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.]

[suicide tw]

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.

 

 

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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.

Review: Iron Age Myth and Materiality by Lotte Hedeager

I’ll be honest with you. Some people say I am “knowledgeable” when it comes to Heathenry, but I’m actually not that well read, I just remember what I read, and most of the time the Heathen books I read are popular books made by Heathens for Heathens (even though 90% of Heathen books are crap) or generic Pagan 101 books. They are not only easy to read but affordable.

Every so often though, I put on my serious university graduate hat and read a dry academic book. This one initially popped up on my radar because a bunch of people kept posting interesting quotes from it on tumblr. I happened to check it out on Amazon when it was the very affordable price of $7, so I bought it, because $7. The price has since increased to $56 CAD, so either there was a database error or Amazon was just marking down random books, either way, I lucked out.

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In simple terms, Iron Age Myth and Materiality examines the relationship between myth and material culture (basically, stuff a culture makes, like jewelry or weapons). Hedeager’s exploration of myth pays particular attention to the mythic cycle of Odin, and touches on topics like the role of animals in elite warrior culture, gender and sexuality, the status of the smith as an outsider (including speculation on why dwarves are all male in the source material), the hall as a possible “centre” of the Heathen universe (in the same way churches are constructed to reflect a Christian universe), and how sweeping political changes and upheaval influence the myths, here paying special attention to the influence of the Huns in Scandinavia.

First let me state that this is going to be a short review, since this is a book about archaeology and my only foray into archaeology was a brief “Baby’s First Guide to Digging Old Stuff Up” in university as part of another course, I’m not equipped to critique this book at all. I can only talk about things that I thought were interesting and/or relevant to Heathens and Norse Pagans, while keeping in mind that this text was not written with us in mind or intended to be used as a guide to how to do religion, that’s what the crappy 101 books are for, after all. Consider this more of a guide to some interesting things you can find in this book, rather than a proper critique.

The most interesting chapter for me (and I suspect one of the more interesting chapters for my readers) is the chapter “Other Ways of Being in the World” which discusses gender and sexuality in relation to power and status, particularly in ways that they disrupt the social order. Here is a relevant quote from the beginning of the chapter: “One of the primary lessons to be learned from recent studies of sexuality is an understanding that sexual diversity in the past was far more variable than conventional historical and archaeological narratives have allowed.” (p. 106) She discusses everything from the volsi cult to ritualized cross-dressing and artifacts that apparently depict gender variance. Interestingly, one of the artifacts she discusses is a famous image of Tyr with his hand in the wolf’s mouth, suggesting that he is depicted with breasts and in a mini skirt. There’s also a brief mention of “penis stones” possibly being tied to cults of Njord or Odin. Interestingly, she asserts that ritual “erased the boundary between the sexes” and the strictness surrounding the body, modes of dress, and adornments “attempted to stabilize social gender” (p. 133) and thus society was balanced between restrictive “mundane” life and liminal ritual spaces. Note that, as modern people, we shouldn’t reproduce these restrictive and archaic notions of manliness and womanliness, but it does make an interesting case for gender ambiguity and fluidity in both ancient and modern Heathenry. True Heathens break gender roles!

Another interesting thing about this book is Hedeager’s hypothesis regarding the relationship between Scandinavians and the Huns. In a nutshell, she argues that contact with the Huns not only affected trade, but the familiar myth cycle we know and love. In other words, when the stories say that Odin and the Aesir came from Asia, they’re actually talking about Attila the Hun, and that the Huns not only invaded Northern lands, but actually had a brief period of rule there. Now before you recoil in horror because “if Attila is Odin does that mean the myths aren’t real!!” Hedeager mentions that of course Odin was a god, but also argues that much of the known world was forever changed by the Huns, and Northern Europe is no exception.

Unfortunately, it’s impossible to discuss gender and sexuality in Iron Age Scandinavia without running into sexism and homophobia. The same chapter on gender and sexuality also includes graphic descriptions of human and animal sacrifice (including child sacrifice). Here’s a fun drinking game: drink whenever a reference to “penetration” crops up, because there’s a whole section dedicated to it.

This is barely scratching the surface of the topics that are discussed in this book, and even if you aren’t well versed in archaeology, this book is still a very interesting read and includes copious notes and a bibliography filled with sources that might potentially interest a Heathen. Regardless, there are some very fascinating assertions in this book, and for that, it gets a recommendation from me, especially if you can find it for as cheap as I found it. That’s the trouble with academic books, isn’t it? All the interesting stuff is couched in jargon with a high price tag. If you have more of a background in archaeology than I do, you’ll probably get more out of this book. If you’re at all interested in the way material culture intersects with myth, this is one for your shelf.

There, there’s my review of a dry academic book for the year. On the subject of lighter reading, I really want to read Jailbreaking the Goddess by Lasara Firefox Allen, but for now, back to the TBR pile and all those YA books I have yet to digest.

Review: The High King’s Golden Tongue

[The following contains mentions of pregnancy, particularly in regards to trans men being pregnant.]

This book was obtained via NetGalley.

While browsing NetGalley, I was initially drawn in by the cover of The Pirate of Fathoms Deep, but as often happens with fantasy novels in particular, this one has a predecessor, and I’m one of those people who needs to read a series in order even if the books are basically standalone stories, so I sent a request to the author.

As you probably know, M/M romance is one of those genres I’ve tried very hard to like but often features certain tropes I find personally distasteful, notably the frequent dub-con (IMO actually just a prettier term for non-con) in relationships and the shitty treatment of female characters. I can understand the appeal of the former for some, but the latter is, well, misogyny, pure and simple. I admit that I was skeptical at first despite reading reviews that said this was “pure fluff”.

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Prince Allen has been training to be consort to the High King for years. When the day that he is to be presented to the High King finally comes, however; High King Sarrica, still grieving the death of the previous consort, declares him useless and has him thrown out of court, with his empire currently in danger of collapse, Sarrica believes that what he needs is a warrior by his side, not a foppish polyglot. Can Allen convince him otherwise before war destroys the empire from within?

I would like to start this off by saying that I love the relationship dynamic between Allen and Sarrica. For most of the book, neither of them really know what they’re doing, particularly Sarrica, who just doesn’t know how to deal with a diplomat like Allen when he’s used to dealing with soldiers who know how to use a blade. A good chunk of the book is dedicated to the two of them just trying to figure out how the hell they’re going to make things work. Well, in Sarrica’s case, it’s mostly him trying to be nice and actually saying something thoughtless and Allen moping because Sarrica doesn’t like them. They have a relationship that very much reminds me of Demnor and Kelahnus from Fiona Patton’s The Stone Prince if Kelahnus actually displayed a degree of competence (sorry, any Kel fans reading this, I just thought he was a waste of an interesting character concept). There are also some interesting secondary characters: Lesto, one of the late High Consort’s brothers, who is constantly teasing Sarrica, Lord Tara, the man who seems to know everything going on at court, and Jac, one of the few prominent women in the story and member of the Three Headed Dragons, a badass mercenary band.

The world is interesting enough, although not as fleshed out as it could be (given the length of the book). The many nations in this world all speak different languages, so naturally Allen finds himself having to sort out language issues among the palace staff (who can’t seem to get anything done because of language barriers) to acting as a translator. Derr never quite goes so far as writing out words and phrases in these languages (which would have been a feat!) but she does give us an idea of what they sound like.

As much as I love this book, I wish there had been more prominent female characters. Sarrica’s court seems to be mostly made up of men, although women are ambassadors and soldiers. Apart from Jac, there are two noblewomen who show up for one scene and then disappear. There’s Allen’s mother, who he admires greatly but never appears in the story proper. A second issue that I had with the book is that as much as I knew it was going to happen, when Allen and Sarrica do finally “click” it feels as if they go from zero to fifty in a hot minute. One minute Sarrica is confused, the next he wants to have sex with Allen on a table. Some people understandably would have been frustrated after such a slow burn, but I actually preferred it when they were trying awkwardly to make things work. A third issue I had is that I found the chapters that were from Sarrica’s POV mostly involved Sarrica whining to Lesto and then the two of them exchanging friendly threats of violence (it makes sense in context). Considering Sarrica is a widower, his melancholy makes sense, but I still found it kind of irritating.

In terms of diversity, there are some unambiguous people of colour, like Lord Tara, others, like Allen himself, or like Sarrica, Lesto, and Rene, are more ambiguous. It’s mentioned that Allen has “golden” skin, but also blond hair. I was under the impression that out of the three brothers (Lesto, Sarrica, and Rene) Lesto at least was dark-skinned. There’s one prominent f/f couple, one half of that couple is black, IIRC, but they disappear for a good chunk of the story. There’s a brief mention of a poly relationship. While it’s not explicitly spelled out in the narrative, there is mention of Allen’s mother “siring” him and numerous mentions of High Consort Nyle’s pregnancy. There is also the suggestion that Lord Tara is trans (in a nutshell, when someone asks him about having children with his boyfriend, he replies that they don’t need to worry about having the right parts). Unfortunately this has been lost on some reviewers, who can’t seem to figure out how men can be pregnant without some magical explanation. In case one of them is reading this: some men have vulvae, that is one way a cis man like Sarrica can have babies with another man. While it would have been nice to see some trans representation that didn’t somehow revolve around pregnancy or what they’re doing with their genitals, I didn’t feel as if any of these characters were being fetishized and High Consort Nyle’s pregnancy doesn’t raise any eyebrows or seem at all strange to his people.

The only potential triggers I can think of are the pregnancy discussions, mentioned above, some violence, and one sex scene that I would rate as semi-explicit. The sex in the book that is shown or hinted at is entirely consensual, none of this “it’s rape but we’ll call it dub-con to make it more palatable” bullshit, at all.

A brief personal note before I begin. I was having some trouble getting this to load on my ereader, and the author was very responsive and even sent me a fresh copy of the ebook when I couldn’t get it to work (which was right after I actually got it to work). I believe in rewarding authors who are great people.

I was pleasantly surprised by this book. It probably won’t win any best novel of the century awards, but it’s a nice bit of fluff and unexpectedly diverse. It’s an easy recommendation if you’re looking for a little gay fluff and you’re tired of waiting until I actually publish something.

 

 

Game Review: Ray Gigant

I think I’ve mentioned before that there are a couple of game genres that I just can’t get into, one is the FPS, the other is the first person dungeon crawler. Regarding the latter, it’s tough for me to get attached to custom characters that have no personality whatsoever. I also have difficulty with first person perspectives, I much prefer third person.

In recent years, however, developer Experience has nearly flooded the Vita with first person dungeon crawlers that are garnering high praise from critics and users alike, but their apparent brutal difficulty is a turn off. On the heels of their latest release, Stranger of Sword City, is another first person dungeon crawler that definitely flew under the radar, that game is Ray Gigant.

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I can’t find a cover so here’s an image that features prominently in promotional materials.

Ray Gigant differs from its brethren in a few major ways. Firstly, it puts a greater emphasis on story than most dungeon crawlers. I think even people who aren’t very familiar with this genre are aware that most people don’t play them for their story, and I think that’s a factor that prevents many from getting into the genre, especially if they’re more familiar with traditional JRPGs. Ray Gigant’s story doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel. In a nutshell, monsters called Gigants suddenly appeared on Earth and started wrecking everything. The day was saved when a Japanese high schooler, Ichiya Amakaze, defeated the Gigant by bonding with a strange living weapon–called Yorigami—named Habakiri. Since that day, however, Gigants have started appearing again, and it’s naturally up to teenagers with superpowers to save the day.

One thing the game does to shake up the formula a bit is that you take control of three separate groups of characters as they fight the Gigants: obviously Ichiya’s group represents Japan, but you also control a European group, led by Kyle Griffith, and a North American group, led by Nil Phineus. Each group has their own story which spans multiple chapters, and while in terms of gameplay each group follows a predictable pattern, the change in personalities is a welcome one, even if the characters often fall into both national and anime stereotypes. For instance, Conner McBride, a member of Kyle’s team, is very much an Irish stereotype, being a very heavy drinker. In fact, I don’t think he can get two sentences out without mentioning alcohol in some way.

Gameplay is fairly typical for the genre in that you walk around dungeons in first person perspective, avoiding traps on the way to the boss room, but it eliminates familiar staples like loot, items, random encounters, and experience points. Actually, that’s not entirely accurate, things like equipment and items are still present, but are learned via skill tree by spending resources. There are a few different types of resources: Seed levels up your characters and can be spent to increase physical, magical, and technical attributes, Breed and Materia are used to generate and strengthen new weapons and skills, and Reverse and Alter are used to respec your characters. Enemies drop small amounts of resources, but the bulk of the resources you’ll find are in treasure chests or gained by defeating bosses. One neat thing about the way items work is that whether you enhance an existing item or gain a new item is randomly determined. Don’t be too concerned, however, as by the end of the game I was absolutely swimming in resources.

Speaking of enemies, they can be seen on the map and they don’t move at all. Enemies come in three colours: blue, yellow, and red. These colours don’t refer to the difficulty of fights, but rather how much it costs to use abilities against them, halved for blue enemies, regular for yellow enemies, and doubled for red enemies. Also, if you take a beating during a fight, don’t worry, as you’re healed back to full HP after every battle unless you’re “critical” (HP at 0) and even then, if you can find the Jam Stone in each dungeon, it will heal your entire party and give you the opportunity to save as well as revive any gigants you’ve slain. You can also leave the dungeon at any time, but all of the enemies will respawn.

Battles are turn-based and use a system based on Action Points. You can map different skills and items to the circle, square, or triangle buttons, they each cost AP, and your entire party of three uses the same AP pool, effectively meaning you can usually only take a few actions per turn, at least at the beginning. The one action that doesn’t drain your AP is the wait command, but the unit who uses it can’t act that turn. In effect, battles are about managing AP. As if that weren’t enough, you also have to pay attention to the Parasitism Gauge and the Slash Beat Mode gauge. Parasitism increases gradually over time and carries over between battles. While affected by Parasitism, attacks drain health instead of AP (which can actually be advantageous if your characters have a lot of health but are low on AP). The Parasitism gauge can be reset by leveling up using a Seed resource, spending 30 SP, or entering Slash Beat Mode (SBM) which is basically a super mode that takes the form of a rhythm mini game.

If this sounds complicated, what it basically comes down to is making sure you have enough action points to do what you want to do while building up SP to unleash your super mode. After a major battle, you’ll usually get the opportunity to eat some food, either gaining or losing weight, weight gain makes characters stronger and tougher, but slower, whereas weight loss gives a character better accuracy and evasion. Eating food items or waiting can cause a character to gain wait, whereas offensive actions cause characters to lose weight. It’s yet another way to customize your characters, but in practice I wasn’t really paying attention to the system and didn’t notice that much of a difference.

Where the game shines, I feel, is in the epic boss fights between gigants that are so massive your party needs to split up and attack it from different angles. These fights feel epic, at the very least, even if what you’re doing gameplay wise is basically what you’ve been doing in regular battles and end-of-dungeon boss fights. In addition, the animations for both the characters and the enemies (massive or not) look really cool to my untrained eye. There’s a fluidity of motion that most games outside of the ones with massive budgets just don’t achieve. The music is catchy but also pretty repetitive, although I did like Kyle’s battle and boss themes in particular.

Few games are perfect though and Ray Gigant is no exception, it may seem odd to say this when I just talked about difficulty being a barrier to entry into the dungeon crawler genre, I felt that Ray Gigant was at times too easy. The game warns you whenever a dungeon makes use of a gimmick, like AP draining traps, hidden doors, or currents that push you in a single direction, but in only one case did I find a gimmick really frustrating. What puzzles the game has (involving levers) are usually pretty easy and there’s usually hints in the area in case you get stuck. I couldn’t help but compare my experience with this game to my experience with Sector Delphinus in Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey, and let me tell you, I had such a bad time in that part of the game that Ray Gigant is a cakewalk in comparison. There’s also a lack of variation in the dungeon environments, the individual dungeons in each story all look the same just with different layouts, if you’re tired of looking at the same columns, you’ll just have to wait until you switch to the next protagonist. I think what most disappoints me about this game is the lack of strategy. I was literally able to use the same strategy against the final boss as I did against all the other bosses. In a nutshell, have one character dish out damage while the second spams the “wait” command and the third character heals. The only thing you need to worry about with this strategy is the enemy landing a hit that stuns your healer, otherwise you can pretty much win the game, you’re welcome. It’s a shame because the boss fights against the massive gigants could have been something really special, but instead it just becomes an exercise in slowly and steadily chipping away at a boss’s health until they die. A lesser, but still significant, gripe I have is with the translation, which alternates between “decent” and “is that even a sentence?” the game definitely could have used more polish in that regard, particularly when major plot elements were introduced and my reaction was “Wait, what are they talking about?”

In terms of potential triggers, I’ve already mentioned the food and weight loss system, where characters remark that they should lose weight or should be watching their weight. Some of the non-Japanese characters reference racist stereotypes of Japanese people and are called out on it, and I’ve already mentioned stereotypical characters like Conner. There’s also only one major character with darker skin who turns out to be a villain.

Ray Gigant is not an awful game, in fact, it’s a good first dungeon crawler for people who are intimidated by dungeon crawlers even though it strays from tradition in a few significant ways. Veterans of this sort of game probably won’t find it offers much of a challenge, however, and are probably busy with Stranger of Sword City anyways. I estimate I probably spent around 35 hours on it, and at $15 on sale I’d say it was worth the money. If you’re looking for a newbie-friendly dungeon crawler, it’s an easy recommendation despite the lack of strategy. If you have more experience with the genre, this game probably doesn’t have much to offer you, something like Stranger of Sword City might be more your speed.