Chapter 4 introduces us to the idea that it is possible to offer a public quest, which Caradon (the guy what made Threadbare) does, specifically, a quest to clean all the decaying corpses out of the basement. So apparently corpses rot in this world, rather than remaining preserved forever or dissolving completely after a fixed amount of time, both of which were also plausible for a LitRPG world up until now. The chapter also opens with some more familial conversation, and it’s still kind of petty and mellodramatic, but I’m wondering if maybe it’s supposed to be the emotional core of the story? Because the emotional core of this story is a one-armed teddy bear tearing his own arm off while yanking a shelf down on top of a marauding rat king. It’s a Rocky Balboa underdog story. To the extent that Celia is important at all, it’s because she can play the role of the kid in this picture:
Adding in family drama on top of that would be fine, but it has to be, like, actual drama. Not this “I can’t believe you had me doing laundry when you had a spell for it this whole time” shit, particularly since as far as I can tell Caradon’s position on this is in fact completely indefensible. He’s apparently just making his daughter do an unnecessary chore purely for the Hell of it.
I mean, look at this:
She snorted laughter into his chest, as she hugged her Daddy for all she was worth. “In fact, I’m proud of you for confessing what you did… what you THOUGHT you’d done. So I’ve come to a big decision.”
“I was planning on stepping up your lessons, telling you some of the things I’ve been holding back. You’re mature enough to handle the truth now, I think.”
The context doesn’t make it any more impactful. In fact, probably the opposite is true: Without any context, you can imagine that this is coming at the end of a conversation where some kind of actual character development has occurred, but no, Celia has confessed to something we didn’t even know she wasn’t supposed to do until she was confessing to it (she left the cellar door open), and this is apparently the impetus for Caradon to start teaching her the big girl magic, for some reason. Particularly coming on the heels of chapter 3’s “I could do laundry effortlessly but instead it’s your job to do it by hand because of reasons,” I am not feeling a single shred of this family dynamic.
“Some of it, anyway. Bear with me, you’ll get the whole story in time.”
Hopefully she’ll get the part about the demons before they abduct her.
Apparently the big secret that Caradon has been keeping from Celia is…
“We didn’t have skills. Not as you know them, anyway. We got better at things by years of practice, and trying to learn new things.”
“Like unlocking generic skills?” Celia still looked unconvinced. This was a lot to swallow.
“Sort of, only without the words appearing to tell you you’d gotten better at something.” The old man snorted. “I was a wizard’s apprentice, back then. I’d spent years learning the basics, and my biggest trick was animating a rope. I could do that once per day…. Twice a day if I didn’t memorize detect magic, and double-stocked animate rope spells.”
“Things were very different back then. We had spell slots, and a thing called thaco, and don’t ask me to explain those. Anyway, it took years to get good at things. Decades, even, for some complex skills. I suppose it still does, now, if you take it slowly and avoid danger.”
…an exposition dump. This is his secret forbidden knowledge that Celia is too innocent to know? That the world used to run on AD&D rules? Is the gambit here that by making this all a big secret, Caradon can convince Celia to sit still and pay attention while he explains his boring backstory? It does explain that Caradon is, indeed, not “native” to the MMO mechanics, although they came to him rather than the other way around.
“Those early years, we thought the words, the jobs, we thought they were a blessing. Even when monsters grew in numbers and the first dungeons formed, we took it all with a sense of adventure.
AD&D land didn’t have monsters and quests? I feel like there’s a missed opportunity here. The Randidly Ghosthound thing where Earth is suddenly transformed into a LitRPG novel is a fairly entrenched concept in the genre. Here in Threadbare, they could have set up an interesting new take on the idea, where the change happened decades ago and has long since become the new normal. But instead it used to be AD&D land.
“Oh yes. Monsters just want simple things, like to eat you, or take your treasure, or to act as their nature tells them to. Men? Men want to rule you. To change you, until you’re what they want you to be, rather than what you want to be.”
This is an extremely first world, middle class perspective, indicative of someone who’s never actually lived through the life-threatening turmoil Caradon is claiming to have. As it happens, the overwhelming majority of people who actually have the misfortune to live in a world where basic physical safety isn’t guaranteed are thrilled to have a powerful dictator guaranteeing it for them for the low, low cost of horrible oppression. That’s why phantom threats are so often employed by dictators. It gives them all the popular support of people who think the dictator is protecting them from mortal peril without the hassle of actually fighting an enemy capable of plausibly imperiling the nation they rule with an iron fist. If the people actually are in mortal danger and the dictatorship which imposes itself actually does protect them from it (and is not a reign of terror where it is difficult or impossible to know what laws you have to follow to avoid being guillotined by the dictator or incompetently mismanaged to the point where people are dying of starvation), that dictatorship will probably be really popular, because people would way rather be oppressed than be living under constant threat of death.
People think that sentiments like “all a monster can do is kill you, but tyrants can take away your freedom, and that’s even worse” make them sound wise, but anyone who has done even the slightest amount of research into how historical crises shake out knows that it’s flat-out false. If death were actually preferable to being oppressed by the local baron, local barons would be unable to oppress their subjects with the threat of death and there’d be constant uprisings. That would actually be a fantastic world to live in, because in practice it means that tyranny is a fool’s errand and people would be neither killed nor oppressed, but it doesn’t take a whole lot of effort to find out that in fact humans do get killed and/or oppressed all the time, so clearly we are not a species impractical to tyrannize.
In fairness, humans are not a monolith and Caradon may personally prefer the constant threat of death to the constant repression of tyranny (many citizens of free nations like to think of themselves this way, especially since, as mentioned, it makes attempts to tyrannize a population extremely impractical no matter how much military and economic control the would-be tyrant has, although the way things shake out when tyrants come to power makes it obvious that most of them are self-deluded), but he still sounds pretentious and uninformed for asserting it as a universal truth.
“So what happened?”
“You remember how I told you once, that jobs can’t go beyond level twenty-five?”
“Well that’s not exactly true. And in one land, they figured out a way around it faster than anyone else did. So we knew the time had come for drastic action—”
Celia blinked. Then she whipped her head around, and stood, as a figure broke the treeline at the side of the house. “Oh! It’s Mister Mordecai! Hi hi hi!”
God, this book is so clumsy with exposition. Not only does it deliver this information – which almost certainly could’ve been delivered organically – in the form of what amounts to narration, but it’s also cutting the narration off halfway through, and before we’ve learned anything really important. The world used to run on AD&D rules. Okay, why do we care? Monsters used to be less common, but are now more common. Okay, so what? The only thing we have any reason to care about right now is how common monsters are now, and that’s obvious just from watching characters interact with the world. Some rival kingdom have apparently asserted themselves as tyrants somehow on account of being able to bust the level limits, and that’s the first piece of useful information we’ve had, because it relates to the situation now, but we only get a fragment before the book stops to talk about something else.
Throughout the rest of the chapter, Celia animates several toys, runs along the river, then loops back around to try and eavesdrop on the conversation between Mordecai and Caradon. Along the way, Threadbare falls into the river and is saved by the succubus we saw earlier, who wants Celia to give her the command golem scrolls, claiming that she needs them to get past the “Raggedy Men,” scarecrow golems Caradon set up to patrol the border of his property and kill any monsters who come through. The succubus implies she knows mysterious things about Celia’s backstory, and I could not care less. I’m even struggling to find individual quotes of the conversation that have the decency to rapidly summarize how empty it is, and it’s impossible, because the whole conversation appears to be going somewhere without ever doing so, so I’d have to quote the entire thing – several pages – to make the point. The succubus just says “I know something you don’t know!” and Celia ultimately decides not to give her what she wants, so the succubus leaves. The end. But spread across five pages instead of one sentence.
The book definitely needs some kind of long term plot. By the time we got to the rats, the whole thing where Threadbare stumbles from one deadly situation to another was beginning to risk getting played out. The long term plot we seem to have settled on is one of JJ Abrams’ stupid fuck-off-and-die mystery boxes, where I’m supposed to be hooked because there’s a secret and the book promises that if I keep reading eventually it will tell me the secret, but I know how Lost turned out. Sometimes the book doesn’t actually tell you the secret and sometimes the secret is just dumb and not worth the build up. Those two possibilities account for most of these mystery box plots, actually. I haven’t been given a reason to care what the solution to this mystery is, so I don’t. The mere presence of a mystery no longer intrigues me, because I know by now that writers who use mystery boxes use them because they don’t know how to write a compelling plot, which means the mystery box is never going to deliver a satisfying resolution. If the author knew how to write satisfying resolutions, they wouldn’t be mystery boxing.
On the other hand, if Celia got kidnapped by the succubus and Threadbare stowed away and helped her escape, and the two subsequently had an odyssey back home while dodging the succubus and her minions’ efforts to recapture them, that’d be fantastic. There’d be no mystery at all, and there wouldn’t have to be, because it would have the vital ingredient the plot we have right now is missing: A reason to care. I care about Threadbare, and by extension I care about Celia, and if they end up far from home and want to get back, I would care about that. I do not care about Celia’s mysterious backstory or Caradon’s exposition dumps, because none of them relate to Celia’s actual situation one iota. Just the opposite, the book is intentionally withholding information that might be actually relevant to Celia’s situation and asking me to imagine how important that information might be. Problem is, I have no confidence that the “big reveal” will be important to Celia’s situation at all.