Sword Art Online, Vol. 18: Alicization Lasting

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

This is not, of course, the final volume of Sword Art Online. There’s a 2-part Underworld arc after this one, and Kawahara just started a new arc with surprise twists that’s still ongoing in Japan. But this has the feel of an ending, and you certainly get the sense that had they wanted to, the series could happily have ended here. It’s a good ending, despite all the issues I’ve had with Alicization in the past, A very strong beginning, then a middle that gets a bit tedious and annoying, before a stronger finish. A word of warning to those who love Sword Art Online but hate Kirito: he’s back, and is absolutely ridiculous in this book. He flies, like Superman. It’s even lampshaded. (I was actually startled when the book shifted back to his first-person narration, as I’d forgotten that was the standard.) Do the others get anything to do? Um, no, Kirito’s back. Didn’t you hear? But they do cheer him on really well.

To be fair, Asuna does some things as well. In fact, this leads to what may be my favorite part of the book. The book itself is not shy about showing that, haremettes aside (with Alice a strong #2 at this point – sorry, Sinon) there is only one ultimate pairing, and it’s Kirito and Asuna. That said, when the chips are down and they need some inner strength and resolve, they do not turn to each other. It’s no surprise that Kirito hears Eugeo’s voice telling him to get up and save everyone – their bond is the most important part of this arc, Alice or no, and Underworld is the sort of world where the spirit of a dead person taking form to spur on the living would be par for the course. That said, Yuuki was never in the Underworld, but she’s here as well, reassuring Asuna and giving readers one last chance to see Mother’s Rosario in action. I like how the relationships between Kirito and Eugeo, and between Asuna and Yuuki, are shown to be so impactful and important on their lives going forward.

For those who want to see Kirito being a bit merciless, there’s his dealing with both PoH (who gets an abbreviated backstory here showing his childhood) and Gabriel Miller – both of whom he essentially murders, though Gabriel’s actual ending back in “the real world” is a bit more fantastical than I’d like in a non-game setting, and also reminded me of the end of the movie Ghost. Unfortunately, Kayaba is also still around, despite dying 16 books ago, and Kawahara continues to try to show him as a true hero saving everyone while occasionally dropping the odd “he also killed over 4000 people and there’s no forgiving that” paragraph which really does not convince anyone. To be honest, after Underworld resolves, the rest of the battle on the Ocean Turtle reads as a letdown, and I was relieved when we got to the epilogue.

We get a good look at Kirito’s self-destructive tendencies in his relationships with other people here, and how Asuna and the others have helped cure that mostly. He’s now actively thinking of a future, for both himself and the Underworld, at a Japanese college. (Given what Lisbeth said about them being at a special school and getting counseling that assumes they’re all going to snap at any moment, I assume the government will lean on organizations hard to employ/educate them in the future, as otherwise I can’t see anyone hiring a SAO survivor.) He has Asuna at his side, of course. And also Alice, who is now in the real world via a robot body, which is eyebrow-raising but does lead to the best joke in the book, which I won’t spoil but involves a big box. (It’s also hinted on the back cover.)

And so Alicization is over, and thank Goodness. Kirito is back and taking the spotlight from everyone else, so haters will be thrilled they can get very angry again. That said, there was a very obvious story not told in this book – what happened to Kirito and Asuna in the two hundred years they were trapped in Underworld? We might find out in the 19th book, which stars… Ronie?

Sword Art Online Alternative: Gun Gale Online: 3rd Squad Jam: Betrayer’s Choice (Part 2)

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.

As with most of these volumes, I find that this volume of SAO Alternative starts slow and gradually gets going till a 2nd half that verges on fantastic. The first part of the book briefly checks in with all the other teams, showing us what they were doing while Llenn and company were having their adventures by the train depot in the first part. They all gradually get the same notice: one of them is a traitor, please report to the traitor area for debriefing. The reactions range from vague dissatisfaction to rage to deep sadness, and then there’s Pitohui, who is OVER THE MOON. The story then moves to a massive ocean liner that is grounded on the island… except the island is sinking under the ocean, so gradually it becomes a real boat. Can everyone get to the boat before they drown? Can they defeat this new team made up of “betrayers”? And will the betrayers really work together anyway?

There are some nice moments with characters other than the two leads, I will briefly admit. The soldier that Pitohui fought in the 2nd Squad Jam gets a name and some righteous fury, not that it does him much good. SHINC are still the best huge Russian women who are really cute middle schoolers out there, and I really loved it when Llenn and Eva teamed up – if they can’t have their long-awaited battle (and it’s become clear by now the narrative will ALWAYS stop them in some way), this is almost as good. Fukaziroh is also a lot of fun, with quips at the ready, though she also functions as a good sounding board for Pitohui to actually (gasp!) open up. And the final battle between Fukaziroh and Eva is almost as good as Llenn and Pitohui’s. But not quite. Because, once again, we’re here to read about these two girls and their twisted relationship.

A warning for those who love reading SAO spinoffs but hate Kirito: he’s not in this book, but a flashback shows Pitohui, as a beta tester for SAO, fighting a swordsman who is very clearly him. I’m very glad that Pitohui missed getting trapped in SAO despite what it ended up doing to her already somewhat broken self, as I suspect she would have ended up in Laughing Coffin. (So does she.) But it’s seeing Pito’s vulnerability that’s the best part of this book – admitting to Fukaziroh that she’s terrified of Llenn, her real-life bodies own limits impacting her performance towards the end, and her own latent attraction to Llenn, who is not only cute and lethal (especially when in a rage-filled haze as she is towards the end here) but also in real life tall, athletic, and pretty. Sadly, Llenn still seems to have no interest.

I left out the book’s big spoiler, as it’s a very well done twist. And the ship’s AI was wonderful. Other than that… well, people read Alternative for the gun battles, and there are certainly a lot of those here. I read Alternative for the characters, though, and it was great to see some development with them as well. Will we get a 4th Squad Jam next/ Or something else?

Sword Art Online, Vol. 17: Alicization Awakening

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 sure why it is that odd volumes of SAO seem to be irritating me so much. It could simply be because I’m rather weary of this arc, which is an excellent reminder to authors about why you should not make your story arc ten volumes long. It could also be because, once again, this series cried out for authorial and editorial intervention and did not get it. I know that one of the reasons that publishers are so happy to pick up Japanese webnovels and turn them into light novels is that they know the work is already written to a large degree, so deadlines aren’t a thing. But this is about the 4th book or so where Kawahara has written in the afterword “I sort of cringe at what I wrote here, but decided not to change it”. Not sexual assault this time – although that’s in here as well – but the feelings between Japan, China and Korea, which is, like a great deal of SAO proper, an interesting plot point that is handled somewhat hamhandedly.

That’s Leafa and Sinon on the cover with comatose Kirito behind them, and good news for fans of one of those characters, they do get some really good scenes. Of the non-Asuna female characters that Kawahara has created, Sinon is the closest he’s had to another success, and I really liked her here, despite the fact that she deals with Gabriel Miller at his most “I am eeeeeeeeevil!” self. He also turns out to be known to her from GGO, and her battle is probably the action highlight of the book. As for Leafa, it’s almost comical in how badly she’s been treated since… well, her introduction? Here she comes down nowhere near the other characters, gets another egregious sexual assault scene (it’s even framed as ‘worms’ and ‘tentacles’, just to make it more obvious), and finally arrives too late to really affect anything for the ending “darkest before the dawn” climax. I just get so frustrated when I read Leafa’s character.

Other things, some good, some bad. Lisbeth’s discussion of how the SAO survivors are treated in school, as ticking timebombs who are required to get therapy (and, I suspect, will need to get SAO-related jobs or not get hired after graduation, similar to what Kirito is doing now) is really really interesting and therefore I wish we’d had any indication of it at all before this. There’s another traitor towards the end of the book, tied in to both the Administrator plotline and going back to the Fairy Dance plotline who is yet another “I am written to be as evil, creepy and misogynist as possible so you don’t like me”, which, y’know, objective obtained, but you already have Gabriel. On the bright side, the ongoing “what defines a real human” plotline is reasonably well handled, and we’ll see him handle it even better in the Progressive series. And, much as I am completely sick of Laughing Coffin, it is nice to have an antagonist who is not driven by lust, just love of death and cruelty. Welcome back, PoH, I look forward to seeing you get yours eventually.

I was expecting, given the title, the book would end with Kirito back in action. I was wrong, though it looks like it’ll happen early in the next book. Which will be the last in this arc, thank God. Till then, you have to read this if you follow the series, but be ready to lose more of that tooth enamel.