I’ve always wanted to read Sword Art Online. Having seen all of the animated adaptations and played the games, I know what happens in it and then some. But I’ve never actually found the time to read the original source novels. As it turns out, all I needed was about eight hours or so, going by my experience with the audiobook edition of the first Sword Art Online volume, Aincrad
Originally written by author Reki Kawahara as an online-only web novel, Sword Art Online was published as a light novel under ASCII Media Works’ Dengeki Bunko imprint in 2009. The series has since caught popular attention worldwide, spawning numerous adaptations into manga, games, and anime. It’s even been rebooted as Sword Art Online: Progressive (and that’s getting animated too).
By now its story of a virtual reality death game should be pretty familiar to many. Kirito and a legion of players log onto the eponymous online roleplaying game for its launch and are trapped inside it by the game’s creator, Akihiko Kayaba. Kayaba presents the players with an ultimatum. Beat Sword Art Online by ascending to the game world’s summit, or die in the real world.
The Sword Art Online: Aincrad audiobook covers the original story of the “Aincrad Arc,” which corresponds roughly to the first fourteen episodes of the anime adaptation. If your first experience was through that, you’ll find some notable omissions from the chapter lineup. This is due to the fact that some of the character-focused stories from Kirito’s time in Aincrad were actually sourced from the second volume and folded into that first season. As such, the Sword Art Online volume 1 experience passes with surprising speed. Now-familiar side characters like Lisbeth and Silica are absent from this core story. With the narrative so squarely centered on Kirito and Asuna, the story flows almost like a romance tale.
It’s also a tale that works particularly well with the audio format. As a light novel originally targeted for teens, the story’s prose isn’t particularly demanding to read, or in this case, to hear. What comes across as a bit flat on the page works well as a voice in one’s ear, making Sword Art Online a great audiobook to listen to when you’re doing other things, like writing or working.
It gets better when you hear who’s telling said tale: Bryce Papenbrook, the voice actor who plays Kirito in the anime. It’s an inspired choice, because Sword Art Online is written from the first-person perspective. As a result, the effect is kind of like sitting down to hear Kirito tell his story in his own words. If there’s an objection to be found, it’s that the same effect backfires just a little bit when the story recounts exchanges and dialog with Sword Art Online‘s now-well-known supporting cast. Since Papenbrook is alone in reading the novel, him trying to speak in their voices comes across like Kirito is doing impressions of his friends (and his girlfriend!) for a stranger.
Sword Art Online volume 1 makes for a good start to a long and engaging light fiction series, one that’s perfectly suited to the advantages of the audiobook format.
The Sword Art Online audiobook is available on Google Play Books, Audible, and Soundcloud. The series is available in print from Yen Press.