Threadbare Is Horrible Except When It’s Great

Threadbare is done, let’s have a table of contents:

Part 1: Cheering for the Protagonist
Part 2: Magic Tea Party
Part 3: Kill Ten Rats
Part 4: Going In Circles
Part 5: That Is What Bemused Means
Part 6: Yet Another Random Encounter
Part 7: In Which Threadbare Meets An Anarcho-Capitalist Vampire
Part 8: Nosedive
Part 9: I Warned You The Novelization Of A Dungeon Crawl Would Be Boring
Part 10: Crypt of the Nekomancer
Part 11: Inciting Incident

Threadbare has a good beginning and a good ending. I’m not surprised that it hooks a lot of people with its premise of a teddy bear golem who begins barely even self-aware and ends up as a contributing member of a dungeon raiding party. A zero-to-hero progression is a big part of the draw of LitRPG, and Threadbare starts from even more zero than most protagonists, being that he’s twelve inches tall and is desperately imperiled by a house cat for his first encounter. Threadbare’s adorable mannerisms and indefatigable will to keep going make him a really charming character. I cared about him instantly. Andrew Seiple does such a good job of making me relate to this distinctly non-human character that I compared the book to Pixar, for Christ’s sake. This book has a strong start.

But it doesn’t last. Although the fight scenes remain reasonably engaging throughout and Threadbare remains a good character, the focus of the story shifts from Threadbare to Celia during chapter four, which would have been fine, except that Celia has no proactive motivation or particular goals. From chapter 4 all the way through chapter 12, things just happen to Celia. A spooky bad guy tries to trick her into doing something dumb, and Celia isn’t having it. She gets a quest, she completes it. Her new friends want to raid a dungeon, so she does. There is no character arc and no unifying plot, things just happen, one after another, for three-quarters of the book. Although the plot is engaging when it finally shows up at the end, it spends so much time getting there that there’s barely even any book left when it arrives.

Then at the end the timeline advances by so much that the current state of the setting no longer fully applies when the second book begins – Celia is (presumably) a teenager, every location we’ve been to has been burned down, and so on. As inciting incidents go, “villain burned my home town down” isn’t super original but it’s perfectly functional and the scene is mostly well-executed, and while the scene itself is pretty by-the-numbers, the time skip in the aftermath is potentially interesting if Celia has turned to the Dark Side under the bad guy’s influence since then (she was successfully kidnapped by her birth father at the end, after all). The problem is, the inciting incident of the plot was used as the climax of the first book. If Threadbare wanted to wait this long for the bad guy to get his villain on, that’s doable, and having a slow burn where characters take a long time getting established before the home town gets torched is a defensible decision. In order to make that work, though, there needs to be an actual plot preceding the “burn down the hero’s home town” beat, and we didn’t get that.

And then there’s fucking Zuula. Just, dear God. This character takes a thin stereotype of Afro-Caribbean culture with green skin, and that would’ve been kind of racist in that it casts the more-or-less American cultured protagonists as human and Afro-Caribbean culture as not human, but by itself that would’ve been something to mention in the extended review but not nearly a big enough deal to bother with in this summary. However, when that Afro-Caribbean stereotype is then combined with the standard fantasy schtick of orcs as a fundamentally violent and primitive people, things suddenly go from “kind of racist in a way that merits pointing out in an in-depth review, but not in a quick overview” to dive deep into “racist enough that it becomes a significant defining factor in the quality of the book.” Zuula being extremely racist is the reason why this post is entitled “Threadbare Is Horrible Except When It’s Great” instead of “Threadbare Is Aimless Except When It’s Great.” Zuula is a massive drag on every scene she is in.

Threadbare was originally posted serially, and after Zuula’s chapter 8 brief but comically violent introduction in front of her house covered in skull trophies, we got chapter 9, in which Zuula and her half-orc kids (or quarter-orc? I seem to recall Zuula being referred to as half-orc at some point, but later in the narrative she starts referring to herself as fully orcish – maybe I confused a reference to Mordecai’s kids for a reference to Mordecai’s wife before either had been introduced onpage) are overtly analogous to black people facing racial discrimination in the United States, and Threadbare gives us a Very Special Chapter about racism. Delivered primarily through the mouth of a racist caricature. Actually, human (and presumably white) Mordecai delivers most of the actual moralizing, and Zuula just interjects with some commentary. And even here, they only more firmly establish the presence of the “violent orc savage” fantasy trope, even as they more firmly wed that trope to Afro-Caribbean culture and history. If chapter 9 was intended as a backpedal or clarification on this story’s stance on racism, it backfired hard, mostly because even when fully clarified this story’s stance on racism is that black people are alien caricatures, but also that the Ku Klux Klan are still the bad guys for wanting to exterminate them. It’s an “at least we’re not Hitler” defense, and while it’s worth pointing out that Threadbare isn’t openly hateful towards Afro-Caribbeans, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to set the bar for minimally good portrayal of race issues in literature as high as “recognize the humanity of non-white people.”

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