When award-winning writer Kurimoto Kaoru started her epic heroic fantasy Guin Saga nearly 30 years ago, she undoubtedly intended to tell the story of the heroic Guin and conjured up grand adventures for him that would eventually turn into a novel series of 119 books and counting. But could she have foreseen American audiences reading about her leopard-headed hero? Last December, Vertical Inc. brought Guin Saga to lay siege to American bookstores in two formats—a paperback release of the first five novels and a three-volume manga by Yanagizawa Kazuaki.

Vertical launched both novel series and manga series simultaneously, with volume three of the manga wrapping up in March; the third volume of the novel series is also coming in March, with succeeding volumes coming out every other month.

Kurimoto’s Guin Saga created the “light novel” form—in Japan, light novels are generally serialized young adult novels often featuring illustrations; genres common in light novels are science fiction, fantasy, romance and horror. With the success of Guin, Japan’s modern fantasy scene came of age in the mid-’90s with the development and growth of the light novel, inspiring many manga and novel series including Record of Lodoss Wars (CPM), Berserk (Dark Horse/DMP), Slayers (Tokyopop) and Brave Story (Viz Media). “Along with Vampire Hunter D, which started appearing shortly after it, the Guin Saga established a new publishing category,” explained Vertical editorial director Ioannis Mentzas. “Kurimoto is Tezuka-like in that way: a founder and not merely the master of a medium/genre.”

Vertical’s five-volume novel release covers a series of battles known as the “Marches Episode.” In the Guin Saga, the swordsman Guin awakens parched, lost and confused in the otherworldly forest called the Marches. Having lost all his memories save his name and the mysterious word Aurra, he instinctively goes to the aid of a set of royal twins in distress, thus embarking on a journey to find his past and a safe future for the children.

Since Japanese publisher Hayakawa Shobo published the first volume back in 1979, the Guin Saga novel series has been translated into seven languages (Korean, Chinese, English, French, Russian, German and Italian) and spun off a collection of 18 self-contained side-story books, three short story collections, two manga series, a computer game and two theatrical musicals.

While it is uncertain if Vertical will continue to follow Guin over the treacherous slopes of Kanan to the northern kingdom of Cheironia, Vertical will continue to follow Guin in manga format. Yanagizawa Kazuaki’s three-volume manga The Guin Saga: The Seven Magi is based on the first Guin Gaiden stories, originally written in 1981. This 2001 version is much more sorcery than swordsmanship. In this short series, Guin is king of Cheironia, and he must overcome dark sorcery that is plaguing his country. Yanagizawa’s surreal backgrounds and highly caricatured art brings an aptly light tone to a book that was written in a format that most light novels were based on—fast-paced, whimsical and easy to read.

The leopard-headed Guin looks like something straight out of an anime or video game, but this epic is unlike its modern-day light novel contemporaries—Guin’s tale is not as simple or as media friendly as other books in the genre. “No anime tie-in for Guin, which puts it at a considerable disadvantage,” said Mentzas. “But it’s still one of the best, quite arguably the best, light novel around.”