By Keiichi Sigsawa and Kouhaku Kuroboshi, based on the series created by Reki Kawahara. Released in Japan by ASCII Mediaworks. Released in North America by Yen On. Translated by Stephen Paul.
And so it’s finally here, the Sword Art Online novels for the fan who hates Sword Art Online. Or at least that’s how this is sometimes described. Sword Art Online is a very popular franchise, but it’s also the series that’s cool to hate, particularly its lead character. And so there’s a certain desire to play around in the universe but without all the baggage of Kirito and friends. Enter Alternative, where the author (best known here as the creator of Kino’s Journey, though he also is a specialist at playing in author author’s worlds) explicitly says that none of the main cast will ever be in these books. Nor is he really interested in the death game or its sequel. No, instead we have what is essentially Gunsmith Cats: the RPG, only Rally has been replaced by Goldie. The author loves guns, so do the characters, and you’d better be prepared to hear about guns.
For those who haven’t read the manga (which I reviewed last year) or seen the anime (which just ended this week), SAO Alternative stars Karen, a very tall girl who has few friends because she’s introverted and tall. Her friends tries to get her to do MMORPGs like ALO, but Karen’s character creation always gives her a really tall character – exactly what she doesn’t want. In desperation she tries to sci-fi apocalypse shooter Gun Gale Online, and finds, at last, she’s tiny! And cute! After playing around a bit, she runs into Pitohui, who is cool, gives good advice, and also seems to have a screw loose or two, though we don’t really get into that as much as I expected this book. She recommends that LLENN (as Karen names herself) participate in a new event called the Squad Jam, which is basically the BoB tournament but for teams. Sadly, Pitohui can’t make it, but she does provide LLENN with a partner, the hulking giant M, who also is there to give advice and backup. With a team of only two, can they possibly win this?
If you’re here for gun battles, then this is absolutely the book for you. The Squad Jam itself takes up two-thirds of the book, and is exciting, dramatic and fun. LLENN proves to be a natural at the game, and her headspace is also fun to follow. The purpose of the characters in this book seems to be “make them different from the real players” to contrast with the SAO crew. Karen has a short, tiny character, the stoic, invulnerable M proves to be, well, rather less stoic and invulnerable, and the team that LLENN ends up going against in the finals are a group of big burly Russian women who, it will not surprise the reader to know, are not big, burly and Russian in real life. It’s an escape. That said, while I enjoyed this book it’s not as ambitious as SAO – I’d say it’s better written but lacks the highs and lows of the original series. It feels like Sigsawa has no greater motivation than “I want to play in this sandbox”. It’s a fun sandbox, though, and if you hate SAO this may be for you.
Also, the Agatha Christie fan in me is annoyed that the team name is not “LLENN or M?”.