Sword Art Online, Vol. 22: Kiss and Fly

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

After the cliffhanger for the last volume of SAO, a lot of people were anxious for the continuation, in particular wanting to see more of a heroine who’d only shown up in the Progressive series before now. Well, I have good news and bad news. The good news is that Argo is here, and gets a supporting role at the start of the book. The bad news is that the role is in a short story, and indeed this is a short story collection, taking the various pieces Kawahara wrote as DVD/BD extras in Japan and stitching them together to make a book. This is not necessarily a bad thing – the first three stories are decent enough, and the final story I’d go so far as to call excellent. But I have to admit, starting a brand new arc, the first thing the creator has done that wasn’t published online… and then switching to the first short story collection since Vol 8? The reader cannot help being a bit bummed out.

The cover art cannot entirely escape Kirito – he’s there in the bottom left corner – but does show off the heroines of the various short stories (including one who should be a spoiler). In The Day Before, Kirito and Asuna go to buy the log cabin he’s had his eye on before getting married, but run into Argo, who’s got a big problem. In the Day After, Asuna is having trouble getting her avatar used to ALO – far more trouble than everyone else. Could she be… haunted? Rainbow Bridge is a sequel to an anime extra episode that showed off the cast in swimsuits – here they try to figure out why the quest they did was so unsatisfying. Finally, Sisters’ Prayer is a prequel to the 7th book, showing us how Yuuki, her sister, and a friend they meet who also has a terminal illness decide to start their own guild.

As with most short story collections, the quality varies. I love Argo, but she did not really have a lot to do here, and you get the sense Kawahara wrote her in as she was added to the anime episodes at the last minute. The Day After is better, benefiting from a lack of first-person Kirito and also tying up one of the loose ends of the series, showing us that Kirito’s first love is fine with Kirito’s current love. Rainbow Bridge is the slightest story in the book, but does give Leafa a chance to show off her Norse Mythology nerd-ness, and also allows for a cool action sequence. The best story is the last one, a bittersweet yet uplifting tale of Yuuki and her sister, playing in a “safe” VR game for terminal patients, finding out that there are better ways to live your life even if you can’t leave your hospital room, and helping another girl who wants to be in SAO with her friends so badly she is OK with dying to do so. It’s really fantastic.

So yes, this is definitely worth reading, and I enjoyed it. But it does not solve the growing need for the next volume of Unital Ring. That comes in the fall, alas.

Sword Art Online Alternative: Gun Gale Online: 4th Squad Jam: Finish

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.

OK, this turned out better than I had expected. I probably should have trusted in the author more. Keiichi Sigsawa is a man who knows what his strengths are, and in the case of Gun Gale Online, that is “cool action sequences that you want to see filed”, not “Karen has to find a way to get out of a marriage she doesn’t want”. As such, the actual plotline that brought us to this epic 3-part story is dealt with perfunctorily in the final chapter, and if it has a bit of a “sad trombone” feel to it, that’s fine. What folks are really here about is the gunfights, though, and boy howdy do we get a lot of that here. Not only is this the third part of an epic gun battle, but the book is also one of the longest in the series. It’s giving you excellent value for money. As for who comes off looking cool? Honestly, pretty much everyone.

We pick up right where we left off, with the huge battle between SHINC and Llenn being interrupted by Fire’s minions, all of whom are there to make sure that Llenn loses. (Llenn, throughout this book, points out she is under no obligation to marry this guy even if he does beat her in the game. No one listens to her.) As SHINC begins to lose members one by one, LPFM gains two back, as Shirley and Clarence come riding to the rescue – literally. We then move onto a train, then across a frozen lake – which of course starts to crack – and even deal with DEATH FROM ABOVE before we get into the final battle, which takes place inaside a massive deserted shopping mall – and only pistols are allowed. Can LPFM and what remains of SHINC hold out against two teams of the enemy? And can Karen finally tell Fire she’s just not interested?

The worldbuilding in this little universe is really good. Even if it does mean that we sometimes get pages at a time going into the history of guns and rifles. We have a seriously broad definition of “pistol” once we hit the mall, and most of the enemy takes full advantage of that. I also really liked the concept of the robot horse, and how it relates to Shirley’s real-life skills. (Shirley in general is terrific in this book, getting actual character development, and a wonderful final scene which shows off that this is a GAME, and she’s not actually a revenge-filled sociopath. And I admit I did find the ending a bit amusing – Fire, having decided that Karen is the woman he wants to marry to the point of setting this all up so he can “defeat” her, is scared off because Llenn is simply too damn terrifying – and Karen says that Karen and Llenn are both “her”. Oh no, strong women, flee!

There is a Vol. 10 out in Japan, which we should get in the fall, but after that we’re caught up with Karen’s story. There *is* more Sword Art Online Alternative to license, though. (hint, hint) In any case, fans of action movies will love this.

Sword Art Online Alternative: Gun Gale Online: 4th Squad Jam: Continue

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 have been known at times to be a little annoyed when a book consists primarily of fight scenes. Let’s face it, for the most part, I enjoy talking about plot and character beats here. (Well, that and obscure stuff about publishers no one cares about but me.) When you get things like a tournament arc, or the Squad Jams in Gun Gale Online, there’s not really as much for a good reviewer to sink their teeth into. Readers don’t really want you telling them “watch out for this cool fight sequence”, and if I say Llenn and Pitohui are awesome and badass, I will likely just get a “well, duh” in response. That said, after a book like the previous one in this series, introducing yet another smug bastard who has decided to make the girl he is obsessed with his whether she likes it or not, and the fact that, despite Llenn’s protestations, the engagement seems to ride on this game… honestly, I’m delighted it’s just wall-to-wall action here.

The first third or so of the book is, refreshingly, not from the POV of our main team, allowing us to get into the heads of the others first before we resolve the cliffhanger from last time. We get to see MMTM be sensible, intelligent, and use their gaming knowledge well, which never works out in these sorts of books. We get to see Shirley and Clarence be the manzai comedy duo they were always meant to be. And we get to see exactly why SHINC takes Llenn’s unwanted suitor up on his offer, which is a nice combination of stick and carrot. This then allows the last two thirds of the book to simply be a bunch of really good set pieces, allowing the author to do what they do best: talk endlessly about guns and write action sequences that will look great if they’re ever animated.

I will note right away, the best part of the book for me was the carrot that got SHINC to agree to be part of the collective group, if only as it’s a tempting carrot for the reader as well. The fact that Llenn never gets to have her fated battle with these girls in book after book has become the running gag of the series, deliberately so, and it’s wonderful that THIS is the bait used to lure them in: we promise to let you have your fated battle. Of course, that promise ends up being broken, so I suppose technically this doesn’t count. But boy, it’s amazing till then, exactly what I would have wanted from a rematch, with both sides evenly matched and being clever, desperately, and crafty. Even Fukaziroh, whose job, let’s face it, is to be the goofy one, gets to do a bunch of really cool shit. M gets to be the sensible one. Pitohui is in her element, getting to shoot people and make suggestive remarks to Llenn. It ends badly, but THIS was the rematch we wanted, and we finally get it.

Unfortunately, now the boyfriend’s back, and there’s gonna be trouble. Kawahara may not be writing this, but it’s set in his universe, and thus the series has an allergic reaction when it comes to subtle, nuanced villains. But that’s next book’s problem. This one turned out to be a great ride.