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WORTH THE CANDLE

A LitRPG Matrushka

By theredsheep, author of Pyrebound

May 23, 2020: I’m not going to bother with an elaborate intro here, because everybody knows this story. I’ll just say that WtC is a LitRPG. I have never played a tabletop RPG in my life, have no interest in it, have yet to actually unabashedly like a LitRPG . . . and I went through all million-plus words of WtC in a week. Because WtC is much more than a LitRPG.

So much more, in fact, that it’s hard to pin down what it is, because it’s so many different things at once. First, it’s a hardcore litRPG full of statistic wonkery and munchkinry. Then, it’s a deconstruction of role-playing tropes. Then it’s a loving tribute to the culture and experience of tabletop gaming. Then it’s a psychological drama, exploring one man’s efforts to overcome his personal demons. Then it’s a romance. Then it’s a series of well-executed action scenes. Then it’s a work on moral philosophy. Then it does something else. And it shifts more or less seamlessly between all these modes without losing control of its overall tone or pacing, which is frankly a remarkable accomplishment.

With so much wrapped up in it, you’re pretty much guaranteed to find something you love. That’s the good news. I especially enjoyed a particular epic duel somewhere around the million word mark (if you’ve read it, you know the one I’m talking about). Other high points: ingenious problem solving, intricately developed fantasy conceits, generally good pacing, and the odd burst of sick but still funny humor. At one point there’s a madman slaughtering hundreds of innocent people, and it’s being played for comedy, and . . . it works. He pulls it off.

But by the same token, you’re pretty much guaranteed to find something you really, really don’t love. For me it was the mechanics-heavy sections, plus everything related to [a certain school of magic which shall remain nameless]. The romance parts also don’t do a lot for me because, while I want Joon to find some happiness in this crapsack world, the foreshadowing on his love life is a bit heavy and the resolution so long in coming that it feels a bit like watching a man hammer a nail at 2 fps. Your mileage may vary, of course. Keep on moving, you’re bound to find something you love further on.

Final observation, neither criticism nor praise: every work reflects its author’s mindset. Your characters can’t help being reflections of you. I was struck by the essential optimism of Wales’s work; it reminds me of Neal Stephenson, another proud Midwesterner. It feels like there’s a general assumption that everyone in this very grim fantasy world has agency and is capable of self-improvement, even if they don’t take advantage of that opportunity, and that only ignorance and disorganization stand in the way. That I don’t personally view the world this way only makes it more enjoyable.

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