Sword Art Online, Vol. 3: Fairy Dance

By Reki Kawahara and abec. Released in Japan by ASCII Mediaworks. Released in North America by Yen Press.

The novels are still running a bit behind the manga here in the West, so much of this review will be discussing how the light novel differs from the first two volumes of the manga that I’ve already reviewed. They mostly hit similar notes – Suguha’s crush on her brother is in full force, Asuna is still trapped in a birdcage, and Sougo is an over-the-top villain – but the ability of prose to let you get inside the heads of its leads allows for a greater depth than the manga had, particularly with Kazuto and Asuna. There’s also some nice discussion of Kazuto’s family beyond his sister, as we see his working mother, who he apparently got his obsession with games from. That said, once Kazuto becomes Kirito, we’re back to this series’ raison d’être, which is watching the boy do awesome things.

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The contrast between Kazuto and his MMORPG self didn’t come across as much in the manga as it does here, and it may have been my favorite part of the book. Now that he’s not in Sword Art Online, we’re left with a young teenage boy who’s weaker than he’s been the past two years, unable to decide what to do with his life, and with the one thing he cherished more than anything – Asuna – still far away from him. After meeting Sugou, and hearing about Asuna’s arranged marriage, he almost completely falls apart, sounding nothing like the character we’ve known, not even after the death of Sachi in the previous volume. It’s only when he reached ALfheim Online, the successor to SAO, and can become Kirito again that things change. And change they do – Kirito was pretty confident in the first two books, but here he’s almost cocky, showing off his skills (ported over from SAO, for reasons unknown to him) and cleaning house.

As for Asuna, her POV also benefits the story. She goes through the same crisis that Kazuto did earlier in the book, being trapped with only the monstrous Sugou for company and not even being sure if her love is alive. Once Sugou attempts to break her will by saying he is (cartoon villains always seem to make this mistake), she gains new strength, and it’s immediately put to good use – her use of game mechanics and environment to find a way to escape her cage is brilliant, and shows that she’s more than just a prize waiting for Kirito to rescue her here. (Sugou also gets to be even more horrible here – the scenes of him touching her, trying to go far enough so that she’ll punch him and thus “justify” using his supposed mind control on her sooner, are true nightmare fuel.)

Suguha/Leafa is the new character here, and like the other two we enjoy getting inside her head. She’s startled at her brother’s sudden kendo skills, picked up by sheer muscle memory from his days in SAO. The family revelations, which he knew about but didn’t tell her about, also have thrown her off kilter, and that combined with the onset of puberty has led to her accepting that she has feelings for Kazuto – but she can see he’s clearly in love with Asuna. She’s very similar to her brother, and it’s no surprise that when she plays ALO in an attempt to understand what he enjoyed about it, she too got very good very fast and is one of the top players in the game.

If you hated the Fairy Dance arc of the anime, then reading the light novel will probably not change your minds. If you enjoyed aspects of it but felt it fell short, given this version a try. It may read like wish-fulfillment fanfic, but there’s nothing wrong with that if it interests the reader, and I’m still greatly enjoying Kirito, Asuna and Leafa’s adventures. This is a 2-part book, so in April we’ll find how things wrap up.

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