Light novel authors take note – Chugong’s style proves that you don’t have to infodump or over-explain your story’s world or magic/combat systems. The plot may be fairly familiar – a young Hunter nearly dies and reawakens with improved powers that function like he’s a player in an RPG – but the execution is really what makes this book stand out from the crowd. Chugong barely explains to us what “Hunters” are, how they function, or why they exist, only briefly mentions that Gates appeared roughly ten years before the story takes place and doesn’t expend unneeded energy on labored descriptions of how everything looks and works. Instead, they let the story do all of the talking, letting us know through the action of the plot why Jinwoo is different and how dungeons have reshaped the power structures of South Korea. The resulting novel is one in which light novel fans will find what they like but is substantially better written than the average similar book.
Admittedly, some of these differences may simply be stylistic variance between the way Japan and South Korea construct their fiction. Solo Leveling began life as a Korean web novel before being collected and printed by a publisher, and the fact that it followed a similar path to many Japanese light novels may not necessarily indicate other similarities. (This can be seen in American web novels or self-published books picked up by mainstream publishers as well. More is, perhaps dependent on a given country’s publishing and literary traditions than you might think.) But even with that potential caveat, it’s hard to deny that Solo Leveling‘s differences make it stand out in the field of translated fantasy content even as it uses a lot of the tropes of RPG-inspired fantasy fiction.
The story takes place in an alternate version of our world – there are cellphones, schools, taxis, and all of the countries as we know them are still around. The difference is that a decade before the story began, Gates began appearing at random. Although we aren’t explicitly told this, it seems that at the same time some people began to develop special abilities that allowed them to enter the so-called dungeons on the other side of the Gates, an experience known as “Awakening.” The awakened are now known as Hunters, and systems to manage them and the dungeons have sprung up. Since this is basically the world we live in, it therefore makes sense that those systems would be modeled after role-playing games, with stats, guilds, and other familiar features. The only difference is that if you die, there’s no respawn point.
Protagonist Jinwoo, however, is about to discover something very different. Jinwoo is a low-ranking Hunter, and E rank, and while he could find safer work, the pay for being even a low-level Hunter is better than, say, working at McDonald’s. Since his younger sister wants to go to medical school and his mother is hospitalized (Dad’s out of the picture), Jinwoo sticks with dungeon diving as the best way to support his family. It very nearly all comes to an end when a routine exploration turns up a “double dungeon” and the group elects to explore it. Things go horribly wrong and Jinwoo finds himself in the position of having to be the sacrifice that allows some of the others to escape. He’s on the verge of death when he suddenly hears a voice offer him the chance to become a “Player.” Not wanting to die, he accepts – and the next thing he knows, he’s somehow turned into a real-life RPG character, able to raise his level, improve his stats, and do many more things than any human should be able to.
While most of the book from that point out is about how Jinwoo learns to use his new skills while also trying to figure out why no one else seems to have had the same thing happen to them, the real question becomes what’s actually going on behind the metaphorical curtain. If Jinwoo is now a “player,” that implies that the world is in fact a game – and that in turn could mean that someone is controlling the board, if not the other “characters.” Were the Gates set up in order to find Players? If so, who does it benefit? The whole thing seems too suspicious to just be the work of a benevolent deity, and given that Jinwoo is required to complete “quests” that start out innocuous and later turn into him having to kill bad humans lest the system kill him, there’s definitely a sinister edge. Of course, we also see in this volume how humans are able to use being a Hunter or the entire dungeon system to their own advantage in insidious and nefarious ways, so another possibility is that Jinwoo becoming a Player is an attempt by someone to get things back on track. Either way, his new status is definitely something he should be more concerned about than he is.
Although we don’t get many answers and the book is mostly about Jinwoo learning to be an effective Player, it’s still an interesting read. Chugong seems to trust their readers to be able to read between the lines or at least to put the pieces together without overwriting, and that definitely helps the story to move more smoothly than it otherwise might. Jinwoo is really our only main character; although there are other named characters he interacts with, such as Jinho and his sister, the focus never really leaves him. Female characters aren’t particularly well written – the two who aren’t Jinwoo’s sister are clingy or frightening, which aren’t great stereotypes – but there’s still enough here to make this worth reading if you’re looking for a new fantasy series. Whatever game is being played should have an ending worth seeing.