Sword Art Online Vol. 1: Aincrad - Light Novel Review

If you die in the game, you die in real life! The original light novel series which inspired the hit anime finally comes to North America.

The Lowdown

The story takes place in the VRMMORPG Sword Art Online where 10,000 players have become trapped in the game until all 100 floors are cleared. However, if players die in the game, they die in real life. Following the adventures of the black swordsman Kirito, the story details his life within the game as he falls in love and tries to beat the game.

“This might be a game, but it isn’t something you play” - Akihiko Kayaba, programmer of Sword Art Online

How Was It?

Much like the initial arc of the anime series based on it, SAO Vol.1 presents a highly compelling take on life within a video game, detailing the struggle of players to live their lives within the game. It effectively follows the story of Kirito when he is first trapped in the game, picking up two years later as he falls in love, progressing from an anti-social player into one determined to beat the game as he finds something worth fighting for.

Make no mistake, SAO Vol.1 is a love story taking place in the context of being trapped within the game and this is the central focus of the story. The relationship between Kirito and Asuna is satisfying and provides a lot of emotional development for Kirito over the course of the story, creating a compelling context for the high stakes of the game as they fight to escape. It’s not a particularly deep story but it’s a lot of fun and keeps the reader engaged throughout.

The setting presented in SAO Vol.1 is well detailed and is complemented by many tropes that those who have played MMORPGs will appreciate. The author presents a clearly realized vision of what life inside a game might be like and includes interesting explanations for the various social structures that developed within the game. It’s a highly interesting scenario and adds a lot of underlying depth to the world of SAO.

For those who watched the anime, you’ll find a lot to like in the book’s elaboration of the setting. A lot of things that were glossed over in the anime are explained in a much more effective manner here and really contribute to appreciating the setting of the story. For example, things such as The Army are given further explanation which help make sense of their presence in the story and some context for how players interact with them. The social structures and the nature of the game are much better explained here and these added details provide some of the most interesting and satisfying aspects of the book for those reading this as a companion to the anime.

The emotional arc that Kirito undergoes over the course of the book is quite satisfying and his internal perspective is an engaging way to view the events of the story, especially for those who have already watched the anime. While he’ll never be confused with the more complex characters in literature, the window readers are given into Kirito’s inner thoughts give his character significantly more depth than how he was portrayed in the anime. His self-doubt is much more evident here and this helps to alleviate some of the complaints about the flatness of his character.

For those who watched the anime, Kirito’s first person perspective also gives Kirito and Asuna’s relationship more depth. Kirito’s emotional development is much more perceptible and compelling as the true effect his relationship has on his perspective becomes much more apparent. If you didn’t appreciate their relationship in the show, the book probably won’t do a whole lot to change your mind but it is still a satisfying relationship within the context of the book especially when Kirito’s feelings are better illustrated.

The book strictly follows Kirito’s journey through his initial entrapment in the game before following him two years later at the beginning of his relationship with Asuna. In the context of the anime, it covers episode 1 before skipping ahead and covering episodes 8-11, 13 and 14. This actually enhances the narrative focus of the story and tells a more tightly woven and focused tale. There aren’t any extraneous side stories added in and the plot progresses at a satisfying pace due to this, making the plot tighter and less disjointed compared to the anime.

Some aspects of the book can feel a little out of place, especially due to the time-skip early in the book between the first day of the game and two years later. Some events are not explained in a logical order and while it make sense towards the end of the book, meaning it can feel like certain events lack some explanation initially. This may be especially true for those who watched the anime as the anime covers some events as they occur in chronological order rather than as flashback anecdotes that fill in the gaps during the book. It’s important to keep in mind the narrative structure of the book itself does make a lot of sense in the strict context of the book and should be viewed independently of the anime.

  • The setting is fantastic and well-realized, drawing readers into its world with a detailed explanation of what life trapped within a game might look like.
  • The story is great and the love story is a satisfying one, providing some good character development and drama as they attempt to beat the game.
  • It has a tighter focus compared to the anime and fills in a lot of the gaps in explanation well. It feels a lot more coherent in presenting the story.

Final Thoughts:

Sword Art Online Vol.1 - Aincrad is a compelling story both in its own right and as a companion for those who watched the anime. The story’s setting is compelling and it satisfyingly covers Kirito’s journey along with the lives of players trapped in the game. Furthermore, it presents a better explained and more detailed explanation of its setting that those who watched the anime will appreciate and is a more focused experience. Kirito’s first person perspective gives a welcome level of emotional context and depth to the story, helping to develop him as a character.Sword Art Online will never be confused with a particularly deep or complex story, but SAO Vol. 1 is definitely a fun read both as a love story and an adventure.

Sword Art Online Vol.1 - Aincrad is the first installment in the Sword Art Online series of light novels. Originally written in Japanese by Reki Kawahara and published in English on April 22, 2014 by Yen Press, SAO Vol.1 marks the English debut of the series after the widespread popularity of its anime adaption.



Date of Publication: April 21st, 2014

Translator: Stephen Paul

Author: Reki Kawahara

Publisher: Yen Press