On Warhounds, Dahoto, Grim, and Clare

“It seems to me the universe gave us three things to make life bearable: hope, jokes, and dogs. But the greatest of these gifts was dogs.” – Robyn Davidson


Friends, Romans, countrymen: lend me your ears. I want to talk about dogs.

Well, more specifically, warhounds. I was walking my dog today, you see, and I got to thinking that Grim is probably one of the most fascinating characters in Fire Heart. I know that a lot of you agree with me. I did a little Favorite Character poll back when I was writing on Shur’tugal FanFiction, and Grim won by a landslide. You know why? People like dogs. They’re our best friends, after all. They’re loyal, loving, and utterly devoted. My dog Beowulf, a silver lab (I know – I’d never heard of such a breed until I got him either) holds the grand distinction of being one of the few members of a very small, very elite, and very exclusive club: Beings Who Have Never Screwed Dan Over. And all over the world it’s the same. Unless you get some raving psychopath for a pet, your dog is going to be your truest, most perfect friend until it dies – and that’s why so many people love Grim.

But where does he come from? How was he made? Why is he so intelligent? I thought it might be fun to answer these questions in a little blurb about all things Grim, so here we go. To start with, there’s…


The Westlands

The Westlands.

Or rather, there was Dahoto. Some of you may recall that, in Fire Heart, it’s mentioned that warhounds are unique to the Westlands. In fact, this isn’t true – not precisely. They are unique to the city of Dahoto, and Dahoto (before it was annihilated by yaru) loaned warhounds and their handlers – a group collectively known as the Dahotan First Rank – to those Lower Kingdom cities that could afford them. This was a lucrative practice, I assure you, and one based partially around the Southland custom of farming out the majority of a city’s military work to mercenary bands. I’m sure everybody remembers just how effective Clare and Grim are as a team; imagine how effective an entire company of such duos might be.

But how is it that such an effective breed of animal only exists in one city? Well, it just so happens that I’ve recently stumbled across an ancient document predating the Soréllian Empire’s expansion into Dahoto. The document appears to be a travelogue from one of the first meetings between a Soréllian government official and the enigmatic Haito. Please excuse any errors in translation – High Soréllian has been a dead language in the Southlands for nearly five hundred years, and I had to go to rather ridiculous lengths to find someone who could read even a little of it.


Day Ninety-Six:

Agostos says we are only three more days from the edge of Haito territory. For this I am thankful, and when I heard the news I gave praise to the Fire Father/Mother [it appears that this word was used to denote an ancient deity of some kind, and its meaning is interchangeable] in the form of a burnt offering – a magnificent boar brought down by Agostos’ men for tonight’s supper. They grumbled when I commanded the ritual, but even this far from the Empire no Soréllian would dare disobey a Legatus.


Day One Hundred:

Our first meeting with the Haito. They are a strange, quiet people, and I do not like the way they look at our caravan. Their eyes are a disquieting shade of emerald, and such a thing I have never seen before. They wear strange armor more intimidating than that of any legionary, and their faces are covered but for their eyes in hideous, demonic masks. Of those we met, several – I cannot be sure exactly how many, for their numbers seemed to shift like shadows/darkness/evil [apparently, as above, all three of these words were interchangeable in High Soréllian] with every glance – were accompanied by monstrously huge canines of some sort. They resembled wolves, but their eyes bespoke an intelligence that I have never seen in an animal. Their jaws hang perpetually open, and are studded with far more teeth than I can recall ever seeing in a dog or wolf. Their fur is very coarse – or so my translator tells me – and can even deflect a wayward blade or poorly aimed arrow. I write this at the onset of mid-night, for I find it difficult to sleep while my thoughts dwell on those beasts.


Day One Hundred and Three:

Another sleepless night. Soft but audible footfalls – I suspect of a deliberate nature – wakened me each time my mind began to drift. When I finally crept out of my tent to discern my tormentor, I saw nothing. I made to leave the tent and look around, but the instant my foot left its boundary a piercing, nightmarish din erupted from everywhere at once; it sounded like the laughter of the mad, or the shrieks of the damned, or both. Fire Father/Mother deliver me from this nightmare.


Day One Hundred and Four:

One of Agostos’ men attempted to toss a scrap of meat to one of the beasts. It gave the food what I can only describe as a disconsolate look and then leaped upon the man, savaging him with its jaws. It was over in a matter of moments, and I am ashamed to admit that I voided the contents of my stomach at the sight. The creature’s master said something short and sharp in his language, and it obediently went to his side. After inspecting the body – without my assistance, for I had not the constitution for such a thing – Agostos mused about the nature of the offspring between one of the Haito beasts and one of our own wolfhounds. I found this idea to be quite mad and told him so.


The rest is pretty boring – a lot of political talk, a lot of trade treaties, a lot of whining about the Haito “beasts.” Typical politician mumbo jumbo. Anyway, there you have it: the progenitors of the Dahotan warhounds. Will we hear more about them in Shadow Heart? Well, duh.

But enough about history – I want to talk about…

The Warhounds

A member of the Dahotan First Rank and her warhound. (Yes, I know I recycled the Clare and Grim lineart. Just play along, you party poopers.)

A member of the Dahotan First Rank and her warhound.

Yes, I know I recycled the Clare and Grim lineart. Just play along, you party poopers.

So warhounds are big. As in, really big. As in, bigger than that. So we’ll just pretend that the above picture is of a runt warhound. Or maybe one that’s still growing. In reality, a full-grown warhound’s shoulder would reach above hip-height on Clare. For reference, Clare is a leggy 6’2″. (About 188 cm for everybody in the world who is not stuck on America’s ridiculous measurement system.) That makes the average warhound’s shoulder roughly four feet tall – about 122 cm. Their heads, naturally, reach even higher. This is taller than a Great Dane, and a warhound is even more massive.

“But hip dysplasia!” you cry. Pshaw. This is fantasy. And in fantasy, dogs either die gloriously in battle or they live until they get too old to breathe. None of this bogus genetic anomaly garbage.

So we’ve established that warhounds are big. If you remember, we’ve also established – according to Clare – that a warhound is trained from the moment it is born by only one person, and that is the person it will spend the rest of its life with. How long does one live? I haven’t the foggiest. None of them have ever survived for long enough to find out. Such is the life of a shock trooper. How exactly is one trained? Well, it just so happens that I’ve stumbled across another relic – or rather, a series of them – from Pallamar! This one is a little more recent, though – in fact, it comes from Clare’s things. (No, I didn’t stalk her and steal her stuff. Jeez, guys.)



You will never believe what’s happened. I know that such matters are to be kept secret, but I am positively bursting with pride and joy: you have been selected to undergo training for the First Rank! I know that this is what you have always dreamed of, and Marya and I simply cannot contain our happiness for you. The news only just came in today, and when I saw your name cross my desk my curiosity was piqued. It seems Maeren sponsored you, and as you know he has tremendous influence within the upper echelons of the Dahotan military. Take care – I am sure he still has feelings for you. You will undoubtedly be informed tomorrow or the day after, and as I said such matters are generally kept secret. Look surprised! And go forth with Gefan’s grace and the knowledge that Marya and I know that you will succeed. 

All My Love,



Dear Mother and Father,

I am writing to you from Kyohan, thought I cannot tell you where I will be going nor what I am doing, as it is a matter of some secrecy. Suffice to say I am in good health and good spirit, for I have some exciting news: I was just last week promoted to the First Rank! Training and selection are over, and I am one of only five proud and lucky women and men to have been accepted. My first mission will be as liaison to the regulars during a ranging, but when I return I will be granted a warhound pup to train for my own. Maeren tells me that several bitches are nearly ready to birth, and should be in the act or close to it when my mission is over. I shall bring the pup by the smithy so you can see it. Take care, and say hello to the twins for me.




Dear Jaeme and Marya,

I hope all is well, and that the Consul is not working you too hard. As you undoubtedly know, I am now a proud member of the First Rank. I have my own warhound pup, who I have named Grim for his demeanor – not to me, for he has taken to me like I am his birth-mother, but to anyone who comes within five paces of us. I took him by to Mother and Father the other day and he nearly leaped out of my arms to get at them. I have never heard such noises come from a pup, and to be honest I was momentarily frightened. I had to chain him to an anvil just so I could speak with my parents, for he chewed through three lengths of leather in as many tocks just to get to my side. Once chained he emitted the most terrible wails, and now as I write this he acts as though he has been beaten. I suspect that this is a ruse. Just yesterday he feigned injury in order to obtain more food and a good belly scratch. He is an animal of singular intellect, even as young as he is. Also, Maeren has made another advance. I have tried to explain my feelings – or lack thereof – to him in as gentle a way as possible, but I do not think he understands. I would greatly appreciate your help in this matter.

Wishing You the Best,



Warhound Training Manual, Section One

A warhound is not a pet, and should never be treated as such. It is an animal of great intelligence and cunning, and care should be taken to make sure yours never has reason to challenge your authority. Many are those who have lost digits, limbs, and even lives to their warhounds. Warhounds respond best to strong, self-sure authority. When commanding your warhound you must neither feel nor show any hesitation or compassion, for they will seize upon such as a weakness and act accordingly. Below is a list of vocal and hand-signalled commands universal to the First Rank, which you and your warhound will be expected to learn before it reaches six months of age.


Warhound Training Manual, Section Three

Never use physical violence to train your warhound. This is the most important lesson you will ever learn. A warhound, raised properly, will obey your every command. It will do as you say, when you say, without hesitation. In time, you and your warhound will learn to communicate without even the voice- and hand-signals that you have learned. But the day you raise a hand against your warhound, it will defend itself without thinking twice. Remember this, lest you become another statistic of the First Rank.

[Beneath this, in a hastily scrawled hand]: Swatted Grim on the nose today for trying to steal a rib at dinner. Didn’t attack me. Didn’t even try to run away. Just cowered and looked at me with those sad puppy eyes. Did I get the only cowardly warhound in history?


The short answer is: no, she didn’t. The long answer?…Well, you’ll have to wait for Shadow Heart (but not much longer!) to find out.

Dan Reviews: …Well, a grab-bag of things.

Alright, I’m exhausted. Mentally drained. Emotionally kaput. My fingers are about to fall off, and I’m bleeding from the eyes and nose and other places I don’t want to mention.

Not really. But I am going to take a little break from writing Shadow Heart (which is coming along quite nicely!) because, let’s face it, if you just do one thing over and over and over again, you get sick of it. Such is life. I don’t want to get sick of my little lovechild, so I’m going to get a little sidetracked and write something else for a few minutes. You know, refresh my head and all that. (By the way – have any of you ever typed on a mechanical keyboard? Or even used a mechanical keyboard, for that matter? Because if you haven’t, you should. They’re the shit. Get one with Cherry MX Red keys – they’re quiet, they feel good, and they’re so accurate. I haven’t enjoyed typing this much since my Samsung laptop with an island keyboard. But I digress.)

And now I’m just going to ramble, as I’m wont to do, and you can follow along if you want. Or not. This isn’t really for you, after all – it’s for me. ( ;D )

I’ve gone through some pretty interesting life changes over the last few years here – mainly philosophical ones. These changes are, I would say, good. I like them. They make me happier, which is nice, and I’d like to share that with those of you who’ll listen. And along the way, I’ll throw in some observations on life that I’ve collected.

So a long time ago, allllll the way back in 1999, everybody thought the world as we knew it would end. Y2K was just around the corner, computers were going to go berserk, technology would end, and mankind would be thrown back into the Stone Age. Also, the Wachowski brothers the Wachowskis released The Matrix, which would become my favorite movie for several years. This started a trend that, to this day, holds true: the Wachowskis make my favorite movies, ever. I don’t like all of their movies, but the ones that I do like have – for me – the sort of timeless quality that Shakespeare has had on the literary world, or that Beethoven has had on music. I feel like they’re that good. I have watched The Matrix, V for Vendetta, and Cloud Atlas at least one billion times each, no exaggeration.

Fast forward to 2012 (another apocalypse looms!) and they release Cloud AtlasCloud Atlas caught its fair share of crap, but I will go on record as saying that the people who didn’t like it were (and still are) suffering from a terrible case of Didn’t Get It. That’s my opinion, and I will stand by it until I die.

You see, Cloud Atlas holds very special significance for me: not only was it released the day before I published Fire Heart, but it also holds the distinction of being the catalyst that started this big, life-changing avalanche. I’m not going to write a proper review for Cloud Atlas because I honestly don’t think that I could ever do it justice. So instead, I’ll leave you with this:

“To be is to be perceived. And so to know thyself is only possible through the eyes of the other.” – Sonmi-451

That is the single most beautiful thing I have ever heard, and there is a 99% chance that I will get that tattooed somewhere on my body before I die. It’s a quote from the movie, and the first time I heard it I almost cried. Why? I’m not sure. I cried like four or five times during Cloud Atlas (yes, in public) for a multitude of reasons, not all of which I can explain. Don’t judge me. I have no shame. The point is, that one quote explains almost my entire philosophy on life in two sentences. My parents have, ever since I was a wee squirt, maintained that Heaven and Hell are not places, but states of memory. Hitler is in Hell because of how he is remembered; likewise, Gandhi is in Heaven for how he is remembered. Everybody remembers everybody else differently, so of course these are not blanket statements – but that brings me to my next point: Timeheart.

There is a series that, I think, has influenced me more than any other over the years. I’m serious – go read the books. You’ll laugh like hell when you see all the things I’ve unconsciously (no, really, I swear) stolen. The sad thing? When I was interviewed by Fantascize.com, I completely forgot about it. They asked me for my inspiration, and I came up with some bogus about The Sword of Truth. Don’t believe what I said – it’s a lie. The Young Wizards series by Diane Duane has had more influence on my writing style than any other work of literature, myth, or legend. Yes, Young Wizards. Laughing? Don’t. Go read them. They’re young adult books that aren’t specifically for young adults, and I would say that they are every bit as good as the Harry Potter series – better, in my opinion.

But the thing that really stuck with me from those books – and will forever – is the concept of Timeheart, the most central of all realities, where all things loved are preserved forever in their truest form. “To be is to be perceived. And so to know thyself is only possible through the eyes of the other.” Heaven is how you’re remembered. That’s what I want to believe in, if I’m going to believe in anything, because that’s beautiful. So I guess I lied – in reality, Young Wizards started this whole thing. I was just too stupid to remember it. But I assure you, Cloud Atlas was the thing that really set all this in motion.

So, short recap. We have Timeheart, which is my personal preference if you’re going to ask me about my religion. We have Cloud Atlas, a movie that has many themes but, most importantly, that tells us this truth: we exist because others perceive our existence, and everything we are is the product of how the world views us. This is important. I find this to be true.

For several years, that quote from Sonmi-451 was the epicenter of my life. We are what others see. There’s a whole load of philosophy that goes into and stems from that statement (or at least a similar one) but I’m not tremendously interested in the rest of it. After all, if I can’t be creative and devise my own philosophies from my own experiences, I’m not much of a writer, am I? So everything I did from that point on became an experiment: who am I? The truth was I didn’t really know, and I still don’t – but I was able to start getting glimpses, and what I took away from those glimpses was that I didn’t really like myself. I was an angry, snappy young man who was disappointed in what he had become and, because of that, took it out on everyone else. How must the world have perceived me? Not well, I assure you. Not well.

Last spring, I decided to go back to school after a rather…ah…long break. You see, I don’t like school very much despise the American educational system. One of my last classes before I left was a college English class that I failed. Why? I won’t go into every detail. Suffice to say I got fed up with a teacher whose ineptitude and strong-willed personal agenda turned what should have been a class that promoted free-thinking and rational debate into an indoctrination camp. I’m using colorful and strong descriptions, I know, but that was how I felt at the time – that is how I still feel. So how did I fail the one class that I really shouldn’t have failed? I turned my final project into a 36-page essay on why she shouldn’t be teaching at the college level. Take that, educational system. (Some of you may be thinking, “Well…that was stupid.” You are correct.)

As a side note, I took the same class from a different teacher the next semester (my last one) and aced it. Why? Because the teacher taught. He didn’t bring his personal agenda into the class. We came in, we read, and we the class discussed and debated meaning. He almost never told us we were wrong (barring extreme circumstances – feminism is not analagous to Neo-Nazism, guys), and if he had an idea it was always a natural evolution of something one of the students had said. Some of you may disagree with this method of teaching – I know that a lot of teachers do. But I’ll pose this question to you: do you know exactly what the author of any given work of literature meant? The answer is, probably not. You can extrapolate and come up with a pretty good hypothesis, but the facts are that unless the author has explicitly agreed with you, your idea is as good as any other well-researched idea. Literature is not mathematics, biology, or physics: there are no set rules, not really. Similarly, a class on philosophy should not be used as a vehicle for you to tell everyone which philosophy you think is the right one.

So there’s the end of that rant, and you may be wondering why exactly I even started that. The reason? As I said, I went back to school. I figured, hey, if writing didn’t work out for me, I should probably have some sort of fallback position. (I do already, but that’s beside the point.) So I decided to go finish my degree, and along the way hopefully I’d find something that interested me.

I did.

It’s called religion.

Wait. I know what you’re thinking. No, I didn’t find Jesus. I have not converted to Islam, nor am I on the path to guru-hood. I found myself fascinated with religion in general, and it is due entirely to a man named Jason. (I won’t put his full name here, for reasons you are probably aware of.)

I quoted Sonmi-451 and said that it described almost my entire philosophy on life earlier, but that wasn’t the whole quote. That looks like this:

“To be is to be perceived. And so to know thyself is only possible through the eyes of the other. The nature of our immortal lives is in the consequences of our words and deeds that go on apportioning themselves throughout all time. Our lives are not our own; from womb to tomb we are bound to others, past and present, and by each crime and every kindness we birth our future.”

And that is my entire philosophy on life in three sentences.

The class I took from Jason, an introduction to the major religions of the world, left me with that message right there. Never in my life have I met a person who has changed me so radically, so quickly.

With Shadow Heart and the third and final volume in The Titans, I knew that I wanted religion to play a large(r) role. Somebody recently told me, after reading my book, that they, “appreciate[d] [my] disdain for religion.” This rather shocked me, but then I realized that, yes, I did have a rather extreme disdain for religion before. I went through the whole atheist phase in high school, I listened to Marilyn Manson, I laughed at all of the stupid religious people, and when I wrote Fire Heart, some of that lingering disgust remained. I stand by what I wrote. I think that there is an immensely depressing problem with today’s organized religions. But I do not despise religion. At least, not anymore. Now I think that, for the most part, it’s beautiful.

I have always been fascinated by the stories of religious icons, especially in fiction – Dune’s Muad’Dib has one of the most incredible backstories I’ve ever read about, and it turns out that it’s all true. Not literally, of course, and I imagine that, if I ever become known well enough, this statement might get me killed – but Muad’Dib shares some remarkable similarities with the real-world prophet Muhammad. I’m sure most people know this, of course, and I suppose I’m late to that particular party, but realizing that these people – people who, even the scientific community agrees, most likely existed – are every bit as fascinating as the things that come from fiction, was like waking up for the first time.

And after spending five months under Jason’s tutelage, I realized that these sorts of stories were what I had been looking for all along. Origin stories. Stories that show how one person became a legend larger than life who has persisted through the ages. Stories whose original meanings have often been perverted and repurposed for the gain of a lesser person.

But I’m rambling again. (Dan, you’ve been rambling this entire time. Shaddap, you.) The thing that I really took away from Jason was, as I said, that quote from Sonmi-451, the latter half of which is essentially the definition of karma. Every religion has, at its core, a similar theme, despite the disparities between their practitioners. Jesus said, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” In Islam, Zakat is the practice of, among other things, redistributing a percentage of total wealth to the poor and needy. Siddhartha Gautama, the man who would start Buddhism, said, “To end suffering, end desire.” There are other similarities, of course, but again, I won’t bore you by preaching.

So what did all of this do for me? It made me redefine myself. “You must unlearn what you have learned,” said the wisest of teachers, the Great Yoda. “Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose. Death is a natural part of life. Rejoice for those who transform into the Force. Mourn them do not. Miss them do not. Attachment leads to Jealousy. The shadow of greed, that is.” The little shit’s just full of wisdom. “Fear is the path of the Dark Side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

Why yes, I did just quote Star Wars at you. Is it any less relevant than the teachings of Buddah or Jesus of Nazareth? No, it really isn’t, because Yoda’s wisdom stems directly from the baseline, unmolested wisdom of the greatest minds in the history of the world. Yes, they are the greatest minds in the history of the world. How else would they be remembered thousands of years after their deaths?

I drank in all this wisdom – no, I guzzled it. This was the kind of thing I’d been searching for my whole life. I didn’t find it in Catholic Mass, and I certainly didn’t find it in the American educational system. Capitalism allows me to do what I do and make money while I’m doing it, but at what cost? My livelihood, as I continue down my chosen path as a writer, will be directly in your hands – the hands of my readers. I don’t think anybody really realizes how much power the average bear has over someone like me, in an economic system dependent on making as much money as possible, but it’s staggering. And before you start preaching the benefits of Socialism, think: is such a state – as imagined by Marx, now, not by Stalin – even possible? I think not. Human greed will always get in the way of Utopia, and I personally don’t feel like living in an Equilibrium-esque world. What would be the point?

I recently took a Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) as part of a fun little side-project we did where I work. I’d share with you the entire thing, but frankly it’s a lot to write out. So I’ll leave you with my result and a little quote, taken directly from the test, instead. That way you can look it up if you feel like getting to know me better. INFP: Idealistic, loyal to their values and to people who are important to them. Want an external life that is congruent with their values. Curious, quick to see possibilities, can be catalysts for implementing ideas. Seek to understand people and to help them fulfill their potential. Adaptable, flexible, and accepting unless a value is threatened.

I rather like that description. It doesn’t go into the potential bad parts, of course, (most of which resonated with me as well) but it’s a fairly good blurb. What it helped me do was to solidify one piece of understanding about myself: that I don’t want to be something I’m not. So what if I end up living paycheck to paycheck? As long as I can do what makes me happiest (spoiler: it’s writing) I think I’ll be alright.

I threw a lot of stuff at you just now – a lot of rambling stuff, most of which probably sounds like crazy-speak – and if you’ve read this entire thing, I applaud you. I estimate around .1% of you got this far, which is about…seven-tenths of a person. So good on you, Seven-Tenths. Thanks for reading my rant. I’m going to leave you now with the message that I, personally, have taken away from all of these things I’ve been experiencing.

1.) I do not know everything. Learning requires a slate free, or at least mostly free, from prejudice and arrogance. Learning requires a willingness to learn.

2.) Everybody is different. No two people on this planet are exactly the same. Stereotyping is fun and funny, but beyond comedy it has little practical application in the real world.

3.) Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, and hate leads to suffering.

4.) To end suffering, end desire.

5.) I’m not sure how to end desire, so I’ll settle for taking things as they come and being okay with whatever life gives me.

6.) To be is to be perceived. I can only know myself through your eyes.

7.) Being remembered for doing more good than harm is preferable to being remembered for doing more harm than good.

8.) Heaven does not come from who you worship, but who you are.

9.) I don’t need to be a billionaire to be happy.

10.) I am happiest when I am being myself, and most of all that means being a writer.

Thanks for reading!

Luminiad 17:1:43-51

They fell to their knees and prayed when I passed. Some reached out to touch me, hands shaking and eyes wide with wonder. “Bless my child,” they begged. “Heal my loved one.” Hero, some called me. Savior. Messiah. But there was one title that they clung to, one that they would reach for again and again in their darkest hours. When hope failed them, when the sky swallowed the sun and darkness fell, there was one word on each of their lips: Lightbringer.

– Luminiad 17:1:43-51


It has been said that during the opening moments of the Luminomachia a great war raged in the Void between the forces of the Lightbringer and the enemy. It has been said that the shining towers of the Old God’s palace crumbled and fell to an onslaught of fire and lightning. None of us mortals can know the truth, of course. Only the Ourien were privy to that knowledge, and they have long since vanished.

– From Luminomachia

by Maleakh Shah’reh Ma’Dhin

Luminiad 17:1:18-26

One of the Ourien, first among the Old God’s creations, was struck down before my eyes. And the field was silent as the grave. No cries of despair, no howls of victory. The Belahan looked at me with violet eyes, and even in the depths of evil I could see sorrow. Beauty had been slain – perfection, destroyed. I broke the silence. The sky split. Thunder roared. The hand of the Old God rained from the sky, and on that day we were given hope.

– Luminiad 17:1:18-26

Dan Reviews: Sword Art Online (Part 1)

(This is for the anime, not the manga.)

“Well, that’s a silly name,” I thought to myself when I first saw it on Netflix. But then, most anime/manga have really silly titles. (No offense, Japan. It’s probably a translation issue.) But I saw that people had reviewed the show favorably and, having nothing else to watch, I gave it a What The Heck score of 10: let’s do this.

Now, I’m going to actually do two reviews here, and that’s for a couple of reasons. First, the anime is only one season (right now) but it is separated into two distinct halves. Second, the first half has been reviewed much more favorably than the second. And so, on with the first part of the review. Be warned: here there be spoilers. Lots of them.

First, the premise. In 2022, someone has invented a true, Matrix-esque virtual reality video game – or, in SAO terms, a VRMMORPG (virtual reality massively multiplayer online roleplaying game). For anybody unfamiliar with what an MMO is, 1.) where have you been for the last twenty years and 2.) look up World of Warcraft.

The titular game in SAO is a highly anticipated fantasy MMORPG that, quite unexpectedly, does not allow its players to leave the game. So on launch day, after everybody logs in for the first time, they soon find that they are unable to log back out. The game, as mentioned previously, is a Matrix clone: every impulse and thought you have is translated into the machine. In the immortal words of Morpheus, “Your mind makes it real.” And here’s the kicker: if you die in the game, fancy shmancy science will kill you in the real world. Bummer. The only way to escape is by beating all one hundred levels of the game. For added lulz, the guy who rigs all of this to happen also erases everybody’s avatars (their in-game bodies) and replaces them with the players’ real-world bodies. Queue fat nerds in girl clothes. Huehuehue.

The story revolves around two main characters, though one is more main than the other.

Kirito is the true lead of the story – he was a player in the game’s closed beta session, which gets him labeled a “beater” (an amalgam of “beta tester” and “cheater”) by the more mundane members of the player population, and paves the way for him to become the story’s Real Ultimate Badass by way of him being more knowledgeable about the game’s mechanics than anyone else. He earns himself the moniker Black Swordsman (or so the Wikipedia page tells me – I never actually heard anyone say this during the show) because of his tendency to wear black. Neither of these things, however, adequately describes Kirito, who ends up being a surprisingly complex character. Initially he is a lone wolf who spurns the idea of grouping up with other players to beat the game. Many people see this as a sign of selfishness, but the truth is much deeper. He spends much of his on-screen time helping others less fortunate or less able than himself, and after a disastrous attempt at joining a guild (a group of players who work together – like an in-game club) he develops a profound sense of guilt and self-loathing that follow him around for the rest of the series. Initially he seems rather cold and emotionally aloof, but this is just a front. As he matures as a character, his caring side becomes more and more apparent until, at one point, he even “adopts” a child in the game with his lover. Initially I found myself getting annoyed with how stereotypically emotionlessly manly he was, but as the story progressed I realized that this was intentional, and that is not at all who he is in reality.

Asuna. This is the female lead, but really only for the first half of the series. More on that later. Asuna is, with a few notable exceptions, everything I love in a female lead. She is strong and capable, she takes none of your shit, and she is every bit as caring and loving as Kirito. She and Kirito constantly play to each other’s strengths and bolster their weaknesses, and by the end of the game they are truly the dynamic duo: nothing can stop them together, but apart they are quite vulnerable. For all intents and purposes, they are Neo and Trinity without the crappy writing – for the most part. Her love story with Kirito, which ultimately becomes the central focus in SAO, is definitely one of the best I’ve seen in the anime/manga format – maybe even the best. It has its flaws, to be sure, but ultimately it is the most real one I’ve seen. Asuna is a real person, not a thing: she has deep and complex emotions, she isn’t just some doe-eyed sycophant, and she is a capable, self-sufficient woman without devolving into the Badass Warrior Babe trope.

So the story, ultimately, is about Kirito and Asuna attempting to escape SAO. Being an anime with “sword” in its title, I initially feared that it would devolve into twenty episodes of mindless anime violence supported only by the thin veneer of a story thread. Not so. Fight scenes, believe it or not, are relatively few and far between, and when they show up they are often short and always effective. They serve to demonstrate one of two things: either that Kirito and Asuna are badasses, or that they are mortal and not nearly as powerful as they – and you – think. Every single fight scene illustrated this concisely and effectively, and I never got tired of watching the combat.

But what I liked even more – indeed, what I always enjoy more in everything I read/watch/play – were the quieter, more thoughtful parts. What would you do if you were trapped in the perfect fantasy world? Would you want to leave? Would it really matter if you died doing what you’ve dreamed of doing all your life? Online romance always comes under intense scrutiny and derision – but what if you knew exactly what your partner looked like? What if, for all intents and purposes, the computerized image you were seeing was, in fact, real? If you could touch them, smell them, taste them, kiss them, even make love to them as you could in the real world, would they – and therefore your romance – be any less real than one that took place outside of the game? Likewise, if an AI exhibits all of the emotions of a real person – love, longing, sadness, joy – is it not, in fact, a real person? It is said that who you are when you’re alone is who you really are; it is arguable that being a faceless Anonymous on the internet is the ultimate embodiment of this truth. So if you are a horrible, cruel person in a game – a place where there are no penalties for being a horrible, cruel person – what does that make you in reality? And can video games, as their detractors would have you believe, actually train you into a killing machine in reality? (I’ll answer that last one: no.)

All of these questions and themes show up in SAO, and believe it or not the show has some very profound truths to say on these subjects. And that, dear readers, is ultimately why I liked the show so much: it had a message, and that message was wonderful. Computers are a huge part of our society now, and they’re not going anywhere. Escapism has ever been important for humans. Who, after all, wants to go through the drudgery of everyday life, with all the sadness and disappointment that comes with it, without the ability to run away every once in awhile? That’s exactly the reason I love fantasy so much. And for my generation, video games have become the ultimate escapism: I can go anywhere and do anything I want. I can be a Viking dragon-slayer, I can fly a spaceship to the edge of the known universe and beyond, I can wield magical powers that we can only dream of, and I can be the hero of my own story. People will love me, and I will be noticed. I will get the girl of my dreams. I will save the world – maybe even the universe. And in a virtual reality world, I can do all of these things and it will be real.

So that, ultimately, was what SAO was about for me: blurring the line between escapism and reality. And then, the most important question of all: even if you can stay in that world forever, should you? It’s one that I, honestly, am still struggling with. In the show the players have very real motives for getting out of the game, not the least of which is the fact that in the real world they are all in hospitals on life support, their bodies slowly wasting away. But Kirito, Asuna, and the extensive supporting cast raise a very valid question: does it matter? In SAO, despite being trapped in what initially was a world of nightmares, people adapted and settled down. By the end of the game, most of the player base had accepted that they were going to be trapped in the fantasy world of Sword Art Online forever, and you know what? They didn’t care. A lot of them had found peace and happiness that didn’t exist in for them in the real world, and many didn’t feel like going back. For me, that was beautiful.

Technicallythe show was also dazzling. The art was top-notch, the animation was some of the best I’ve seen this side of the Rebuild of Evangelion, and the voice acting was definitely the best I’ve seen in an anime. In fact, a special nod goes out to the voice actors and actresses here, because that is the one thing that always seems to take me out of a Japanese film. I don’t speak Japanese, see, and you lose some of the effect when you have to read the subtitles, so I tend to watch them in English if the option is available. But there’s a problem with dubbing English speakers over characters drawn for Japanese speakers – Japanese is a much longer language, and where it would take five seconds to say something in English, in Japanese, it often takes ten. This leads to awkward pauses and inflections in dub work, and it bugs the living crap out of me. But here, they have largely avoided it. Well done, ladies and gentlemen. Well done indeed.

Something else I really enjoyed was the tremendous amount of detail the artists put into background environments, which often get left by the wayside in favor of dull, easy-to-draw scenery. A lot of time was spent on making each of the game’s levels (the ones we see, anyway) look unique and interesting, and of special note was an entire world covered in flowers. Hats off to the animators.

Not everything was great, though. There were a few things that made me cock my head in confusion, or just had me rolling my eyes. Japan’s culture is very different from America’s, and that, I think, is the source of most of the things I don’t like in anime and manga. Some of that was present here, but thankfully not a great deal.

For example, there was the strangely ever-present romantic tension between an obviously pre-pubescent girl and a much older male. We had some gender silliness that marred Asuna from time to time, and in an otherwise very well-done character these moments were maddeningly jarring. Why, for instance, is a complete and ultimate badass able to kick the crap out of a guy one second, only to have him defeat her with no effort in the next? It serves only as a vehicle to let Kirito come in and save the day, and that scene in particular bothered me. There was also the inclusion of the Byronic hero in Kirito, which is an archetype that Japan seems to be very fond of; and on that note, Kirito was – again, a Japanese favorite – clueless when it came to the sexual aspects of his Byronic-ness. Every girl he meets is falling all over him, and he is sometimes so frustratingly out of touch with reality that I found myself wanting to beat him to death – even with Asuna, even after their relationship has been strongly established, and that, for me, was unforgivable.

But all that aside, the first half of the show was magnificent. I haven’t enjoyed an anime that much since the last time I watched a Hayao Miyazaki film, and for that SAO‘s writers are to be commended.

Final score (Part 1): 9.5/10

Part 2 to come soon.