Friday, May 12, 2017

Sword Art Online 2: Aincrad

Sword Art Online 1:Aincrad by Reki Kawahara. Originally published by Yen Press/Hachette Book Group, 2015. Approx. 242 pages (some color and B&W illustrations as well).

Wow, I can't believe that it's been over a year since I read and reviewed the first light novel in this series. Even sadder, in that time, I've only watched the first three episodes of the show. I must say, I was taken a bit by surprise at how much I enjoyed this title, even to the point where I've begun buying the rest of the novels (they do look quite nice on the shelf). Yes, I am indeed becoming quite the fan of SAO....

Well, maybe not that much of a fan.....

Moving on to Volume 2. I wasn't really sure what to expect in this volume, especially since Volume 1 brought the Aincrad arc to a sufficient close. What Volume 2 actually amounts to is 4 vignettes covering girls that were background characters in the story. Again, since I haven't watched all of the anime, I don't know yet how prominently these girls figure in the show (although Sachi's story, "Red Nosed Reindeer", was the third episode of the show).

The Black Swordsman (49pgs): This story tells how Kirito and Silica the Beast-Tamer first met. This story, to be honest, really isn't that good. Although it is written in the same fun, honest manner, it is just made up of so many "it just so happens" coincidences that it beats your suspension of disbelief over the head. Beast-tamer isn't an official class, but Silica just happens to be one. Monsters don't form emotional bonds with their tamers, but her dragon Pina just so happens to. When it dies; sacrificing itself for her, Silica just so happens to meet Kirito, who just so happens to know about a place to revive it, but it must be done within a time limit set to  necessitate urgency, yet allow for some narrative growth. Well, actually, there was some planning afoot in all the meetings; but still, it comes off as a bit corny.

There is conflict, although by this point in the story Kirito is so "OP" that there is no sense of tension, or risk, involved.

The bonding aspect of the story is fun enough. The problem is that, well, Silica is just kind of annoying. She seems nice and honest enough, but teeters off into being impetuous too easily. Of course, she develops a raging crush on Kirito. I mean, this is all fairly rote and tropey; and usually, the SAO stuff is tropes done right. In this case, not so much so. Still a fun enough story.

Warmth of the Heart (60pgs): The second story tells of how Kirito and Lisbeth the Blacksmith became friends. Lisbeth is a teen blacksmith, of unparalleled skill, who is also hardworking, shrewd, and playful in a teasing manner. She is also Asuna's best friend. However, one day, a mysterious swordsman in black walks into her shop, requesting a one of a kind sword.

In the process of testing her wares, Kirito breaks her best custom sword. The two make a pact to search for a mysterious metal, to see if Lisbeth can fashion a unique sword from that.

The rest of the story details their growing friendship. There is a time in the story, when the two of them are trapped for a bit, which is very effective for portraying the need for basic human interaction - and feeling - that so many trapped in the game are forced to do without. 

For all the falseness of the first story, there is a real touching honesty and depth of emotion in this tale. Maybe it's just that I like Lisbeth a lot more as a character than Silica; who knows? Either way, I think that this story is just better written, overall.

The Girl in the Morning Dew (66pgs): This installment tells the story of Yui, a mysterious young girl found in the woods by Asuna and Kirito during their honeymoon. Exploring the woods after hearing rumors of a 'ghost girl' seen lurking therein, they come upon a lost waif, whom they take in and assume a parental role over. This girl looks to be about 8, yet has regressed in speech to a toddler level (they know she can't be that young because NerveGear has strict controls that prohibit anyone under 13 from logging in, which totally explains how Silica was able to do it at 12). This girl is obviously not a 'ghost', or an NPC. However, she doesn't have stats either - so they can't peg if she's a player or not. So, they decide to head to the Town of Beginnings to see if they can locate her guardian.

There are no answers to be found in the Town of Beginnings, but there is a dilemma - the once respectable Army Guild has devolved into something akin to an extortionist mafia. After befriending a young woman running an impromptu 'orphanage' (again, how young are these kids if they aren't supposed to be under 13?), our intrepid couple sets to right things again.

For the bulk of the story, Yui takes a backseat - mumbling the occasional baby-talk. It isn't until the very end - where the situation allows for convenient exposition - that we get to find out what is going on. At that point, the book really tries to shoehorn in an emotional climax. It's a bit forced, to say the least.

This isn't the worst story in the book, but it isn't great. It's fun enough to see the young newlyweds playing at parenthood, and the new characters are decent. That's really all I can say here.

Red-Nosed Reindeer (41pgs): Reki Kawahara truly saves his best for last here. Readers of the first book will remember that perennial lone wolf Kirito did spend some time with one guild, the Moonlit Black Cats. His subsequent lies to them, in withholding the extent of his power, and their resultant death, hang heavily around his neck like an albatross. However, the heaviest cross he bears is in regards to Sachi, a timid young girl who was a member of the MBC. Poor Sachi, whom he promised would not die - whom he promised he would keep alive. Yeah, the anime goes right into this story on episode 3....

So, yes, Red-Nosed Reindeer tells the story of that doomed guild. It is told in partial flashback format, with the current events centering on Kirito preparing for a special boss quest. The rumor mills have it that when the clock strikes midnight on Christmas Eve, a boss named Nicholas the Renegade will make an appearance, with a bag full of goodies for anyone that can beat him. Best yet, the rumors have it that there might be a resurrection item involved - allowing Kirito to save Sachi, or die the ignoble death he believes he deserves in the process.

Okay, the melodrama is ramped up over 9000 in this story. But, it's all ok, because this is by far the best story in the book. I pondered on that for a bit, and then it hit me - this is the only story told in first-person POV, from Kirito's viewpoint (Warmth of the Heart is the only other first-person POV, but for Lisbeth). Kirito is by and far the heart and soul of this series, and Kawahara is writing on a higher level when he gets inside his head. This story, by far, carries the most gravitas; anger, despondency, and sorrow.

Supporting characterization isn't very strong here; we have an overly emotional appearance by Kirito's friend Klein. Sachi, in the book and in the anime as well, is a pure avatar of the shy, quiet girl that the hero is compelled to want to "care for". Somewhere, in every man's fragile ego, is the need for validation via a proxy such as this. She was made for this role. The rest of the MBC is barely realized. We don't even get their names, save for Keita (the leader) and Tetsuo (the mace-user). Just reading the book, you might not have any idea what they even look like.

Which is why we have the internet.

But, in the end, this is Kirito's story to tell, and it is told very well. Actually, in a way, it is Sachi's story to tell as well, which leads us to the name of the story, and...

...and we'll just leave it at that.


Like I said about the last volume, if you like the character design, you'll dig it. Asuna looks better on the cover than Silica, but it is still vibrant and well put together.

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