Sword Art Online, Vol. 25: Unital Ring IV

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

The basic premise of Unital Ring is that something has mashed up all the MMORPGs out there, meaning that SAO, ALO, GOO, etc. are all in the same world. This even includes American games where you choose to star as a bug (the spiders side is far more popular than the centipede side, and I don’t really blame them, though I do admit to a bit of surprise that the game is popular in the West at all.) But, as we have also discovered, Unital Ring is not just about uniting the various games our cast has played in, it’s about uniting the various arcs of the series. The first non-web novel arc Kawahara takes on sticks together all of his previous books, plus real life, plus the Underworld, which it turns out is a lot more relevant to the main plot than we’d thought. That said, the series no longer moves as fast as its first volume did, meaning that any chance of the Underworld side meeting up with the Unital Ring side is going to have to wait a bit.

The book is divided into two chunks, with a real world interlude between them. The first takes place in Unital Ring, as Kirito and company try to figure out a way to stop Mutasina and her blackmailed players from destroying the new town that’s been raised around their log cabin. This, as you can imagine, involves a lot of fighting, game stats, etc., and should be very familiar to the SAO reader. It’s hard to coordinate, though, meaning that Asuna can’t get a chance to meet up with the mysterious new transfer student who’s been trying to talk with her. As for Underworld, well, we still don’t know if Eolyne is Eugeo reborn, or a clone, or a descendant, or what, but there’s enough to make Kirito and Alice very suspicious. That said, they have a bigger issue to take care of: reuniting Alice with her sister, who has been in cryosleep.

Sword Art Online has generally never been a mystery series, nor has it relied on surprises or last minute swerves. This is good, because at this point I will be a lot more surprised if Kamura, the new transfer student, ISN’T Mutasina. Kawahara can be very straightforward. That said, this is a perfectly fine volume of Sword Art Online, though it’s suffering from being the 4th book in what is probably another 9-book arc. There are hints that Unital Ring’s plot and the Underworld plot will connect in the future, but hints are all they are now, so it does suffer a bit from having to, about 2/3 of the way through the book, shift gears and remind us to start caring about what seems like a completely different story. It will probably read better when the whole arc is out, but for now it feels a bit thin.

Still, the next book is out in Japan, and we should see it in the spring sometime. Till then, enjoy Kirito cutting things with his sword and also acting like a dumb teenage boy.

Sword Art Online: Progressive, Vol. 8

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

(This review spoils the end of the book, but I’ll wait till after the cover art and summary to do so.)

For the most part, Sword Art Online is a cash cow. What this means, especially now that Kawahara is no longer relying on rewriting his webnovel, is that he is free to do what he wants and take all the time he needs without real fear of being cancelled. Now, this can be dangerous, and the series risks becoming a bit TOO meandering. But it also means that he’s happy to set up a bunch of stuff, lead us towards resolving it… and then kick it up to the next floor/book, knowing that he has time to look into it in greater detail then. This is what happens here with the ongoing Dark Elves plot. We get a few more hints about what’s going on, there’s some tantalizing angst as they worry about putting the main casino plot ahead of Kizmel’s (she assures them it’s fine.) And then the confrontation… isn’t. See you in Book 9.

Kirito frequently runs on his instincts, which usually serve him well but also get him in a pile of trouble, as they do here where he essentially decides to rescue the monster dog from where it’s being slowly tortured to death for the casino games. Which is fine, but… that means they’ve got a lot that now needs to happen, including getting Nirrnir to inspect the enemy camp’s monster stables. Unfortunately, that leads to Very Bad Things, so now Kirito and Asuna are in a race against time to try to a) beat the cheating casino, b) beat the floor boss, and c) help Kizmel get un-disgraced. Fortunately, they have each other, they have Argo, and they have the power of delicious Greek food, so it won’t be TOO hard… maybe.

So yeah, I have to admit, I was not particularly surprised at the fact that Nirrnir was a vampire, as all the signs were there in the previous book. It would have been more odd if she WASN’T. No, the surprise was that I expected our heroes to win and be able to cure her poisoning at the last minute. I wasn’t even that surprised at Kirito telling Nirrnir to drink his blood in order to stay alive – this is a classic trope of vampire stories. I was pretty surprised that this caused Kirito to become a vampire himself. And I was VERY VERY surprised that this was not resolved by the end of the book, meaning he’s going to have to take on the next floor only in the evening, as he now has all the traditional vampire weaknesses. It fits with the story in this 2-book arc, but honestly, I hope “Kirito the Vampire” is resolved sooner rather than later in Book 9. And honestly, I kind of want the dark elf plot resolved as well. I love Kizmel, but ell… sometimes Progressive *is* too meandering.

We’re caught up with Japan again, and I’m not sure when Book 9 will come out. In the meantime, please enjoy a Kirito who is probably going to be staring at Asuna’s neck even more than he normally does.

Sword Art Online, Vol. 24: Unital Ring III

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

Given that this series has now been running for twenty-four volumes, it’s no surprise that the current arc is seeing a lot more discussion of what has come before. This is especially true now that Kawahara has caught up with himself and no longer has to quietly edit the crappy things he wrote when he was 20 years younger. There’s a lot of interesting stuff that never really got developed in the past that can now be looked into at more leisure. This is the concept behind the Progressive series – which these books pretty much make clear have sort of usurped the original first volume as being canonical – as well as the movie, which also gets referenced here. The line between canon versions of Sword Art Online is blurring. And given that, it’s no surprise that, despite the current death game-esque plot of Unital Ring, complete with a Death Collar of sorts for Kirito, we’re still heading back to the Underworld, which may be 200 or so years into the future but still manages to ask the important question: is *he* REALLY dead?

(Man, covers always spoil, huh? So much for my trying to be ambiguous…)

Kirito is having a bit of a rough time at the moment, though honestly compared to “I am in a coma” it’s going pretty well. In Unital Ring everyone seems to be trying to kill his party. Someone has apparently dived into the Underworld without authorization, which means there needs to be an investigation. And, most importantly, it’s Asuna’s birthday and he has to get just the right present. Frankly, he’s pretty much a dumbass about that, and it’s a good thing that Argo is back in his life to give him enough hints that he can do the right thing. Argo and Alice get to spend time with Kirito in Unital Ring this volume, as Argo has finally given in and ported her character in. Good thing too, as it turns out that it’s not just SAO, or ALO, or GGO, it’s lots of other virtual reality games. Meaning we also get GIANT INSECT BATTLES!

I suspect there may be some fans who are a bit grumpy about the supposed reveal towards the end of this book. That said, “Nobody dies in Bleach” is the phrase, not “nobody dies in SAO”. There have been important characters killed off. So I think we’re allowed to give the author a bit of rope here, especially as there’s no confirmation that it *is* who Kirito thinks it is. That said, I cannot help but be reminded of the separation of Alice Zuberg and Alice Synthesis Thirty and go “Hrrrm”. Aside from that, I continue to be amused, given his reputation as the all-powerful light novel hero, how much of this book shows Kirito being mocked or screwing up. I mean, yes, he does some cool things, but that’s mostly because his human strategy guide is back. Of course, he fares better than Asuna, who has an incredibly cool battle… recapped for us as it’s offscreen. Bleah.

This arc is settling in to be another long one, but at least it has the entire cast this time, so fans should be a bit more happy than Underworld. Till next time: d’awwww. sugar maple tree.