A review of the best fantasy book of all time

By far my favourite fantasy story is Alexander Wales’ Worth the Candle. It’s available for free in full on Royal Road, with 3 of the 9 “books” available also on Amazon.

Here’s the author’s own blurb:

A teenager struggling after the death of his best friend finds himself in a fantasy world - one which seems to be an amalgamation of every Dungeons and Dragons campaign they ever played together. Now he’s stuck trying to find the answers to why he’s there and what this world is trying to say. The most terrifying answer might be that this world is an expression of the person he was back on Earth.

The blurb misses a lot. There’s video game-esque levelling, dozens of unique magic systems, worldbuilding a cut above anything else I’ve read, complex competent characters, memetics & anti-memetics, aesthetic fight scenes, trope subversion, metafiction, actually good puns, a beautiful epilogue… Also, it is the only book I’ve read where the author wrote it as a kind of therapy for themself.

Why do people read fantasy?

First I’ll guess why people read fantasyI’m going to duck the problem of defining fantasy exactly (a lot of words have been written on this subject) and claim Worth the Candle should comfortably fit inside most definitions you could choose., which points to what makes a fantasy book good. This will set the stage for why I think Worth the Candle is exemplary in the genre.

1. Vicariously living the chosen one narrative

The most common trope in fantasy fiction is the ordinary person destined to save the world. The genre has many other tropes to support this central conceit (paywall), and the set of these tropes define a large part of the genre. Let’s take Harry Potter, who is The Chosen One destined to defeat the Big Bad. He receives no special training, isn’t particularly smart, and just good enough at miscellaneous skills like flying a broom to defeat the enemy. The reader (you and me) find Harry similar enough to identify with, yet also special enough that we feel elevated in living as him.

But there are also tons of stories without this kind of narrative, even directly subverting it - Game of Thrones, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, China Mieville’s books. In these, what the reader wants instead is the escapism of another world.

2. The escapism of another world

This is the second distinguishing feature of fantasy - you want good plot and characters and prose in all your fiction, but the thing that sets fantasy apart is are the imagined magics, peoples, cultures, and environments. A good setting to escape into should:

Be original. Ideally, the world isn’t just medieval Earth and the species don’t rehash Tolkien. High-minded tall pointy ear elves, smithy underground bearded dwarves, brutish orcs, and greedy goblins are the default options for a typical non-human species. There are a surprising number of books and other media like Dungeons and Dragons that could be considered derivative.

Be consistent. Brandon Sanderson is probably the most well-known modern author writing hard fantasy, where the magic system in a book is governed by explainable rules. The consistency of the magic system legitimises the world. The escapism that readers seek is more complete - you can almost imagine yourself there, thinking about what you might to do with those powers… Magics that are less waffly than waving a wand and shouting “leviOsa” tend to appeal to the modern escapist.

Worth the Candle is original and consistent. It has dozens of unique species and several fun magic systems (in most books you get one!)

Aside: the LitRPG subgenre

Worth the Candle is a little bit LitRPG, a literary genre that combines the conventions of computer role-playing games with science-fiction and fantasy novels. Visible RPG statistics (such as strength, intelligence, damage) are a part of the reading experience. LitRPG books often feature characters who are consciously interacting with a game or game-like world and attempting to progress within it. A popular example of a LitRPG novel is Ready Player One by Ernest Cline.

I think the video game-ness is meant to appeal to readers who like the experience of playing a game and seeing numbers go up. The nice thing about reading about it instead of playing a game yourself is that you don’t have to do the tedious work. Also, the other characters feel real, the combat is more varied, and the story is more coherent and immersive.

The review actually starts


A few months after his best friend Arthur dies, Juniper suddenly finds himself dropped from a plane into another world. The 1000-foot view of the rest of the story is classic fantasy: main character learns magic and fights bad guys with his friends. The delight lies in the details.

First and foremost, there’s a lot metafiction. The world of Aerb is a patchwork of the campaigns he created for his D&D group while on Earth. He and his companions grapple with why and his place in the world. He doesn’t reference the reader like he’s Deadpool in a movie talking to the audience, its a little more nuanced than that, but there’s plenty of discussion about the world as a story.

On Aerb, Juniper discovers he has RPG-like abilities and stats, like a Dungeons & Dragons or video game character. stats and the game interface to understand the world and become more powerful. But not too far into the story, the game layer gets put into a bigger context and it becomes a smaller part of the narrative.

The story is divided into several arcs, each with a different plot. In one book, Juniper joins an adventuring party to explore a ruined city. In another, he gets caught up in political court intrigue. The variety of storylines make the plot consistently interesting. In addition, the metafictional elements provide a fresh, subversive spin on the fantasy tropes used in the story, though discussions of the underlying narrative can become tiring to read.


It’s not excellent, but it is very readable, and about as good as most fantasy. The dialogue especially is written well. And there are particular words or phrases that have stuck with me.

rilirin: wistfulness for something that never was, nostalgia for times and places not lived-in.

Not much more to say here.


The characterization in Worth the Candle is good by fantasy standards. You’re not going to get Dostoevsky, but all the characters make understandable, competent decisions and feel mostly distinct, although some character mannerisms and inner mental models overlap a bit more than I’d like.

They all develop in interesting ways. One character grapples with the revelation that her idol was in fact an entirely different person, another struggles with being obsolete in a new world, another still with a sort of stoic depression. And our protagonist Juniper is trying to reconcile himself to the death of a friend while navigating a world that seems to have been built around him.


This is the real draw of the story. Worth the Candle takes place on Aerb, a massive flat grid of tessellating hexes filled with all manner of species, magic, and magic items (entads). I’ll let the work speak for itself: this part of the review will mainly be excerpts from the companion doc A Brief Description of Aerb.


The Plane of Mirrors

Like the ethereal plane, the plane of mirrors connects more directly to the material plane than many of the others do, being almost entirely dependent on what happens within the material plane. Before mirror magic was excluded, every reflection on Aerb (man-made or otherwise, despite the name) was a link to the plane of mirrors. On the other side of these reflections is a copy of the material plane, though the copy is only exact in the places that are reflected. In places where no reflection falls lives the true heart of the plane, colored in shades of blue and home to all manner of exotic flora and fauna, typically adapted to slowly grow back from the sterilizing effects of a mirror penetrating their realm. Larger specimens can fully withstand a reflection and either interact with material counterparts that a reflection reveals in the plane of mirrors, or cross over to the other side. When mirror magic was excluded, apparently all forms of access to the plane of mirrors went with it.


Vibrational Magic

Created by the touch of an entad known as the Rod of Whispers, vibration mages have the ability to control oscillations within their range, altering either amplitude, frequency, or both. This manipulation comes at the cost of their internal store of magical energy, which they call ‘breath’…

The vibration mage serves three vital roles within imperial society. The first is as spies, given their exceptional ability to dampen certain frequencies and amplify others, which gives them auditory access to nearly any unwarded space. The second is as engineers and analysts, given their fine senses, though they are usually partnered with a large firm rather than cross-specialists themselves. The third is as combat specialists, given their decided range advantage, which combines well with their ability to do reconnaissance.



A species which, significantly, has a single sensory organ, deep within its belly. Rather than sight, sound, smell, or even touch, the gimmal have a very finely tuned gravitational sense which takes the place of all other senses and can be used to sense in all directions. Their form is vaguely humanoid, more hunched over, and their traditional mode of movement uses three limbs (as the gimmal are lacking a left arm). Their head is largely vestigial, lacking eyes, mouth, nose, or ears. The traditional environment of the gimmal is underground, and their skin comes in varying hues of gray. For sustenance, the gimmal appear to absorb gravity, which they also have some minor ability to manipulate.

That is some good worldbuilding.

Some reasons you might dislike this book

  • There’s a lot of metafiction. Some readers have complained about excessive navel-gazing.
  • It’s very long. There are 246 chapters and 1.6 million words, around 5000 pages. That’s about as long as all the Game of Thrones books. It’s technically divided into 9 books, but reads well as one continuous novel.
  • Wales explores some of the sexual feelings he had when he was a teenager in the book and it’s a little messy. For example, there are harem vibes, which is commented on metafictionally, and Juniper is generally resistant to the idea. Having said that, the author did include harem vibes.
  • You might find the novel a tad dark. It explores (but does not indulge) themes such as death, torture, rape and existential horror.

End of the review

If you are not convinced by this review, but you typically like reading fantasy fiction, then it is my review that is misleading, not the story that is bad. If you don’t normally go for fantasy - this isn’t like most in the genre. The world, concepts, and metanarrative make the story truly unique.

I mentioned at the start that Alexander Wales wrote Worth the Candle as a sort of therapy for himself. He wrote it to relive a particular time in his life, and to find catharsis over the death of an old friend. He wrote over a million words to that end. I find that quite moving. If nothing else, perhaps you will too.

You can read Worth the Candle here for free or on Amazon to support the author. Let me know what you think.