Worth The Candle, by Alexander Wales
Synopsis: A D&D nerd is warped into an RPG video game (maybe?) where he has to survive, level up, and figure out what the heck is going on.
Book Review: This is one of my favorite books ever.
I put off reading this for a long time, because it was Lit-RPG, and I thought Lit-RPG was embarrassing and self-indulgent and couldn’t be taken seriously. I eventually realized I was being a tremendous elitist prick, and I really hate elitist pricks, and I love everything else Alexander Wales has written, so I should at least give it a shot. I then did little else with my free time for the next few months as I read this non-stop, because I fell in love right away.
To start with, the protagonist is emotionally damaged from page 1 in a way that I love my protagonists to be. I like seeing people on the edge of falling apart. He’s also a total nerd, and the portrayal of nerdom here is authentic and perfect. He talks the way my people talk, and thinks the way they think. He is immersed in late 20-teens culture. He immediately recognizes the tropes of modern story telling and modern gaming. He uses the fact that he’s in a video game, and he knows it, to manipulate the world to good effect. He’s sarcastic, enthusiastic, jaded, and funny, in exactly the right proportions.
Wales himself, of course, continues to be a master of storytelling, making it impossible to stop turning pages.
But the thing that really draws me in, the thing that cements this as a book I’ll never forget, and which has prompted me to create a 100+ hour podcast about it, is that this story is extremely meta. Joon was a DM for his friends’ RPG group back on Earth. He knows a lot about storytelling, and the conventions of storytelling. When he realizes he’s within a video game, that comes with the knowledge that RPGs are story-driven video games. Worth The Candle is a story about a storyteller trapped inside someone else’s story, who knows that this is what’s happening. Between all the killing of zombies and daring escapes through sewers and rescuing of princesses, there is also a continuous commentary on the nature of story telling. What it means to be inside a story, and how this can be used to your advantage if you are the main character. What the purpose of a story is, and how that is reflected in the monsters/challenges he is being faced with.
And of course hanging over all this is the knowledge that we ourselves are reading a novel, and all such commentary reflects on the text we are reading as well. It’s not just exhilarating and funny, it’s also intellectual and meta as hell. Highly Recommended.
Book Club Review: Turns out, not everyone can relate to being an emotionally damaged teenage male nerd. I had assumed that the shared nerd culture of all the SF/F geeks in our book club would be enough, and that the intense meta-commentary aspects of the work would win over any stragglers. This was not the case. The protagonist can be rather unlikable at first. He has issues, and he’s not the outgoing, charismatic hero type. He’s the depressed, anxious teen that’s isolated himself by lashing out type. That, combined with the fact that Lit-RPG is actually still looked at with some prejudice, meant that half our book club didn’t like this at all, and didn’t stick it out through all 613 pages.
I think this is a shame, but it did serve as a check on my hubris. Just because I think something is great, doesn’t mean even half the SF-reading world will agree. So, a caveat with this one. If your book club has a bunch of people into internet pop culture, that are well-versed with gaming conventions and tropes, and doesn’t mind a broody teenager getting super-powers by Authorial Fait because that sounds cool, Definitely Recommended! But the online culture and gaming culture are strong requirements to enjoyment — if your group doesn’t have a decent chunk of that, Not Recommended.