Reviewby Theron Martin,
Sword Art Online
Novel 10 - Alicization Running
In the real world, Kazuto has been left in a coma by the attack of the former SAO player known as Johnny Black, but even his family isn't allowed to see him, and Yui is able to determine that he isn't even where the hospital says he is; in fact, he may not even be in Japan! With leads and suppositions pointing toward the mysterious company Rath, who Kazuto had been working for, Asuna seeks help from an unthinkable source, which leads to some shocking secrets about what Rath is really doing, how Kazuto is involved, and what “Alice-ization” actually is.
In the virtual Norlangarth Empire, Kirito and Eugeo are rapidly advancing down their path to becoming Integrity Knights and finding Alice again. (For Kirito, this also means getting into contact with someone who might be able to get him out of this world). At least, it's going fast relatively speaking, since a couple of years of in-world time have elapsed on their journey to the Imperial Swordcraft Academy in Centoria. Though Kirito has figured out where he probably is, he's completely unaware that his unusual actions have attracted the attention of an observer.
Whatever criticisms might be leveled against SAO creator Reki Kawahara, lack of ambition when it comes to imagining applications for virtual technology isn't one of them. The Soul Transfer Engine that was introduced in the last novel was an elaborate, inventive piece of work, but this novel shows that we only knew a small fraction of the overall picture. While the ultimate purpose of the whole Rath enterprise is nothing too surprising, the extent to which those goals are carried out is astounding. So it's hard to be too harsh on this novel for once again spending a fair amount of its page count info dumping.
Just as importantly, this novel shows that the story won't exclusively focus on what's happening in the virtual world. A bit more than a third of its page count is devoted to what's transpiring in the physical world beyond Kirito's own actions. We see how determined and resourceful Asuna can be without Kirito when she's sufficiently motivated – and separating her from Kirito, especially in a potential life-or-death situation, is about the strongest motivation she can be given. Figuring out what's going on with Kazuto also involves Suguha, Shino, and Yui, but Silica and Liz get left out entirely, as the back cover art laments. Kikuoka's prominent role in this isn't at all a surprise, given how much he's been involved with other incidents.
Much more surprising is the other major player in the picture: Rinko Koujio, who first appeared at the end of the Mother's Rosario arc as the person who looked after Kayaba while he was diving and provided the blueprints for the Medicuboid. We learn here that she was Kayaba's lover (though any actual “love” in the relationship may have been a one-way street), and that she had initially tried to stop Kayaba once she found out about his plans for SAO. Though she was never prosecuted for this association, she has nonetheless felt guilty about her peripheral involvement in the death game, so getting involved by invitation in the Rath business is a natural progression of those motives. Her presence provides room for some interesting conversations with Asuna, and while I'm uncertain how much more can be done with her in this story, her presence is still a significant expansion of the setting.
By comparison, the virtual side of the story is much more ordinary. Kirito and Eugeo have spent months practicing the Aincard Style in order to win a local tournament, which gives them a ticket into the Imperial Swordcraft Academy. Kirito works with a noble female upperclassman (pictured on the novel's front cover) who has her own motivations to excel that see her topping out her training as well. Along the way, he learns that while the AIS can't violate the world's basic taboos, they sure can push the limits of them in devious fashions. Those occasions are the few places where the virtual storyline gets truly interesting, although part of it being narrated by a magical observer rather than Kirito is an interesting change of pace. Otherwise, the virtual parts are largely just Kirito going around participating in the world like it's a game and contemplating how difficult it might be to separate himself from this reality if he does get out. However, neither that philosophizing nor the parallel philosophizing about the nature of the virtual world from the outside amounts to much.
On the production side, the novel is pretty much par for the course for the franchise. Kawahara's writing has definitely improved but he isn't doing anything exceptional in a technical respect. The artistry by abec, whether it's the color preview pages at the beginning or the black-and-white pieces throughout, is typically solid. The 227 pages of story are followed by a three-page Afterword where Kawahara apologizes for using so much exposition and promises to incorporate more of the swordplay that has been a hallmark of the franchise since its beginning. A helpful map of one complete sector of the virtual setting is also provided this time, allowing readers to get a better grasp of the scale alluded to in the previous volume.
So far, the storyline is achieving a pretty good balance of its elements, but I have to express wonder at there being seven more volumes to this arc. I'm having trouble imagining just what can be done with this story that will take up that many pages. Guess we'll have to wait and see.
Overall : B
Story : B
Art : B
+ Inventive applications of technology, Asuna gets more thoroughly involved
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