WARNING: DO TO THE NATURE OF THIS POST BE WARNED THAT IT CONTAINS SPOILERS TO BOTH THE ANIME ADAPTATION AND LIGHT NOVEL SERIES OF SWORD ART ONLINE. SINCE THERE ARE SO MANY SECTIONS OF THE POST THAT CONTAIN SPOILERS I AM NOT GOING TO MARK EACH ONE. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
My first impression of the novel is that the pacing is much more radical in the beginning than the anime. The anime (episodes 1-7 at the moment) is actually based off of volume two of the light novel series which is focused on some extra side stories and not the main focus of the story. What the first novel covers is everything from first entering Sword Art Online to the last boss battle. The first thing that stuck out to me was the pacing of the first couple of chapters. After leaving Klien in the first chapter, the story flies through everything you have seen in the anime so far to a point where Kirito and Asuna are quite close in their relationship. With some flashbacks, within the first two chapters you have the understanding that Asuna likes Kirito while Kirito is a little aloof with his feelings. So essentially it is impossible to compare this to the anime adaptation so far. I do like however how things play out between the two characters. The main thing going on this early on is the developing romance between the two and how they deal with carrying it out. There are many parts where Kirito must prove his worth in order to have the right to be around Asuna. Asuna's position in her guild also plays a huge roll in how the story progresses.Towards the end of the first volume we see who the real threat is and how Kirito deals with the enemy. By the end of the volume, we seem to get a sort of rushed finish because (not trying to spoil anything) the final boss reveals himself on the 75th floor instead of the 100th. The encounter does not take very long and it just feels as if I got cheated out of another couple of chapters of story. The twist however I was not expecting and thought was pretty clever. The volume ends with everyone supposedly being released from the game.
Volume two as I explained are just side stories that take place in Sword Art Online.
Volume three and four consist of Kirito fighting his way through a new game, ALfheim Online which unlike Sword Art Online is more about achieving a more simple goal rather than trying to reach a one hundred level area. After the events of Sword Art Online had passed, it is discovered that 300 people including Asuna never woke up from the game and have been trapped inside a new game, ALO. Kirito learns this and enters the game in hopes of rescuing his beloved Asuna.
Unlike in the first volume, the pace of this story is much more contained and steady. There are no real huge leaps in time; you see everything from Kirito logging in for the first time all the way up to him seeing Asuna wake up in her hospital bed. The characters include his sister (errr cousin?), friend from school, and Yui who is a character in one of the side stories of SAO (is actually an AI program). The world of ALO is much different in the sense that there is no level for each character and that each race has the ability to fly. The main purpose of the game is to climb to the top of a tree and meet the king who will do certain things. The overall feel of this game and the two volumes are still exciting and full of tension but in my honest opinion not even close to the level of the first volume (SAO). Where as SAO was a quest to free everyone and reach the top, ALO's purpose is to rescue a damsel in distress. It actually reminded me of A Princess of Mars (Disney's movie John Carter is a crude and poorly done adaptation of A Princess of Mars) because it seems to follow the book to a T. Hero drops into a world he does not understand, is taken in by a group of people that seem bizarre, goes on a quest to save a princess, enlists the help of said bizarre people, saves princess, happy ending. While the story seems a little on the predictable side, it is still an exciting story to behold. Basically after logging in for the first time he runs into Lyfa who is actually his sister (cousin) in real life. One way or another she helps him travel to the tree that Asuna is locked up in. He goes in, saves her, and defeats the mean ol' bad guy both in game and in real life. The story is mostly ehhh at best this time around but how it progresses and folds out is pretty entertaining.
Volume 5 marks the start of a new game that Kirito finds his way into called Gun Gale Online (GGO). I have just started reading this volume so an up to date post will reveal my thoughts of it.
Overall the Light Novel series in my honest opinion blows the anime out of the water. Even though the novels have very limited illustrations, I feel more attached to the characters and more connected with what is going on than with the anime. While the anime is still very enjoyable due to great animation, sound, and fight scenes, I just do not see how it will live up to its great source material. If you have the time to sit down and read an amazing story, I strongly encourage you take this up on your reading list. You can find it here translated into many different languages. By far one of the best forms of literature I have read to date.