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PACT

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By Grey, author of Under Darkening Skies

Nov 9, 2015: If there’s one word to describe Pact, it’s tense.

It’s nail-bitingly tense, Uncomfortably tense. Clocking in at around 950k words, it can be a draining read but is well worth the effort. It’s very compelling and feels, for the most part, very tautly paced and plotted. It could probably get away with being three quarters or half that length, but few words feel wasted.

Three things, appropriately, really stand out for me. The first is the world-building, where Wildbow typically excels through intelligent construction and a very organic sense of exposition. As a work of modern supernatural horror fantasy, Pact will feel incredibly familiar to anyone who enjoys the World of Darkness tabletop RPGs (in particular, Mage: The Awakening and Changeling: The Lost), but this is primarily due to making excellent use of the source mythology. Pact is built on intricate, elegant structures that underpin the narrative, and it rarely feels like an exercise in milieu.

The second is the characterization. Damned near every character in Pact could carry a novel or two on their own, as they are well-written and interact with the rules of the setting in believable, narratively exciting ways. I think this does fall down a little in terms of narrative voice, however – our protagonist’s personality comes through very nicely in all the first-person segments, but then persists somewhat through third-person over-the-shoulder chapters, too.

Third we have the wonderfully imaginative otherworldy scenes. I’d call the descriptive prose in Worm comprehensive; here it’s evocative. The locations are beautifully painted with efficient use of language and metaphor, leaving enough to the imagination to fill in the blanks. The monsters – of which their are many – are as well-realized, and the early-introduced Barbatorem is one of the most chilling creatures I’ve encountered in horror fiction.

It’s not perfect, of course – the protagonist feels a bit too competent, sometimes, and I really think parts of it go on for too long. Almost everything is relevant, but it doesn’t have to be. It also felt like certain expository elements were repeated a bit much.

Thematically, it’s another adventure with something of an anti-hero, but that sense of tension is part of why this works; our protagonist is forced into a villainous role by constant outside pressure, the assumptions by powerful individuals that they are the villain. The catastrophe conga-line does make reading rather tiring, but likewise it’s hard to close the tab and go to bed. While I think Wildbow may have found a niche, the difference in execution and intent is great.

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PACT

Not quite up to its considerable promise

By G.S. Williams, author of The Surprising Life and Death of Diggory Franklin

Apr 9, 2015: "Pact" is the second story from Wildbow, the WFG-acclaimed author of the superhero-themed serial "Worm". Worm was tremendously popular right away, as it had action-packed writing, nuanced characters, long chapters on a consistent schedule and an intelligent, intricate plot. In fact, it was so popular I avoided it for awhile, reading and reviewing other stories because it seemed over-exposed.

Then, almost exactly two years ago, I gave it a chance while stuck in the hospital for an entire week after the birth of my twin sons. I wanted something fun to read that didn’t need a review, because I was exhausted and just needed a distraction when my wife and babies were asleep. Worm dug into my imagination, impressing me on every level. I wrote one of my rare 5 star reviews, and somewhere along the way started corresponding with Wildbow and developed a rare digital friendship. I preface this review to establish the historical context – I went into Worm with low expectations, as a prolific reviewer with a tendency towards critical literary analysis and broad reading experience – I was unbiased and rated it 5 star.

Well now I may or may not be biased because I followed Worm for two years and I hope to remain friends with Wildbow for decades. I am rating Pact at 4.5 stars hopefully for the story’s merits, but that will be up to readers. I just felt it fair to warn them that this review comes with history, so they will have to establish for themselves whether it is accurate. I will still strive for objectivity.

Worm would be a tough act to follow, given its popularity and quality. However, readers can rely on this when reading Pact – Wildbow devoted years and millions of words to that story, emerging as an author with uncommon command of plot arcs, symbolic themes, character psychology, action scenes, thrilling suspense and clever dialogue. None of that has been forgotten, it just takes a new shape in Pact. It is a bit like a rookie designer created the world’s coolest new sportscar, and then turned around and applied their knowledge to making the world’s coolest new motorcycle. New shape, same principles.

The word "pact" comes from the Latin, "pactum," meaning "something agreed upon.". Broadly, it can mean agreement, promise, contract, accord, covenant, testament, bond, vow or oath. The story revolves around pacts: the promises we make to ourselves, the deals we make with the universe, and everything in between.

Blake Thorburn returns to his hometown of Jacob’s Bell after having run away as a teen – he has a family with a lot of in-fighting because his grandmother has decreed in her last will and testament that the significant family property can only go to a single female grandchild heir whom she will choose. As a result the adult children suck up to their mother to earn favour for their girls, while bickering to tear down their nieces’ chances. Blake comes to the family meeting as she lays on her deathbed, feeling the tug of family bonds and a promise to himself to speak his mind, as an adult, since it was impossible as a child.

One of his cousins is chosen as heir, and the grandmother dies quietly, as if by will alone at the appointed time. Mysteriously, her ancient cat dies at the same moment. Blake goes back to his apartment in Toronto. Months pass, and then he has a strange dream about bizarre people, only to be awoken by yelling.

A girl in his mirror warns him to get back to the family house – and a mystical adventure begins.

I don’t want to give more than that away (it is all in chapter one) because the surprises and suspense are part of the fun. I will say that I am impressed with the consistency of the story’s themes – the power of words, truthfulness, promises and language are handled extremely well. Wildbow takes elements from old tales like Dante’s Inferno, Faust and Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and adds in urban and suburban twists, with memorable family struggles and believable characters.

The story world evoked has a density, a level of thoughtfulness that makes it believable. I think in part this is because of Wildbow’s nature as a writer, to layer and weave. However, it is also because of a connection between the rules of the practitioner’s world and the nature of writing – they require honesty, and integrity – making everything that is going to be said fit in the framework of what has already been said, and putting willpower behind it to make it so.

I had hoped that in the long term this story would prove to be 5 star worthy, because it is rare to see a perfect blend of concept, medium and artist. I strongly suspected this would be a deeper work than Worm, on a psychological and even spiritual level.

However, in the end after the completion of the story, Pact remains a 4.5 star for me. The nature of the protagonist, Blake, and the narrative’s focus on his point of view ultimately led to a lack of catharsis in the climax and denouement of the story. Supporting characters like Peter and Mags proved more interesting but a lack of screen-time truncated that development—while leaving the potential for sequels open.

I would look forward to seeing more of this world, but this particular story in it stopped short of being perfectly satisfying. It is, however, a tremendous work of art and worth reading.

4 of 4 members found this review helpful.
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PACT

Devils and Details, indeed.

By MondSemmel, member

Sep 26, 2014: [This review is current as of chapter 11-7. Spoiler policy: No explicit spoilers for Pact and Worm.]

I devoured Worm in the span of a month. It’s easily among my fiction all-time top 3. Among the things I liked about Worm were its world & setting, unceasing escalation, great cast, greyscale morality, and writing flow & style. One thing I didn’t like were the visions and some of the more obscure puzzles.

How does Pact compare in these categories? Can it stand on equal footing with Worm, or does it get overshadowed?

World and Setting

Wildbow’s 10-word-outline: "Young man inherits grandmother’s home, collection of diabolic texts, enemies."

Worm was an original take on the Superhero genre, showing how a world with superheroes and supervillains could "really" look like. Pact does the same with the Urban Fantasy genre: The world is full of practitioners (think mages, shamans) and Others (think faerie, goblins, bogeymen, demons). Halfway through the story, neither werewolves nor vampires nor zombies have made an appearance. That’s highly appreciated.

Pactverse is governed by ancient traditions and values. Firstly, words have power. Practitioners cannot lie on pain of losing their powers or worse. So everyone is a paragon of honesty in a world of happiness and sunshine . . . or not. Rather than lie outright, practitioners instead make ample use of misleading or ambiguous statements, and of lies by omission.

Secondly, there’s karma: The universe seeks balance in all respects: in war (as in, "an eye for an eye"), peace (ancient hospitality rules), and even in blood ("the sins of the father shall be visited upon the son").

These rules allow for plenty of conflict and ingenious dialogue throughout the story. But while they appear to be consistent, I wish their explanation had been a bit more concrete. For instance, I’m still not 100% clear on what exactly makes a statement a lie. Every few chapters I get newly confused.

Escalation

In both Worm and Pact, things get worse and worse still before they can occasionally get better. Authors have to be sadists – they show their love for their characters by hurting them and putting them in challenging situations, and Wildbow is a master at this. This also allows for tons of awesome twists and cliffhangers, prompting frequent outcries of the form "How could you do this to Blake, Wildbow?!"

The unceasing escalation may have been my favorite part of Worm. In Pact, it also works quite well, but a difference in the setup occasionally threatens my suspension of disbelief: In Worm, Taylor begins as a nobody, so her enemies rarely focus on her. This makes her early victories believable, and means she can suffer defeats or setbacks short of being immediately killed. In contrast, Blake (the protagonist) is Public Enemy No. 1 from the beginning – a whole town wants him incapacitated or dead. So his continued survival against all odds is weird and can (rarely) make his enemies appear weak or stupid. Put differently, the odds are so lopsided that Blake couldn’t possibly win just on his own efforts; rather, his antagonists almost have to make an effort to lose.

The Cast

Pact has a great, diverse cast: all ages are present; there are those in power, vying for power, or falling from power; and lots and lots of Others. And these are all recognizable as individuals with their own pasts, quirks, motivations, and goals. For instance, a ghost would never be "the ghost", but rather something like the Pactverse equivalent of the Moaning Myrtle or Casper.

The characters are also delightfully genre savvy – this is a fantasy/horror universe and everyone knows it. As a result, Wildbow’s characters appear far smarter than typical in fiction. Here’s a line to illustrate this: “You don’t split up when there’s a horror movie monster after you”.

Now let’s talk about Blake. There’s much to like about him, like his ingenuity, desire to leave the world better off, and general selflessness. But he just can’t compete with the amazing Taylor for a few reasons. Firstly, Blake’s mirror image has been replaced with, his female alter ego, Rose. Blake’s initially strained relationship with her quickly devolves into frustrating and dysfunctional passive-aggressiveness. All too believable, but not that fun to read.

Far more damning, however, is Blake’s suicidal recklessness. Most of my criticism is basically just nitpicking whenever Pact falls short of the absurdly high expectations set by Worm. But this part genuinely frustrates me.

The logic goes as follows: the plot thrives on escalation. Characters are pushed to their limits by events outside their control, where they can prove what they’re made of. So far, so good. But Blake’s actions resemble those of a thrill-seeker or adrenaline junkie – even in the rare occasions when he could rest or plan, he still confronts mortal enemies (lets call one such enemy "Big U") with insufficient preparation, to the point of suicidal foolishness. Makes me want to strangle him. That Blake repeatedly survives and wins despite this insanity feels like something of a double standard – if an antagonist were equally reckless, our protagonist would immediately pick up on and exploit this weakness.

A quote to sum up my thoughts on this: "[If you have to win at any cost], you make everything as easy for yourself as possible. To do otherwise would be spectacular overconfidence, even if you’re playing tic-tac-toe against a three-year-old." – Eliezer Yudkowsky

As a broader issue, a few humans & Others (e.g. "Big C") are very restricted in what they can do, or have a compulsion to behave a certain way. Pact is far more subtle in this than the classic vampiric bloodthirst, but the general issue remains: From the reader’s POV, the resulting actions or decisions occasionally come across as clearly bad or stupid. It doesn’t even matter if the characters themselves have an excellent reason to behave this way – stupid is stupid. Case in point: Blake’s suicidal recklessness is eventually fully explained, but it changed nothing about my criticism of it.

Morality – Blake is the new White

(I apologize for the terrible pun.)

Worm’s moral ambiguity was one of my highlights. There were no clear heroes or villains, and even these labels proved treacherous. Though it’s been getting much better lately, Pact unexpectedly began somewhat poorly in this regard.

Blake is thrown into a situation where everyone considers him a "diabolist". This supposedly makes him dangerous and evil enough that everyone in town bands together to eliminate him. Sadly, the ostensible "good guys" do a horrible job of presenting themselves as good, or of justifying just why Blake specifically must be put down. To the point that it seems like there are no good explanations.

I’m suspicious this problem arises because there’s too much "tell" and not enough "show" on this point: We are frequently told of the evils diabolists in general commit, but an early story of evils committed by the Thorburn diabolists would have made Blake’s opponents much more understandable. As is, Pactverse seems rather too black and white, with the poor diabolist protagonist as the clear hero and his opponents as the clear villains. I don’t think that was the intended outcome.

On a related note, Worm featured more interlude chapters from perspectives other than Taylor’s. Even halfway through Pact, few antagonists have had scenes or interludes to justify themselves from their own POV. And of those who had chances to explain themselves, some simply blew them.

The Puzzles

As I said, I didn’t like the visions scenes in Worm. They seemed out of place and often incomprehensible to the point of meaninglessness, and I hardly got anything out of them. So I was rather concerned when Pact featured a visions scene in the very first chapter. But these concerns proved totally unfounded. In fact, this is where Pact really hits its stride.

Allow me this brief non-sequitur: I’ve read quite a few crime & mystery novels (Hercule Poirot, Detective Conan, etc). These can be entertaining, but I’ve always felt they fail at their other goal, namely, allowing attentive readers to solve the mystery on their own. Why do I mention this? Because while Pact may ostensibly be Urban Fantasy, it’s also the best "solve the mystery" story I’ve ever read.

As befits the subtitle of Pact ("Devils and Details"), the text is chock-full of details and foreshadowing. There are mysteries and puzzles to be solved, questions to be answered, and motivations to be uncovered. For instance, the "no lies" rule allows for tons of puzzles of the form "How was that just now not a lie?", or "Was there a trap in this verbal agreement?". This can be surprisingly subtle. Often, only an attentive read reveals that there’s a puzzle or inconsistency in need of explanation in the first place.

It’s awe-inspiring how much foreshadowing there is, period. Doubly and triply so because Pact is a web serial: every chapter is considered a "first draft" and past chapters don’t get edited after the fact. I sometimes joke that every line in the whole text will eventually turn out to have been a hint, or foreshadowing.

In any case, a remarkable number of these puzzles can be solved by an attentive reader. And when the mysteries are eventually revealed, they often cast significant parts of the story in a new light. So Pact rewards rereading, too.

The Writing

The writing flow & style of Pact make me happy for several reasons:

First of all, Pact has its own voice. Wildbow was always unlikely to be a one-trick pony, given the sheer scale and ambition of Worm, but Pact seals the deal. The first-person POV (which I continue to love) also helps: Blake isn’t Taylor, and that’s apparent in the writing. Pact’s voice is not drowned out by Worm.

Secondly, the writing is a clear improvement over that of Worm. It flows better, paragraphs are shorter, and the focus on puzzles naturally gives Pact stronger themes and symbolism. And the "no lies" rule serves as an enormous creative constraint, which focuses the writing even more.

Thirdly, because this gives an indication of how much Worm can potentially improve after it’s been edited. And more generally, because it shows how much Wildbow has grown as a writer.

Two small points of criticism: Pact has less interludes than Worm. This allows for a better story flow (Worm’s interludes occasionally interrupted the action), but leaves side characters less well developed. We’re 11 arcs into the story, so I wish we knew a bit more about where all the characters stand. If Worm was the extreme of essentially having one interlude chapter per character in the story, Pact seems to have overshot a bit towards another extreme.

And above, I praised the amazing subtlety of the writing: so much crucial stuff is still only hinted at, partly because the "no lies" rule forces characters to be ambiguous. This subtlety also has a downside, however. Let me illustrate this with a spoiler-free example: a character is kidnapped, and lashes out at his or her savior when rescued. In a way that suggests a pretty major personality change, and doesn’t seem based on any obvious trauma.

At the time, this just felt jarring and made the readers hate the character. Much later, the behavior was justified, but at the time I didn’t even realize there was a puzzle.

Conclusion

To reiterate: Most of my criticism above can justly be considered nitpicking. I certainly love Pact enough to await each new update eagerly, and even theorycraft in the comments.

And yet Pact doesn’t quite reach the level of Worm. I’d put much of the blame for this at setting Blake up as Public Enemy No. 1 from the start. Most of my criticism either directly or indirectly stems from that.

Who should read Pact? I’d say everyone who can stomach the dark tone can enjoy it. Two uncommon groups of people who might particularly enjoy the story would be the lawyer / debate club / word-choice-matters cluster, and mystery novel readers.

To conclude: I love the world, the setting, the puzzles and the writing; but I haven’t fallen in love with any of the characters yet, and sometimes even want to strangle the protagonist.

I’d rather not assign this review a numerical rating, but if I have to, I’ll give Pact 4.5 out of 5 stars. Pact may "not quite reach the level of Worm", but it’s still one of the best stories out there.

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