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Sunday, March 1, 2015

Some Thoughts On The First SAO Fairy Dance Light Novel

Spoiler alert: Post contains spoilers for Sword Art Online's anime and the first Fairy Dance LN.

Kirito has escaped Sword Art Online, the forbidden VRMMORPG of death, and returned to reality. He heads off to find his game partner and lover, Asuna Yuuki. But Asuna never made it back from the nightmare. Lost and desperate, Kirito’s only clue to her virtual whereabouts is a mysterious screenshot of Asuna as a fairy trapped in a giant birdcage. His conclusion: She must be trapped within the new, high-powered VRMMORPG, ALfheim Online. Now Kirito must plunge into the world of ALO, where players are fairies who fly gracefully through the air!

Sometimes, seeing into a main character's thought process can really elevate their actions and give clarity to a story. In visual novels, this usually works against the story - a lot of VN main characters are either arrogant blowhards who somehow attract lots of women or blank slates lacking personalities. Even in some light novels, seeing inside a character's head can make them more distant and unliked that before; Kyon of the Suzumiya Haruhi no Yuutsu novels comes to mind.

And yet, if the Fairy Dance arc of the Sword Art Online anime had bothered tapping into some of the more pertinent thoughts of the arc's protagonists - cousins Kazuya/Kirito and Suguha/Leafa - those episodes would have been less painful to watch. In the anime, the Fairy Dance arc is my least favorite of the first season. In the light novel series so far, it is a lot more bearable and, in fact, more interesting as it plays out on the page.

In the light novel, Kazuya's reasons for plugging back into virtual reality after Aincrad are explained. He goes back to save Asuna, yes, but also because MMORPGs are a part of him and going back is a way of dealing with the memories of Aincrad.

It helps that we are told right away that there are other SAO players trapped in the new Alfheim game, and that moderator Oberon is using them for illegal experiments based on controlling their minds. In this greater context, Kazuya's actions become more believable.

The problem with Kirito/Kazuya in the anime is that the series looks at him from a narrative distance. We are not in his head fully and can't understand his decision making process. Considering he goes into not one, but two, massively immersive games that he ends up risking his life over, this distance means we can't really relate to him on a base level. In the novel, however, the distance is shortened. We are in his head, and Kazuya seems more human than before.

The same applies to Suguha, although I found some of her agitation over being in love with Kazuya annoying to read after a while. However, it is part of the emotional tug of war that Suguha is caught up in that mere outward expression can't capture accurately, and it's in this that verse trumps animation. We can read her thoughts on her feelings for Kazuya as well as her growing feelings towards Kirito - and, for anime viewers, we personally feel that terrible feeling of knowing how this Suguha/Kirito/Kazuya/Asuna love square ends.

I also found that, in the light novel, I cared more about the in game political plays between the different races, especially concerning the Salamanders. Through the verse, the dynamics between groups such as Cait Siths and Sylphs and Spriggans gain more depth. The author actually takes the time to explain the in-group histories, something that isn't so explicit in the anime. After all, the SAO anime is more interested in the Asuna/Kirito love story. The workings of the Alfheim game becomes a casualty of the anime scripts.

(Also, the Undines. Do y'all even remember the Undines being mentioned in the anime? Cause I sure as hell don't. And Undines sound awesome.)

I'm not in love with the Fairy Dance story arc. I still think it's considerably weaker than the Aincrad arc. Then again, Aincrad had a lot more going for it - a severe edge of danger, a threat of death for all players, a world that is more lived in that played in. Alfheim still feels like a D&D Lite version of Aincrad, where the danger is limited to the few hundred holdovers from Aincrad and the greater population only cares about reaching the World Tree. Only the presence of Kirito and his rescue mission to save Asuna gives it any weight.

The Sword Art Online light novel series is currently being published by Yen Press.