Our look at the light novel version of Sword Art Online continues! I dragged my feet on finishing this light novel because there was so many other things going on, but I did manage to get it done! With that said, how does the second part of the Aincrad arc hold up against its anime adaptation? Let’s find out after the cut, we dive into Sword Art Online Volume 2: Aincrad
Like I said last time, the Aincrad arc, being the weakest of six main story arcs of the series doesn’t really fair much better in light novel form. By removing everything that the anime improves on, the voice acting, the animation, the music and visual atmosphere, you are left with just the prose and plot of Reki Kawahara, who, despite having great skill, is still at this point in time trying to figure out his story. The result is, like said previously a mixed bag.
The most notable change is that the second volume consists of all the stories that would form a sizable chunk of the anime’s first season. The Lizbeth episodes, the Silica episodes, the Sachi Episodes, and the Yui episodes are all told here, and they are done with varying degrees of success. However the biggest issue the book has going for it, is that everything is out of order. Whatever your feelings are regarding the Aincrad arc, there was at least a clear sense of progression in its story. The first half consisting of stand-alone adventures that further develop Kirito and his place in the world, before switching to the more focused relationship with Asuna. The light novel has none of that, with the first volume being ONLY the Asuna and Kirito storylines, while the second covered the remaining half. This out of order way of doing things gives a sense of things being more stilted and unfocused, with things rapidly changing between different years and months. Having watched the anime first, I was able to handle it, but I also couldn’t help shake the fact that I’ve seen how much better it can be when stuff is put in the proper order.
Yet, what the second volume gives us is not all bad, and like with the previous volume, there are some small, but welcome improvements made without. While Silcia’s story does little, stuff like Lizbeth’s journey with Kirito feels like a vast improvement. By having the story told through her PoV, we get to understand Lisbeth’s character more deeply, see why she has feelings for Kirito, and understand that this is a woman who wants to find love, but who hasn’t allowed in to her heart. The realization that she’s grown fond of Kirito, only to see that Asuna has beat her to the punch is well written and has the same emotional punch as in the anime. I was glad to see the Kawahara let other characters take the spotlight when it came to the point of view, and I think it does a lot to pull the story away from the “Kirito-focus” that viewers have sometimes criticized the series for.
The best part remains however, Asuna’s PoV, which consists of the Yui episodes. I’ve stated before (and will be doing again in the future) that Asuna’s character arc is about the idea of ‘choice’. That she is a woman who is torn between what is expected of her, and what she wants. Her delving into the world Sword Art Online and romance with Kirito represent the first time in her life where she has seized her own destiny. And the relationship she builds with both him and Yui, shown through inner thoughts and monologues gives her more agency and independence, which further separates Asuna from the ‘generic, female-love interest’ many have labeled her as. It is probably the best part of the entire book, even if the Yui storyline itself isn’t really that interesting (though I did notice that ‘Cardinal’ has been used here, that’s a nice little bit of foreshadowing)
If there is one major letdown though, it is that the Sachi storyline feels woefully rushed. Presented instead as Kirito reflecting on past events, something that should have been a significant character moment (and was so in the anime) feels out of place and almost filler like. Coupled with the fact that Sachi’s death, along with the other Moonlit Black Cats happens in a single paragraph just feels…insignificant. Perhaps that is because, again, the anime has the benefit of hindsight and was able to give Sachi the gravitas she deserved, because in light novel form, it just feel sort of ‘there’. Regardless, I liked Kirito clearly states that his relationship to Sachi was not romantic, and the final scene where she sings him ‘Red-Nosed Reindeer’ feels a lit more powerful when you can read the lyrics, so like everything in this volume. It’s a mixed bag.
Sword Art Online’s second light novel volume is very much like the first. A mixed bag that feels like a rough draft the anime and later progressive version would polish and improve. The signs of greatness are still present, and there are moments of improvement, but I cannot find myself rushing back to read this when the anime does so much better. Deciding whether to read volumes 1 and 2 separately or dip in and out of both to reconstruct the anime timeline was something I really struggled with. In the end, I am glad I decided to separate the two, because I’m seeing how Kawahara presented the story, and maybe not how it was intended. Flaws as it maybe, it has been an interesting step back into a series that grew to be beloved by so many. Though I won’t deny as we move into Fairy Dance, that the road might be a little be straighter in the future.