Sword Art Online, Vol. 12: Alicization Rising

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

Last time I mentioned that the regulars not named Kirito barely appeared in the book, and this time they don’t appear at all – even Asuna isn’t in it, as we spend our entire time in Underworld watching Kirito and Eugeo slowly make their way upward in order to stop our chief villain of this arc. It can be a bit frustrating, especially as Kawahara excels at introducing new characters who could conceivably be quite an interesting addition to the ensemble and then leaving them by the side of the road. Eugeo, at least, continues to play the second protagonist role admirably, and once again the narration of the book is divided, with first-person Kirito for the first half and third-person Eugeo for the second. The book, in fact, somewhat mirrors the last one – just as that ended with a pile of exposition after a series of cool fights, so this one begins with the exposition before we get to the fighting. Kirito even gives us a “for those of you just starting this series” intro.

My favorite part of the book was probably the two girls on the cover, Fizel and Linel. They’re introduced at a point where the ordinary reader would be very suspicious, which is why the cover fakeout is so clever – given that they flank Kirito, clearly they’re meant to be new allies that he picks up along the way. A heh. Perhaps not. That said, once their subplot is done they are tossed out of the way like everyone else, and I do wonder if we’ll ever see what becomes of them, particularly if Kirito wins the day, something that is still not entirely certain. The best fight scene in the book goes to an Integrity Knight named Fanatio, which has to be intentional as she certainly seems fanatical. She has a complex about being a feminine knight, both because she was treated as weak by other men before and also because Alice has just arrived and is pulling off being feminine and hella strong perfectly. Kirito, who points out that he’s had the crap kicked out of him by women in fights before, is all too happy to duel her and teach ehr the error of her ways. It’s not terrible, but I’m not sure it comes off the way he wants it to – there’s still a tinge of sexism here.

Of course, we knew that before we reached the top of the tower and the final villain we’d have to fight Alice again. And, as if proving Fanatio to be even more wrong, she proceeds to absolutely kick Kirito and Eugeo’s asses, at least until the obligatory cliffhanger. Given everything that we learn about the Integrity Knights in the early infodump, I am curious as to whether Kirito and Eugeo will be able to snap her out of it – I suspect that may take up a good deal of the next book. In the meantime, Sword Art Online continues to be exactly the sort of series you think it is. The highs still high, the frustrations still omnipresent. I’d still argue it’s well worth a read, unless you hate Kirito.

Also, I found it hilarious that Kirito points out he has now failed to graduate THREE times – from middle school (trapped in SAO), high school (being trapped here), and sword academy (for breaking the taboo index). It’s OK, Kirito, there’s always McRonald’s.

Sword Art Online Alternative: Gun Gale Online, Vol. 1

By Keiichi Sigsawa, Kouhaku Kuroboshi, and Tadadi Tamori, based on the series created by Reki Kawahara. Released in Japan by ASCII Mediaworks, serialized in the magazine Dengeki Maoh. Released in North America by Yen Press. Translated by Stephen Paul.

The Sword Art Onlione franchise has done a lot of worldbuilding over the course of the series, detailing no less than four different games/VR environments. Some are more popular than others, but I think Gun Gale Online struck a cord with a lot of gamers, as usually these sorts of novels concentrate on sword-based fantasy RPGs – as indeed Sword Art Online did for its first four volumes. So the idea of combining that sort of immersion with a game filled with all sorts of guns, rifles, and lightsaber–sorry, beam swords was incredibly appealing. As for the publisher, I imagine having a spinoff series that did not have to be overseen by Kawahara as much as the others was a plus – the number of regular SAO cast in this first volume is zero. So if you want to read about Gun Gale Online but hate Kirito, have I got a series for you.

This manga is, like a lot of Sword Art Online, based off of a novel. Unfortunately, the novel has not been licensed here as of yet. It’s by Keiichi Sigsawa, who some may know as the creator of Kino’s Journey. Our heroine is Karen, an incredibly tall girl who went to a women’s college to try to change her self-conscious self, but found when she got there that most of the other students already knew each other, and she’s still huge, so she’s mostly a social outcast again. She decides to try to forget about it by playing a VRMMO… but every one she tries gives her another tall avatar. As a last resort, she tries Gun Gale Online, and finds that – finally – she’s short and cute. Now she and her pink gun (OK, Bambi) can have as much tiny fun as they want! (I am reminded of Log Horizon, where Akatsuki originally played as a huge male assassin because “games allow you to be something you’re not”.

We see Llenn (her screen name) gradually getting used to the game with the help of another player, Pitohui, who is the very definition of “obviously evil”, not that this seems to register with Llenn. As she gets a gun and starts to go after other players, she begins to have a lot of fun – botjh because her small form is very good at this sort of thing and also because, well, it’s a game, and in a game, killing others can be fun. That said, this is SAO, so we know those sorts of feelings are always dangerous, especially when helped along by Pitohui, who seems to be trying to make Llenn into a tiny little killing machine. (There is a very disturbing scene in reality midway through the book, showing a young woman (I really hope it’s a young woman, she looks far too young) on top of a guy, sexing him up while also threatening him regarding the upcoming GGO match. It’s heavily suggested this is Pitohui in real life, and does not bode well for our heroine. It also feels oddly out of place.)

The rest of the book is gun battle fun, as Llenn gets a partner who seems taciturn and scary at first but eventually shows he’s a nice enough guy. Are they good enough to win a tournament even though there’s only two of them? Even if their opponents look to literally be JSDF? What is Pitohui scheming? And can we really get through an SAO spinoff without Kirito showing up at all? Find out in the next thrilling volume!

Sword Art Online, Vol. 11: Alicization Turning

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

I don’t think I’ve ever come across a book that more perfectly summarizes the best and the worst of Sword Art Online in one handy gulp. The high points of this book are excellent, and the low points are incredibly frustrating. Put together, though, we have a series that continues to intrigue even as the main cast that isn’t Kirito continues to be entirely absent – Asuna gets a few pages in the middle, but for the most part we are entirely in Kirito’s fantasy world here. Fortunately, the first half of the book or so gives another break from Kirito’s first person, as we get a long stretch narrated by Eugeo, who is nice and earnest and a good contrast to Kirito. I was expecting that we would see more training at the knight academy, probably ending up in the giant fighting tournament that had been lampshaded earlier. But then things went entirely off the rails.

Let’s get the bad out of the way first. We have yet ANOTHER instance where female characters are captured and threatened with rape, so that we may see how irredeemably evil the villains are (Kawahara’s villains remain his giant weak point – he can’t write nuance) and also justify Kirito’s violence towards them. This is even more annoying because we’d barely gotten to know Tiese and Ronie, so the threat doesn’t have as much of a reader impact as it did with Asuna and Shino, assuming the reader impact cannot just be narrowed down to “rolls eyes, sighs”. And then due to the plot moving on, we don’t see the girls after this, which just makes it more blatant it was done for pure “damsels in distress” reasons. I understand in the original webnovel this was taken from, the girls actually were raped – thank heavens for small favors that this was changed. SO BORED WITH RAPE THREATS, KAWAHARA.

Of course, disposing of the two villains does mean that the plot makes a right turn, as now Kirito and Eugeo are captured by the Synthesis Knights and brought to the Central Cathedral… which was their goal, to be fair, but probably not as prisoners to be judged. Things pick up a great deal here, as we find that Alice (remember Alice?) is one of the knights, but doesn’t seem to remember Eugeo at all. Kirito takes up the narration again here, and it works out well, showing off his smarts in knowing when to push hard on “this is a game world with game rules” – breaking the chains was particularly good. What’s more, after a long and highly interesting fight scene that shows us the knights may in fact be brainwashed, we are given a long, long infodump by a new character that actually feels realistic and welcome, telling us a lot more about the Underworld, how it got its start, and the evil woman now at the head of it all.

In the end, this is book 3 of a 10-book arc, so there’s a limit to how far it can take things. But once you get past Kawahara deciding that nothing adds to drama quite like rape threats, it’s enjoyable and fun, with excellent fight scenes. Just… get a new gimmick. I beg you.