Sword Art Online: Progressive, Vol. 4

By Reki Kawahara and abec. Released in Japan by ASCII Mediaworks. Released in North America by Yen On. Translated by Stephen Paul.

After a third volume that was good but somewhat insubstantial, the fourth volume of Progressive knocks it out of the park. One big reason why is the viewpoint: we get Asuna’s POV again (3rd person) for the first half of the book, with the 2nd half back to 1st person Kirito. This not only allows us much greater insight into how Asuna thinks, but also helps to show off how the two of them view each other – Asuna in the first half is running scared a lot, partly due to this particular level featuring ghosts, a pet fear of hers, but also in general, as she feels inadequate to the floor, and Kirito is constantly two steps ahead of her. She can’t even bring herself to duel him so she can have practice at it – in a game where something going wrong means death, it weighs too much on her.


Then we see Kirito, and once again Asuna becomes the somewhat cool, noble tsundere he always puts on a pedestal. He also shows us that some of her assumptions about him are wrong – she admired his cool bluff against two enemy players, but he was actually on the verge of snapping, as seeing a status saying someone isn’t dead and actually not seeing them dead are two very different things. We also see that both he and Asuna are slowly becoming aware of their growing feelings towards each other, but are not really going to do anything about it – in fact, we even see Kirito abuse this fact, as in order to cover up his real intentions he pretends that he hasn’t joined one of the two big guilds as they’d force him to part with her. Of course, what it really is is that he feels she’s a better “leader” than he is, and he doesn’t want to get too close as he regards his role as making her “fly” so she doesn’t need him anymore. Which, of course, Asuna is somewhat aware of, and is the source of much of her own angst.

Argo is here, as you might have guessed from the cover, and she gets quite a lot more to do than usual, from dueling with Asuna to show off that she actually *can* take care of herself thank you very much, to hen showing us that she too can be vulnerable, as the new changes to the 5th floor boss almost end up taking her out. She’s a great character, and I am quite pleased that Kawahara continues to use her even though she doesn’t show up in the original series. Fans continue to debate whether this reboot will eventually reach the same points as canon – i.e., Kirito and Asuna will separate for a long period, and things will proceed as from the original. I think Kawahara realizes he doesn’t have to care about that for the next several books, and that he’s happy to simply rewrite Aincrad with new experience and better characterization than he had years ago. (He’s also written Progressive plot and characters into some of his unofficial doujinshi work – Argo shows up in one story during Kirito and Asuna’s honeymoon, and another story tells of the fate of the Dark Elves (who aren’t in this book, by the way, though I suspect they may be in the next one).)

And then there’s the other big reason this is the best of the Progressive books – a genuine threat from something outside the game itself. The second book showed us Morte, a player who seemed to want to cause chaos. We see him again here, working on more of the same, and also meet his boss. The discussion of why players would want to kill other players is brought up by both Kirito and Asuna, but both of them shy away from the actual reason – it’s a thrill and they can get away with it. The boss’ name isn’t mentioned, but signs are good that it’s PoH, who later heads up the guild Laughing Coffin, which we’ve discussed before. Again, part of the fun of reading Progressive is seeing he seeds being set for later events, and PoH is a creepy psycho. He’s clearly one of the major antagonists of the series. Even now that we’re a few years out of Aincrad, I wonder if he’ll pop up again.

So all this, plus the usual excellent battle scenes, and slightly less fanservice than usual (courtesy Asuna, who demands she and Argo be clothed during their bathtime duel). If you enjoy Sword Art Online even a little bit, you should love this one. Get ready to wait for the 5th volume, though – it’s not even scheduled in Japan yet.

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