Sword Art Online Volume 4: Basics are Sometimes Best

Our look at the light novels of Sword Art Online continues! Apologies for the delay on this one, but a busy anime season plus my work life kept me from coming back to this for awhile. Nevertheless this was on my list of things to do this summer, and I try to be a man of my word. So after the cut let’s take dive into the fourth volume of the series and the final one of the Fairy Dance Arc!

My thoughts on volume 3 are right here!

After reading both light novels, watching the anime, and sitting on it for many months. I’ve come to the conclusion that Fairy Dance is not just a good arc, that it is not just one of the best in the series. But that Fairy Dance is the arc that Sword Art Online needed to really establish itself. I think, I truly do, that if Kawahara did not do this story, then most of what would be later established in arcs like Phantom Bullet and Alicization would have not worked.

Why is that? Isn’t this the arc that people hate? Where Kirito is trying to save his girl? Where Asuna is the damsel and gets felt up by the villain? Isn’t this the arc where Suguha lusts after her brother (but actually her cousin?) Yes, it is all of those, but it is because of the story that Fairy Dance tells, and the story Aincrad didn’t, that everything not only succeeds, but helps stabilize the story.

For all the praise it gets, and as much as I enjoyed it. Aincrad as a story arc is a very messy state of affairs. While it has some great ideas, ones that Progressive would later give proper time to, the arc that compromises the first two light novels is a mess. Strangely paced, with vast swaths of the initial plot cut out, it reeks of a story from an author who thought he might never get another chance. That, if this was his one time he might get a light novel published, decided to throw everything on the table for his one hit wonder (yes I know it was a web novel first). It is a high concept story with characters and ideas that feel unrealized and barely dove into. Yet it is a credit to Kawahara as a writer, even at this time in his career that he was able to lay the ground work for a world and characters that would come to dominate anime in the 2010s.

I said this in the last volume, but Suguha’s struggle to make peace with her feelings remains one of the series best B plots.

So with Fairy Dance, his second arc of the series. Kawahara does exactly what he needs to do, both for the story and as a writer. He takes stock, goes back to basics and focuses on delivering a story that is both simple and effective. Instead of the far reaching ambition of Aincrad and it’s death-is-real stakes. Fairy Dance is a simple damsel in distress story, where the stakes are small scale, the villains are well defined, and the characters are given a chance to breathe. No longer are we running from plot to plot and expected to ‘go along with it.’ This is a easy to understand A to B plot that ends how you expect, and thankfully ends it will.

Fairy Dance is a simple ‘save the princess’ story, but the one the series needs to figure out what the fuck it is about.

For Kirito, the main lead of the series, he is finally given the purpose he needs. If Aincrad was about a shut-in gamer coming out of his shell, then Fairy Dance is about him protecting the world he’s now seen. Asuna’s capture gives him a drive and focus that was absent in the previous arc, and it shows the reader that he is not the same person he was before. This is a young man with something who wants to protect and cherish, who has seen a life outside of games, and will not be able to make peace unless she is by his side. That single minded focus is why Suguha, torn apart by her feelings to him, is unable to make him see her feelings, and their confrontation remains just as good in prose as it did in the anime. By the time you get to the final pages, this is not the Kirito of the previous arc. He is a changed man, and ready to face the new world with all the good and bad it comes with it.

Kirito is a man of action and drive in this arc. Far from the child who wanted to disappear into games.

In terms of the villain, Sugou is nothing special. He is a run of the mill creepy CEO villain who cares more about his stock-bonus than people. Who views Asuna as a trophy to climb up the social latter. But again, in this early part of Sword Art Online’s life, and the failed but admirable attempt with Kayaba, this basic baddie is exactly what the story needs. You want Kirito to punch the hell out of this guy, and he gives SAO a villain you can’t sympathize with, or who the story twists itself into knots in an attempt to justify his actions. He’s a scumbag, and he goes down like a scumbag.

After trying to figure out what the fuck Kayaba was supposed to be. Sugou’s straight forward scumbaggery is a welcome breather.

Fairy Dance, the third and forth volumes of the series has always been the arc that people seem to hate the most. But after all I’ve read, and all I’ve watched. I have to wonder if that hatred has been misplaced. The Sword Art Online’s meteoric rise to the peaks of anime popularity made people hyper-judge what is at its core, a very basic arc. Looking at it now, years later and without the fanboy love or the hatred of anti-fans, I am able to judge the story for what it is. And what Fairy Dance is, is a simple, but remarkably solid story arc that does exactly what it needs to do. A back to basics story that doesn’t try to rewrite the book, but instead dishes up a damn good story with a beginning, middle and end that gives Sword Art Online the stability and foundation it needs for the next step. It’s not perfect, but it is a marked improvement over what has come before. This is the Kawahara that would later go on to craft the stellar Phantom Bullet, the touching Mother’s Rosario, and the ambitious do-over of Alicization.

So yes, Fairy Dance is a wonderful great arc, and I suggest if you have ever been on the fence about the series, to go and give it another look, especially in written form. I’m pretty sure you might come out with a different opinion.

Still don’t care for Yui at all, but I do wonder of Asuna blew the fuck outta Kirito after they got back.

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