Sword Art Online, Vol. 23: Unital Ring II

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

Definitely enjoying seeing this series now that Kawahara, a good 20 years older than his SAO Vol. 1 self, knowing his strengths and weaknesses and using them to good effect. There are heroines in peril here, but there is very little of the fanservicey “hero saves the girl from the predator” that we used to see constantly in this series. The humor is mostly character-based, and rarely feels forced. Kirito is powerful and tends to still get the “last boss kill”, but the nature of Unital Ring means he’s struggling a lot more, and he also has the grace to pass on some of his rewards to more deserving people. And we get, for the first time in the main series, Argo becoming a supporting player. Created for the Progressive novels and then put in the anime, manga and games, she’s always been a ghost presence in the main series itself. Now she gets a name – Tomo – and an agenda, which is more than just “tease Kirito constantly”. Though, well, she does that too, of course.

The plot is mostly a ‘rescue arc’ of sorts – everyone else in Kirito’s group was playing ALO when the Unital Ring changeover happened, but Sinon was in GGO, so she ends up being a long ways away from any of her allies. She’s confused, mistakenly branded as a PKer, caught dying of thirst in a desert, and forced to fight a massive dinosaur with the help of some bird people who don’t even speak Japanese. It is awesome, easily the best part of the book, and benefits greatly from the lack of Kirito’s POV. Elsewhere, Kirito’s party ad their log cabin are being reinforced, but a lot of players keep trying to attack him. Why? And Argo’s back (yes, she’s Tomo, but Kirito does not really make the switch so I won’t either), and is (unsurprisingly) now a crack reporter, here to rip open one of the more closemouthed folks in the cast – Kikuoka.

I’ve made no secret about my love of Argo, and though she doesn’t get much to do here, there’s a promise of more. I enjoyed the fact that her response to Kirito’s “where have you been all this time” was a polite “none of your business”, and also intrigued that (sorry, game continuity) she hasn’t been in ALO or GGO or even back in a game at all since the SAO disaster ended, though she hints that may change. In the meantime, it’s nice to see the cast work as a core cast, as opposed to being Kirito and his harem. Everyone apart from Alice and Asuna (who are minding the fort) gets something to do, with Yui being the most impressive. Now that she’s a physical part of Unital Ring (and could theoretically die if she’s killed, sorry, Shirou) she’s busy learning sowrds, learning magic, and basically becoming Little Miss Badass. Kirito is, needless to say, both proud and fretful.

So yes, this was a good solid volume, and I’m glad SAO has finally seemed to have matured, after several false alarms. Can’t wait for more.

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