The SAO franchise has always been prone to sensationalism and dramatic mood swings, but I cannot think of another point in the franchise where the action so frequently swings between dramatic highs and abysmal lows as what this volume does. As the penultimate entry in a 10 volume arc, this is, to an extent, to be expected, as the big finale has to be set up for. However, for a story arc that has more frequently than not been methodical in execution, this is a chaotic affair of unexpected reversals, startling revelations and wild punches – some to the jaw and some to the gut.
Largely because of that, I finished the book with very mixed feelings about what transpired. On the plus side, the traditional supporting cast finally gets its chance to shine, with Leafa and Sinon getting the biggest and most important roles because they are able to enter via STL units in Roppongi rather than converting their accounts. Klein and Agil also get their chances to shine in lesser capacities. Many other named characters from earlier story arcs also appear, including the most prominent ALO leaders and the surviving Sleeping Knights, one of whom has a significant special role to play at one point connected to past hints dropped about her heritage. Johnny Black, the infamous leader of Laughing Coffin, also makes an appearance in a critical role, and even Sugou (sort of) gets involved again in a surprising way. On the Underworld front, one nearly forgotten-about character from the last two volumes resurfaces in an utterly unexpected capacity (albeit one that the groundwork was laid for last volume), one that could potentially have a huge impact depending on how the final volume plays out.
This is also a story of big battles and rapidly-shifting allegiances. None of the latter changes are at all unbelievable, as the story took painstaking effort to lay the foundations for the uncomfortable new alliances last episode. This creates a juicy opening for one of the franchise‘s most unusual developments of potential romance. Amongst all of this are a number of large-scale battle pieces which are complemented by high-powered individual duels, including Bercouli vs. Vecta and Sinon/Solus vs. Subtilizer (aka Gabriel Miller using his GGO account); the latter in particular I can’t wait to see in animated form. Fresh action is also afoot on the Ocean Turtle, though in a more low-powered fashion.
For all of the big events going on, not everything is perfect. Though she is a main plot driver, Alice does not end up doing a whole lot herself this volume beyond getting kidnapped and having to be rescued (though not by Kirito this time). First Americans and later two other nationalities being used as patsies for the invading armies from outside may also not set well with some readers, though in the latter case Kawahara explains in the Afterword that he based the choice on known international tensions among MMO players at the time he wrote the original web novel version of the story. Even if Underworld is Seed-based, that so many outside players could so quickly and efficiently get added into the setting strains credibility, as does how improbably quick a fix one seemingly enormously-complicated method for restoring Kirito is claimed to be. That so many Japanese players could be convinced to risk their accounts under the circumstances described (no pain filters, no guarantee of being reconstituted) is also credibility-straining, so much so that one antagonist refuses to believe that it happened.
My biggest concern is the way the story plays out towards the end. Certainly there’s nothing wrong with a penultimate volume being rather grim as it sets up a desperate situation for its characters, but by the end of the episode the writing has left itself with only one clear way out: Kirito’s revival. Given all of the talented individuals involved, that seems an unnecessary corner for the story to box itself into, even if Kirito is the overall protagonist. Actually, that statement’s not entirely fair, as Alice is free at that point, but her situation precludes her from having anything to do with the main battles.
The writing on the technical front is solid, with Kawahara’s skill at describing engaging battle scenes being as strong as ever. The color pages at the front offer depictions of most key characters, while a regularly-updated Status Map shows the location of various important characters as the story progresses. Black-and-white illustrations are frequent and the Afterword is kept relatively short.
My estimation is that this novel will compose the bulk of the teens in episode count for the Sword Art Online: Alicization – War of Underworld series, but if you can’t wait to see what happens next in the anime then read it here first.