Threadbare: That Is What Bemused Means

Chapter 5

“And if I let her go after every adventuring job she wants, she’ll fill up her choices before we know it, without the one we need. Then we’ll all be sunk. You know the stakes, Mordecai.”

This is approaching the worst line I could possibly imagine in this situation. I’m sure you could come up with some contrived even worse thing to write here, but this feels like it may actually be the worst actual thing to write into the early pages of this chapter without actively trying to be bad. “The plot has stakes, I promise,” the book says, without elaborating at all. Fantastic! Tell me what they are.

“Nah, lessn’ you fink. Dye her hair, mud up her face, take ’er into town as me apprentice from a family out in the hills, won’t nobody bat an eye.”

“Mordecai, I don’t want to hear it.”

“Then you sure as hell won’t wanna hear this. Right now she’s eleven. In a year or two she’ll get her woman’s blood. And if you fink she’s restless now, what d’ya fink she’ll be like then?”

Mordecai’s accent was grating enough before he started using “charming colloquialisms” to add a whole extra layer of creepy to this conversation between two older men deciding the fate of a girl without consulting or even informing her. She is literally a child, so that’s not actually unreasonable or anything, but it’s a sign of two things: First, Mordecai’s accent is grating and things that draw attention to it in a weirder way than normal make it grate worse, and two this conversation is boring. It’s full of promises that the plot is right around the corner for sure without actually delivering anything. Threadbare has three chapters of good will to burn through, and they’re getting through it pretty quick right now.

“A Screaming Eagle? Hunting this close to my land?” Caradon frowned, and finished his tumbler. “Have to check the perimeter later, make sure the Raggedy Men are doing their jobs.”

Threadbare is not exclusively responsible for this, but not all non-mundane nouns need their names capitalized. No one’s gonna be confused if you talk about raggedy men in lowercase and they aren’t proper nouns. At least with things like Orcs instead of orcs you can make the argument that it’s a sign of respect (although note that we do not do this with humans as opposed to ferrets in real life, and the reason why nationalities like American and Chinese and so forth are capitalized is because they are derived from the proper nouns America and China). The raggedy men aren’t a nationality, ethnic group, or even a species, they’re a golem type. It’s like if modern day were a sci-fi novel written in 1918, and they went around calling the new types of cars Pickup Trucks and Sedans instead of pickup trucks and sedans. All it does is call attention to what’s been invented for the story and what’s a native part of it (which is why I’m generally down with capitalizing things like class names in RPG rulebooks, which are usually OOC concepts whose capitalization – though technically still grammatically incorrect – helps differentiate a Fighter from a fighter).

Silver feathers mixed with white, on a form that was shaped roughly like an arrow. Its wings were double-jointed, and beat the air with a whistling shriek. A sharp, serrated beak crowned a feathered head, with no visible neck. A series of smaller-beaks, currently shut, lined its torso.

Threadbare is pretty consistently good with its encounters. This screaming eagle thing has scooped up our bear protagonist, and I’m okay with watching Threadbare try to fight it, because it looks weird and kinda cool and while the “Threadbare stumbles into a series of confrontations” schtick is wearing itself thin, at least there’s something to wear thin, as opposed to the story’s main plot, which so far has consisted almost solely of repeated promises that it exists with no sign of an actual plot point in sight.

But he had no bones to break, or organs to damage, and as he sat up amidst a floating red ‘11’, he eyed the words in front of his face with a bemused stare.

Threadbare’s cemented itself as superior to Awaken Online.

Context: Celia has arrived with her toy army to help Threadbare rumble with the screaming eagle. I think they’re past the raggedy man picket, so this may or may not end horribly for her.

Celia sat up, glaring, and pulled two more daggers from the sheaths under her coat, tossing them into the air. “Animus Blade! Animus Blade!” They joined their steely brother, orienting toward the Eagle as she pointed at him.

Apparently her toy army is the least of her minion mastery. My impression was that these screaming eagle monsters were fairly nasty, and Celia’s tearing this one up. She’s immune to its sanity-rending tricks, has a wall of minions to intercept attacks, and apparently her control cap is at least as high as seven. I don’t know what Caradon is worried about. This girl is a fucking munchkin.

the eagle flapped until he was sky-borne, and whirled to head up slope.

The rising arrow caught him in the rump, tore through the mostly-hollow part of his chest, exited through one shoulder, and ended his life in a microsecond.

No wonder Celia’s behind on levels (not that it’s slowing her down much). Someone’s stealing her kills.

Barely a second’s warning, then a brown flash of leather, as Mordecai bounded from branch to branch, landing in a crouch, whipping an arrow from under his coat as it flared back revealing four quivers bandolier-style across his body,

I think this is supposed to look badass, but what I’m picturing is just awkward and kind of ridiculous. Quivers are big. If you strap them to your chest, you’ll have a Hell of a time getting arrows out.

“Sorry,” he offered. “Not tryin’ to steal yer kill. S’why I waited till I was sure it’d escaped—”

Oh. Fair enough.

“Must have been a small Screamer then,” Caradon said, remembering the teddy bear’s pathetic hit points.

It’s big enough to hunt fawns. It’s not clear how far the power scale here goes, but apparently the local ecosystem is largely un-altered. Animals turn into monsters sometimes, but clearly not often enough to totally depopulate normal wildlife, because the main source of monsters remains animals who level up into them, not monster reproduction. That necessarily means that something big enough to hunt deer and which hasn’t been pushed out by other, stronger predators is close to the top of the food chain. There can be a single boss monster or something lurking around who’s much, much stronger and fails to devastate the ecosystem by virtue of being nearly or completely unique, but not much more.

“Yes. That was because you were in a real fight, with real consequences,” Caradon said, taking her hand. “Are you sure you’re all right?”

“Yes.” She blinked, as realization struck. “Is that what I’m going to have to do? To get more levels? I’m going to have to keep doing… that… again?”

“Yes,” Caradon said, feeling every second of his fifty-eight years weighing down on him. “Yes it is.” Celia turned and vomited on the pine needles.

I have a soft spot in my heart for the “hero stress vomits after life threatening danger” trope. It’s not exactly original, and it’s not something that should happen to every character after their first fight (the Last of Us had a good one even though Ellie didn’t actually vomit, just mentioned feeling sick, subverting the usual veteran/rookie interaction in service to Joel and Ellie’s character arc – really, I could do a whole post on how that cut scene serves as a brilliant example of taking a cliche that used to be a compelling portrayal of the human experience before it got run into the ground and making it work again), but it helps humanize a character, especially if they’re basically an unstoppable killing machine compared to regular mooks. Done right, it can help reinforce that a hero with magic powers of whatever kind (including superhuman sword fighting powers) may well have a decisive advantage over the local stormtroopers, but they’re still mortal, still one lucky crit from an early and shallow grave, and having that sword of Damocles dangling over their head is terrifying even if they are totally kicking ass the entire time.

Threadbare didn’t earn this, though. Just like every major character interaction with Celia or Caradon, it feels divorced from the emotional arc that it’s referencing. The CeliaBot 9000 dutifully plays the part of the rookie in a war zone vomiting after its first life-threatening battle, but it’s not actually human. It just plays one on TV.

And in the deep woods, the imp faded into view, crouched among the pine needles and grinning. “So the little girl’s leaving the house for the first time ever. Oh, this’ll make things much, much easier. Anise is going to laugh her tits off when she hears this one—”

I have mixed feelings about the phrase “laugh her tits off.”

On the one hand, it makes perfect sense in terms of worldbuilding. A succubus probably doesn’t even care about being referred to with this kind of vulgarity, and if she does, it’s still well within what character this imp has displayed so far to speak of his boss in ways she wouldn’t approve of if she heard. Plus, a succubus doesn’t necessarily have to be all that threatening in the grand scheme of things, and it might just be that you just don’t get a whole lot of respect if you’re a ground-level agent of whatever infernal organization, even from your underlings. Someone that weak is still plenty capable of being an overwhelming threat to an eleven year old child and her favorite toy.

But this kind of casual vulgarity sucks a lot of the threat out of Anise. If she’d been really threatening to begin with, there could be a juxtaposition between how casually the imp refers to her and how dangerous she’s been portrayed, but Anise doesn’t have any ground to lose on this issue. Anise has been portrayed as evil because of that one dude she killed, but not as dangerous, because that guy was incapacitated when we met him and we have no idea if Anise caught him by herself or how much of a fight he put up.

This is our primary villain! You gotta be careful with how you portray those. Again: The real solution here would be to make her more threatening in earlier appearances – then it would carry more the impression that either the imp is only getting away with it because Anise can’t hear, or she just doesn’t consider it demeaning the way a regular human would because she’s a succubus, rather than leaving open the possibility that Anise can’t do anything about it when people talk shit about her.

Twenty-five pounds of the gods’ perfect killing machine crashed down on the imp. Before he could react, Pulsivar the cat grabbed the demon’s throat and slashed his claws on the target below, rending its shrieking form into shreds.

And then there’s this asshole!

This paragraph is actually doing a lot of things right. The frequent references to Pulsivar’s weight allow him to be referred to sidelong in the first sentence and it’s immediately recognizable and funny in a way that it wouldn’t be if the prose had to worm Pulsivar’s name in there. Advance planning has paid off in that regard, and Threadbare’s ability to make sight gags work in text hasn’t waned.

But a lack of it is wounding the paragraph just as bad. Our villains were already so non-threatening that something as petty as a casually vulgar reference to the biggest baddy yet depicted was seriously jeopardizing my ability to take them seriously. Having her minion instantly and easily obliterated by a cat who’s pretty firmly Threadbare’s equal and far inferior to Celia is doing way more damage to the threat posed by these guys. Sure, nothing about the imp’s fragility implies that the succubus isn’t much stronger, since his primary purpose is scouting, not direct confrontation, but again, we have nothing else to go off of. The biggest indicator of the threat posed by our villains is this imp:cat match-up, and the imp lost super hard. If he’s actually dead and hasn’t just been banished back to Baator or whatever, that’s even worse, because it means the succubus has been permanently weakened by the loss of a minion by what amounts to happenstance.

The trend here is that Threadbare has good “visuals,” with novel fight scenes and an ability to deliver sight gags that may as well be voodoo for all that I can decode it (not entirely true – having seen and examined a couple of examples, I’m beginning to see some patterns, but still), but it’s bad at character dialogue and plot. I didn’t know a book could even have that combination of strengths and weaknesses, so props to that, but those weaknesses are much more deadly in the long run than the short, and those strengths can’t really be paced the way a character arc or plot can. You can’t really have rising and falling novelty to a fight scene. There’s a sweet spot of novel enough to be interesting but not so many new elements at once as to be confusing, and hitting that sweet spot consistently just means that Threadbare’s competently depicted fights are eventually just going to become the new normal, and the lack of compelling plot or characters will be the only thing left noticeable.

I do hold out some hope that Threadbare can avoid this fate if it stops beating around the bush and actually gets its plot going, though.

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