By Reki Kawahara, abec, and Tsubasa Haduki. Released in Japan by ASCII Mediaworks, serialized in the magazine Dengeki Bunko. Released in North America by Yen Press.
As I’ve mentioned a couple of times before, after my highly positive reviews of the first Sword Art Online manga, several people told me that the series took a big nosedive with the next arc. I was therefore quite interested to see what happened here, and how exactly the series lost all of the goodwill it gained. I initially though I might have to wait until the arc finished to get the full story, but no, that’s not the issue here. Everything that I suspect people hated about this arc is laid out right at the beginning of the story, to the point where I wonder if the author did this deliberately to tweak fans a little bit. After all, he is having to come up with a way to continue what was a fairly self-contained story.
Let’s run through the basic problems, which I think fall into three big categories. First, there is the introduction of Suguha, the younger sister of Kazuto/Kirito, our hero. As we hear from her angsty narration, she was told that she and Kirito were not really siblings, but cousins, while he was trapped in SAO. This allows her to have ‘legal in Japan’ feelings for Kazuto, which given that the reader spent the last two volumes marveling at Kirito and Asuna’s relatively quick and happy relationship can be a bit grating. Moreover, we discover she’s also playing an MMO to see what Kazuto found so amazing about them, and is now teaming up with him – without either one knowing that they’re really teaming up with their real-life sibling. Wackiness, as they say, ensues. (Oh yes, and there’s fanservice of Suguha’s naked, buxom form in the shower.)
Secondly we get introduced to the villain of the piece, Sugou, aka Oberon. I feel that it’s OK to spoil that he is the villain given that the story does so immediately after his first appearance. His entire personality is designed to be evil, which means he gets all the usual evil attributes, including gloating about his evil plans (which he explains in great detail to both Kazuto and Asuna), and openly discussing sexually assaulting a girl who openly hates him without her content. He’s a loathsome prick, and one wishes he had a bit of the subtlety of SAO’s first villain, who at least had better justification in his head for mass murder.
Lastly, after expecting a tearful reunion of Kirito and Asuna in the real world, we find that not only has Asuna not woken up, not only is she trapped in another MMO designed by her evil fiancee, but she is literally being kept in a BIRDCAGE and tormented by Sugou/Oberon, unable to even escape (though she may be trying to change that at the end of this volume). Seeing our favorite action girl as a prize to be won, passive and caged, is possibly the one thing that grated on me the most here, if only as her role is then handed over to Leafa/Suguha.
That said, there are things I did greatly enjoy here. The basic premise is still solid, if ridiculous. (The fact that these VR MMOs weren’t banned after SAO’s mass deaths came out is totally ludicrous.) Kirito is a very likeable hero, and I admired his resolve and willingness to use his cheat skills to get ahead in order to save the one he loves. The reunion with Yui was too short for my liking, but still very heartwarming, and I’d love to see her reunite with her mother as well. The narrative flows smoothly, with the battles being interesting and not taking over the entire book. The new game is sufficiently different from the first to add new depth. We have a new artist here, who seems to mostly be an artist-for-hire on light novels, and the artwork is pretty decent. And I did enjoy the brief glimpses we got to see of the real world – I wish we’d seen a bit more. (I wonder if the novel, due out in December, has some of the missing depth here.)
So overall, no, I didn’t loe this as much as the first series, for the reasons I mentioned above. It’s clearly retooling itself to attract new readers, and in order to do that burning a few of its bridges. That said, it’s still a lot of fun, and I would really like to see what happens next, so I’d call it a success overall. Let’s not lock up our heroines for the entire story in the future, though.