Sword Art Online Alternative: Gun Gale Online: Five Ordeals

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.

Gotta admit, this book was an absolute treat for me. After so many volumes of everyone having to fight each other, It really is fantastic seeing all the main characters team up, NOT fight each other, and work towards a united goal. There’s still lots of enemies to defeat, of course, and trust me when I say Shirley is still looking for any opportunity she can to snipe Pitohui, but for the most part this is the most relaxed and fun a SAO Alternative volume has ever been. There’s even a cute dog! That said, while I was very happy, it’s worth noting that this book is about a cast of young women who really, really, REALLY like to shoot at each other. They’re not SAO survivors, there’s no worry of real death, they just like the adrenaline rush, it excites them. As such, the ending of this book should have really been obvious. And yes, it also revolves around the cute dog.

After wrapping up Karen’s karaoke party of sad, with Elza telling everyone her life story (all lies, M gives us her true life story, though she tells him that may ALSO be lies), We hear about a new team event involving “five ordeals”. This will finally allow Llenn’s group to team up with SHINC (it’s made clear that Llenn really does regard the 4th squad jam as achieving her fight with them, despite the interruptions) as well as perpetual hangers-ons Clarence and Shirley. The ordeals themselves are introduces to us by a cute talking NPC dog (a Schipperke), who tells them it’s basically five tasks, all with different rules, different areas, and ascending levels of difficulty. Can they battle zombies, fight robots, ascend snow-buried buildings, and take on CYBER-DRAGONS?

So I feel it’s OK to mention this, as the website Does the Dog Die? is literally namechecked in the book: the dog doesn’t die. This is despite the entire final chapter revolving around the dog dying – it’s a very self-aware book, and allows us to actually get some depth to Miyu, who is allowed to be more than just the wacky comic relief here (though she’s that too, no worries). As for the rest, it’s what you expect from this series: the fights are awesome, the banter is fun, there’s a few betrayals, and the author cannot stop dragging his self-insert around like a corpse. It’s also fun seeing Llenn finally come to terms with the fact that just because she is a cute pink tyke doesn’t mean that she’s not just as scary or even scarier than Pitohui is. Seeing her wonder “wait, is this why everyone is wary of me?” may be the best joke in the book. And again, the entire relationship between Fukaziroh and the NPC dog was fantastic and even heartwarming, which is not really a beat this series is good at.

I suspect we get a Squad Jam next, but for a change of pace this was excellent. Enjoy our heroes working together in peace… even if they don’t want to really.

Sword Art Online, Vol. 23: Unital Ring II

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

Definitely enjoying seeing this series now that Kawahara, a good 20 years older than his SAO Vol. 1 self, knowing his strengths and weaknesses and using them to good effect. There are heroines in peril here, but there is very little of the fanservicey “hero saves the girl from the predator” that we used to see constantly in this series. The humor is mostly character-based, and rarely feels forced. Kirito is powerful and tends to still get the “last boss kill”, but the nature of Unital Ring means he’s struggling a lot more, and he also has the grace to pass on some of his rewards to more deserving people. And we get, for the first time in the main series, Argo becoming a supporting player. Created for the Progressive novels and then put in the anime, manga and games, she’s always been a ghost presence in the main series itself. Now she gets a name – Tomo – and an agenda, which is more than just “tease Kirito constantly”. Though, well, she does that too, of course.

The plot is mostly a ‘rescue arc’ of sorts – everyone else in Kirito’s group was playing ALO when the Unital Ring changeover happened, but Sinon was in GGO, so she ends up being a long ways away from any of her allies. She’s confused, mistakenly branded as a PKer, caught dying of thirst in a desert, and forced to fight a massive dinosaur with the help of some bird people who don’t even speak Japanese. It is awesome, easily the best part of the book, and benefits greatly from the lack of Kirito’s POV. Elsewhere, Kirito’s party ad their log cabin are being reinforced, but a lot of players keep trying to attack him. Why? And Argo’s back (yes, she’s Tomo, but Kirito does not really make the switch so I won’t either), and is (unsurprisingly) now a crack reporter, here to rip open one of the more closemouthed folks in the cast – Kikuoka.

I’ve made no secret about my love of Argo, and though she doesn’t get much to do here, there’s a promise of more. I enjoyed the fact that her response to Kirito’s “where have you been all this time” was a polite “none of your business”, and also intrigued that (sorry, game continuity) she hasn’t been in ALO or GGO or even back in a game at all since the SAO disaster ended, though she hints that may change. In the meantime, it’s nice to see the cast work as a core cast, as opposed to being Kirito and his harem. Everyone apart from Alice and Asuna (who are minding the fort) gets something to do, with Yui being the most impressive. Now that she’s a physical part of Unital Ring (and could theoretically die if she’s killed, sorry, Shirou) she’s busy learning sowrds, learning magic, and basically becoming Little Miss Badass. Kirito is, needless to say, both proud and fretful.

So yes, this was a good solid volume, and I’m glad SAO has finally seemed to have matured, after several false alarms. Can’t wait for more.

Sword Art Online, Vol. 22: Kiss and Fly

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

After the cliffhanger for the last volume of SAO, a lot of people were anxious for the continuation, in particular wanting to see more of a heroine who’d only shown up in the Progressive series before now. Well, I have good news and bad news. The good news is that Argo is here, and gets a supporting role at the start of the book. The bad news is that the role is in a short story, and indeed this is a short story collection, taking the various pieces Kawahara wrote as DVD/BD extras in Japan and stitching them together to make a book. This is not necessarily a bad thing – the first three stories are decent enough, and the final story I’d go so far as to call excellent. But I have to admit, starting a brand new arc, the first thing the creator has done that wasn’t published online… and then switching to the first short story collection since Vol 8? The reader cannot help being a bit bummed out.

The cover art cannot entirely escape Kirito – he’s there in the bottom left corner – but does show off the heroines of the various short stories (including one who should be a spoiler). In The Day Before, Kirito and Asuna go to buy the log cabin he’s had his eye on before getting married, but run into Argo, who’s got a big problem. In the Day After, Asuna is having trouble getting her avatar used to ALO – far more trouble than everyone else. Could she be… haunted? Rainbow Bridge is a sequel to an anime extra episode that showed off the cast in swimsuits – here they try to figure out why the quest they did was so unsatisfying. Finally, Sisters’ Prayer is a prequel to the 7th book, showing us how Yuuki, her sister, and a friend they meet who also has a terminal illness decide to start their own guild.

As with most short story collections, the quality varies. I love Argo, but she did not really have a lot to do here, and you get the sense Kawahara wrote her in as she was added to the anime episodes at the last minute. The Day After is better, benefiting from a lack of first-person Kirito and also tying up one of the loose ends of the series, showing us that Kirito’s first love is fine with Kirito’s current love. Rainbow Bridge is the slightest story in the book, but does give Leafa a chance to show off her Norse Mythology nerd-ness, and also allows for a cool action sequence. The best story is the last one, a bittersweet yet uplifting tale of Yuuki and her sister, playing in a “safe” VR game for terminal patients, finding out that there are better ways to live your life even if you can’t leave your hospital room, and helping another girl who wants to be in SAO with her friends so badly she is OK with dying to do so. It’s really fantastic.

So yes, this is definitely worth reading, and I enjoyed it. But it does not solve the growing need for the next volume of Unital Ring. That comes in the fall, alas.