If you are a tl;dr person, just scroll down to the very bottom where I have included a summary. This is a review of the web light novel.
I know I'm going to get a lot of hate for giving such a low score, but I'd greatly appreciate it if you commented to me why you disagree with my points and you could convince me of my errors. There are no spoilers in this review, I am writing this mostly for the sake of those who are considering reading this.
First thing you should know is that Mushoku Tensei is escapist literature - wish fulfilment - a story for one to find escape and live out one's fantasies. If you enjoyed SAO, chances are that you will at least somewhat enjoy this. If you are primarily looking for a deep story, compelling characters, and/or beautiful worldbuilding, look somewhere else. The base concept is certainly alluring and full of potential, however it never aspires to do anything else but shallow wish fulfilment. And then, my main gripe with this story is that even as a power fantasy, it is severely lacking.
Let's start out with the main good point. I'm sure many of us would like to live in another world more beautiful than ours, or go back and undo our regrets in life. The premise of Mushoku Tensei is especially powerful - a man who has hit rock-bottom in life dies and is given a second chance at living a fulfilled life... in a sword and sorcery world. He gets reincarnated with all his memories as Rudeus Greyrat, the child of two former adventurers, and he decides that he will make use of his life to the fullest. He trains in magic and the way of the sword from a very young age, reaching incredible heights using the learning ability of a toddler with the wisdom of an adult. I personally love this concept and greatly looked forwards to how far he would get in life. The idea, at first glance, was handled decently well. They even dealt seriously with the issues of his young parents being unsure how to raise a prodigal child that, from birth, had no life lessons left to learn from them.
The story, content-wise, goes well up into the second volume. We see Rudeus step out into the great big world, and grow and develop. Even a prodigy like him has ways to go. There is also a certain pleasure as we see how his knowledge and experience from our world helps him in this life.
In volume three, things start going downhill. An incident happens, and Rudeus and a girl go off on an adventure through dangerous lands. Those of you who purely enjoy power fantasy will still enjoy this part, but the fact is that Rudeus is close to fully developed at this point and there is quite little else to do with him. He is quite powerful and extremely reliable, however he still manages to be humble and he knows how to socially interact with others despite being a hikikomori (shut-in) in his previous life. At this point, the story becomes a typical fantasy, and falls short of anything particularly entertaining. It becomes just about a Gary Stu genius magician and his companions rather than whatever the original premise was.
A simple fantasy would have still been decent, however we come to the weakness Mushoku Tensei has as a fantasy. Quite simply, the world is really, really bland. It’s an ill-disguised attempt to make a generic MMORPG world make sense as an actual other dimension, and it comes complete with dungeons, organized adventuring, and a combat system with named and ranked techniques. I don’t have a problem with an MMORPG-esque world, but the author put no effort into making a world that is actually interesting. There are no fascinating new things to learn and discover about this world, because it’s exactly like every other Japan-made Western fantasy out there. I feel the author actually finds his worldbuilding satisfactory, because he spent the majority of the first chapters on a huge infodump about how his magic system worked, when it’s actually so bland and intuitive that I would have immediately assumed it more or less worked that way just seeing it in action once. There are numerous other occasions where a great deal of time is spent on the generic history of the world. I actually first came to read this light novel after stumbling upon the manga adaptation and I applaud the mangaka for the sense to skip this useless exposition.
Of course, that is mostly my own opinion on how fantasy worlds should be, I know many people find comfort and joy in having a familiar fantasy world with no uncomfortable new elements. However, we come next to the author’s technical ability to write.
Whether it is the translator’s fault (I used Bakabt) or the author’s, I can’t say I’m 100% clear, but I feel like it’s a combination of both. The narration is really dry and straightforward, there is no emotion or intensity put into it. We don’t feel how the main character feels, except in moments of great conflict which still wasn’t conveyed very well likely more due to the translator’s lack of talent in prose. The author also puts in a bunch of unnecessary and boring detail. For example, at one point there is a day by day account of which monsters they fought that day, how many there were and etc.,and that goes on for over a week. I understand the appeal of reading the daily life of someone living in an exciting fantasy world, but that’s only if the daily events that transpire are actually exciting. I don’t want to hear how you crushed the same weak creatures over and over.
And indeed, CRUSH his enemies. Rudeus eventually becomes one of the strongest magicians around and all day, everyone praises him for being such a prodigy and having immense ability to take down enemies that usually require 20 powerful people to safely subdue. They also note how much of a mature person he is, and how humble. (This is an almost irrelevant point I want to say, but for some stupid reason, even after a really powerful person noted that his magical reservoirs were even greater than that of an ancient Demon God who once almost took over the world, he still doesn’t get how amazing he is until a few volumes later. As a former otaku hikikomori, he should have realized immediately.) Regardless, he is the walking dictionary definition of a Gary Stu. It seems like the author remotely understands this, and made him unable to cast healing magic without an incantation, but that literally has no point considering he almost always manages to cast it fine using the incantation. While having a Gary Stu main character is somewhat excusable in a power fantasy, and still remotely salvageable in terms of storytelling, it can only be done with a strong enough story and villains.
However, at a certain point after the decent first few volumes, the author seems to just start having random shit happen. No offense to all the actually good fanfic writers out there, but this is exactly like the quality, writing-wise, of your average fanfic (there are loads worse, but being better than a bad fanfic is nothing to be proud of). The writing is really weak, story proceeds without a really strong direction to push it along. It ends up that it is completely lacking in flow or tension. Speaking of tension, never was there any amazing enemy out there for Rudeus to really show the extent of his abilities, except during certain really short encounters that still lack tension because of either lack of proper build-up or, in one case, how the enemy just randomly appeared - he literally happened to be passing by on the road, meeting the main cast by chance, and then he proceeded to attack them before leaving soon after.
You’ll notice I gave character a slightly higher score than all the rest. It may well have been even higher if Rudeus hadn’t stolen the spotlight. The characters are, how should I say... quite typical. Not terrible, but nothing outstanding either. There were a few that had some good development, namely Rudeus’s father. However, I won’t go into detail so I don’t spoil it for those who might read this.
Now, lastly, I’ll get to what was really the last straw for me here. I didn’t mention it at all previously because I wanted to put it all down here. It can be seen more of a personal preference that really made me uncomfortable, but I’m sure it is something that will turn many others away as well. Mushoku Tensei is really, really perverted. The main character is a massive pervert who gets aroused the moment he sees a little skin, and he’s always trying to peek on girls, or steal their unwashed panties. While I’m fine with this when played for gags like in Bakemonogatari, there are a number of times when Rudeus can barely hold back from actually raping a helpless girl. It doesn’t help that almost all the girls in this series are physically under the age of 15 (in a few cases under 10), and Rudeus is actually over 40 years old. He’s constantly thinking about perverted things, quite a few times when it’s supposed to be serious or he’s suppose to be thinking about serious things, it diverts to him catching a glance at some pretty girl. The perversion is such that one massive arc is about him going somewhere seeking a cure for his erectile dysfunction.
There’s also a case with the portrayal of women in this story, basically all of them really don’t mind him doing all these perverted things such as stealing their underwear, eyeing them, groping them, while you can say that it just happens all these girls just really like Rudeus that much or are understanding of his urges, it still leaves a bad impression and a bad aftertaste. Rudeus passionately describes how his one wife, who is particularly shy, submissively allowed him to try out all the sexual practices he dreamed about. And then there’s the case of polygamy. In this world, polygamy is allowed except under the bad Christianity-ripoff in this world. It happens that most characters are not religious. While I say polygamy, you only ever see polygyny ever happening (one man, multiple wives). While the polygamy debate is something you could legitimately tackle, the way this novel goes about it, it really just is pure wish fulfilment and acceptance of being a pervert. Rudeus ends up unable to contain himself, cheats and ends up with multiple wives (two at the time which I am writing this). At the end of the day, they just sit down and happily say “I wonder what perverted things Rudeus will do to us”. I mean, this might be a little extreme, but what. the. fuck.
There is a lot I missed. I could go on and on, but I’m sure you don’t want to read on and one, so it’s time for my summary.
+Some good characters
+Some good development
-Uninteresting, unimaginative world
-Bad writing after volume 2 (this is a really big point)
-Lacking in tension or good antagonists
-Gary Stu protagonist
-Really, really perverted and can be uncomfortable (I’d suggest reading my last two paragraphs)