To be totally honest, I wasn't expecting to enjoy these books as much as I did. I guess I just wasn't sure WHY I was reading these ones, if that makes sense. The Hiden light novels felt like they had more of a purpose. (At least at the time I was reading them, they hadn't been animated yet.) Those ones took place in the future from the series, gave us a sense of what happened between the time of Naruto's end and Boruto's beginning. The Shinden novels (the first two, anyway) are different.
We already saw Itachi's story. Well, I'm sure a lot of people
considered it filler, but I really liked that little episode arc, showing Itachi's childhood, giving us a little more insight into all that he went through in his quest for true peace... At least, I thought they had been insightful until I read the books. And now I'm glad I did. I only realized once reading the books that I hadn't truly understood Itachi's thoughts before now. I saw his actions but could only guess at his mindset. If nothing else, the Shinden novels gave me some insight into exactly how Itachi viewed his place in the ninja world and his relationship with his brother. It kind of made me realize that-- good or bad-- we've only ever seen Itachi through Sasuke's eyes, not his own.
In general, I felt a lot of it was just written very well. Takashi Yano is the one who wrote Shikamaru's light novel, too, and I remember feeling that one had a really firm grasp on the characters-- something not entirely true about Kakashi or Sakura's light novels. And I feel like here he did a really good job in explaining some of the little things. Like his relationship (or lacktherof) with his classmates who he was incredibly distant from. Once it was revealed that Itachi was actually one of the good guys and incredibly kind, I think that affected how I viewed his treatment of everyone else. But in truth, he was very... brusque with everyone around him. Cold, even if it wasn't intentional. He was just too focused on his own success as a ninja to focus on his interpersonal skills.
The second one, in particular, had more of a focus on his relationship with his father, and where that rift came from and how grew until they barely knew each other. As well as just giving a little more insight into how Danzo ran things. (As if we needed another reason to hate Danzo.) But I was particularly interested to hear that he was the one who leaked the info that Naruto was the Nine Tails jinchuriki to the general public. And it was interesting to consider that his reasons for killing Shisui may not have been entirely greed-motivated. Shisui had plans to incapacitate Fugaku in his efforts to stop the coup. (Speaking of, I was particularly fond of the imagery Yano drew for us-- of Itachi and Shisui standing side by side, arms out, trying to hold back the tide of their entire clan's anger.) And I was forced to admit that there is some sense in Danzo's reasoning-- that in any cause, "the head can always be replaced."
And, lastly, I think it was important to read these light novels to really see the prejudice between the village and the Uchiha clan. I remember, at the very end of the manga, it came up in Sasuke's thoughts that he'd been ostracized because of it, but that didn't really feel true... If anything, the fallout from the Fox attack was after his time. Itachi was 'bullied' for it, to an extent, but I never felt like Naruto and Sasuke's classmates ever really understood it well enough to know why the Uchiha clan might be blamed for it. In general, I just felt like the Shinden light novels filled in some holes.
...ON ANOTHER NOTE...
It's almost hard for me to consider this last book part of the same series. I definitely would have been fine with book three continuing to follow Itachi throughout his time in the Akatsuki... but when all is said and done, this is a fitting ending. I am glad that the focus switched to Sasuke, given that his future was Itachi's focus for most of his life.
I was kind of disappointed to see that the author changed... I've gotten a little attached to Takashi Yano's writing style. There just seem to be fewer mistakes throughout the novels he wrote... fewer instances where the wording was just awkward or the characters' names got mixed up. This last book was subject to some of those moments and errors, but it was pretty good overall. (It was noted that Shin Towada wrote the Akatsuki Hiden novel as well, but as that one has yet to be translated into English... One book feels a little too early to say anything definitive about his writing style overall.) There were some really well-worded passages, and I think this book did a good job of giving us a better explanation of what exactly Sasuke is doing in his 'journey to atone for his sins'. Though the idea that he might just be traveling the world, righting wrongs wherever he sees them, is such a main protagonist sort of quest... that it just feels kind of funny to me. Though I did really like the little scene with his old team mates, where Jugo explains that one possible reason for him to never settle down permanently in the village is that he doesn't want to attract danger there, in the form of evildoers seeking revenge against or just targeting him.
I will say that the particular short story around which they chose to write this explanation of Sasuke's journey felt a little... eh. Like, just another short story someone came up with for fun. So I don't think the events of the plot itself will leave any long-lasting impression on me. But overall, I did really like the three Shinden novels. I think it did some things very well, giving us some further insight into the Uchiha brothers' mindsets that, honestly, were more than I was expecting from them.
After reading all three books, I can only recommend the first two. Not that Sasuke Shinden was bad, but in terms of how much it adds to the Naruto franchise, it came off as fluff that wasn't needed. Only look into that one if you're a huge Sasuke fan.
With that being said, this review will primarily be aimed at Itachi's two Shinden novels, which were quite enjoyable overall and something I didn't know I needed until reading them.
These novels allow for us to delve into Itachi's head. We're given explanations for his actions in the actual manga, but these books humanize him more and
describe his struggle in greater depth - something that the anime arc in Naruto Shippuden did not do as well, whether it was because of time constraints, a lack of budget to animate everything, the difficulty in revealing the perspectives of such a reserved character in a show format, or a lack of urgency to flesh things out because most of the characters featured in the novel are deceased. Or, perhaps even because they deemed some material too complex or gruesome for a child audience.
In other words, the anime arc was fine, but not as good as it could have been. Characters like Fugaku, Shisui (yes, interesting story on how he awakened MS), and the Uchiha clan members (aside from Itachi and Izumi) were whitewashed and their dark sides watered down. Hiruzen/Danzo/Itachi were further demonized. And key moments between Itachi and his mother/father/Shisui/Izumi were cut out or changed entirely in favor of more moments with Sasuke (more than likely because of marketing reasons as he's the deuterogonist of the main series, so Studio Pierrot did not feel like keeping consistent with the novel's source material because they didn't deem it as profitable). I'd have loved to see a more faithful adaptation of the books.
With all of that being said, Itachi is one of the more fascinating characters from the Naruto series. I enjoyed reading about his hopes and dreams, how he became stronger, his interactions with Anbu like Kakashi, his relationship with the man that was his best friend, his relationship with the girl that was his good friend and love interest, his wish to take care of his parents, and how protective he was of Sasuke.
Takashi Yano has a good grasp of the characters on both sides. No character is 100% bad or good. Nope, not even Danzo- he's quite similar to Fugaku, ironically. Both quite misguided with the only major redeeming factor being their deaths. I find it impressive that while doing that, he also allowed for their to be a side that most could still consider more wrong than the other (one side resists negotiation, wants to instill some form of dictatorship set up where future Hokages are only from their clan for all eternity, their entire cause being questionable since there isn't real prejudice or discrimination from general villagers, and doesn't care if innocent people get caught in the conflict or if people from their own side are at risk from their actions... I don't think it's hard to know which side). The Uchiha clan has darkness while Konoha (and every ninja village) has hypocrisy.
The books represent a dark reality of the Naruto verse that is often swept under the rug. Not everyone can be stopped through talking nor is everyone who has talent and a kind heart (Itachi) guaranteed a bright future. Itachi gave up many dreams in order to preserve what he could. It was nice reading about what those were and how some shinobi must endure for what they believe and care about, even when a positive end is not guaranteed. Itachi grows up and loses his innocent views of the world, all while trudging on.
The fights and abilities characters have are ninja-esque, too. What I mean by that is it's not the typical overpowered explosive stuff for show, but kunai/katanas/etc. It's also nice to see how manipulation plays a role in NV (various characters think they have a sway with others but may or may not). It felt like an actual ninja story and was reminiscient of seinen material instead of shounen at certain sections.
I could continue on, but I don't think that'd do it justice. Go read the books and enjoy.