Title: Sword Art Online
Author: Kawahara Reki
Published: April 2011
Genres: Sci-Fi, Action
Note: Spoilers below a marked point.
In ALO, a mysterious player named Zekken (Absolute Sword) has appeared, challenging players to duels with the victory prize being an 11-hit OSS (Original Sword Skill). When Asuna learns that Kirito has in fact fought and lost to Zekken before, she challenges her herself but still fails to win. Zekken however is still interested in her, and asks for her help to beat a floor boss on Aincrad with her guild the Sleeping Knights, introducing herself as Konoe Yuuki.
First off, I’d like to note that there will be spoilers below a marked point. I don’t normally do this, but I feel that I can only express myself fully by talking about the entire contents of the novel, as some of the more emotional parts are where the strengths of the story really make themselves clear. And if you haven’t read it, then go ahead! It’s the festive season (at the time of writing at least) and even I’ve re-read it a couple of times xD
One thing that separates Mother’s Rosario from the rest of the series its that it’s centered on Asuna, instead of Kirito. Since it’s essentially an extended side-story that encompasses one novel’s length, it can afford to divert from standard things like making Kirito the main character with the power of plot armour. Similarly, it didn’t really have grand-scale fights that resulted in people teetering between the border of life and death, but focused rather on things that any story would benefit from – the emotional and mental development of the main heroine, Asuna. Things we’ve never really focused much attention on such as Asuna’s personal problems at home with her mother came to light – as she is ridiculously strict and has expectations of Asuna befitting a rich ojou-sama, Asuna herself ends up constantly pressured by the possibility of an arranged marriage, moving away to a “better” school and generally doing things she doesn’t want to. Her mother Kyouko has some kind of aversion to the AmuSphere, the VRMMO genre and ALO to the point that she discriminates against them easily (though she has valid claims because of the SAO incident) which puts her at odds with Asuna. Now that the real world is involved, we see a clash between reality and virtual fantasy that Asuna gets caught up in, which is a problem that she has to solve by herself, without Kirito’s help, giving her growth and development as a character.
That’s only one side of things – it wouldn’t be SAO if there wasn’t some element of the virtual world being involved as well. We saw the return of Aincrad back at the end of Fairy Dance, but as Kirito spent his time during Phantom Bullet in GGO with Sinon, this is the first time it’s properly returned. It’s an extension of the wider Alfheim world now, and floats around various territories as well as the World Tree. And it’s the virtual setting of the arc, where an Imp swordsman named Zekken, or Konoe Yuuki is looking to beat a floor’s boss within Aincrad, and wants one more person to help out their party, eventually settling on Asuna. Yuuki’s guild, the Sleeping Knights have to “break up” in Spring, and so they want to leave a memento behind in the most amazing and beautiful world possible – ALO.
It was actually really interesting to watch the difference in these SAO boss fights – things are now different because of the one concrete rule disappearing now – the need to keep everyone alive. Now you can have scouts that specialize in hunting bosses track down small teams, gathering information and using people as pawns to figure out attack patterns and weaknesses of a boss. Even those who die can stay on as Remain Lights, watching for any weak areas they could exploit the next time they come to challenge the floor. It also means that the bosses are now much harder to beat, which adds more fun and excitement to the game, now that it actually is just a game for entertainment. I did enjoy Kirito’s hax magic slicing skills as well as the appearance of Excaliber now that he’s gained it.
“…You’re completely a resident of this world, aren’t you?” – Kirito
Here’s the thing though – it’s not JUST a game of entertainment for everyone, and here’s where the feels come in. Come on, if there’s no badass action scenes, there have to be feels somewhere. And I think they were really well played! Kawahara has gotten better as a writer by now, and a rule of thumb I follow during emotional storylines is to see how much I get drawn in to the characters and their experiences – and I did get drawn in. I shared in Asuna’s confusion, worries, and eventually grief as she learnt about the situation behind Yuuki and her fellow guild members at the Sleeping Knights.
**********SPOILERS FROM HERE ONWARDS**********
“Doctor…what exactly is Yuuki’s condition…?”
“«Acquired Immunity Deficiency Syndrome»…AIDS.”
Fuck. covers face with hand To be honest, I was going to start this post with talking about how cute Yuuki is, but to be honest that probably has no place in something this emotional. Man, it’s pretty depressing, but at the same time I almost respect how Kawahara’s unravelled it – Yuuki is the strongest player in ALO, but the path she took to reach that level is one I wouldn’t want her to have gone down. She was faster than Kirito, and beat both him and Asuna as well as scores of other players in single duels, but to reach that kind of speed you have to be one with your avatar, nerves and AmuSphere – you need massive amounts of dive experience to reach that level. Kirito is amazing because he’s had lots of dive time through SAO and was physically active as a clearer, but Yuuki is in a different league altogether. She’s the literal product of a full-dive environment due to her medical status preventing her from moving physically, and so all her time moving has been in the virtual world – she’s spent more time there than in the real world since she put her Medicuboid on.
In fact, all the Sleeping Knights have terminal illnesses and escape from cruel reality through the virtual world – hence the connotation of sleeping. It’s pretty dark to learn that the real reason for their breakup was not because they were busy, but because they were predicted to die by spring…oh god, that sure hit pretty hard. I respect Yuuki as well, for being such a fighter – for not wanting to lose to the disease despite having HIV for 15 years that developed into AIDS, for willing to try out the Medicuboid, and for not losing hope and staying strong even after contracting pneumonia. Physically she may be weak, but mentally I believe that she’s the strongest character in the entire light novel series, managing to keep her spirit up and remaining so cheerful right until the end.
Something important about the future of tech was raised as well – the idea that VR technology shouldn’t be mainly used for amusement, but instead to help those who are disabled. If you’re visually or audibly impaired, the Medicuboid could solve that through a virtual reality – and it can also be used as an anaesthetic for operations, or to ease pain in some patients. Strangely enough the person that supplied it was that female friend of Heathcliff who took care of him during the SAO incident – which would mean that Heathcliff, who caused the death of thousands, and supplied the World Seed also supplied a piece of technology that served as a medical breakthrough that could enhance the quality of life for many patients. What a strange guy…
Overall, I enjoyed this. While it may not have been as epic as some of the other arcs before this, one of the messages it gave was that epicness isn’t a required factor for a story to be interesting, and an equally deep focus on characters can bring out different, but equally moving emotions in me. Anyway, it’s another volume of side stories next, Early and Late, before we head off into the latest arc with Vol 9’s Alicization Beginning. I’ll try not to stall these posts too late xD