Log Horizon: The Beginning of Another World

Log Horizon Volume 1 Cover

Title: Log Horizon: The Beginning of Another World
Japanese Title: ログ・ホライズン: 異世界のはじまり (Rogu Horaizun: Isekai no hajimari)
Author: Tōno Mamare (橙乃 ままれ)
Illustrator: Hara Kazuhiro (ハラ カズヒロ)
Translator: Taylor Engel
Publication Year: 2015 (America); 2011 (Japan)
Publisher: Yen On
Pages: 215

This guest review is written by Jeremy Anderson (@GameNightJeremy on Twitter).

Log Horizon: The Beginning of Another World is a light novel about people who become trapped in a fantasy video game world and must figure out what to make of themselves in this new environment as they navigate its dangers.

The plot is as follows: A young, intelligent, and socially awkward man named Shiroe finds himself physically inside a world roughly identical in form to the world of an online game he’s been playing for years, and he doesn’t know how to escape. He locates his friends, rambunctious but solid Naotsugu and quiet but reliable Akatsuki, and together they begin to explore the reality in which they’ve become trapped.

Log Horizon distinguishes itself from other entries in the “video game world” trope by changing the stakes. Other such stories, such as the light novel series Sword Art Online, tend to include comatose people who need to be woken up, a situation often nested with some hidden or overt moral about the importance of rejoining the real world. While Log Horizon‘s protagonist Shiroe ponders the possibility that everyone is comatose, he dismisses it as unlikely and doesn’t consider actively seeking an exit to be a productive use of time. Instead, the story is about taking life on its own terms and living life right now, where you are.

Log Horizon starts a little slow but builds on what it’s laid down early on to do more interesting things as it rolls along. I can tell you why I found it to start a little slow: I’m a gamer, and I’m already familiar with gaming terminology. Log Horizon devotes its first chapter to bringing readers up to date on this terminology. If you know what a guild is, how chat and friending functions work, what XP and HP mean, what a level cap is, what an MMORPG is, and so on and so forth, you may find yourself rolling your eyes and saying, “Yeah I get it.”

To me, this slow start is forgivable for two reasons. First, because I understand that not everyone is a gamer, and it’s better that I spend two seconds rolling my eyes than that another reader give up on the story because the writer never explained important terms. Second, because even within the first chapter the revelations about the way this MMO reality and the human-world reality interact are fascinating. That clash of worlds – the logical-but-unintuitive way new rules form from the known systems – is one of the main attractions of setting the story in a video game world. Log Horizon provides a number of clever details regarding world-building, and the protagonist spends a lot of time thinking about those details and responding to them.

In essence, the “video game world” trope provides an excuse to follow a set of strictures that will be easy for some to understand intuitively, and that will be easy to explain to the rest. The other value of setting the story in a video game world (instead of, say, Narnia) is that it allows our hero Shiroe to start off as intimately familiar with how the new world works. After all, he’s been playing the game for years, and he can approach the situation of becoming trapped within it with the calm and rational mind that distinguishes him as a player.

Whereas Sword Art Online explains the mystery behind how its characters have entered the game world almost immediately, Log Horizon doesn’t explain how this happened, might never explain how this happened, and tells the story in a way that makes this lack of information surprisingly acceptable. The story is about what the characters make of their situation, not how they got there.

The conflict in Log Horizon is a struggle for the soul – both the individual souls of the adventurers (Shiroe in particular), and the soul of the community. One of the most illuminating moments in the story is when Shiroe notes that the true threat to players in the game world is social. Thirty thousand people have been uprooted from their lives and transplanted into a new world, which does not have any government or laws. By the end of the novel, the reader sees how ugly this scenario becomes, with a major in-game city resembling a town run by a villain in a spaghetti western. In addition, Shiroe expresses concerns about sexism, such as the legitimate worry that female players, who form a distinct minority, will be harassed more than male players.

As fun as the fight scenes can be in Log Horizon, the novel’s most impressive moments aren’t when a dude is being cut in half or a building explodes; they’re when a man decides to stand up for someone he’s never met, because he knows he and his friends are best suited to get the job done. When his friends, new and old, push him to live more fully. When three people realize they’re the first ever to see the sunrise from a certain previously-unexplored hill. The fundamental question in Log Horizon is not, “How do we escape this false reality so we can get back to living our lives?” It’s a much simpler, broader, and deeper, “How do we live well?”

Log Horizon‘s story isn’t revolutionary in its interpretations of the “video game world” trope or the broader “team fantasy adventure” genre, but it does tell a story that is unique enough to keep the reader interested from cover to cover as it continues to chip away at the limitless edge of narrative possibility.

The story is also available in manga and anime formats.

. . .

Jeremy Anderson is a writer and game designer best known for the Shadowrift card game, and a consumer of far more comics and anime than anyone should have access to. He is currently on the design staff of Rise of the Eagle Princess, a JRPG set in a fantasy world based on the Mongolian empire.

Log Horizon Volume 1 Page 153

All You Need Is Kill

All You Need Is Kill

Title: All You Need Is Kill
Japanese Title: オール・ユー・ニード・イズ・キル (Ōru yū nīdo izu kiru)
Author: Sakurazaka Hiroshi (桜坂 洋)
Translator: Joseph Reeder with Alexander O. Smith
Publication Year: 2009 (America); 2004 (Japan)
Publisher: Haikasoru
Pages: 200

Although I read and very much enjoyed Sakurazaka Hiroshi’s virtual reality gaming novel Slum Online, I was not interested in All You Need Is Kill, even after watching Emily Blunt do endless sexy pushups in Edge of Tomorrow. I have trouble with prison stories, and army stories are like prison stories except worse.

After hearing Akiko Hirao give a paper titled “All You Need Is Kill: Deciphering the Game Elements in the Novel and Film” at the Japanese and Korean Mediascapes conference at the University of Oregon this summer, however, I knew I had to give the book a shot. Drawing on Henry Jenkins’s essay Game Design as Narrative Architecture, Hirao outlined how the structure of the novel’s narrative evokes the experience of playing a video game but ultimately bows to the demands of fiction as a storytelling medium.

The main protagonist of All You Need Is Kill is Kiriya Keiji, a recent high school graduate who enrolled in the United Defense Force after he was romantically rejected by an older woman. Since he has no other ambitions, he decides to prove himself by joining humanity’s fight against alien invaders called Mimics. After spending six months training to fight in a special armored exoskeleton called a Jacket, Keiji is deployed to the Flower Line Base at the southern tip of the Bōsō peninsula (in Chiba Prefecture, on the east side of Tokyo Bay). The novel opens with Keiji’s swift death in his first battle and continues when he wakes up alive and unharmed – but with all of his memories – that same morning. After falling in battle three more times, Keiji realizes that he is caught in a time loop that is reset by his death. He decides that the only way out is to not die, but that’s easier said than done.

I found Keiji to be a bit generic. Even though I just finished reading All You Need Is Kill, I couldn’t tell you exactly how old Keiji is, or where he grew up, or what his relationship with his parents was like, or whether he had any friends, or what his interests and hobbies are. For the first one hundred pages of the novel, all the reader gets is Keiji the soldier in a time loop. He is bitter, introverted, and fairly introspective, but he seems to act as more of a substitute for the reader than as a character in his own right. Keiji is a video game protagonist, and his musings are the musings of a video game character on the game world he occupies:

At the end of the day, every man has to wipe his own ass. There’s no one to make your decisions for you, either. And whatever situation you’re in, that’s just another factor in your decision. Which isn’t to say that everyone gets the same range of choices as everyone else. If there’s no one guy out there with an ace in the hole, there’s sure to be another who’s been dealt a handful of shit. Sometimes you run into a dead end. But you walked each step of the road that led you there on your own. (54)

As the passage above illustrates, the language used by Keiji and his fellow soldiers is rough; but, as far as military diction goes, it’s fairly tame. There’s “fucking” but no “cunting” or “cock-sucking,” for example. I feel like an especially good opportunity was missed in the author’s failure to assign a creative and obscene nickname for the Mimics. The banter between the soldiers is stale, and Keiji doesn’t take advantage of his consecutive time loops to come up with good one-liners to use against his superior officers or the jerks who try to pick fights with him in the cafeteria, which for some reason is actually referred to as a “cafeteria” instead of a “mess hall,” “cookhouse,” “DFAC,” or any number of other military slang terms. The blandness of the language is indicative of how uninterested the novel is in building a world beyond Keiji’s limited range of experience.

This all changes in the novel’s third chapter, which takes the American Major Rita Vrataski as its point-of-view character. The nineteen-year-old Rita became the Mimic-destroying “Full Metal Bitch” after being caught in a time loop of her own; and, unlike Keiji, she actually has a personality. Rita verbally spars with a war photographer named Ralph Murdoch, lets down her guard down around an engineer named Shasta Rayelle, and remembers her childhood in Pittsfield, Illinois, offering glimpses not just into her inner world but out onto the wider world as well. In her paper, Hirao referred to Rita as an NPC (“non-player character” in a game), and this description is apt, as it is through Rita that the player/reader learns more about the nature of the conflict that drives the novel. What are the Mimics? Where do they come from? How can they best be fought? What’s up with this time loop business anyway? Rita doesn’t have all the answers, but she’s got some pretty good guesses.

Rita also has some cool passages in her section, such as when Shasta says…

“America’s at war, and we still find the time to turn out terrible movies.”

Rita couldn’t argue with that. The UDF existed to protect a world obsessed with creating worthless piles of crap, Rita thought. (130)

Preach it, sisters.

The fourth and final section of the novel switches back to Keiji’s perspective, which is a shame, because at the end of the story he becomes the video game hero he was meant to be, which is to say that he is awarded his own tragic backstory. If you’ve ever played any video game ever, you can probably guess how this happens: A woman has to get fridged, and it has to be the woman Keiji falls in love with despite the fact that she doesn’t have a great deal of choice in the matter. It’s a really stupid ending. To make matters worse, the author is too lazy to expand on any of the implications of this ending beyond the fact that Keiji becomes the warrior he never wanted to be. He is a troubled teenager, hear his angst.

In his Afterword, the author explains how is inspiration for All You Need Is Kill did indeed come from a life spent playing video games, writing,

I’m just an ordinary guy, and I’m proud of it. I’m here because I put in the time. I have the blisters on my fingers to prove it. It had nothing to do with coincidence, luck, or the activation of my […] powers. I reset the game hundreds of times until my special attack finally went off perfectly. Victory was inevitable. (199)

The Afterword contains one of the more interesting passages in the entire book, as Sakurazaka is fairly negative both towards video games and the people who play them. Okay buddy, whatever.

If you’re curious about what a video game with all of its gameplay mechanics intact would look like in novel form, look no farther. I thought Slum Online was much more entertaining and skillfully constructed in its representation of what it means to be a video game protagonist, but All You Need Is Kill has the advantage of being short and fast-paced. Also, it’s got forty gorgeous pages full of Rita Vrataski, which is not enough but better than nothing.

I want to give a big thanks to Akiko Hirao for her wonderful and insightful paper on this novel, and I hope to encounter more of her work soon!

Vampire Knight: Fleeting Dreams

Vampire Knight Fleeting Dreams

Title: Vampire Knight: Fleeting Dreams
Japanese Title: ヴァンパイア騎士 煌銀の夢 (Vanpaia naito: Fureiru no yume)
Author: Fujisaki Ayuna (藤咲 あゆな)
Original Story: Hino Matsuri (樋野 まつり)
Translator: Su Mon Han
Publication Year: 2014 (America); 2013 (Japan)
Publisher: Viz Media
Pages: 273

Yesterday I blew through this book in one sitting, and I was like, “Why am I reading this garbage?”

Today I’m sitting in front of my computer, and I’m like, “Why am I reviewing this garbage?”

Vampire Knight: Fleeting Dreams is like a McDonald’s Oreo McFlurry: it’s cheap, it has absolutely no substance, it’s terrible for you, and yet it’s bizarrely compelling.

If you’ve never heard of Hino Matsuri’s Vampire Knight, it’s a shōjo manga supernatural soap opera starring Kurosu Yūki (Yuki Cross in the translation), a high school girl who is the object of the obsessive romantic interest of both Kiryū Zero, a vampire hunter who was bitten and turned as an adolescent, and Kuran Kaname, an older (much older) Pureblood vampire who has known Yūki since she was a small child. While Zero and Kaname glower and brood, Yūki is the embodiment of pure-hearted sweetness. She’s clumsy, she’s stupid, she’s ineffectual, and everyone adores her. Many necks are bitten.

Sexuality is the big theme in the first half of the nineteen-volume manga series, while the intersection of politics and bioethics is the major concern of the latter half (in which everyone is still sexy, of course). Although things happen to Yūki, and although the reader learns more about her background, her character doesn’t really change over the course of the story; and, at the end of the manga, she is just as trusting and cheerful and willing to sacrifice herself for others as she was at the beginning. In essence, although she’s surrounded by adults, she herself never really grows up. It’s from this characterization that the third major theme of the series arises, namely, the preservation of innocence.

What’s really interesting to me about Vampire Knight is that the fantasy the reader is most expected to identify with is not related to being the object of sexual desire or being physically young and healthy forever; rather, the fantasy of Vampire Knight; is all about being protected. Unlike the Twilight novels, in which Bella begins as Sleeping Beauty and ends up as Jean Grey, Yūki does not become a symbol of love or immortality. Instead, the reader comes to associate her with being shielded. Yūki fails at everything she does, but she is always given a second chance, and then a third, and then a fourth. She experiences hardship, certainly, but nothing is ever her fault. Although Yūki’s complete lack of development can be frustrating to the reader, one might say that her true talent lies in not being tainted by the evils of the adult world.

Vampire Knight: Fleeting Dreams is a collection of six short stories written by Fujisaki Ayuna, one of the scriptwriters for the Vampire Knight anime series. Although the book does contain a dozen illustrations by Hino Matsuri, the smoldering eyes and parted lips of the manga are largely (but not entirely) absent, as are all but the briefest references to the political games and secret technologies that dominate the latter volumes of the series. What Fleeting Dreams focuses on is the fantasy of being protected and sheltered, whether it’s Yūki finally succeeding in her studies after being assigned a private tutor, Zero becoming a temporary bodyguard for a female vampire named Shien, or the human students of Yūki’s high school finding a sense of community through a school festival.

My favorite story in the collection is “A Maiden’s Melancholy” (Otome no yūutsu: Aru hi no Howaito Ririi), which is narrated by Zero’s horse, White Lily. Describing herself as “the maiden of the snowy white blossoms,” White Lily is devoted to Zero and will allow no other rider to approach her, a temperament that has resulted in her being labeled as “difficult.” One day, when Headmaster Cross (Yūki’s adoptive father) proposes that White Lily be “matched” with a stallion named Black Sword, she becomes enraged but is unable to communicate her displeasure to Zero, who doesn’t oppose the arrangement. It turns out that the only person who is able to understand White Lily’s feelings is Yūki, who reassures the horse that Zero and Headmaster Cross would never do anything to make her unhappy. What I like about this story is that it highlights Yūki’s narratively underutilized ability to protect those around her because of her empathy, not in spite of it.

Of course, I also enjoyed the fact that the narrator of “A Maiden’s Melancholy” is a horse who proclaims her love for Zero in twenty-point font. It’s a ridiculous situation, and the writer plays it for all it’s worth. To be honest, everything in Fleeting Dreams is way over the top, and its dark heart pumps purple prose. The text is double-spaced and sits in the center of enormous margins, so not even the layout editor is trying to trick you into thinking it’s serious. Although the stories are intended for an audience that has already completed the manga (or Ayuna’s previous three-part novelization of the manga), you really don’t have to have read even a single volume of the series to appreciate the appeal; Fleeting Dreams is like the best (and worst) fanfiction in that the source text almost doesn’t matter.

If you don’t go into this book expecting camp, or if you don’t enjoy campy romance fiction to begin with, I guarantee that you will dislike Fleeting Dreams. As I wrote at the beginning of this review, it’s garbage. Regardless, I’m overjoyed that Viz Media has published it in lovely physical and digital editions, because it’s always good to see more light novels for girls in English. Yen Press has the boys spoiled for choice, and we really need some pointy boy bits (look at those fingers on Hino’s cover illustration!) to balance out all the bouncing breasts currently on offer. Bring on the trashy young adult chick lit!

Attack on Titan: Before the Fall

Attack on Titan Before the Fall

Title: Attack on Titan: Before the Fall
Japanese Title: 進撃の巨人 Before the fall (Shingeki no kyojin: Before the fall)
Creator: Isayama Hajime (諫山 創)
Author: Suzukaze Ryō (涼風 涼)
Illustrator: Thores Shibamoto (THORES 柴本)
Translator: Ko Ransom
Publication Year: 2014 (America); 2011 (Japan)
Publisher: Vertical
Pages: 199

The year 743. Mankind was facing extinction at the hands of the Titans that had suddenly appeared at the center stage of history. Where had they come from, and what was their purpose? Some said that they were natural disasters, while others insisted that they were divine retribution. Either way, mankind had been reduced to a simple, clueless prey whose total population had plummeted to 500,000.

I am heavily invested in the Attack on Titan franchise, and I enjoyed this book. If you are as invested as I am, then you will more than likely enjoy this book as much as I did. In fact, you’ve probably already read it.

If you have no idea what the Attack on Titan franchise is, this book is not a good introduction. Give the opening episode of the anime a shot! It’s worth your time, I promise.

This review is for people who have some experience with Attack on Titan and are wondering if the first volume of the Before the Fall light novel series is any good. I think it is! Despite being a bit shallow, it’s a fun read.

The story is set before Isayama Hajime’s original Attack on Titan manga, when the human race has only been living within a massive walled city-state for a few generations. The action of this novel occurs before the events of the Attack on Titan: Before the Fall manga, which adapts the events described in the second and third books in the Before the Fall light novel series.

The first novel in the trilogy is an account of the development of the Three Dimensional Maneuver Gear that allows human beings to fight the giant murderous creatures roaming outside the city walls. This equipment, along with the swords that accompany it, are the work of a young engineer named Angel Aaltonen, who is aided in his efforts by his bright assistant Corina Ilmari and his older colleague Xenophon Harkimo, who specializes in gunpowder and chemical flares. Jorge Piquer, the leader of the Survey Corps military unit specializing in missions outside the walls, is interested in this equipment, hoping that it will allow a human to finally bring down one of the Titans, which are considered immortal. Titans are not the only enemies Angel and Jorge will face, however, as there is considerable political pressure to seal the gate leading outside the wall and thus disband the Survey Corps.

Attack on Titan: Before the Fall is a light novel, and it reads like one. Paragraphs and sentences are short, and the writing is simple and straightforward. There’s also not a great deal of complexity in terms of characterization or character motivations. The reader is assumed to be familiar with the world in which the story is set, so the book doesn’t offer much world building, and nothing is learned that isn’t already covered in the first season of the anime series. As a result of this “lightness,” most of the plot developments in the novel seem too easy. For example, Angel’s inventions are made possible by the discovery of two materials in the lands enclosed by the walls: Iron Bamboo, which is strong and durable despite being light and flexible, and Iceburst Stone, which provides an endless supply of steam energy under certain conditions. Both of these materials are impossibly convenient, and Angel’s team experiences almost no hardship in learning to manipulate them.

What the book can offer the reader are finely crafted action sequences which work well without a visual element, which is no mean feat. Although someone who hasn’t seen the animated adaptation of Isayama’s manga may be confused regarding how large the Titans are relative to humans and what sort of movement the Maneuver Gear allows, a reader already familiar with the visual stylizations of Attack on Titan will be treated to several tense battles. The universe created by Isayama is like Westeros in that important characters can die horribly at any point in the story, so the suspense generated by these fight scenes is gripping.

Suzukaze Ryō’s vision of the world of Attack on Titan is interesting and entertaining, even if it discloses no major revelations. The light novel style of writing makes the book a quick read, and the action scenes are fast paced and attention grabbing.

If you’re not into the animu and mangos, feel free to give this novelization a pass; but, if you’re intrigued by walled cities, government conspiracies, and postapocalyptic struggles against an incomprehensible enemy, you should totally check out Justin Cronin’s The Passage, which is the perfect blend of Attack on Titan madness and highly accessible Stephen King-style storytelling.

Sword Art Online: Aincrad

Sword Art Online: Aincrad

Title: Sword Art Online: Aincrad
Japanese Title: ソードアート・オンライン: アインクラッド
(Sōdo Āto Onrain: Ainkuraddo)
Author: Kawahara Reki (川原 礫)
Translator: Stephen Paul
Illustrations: abec
Publication Year: 2014 (America); 2009 (Japan)
Publisher: Yen Press
Pages: 248

Before I begin this review, I feel I should admit that I only made it through five episodes of the Sword Art Online animated series. The show involves an inordinate amount of yelling and boob grabbing, and watching it gave me a headache. Despite the fact that I am quickly becoming an old woman who has lost her patience with screaming teenagers and fan service, the show was fairly popular in both Japan, where more than 35,000 DVDs have been sold (in a market in which few titles break the ten thousand mark), and in America, where it was hailed as one of the smartest shows to come out in 2012. The Sword Art Online anime is based on a light novel series, which achieved bestseller status in the year the anime was televised. Sword Art Online: Aincrad is a translation of the first novel in the series, which is currently on its fourteenth volume.

Sword Art Online: Aincrad takes place in the fantasy world of Aincrad, an enormous castle with one hundred floors that serves as the setting of an immersive virtual reality MMORPG game called Sword Art Online (SAO). Released in 2022, SAO is the first game of its kind in that players are able to fully enter the virtual world through special hardware called NerveGear, which intercepts all brain activity and leaves the player’s physical body in a dormant state. As might be imagined, the game completely sells out on the day of its release.

As the new players orient themselves on the first floor of Aincrad, however, they receive a nasty surprise. Kayaba Akihiko, the game’s executive producer and head programmer, appears in the sky above the Town of Beginnings and announces that players will not be able to log out of the game until the final boss monster on the top floor of Aincrad is defeated. If someone from outside the game attempts to remove or unplug a player’s NerveGear helmet, the player will die. Even more troubling, if a player dies in the game, his NerveGear will send an electric shock to his brain that will result in death. It is thus in the best interests of the roughly ten thousand players trapped within Aincrad to master SAO and beat the game as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to progress through the game, especially since its high stakes discourage risk taking, and the players have already been in Aincrad for two years when the main story begins.

The novel is narrated from the perspective of a teenager named Kirigaya Kazuto, who goes by the name Kirito in SAO. Kirito was one of the game’s one thousand beta players and, although he was only fourteen years old when he first entered Aincrad, he is already a veteran gamer. He is thus quite adept at the game mechanics and has managed to develop an ability called “Extra Skill Dual Blades,” which is unique to him as a player. Although Kirito wants to be able to return to the real world, he declines to work with the player guilds that have sprung up as collaborative efforts to progress through the game, instead fighting and gaining experience on his own. He gradually warms to a slightly older teenager named Yūki Asuna, who serves as a sub-leader of the Knights of the Blood guild and is popularly known as “Asuna the Flash” because of her high speed statistic. The trust and friendship between Kirito and Asuna gradually deepens over the first half of the novel, which is ultimately less sci-fi suspense or action adventure than it is a fantasy-themed love story.

Although there is plenty of action in Sword Art Online: Aincrad, world building is neglected in favor of establishing a romantic relationship between Kirito and Asuna. The reader is told that Algade, the city on the 50th floor of Aincrad, is reminiscent of Akihabara, and that Collinia, the city on the 75th floor, looks like ancient Roman city, but that’s about all there is in the way of description. What, specifically, does it mean that these cities “look like” other places – what are their styles of architecture, how are their streets laid out, do they any public monuments? How big are these cities? How big is each floor of the castle beyond the cities? What sort of trees and other plants grow on each floor? Are there pets or other domesticated animals? What sort of monsters do the players fight? What do the dungeons look like? We know the players can eat in the game, but what do they eat? We know there are healing potions, but what do they taste like? When magical crystals are used as items, what does it feel like? Can the players smell things? Can they feel temperature and humidity? Are certain textures pixelated or repetitive, and if so do the players notice? The reader is provided with few details that might serve to make the world of the novel more (or less) real.

Some visual detail is provided by eight color illustrations at the beginning of the book and ten black-and-white illustrations interspersed unevenly throughout the chapters, but these illustrations have a strong emphasis on character design. The illustrator abec, whose special skill seems to be depicting the springy softness of braless breasts through school uniforms (the link to his blog is not work safe, by the way), seems to be especially enamored of Asuna, who gets a full two illustrations in nothing but her underwear, one of which is overlaid with text in which she asks Kirito/the reader not to look at her. Even without such illustrations, the novel feels more than a bit like an extended romantic fantasy for straight adolescent males. It goes out of its way to objectify Asuna, devoting an undue amount of text on when and how many times and under what circumstances its male protagonist is able to hook up with her. Although Asuna is supposed to be an exceptionally skilled player, her strength and abilities are only shown in relation to male characters, such as when she fights beside or cooks for Kirito. As Asuna is the only female character in the novel, Sword Art Online: Aincrad doesn’t even make it past the first portion of the Bechdel test (there are other female players in the game, but Kirito is not interested in them, stating simply that they’re unattractive and thus unworthy of attention).

Aside from its casual sexism, the narrative emphasis on Kirito’s pursuit of Asuna results in missed opportunities with other male characters as well. For example, the least utilized but perhaps most interesting character in the novel is Heathcliff, the leader of the Knights of the Blood. Why is this older man playing the game (which is something I wanted to know more about even after learning his real-life identity), and why does he act as he does? Where does his strength of character come from, and how does he honestly feel about the deaths of the players under his command? What are his motivations, and what is he escaping from in the world outside the game? Who is caring for his physical body? Unfortunately, all such questions are ignored in favor of Heathcliff acting as a vaguely defined father figure who prevents Kirito’s immediate access to Asuna.

Another potentially interesting male character is Kuradeel, a member of the Knights of the Blood who is eventually revealed to be a former member of a guild called Laughing Coffin, whose members specialize in killing other players. I am always interested in PvP (player versus player) mechanics in MMORPGs, and I’m doubly interested in what rationale might lie behind PvP conflicts in a game that can easily result in real-world death. About two-thirds of the way through the book Kuradeel snaps and allows the reader a fleeting glimpse into the depths exposed by his ebbing sanity, which would be an excellent chance to explore the negative psychological effects that would doubtlessly be engendered by the situation in which the players find themselves. But alas, Kuradeel’s role in the story is merely to act as a barrier to Asuna, and the section in which he traps Kirito and then delivers his limited exposition is only fourteen pages long. The male characters who don’t come between Kirito and Asuna, such as Kirito’s friend Klein and the shopkeeper Agil, have few speaking parts and no backstory at all.

My favorite part of Sword Art Online: Aincrad is a quiet twenty-page segment towards the end of the book that serves as a bridge into the power metal chorus of the finale. After Kirito and Asuna finally get together, they run away from the whole business of dungeons and guild politics to go on a honeymoon of sorts to the 22nd floor of Aincrad, a sparsely populated wilderness distinguished by its lakes. Between bouts of dialog that feels lifted from shōjo manga targeted at the elementary school crowd, the lovers encounter a middle-aged man named Nishida, a technician employed by Tohto Broadband, the network management company responsible for the internet access lines leading to SAO’s servers. While testing the game’s connections on its launch day, Nishida was trapped along with the players, and now he spends his time fishing. By chatting with Nishida, Kirito and Asuna are able to reflect on what their time in SAO has meant to them and why exactly they still want to leave. These conversations are also the only point in the novel at which the reader is able to pick up hints concerning what the lives of players not directly involved in Kirito’s personal drama might be like. This is as close as Sword Art Online: Aincrad gets to addressing what could have been its most interesting theme, namely, whether there is any quantifiable difference between lived experience in the real world and lived experience in a virtual world. As a sixteen-year-old boy and reader stand-in character, however, Kirito is not the least bit concerned with such matters, and the novel quickly makes an awkward leap back into fighting and yelling territory.

Although I can’t make any judgments about the anime, I can say with relative certainty that the first volume of the Sword Art Online novel series is little more than an extended romantic fantasy for straight adolescent males. In other words, if you’re a straight adolescent male and you want the girl of your dreams to fall in madly love with you because of how awesome you are at level grinding, then this book was written for you. Enjoy yourself!

If you are not in the target demographic for the series, however, you might want to give the novel a pass. Although I am given to understand that more female characters are introduced as the series progresses, there is also a fair amount of damseling. In the second volume, for example, Asuna is apparently stripped of her powers, kidnapped by a male villain, and threatened with sexualized violence in order to provide Kirito with renewed narrative impetus. That sort of ridiculous bullshit aside, however, Sword Art Online: Aincrad is a fairly entertaining read that draws the reader in with a well-blended mixture of sci-fi and fantasy elements and a compelling series of crises. Chapters are short, about ten pages on average, and the translation is smooth and meets the high standard of quality one would expect from the team at Yen Press. Whether the admittedly enjoyable “lightness” of this light novel can counterbalance the nagging sexism is up to the individual reader, however.

A good distaff counterpart to the “virtual world romance” scenario presented in Sword Art Online: Aincrad is Vivian Vande Velde’s 2002 Heir Apparent. In this short young adult novel, a teenage girl finds herself trapped in a virtual reality game with strong RPG elements, which she must escape through her own cunning and the help of the handsome teenage game developer. Since the game resets every time its player-character dies, the reader is also able to enjoy a type of The Edge of Tomorrow scenario, only with fewer explosions and sexy pushups and more political maneuvering and backstabbing. Deadly Pink, Velde’s 2012 follow-up to Heir Apparent, focuses on the love between sisters instead of romance and manages to be smart and funny while treading carefully around some surprisingly dark themes. While much of the intended appeal of Sword Art Online: Aincrad may not be of interest outside of the novel’s target demographic, I can wholeheartedly recommend Heir Apparent and Deadly Pink to any reader interested in young adult fiction and themes relating to the pleasures and perils of virtual worlds.

The Adventures of Duan Surk: Witches’ Forest

Witches' Forest

Title: The Adventures of Duan Surk: Witches’ Forest
Japanese Title: デュアン・サーク ― 魔女の森
(Duan Sāku: Majo no mori)
Author: Fukazawa Mishio (深沢 美潮)
Illustrations: Otokita Takao (おときた たかお)
Translator: Catherine Barraclough
Publication Year: 2006 (America); 1996 (Japan)
Publisher: Tokyopop
Pages: 328

This book is kind of stupid. It’s a mess of tropes and clichés liberally borrowed from the early Zelda and Final Fantasy games written in a style aimed at the lowest common denominator. There is no depth to the story, the characters, or the writing. Witches’ Forest is a light novel, and it reads like a light novel: shallow, superficial, and disposable by design.

Nonetheless, I think Witches’ Forest is an interesting and important book, especially in translation. Before I explain why, allow me to give a brief plot summary.

Duan Surk is an orphan in a world plagued not only by vicious man-eating monsters but also by war. He was raised in a small town by his brother Gaeley, a hale young man who took on various odd jobs to order to be able to provide medicine and care for the sickly Duan. The young Duan makes up for his lack of physical strength with an inquisitive mind; and, by the time he is fourteen, Gaeley is confident enough in Duan’s ability to make it in the world that he himself decides to leave the town in order to become a soldier. Gaeley is everything to Duan, so the young Duan decides to become a fighter like his brother. Duan fails the physical portion of the initial test of the Adventurer’s Club guild, but the army will take anyone, so off to the army he goes. After spending a year as a cook’s assistant, Duan returns to camp after spending the day gathering ingredients only to find his entire battalion vanished into thin air, leaving only empty tents and smoldering fires behind. He straps on a sword and rushes into a nearby forest with a vague plan of rescue in mind, but the forest is enchanted, and Duan soon finds himself hungry, lost, and in dire peril.

This is where we find our hero at the beginning of Witches’ Forest, but Duan soon stumbles upon two traveling companions: Olba October, a battle-hardened veteran adventurer in his twenties, and Agnis R. Link, a sixteen-year-old sorcerer with a penchant for fire magic who may or may not be a princess in disguise. Both of these characters are trying to get to the mansion at the heart of the forest, wherein two witches are said to dwell. Olba wants treasure, and Agnis wants revenge. Before they can reach the witches, however, they must brave the dangers of the surrounding forest and the traps set up in and around the house itself.

The adventures of the trio are solidly structured upon a foundation of RPG tropes and gameplay mechanics. Agnis is the perky refugee, Olba is the jaded older guy, and Duan is just about every main player-protagonist to ever appear in a JRPG. The characters randomly encounter monsters drawn directly from D&D dungeon master guides, and they earn experience points when they defeat these monsters. Their Adventurer Cards keep track of their experience points, and, when they earn enough, they gain a level. They are equipped with a full arsenal of Zelda items, from the port-o-lant (which “uses low-cost solid fuel made of Zora oil”) to the coily coily rope (“the definitive version of the hooked rope”), and Agnis in particular has to worry about running out of MP (“magic points,” or magical energy). The trio is accompanied by a flying baby dragon/fire lizard that can talk and use low-level healing spells and is somehow fuzzy despite being reptilian. The only thing the party doesn’t have is a bag of holding, as they’re constantly lugging their adventure gear around with them and getting into petty arguments over who has to carry what.

One of the most engaging parts of Witches’ Forest is Agnis’s backstory, which involves a heartbroken yet politically ambitious stepmother who sinks to Cersei Lannister depths of dastardly scheming. Within this family drama, characters change and grow and are faced with problems that have no obvious solutions. For the most part, though, the novel focuses on the three main characters running around and hitting things with swords and spells. Each of these battles requires some minor element of strategy but is relatively brief. Sentences are short and declarative. Each paragraph contains about three to six sentences. There are no anime-style illustrations, but the text is interspersed with various material drawn from its fantasy world, such as copies of the characters’ Adventurer Cards, advertisements for magical items, and overworld and dungeon maps. At the end of the book is a three-page bestiary of monsters that appear in the story, which is illustrated in a style highly reminiscent of mid-1990s fantasy anime like Record of the Lodoss War or Magic Knight Rayearth.

Witches’ Forest feels extremely dated, which makes sense, as popular culture has moved on in the almost twenty years since the book first came out in 1996. What makes the novel interesting is that it captures the spirit of its age so well. Neon Genesis Evangelion aired during the fall season of 1995 and ended up drastically changing the playing field; but, before that, many popular anime for the young adult demographic were based on light novels such as Slayers and Irresponsible Captain Tylor, which are just as goofy as they are epic. The humor, the fighting, the yelling, the zany adventures, and the group of ridiculously disorganized young people resolving volatile political stalemates entirely by accident are all strongly reminiscent of the anime of the time. It goes without saying that all of this media is closely connected to the themes and stylistic conventions of video games before they made the leap to the 32-bit era. In this way, Witches’ Forest is like a time capsule from a bygone era.

Tokyopop’s release of this book in translation also calls to mind the cultural atmosphere in the United States of a little less than ten years ago. Excitement over Japanese entertainment media such as anime, manga, and video games was almost visibly swelling as new anime conventions popped up every year and bookstores devoted an ever-increasing amount of shelf space to manga. The spark of interest in young adult fiction kindled by the Harry Potter books had leaped into a blazing inferno with the sudden popularity of the Twilight series, and the teenage demographic was on fire in terms of marketing value. Tokyopop was licensing one manga series after another, Viz Media was using its profits as capital to test new markets, and even the mighty Hachette Publishing Group was launching a new imprint devoted to all things manga. Tokyopop had begun to translate light novels, and certain titles, such as Yoshida Sunao’s Trinity Blood series and Ono Fuyumi’s Twelve Kingdoms series, were proving popular with crossover audiences. 2006, the year that Witches’ Forest was published in translation, was the absolute peak of the anime and manga industry in the United States (at least in terms of sales numbers). The market was diversifying and had the support of major retail chains, complaints about internet piracy and entitled fans were few and far between, and it seemed as if anything was possible.

As I wrote at the beginning of this review, Witches’ Forest isn’t written for those seeking a multilayered story, beautiful language, or thematic and allusive depth. Instead, it’s meant to be a quick and enjoyable read, and it serves its purpose admirably. As such, it’s a perfect representative of the literary medium of light novels. The market for light novels in Japan is relatively large, so books like the Duan Surk series, which aren’t particularly brilliant or original, can still thrive and reach a large audience. In the United States, however, the publishing market is tough and the market for young adult novels in translation is infinitely tougher. The crazy manga boom of the last decade was thus necessary for something like Witches’ Forest to appear on bookstore shelves.

Witches’ Forest is therefore an interesting cultural artifact that serves as a window into both the Japan of the 1990s and the United States of the 2000s. Its value as a tangible index of pop lit history aside, the novel is a lot of fun to read, especially for fans of video games and anime. For an older readers, the experience of reading the book may evoke a certain sense of nostalgia, while a younger reader might be able to enjoy the “what was old is new again” thrill of encountering tropes and narrative patterns that now fall slightly outside of the mainstream.

There are four books in the Duan Surk series, and all of them are available in English translation from Tokyopop. Although used copies can be found through various distributors, the best way to get your hands on new copies of all of the books in the series is through the anime retailer The Right Stuf, which is a treasure trove of out-of-print light novels in translation.

Kieli: The Dead Sleep in the Wilderness

Title: Kieli: The Dead Sleep in the Wilderness
Japanese Title: キーリ ― 死者たちは荒野に眠る
(Kiiri: Shishatachi wa kōya ni nemuru)
Author: Kabei Yukako (壁井 ゆかこ)
Illustrator: Taue Shunsuke (田上 俊介)
Translator: Alethea Nibley and Athena Nibley
Publication Year: 2009 (America); 2003 (Japan)
Publisher: Yen Press
Pages: 228

Kieli is one of those hauntingly pretty girls whose special blood and pure heart allow her to see things unnoticed by others. Harvey is one of those chiseled copper-haired boys who is seventeen and has been seventeen for a long time. When their paths cross seemingly at random, Harvey finds himself charmed by Kieli, and Kieli finds herself dazzled by Harvey… Stop me if you’ve heard this story before.

What’s special about this novel isn’t its love story, however, but rather its setting. In her “Afterword,” the author says, “Wasted planets, steampunk, old-fashioned radios, rusty machines, old oil. It would make me as happy as I could be if all of you who like dilapidated things and react to that kind of vocabulary like this book.” I hope the author is indeed as happy as she can be, since her book is perfect for anyone who enjoys the atmosphere conjured by such words. Kieli is set on a dying planet where society still functions to a certain degree as life crumbles to dust in stages. This decay pervades every corner of the novel:

The next morning, when Kieli opened her eyes she was lying on a sofa with broken springs in the waiting room, wrapped in her coat and a dusty old blanket.

The clinic had completely fallen to ruin. Yellow sand and dust had settled below the crisp, clear, cold morning air, and the once clean, white paint on the walls had faded to yellow and peeled off in places, showing the concrete wall underneath.

Kieli spent a while walking through the deserted house, looking for Harvey, the floor creaking with every step she made. When she went up to the second floor, the plants that decorated the balcony had withered to nothing, and only the cracked pots remained under the nebulous morning light.

Everything in Kieli’s world is slowly falling apart. Isolated cities are separated by vast stretches of desert, small villages that serve as way stations along the side of railway lines are slowly shrinking in population, and the wasteland outside habited areas is still littered with the detritus for a war over natural resources that petered out a hundred years ago. Kieli is strangely suited to life in this world, as she possess the unusual ability to see and interact with the ghosts of the dead, who are seemingly more numerous than actual living people. Through the mischief of her dead roommate, Kieli encounters Harvey, who used to be a soldier in the war. Harvey is a creation known an as Undying, a class of artificial beings powered by mechanical cores of pure energy. Aside from his bad attitude, Harvey seems mostly harmless until he unwittingly drags Kieli into a conspiracy concerning the Church that governs Kieli’s world. The two are accompanied by the ghost of an older man known as the Corporal, who resides in the shell of an old radio and provides both insight and comic relief. In an environment where everything is dead or dying, Kieli and Harvey shine brightly as they find adventure and new life in each other’s company.

Since Kieli is a light novel, it receives the full graphic treatment, with eight full-color anime-style illustrations at the front of the book and a number of black-and-white illustrations scattered throughout the book’s chapters. The tropes of the novel are not specific to Japanese popular media, and they should appeal to a wider audience for young adult fiction. Kieli is an orphan who lives in a boarding school, where she is misunderstood and unappreciated by her peers. Harvey is an angsty, brooding badass who has a soft side that he keeps hidden in order to survive in a harsh world. The spirit of the Corporal residing in Harvey’s radio is a grumpy old man who cheerfully dispenses humorous complaints. The Church is mysterious and sinister, and its agents are genuinely frightening.

A shortcoming of many light novels published in translation is that their language is more manga-like than literature-like, by which I mean that its primary purpose is to shoot the reader forward as quickly as possible through a series of increasingly improbable events. Kieli occasionally suffers from this style of narration, but it usually allows the reader time to linger over events and absorb the story’s atmosphere. The translation of Kabei’s prose is lucid and engaging, inviting the reader to enter Kieli’s world without fussing over translation notes and awkwardly translated dialog. Occasionally a character will bow to another character, but the novel otherwise has very little “cultural odor.” Because of the quality of the translation, I found myself reading not just for the story but also for the pleasure of reading such straightforward and well edited language. I also feel the same way about the translation of the Spice and Wolf light novels, and I can’t help but offer my most profound thanks to the editorial staff at Yen Press for doing such an excellent job with their releases.

Kieli ends with a bit of a cliffhanger, but its sequels have already been published by Yen Press, which seems to be keeping up a steady release schedule. I don’t know why I waited so long to start reading this series, because it’s really quite good. I can’t wait to read the next volume!