Sword Art Online: Progressive, Vol. 2

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

One of the problems with a series that’s narrated in first person, which Sword Art Online is (yes, sorry, Asuna fans, this is again all Kirito), is that it can be harder to see the flaws inherent in the protagonist, since you have to remove yourself from the narrative voice to see what’s really going on. Last time we saw Asuna starting out in Aincrad trying to find a noble way to die, and Kirito had to show her that there are better things to try for than that. But he has issues of his own – he’s bad at dealing with people, as he both admits himself and we see time and time again, making bad jokes in order to try to get past the fact that he finds it hard to gauge what others are thinking. And while I think he’s right that Asuna could grow to be a great inspiration to others trapped in the game, I worry he may be putting her on a bit of a pedestal, particularly as he tries to ensure the other players don’t see her as a villain.

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Kirito is also having to have genuine interaction more than he expected, as the elf that they meet up with, Kizmel, not only doesn’t die – as she did in the beta Kirito played – but proves to be far more well-rounded and realistic than any NPCs he’s come across before. Both he and Asuna over the course of the book are amazed at how Kizmel grieves for the sister she lost, has mysterious, prophetic dreams, and seems to be having flashbacks to the beta test that Kirito participated in. This helps to show how SAO is not just another game, but it also lends a bit of intrigue to the series going forward, as this isn’t really explained much beyond “wow, Kayaba was a better programmer than we thought”. Luckily, without spoiling much, I will note that Kizmel survives, and I expect we’ll see her again in Book 3.

The other big focus of the book is the reveal of Morte, and what kind of player he is. Fans of the SAO anime and Japanese fans who read the books in order may be a bit ahead of those coming at the novels in NA-publishing order, as they are aware of the guild called ‘Laughing Coffin’. I’m pretty sure that’s what we’re seeing the genesis of here, as Kirito chillingly runs into a player who simply has the desire to kill, because he realizes that he can do it here and get away with it. The duel itself is the high point of the novel, menacing, action packed, and a bit terrifying. After that, we get a fight that doesn’t arise, as Kirito (and Asuna, who thankfully tails after him when he’s being a loner idiot) talks down two nascent guilds from fighting against each other and helps them realize the goal is for everyone to work to escape the game.

As for my review, those who read me regularly know the less I talk about the actual qualities of the book and the more I theorize, the better I like it. Sword Art Online Progressive’s prose is more mature than the original works, its steady pace (we only get one floor this time around) allows it to grow more naturally, and Kirito and Asuna are clearly destined for each other but are both in denial, which is cute. (For a killer drinking game, try drinking every time Asuna elbows Kirito in the gut. Actually, don’t do this.) Honestly, I’d recommend this series to an SAO newbie first, even if it does have a lot of callbacks. Probably my favorite SAO novel to date.

Non Non Biyori, Vol. 1

By Atto. Released in Japan by Media Factory, serialization ongoing in the magazine Comic Alive. Released in North America by Seven Seas.

There is, as most fans know by now, a large market in Japan, and a smaller one in the West, for manga for grown men that involve groups of young girl students doing cute things in a comedic and laid-back way. K-On! is perhaps the most obvious example, but there’s also Sunshine Sketch, GA Art Design Class, etc. Most of them tend to involve ‘girls in school doing activity X’. Non Non Biyori (Biyori is ‘weather’, but I think the title is meant to sound nonsensical) doesn’t even get to that point – the series features a group of four girls, and occasionally their teacher, in a country school far removed from anywhere in particular, doing adorable things. That’s the plot.

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The girls are all eccentric, to varying degrees. Hotaru is the ‘normal’ one, being the transfer student just moved from the city, but she’s got quirks too; she’s 11 years old but looks about 17, and she has a big crush on another girl, Komari, though as is standard in these sorts of titles the yuri is one-sided and is there for humor and not much else. Komari is Hotaru’s opposite, as shes 14 but short and childlike. She tries to act the older sister, but her personality keeps failing her. Her younger sister, Natsumi, is 13. She’s the troublemaker, bad at school and tends to try to get a rise out of everyone else, particularly her sister. And Renge, who is 6, is precocious but strange, with that triangle mouth that Lucky Star readers will recognize (and that’s another series that this manga is like.)

You won’t find much originality here (even the teacher, Renge’s older sister, is the usual ‘laid back, one of the girls’ types we’ve seen in Azumanga, etc.), but it succeeds in its one goal, which is being cute as a button. Each short chapter involves an amusing situations, and the laughs come naturally from it. The class rabbit has escaped its hutch and must be captured. The teacher tricks the class into working on her family’s rice field for a day. Komari watches a horror movie and gets scared, so Natsumi trolls her. It fulfills its demographic target amiably. There’s also a minimum of fanservice, with no bath scenes or underwear shots that I could spot. Given this runs in Comic Alive, I’ll consider that a big victory.

There’s a short, unrelated manga at the end that involves a girl who dreams of being in a dream, which is even weirder than the main manga but also probably the weakest part of the volume. Best to stick with the main series. Honestly, this is the sort of series that, based on its premise, you’d automatically assume was a 4-koma – just like every other series above that I compared it to. But no, it’s fashioned like a regular manga, which means you don’t get the gag at the end of every page feel. It allows the humor to be more laid-back and relaxed. Which is a good description for the entire volume.

The Isolator, Vol. 1

By Reki Kawahara and Shimeji. Released in Japan by ASCII Mediaworks. Released in North America by Yen On.

You have to figure that Reki Kawahara is definitely listening to his critics. Sword Art Online features Kirito, who does have deeper issues than people give him credit for, but in the end is pretty much defined by how cool he is. Accel World has Haruyuki, designed to be different, a short, pudgy guy who’s spent much of his life being bullied and has low self-esteem. And now with The Isolator, we have Minoru, whose entire family was massacred while he was hidden in the pantry, tries to live his life in a constant state of the present by never thinking about any past memories, and is, as we see towards the end of the book, actively suicidal much of the time. When Yen talks about angst on the back cover, it’s not kidding.

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The girl that you see on the cover is not, of course, the star. Indeed, posing demurely on a chair in the middle of what seems to be a garden of some sort does not actually happen in this book. Instead, Yumiko seems to serve as a sort of inspiration and mentor for Minoru, showing up to save him and being a member of a shadowy organization dedicated to fighting evil. You get the sense that most of her backstory and depth is being held for future volumes. Alas, she’s probably the best developed female character here. The other two, Minoru’s new friend Tomomi and adopted big sister Norie, are there to serve as bait in order to spur our hero onward and nothing more. A pity, we’re seen Kawahara can write better women if he tries.

The villain fares better – a lot better. One of my biggest criticisms of Fairy Dance was the two-dimensional patheticness of its antagonist. The Biter may in fact remind a few people of Sugou, but he’s a lot scarier, a lot more dangerous, and his backstory lets you know where he’s coming from. Indeed, his memories of his stressful childhood and the damage it did to his teeth are harrowing, some of the best writing in the book. That said, he’s also a terrifying psychopath, particularly when combined with the red gem possessing him, and seeing how much he Just Won’t Die forms much of the climax of the book.

As with most Kawahara books, the action may be the biggest reason to read. There are two main fight scenes, and each are told crisply and with care to detail, thrilling the reader into continuously turning the page. In between, we mostly get Minoru’s POV, which can be… disheartening. He’s a messed-up young man, clearly suffering from bad PTSD that is not particularly being treated. It’s realistic yet horribly sad that his goal is to have the chief of the organization he joins at the end (who can erase memories with consent) erase the memory of his existence from everyone who knew him. And his life goals seem to have progressed from ‘I will throw myself in the river and rejoin my dead family’ to ‘I will die nobly in battle and rejoin my dead family.’ It’s scary. Even his superpower is related to cutting himself off from everything.

The second volume only just came out in Japan this February, so don’t expect it till at least next spring. Still, fans of Kawahara’s other works, particularly those who like to see young men shouting at each other and fighting with supernatural powers, will enjoy this.