I finished reading Sword Art Online Volume 9 recently. This is the start of the Alicization Arc, which, as of this posting, has not been adapted for an anime (although one is in the making). This was a novel experience for me as I watched the first four arcs before reading them (technically, I've only read the first two). I will examine Plot, Character, and Polish before assigning a grade.
What I like about this arc, and this volume in particular, is the three layers of plots. On one hand is the immediate plot about Kirito investigating the new world, Underworld. There's also the in-universe storyline which he himself is a part of; the history of the Human Empire within the End Mountains. The third is the most far-reaching, the ongoing conflict with Laughing Coffin. It began when he clashed with them in Aincard and continued in confronting Death Gun and now there's a conflict in real life. There are hints of something more going on in real life with Rath and the Soul Translator, but I'm not that far yet.
The beginning is kind of disorienting since it starts in what does not appear to be a virtual world or the real world but a more typical medieval fantasy setting and has a boy named "Kirito" who acts as though he is a native of this world. This is thoroughly explained after the prologue and I found it interesting regardless. It was intriguing even, whether or not this was a role play.
This arc is quite different from previous ones in that it is an ontological mystery. When the story proper starts, Kirito has to figure out where he is and what he's doing there before he can do anything else. He even considers the possibility that he's been transported to another dimension, before dismissing it as ridiculous. He has no idea what's going or what's happening so he has to figure it out as he goes. For a guy once derided as a "beater", this is indeed a new experience.
In every way, he's starting out at level 1; not even his meta knowledge about VRMMORPG in general is useful because this game features real pain, no predictable spawning points, and no level-grinding (at least, nothing that he can track; I think stat increases are based on feats rather than grinding). Criticism about how Kirito is "uber-broken" or whatever has no place here.
There's also humor here, such as jokes about Kazuto being a henpecked husband and some self-deprecation to the general shonen genre and even previous arcs of SAO itself such as Kirito trying to predict the storyline he's been flung into.
There's more focus on Kirito and Asuna's relationship as well, which I think is nice given the perception about the franchise being in the harem genre. It's an understandable misconception that stuff like this volume clears up. An exemplary moment is when, shortly after being stranded in Underworld, Kirito considers himself a "CPU that's missing half its cores" because Asuna isn't around; endearing nerdy for the VR-addict.
There is an excellent split ending - the series' conflict is set up and ongoing but the specific conflict in this volume (centered on the Gigas Cedar) is closed.
Kazuto/Kirito continues to be introspective in this volume. As in Volume 4, where he contemplates the difference between physical reality and virtual reality, in this one he thinks about the nature of existence and life itself. Part of this is that Yui, his beloved A.I. daughter, is not fully "alive" in the way he himself and Asuna are because she is mimicking human behavior based on watching the 3,000 SAO players for two years. However, Fluctlight based programs, like the natives of Underworld, are just as alive as he is because they are clearly not limited in knowledge/behavior/expressions/etc. to a limited pre-programed database. This leads to pondering if he is a Tomato in the Mirror, i.e. one of those Fluctlight based programs based on the real Kazuto.
Incidentally, he considers faithfulness to Asuna to be fundamental to his personality and identity.
Several new characters are introduced, such as Euego, Alice and Selka (though I imagine readers will see far more of the first two than the third). Euego is this Beware The Nice Ones kind of character - friendly, helpful, understanding, and also brave, solid and has a lot of practice swinging an axe. Alice strikes me as an Iron Lady in-the-making because of her determination and bossiness, but also has a mischievous streak via Loophole Abuse and some cute traits like asking her friends' opinion of her cooking (and "secretly" getting her mom's help with it).
I don't recall any technical errors.
Trickster Eric Novels gives "Sword Art Online Volume 9" an A+
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Brian Wilkerson is a freelance book reviewer, writing advice blogger and independent novelist. He studied at the University of Minnesota and came away with bachelor degrees in English Literature and History (Classical Mediterranean Period concentration).