Sword Art Online, Vol. 21: Unital Ring I

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

This is the first book in the “main” Sword Art Online series that was not adapted from the webnovel that Kawahara wrote years earlier. As such, it’s the first one where we should have raised expectations, and for the most part the book delivers on those expectations. No, sorry, Kirito haters, he still gets to have the big climactic finishers, but honestly, if you’re a Kirito hater but still reading Sword Art Online at Volume 21, I’m going to put the blame on you there. And, if it helps, he spends most of the book in just his underwear. That said, the prose feels smoother, the cast all get things to do that don’t involve mooning over Kirito, and some of them even get really cool things to do on their own, without Kirito at all! Yes, that’s right, More Deban has finally paid off, if only for Silica. As for the plot, well, let’s take all the SAO-style games in the world and dump all its players in a blender? Sounds about right.

We pick up in the fall, a few days before Asuna’s birthday and a couple of weeks before Kirito’s. After having to essentially spend an entire month doing homework because “I was in a coma after being stabbed, but it’s a state secret” is a poor excuse for your high school teacher, Kirito is back at his log cabin preparing to help Liz and Silica do some grinding. Unfortunately, right after Asuna and Alice arrive (yes, Alice is now a regular, and is trying to get a dragon mount in ALO), a huge system crash causes all of Aincrad to disintegrate. Our heroes are barely able to steer the falling cabin to a water landing, but it’s still pretty smashed. Worse, they appear to be inside a new game, Unital Ring, which has taken over ALL the games that use Kayaba’s “Seed”, and promises a huge reward to whoever gets to the goal. But Unital Ring is a survival game, where you have to make your own rope and knives, and our heroes are suddenly level 1. Can they figure out what’s going on? More importantly, can they save the cabin?

I will admit, it’s a lot of fun seeing Kirito depowered through a large chunk of this, though of course by the end he’s starting to get back in business. Honestly, the book feels like he’s been reading his fan mail and taking its advice. Kirito and Suguha/Leafa, for the first time in the entire series to date, actually feel like an older brother and younger sister. Yui, in the new Unital Ring, is back to being a real live girl… though that also means she has real HP. It’s not a death game per se, but apparently when you’re killed off you can’t get into the game again, so there is a lot of tension for our heroes. And then there’s the last four pages, which I will try not to spoil. But really, if you’;re Kawahara and are starting to write the first non-webnovel book in the main series, what’s the very first thing you’re going to import from the other works? Correct. The other character introduced is a bit of a “I won’t tell you about her till the next volume”, but Accel World fans may find their name very familiar, especially those who just read the last volume in December.

Unfortunately, we’ll have to wait a bit longer to see the outcome of that double cliffhanger, as Vol. 22 is a short story volume, containing four short stories that were released as exclusives with various DVD anime packages in Japan. That said, one of the characters who showed up for the cliffhanger will be in the first of those short stories. In the meantime, I was very pleased with this SAO. Let’s keep it up.

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