also so wearying.

The reason you’re going to want to read this web novel is for the action scenes, gratuitous violence and the levelling up. The fights with the monsters are truly awesome, and several times I felt an adrenaline rush as Jin-Woo’s character managed to improve his stats and levels. It was like playing an RPG computer game, except I was reading. The cutscenes however were annoyingly long, and unfortunately, there was no option to skip.

The monster killing and character advancement are the novel’s strong points, and only strong points. Everything else is a frustrating filler that detracted from these scenes. For example, there are many many side characters who are only relevant as an attempt to round out Jin-Woo, or for generating not particularly challenging social conflicts. When you’ve got 270 chapters (243 for the main story arc + 27 for bonus side stories), this filler material ends up becoming wearying.

Also, there is only so much levelling up that Jin-Woo can do before it basically becomes rinse and repeat. By the time I hit chapter 200, I was more than ready for the novel to be over already. However, I still had to plow through another thirty or so chapters before I got to the ultimate fight, and by that point I just wanted to be done. 

Other weaknesses are the translated English and fight noises. This novel was translated into English by fans, which means it’s okay, but also seriously in need of editing. Also in the fight scenes, there are frequent uses of: “Kuwahhk”, “Kweokh”, “Kwajeek”, which to my all-to Western ears sounded like frog croaks, and this kind of had a dampening effect (but maybe I’m just a cultural snob).

If you are an RPG gamer geek (I am), I strongly recommend giving this web novel a shot. Otherwise feel free to skip it. The novel has also been adapted into a web comic, which is actually very cool, but is also way too long.

The Omer today is grandeur in kindness. As far as kindness goes, Seong Jin-Woo is fundamentally a kind character who will do pretty much anything and everything for his friends, including applying excessive violence to their enemies, and that’s also where the grandeur comes in. It really is breathtaking seeing how far an underdog can advance, and what he manages to do with his way too broken powers. You will find yourself thinking “Wow” a lot while reading this book. It’s just a shame this feeling doesn’t manage to sustain itself until the end.


Solo Leveling

Author: Chugong

Publisher: D&C Media

Published: 2018-2019

Pages: 270 chapters (20 volumes)

Format reviewed: Digital