Sword Art Online Alternative: Gun Gale Online: 4th Squad Jam: Start

By Keiichi Sigsawa and Kouhaku Kuroboshi, based on the series created by Reki Kawahara. Released in Japan by Dengeki Bunko. Released in North America by Yen On. Translated by Stephen Paul.

This book was always going to have a tough time living up to the previous one,k and let’s face it: it does not. It’s a pretty good book, especially in the back half once the game starts, but it does show off the big flaw with this series as opposed to its parent: Sigsawa is not as good at writing Karen, Elza, etc. as he is at writing Llenn and Pitohui. He’s here for the gun battles, and all else is secondary (leaving aside the last book, which feels like an aberration at this point). As a result, when we see something that is a huge threat to Karen in this book, it doesn’t really come off as well, because we’re far more familiar with the fast pink blur whose ideal man is her gun (no, literally, she says that here) than the tall awkward rich girl. Things are not helped either by the presence of one of my least favorite Kawahara traits, now borrowed by this author as well: the smug villain who wants the girl to submit to him.

As noted, Karen is at an event her dad is attending, trying to be a wallflower, when she meets a short, fat man who tries to commiserate with her about height. They converse, he leaves, all is good. Then she gets a marriage proposal, which her dad suggests she accept. While this is going on, there’s a new Squad Jam starting. Four people is a bit small, so this time around Pitohui grabs Clarence and Shirley to fill their ranks – though Shirley wants no part of this, really. There are two big problems with this Squad Jam, at least in this first book. The first is that we have added zombie monsters, who are attracted when one of their number is killed by gunfire. The second is that Karen’s wannabe fiancee has shown up in the game – his avatar is just as wish fulfilling for him as hers is for her – and, using her real name, demands that if he beats her she has to go out with him.

So yeah, another smug guy who wants to control the woman he desires in a Sword Art Online book, yay. He doesn’t show up in the back half, fortunately, so I will put off my grumpiness till later. As I said, the back half of the story is better, and I always enjoy seeing how different the teams in the game are to their real-life personalities – Llenn’s team gets waylaid by literal suicide bombers in the Jam, who pose quite a problem, but seeing what they’re really like made it more amusing than anything else. Our team shows off good teamwork as well – minus Shirley, who cannot let go of her grudge towards Pitohui (who, to be fair, fuels it) and Clarence, who is a big goofball and not much else, frankly. And then there’s Llenn’s constant effort to finally have a showdown with SHINC, which – no surprises – gets derailed by the cliffhanger, showing, I suppose, that money can’t buy happiness, but it comes close.

So it’s a setup book where I’m not that fond of the setup. Still, Sigsawa knows how to write his gun battles. And this one is a 3-book arc, so I’d better settle in.

Sword Art Online, Vol. 20: Moon Cradle

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

I’m not quite sure where the break is, but there was a big gap in time between Reki Kawahara starting the Moon Cradle arc in his webnovel version of Sword Art Online and his finishing it. The reason for the gap, of course, was that he was busy taking SAO and Accel World and making them actual published books. And I have to say, this book does feature a more mature style than I’m used to with this series, more in line with what he’d been doing with Progressive. There’s some wonderful prose descriptions of the Underworld here, and aside from a sneering villain (who even uses the word ‘confound’, a word only villains use), there’s not as much of the author’s usual bad habits. This book almost feels at times like it’s meant to be spinning off Ronie and Tiese into their own book series, serving as sort of a distaff Kirito and Eugeo for the next generation. But of course the issue there is that Kirito and Asuna are still around, and why call up Blue Beetle and Booster Gold when you can get Superman and The Flash?

We’re back in Centoria again after Kirito and Ronie’s adventures in the dark lands, but the threat of a civil war is still ongoing, and the investigation is proving frustrating, mostly as it would seem to involve people who can easily bypass the Taboo Index and also have tons of power. You would think it might be the Emperors and high nobles, but we’re shown a quick flashback at the start of the book that helpfully tells us they’ve all been killed off by our heroes. Fortunately, as it turns out, Tiese’s inability to let go of Eugeo sees her and Ronie visiting a mansion rumored to be haunted, and finding that it’s actually home to the very conspiracy they’re looking for. Can they stop the big bad by themselves? Well, no, it’s Kirito’s series still. But they do most of it. And their dragons are very cute.

The writing, as I noted at the start of this review, may be more mature, but the plotting still leaves something to be desired. He even admits in the afterword that most everything he sets up in these two books is left open-ended (including Ronie’s own love for Kirito, which Asuna muses on but never actually sits down with her to discuss), and it gives the whole volume a feeling of a series that got cancelled by Shonen Jump before it could really tell its story. There’s also a chapter with Ronie’s baby dragon going to get help, which involves befriending a rat and has a very Incredible Journey feel to it, but is also 100% pointless. I did really enjoy the scene with Kirito and Asuna getting ready for bed, which shows a relaxed ease to them as a couple (though honestly, Kirito still behaves like a kid a great deal of the time). Notably, they sleep in the same bed with pajamas on – after the first SAO book, any suggestion they’re a sexually active couple has been thoroughly absent.

So the prose is good here, but it leaves a reader dissatisfied if they were hoping for things to be tied up in a neat bow. But fear not, lovers of Kirito everywhere (there are some, right?), we’re getting a brand new arc next time that is not from a webnovel. Unital Ring brings us back to real-world future Japan, introduces a new game to confound everyone, and may bring back a few surprises from the past. But it won’t have Ronie or Tiese.

Sword Art Online, Vol. 19: Moon Cradle

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

Well, having wrapped up the 10-volume Alicization arc, here we are back in the Underworld anyway. This book takes place in the subjective 200 years of time that Kirito and Asuna spent there before returning to the real world – in fact, it takes place in the first few months of those 200 years. There’s still a lot to be sorted out, mostly as the darklanders live in a barren wasteland (because it’s meant to be a game and they were meant to be evil) and the humans live in nice plentiful farmlands. Worse still, there’s a murder, something thought to be impossible. It quickly becomes clear that the murderer is trying to set things up so that there will be another war between the two groups. Can Kirito and Ronie find out who is behind all this? And can Ronie actually manage to confess to Kirito, something that seems to elude all the other heroines not named Asuna. Fortunately, she has a big advantage here: she’s the 3rd-person narrator, and the book is better for it.

Those who don’t like Kirito… well, first of all, why are you reading Vol. 19 of this series? But secondly, you won’t like this one, as he’s overpowered and also cheeky most of the time. It’s easy to see why Ronie loves him, and also easy to see why she feels inferior compared to Asuna, who is very much in the wise all-knowing mode here. She and Tiese have the same problem, but framed differently: Tiese is still in love with Eugeo, but he’s dead, and she can’t move on. Meanwhile, Ronie is in love with Kirito, who is in her face every day, but is also taken. In other words, Ronie falls into the same category as every other SAO heroine who isn’t Asuna (or, arguably, Alice). Ronie also has some doubts about her ability as a Knight, though those start to be resolved by the end of the book when she’s able to channel her inner Kirito and do seemingly impossible stunts.

We get not one but two babies in this book – Fanatio’s child at the start, who gets to be thrown hundreds of feet into the air and then caught, every baby’s dream, as well as the child of Iskahn and Sheyta, who shown off the two sides coming together and also sadly proves to be our baby in distress towards the end, though I suppose I should count myself lucky that there are no rape threats in this book. Indeed, with the lack of that and also the lack of a super evil sneering villain, this book shows off a maturity that the SAO series has lacked at times. This was, I believe, the last of the webnovel material to be adapted for light novels – which is important, because it means we’re moving past the sometimes amateurish writing from 15 years ago. And, as I said before, the book also reads better when not in first-person perspective. I wish he did that more often.

This is the first of a two-parter, and the next volume promises a bit more Asuna. Still likely filtered through Ronie, through, which is fine. I like her. SAO fans should find a lot to enjoy here, and SAO haters should find a lot of ammo.