This is another light novel series I really wanted to read. I mean, LOOK at that cover art. Also, the description implies that it’s stuffed full of Shinto folklore, i.e. my kind of jam. For the love of Amaterasu, The Haunted Bookstore: Gateway to a Parallel Universe had better be a banger!
In The Haunted Bookstore, an ordinary woman named Kaori Muramoto lives in an extraordinary place: the spirit world. Despite the title, our titular haunted bookstore is an establishment within said spirit world; it’s not actually a gateway TO it. She lives there with a cranky old oni named Shinoname, and helps all sorts of people. But one day, a weird exorcist boy named Sumei appears, and ends up lodging with them.
The thing that makes this inherently appealing is the commitment to Japanese mythology. If you’re knowledgeable about this stuff, you’ll see some familiar faces. And if you’re an American who’s struggling to find accurate research material for it, then The Haunted Bookstore has you there as well.
Uuuugh, as much as I wanted to love this, I have to say “that’s about where the positives end”. Being a slice-of-life isekai, everyone and everything is super-grounded, and there’s never any reason to feel tension whatsoever. While this can be done well in certain (rare) cases, The Haunted Bookstore is one of those that “pretends” to have heightened tension with numerous action sequences that just aren’t exciting because, by nature of the subgenre, we KNOW that everything will have to turn out all fluffy in the end.
The book also does a slice-of-life isekai trope that I hate: arbitrarily trying to wax poetic. One example is a side story where Kaori looks after a pair of cicada spirits who have a similar situation to Hikoboshi and Orihime, but in the form of dying and reincarnating over and over again. It’s supposed to make you cry, but… they just come back, so what’s the point of the feels? The universal theme of the series is a big philosophical question of whether or not humans and yokai can coexist. They make a big deal about it, but you just need to look at real life to know that it’s a ham-fisted thing. In the context of actual Shinto, humans and yokai live together whether we like it or not. It could be brushed off as a creative liberty, but it’s not like yokai have completely cut themselves off from humans in The Haunted Bookstore; in fact, there are plenty that live in the real world just the same. Also, I’m gonna have the gall to criticize a Japanese person for being inaccurate, but… the author categorizes jorogumo as a type of tsukumogami, which I’m pretty darn sure is wrong, since those are limited to household objects, while jorogumo is a spider yokai.
The writing could also be better. For how enchanting the cover art looks, stuff is described with about as much heart as expected in a standard isekai; i.e. the bare minimum of what you could call a description. It’s a real shame, especially considering that this world is supposed to be the appeal of the whole darn series.
As usual with me, the characters are what I really can’t stand. They are all boring. While they have some semblance of personality quirks, the subdued nature of the series means that no one can really express themselves in a way that has oomph. Kaori is kind of tomboy-ish, but she’s also super special and entitled for no reason, given her ability to live in the spirit world. Suimei is a garden variety kuudere; by living with Kaori, he’s forced to experience feelings for the first time in his life. Shinoname is a grumpy old man and that’s about it.
The characters from Japanese mythology were also not very engaging. No matter what their personalities are in the actual legends, they are all equally as dull here. Also, there were no kami present whatsoever. I feel like it would’ve mixed things up, but nope.
What a disappointment. I shouldn’t have expected a straight-up masterpiece, but I at least expected something that wasn’t just as mediocre as a standard isekai, especially with the legitimately cool ideas at work here. It’s not the worst thing ever, so I’ll try to keep up with it. But to be honest, there isn’t much appeal with The Haunted Bookstore. At this stage, I wouldn’t even recommend it to a fellow weeb.