Review: The Tainted City by Courtney Schafer

[Note: This review will contain SPOILERS for The Whitefire Crossing, so if for some reason you haven't read it (and you should) go and read it and then come back to this review.]

If you’ve been following my blog since February of last year, you probably read my review of The Whitefire Crossing, a book that was very good, surprisingly good, maybe not super amazing, but definitely worthy of a peek at the sequel.

When we last left Dev and Kiran, they had made it to their destination in Alathia only to be captured by the Alathians, with Dev being sent to work in the mines by the Alathian Council, a hostage to ensure Kiran’s good behaviour. When the Council offers Dev freedom in exchange for aiding them in a clandestine mission to Ninavel, Dev accepts, if only so he can keep the vow he made to his mentor and friend to keep his daughter safe. However, it turns out a killer who’s targeting Ninavel’s mages is the least of his worries, as he and Kiran find themselves betrayed by friends and forced into an uneasy truce with their deadliest enemy.

This book was actually very frustrating for me as a reader, and it’s not because the writing is shit (the writing is very definitely not shitty). My major issue with this book is that Dev and Kiran’s relationship essentially gets a giant reset button, leaving me feeling like all the character development in The Whitefire Crossing didn’t matter. If I were feeling cynical I’d say that it feels like a cheap ploy for yet more character development.  On the plus side, the characters are much more nuanced this time around. Characters that you might have thought were selfish dicks in the first book have a bit more light shed on their motivations, a couple characters who were only given mentions in the previous book have a larger role to play in this one. We get to see much more of Ruslan, Mikhail, and Lizaveta, and what Kiran’s life was like before Kiran’s flight from Ruslan. Overall, The Tainted City does a much better job of highlighting just how morally grey the entire world is. some of those shades of grey are much darker than others, mind you, but overall the world doesn’t seem nearly as black and white as The Whitefire Crossing sometimes had you believe, even Ruslan’s actions are somewhat understandable yet fucked up at the same time. After wading through book after book with stupid love triangles, it’s also refreshing to read about characters who aren’t completely motivated by a love interest. Dev is motivated by the promise he made to his friend/mentor Sethan to rescue Melly, and he’s also motivated by his friendship with Kiran to keep him safe and away from Ruslan.

Another thing I liked was the way the city and the characters who live in it seem real, but Schafer didn’t feel the need to infodump you every five minutes (something which many fantasy authors, self included, have trouble doing). My one issue is that sometimes it’s difficult to nail down the exact rules for magic (particularly which spells require magical channels and which don’t) fortunately, the rules aren’t so exhaustive that you need an entire magic textbook to figure them out. Also, everyone, this is how you write the second book in a trilogy, you take the great ideas from the first book and you expand upon them, play with them a little more, develop characters that weren’t very developed in the last book.

In terms of diversity, many major and minor characters alike are POCs, protagonists and antagonists alike, and there’s a bit more overt queerness (and nobody seems to really care) which is certainly an improvement on the last book. Unfortunately, I’ve never been so completely disturbed when one of my favourite slash pairings becomes canon, and I would very much appreciate more queer relationships with less betrayal and villainy in general.

Having said that, I’m eagerly anticipating the last book in the series, because the second book took a very, very interesting turn towards the end, and hopefully this last book will not involve a relationship reset button.

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The Thirteen Houses Project: Balm

[Once a month for the next twelve months, I will be doing a post on the 13th of each month based on one of the Thirteen Houses of the Court of Night-Blooming Flowers from Kushiel's Legacy.]

It’s the thirteenth and you know what that means, another post for the Thirteen Houses Project! We’re nearing the end of the project, and I had to flip a coin to determine whether I would discuss Balm or Gentian this month (Mandrake and Valerian are being saved for last).

The motto of Balm House is “Rest and be soothed,” and it’s canon is compassion. They hold that Naamah lay with the King of Persis out of compassion, to heal the pain in his soul. Adepts of Balm House are trained in the healing arts (particularly massage). In Phedre’s trilogy, Phedre comes to understand Balm house’s perspective when she sleeps with Hyacinthe after he loses a woman he loved. In Kushiel’s Scion, Imriel’s first experience with the Night Court is at Balm House, where the adept helps him heal from his traumatic experiences while being held captive in Darsanga. His trip to Balm House does not magically deal with his trauma, he (literally) bears the scars of his ordeal all his life, but it is an important step in healing emotionally for him.

Whenever I’m asked to choose my favourite Night Court house, it’s always a tie between Balm and Gentian (although I think Gentian just manages to get the top spot). I love the idea of Balm House, I love the idea of a place where patrons can go to rest and heal, where they can find a shoulder to cry on and words of comfort, and, yes, sex, if they’re up to it.

From the description above, you might be tempted to dismiss Balm House as the “house of the magic healing penis/vulva” but I do think that while Balm House does play a role in Imriel’s healing, it doesn’t magically “cure” his trauma. Balm House offers compassion and understanding, not necessarily a panacea for all that ails. This is what I take from Balm House, the importance of compassion and empathy: understanding the pain and suffering of others even if I might not experience that pain and suffering myself.

We don’t hear a lot about compassion in Heathen spaces. I’ve heard it said that things like compassion and moderation are “weak” Christian values and most definitely not Heathen virtues. I have to admit I’m pretty baffled by this lack of empathy for others. (Although I must confess, the complete xenophobia of some Heathen groups in general baffles me.) This is part of the reason why I find the Nine Noble Virtues inadequate as a kind of moral compass. It’s not that things like Courage aren’t great virtues, it’s that some Heathens seem to have this slavish devotion to it to the point of dismissing other excellent qualities as “weak” and you know what? Embracing values like compassion doesn’t automatically make you a Christian, either. To me, feeling compassion for others, and then acting to eliminate the cause of their suffering is a virtue, whatever your religion.

Melissa officinalis L. by Gideon Pisanty (via Wikipedia)

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Review: A Study in Darkness by Emma Jane Holloway

[Note: There will be MAJOR SPOILERS for A Study in Silks, please be sure to finish that book before you read this.]

There’s a phenomenon that I like to call the “Second Book Curse” which is when you have a trilogy of books where the first book is awesome and the third book is awesome, but the second? Well, the second book is okay, but mostly it just seems like filler for the third book.

A Study in Darkness is a great example of this phenomenon in action.

A Study in Darkness starts off with a (literal) bang when Sherlock Holmes’ house is bombed. After being kicked out of Hilliard House at the end of A Study in Silks and having been separated from Nick and Tobias, Evelina reluctantly accepts an invitation from Imogen to join her at the family’s country house for a time.

To make a long story short, kissing happens, and then suddenly Evelina finds herself in the Gold King’s pocket. He sends her to Whitechapel to spy on a fellow Steam Baron, the Blue King.

Also Jack the Ripper, you can’t have a story set in Victorian London without Jack the Ripper.

Normally I would start by talking about things I liked about the book, but in this case I actually didn’t like it very much. Oh, it starts off great with Holmes’ residence being bombed, but after that I felt like the plot slowed to a crawl. At one point, Evelina is in a tavern and I completely glossed over what was being said because it was just that dull. You would think that being stuck in Whitechapel with a killer on the loose would be a bit more exciting, but Evelina pretty much heads to Whitechapel, there’s a time lapse, and then suddenly Evelina’s fretting that she only has a week before the Gold King’s deadline…..so she spends time learning about magic….because that’s what you’re supposed to do on a deadline, take the time to learn magic. The book is also much more gory than the last book, and I had to admit that the state of one of the Rippers victims was definitely jarring and not really in keeping with the series so far (kind of like the rape scene in Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Mariller).

On the plus side, minor characters like Striker get a bit more development, although the most surprising for me in terms of character development was Alice, as in the first book, she’s presented in a way that makes you think she’s “Daddy’s Little Villain”. On the minus side, we don’t get to see much of Imogen or Mouse and Bird.

Although romance was definitely a thing it book one, it definitely gets more attention in the second book. On the plus side, the love triangle is finally resolved (and I actually liked how Holloway separated her heroine from both love interests in the beginning) on the other hand, separating your love interests means that you have to listen to them whine about how they miss each other until the love triangle finally is resolved. Maybe it’s just me and the fact that I’m just tired of love triangles in general (especially love triangles that don’t end in threesomes). Bleh, moving on….

So now that I’ve discussed the good and the bad, let’s move on to the ugly. The good news is that A Study in Darkness has less disposable POCs (and Striker and Nick get character development) the bad news is that there’s a bit of fat-shaming, with the book describing just how disgustingly obese the Blue King is (to the point where he needs to use a chair to get around) it’s just completely unnecessary and gross.

Overall, I just wasn’t feeling this book. The first book wasn’t great literature, but at least it was somewhat entertaining, this book just seems like pointless filler for the exciting conclusion that will probably be the third book. I will be reviewing the third, but after such a disappointing second book I’m going to be giving this trilogy a rest for a bit.

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Game Review: Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney

Justice prevails!

As you no doubt have figured out, I’ve gone from saying: “A game about being a lawyer? BORING!” to “OMGS MUST BUY THE NEXT ONE!”

The fourth installment of the Ace Attorney franchise has you stepping into the shoes of a new defense attorney, Apollo Justice, as he investigates crimes, exposes contradictions in witness testimony, and….tries to catch a panty thief?

I have to admit, I was skeptical at first. It seems like I’ve been playing as Phoenix forever, and I wasn’t sure how I felt about playing as a brand new attorney. The introduction of a new main character and new cast is always hit or miss with me, sometimes I end up loving it, other times I end up missing the old cast too much.

In this case, however, I found Apollo Justice to be a refreshing change. Apollo is a bit more energetic than Phoenix (fittingly, the dominant color of his outfit is red, in contrast to Phoenix’s blue). I really like him as a character. He’s loud, he’s snarky, he’s still the butt of the vast majority of the jokes in the game. In fact, I was impressed with the cast in general. Although in general I’d say the characters are a bit less quirky than they have been in previous games (still quirky, but a bit less over the top), I found that to be a refreshing change from the previous titles.  Although you do see a couple of familiar faces from past games, the majority of the cast is brand new, including a new prosecutor: Klavier Gavin (Klavier is awesome, btw). Story-wise, this game doesn’t pull any punches, with the first case giving you a real swift kick in the ass that was actually pretty cool. I’m used to this series giving me “Holy shit!” moments during the latter cases, but Apollo Justice does not screw around in this regard. In fact, I’d say this installment is a bit darker than previous games (or at least a bit more serious).

In terms of gameplay, you know the drill by now if you’ve read my previous reviews. You spend time investigating crime scenes, gathering evidence, when you’re finished gathering evidence, you proceed to the trial phase, where you can press witnesses for more information or object to their statements and supply evidence to expose the contradictions in their testimony. The new gameplay element in Apollo Justice is the “Perceive” system. As the name might suggest, Perceiving a character involves observing them and finding their tells (or habits, as the game says) that they unconsciously do when they’re nervous about something. When Apollo enters Perceive mode with the help of his bracelet, time slows and you’re able to focus on the witness while they’re spitting out their testimony. Your goal is to find their habit (for instance, shifty eyes or swallowing) that occurs when they say a particular word or phrase. It sounds difficult, but in practice it’s actually not that hard as you usually only have a couple of lines of testimony to scrutinize, and the game isn’t subtle about indicating when you should be using it. I have to say that in spite of the fact that it was pretty easy (for the most part) I enjoyed it, and it seemed much more realistic than Phoenix flashing his Magatama around (not that I didn’t like the Psyche-Locks) it’s all about observing a witness and then shoving their habit in their face. easy, but satisfying.

More good points: I complained about the soundtrack in the last game, but I really enjoyed the new versions of old tracks. In particular, the new Pursuit/Cornered theme is really upbeat and fits with Apollo’s more energetic personality. The game is also a bit longer, the first case might take you a couple hours depending on how quickly you read. Difficulty wise it is kind of on the easier side, and there were only a couple of times where I got really stuck (once because I missed one small piece of evidence).

As for things I didn’t like. Some characters took a little getting used to, like Trucy, the “assistant” character in AJ, but others I just found plain annoying (Valant the magician) or annoying and a little creepy (the reporter character, everything about him creeps me out, least of which the fact that he practically strangles himself with his tie whenever he’s nervous). I was also disappointed in the Big Bad, and thought that their motivation for doing what they did was…. kind of stupid, all things considered, but I’m probably being less critical than I usually am because this antagonist is pretty much Evil is Sexy for me and it was very distracting. Also, a certain scientific investigator returns from case five of the first game, and TBH I really didn’t like how she went from being very enthusiastic about investigating and science and more science to assaulting you with snacks (although given what’s happened to her in the interim, her crankiness is justified, I would say).

Overall, in spite of the fact that I wasn’t too impressed with the main antagonist from a story point of view, I thought the Perceive system was great, and even though I miss the old cast, I liked following all the fresh faces around. Overall, I would say that it’s definitely different from what you may be used to with the original trilogy, but it’s still a solid entry in the series and I enjoyed it very much.

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Game Review: Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Trials and Tribulations

So this is the third game in the Ace Attorney series and the final installment of the original trilogy. If you’ve read my previous reviews, you’ll be familiar with the setup by now. You are a lawyer, a crime has been committed, and your job is to investigate and expose the lies in witness testimonies.

This time, however, you’ll be playing as two characters: Phoenix himself, and his mentor, Mia. Other than that, gameplay is pretty much unchanged from the second game. The Psyche-Locks make a return appearance, and serve to break up the investigation portions a bit, and of course you still have to press or object to witness statements, as usual.

The other major difference between Trials and previous games (particularly Justice For All) is that this game is a bit easier. I only found myself completely stuck a few times, and even then, I was on the right track. Still, if you played the previous game and found it a bit too hard, this one eases up on the player a bit (the fourth case in particular was very easy for me).

By now, everyone should be familiar with the quirkiness of the casts of each of the Ace Attorney games. You have your regulars, like Maya, Pearl, and Detective Gumshoe, and new faces (most notably, a new prosecutor, Godot) including a couple that you just have to see to believe. Seriously, Jean Armstrong is an effeminate French chef who wears pink, carries roses, flirts with male characters, and constantly misgenders himself (and is misgendered by) other characters (or is he?). I should note that his name in both the English and Japanese versions is gender neutral, but since he’s French in the English version, I assume his name is meant to be read as the masculine version. Stereotypical? Yes. Something that I’ve pretty much come to expect from Ace Attorney where every single character is stereotyped to some degree and is informed by Japanese culture where gender and sexuality are treated differently than in the West? Yes.

Once again, the series gets very, very “flashy” with it’s graphics (especially when Furio Tigre is introduced with at least 30 seconds of “flashy” text that practically has “epilepsy trigger” written all over it), but my other criticisms, that the games are very short, is not so much an issue here. The game is still pretty short, but the cases are much longer, plus there’s no circus case, i hated that case. Gods that case was annoying. Oh, and I really liked Godot, but he can be a bit sexist at times (also he will make you crave coffee, I don’t even drink coffee and I wanted to try it). The one other thing I didn’t like was the music, not that the music was bad, but I felt the trial music really didn’t inspire the same sense that I had a witness on the ropes, the lack of a good “Cornered” theme (my favourite track from the original) was very disappointing.

Overall, there were some really great twists and turns in this installment (including two “holy shit!” moments for me that happened within a couple seconds of each other) and it’s basically a more refined version of the second game. I can’t wait to play Apollo Justice and Investigations!

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Spring Update!

Before I hit you with moar reviews (three incoming) I thought I’d take a moment to update you on what’s been going on, since I haven’t done more informational posts in quite some time.

  • Next week I go to the doctor’s to check my eyes to see if the cross-linking procedure I had in October has worked
  • I’m still writing, but I’ve started to post stories to my tumblr rather than my blog, I will probably repost a couple here, I haven’t been able to be as productive as I like since my eyes have been giving me trouble
  • I’m (slowly) editing The Eldermaid, not sure when it will be released, and working on other writing projects that should have been finished ages ago, but see above

I’m sick and tired of all this godsdamn snow! I’m at the point where I just want it all to go away and not come back for five years, or never. UGH!

Anyways, this has been your break from the mountain of reviews.

 

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Review: Sailor Moon Vol. #6

We’ve finally arrived at the last volume in the first box set, halfway to reading the entire series.

This volume kicks off the Infinity arc. A lot happens in this volume. We’re introduced to a new group of villains, and two mysterious new Sailor Guardians, Neptune and Uranus, appear with their own agenda. Meanwhile, Chibiusa makes a new friend, Hotaru, who seems to have some connection to incidents involving students from an elite school turning into monsters.

So the first couple of arcs were great, but the last arc in particular seemed rushed. The pacing in this volume is great, and other characters besides Usagi and Mamoru actually get a chance to hog the spotlight (particularly Sailor Neptune and Sailor Uranus, who absolutely steal every scene that they’re in). This volume also contains a Mercury-centric chapter, which makes me happy.

At this point it appears like someone finally got to Kodansha about the translation, because the dialogue seems much more natural now. I’m still scratching my head over the way Haruka’s last name is rendered as “Ten’o” (which is apparently correct but isn’t really how your average Japanese speaker would write it). That doesn’t mean there aren’t awkward moments, but the entire volume is much more readable now, and I’m glad they appear to have made an effort to fix things (or maybe I’m just used to the awkwardness and I didn’t notice). It still sucks that you have to stick around for five volumes of awkwardness, but if so, this one’s a treat to read, trust me.

Also, Haruka and Michiru are definitely not cousins. I just thought I’d make that clear.

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Review: Sailor Moon Vol. #5

We’re almost through with the first Sailor Moon box set!

So, to recap, when we last left our heroes, Chibiusa encountered the Wiseman beyond the Door of Space and Time. Mercury, Mars, and Jupiter are still out of action, and we got a lot of backstory about Nemesis and its history with Neo Crystal Tokyo.

Overall I found this volume kind of confusing. On the one hand you have Tuxedo Mask trying to rescue Chibiusa, you have Sailor Moon and Sailor Venus trying to find the scouts (also Prince Demande is really pushy) but then you have the appearance of the Black Lady. Once again, the incredibly awkward translation does not help, at all. It’s easy enough to piece together what’s going on, but there were times when I had to pause and ask myself “Wait, what’s going on?” Since this volume concludes the second story arc, everything eventually gets wrapped up, and you have epic betrayals and drama and a character death or two, but it all seems very rushed as if someone really couldn’t wait to just get on with the next arc. (The preview for the next arc looks very intriguing.)

Overall, I’d say that this arc started off strong, but it just seems like between all the exposition and the confusion at the end it wasn’t as epic as it could have been (again, the translation does not help).

Next stop: the Infinity arc!

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Review: Phantom Thief Jeanne #1

It’s a manga review double feature today, apparently.

I picked this up on a whim at Comic Con because it looked cute and AMERICAN COVER PRICES FOR EVERYTHING!

….Or just because it looked cute.

As it turns out, I’d heard of this series before (you may know it as Kamikaze Kaitou Jeanne) but I never really looked into it. I watch the occasional anime, but I never really got into buying manga until relatively recently (and not only because I just didn’t have the money for it, which I didn’t, but that’s besides the point). The manga was originally published in Japan in 1998 – 2000 and reprinted in 2013. This English edition is the five volume reprint (originally it was released in seven volumes).

By day, Maron Kusakabe is an ordinary high school student, but by night, she’s Phantom Thief Jeanne, who sneaks into private art collections in order to steal the paintings that hide demons inside them, which feed on the hearts of humans. The hardest part of her job seems to be evading the police, but things get complicated when another thief, Phantom Thief Sinbad, arrives on the scene and he’s trying to steal the demon occupied paintings before she does!

I like Maron as a character. Outwardly, she appears to be a very kindhearted person, but inside she has major trust issues, and God help you if you betray her trust. Her banter with her best friend Miyako is always entertaining. Other major characters include Chiaki, who is a jerk who practically has Obvious Love Interest emblazoned on his forehead, Finn Fish, Jeanne’s angelic companion/mascot character, Access Time, another angel who follows Chiaki around, and Yamato Minazuki, the mild-mannered, somewhat nerdy class president with an unrequited crush on Maron. They all have very distinct personalities, and (unlike Sailor Moon) I don’t really have the sense that one character’s development is being privileged over the others.

Comparisons to Sailor Moon are inevitable because I read this at the same time as that series, but Kodansha could really stand to take some notes on how not to do an awkward translation from manga like this. The dialogue sounds more natural in English, and there aren’t any obvious spelling mistakes. Don’t get me wrong, Sailor Moon is great, but reading this was a real treat after putting up with so much awkward phrasing and honorifics.

The art is pretty good. I’m a fan of more detailed art and there’s enough detail to satisfy me, but as usual your mileage may vary.

For triggery things, there’s a moment where a possessed Minazuki tries to force a kiss on Maron, but she is rescued in the nick of time by Chiaki. Chiaki is a jerk who abuses Maron’s trust, and one major theme is parental abandonment/neglect.

Overall though, I’m not sure if I’ll purchase the next one. The characters are interesting, it’s nice to see a protagonist who has issues with trusting people (and who actually sounds like a teenager) the mascot character isn’t a pain in the ass, but it didn’t really grab me, it just kind of took my hand and held it. There’s definitely a nostalgia factor for me (Jeanne reminds me of a more “mature” Cardcaptor Sakura) but, especially when compared with Sailor Moon (which also has a T rating) it seems a bit juvenile. I know that sounds odd since it’s meant for teenagers and I’m almost 30. I suppose that’s due to the series age and the fact that I’ve seen so many magical girl shows at this point that Jeanne just doesn’t affect me the way it might have a decade ago. I would definitely say this was a strong first volume, but I’m not sure if it’s enough to sell me on the rest of the series. In any case, if you’re a fan of magical girls (particularly Cardcaptor Sakura) then I’d say this one is worth a look, even if it’s just a peek.

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Review: Sailor Moon Vol. #4

I actually finished this last week but I’m just getting to it now.

This volume continues the “Nemesis” arc, with the sailor guardians facing off against the Black Moon Clan–or they would if they’d stop getting abducted. There’s a ton of exposition: Chibi-Usa’s identity, what the whole deal is with Nemesis, and new insights into Usagi and Mamoru’s relationship. This volume also introduces Sailor Pluto, the mysterious guardian of the Door of Space and Time.

It might just be me, but so far as I’m reading the series I’m finding that the other characters besides Usagi and Mamoru aren’t getting a whole lot of character development. I feel like the villains are being given a bit more depth, but the other scouts don’t really seem to have the same strong characterization that they had in the anime (to be fair, the anime had to pad things out with more characterization).

As usual, the art is great and the translation is awkward. I swear to gods, if I had a dollar for every time Chibi-Usa is addressed as “Small Lady” I’d be too rich to care about this series. At one point during the translation notes, the translator even says “I have no idea what these chemistry terms mean, you look it up,” and I’m just like “Well….okay then……” For those who are interested, I found a website that goes over the translation mistakes/awkwardness in the manga.

Overall, I found #4 to be one of the more exposition-heavy volumes, and I’d like to see more characters get a little more development.

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