Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Novel 1 - Kuroyukihime's Return
Twenty years after the virtual technology of Sword Art Online, people wear neurolinkers to connect to an Internet that is more integrated into their lives than ever. For kids like Haruyuki, this offers an escape from the dreary reality of “meatspace,” where the troubled thirteen-year-old is bullied and suffers from feelings of inadequacy. But there is a secret part of this world that even Haru doesn't know about – the mysterious brain acceleration program Brain Burst. When Kuroyukihime, the most beautiful and popular girl in school, makes overtures to Haruyuki and gives him the program, Haru learns about the wonders of accelerating and the fighting game that goes with it, and it isn't long before he becomes fully entrenched in Kuroyukihime's world.
For those of you who were left with small, niggling questions after watching the Accel World anime, this novel is for you. The source for both the animated and the upcoming (as of this writing) manga of the same name, Reki Kawahara's original introductory novel gives us more background information (such as why Haruyuki's avatar is a pig when it seems like the last thing he'd choose), more insight into the characters, and just generally fleshes out the story and its world. There's just one thing you really want to keep in mind – Accel World is most definitely written on a middle grade level. This does not mean that Kawahara writes like a middle schooler, but rather that this is a book written for the roughly 10 to 12 demographic, although the amount of time spent in Haru's head could also lead to its categorization as Young Adult. In any event, this is a story that is very much about thirteen-year-olds and their problems and world views, which is not a detraction, per se, but certainly something worth knowing before you pick it up.
The story opens with our hero, Haruyuki, trying to get through another terrible day at school. Fat, sweaty, and short (facts which are repeated almost to the point of annoyance), Haru is the target of bully Araya and his cronies, both on and off line. They have found a way to circumvent the surveillance state of the 2040s so that no one knows about their continued harassment of Haru, and he feels helpless to stop them. His one solace is to lock himself in a stall in the boys' bathroom and go into a “full dive” - release his consciousness from his physical body and live in the Internet for a time. He uses this escape to play virtual squash, having chosen this game because no one else plays it. Even this is taken away from him, however, when suddenly the most beautiful and popular girl at school, fourteen-year-old Kuroyukihime, appears and beats him soundly before cryptically asking him to meet her the next day. Distraught, Haru takes out his frustration with himself and his life on his childhood friend Chiyuri, something which he then broods about for most of the rest of the novel. When he does eventually go to meet Kuroyukihime, she introduces him to the mysterious program “Brain Burst,” which allows him to “accelerate” his mind in order to step outside of time. Needless to say, Haru is thrilled with this, but of course it comes with a cost: so-called “Burst Linkers” must fight others using their specially tailored avatars in order to win the points they need to keep accelerating. Once all points are lost, Brain Burst is forcibly uninstalled and can never be reinstalled – acceleration will be lost forever.
So as you can see, this series, like Reki Kawahara's perhaps better known title Sword Art Online, is about a virtual game. In fact, a comment made about the “helmet-like virtual technology of the 2020s” early on leads us to believe that this story takes place in the same world as SAO, which certainly could have interesting implications about who programmed Brain Burst in the first place, and the neurolinkers do feel like a natural progression from the NerveGear and Amuspheres of that other work. The major difference here is the characters' perceptions of the power to accelerate. It clearly is not life or death...it just feels like it to the group of young teens who can do it. The youth of these characters is fairly obvious, with most of their motivations being the need to stand out from their peers in a special way (acceleration) or worries about the changes adolescence brings as they begin the transition from childhood to the no-man's-land of being teenagers. Petty jealousy is a major factor in the lives of at least two characters, and the gossipy world middle school is well portrayed. Interestingly enough, the drug parallels present in the anime do not appear as strongly, if at all, in the novel: for Haru, Taku, and Kuroyukihime, the thrill of acceleration and the fighting game is about proving their worth rather than finding outside pleasure or escape. While it does begin as an out for Haru, it quickly becomes about how he can prove himself worthy of Kuroyukihime's attention and affection, and his final major battle in the book is about showing that he himself is worth something in his own life. That this sense of self-worth and accomplishment is so wrapped up in this virtual game for the characters is in itself an interesting comment and certainly something that is recognizable in terms of their age group, or human nature in general.
Hima's illustrations are few and far between – less than in SAO but more than in Kieli – and at times seem to choose strange moments to put in images. They make heavy use of grey space and slight blurring effects, which obscures some of the pictures of the game avatars but works well for the mysterious beauty Kuroyukihime. In the back of the book, Minoru Kawakami, who I assume to be the author of the Horizon in the Middle of Nowhere novels, provides some of his own images of the characters, as well as a (kind of weird) short story set in Accel World's world. It makes for an interesting extra, if not the most relevant for most English-language readers, although for Horizon fans, it is the only legal translation of Kawakami's writing.
Accel World's first novel has its moments of repetition – really, how often do we need to hear how sweaty Haru is? – and the definite feel of a middle grade novel in its characters and the basic level of its writing. But it is also an interesting science fiction story about the possibilities of technology and how it could effect people, serving as both escape and addiction in a much more real way than it does now. Kuroyukihime's “maturity” mostly comes off as fairly purple prose and her habit of calling Haru “boy” is quite irritating, as is Haru's need to be subservient to her, even when he realizes his feelings for her. The book is still a decent read, though, filling in details about the world and reading quite easily and quickly. It ends in such a way as to make you want to read the next volume, and ultimately serves as what the Internet does for Haru at the beginning of the story: escapism with a little bit of an edge, and a generally decent way to while away a few hours.
Overall : C+
Story : B-
Art : C+
+ Decent middle grade science fiction with characters who are believable young teens. Interesting depiction of a Net-integrated world, logical tech progression from SAO.
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