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Simply the best web serial

By ConanLe, member

Mar 14, 2018: I don’t normally enjoy stories about superheroes. The big problem with most of them is that I have an incredibly difficult time suspending my disbelief. Why does Superman not use use super speed to win most of his fights instantly? Why is the Joker not either put away somewhere more secure than Gotham City’s jail or just executed for his numerous federal crimes? Why do heroes and villains alike insist on using their powers in a way to make the story more exciting instead of in a way to further their objectives more efficiently?

That’s really the heart of the matter. Superheroes gain and lose abilities at the whim of the author. Most superhero stories run on plot-induced stupidity.

Worm subverts this, and it subverts this hard.

So, right away, it has something going for it. It’s a superhero story you can read without cringing every time someone says or does something. Its characters act reasonably, and at no point in time does the reader get the impression that the world is a playground for the protagonist, with other characters merely inserted to fulfill roles in the protagonist’s Hero’s Journey.

The world of Worm is populated by real, three-dimensional people. Most of the characters have well-developed personalities and motivations, and they do not put all of that on hold whenever they are, so to speak, offstage.

We do spend more time in the protagonist’s head than in anyone else’s, of course, but that’s okay, because Taylor Hebert is a fantastic protagonist. She begins the story as a high school kid suffering the slings and arrows of a slightly worse than average high school life, her problems mundane but still hard to endure. However, Taylor has a secret that keeps her sane. Like many people over the past few decades, she has, for reasons unknown, manifested a super power. Her particular power is the ability to control all bugs within a certain radius.

Taylor copes with bullying and other drama by going on on the streets to fight crime a la Batman.

Oh, but that is just the beginning.

The takes rise, the scope of the story expands, and Taylor herself grows and changes in a believable way as she reacts to the crazy world around her and tries to find her place in everything. We follow her thought process, yet we see enough of the rest of the world to avoid falling into the trap of believing everything the narrator says. Taylor is far from omniscient, and she isn’t even always fully honest with the reader or even with herself. Who would be, in her situation? Her believable fallibility makes her more human and less an author mouthpiece or boring reader surrogate.

Lest the we forget that the world is populated by others with thought processes just as rich as Taylor’s, we get at least one "interlude" chapter somewhere in each story arc, usually at the end. The interludes each adopt the perspective of a new, temporary narrator, fleshing out an ally or an antagonist or someone who fits squarely into neither category, providing details that shed light on new corners of the world, occasionally shocking the reader with new twists on events previously only seen from Taylor’s perspective, or adding a layer of irony to future chapters through providing information that Taylor doesn’t know. These interludes aren’t just there for technical purposes, though; most of them function as sort of half-self-contained short stories that are a pleasure to read completely aside from how they serve the main narrative. Many of the most memorable chapters in Worm are interludes.

Fortunately, though, these short stories manage to avoid the disease that afflicts many (most?) short stories elsewhere. They manage not to let their form shape their content. That is, they aren’t the sort of self-aware short story that knows it needs to wrap things up in a few thousand words and then put a nice moral on things. That would become trite after a while, and Worm stays earnest throughout.

The larger narrative, too, manages to avoid falling into the trap of letting everything happen for Taylor’s benefit. She plays an important role in what happens, but the world does not center around her. Too many fantasy or sci-fi stories are set up as a series of challenges for the protagonist to overcome, usually through having some sort of personal revelation, and getting through the personal crisis saves the world. Too many other stories wear their subversion of that trope on their sleeves, which is just another way of being driven by it, if in the other direction. Worm avoids both of these issues.

You’ll love Taylor by the end, but there’s a good chance she won’t be your favorite character. Worm has an extremely large cast, with many of the supporting characters being quite memorable. It really does help that the majority of the characters with super powers go by "cape" names, which tend to be easy to remember.

Most of the best characters will get at least a little time in the spotlight, and nearly all of them get the same sort of realistic treatment Taylor gets, with little to no authorial coddling and no free passes for making bad decisions. Protagonists and antagonists alike face consequences for everything they do. No choices are cheap. No one gets by on luck.

All of this says very little about the actual plot, and there’s a reason for that. I don’t want to spoil much. Let it be enough to say that it’s a creative take on things, it’s extremely exciting, the pacing is at times furious, and it’s easy to lose sleep because you’re having trouble putting the book down. The plot is well-designed, and the mechanics of the world hold up to a reasonable amount of scrutiny, at least when you adjust for the fact that you’re still reading a story about superheroes, and many of the typical superhero plot holes are filled in with jargon instead of hand waving.

An example of that last bit both illustrates part of what makes Worm great and a lot of what makes other superhero stories less so. In Worm, powers are limited by something called the "Manton Effect," which dictates what sort of targets are fair for the powers to operate on. Someone whose power is to start fires can’t simply say, "Okay, I’m setting my enemy’s head on fire now." Someone who can create force fields can’t bisect her opponent with a force field. People use their powers creatively, but very few characters get powers that can be abused in such a direct way.

Now, when I write that, it sounds as though I’m contradicting myself. I made a big point of saying that the story itself doesn’t bend to genre conventions or narrative form. But, that’s still the case. There’s a reasonable explanation for these limits on powers that at least goes a little beyond admitting it’s for the sake of the narrative, and at least the explanation is largely mechanical instead of relying on characters being dumb in key moments. Having a world built up as a place ripe for an interesting story is a bit more interesting than having characters who forget themselves when they happen to be dealing with the protagonist, and Worm avoids the latter in favor of the former.

Reviews are supposed to mention the negatives as well as the positives, so I have to point out that this is the first major work by the author, so the quality of the writing in the early chapters can be a bit rough. The fights are extremely intense and can be exhausting to read. There are typos here and there, though anyone who reads a lot of web fiction has to expect that. The worst thing I can say about the story is that some of the events about 75% of the way through lose momentum, and the stakes seem disappointingly low for a stretch, but things pick up again eventually.

It’s also worth mentioning that I merely thought the story was really good up until Arc 8, at which point I changed my mind and decided it was excellent. A lot of people share that view.

This is the gold standard for web fiction. Do yourself a favor and read it.

2 of 6 members found this review helpful.
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Sci-Fi at High Speed

By McQueenSerialFantasy, author of Exiles

Mar 8, 2018: It’s evident from the very beginning of the story that the author has a crystal clear picture of the world that the characters inhabit. The setting is original and well-designed, but what struck me the most was its breadth. The author invests a lot of time framing out the cultural patterns of the world: its technology, its criminal elements, its social order, and its government. The result is a rich, tech-focused world that resonates well with the sci-fi bent of the narrative.

Like the world, the characters are similarly well-defined, especially in the person of the protagonist, whose cybernetic body and technological leanings seem to mirror the core themes of the world at large. His personality is dour and socially distant, which is often difficult to portray without the character simply coming across as a malcontent. The author avoids this, and portrays a powerful hero suffering under the weight of his goals and the aspects of society with which he has difficulty interacting. A good job there.

Where the story suffers is in its presentation. While the characters feel real and the world feels immersive, the story comes at you with disorienting speed. Narrative elements and action sequences arrive, are dealt with, and depart so quickly that the reader is left scrambling to assimilate all the data, and the pace leaves little time for tension to arise, build, climax, and cool out. It also doesn’t leave much time for detailed description, foreshadowing, and the gradual introduction of new plot elements. The reader is left having to take the story at face value. I suppose one can get away with this in a genre where the reader can draw upon existing convention to fill in the gaps, but I found myself wishing more than once that the story would slow down and flesh itself out.

A final interesting note: the story is written in the first-person present tense, which is unusual, but contributes to the story’s stream-of-consciousness feel. The reader is in the moment inside the head of the protagonist, which can sometimes be jarring, but I think it’s also the reason the personality of the hero came through so well.

All in all, a good read.

5 of 5 members found this review helpful.
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Solid Story, Fantastic Potential

By Rhodeworks, author of Not All Heroes

Feb 13, 2018: Worm is an odd story. It is one I enjoyed reading the first time vastly more than I enjoyed reading the second.

On one hand, Wildbow has crafted what might be my favorite superhero world. It is a world that combines just about every trope from superhero genre fiction into a consistent whole. It’s a world that crafts plausible reasons as to why people put on costumes and fight each other. It’s a story that expands from the street level to the cosmic level without feeling out of place. It’s a world with a whole lot of neat characters in it.

Unfortunately, the protagonist is not one of those neat characters.

Taylor Hebert is a character who I’m still not sure whether we’re supposed to watch with reserved detachment, or be a character we’re supposed to emphasise with and root for. But either way, she isn’t particularly interesting past the first major arc. Eventually, you stop wondering whether Taylor will win and start speculating how.

Ultimately, many of the supporting cast members are simply more interesting. Armsmaster, Taylor’s initial nemesis, for example, is a standout character.

Worm is a story that lurches from crisis to crisis, never slowing down. It’s a story that isn’t particularly interested in examining the implications of superheroes in the world, nor is it concerned with picking apart the mentality someone like Taylor. The story has a rough anti-authority bent that is, again, unsure if the world is just that bad or Taylor’s perceptions are just that warped.

Worm is also a very long story. Unfortunately, there are many parts of Worm that could be trimmed down without harming plot or character development. There are chapters that could be totally excised without harm. This is a rough criterion as the strengths of a serial are that it doesn’t necessarily need to work like a novel.

Worm is at its strongest up until the end of the Leviathan arc. What flaws the story has, only really begin to show up after that. Unfortunately, they become more numerous as the story goes on, including a much maligned ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ timeskip. By the time the story has broadened in scope to be fighting cloned armies and other beings for the fate of the Multiverse, Worm has lost what drew me to it in the first place—the street-level cape shenanigans.

On a technical level, it is much the same. Worm explodes in length the longer it goes on. The initial chapters might be shorter and less well-constructed on a technical level (the prose is rough in parts) but they are much easier to follow and, in a way, neater. As the story goes on, chapters seem to increase in length because they had to be long. Because of this, the story becomes hard to follow. Not because it is a particularly complex or dense story, but because it uses many words when few would suffice.

What is frustrating about the verbosity Wildbow employs at points is that certain things, such as character descriptors, are mentioned once and then never touched on again. There are other times where, despite all the words and the length, points in the text are maddeningly imprecise or unclear. And yet other times where the writing feels like a mechanical description of a storyboard.

Wildbow has said that there are plans to edit Worm and publish it conventionally. I hope this happens. I feel the Worm that goes through that process will emerge a much stronger story with a firmer idea of what it is. I look forward to reading it, and will probably pre-purchase it.

As it is, Worm is one of the better web serials. But it is not without flaws—the only issue is whether those flaws are ones that bother you. For me, they were particularly bothersome.

Do I recommend Worm? Absolutely. Is it a masterpiece right now? No. But it might just be in the future.

5 of 6 members found this review helpful.
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