Published on February 5th, 2018 | by Dean Love0
The Escape Book
With the growing success of “escape room in a box” products, it seems inevitable that this “play at home” genre is going to expand. The Escape Book provides an interesting take on that.
What’s immediately striking about The Escape Book is that it’s a genuine novel. This is not just a book full of puzzles, indeed, between every 1-2 page puzzle there’s a good 3-5 pages of prose to read. It’s here that the book doubles down on the escape room format: this prose is the story of someone being captured and put in a labyrinth full of puzzles. Basically, they’re in a big escape room. It’s an odd choice: real escape rooms are rooms full of puzzles because it’s not feasible for them to be much more: they have to exist in a fixed place and be reasonably inexpensive to run. A book has no such restrictions. The format used here: a few pages of story, a puzzle, and an answer that tells you what chapter to read next, could be applied to pretty much any setting. But then, I guess it wouldn’t be an escape room in a book.
The puzzles themselves do seem heavily inspired by escape rooms: they are puzzles that rely on observation and making logical jumps, not puzzles that rely on process. It’s not a book full of crosswords and Sudoku with a plot in the middle. Nor, for that matter, is a book full of more complex, multi-stage puzzles like The Maze of Games. What this means in practice is that you’ll solve a good portion of the puzzles in less than a minute, while the ones that stump you will have you either putting the book down to think about them, or running right to the hints at the back of the book. It’s a good approximation of the real world escape room experience, though given solving each puzzle is rewarded/punished by a bunch more prose (depending on what you’re mainly here for) this can make the pacing a little odd.
Fortunately most of the puzzles are pretty good. There are a few flaws: one is easy to figure out but requires some very boring busywork to actually solve. Another seems like it doesn’t work how it’s meant to as the book is printed on paper that’s too thick – to be fair, the book is printed on very nice paper; at over half an inch thick it’s only 176 pages. Less forgivable are the final two puzzles, which even reading the solution, I’m not sure how we were meant to figure them out. The penultimate one allows you to stumble on to the answer in a roundabout way, but the final one seems to require a leap in logic never even hinted at. It’s notable that both of these puzzles are the only word-based puzzles in the book, and I do wonder if the fact that this has been translated from the original Spanish had something to do with it. This is something we will return to later.
Because that’s enough about the puzzles. The puzzles make up less than half the book, the rest of it is a story, so we should talk about the story and the writing. And here is where things really fell down for me. I mean it starts okay: we learn about who our heroine is and why she is stuck where she is. And we learn about our antagonist and what he is trying to do. Early on we discover the antagonist is trying to create an economic crash, and from that point on the book spends many, many pages describing in detail various stock and currency manipulation schemes. But they’re described in a way that doesn’t make complete sense. I can imagine that translating this from Spanish would have been a nightmare: with such technical specifics involved, the only way to do it would have been to research the actual real-world schemes being described and then essentially rewrite these sections. That’s not what has happened. Instead it seems like they’ve got to something that sounds like it might make sense and then hoped that most readers will skip over it, as really who wants to read about economics anyway? (Sad truth: I do).
If that were the only issue, it would be forgivable but there’s more. The author is weirdly obsessed with the heroine’s skirt. To the point that it starts coming across as creepy. Then it’s full of phrases like “Candela loves her job. She lives it with an intensity that others can only dream of, forever on the verge of unveiling the truth at all costs, even though it may end her life” and “she doesn’t know how it will kill her, whether hers will be a sudden death or a slow one. All she knows that it will not be pleasant, that’s for sure.” Not exactly literary awards territory. And the less said about the bizarre ending, the better.
But should that be a problem? It’s okay having (mostly) functional prose in what’s essentially a puzzle book, surely? Except, I can’t get away from the fact I probably spent as long, if not longer, reading this book than solving the puzzles in it. Still, having said all that, for £6.56 on Amazon at time of writing, it’s a passable couple of hours of puzzling. It’s half the price of the cheapest “escape room in a box” but it doesn’t feel cheap – at least in terms of presentation. If you enjoy escape rooms you’ll probably get your money’s worth in puzzles and concept alone. What it left me with was the hope that a good writer will team up with a good puzzle designer and take this concept a lot further.
The Escape Book is published by Aurum Press and available on Amazon.