This is the kind of debut that blindsides you with its planning and production, both of which seem a cut above that of most amateur fiction (of course, it's possible the author of this story is writing under pseudonym). The daily updates are extremely impressive considering they're written in more-or-less real time, and this story is very rewarding to readers who check back each day.
In terms of premise, this story evokes the kinds of replacement remixes you find on YouTube (x but y) in that it's pretty much exactly what it says on the tin. Unlike those sorts of remixes, there's a lot more room for error here, but the structure laid out in the title has been strictly adhered to and the characters are genuinely just about interesting enough for the audience's decision to always be a difficult one.
This is a story which rewards readers who jump on early, as they'll be given the opportunity to shape it as it progresses (heck, when you vote, you can even send a message that might end up in the story itself). I'm very much looking forward to seeing how it pans out.
This serial is apparently written by the author of actual books, and it shows! The quality of prose, ideas, pacing and characterisation on display here is leagues ahead of many of this story's contemporaries, and thankfully this seems to have been reflected in its high ratings. This alone would be impressive, but the story's astonishingly-high rate of updates make it a must-read.
Of course, murderous reality shows are a tried-and-tested concept, but at no point does Dungeon Crawler Carl seem stale. Quite the opposite: it manages to be unceasingly original and entertaining, and its use of metatext perfectly toes the line between clarity and heavy-handedness.
Perhaps the thing which most elevates Dungeon Crawler Carl is its empathy. The vast majority of characters in this story - not just the protagonists, but the background characters and (crucially) the enemies - have more personality than even the main characters of many other serials, with even the most reprehensible cast members being unerringly likeable and entertaining. The story presents a world in which there are no easy choices and every individual is trapped in their own fight for survival, and you will grow to care for all of them. Many of the story's minor antagonists are simply twists on common stereotypes, and yet each of them exhibits far more originality than the grab-bag of Dungeons & Dragons tropes that fuel most LitRPGs. The dehumanisation of the dungeon's inhabitants serves only to humanise them in the eyes of the reader.
Make no mistake, however, this story is above all fun to read. The fights are engaging, the dialogue is witty, the stakes are high. I think perhaps one of the best marks of quality in a story is how much it wants to make you smash the "next chapter" button, and I made it through all forty-two chapters (at the time of this review) in just two sessions, staying up hours later than I'd planned both times in spite of my best efforts to put the story down. I couldn't. This isn't normal for me.
I kind of wish I had meaningful criticisms of this story, and although it's far from being the best work of fiction ever - heck, nor the best on this site - it knows exactly what it wants to be and succeeds at its ambitions with aplomb. If pressed, I'd say that this story's biggest mistake is that its cover art looks like hot trash, despite the author themself clearly being a more-than-capable artist. EDIT: As of literally a few chapters later, this is no longer true!
- In a wonderful microcosm for the story as a whole, the dungeon's notifications perfectly balance humour with horror. They're fun to read, but terribly cruel.
- I had an advantage in being able to read Spanish, but I thought that the device of hiding some deeply-humanising dialogue behind a foreign language was an ingenious way of mirroring the broader situation, both for the in-universe characters and for the readers; ultimately, you have to make a choice to care for people.
- The portions of the story centred around the group of old people are captivating, and it was fascinating to see the story seem to address what are (presumably) the divided opinions of its own audience on this aspect of the plot head-on. I enjoy when serials engage in dialogue with their readerships, especially if it's done deftly and unobtrusively. In light of current events in the world at the time of this review's writing, it's hard not to draw parallels.
- The build-up to the Rage Elemental scene was some of the most effective use of foreshadowing I've seen in a long time.
- At the exact moment when one particular supporting character dies, the narration pivots into an almost funeral-style eulogy for them. This might sound cheesy, but it somehow isn't in the slightest, instead proving to be a very effective emotional beat.
- The in-universe recaps are ingenious, recontextualising moments of carnage to highlight the story's own well-considered exploitativity.
- The latest chapters - in particular forty-two - felt topical in a very non-specific, universal way, and my heart was legitimately beating in my chest throughout the latter. (I mean, it does that normally, I just happened to notice. Again, this isn't normal for me.)
- The author's notes periodically include nice artwork of the story's enemies.
If I have not yet convinced you to read this story, note that the author's notes throughout frequently feature photographs of very cute dogs. What more could you ask for?
I picked up The Elemental Arena on lukewarm recommendation, and still ended up being kinda disappointed. Stories like this tend to filter out readers without ceremony, and in all honesty I considered dropping this one at almost every chapter (but didn't, because I was interested in discussing it) and nearly didn't write this review (but did, because I was told the author is an amateur who'd benefit from constructive criticism). I've highballed the scores, because I know RR's rating system is messed up.
Group isekais and arena battles are both premises with a huge amount of potential, and the exact setup of this story - aliens getting a human to run a Warcraft-esque team-based Hunger Games - feels novel. The result, at its best, evokes the likes of LOST and Battle Royale. There's ample opportunity for metatext here - Tygerion-as-the-author, aliens-as-audience - but nothing's really done with it, which makes me wonder what exactly the point was.
The story's most fundamental problems are rooted in its protagonist, Nathan, who I quickly grew to dislike. On a personal level, Nathan seems to have few redeeming qualities; I get the sense this was a deliberate attempt to create a flawed character, but the flaws are never really tackled head-on by the narrative, creating the impression that the author isn't actually aware of them. Nathan's thoughts on his past relationships read very darkly to me, and I struggle to convince myself that they were written with irony: "He considered himself the nice guy to a fault, at least until he became upset and then he wasn’t." He is quick to judge and often patronising with regards to the other players, and his politeness and encouragement often come across as insincere. He demonstrates few leadership qualities beyond an eagerness to boss people around, and it was at first unclear to me why the other characters listen to him.
The answer comes when the rest of the cast is put under scrutiny. Nathan can afford to be patronising because his fellow players exhibit far less in the way of initiative and intelligence than they should, considering they are selected from the top percentile of fifteen-to-fifty-year-olds. The vast majority of the common-sense ideas presented by the cast come from Nathan (followed shortly by Maya), and the other players just follow along - that's not to say that these ideas aren't good, but that they're the kind of thing that pretty much anybody in the cast should be able to intuit. On a narrative level, it seems that they fail to do so solely to give Nathan more opportunities to prove that he is an extraordinarily 'rational' individual, and that 'Gamers' somehow have more common sense than the rest of the population (note the apparently-high intelligence of Kean, which is attributed to his time playing Fortnite). Likewise, many of the characters seem extraordinarily selfish or (in the case of Harrison) cartoonishly awful, presumably to make Nathan more virtuous by comparison. To be charitable, I think this is a product of approaching 'real people' by the proxy of 'flawed people', and maybe I'm just naive, but I like to think that real people will surprise you in good ways. Considering that the story's primary stated goal is to present real people facing unreal challenges, it's a real shame that so much of its cast lacks that spark.
The story's 'most eligible bachelorette', Maya, is (by design) the story's most likeable character, and the only one beside Nathan whose backstory is explored with more than a cursory amount of detail. Paradoxically, this produces the exact opposite effect: you end up disliking her, because Nathan (or, perhaps more accurately, the story) constantly beats you over the head with her virtues, and the relationship that develops between the two feels like wish fulfillment in its most egregious form. Nathan is, apparently, the only person who understands her, yet the narration offers only surface-level insights into who she is, and thanks to his myriad character flaws it's unclear what she sees in him at all. She laughs at his bad jokes (if Nathan was funnier, his narration would be less off-putting), and assumes he's read Descartes after he uses a very common saying (he hasn't; this is just one case amongst many where the narrative rewards Nathan for no reason). It's frustrating to see the way Nathan disparages the Emma/Harrison/Iliya dynamic as having no place in the arena, considering his behaviour around Maya. The way the story handles gender and relationships in general is simultaneously heavy-handed and somehow misguided, but I don't wanna linger on this further.
Like a great many isekais, The Elemental Arena makes the mistake of downplaying the pre-story lives of the characters. For many readers, this is certainly preferable, but considering this story's stated goal is to focus on real people it provides oddly little in the way of characterising detail. I'd say it could stand to learn from the likes of LOST or Worth the Candle (the latter being, in my opinion, the gold standard for webfiction) by incorporating flashbacks, but this would result in a vastly different story with a reduced pace. The obvious alternative, however - having characters exposit about their old lives - is provably unappealling. The solution is probably just to have more three-dimensional characters whose decisions are more explicitly the product of their experiences. Alternatively - and this would be a huge breath of fresh air for the story - it'd be nice to spend some time in the head of someone other than Nathan.
Here is a laundry list of more minor things which I didn't like about this story, each singly forgiveable but damning in aggregate:
- The prose style isn't great; I can't describe the specific problems with it, but it gives the commmon impression of a style mostly learned from other webfiction.
- People apparently disagree with me on this one, but I really didn't like the running jokes in the narration. I understand the intent behind having Nathan jump between angsting over Kean (who seems largely forgotten in the back half of the story) and fawning over 'Mister Rock', but the execution left a lot to be desired. The beaver/rat confusion is the other obvious example.
- Written forms of distinctive accents end up becoming grating when characters have little in the way of standout features aside from those linked to their nationality.
- Lilly and Iliya have very similar-looking names and appear in almost all the same scenes, and for the life of me I cannot keep it straight in my head which is which. Other people apparently share this complaint.
- Harrison, again.
- For completeness' sake, though this is a very subjective opinion, I don't find the worldbuilding in this story to be evocative, whatever that means. Considering the arena was itself designed by a human, I wish it had more character. The alien tech (and aliens in general) do not feel sufficiently alien, and if this is deliberate then the narration could do more to make it clear that it's an intentional choice with in-universe justification that'll be explored down the line.
Here is a list of things I genuinely like:
- The fights are good. I always struggle to describe why I like/dislike someone's way of writing them, but take my word for it.
- The game is pretty good too, although ironically I tend not to be fussed over the systems used by stories like these one way or another. A lot of readers are here for hard numbers, and this story delivers.
- On an atomic level, pains seem to have been taken to correct bad writing (looking at you, chapter 18).
- I like Asahi a lot, despite the fact that he mostly seems like a grab-bag collection of Japanese stereotypes. I wish he did more, and had more unique characterisation.
- Dammit, I think Maya's pretty good too, I just wish the rest of the story supported her existence better.
- There's this one scene where Nathan and Maya are trying to cook crawdads using different methods, and Maya's attempt to use a skewer fails in increasingly ridiculous ways. I thought that this was (in abstract) a pretty good scene, leaving aside the fact that narratively it's mostly another excuse for Nathan to feel smug about himself. There are other minor beats like this which do feel very human; I just wish they were far more common.
- Who's this Angelo bloke? I want to know more about him. I don't know why, he just seems like a bit of an odd one out.
- The cast is pleasantly diverse in terms of race, nationality, age, builds, dispositions, and (to some extent) gender, especially in comparison to lots of other stories like this. Insofar as portraying real people is a stated goal of the story, this is commendable, although I think the excess of stereotyping is unfortunate (I also found myself raising an eyebrow at the selection process accounting for mental disabilities, though that's a can of worms). I'd like to see even more of this.
- There are lots of sparks of narrative originality here, and I think the general plot has a lot of potential.
The Elemental Arena is neither clever enough to provide the competence porn of good rational fiction, nor human enough to provide the character exploration of good regular fiction. It is most successful as a fun series of action-driven skirmishes, and were its stated goals less ambitious, this would be perfectly fine. Certainly, it's a promising debut - I'll be sticking around to see out the first book, then might check back for more chapters in the future. I can't recommend this story in good faith, but would like to one day, and when it comes to amateur webfiction I think that's what counts.
I've been following this story for a good while on AO3, but have never taken the time to write a proper review - an oversight which I intend to correct here, because I'd hate for anyone on this site to be missing out on what I think is easily one of the best pieces of web fiction of all time (certainly one of my favourite stories, period).
I'd be lying if I said I wasn't hooked pretty much from the word go, but - fair warning - most people will tell you to stick with the story until at least its fourteenth chapter before drawing any conclusions. If you're not fundamentally enjoying it by then, it probably just isn't for you - but if you are, then I feel confident saying that it will surpass your expectations at every turn.
This isn't a story where progress is about unlocking new levels and skills and perks. Well, okay, it technically is, but - more importantly - it's about trying to do the right thing and becoming a better person.
Alexander Wales manages to deftly weave an impressive amount of introspection into the events at hand, thanks to clever use of dialogue, observations, asides, and (most notably) flashbacks - none of which negatively impact the story's strong pacing. The romantic elements of the narrative are handled with a astonishing level of depth and nuance - somehow managing to be simultaneously sincere and deconstructive. Truthfully, the same could be said for pretty much every aspect of the story: its prose, worldbuilding, conflicts and characters. You'll find a lot of twists on classic tropes and setpieces, but there are a wealth of original and evocative ideas to be found here too.
At every level, Worth the Candle feels like a labour of love - and you'll probably end up loving it too.