By Reki Kawahara and abec. Released in Japan by Dengeki Bunko. Released in North America by Yen On. Translated by Stephen Paul.
The basic premise of Unital Ring is that something has mashed up all the MMORPGs out there, meaning that SAO, ALO, GOO, etc. are all in the same world. This even includes American games where you choose to star as a bug (the spiders side is far more popular than the centipede side, and I don’t really blame them, though I do admit to a bit of surprise that the game is popular in the West at all.) But, as we have also discovered, Unital Ring is not just about uniting the various games our cast has played in, it’s about uniting the various arcs of the series. The first non-web novel arc Kawahara takes on sticks together all of his previous books, plus real life, plus the Underworld, which it turns out is a lot more relevant to the main plot than we’d thought. That said, the series no longer moves as fast as its first volume did, meaning that any chance of the Underworld side meeting up with the Unital Ring side is going to have to wait a bit.
The book is divided into two chunks, with a real world interlude between them. The first takes place in Unital Ring, as Kirito and company try to figure out a way to stop Mutasina and her blackmailed players from destroying the new town that’s been raised around their log cabin. This, as you can imagine, involves a lot of fighting, game stats, etc., and should be very familiar to the SAO reader. It’s hard to coordinate, though, meaning that Asuna can’t get a chance to meet up with the mysterious new transfer student who’s been trying to talk with her. As for Underworld, well, we still don’t know if Eolyne is Eugeo reborn, or a clone, or a descendant, or what, but there’s enough to make Kirito and Alice very suspicious. That said, they have a bigger issue to take care of: reuniting Alice with her sister, who has been in cryosleep.
Sword Art Online has generally never been a mystery series, nor has it relied on surprises or last minute swerves. This is good, because at this point I will be a lot more surprised if Kamura, the new transfer student, ISN’T Mutasina. Kawahara can be very straightforward. That said, this is a perfectly fine volume of Sword Art Online, though it’s suffering from being the 4th book in what is probably another 9-book arc. There are hints that Unital Ring’s plot and the Underworld plot will connect in the future, but hints are all they are now, so it does suffer a bit from having to, about 2/3 of the way through the book, shift gears and remind us to start caring about what seems like a completely different story. It will probably read better when the whole arc is out, but for now it feels a bit thin.
Still, the next book is out in Japan, and we should see it in the spring sometime. Till then, enjoy Kirito cutting things with his sword and also acting like a dumb teenage boy.