Reviewby Theron Martin,
Sword Art Online: Progressive
With the defeat of the fourth floor's hippocampus boss, the front line now moves to the fifth floor, a level dominated by ruins. Though Asuna briefly gets addicted to hunting for relics that can be sold for col (a major feature of the floor which soon attracts numerous other players), she is also growing concerned about her reliance on Kirito. Sometimes she just can't help it though, especially when astral monsters (ghosts and wraiths), are afoot to scare the bejeezus out of her. Other dangers lurk about too, such as critters that can steal equipment, and worse, Kirito's nemesis Morte seemingly conspiring to disrupt the tenuous cooperation between the two lead guilds. With a New Year's Eve celebration imminent, Kirito and Asuna must find a way to head off a conflict that could potentially bog down the completion of the game – exactly what certain forces lurking in the shadows seem to want.
Volumes 2 and 3 of the Progressive series were told entirely from Kirito's viewpoint, which I felt was a disservice to his co-star Asuna. That changes with this volume, making it the best and most complete story to date for this branch of the franchise.
The big difference is that the first half of the novel is told entirely from Asuna's viewpoint. For the first time since the early stages of volume 1, we get to see her not just as a semi-tsundere who stays with Kirito despite seemingly being irritated by him, but as a complete character who has come a long way from her initially suicidal behavior. Now she has a purpose and goals, as well as a drive to beat the game, but she is plagued by fears and insecurities that are at least as strong as Kirito's – which is doubtlessly meant to be ironic, as she is easily among Aincard's highest-level players and sports possibly the strongest weapon in the game at this point.
While Kirito is well aware of that fact, Asuna seems oblivious to how comparatively strong she actually is, since all she can see are her weaknesses. She can't handle dealing with anything ghost-like and feels that she relies too much on Kirito, yet her first instinct is to pine for Kirito's help whenever she's faced with a dangerous situation. However, when something gets stolen from her, she shows that she's capable of thinking on her feet and making smart decisions when she has no one else to rely on, and the way she gets back what was stolen from her is very clever. A later encounter with another player shows how much of an inspirational figure she can be. Last novel, Kirito started contemplating that he would eventually have to break away from her or he would only be holding her back, but he might not be thinking that for the right reasons.
The second half of the novel switches back to Kirito's viewpoint, and even more than the previous novels, it stresses his own insecurities. It delves more into his background and what drove him into gaming in the first place, exploring his loner mentality and his difficulties when dealing with other people. It also demonstrates why he doesn't like being a leader, even though he seems to be pretty good at it. He's not at all comfortable with that level of responsibility and feels that he can't be rational when the lives of companions could be at stake. He even breaks himself down at one point when he fears for Asuna's well-being, though the story wisely waits until it's his turn to be the viewpoint character before exploring this angle.
As awkward as splitting the novel evenly between two viewpoints may sound, it's actually the best thing that author Reki Kawahara could have done, and I would very much like to see this continue in future volumes. This dichotomy allows for a compare-and-contrast between our two protagonists. Despite their decidedly different temperaments, they are more alike than either of them realizes, as they both possess deep-seeded insecurities that they unwittingly mask behind a cool façade, both have backgrounds that tend to isolate them from others, and both are trying to claw their way out of purely selfish behavior. They also complement each other more completely than they realize (or the anime and original novels ever indicated), as Asuna has social skills and interpersonal intuition that Kirito desperately lacks, and Kirito has the wealth of game knowledge and history that Asuna desperately lacks. They can also assuage each other's fears and be a necessary pillar of strength for each other. The fact that they're also the only people in the game who can keep up with each other gets less emphasis, but that point is adequately covered elsewhere in the franchise. Despite all of that, the reasons why they will have to eventually separate for a time are also becoming clearer.
For all of the character development emphasis, Kawahara also finds plenty of time for his real passions: the nitty-gritty of the technical aspects of the environment. He dabbles in gaming concepts like infinite bugs and how players feel about taking advantage of them, discusses various different ways to PK (“player kill”), and speculates on how attitudes about PvP battles might differ in an environment where people could really die. He also looks more at an issue that may be his own extrapolation: FNC, or Full-Dive Nonconformity, a condition he first introduced back in the first novel which involves a virtual disability resulting from the Nerve Gear not perfectly adjusting for the wearer. His specifications about little details, such as how precisely possession of an item works in the game, how players can exploit other game mechanics to their advantage, or how particular Sword Skills work, is as sharp as ever, and for the first time since the first novel, he goes back to fully detailing a boss fight. The nature of this boss fight is also interesting; Kawahara states in the Afterword that he has deep respect for the creativity of game designers who come up with boss fights, but this one is no slouch.
The actual writing presents no problems and even has a bit more polish than some of his earlier writings. Yen Press's production conforms to well-established standards: seven glossy pages of color pictures at the outset, a glossy color map of the floor from a cross-section view (with elaborative notes), and various black-and-white illustrations throughout that are better-than-average for the franchise. In the two page Afterword, Kawahara also elaborates some on the process of setting the stepping stones for the development of Laughing Coffin, another major feature of this novel.
The psychopathy inherent in the actions and words of Morte's poncho-clad boss is satisfyingly chilling, which more firmly establishes that nascent guild as a long-term antagonist for Kirito. (The game alone being the antagonist doesn't seem sufficient.) Kawahara also finally gives us more detail about Argo, firmly cements the groundwork for development in the eventual relationship of Kirito and Asuna, and keeps giving little tidbits about characters who will more prominently come into play later on, such as additional references to who I assume must be Lisbeth. All-in-all, it should be a very satisfying volume for any franchise fan.
Overall : B+
Story : B+
Art : B
+ Balancing between Asuna and Kirito's viewpoint makes for a more complete picture, interesting boss battle
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