By Reki Kawahara and abec. Released in Japan by ASCII Mediaworks. Released in North America by Yen Press.
So I greatly enjoyed the manga omnibus of Sword Art Online, and said so in my earlier review. However, I had not actually read the novels or seen the anime, as I noted. Most folks who had said the manga was rushed and poorly paced. So I looked forward to reading the first Aincrad novel, and wondered how it would handle things and what new feelings I would get out of it.
The most obvious is that this is written in first person from the POV of our hero, Kirito. This is very common in Japanese novels, with Haruhi Suzumiya being another obvious example. It works particularly well with Kirito as he’s normally an aloof character to begin with, so this allows us to see how he frames things and deals with people. Kirito and Asuna are not Mary Sues (I’m trying to avoid using that term at all these days), but I will agree they are both hypercompetent to a degree that may annoy some readers who are used to modern-day flawed heroes. I grew up reading Heinlein, so this sort of characterization is no problem for me. Besides, Kirito’s narration shows he has a bit of PTSD after being in the game and dealing with his first guild, so it’s not all ‘showing off his awesomeness’ here.
Another thing that’s added is the description of the game world and gaming functionality itself. I’m not much of a gamer, so feared this would bore me, but it’s handled smoothly and fluidly, showing off how things work in Aincrad without seeming out of place – indeed, the book begins with Kirito giving Klein a tutorial. There’s discussion of eating and sleeping (necessary) and using the bathroom (not necessary), as well as those pesky ethics codes that can be turned off when you want to spend the night with the one you love. (By the way, the fact that these are on to begin with, and send out an alarm for sexual harassment, pleases me greatly, especially given the large male-to-female imbalance the game shows.)
Asuna doesn’t get any POV narration, but she’s expanded on as well. For one thing, it’s made quite apparent from the moment we meet her that she’s fallen for Kirito, and it only gets stronger the more they interact. I’ve been told that as the SAO novels go on, Kirito gains more women who fall for him (including his sister… oh, Japan…), but I’m not sure how far they’ll get, as Asuna is not the typical “Baka, who ever said that I loved you?” heroine, and seems very proactive and comfortable in her feelings for Kirito, even if actual physical intimacy makes her as nervous as we’d expect for a 17-year-old. Oh yes, I read the ‘Chapter 16.5′ that was removed from the series’ original web format when Japan made it into a physical book series (it’s not hard to track down). It’s not missed, the sex scenes weren’t well-written, but I did appreciate a discussion of the fact that a lot of gamers are underage (Kirito was 14 when the series began, and is 16 now), and how ‘removing the ethics setting’ would lead to a lot of problems down the road…
This volume ended sooner than I expected, but then I found that Vol. 2 will go back and fill in some blanks in Aincrad, including that Yui story I saw from the manga, before it moves on to Kirito and Asuna meeting up in the real world (we hope). I greatly look forward to it, this is still a terrific series, with a refreshingly non-ambiguous lead couple.