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.

Sword Art Online: Progressive, Vol. 7

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

As I was reading this volume of Progressive, I wondered why I was having so much trouble remembering what had happened in the previous book, then it hit me that it’s been two and a half years since the previous book. That said, it did not take long to get back into the swing of things, because as much as I sometimes can’t remember which ones are the two main rival guilds or which player killer we saw last time, as long as I remember Kirito, Asuna, Argo and Kizmel I’m good. This book deals with the seventh floor, a summer weather floor that also boasts a beach, some lovely restaurants, and a casino where you can win big… or lose your shirt. Asuna is not all that happy about having to get involved with the casino’s machinations, but when it turns out that this will also involve the dark elves, she and Kirito are quick to help. Unfortunately, after the events of the last book, they may not get a warm welcome from the elves.

The author mentions in the afterword that the main series has Kirito and Asuna separated in the current arc (Unital Ring), so he’s very happy to have them spend the entire book together like this. Indeed, it’s the bread and butter of the series, whose fans are reading it mostly to see the two be cute and romantic. We definitely get some of that here, as despite the death game aspects of the plot the start of the book could easily be a date by the seaside. We also see that when Asuna has trouble sleeping she goes to Kirito, and being next to him knocks her right out. She may not be verbally admitting anything, but her actions speak pretty loud. As for Kirito, he reminds us again and again that he’s 14, and it feels like it. For the most part he’s still thinking that Asuna needs a larger stage to shine on (i.e. one away from him), but he also feels the need to keep her at his side. It’s cute. Argo agrees with me.

As for the non-shippers plotline, we get more of the other purpose of this series, which is the idea that this is a real world that people have lived in for centuries, rather than a game populated by NPCs. This is not to say that the NPCs can’t be cliches also, as we meet the casino’s manager (a cool collected 12-year-old girl) and her battle maid. As for Kizmel, yeah, things not going so well. Not only is there a prison br3eak sequence, but they’ve got to find a way to get the keys back while at the same time dealing with the quests they have at the casino. There’s so much going on that it’s a surprise it gets fit into one book… OK, no, it doesn’t. There’s a cliffhanger, and we’ll have to wait for Book 8 to resolve it.

Fortunately, Book 8 is on sale this spring, so we will not be waiting another two and a half years. Till then, there’s lots to read about here, but mostly what we want is the cute not-yet romance. There’s plenty of that here.