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A dark, fast-paced take on the superhero genre

By A. B. Boekelheide, author of Fishbowl

Sep 19, 2019: Graven is an engaging story that manages to be fast-paced without ever feeling rushed or confusing. Although I have yet to finish the story, the characters I’ve been introduced so far are very well-developed even with the quick pace.

The story’s intriguing premise makes it engaging from the first chapter, and the lore is interesting and very well thought out. I definitely recommend readers check out the lore chapters.

First person rotating POVs have a tendency to feel disorienting if handled poorly, but Graven handles this very well. The changing viewpoints never feel confusing; the switches between characters feel smooth, seamless, and natural.

There are a few grammatical and spelling errors sprinkled throughout the story, but not enough to noticeably detract or distract from it. Despite the minor issues, the grammar is good overall.

Graven is a very well-done story, and I recommend it to anyone who enjoys superhero stories or dark, gritty post-apocalyptic settings.

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A Tale of Astounding Archetypes and Commendable Concision

By ElliottThomasStaude, author of Mourners, Abednego, Persistence

Aug 18, 2019: There is no such thing as a perfect story in this world, for a cavalcade of reasons. Unfortunately, some tales have to compete in a market suffering genre saturation, and Graven – being an outwardly superhero-centered tale – has a lot of at least nominal competition. However, it rises into notability as a very focused work which wants to tell a story about self-evolution, and which seems to lie on the very edge of “precisely enough to tell a tale and no more.” There have been perhaps better stories told in history, but this one ought to be read by virtually anybody hoping to take up writing themselves. It’s a curious yarn: dashes of mystery, a tone and subject between a heist film and a war story, a fantasy tilt, a tremendous amount of violence, some fairly interpretive gender-political discussion, and a take on the apocalypse that doesn’t boil down to zombies or EMPs or EMP zombies, and it’s well worth examining.

As far as flaws go, Graven’s literary status is imperfect but very clearly refined and intentional. Typographic errors, yes, but these are times when the scalpel slips, not when the hand behind it is misguided – occasional omissions of punctuation and other minor issues primarily, but an infrequent homophone substitution or two as well (a la “their” or “there” and so forth). In addition, there are both moments which feel like the author is brushing over one or two things for expedience and which feel slightly disappointing for not going into greater depth . . . but we’ll come back to that momentarily. Just note that this is a story you’ll more probably dislike for what it does than how it does it, because its flaws are not much more than sometimes distracting marks of its creator’s humanity.

Now, Graven is ABOUT characters, and specifically the common theme of man-versus-self. It asks the fairly standard-in-superhero-works question, “How are you going to change the world?” It asks this question in a whole slew of ways. For example, the conceit of Graven’s story is the appearance of numerous ethereal architectural features all over the world, and when you walk into one, either you return after some apparently arbitrary amount of time – armed with variably utilizable superpowers – or you never emerge. Will you take the risk of becoming a statistic? Will you be able to be content if you come back with the ability to, say take a few extra punches and drink unlimited quantities of liquid? On the other hand, supposing that you look back on the many sins of times past, would your inclination be to see betterment of everyone else, or just yourself? Would you even want to see that opportunity extended? And supposing that you have a new and improved lease on life: what weights would you give the valuation of others’ lives versus the improvement of quality-of-life? Graven runs the spectrum of these more-frequently encountered, and many less-frequently encountered, versions of such questions. Agency and opportunity are the twin cores of this work and it rocks them to all sorts of angles for a better view. It’s all about implementing changes for its cast, to the extent that of the superhuman members of that cast, only a tiny portion are even addressed by their birth names; the past itself becomes less of a tether and more a measuring stick.

Now, this is also a work whose presentation eschews nearly anything remotely considered extra. This in fact was, for me, both a wonderful example of supreme focus and a bit of a downer at times. It is quite rare to find a single word whose omission wouldn’t lessen the strength of its respective sentence, or a chapter that would remain just as functionally serviceable with any of its sentences removed. No; if you want to see a machine working with what it needs and no more, Graven is a textbook-worthy paragon. A great deal is concerned with the immediately occurring events of each respective cast member, and there’s little enough time to worry about unnecessary verbiage when the characters are regularly fighting for their lives. This has the added effect of tossing a great deal into the realm of material that the reader must mentally supply, by dint (for example) of not telling them much of anything about the dietary habits of extremely hardy superhumans, or leaving most of the new age’s utilitarian infrastructure an unstated and unexplored wilderness. The eloquent minimalism works to keep things hyper-focused, and reflects a dedication to cutting out the chaff which will invariably improve the successor to this work. However, this is a world which I on multiple occasions thought would be improved by more expansive exposition. It would have been nice to see things like debates among various governments about whether and how to draw up new articles of human rights for the superpowered. Instead, we get a very tightly concentrated journey that focuses on a band of misfits, and very little extraneous time spent idling.

In short, Graven is a cape-wearing motor vehicle stripped down to the bare essentials of what its storytelling actually requires. This is good in most ways, a little overly frugal in others. At its heart is the principle of characters changing their lives toward the ideals each possesses of “betterment.” Two of the maypoles of good storytelling united in one unassuming package. If there is ever to be a class on writing web fiction and the stalwart icons embodying how to do it right, then despite a few blemishes I’d say this one needs to be considered, and considered long and hard. Is it formulaic? Perhaps a bit, but in the same sense that making silver nitrate is supposed to be formulaic – if you try something differently from this example, it might still work, but it might also produce compounds you want nowhere near your face.

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Strictly 4 My P.A.R.A.H.U.M.A.N.Z…

By nippoten, author of Entirely Presenting You

Jun 15, 2019: Wildbow is in a unique spot in the web fiction world. Three very long, very popular serials in his oeuvre, now over a million words into the sequel of the work that first put him on. All Eyez on Him.

But the fact remains, we are now over a million words into Ward. Is the length justified, or does it crumble under its own word count? The short answer is we are reading literary rubble.

The foundation is simply not there. Take the first sentence of Daybreak 1.1, how it clunks and tumbles, syllables crashing. Read it out loud, it falls apart and the gears drool out of your mouth, breaking teeth along the way.

This is what the rest of the serial builds upon. Try to find anything within that reads more smooth, you will be bereft. Prosework was never a strongpoint or consideration for Wildbow’s serials, understandably amateurish in early-Worm, effortless by Pact, and now we have looped back to the grind, longer and longer paragraphs that read in fits and starts, yet somehow written with an experienced hand. Ward is a mess, but only a mess a good writer can write.

There is something to be said about brevity. GZA put it aptly, ‘half short and twice strong.’ There’s a reason why Pact remains Wildbow’s most engaging read. Compare Pact’s first sentence, how it captures the theming and tone of the work in less words than Ward’s ever could.

Ward drags. It drags hard and when anything drags hard it burns and hurts. Events and arcs ooze into one another, flowing like molasses. We spend a better part of an arc playing capture the flag. We spend the length of several novellas of therapy sessions. Paint dries as the cast gathers and waits for story to take them away and have them do something. And that story does come, though in fits and starts, in lateral movements rather than anything directly straightforward and driven.

Hear them now. ‘Ward is a character piece, a character study.’ Perhaps this holds water, but it’s more akin to filling a bowl that is cracked and with holes. You have to keep pouring water – constant updates leading to wordbloat – in order to maintain anything of substance. What happens when the stream stops? What will you be left with?

What are the characters we have to study? Victoria is not interesting. Interesting things have happened to her in Worm and interesting things will happen to her in Ward, but this does not justify over a million words in a beige headspace. Her black and white view in a grey world can be interesting if it is ever at all challenged or recognized or commented toward any real or meaningful development but it is not. The Third Man, Ward is not. Compare Victoria now to the beginning of Daybreak. Certainly her character has been through and made some changes, but it certainly does not read as such. She also has shit taste in fashion.

The characters that surround her, Breakthrough, tend to be more interesting, this rule mostly applying Ashley and Kenzie, both having the best interludes the serial has to offer. Others outside of these padded walls that make up the team that aren’t from Worm have a tendency to blur and fade into the black that is the webpage Ward’s text exists on.

Dialogue was never a strength of Wildbow’s either, but the theme of therapy and healing, while a noble thing to write about, seems to go out of its way to pull out any fangs and smooth out any other edges for when Ward’s characters speak. The members of Breakthrough are the biggest sinners. They talk around issues, they coddle, they are actively aware that they avoid any and all conflict. This does not make for interesting dialogue or interesting dynamics, outside of the few bits of comedy that land or the very many bits of shipper fuel for the Worm-fanatic. The words have no bounce or rhythm, they do not have to sound like Elmore Leonard characters but at least Elmore Leonard was a person, these characters should sound like people. If robotic dialogue was a problem in Worm that solved itself by Pact, Ward brings that issue back, painfully yet purposefully.

This is what it means for Ward to be a mess, a mess only a good writer can write. Ward is the sum of enough bad ideas realized with a skilled hand. Of course the dialogue is stilted, of course the pacing is the way it is, any reader can see the design, the conviction in which Wildbow set these things up. But then it should come as no surprise that the result is the least engaging read Wildbow has put to webpage.

The only way, then, to catch the hook that Ward is hanging out carelessly in the wind is to jump at it deliberately, to want to be hooked. To be the Worm-fanatic, the Worm-obsessed, who reads not the craft of the text itself, but promise that’s written between the lines. The promise of more powers, the promise of flashy but nearly impossible to parse action, the promise of shopping trips. Ward is, more than anything else, an engine, an engine that fuels ships and pumps content into holes in wiki pages. Ward is Drake’s More Life, a playlist, where the quantity of content is greater than the quality of the overall project. Pick and choose your favorite parts and discard the rest.

Truly, the main supervillain is not Teacher, or the Fallen, or the machine army that literally waits at the horizons, threat in name only affecting nothing of the current or larger plot, the main villain is the very nature of serialization and writing to immediate audience reception. They reward wordbloat, more sprawl, because the more words, the more to craft theories with. This helped build Worm and Wildbow, but now it proves to be Ward’s undoing, authorship now locked in an endless feedback loop that prioritizes certain things and not others.

Take a shot every time Sveta moves to Victoria’s arm and ‘gives it a squeeze,’ every time Kenzie ‘smiles’ post-Interlude 7.x. The true Worm-fanatic will indulge in drunken excess. The remaining readers will grow quickly nauseous.

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