Paths of Doom Books

The Lost Sword coverSete-Ka's Dream Quest coverRealm of the Enchanter cover

Coincidentally, after writing about Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) stories, I happened to find three “Paths of Doom” books that I’d been given and stashed away years ago. They didn’t look like something I’d normally pay much attention to, but it was a perfect time to check them out.

For the most part, this line of books doesn’t stray too far from the classic CYOA formula. The simple journeyman writing leads to choices with often arbitrary consequences, the only real innovation being that the reader must find the single happy ending. I also found it interesting that these books are written in the third person, though most CYOAs are about the adventures that “you” have. The settings are consistently high fantasy, and are probably best for slightly higher age levels than the original CYOAs, due to the larger word count and frequent deaths.

Overall, I thought that these minor tweaks worked well. By featuring protagonists who were not supposed to be me, the books were able to offer a little more variety than I expected. The single ideal ending also gave them a puzzle-like quality, which should work well for anyone who carefully bookmarks the branching points and tries to read it all. It would probably be more frustrating for people who just want to read through a few times from the beginning. And while the writing certainly isn’t very good by the standards of standard linear stories, these do read more coherently than most branching plot books. However, the final result is still a little too silly and similar to the gimmicky 80’s books for me to truly recommend them, either.

It’s also worth noting how inconsistent the formats of these different books are. Two feature storytelling text in the bold sentences that offer choices, while one simply says “If the hero does this, turn to page XX.” One fits the instructions about how to use the book on the same page that the story opens, while the others separate those two parts. One uses a different font size than the others. And all three take a different structural approach to how the stories branch and whether two different threads can rejoin each other. While those don’t necessarily make the books worse, they do make me doubt that there was any real planning or long-term support for this line. It’s not surprising that, as far as I can tell, it went out of print almost immediately.

Here are my impressions of the books that I read.

Sete-Ka's Dream Quest cover

James M. Ward - Sete-Ka's Dream Quest

Sete-Ka’s Dream Quest by James M. Ward is the best of the three, mostly because of the setting. The culture and religion of ancient Egypt is underutilized in fantasy writing, and Ward went beyond my expectations in fleshing out Sete-Ka’s world. In the hands of the right young fantasy fans, this could really set some imaginations racing.

The story is about the young prince Sete-Ka, who travels through the land of dreams enduring a series of tests from his goddess Bast. It’s the perfect venue for a CYOA book, but maybe a little too perfect, as the text is filled with self-aware commentary on whether you “made the right choice”. At times, it felt more like I was directing Sete-Ka through a choose your own adventure than directly playing one myself.

However, the nature of the dream world helps to excuse the quickly changing setting, and many of the choices seemed to use a consistent internal logic in applying the “test” to Sete-Ka. At least, I was able to find the ideal path with only a few missteps by thinking about what moral qualities Bast would want the young prince to show. Also, the book often reserves the worst endings for the paths in which Sete-Ka makes wrong choices immediately, and gives him an honorable, if less than perfect, fate, when he only makes mistakes at the end.

Sete-Ka’s Dream Quest actually offers the least coherent plot of the books, but in my mind, the original and interesting setting more than made up for it.

Grade: C+

The Lost Sword cover

Nancy Virginia Varian - The Lost Sword

In contrast, Nancy Virginia Varian’s The Lost Sword is the weakest of the books. This is the story of Prince Delvin, sent by a seer to reclaim a sword from a magical island. (Yes, every one of these books that I read featured an heir proving themselves in an unfamiliar magical realm. It’s a good excuse for unpredictable twists in the story, but the editors should have insisted on more variety.)

Unlike Sete-Ka, The Lost Sword has more of an actual plot. In the successful path, Delvin goes through multiple changes, works with a dragon, and returns home as a hero. Strangely, though, even this pre-planned story, which should be the most memorable part of the book, feels as jumpy and arbitrary as a traditional CYOA. At its best, it’s still something just to be read to get to the end. Even by these standards, it’s not well-written.

The book’s major failing, though, is in its arbitrariness. It reads almost like a parody of a CYOA, with many choices being simply no more than taking the eastern path or the western one (or left or right, or up or down, etc.) Even the typical randomness of CYOAs creates a little bit of involvement for the reader, who did at least make a choice to lead there. These, however, hardly even feel like legitimate options for someone to become invested in. (Not all the choices are as arbitrary as “left or right”, but even the ones with more character often have completely unrelated results. Who would have guessed that talking to the intelligent flowers would send you to an underground passage, or that choosing to go into a grotto instead of a cave would lead you into… a cave.)

Many of the different paths are accessible from multiple points, which is something I missed in Sete-Ka’s Dream Quest. However, when the main purpose of this is to increase the total number of wrong choices one can make, and the sudden changes in the story feel so pointless, that more complex branching structure just added to my frustrations. It’s rare for me to give up on completing any book, much less a short children’s one, but eventually I realized that trying to methodically read the whole thing was making me miserable. I found the good ending, and most of the bad ones, but most of what I remember is just nondescript paths and unpredictable magic.

Grade: D-

Realm of the Enchanter cover

Jean F. Blashfield - Realm of the Enchanter

Finally, Realm of the Enchanter is the book that I’d like to say was the best, and even recommend it to others. Unfortunately, structural problems that could have been easily caught with a more professional editing job almost ruin the story. It’s a shame, and not necessarily a reflection on author Jean F. Blashfield’s work.

The protagonist here is Lucin, whose wizardly family has a traditional coming-of-age quest. In a hostile environment designed partly as a proving ground, he runs into the expected series of varied scenes. Admittedly, the reader does not have Lucin’s magical knowledge, and his level of aptitude always seems to be exactly what the story requires at the moment. This is not uncommon for a children’s story, but becomes more of an issue when the reader is actively making the choices for a character they know nothing about.

What makes this book stand out, though, is in just how much branching and rejoining the paths do. Pages with three or more options (sometimes many more) are common, and many story branches are accessible from different places. Some of the choices just lead to a few new pages of adventure before returning to a hub that the character had already seen, effectively giving new flavor text depending on different choices. But there are also major scenes that the reader can skip entirely or go through in different ways. The story has a few major beats that always happen in order, but the paths between them are very open – so open, in fact, that the reader is sometimes expected to choose their next branch by answering honestly about what they encountered before.

It feels interesting and full of the possibility that CYOAs promise but rarely deliver. In fact, the number of choices is so overwhelming that it’s almost impossible to keep thorough track of every branch and read it like a puzzle. This is a legitimate puzzle (especially because certain paths towards the “good” ending will skip elements that are needed to complete it properly), but ends up seeming like more of an organic adventure than a discrete, structured book. I’m very impressed by Blashfield’s ability to put together complex but consistent story paths like this.

Unfortunately, the book is a victim of its own complexity. I found two places where the story referred back to events I had not yet seen, because I followed a path that didn’t use them. Those were easily forgivable and didn’t actually make a big difference in the story. However, there were also a couple points in which it directed me to the wrong page! One of them was easy to figure out (I was sent to the illustration that came immediately after the proper page), but the other one was completely wrong. Fortunately, I only ran into that after I’d seen the proper path elsewhere, so I was able to retrace my steps. However, for a reader with the wrong luck, especially for someone of the age that this book is aimed at, this could ruin the story.

For the most part, I found this book well-constructed and fun even though I’m well outside of the target audience. Without a little more clean-up, though, it’s simply broken.

Grade: C

(Disclaimer: These books were actually given to me for promotional purposes. It was a few years before I even started this blog, though. At the time, I was given them because I was attending a show with a comic and game store owner.)

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