Sword Art Online, Vol. 26: Unital Ring V

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

It’s not clear how much ;longer this arc of Sword Art Online is going to go, or if it really is the final arc in the story. I don’t think even the author knows, especially given that his afterword talks about how he gets distracted by side stories and diversions all the time and can’t advance the plot. But I think he’s thinking about it, and we get a little of that with Silica here, who gets to have most of the narration that isn’t Kirito’s when he’s in the Underworld. She’s been one of the original SAO gang for so long it’s sometimes hard to remember that she’s three years younger than most of the others, and she’s noticing that Asuna and Lisbeth aren’t playing games quite as much as they used to. It’s not framed in a “put away childish things” sort of way – indeed, Silica notes one of her friends think she’s the weird one for continuing to game so much after SAO – but hey, adulting is necessary. The real world beckons.

The plot here is neatly divided in half. On the Underworld side, Kirito, Asuna and Alice finally get to see Alice’s sister frozen in time, awaiting her return… along with two other surprise guests! Unfortunately, unfreezing them will involve Kirito and Eolyne becoming astronauts, going to one of the satellites where Kirito, pre-memory wipe, hid the information. But, of course, while there they find bad guys doing terrible things. On the Unital Ring side, the rest of the main cast need to find more ore in order to keep up with the other gamers, and doing so will involve facing off against a giant wasp nest! Can they use a dangerous flower that the SAO players know very well to try and swing the battle a little more their way? can can we really get to see a scene with Silica sitting on top of a giant bear fighting a wasp? Because that sounds pretty awesome, frankly.

This book not only thinks about the future a little bit, but also manages to recall the past. We get more “what measure is an NPC?” philosophy, but this also involves Asuna clearly thinking of Kizmel, and almost having a little breakdown. Those reading the Progressive books will know that Kizmel is hugely popular and I think the author is dragging things out a bit to use her more, but it’s also plainly obvious that she’s not going to stick around till the 75th floor, so we can guess what likely happened. And of course, we get more Underworld stuff, though of all the minor characters from that arc to make an emotional reappearance, the elevator operator was not the first one I would have guessed. It works well, though, and also allows our heroines to have a nice long bath, satisfying both Asuna’s love of bathing and also abec’s love of drawing fanservice.

So yes, the plot progression was minimal here, but this was a solid, fun read. SAO fans should be happy.

Sword Art Online Alternative: Gun Gale Online: 5th 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.

It’s been about a year since the last volume of this series, and many might be forgiven for thinking that it ended. Including the author, who admits it was supposed to end about here. I mean, in terms of plot threads to resolve, there aren’t many left. Karen is no longer being forced to get married, though the denouement for that may not appeal to her. Elsa’s issues are, for the moment, somewhat resolved. The real world has never really been a big part of this series, but even so, I would not blame the author for wanting to move on and write a few more Kino’s Journey books. But here we are anyway, with another Squad Jam, and the sense that Dengeki Bunko is asking the author to please keep the series going because it’s selling well and Llenn merch is cute. As a result, we get this new volume, the first of a two-part (?) story which seems to have one purpose: mock the author mercilessly.

OK, technically every single volume of this series has done that, but this one really makes the effort to get nastier. There’s a new squad jam, and the teams are the same (meaning Clarence and Shirley are still part of the squad). There’s complicated new rules which basically amount to “one team member gets to carry alternate gear for another team member”. Oh yes, and there’s one brand-new rule that is sent to everyone BUT one player. Yes, after essentially being the poster child for every single Squad Jam since the start, Llenn has gotten TOO famous, so now the added rule is that she has a bounty on her head, and whoever kills her in this game will get a pile of REAL money. Now she not only has to try to survive, but she has to find the rest of her team – they were all separated as the event began, and there’s mist everywhere!

For all that everyone in the book hates the author for not just letting them fight, this is a fairly clever setup that allows for what people REALLY want to see in each Squad Jam, which is something different. Separating everyone in particular is a great idea, as it allows us to get interaction we would not normally see, as Llenn forms a reluctant alliance with Vivi, the leader of the machine gunner’s squad. Speaking of which, this is just a game, unlike the original SAO, but there’s still a fair amount of violent death or near death. Vivi’s fate towards the end of this book is horrifying, and would likely have to be edited from the anime if one ever gets to this point. There’s a small attempt at plot, showing Vivi and Fuka are rivals in another game, but that just sets up a cliffhanger more than anything else. It’s pretty much pure action scenes and small characterization.

So yeah, as a book it’s light as air, and you’ll be hungry again right after reading it, but it serves its purpose. Maybe wrap it up soon, please, though?

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.