Review: The Shattered Court by M.J. Scott

I remember taking a readers’ advisory course in library school and the instructor talking about how readers sometimes gravitated towards unusual reading choices. She mentioned once reading nothing but cookbooks at a time of high stress. In my case, “light reading” usually translates into “the most conventional fantasy books I can find”.

Which leads me to this book…

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In the land of Anglion, witches born to the royal line are quickly bound to the land and the goddess through marriage, forbidden to practice any magic that is not simple Earth magic. Lady Sophia Kendall, thirty second in line to the throne, is days away from discovering if she is blessed-or cursed-with magic, but when disaster strikes the capital, Sophie’s brief encounter with Cameron, a battle mage in the service of her friend, Princess Eloisa, leaves her ultimate fate uncertain, especially when she begins to manifest powers that are far stronger than any royal witch before her.

The premise of this book seemed to hint at court intrigue and some tension between Sophie and the nation she’s sworn to serve as a royal witch. The back cover text in particular gives the impression that Sophie and Cameron spend most of the book on the run. In actuality, it’s basically a typical romance novel where nothing noteworthy happens until the big finale.

Seriously, the beginning of the book starts with a bang (literally) and then the protagonists head back to the capital and spend most of the book attempting to avoid each other (and failing miserably) and then it’s as if the author remembers the plot and things happen. THE END. Oh, yeah, there are a couple sex scenes in there too. I could honestly forgive the lack of plot if the characters were interesting, but they’re not. Although, Cameron is a bit more down to earth than the “alpha male” love interests that dominate the genre.

This is being marketed as epic fantasy when it’s clearly closer to romantic fantasy, where the fantasy trappings take a backseat to the romance, or what passes as romance in this book. See, the protagonist and her love interest have sex because the magic made them do it. They feel good about it, even though the love interest freaks out because taking a royal witch’s virginity is a big no-no. Fortunately, Sophie is spared having to fake being a virgin by becoming betrothed to Cameron, and then they spend the rest of the book being horrible at avoiding each other, especially because Sophie can’t stop thinking of Cameron’s cock. I did like how the leads are betrothed straight away but that just means the UST between them happens post-betrothal rather than leading up to the moment where they end up together.

In terms of diversity, there really isn’t any. Sophie is described as having “olive” skin and dark eyes, and I believe Cameron’s skin was described as “golden”. The only hit of non-straightness is a single line about how Cameron “might be the type who prefers his soldier brothers” because if a straight guy isn’t drooling over every woman he sees he must be gay, amirite?

In a nutshell, this book is the very definition of a waste of a decent premise. There’s nothing particularly noteworthy about it. The only word I can think to describe it as is “tepid”. I wouldn’t recommend it to fans of fantasy or romance, to be honest.

 

Game Review: Why am I Dead at Sea?

By the time you read this Hallowe’en will probably be over, but in case I manage to write this review before midnight: Happy Hallowe’en and Blessed Samhain!

In the past, I’ve played games that were conventionally “scary” on Hallowe’en, but I don’t know if it’s because I’m getting older, but I’ve found I just don’t enjoy jump scares as much as I used to, the horror titles I’m into these days are more atmospheric.

One thing that has remained consistent throughout my life is that I love a good ghost story, and that’s exactly what Why am I Dead at Sea? is: a ghost story where you are the ghost and your task is to solve your own murder on a boat at sea.

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You solve your own murder by possessing the passengers and crew and getting them to converse with one another. Depending on their relationships, they’ll have different things to say to each other. In the beginning, you have limited control over the characters, and can only say what they would say in that circumstance. However, as you get to know them, you can take full possession of them and speak through them. You can also read peoples’ minds and uncover more information about them or hints as to what you’re supposed to do next. Each character also has a special ability: one character can see what’s in a person’s pockets if she’s near them, another can peek through keyholes to see what’s behind a door before she opens it, another can see objects he can interact with, etc. The puzzles in this adventure game are more about getting to know people and ferreting out secrets, and every single character in this game has a secret.

The characters themselves are interesting, although given the length of the game (Steam has me clocked at six hours, all achievements obtained) there isn’t really a lot of time to flesh them out. I loved Quella, the writer who writes because she enjoys it and she’d rather do something she enjoyed even if she isn’t making a lot of money (I feel like I understand her) or First Mate Ferdinand and his ridiculous announcements. They all deal with some dark stuff as well: from coping with the death of a spouse from suicide to cancer to parental abuse and more.

The graphics are obviously reminiscent of Earthbound, some of the characters have a leitmotif that plays when you possess them, but the music isn’t especially memorable, perhaps because of the game’s length.

One of my major criticisms of this game is that it’s sometimes unclear as to what your next move should be. You can always ask Paolo, the only character who can communicate with you, for help, but basically what it comes down to is talking to everyone (exhausting all dialogue options) and examining everything. Another issue I had is that Xu’s portrayal (a waitress who steals stuff from passengers and crew and is also secretly here illegally) strikes me as racist stereotyping, characters even comment on how her English is good and keep mispronouncing her name (as “Sue”). Out of all the characters of colour in the main cast, the only one I found remotely sympathetic was Quella, as the others are in on the unpleasantness described below (although most of the characters have something to sympathize with).

In terms of triggers, one character’s depressed spouse committed suicide, another is implied to have been stalked or sexually abused, there’s also abuse, one character is dealing with cancer, one on screen suicide (which is unavoidable) and discussion and depiction of human trafficking. There are also some flashing graphics at the very beginning of the game, and reading a person’s thoughts will occasionally show bright colours and flashing, moving text and images.

Overall, you can finish the game in an afternoon and unlock all the achievements. It’s a nice little diversion while you’re waiting for the latest big budget title to download. It has some interesting ideas, and it doesn’t overstay its welcome. I’m not sure that it’s worth the full price of $10, but on sale it’s worth a look if you like murder mysteries.

Recent Realizations Re: The Tithe-Boy

Recently, I started looking over my old stories for inspiration. In case you’ve joined me since then, for Hallowe’en 2012 (or thereabouts) I wrote a story about a child who is taken from his home by strange magical beings. The story was intended to be creepy and unsettling, and it only really became a serial because I was bored and wanted something to write.

However, this past week I read it again, and I’m honestly kicking myself that I didn’t question the basic premise of the story. What was meant to be a nice story about a group of children learning magic read more like Stockholm Syndrome in the making, with Tom coming to accept that Lord Fulgaris meant well when he took him away from his home without an explanation.

I’m a different writer than the person from three years ago, and while I still love these characters, continuing on with the story when its very premise is kind of gross (and reminiscent of residential schools) is not something I want to do and was certainly not my intent when writing that first chapter. At the same time, I don’t know if I want to go back and revise the story right this instant, or scrap it and start over. Same characters, different story. There’s also a part of me that wants to preserve the creepy, problematic original version. It reminds me of how far I’ve come as a writer.

At this point, it’s been at least three years since my last update, so maybe it is a good time to start again if I can find the energy. I’m not sure what to do. I worked very hard on those first few chapters, after all.

Review: Captive Prince (Captive Prince #1)

[rape tw, pedophilia tw, slavery tw, racism tw, the following review will also contain spoilers for this book]

I was initially very hesitant about giving this book a read. It seems to be making the rounds on the internet and everyone seems to be talking about it, either because it’s a well plotted tale of political intrigue with a hot power couple, or it’s a racist rape fest that glorifies slavery. I’ve long since learned to be suspicious of anything labelled as M/M romance or erotica because so much of it is rape masquerading as “dubcon”, personally not my cup of tea.

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Prince Damianos (also known as Damen) is a hero to his people and rightful heir to the throne of Akielos. One fateful night, he is betrayed by his half brother, stripped of his identity, and sent to the foreign land of Vere to serve the crown prince as a pleasure slave. His new master, Prince Laurent, is as beautiful and deadly as his court, and soon Damen finds himself drawn into an intricate web of political intrigue that could cost both of them their lives. Forced to work with a man he hates to save his own country, Damen realizes he must never reveal his true identity, for the one man he needs most is the one man who has more reason to hate him than anyone at court.

This isn’t going to be a normal review, because it’s difficult for me to talk about how I feel about this book without discussing its more problematic elements. To save time, I’m mostly just going to post what I posted to tumblr and add some additional thoughts. Please be mindful of all content warnings as you read this.

Continue reading Review: Captive Prince (Captive Prince #1)

Game Review: Shin Megami Tensei IV

There are few franchises that I would consider myself loyal to (at least until they come out on a system I don’t have) but Shin Megami Tensei (and its spinoff series, the Persona series) is one of the few exceptions. They have very interesting premises but many of the games haven’t been released in North America. Fortunately, with the popularity of the Persona games, more of the games are being released in the West.

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In the Eastern Kingdom of Mikado, people are divided between the wealthy Luxurors and lower class Casualries. The protagonist (default name: Flynn) and his friend Issachar are of age to undergo the trials to become Samurai, protectors of the kingdom who venture into the demon-infested ruins of Naraku to gather mystic relics for the monastery’s top brass. When a mysterious person starts causing unrest in the countryside, however, Flynn and friends journey into Naraku and beyond in search of answers. Who is the Black Samurai? And what is the strange city they find beneath the Kingdom?

The gameplay will probably familiar to you if you’ve played Devil Survivor or Persona 3 and 4 in particular. The Press Turn system from previous games makes a return. For those who aren’t familiar with this series, you basically get extra turns for hitting enemy weaknesses and scoring critical hits. Instead of fighting, however, you might want to recruit new demons (note: all recruitable monsters in this game are referred to as “demons” even though they are technically gods, goddesses, angels, etc.) to your side via Demon Negotiation, which is a somewhat random process of answering multiple choice questions and bribing them with money and items. Once they join your team, you can fuse them via the Cathedral of Shadows to obtain more powerful demons. Some demons are considered “Special” fusions, obtained by defeating them in battle during quests, or by fusing a specific combination of demons.

Unlike other games in the series, where skill inheritance is entirely or mostly random, you can select which skills you want the new demon to have from its parents’ skills. If you level up or manage to fuse an exceptionally strong demon, you can register that demon in the compendium, and then summon them as long as you have enough Macca. Sometimes demons that you speak to during battles will give you new challenge quests, which feels more organic than just checking in at the Hunter Association for new quests. When you level up, in addition to being able to increase your stats, you’ll be given app points, which can be used to expand your stock, unlock more slots for new abilities, and choose more options during demon negotiation, among other things. Another knew feature is demon whispers. In a nutshell, when a demon has learned all their skills, they can “whisper” their abilities to the protagonist, and Flynn can then use those skills in battle.

Other than the Press Turn feature I’ve outlined above, battles are standard turn-based affairs, with you and the enemy trading attacks. A first for this series is horde enemies, massive groups of enemies that all share a common weakness. In true SMT fashion, even lower level encounters can horribly murder you, especially if they get the drop on you. My level 90 party was very nearly destroyed by a group of level 25 demons who surprised us and quickly exploited my team’s weaknesses. Bosses pretty much require you to exploit their weaknesses in order to succeed, although, they aren’t quite as nasty as the boss encounters in SMT: Strange Journey.

Shin Megami Tensei IV has two types of quest: the main quest obviously advances the story, whereas Challenge Quests are the game’s sidequests. Challenge Quests are often standard fetch quests (delivery quests) or defeat this enemy quests, but they reward you with Macca, better weapons and armor, and the ability to fuse certain boss demons, some quests also have an impact on your alignment (more on alignment in a bit).

Regarding the story, it’s not as weird as, say, Nocturne’s post-apocalyptic demonic journey. In fact, I’d say it’s closer to the first Shin Megami Tensei game (with the initial setup of Shin Megami Tensei II) neither SMT I nor II were ever released in the West, I just know of them because I’ve done some reading. Besides Issachar, the protagonist has three fellow Samurai that play a role in the story: the Luxuror and law-abiding Jonathan, the rebellious fellow Casualry, Walter, and Isabeau, who is less inclined to extremes. Again, if you’re familiar with the series’ Law-Chaos-Neutral alignments (and you’ve seen the box art) it should be obvious which character acts as the mouthpiece for which alignment. I wouldn’t so much call the characters stereotypical anime characters, but they are definitely stereotypical SMT characters: with one fanatically devoted to serving God, the other committed to the social Darwinism of Chaos, and the characters who don’t embrace either extreme. Your choices can cause Flynn to favour Law or Chaos, or to walk the Neutral path. This choice doesn’t just affect the ending you can get, it affects which demons you can fuse, with some exclusive to one alignment, and even which bosses you face over the course of the story.

One major criticism I have of this game is that it’s ridiculously difficult to get the Neutral ending. It’s par for the course to make getting this sort of ending difficult in SMT, but getting the Neutral ending in SMT IV requires being between -8 and +8 on the morality scale, which is difficult to achieve if you’re just going through the game completing sidequests as you go. Speaking of sidequests, the Neutral ending also requires that you complete certain quests, though thankfully these are not time-sensitive. This was actually such an issue for me that I went for the worst ending in the game just so I could go for the Neutral ending in New Game Plus. I also found wandering the overworld map annoying due to the high frequency of demon encounters. This can be alleviated somewhat by obtaining an airship, but the quest to get it doesn’t pop up until late in the game.There’s also an unfortunate implication with the dark-skinned character from a lower class background representing Chaos, the alignment that allies itself with the demons where the strong survive and the weak perish (although, this is not exclusive to this game). I also felt like the story lacked nuance, with characters going from friends to opposite sides pretty quickly, which, although it makes sense for an SMT game, didn’t feel as natural to me as, say, the dynamics in Devil Survivor or SMT Nocturne. Some might (and have been) offended by the fact that the “monsters” in the game are actual deities and spirits from pantheons around the world, especially the way in which some of them are sexualized (although personally Incubus will never not be funny to me).

In terms of triggers, demons eat people and the game does remind you of that fact a few times, such as when one of the bosses devours an NPC and the reinforcements they’ve called. There’s also a secret underground compound where people are “harvested” for brain matter. In one scenario, human “neurishers” act as food sources for demonoids.Some of the sidequests have creepy implications, like the rampaging Wicker Men who are trapping people inside them and burning them to death. There’s also woman in Ikebukuro where it is heavily implied that she commits suicide no matter which dialogue option you choose. The game does have a tendency to flash red when someone is being killed, and finishing off someone by shooting them causes them to burst in a bloody mess.

Overall, Shin Megami Tensei IV is worth your time if you like JRPGs and a challenge. It’s a lengthy RPG–my total playtime, including my New Game+ run, is 85 hours–and it’s a great entry point to this difficult niche series.

Review: The Darkest Minds

[sexual assault tw]

Another book that I originally bought way back in January for my birthday, I’m not going to lie and say that I was intentionally putting it off given my bad experiences with some recent young adult reads. I’m not running out of things to read by any means, but I realized there was only so long I could put off reading one book.

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Ruby lives in a world where most of America’s children are gone, killed off by a mysterious disease, but when she wakes up on her tenth birthday, instead of the cold embrace of death, she discovers that something has changed. Something about her is frightening enough that her parents lock her in the garage and she is sent to Thurmond, a brutal “rehabilitation camp” for children like her, the ones who survived with mysterious powers that they cannot control. When the truth of Ruby’s abilities come out, however, she escapes Thurmond and joins up with some other kids heading to East River, rumored to be a sanctuary kids like her. When they finally arrive, however, they discover all is not as it seems, but there will those who will stop at nothing to use Ruby for their own ends, and her struggle to attain a life that is her own again will not be an easy one.

I confess that at times I find it difficult to not find characters who have gone through trauma annoying, not because trauma is easily dealt with (because it isn’t) but I often don’t realize a character that I would describe as “whiny” is actually acting that way due to their trauma. Sometimes I find it difficult to distinguish between “unlikable character because of a certain trait” and “traumatized character who is acting that way because they’ve been through hell”. In retrospect, I’ve realized I’ve unfairly judged certain characters who are actually acting that way because of abuse, and while I try to do better when judging a character, sometimes it’s difficult to not have that kneejerk reaction. Bracken’s characters have all been through hell to some degree, and they all deal with it in different ways: Liam, the leader of the group that Ruby encounters, is driven by guilt and on a mission, while Suzume is so traumatized by her experiences that she never speaks. My favourite character is Chubs, the smart guy who can’t see very well without his glasses and always has a sarcastic barb ready. Ruby, our protagonist, is stubborn, finds it hard to keep people close (for good reason), and very, very conflicted about using her powers. I think the only character who didn’t leave a strong impression on me was Liam, he just seems kind of bland when compared to Chubs, so of course, guess which one is Ruby’s obvious love interest?

This is kind of a weird comparison, but the book reminded me of the calmer moments in The Walking Dead game, where the characters are just sitting on a train and don’t have to worry about zombies for a few moments. In fact, the back cover text (and my summary) are a bit misleading as a sizable chunk of the book takes place on the road to East River. However, instead of zombies, the kids are threatened by bounty hunters: “skip tracers” who return fugitive children to the camps they escaped, representatives of other organizations who want to use the children for their own ends, and other children, some of whom have banded together to form tribes that don’t take kindly to outsiders. Normally I would be frustrated by the lack of action, but I thought the book was paced well, with just enough tension to keep things interesting, and I found myself breathing a sigh of relief when the characters finally had a chance to rest.

Even my very favourite books don’t escape criticism, and this book is no exception. It’s unfortunate that Bracken (out of ignorance, apparently) chose to make Suzume mute, as it reinforces the stereotype of the submissive Asian (in this case Japanese) woman. I do appreciate that in this instance, the author apologized and expressed regret regarding Suzume’s mutism, but as it is in the book and can still negatively affect those who read it, it bears mentioning. I also found the premise stretched the limits of my suspension of disbelief. For one thing, if most of America’s children have died off, wouldn’t adults have a vested interest in protecting them, not sending them to camps where they’re being mistreated? The whole thing with sending them to camps just seems like a massive instance of shooting oneself in the foot, if you ask me. Ruby also has this really annoying habit of encountering creepy boys who later turn out to be evil. There’s nothing wrong with creepy boys turning out to be evil, but it becomes this predictable shorthand for This Character is Obviously Evil and it’s just not very interesting.

In terms of diversity, in the main cast, Suzume is Japanese and Chubs is black. There are other minor characters of colour, like Hina, but they don’t play a huge role in the story. There are no overtly queer characters, although Ruby has really close relationships with other girls (which is, by the way, a refreshing change from protagonists who go out of their way to snipe at other girls).

In terms of trigger warnings, the book is definitely harmful to minors. There’s a scene at the beginning of the book where Ruby and a group of other children are deprived of sleep and denied food, as well as scenes involving kids getting shot. A character calls Suzume the r slur due to her mutism. The children are essentially being sent to concentration camps, obviously an uncomfortable topic for many. One notable scene near the end involves Ruby being restrained and sexually assaulted by a character she trusts. While the assault is treated with the seriousness it deserves, the situation itself is ambiguous, leaving the reader to wonder if Ruby was raped or not. This is one scene that could have been clarified or even left out entirely (as there were plenty of other ways this character could express his dominance without the sexual connotations).

Despite it’s obviously uncomfortable subject matter and the fact that some plot points didn’t make that much sense to me, I enjoyed The Darkest Minds and am interested enough to finish the trilogy. It might be some time before I get to the other books, however, I still have a ton of other books to read.

Game Review: Oxenfree

It’s October and you know what that means: it’s time to play tons of spooky games! This one came recommended to me by a ton of people, but I went into it not really knowing what it was or why it was so highly praised.

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Oxenftee is a supernatural horror thriller mystery adventure game by Night School Studio. You play as a teenager named Alex, who is heading out to Edwards Island–formerly the site of an active military base and now a commercial site and tourist trap–with her best friend Ren and Jonas, her stepbrother. The party predictably takes a turn for the worse as Alex and friends contend with time loops, creepy radio messages, possession, and each other.

You’ll spend most of your time listening to dialogue and banter between characters in this game, luckily, the characters are all pretty likeable. One of my favourites was Ren, the talkative nerd with a drug problem. He’s constantly in conflict with Jonas, who is a bit more serious. There’s also Clarissa, who doesn’t seem to like Alex very much, and Nona, Clarissa’s best friend who doesn’t talk a lot and loves taking pictures.

Compared to many other point and click adventure games, the controls are simple: you use WASD to move and space to interact with objects (climb ledges, etc), the tab key brings up the map. You use the mouse to select dialogue options, and pressing shift brings out Alex’s radio. The radio is the key to solving puzzles in this game. Solving puzzles are usually as simple as tuning in to the correct frequency on the radio. When the numbers are green, you can listen to information about landmarks on the island. When the numbers are red, that means you’ve found an anomaly, one of the game’s collectables, usually a creepy message of some sort, blue numbers open locks on doors. In addition to radio anomalies, there are letters to collect and photos to take. It is possible to collect everything on one playthrough and as long as you don’t go into the final area, you can still find everything, finding all of the collectables involves exploring the environment, some can be hard to spot or require a lot of backtracking. I’ve been calling them “puzzles” all this time, but what it really comes down to is tuning the radio until you find the number that does something.

The real meat of the game is in how you, as Alex, choose to interact with your friends. Do you try your best to be nice to Clarissa, even though she wants nothing to do with you? How do you feel about your stepbrother Jonas? Do you encourage Ren to talk to his crush? Or, alternatively, do you push everyone away? Much like a Telltale game, these choices influence how characters relate to you during the story, and also affect the ending variations you get. One unique thing about the dialogue is that instead of choosing from a list of options at the bottom of the screen, you choose speech bubbles, and these choices are timed. Yes, if you’re not fast enough, Alex will clam up. Would you believe this game’s development team included folks from Telltale? Yep, and that influence shows. If I had to compare Oxenfree to other games, I’d say it’s a lot like Life is Strange meets, well, pick a ghost story, down to the weird time travel plot.

A note about the art, the 2D environments are really pretty. I think my favourite area is Epiphany Field, with its dark wooded area leading up a mist-shrouded slope. Some reviewers have classified this game as a horror game. I would personally say this is more atmospheric horror. The island’s environments, while pretty, are also very oppressive. The music and sound effects are difficult to describe, at times melancholy, at other times, cacophonous, full of radio chatter and static. The soundtrack reminds me of Sword & Sorcery, in a way.

I have three major criticisms of this game. The first is that it’s short: Steam has me clocked at six hours, and that includes getting all the collectables, although to unlock all the achievements, you’ll need to play the game at least three times (other sites report that subsequent playthroughs take about three hours). I haven’t started New Game+ but apparently it’s worth it. It’s still pretty short (IMHO) for a $20 title, although the sale price at just above $5 CAD is a steal. My second major criticism is that the game requires a ton of backtracking, especially if you’re looking for collectables, and although the environments are gorgeous and the music is lovely, Alex doesn’t move very quickly and having to constantly take the long route to the next area gets really tedious, really fast. I also thought that Nona’s lack of spoken dialogue (far less than the other characters) played into stereotypes of submissive Asian women. I wouldn’t say Nona is demure by any means, but I felt out of all the cast that the player knows the least about her by the game’s end. A note regarding accessibility: I strongly recommend turning on subtitles so you don’t miss a lot of the dialogue (which is communicated through the radio and can sound really garbled at times).

In terms of diversity, I’ve already mentioned Nona, but Alex and her brother Michael (who is a posthumous character) are brown-skinned (Alex’s hair is naturally brown, as seen in flashbacks). There’s no overt queerness, although Alex can mention that she’d fuck or marry either of the girls during a game of Fuck, Marry, Kill and two background characters may or may not have been romantically involved.

In terms of trigger warnings, here is a list I’ve compiled: there’s a lot of death (particularly by drowning), suicide, possession (as in being possessed by ghosts), death of a family member, unreality (there are moments when you’re stuck in a time loop, you’ll know when you’re stuck because there will be screen distortion and the music will be weird, there’s also some fourth wall breaking near the end, and the collectables involve picking up weird radio signals), drugs (Ren has a thing with drugs) and alcohol (you can choose not to drink). There’s a lot of flashing lights and one game mechanic (opening portals with the radio) is accompanied by flickering visuals, static, and a lot of noise, there are also a couple times where everything’s turned upside down abruptly (including dialogue).

Overall, despite it’s short length, I enjoyed Oxenfree, it’s a horror game that doesn’t rely on jump scares and an adventure game that doesn’t rely on complex puzzles. It has the teen drama of Life is Strange with the relationship dynamics of a Telltale game. If any of that sounds good to you and you’re looking for a creepy game to play in October, give Oxenfree a try.

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.