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Sunday, May 17, 2015

Novel Review: Sword Art Online LN 4

Sword Art Online: Fairy Dance LN 2
Author: Reki Kawahara
Artist: abec
Yen Press
204 pages
Kirito plunges into a suspicious new VRMMORPG called ALFheim Online to rescue Asuna, who never returned from Sword Art Online. ALO offers many features to entertain players in the wake of SAO: ultra-high-end graphics, action-heavy gameplay, a choice of fairy races, and a next-generation flight engine. Playing as a spriggan, Kirito heads for the location of Asuna's prison --- the top of the World Tree, the final destination of every player in the game! (Source: Yen Press)
Here is the ultimate kicker about the Sword Art Online light novel series, for people who have watched the anime and already have an opinion on Reki Kawahara's canon. If you watched the anime and hated it, the LN will not change your mind. If you watched the anime and loved it, you will love the LN. If you watched the anime and fell anywhere in between these two groups, you will find that the LN adds a substantial amount of depth and meat to the story that the anime could not provide. Fairy Dance volume two concludes the second arc of Sword Art Online's first season story-wise, and it pretty much follows the above line of thinking to the letter.
With Fairy Dance GN 2, however, there is an additional subplot not touched upon in the anime, and somehow it makes all the difference between what made it on the screen and what stayed in the book. Perhaps if the book's opening scenes had been included in an episode, I would have warmed more to the Leafa/Kirito relationship. Plus, it's just a really great scene and I wish I had seen it animated. Deviant Gods are awesome!

The end of the Alfheim arc takes Kazuya/Kirito and Suguha/Leafa to the World Tree, accompanied by Kirito's AI daughter Yui, to rescue Asuna, a prisoner of Sugou both in the game and in real life. The Alfheim arc has not always been my favorite; I was more partial to Aincrad, where the threats felt more real and the pressure of living in a MMORPG was more immediate. In the light novel, however, the Alfheim arc becomes less insufferable as it plays on the page. It helps that the LN immediately set up in the first volume the dilemma of several hundred players still plugged into the system, used as guinea pigs for Sugou's experiments, something that is not revealed in the anime until much later.
95% of the story in Fairy Dance is identical to what was adapted for the anime series. It benefits from point of view change, primarily between Suguha and Kazuya, and the narrative adds more detail to their actions and the overall world of Alfheim. I actually enjoyed seeing Kazuya's thought process in this volume over his Alfheim game play, although at times it is threatened to be overshadowed by his love for Asuna. Seeing things from his eyes lessens my perception of him as an overstuffed god modder who relies on deadpan snark when actual emotional connections would work better. It also shows that Kazuya really has no plans on making Suguha happy as his girlfriend, even if he still acts like he hasn't made up his mind yet. Dude, you plunged through a thousand soldiers and then some to deliver Asuna's freedom to her. There is no one else!
However, the book opens with a LN-only scene that isn't in the anime (or, if it is, it's stuck in Sword Art Online II which I haven't yet started) in which Leafa and Kirito end up engaging with a Deviant God and riding it into glory. It's pretty great to read a small story that touches upon how both beast training and group missions work in Alfheim. It also ends up introducing the legendary sword Excalibur, something that is only randomly thrown in via the anime during Kirito's in-game fight with Oberon. It doesn't play into the light novel story until the Kirito/Oberon duel, but at least Kawahara had the decency to lay down some forewarning of its usage. The anime just didn't care – about that or Tonky, the Deviant God that could. It also makes the Kirito/Oberon duel a bit less God Mode in nature, although not by much.
The light novel also makes the Leafa/Kirito duel more bearable, mainly because it happens very quickly and for the most part, it signals Suguha being over Kazuya. Unfortunately, everything post-Alfheim blows that to hell. I really wish Sword Art Online was not so seemingly intent on creating a real life harem of girls for Kirito if in the end he's Asuna's guy. Why do I want to see SAO turn into Tenchi Muyo with virtual reality headsets? Nope.
But that is not a light novel-exclusive issue. I'll let it go, for now. What is a light novel issue is how often the story delves into some purple prose, which may be a Kawahara issue or a translator issue. Suguha is compared to a fresh flower shoot. I swear to Glob, the VR headset on Asuna's head is described as a crown of thorns. There's also a lot of whispering and crying, although to be fair, it is an emotional arc for everyone involved.
Sword Art Online's light novel series is nothing new when you strip away the quirk of being trapped in a video game. The hero is an overpowered paragon of heroics, he gets the girl, the bad guy gets his comeuppance and is humiliated in his defeat, and beautiful women want the hero but can't get him for obvious reasons. But it has a humor and a heart that is uniquely its own, and that is why people keep coming back to it. It's a shame some of it didn't translate into the anime.