Sword Art Online 1:Aincrad by Reki Kawahara. Originally published by Yen Press/Hachette Book Group, 2014. Approx. 245 pages (some color and B&W illustrations as well).
This might be a pretty short review. I am assuming that if you are reading this, you are already somewhat familiar with the premise of Sword Art Online, a recent phenom with tendrils reaching into the realms of anime, manga, video games, and light novels. In short, it focuses on gamers participating in a fantasy-based VRMMORPG (Virtual Reality Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game). The thing is; the developer of the game programmed the unique headset required for playing it quite a bit - to the point where the immersion is real. So, although the players' bodies are being sustained in specialized medical facilities, an in-game death will translate to a real world one as well.
Well, here's the blurb, which explains all that, just better:
In the year 2022, gamers rejoice as Sword Art Online - a VRMMORPG (Virtual Reality Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game) like no other - debuts, allowing players to take full advantage of the ultimate in gaming technology: NerveGear, a system that allows users to completely immerse themselves in a wholly realistic gaming experience. But when the game goes live, the elation of the players quickly turns to horror as they discover that, for all its amazing features, SAO is missing one of the most basic functions of any MMORPG - a log-out button. Now trapped in the virtual world of Aincrad, their bodies held captive by NerveGear in the real world, users are issued a chilling ultimatum: conquer all one hundred floors of Aincrad to regain your freedom. But in the warped world of SAO, "game over" means certain death - both virtual and real...
The book focuses for the most part on Kirito, a teenager in Japan who is a lifelong gamer, and had been chosen as one of the beta testers for the initial SAO rollout (the game itself was limited to 10,000 participants). Kirito is, of course, a natural in his new environment due to his gaming pedigree. He is also somewhat of a loner, although he does coordinate attacks on end-of-level boss monsters with some of the guilds that evolve in this new society. Over the course of these ventures he strikes up a friendship with the beautiful, chestnut-haired Asuna; a high-ranking warrior in the KoB (Knights of Blood), who is considered another of the top gamers.
The novel spends more time detailing their developing relationship/romance than it does the advance through the game. All of the expected anime tropes are here: overly dramatic moments of sacrifice, melodramatic romance, all that good stuff. If you like that stuff, you'll eat it up. If you don't, it's pretty much a cringe on every page. I fall into the former category, so it was fun for me.
There are also a few nice little curve balls which I did not expect, and those made for a nice touch.
The secondary characters are interesting enough, although definitely cast from familiar templates. The world of Aincrad itself is painted quite nicely for the reader as well; with most floors following some consistent decorative theme.
Now, depending on how you look at them, anime light novels can be seen as either an oddity or a novelty. And, of course, a lot of their ultimate success or failure hinges on the English translation. The translation here, done by Stephen Paul, makes for an easy, seamless, brisk read. I don't have a Japanese original to match it against, and I haven't read any of the fan translations circulating the web either. My only complaint with the writing itself needs to be lodged against the writer, not the translator. Certain actions and reactions common in the visual mediums of anime and mange simply do not translate well to the written word: case in point, the facial overreactions which are so common in those mediums (i.e. - exaggerated puffed cheeks, bulging veins, clouds of exhalation after a satisfying meal, etc.). The book attempts to describe those actions quite literally; where deft metaphor would probably convey the message quite better. That's the thing, though. There are plenty of lofty modifiers throughout the book (a direct translation or Paul's word choice?), but there is little in the manner of figurative language. Maybe it wasn't there to begin with, or maybe it didn't get translated well.
My only other complaint is that for such a vast RPG world, there are very few instances of interaction with the monsters. We get some, and there is thankfully some attention paid to the side skills that SAO players can develop, but it would've been a great benefit to the overall experience to see some more of the monsters that would've made a game like that so attractive to the players in the first place.
And yet, even with some slight drawbacks, I enjoyed this book a lot. It is no literary masterpiece, by any means, but it definitely taps into a vein. When I was younger, I was (I'm sure) the only kid in our D&D circle that actually played the game by imaging I was in the world. It wasn't just about making my character "super-strong". I always wanted to escape into that fantasy world. The same continued with shows I loved, like Voltron and Robotech. When I got into my 20's, I still felt those same longings, wishing I could escape into worlds like those in Chrono Trigger. Back them, voicing those wishes came with serious social repercussions. Luckily, they are more acceptable now. And that's the kind of pure escapism that SAO offers. I'm sure if I was younger, I'd be grabbing these books off the shelves at the bookstores and hunting down the newest fan translations.
So, even though it feels a bit silly to be reading these books in my 40's, I'll probably grab the subsequent volumes from my local library. Or maybe I'll buy them so my kids can read them too in the near future. I'm not sure if I am going to sit through the anime yet. My anime obsession started its decline close to 15 years ago, and the newer stuff is kind of hard to get into when you've been weaned on the classics of the 70's and 80's.
Give SAO a whirl. And kudos to Yen Press and the other publishers for putting these books out there.
Nice pic of Kirito and Asuna. The character design is fairly typical, but visually attractive. I like the lettering. the inner illustrations are a win as well. My only issue is that at a cursory viewing, it might be tough for the new reader to differentiate whether this is a light novel or a manga.
Cover Final Score: