One moment can change your world.
I first heard about Solo Leveling from a very exuberant fan of the manwha (that he was reading fan translations of through an online app) and after his repeated insistence that it was this legendary story that I absolutely had to experience I did in fact cave and read a fair bit of it online after which we had some interesting discussions around the protagonists progress throughout various parts of the series. However, I could never really get lost in the story. Largely because of the varying levels of quality available to read and because graphic novels just aren’t my preferred thing to read. I know I love the Natsume manga and there are a couple of others that I’ve really gotten into, but my preference is always for either watching an anime or reading a novel and alas this one wasn’t available in English.
Yes, colour me thrilled when I found I could pre-order volume 1 for delivery early 2021 and even more excited when it finally arrived in the mail. I loved the cover with its bleak and fairly minimalistic style and I was absolutely ready to dive into this story.
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For those that aren’t familiar Solo Leveling starts out as a typical zero to hero narrative with a low-ranked hunter, Jinwoo Sung, getting in over his head when a raid he’s a part of in a dungeon takes a turn for the terrifying. However, due to Jinwoo being a little bit observant, lucky, and pretty determined, he manages to save the lives of some of the other party members though this does in fact result in him being injured and finally left behind in the dungeon where it is expected he will meet a sticky end. Yet, as is the case with such protagonists, while he does experience some very real pain and terror in this situation, a last minute plot device offers him a new start and he is turned into a ‘player’, which then introduces a raft of game mechanics into Jinwoo’s life allowing him to essentially level up when the world he is living in essentially declares hunters to be fixed in rank after they awaken.
This works significantly better than a character who suddenly just gets a massive power boost for a number of reasons. Firstly, Jinwoo has to work for every level and skill he gains. While he can now work harder to gain strength (a path that didn’t exist to him before), it isn’t freely given and the rewards he receives are always commensurate with the danger he faces. Whether it is a party of treacherous hunters trying to kill him, an unexpected fight against a three headed dog, or an assassin trying to cover his tracks, Jinwoo has got to work hard and while the reader knows that the protagonist is realistically not going to get killed off, the story manages to make it seem like there’s real danger in each of these scenes, largely because Jinwoo remains a fairly cautious person who is well aware of his own limitations and definitely concerned about being able to continue living.
Secondly, because Jinwoo didn’t instantly get strong, it means that even though the initial incident was investigated, the change in Jinwoo was over-looked because he didn’t change in strength according to the tests done at the time of the examination. This means he doesn’t instantly come to everyone’s attention but rather has time to put his own plans into place and work on gaining strength in more or less secret throughout most of this first novel (though there’s definitely more than a handful of people starting to realise that he isn’t exactly just an E-Rank hunter anymore by the end).
Finally, this device is working because Jinwoo figures out throughout the messages he receives from the ‘system’ that there is some purpose behind him being given the ability to level up. This establishes an ongoing bit of mystery for the reader to anticipate some kind of revelation at a later date and considering Jinwoo gains nothing without paying for it (and some of the prices have already been pretty steep) you just have to wonder just what it is the system ultimately wants from him by granting him so much potential power.
Granted this isn’t exactly an original concept and weak characters gaining strength after being abandoned or betrayed has become a very common trope, but Solo Leveling manages to keep things feeling fresh, gives us a character we can genuinely get behind and generally creates a world that fuses modern day life with the fantasy of appearing dungeons and the bureaucracy of the government and associations that mange these threats. It isn’t perfect by any means but it certainly is an enjoyable piece of escapism.
For me, personally, I really like the protagonist here. He’s a very practical person who awakened as a weak hunter and probably would never have gone on a raid given the likely danger except that he has bills to pay for a sick mother and a sister he wants to put through school. Even when the first raid goes horrifically wrong and it is pretty clear he’s probably not going back alive he realises it will work out because the association will pay out the insurance money to his family so it won’t be for nothing.
I also like that while he acknowledges some of the other hunters did abandoned him initially he doesn’t become all vengeance consumed. Instead he becomes more cautious in dealing with others and a little bit more closed off – he certainly expects to get something back for his actions – but he isn’t on some quest to pay back someone or get back at the world for dealing him an unfair hand. His goals remain around being able to look after his family and getting stronger is simply his process for ensuring he is able to do that. It makes a refreshing change in this kind of story to see a character who isn’t forgiving of those who have stabbed him in the back but is also not tunnel focused on something that ends up being pretty petty.
Volume 1 covers an array of dungeons fights, we learn quite a bit about the leveling up system, and basically watch Jinwoo feel his way around his new powers. Side characters are introduced and we start getting a bit of a look at the guilds and the association but these are very much just setting up future plot points. If I had any real criticism it would be that the book just kind of stops. There’s no real sense that we’re at the end because there’s no particular climatic scenario or any kind of closure. Instead we get two further future plot points set up and then you just run out of pages to read.
I really enjoyed reading this story and basically devoured it in three sittings. Now I have to wait for the release of volume 2.
Cover Image: Solo Leveling Vol 1. Author. Chugong. Yen Press. 2021.
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