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Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Asuna on a Starless Night: Sword Art Online Progressive 1

Sword Art Online: Progressive book 1
Author: Reki Kawahara
Artist: abec
Yen Press
358 pages

One month after Akihiko Kayaba’s game of death began, the death toll continues to rise, two thousand players having already lost their lives to the ultra-difficult VRMMO world of Sword Art Online. On the day of the strategy meeting to plan out the first-floor boss battle, Kirito, a solo player who vows to fight alone to get stronger, runs into a rare, high-level female player. She gracefully dispatches powerful monsters with a single rapier that flashes like a shooting star in the night… (Source: Yen Press)

Every time I think I don't have time to write, I remember that Reki Kawahara is writing not one, but two, but three different light novel series concurrently: Accel World, Sword Art Online, and Sword Art Online: Progressive. I can only imagine what his daily writing regimen looks like. While the Progressive arm of the SAO franchise retreads familiar ground as it takes readers through the Aincrad arc a second time, the 'remix' aspects of it make it more of an alternate universe take on SAO's first arc, especially when it comes to Asuna and her relationship with Kirito as well as the Aincrad world itself.

The first Progressive novel runs through the first two levels of Aincrad in under 400 pages, and spends a lot of its time lingering on inter-personal conflicts between players as they struggle to stay alive in the system while fighting their way towards the top boss. However, at this rate, it might take them a long time to clear every level - and considering in the original, the boss appeared much earlier than expected, I have to wonder if Progressive will have Kirito and Asuna meeting Kayaba at a later date than in SAO proper.

One benefit of the light novels over the manga and anime has always been that Kawahara spends a lot of time explaining the mechanics of not only VR technology but the in-game function of everything within the game, from pot rotation to exchanging items. If you are a huge details nerd and spent the anime wondering how certain things worked, Progressive will be your favorite entry in the series as it really takes that level of attention to detail to its limits without becoming dry reading. I appreciated explanations on battle formations and upgrading weapons, as they would become essential to several major plots. People who have played MMORPGs in the past will really appreciate all the game terminology running through this book.

I would even argue that between his original Sword Art Online entry and the first volume of his Progressive series, Kawahara's writing has taken a serious uptick in quality. I didn't find myself rolling my eyes at his favored purple prose flourishes as I did while reading the Aincrad arc the first time. There are some truly emotional scenes but they aren't hampered by the weak, overwrought prose that marked Kawahara's style early in his career. Even with all the details on gameplay and the occasional narrative info dump, the action flows readily from scene to scene and never drags even when the energy slows down for more personal moments.

However, whether or not you pick up the Progressive series depends on your enjoyment of one character in particular: Asuna, our resident expert fencer and the eventual love interest in Kirito. I have seen people remark that Asuna seems out of character, but they fail to register that Progressive's Asuna is not the same as the Original SAO's Asuna. We are meeting this Asuna early in the game, as opposed to when Kirito has already shot forward in ability and levels, and this Asuna has not initially adjusted well to being trapped in a virtual reality. In an ironic twist, the game isn't even hers; she put her brother's VR set on as a whim, although she didn't really play games in any meaningful way prior to logging in, and is now stuck in her own mistake.

Asuna and Kirito are practically inseparable in this version of the story from the first boss fight, and thus their relationship dynamic becomes much more different than fans will be used to. They spend a lot of their time pouring over game details, grinding for skill points and staying on the periphery of things due to Kirito's beater status and Asuna's overall anti-social attitude. It's not love at first sight, but readers can easily spot the fragile beginnings of a long-lasting relationship based on the need to live tied up with the need to not be alone. If their romance in SAO original seemed a bit too fairy tale for readers, the latest spin on Asuna/Kirito should read as more organic, or as organic as pixels can get.

Progressive is about Asuna, to be honest, despite being told partly from Kirito's point of view. It is about someone who isn't a gamer who took a chance with a new game and ended up in the virtual trap of a mad man, and how she rose above all the violence and threats to become one of the top players of Aincrad. If anything, Progressive looks to be the story of a group of misfits defying the odds and surviving, level by level, through the longest grind of their lives. It still has some of the flaws of the original - an overpowered Kirito, some questionable fan service set firmly against the female characters - but Asuna stands out as a challenge to other writers in the same sub-genre. It looks like Kawahara got it right the second time around.

The Sword Art Online light novels and manga are currently being published in English by Yen Press.