Asuna’s life has always been carefully planned. Her mother pushes her to work hard so she can get into a great high school, then an excellent college, then a stellar career. That means lots of studying and no time for anything as trivial as video games. So naturally, when Asuna takes a teeny break to try out her brother’s new game, Sword Art Online, she immediately becomes trapped in its virtual world along with thousands of other players. Mom will NOT be pleased.

But Asuna has bigger things to worry about: if you die in this game, you die in real life. No one can log out until someone has beaten the entire game and many have already died trying. Asuna doesn’t know anything about gaming!

When our smart, hard-working heroine realizes that video game skills can be studied and practiced, Asuna starts doing what she’s always done: overachieving. Soon she’s one of the game’s most powerful players, fighting on the front lines alongside the mysterious swordsman Kirito. It’s not all life-or-death battles: tackling side quests and solving mysteries, Asuna makes friends and discovers that she just might be a natural leader.

Originally a light novel series, Sword Art Online now has a wildly successful anime and nearly a dozen manga adaptations so far. The first manga series, Sword Art Online: Aincrad, sees Kirito, Asuna, and others battle their way through the deadly SAO game. The spin-off series that follow take our heroes through various different virtual reality game adventures. Now, Sword Art Online: Progressive goes back to the beginning of the story. Where the Aincrad manga opens late in the SAO game and explains previous events via flashbacks, Progressive starts at the first level of the game and goes from there. It’s hard to know how long this series might keep up its current pace—after four volumes, the heroes have only cleared two of the one hundred levels they must beat to escape SAO!

Kiseki Himura’s art is crisp and polished, making use of a range of grayscale shading. While the characters are by far the most prominent element, SAO’s fantasy world and monsters are given enough attention to ground the story in its setting. Like other SAO manga, the series incorporates visual reminders of the fact that the characters are in a video game, such as floating menus and hit point bars.

A reserved and practical character, Asuna does not flaunt her body, but the illustrator certainly does. In addition to scattered panty shots, the series occasionally serves up a concentrated dose of fanservice. In the first volume, for instance, Asuna takes a bath, and we get eight and a half pages of her either in her underwear or naked. This includes full-frontal nudity, though nipples and genitals are not drawn in. Asuna gets outraged and embarrassed when someone tries to peek under her skirt or speculate about her underwear, so the fact that the reader keeps getting upskirt shots of her can feel a little gross. Similarly, when someone walks in on the aforementioned bathing scene, Asuna is horrified—clearly this is meant to be private, yet it is shown to the reader in loving detail. Besides being fanservice, these scenes are sometimes played for laughs, usually based on Kirito’s flustered reaction.

This series contains plenty of action. The video game setting means that fights are bloodless, but the stakes remain high. There’s more than battle going on in this manga, though, as the characters get to know each other and explore the world of SAO. For Asuna, being trapped in the game actually brings new freedom: without her mother’s expectations, what will she do? Who will she be? Asuna is still figuring that out, but she’s clever, good-hearted, and fun to root for.

Despite being a recent installment in SAO’s long list of manga series, Progressive could be a good entry point to the SAO universe. For fans of the anime, it offers some of the same events, but from Asuna’s perspective, which is quite different from Kirito’s. Readers who like Asuna’s viewpoint here might enjoy SAO: Mother’s Rosary, which follows her adventures in a new game after escaping SAO.

Sword Art Online: Progressive, vols. 1-4
by Reki Kawahara
Art by Kiseki Himura and abec
vol 1 ISBN: 9780316259378
vol 2 ISBN: 9780316383776
vol 3 ISBN: 9780316348751
vol 4 ISBN: 9780316314657
Yen Press, 2015
Publisher Age Rating: Teen

  • Nic

    | She/Her Youth Services Librarian, Wake County Public Libraries

    Reviewer

    The child of two artists, Nic grew up loving art, reading, and those oh-so-special books that combine the two. Nic got her MLS from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her thesis was on the best shelving scheme for graphic novels in public libraries; the proposal won an Elfreda Chatman Research Award. She spends her free time reading, drawing, blogging, and writing fiction. She is a Youth Services Librarian at the Wake County Public Libraries in Raleigh, NC.

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