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by Kim Morrissy,

Sword Art Online

Audiobook 1

Sword Art Online Audiobook 1
In the year 2022, gamers rejoice as Sword Art Online—a VRMMORPG (virtual reality massively multiplayer online role-playing game) like no other—debuts, allowing players to take full advantage of the ultimate in gaming technology: NerveGear, a system that allows users to completely immerse themselves in a wholly realistic gaming experience. But when the game goes live, the elation of the players quickly turns to horror as they discover that, for all its amazing features, SAO is missing one of the most basic functions of any MMORPG: a logout button. Now trapped in the virtual world of Aincrad, their bodies held captive by NerveGear in the real world, users are issued a chilling ultimatum: conquer all 100 floors of Aincrad to regain your freedom. But in the warped world of SAO, "game over" means certain death—both virtual and real....

It's really cool to see a light novel audiobook read by the protagonist's English dub actor. Light novel audiobooks are rare to begin with, but there's an even greater feeling of immersion than usual when you're already familiar with the character's voice. If you're a Sword Art Online and a dub fan, you probably don't need me to tell you to try this out, but for those of you on the fence, there are two things in particular I want to highlight in this review: Bryce Papenbrook's performance and whether the story of SAO's first volume still holds up today.

Let's start with the audio side. I'm not normally the kind of person who listens to audiobooks, but I had no complaints on the technical front. Any modest expectations I had were exceeded by the delivery; listening to Bryce Papenbrook in audiobook form gave me new appreciation for his range as an actor. Because he's often typecast as the "angsty teen protagonist," it was refreshing to hear him tackle the voices of all the various side characters in SAO's first volume, of which there are surprisingly many.

Still, this is a book that's told mostly inside Kirito's head, and Papenbrook displays admirable skill in narrating prose that could easily have become tedious. Kirito's vulnerabilities and thoughtfulness come across even when he is explaining game minutiae. What might be even more impressive is how Papenbrook sells the emotional impact of lines that would otherwise come across as unbearably corny. There are quite a lot of love scenes between Kirito and Asuna—perhaps too many for the book's good—but Papenbrook handles each and every one of them with aplomb.

As the above paragraph implies, Sword Art Online's first volume is a distinctly uneven experience. It was Reki Kawahara's first ever attempt at writing a novel, and one can easily see the telltale signs of a book that crams in too many subplots for its own good. In the years since, many aspects of this first novel have been fleshed out significantly – like Kirito's tragic history with Sachi and the fateful raid against the murderous Laughing Coffin guild – but here, those backstories are abridged to the point where they have very little narrative weight. It's also notable that the book has an abrupt time skip after its tension-filled opening, and a meandering second act.

But Sword Art Online still gets the important things right. Its premise may be a familiar one by now, but the opening chapters are effective at instilling an inevitable feeling of dread. The book also has an impressively action-packed and emotional climax. Even in the earliest stages of his career, Kawahara has had a keen knack for action scenes; unlike many of his contemporaries, he knew how to modulate the density of his descriptions in order to portray a sense of immediacy. The result is a book that is as thrilling as it is rich with detail about its virtual world.

Papenbrook's acting has great synergy with Kawahara's dramatic writing, especially in the latter end of the book. When the pace picks up, so does the speed of Papenbrook's narration; when the emotional climax arrives, he slows down and softens his voice while maintaining a breathless sense of anticipation. I also have to give my kudos to the English translator Stephen Paul; it takes a confident translator to write prose that sounds perfectly natural when spoken aloud. The fact that this was an audiobook experience with no wrinkles is as much a compliment to the translator as it is to the actor.

All in all, I had a great time with this audiobook, and it was a nice opportunity to revisit Sword Art Online, warts and all. For all its obvious flaws, the story still holds up pretty well as an entertaining action novel even to this day. As a side note about the audiobook version, I think it helped with the immersion that this volume had a mostly male side cast. While I think that Papenbrook's take on Asuna was fine as a contrast to Kirito's voice, I can foresee some difficulties in the future as SAO's female cast expands. But that's all a story for another day—this audiobook gets a solid recommendation from me.

Overall : B+
Overall (dub) : A-
Story : B

+ Stellar performance by Bryce Papenbrook, SAO's story still holds up pretty well
Female voices present a challenge, the writing in SAO's first volume is uneven

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Production Info:
Story: Reki Kawahara
Licensed by: Yen Press

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Sword Art Online (novel)

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