Review: Maplecroft (The Borden Dispatches #1)

I’ve never been much of a fan of H.P. Lovecraft. Don’t get me wrong, the Cthulhu mythos and related stories changed how people thought of horror, but I’ve never been able to get past his unabashed racism and xenophobia. However, recently I’ve been taking a look at Lovecraftian works like She Walks in Shadows, an anthology of short fiction by women about women and the mythos, and films like Cthulhu (2009) which has a gay protagonist, and everywhere I looked, everyone and their mother is recommending that fans of Lovecraft’s works read Maplecroft.

Maplecroft‘s main character is the infamous Lizzie Borden, accused and acquitted of murdering her father and stepmother with an axe and inspiring a rhyme based on it. Maplecroft asks “What if Lizzie Borden did commit the murders? What if she had a very good reason for doing so?” When a series of bizarre murders occur in Fall River and the surrounding area, Lizzie, along with her brilliant sister Emma and the town doctor, Dr. Seabury, must race to uncover the truth of these incidents before Fall River is swallowed by a tide of nightmares and madness.

Or, to summarize, “queer Lizzie Borden fights Lovecraftian horrors that come from the sea”.

The book’s format is an epistolary novel, that is, the story is communicated through letters and other documents (Dracula used the same format). It’s kind of odd, thinking of all the characters taking incredibly detailed notes about everything that happened that day, but by the end of the book I didn’t really notice. The book switches between multiple first person perspectives, each character getting a chapter.

I usually start off by talking about the characters but in this case I think the overall atmosphere of the book has a much greater impact than the individual characters. The book is permeated with this sense of melancholy and madness and the deep dark mysteries of the ocean. Many characters undergo a descent, of sorts, first, making some offhand comment about forgetting something in the beginning, and having things steadily get worse until they are not themselves anymore. Even Lizzie and Emma, the characters who are at the heart of the story, are not unaffected by it. Priest nails Lovecraftian horror, and she does it without calling anyone a “mongrel” and having multiple amazing female characters. This book gave me major Aegir and Ran feels. The sea isn’t just sinister in this book. it’s beautiful and mysterious and fascinating, and it can also eat you alive.

The book isn’t all melancholy. of course, there are moments where Lizzie takes her axe and throws down with otherworldly creatures, and there’s the whole mystery of why this is happening in Fall River, and why does it seem like the Bordens are at the center of it all? There were some great moments outside of the book’s more melancholic moments: Lizzie’s relationship with Nance O’Neil, Emma writing respected research papers under a pseudonym. I found the pacing was decent, and it helps that chapters were generally short, allowing the reader to walk around in another person’s shoes for a bit before swapping them out. Some have referred to this book as “historical horror” and I would say this is accurate, although the book never feels like it neglects the horror bits to focus on the historical and vice versa.

If I had to criticize Maplecroft, I’d say that the resolution to the central mystery was a bit….weird…even by Lovecraftian fiction’s standards. The book was also way too short. I want more. I can’t stand not knowing what happens. Fortunately, the sequel, Chapelwood, is out now, so I won’t have to wait long to read more of this series.

In terms of potentially triggery content, madness is practically a stable of Lovecraftian works, but there’s also plenty of murder and suicides, that, while not graphically described, are certainly gruesome, and children are not exempt from being targets of violence. Emma also frequently coughs up blood, which might be a bit jarring for some.

In terms of representation, there are no characters of colour, but Lizzie and Nance are depicted as being in a relationship and Emma is disabled, and while this does play into the story, she is ultimately shown to be intelligent, resourceful, and not nearly as helpless as she appears (while still requiring assistance at times). As a woman writing scientific papers under a pseudonym, she also experiences sexism to such a degree that at one point she wishes she were a man. Lizzie herself feels the brunt of being ostracized by Fall River and frequently sees herself as a lone woman fending off oceanic terrors while the rest of Fall River sleeps.

Bottom line: I was pleasantly surprised by this book. I’ve been burned by the hype machine before but this book deserves all the hype it can get. I recommend it to anyone into Lovecraftian horror, particularly if you appreciate historical fiction.

Game Review: Life is Strange (Episode 4)

The fifth (and final) episode of Life is Strange is due out on October 20th. I’ve enjoyed the ride and I’ll be sad to see it come to an end. I suppose life must go on.

I’ll be honest, I have mixed feelings about this episode. There are some very intense scenes in this episode, and some hard choices to make, especially after how the last episode ended, and it’s difficult to talk about things without spoiling everything. Suffice it to say that stuff you may have not noticed in the first episode become very important in this one. I also really liked how you could end on friendlier terms with characters like Frank and Victoria, even if the former kind of didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.

There were a couple of things I didn’t like about this episode. The first is that the game seems determined to play the “out of control kid with a scaaaaary mental illness” card, although if you do some poking around and read notes and emails, they help give a bit of perspective to his issues, although I don’t think the player is required to look at them. My other issue is that the player ends up exploring a creepy barn and then is forced to spend time looking at photographs of women in very vulnerable positions, which may be triggering for some (I was more than a little creeped out by them). In terms of gameplay annoyances, there is a really annoying “detective work” sequence that isn’t explained very well. I actually had to do it over again because I had to look something up. I also felt like it doesn’t really fit with the other puzzles that have been in the game.

The episode ended on a really intense note and I’m hoping the finale will make up for the stumbles in this episode.


A Post That Isn’t a Review

Happy Fall, everyone!

I love fall, I wish it was a bit warmer in general, but today was gorgeous (and it’s supposed to be like this for a couple weeks).

I know you’re probably all sick of my reviews, and believe me, I’ve thought about posting more serious stuff, but I’ve come to the realization that my tumblr blog’s sort of taken over the “serious” posts, and there’s only so much I can say about the Vanir that I haven’t already said or that someone else hasn’t already said.

So, I continue to hack away at the review backlog, but I’d like to just take a little time and appreciate fall.

I’m starting to really appreciate having a cup of tea in the morning. Summer just felt too hot for tea. I’m looking forward to hearty “fall foods” and the leaves changing colour. I’m less enthused about winter, we’ve never gotten along. I hate snow.

Well, I guess I’ve got Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen on PC to look forward to in January. There’s one good thing about winter.

Review: Cinder by Marissa Meyer

So Chapters was having one of those promotions where you could buy 2 for 1 YA books, so I thought I’d stock up on titles that I’ve wanted to read for a long time but kept passing them by for whatever reason.

Cinder is one of those books where a single phrase can sell it. In this case, that phrase is “cyborg Cinderella” or “cyborg Cinderella in futuristic China”. Our Cinderella in this case is Cinder, a mechanic whose status as a cyborg makes her a second class citizen in plague-ridden New Beijing who becomes embroiled in an intergalactic conflict between the governments of Earth and the sinister Lunar race that waits and watches for a crack in their armor. But no one, not even Cinder herself, knows that there is something unusual about her, something others would kill for.

Cinder started off strong. The impact of Letumosis is immediately apparent, and what begins as a request to fix a broken android soon takes an interesting turn. I liked that Cinder had a strong bond with the younger stepsister, Peony. There aren’t many Cinderella stories I’ve read where the Cinderella figure is friendly with her stepsisters. The writing itself is tolerable, although I started noticing more and more awkward turns of phrase the more I read.

Unfortunately, I started noticing things that made me cringe. The Emperor who lives in New Beijing has a Japanese name, people eat dumplings and wear kimono in addition to ball gowns. I guess you could explain away the cultural fusion with the fact that the Eastern Commonwealth represents all of Asia, but this just strikes me as sticking on elements of various Asian cultures because….they’re cool? And I suspect anyone who knows anything about the history of Japanese imperialism in China to cringe when they read about an Emperor of all of Asia with a name like Rikan. Speaking of the world-building, why are cyborgs oppressed, again? Cinder can consult virtual blueprints in real time and tell when people are lying, among other things. Unless she lives in a dystopian society where everyone who needs an artificial limb or crutches is horribly oppressed (and our current society certainly treats disabled people like shit), I’m just not buying it.

Speaking of the emperor, let’s talk about the love interest. Prince Kai is about as bland as love interests go, and while I’m used to bland love interests (I’ve watched plenty of early Disney movies), this one spends most of the book being an annoying brat who for some reason has no idea how to run a country. You would think he would have been trained to take his father’s place eventually, but apparently not. Torin, his confidante, would make a far superior emperor, as he seems to actually know what he’s doing in matters of diplomacy.

As if having a wicked stepmother and stepsister weren’t enough, Marissa Meyer throws in an evil queen for good measure. Queen Levana is evil because she brutally suppresses all dissent on the moon and has creepy mind control powers which she uses to make herself appear very attractive. (It’s implied that without her abilities, she’s hideous and so she always appears veiled when on camera.) Also she wants world domination. Honestly, she’s pretty standard as far as evil queens go. Now, beauty in fairy tales has frequently been used to separate the good characters from the bad characters, so this is nothing new, although we could go into the racism and classism underlying its use in traditional stories. In this case though, Queen Levana’s femininity seems suspiciously emphasized. She’s described as being attired “like a bride” in her introductory scene, whereas Cinder engages in a traditionally masculine occupation.

When I talked about my initial impressions, some people informed me that Meyer once wrote Sailor Moon fanfiction. There’s a tendency to bash published works that were based on fanfiction, which I don’t think is very fair, but in this case, it’s hard not to think of Cinder as Usagi, Kai as Mamoru, and Queen Levana as Queen Beryl, especially in the last case, and at that point, I lost interest in the book. Also, this is yet another book where the protagonist has some sekrit speshulness, and in this case, the sekrit speshulness is evident the moment the Lunar Heir is introduced, if not earlier.

In terms of diversity, although the book is set in China, Meyer’s characters are at best racially ambiguous. The author has stated that her vision of future!China is multiracial, but that isn’t really evident in the text. I recall Dr. Erland having an assistant that was dark-skinned, but she’s so forgettable that he doesn’t even remember her name!

Cinder has an intriguing premise that is ultimately let down by a lack of believable world-building and trite, stereotypical characters. I was looking forward to reading this series but this book (and the preview for the second one, which is set in France) did nothing for me.