30 August, 2021

Review: Worth the Candle

Worth the CandleWorth the Candle by cthulhuraejepsen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Writing reviews can be quite difficult. I serve three masters: the friend or stranger looking up this review on GoodReads to see if they should read this massive book; the googler who finds this entry on my blog because they want to read more about this great book that they've just finished; and future me, who wants to remember and keep track of some of the better books that present/past me reads.

So, in the spirit of the metafictional story Worth the Candle, I'll take each of these in order.

Alexander Wales' epic is both the greatest Isekai novel and the greatest LitRPG novel I have ever read. Juniper is rudely transported in media res from school to a strange world of magic and soft fantasy in the opening lines, and his subsequent adventures in the plane of Aerb plays out like a tabletop role-playing game, complete with HP, skills, and leveling up. Juniper is young, but has a passing understanding of rational-adjacent tropes, mostly because his childhood friend was a fan of learning about rationality online (as much as a teenager could). This means that the narrator, Juniper, is able to talk lightly about rationality using rationality language, even when it's clear that it's just a teenage-level understanding of the tropes. This results in a highly exciting adventure with believably flawed characters who try to do their best in the situation they find themselves in. The novel works at the level of the action, at the level of the narration, and at the metafictional level of the author, Alexander Wales, who writes in such a way that we get to see glimpses of what seem to be highly creative nonfictional elements behind the structure of the text.

Worth the Candle is long — very long — but if you're comfortable with reading a sprawling epic that weaves LitRPG with Isekai with metafiction all in the genre of Rational Fiction, then I highly recommend that you read this book.

However, despite my five star rating, I do have several complaints about the book. (It would be hard not to, given its epic length.) What follows from here are spoilers, so if you haven't read Worth the Candle yet, go do that first.

Jesus Christ, Wales. I don't know how much of the text came from working out your personal issues, but Gods damn I hope it helped to write through this story. It's unclear just how much the Dungeon Master in the story should be identified with Wales the author (do you really have a Dice Girls shirt?), but, to the extent that this is played straight, I honestly hope writing this book has been therapeutic.

I get that everyone has their own sex hangups. Maybe it's difficult for me to relate because I'm asexual, but the way that the DM kept pushing things made me feel uncomfortable. Yet this is on purpose; canonically, the author himself seems to be uncomfortable with his own desires of what to put on paper here, which makes for an extremely interesting expression of cognitive dissonance that we can see enacted diegetically.

What I liked most (and what I think the author himself may have liked most) was the setting. Aerb is such a mismatch of all kinds of weird rpg tropes, but it honestly feels like everything ties together well. We read about dangled threads early on which, when later explored, appear to fit in the world properly. Not seamlessly, of course, but that's on purpose: Aerb itself is not seamless, which is itself a plot point. I am disappointed that more of the threads weren't explored, but I wonder if here, too, that is intended: that these aspects only get fleshed out if the text needs them to be, yet ensures that they retain continuity with the whole nevertheless. This says something important, I think, about the ending: that Juniper will not actually get to go on. The life breathed into Juniper's existence, in the end, only happens when we (Thargox?) read it. This is not what the DM claims. It's unclear to me if the intended reading by the author is that the DM is honest here, or if we are supposed to notice that point of view does really matter. (I think it's the latter, but there's additional evidence of the former: the multiple Dahlia copies that we never see, the offscreen fleshsmith fight, and the timeskip post-Fel Seed all point to the diegetic characters experiencing events not in the POV.)

The ending feels rushed. A four year work like this must be hard on the author; I'm sure burnout was a real threat. But when so many threads started getting dropped, I at first blamed the author. Later, I saw that it was partially justified in-story, but even later that started to feel like lampshading to me. Yes, it made sense to skip things, and there were plot-relevant reasons for doing so, but also this is a fig leaf, created so that the author could rush through parts that (IMO) did not deserve to be rushed through.

If I were Wales' editor, there are several parts I would point out as needing additional attention. Some are minor, like both devil Fenn and Grakhuil keeping an arrow displayed in their home. Why the unnecessary callback here? It seems like it is because the weaker version occurred first, then the author decided not to stray from using the stronger version later since it made sense that that's what Fenn would do. If so, then this is a pure drawback of writing serial fiction, and should ideally be fixed. And some issues are major, like deviating from established point of view rules for no good reason. The vast majority of the story is told from Juniper's POV, even to the point where the author himself laments from not being able to write from Larkspur's POV, making him a weaker villain. When we occasionally do get the POV of non-Juniper characters, it always seems to be in the form of a letter than Juniper reads, or a narrator's explicit retelling from after the fact. And yet, at one point, we start to see several scenes (and chapters) from someone other than Juniper, and it's never explained why. Did the author forget? Was it a mistake that wasn't fixed because the author is committed to serial writing? Or perhaps was this another piece of evidence aimed at showing the ending would be as the DM claimed it would be?

I enjoyed the story immensely, even if I did think the harem concept was cringey. I think the author thinks it is cringey, too, which is why I think I'm okay with it. I really liked the exploration of unexpected rape; it felt real to the characters, even if it meant that Bethel got relegated to the background where we couldn't see her progress as much as I would have liked. But most of all I enjoyed the weird combination of explained and unexplained that caused me to tag this book on GoodReads as both hard fantasy and soft fantasy. Alexander Wales is an awesome worldbuilder, just like the DM, even more than he is an awesome narrator, just like the diegetic narrator. Now if only he were willing to write non-serially so we could get some of these amazing texts edited!

View all my reviews

09 August, 2021

Katherine Hess

Katherine and Jasper.
Using online profiles makes meeting people so much easier. By the time of our first conversation, I already knew she was smart and funny. But it wasn't until we actually spoke that I realized the extent of her wit. She had this uncanny ability to connect disparate ideas in just such a way to make a joke or observation that was entirely new to me, and I loved it. Katherine very quickly became one of the most enjoyable friends I've ever had the pleasure of spending time around.

Romance, on the other hand, was not something that I was looking for at the time. I had only just arrived in the local area the day before, and I really just wanted to get situated first before looking for anything romantic. But, being polyamorous, I've always felt open to friendships becoming something more, and meeting a new partner has never been a bar to my meeting others, so it wasn't too much of a stretch when, after meeting Katherine a few times, I realized that I didn't just want the friendship.

At the Kennedy Center.
One aspect of Katherine that cannot be missed when you meet her in person is her size. Katherine is fat, not in the colloquial sense where thin people complain about getting 'fat', but in the sense of actually being big. She is the largest human friend I've ever made, and this life condition of hers is one that affects her public and social life considerably. While her size is not nearly the most significant part of her, it is definitely something that most people who meet her will notice first. In terms of a disability, it affects much of how she has to interact in this world, from what kind of restaurant tables she can sit at to how many plane seats she has to purchase in order to fly to a different city. But despite the clear prejudice against size in our culture, she's nonetheless been able to thrive due to her intelligence and humor, which makes her stand out considerably amongst her peers in the teaching profession.

As a friend, she was an obvious pick. Anyone who can overcome such adversity and find success despite it is definitely someone that any of us should hope for in a friend. But romance was different for me. Back then, I did not yet come to love her as I do now. I gave her the chance to win my heart, and she subsequently did, but I wonder: was it because I was polyamorous? Was the fact that entering a relationship never blocks the possibility of entering into others a key consideration to why I opened up and pursued a romantic relationship with Katherine in the way that I did? Could it be that, had I not been poly, I would have not been open to romance with her merely because of her size?

It seems a silly thought today. Today, I know her. I love her. She is so very amazing that to think something as silly as her size might have been the obstacle to me getting the chance to be with her is distasteful in the extreme. But, at the time, there was not yet the love that I feel now. Back then, I had not yet gained the knowledge of her that I have today: her personality, her charm... Back then, I only knew that she was well read because she would make witty references that I would catch; I only knew she was quick thinking because every topic we talked about would be highlighted with a joke or pun made at just the right moment. I enjoyed her company, and even if I had not been poly, that would have remained true. But had I not been poly, would I have remained open to romance with Katherine? I ask myself because I do not know. It is unsettling to think so. How lucky I am, then, that I did not think of relationships in terms of zero sum at the time. How lucky I was to think that no single partner has to be everything to me.

Thankfully, I did pursue her romantically, and I cannot stress how much this changed my life. Katherine is amazing. She is the closest friend I've ever had. She complements me perfectly: she's strong in the arts and in reading people, the two fields where I'm weakest, and yet she is still highly competent in the fields I'm strongest in: math and logic. She is an artist, but went to a liberal arts school and focused more on being a polymath than in learning to know any one field. She's read more books than I have, and that's quite a feat. She's a social wizard; she has to be, I suppose, in order to make up for the social prejudice against people of her size. She's a great teacher, but, more importantly to her career, she's an excellent leader of teachers. Winning high school art teacher of the year in the county and then the state was impressive enough, but following it up with the highest state award given to any art teacher here, the 2020 Maryland Art Educator of the Year, was enough to really solidify just how much she does to help others in her profession. She's also an amazing artist in her own right, having displayed art across five states, winning several awards for pieces both big and small.

My love, Katherine.
I cannot stress just how lucky I am to have found Katherine. My prior relationships pale in comparison to the things she's brought to the table in terms of romance, friendship, and deep support. On at least one occasion, she has already saved my life; I honestly believe that I counterfactually would have died had she not been there to know what to do. She's also helped to financially support me when I needed it most; after I left my last high-earning (to me) part-time for-profit job at $94/hour, I decided to look for the perfect nonprofit job opportunity before jumping into another for-profit position. This process took many, many months; had I just had my own savings to work from, I think I would have caved and taken a job elsewhere. But instead, Katherine supported me enough to allow me to start my own new effective altruism charity. Any utility our society gains in the future from this work would not have happened if not for Katherine. Most importantly, though, Katherine has supported me emotionally: she's comforted me at my lowest points; she's helped me soar during my highest points; she's cheered for me whenever I've succeeded and helped pick me up each time I've failed. She gives the most thoughtful gifts. She's always up for a video or board game. She's been the best partner I could ever have imagined that I would ever have, and she's accepted me entirely into her life just as deeply as I have accepted her into mine.

I could not be happier with Katherine as my partner. <3