What the Heck are Light Novels?

Rascal Does Not Dream of Bunny Girl SenpaiNot too long ago, I discovered light novels. While still not my usual fare, and the range of quality can be extremely broad, I found some of them to be a lot of fun, appealing to my pulpy tastes, sometimes geeky, and certainly a nice bit of variety sprinkled into my reading. I often chose some of the books based on their anime adaptations–wanting to get more information, or “read ahead” in a story where the next season might not be released for two or three years.

History

I consider myself kind of a newcomer to light novels (or LNs), but I was a fan of the anime series Record of Lodoss War waaaay back when it was relatively new (at least new here in the U.S.). It was effectively one of the originators of the modern light novel (and web novel) from the late 1980s. Record of Lodoss War began as transcripts / retellings of Dungeons & Dragons adventures, serialized in a Japanese magazine. As its popularity grew, these adventures were rewritten as short novels, and as manga (comics), and developed into anime… as well as being turned into RPG supplements and licensed for games and other merchandise.

The term “light novel” was coined in the late 1970s, adopting the English words to describe these short, pulpy, fast-paced books. The smart thing here on the marketing side was NOT to label it according to its target market demographic (which was primarily young adult males), which would have limited its appeal outside that group and limited the types of books written. Luckily, we have light novels written today that appeal across a somewhat broader spectrum, including those oriented toward a more adult audience and female readers. Still, a large percentage of light novels are written for teenaged males. I’d call this a good thing, as Japan hasn’t experienced quite the drop in male readers after age 12 that we have in the U.S.

Anyway, more marketing geniuses went to work in Japan, and realized that LNs were a good entry point to test out a new Intellectual Property (IP) and see how much they could exploit it. With some quality illustrations, they could see how well the prose sold. If it sells well, they could turn it into manga. If the manga does well, they can start expanding it to merchandising, anime, and even live-action films.

Web Novels

The publishers have even discovered that they can reduce even more risk by starting with a known Web Novel property. These web novels (WNs) are serialized stories on certain websites, updated frequently and often going for hundreds of chapters. The publishers have found they can acquire the rights to these stories, have the author rewrite them, and have enough material to generate several books. Many of the LNs from Asia have the flavor of a web novel as a result–written with high action and shorter cycles of action to appeal to a weekly audience, even though they’ve taken a new structure. These stories are also written with manga adaptations in mind, and given lengthy, oddly descriptive titles to gain attention in an ever-expanding sea of similar stories.

So you have some light novel series with titles like:

That Time I Was Reincarnated as a Slime

Bofuri: I Don’t Want to Get Hurt, so I’ll Max Out My Defense

Rascal Does Not Dream of Bunny Girl Senpai

Full-Clearing Another World Under a Goddess With Zero Followers

Failure Frame: I Became the Strongest and Annihilated Everything with Low-Level Spells

Min-Maxing My TRPG Build in Another World

Banished from the Hero’s Party, I Decided to Live a Quiet Life in the Countryside

Do You Love Your Mom and Her Two-Hit, Multi-Target Attacks?

Made in Japan?

While the style as we know it originated in Japan, light novels have been coming out of Korea and China as well. Due to the rising popularity to Western audiences, we’re seeing several Light-Novel-style series appearing in the U.S. and Europe as well. While some of the translators are quite good, it’s nice to read LNs written by native English speakers as well.

Light Novel Features

The upper bounds of length have changed as well, and many LNs would be reasonably full-length novels by modern counts. I haven’t seen anything yet that would put the typical, sprawling epic fantasy novel to shame, but six-digit word counts are not that uncommon. Still, LNs will often come in a little on the shorter side of a “typical” genre novel.

LNs typically have a pretty rapid pace, although this varies by author. This isn’t to say they are action-oriented. Like anime and manga, these stories may be simple slice-of-life narratives, romantic comedies, or may simply feature a non-action-oriented main character. You can almost think of them as prose-based manga / comics, borrowing tropes and flow from the more visual media. Even if they are more full-length, the fast pace makes them feel like fast reads.

Readers expect a light novel to contain some illustrations, usually in the manga style. Light novels will typically have some slick, full-color illustrations of the characters and perhaps key scenes tucked into the front and back of the book. Some will also have black-and-white (or, more rarely, color) illustrations scattered occasionally within the text. Overall, I’d say the limited illustrations are a key feature of light novels.

The Rising of … the Light Novel

Light Novels have increased in popularity in the west since around 2010 or so. Why? That’s a matter of some speculation. Maybe it was marketing. It could have something to do with how accessible and quick they were to read. Maybe it was the failure of mainstream western publishers to address the needs of a significant portion of their audience. Perhaps it corresponds to the rising popularity in the west of Japanese and Korean anime, manga, and TV shows, or the answer includes a rising interest in eastern culture.

I can only speak for my own experiences, as I mentioned in the first paragraph. They are (generally) short and entertaining. I can’t call them a guilty pleasure, because I feel no guilt reading them. While perhaps not always the best writing from a wordsmithing perspective, a lot of them have been through the refiner’s fire of web-novels and have hard-earned storytelling chops. While not for everyone, even fans of fast-paced genre fiction, they can be worth checking out.

Is Indie the Reincarnation of Pulp?

Cedar Sanderson considers indie to be the return of pulp, to which I agree. I would personally think of it as more of a reincarnation than a resurrection, as it is a new life and a new form, but the bottom line is unchanged. I mean, really, the pulp era was from around the 1890s until the mid 1950s, so that was a 65-year run. The indie era effectively began around 2010, so arguably we really just had a 55-year hiatus where the technology favored a few large companies that could take considerable advantage of the economies of scale. Now the little guys are back, tiny mammals scurrying around the world of giant dinosaurs finding our niche. That exploration is taking us solidly back into the realm of pulp. It may look different, but it’s the same thing. And yeah, a lot of it is crap, but a lot of it is hella fun, too.

Here’s the article over at Mad Genius Club:

The Resurrection of Pulp

 

 

Snallygaster vs. Dwayyo

This was shared by the American Snallygaster Museum (yes, Blood Creek fans, this is a real museum). It’s a fantastic piece by @sherwinsketch88 of the two traditional enemies fighting. I wish I could have come up with a way to have a snallygaster battle a dwayyo in the Blood Creek books, but it never worked out.

For the record, if it was an actual brawl to the death, my money would be on the dwayyo unless it was caught completely by surprise.

 

Portal Fantasy and Isekai – What Are They?

A few years ago, I discovered the Japanese term, “Isekai,” which literally means “Another World.”  It has become a popular subgenre of its own in Asia, and that popularity has spilled over to Western shores, through books, manga, and anime. It’s similar to what we call “portal fantasies.”  There are some differences between isekai and portal fantasies, depending on how you define them, but their intersection covers a lot of ground. Generally speaking, these are stories of someone from our world who goes to another world and becomes some kind of agent of change (usually a hero, but sometimes… something else).

These have been a staple of fantasy stories since… well, forever, really. Even before such classics as Burrough’s Barsoom series, The Narnia series, The Wizard of Oz, A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court, or Alice in Wonderland. Think “Jack & the Beanstalk” – the beanstalk is literally his portal to another world. There were lots of Jack stories, most of which are lost now, but many of them did have everyman Jack going through secret doors or pits or what have you into worlds of giants and / or dwarves. The Jack tales are part of an oral storytelling tradition going back for hundreds of years.

For some more modern examples of portal fantasies, think of the recent Jumanji films, or Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. Evil Dead 3: Army of Darkness is a cult-classic. A couple of great examples of this kind of film that you might not think of as being portal fantasy (or isekai) are Yesterday and Galaxy Quest.

Isekai stories tend to be from Asia (although that is changing), and have been a popular staple of light novels, manga, and anime for years. The original Aincrad (and Alicization) arcs of Sword Art Online are popular examples. Re: Zero, Mushoku Tensei: Jobless Reincarnation, The Rising of the Shield Hero, Ascendance of a Bookworm, GATE: The JSDF Fought There, My Next Life as a Villainess: All Routes Lead to Doom, KonoSuba, Overlord, and That Time I Was Reincarnated as a Slime are all good examples of modern isekai stories in anime, manga, and light novels.

A Character From Our World

This kind of fantasy is all about experiencing the wonder (and danger) of a new world through a viewpoint similar to our own, modern vantage point. For that, we start with a character from our world and our time. This does not mean you can’t have a character with a unique perspective or who comes from a different walk of life in our world–that’s half the fun. However, it should still be a character the reader from the author’s intended audience can relate to on several levels.

Many modern isekai stories solve this by taking a shortcut. The main character is a “reader-insert” character with very little personality of their own and a generic background. I’m not a big fan of this approach, but I guess it works.

The character shouldn’t be from a different time or place that would make their viewpoint too different from our own. For example, Captain Kirk is from a science-fiction background of his own, so his experience of a strange, new worlds wouldn’t be a portal fantasy or isekai. While John Carter may have been a great isekai / portal fantasy character back in Burroughs’ day (and so he’s grandfathered in just fine), his pre-WWI world is so far removed from our own that he’d not be a great candidate for a point-of-view character in these kinds of stories today.

Likewise, “Reverse Isekai,” where a character from another world comes to ours, and we get to see our world through a new perspective, would not really qualify. It is its own thing.

Finally, I’ve seen a couple of stories where the fact the main character is from modern-day Earth seems to have been tacked on to a more traditional fantasy. If you were to ignore the intro, the main character might as well be a native of the fantasy world. These stories are isekais or portal fantasies on a technicality only. It’s fine if the origins of the character fade into the background as the months and years go by in a new life in another world, but the character’s background should initially play a major role.

Going to Another World

What qualifies as “another world?” It’s a setting that is very different and separate from our own. Obviously, getting sucked away to the warring kingdoms of Mars, or a fantasy world of dragons and sorcerers or talking animals would qualify. So would going far back or forward in time, to King Arthur’s Court or to the distant future of various incarnations of Buck Rogers. Being abducted by aliens and taken into outer space is a classic. So is traveling to a “lost world” buried deep inside the hollow Earth, full of prehistoric creatures and forgotten magic or technology.

Whatever the case, the setting should be significantly different from our world–at least from the perspective of our main character. That might not necessarily mean it is a significant difference for the reader. As an example, take the film, Yesterday. In the movie, the main character is injured in an accident where all the world’s electricity stops working for several seconds. When he awakens in the hospital, at first everything seems normal–but he soon gets suspicious of things not being exactly as he remembers. Then he discovers that the Beatles never existed in this world, and their songs were never written. As a struggling musician inspired primarily by the Beatles, whose only claim to fame is doing covers of Beatles songs, this is a huge difference between the worlds.

“Hidden” worlds – like the wizarding world in Harry Potter – usually don’t count. While the character can experience the same sense of wonder, they never really leave our world. Traveling to another world requires some level of commitment. Being able to jaunt around through time and space in a magic blue box is also not really the stuff of true portal fantasy or isekai. In GATE: Thus the JSDF Fought There, however, while the titular gate is a fixed location and crossing over is a short walk or drive through, the military occupation and tight government restrictions make going back and forth a serious undertaking. It counts. Spirited Away is more questionable as an example of the subgenre. The setting is more of a hidden world within our own, but the main character must not leave as a matter of her own sense of duty and love of her family.

Agent of Change

The characters from modern Earth (or a very similar equivalent) in both isekai and portal fantasy tend to come with some ability or skills that not only allow them to survive in this new world, but to exceed what the natives are capable of doing. Or, in isekai terms, to “cheat.” This could be simply be from having “lost” knowledge or familiarity with technology, having skills only available from Earth, their Earthly or spiritual heritage, and / or special supernatural powers (possibly gifted by the beings responsible for transporting the character in the first place).

For example, John Carter possesses immense strength and can leap tremendous distances in the low-gravity world of Barsoom (Mars). He also has an outsider’s perspective and a sense of honor from Earth that enables him to attack problems from a different angle than the natives of the world.

In Re: Zero, the hero is categorically worse at most things than any adult native, with (at first) little self-awareness and extremely poor survival skills. The one ability that allows him to endure is also the one ability that allows him to pull off the seemingly impossiblewhen he dies, time ‘resets’ a la Groundhog Day, allowing him to attempt to fix not only the situation that led to his demise, but also other mistakes he may have made along the way.

In Ascendance of a Bookworm, the protagonist threatens the entire social order with her “inventions” (and magical capacity), in spite of her frail physical form. In Yesterday, the main character disrupts the entire music industry with his “original” compositions. “User” Kevin Flynn’s adventure forever changes the computer world of Tron.

Adventure vs. A New Life

In portal fantasy, the adventure to a new world is often more of an extended visit. The main character accomplishes their objective and returns to our world a changed character, bringing with him or her the new skills and perspective they obtained on their “hero’s journey” in another world. This extended visit might take years (although in Narnia, they return home to find they have not aged and very little time has passed).

In your average isekai story, the ability to return home and resume anything approaching a normal life is less likely, if not impossible. Many isekai heroes are actually reincarnated in this new world following their deaths back on Earth, while retaining their past memories, skills, and personalities. They must set out building a new life in this (currently) unfamiliar world.

This isn’t really a hard-and-fast rule differentiating  the two, just more of a tendency.

What’s Fun About Them?

Isekai / portal fantasies work on several levels. They are naturally effective escapist fantasies, as the point-of-view characters have literally escaped the mundane world (often unintentionally) and are thrust into new adventures. The point of view allows us to engage our sense of wonder, and we as readers get to learn about the fantasy worlds organically as the protagonist does. There is no status quo to return to, so the main character is thrust into an active role immediately upon arrival. And, yeah, there’s wish fulfillment here: a nobody from the real world becomes the single most important person in another world.

How about my stories? Would I consider the Blood Creek Saga to be an isekai or portal fantasy series? I think there are definitely some elements of this subgenre there, inspired in part by the old Jack tales. If I really wanted to, I could probably get away with calling the series a portal fantasy, but that is not the focus of the story. The world of “Around the Bend” is a setting, but not THE setting.

So I’m going to go with “no,” but if you like portal fantasies, it’s at least in the same area code.

I do have a short story in Fantastic Schools Volume III that I believe is solidly in the portal fantasy (but not Isekai) category.

Would I write a full-on isekai-style story? I would, if I felt I had a strong idea that stood out in the subgenre. I think it could be a lot of fun.

 

Genre Wars: Fantasy vs. Science Fiction

As I have put together my list of books for this site, I’ve been categorizing them into genres. This can be a pretty sticky matter. Should Blood Creek Witch be considered contemporary fantasy, or paranormal? Is Steampunk a subgenre of science fiction, or of fantasy?

At some point in my life, I decided that the chocolate of Fantasy and the peanut butter of Science Fiction should never be mixed, Star Wars notwithstanding.  Fortunately for me, that phase didn’t last long, and I got over it. While I enjoy figuring out the lines between genres, I’m comfortable with the stories that cross those lines. I thought I’d talk about it a bit here, because why not?

You can lump all of it into a category called “speculative fiction” and be done with it. But where’s the fun in that?

If you go back to the earlier pulps, you’ll find a lot more mixing and matching between science fiction and fantasy elements. Sometimes the “magical” elements can be explained by super-science of the vast untapped potential of the mind. But it’s really just trappings. For example, in the Tower of the Elephant, Conan encounters an alien from a space-faring race, and it fits right in with the sword-and-sorcery world of Robert E. Howard’s most famous character. In this, and countless other pulp stories, the line between science fiction and fantasy isn’t just blurred, it doesn’t really exist.

At some point, the pulp magazines began differentiating themselves from the others by branding their style of stories. For Amazing Stories, Hugo Gernsback coined the term, “Scientifiction,” which didn’t quite roll off the tongue like Forrest Ackerman’s “Sci-Fi.” As Gernsback explained in Volume 1, Issue 1 of Amazing Stories, “By ‘scientifiction’ I mean the Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, and Edgar Allan Poe type of story—a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision.” Later magazines (notably Astounding Stories, once taken over by John Campbell) also carved out their own branding, which evolved from year to year and from editor to editor. Astounding Stories and several like it focused on evolved to become today’s “hard” science fiction, while others became known more for softer science fiction stories and “space opera”. Still others tended toward stories of supernatural, horror, fantasy, planetary romance, you name it.

I think pulp marketing and branding is where the differentiation between Science Fiction and Fantasy as separate genres began. Not specifically with Hugo Gernsback or John Campbell, but with the various pulps seeking their own unique brand of fiction. It’s all marketing and differentiation, but it also served a purpose for readers to find the kinds of stories they wanted to read. It wasn’t a hard line, and a story that might seem a more natural fit for one magazine might instead have found a home elsewhere.

There was also a weird thing that happened many decades ago that made categorization even harder. Science fiction–at least certain kinds of science fiction–became respectable and appreciated by critics and academia. It achieved a cultural legitimacy that fantasy hasn’t yet, in spite of fantasy generally outselling SF in recent years. Maybe this was another case of clever marketing. Whatever the case, science fiction gained some prestige that caused authors and publishers (especially around the 1970s) to push to have their works recognized as SF rather than fantasy.

While I think that reputation has declined somewhat over the last couple of decades, I think there’s still a residual bias that favors science fiction as being more “important” than fantasy. And “hard” science fiction as somehow intrinsically better than “soft” science fiction.

I don’t think that holds any water, personally–a good story is a good story. But I still have my own categorization, and I recognize that fans of one genre have certain expectations. Violate those expectations at your own risk, and the risk of alienating your audience.

For me, science fiction needs to feel at least remotely plausible in the current or future world (even if it’s an alternate history world or in a galaxy far, far away). Hard SF needs to adhere to most of the known scientific principles or theories of the real world, while soft SF has a bit more flexibility. Even if the technology is basically magic (see Clarke’s Third Law), it should be explained (or at least lampshaded) enough so it doesn’t feel magic. So… the Jedi are fantasy, while Babylon 5‘s telepaths are science fiction.

Because I’m a fan of classic & pulp SF, I also assume that if something was considered science fiction when it was released, it remains SF today even if modern events and revised science destroy the plausibility of it for modern readers. I’m not gonna rip the SF label from Star Trek just because there were no Eugenics Wars in the 1990s, and we never sent Khan Noonien Singh and his followers into space exile. The Barsoom series may be legitimately called science fiction for its time (but of course, that was before we really had those labels), but if I were to write a similar story today, it’d be fantasy.

There are some fun edge cases, like Sword Art Online. It’s science fiction with a generally fantasy setting (an artificial fantasy world in virtual reality), so I consider it science fiction, but you could watch a single episode and think it’s straight-up fantasy.

I consider time travel (or other time-related stories) fantasy by default, but it really depends on how the author presents it. Interstellar is a relatively “hard” SF movie all about time distortion. The Terminator films? Sure, I’ll give it to them, although they got sloppier with their unexplained restrictions as the series progressed (at least as far as I’ve watched). I think the author needs to do more than just invoke the words “quantum” or “tachyon” to make the SF label stick. If the characters instead just jump into a blue box, a phone booth, or a DeLorean and start having adventures, then it’s probably a fantasy. Have at it!

As far as what I prefer to write: It really depends on where the story takes me. On the science fiction front, I’ve written cyberpunk, space opera, and even something kinda like MilSF, post-apocalypse (which I’d probably call fantasy), and more. I don’t tend to write anything very close to hard SF. Everything else tends to be fantasy of some kind, from time travel to paranormal to straight-up sword & sorcery. I’m probably hurting myself on branding, but as I said, I don’t like to stay inside the lines very well. I’m just out to have fun, and there’s plenty of fun to be had all over the world of “speculative fiction.”

What I Mean By “Pulp”

I proudly profess myself to be a pulp-style writer. This may confuse people, because there’s a tendency in modern literary circles to refer to “pulp” stories as if they are the same as the media they were originally printed on: cheap, disposable, and not intended to withstand the test of time. It’s considered sub-standard writing. Obviously, that’s not what I mean when I say “pulp.” I suspect a lot of people using it in the derogatory sense have rarely if ever actually read pulp-era stories.

So let’s talk about the pulp era. From the late 1800s through about the 1950s, with the rise in literacy rates and nothing quite resembling the modern publishing system (and before television really took hold), we experienced a proliferation in periodicals publishing stories for entertainment. Many of the magazines were more traditional, catering to a more mainstream audience (middle-class men, housewives, etc.) and came on higher-quality paper. These were sometimes called the “slicks” or “glossies.”

Then you had the magazines focusing on stories for more niche audiences. Because of the more limited, focused markets, they were produced more cheaply than the slicks. The paper came from a cheaper wood pulp process, and the pages were often were not trimmed to perfectly identical size. They tended to pay less for stories than the “slicks,” but they also accepted stories with more niche appeal. Today, we would call these stories “genre fiction” (and yes, some people say that with a derogatory tone, but I don’t hang with those folks). Some magazines were of more general action/adventure appeal and would print stories across a lot of what we now would think of as genres / sub0-genres. Other magazines devoted to stories of horror or the macabre, several devoted to different styles of science fiction, detective stories, romance, aviation, railroads, sports stories, westerns, you name it. Many came and went with as few as a single issue.

A lot of classic genre fiction and (now) well-respected authors got their start in the pulps, often for as long as the pulps remained a viable source of income.

Acclaimed science fiction author Ray Bradbury praised Leigh Brackett, the “Queen of Space Opera,” for teaching him “pure story writing… how to pare my stories down, and how to plot.” In addition to writing tons of pulp science fiction, she went on to write several novels, write and co-write screenplays for movies like Rio Bravo, the Big Sleep, and won a (posthumous) Hugo for a little movie you may have heard of called “The Empire Strikes Back.”

Because the pulps were inexpensive (by design), I suppose there’s a natural assumption that the contents of the pulps were of low worth. Personally, I don’t know if the crap-to-gem ratio was that much higher in the pulps than in the slicks, or than in the modern mainstream publishers with layers of editorial control. What I do know is that the successful pulp writers were prolific and able to generate stories that pleased their editors and audience with stories heavy on plot, rich with vision and spectacle, and often full of bizarre but entertaining characters. That’s not to say they were pointless entertainment, but the editors rarely let the deeper themes or commentary overshadow the entertainment factor.

For me, I can expound on what I think about true “pulp” and the “pulp style” for hours (and I have!). For me, it comes down to that “pure storytelling” that Bradbury praised Brackett for teaching him, tight but lurid prose, passionate and compelling characters, at least moderately larger-than-life spectacle, and a generally optimistic worldview (even if the settings themselves may be dystopian hellscapes). And most importantly, pulp stories are about fun and entertainment.

That’s what pulp means to me, whether I’m reading something originally printed in a pulp magazine in the 1940s, or something written by modern writers who invoke that style. I want to be transported and taken on a wild ride full of action, twists, romance, and adventure. That, to me, is pulp.

THE END

I got to type those favorite words yesterday on the second book of a new series. Said series will be announced shortly and will release later this year.

I love this part, but not because it feels like I’m finished. Instead it feels like I’m on a roll and ready to jump on all the other things to do–including getting started on the next book in the series. All while doing revisions of previous books, planning out the release, etc. This is a little bit of a departure from how I did things with the Blood Creek saga, but I hope parallelizing things a bit more will speed up the process.

All that pending work doesn’t detract from the enthusiasm I have for seeing another story drafted. This project has grabbed me by the collar and hasn’t let me go, and it has constantly surprised me as it has evolved. They’ve taken me on a journey. When I type “the end,” that book is the most important one in my life at that moment. It’s a wild experience to feel that it has come to an end, and that this fun story that previously existed only in my own imagination is now in a medium suitable for sharing.

Well, eventually. The ingredients are mixed and ready for baking. 🙂

I hope you enjoy reading it even half as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it. I’m looking forward to writing “The End” a couple more times before the end of the year.

Sword Art Online Progressive: Aria of a Starless Night Film Review

I spoke at an anime convention not long ago about Virtual Reality, specifically in reference to how close we were to the technology of Sword Art Online. Most of the people in the audience were fans of the show. You could tell, especially with the cosplayers dressed as Asuna, Kirito, and others. I made a few jokes about the show / light novels, wondering if I’d earn the ire of the fans. Surprisingly, they rolled their eyes and laughed along with me.

The fans know. It’s popular to bash the show because it’s so popular. On top of that, many of its flaws are pretty glaring, so it’s an easy target. The fans–and I consider myself one–are not ignorant of its faults. If anything, they understand the flaws better than many of the detractors. But they enjoy the series in spite of this.

After finally watching the show a few years back, I took my first foray into English translations of Japanese Light Novels by reading the first two SAO novels–the Aincrad arc. I had hoped the Light Novels would shine a bit more light on what felt like a strong premise but a sometimes weak execution. I wasn’t too impressed. Later, I discovered these stories were largely written early in the author’s career, the core arc was intended for a particular contest (which he didn’t qualify for because it was too long), and… well, there were a lot of reasons why it wasn’t so good. Somehow, Reki Kawahara stumbled onto the right combination of concept, and his vision of the VR death game resonated in spite of its flaws.

It was such a strong concept that this is what SAO become known for, even though that story arc ended up being only half of one season. Yes, it impacts everything that follows, but (most of) the survivors escape the game of death after two years in only 14 episodes. Many of those episodes are taken from short stories written later. And yeah, what came later is better written. Many people complain about the story being so disjointed with huge time gaps between episodes of the anime, but that’s due to the nature of the source material.

While addressing the gap for the purpose of the anime, Kawahara wrote a much longer story that became episode 2–the battle against the boss of the first floor, which happens a month after the game goes live. He wrote far more than they could be adapted into a single episode. At that point, he and his publishers hit on the idea of revisiting Aincrad and truly fleshing out all that happened during that two-year period. Sword Art Online: Progressive is the result, a spin-off series that revisits Aincrad on a floor-by-floor basis, with the idea of each book covering a floor. At 75 floors, that’s a lot of books. Especially now that the story is expanding and floors 6 and 7 are taking two books each.

Happily, these later books are better-written, the characters better fleshed-out, and the world more strongly built than the initial Aincrad foray. Yes, there are some retcons (most of them pretty “soft”), but the series is intended to be a massive expansion rather than a reboot. Aincrad is getting lots of detail. Kirito’s and Asuna’s early relationship is getting explored (which, IIRC, didn’t actually exist originally). The larger plot and world elements from later arcs now have roots in the original death game. These aren’t masterpieces by any stretch, but they are fun. And while they are still Kirito-centric, we do get to see some other points of view.

Last year, the first… er, second…? Ah, whatever… an anime adaptation of the first book in the series came out as a feature-length film in the theaters: Sword Art Online Progressive: Aria of a Starless Night. I was really, really looking forward to this film, and happily, it did not disappoint, although it did surprise. It really did not adapt much more of the novel than the 2nd episode of the anime. Instead, they created a new story centering around Asuna, and her experience as a fairly casual gamer finding herself trapped in a game with fatal consequences for failure. The story takes us through the early days of the game through an expanded version of the events of episode 2, culminating in the heroes finally reaching the second floor of the 100-floor game world.

Fans of the anime and the books will find cameos of favorite characters throughout, including significant events involving monsters that nearly ended Kirito’s life only a day into the game. Personally, I find Asuna a far more interesting character than Kirito. At least with the later books, Kirito has become a more complete character rather than the self-insert character as he first appeared. Delightfully, you get a bit of his deeper character in this film–and as a starting point as a socially inept kid trying to look cool but also trying to do the right thing.

The movie introduces a brand-new character, Mito, a classmate and close friend of Asuna. The similarities and contrasts between these three principle characters–Asuna, Mito, and Kirito–bring out their personalities in sharp relief. At least as a starting point. Asuna goes through the most growth and faces the most dramatic changes this first month, which makes her a great focal point for the film. She still has a long way to go throughout the series, but you can see the seeds of her transformation here. And she goes from being a hopeless newb to a front-line badass, which is fun.

Like the rest of the series, there are plenty of flaws here, too. I had trouble buying Asuna’s relationship with Mito at the start of the film, other than it being an act of rebellion against the very strict expectations imposed against Asuna by her society and family. It probably needed more time to truly gel before their world goes to hell, but it was just not possible in the feature film format. I was annoyed that Argo was only given a cameo appearance, when she is a major secondary character in the books and in a particular part of the story. Again, a feature-length film can’t have everything.

The decision to start over from the beginning from Asuna’s perspective, starting in the days and hours before the official launch of the game, opens things up to a new generation of fans unfamiliar with the series. Honestly, I think this film makes a far better starting point for anime fans than the first season of the TV series. Since so much of this film is a new story, there’s plenty for existing fans to enjoy as well.

All-in-all, I think it’s a competent addition to the SAO franchise, and a stronger entry overall than the other SAO feature film, Ordinal Scale. They have announced another feature film for this year, based on the events on the fifth floor (in book 4). I can’t say I’m too thrilled with the jump, unless this is bookmarking a new, unannounced TV series that will fill in the rest. However, if they can pull off the next film as well as this one, I’m looking forward to it.

Sidearm & Sorcery now out in paperback!

I haven’t received my author’s (paper) copy yet, but Sidearm & Sorcery is now out in paperback as well as digital. Sidearm & Sorcery is an anthology of paranormal stories where the MC is a plain ol’ normal human dealing with the supernatural. Editor Bryce Beattie wanted to get back to the roots of the genre on this one, and his preference for pulp-style action is in full display. I’m pretty familiar with several of the authors, and have shared a table of contents with them a time or two. I’m still reading the rest of the stories, but I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read so far.

My story, Flight Response, takes place in the 1970s. A helicopter pilot finds himself up against an old enemy with unexplained powers.

You can check it out here. The print version is currently only available from Amazon, but the digital version is available from several sites:

Books2Read: Sidearm & Sorcery