Shinichi has spent the past year holed up in his room in his parents' place, doing nothing but playing games and reading manga. His parents are otaku themselves (his dad writes light novels and his mom used to be an artist for erotic games), but even they've had enough. They tell him he either needs to go back to school or get a job, or they'll wipe all his game accounts and his hard drive. Shinichi opts to go job hunting and stumbles across something that seems tailor made for him: a position at a company called Amutech. The job pays well, and the only requirement seems to be that applicants must be otaku.
When Shinichi suddenly wakes up in another world, he learns that there may be more to this job than he thought. A year ago, the Japanese government learned of a portal that had opened up in Aokigahara Forest. It led to another world, one with magic, elves, lizardpeople, and dragons. The Japanese government sees an opportunity to establish a foothold in this new world before any other governments in our world are even aware of it. It's initially difficult to find something in our world that's small enough to be brought through the portal and that the Eldant Empire would even want or understand, but it turns out that otaku culture may be the answer the government is looking for. They want Shinichi to spread otaku culture throughout the Eldant Empire. (Why didn't the hire someone who's actually in the business of marketing and distributing manga and anime, you ask? Well, supposedly they'd prefer someone like Shinichi, who's less likely to be missed, although I personally didn't buy that his parents wouldn't go looking for him after a while.)
Right, so this wasn't initially on my list of J-Novel Club titles to try while my membership is still active. The cover and description made it seem particularly geared towards a male audience, the sort that loves adorable maids who cutely stumble their way through their jobs, flashing their panties. I gave it a shot after seeing it mentioned in a forum post written by someone looking for light novel recommendations that would be more appealing to female audiences, or at least not actively unappealing to them. Supposedly, this was a surprisingly appealing series that got better as it became more serious.
The bulk of this book did not fill me with confidence. Shinichi was a stereotypical "nice guy" socially awkward otaku. There were lots of scenes that showed that he could act like a decent, non-slimy guy, but then something would happen and it was like a switch was flipped. He'd practically vibrate with excitement over being in the presence of an actual flesh-and-blood maid, or completely lose it because he was in the same room as a pair of large breasts (Shinichi kept saying they were Japanese F cup, US DD, but confusingly Minori's breasts in the illustrations were nowhere near that size).
The scene that irked me the most was when Shinichi was introduced to Empress Petralka an Eldant III. He'd been told to be as quiet and respectful as possible, but when he saw her this is what happened: "'IS THAT REALLY AN ARCHETYPAL LITTLE-GIRL CHARACTER?!' I shouted, jumping up and clenching both my fists." (63) The guy was an idiot who kept treating the world around him as though it were some kind of otaku paradise he'd been dropped into and could go all fanboy over without any consequences. He even viewed his interactions with others in terms of manga/anime tropes. The cute female characters wanted to be with him, so clearly some sort of love triangle/harem situation was brewing. When they started to be nicer and friendlier towards each other it was a possible sign of a yuri (f/f) relationship. When Counselor Garius, a handsome man with silver hair that went to his waist, showed signs of beginning to respect and maybe even like Shinichi, Shinichi's mind immediately jumped to "oh no, is he falling for me? because I don't swing that way."
I wouldn't mind all of this quite so much if there was more evidence that the author planned to subvert Shinichi's expectations and set him up as an unreliable narrator. Unfortunately, Petralka and Myusel's behavior around Shinichi really did look like the beginnings of a possible love triangle, and even Minori, Shinichi's bodyguard, seemed to think that it was possible that Garius was developing romantic feelings for him (although if Minori was really a fujoshi, her opinion couldn't necessarily be trusted either).
Things did take a more interesting turn in the last 15 or so pages, though. Shinichi viewed Petralka's apparent jealousy of Myusel (man, I hate that name, it makes me think of Mucinex) as something not really worth worrying too much about, and only started to become more concerned when Minori forced him to look at the situation as it actually was: Myusel, a half-elf, was discriminated against by the Eldant Empire's more dominant group, humans, and Petralka, the Eldant Empire's human Empress, very openly disliked her and was about to fire her. The likelihood that this would turn out well for Myusel was very low, no matter how much Shinichi liked her (in fact, him liking her seemed to make things worse). His inability to see the seriousness of the situation until it was almost too late could have left Myusel a homeless outcast, or even dead.
On the one hand, I had issues with the protagonist, and the stereotypical love triangle apparently brewing between him, the loli Empress Petralka, and the adorably clumsy and submissive Myusel irked me. And I really could have done without the passages on the appeal of breasts/chests of various sizes - the part where Shinichi tried to pacify Petralka, who was sensitive about her childlike appearance (she was actually 16), by going on and on about the appeal of flat chests/small breasts made my skin crawl. Petralka was an actual person Shinichi was talking to, not a character in one of his games, and he basically told her that her small chest was perfectly fine and attractive because, hey, lots of people are into lolicon. Man, I feel gross even just typing that.
On the other hand, I liked the author's focus on the practical aspects of spreading Japanese pop culture in a completely different world. Shinichi had to consider the issue of electricity - since the Eldant Empire didn't have any, his best bet was to put off anime and games for now and focus on print media. Language differences were also an issue. Special magic rings helped Shinichi understand spoken words and be understood, but those rings couldn't translate words on a page. Also, only nobles possessed them, and Shinichi wanted otaku culture to be available to all, not just the Eldant Empire nobility. Which then brought him up against the issue of this world's class system, and what the task the Japanese government had given him might accomplish on a wider scale, beyond getting a few real fantasy world humans and elves to love Spice & Wolf or whatever. The sociological aspects of this series could be really interesting.
But I'm going to need more than 20 or so pages of content directly focused on the practical aspects of Shinichi's job and a lot less "look at those boobs! look at that elf! wow, that girl over there is so moe!" for this series to really work for me. It also bugged me that most of the on-page action was devoted to the stuff I didn't like, while most of the more serious/practical issues stuff was relegated to the narrative (which gave the unfortunate impression that Shinichi was basing most of what he knew about the Eldant Empire on conjecture, overlaid upon what his vast knowledge of anime and manga told him about how a world like this should function).
Reviews for the second volume indicate that it's an improvement upon the first, and continues on with some of the series' more serious aspects. There's a possibility that I'll read on, but for now I think I'll check out another title on my list of J-Novel Club works to try.
Black and white illustrations, a few color illustrations, and a fairly lengthy translator's notes section. I really liked the translator's notes, which included a few Japanese cultural details I hadn't known about but realized I'd noticed in various anime and manga series over the years.
(Original review posted on A Library Girl's Familiar Diversions.)