There are many book genres that I love, but high fantasy has probably always been my favourite. The love affair started in primary school, when my gang of nerdy friends and I would devour all the fantasy content we could get our hands on: Dungeons & Dragons rule books, Warhammer magazines, and, yes, an ancient computer game set in medieval Germany. It was during this period that a friend first introduced me to a choose your own adventure book, titled The Citadel of Chaos. I thought it was marvellous. I started my own collection, gathering together a whole shelf of books with delightfully lurid titles. City of Thieves. Crypt of the Sorcerer. House of Hell.
And, inevitably, Caverns of the Snow Witch.
Depending on which edition you have, Caverns of the Snow Witch is either the ninth or tenth entry in the Fighting Fantasy gamebook series, which was created by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone. Each book in the series is like a personal Dungeons & Dragons adventure, with the reader assigned a clichéd fantasy objective: most of the time it’s simply “kill the evil wizard.” Readers navigate the book by making a decision at the end of each reference, flipping through the book to find out what happens next – “If you wish to turn left, turn to 61” – and are regularly tasked with rolling dice to fight a monster. The books are definitely a bit nerdy, but they’re also good, honest fun.
But enough about that – let’s get to the witch! Caverns of the Snow Witch opens with the hero trekking up the snowy Icefinger Mountains, on a mission to slay a rampaging yeti. The yeti is swiftly defeated, but a dying fur trapper offers a new call to adventure: he has recently discovered an entrance to the legendary Crystal Caves, carved into a glacier by the followers of the evil Snow Witch. The witch is plotting to use her dark powers to bring on a new ice age, and so must be slain as soon as possible. So, what are you waiting for? Get questing!
Like most Fighting Fantasy books, Caverns of the Snow Witch takes place in the high fantasy world of Allansia, a world seemingly populated by every fantasy monster ever invented. As such, the denizens of the Crystal Caves are an eclectic bunch: you can fight snow wolves and Neanderthals and a frost giant, which are all pleasantly on-theme, but you’ll also need to defeat an illusionist, a “brain slayer,” and a rather flamboyant minstrel. When you do catch up with the titular Snow Witch, it turns out she’s secretly been a vampire all along, and can only be killed by a stake through the heart. What a twist!
Hilariously, there’s so little narrative logic in this fantasy world that the Snow Witch doesn’t even cast any cold-based spells; even when you fight one of the witch’s Crystal Warriors, the text is quick to point out that the warrior is made of quartz crystals, not ice. It’s all rather ridiculous, but things just go from bad to worse in the climactic exchange between hero and villain, when the player convinces the witch to take part in a battle of wits. Here’s a sample of the dramatic dialogue:
“The Snow Witch looks surprised and displeased at the defeat of her Zombies. Suddenly she says, ‘The game we are going to play is called Discs. You will not win, of course. But in the unlikely event that you do, I will give you the chance to escape. I hope you have remembered to bring along your discs. Without them you lose!’ She laughs sadistically at the thought of making up the rules on the spur of the moment.”
“Discs,” it turns out, is just an off-brand version of “rock-paper-scissors.” The reader chooses a shape, and the witch calls out another shape. If the reader’s shape beats the witch’s shape, the witch is immediately vanquished.
It is quite possibly the worst climactic battle I’ve ever read.
Even so, Caverns of the Snow Witch is still a lot of fun, so long as you know what you’re getting into. When I read the book again this week I died almost immediately at the hands of the witch herself (I didn’t manage to find a wooden stake), but I did make it through to the end on my second attempt, with only a little bit of flip-ahead cheating. For a choose your own adventure book, the narrative path is surprisingly linear; mapping out the choices with pen and paper reveals a pretty simple route to the end.
My pro tip? Don’t pay the first ferry man you meet. You’ll thank me later.
— To be clear, Caverns of the Snow Witch is not my favourite Fighting Fantasy book. Ian Livingstone’s stories generally require the reader to find the “one true path” to make it even slightly close to the end, and I find it discouraging to have an adventure cut short just because I didn’t find a certain mystical doodad. You’ll get a much better role playing experience out of Creature of Havoc, House of Hell, and especially the Sorcery! quartet, all of which were written by Steve Jackson.
— I should also mention that Caverns of the Snow Witch doesn’t actually end with that thrilling game of Discs. Early in the book the hero tries to read some strange symbols on a piece of parchment; it later transpires that the symbols were a Death Spell, and so even though the witch has been defeated, the hero is still doomed to die. Finding the cure is a complicated affair involving a banshee and a pegasus, which is business as usual for Allansia.
— Honestly, the scariest thing about the Snow Witch is the terrifying set of skeleton-filled icicles on the front cover. Credit goes to Les Edwards for that inspired background detail, and also to Gary Ward and Edward Crosby, for their excellent woodcut-style illustrations throughout. The book is actually worth a read just for those amazing monster pictures alone.
— There’s also a witch named Alianna in The Shamutanti Hills, which is the first entry in that brilliant Sorcery! miniseries I mentioned. She doesn’t hang around for long, but she does turn a chair into a wood golem, which is pretty cool.
— Would I ever write a choose your own adventure book? Yes, I absolutely would. In fact, if you Google hard enough, you can still find a piece of writing I entered in a Fighting Fantasy short story competition, back when I was a teenager. Or you could just click here.
— Okay, okay – I only completed Caverns of the Snow Witch with a lot of flip-ahead cheating. But believe me, flipping ahead to sneak a look at an outcome is an essential part of the choose your own adventure experience. Just pretend your hero is a psychic, and you’re good to go!