Foreword: Sword Art Online: Alicization Exploding contains spoilers and uses plot element established from the previous books in the Alicization arc. Volume 16 is the second volume in the second half of the Alicization Arc, containing the War of the Underworld. I suggest reading the last volume, Alicization Invading, to have a better understanding of the backgrounds of the characters, although it is not completely neccesary.
Half a year has passed since the rebellion at the Axiom Church. The peace gained from defeating the highest minister Administrator in exchange for Kirito’s heart and Eugeo’s life, did not last long. With the East Gate separating the Human Empire and the Dark Territory collapsing, the Forces of Darkness has started their invasion. Facing against an army of 50,000, led by the Darkness God Vector, the Integrity Knights have gathered 3,000 soldiers to fight back against them, led by the Integrity Knight Bercouli and his fellow Integrity Knights.
The War of the Underworld has begun.
The story in Alicization Exploding is covered in two parts; the full coverage of the war and the Radiant Medium. With Kirito and Eugeo out of commission, the story is covered by the huge cast of characters involved in the war. This includes both sides of the war; the Integrity Knights on the Human Empire side and the leaders from the Forces of Darkness. Many characters have a role in this war and the story switches from individual to individual using an omniscient third person point of view.
One of the highlights of this volume is how each character has their moment to shine, covering their backstory, personality and motivations. In contrast to having Kirito and Eugeo act as a catalyst to their development, the knights themselves go through a process of self-reflection while in the midst of battle. Instead of someone changing them, they change themselves for others they care about. For example, one of the new Integrity Knights introduced, Renri, ran away from his post in battle and was branded as a failure of a Knight. However, through his interactions with Ronye and Tieze, and his meeting with Kirito, he gains the strength and courage to fight back and protect them. This applies to other new Integrity Knights, the Integrity Knights covered in the previous volumes, and even the enemy leaders themselves.
Speaking of the enemy leaders, despite looking like goblins, orcs, giants, and ogres, each of them feels human. Like the Integrity Knights, they each have motivations and reasons on why they want to fight. For example, the hierarchy of the Forces of Darkness is based upon how powerful a person is, and that power decides how much influence and resources an individual gets. At the bottom of the hierarchy are the goblin tribes, and they are sent to the front lines by the Darkness God Vector. One of the goblin chiefs dislikes the Darkness God as he seeing the attack as a suicide mission, sending his fellow brethren to their deaths. Together with his inferiority complex to the humans, he bores a big hatred towards everyone but people he respects in battle and acts nicely towards his kind. While being sent to his death, he isn’t rash in his actions in commanding his people but takes a more strategic approach, attacking the rear of the Human Defense Force after escaping the front lines. Again, this is one particular case but there are others leaders covering different themes.
The second half of the volume is like a small food break before entering the war zone again. Asuna returns in this volume, only to see Kirito in his broken state. She serves as the connection from the real world to Underworld to update what is happening outside. By the end, the only plot elements notable is the reveal of the enemy’s objective and what actions should be taken next. Aside from that, not much happens during this period. During this part, the story talks about everyone’s relationship to Kirito which can be best interpreted as a contest of who in Kirito’s harem is the best girl.
Reki Kawahara takes a different approach to this volume in terms of perspective. Instead of using a limited third-person perspective, his typical style of storytelling, he uses an omniscient third person point of view. Kawahara also tells the story from the Forces of Darkness’s perspective. If you have read his The Isolator series, this should be very familiar. Each character has a standard outline for their development, spread out throughout the war. The character is introduced and we get their position and see his/her actions on the field. The character undergoes some conflict on the battlefield and this affects his/her externally/internally, telling some form of backstory. After this, someone or something creates the catalyst that sparks the motivation and conviction in them to overcome their troubled state of mind. The concepts covered depends from character to character but they are written very similar.
I want to take this time to say that the illustrations for this volume are my favorite in the entire series and that abec did a fantastic job with character design. In the color illustrations, there are separate profiles of the individuals participating in the war and the amount of detail put into them is astounding. Every character has a certain physical characteristic that defines them, whether its the battle-ready stance of Iskahn from the Fist Fighters’ Guild or the striking beauty of Asuna/Stacia-sama. The black and white illustrations cover similar effects, but the focus for those illustrations is the expressions shown on the characters as they help highlight and showcase the emotions placed in those specific scenes.
Sword Art Online: Alicization Exploding is an exciting, action-packed volume, filled with the coverage of the war and a small look at the grand objective at the end. Even with the second half being far less involved than the first half, the war by itself more than makes up for it with its development for a wide variety of characters and heavy writing both in the action and emotion department.
Rating: Highly Recommended