Book Review: Unsouled, by Will Wight
And now, for something completely different.
I’m kind of late to the party when it comes to self published stuff. Partly because of my own snobbery, and partly because it’s only in recent years that I’ve started reading e-books on a regular basis. Still, platforms like Kindle Unlimited are creating an interesting (if nigh monopolistic) niche. Between the democratization of self publishing, and the consolidation of the big publishing houses (how many are we down to, anyway? Five? Four?), self publishing has more or less replaced the concept of a ‘mid tier’ book.
In addition to that, Kindle Unlimited has allowed various sub-subgenres to develop that, quite honestly, probably wouldn’t get published by any major company in quite some time. Like porny fantasy harem erotica, for example.
Or, in a less smutty niche, there’s xianxia, or “cultivation” fantasy. It’s a genre that has a long history in China, but has only come to recent niche-popularity in the west. Xianxia is easy to get mixed up with the wuxia genre, since both of them are about guys in ancient China flying around with magic swords. But, to … very loosely (and perhaps inexpertly) break it down, xianxia is the more fantastic of the two genres, often getting into wild, fireball-flinging magic instead of just cool sword stuff. So, like, compare something like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (wuxia) to a TV show like The Untamed (xianxia).
Or, you could compare something like A Hero Born (wuxia) to Will Wight’s Unsouled.
Which, admittedly, is something of an unfair comparison. Jin Yong’s novel is a seminal work in wuxia literature that laid out the structure that like 2/3rds of all kung fu movies follow, and Unsouled … isn’t. Still, in poking around the internet, I heard that Wright was basically the best author writing original xianxia fiction in English these days, so I figured I’d check it out?
Unsouled centers on a kid named Lindon, who has a problem. See, Lindon lives in the Sacred Valley, a place where everyone devotes all their time to becoming better at magic kung fu. Only the problem is, as an Unsouled, Lindon’s personal magic is so weak that he can’t fit into any of the assigned roles of the valley. He can’t progress beyond the very first stage of things, so literal children are better at magic kung fu than he is. Lindon’s lack of power instantly gives him a hook, as over the course of the story, he’s forced to rely on his wits, using what few tricks he has to overcome far more powerful opponents. Wight can write a solid fight scene, and he often comes up with interesting and compelling ways for Lindon to prevail against increasingly dangerous bad guys.
But … that’s about it. See, Lindon’s entire character motivation is ‘get stronger,’ first so he can actually be accepted by his society, and then to ward off an impending disaster he gets a vision of because of … weirdly complicated reasons. Which, y’know, fair. Except that most everyone else in the book is preoccupied with leveling up their magic kung fu, with the few exceptions of a couple of mentor type figures. It’s all very one note. Like, I get that such things are what the book is supposed to be about, yet at the same time I found myself wondering “who actually, uh, grows food in Sacred Valley? Or makes clothes? Or sings songs?” I’m not saying I need a Simarillion’s worth of history and lore, but at least some nods to how the world actually works would be an easy way to give the world some depth.
The extent of the worldbuilding starts and ends on magic-fu. There’s a lot of stuff going on, with official terms. There’s cores, auras of various flavors– and then everyone learns a Path from their Clan, but the Clans pale in power to the Schools, and that’s even before you get into magic fruits or weapons or other cool widgets, or … yeah. I’m not sure how much of this is ‘toss you in the deep end’ worldbuilding, or how much we’re expected to already be familiar with as readers of the xianxia genre. Eventually I was able to get my head around it, and at least Wight is able to craft various scenarios in which Lindon uses his various power ups in new and clever ways, with satisfying payoffs. Even still, it feels a lot like an anime or video game. Which, uh, may be the point?
It doesn’t help that everyone in Sacred Valley has a literal level, pretty much. A Copper level student is weaker than an Iron, who in turn is weaker than a Jade, and so on. Which, fine– except that Unsouled has the same problem as Dragonball Z and a lot of other fight-anime, in that ‘power level’ escalation gets way out of control. For example, (mild spoilers, BTW), it’s a Big Deal when a villain shows up who’s made it past Jade, to the legendary Gold level, which means he’s powerful enough to take over the whole of Sacred Valley.
(Obligatory meme reference)
Except that, in like the next chapter, somebody even more powerful than him shows up and kicks his ass handily. With the added revelation that “Oh, by the way, Gold isn’t a big deal. In fact, people outside Sacred Valley pass that power level by the time they’re six.” Which … kind of makes things cheaper, y’know? It almost makes it sound like Sacred Valley is somehow the tutorial area in a video game, almost? Which, again, might be the point?
I’ve heard the second book in the series is where things take off. Though I’m not sure if that just means Lindon gets a bunch of new power ups, or if that’s where we meet characters with more of a motivation than “level up and fight stuff.” There’s like nine books in the series at this point, with more on the way. I’m … not sure if I’m gonna read more of them. Like, maybe if I had Kindle Unlimited and could read the books for free, I’d be more inclined to continued, but as is, I’ve got enough stuff on my to-read pile already.
It’s not so much that Unsouled is a bad book, per se. It’s readable and put together well. In Unsouled, Wight sets out to do exactly what he wants to do– no more, no less.