Review: Siege and Storm (Grisha Trilogy #2)

it’s been a few years since I read Shadow and Bone, hasn’t it? Well the Netflix series is out and I’m playing catch up before I watch it.

When we last left our protagonist, Alina was on the run from the Darkling, predictably, this lasts for about a chapter before they’re captured again. Well, it was fun while it lasted. But wait! A mysterious privateer comes to her aid, and before she knows it she’s back in Ravka, trying to unite the remnants of the Grisha who haven’t defected to the Darkling. While she’s busy adjusting to her new responsibilities, however, Mal is slipping further and further away from her.

This book feels like the planning phase in a D&D session before a big battle. It focuses more on intrigue and preparing for the Darkling’s inevitable assault on Ravka.

This book introduces a new rival (if you can call him that) for Alina’s affections in Nikolai. I found him more interesting than Mal but to be honest, they’re both assholes in their own way. Nikolai forces a kiss on Alina, and Mal spends the latter half of the book depressed and angry because Alina can’t be “normal”. If you ask me, they both need to chill.

The books continue to be very straight but there are a couple new characters of colour in Tolya and Tamar. They’re introduced working for Sturmhond (the aforementioned privateer) and become Alina’s bodyguards of a sort. I like them as characters.

I feel like Siege and Storm isn’t a terrible book, it is slow-paced and probably could’ve been a hundred pages shorter, but it was hard to put down and I’ve read way worse second books in trilogies. I will say I’m looking forward to reading the Six of Crows books more than Ruin and Rising because I’ve heard they’re much better. Well, time to finish the trilogy I suppose.

Review: A Dowry of Blood

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I don’t know it it has something to do with the current plague (it probably does) but I’ve been finding myself with a craving for horror recently. I finished listening to The Magnus Archives (an amazing horror anthology podcast), resumed watching L.A. By Night, and started watching Black Mirror.

Then I heard about this book and learned that the author wrote one of my favourite stories in Unspeakable: A Queer Gothic Anthology, and I knew I had to get it.

A Dowry of Blood is a “reimagining of Dracula’s brides” or an expanded version of the author’s short story I mentioned above. It is told from the perspective of his first bride, Constanta, born a medieval peasant, as she grapples with the love and devotion she feels for her new husband to the point where she excuses his possessiveness, that is, until he draws two others into his web and she discovers he’s been keeping some dark secrets where he won’t allow her to go.

This is a book about vampires and there’s plenty of gothic horror involving things vampires do (involving murder) but this is also a book about abusive relationships and the way survivors of abuse often justify their abuser’s behaviour. The relationship the husband (who is never actually named in the text) with his three brides is not a healthy one. In some ways I feel like much of the horror has less to do with vampires being vampires and more with abuse being abuse.

Having said that, there’s also bisexual polyamory, vengeance, and “sapphic yearning at the opera” to quote the author. It’s a very well written book too. It reminds me of early Anne Rice but the prose is lyrical without being purple. There’s also a bit about plague sufferers needing to keep to their homes, which is honestly relatable.

Honestly I think my only complaints are that the book is short and if the blurb hadn’t mentioned that it was about Dracula I honestly wouldn’t have picked up on that. The fact that he isn’t named is so powerful that I’m willing to forgive the lack of Dracula in a novel about Dracula’s brides.

A Dowry of Blood is easily one of the best vampire novels I’ve ever read and I’d recommend it for both its queer rep and the way it addresses abuse if you can stomach it. It’s not a long novel but it’s definitely one that will stay with me.

Review: Widdershins (Whybourne and Griffin #1)

Percival Endicott Whybourne is an idiot.

Now, going by canon, he speaks thirteen languages (and reads more) with a degree in philology so he is not actually an idiot but he is very much a dumbass. At least, that’s how I felt while reading this novel.

Where do I start with this book? Take a nerd, add in a handsome ex-Pinkerton, and drop them in the middle of a story by H.P. Lovecraft, add in a murder mystery and a powerful, shady cult and you have a good idea of the plot, except the nerd is also the most useless gay with major self-esteem issues.

I wouldn’t call Whybourne unlikable, but I did find his jealousy and jumping to conclusions regarding his love interest insufferable. Like, dude, chill for a second. I think that’s why it took me so long to finish this book. I do like Whybourne but oh my god he needs to stop sometimes.

What else do I have to say about this novel? It follows that classic romance arc where things are fine until things are not fine. The sex scenes are explicit and don’t overstay their welcome.

Given the obvious influences and the setting (Victorian-era America) the cast of Widdershins is very WASPy (or at least very white, the Protestant part is debatable). The social mores of the period are very much in play. Christine, an important secondary character, has to contend with the misogyny of the period, whereas Whybourne needs to hide his attraction to men. Griffin struggles with PTSD and claustrophobia and suffers from “fits”. I will say that the overall tone is much more hopeful than anything Lovecraft ever wrote, but I feel it’s important to note for anyone thinking of picking this up that the characters do struggle with oppression, and not just of the eldritch kind.

Despite finding the main protagonist a little annoying and the plot predictable, it’s a decent Lovecraftian romp and not a bad start to the series.

Review: Gideon the Ninth

“Lesbian necromancers explore a haunted gothic palace in space,” is one hell of a blurb and instantly piqued my interest. I mean, it’s right up several of my alleys.

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Gideon Nav is an indentured servant of the weird, secretive Ninth House. When the Emperor summons representatives of each of the nine necromantic houses for the chance to become one of his immortal servants, Gideon is pressed into service to Harrowhark Nonagesimus, heir to the Ninth and responsible for making Gideon’s life miserable since Harrow was born.

When they arrive at the site of the trials, however, it’s not only not what they expected, but the candidates start dying. Not only do they have to contend with the trials and mysterious deaths, but they have to do it all without strangling each other in the process!

To be completely honest, it took me the longest time to warm up to Muir’s writing style. If you go into it expecting something more conventional for Gothic horror, you might be surprised when the characters say fuck on like, the second page. Also there are spaceships, and necromancy, naturally. It’s a weird book, but that’s what makes it great.

The dynamic between Gideon and Harrow is an interesting one in that they spend most of the book hating each other, really hating each other. But, naturally, their circumstances force them to work together, especially when their fellow candidates start getting picked off one by one.

Gideon the Ninth is a ride. It defies genre. The characters are crass and most of them are assholes, and yet, I couldn’t stop reading it and I think it’s actually one of my favourite books (it’s easily one of the weirdest books I’ve ever read). I’m really looking forward to the other books in the trilogy. I think I’d recommend it if you like your sapphic reads weird and proud of it.

Game Review: Hades

When I was younger, in my teen years specifically, I used to be able to fixate on one game and play it obsessively until I beat it. Those days are long gone as I know have the money to purchase games regularly and more and more games keep coming out. It’s rare that I focus on one game at a time to the exclusion of all others.

Enter Hades, the latest game from Supergiant Games.

This may shock some of you but Hades is my first Supergiant game. I wasn’t interested in Bastion or Pyre, and when Transistor came out my PC wasn’t up to snuff. I was drawn to Hades initially due to glowing praise from the likes of Matt Mercer and Steam reviews that said stuff like “everyone is hot”. I picked it up for the Switch and have beaten it once.

You might assume that you play the role of Hades in a game named Hades, but you actually play as his son, Zagreus. Zagreus is fed up with his life in the House of Hades and seeks to escape the underworld, but his father won’t let him go easily.

Hades is a roguelite, each run you attempt to escape the underworld. When you inevitably die, you are sent back to the House of Hades, where you can upgrade your character, take on building projects to improve your runs and decorate the House and talk with the supporting cast. The combat is an action packed, hack n’ slash affair. Zagreus is assisted in his escape attempts by boons given by the Olympian deities, and keepsakes, equippable items that can give you a second chance when you die, ensure that a certain deity pops up to gift you their boon, and other benefits. When you die, as I said, you get sent back to the House of Hades, where you can gift characters with nectar to improve their relationship with Zagreus.

There’s no point trying to disguise my love for this game. The escape attempts already have that addictive “one more turn” quality, but dying is also a treat because I get to converse with a charming cast of cthonic deities and heroes. They all have their own stories and quests, and you can even pursue romantic relationships with three characters. The developers also included a staggering amount of dialogue, so much so that if you find yourself asking “did they record dialogue for this?” they probably have. My first run took 40 hours of constantly dying to complete, and there’s still stuff I haven’t seen. Also, the music is amazing, just the first few notes of the final boss’s theme sends chills down my spine. I love Zagreus as a character, he has endless snarky lines for boss characters, but is polite to almost everyone else, even the shades of Tartarus. It’s refreshing to play as a male main character with a personality that isn’t just “sad” or “angry”.

Diversity wise, a number of characters (deities and mortals alike) have dark skin. Zagreus is bisexual and can romance Megaera (a fury) as well as Thanatos, it’s implied that his third romance option is asexual, as her quest line ends platonically. The relationship between Achilles and Patroclus is explicitly portrayed as romantic. Primordial Chaos, mother and father of Nyx, is referred to with gender neutral language and they/them pronouns. I also feel like dialogue with Dionysus in particular can get pretty flirty, but it’s Dionysus.

I think my only criticism of this game so far is that Apollo, Hera, and Hestia don’t make an appearance in the game, nor do prominent cthonic deities like Hekate. I would happily pay real money for these deities to make an appearance. A minor quibble is that they changed some of the relationships between the deities to make it less incestuous, but I’m not going to complain too much about a lack of incest tbh.

Hades is a joy to play no matter if you’re battling your way through the underworld or chatting up friends and acquaintances back home (also, yes, you can pet Cerberus). It is also a superb “baby’s first roguelite” and I know people who hate roguelites who love this game. I highly recommend it. It’s great fun and easily my game of the year for 2020. Seriously do yourself a favor and pick this one up, it’s a delight.

Game Review: The Last Door – Season 2

In this time of plague, there isn’t much else to do besides tend to my massive backlog of games, tend to my equally massive TBR pile, cook, eat, clean the apartment and most importantly, bitch and moan on the Internet about how I miss Critical Role and eating at my favourite restaurants.

I recently decided my desktop was too cluttered with games so I started uninstalling a lot of games that I hadn’t played in awhile. Now I can actually parts of the screen that aren’t cluttered by icons. Among the games that didn’t end up on the chopping block were ones where I’d already made some progress. Season 2 of The Last Door is one of those games.

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The most important thing you need to know is that the second season obviously picks up right where the first left off, so if you haven’t played it, do yourself a favour and pick it up. It’s a great pixelated horror adventure. The second season has you playing as Doctor Wakefield, who is searching or his patient and protagonist of the first season, Jeremiah Devitt. Naturally, things take a turn for the creepy.

The gameplay is unchanged from the first season. You hunt down pixelated objects to combine with other pixelated objects or things in the environment. Sometimes you solve puzzles. It’s standard adventure game stuff, but with jump scares and creepy music. The major difference between the first season and the second is the scope. Major locations now have maps with various points of interest that you travel between to solve puzzles. The world feels much larger now.

If I had to name one thing The Last Door absolutely nails, it would be the atmosphere. Moving through a darkened hallway with only a lantern for light is terrifying even when you know that tuere’s no combat or fail states. As always, the short sequences before the opening credits are unnerving and the cliffhangers at the end of each episode are very well done and leave you wanting more.

I think my only problem with the game is that some of the puzzle solutions were more….obscure….than the puzzles in the first season. I found I had to resort to using a walkthrough more often. There are some missable achievements, but you can replay individual episodes to obtain them. Steam has my time spent in game at eight hours, which feels just right for this sort of game. It’s the perfect game for a weekend or if you just need to kill time in quarantine, and I absolutely recommend both seasons if you’re into point-and-click adventures and horror.

Review: The Last Sun (The Tarot Sequence #1)

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Never trust Goodreads reviewers. I mean, Goodreads is like Wikipedia: decent for quick and dirty summaries, but you don’t want to depend on it. You see, if I had heeded the reviews on Goodreads, I would never have read this book.

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Rune Saint John is the last scion of the fallen Sun Court of New Atlantis, along with his Companion, Brand, Rune is hired to search for Lady Justice’s missing son, Addam. Their search will take them from the upper echelons of Atlantean society to one of the lowest points in Rune’s past. Now it’s just a matter of finding Addam and the forces behind the abduction before time runs out, but in the process he may find there’s more going on than meets the eye, a truth about the raid on Sun Court that he might not be ready to face.

Gods, I love these assholes. I love the banter between Rune and Brand, I love Matthias and the way he throws a wrench in their dynamic in a “how do I take care of this kid?” way. I love how his employer, Lord Tower, is definitely two steps ahead of everyone else and also a bit shady. There’s a “realness” to the dialogue that I liked, particularly in the banter between Rune and Brand, like when Brand interrupts a thought to comment on someone’s butt (it makes sense in context).

I also found the world interesting despite being another “fantasy kitchen sink”. There are passing mentions of were-creatures, for instance. Magic is cast through spells stored in specially made objects called sigils. Antlanteans also have “aspects” a “gloves come off” form that is unique to each person.

I think the highest praise I can give this novel is that I couldn’t stop reading it and immediately bought the sequel when I finished it. I was so invested in the world and the characters (who deserve good things). Even as I write this I really want to get back to the sequel.

The reason I almost didn’t pick up this book was because a few reviewers referred to the main relationship as “rapey”. I didn’t find that to be the case at all. The only sexual activity depicted between the two is clearly with Rune’s consent. That said, Rune is a rape survivor and some may find the love interest flirting with him when he’s clearly uncomfortable rubs them the wrong way. I will say that when he is finally clued in, he apologizes and is much more careful with his words and actions. The assault itself is vaguely alluded to apart from a couple scenes near the middle and end of the book that are more specific. It’s clearly fucked him up (and Brand as well) and not something that can be “fixed” by a relationship (which, as you probably know, is a tired, gross trope). Another thing that may cause discomfort is the way Matthias (who is 17) acts jealous and possessive of Rune, but this is very firmly rebuffed by the latter (who points out that Matthias is 17 and he, Rune, is a grown man).

If I had one criticism, I felt like the portrayal of one character with an eating disorder came across as “this character is unhealthy–and that makes her suspicious” and actually, there weren’t many prominent female characters at all. There are several women Arcana, but only a couple of them are relevant to the plot, and the only woman in Rune’s household is Queenie, basically his servant.

Obviously, I wouldn’t recommend The Last Sun to everyone, but I did find it to be a compelling read with a sweet romantic subplot (or at least the beginnings of a relationship, maybe). I couldn’t stop reading it and I can’t wait to get back to the sequel.

Game Review: Atelier Meruru Plus: The Apprentice of Arland

Sometimes I like to prepare for reviews (and refresh my memory) by reading other reviews of the media in question. I just took a glance at some review scores for this game, and to be honest, I’m actually really surprised, because I think this might be my favourite game in the Arland trilogy series (it’s officially a series now that Atelier Lulua is out).

I mean, spoilers, but I like this game, enough that I technically finished it twice, although the first time was a bad ending so it didn’t really count.

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Merurulince Rede Arls (everyone calls her Meruru) is the princess of Arls Kingdom, a small rural kingdom in the north of the Arland Republic. The kingdom is in the process of merging with the republic, and Meruru is captivated by alchemy and wants to use it to improve the country. Her father, though skeptical, issues her a directive: improve the kingdom using alchemy before the merger, or give up learning alchemy altogether.

The gameplay as I see it is a fusion of Rorona’s monthly assignments and Totori’s flexibility. Your overall goal is to grow the kingdom’s population, much like Rorona’s goals but annually instead of monthly. You grow the population by acquiring Kingdom Points, which you get through completing tasks like Totori. You can use Kingdom Points to purchase upgrades for the kingdom, which might, say, expand a shop’s inventory. Some development goals change the locations you can visit, making new areas accessible. Naturally, completing goals involves a lot of alchemy, which means a lot of gathering and battling for materials.

Honestly, I didn’t mind most of the new major characters very interesting. I did enjoy the relationship between Rufus, the king’s butler/steward, and his brother Lias (the most unlucky character in video games). I did, however, really like the cameos from major characters from past games, particularly Totori, who is much more confident than she was in her own game.

Even though I enjoyed this game overall, I must confess that at some point in my second run I began to click through most of the conversations. Maybe I’ve finally reached my upper limit of tolerance for anime being, well, anime, or I just hate Astrid, that must be it.

At this point, even though Lulua is ready to go, I’d like to take a break from Arland so I think my next set of reviews will focus on the Mysterious trilogy until I’m able to purchase the Dusk trilogy that just came out.

Review: Amberlough (The Amberlough Dossier #1)

I have been waiting to read this book ever since I saw the cover of the hardback and learned it was a book about queer spies. Then the paperback came out and it was a bit pricey (for a paperback) and had a different (inferior, IMHO) cover, all that’s in the past though, because I’ve since bought and read it.

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Amberlough is the story of three people: Cyril DePaul, a spy, Aristide Makricosta, an emcee at Amberlough City’s most popular cabaret, smuggler, and Cyril’s lover, and Cordelia Lehane, a dancer and drug runner at the same club. Amberlough City is the illustrious, decadent, and thoroughly corrupt center of Amberlough, one municipality of four that makes up the nation of Gedda, and it is under siege by the One State Party–nicknamed the Ospies–who seek to unite the four governments into one, socially conservative nation. When Cyril is made during a mission to infiltrate the Ospies’ ranks, he makes a deal to turn turncoat in exchange for his and Aristide’s lives, enter Cordelia, who could hold the key to Cyril’s plans, if she can be trusted, and if they all aren’t swept away by the rising tide of a fascist revolution.

This is a book about assholes. This is a book about assholes fighting nazis in all but name. This is a book about assholes who actually aren’t all that bad considering they are fighting nazis in all but name. I mean, almost everyone can be seen in a better light when compared to nazi scum.

Even so, it took me so long to warm up to these characters. Actually, it took me so long to warm up to Cyril in particular. Aristide? A true bicon (as we say on tumblr). Cordelia? Amazing, love her. Cyril? Cyril is a (self-admitted) coward who throws in with fascists in exchange for letting him and Aristide flee the country, because it’s not like his boyfriend is a smuggler who could probably get them out with a snap of his fingers.

Oh wait, it says right there in the back cover text.

So basically I spent most of this book saying stuff like “oh my gods Cyril why what are you doing stop” I did eventually warm up to him, but I still found Aristide and Cordelia more compelling and likeable as characters, even though, as I said, everyone’s a bit of an asshole in this book. In fact, this is another one of those books I’d recommend reading if you want an example of how to make assholes sympathetic characters while still being assholes.

As I said, next to actual nazis, pretty much everyone comes across in a better light by comparison.

There’s a real sense of place in this novel. I love the way Cordelia peppers her speech with slang and crude euphemisms from her lower class neighbourhood in particular. No one seems to care if Aristide decides to go to a restaurant wearing a dress and makeup. Gendered clothing? Pfft! Not in this city! Speaking of gender, a side plot involve a polyamorous triad trying to make their way out of the city in the wake of a major victory for the fascists (polyamory and same-sex marriage is approved of by one of the major religions in Amberlough).

One criticism I have is that a lot of info is dumped on you at the start regarding politics and factions and I found myself re-reading passages a few times to make sense of everything. Alas, politics is not my forte.

Another issue I had was with Aristide’s stutter, not the fact that he has a stutter, but the fact that it is an affected stutter–not actually a disability–which he uses in order to disguise his upbringing. Aristide does have constant back pain, however, and Cyril has obviously been negatively affected by his past failures as a spy. So while I was disappointed by the stutter, I did like that the characters were disabled in other ways.

Overall, I loved Amberlough. It’s easily been one of my favourite reads this year, and the sequel’s currently sitting on my desk waiting for me to pick it up. Did I mention the next book involves movies and matriarchies? It’s going to be awesome.

Review: Starless by Jacqueline Carey

This will be my last review before I move to a new home this week, so it seems appropriate that my last review in this house (where I have lived for at least 30 years) is a book by one of my favourite authors.

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In the realm of the Sun-Blessed, Khai is trained in the arts of killing and stealth by a brotherhood of warriors in the deep desert, all for the purpose of serving as protector to Princess Zariya as her shadow. A truth has been kept from him, however, Khai is bhazim, an “honorary boy”, born a girl, but raised as a boy. In the Court of the Sun-Blessed, whose royal house does not age, Khai must navigate deadly intrigue and his own conflicted identity, but in the west, the dark god Miasmus is rising, and Khai, Zariya, and an unlikely band of prophecy hunters might be the only ones capable of stopping him.

I thought about how to describe this book and it’s difficult to talk about it without sounding dismissive. I suspect the story will sound familiar to anyone who has even a passing interest in the genre: you follow a protagonist as they come of age, then it is revealed that they have a Special Destiny, there’s even a Prophecy telling them about their Special Destiny, the only thing is how do they get from where they are to a point where they can fulfill their destiny? Therein lies the rest of the story. It’s a story that’s so familiar it’s become cliche, but it’s being written by Jacqueline Carey and I trust her (even if I hated the Agent of Hel books). In Carey’s hands, this typical story becomes an exploration of identity, of destiny and fate, and of found family, it’s as much about those things as it is about deities who walk the earth and near immortal royalty.

I’m not ashamed to admit that I was so engrossed in this novel that I read it over the weekend, only stopping to eat and sleep. It seems like it’s been a long time since I was so captivated by a cast of characters that I couldn’t wait to get back to the book because I had to know what happens next. I fell in love with the characters and the world, at first the world of the novel feels small, but as Khai grows, the world grows too. It’s a shame that one book can only explore so many cultures in depth. The cultures of Starless run the gamut from matriarchal, monarchist, fiercely egalitarian, warlike where leaders are chosen through trial by combat, etc. The deities also (fittingly) leave an impression. They are alien and strange: from a pillar of fire with skeletal limbs, to a many-armed construct-like entity, but also familiar in that they reflect their domains or spheres of influence.  They remind me of the deities in Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence, but not quite as esoteric.

Before I talk about the parts of the book that bothered me, I want to talk about some positive representation in the novel. Khai, the narrator of the tale, is nonbinary. The majority of characters are characters of colour. Zarkhoum, the setting for most of the book, is pretty obviously inspired by the Middle East (I’m guessing Iraq). Many other cultures are mentioned that don’t appear to or have analogues that I recognize. Princess Zariya is disabled, in the hands of a lesser writer, her disability might be conveniently forgotten until she needs to be rescued in the final battle or something, or else she would be treated like a burden until she was miraculously “cured”. This doesn’t happen in Starless. While Zariya’s disability presents certain challenges, she finds ways to assert her independence and work around her limitations.

I think my main problem with this book is how it handles Khai’s experience of being nonbinary in a very binarist culture where gender roles are strictly defined and the sexes are segregated (especially in the cities). To be clear, Khai was assigned female at birth, but raised as a boy (what his culture refers to as bhazim), and not told about this by his teachers until he reaches puberty. He starts questioning how he can be a warrior in a girl’s body. His inner conflict is only exacerbated when he arrives at the Court of the Sun-Blessed and has to endure being examined (since only eunuchs can attend the women for obvious reasons) and exposed to many naked women in the baths (which makes him very, very anxious). Even though scenes like these are part of his struggle with his identity, I can’t help but feel that many trans people would find this invasive “genital check” cringey at best and triggering at worst. I should also note that of the times he presents as feminine, twice it’s at the insistence of others, and once as a disguise. I’m not going to start policing this fictional character’s gender, but at times it felt like Khai was less accepting of his identity than I would have liked. He does also make some homophobic remarks, although it comes across as more of a product of his culture and other cultures have different opinions on sex and gender (including a race who can change sex at will). There’s also an important side Zarkhoumi character who is bisexual.

Starless is conventional. It’s a story you’ve heard before, but it’s a story told well, and sometimes that’s enough. I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re looking for something new and original, but if you want something that feels familiar and doesn’t require committing to a series, I recommend Starless.