Worth the Candle

by Alexander Wales

Rating: ★★★★

My rating of this massive webserial is weighted mostly by the thirty or so last chapters (of 246), which reflect my span of reading after picking up the serial where I'd abandoned it a few months ago. I started reading again on hearing that it was finally finished, though my expectations at that point were lowered -- I'd stopped reading because I felt like the serial had entered a rut.

This is a hard book to summarise, because there is so much metafictional commentary within its pages -- indeed, the entire purpose of the story, including its main arc, is metafictional -- that attempting to talk about the work risks either repeating a conversation from within the book or contradicting the author's own explanations. The simple way to frame it is that a tabletop RPG designer gets trapped in a videogame version of all the games and settings he's ever imagined. The main character is, of course, the author, and the entire project is a sort of public therapy.

The best parts were the concepts. The settings, species, items, magic systems were often inventive and surprising, and the author thought through their applications in impressive detail. The kludge-like nature of the metaworld was an excellent excuse for getting too bogged down, but there were great exposition sequences (yes, I enjoyed exposition!) where the consequences of minor details were extrapolated out at length. Much of the book reflects on worldbuilding, the philosophy, the pitfalls, and so on, but it gets to do that with authority because the author actually demonstrates that he can do it well.

The elements that dragged for me were, firstly, the later levels. I tend to lose interest in RPGs once a certain character power level has been passed, because gigantic piles of resources make a lot of challenges less interesting, and the sorts of problems that slow characters down tend to become, well, boring. I think this happened around the time of the zombie pirate captain (don't ask), and the author recognised it part-way through and skipped many of the obstacles he'd been preparing. Secondly, the more overtly therapeutic sections were a bit tiring. If you've ever talked to an intelligent depressed person you may recognise some of that in these sections -- there's an impressive ability to analyse and verbalise their problems, that nonetheless does nothing to stop them repeating their dysfunctional behaviour, and in fact might be part of it: endless conversations about emotion and the symbolic significance of this or that action, numerous frames taken in and then later discarded. It's not quite as bad as in real life, because you don't need to care about the author/protagonist's mental state in the same way, but it can still be exhausting to tread this territory with someone, and I'm dubious about its therapeutic value (to either readers or the author).

There were other blemishes -- sections that didn't really establish themselves well enough, companions that just weren't that interesting -- but given the sheer volume of the work the rate of hits was admirable. I enjoyed the references, the snide game-layer commentary, and even parts of the author's wrestling with questions about sex were overall worthwhile for their honesty. It's a big hot mess of a book that could probably be edited, but the raw nature is part of its charm.