Threadbare: Inciting Incident

Chapter 13

Mordecai has arrived at Caradon’s house. It’s a wreck from the screaming eagle attack, which was apparently a pretty thrilling battle. Crying shame it wasn’t actually depicted at all.

“I succeeded.” Caradon smiled. “I succeeded.” He pointed at a tiny black teddy bear, who waved back and showed him her cards.

Caradon seems to have gotten over that “created and immediately murdered dozens of sapient beings by accident” thing in a hurry.

Caradon is trying to convince Mordecai to help him upgrade Emmett into a greater golem. Mordecai is skeptical. It’s not clear why. If he’s worried about something going wrong with the upgrade, then the obvious thing to do is to wait until Caradon’s regenerated some blue juice so he’ll be able to intervene if things go horribly wrong. It’s not clear why Caradon wouldn’t want to do that, when he’s been hiding out here in the woods for eleven years without getting raided once. It seems unlikely that today’s the day his card will come up. On the other hand, if Mordecai is opposed to upgrading Emmett in general, then why? Wasn’t a golem army always part of the plan?

“These are our hopes and dreams, Mordecai! Moreso than we ever planned! It’s a chance, it’s our only chance, and every minute I delay is a minute that the King’s forces draw around us! Balmoran has fallen, Mordecai, and this is our only hope! This is Celia’s only hope!” Cardon’s fist hit the table.

Typo on Caradon’s name is from the text. This impassioned plea would make a much bigger difference if we had any idea what Balmoran is or what it had fallen to. The King, I guess? Isn’t he already the king of everything reachable? Was Balmoran some kind of rebel base?

Anyway, the scrolls Caradon was relying on to keep Emmett under control were given to Anise by Threadbare, so that’s a problem. There is also no way in Hell that this was in any way part of Anise’s plan. Like, what, she planned on Caradon realizing what greater golem animation does, attacking his house to weaken his demon wards, then letting him upgrade his armor golem when he didn’t have scrolls on hand to control the situation? What was her plan if he checked to see if he had the scrolls first? Or if he didn’t happen to run himself out of blue juice before trying out the greater golem upgrade? And if this isn’t part of Anise’s plan, then all of her involvement in the story so far has been pretty much completely pointless.

Anise, as it turns out, is not even at the house anymore. She’s at the prison where Celia and the rest are being held, and she lets them go for unclear reasons. She has some kind of scheme she’s running against her demon overlord, but look, I wasn’t intrigued by one mysterious scheme with vague details, I’m sure as Hell not interested to learn that there is another mysterious scheme with vague details. Why does Anise want the kids to escape? Does she need an excuse to kill their loved ones in the town (as she’s ordered to after reporting their escape to boss demon)? Does she need them (probably Celia in particular) to escape the boss demon’s schemes for reasons pragmatic or sentimental? It’s not clear, and I have no confidence the story will actually tell me anytime in the near future.

Soldiers approach Zuula’s house as the plot finally arrives.

“Gonna kill us some piggers,” one of the footmen next to Grant said “Gonna roast ‘em up and hear ‘em squeal. Makin’ bacon.”

Ha! Get it? It’s funny because it rhymes with a racial slur!

A bunch of Mordecai’s scouts are discussing demon allies who may or may not be coming to help them…uh…kill two people. They’re attacking just Mordecai and Caradon. You need backup for that? Or are we meant to believe that these two will single-handedly fight off an army? If they can do that, why are they even bothering with whatever golemancy scheme they’re cooking up when they could apparently just be waging a perfectly effective guerilla war against the King, what with their apparently being enough of a match for his most elite forces that he feels the need to wait for demonic backup before committing them?

“Those are the least kind,” Moony said. He’d been a cultist, once upon a time. And not the sanctioned kind, which was why he was working off his crimes in service. “The worst ones are the ones that look human.”

“Now why’s that?” Zanzibar wondered.

“Demons are from the outside. They have no way to understand this world, unless they’re the greatest of lords, or they’re bound by a pact, or both. And to seal the pact, you have to give it the head and heart of something. Not the body, just the head and heart. Takes a bird or a bat, to pact an imp. Kill a dog, get a hellhound. So to get one that looks human…”

“You can stop there,” Yules said.

But Moony didn’t. “They get the memories, some of them, if the brain’s intact. They get the senses, and the perspectives, and some people think they get the souls, too. But the ones that look human are the worst. They come back wrong…”

So Anise is Amelia, Caradon’s wife and Celia’s mother, brought back in demon form. Right? That’s where this is going? This all would’ve been way more compelling if we already knew that. Like, instead of rolling my eyes at Anise having yet another mysterious unknown scheme, when she released Celia I would’ve just been like “right, because she’s retained some kind of affection for the kid from her mortal component parts. That makes sense.” And with that knowledge already facing the audience, Anise’s internal monologue (that scene having been written from her perspective already) could’ve given us some insight into how she feels about Celia. It could’ve been pretty compelling! Instead, it was dull.

“No, Mr. Scout,” Anise said, rising up, still holding the twisted frame, staring at the distorted image through shattered glass. “I’m as safe as if I was in my own house.”

Ha, ha, get it, because she’s in her own house? Is this supposed to be foreshadowing? I hope not. I hope the assumption here is that the audience has probably figured out what’s up with Anise, from this line if not from the clumsy exposition dumped earlier by Moony.

Chapter 14

Caradon’s reaction to Anise entering his room:

“You!” Caradon shouted from upstairs. “What is this? What the hell is this?” The old man’s voice held a pain Celia had never heard, and she panicked, her somewhat herb-jumbled mind dropping to the worst conclusions.

It’s not entirely clear, but I get the feeling from this line that Threadbare is still holding onto “Anise is demon-form Amelia” as a “reveal.” Like, dude, the reveal was last chapter with the “in my own house” line. Game’s over.

Metal-shod boots clanked, boards creaking below, as the crimson-armored behemoth stomped into view. Celia looked back, sighed silently in relief as she saw Anise standing, looking away from the ceiling… a sigh that turned to a gasp as she saw the armored man wasn’t alone. Five twisted black blades orbited him, the demonic faces on them gibbering and looking around with glowing green eyes as they circled and looped.

She knew that spell. Sort of… It was Animus Blade, but what kind of blades were those?

“You…” Caradon hissed with a venom Celia had never heard before. “You son of a bitch.” The old man stood, and Anise stood with him.

“Are we alone?” The demon knight said, his voice deep and unearthly.

“No,” Anise said, and pointed upward. “The girl.”

Horns tilted as the man glanced upward and that was all the warning they had.

Celia shrieked as five blades punched a hole in the ceiling around her, then shifted clockwise, cutting through the floor. Before she or Threadbare could do anything, the girl fell through the floor, into the room below.

No! Celia!

Threadbare threw himself through the hole, going after her—

—and one of the demon blades twisted, blurred into position under him, and shot upward. SHUNK!

CON +1
Your Golem Body Skill is now level 20!
Your Toughness Skill is now level 12!
Max HP +2

The sword pinned Threadbare to the roof of the attic. The blade sunk in easily and kept on going, until the hilt slammed against him, stuffing spilling out, spraying to either side of him as he felt the blade rip through.

He hung there, suspended, as a red ‘159’ filled his vision, and floated up through the ceiling.

“You leave Daddy alone!” Celia yelled,

This isn’t a bad “villains burn down the hero’s home town” scene. It’s not great, mainly just because the whole “home town burnt down” thing is kind of a cliche. But it’s not bad, either.

Its main issue, of course, is that we are eighty the fuck four percent of the way into the book. This would’ve been fine if there was some other plot to sustain us on the way here. There was not. It was all just a bunch of random encounters and introducing characters half of whom didn’t even end up being important to the plot. Vampire kid? The imp? Pulsivar? Irrelevant. Chapters spent establishing them? Pointless. That part of the JRPG where you pop out of your home town to go clear a newbie dungeon so that when you come back it will have been tragically destroyed? That was 80% of this book’s length.

“What did you do to her,” Caradon rumbled, finding his courage in outrage. “Why is that thing wearing Amelia’s face!”

“Wait, what?” Celia whipped her tear-stained face away from his apron. “You’re… my mother?”

Mind Blown

“This is pathetic, old man,” The demon knight said. “Especially against your own family.”

“You’re no blood of mine!” Caradon growled, hand over his nose.

“No. But I’m blood of hers,” The figure said, pointing to Celia. “And you’ve kept her from me long enough.”

“I… I don’t understand.” Celia said, from her binding among the sheets.

“He never told you, did he?”

He told me enough! He told me you killed him!

“Celia…” Caradon started, then choked. He cleared his throat, opened his eyes, and the pain within them made her flinch back. “I’m your grandfather. Amelia was my daughter, not my wife.”

I mean, okay. This changes nothing about any of the character dynamics, though. The “Luke, I am your father” moment wasn’t shocking because it turned out Luke had family he’d never met working for the Empire. It was shocking because it totally undermined Luke’s most personal motivation for opposing the Empire. His initial motive for following Obi-Wan was to become a Jedi like his father, and to avenge his father’s death at the hands of Darth Vader. That moment in Cloud City, Darth Vader reveals that there’s nothing to avenge, and offers to help Luke accomplish his original goal – to follow in his father’s footsteps. Except, it turns out that original goal means becoming a Sith. Luke’s motivations, previously all pointed against the Empire, were suddenly turned in on themselves. His loyalty to his friends in the Rebellion and the cause of galactic justice meant there was never really any chance he was going to actually defect, but he’d still had a huge chunk of his motivation up to that point knocked out from under him in one moment.

Celia? Not so. She was still raised by Caradon and is opposed to his enemies. The addition of one extra generation between the two matters hardly at all. To the extent that this matters, it’s that our villains finally have a motivation, and it is way too late to be introducing that shit. Anise has been here since chapter three.

“Betrothal?” Celia asked.

Caradon flinched. “We had to… we had to keep you safe. We thought he would win…”

“He promised Balmoran an army of golems, with you commanding them. And your bloodline to theirs, so they had a legitimate heir to the throne.” Melos said. “But that’s neither here nor there. Now I have Emmet, upgraded to its full potential. And I have you, and with Balmoran gone, we are finally, finally safe.”

So apparently the golem army munchkinery was the plan all along, though why Celia was ever remotely important to it is unclear to me. Like, Balmoran was already at war with Melos. They don’t need a claim to the throne to justify starting a war. They can just win the war they’re already fighting.

And man, can you imagine how compelling this would be if we had known all this since chapter 4, when Mordecai and Caradon instead had a pointlessly vague conversation about their pointlessly vague plan? We’d have known that Caradon was using Celia as a political pawn the whole time, and there would’ve been this constant aura of “when is she gonna find out?” over every single interaction between her and Mordecai or Caradon from that point on. During the whole “journey home through the wilderness” scout quest, we would’ve been asking ourselves, is Mordecai protecting Celia because he gives a shit? Or just because you can’t betrothe a corpse? It wouldn’t have single-handedly saved those chapters from being largely pointless, but at least it would’ve given us some tension.

Celia stepped back into the corner. “I don’t… I don’t know… Who to trust…”

Who to trust, the man who raised you, or the civilian-slaughtering psychopath who turned out to be slightly more closely related to you?

I’m being a little bit unfair here, because Celia has just learned that Caradon was making invasive plans that would define not just her childhood, but her entire life, without consulting or even informing her. So there’s a legitimate reason not to trust Caradon completely, here. There is also, however, significantly more legitimate reasons not to trust Melos, like the fact that his soldiers are right now burning down the village where her only friends live. This would all work a lot better if Caradon were plotting something really evil for Celia, if he had been so twisted by revenge, by his hatred for Melos for killing his daughter, that he sees Celia not as his granddaughter, but as Melos’ spawn. And so he’s planning on doing some weird cyborg-golemancy thing where he turns Celia into a half-mindless flesh golem with tons of class levels and uses her as the instrument of his revenge. Then you could ask a serious question about whether Melos is actually worse than Caradon. He’s done awful things, yes, but the number of people under his direct control who have suffered under his regime is less than all of them, whereas Caradon has direct control over one person, Celia, and intended to do something truly horrible to her.

The thing where he’s raising Celia as an instrument of his revenge could’ve worked by itself, except that Celia lives in a world where going out into the wilderness and killing monsters is just a thing you do, so it’s not actually Caradon’s fault that Celia is being pushed into a lifetime of slaughter and mortal peril. That’s just how the world is. The thing where he’s planning on betrothing her without her consent could’ve worked, too, if Celia had shown any sign of having any plans at all for her future until now. Without that, it’s still wrong, but it’s wrong on the level of abstract principles. If Celia wanted to be an astronaut when she grew up, if Caradon had been directing her away from astronaut-related jobs in order to get her levels in what she’d need for his revenge scheme, if he always explained this away with “you’ll understand when you’re older” and then it turns out the explanation is just “I want to use you as an instrument for my revenge,” that wouldn’t have just been wrong on the abstract principle that you shouldn’t take someone’s autonomy away. It would’ve been wrong on the level of causing real harm to a character we care about. Rather than asking the audience to understand that robbing people of their personal autonomy is wrong on principle, it would’ve given the audience a (hypothetical, but still) example of why people believe that. I don’t think the audience needs to be convinced or anything. That’s a pretty uncontroversial theme. The latter version is just way more compelling.

Zuula kills way more soldiers than she has any right to by virtue of plot armor while declaring her racial superiority (the specific line is “you come to kill an orc at night?” which is used not once, but twice, to remind us why everything about Zuula is awful – they have her outnumbered ten to one and they have a dragon, what about being an orc is so awesome besides plot armor that this is insufficient advantage to make mincemeat of her?). Zuula and Mordecai’s oldest child joined the King’s army (mentioned a while back, I didn’t bother to comment on it, although it’s worth noting that this means Caradon and Zuula have been together for even longer than 17 years and yet Zuula has still totally failed to assimilate) and shows up to kill Zuula. Now, you remember clear back in chapter one when I said that Threadbare pulled off something Awaken Online never did by getting me to actually root for the protagonist? Here at the end they’ve managed to invert that accomplishment. I am thrilled that someone finally killed Zuula, and her eldest child is my new favorite character for having done so.

Back in the house, Threadbare uses a bear skill called hibernate to sleep for a while and heal some amount of damage, although he can only heal so much while still impaled. He alternates sleeping and pulling himself off of the dagger impaling him to the debris that’s now collapsed into the cellar while Dark Threadbare tunnels their way out of the cellar. She gets a proper size tunnel finished, and then gets abducted by raccoon monsters. Threadbare eventually manages to get himself off the dagger, though, by which point it’s rusted and vines have overgrown the ruins of the house.

Threadbare toddled down the path, walking faster as he went, past the overgrown remnants of a raggedy man, past the neat row of graves dug on the hill, unmarked with stones only saying “they fell in the line of duty,” and he kept on walking until he reached the river. There he stared into his reflection.

It took him a long time, more tailoring levels, and an unlocked tailoring skill to figure out how to do it. The sun was at the other end of the sky by the time he was done, but finally he had a small hollow in the right place in his head, and some twisty, waxed threads right where the air could push through them, when his stuffing muscles drew it just right.

For too long he’d been silent and dumb. Well he wasn’t dumb now, and he knew just what to do.

Threadbare took his first breath.

“Status,” the little bear said, in a quiet little soft voice that was completely lost in the burbling of the rushing river.

And a whole new world opened up for him.

Roll credits.

Since chapter four, my feelings on Threadbare have varied from mildly entertained impatience to utter loathing and the average has been south of decent for the most part. A lot of the information we got here at the end could’ve been used to add some tension to the extremely weak middle. In particular, chapters five, six, and seven, in which Celia acquired the Scout class, would have been much more defensible if the knowledge that Caradon was using her to avenge Amelia’s death had been on the table. Rather than just the vague knowledge that Mordecai and Caradon were plotting something or other and Celia was important to the plan, we’d know that they were making invasive plans for her that would alter the entirety of her life without consulting or even informing her, which would seriously recast her loyalty to them in a new and disturbing light. Like, holy shit, here this little girl is desperate to make her father figure and scary uncle figure proud, and they’re planning to stab her in the back the whole time. That would’ve been engaging in a way the scout quest we got very much was not.

Chapters 8 and 9 are bad primarily because they contain Zuula and chapters ten through twelve are so totally irrelevant to the plot that they can’t be saved by establishing stakes earlier, because even knowing the stakes already that dungeon raid ultimately meant nothing. So, this “reveal Caradon and Mordecai’s shady plans explicitly” trick would not have saved all of Threadbare’s middle, and in particular would not particularly have helped with its most atrocious parts. And, listen, the most atrocious parts were really bad. “Do not have racist caricatures moralize about racism” is a bar that even Awaken Online managed to clear.

On the other hand, the first three chapters were good, the last two chapters were good, and there is some reason to believe that Threadbare is going interesting places in the next book. I won’t be reviewing it immediately and therefore will not recommend it one way or the other, but there’s some good signs: The status screen at the very end of the book shows us that Threadbare is now five years old, which means Celia is sixteen and is presumably an evil Sith apprentice by now. Threadbare is unlikely to immediately reunite with her, especially since he can now talk and is perfectly capable of carrying the narrative by himself, which means if the “Threadbare is good in inverse proportion to how much Celia is in it” rule continues to hold, the next book should be more like chapters 1-3 and 13-4 and less like chapters 10-12. Plus, Zuula’s dead, so hopefully things will at least not get so awful as chapters 8-9, provided she doesn’t come back as some kind of horrible Grandmother Willow style nature ghost.

Threadbare does have an overall arc of steadily rising stakes, but its consistent, jarring problem is that the stakes rise due largely to random events. Threadbare’s initial encounters have an adorable “teddy bear versus cat/rats” sort of vibe to them. Celia’s scout quest is moderately dangerous in the wilderness. The dungeon arc poses a serious threat to Celia’s life. Finally, the attack of King Melos actually does kill some people, while also confronting Celia and Threadbare with enemies they can’t personally hope to win a fight against. Having King Melos roll up at around the same time as Celia got back from her scout quest or immediately after the fight with the rat king would’ve ramped things up much faster, and while that would solve the pacing problem that plagues no less than three-quarters of this book’s length, it would introduce issues with jarring tone shift on its own.

The scout quest and cat dungeon arcs need to be there, but they also need to form an actual plot. They need to be directly related to Anise’s and Caradon’s maneuvering against one another, and that relevance needs to be established before the assorted boss fights of those arcs, not several chapters after. Right now, they’re both just stuff that happens to Celia while she waits around for the plot to finally arrive. And since that takes up 75% of the plot, and half of what’s left over is the early chapters where it’s that, but more forgivable because it’s early on and we’re still establishing a sense of normalcy, that’s what Threadbare ultimately is: A string of random events that happens to an eleven year old child and her favorite toy, the last of which happens to be the inciting incident for the main plot, which you can presumably read about in the second book.

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