Over the last few months, I’ve examined the long running and popular series Sword Art Online. I approached the series as someone who wasn’t a fan, who looked at the story, characters, and ideas not as a fan, but as someone who wanted to see it for what it was, not what fans, and haters, have made it out to be. This fan-boy free breakdown was a great success, both as a writing example, and for the blog in general. I ended up enjoying the series so much, that I decided I should look at the light novels, so I picked up a few volumes. And by a few volumes, I mean all 26 that are currently out, including Progressive. Would the light novel end up giving me more information about the series? Or would it be a relic of the past, something the franchise has grown out of? After the cut let’s take a dive into the first volume of Sword Art Online: Aincrad.
I pride myself on being as objective as possible. While true 100% objectivity is impossible, I do my best in everything I want to check my own bias and pre-conceived notions ‘at the door.’ When reading this first volume, I did my best to put the anime to the side, to judge the first volume as its own thing. Because this is Sword Art Online at its (almost) most raw. There is no animation, no voice acting, no music, none of it. There is just the text, the writing, and the world that Reki Kawahara, at this point a greenhorn author, unknown to many in the anime world, has created. Looking at this first novel is to examine Sword Art Online at what it is, not the mega-hit it would become.
And the result is: Mixed
Aincrad has always been the weakest arc of the series. That is to be expected, as it is the first one and must pull double duty of introducing the world and characters along with telling a story. Yet while the anime series could fall back on great animation, good fights, and excellent voice acting, all the light novel has is its prose, and that can only take it so far. Thankfully, Kawahara is a good writer, and that is clear from the very first page. His work is crisp and to the point, the story is always moving, and there is little fat on the bones of the story. Kirito feels like Kirito and Asuna feels like Asuna. Even without knowledge of the anime, you can see the world Kawahara is trying to create, you feel the sense of dread at not being able to escape, the sense of tenderness and affection between Kirito and Asuna, and the exhaustive relief when they are finally free. The biggest change from the anime is that SAO is told through Kirito’s PoV, so you get a deeper insight into how our lead character thinks and feels. We get a better glimpse into his mind, seeing a kid who has shut himself away, who only cares about games, and who slowly gets that mindset picked away by both the reality of his situation, and his growing relationship to Asuna. I found myself understanding Kirito a bit more as I person by the end, and it remains the best thing in the story.
Which is good because the entire novel is a cliffnotes version of the story.
The entire volume covers the story of Aincrad from beginning to end, but only about everything related to Kirito and Asuna together. Everything that was in the anime: his adventures with Lizbeth and Silica, the initial battles against the floor bosses. Sachi’s story, the murder mystery, and the time spent with Yui? None of that is in here, instead being saved for the second volume as a series of in between stories. Instead, this first volume talks only about the Kirito and Asuna moments, how they get together, the confession of love, the time spent in the cottage, and the final battle for their freedom. Hell, we don’t even get to see them meet, Asuna just shows up in a certain chapter and the story just moves on. It is just a truncated and weirdly structured story, and feels (like Mirai Nikki before it), a rough first draft of something better. However, unlike the latter, Sword Art Online’s future anime adaptation ended up doing it.
And that is where the rub is. As someone who watched the anime, I would say that unless you’re a die-hard fan. You don’t really gain anything new from the light novel. Yes, there are more insights into Kirito as a person, but it comes at the cost of a story that feels like 60% of its meat was gutted. I’ve said before, and still believe that Aincrad only gets good once Asuna and Kirito get together. I still think that, but when the only thing you read in this novel is that, and it is not as fleshed out as in the anime, I don’t know, something just feels off. As if Kawahara felt this was his one and only shot to see his work in print and decided to just give us the most important parts. There is a lack of nuance, and a great sense of rushing to get to the next big scene, because there may never be another chance again.
Still, I cannot fault the first volume that much. It is, both literally and metaphorically, the start of Sword Art Online’s journey to the peaks of anime stardom. What is on display here is rough but shows the promise and potential of what is to come, and the work is strong enough that the future anime adaptors were able to craft something that touched the hearts of millions. It is in this regard that I look at the first volume of Sword Art Online as more of a historical document, a rough script in what would become something bigger and better. As a writer myself, I really enjoy seeing Kawahara at the start of his journey here. It shows us that even the most popular authors were newcomers and watching them ‘get there’ can be just as entertaining as when they are at their best.
Sword Art Online Volume 1 has been a fascinating experience as someone whom the anime is still fresh in my mind. I don’t think I will read this again, but I am glad that I did, and I look forward to seeing how the rest of the story unfolds over the course of these next few months and years ahead. I hope you’ll join me on this journey, if only to see if Asuna ever gets some meat on that booty.