Monthly Archives: November 2013

Review: Libriomancer (Magic ex Libris #1)

[Note: The following will contain SPOILERS for Libriomancer, I will try to keep them to a minimum. It might also be triggery for rape and/or extremely dubious consent, see spoilers section]

After the slow-as-molasses read that was The Light Bearer, I decided that I was going to read something that I was certain I would actually enjoy, and Libriomancer is a book about a kickass librarian, his fire-spider, and his kickass dryad friend kicking ass with the magic of reading.

Yeah, I was pretty sure I would enjoy it from the get go even if the author’s Princess series hadn’t already turned me into a Jim C. Hines fangirl. (I didn’t think the Princess series was perfect, mind you, but it’s pretty good–for a book written by a whitecishet guy).

Libriomancer‘s main character is Isaac Vainio, a libriomancer and member of a secret organization known as Die Zwelf Portenaere (The Twelve Doorkeepers) which was founded by Johannes Gutenberg to protect the world from supernatural threats. Libriomancers have the ability to reach into books and draw forth objects, , but Isaac hasn’t been doing much of that lately ever since being taken out of the field, so he works at his “day job” as a cataloger, flagging books for the Porters’ database. After being attacked by vampires and discovering that Gutenberg has been kidnapped, Isaac enters the field again to find him, accompanied by Smudge, his pet fire-spider, and Lena, a dryad with a sweet tooth who packs a pair of wooden swords, a search that will lead to him uncovering dark secrets about libriomancy, Gutenberg, and the history of magic.

At it’s core, Libriomancer is a book about how reading is wondrous and magical. It’s a love letter (and, I believe, a deconstruction) of science fiction and fantasy tropes. This is a book for everyone who has ever wished that objects from books were real things that could be used. Libriomancy itself is basically a form of pop culture magic, in that it ultimately draws from the readers’ belief in and love of books. I can’t tell you how many feels this book gave me both as someone who went to library school and as a fan of SFF, but it was a lot of feels.

In terms of writing, Libriomancer reminds me of Jim Butcher’s work without all the wisecracking and sexism. It’s also pretty well-paced, neither too fast or too slow, and while the overall plot isn’t the book’s strongest point, there are some twists and turns that keep things interesting. The world is also very interesting. It’s basically your standard Urban Fantasy Kitchen Sink (vampires, werewolves, etc.) ni with a twist in that there are natural born and book born species (and apparently hundreds of different species of vampire). Since vampires are the antagonists du jour, jabs at everything from Twilight to Carmilla are commonplace, and Public Domain Artifacts are on display everywhere. You can almost picture Hines at his keyboard (or perhaps he has a notepad) positively giddy over every pop culture reference he inserts into this book. As a system of magic, Libriomancy has clearly defined rules, but it’s not as rigid a system as, say, something like Brandon Sanderson’s rules-heavy systems.

In terms of characters, we have Isaac, our narrator and the titular libriomancer, but we also have Smudge, the fire-spider who roasts the insects he catches and manages to be kind of adorable even though he is a spider, and Lena, the ass-kicking, motorcycle-riding, dryad with a thing for sweets. I know I’ve been talking a lot about Isaac, but this is as much Lena’s book as it is his, and, to be honest, of the three, I found Isaac to be the least compelling. He just seemed kind of average and pretty much checks all the boxes on the ‘”retired” urban fantasy main character list’ (discovered magic by accident and nearly ended up seriously hurting himself? check. Caused an incident which forced him to “retire” from fieldwork? Check. Pushed back into the field because there’s no one else who can get the job done? Check.) Lena, on the other hand, Lena is awesome. She rescues Isaac more than once over the course of the book. She’s also described as “heavyset” and “plump” which is pretty refreshing in a genre where many female characters are some variant of thin and petite (she is also described as “tan” which I took to mean brown but could just as easily be seen as white). However, what I found most compelling about Lena was her constant struggle to find agency (see the spoilery bits below) as much as this book is a fun romp based around the idea that books are great, the story is also about Lena’s struggle to find her own identity.

There are also some great secondary characters. The book might as well be called “Isaac Vainio is surrounded by badass women”. There’s his boss, Nicola Pallas, who keeps chupacabras as pets. fellow libriomancer Deb DeGeorge, who speaks and reads five languages “and spouts obscenities in six”, Alice Granach, a vampire who leads the Detroit nest, Nidhi Shah, the Porter’s resident psychiatrist and Lena’s lover. Isaac also mentions in a blink and you miss it line that his mother proposed to his father. Even his barely mentioned mother smashes the patriarchy! For male characters, we have Isaac himself, and Ponce de Leon, who takes a more indirect role in the plot, Gutenberg himself is MIA of course, but we get to know more about him from Isaac as the story progresses.

As for representation, there’s Nidhi Shah (who, based on her name and references to her speaking Gujarati) is Indian, and possibly Lena, depending on how you read the “tan skin” statement.  Lena is also bi (or possibly poly or pan, see spoilers below) and, as noted above, currently in a relationship with Dr. Shah. There’s also a hinted-at relationship between two male characters and a polyamorous relationship.

Thematically, the book discusses the issue of nature vs. nurture, identity, and agency in a way that is perhaps not without problems (see spoilers below) but adds some complexity to a book that would otherwise have a pretty standard plot with extra bibliophilia.

Normally this is where I would give my recommendation, but there is some potentially triggering content that I think merits some discussion, and it has to do with Lena.

[SPOILERS START HERE]

Lena is quite easily the most problematic character in this book.

To summarize, Lena is actually not a natural-born dryad, she is a book-born entity. Book-born creatures are subject to the rules that their book sets out for them, in Lena’s case, her book is bad science fiction (specifically compared to the Gor novels) where her and her fellow nymphs are created to be (in Isaac’s words) “magical sex toys” for their partner, which means that Lena’s personality shifts to match that of her lover, but it also means that it is her nature to not want to say no.

Isaac’s reaction to this revelation is to be completely disgusted (Lena herself seems rather blase about it) and at this point I was pretty disgusted too, especially since Hines is an anti-rape activist and regularly blogs about sexism in SFF (and in general).

The thing is, even though this sexist rapetastic bullshit is written into Lena’s nature, she takes steps to avoid it. When Nidhi Shah goes missing (leaving her without a partner and thus free to be molded by anyone) she goes to Isaac for protection and Isaac resists becoming involved with her (something that other authors probably would have jumped on) because he’s never really sure how much of her attraction to him is her nature and how much of it is due to her making a conscious decision, and Lena is constantly working within the “rules” of her book to make her own decisions.

In the hands of another author, this could have been a trainwreck, and I think (again, knowing something about Hines) that some discomfort on the part of the reader is intentional, that the whole point is to deconstruct this incredibly sexist trope and have a character who still manages to find her own identity. At the same time, I kind of wonder if it was really necessary to have a  badass character with rapeyness in their backstory, but, on the other hand, it does add a layer of complexity to Lena’s character, and it seems like Hines is going to explore Lena’s character a whole lot more in Codex Born.

[SPOILERS END HERE]

There’s a lot to like about Libriomancer. There are a whole lot of references popular SFF and vampire literature, some great characters even though Isaac himself is kind of flat, and some great discussion of nature vs. nurture, choice and agency. In terms of the urban fantasy genre, it breaks the mold in a few ways, and it manages to give the reader something of the wonder that they experienced when picking up a favourite book for the first time. If you’ve always wanted to pluck Excalibur from the pages of a book, you owe it to yourself to pick this one up.

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Game Review: Long Live the Queen (Steam edition)

[TW: rape, incest]

Rule the world or die trying!

I did a little mini review of this game for my “Games You Might Not Have Tried” post, but since the game’s been released on Steam with new content, I thought it would be a good time to give it the full review it deserves.

In Long Live the Queen, you play as Elodie, heir to the throne of Nova. Your job, as the player, is to help her make it to her coronation on her 15th birthday, you do this by training her in various skills that she will need to be an effective queen.

But most of the time, you’ll be watching her die, over and over again.

Basically, Long Live the Queen is Princess Maker x Game of Thrones, strong emphasis on the Game of Thrones part. During the week, you select classes for Elodie to attend, and you can choose certain activities to participate in on the weekend. Weekend activities, as well as certain events, effect Elodie’s mood, and her dominant mood may grant bonuses or penalties when she tries to learn particular skills. (If Elodie is Depressed, for instance, she will gain a bonus to her Animal Handling skills, but a penalty to her Social Skills, since she doesn’t feel like talking to anyone when she’s upset).

In between attending classes and doing weekend activities, various scripted events will occur, and each event has numerous skill checks. Passing skill checks will often give you more information and thus different ways to solve problems, or they might even unlock whole plotlines, whereas failing them can lead to nothing much happening, a character disliking you, or instant death (although there are multiple ways to avoid being insta-killed). It is also impossible to pass every skill check in one playthrough, so if you are the type of gamer who just has to see everything, you will either get a good amount of replay value out of it or it will drive you absolutely nuts.

Although the events that happen each week are scripted (although many are heavily dependent on your past choices) hoe you choose to play Elodie is up to you. Do you want her to be a master military strategist? Someone who is cunning and charming and can play at courtly intrigue with the best? A scholar and a mage? You can choose to focus on certain areas (in fact, you pretty much have to to pass some of the endgame skill checks) or hop around, trying for a little of everything and only maxing out one skill.

The art style is anime-esque and there are lots of ribbons, bows, lace, and PINK, lots of pink. The backgrounds are kind of bland, and after a while, I wasn’t really looking at them, and the character art isn’t as detailed as, say, The Royal Trap but it’s not terrible either, and if you think the game’s cutesy art style means that it’s easy, you would be WRONG! The one issue I have with the art is that a couple of the characters look like they’re in their early twenties when they should be in their thirties, but maybe that’s just me.

This is Banion, he is a jerk.

Probably the most frustrating thing about Long Live the Queen is the occasional dick move it pulls where it tosses out a skill check you didn’t even think of raising. This can lead to scenarios like an Elodie with a maxed out “Swords” stat being killed in a sword fight (Reflexes + Flexibility is a winning combination), or a cunning Elodie who knows all about what everyone is doing but doesn’t know basic geography. One annoying thing for me is that she starts the game with a penalty to her social skills, so you pretty much have to hit the ground running and manage her mood if you want to raise it enough for certain skill checks. This is particularly annoying because social skills (primarily Court Manners) are ridiculously useful early on in the game.

The good news is that there is actually a fair amount of queer representation in Long Live the Queen, the bad news is that the members of the nobility are all engaged in some form of unpleasantness: rape, incest, rape and incest, ordering assassinations (most often your own), and murdering entire families, and the queer nobles are definitely no exception to this (although the queer men are much, much, MUCH worse in this regard than the women). However, there’s also your aunt, Julianna, who is in a relationship with a priestess, and there are several endings where Elodie has a romantic relationship with a woman, either refusing to marry, marrying her brother to get closer to her, or marrying a nobleman and appointing a “Lady of the Royal Bedchamber” (winkwink). Fortunately, you learn about most of this through flavour text (especially high Internal Affairs/Foreign Intelligence) during your classes, and at times during the endings, and it’s possible to not see it entirely, although you might be a little confused by certain events without that context. Elodie can also do some pretty cruel things (this is tracked via a hidden Cruelty statistic) which include: ordering your maid flogged for running into you, forcing someone to marry, imprisoning someone and giving their titles to someone else, executing prisoners of war, blowing people up with magic, and pretty much going around and lopping off heads. There are certain events and endings you can only get with a high Cruelty stat. Fortunately, it apparently only goes up to 10, not 100.

Aside from everything I just mentioned, the game is also criminally short, only taking a few minutes to a few hours to play through once, but such is the nature of the typical indy dev’s budget. There is, as I said, a good amount of replay value if you want to work through the checklist, despite the scripted events.

Overall, if you like Game of Thrones, are looking for something that won’t take forty hours to play, and you don’t mind all the PINK! cutesy anime style graphics, you will probably like this game. Underneath the adorable exterior is a surprisingly serious game with some very adult themes, a game which will cheerfully kill you if you underestimate it.

Review: The Light Bearer by Donna Gillespie

[TW: rape, homphobia]

I finally finished this book, all 1011 pages of it, and now I’m going to tell you about it and put it aside so I can get to all the other books I’ve accumulated since I started reading it. (I swear, my books reproduce when I’m not watching them).

I first heard of this book via a review in a SageWoman issue for the sequel Lady of the Light. At the time I read the review, I was intrigued by the book, but I really wanted to read its predecessor, and at the time was a little suspicious of the Amazon Marketplace. Now I am still suspicious of the Amazon Marketplace, but I decided to take a chance and order this book for one cent plus shipping from a seller I’d purchased from before.

The Light Bearer is a historical fiction novel (and Donna Gillespie’s first novel) that tells the story of Auriane, the daughter of the famed chieftain Baldemar, leader of the Chattian people in Eastern Germany. We follow her life as she grows from child to fierce warrior who defends her people not only from other proud Germanic tribes, but from their Roman masters as well. Meanwhile, in Rome, Marcus Arrius Julianus finds himself suddenly thrust from live as a slave to life as a senator’s son (apparently the people his father left him with lost him) who is then forced to adapt to a life of politicking and intrigue.

The bulk of the novel follows these two characters as they kick ass and take names and philosophize respectively. The first part of the book mainly focuses on Auriane and fighting among the tribes, where we see her struggle with the notion that she has been “cursed” from birth, as well as her attempts to avoid joining the group of sorceress-priestesses and embrace the path of the warrior. Marcus, on the other hand, has to deal with Emperor Nero, powerful political enemies (I mean, besides the Emperor) and (eventually)  Emperor Domitian, you know, Roman politics, at least as deadly as war among the Germanic tribes.

Also, romance eventually ensues.

The best way I can describe this book is to describe it as Spartacus: Blood and Sand if the majority of the show was set in Thrace instead of Capua and Spartacus isn’t captured until about two thirds of the way into the series. Also, there’s far less T&A….and endearing characters.

Seriously, Spartacus: Blood and Sand revels in its sex and violence, has probably made students of Roman history cry, and is as hammy as fuck, but the characters do kind of grow on you (also Lucy Lawless is perfect).

Anyways, that is basically what reading this book is like, if that doesn’t sound very exciting, you probably won’t like this book.

To be fair, there are some epic moments and Auriane is a warrior who actually does warrior things, like kicking major ass, and Marcus is the sort of badass whose greatest weapon is his words, but I still found the book to be kind of slow and had a tendency to ramble on about things that didn’t advance the plot in any way, and for a book of this length, I need it to keep me engaged, I don’t need it to ramble.

There’s also a lot of repetition: Auriane is cursed, Auriane wants vengeance, Geisar is a scheming schemer,  everybody likes Marcus, Nero is a madman, Domitian is a paranoid child in a man’s body who just wants Marcus Arrius Julianus to tell him he’s awesome and he’s doing a good job. Yes, yes, book, we figured out all those things pages ago, you can stop now. I know this is a first novel and everything, but all this repetition gets really, really annoying really quickly, and might I remind you, this sucker is just over 1000 pages. Also, the book has this annoying habit of flipping to a minor character’s perspective for a brief moment before returning to one of the mains. (Usually the text is like “X thought Julianus was great.” At first, i liked the writing (despite all the philosophizing), but after a while the novelty wore off and I was just not that engaged.

I suppose the one thing I really didn’t like about this book (besides the pacing and the repetition) was that everything just seemed too….perfect, particularly on Marcus’ end. Marcus always seems to have a plan, Marcus always has things perfectly calculated so that people do what he wants when he wants them to do it. Even when Marcus’ plans go horribly awry, they still work out, I guess because Marcus is a main character and main characters have Plot Armor.

I also found it annoying how the Chattians constantly made references to “demons” (instead of, say, trolls or wights) and the Romans kept referring to Greek deities. The Chattian pantheon apparently only consists of Woden, Fria/Eastre (who is Frigga, Freyja and Ostara), Hel–sorry, I mean Helle–and occasionally Tiwaz. I can understand conflating Frigga and Freyja,  but Fria just winds up being a Great Goddess….and the rite of the “Blessed One” at Easter Eastre is a thinly disguised attempt at making the Heathen Chattians seem more Christian during what is supposed to be pre-Christian times. I’m left wondering just what kind of research Gillespie did for this novel (it was written in 1994).

As for potentially triggery things, we have rape (two “on screen” rapes, over with quickly) people accusing other people of doing inappropriate things to children, and a few homophobic remarks, although, let’s be honest, these things are par for the course for the time and place, and they weren’t gratuitous, I still found that they were more FOR THE DRAMA than anything, especially when Auriane seems to recover from it and it’s barely mentioned until close to the end of the novel (when her rapist taunts her about it). Some descriptions of female characters struck me as very creepy and male gaze-y, which is probably appropriate because they happen at times when the perspective shifts to a male character, but still, if this had been written by a male author, I’d definitely be side-eying the book.

Also the homophobia is actually kind of ironic (and in the end I’m not sure how much of it is meant to be attempting to be historically accurate and how much is it the author just being plain homophobic) because you could cut the sexual tension between Marcus and Domitian with a knife. Seriously, by the end of the book I had this feeling that if they just fucked each other hard a lot of people wouldn’t have had to die (Domitian even admits to being aroused by Marcus–although the latter is being tortured at the time).

I mean, it would be kind of fucked up, but also kind of hot.

Overall, there were parts of this book that were great, but I’m really strongly leaning towards a “meh” to a “dislike” and I’m not sure if I really want to go back for the sequel.

Seeking the Dark

A couple weeks ago, I had surgery done to stop my keratoconus from progressing. The procedure involved a ton of drops and exposure to UV light, I’ve certainly had more invasive surgeries done on me.

I feel much better now, but for the first week, I couldn’t stand light of any kind. I wore thick sun shields inside the house and spent most of the week in this room in the dark. I could see enough to put some YouTube videos on autoplay which I could then listen to, but couldn’t watch, and I listened to a couple episodes of Welcome to Night Vale, apart from that, I slept, or at least tried to sleep, I couldn’t even do much of that because of the pain. I almost felt like a vampire, wandering around the house in the dark all the time. I played touch-based games, trying to count all the beads on a necklace (I counted 115 on one), feeling the contours of pendants, even stroking the cool resin of my Aphrodite statue. (I like the feel of it, it’s so smooth.)

During this time, I didn’t really feel like paying attention to any deities who weren’t somehow associated with the night. I shied away from Freyja and Freyr and found myself talking to Nott and Mani. I wanted the peace that darkness can bring, relief from the pain, a few hours of sleep. I had a strange dream where Mani was knitting someone a sweater. I think at the time I would have welcomed any dream, it would have meant that I was at least getting some sleep. (Seriously, eye surgery hurts, people.)

This week I feel much better and my eye is healing well. The doctor didn’t even have to remove the bandage contact lens he put in because it fell out (it’s probably in my bed somewhere, that’ll be fun finding it all of a sudden).

At the very least, this experience has taught me that, while I might still find dark places creepy for no real reason, darkness has its place and sometimes all you want to do is lie in the dark and be quiet.