Sword Art Online, Vol. 2

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

The author of this novel admits in his afterword that the first book was an excellent stand alone, but did not really make for much of an ongoing series. So, in order to fix that, he’s going back and adding a few elements that might a) expand the cast and draw in a few more fans of those ‘types’, b) expand the world of Aincrad a bit more before everyone is free of it, and c) give a bit more depth to Kirito’s mental and emotional issues while continuing to show off how amazing he is (really, if Kirito bothers you as a super awesome guy, you should probably find some other series to read. I’ve no real issues with it.)

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This novel consists of four short stories, and while they all achieve something, I’d have to see it’s the last two that hold more emotional weight and are better written. In the first story we meet Silica, a young girl who has a rare beast and has let it go to her head, with potentially tragic circumstances. Kirito straight up admits (though later he reveals that part of this was a ploy) that he’s helping her as she reminds him of his younger sister. Having read Fairy Dance’s manga, I don’t really see it, but again, ploy. We see a bit of how criminal activity works in the world of SAO, and also how a young girl on her own would have to deal with creepers – Silica is well-known, popular, and underage, a dangerous combination even in a MMORPG.

Next we meet Lisbeth, a blacksmith who is friends with Asuna and indeed shares many of her qualities. Kirito comes to her looking for a second sword, and so they have to go on a quest for the mystery metal that can make it. I found this the weakest story in a few ways, but it does manage to highlight what it must be like for an outsider on coming across the relationship between Kirito and Asuna. The author may be adding more cute girls to fall for Kirito (we get three in this book alone), but never lets us forget that Kirito and Asuna are THE couple, and Lisbeth, much as it hurts, can’t bring herself to try to come between them. (She also gets first person narration, the first we’ve seen that isn’t Kirito’s.)

The third story was my favorite, and not coincidentally focused on Kirito and Asuna right after they get married, when they come across a young girl in the forest. The manga adapted this, but I hadn’t realized how much it was compressed – here we meet several more cast, and it’s revealed that most of the young kids in the game are not leveling up like Silica, but just wanting to survive. Sasha corralling them is a definite good thing. It’s also nice seeing a romantic couple that isn’t the main one – Yuriel attempts to frame Thinker as her commanding officer, but it becomes clear early on she’s deeply in love with him. Mostly, though, this is the heartbreaking story of an AI who overcomes mental blocks to help her parents, and a coulpe that experience the exquisite pain of losing their child.

The last short story is the shortest, and is the only story in first-person Kirito narration. It expands on the story he’d told us in the first book about the guild he joined that was wiped out – in particular Sachi, the young woman he reassures but can’t quite save. This is Kirito at his darkest and most driven, and it’s stated several times that he’s in a suicidal state. It’s stark and emotional, though the actual guild and their fate is more of a catalyst than anything else – this is not about them, it’s about how Kirito can get over his grief and start to recover.

As you’d expect, this was a lot more uneven than the first book, but I enjoy its leads, and I like the expanded worldbuilding. Now that we’ve done that, hopefully Book 3 will show us Kirito and Asuna happily reuniting in the real world. Well, unless something goes horribly wrong…

The Heroic Legend of Arslan, Vol. 1

By Yoshiki Tanaka and Hiromu Arakawa. Released in Japan as “Arslan Senki” by Kodansha, serialization ongoing in the magazine Bessatsu Shonen Magazine. Released in North America by Kodansha Comics.

I must admit to being unfamiliar with the original Arslan fantasy novels this is based on. Published since the 1980s by Kadokawa, they also spawned a manga in the early 1990s, which ran in Asuka and was drawn by Chisato Nakamura, famous over here for many Harlequin manga adaptation\s. But now the series is being rebooted for a new generation, with the art being done by Hiromu Arakawa of Fullmetal Alchemist fame. This means that the action scenes are superbly handled, and also that our hero, Arslan, just happens to look like the child Ed and Winry would have had in FMA. Which is pretty much what you’d expect. If you hire an artist, you get their art style.

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The story itself is about a fantasy kingdom that seems to be defined as “not quite Persia”, and its young prince who is having difficulty living up to the expectations placed on him, particularly since he doesn’t get much love from either of his parents. He does have some awesome advisors, though, one or two of whom even survive past this first book. After a prologue showing him getting into a prolonged chase with an escaped prisoner from Lusitania, whose country is a bit more democratic and less dependent on slaves than Arslan’s own, we move forward to seeing Arslan at 14 or so, getting ready to fight in his first battle, not knowing how much of a disaster it will be.

As you’d expect for a fantasy series, much of this first volume is devoted to worldbuilding, though there’s also some healthy character development. Arslan has a bit of a complex about wanting to impress his stern and cold parents, neither of whom seem to hold him in much regard – there may be an answer for that, it’s hinted later, as Arslan may not be the King’s real son. He’s the sort of nice, earnest, naive protagonist you enjoy seeing grow to maturity in stories like these. His main ally seems to be Daryun, who is also stern but actually cares about Arslan, even if he has to be prodded to do so on occasion by his father.

I imagine that the next couple of volumes will be trying to figure out how to retake the kingdom now that it has fallen, and attempting to reassess their enemies. The enemies themselves don’t get much of a look-in here – the child who drags Arslan around in Chapter 1 did not return, much to my surprise, in the battle. As for the masked man who appears to be the main villain, he’s driven by a hatred of the King (who, I will admit, is not a caricatured bad King/bad father as I’d expected – he’s a decent King who likely is aware his wife is having affairs and that Arslan isn’t his, and this galls him, as it’s also clear he’d do anything for her). Like a lot of Volume 1s, this seems to be mostly setup, but I’m definitely on board with what is shaping up to be a thought-provoking and exciting new action series.

Attack on Titan, Vol. 13

By Hajime Isayama. Released in Japan by Kodansha, serialization ongoing in the magazine Bessatsu Shonen Magazine. Released in North America by Kodansha Comics.

For a while there Attack on Titan was able to keep its readership breathless, with a chase sequence and rescue that went over multiple volumes, following a long extended siege that revealed stunning information about half of our cast. There’s been no time to catch your breath and think about what’s really going on. And that’s this volume’s job, to try to take a step back and work out what everyone is fighting for and why. And the answer is not really one that anyone is going to find pleasant. Levi notes it himself while discussing things with the team – this has been a horrible, twisted world for 100 years now, and there’s no sense that even stopping the Titans will really fix anything. Do we really want the good guys to win if the leadership in place is so rotten?

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The whole Survey Corps team, minus the four obvious ones, are now back together again and part of Levi’s new squad. Sasha has returned relatively unharmed from her trip to the north, and attempts to bring a certain levity with her – her interactions with Jean about food are meant to be reminiscent of the first few volumes. Even here, though, we cut from the comedic scenes to Levi staring into space, overlaying his old squad – now all dead – with the new team he’s in charge of. Levi is not the most personable guy in the world – between him and Hange, who’s wildly mood swinging through this entire volume, we might almost have a functioning human – but I think he’s good at knowing how to get what he needs, and right now that means he has to be mean to Eren, as being driven into a corner seems to be the only thing that allows Eren to control his Titan abilities.

Then there’s Historia, whose past comes into play here. She explains her childhood to the squad, and it is, needless to say, horrible. Living her life as best she can, and only realizing once she starts reading books and other stories how truly terrible it is. Abused by the other children, and her own mother despises her. Then she’s almost killed, only saved at the last minute by her father denying her own existence. What makes it worse is that there are also bits she can’t recall, as a mysterious young woman, the only person who ever shows her any love and affection (besides Ymir, and trust me she’s cut up about that as well), erases her memory every time they met as kids. This is actually the most plot specific part of the volume, as Eren is also dreaming about that young woman, who may be related to both of them? Who knows.

Meanwhile, back in the city, Pastor Nick has been tortured and killed by the military police, once again showing us how it’s the Survey Corps versus the world here. Erwin is doing his best to try to get on top of things, and in the end makes the decision that the royal government has proven itself unfit to lead, and needs to be overthrown. Which is all very well and good, but he says that at the same time as we cut to Levi and Hange, about to torture the same MP who tortured Pastor Nick. Replacing one group who advocates torture to get results with another one does not fill me with glee, though I may have to save that subject for the next volume.

This has never exactly been a fun series to read, but this volume in particular is grim and grimy, helped along by Isayama’s art, which has improved to “OK” but that’s still a step below most manga artists, including the ones who draw his spinoff stories. I also disliked everything about the subplot with Armin being threatened with rape by a member of Reeves Company, particularly as, seeing some of the cast laughing about it later, I think we’re supposed to see it as a funny interlude rather than disgustingly awful. Attack on Titan is still one of the most compelling series out there, and you’ll want to see what happens next. But when the fighting slows and you start to deal with the city, its citizens, and our heroes, you can’t help but feel weary.