Sword Art Online, Vol. 19: Moon Cradle

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

Well, having wrapped up the 10-volume Alicization arc, here we are back in the Underworld anyway. This book takes place in the subjective 200 years of time that Kirito and Asuna spent there before returning to the real world – in fact, it takes place in the first few months of those 200 years. There’s still a lot to be sorted out, mostly as the darklanders live in a barren wasteland (because it’s meant to be a game and they were meant to be evil) and the humans live in nice plentiful farmlands. Worse still, there’s a murder, something thought to be impossible. It quickly becomes clear that the murderer is trying to set things up so that there will be another war between the two groups. Can Kirito and Ronie find out who is behind all this? And can Ronie actually manage to confess to Kirito, something that seems to elude all the other heroines not named Asuna. Fortunately, she has a big advantage here: she’s the 3rd-person narrator, and the book is better for it.

Those who don’t like Kirito… well, first of all, why are you reading Vol. 19 of this series? But secondly, you won’t like this one, as he’s overpowered and also cheeky most of the time. It’s easy to see why Ronie loves him, and also easy to see why she feels inferior compared to Asuna, who is very much in the wise all-knowing mode here. She and Tiese have the same problem, but framed differently: Tiese is still in love with Eugeo, but he’s dead, and she can’t move on. Meanwhile, Ronie is in love with Kirito, who is in her face every day, but is also taken. In other words, Ronie falls into the same category as every other SAO heroine who isn’t Asuna (or, arguably, Alice). Ronie also has some doubts about her ability as a Knight, though those start to be resolved by the end of the book when she’s able to channel her inner Kirito and do seemingly impossible stunts.

We get not one but two babies in this book – Fanatio’s child at the start, who gets to be thrown hundreds of feet into the air and then caught, every baby’s dream, as well as the child of Iskahn and Sheyta, who shown off the two sides coming together and also sadly proves to be our baby in distress towards the end, though I suppose I should count myself lucky that there are no rape threats in this book. Indeed, with the lack of that and also the lack of a super evil sneering villain, this book shows off a maturity that the SAO series has lacked at times. This was, I believe, the last of the webnovel material to be adapted for light novels – which is important, because it means we’re moving past the sometimes amateurish writing from 15 years ago. And, as I said before, the book also reads better when not in first-person perspective. I wish he did that more often.

This is the first of a two-parter, and the next volume promises a bit more Asuna. Still likely filtered through Ronie, through, which is fine. I like her. SAO fans should find a lot to enjoy here, and SAO haters should find a lot of ammo.

Sword Art Online Alternative: Gun Gale Online: One Summer Day

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.

I honestly feel a bit suckered in. We’ve had, for the last five volumes, a bunch of goofy fun gun battles, with some nice characterization and an ongoing plotline about what people game for. The author, who is known for writing endless amounts of spinoffs for other people’s work, also wrote himself into the series as a complete loser who exists to get mocked and humiliated. And, really, for about 85% of this 6th book, we get much the same thing. People are here to read the gun battles. There’s a reason for that: they’re good gun battles. There’s a lingering plotline, which we think will be dealt with in the epilogues, that has Karen wondering why she does GGO anyway – what’s in it for her? But no, this gets answered in the climax of the book. Instead, the 2nd epilogue is there to make you say “Oh, right. This is ALSO the author of Kino’s Journey. He can create something absolutely stunning as well.”

LLENN and the others are invited to a different kind of event in GGO. They’re trying to develop some NPCs, and want to test them using the top teams in the previous Squad Jams. So the teams are invited to storm a castle which is being defended by other guns. They can either work together or fight each other – indeed, the first half of the book shows off some of the teams wanting to fight – particularly LLENN, who has not realized that her inability to fight SHINC is the series’ running gag. Once they get intel on the group in the castle they’re up against, the book becomes a puzzle – how to get into the castle and/or kill those inside it without dying three times (they get multiple lives here, which is good, as the book starts with LLENN getting killed in a flashforward).

I’m going to try not to spoil the ending, which is hard, as it leaves me with not much to talk about. Suffice to say there are some good hints dropped here and there, particularly the scenes between LLENN and Jacob, one of the NPCs. Other than that, we’re left with a game situation which does not really rev up Putohui’s bonkers-ometer, and as a result she’s rather rational and awesome, much to LLENN’s surprise. LLENN is also able, through the course of this battle of attrition, to recall why she does this sort of thing in the first place. The side story helps there as well, when Miyu suggests to Karen a much of parodies of games which help to solidify her feelings. Basically, playing GGO for LLENN, with its mock battles and not-really-murders, is fun. Gaming is fun. And, as the epilogue I am not spoiling shows us, it can also be valuable in other, more tactile ways.

So, congratulations to Keiichi Sigsawa, who with one plot twist made this probably my favorite volume in the series. The 7th book is not scheduled yet, so it may be a while till we see LLENN and Pitohui again. (Clover’s Regret in between, perhaps?). That said, when we return I expect Squad Jam IV will bring things back to the sort of book Sigsawa normally writes in this series – happy little gamers killing things.

Sword Art Online, Vol. 18: Alicization Lasting

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

This is not, of course, the final volume of Sword Art Online. There’s a 2-part Underworld arc after this one, and Kawahara just started a new arc with surprise twists that’s still ongoing in Japan. But this has the feel of an ending, and you certainly get the sense that had they wanted to, the series could happily have ended here. It’s a good ending, despite all the issues I’ve had with Alicization in the past, A very strong beginning, then a middle that gets a bit tedious and annoying, before a stronger finish. A word of warning to those who love Sword Art Online but hate Kirito: he’s back, and is absolutely ridiculous in this book. He flies, like Superman. It’s even lampshaded. (I was actually startled when the book shifted back to his first-person narration, as I’d forgotten that was the standard.) Do the others get anything to do? Um, no, Kirito’s back. Didn’t you hear? But they do cheer him on really well.

To be fair, Asuna does some things as well. In fact, this leads to what may be my favorite part of the book. The book itself is not shy about showing that, haremettes aside (with Alice a strong #2 at this point – sorry, Sinon) there is only one ultimate pairing, and it’s Kirito and Asuna. That said, when the chips are down and they need some inner strength and resolve, they do not turn to each other. It’s no surprise that Kirito hears Eugeo’s voice telling him to get up and save everyone – their bond is the most important part of this arc, Alice or no, and Underworld is the sort of world where the spirit of a dead person taking form to spur on the living would be par for the course. That said, Yuuki was never in the Underworld, but she’s here as well, reassuring Asuna and giving readers one last chance to see Mother’s Rosario in action. I like how the relationships between Kirito and Eugeo, and between Asuna and Yuuki, are shown to be so impactful and important on their lives going forward.

For those who want to see Kirito being a bit merciless, there’s his dealing with both PoH (who gets an abbreviated backstory here showing his childhood) and Gabriel Miller – both of whom he essentially murders, though Gabriel’s actual ending back in “the real world” is a bit more fantastical than I’d like in a non-game setting, and also reminded me of the end of the movie Ghost. Unfortunately, Kayaba is also still around, despite dying 16 books ago, and Kawahara continues to try to show him as a true hero saving everyone while occasionally dropping the odd “he also killed over 4000 people and there’s no forgiving that” paragraph which really does not convince anyone. To be honest, after Underworld resolves, the rest of the battle on the Ocean Turtle reads as a letdown, and I was relieved when we got to the epilogue.

We get a good look at Kirito’s self-destructive tendencies in his relationships with other people here, and how Asuna and the others have helped cure that mostly. He’s now actively thinking of a future, for both himself and the Underworld, at a Japanese college. (Given what Lisbeth said about them being at a special school and getting counseling that assumes they’re all going to snap at any moment, I assume the government will lean on organizations hard to employ/educate them in the future, as otherwise I can’t see anyone hiring a SAO survivor.) He has Asuna at his side, of course. And also Alice, who is now in the real world via a robot body, which is eyebrow-raising but does lead to the best joke in the book, which I won’t spoil but involves a big box. (It’s also hinted on the back cover.)

And so Alicization is over, and thank Goodness. Kirito is back and taking the spotlight from everyone else, so haters will be thrilled they can get very angry again. That said, there was a very obvious story not told in this book – what happened to Kirito and Asuna in the two hundred years they were trapped in Underworld? We might find out in the 19th book, which stars… Ronie?