By Reki Kawahara and abec. Released in Japan by ASCII Mediaworks. Released in North America by Yen On. Translated by Stephen Paul.
Here we go, ladies and gentlemen. This is it. This is the Big One. This volume of Sword Art Online begins the Alicization Arc, an arc that will not end until Vol. 18 rolls around in December 2019. And you can tell from the writing in many ways, as Kawahara is taking his time to set things up and carefully introduce things that will clearly have relevance later – not least of which is Alice herself, whose disappearance is one of the major plot points of the book, but it’s not resolved here. For those who love the main heroines of Sword Art Online, well, you may be in for some hard times. Asuna is here at the start, as well as Shino. We even hear about future plans, as Shino discusses the next Bullet of Bullets tournament and Asuna and Kirito make plans for going to college overseas. Unfortunately, life has other plans. Fortunately, we have a new heroine, in the best Sword Art Online tradition, to help Kirito with this crisis. He’s even on the cover. Wait, he?
Yes, that’s right, the author has finally realized that the occasional appearance by Klein isn’t cutting it, and gives Kirito someone who can be an equal as well as (sort of) a childhood friend. The conceit of this book is that Kirito is testing a new VR system that’s the most realistic one yet – unlike Aincrad and the other VMRROs we’ve seen to date, this new system is able to mimic things down to the last detail. It’s also, apparently, able to give you vivid backstory if need be – the first 60 or so pages of this book are Kirito, Eugeo and Alice as kids hanging around their medieval fantasy hometown and getting involved in things that they should not. Unfortunately, after an attack in the real world by an ex-member of Laughing Coffin (really, all of these guys basically got away scot-free, didn’t they?), Kirito now finds himself, grown up, in the same world, though he’s now himself and Eugeo doesn’t seem to know him. Now he has to a) find out where he is, b) find out how to return to Asuna, and c) join forces with Eugeo and rescue Alice, who was taken away years ago by Knights as a punishment for transgressing one of the many Laws..
The viewpoint here is, with the exception of the childhood prologue, 1st person Kirito as usual. I find it more tolerable than others do, I suspect, mostly as I think the best way to remind us that Kirito isn’t superhuman is by showing us his thoughts and fears. I also really like Eugeo, the new guy. He’s sort of bright, shiny and innocent, the kind of really good guy that the girls all think Kirito is but he’s never quite managed to pull off. He’s also surprisingly skilled with a sword, and Kirito wonders if more training might even make the two of them a close match. (I hope so. It’s always refreshing seeing Kirito not be the best at something.) When this book is telling Kirito’s story, it’s excellent. Unfortunately, there is one big weakness – Kawahara is fascinated by his invented technobabble (this is also an issue in his other series), and there is endless discussion of vitual reality and what life and a soul actually means. I’m sure it will be highly relevant later, but having it come out in the form of an infodump made things a bit tedious, which is a shame given it was our one big scene with Asuna and Shino.
In any case, though, overall this was a very good start to a very big arc, introducing a new (missing) heroine, giving Kirito a potential male best friend and partner, allowing Kawahara to try his hand at a “fantasy” setting with knights and goblins (who talk about sexually assaulting a young girl, something that apparently is so common in Japanese light novels with goblins that I’ve now run across it three times in less than a month), and setting things up for the next book. Will we be cutting back to the real world and Asuna at all, though? And will Liz and Silica ever get More Appearances? (The back cover of Book 10 may offer a clue there.) Let’s see if Alicization hits the ground running next time.