(I have just finished the fourth volume of the series, which at the time of this review, is also the latest one published in both Japan and abroad.)
Reki Kawahara, the writer of the (in)famous “Sword Art Online” light novel series, has been a polarizing figure in the minds of many anime and light novel fans alike. While he undoubtedly has very good premises, they are often marred by poor execution and writing, which has made Kawahara notorious.
But nowadays, more and more people are beginning to see that Kawahara has begun to show great improvement in his more recent works. For instance, his reboot of the original “Sword Art Online” series, under the name “Sword Art Online Progressive” has been lauded as not only redeeming the flawed SAO series, but also acclaimed for being a well-written light novel in general. The new Alicization arc of the mainline “Sword Art Online” light novel series has received similar acclaim, with a heavily anticipated anime adaptation on the way.
But of course, it would not be proper to judge the quality of his latest series, “The Isolator,” by just taking a look at his other series. I only spend so much time talking about Kawahara’s improvements in his writing because I firmly believe that “The Isolator” is potentially the most cohesive and well-written stories he has created.
Plot-wise, “The Isolator” focuses on the struggles of troubled and angsty teen Minoru Utsugi, who has been left emotionally and mentally scarred by the traumatic loss of his family at a young age. As a result, Minoru spends his time closing himself off from the outside world. But this all changes when he is given powers from a mysterious orb that falls from the sky, known as the Third Eye. And thus begins the action-packed adventures of Minoru Utsugi, who finds himself involved in a conflict between superpowered heroes and villains.
It’s admittedly a fairly generic plot. But while “The Isolator” lacks the creative premises that Kawahara’s other works possess, it makes up for it in its execution.
In all of the volumes so far, Kawahara writes from the perspectives of both the protagonists and antagonists equally. Readers are given the opportunity to experience the story from two different points of view, which is effective in not only revealing more context to character actions and motivations, but also heightens the stakes. Kawahara writes villains with the complexity and depth afforded to the heroes.
When it comes to fights, Kawahara excels with his vivid but concise descriptions of combat. Many light novels fail to make combat exciting to read, but the author manages to make it as exciting as seeing it on a shounen anime series.
The novels’ good writing is also complimented by illustrations which show up every few dozen pages. Light novel enthusiasts like me will undoubtedly appreciate the high-quality pictures of key moments in “The Isolator.”
But of course, this series is far from perfect.
Oftentimes, Kawahara’s in-novel explanations can also feel stilted and drawn out. Sometimes I can't help but skim over his page long explanations of scientific concepts present in the novel. There are times when it feels like I’m not reading a light novel, but rather a science textbook.
The villains, while engaging, can also feel cartoonish at times, which can feel at odds with the darker tone of the novel. Sometimes villain backstories seem rather strange, although this is less of a quality issue as much as it is an oddity that may or may not affect your opinion of the novel as a whole.
In addition, some characters get shoved to the sidelines and don’t feel like they serve any purpose thematically. Some of Minoru’s new colleagues are introduced, then quickly forgotten about. Thankfully, the characters that do receive attention are written well and are generally engaging and likeable.
The novels also feel highly formulaic. There is a “monster-of-the-week” style with each novel, which may or may not appeal to readers. “The Isolator” has its own fair share of tropes and cliches that it employs, many of which should be familiar to avid light novel readers.
But nonetheless it still trumps Kawahara’s other works. Minoru Utsugi is a well-written character with genuine character development. In fact, the entire cast has undeniable chemistry, which makes them feel real and relatable. No relationship or dialogue feels tacked on.
If you’re looking for a well-written superhero(?) light novel series, you can’t go wrong with Kawahara’s latest work. It may not be his most unique, but it might be his most engaging one yet.