Reviewby Theron Martin,
Sword Art Online
Novel 9 - Alicization Beginning
In an alternate world, Kirito and Eugeo live and work in a village near the literal end of the world, along with a girl their age named Alice. Life is mundane for them until an adventure related to keeping their lunches preserved leads to the unthinkable: a violation of the Taboo Index. This inadvertent action will tear the group apart.
In the real world, three months have passed since the conclusion of the Yuuki Kanno affair. Kazuto, Asuna, and Shino have gathered at a certain familiar café for a discussion about lingering matters from the GGO incident and recruitment for the next BoB tournament. More importantly however, they discuss the new job Kirito has been working lately, testing a new immersive VR system that promises a radical departure from the Amusphere currently used for Seed-based worlds like ALO and GGO. The implications of the project are heady if they can ever be made practical, but before they can contemplate that too deeply, calamity strikes.
In the wake of an incident that he can't remember, Kirito finds himself awaking in a new world without any explanation for where he is or why. Or is it a new world? He can't be sure, but there's something unusual about the young man he runs into – a guy named Eugeo, whose life's Calling is to chop down a demonic tree with a special axe. This seems inconsistent with the virtual worlds Kirito's been in before, and what about these faint recollections of a girl named Alice, whose loss six years earlier leaves Eugeo still in grief?
With its ninth novel, the SAO franchise officially moves its core storyline past the point where the animated adaptation ends, making it the perfect jump-on point if you haven't been following the novels but have seen the anime and want to see how the story continues. This novel kicks off the beginning of the Alicization story arc, a 10-volume mega-arc that's now longer than all of the previous arcs combined. At least the arc seems to be finished in Japan (volume 18, which marks its conclusion, was released in August 2016), so if Yen Press keeps to its established release pace, then they should only take about three years to release the whole arc in English.
At 261 pages, this is one of the longest installments in the SAO novel series to date, perhaps because it's divided into three major parts. The first part, Prologue I, describes the life of 11 year old Eugeo, a seeming inhabitant of a peculiarly regimented fantasy realm, and his bosom companions Kirito and Alice. It's told from Eugeo's point of view but gives no indication that the Kirito of this story has joined them through a game; as far as Eugeo and Alice are concerned, all three have grown up together. The possible reason for this is alluded to in Prologue II, which shifts back to the real world where the trio of the franchise's top surviving stars engage in small talk about what they've been up to lately before getting involved in heady discussions about the new-fangled Soul Translation (STL for short) system that Kirito has been testing. This part is told from Shino's point of view and then briefly Asuna's, detailing the dramatic events that presumably result in Kirito's circumstances in the third main part.
This third part, which makes up more than half of the page count, is the arc's true Chapter 1. It returns the franchise to the “trapped in a game” concept and Kazuto's first-person perspective, only this time he isn't absolutely certain that he's even in a virtual setting, since there's no up-front explanation about what's going on or how he got there. With no guide or beta-testing background, he's left in the classic “figure the game out as you go along” mode, which he comments on himself. This mysterious scenario is the other aspect that distinguishes this part of the novel, as previous story arcs have only flirted with such ambiguity (the “whodunit” mini-arc in Aincard, for instance) rather than making it an integral component. Unfortunately, this part also drags the most, with only one significant action scene (albeit a good one), a more limited sense of adventure, and not much on the character development front either. Still, the mystery angle keeps the story moving forward, as Kirito discovers various details about the world and tries to figure out how they all go together.
For all of its populist bent, Sword Art Online has always had big ideas at its core. They're often neglected in discussions about the franchise, but with this novel, these ideas are impossible to ignore. The discussions in the second part about what constitutes the human mind and how it works traverse into some heady territory, as does the concept of the STL system and what purpose it might be intended for other than commercial application, given what it can do. The implications of the system's capabilities are also the clearest connection yet toward Accel World, which is set later on in the same timeline as Sword Art Online. Those at least vaguely familiar with Accel World should have some advantages at extrapolating where this may all be headed; I already have my own suspicions about what's going on with the world Kirito is stuck in, but speculating is part of the intended fun, isn't it?
Yen Press's release of the novel conforms to established standards: several glossy pages with color art up front, an area map of Rulid Village (the setting of the first and third parts), and various black-and white illustrations throughout, all courtesy of the artist abec. There's also the standard two-page Afterword, where author Reki Kawahara comments on how this work is partly a personal challenge to do something different with his writing. The resulting difference is subtle (less of an emphasis on game terminology), but it shows if you're looking for it.
Frankly, I think the end of the Mother's Rosario story arc was an excellent stopping point for the franchise, since it's going to be hard to do much different after that without retreading familiar ground. The beginning of this arc already shows some sign of this problem. It also looks unlikely that we're going to see any significant involvement from the supporting cast like Lisbeth, Silica, and Klein, none of whom are even mentioned here. Unless future installments bounce back and forth between Kirito's world and the real world, I don't see much of a role going forward for Asuna or Shino either. Still, there are some intriguing possibilities here, and that's enough to make this a must-have novel for anyone eager to see more of the franchise.
Overall : B
Story : B
Art : B
+ Captures the sense of mystery that comes from figuring out a new game without a manual
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