Sword Art Online, Vol. 20: Moon Cradle

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

I’m not quite sure where the break is, but there was a big gap in time between Reki Kawahara starting the Moon Cradle arc in his webnovel version of Sword Art Online and his finishing it. The reason for the gap, of course, was that he was busy taking SAO and Accel World and making them actual published books. And I have to say, this book does feature a more mature style than I’m used to with this series, more in line with what he’d been doing with Progressive. There’s some wonderful prose descriptions of the Underworld here, and aside from a sneering villain (who even uses the word ‘confound’, a word only villains use), there’s not as much of the author’s usual bad habits. This book almost feels at times like it’s meant to be spinning off Ronie and Tiese into their own book series, serving as sort of a distaff Kirito and Eugeo for the next generation. But of course the issue there is that Kirito and Asuna are still around, and why call up Blue Beetle and Booster Gold when you can get Superman and The Flash?

We’re back in Centoria again after Kirito and Ronie’s adventures in the dark lands, but the threat of a civil war is still ongoing, and the investigation is proving frustrating, mostly as it would seem to involve people who can easily bypass the Taboo Index and also have tons of power. You would think it might be the Emperors and high nobles, but we’re shown a quick flashback at the start of the book that helpfully tells us they’ve all been killed off by our heroes. Fortunately, as it turns out, Tiese’s inability to let go of Eugeo sees her and Ronie visiting a mansion rumored to be haunted, and finding that it’s actually home to the very conspiracy they’re looking for. Can they stop the big bad by themselves? Well, no, it’s Kirito’s series still. But they do most of it. And their dragons are very cute.

The writing, as I noted at the start of this review, may be more mature, but the plotting still leaves something to be desired. He even admits in the afterword that most everything he sets up in these two books is left open-ended (including Ronie’s own love for Kirito, which Asuna muses on but never actually sits down with her to discuss), and it gives the whole volume a feeling of a series that got cancelled by Shonen Jump before it could really tell its story. There’s also a chapter with Ronie’s baby dragon going to get help, which involves befriending a rat and has a very Incredible Journey feel to it, but is also 100% pointless. I did really enjoy the scene with Kirito and Asuna getting ready for bed, which shows a relaxed ease to them as a couple (though honestly, Kirito still behaves like a kid a great deal of the time). Notably, they sleep in the same bed with pajamas on – after the first SAO book, any suggestion they’re a sexually active couple has been thoroughly absent.

So the prose is good here, but it leaves a reader dissatisfied if they were hoping for things to be tied up in a neat bow. But fear not, lovers of Kirito everywhere (there are some, right?), we’re getting a brand new arc next time that is not from a webnovel. Unital Ring brings us back to real-world future Japan, introduces a new game to confound everyone, and may bring back a few surprises from the past. But it won’t have Ronie or Tiese.

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