Sword Art Online, Vol. 20: Moon Cradle

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

I’m not quite sure where the break is, but there was a big gap in time between Reki Kawahara starting the Moon Cradle arc in his webnovel version of Sword Art Online and his finishing it. The reason for the gap, of course, was that he was busy taking SAO and Accel World and making them actual published books. And I have to say, this book does feature a more mature style than I’m used to with this series, more in line with what he’d been doing with Progressive. There’s some wonderful prose descriptions of the Underworld here, and aside from a sneering villain (who even uses the word ‘confound’, a word only villains use), there’s not as much of the author’s usual bad habits. This book almost feels at times like it’s meant to be spinning off Ronie and Tiese into their own book series, serving as sort of a distaff Kirito and Eugeo for the next generation. But of course the issue there is that Kirito and Asuna are still around, and why call up Blue Beetle and Booster Gold when you can get Superman and The Flash?

We’re back in Centoria again after Kirito and Ronie’s adventures in the dark lands, but the threat of a civil war is still ongoing, and the investigation is proving frustrating, mostly as it would seem to involve people who can easily bypass the Taboo Index and also have tons of power. You would think it might be the Emperors and high nobles, but we’re shown a quick flashback at the start of the book that helpfully tells us they’ve all been killed off by our heroes. Fortunately, as it turns out, Tiese’s inability to let go of Eugeo sees her and Ronie visiting a mansion rumored to be haunted, and finding that it’s actually home to the very conspiracy they’re looking for. Can they stop the big bad by themselves? Well, no, it’s Kirito’s series still. But they do most of it. And their dragons are very cute.

The writing, as I noted at the start of this review, may be more mature, but the plotting still leaves something to be desired. He even admits in the afterword that most everything he sets up in these two books is left open-ended (including Ronie’s own love for Kirito, which Asuna muses on but never actually sits down with her to discuss), and it gives the whole volume a feeling of a series that got cancelled by Shonen Jump before it could really tell its story. There’s also a chapter with Ronie’s baby dragon going to get help, which involves befriending a rat and has a very Incredible Journey feel to it, but is also 100% pointless. I did really enjoy the scene with Kirito and Asuna getting ready for bed, which shows a relaxed ease to them as a couple (though honestly, Kirito still behaves like a kid a great deal of the time). Notably, they sleep in the same bed with pajamas on – after the first SAO book, any suggestion they’re a sexually active couple has been thoroughly absent.

So the prose is good here, but it leaves a reader dissatisfied if they were hoping for things to be tied up in a neat bow. But fear not, lovers of Kirito everywhere (there are some, right?), we’re getting a brand new arc next time that is not from a webnovel. Unital Ring brings us back to real-world future Japan, introduces a new game to confound everyone, and may bring back a few surprises from the past. But it won’t have Ronie or Tiese.

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.