By Reki Kawahara and abec. Released in Japan by Dengeki Bunko. Released in North America by Yen On. Translated by Stephen Paul.
This is not, of course, the final volume of Sword Art Online. There’s a 2-part Underworld arc after this one, and Kawahara just started a new arc with surprise twists that’s still ongoing in Japan. But this has the feel of an ending, and you certainly get the sense that had they wanted to, the series could happily have ended here. It’s a good ending, despite all the issues I’ve had with Alicization in the past, A very strong beginning, then a middle that gets a bit tedious and annoying, before a stronger finish. A word of warning to those who love Sword Art Online but hate Kirito: he’s back, and is absolutely ridiculous in this book. He flies, like Superman. It’s even lampshaded. (I was actually startled when the book shifted back to his first-person narration, as I’d forgotten that was the standard.) Do the others get anything to do? Um, no, Kirito’s back. Didn’t you hear? But they do cheer him on really well.
To be fair, Asuna does some things as well. In fact, this leads to what may be my favorite part of the book. The book itself is not shy about showing that, haremettes aside (with Alice a strong #2 at this point – sorry, Sinon) there is only one ultimate pairing, and it’s Kirito and Asuna. That said, when the chips are down and they need some inner strength and resolve, they do not turn to each other. It’s no surprise that Kirito hears Eugeo’s voice telling him to get up and save everyone – their bond is the most important part of this arc, Alice or no, and Underworld is the sort of world where the spirit of a dead person taking form to spur on the living would be par for the course. That said, Yuuki was never in the Underworld, but she’s here as well, reassuring Asuna and giving readers one last chance to see Mother’s Rosario in action. I like how the relationships between Kirito and Eugeo, and between Asuna and Yuuki, are shown to be so impactful and important on their lives going forward.
For those who want to see Kirito being a bit merciless, there’s his dealing with both PoH (who gets an abbreviated backstory here showing his childhood) and Gabriel Miller – both of whom he essentially murders, though Gabriel’s actual ending back in “the real world” is a bit more fantastical than I’d like in a non-game setting, and also reminded me of the end of the movie Ghost. Unfortunately, Kayaba is also still around, despite dying 16 books ago, and Kawahara continues to try to show him as a true hero saving everyone while occasionally dropping the odd “he also killed over 4000 people and there’s no forgiving that” paragraph which really does not convince anyone. To be honest, after Underworld resolves, the rest of the battle on the Ocean Turtle reads as a letdown, and I was relieved when we got to the epilogue.
We get a good look at Kirito’s self-destructive tendencies in his relationships with other people here, and how Asuna and the others have helped cure that mostly. He’s now actively thinking of a future, for both himself and the Underworld, at a Japanese college. (Given what Lisbeth said about them being at a special school and getting counseling that assumes they’re all going to snap at any moment, I assume the government will lean on organizations hard to employ/educate them in the future, as otherwise I can’t see anyone hiring a SAO survivor.) He has Asuna at his side, of course. And also Alice, who is now in the real world via a robot body, which is eyebrow-raising but does lead to the best joke in the book, which I won’t spoil but involves a big box. (It’s also hinted on the back cover.)
And so Alicization is over, and thank Goodness. Kirito is back and taking the spotlight from everyone else, so haters will be thrilled they can get very angry again. That said, there was a very obvious story not told in this book – what happened to Kirito and Asuna in the two hundred years they were trapped in Underworld? We might find out in the 19th book, which stars… Ronie?