Sword Art Online Vol.3 - Fairy Dance is the third installment in the Sword Art Online series of light novels. Originally written in Japanese by Reki Kawahara and published in English on December 9th, 2014 by Yen Press, SAO Vol.3 marks the continuation of the series’ English publication after the widespread popularity of its anime adaption.

The story takes place after the events of the Aincrad arc of Sword Art Online, following the adventures of Kirito as he ventures into the game Alfheim Online to rescue his lover Asuna. Along the way Kirito with the help of his companion Leafa must navigate the various races that inhabit this new world in order to get to the World Tree where Asuna is being held.

A Less Compelling Story:

The story begins 2 months after the game was cleared at the end of the first volume with Kirito returning to the real world. However, a few hundred players including Kirito’s lover Asuna have not woken up and after seeing pictures of someone looking like her trapped in Alfheim Online he quickly ventures into the game in search of her. The story also follows Kirito’s cousin (and adopted sister) Suguha as she grapples with the return of brother and her new feelings towards him.

The Aincrad arc told a slightly disjointed but compelling story and in a slightly ironic fashion Vol. 3 completely reverses this situation. This time Kawahara has a plan for the arc and but fails to make it nearly as compelling as his original story. The story can be boiled down to a simple “save the princess” archetype which in itself would not be a bad thing, but sadly Kawahara’s execution completely holds the story back from engaging the reader.

The Setting Fails to Deliver:

Set in Alfheim Online, this volume introduces readers to a number of other races that populate the game and feud against one another. Sadly the political maneuverings present here never becoming compelling and instead of adding to the story they feel disjointed and distract from the already tenuously thin plot being presented in this volume. The author fails to create compelling reasons for readers to become invested in the struggles of the races of Alfheim beyond simply being a boring sideshow for the main plot.

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It is also worth noting that while the game’s main gimmick of player flight was presented well in the anime adaption, the descriptions presented in this book are actually less compelling without the visual sense provided in the anime. The world of Alfheim Online is held back by the medium and turns out to be the opposite of the first volume which provided a better sense of its world through its descriptions of the other events going on in that world.

The lack of the same urgency and gravity that the Aincrad arc is a big problem Kawahara faces in trying to tell a compelling story in Vol.3. Unlike in Sword Art Online, players who die in Alfheim Online face no grave consequences beyond the lost time in respawning, instantly removing the stakes that made the Aincrad arc so compelling. Kawahara attempts to rectify this by adding a time constraint on Kirito as he races to save Asuna before she is forced into a loveless marriage but like so much in this volume Kawahara fails to execute properly upon this premise. This is particularly apparent when Kirito stops to involve himself in the political maneuvering of the various races, seemingly forgetting that he is on a time limit and cannot risk dying. While this is presented as a facet of Kirito’s character this seemingly contradicts his previous overwhelming focus on rescuing Asuna.

What Happened to the Characters?

While the Aincrad arc as detailed in Vol. 1 was centred almost entirely around Kirito’s perspective, Vol.3 tells roughly half its story through the perspective of Suguha. This is a step back in perspective for the series as Kawahara does not succeed in making her a relatable character. In addition the compelling scenes describing how she coped during the time when Kirito was trapped inside Sword Art Online are outweighed by her having to constantly reflect on falling in love with her brother. While the characters in Sword Art Online would never be accused of being particularly deep, Suguha stands out among the main characters as being particularly one-dimensional as her character never really progresses.

Complaints have been noted in almost every review this arc’s anime adaption regarding Asuna’s transformation from a strong-willed warrior to a damsel in distress. This is just as true in the novel and although we get to see some of her old character in her few chapters in this volume it is disappointing to see one of the best characters reduced to such a powerless role. Kirito himself is nothing to write home about in this volume as he experiences little character development compared to the first arc. In addition the rest of the supporting cast is largely forgettable with the exception of the main villain who comes off as more of a one-dimensional cartoon villain. This becomes more problematic in the book than in the anime as the impact of actually seeing his actions is lost without the same sort of visual representation.

The story is not nearly as compelling as the first volume and suffers from many questionable plot decision on the part of the author.

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The setting suffers simply from being a light novel, missing the visual representation the anime provide of the flight system. The political drama of Alfheim is not compelling and becomes a drag quite quickly.

The characters are a huge step back: Asuna is nerfed, Kirito is invincible and Sugu one-dimensional and unnecessary.

There really isn’t getting around the fact that Sword Art Online Vol. 3 - Fairy Dance is a big step back for the franchise following the Aincrad Arc presented in Volumes 1 and 2 of the series. If you enjoyed the anime I wouldn’t say that this should hold you back from buying it as I still got enjoyment out of the book. Series fans will find a lot to enjoy here but it should be noted to go into this book with a clear understanding of what this book will be. If you are invested in the story of Kirito and Asuna then you should still be picking this one up but the sheer number of missteps on the part of Kawahara the book suffers from is disappointing.

What do our scores mean?

You can buy Sword Art Online Vol.3 - Fairy Dance on Amazon.com and Amazon.ca for Canadians. You can also buy the other books in the series below!

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