Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Sword Art Online: Progressive
Return to Aincrad with Asuna and Kirito as Reki Kawahara hits rewind to take us on a fuller tour of the early days of Sword Art Online. Asuna, playing by chance when she gets trapped, must learn to conquer her fear and depression in order to become the character we know from the original novels, while Kirito begins his climb to the top simultaneously with his descent into infamy as a “beater” as the two meet and help to conquer the first two floors in a story that adds depth to their relationship and information to our understanding of Kawahara's popular world.
Reki Kawahara says in his afterward to this first volume of the Sword Art Online: Progressive (SAOP) novel series that he was conflicted about bringing Kirito and Asuna together so early in the game. He fears that it will confuse readers and play fast and loose with the mythology established in his original series, but to readers (or viewers of the anime version) who felt that their relationship deepened too quickly the first time around, his fears seem unfounded. Seeing Kirito and Asuna begin their friendship, which we know will be interrupted further down the line before resuming, makes their later interactions much more believable and ultimately fixes part of the problem with their highly two-dimensional relationship.
Unfortunately Kawahara doesn't quite take this far enough by delving deeper into Asuna herself. He makes a start in the first section of the novel, which covers the first floor, by having segments of the story follow Asuna's thoughts in closed third-person narration. Thus we are able to really learn about her fears, home life, and what landed her in the game in the first place, something some readers may be familiar with from the manga adaptation of SAOP, which Yen Press published before the novel itself. While Kawahara isn't particularly skilled at writing realistic or believable female characters, this does help to make Asuna more of a real person rather than a standard Strong Female Character. Regretfully the author does not carry these segments through either the entire section or the book, resuming Kirito's first person narration completely by the time the second part is reached. While the earlier insight into Asuna's thoughts does help to explain her behavior a bit better as the story goes on, she quickly slides back into inscrutable girl territory, particularly when we consider her firmly stated belief that her avatar does not count as her real body.
The stories themselves (Kawahara refers to the book as containing two short stories, one for floors one and two) are more serious than the original simply because they contain many more of the gaming details that explain everyone's actions. For readers familiar with the story and setting, to say nothing of what is to come, these are both fascinating and a drag. We do meet earlier versions of several characters we will come to know in different roles later on, as well as their motivations for the change, such as in the case of the man who will eventually become the leader of the Army; his trajectory is perhaps the clearest and best done simply because we can easily see how he got from where he is in this book to where he will be later in the game. Agil, the burly merchant, has a somewhat murkier path from front-line fighter to seller, and while there's very little foreshadowing as to how this transformation will take place, we do see him acquire at least the goods that will allow this to happen. Two major new characters are also introduced, with Argo the Rat, an information broker, playing the largest continuous role. Argo is interesting in both her relationship with Kirito, whom she knew online previously, and simply in the fact that she is female; Kirito is very quick to tell us (repeatedly) that there are very few women and girls in SAO, with Asuna as the sole front-liner. That he doesn't seem to take Argo's gender into consideration is therefore a little odd; when paired with his constant praise of Asuna's beauty, it begins to sound like he doesn't care that Argo is a woman because he doesn't find her attractive.
The other new character is Nazha, the first player smith to achieve a high enough level to barter his goods and services. Nazha is important not so much because of his blacksmith designation but instead for his role in the moral world of SAO. As the first two floors of Aincrad were being cleared, we are given to understand, no players were committing crimes against one another, being solely focused on clearing the game. Nazha's actions mark the need for some sort of police force and way to deal with criminals, adding a dimension to surviving the game that no one had previously thought about. In that case, the second story is much more interesting than the first, as it focuses on something beyond simple game play.
That game play may be the biggest drawback for readers already familiar with role-playing games and their terminology. Kawahara seems to assume a readership that is not interested in gaming themselves (which would not have been my assumption), and so he goes into detail about what a boss battle is, how raiding parties work, and other game trivia. This can be less interesting than when he discloses information about SAO itself, but that depends entirely on your own level of interest and comfort with MMORPGs in general.
Sword Art Online: Progressive is an interesting exercise and a chance not many authors really get – to retell their already-published stories without having to play the prequel game. While you can technically use this as a jumping off point for the series, it will have more “aha!” moments if you're already familiar with some iteration of the SAO franchise. Yen On's translation makes Kawahara's sometimes purple or clunky prose very readable, and it definitely feels like it's on a slightly higher reading level than some of his other books. At 358 pages, it is the longest light novel to be translated thus far (most of Vertical's and HaikaSoru's books fall under “literary fiction”), and while it isn't perfect, it certainly is enjoyable. If you're an SAO fan, you should enjoy Kawahara's return to the early days of Aincrad as he goes back after the fact to build his world up.
Overall : B
Story : B-
Art : B+
+ Includes more details about SAO specifically, we can see characters we know from later on in their earlier stages. Asuna's point of view helps to develop her into a more rounded character. Both new characters enhance the story.
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