Sword Art Online, Vol. 17: Alicization Awakening

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 sure why it is that odd volumes of SAO seem to be irritating me so much. It could simply be because I’m rather weary of this arc, which is an excellent reminder to authors about why you should not make your story arc ten volumes long. It could also be because, once again, this series cried out for authorial and editorial intervention and did not get it. I know that one of the reasons that publishers are so happy to pick up Japanese webnovels and turn them into light novels is that they know the work is already written to a large degree, so deadlines aren’t a thing. But this is about the 4th book or so where Kawahara has written in the afterword “I sort of cringe at what I wrote here, but decided not to change it”. Not sexual assault this time – although that’s in here as well – but the feelings between Japan, China and Korea, which is, like a great deal of SAO proper, an interesting plot point that is handled somewhat hamhandedly.

That’s Leafa and Sinon on the cover with comatose Kirito behind them, and good news for fans of one of those characters, they do get some really good scenes. Of the non-Asuna female characters that Kawahara has created, Sinon is the closest he’s had to another success, and I really liked her here, despite the fact that she deals with Gabriel Miller at his most “I am eeeeeeeeevil!” self. He also turns out to be known to her from GGO, and her battle is probably the action highlight of the book. As for Leafa, it’s almost comical in how badly she’s been treated since… well, her introduction? Here she comes down nowhere near the other characters, gets another egregious sexual assault scene (it’s even framed as ‘worms’ and ‘tentacles’, just to make it more obvious), and finally arrives too late to really affect anything for the ending “darkest before the dawn” climax. I just get so frustrated when I read Leafa’s character.

Other things, some good, some bad. Lisbeth’s discussion of how the SAO survivors are treated in school, as ticking timebombs who are required to get therapy (and, I suspect, will need to get SAO-related jobs or not get hired after graduation, similar to what Kirito is doing now) is really really interesting and therefore I wish we’d had any indication of it at all before this. There’s another traitor towards the end of the book, tied in to both the Administrator plotline and going back to the Fairy Dance plotline who is yet another “I am written to be as evil, creepy and misogynist as possible so you don’t like me”, which, y’know, objective obtained, but you already have Gabriel. On the bright side, the ongoing “what defines a real human” plotline is reasonably well handled, and we’ll see him handle it even better in the Progressive series. And, much as I am completely sick of Laughing Coffin, it is nice to have an antagonist who is not driven by lust, just love of death and cruelty. Welcome back, PoH, I look forward to seeing you get yours eventually.

I was expecting, given the title, the book would end with Kirito back in action. I was wrong, though it looks like it’ll happen early in the next book. Which will be the last in this arc, thank God. Till then, you have to read this if you follow the series, but be ready to lose more of that tooth enamel.

Sword Art Online Alternative: Gun Gale Online: 3rd Squad Jam: Betrayer’s Choice (Part 1)

By Keiichi Sigsawa and Kouhaku Kuroboshi, based on the series created by Reki Kawahara. Released in Japan by ASCII Mediaworks. Released in North America by Yen On. Translated by Stephen Paul.

You know the drill by now. This is Keiichi Sigsawa’s version of Gun Gale Online, meaning for the most part depth of characterization and plot is left at the door. Last time we at least had the real world threat of Pitohui threatening to kill herself, this time we don’t even have that, and our two teams of two join up to form a terrifying team of four, because there’s another Squad Jam, and the same people are going to be around for it. Llenn is there to see if she can finally have her battle against her gymnastics team friends; Pitohui is there because she wants to fight Llenn but will settle for this instead; M is there because Pitohui is there. and Fukaziroh is the comedy relief. This time around there’s a new rule added, but we only get to see that at the very end of the volume, so for the most part we’re here to see action scenes of LPFM (their team name) kill a lot of people. And they do.

We don’t see much of the quartet’s real world selves except at the start, where we find Karen has been avoiding GGO because a) school is happening; b) she did what she wanted to do with Pitohui and doesn’t have a concrete goal; and c) she’s still weirded out by Elza kissing her. But nothing is going to stop Elsa doing this again, even if she’d rather be fighting Llenn. The rest of the book is the Squad Jam itself, taking place on an island that’s rapidly sinking into the sea, meaning the squads have to keep moving to the center or they will die. Assuming they aren’t shot or blown up by their competitors. M, the leader this time around, holes the group up in a disused railyard, and while Llenn serves as bait (she’s fast, she won’t get killed.. probably) sets up a trap for everyone who’s going after them. And there are a lot of folks going after them, as they’re the favorites.

Of course, there are a few others we do get some development for, notably Shirley, the hunting girl from the last book who almost (but not quite) killed Pitohui. The frustration at her being unable to do this has led to her honing her skills in GGO to a terrifying degree, making her own explosive bullets and becoming a feared sniper. And there’s also Clarence, still female despite the name and the bishonen appearance, who also pulls a 180 from the previous Squad Jam where she was nice enough to give Llenn her ammo as she’s dying. Here Clarence is… well, let’s just say not as nice, but she’s certainly having fun. The battle between Clarence and Shirley may be the highlight of the volume, and I also ship them a bit now.

But of course this is Part 1 of 2, and the 2nd book promises to be even better thanks to the rule implemented at the end, which gives Pitohui her fondest desire. We’ll see how it shakes out next time. Expect lots of gunfight scenes.

Sword Art Online: Progressive, Vol. 6

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

There’s not nearly as much Kirito/Asuna shipping in this second volume of this two-parter, but that’s fine as I actually was getting into the game part for once. Kirito is dealing with things that puzzle him on several fronts. First, and pun intended, there are the puzzles, including the last boss being a nearly insoluble game of sudoku. Secondly, there are the changes from the beta, meaning Kirito can sometimes be caught doing the wrong thing. Thirdly, the player killers are messing things up by killing NPCs and forcing the game into a completely different direction. And lastly, and most importantly, the NPCs are simply far too complex and realistic to be explained by simple programming. It’s not just Kizmel anymore – we also meet a young girl and her mother whose backstory is too thought out and only makes sense if Aincrad’s inhabitants had been around long before the players were trapped there. All of this disturbs Kirito, a gamer who really doesn’t want to accept NPCs with their own agendas and emotions, more than Asuna, a non-gamer who simply accepts it for the most part.

We also meet another group of players, who are meant to seem sinister but in the end appear to be mostly innocent but easily tricked. They were part of the group trying to stay safe at the Town of Beginnings, but that’s a lot harder than it sounds when you need money for food and shelter. Again, it’s a reminder that a big reason that Kawahara is writing this expansion of this original series is to deal with all the things that he never did when it was just one short book. We also see the flip side of Kirito and Asuna bonding so much with Kizmel, which is that the bad guys can also bond with the NPC bad guys. In fact, one can argue that in this book the villains win for the most part, as the infiltrator of Lind and Kibaou’s groups gets away, and the fallen elf collects the keys that they had been trying to collect. Basically, each book is building on the next, and I’m sure we’ll see both Kizmel and the fallen elves again.

The funniest part of the book involves Kirito meeting an NPC sage who teaches him the meditation technique… which involves NOT eating the hamburg steak directly in front of him. The amusing thing is that, when Kirito tries to calm his mind by thinking about food, the sage rejects it, but when he reflects on his time in the game with Asuna, that’s perfectly OK. Asuna is still denying that she and Kirito are a couple when confronted, in a typical tsundere way, but there’s no question that she trusts and feels relaxed around him where she doesn’t with anyone else. And there’s also Kizmel, who seems to confidently be trying to work them into a threesome – I say confidently as she seems confident neither of them will go for it.

So we get a new floor next time around, but it may be a bit of a wait again, as I don’t think the 7th book is out in Japan yet. There’s a lot of open questions, though. Biggest of all – when did Saber Asuna change to Lancer Asuna?