Although I have read a fair few Japanese light novels at this point, Solo Leveling is the first officially translated Korean novel I have ever read. I had heard much praise being thrown its way, so by the time I put down the fourth volume and felt nothing but a sense of relief that it was done, I was left feeling severely disappointed.
Now, although that was a very strong statement to open with, I'll be clear and say that I do believe Solo Leveling does have its share of elements that are good – some great, even. However, for every good part there's at least one of those elements which makes the novel feel like it's been written by a complete amateur.
One of the greater glaring issues has to do with how the novel presents the "Hunters." In story, Hunters are a sub-section of the populace which are the equivalent to everyday super men, walking openly amongst the regular citizens. This creates an odd feeling while reading since one can't help but wonder just how in the world civilization hasn't just broken down already. When one singular man or woman's strength can exceed an army on their own, one can't help but question just why every one bothers to obey the government or rules in general.
During the first novel's span, the main character manages to gain the ability to "level up" – the ability to grow past the measured level which one is born with. This is something which is unique to him alone and no other being has ever been shown to have this ability – one's level is supposed to be fixed, and his were the lowest.
This is where the story quickly goes from being about a struggling young man, trying his best to provide for his family, to someone who wields powers of unimaginable scale who decimates his enemies with little to no resistance. Whether this is just lazy writing on the author's part, or if the whole novel is supposed to be nothing more than a big self-insert power fantasy trip is hard to say.
From my experience, a great deal of Chinese (web) novel authors, and Japanese authors to an extent, have a tendency to be completely and utterly infatuated with over-the-top scale of things – numbers, events, and so on. This leads to the writing tending to start off at a reasonable level, but as the story needs to progress and continue on, instead of expanding the world, substance and its characters, the solution which authors seem to lean towards is to turn every thing up to eleven and beyond. The typical example would be how the main character starts off fighting a reasonable number of enemies at any given conflict, only to quickly grow to an unimaginable scale with numbers that's hard to even picture.
This problem certainly extends towards the Korean novel Solo Leveling as well. The main character starts off as the weakest of weak amongst all the other Hunters, but fairly quickly amassing an unimaginable level of power, pushing his power level to literal limitless levels. By the fourth volume, he has become an incomparable force amongst the general population, even when measured against the rest of the world's most powerful "Hunters."
Although hardly a deal-breaker, I couldn't help but notice the rather obvious issue of the Korean-Japanese tension shining through in the prose. Now, while I tend to avoid throwing the various isms and [.]*-cards around – unlike a great many modern day urinalists – I kept finding myself questioning the particular way the author chooses to write the prose relating to Japan.
I should've inserted some quotes here, but I'm too lazy.
Among the real world countries mentioned, the majority besides Korea itself are borderline comically stereotypical and/or vilified. Every single Japanese character which gets introduced ends up being a stuck-up asshole, and the Americans couldn't be more stereotypical unless they ended each sentence with a mention of guns, burgers and an "amen" to round it off.
The inclusion of real life elements in a so clearly fantastical novel is off-putting enough as it is; the constant need to somehow elevate the Korean populace's side to the level it does is a bit too on the nose to be passable. With the Korea-Japan relations in mind – the fabricated controversy with the Rising Flag being one of the many issues between the nations (Wikipedia Contributors, 2019) – it comes across as some sort of grand holier-than-thou writing.
The prose itself is for the most part of better quality than many other novels I have read. However, taken as a whole the novel just barely passes my person minimum threshold for an acceptable story.
Major plotholes includes not just the obviously absurd notion that one part of the world's population is super-humans while the rest is not, but also the rule that the juiced up people's "power levels" are immutable. It does not make any sense in-story, since there would be no need for training facilities or any sense in people working towards being stronger – they are born at a level, and that will never change. That is, of course, for the exceptions where people do, in fact, get a power-up – because, of course there is exceptions to the immutable fact people never grow stronger.
While the Solo Leveling starts off with a fairly interesting premise, the novelty of its gimmick quickly wears off and one is left with a fairly generic LitRPG-like power fantasy novel.
Perhaps I'm just partial towards Japanese light novels and Korean novels simply aren't my kind of thing. However, I do feel like the Solo Leveling author seems to share much of the style and issues that Chinese novel authors have: painfully glaring issues with world building and a fixation on over-the-top spectacles.
Korean: 나 혼자만 레벨업
Romaji: Na Honjaman Level Up
English: Solo Leveling / Only I Level Up
Russian: Поднятие уровня в одиночку
Volumes: 13+1 (Complete)
Publisher: D&C Media
First Published: November 4, 2016
Web Novel: Kakao
Chugong (2021a). Solo Leveling, Volume 1. Translated by H.-Y. Im. and Translated by J. Torres. New York, NY: Yen On.
Chugong (2021b). Solo Leveling, Volume 2. Translated by H.-Y. Im. and Translated by J. Torres. New York, NY: Yen On.
Chugong (2021c). Solo Leveling. Volume 3. Translated by H.-Y. Im. and Translated by J. Torres. New York, NY: Yen Press.
Chugong (2022). Solo Leveling, Volume 4. Translated by H.-Y. Im. and Translated by J. Torres. New York, NY: Yen On.
Wikipedia Contributors (2019). Rising Sun Flag. [online] Wikipedia. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rising_Sun_Flag [Accessed 9 Apr. 2022].