“Spire Ablaze” is the second part of the gamebook series “A road less travelled“, by the canadian author Jeffrey Dean. We will take again the role of the mysterious protagonist of the first part, “Westward Dystopia“, also reviewed in this blog. But here we will go back to a previous period in his life, when he belonged to the “Corps of Engineers” of the city of Root. In this story, the Shapers, a kind of mutants with powers of energy manipulation, attack the Guild of Technomancers and kidnap a group of young students. Our protagonist, along with other recently graduated students, will receive the mission of getting inside the heavily protected Spire, the Shaper city, and rescue the kidnapped students.
This book is very different to “Westward Dystopia” in many aspects. In that first book, our protagonist was a lone mercenary, and the general tone was very similar to that of westerns, or movies like “Mad Max“, where a cynical and disenchanted antihero carried out missions for the best bidder, cuestioning at the same time his actions, and those of his contractors.
Here we will return to a kinder and less lonely period of his life. A time in which, perhaps innocently, the young Wanderer believed in values like justice or comradership. His colleagues in this mission will be Technician Quill – one of his teachers, now the leader of the team – his best friend Lucille and another two studends called Percy and Willard. Willard, probably the strangest of them all, will spend a great part of the mission taking notes on a small notebook.
With this heterogeneous group we will have to get inside the dangerous fortress of the Shapers, the Spire, trying to stay unseen until the very moment in which they recover their kidnapped classmates. On the way there, we will discover many things from the Shapers – the structure of their society, their power struggles or the existence of a mysterious deity called the Oracle, that tries to seize the power inside the Spire.
And, even after the mission has finished, the story will keep on revealing some surprises. A meta-story, continued from Westward Dystopia, will give us clues of a conflict taking place in different moments in time, where the individual persons are just pawns on a greater play. When I finished “Spire Ablaze“, I realized that Jeffrey has a very clear idea in mind of how the next books in the series are going to continue, and that this story will keep on branching out and getting more complex as the series goes on.
There are other differences with the first part. If “Westward Dystopia” was a gamebook that experimented with different structures and gave a great freedom of choice, here Jeffrey aimed for a “convergent“, more traditional gamebook structure, with a few less choices but much longer sections. Dialogues between main characters are much more important this time, as well as character development.
This has its pros and its cons. On the negative side, there is a scene close to the end of the gamebook that, even if it gave a lot of important information about the internal struggles within the Shaper society, it felt a tad too long for not having any interaction – altough Jeffrey has already told me that this will be solved in the Android version of the game. On the more positive side, some of the dialogues are wonderful. Specifically, Lucille is one of the most credible and “lovable” characters of any gamebook I’ve read recently.
“Spire Ablaze” still has the same attention to detail I had the opportunity to enjoy in “Westward Dystopia“. The world described is a complex and coherent one, the Spire is a city with an interesting historical background – we will discover as we read the story that it was a very different place before the Razing – and it still has that detail I loved of dedicating a specific section for each one of the “deaths” we find. Also as in the previous book, “Spire Ablaze” has several different endings – although only one of them called “The Truth” is the real one. If you have played the previous book, you’d know that – even when Jeffrey has done some effort to soften it – it is not a very cheerful one.
Is “Spire Ablaze” better than “Westward Dystopia“? I wouldn’t be able to tell. It is a very different story, and it delves deeper in the themes that the first book started. What I can say is that it’s a worthy sequel, and one that fans of Jeffrey Dean’s post-apocalyptic world owe themselves to read.