Reviewby Theron Martin, Apr 28th 2014
Sword Art Online
Novel 1 - Aincrad
In 2022, Sword Art Online represents the cutting edge of gaming: the first application of the recently-developed NerveGear, a helmet which serves as a “full dive” virtual reality simulator, to an immersive fantasy MMO experience. It's such a hot property that only 10,000 people can claim copies of the game's initial release, and a beta tester who goes by the in-game moniker of Kirito is one such lucky soul. Soon after the game starts, though, a worrisome flaw appears: players cannot find the option to log out, and attempts to contact game administrators quickly prove fruitless. Then a giant specter who represents Akihiko Kayaba, the game's developer, appears and explains the situation: this is not really a game, but as much real life as VR can manage. Players cannot log out, and any attempt to forcibly do so from the outside results in instant death in the real world. So does dying in this setting; if a player's HPs drop to zero then the NerveGear fries the wearer's brain, microwave-style. The only way to escape is for someone to defeat all 100 levels of Aincrad, the immense floating castle that is the game's setting. Hiding behind fake appearances is not allowed, either, as everyone's avatar is reverted to a digital representation of their actual selves. Kirito immediately realizes that his survival depends on getting as strong as possible, and two years later finds him 74 levels up, working on the front lines as one of the game's strongest and highest-leveled solo players. But even a loner by nature cannot endure the stress of such a potentially dangerous environment, one which has by that point claimed thousands of lives, forever. Eventually the attentions of Asuna, a rapier-wielding beauty who is also one of the game's top female players, show him a different path.
As author Reki Kawahara explains in his Afterword, Sword Art Online was originally written in 2002 to be an entry in the Dengeki Game Novel Prize contest. When it proved too long to qualify as an entrant and he could not figure out a reasonable way to shorten it, he opted to self-publish it on the Internet rather than just see it languish. Positive feedback led to him writing more related stories, and the success of his award-winning second writing effort – Accel World – eventually led to this work also being formally published in print. The franchise it started has since become such a phenomenon that it utterly dominated the Japanese light novel sales charts in 2012 and 2013 and spawned one of 2012's best-selling anime series in Japan. So how did it get to that point, especially given that Kawahara's seminal effort is far from top-grade writing?
The answer is simple. It takes a concept with a powerfully compelling (if hardly original) hook and uses it to spin a story certain to speak to hard-core gamers and otaku while also still being fully accessible to those who can appreciate a tech-based adventure story. Throw in a healthy dose of romance, some imaginative conceptualizations of an immersive virtual setting, and a lead protagonist who is a male fantasy stand-in nearly on the level of a James Bond or Duke Togo, and voila! You have a franchise certain to appeal to a broad spectrum of geekdom.
The 245 page novel is the direct source material for episodes 1, 8-10, the first part of 11, and 13 and 14 of the anime version, although it also alludes to events described in more detail in the entirety of episode 3 (i.e., Kirito's experience with the Moonlit Black Cats) and a part of 5 (the scene with Asuna taking a nap by Kirito). For most of those episodes the anime version follows the novel very closely, even word-for-word in many places; amongst the few minor differences are an additional scene prior to Kirito and Asuna's encounter with Klein outside the Level 74 labyrinth, some tweaks to the way the scenes immediately following the Gleaming Eyes battle play out, that Kirito's excursion with the Knights of Blood has an unnamed fourth character present (albeit one who has no impact on the story, hence the probable decision to exclude him in the anime), and the revelation about how the front line players banded together to annihilate Laughing Coffin at some point between episodes 6 and 8 of the anime (something never mentioned in the anime). Comparatively speaking, the novel does a much better job of elaborating on how the Sword Skills work, something which is essentially just a background detail in the anime after it is first brought up. By including the side stories from volume 2 amongst its early episodes, though, the anime does a much better – albeit still hardly spectacular – job of laying an early foundation for why Kirito plays solo and how Asuna became attracted to him.
In general, though, the strengths and weaknesses of the novel and anime versions are essentially the same. The common complaint about how the anime version of Kirito was little more than an audience insert avatar is only further reinforced in this version by the story being told in first person; in fact, attempts in the novel to give Kirito much character or emotion so commonly fall flat that the anime version comes off looking good by comparison. The novel also does even less than the anime to fully convince readers that Asuna is legitimate as the second-in-command of the Knights of Blood, though (like the anime) it does a much better job of showing that she does have the power and skill necessary to be a proper companion for Kirito and that her claims that she'll protect him as much as he protects her are not hollow ones. The novel also does only a thin job of developing the romance between Kirito and Asuna but (like the anime) triumphs in its renditions of the boss fights and the astonishing detail of the Aincrad environments. And yes, the way Kirito and Asuna seem to overcome the limitations of the game's programming on a couple of occasions feel just as much like ass-pulls in the novel as they did in the anime. In other words, most of the flaws attributable to the anime trace directly back to the source material.
As with most light novel releases in the States, Aincrad 1 includes several pages of color illustrations at the beginning and a handful of black-and-white artwork pages throughout. Those color pages are, by far, the artistic highlight of Yen Press's release of the novel, and while they pale against the more vibrant and refined character designs used in the anime version, they are definitely superior to the more drab front cover art. (A chibi rendition of Asuna and Kirito on the back cover is quite cute, though.) No production flaws were noted, so this is a solid, professional technical release by Yen Press. The $13 MSRP makes the novel distinctly pricier than other Stateside light novel releases of comparable length, but at least the infamously bad Chapter 16.5, which was an addition Kawahara wrote later rather than part of the original story, is, thankfully, not included. (Seriously; even if you are a completest, you are best off forgetting that this exists.)
Good writing is not necessary for a novel to be successful; only a good concept, interesting setting or characters, and an involving story. Aincrad 1 has all three. Despite its many weak points and potential logical gaps, it still delivers on its entertainment value.
Overall : C+
Story : C
Art : B-
+ Compelling premise, construction of the setting.
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