This book and indeed this review are rather timely, as Yen Press has recently announced that will be publishing more light novels. This can only be a good move, as now we will be able to read the original written prose that not just inspired anime but also manga adaptations.
Yen has already released some light novels, such as Spice & Wolf and the Haruhi Suzumiya series, and other past publishers have also release light novels (TokyoPop releasing The Slayers novels for example). Now they are expanding their print range with the original Sword Art Online novels by Reki Kawahara, which spawned a manga series also recently released by Yen, and an anime which can best be said to have had a mixed reaction.
The first novel, Aincrad 001, tells the original main storyline of the series, as told in the first half of the first anime series. For those who have not seen the anime or reviews of it, the story begins in 2022 and is set in a virtual reality video game called “Sword Art Online” in which people wear special headsets called NerveGear to play. The game involves clearing 100 levels of a floating castle called “Aincrad” mainly using swords and close combat weapons, rather than magic. However, on the opening day the game’s inventor reveals to everyone that no-one can log out. In order to exit the game, all 100 levels must be cleared. If you die in the game, or if someone in the real world tries to remove the NerveGear, a series of deadly microwaves will be released from the hardware and the player dies. The central character and narrator, an original Beta tester of the game known as Kirito, tries his best to beat the game, and along the way falls in love with another player called Asuna.
In terms of plus points, both the novel and the manga have one big advantage over the anime: the print versions have a lot less filler in them. In the anime, the events of Aincrad are told over fourteen episodes. The novel covers events that are featured in just seven episodes, and one of those (the Moonlit Black Cats in Episode 3) is dealt with in a few pages. Of course, the filler is covered in later books and short stories, but it is still proof of how much filler there is in the anime. The other major plus point is that the novel and the manga are rated “13+” whereas the anime is given a BBFC rating of “15”, so younger readers can access the books.
Having said this, there are some good stories not in the original novel that do appear in the anime, and it is sad that those are not part of the main tale. The main side-story not featured is that of Yui, the artificial intelligence that Kirito and Asuna adopt. The overall problem with this story not being included is that it appears that Yui appears a lot in the second novel series, “AlfHelm”, and that novel is scheduled for an English release before the rest of the “Aincrad” short stories, so it may result in some confusion for readers new to the story. Oddly, the Yui story does appear in the manga, and some chapters in the novel are omitted instead, namely a sequence in which Kirito helps a fisherman catch a gigantic fish, and at the risk of annoying anglers I would rather read about Yui.
The best bit of the novel is that you get the more vivid descriptions that are lacking in both the anime and manga. This leads to a greater understanding of how the virtual world works, such as the way the relationships work in the game, or the role of certain groups such as the Army. Kirito at one point talks about the game’s “great unwashed hordes”, because no-one washes in the game, stating: “You can take a bath if you wanted, but the liquid simulation was rather taxing on the NerveGear, and it just wasn’t quite up to the standards of a real bath.”
While there are certain sections of the story I would prefer to read over others, as a whole the original novel is better than the manga and significantly better than the anime.
Score: 8 / 10