Chugong's Solo Levelling
Here’s the rough premise of Solo Levelling. The world was all normal, but now dungeon gates open, and teams of hunters have to enter, clear the dungeon and kill its boss. This will ensure the gates close. If they don’t close it in a week, the dungeon monsters can escape. This is generally not a good thing.
Enter Sung Jinwoo. He’s one of the few people that manifest power (hunters are not ordinary citizens), but he is super weak. You don’t change your power ranking here, you find out your level (rank E, D, C, etc) and that’s it for life. After a great opening, Jinwoo gets the ability to gain experience and level up. He, and he alone, can now become stronger over time.
Fantastic. And for the first volume, we follow Jinwoo as he learns about this, gets loot, levels up, grinds dungeons, and turns from the weakest hunter into a powerhouse.
That’s the highlight of the series for sure.
As we go on, a large macro-plot is introduced about where the dungeons come from, other non-human entities from other realms, and a bunch of other things. Things go off the rails a bit with this because it never gets tied together properly, it never gets resolved properly, and the series ends with so many open questions, but time travel shenanigans essentially veto the entire plot. Not a good way to finish. But that’s thousands and thousands of pages in, so don’t worry about that for now.
So, I was drawn in by the wish-fulfilment and power fantasy, which it does very well.
What it doesn’t do well, is the writing.
Without a shadow of a doubt, out of all the books I have ever read, this one was the technically hardest to follow. There are plenty of weird (and perhaps cultural) writing quirks. Pauses are denoted by the dialogue of “…”, and if I ever read the phrase “X swallowed his dry saliva” one more time I’m going to scream. Translating stuff is hard work.
No, the real issue with this series is the constant, incessant, confusing, change in perspective. Generally, when we write limited third perspective, you are grounded in a single readers perspective. If you want to change that, you can do a section break, and make it obvious that you are now inhabiting the brain of a different character.
Solo Levelling does none of this. In a single three-sentence conversation, you might change perspective three times, and the inner thoughts of characters are presented in italics without a tag. I have never been so confused trying to figure out who is thinking what and whose perspective I am reading from because it literally changes with each sentence. Worse than this, by the end of the book the majority of these perspective changes are simply not needed, and only are added so we can jump into a secondary character’s perspective for the millionth time to think “Wow, Jinwoo is amazing, I shouldn’t underestimate him, he’s a great guy.”
After a thousand pages of this, it gets incredibly old.
On the note of secondary characters, they all only serve the purpose of making Jinwoo look good. You get invested in none of them, none of them make an impact to the story, none of them have emotional payoff.
Despite all this, I really did enjoy the first volume.
I guess I can overlook almost anything so long as there’s fun action sequences, people exploiting rules and stomping on monsters. Light-hearted fun, so long as you don’t try and take it seriously.