By Reki Kawahara and abec. Released in Japan by ASCII Mediaworks. Released in North America by Yen On. Translated by Stephen Paul.
If the 7th Sword Art Online novels felt rushed because we weren’t used to the pace of a single volume story, then this book has the opposite issue. Alicization Running is filled with cool scenes, exposition, and character development, but it is the very definition of “Part 2 of 10” – it doesn’t stand on its own as a novel, really. For those who expected we’d see Kirito and Eugeo reuniting with Alice in this book, she’s barely even mentioned except as a goal, because to get to her they have to become Knights, which means winning a tournament, which means going through sword training school, which means winning ANOTHER tournament. Kawahara is stretching this out, for good or ill. Fortunately, it’s partly good – this is still readable, and by now I hope the average Sword Art Online reader takes Kirito’s success with a sword for granted and does not grind their teeth at it.
The other good news is that the first third or so of this book is devoted to Asuna in the real world, who is trying to figure out what happened to Kirito, who is not, as we may have expected, in a hospital but has instead completely vanished. We do eventually find out where he is, with a lot of seeming villains who are really helping out heroes and the like. We also get more of one of my least favorite things in Sword Art Online – praising Akihiko Kayaba, the villain of the first arc who condemned thousands to death, but is really just a misunderstood man with a dream, something that even Asuna says she can respect, which just makes me shake my head. Unfortunately, the rest of Asuna’s section is taken up with huge swaths of technobabble as Kikuoka explains what they’re trying to do here, why they’re trying to do it, and why Kirito is here. Some of those explanations are a bit disturbing – the author even has to remind us in the afterword that he does not necessarily agree with his characters (I’m guessing he’s meaning the use of DELICIOUS TASTY BABY SOULS).
Meanwhile, Kirito’s having an adventure, and while he does think of Asuna and the others, and misses them, his focus is on getting to the central capitol. This involves a lot of showing off, because this is Kirito after all, as well as forging him an amazing weapon that can be the equal of the sword Eugeo possesses (which is a black blade almost identical to his Aincrad one). He also gets to face off in a battle with the #1 swordsman at the school… who sadly is not the young woman on the cover. She’s the second strongest swordsman, and the plot is set up to build to a final battle against her that never happens. I’d like to say it’s not just because she’s a woman, but let’s be honest, it probably is. As always, Kirito is at his most interesting when he’s upset or something goes wrong, such as when his classmates’ petty bullying and destruction leads him to the literal power of prayer to fix things (fortunately, this is a gaming world, so it succeeds).
I wish we had more of Eugeo, who’s a nice sweet kid but not much else – he got far more development last time. As for the regulars who aren’t Kirito or Asuna, well, Leafa and Sinon get to have a confab with Asuna at the start of the book, but Lisbeth and Silica are reduced to begging on the back cover. Yui actually fares better than they do – her discussion of AIs, and how in the end she isn’t the amazingly self-aware fairy daughter she appears to be, is well-written and also chilling. This is a necessary volume of Sword Art Online if you want to read more of Alicization, but by itself it’s a bit frustrating. Recommended for fans of the series, but I’m hoping for a bit of a Turning point next time…
Also, Kirito spends most of the book being protected by invisible sentient head lice, who I can’t help but picture as Jiminy Cricket. I just want to throw that out there.