Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Sword Art Online
Novel 3 - Fairy Dance
Returned from Aincrad, Kazuto Kirigaya, AKA Kirito, is horrified and saddened to realize that his love Asuna remains trapped in the virtual world. When an old SAO buddy shows him an image of someone who looks like her in a new VRMMORPG, Alfheim Online, he decides to don his NervGear again and venture back into the virtual world. Meanwhile his sister Suguha is grappling with her feelings for her brother now that he's back, while the two find themselves unwitting partners in Asuna's rescue...a task which seems like it just might be impossible, no matter how important it may be.
There is a small piece of me that wishes that Reki Kawahara had simply stopped writing after the first book and left Sword Art Online a stand-alone novel. While this first novel in the Fairy Dance arc is a good read and makes good use of the duality of playing an MMO while still remaining yourself offline, it also allows for us to really hone in on his deficiencies as a writer now that the concept is no longer new. Taking away the life or death aspect of the game also works against the story, although Kawahara does make it sound like a significant enough pain in the behind to have restart once your character is killed. The greatest strength and weakness of this book, however, is really that it takes us out of Kirito's head, with most of the chapters narrated by his sister Suguha. It's a plus in that she is a somewhat more interesting character, but a minus because when seen from the outside, all of the issues with Kirito's character become glaringly obvious.
The story picks up several months after Kirito has revived from his time in SAO. While he was sleeping, his sister Suguha, younger by a year or so, has learned that they are cousins rather than siblings. The combination of this and her built up memories of him have led her to think that she may be in love with him, although at this point in the story it is fairly clear that this has more to do with rosy memories and grief than anything else. Sugu has really been struggling with her emotions during the two years he's been in the game, giving her a different emotional background than the characters from the Aincrad arc. Essentially she's been living an isolated life: her father is overseas a lot for work, her mother works late hours, and her brother's in a coma. The only way for her to easily cope is to build castles with no foundations in her mind, and those aren't always easy to dismantle. She takes her feelings out in her kendo training but still feels something missing. And so, in an effort to understand Kirito better as well as to find an escape (that part is never mentioned, but it is implied), she begins playing the next major VRMMORPG that comes out, Alfheim Online, or ALO. She comes to love the freedom of it, but when her brother revives, she can't bring herself to tell him that she's playing. As it turns out, this may not have been a great idea.
Kirito, meanwhile, is dead-set on saving Asuna, whose miserable character arc from the anime turns out to be true to the book. After learning that she may be trapped in ALO, he also enters the game in an effort to find and free her from her slimy fiancé, Sugou, her father's heir apparent. Sugou has plans for Asuna that are unscrupulous at best and dastardly at worst, and Kirito is determined to save his love. Mostly we see his efforts through Sugu's eyes as the two team up in ALO, and the result is quite interesting. Kirito very quickly goes from being a nice guy always willing to lend a hand to a super-powered showoff capable of far more than he should be. If you never understood the Gary Stu accusations about him, you will now, as he goes from being a moderately likable fellow trapped in a deadly game to someone so overpowered that he takes the fun away from the other players. In all fairness, in Kirito's mind he is racing against the clock to save Asuna, and to a degree, that's fine. On the other hand, it doesn't make for particularly exciting reading, especially since we know there is no longer a danger of him or his opponents dying.
Kawahara's prose does suffer from an overuse of certain phrases, the biggest offender being “to his/her heart's content,” which appears far too often. Emotions tend to be overstated, giving the characters a more cartoony feel to them that detracts a little from the story. Sugou actually feels the least over-the-top as he plots how to use the VR technology for his own ends, but this may very well be because we see less of him than Leafa, Recon, and Kirito. Asuna is the only character with less of a role, and while she does start to shape up at the end, she mostly sits around waiting for “Him” to rescue her. The use of the uppercase h is troubling, as it places one of the most competent characters from the previous arc in a position of weakness and implies that she may voluntarily be there. Not that she acquiesced to being trapped, but rather that she sees herself as less capable than she is.
The Fairy Dance arc's greatest strength at this point is that it has introduced an interesting new world and the character of Suguha, who will hopefully figure herself out once she gets to know her brother again. Her crush on him is annoying, but it really seems to stem from her emotional isolation during his coma, so there is hope there. Kirito, unfortunately, is a fairly cardboard character this time, and Asuna's power has been all but erased. Combine that with some clunky, repetitive prose and you have a book that's still good enough to read, but not nearly as good as it could be.
Overall : C+
Story : C+
Art : B-
+ Pictures are mostly nice and fairly plentiful, Sugu has promise as a character. ALO makes use of many different fey that you rarely get to see in a game, Sugou is a nicely evil villain.
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