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!

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