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Thursday, November 20, 2014

Novel Review: Sword Art Online - Aincrad LN 1 & 2

Sword Art Online: Aincrad 1 & 2
Author: Reki Kawahara
Yen Press/Yen On
200 pages approx. per volume
In the year 2022, gamers rejoice as Sword Art Online opens its virtual doors, allowing players to take full advantage of the ultimate in gaming technology: NerveGear, a system that allows users to completely immerse themselves in the game world by manipulating their brain waves to create a wholly realistic gaming experience. But when the game goes live, the elation of the players quickly turns to horror as they discover that, for all its amazing features, SAO is missing one of the most basic functions of any MMORPG-a log-out button. (Source: Yen Press)
Having just finished up the tepid, lackluster Sword Art Online manga adaptation of the Aincrad arc (my displeasure with this omnibus has already been spelled out on this blog), I went into the SAO original light novel duology for Aincrad with lowered expectations. Somehow, it managed to surprise me in a refreshing way, and does things in a way that the manga and anime never could.
In the translated words of Kawahara, Asuna gains depth, Kirito gains sympathy, and the world of SAO reveals a depth only prose can give it. The story still has some fundamental issues but in the realm of canon sources, the light novel series stands firmly alongside the popular anime and way ahead of its manga counterpart.
Right off the bat, the light novel is superior to the manga: the light novel sticks to a mostly clean time line of events, the artwork from artist abec is detailed and true to character design, and the narrative gives readers a much deeper sense of what was going on than the manga's rushed plotting, which reduced characters and events to so much footnotes in the grand scheme of things.
There is nothing inherently special about Kawahara's prose, but he knows how to keep the story going and cut through the boring in-between bits that tend to plague usual MMORPG playthroughs. Descriptions of game play and game mechanics are either kept mercifully short or described if they are important to the plot, such as the identification of unbreakable and immortal items as well as the teleportation/healing crystal system. Kawahara assumes the reader has a base understanding of RPGs but the finer points shouldn't go over the head of people who haven't played one since Final Fantasy 7.
Between the two volumes that make up the Aincrad light novel arc, we are given first the main story, spanning from the lock-down of the user base to the clearing of the game, and then we are given the side stories, highlighting the lives of four female players who came into Kirito's life and were some of his strongest, most memorable role models. One of the side stories even shows the main character at the time that the game is cleared and what that looked like to average players, which was a nice touch.
As described above, the Sword Art Online light novels give depth to the characters in a way the manga didn't care to and the anime didn't have time to. The stories of characters like Lisbeth and Sachi and Silica become the focus of their own mini-arcs, and even though Kirito is the anchoring protagonist between them, it is the abilities and personalities of the young women that get to shine through first of all.
We get to walk through select events through the POVs of Asuna and Kirito, and in their steps, we see more of Asuna's strength and weaknesses and the obstacles she had to overcome to be one of the strongest players in Aincrad; we see Kirito's crushing guilt over his past mistakes, his constant pushing to become the best and clear the game for those who couldn't or can't, and his outward arrogance is revealed to be selfishness born from a need to stay alive for himself and for Asuna. In this, Asuna becomes a more well-rounded character, and Kirito's actions gain much more sympathy than they do at first look.
Of course, Sword Art Online is still not perfect – Kirito is still an overpowered martyr/hero figure, his love with Asuna seems rushed although at least the LNs set up a deeper basis for their relationship than the anime ever lets on, and the series of coincidences leading up to the final act seem strung together by someone really hewing heavily towards the mechanics of shonen titles and Japanese MMORPGs.
So the LNs will certainly not change the mind of anyone who didn't like the anime series. It's for people who at least found the Sword Art anime entertaining but lacking in depth and detail. It's for people who want to support the release of light novels in English, a section of the manga publication process that has been struggling revenue-wise until very recently. It's for Accel World fans who need a reason to dip into the SAO 'verse. I would never call it well written but I would call it an entertaining, detailed venture into the world of Aincrad and the story of Kirito and Asuna and their shared journey. For someone who thought the Aincrad section of Sword Art Online was the peak of the series, that's good enough for me.

Yen Press is publishing the Sword Art Online light novel series in English. The next arc is the Fairy Dance arc. They will also be releasing the Aincrad-related novel series SAO Progressive, which is a set of more side stories within the Aincrad world.