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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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I…Don’t Hate It?!

By Waltzoid, author of Through the Motions

Oct 30, 2019: It seems that nowadays you can’t throw a rock without hitting an online novel that features characters being reincarnated or otherwise drawn into worlds that operate on RPG logic, with characters referring to "levels", "stats", and "skills" as if they were everyday concepts. I Hate Being Wed in a Fantasy World is (as of this review, which will only cover Volume 1) a six-volume tale of a group of Japanese high school students dragged into a fantasy world against their will to fight an unknown force of evil.

Sounds pretty generic so far, right?

The hook to this story is that an antisocial video game nerd, Kenta Katsuragi, possesses a cursed magical ring that reveals its true power when he reunites with his class president, Kyou Momokawa. Through a series of misunderstandings, the two are accidentally "married" and are forced to work together to find a way back to safety despite neither of them liking each other before (or even after) their reunion.

I Hate Being Wed . . . , like many stories of its kind, seems to be geared toward readers who are already familiar with RPG and MMORPG tropes and trends, so the casual reader will scratch their head at the many bracketed skill names and phrases being thrown around, but it’s otherwise consistent and easy to understand. The actual writing style isn’t as good in this regard, as there are frequent comma breaks that disrupt the flow of reading where one wouldn’t expect commas to be, sometimes as many as two or three per sentence. These become somewhat less distracting as you read on and get used to seeing them.

Much of the story is told from Kenta’s perspective, with occasional breaks into Kyou’s perspective. After getting in these characters’ heads for a few chapters, I often found myself wanting to get out as quickly as possible. When the main couple narrates, everything suddenly dries up. There’s lots of exposition, but not enough emotion.

The main character is the story’s weakest link by a good margin. Kenta, for all his professed gamer savviness, routinely does and says stupid things that get him into trouble that could have easily been avoided if he’d just stop and think ahead for once. One could chalk this up to being an impulsive teenager desperate to survive in an unfamiliar world, but there are times when the self-inflicted bad luck he often complains about ("I hate it!" is something of a catchphrase for our dear Ken-san) just isn’t harsh enough. He’s also a moderate asshole (he even says so himself) who views others, including his bonded partner Kyou, with contempt. He sees her, and the rest of his classmates, as phonies who only care about making themselves look good. Ironically, this opens him up to be tricked by Kyou and others into furthering their own goals.

Compared to the self-centered and abrasive Kenta, Kyou feels like the relative voice of reason. Despite being much lower-leveled than Kenta, she’s bailed him out more times than he likes to admit. This makes their partnership a marriage of (plot) convenience, where they know they have to take advantage of the system – and each other, hence the title – in order to survive. Seeing Kenta and Kyou perform forced gestures of affection to score points toward their first shared power-up can be eye-rolling at times, but it’s these occasions where they stop bickering and sniping at one another and put their heads together to solve a problem, producing some of the first volume’s more exciting moments.

Despite my issues with the dull narration, superficial romantic elements, and having to deal with a pair of annoying blockheads as the main couple, I can safely say that Volume 1 of I Hate Being Wed in a Fantasy World is . . . an acquired taste. The idea of having a dysfunctional couple of teens as the focus of an RPG adventure is surprisingly unique. Kenta and Kyou won’t factor into any "cutest couple" contests any time soon, but I still found myself equally frustrated and fascinated by what was going to happen next. I had to raise my annoyance tolerance bar high enough above my head to make a basketball hoop to do so, but I made it.

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A Journey Into The Rationally Twisted Mind

By Sharkerbob, author of Graven

Aug 23, 2019: What would you do if you found yourself transported to another world? What if being in this world gave you access to strangely game-like super powers? What if this world spent most of its time trying to kill you, and only your quick thinking, analytical strategy, and a handful of stalwart companions was the only thing keeping you alive as you attempt to fulfill a series of quests in the hopes of gaining answers, and perhaps a way home? And, strangest of all, what if this world seemed eerily familiar, because so much of it was based on the roleplaying campaigns you yourself had designed?

Recently, I had come to the conclusion that so-called LitRPG, or Progression Fantasy, or Gamified Portal Fantasy, was a genre I did not enjoy. While the idea can be fascinating, and some of them could be decently written, all too often, I mostly felt like I was just following some nerd oggling stats and brushing over descriptions of generic fantasy tropes for pages and pages, explaining to me how something as bog-standard as a potion worked as though I’d never heard of a video game before, trying to impress me with how cool their magic system is when it really just boiled down to the standard White Mage/Black Mage set I’ve seen in literally every JRPG since Dragon Warrior. Rarely did the tropey characters hook me, and rarely did their adventures feel like anything more exciting than reading a slightly more narrative take on a strategy guide.

Worth the Candle manages to take this premise and elevate it. It is by far the best-written example of the genre I’ve read, not only from the quality of the writing, but in the sheer creativity of the world and the depth of the character exploration.

The teen protagonist finds himself quickly teaming up with two gorgeous women early on, but their relationships are not anywhere close to the typical harem shenanigans. They feel like actual developing relationships between somewhat sketchy individuals who are trying to work together for common interests, but don’t just immediately fall into their stereotypical roles, and have to learn how to trust one another, organically over time.

The world building is great. I have always had a fascination with stories about authors interacting with the worlds of their own creation in a more grounded way, and this is an interesting take on it, where Jun recognizes some aspects of the world, but the world is different enough he’s still thrown for a loop. Three books in, the world feels large and a live, and definitely distinct from the Standard Fantasy Setting I’ve long gotten tired of. Moreover, their are numerous magic systems at play throughout the setting, and its always interesting to see a new kind of magic, and all the clever magical items that get revealed throughout the adventure.

Another nice touch is Juniper’s frequent recollections of his time with his friends, their DnD sessions, and the tragic death of his best friend months before his sudden fall into this fantasy adventure. These flashbacks act as both a way to expand on Jun’s backstory, but also ruminate on the nature of storytelling, dungeon mastering, and campaign building, and literary symbolism.

I’m having a hard time thinking of anything to complain about. The first Book of the story, about 14 chapters, did actually turn me off a little at first, because it does start off as a pretty straightforward "dungeon crawly" trek through an interesting, but kind of gamey arc. Even here, though, this was about the time I was realizing I didn’t like LitRPGs very much, so that bias was probably sinking in. I’m glad I pushed through and kept reading, because Book Two is where the good stuff really starts to hit.

Otherwise, some people might not enjoy how much the main character spends the story analyzing his situation, and characters discussing how to min-max his gamey level-up powers. I admit that was part of the tough sell for me at first, but after the first Book, I feel like it doesn’t come up nearly as much as in other LitRPG stories, and certainly doesn’t feel as intrusive.

This combination of great worldbuilding, rich characters, and ruminations on storytelling, all written with a literary quality above the usual LitRPG/Light Novel fair I’ve read previously, has elevated this to my top three web serials. Check it out if you like a good fantasy story, and definitely check it out if LitRPGs are your thing.

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