Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
The Isolator: Realization of Absolute Solitude
Novel 1 - The Biter
When he was eight, Minoru Utsugi lost his parents and older sister in a traumatic incident. Now sixteen and living with the young woman who adopted him, Minoru grapples with survivor's guilt and post-traumatic stress disorder, making him want to simply disappear not only from his own life, but from everyone's memories as well. He wishes, in other words, for complete isolation and solitude. This wish gets translated into something powerful when small alien orbs fall from space and take up residence inside humans, but not all are as harmless as Minoru's, and he soon finds that maybe he's more attached to people and living than he initially thought.
Few light novel authors have gotten the Western exposure that Reki Kawahara enjoys. With the publication of his latest novel series, The Isolator: Realization of Absolute Solitude, all of his novels are now available in English, he has finally truly earned this place in terms of literary skill. While both of his other series, Sword Art Online and Accel World, have some clunky prose and over-done descriptions, to say nothing of fairly similar premises about virtual realities, The Isolator reads more smoothly and features a hero who is neither a sad-sack nor a Gary Stu. With a science fiction premise removed from the gaming world, The Isolator is a good read even if you've written Kawahara off as a mediocre author.
The story follows Minoru Utsugi, a sixteen-year-old high school student. When Minoru was eight, a home invasion left him orphaned and with tremendous survivor's guilt: he and his older sister were hiding in the pantry when she put him in a small storage space and left to call the police. While out of the pantry, his sister was also killed, and Minoru feels that it was somehow his fault. As might be expected, he also suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and with no apparent psychological help, he deals with it by trying to simply not exist. He has stopped short of killing himself, if only because he doesn't want to leave his adoptive sister to go through the same things he did as a result of his death, but he actively avoids interaction with people so as not to create any memories of himself...and he fears the memories that wait for him in the night. At first it seems that he's trying to protect himself from further trauma, craving isolation (hence the title), but if you look at it another way, he's more looking to protect others from the grief he himself suffers from. Minoru sees himself as a loner, but he doesn't realize that he has made himself that way out of fear.
All of this makes Minoru a more interesting and believable hero than Kirito (SAO) or Haruyuki (Accel World), with a firm basis for his issues and a psychological depth that feels like a first for Kawahara. This extends to the other characters who get any significant page time in the novel, with the clearest example being Hikaru Takaesu, the “Biter” of the book's subtitle and the antagonist of the novel. Takaesu is also haunted by his own childhood trauma, in his case horrific abuse at the hands of his mother, but where Minoru turned inward after the loss of his family, Takaesu reached outward, lashing out at his abuser. This is reflected in the powers both men gain when they become hosts to the strange alien orbs which fall from space one night: Minoru receives a “jet eye,” which grants him the ability to create an impermeable super-hard shell around his body, effectively cutting him off from the rest of the world. Takaesu, on the other hand, shelters a “ruby eye,” which turns his malevolent urges into flesh-and-blood horror, allowing him to grow shark's teeth and to bite through almost anything. While Minoru seals himself off, Takaesu hunts human prey, feasting on their bones in a way that mimics his career as a gourmet food critic.
While we know about the orbs almost from the beginning of the story, we learn of their types and other holders along with Minoru as the story progresses. When Takaesu targets a girl from Minoru's school who has been trying to befriend him, the two holders' paths cross, and the girl featured on the cover makes an appearance on the scene. She's the most cliché of all of the characters thus far (although the adoptive sister comes close), but is kept from being an irritant by the fact that as of now she's more of a side character at this point. If that changes, it could be an issue, but right now Minoru's interactions with Tomomi Minowa, the girl from school, are much more important to his development and the plot.
The illustrations are provided by Shimeji, and take the unusual step of being printed on black pages. This gives the book a “mourning” feel, and since his perpetual mourning for his family and his former life makes up a great deal of Minoru's outlook, it seems appropriate. The illustrations are nicely done and fairly generic for the genre, with the only issue being that Takaesu can look more wolf-like than shark-like in some of the images.
The Isolator doesn't have an anime adaptation as of this writing, but don't let that stop you from picking it up. In its first volume it shows a depth that Kawahara's other works don't have, and the writing, while still suffering from a bit of overblown prose, is better than his previous efforts. It's light science fiction with a firm base in the characters' hearts, and definitely worth the read.
Overall : B+
Story : B+
Art : B
+ Characters are believable, switching between the hero and the villain's point of view really works. Better writing than we usually get from this author.
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