Sword Art Online, Vol. 6: Phantom Bullet

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

In general, I am not a fan of the theory that the writer does not control their characters and that they do things that are unexpected. Yes, the plot and characters can go in a different direction than the writer intended, but it’s still the writer who thinks of that new direction. And thus I tend to be more forgiving of characters than I am of writers. This is especially useful when reading something like Sword Art Online, where we see Kirito still managing the get the cover focus, saving the day, and helping to stop yet another rape threat of yet another heroine in peril. This wasn’t fun in Fairy Dance and it’s not fun here, though Sinon does at least manage to fight back more than the typical heroine in this position, particularly impressive given this is the one friend she’s made in the past five years, and he’s deliberately triggered her PTSD.

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Having gotten that out of the way, I still greatly enjoyed this volume, the longest in the main series to date. I don’t game, but the descriptions of Gun Gale Online were smooth enough that I didn’t really need to know much more than what was explained to me. More importantly, Sinon is a really strong character, even with the sexual assault threats. Her PTSD is triggered mid-game, which understandably causes a minor freakout, but after a talk with Kirito she manages to work past it and realize that her attempts to become strong have been headed in the wrong direction, and that growing and learning requires remembering tragedies in the past and moving beyond them. This applies as much to Kirito – it wouldn’t be an SAO novel without Kirito getting contrasted with his not-quite-love interest – who is reminded of his execution of the Laughing Coffin members, something he too had tried to bury rather than move past.

As you’d expect, Asuna and the rest do not have much to do in this book beyond staying behind and providing support – Asuna’s support literally saving the day when her holding Kirito’s hand reminds him of the other gun he has (the one that’s not a lightsaber). She deals with the government official far better than Kirito does, finding out what’s going on and immediately figuring out what she can and can’t do to help. What she and Lisbeth can do is provide Sinon with some closure, in a final scene that a bit deus ex machina but I’ll forgive it because it was touching. I also like the way that they’re keeping Yui involved in the plots, both as a sort of AI for hire and as Kirito and Asuna’s daughter – they can’t let her push herself.

There’s a lot of macho posturing in this book, make no mistake, both by the characters and by the author. He states he had to rewrite it from the ground up, as opposed to his other books which were light retouches of his original web novel. But I suspect those still reading are aware of the author’s flaws and managing to enjoy the series nevertheless. As a reward, they’ll get a 7th volume in April that focuses on Asuna as the heroine, with Kirito in a support role. Can’t wait.

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