I watched Sword Art Online when it first aired on Toonami and I liked it so much I bought the light novel when it was translated into English. To all the SAO haters out there, you need to read the light novel because most if not all of your complaints are due to the way the anime was adapted from the light novels. I will include these differences in my traditional three sections. I will examine Plot, Characters and Polish and then assign a grade.
The general thrust of the book is that 10,000 players have been trapped in the VMMORPG, Sword Art Online and have to conquer the castle of Aincrad in order to escape. There are one hundred floors but the book only covers the 74th and 75th floors. This is two years after the game began.
You see, it's In Media Res. The first chapter is Kirito fighting an Elite Mook on the 74th floor. Then he flashesback to the first day up until Kayaba announces the start of the death game. Then he spends a chapter or so expositing on how the game works and general history: like how The Army got started and the four types of players in the game. After that, the plot goes directly to Kirito finding the Ragout Rabbit which would not happen in the anime until "The Sword Dance of White and Black". The content of episodes two through eight are all from other volumes. This is why there is no connection between them and the main story; they were created after the main story was published. They seem like filler because they were intended to be extra stories to flesh out the world and characters after the main story was completed.
The main story as presented in the light novel is straightforward; posessing little fat or digressions. Even the "honeymoon" Asuna and Kirito take serves its purpose by demonstrating what life in Aincrad is like away from the front lines. Thus, providing both a traditional heroic reason to go back to the front lines as well as a temptation to stay away from them. It provides good emotional conflict without descending into meaningless angst or drama.
For those that have a problem with the climatic battle, there's something here too. Kayaba talks about how one of the great things about an RPG is having "one's expectations betrayed" and that includes his own expectations. Afterward, he talks about how he dreamed of a world that could surpass the rules of reality, including his own rules. While he is as surprised as anyone both in-universe and out-of-universe by the seemingly impossible feat that our leading lady accomplishes, he is not angry. That's how his world is supposed to work.
For those complaining about the status of the player's real bodies, and what would happen to them during a two year comma, there's an explanation for that too. The epilogue goes into detail about such things: food, body waste, bed sores, muscle atrophy etc.
The ending is good. The book's main conflict is closed but personal conflict remains. In fact, it's a perfect sequel hook for the next adventure "Fairy Dance".
I see a lot of bashing of Kirito in the anime. It's the typical mary sue variety; overpowered, bland, somehow attracts many admires etc. That's not the case here in volume 1.
--->Sure he's a powerful solo player with the inside knowledge of a beta tester, but he's not the "only" solo player or the only beta tester. He points this out himself as part of his self-depreciation. This just happens to be his story so it focuses on him instead of them.
--->Sure he has the Unique Skill Dual Blades. In the anime it comes out of nowhere, but it's not as great as it seems. The light novel explains that he can't use it often or he'll be seen as even more of a "beater" than he is already thought to be, or be hounded by people demanding to know how he got the skill. Since he doesn't know, they might think he's lying and dislike him for it. Thus increasing his social isolation. There's sufficient foreshadowing in the light novel that he has it as well as an explanation of why he keeps it a secret: it's his ace in the hole.
--->Overpowered character? He has to be rescued twice in this volume, runs away in fear from a floor boss, and he only clears the game because the final boss allowed him to.
--->Bland badass? In the Light Novel, we see his thoughts because he's a first person narrator. There's rarely a time when he "isn't" scared, either for himself, Asuna, someone else, or all of the above. We also see his intense interest in and experience of VMMRPG, as well as a great deal of Heroic Self Depreciation. He's constantly praising others: Asuna, Klein, Heathcliff, but has a poor opinion of himself and his own skills.
--->Too many female admirers? Asuna is the only girl in his life and they've known each for two years before their Relationship Upgrade.
There's a different perspective on Asuna as well. The anime introduces her during the raid of the first floor boss. This establishes her first as an action girl and then later episodes show her cooking talent and her love for Kirito. This leads some to think she is Chickified. In the Light Novel she is still the Sub-Commander of the Knights of the Blood Oath from her introduction and she finds Kirito because it's part of her job to find solo players for boss runs. However, her first scene with Kirito is this recruitment followed by the Ragout Rabbit stew, which is then followed by exploring a dungeon with Kirito. Instead of an Action Girl that becomes girly, we have an Action Girl that is girly from the start; Girly Bruiser. There is no separation.
Unlike the anime where she floats in and out of the picture, she's a constant presence here and makes significant contributions to plot development.
Because of the book's focus, Kuradeel is a bigger presence and a bigger threat. In the anime, the scope is smaller and he's just some one-off guy. Not so in the novel; in the novel he is introduced shortly after the beginning exposition and reappears many chapters latter.
This is a first person narration and the narrator happens to be a hard core VMMORPG addict. Thus, all the talk about the history of the game, the mechanics of the system, all of it is perfectly in character. There is a great sense of things because of this perspective.
No spelling or grammar problems.
Trickster Eric Novels gives Sword Art Online Volume 1 Aincrad an A+
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