Review: Abhorsen by Garth Nix

Reading this trilogy is like riding a roller coaster. Sabriel is just like when you reach the end of the line and climb into the car, flush with excitement. Lirael is like the slow ascent to the highest part of the coaster. Finally, Abhorsen is the swift plummet to the bottom and the slow coming to a halt, when you feel glad that it’s over, but at the same time, sad, because it’s over.

Actually, I’m not much of a roller coaster person, but I feel this comparison is apt.

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It is, naturally, difficult to talk about Abhorsen without spoiling its predecessors so this is going to be a short review. Lirael ended on a bit of a cliffhanger and with a lot of unanswered questions. As with the last book, Abhorsen’s story is told from multiple perspectives: mostly from Lirael, Sameth, and Nicholas’ point of view, but there are a few surprises. Once again, they are accompanied by their animal companions, the surly Mogget and the loyal (but disreputable) Disreputable Dog. The characters have come into their own and are ready to take on the world–provided they can stop the complete destruction of the world first. No pressure or anything.

I love these characters, Mogget and the Disreputable Dog are hilarious. Sam and Lirael try and try and fail and try again. There isn’t a single character I can say I definitively dislike (well, maybe the villains, because they’re assholes). After the endless teen drama of many of the YA books I’ve been reading these days, it’s refreshing to read something where the characters are a bit more subdued in comparison. It’s not that I don’t enjoy teen drama, I was a teenager once and I was convinced my life was very dramatic, but this series was a nice break. Also the book made me cry. This is the second time the series has made me cry. Stop it, Old Kingdom series, stop that right now.

The books may have been published a decade ago, but they tackle issues that are still very relevant today: grief and loss, terrorism, nationalism, immigration. I don’t feel as if Nix hits you over the head with them, but they are definitely present within the narrative. Seriously, why isn’t this series being adapted for film? They are leagues ahead of bullshit like The School for Good and Evil. Why, Hollywood? Why?

Anyways, I think my only criticism is that the second part is a bit slow to get going. What doesn’t help is that certain characters are MIA for a good chunk of the book, and their absence is definitely felt. It felt a bit like when Daemon was absent in Heir to the Shadows by Anne Bishop (personally, I found Daemon annoying, but somehow his absence didn’t make the book any better).

I can’t remember anything particularly triggery, just the usual violence and the whole idea of the Greater and Lesser Dead in general. There is a scene at the very beginning of the book depicting a bombing. Once again, there isn’t a whole lot of diversity, although the Clayr are still very much present.

Overall, this is a fitting end to the original trilogy and I can’t wait to read Clariel and Goldenhand. If you haven’t read the Old Kingdom books by now, I encourage you to pick them up. They are fantastic and I nice break from the YA books I’ve been reading lately. Seriously, these are good, go and read them!

 

Deck Review: Oracle of Mages

I make no secret of the fact that in almost every RPG I start as a spellcaster. I love mages. Warriors are kind of boring and the Rogue’s quick and dirty tactics just aren’t my style, but raining fiery death from above? Hell yes. So when I saw a few cards from the Oracle of Mages on tumblr, I knew I had to have it.

The Oracle of Mages is a 24 card deck from Nezu Sotir at DarkandNerdyTarot on etsy. All of the cards are done in an 8 bit art style reminiscent of the NES era. The deck also includes a title card, four “cheat sheet” cards with keywords, and a blank card which just shows the card backs (an 8 bit crystal ball against a purple background). The cards measure about 2.5 x 4.5 inches, cardstock is glossy, thin, and bendy.Each card has an image, a title (in large letters) and a black border.

The mages in this deck run the gamut from typical black. white, and elemental mages, to dragon and fairy mages, to quantum mages. They range in skin tone from white as a sheet to dark as the night, and there are mages that are clearly, unambiguously mages of colour. The characters are front and centre in this deck, with little to no background imagery. The cards are meant to be read intuitively, but as I said, keywords are provided if you need an idea of where to start.

I’ve been offering readings with this deck for a few days now, and so far it’s been one of the most (if not the most) popular decks ever since I started offering readings on tumblr. The characters have clear personalities, from the lightning mage who enters your life with a bang to the air mage who is always on the move. I’ve dubbed them the “mage friends” and treated them as if they are allies that assist the querent with their issues.

I do have two criticisms of this deck. One is that I wish there were more cards! The art style is so cute but there are so many more mage archetypes that didn’t make the cut, and 24 cards is a bit short of my usual ideal number of cards for an oracle deck (30 cards), that said, I would absolutely support the creator if they decided to make an expansion pack of sorts. My other issue is that some of the more negative cards (nightmare and poison mages) in the deck are dark-skinned mages, although even these cards have positive meanings, and, interestingly, the white mage is associated with blandness.

Overall, this is a fun oracle deck and if you like pixel art and mage archetypes you can’t go wrong with this deck. The shop owner (as of this writing) is currently taking a break and I don’t know if/when they’re planning on offering the deck for sale. This is one deck I would highly recommend!

On Being a Bad Polytheist

There’s been some discussion in polytheist circles about sin, piety, ritual purity, and the like. I haven’t been paying much attention because I’ve been spending a lot of time on tumblr and when I’m not on tumblr I’m probably outside, enjoying the last few weeks of hot weather before fall ruins everything.

Honestly, I find the whole debate to be kind of silly, because not only do different traditions have their own customs when it comes to preparing for prayer and ritual, some folks seem to really be pushing the whole “miasma” thing. Seriously, it’s a Hellenic thing, it will never fly in Vanatru circles, ever (or at least, not in my Vanatru circle, I can’t speak for other Vanatruar). You can argue about it and use whatever fancy academic terms you want, but it’s not my circus, not my monkeys, end of discussion.

I’m a Bad Polytheist. Sometimes I yell and swear at my deities. I eat most of the offerings I give, and the stuff I don’t eat gets thrown in the trash. I might take a bath before doing a ritual, maybe. Sin is something I did when I was a Catholic, but no longer, and I doesn’t have a place in my Vanatru, either. I have taken serious religious musings and turned them into sex jokes, or gallows humour. I’m a pop culture Pagan. I’m the irreverent, impious polytheist certain other polytheists have warned you about.

The worshipers of my deities horrified observers who complained about the “unmanly clattering of bells”. The Vanir weirded out the Aesir with their habit of incestuous marriages (not that I condone incest). Freyja taught the other deities the transgressive, likely sexual, tole-defying magic of seidr. If you can name it, chances are Loki’s done it, but after Loki, the Vanir have probably done it, and they do it so well that even other Heathens are uneasy when it comes to the Vanir. Nobody wants to talk about those weird deities from another land with a habit of marrying giants.

I have no use for a concept of piety that always has everyone dressing in their Sunday Best and acting in a perfectly proper and reverent manner all the time and honestly, judging from both the lore and personal experience, I don’t think my deities have much use for it either.

Review: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

The following review will contain major spoilers for the play. If you are interested in reading or seeing the play, do not read this because I’m going to spoil the hell out of it. I will put spoilery stuff under a cut. Also, expect spoilers for the entire Harry Potter series, I mean obviously.

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The Harry Potter series is a literary phenomenon. Conservative Christian groups ranted about how it was teaching kids witchcraft, news outlets raved about how kids who had never picked up a book in their lives were reading, and it was part of the syllabus in a course I took on Religion and Popular Culture. It’s one series that doesn’t really need an introduction. Even if you don’t consider yourself a fan, you’ve probably heard about it by proxy.

Recently, however, my interest in the series has waned. Between the movies based on the main series being over, endless debates over whether Snape is a sympathetic character on tumblr, and the Ilvermorny cultural appropriation mess, I’ve realized I much prefer the diverse headcanons the fans come up with than the very white, very heterosexual canon universe.

But then there was an alleged “leak” of the plot of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which I read. The utter trainwreck that was this alleged “leak” simultaneously horrified me as a fan of the series and delighted me as someone who just kind of wanted the canon universe to crash and burn at this point. I knew right then and there that I had to read it for myself. I had to see with my own eyes if this alleged leak, this synopsis that sounded like someone’s first (awful) attempt at Harry Potter fanfiction was real.

Here’s a brief synopsis of the play. Nineteen years after the Battle of Hogwarts, Harry Potter is struggling with balancing his job at the ministry of magic and his personal life with his wife and three children. The youngest of these three children, Albus, feels very much like an outsider in his own family, finding it especially difficult to bear the weight of his father’s legacy. He finds an unlikely friend in Scorpius Malfoy, who has had to dodge vicious rumors spread by his peers. What begins as an attempt to right the wrongs of the past quickly spirals out of control, and Albus discovers that evil emerges from the most unlikely places.

Before I get into spoilery territory, here’s some non-spoilery ramblings about what I liked about the play. In the past, I (and many others) have complained about the lack of heroic Slytherin characters (despite being a dyed-in-the-wool Ravenclaw), so it’s nice to see not one, but two Slytherins with major, unquestionably heroic roles in the plot. Out of all the characters, I was most surprised by Draco Malfoy, of all people, who obviously cares for his son and is at times seemingly the only character who knows what he’s doing. He’s come a very long way from the bully fans grew up with. I would be lying if I didn’t say that it’s also very nostalgic, revisiting places that I visited in the previous books. It’s like reconnecting with an old friend (and I for one will never see the Trolley Witch in the same light again). Regardless of anything I will write below, it was nice to see these characters again, even if the focus is now on the next generation.

Unfortunately, here’s where the non-spoilery bits end, so I’m going to cut this. If you don’t want to be horribly spoiled, don’t read past this point.

Continue reading Review: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Review: Full Fathom Five (Craft Sequence #3)

Confession: I actually read this book months ago and forgot to write a review. It’s been sitting in my “review” pile for ages, so I decided I’d better review it before I forget about it entirely, especially now that the fourth and fifth books are out.

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On the island of Kavekana, Kai builds gods to order. Her creations aren’t fully sentient, but accept offerings from Craftsmen and Craftswomen looking to protect their investments in the Old World, where true deities still hold sway. However, when she’s gravely injured trying to save a friend’s dying idol, she’s sidelined and given a less stressful position in the priesthood, but when she starts digging into the cause of the idol’s death, she uncovers a conspiracy of secrecy and silence that will break her if she can’t break it first.

Despite taking forever to write this review, I really enjoyed this book, though I think Two Serpents Rise is still my favourite. Both new characters as well as some familiar faces from the previous books are present and accounted for (including one of my favourite characters from Two Serpents Rise), and the story is told through the eyes of a few characters, not only Kai but Izza, a street urchin, and Cat (from the first book) who shows up on the island one day, though her reason for being there is suspect.

The world-building is intriguing as always. Max Gladstone has a gift for taking things like bankruptcy and risk management and adding demons and dead deities to the mix. Kavekana’s particular hat is investing via custom made deities. Resurrection cults are risky, for instance, so clients are advised to switch to grain-focused fertility, which is much more dependable. Oh, and actual deities aren’t allowed on the island–it’s bad for business. It’s just a really interesting way to approach topics that would normally be uninteresting or completely beyond the average person’s understanding.

The series continues to include more diverse characters (although, it is kind of sad that I find inclusion surprising). Kai is trans and possibly East Asian (judging by the cover) and Izza is black. There’s also an appearance by a certain Quechal (that is, Mexican) lesbian (who is such a badass in this book). In a genre so overwhelmingly populated by dycishet white people, the Craft Sequence is refreshing in its portrayal of many diverse characters, and it’s only been getting better over time. I’ve said before that many male authors just can’t do women right, but Max Gladstone consistently gives us many awesome, diverse women.

If I could name one thing I didn’t like about this book, it’s that it was a bit slow to get going. It took me ages to get past chapter eight or so because the characters were just kind of wandering around, getting into trouble. Like the other books, Gladstone doesn’t explain how everything fits together until the final few chapters, so if you’re the sort of reader who wants everything explained to you right then you’re going to have to wait a long time to get your answers. There’s a part of me that likes the whole “sink or swim” way of immersing you in the world, and there’s a part of me that absolutely loathes not knowing how things work. It’s well worth the wait though, trust me.

As for triggery things, Kai experiences nightmares of being tied down in a hospital-like environment and being injected. The way she is treated by her coworkers and boss (that she’s nuts and needs to calm down) reminded me of the way society treats those with mental illnesses and disabilities, as well as how women aren’t taken seriously and seen as “hysterical” when they try and express themselves. Like in the first book, Cat is still struggling with addiction (although she seems to be in a much better place than she was).

Overall, I really like this book, I love this series, I want the fourth book to be in stock in paperback on Amazon now, and I can’t wait to read the rest (the synopsis for the fifth book is wild, just saying).  This is one series that just keeps getting better with each installment.

Review: Lirael by Garth Nix

[The following contains major spoilers for Sabriel. Do not read until you have read Sabriel. Seriously, go read Sabriel, it’s amazing.]

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I’m still mad at all of you who knew about this series and didn’t tell me to read it.

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A daughter of the Clayr with no ability to See the future, Lirael has always felt like she doesn’t belong. Driven to despair, she finds a new purpose in life as an Assistant Librarian in the Clayr’s great library. However, with a new evil lurking in the Old Kingdom, she finds herself thrust from her semi-peaceful life in the Clayr’s Glacier, with only the Disreputable Dog, a mysterious magical canine, by her side.

This synopsis and every other synopsis I’ve read suggests that the book is solely from Lirael’s perspective, but in fact a good chunk of the book is from the perspective of Prince Sameth, son of Sabriel and King Touchstone. I told you there would be spoilers. Both of these characters deal with feeling like they don’t belong and struggling to find a place for themselves. While Sabriel was more or less a “coming of age” tale, Lirael is about not only trying to fit in, but family, including (and especially) chosen family, and also dealing with loss and trauma. There is also an undercurrent of nationalistic fervor that speaks to current affairs even though this was originally published decades ago.

I love these characters. I love how they try to do things right and they mess up but they keep going. Sameth in particular is the poster boy for “didn’t think this through”, while Lirael thinks of herself as someone who can’t do anything right. They both need one of those gold stars that say “you tried” and a hug, lots of hugs. And, just like in Sabriel, Lirael has a mysterious animal companion to set her straight, and the Disreputable Dog is nowhere near as acerbic as Mogget (I love Mogget though). I don’t know what else to say about these characters, honestly, except that I love them and they deserve hugs. Garth Nix has an uncanny ability to seamlessly go from characters relaxing and enjoying themselves to a scene of horror and terror in an instant.

I realize I’m probably not saying that much about the book, especially since it’s much bigger than Sabriel and Abhorsen, but it’s difficult to talk about many things without spoiling the entire plot and the book introduces a bunch of new mysteries and questions. You won’t find very many answers in this book, some, but not many, and that’s okay sometimes, IMHO, provided the final book can wrap things up nicely.

My one problem with this book is that it as great as it is, it ultimately feels like a whole lot of buildup to Abhorsen, which is why I (and others) highly recommend purchasing Abhorsen before you’re done with Lirael. It definitely feels like a much more personal story than Sabriel, and takes some time to get going. In the hands of another author the book could have been a drag, but even through its slower moments I couldn’t put this book down. The world of the Old Kingdom is not ridiculously complex, but it is compelling.

In terms of diversity, the Clayr all have dark skin and light hair, but the author spends more time describing their hair than their skin, which almost seems like the author is trying to say they’re not “too black”. They’re also “magical black people” who spend so much time in the future that they tend to neglect the present. However, it’s a step up from Sabriel, I would say. Sameth and Lirael both struggle with depression, the former also seems to be dealing with PTSD and the latter with thoughts of suicide.

In terms of triggers, Lirael spends the first few chapters of the books depressed and at one point plans out and almost attempts suicide (though obviously she doesn’t go through with it). There’s a moment towards the end of the book where a group of the Dead surround a group of people (including children) and massacre them all, although most of the violence is “off camera”. The implications that a political group wants to send refugees en masse to their deaths might hit too close to home for some people.

Although at times it feels like Lirael is just (much-needed) build-up to the final book in the trilogy (now a series now, I guess). I still very much enjoyed it and I’ve already started Abhorsen. It’s an easy recommendation if you loved Sabriel.

Game Review: 7th Dragon III Code: VFD

I won’t pretend to understand how the localization works, but sometimes Western publishers make some weird decisions. One example that comes to mind is the decision to localize Ar nosurge but not its predecessor, Ciel nosurge. Another example is this game, the first to be localized for the West despite being the last game in the series. Oh well, better late than never, right?

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It’s the year 2100, and you’ve been recruited by Nodens, makers of the game 7th Encount. However, the game company deal is just a front for their real purpose–recruiting promising young people in order to hunt the dragons that have been spreading deadly dtagonsbane flowers. Their ultimate goal is to kill the seventh dragon, code name VFD, hence the game’s title. Your adventure will find you traveling through time and ridding the past, present, and future of these mighty beasts.

Even though it’s being marketed as a traditional JRPG, 7th Dragon III has much in common with dungeon crawlers like the Etrian Odyssey series, only from a third-person perspective instead of first. The focus is on building a custom party (later you add two other parties to your team) out of a number of interesting classes, including the Hacker, who can “hack” enemies and apply various status effects, or the Banisher, powerful knights who use a bomb launcher and have powerful anti-dragon abilities. Once you’ve created a party, you can take on quests that will have you exploring a variety of colourful environments, battling regular enemies and roaming dragons as well as rescuing civilians (and later, cats) that find themselves caught in the crossfire.

Although your party members aren’t fully realized characters, there are still plenty of NPCs to interact with, including Nodens employees like Julietta, a flamboyant man who is the mind behind the time machine you use to travel between different eras, as well as members of the ISDF, a special task force with the same mission of eradicating the dragons, as well as a few characters from the different time periods you visit: Atlantis and Eden. The characters you meet fall into predictable anime stereotypes: the shy girl who is unsure of herself but still acts as mission control, the rival who will stop it nothing until he’s better than you, the one exception, interestingly enough, is the mascot character, who is foul-mouthed and clearly done with everyone’s shit. Although 7rh Dragon focuses more on story than your average crawler, the story lacks the depth of JRPGs like Persona 4 and Trails in the Sky. Still, I did find myself warming up to most of them.

If you’ve ever played a JRPG, the gameplay will be instantly familiar to you. You guide a party of three around a dungeon. Regular enemies are random encounters, bur dragons can be seen on the map and are a bit more powerful than your average encounter, in fact, they’re practically minibosses. In addition to these dragons, High Dragons serve as end of chapter bosses, and True Dragons are truly epic fights that will test your skills. Battles are from first-person perspective, although your characters will come into view when attacking or using skills. In addition to standard attack, guard, item, and skill commands, your characters can build up a special exhaust meter, which allows you to instantly attack and deal higher damage, as well as unleash special skills called EX Skills, which do massive damage to even the toughest opponents. While one team is fighting, the other teams can provide special support skills and “Buddy Skills” which can cancel enemy buffs and give them status effects or buff your party. You can also perform a special attack with all nine of your teammates. Also, if you take too long fighting enemies, sometimes dragons that are roaming around the map will ambush you. In fact, you’ll need to make use of this feature if you want to kill all the dragons in the game.

If you like experimenting with different party combinations, 7th Dragon III‘s got you covered. Each class controls slightly differently. The Samurai, for instance, can use either a single sword or dual swords, whereas the Duelist relies on drawing cards and creating card combos to summon monsters or lay traps on the battlefield. One of my favourite combinations is the Rune Knight and Fortuner, with the Rune Knight dealing damage and applying status effects that the Fortuner can exploit with their life-draining oracles. You’ll have plenty of opportunities to try out different class combinations since the game not only lets you create three different parties of three members each, but certain points in the game require your team to split and for each party to tackle a specific area. In the beginning, I wasn’t used to controlling different classes, so my second and third parties died a few times before I figured out how to use them properly, and for those of you who are worried you’ll be stuck with a party at level 5 while your other party members are at level 4o, don’t worry, because the other parties were roughly on the same level as my main party when it came time to use them.

Outside of main story missions, you can take on sidequests from Nodens employees (and others) and there are also little diversions like hanging out in the cat cafe or dating your party members and NPCs (hint: in order to date someone, be sure to open the packages that are left on the table in your dormitory, you’ll know you can date them when you get their phone number). You can date your own party members although the dates consist of a handful of generic lines, dating NPCs, however, leads to short scenes and access to some of the best weapons in the game. However, don’t expect the depth of, say, Persona 3 and 4’s social links.

Since you’re visiting the same locales over and over again, the music can be a little grating, but I did find myself humming tracks from it, and I did like the music for the dragon fights in particular. However the art is simply fantastic, with a bright colour pallet and detailed environments. The chibi-fied character models are adorable. This is definitely one of the better examples of “chibi” characters that are so popular (the other popular trend being pixel graphics).

In terms of diversity, Julietta is a stereotypical flamboyantly gay/bi man (he prefers the name Julietta, but the other characters use masculine pronouns for him, hence why I’m using them). However, I was pleasantly surprised at the inclusion of a non-stereotypical gay man named Sakurai, who explicitly says that he lost his boyfriend to dragon sickness, and has a crush on Julietta (who he knows is a man, in case you’re thinking it’s one of those “straight man mistakes another man for a woman” bait and switch things). Unfortunately, Sakurai only gives you that single quest and you never hear from him again. A number of characters also have darker skin, though at least one is an antagonist, and unfortunately there aren’t many options for dark-skinned customizable characters.  Speaking of customization, I would have liked to see more of it, even different clothing styles, although realistically it would probably have been a lot of work.

Although I do like 7th Dragon III overall, there are a few weird design decisions, like having to travel to the terminal in your dorm to swap party members. Many of the dragon designs are interesting, unfortunately, a staggering number are pallet swaps. One of the most egregious examples comes after you fight your first proper High Dragon (apart from the one that you’re supposed to lose to in the beginning) and you discover that the second High Dragon you have to fight is literally a pallet swap of the first. It’s disappointing because there are so many interesting dragon designs, from the Megamouth dragon, which, as you might expect, is mostly mouth, to a dragon that is essentially a giraffe, to criminal dragons who will break their chains and become much tougher if you prolong the fight. I also found that the dating mechanic, while cute in a way, still felt tacked on like dating is some sort of requirement for every JRPG these days. I will give the game props for letting you date characters regardless of gender, however the dialogue is the same regardless, so at most it gets one prop. Another issue I had was that apart from a few hiccups (such as the first High Dragon boss) the game is pretty easy, especially when you figure out that unlike in many other games, most bosses aren’t immune to status effects like paralysis or bleed, add a Banisher, who has skills that are ridiculously effective against dragons, and I managed to prevent the final boss from moving for most of the battle with the basic shock spell from the Mage, and once you unleash EX Skills, well, they’ll pretty much one-shot almost everything in the game. Beating the game (including completing all sidequests and rescuing all cats and people) took me around 35-40 hours, not including the special post game dungeon (which you unlock by killing all the dragons) or the DLC “Allie’s Death March” which is essentially boss rush mode with buffed bosses.

In terms of triggery things: Allie, the CEO of Nodens, makes some creepy sexual comments towards her employees, then remarks that she hopes she won’t be sued for sexual harassment. A few male “otaku” characters make creepy comments directed at Lucier (basically catgirls and catboys). Although the game’s default protagonist is a woman and the female Banisher is covered in badass armor, there are still sexualized outfits, with Queen Ulania being one of the worst offenders, as she’s wearing what amounts to fancy lingerie, and as much as I love the Rune Knight, her costume is, well, awful. There is a plot point involving mass suicide (technically genocide) in order to destroy one of the True Dragons, but thankfully you arrive in time to put a stop to it. Some people might find the dating events, which pretty clearly state that the final date involves sex, a bit creepy considering your selection of dating partners, which include your coworkers and a certain mascot character.

Despite several questionable design decisions, predictable plot, and stereotypical NPCs, I like 7th Dragon III and it was definitely a challenge at times even though it ultimately is one of the easier games I’ve played. It’s an easy recommendation for people who are intimidated by traditional dungeon crawlers as well as those who like to experiment with different party combinations or play around with some interesting classes. I had fun with it.

Review: Red Queen

A common thing that happens when you have something that is a success is for it to spawn a plethora of derivative works–what some call rip-offs–some being more obviously “inspired by” the popular franchise du jour. Everything is either “the next Game of Thrones” or “the next Hunger Games”. Coincidentally, these are the books that get all the movie deals, because Hollywood isn’t interested in original ideas anymore, if it ever was.

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Mare Barrow’s world is divided by blood. The silver-blooded elite oppress those with red blood with powers that can only be described as godlike, but Mare quickly gets in way over her head when, in front of the king and all the nobles in the land, she discovers that she, too, has a strange ability. To hide this impossibility, the king forces her to play the role of a lost Silver princess and betroths her to one of his own sons, and Mare finds herself thrust from a world of mandatory conscription and servitude to a gilded cage where even her thoughts aren’t her own, but rebellion is on the horizon, and Mare is playing a deadly game, one that could cost not only her life, but the lives of all Reds.

Let’s start with something this book does right. In many stories, those with strange abilities or supernatural entities are forced to hide from regular humans. The struggles of these “others” are often equated with the real life oppression of marginalized communities (the question of whether they are right in equating elves and superheroes to queer and black people is something else entirely). Red Queen flips the script in making the “others” the Silvers, the oppressors, which honestly makes more sense, if you ask me. They’re the ones with a clear advantage over others, it translates well into a culture of “haves” and “have nots”.

As for the characters, I didn’t hate them, but I did find them a bit flat. Cal, one of the princes, is the popular military man everyone likes, whereas Maven, Mare’s betrothed, is more quiet and intellectual, Evangeline, Cal’s betrothed, who spends most of the book sneering at people (more on her later), and Farley, fearless leader of La Resistance the Scarlet Guard, the Red resistance movement. Mare herself doesn’t really have any idea what she’s doing half the time, but her little shows of defiance (like refusing to kneel before the king) endeared me to her. There is a very annoying love triangle, but at this point I’m more surprised by books that don’t have them than books that do.

However, while it managed to hold my interest (in no small part because the writing is good) it definitely felt very derivative of The Hunger Games, complete with mandatory arena fights that are broadcast nationwide, a decadent elite profiting from their oppressors, even a training sequence that could have been lifted straight from the first book, and, honestly, if that was all that I had issue with, I could forgive it. Unfortunately, the book tells a story about an oppressed minority but doesn’t include any actual minorities on the protagonist’s side. There’s an interview with the author where she says:

“The blood divisions in Red Queen draw obviously from American divisions of class, race, religion, orientation—but obviously are most paralleled by the horror and genocide that was American slavery, as well as modern-day prejudices against non-heteronormative people and prejudices against Muslims.”

-from an interview from BookPage here.

The only two black characters in the entire book are Silvers and one is part of the “mean girls” clique that torments out protagonist. There are a couple disabled characters (including Mare’s father, who was injured in the war Silvers are fighting with other Silvers using mostly Red troops) but other than that? White straight abled people doing white straight abled people things (there is the barest hint that one of the princes might have had a relationship with another guy, but he’s, well, dead). In addition, this book, like so many others, loves its girlhate. Evangeline, Prince Cal’s betrothed, is a bitch. How do we know this? Everyone tells us. Evangeline’s purpose is basically to be the Queen Bee and therefore Mare’s rival and not much else. Lady Blonos, her protocol instructor, is dull and keeping herself together with plastic surgery, and of course, Queen Elara is the worst of them all (although, in all fairness, she’s not a nice person). In fact, the only allies Mare has at court are men, from her guard, Lucas, to the princes themselves, to her instructor, Julian. The only other woman of note is a mute healer who exists because manpain. I almost feel sorry for the women in this book. While the men can pretty much be whoever they want to be, they’re stuck in their assigned roles. She’s the bitch and the protagonist’s Eternal Rival. She’s the obviously evil queen. They could have had nuance, but they don’t. While I’m on the subject of flaws, did you know that hating your oppressors is just as bad as when your oppressors hate you? Yep, the book pulls a #SilverLivesMatter thing, of course it does.

I was all set to like this book despite how derivative it was, and it did have a pretty interesting twist at the end, but it’s another book that appropriates the struggles of actual marginalized communities to tell a story about straight white abled people, and girlhate, although definitely not as much as in Queen of the Tearling.

At this point, I’m thinking I need a break from YA lit. I still have the rest of the Old Kingdom books and a few more after that, but the endless parade of the same old grossness is getting tiresome. Hopefully Lirael and Abhorsen won’t disappoint me.

Deck Review: Joy and Sorrow Oracle

I have a small backlog of decks but before I get to them, I wanted to review this deck that just arrived because it already has a special place in my collection. I usually devote at least a week (though lately it’s been more like months) to playing with a deck before reviewing it, so I think this is probably the quickest delivery to review time ever for me. You’ll understand why in a moment.

The initial announcement for this deck came at a time when I was still dealing with losing my mother to cancer. I’ve actually felt a lot of mixed emotions surrounding her death (I’ve talked about her emotional abuse elsewhere) but even though a part of me is glad that she’s not giving me any of her crap anymore, the emotions can still be difficult to bear at times (although it is definitely getting better with the passage of time). I have a deck that I primarily use for self care (the Oracle of the Mermaids) but as soon as I saw the first images of this one on the Aeclectic Tarot forums, I knew I needed to have it.

Sorry for the lack of pictures, btw. I can’t find a great image of the box art.

The Joy and Sorrow Oracle is the creation of Roxi Sim Hermsen, creator of the Pearls of Wisdom Tarot and are specifically designed for those “dealing with the pain of loss and trauma”. The deck is composed of paintings that were part of her art therapy after losing her son, health, and mother in a short period of time. They are based on the idea that “joy shared is doubled and sorrow shared is halved”. The artwork features women and goddesses, mostly in natural settings, with evocative meditations designed to draw you into the cards to find a moment’s peace.

The deck has 33 cards and comes in two sizes: poker size and jumbo size. Poker size is exactly what it says, while jumbo size is about 5.5″ x 3.5″, the jumbo cards also have borders on the top and bottom of the cards, while poker size is borderless. Both versions have linen cardstock that is smooth and flexible. The jumbo size comes in a serviceable box (the deck is sold via the Game Crafter so the boxes are a bit flimsy). The backs of the cards have their meditations/meanings so there is no LWB and the cards can be used right out of the box.

The artwork is colourful and vibrant, so much so that I’m thinking of buying a couple prints of my favourite images. There are a lot of pinks, oranges, and blues. There’s a very watery quality to the art, and its more stylized than realistic. I’m really glad I bought the jumbo edition, it was worth the higher price for the larger images. I love the “Escape” card, which depicts a woman on the beach, looking up at the moon and tossing flowers behind her,”The Fountain” which depicts a fountain shaped like a goddess and surrounded by flowers. and “Sleep” which depicts a sleeping woman reminiscent of the “Sleeping Goddess/Lady of Malta”. The cards mostly depict women (the few men in the cards are in the background) a number of which have darker skin and heavier body types.

I’m hesitant to really criticize this deck because its heart is in the right place, but I always try to give balanced reviews regardless of my feelings. The meditations will probably be a bit too New Age for some tastes. The text makes reference to the “Earth Deva” in a few cards, which you can easily substitute “spirit” if you don’t want to use a term borrowed from Hinduism. Some of the text also comes across as romanticizing Middle Eastern traditions like belly dancing. This doesn’t detract from the lovely imagery the text evokes for me, but it is something to keep in mind. In terms of triggers, a few cards contain nudity and a couple cards depict pregnant goddesses. There is one image of a goddess holding an infant.While I’d like to emphasize that I find the messages to be comforting, I felt that a few cards were saying more or less the same thing about sharing your experiences with other when they could have been devoted to different aspects of self care. Then again, I’ve never been a big sharing person.

Despite my criticisms, overall my experiences with this deck have been positive and comforting. I still like my Oracle of the Mermaids for self care, but I’m really impressed by the vibrant images and evocative text. At times I feel like I could just fall into these images for a brief moment of just being at peace.

If you would like a copy of this deck of your own, you can purchase the poker size or the jumbo size decks at The Game Crafter.

Review: Sabriel by Garth Nix

I love this book.

I know I usually beat around the bush and hold off on stating my opinion until after summarizing the book, but I figured after reading the mess that was Queen of the Tearling it was time for a change.

 

 

cover-sabriel-us

Sent to a boarding school in Ancelstierre as a young child, Sabriel knows little of the Dead who won’t stay dead or the dangerous magic of the Old Kingdom beyond the Wall, but when her father, the Abhorsen, goes missing, she knows that she must enter that perilous land to find him. Her only companions on this journey are Mogget, a cantankerous cat who barely conceals a malevolent spirit within, and Touchstone, a Charter Mage who is definitely more than he seems. Their quest will take them deep into the Old Kingdom, where, assailed from all sides, Sabriel will come to face to face with her destiny.

I remember seeing this book a long time ago and passing it up in favour of The Forbidden Game. While I love The Forbidden Game dearly, I regret not picking this up sooner, especially after hearing all the positive things about it. Also, I am angry at everyone who knew about this series and didn’t tell me to read it. Yes, that means you if you’ve read it. Seriously, why didn’t you tell me? Have I done something to offend you?

While the books I’ve been reading recently tend towards character-driven drama (emphasis on drama) Sabriel feels more like an adventure story with a bit of magic. That is not to say that the characters have no personality (Mogget has enough personality for two characters) but that this is one of those books where the world itself feels more like a character. A lot of books have been compared to the likes of Harry Potter and His Dark Materials, and Sabriel, I feel, definitely deserves comparison to the better parts of the latter (Philip Pullman even wrote a blurb for Sabriel). Many books are compared to popular series these days for superficial reasons, Sabriel is right up there with great fantasy books of the past couple decades.

The phrase “strong female character” is overused and meaningless so I’m not going to use it, but next to heroines from recent reads, like Celaena from Throne of Glass, Sabriel is almost melancholy. She knows what she has to do but she really doesn’t know what she’s doing. She is sometimes jealous, sometimes scared out of her mind, but determined. Mogget’s snark is absolutely delightful even if he is a precursor to Grumpy Cat, and then there’s Touchstone who….has some stuff to work out. No character ever grated on me. From the first page, I knew I wanted them to succeed and be happy. In terms of the actual writing style, some reviews have complained about the lack of dialogue, but I want to draw particular attention to the diction. I think “tricksome” is now one of my favourite words.

Magic in Sabriel’s world is divided into Charter and Free Magic. Near as I can tell (it’s not explained in great depth), Charter Magic is a more organized form of Free Magic, created using Charter signs, whereas Free Magic is more volatile and dangerous. Whereas necromancers use Free Magic to raise the Dead, the Abhorsen uses Charter magic to put the Dead to rest. Speaking of Death, Sabriel has such an interesting and beautiful depiction of Death, with the soul of the person passing through multiple Gates and trying to avoid numerous perils on their journey. The main tool Sabriel uses to control the Dead are Bells of varying sizes with a variety of effects, including allowing the Dead to speak, binding them in place, or sending everyone who hears it into Death (including the ringer), these Bells also seem to have minds of their own. There are apparently official Bell charms for sale, I want them, but they are currently sold out. That’s just terrible.

On an emotional note, this book made me tear up. It seems like it’s been so long since a book got an emotional reaction from me that wasn’t rage or annoyance.

My only major criticisms of this book are that I wish it was longer and I felt like it was a little ambiguous when it came to describing people of colour. Abhorsen (Sabriel’s father, it’s both a name and a title) is described as “brown” a couple times, but Abhorsens have a habit of turning pale, and Sabriel herself is just described as pale. Sanar and Ryelle, the two representatives of the Clayr (an isolated people who are gifted with the Sight) are dark-skinned and blonde, so there’s that, and the book doesn’t have a huge cast. Unfortunately, Sabriel joins the long list of protagonists with dead mothers, but she makes up for it by having a genuinely affectionate (if long distance) relationship with her father.

I can’t think of any of the big triggers I usually mention. Touchstone first appears in the book naked, although it’s described in a tasteful way. Since this is a book about dead things, expect to read descriptions of animated corpses in various states of decay (you know, like zombies). There is also a brief mention of scavengers enslaving children to act as distractions for the Dead….yeah….this is a great book but sometimes it can be a little bleak, and one particular ritual requires human sacrifice to work, although, the book never reaches the grimdark levels of something like Queen of the Tearling.

In sum: this book, go read it immediately. It’s beautiful, it’s action-packed, it’s occasionally horrifying, it’s absolutely heartbreaking, and it’s wonderful. I love it. The fact that this is apparently not being made into a movie while a shit book like The School for Good and Evil is fills me with rage. Seriously, I think Sabriel is now in my top five favourite books, and that’s saying something. I cannot wait to read the other books in the series and I can’t praise this book enough. If this is sitting on your TBR pile, read it, for the love of all the gods, read it. If you only read one book I’ve recommended this year, make it this one.