Monthly Archives: April 2016

Deck Review: The Magic of Flowers Oracle

One thing I can never have enough of is plant-based decks. I love trees, I love flowers, they make great themed decks. The problem is finding art that appeals to me and finding a price point that isn’t “ridiculously expensive”.

Initially I was drawn to this deck’s bright colours but was hesitant to pick it up but wasn’t sure about the author. I had only skimmed one of her books, The Magic of Flowers and Bach flower remedies, the Law of Attraction and manifestation just isn’t my thing. This video review by Arwen is what convinced me to buy it, and I recommend giving it a look to see if it’s your thing.

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The set includes 44 cards and 264 page book. The cards are what I’ve come to think of as standard Llewellyn size (same as the Green Witch Tarot, I just checked). The author is Tess Whitehurst and the artist is Anne Wertheim. The companion book doesn’t have unique spreads, just instructions for one and three card readings. The entries for each card has its name, a black and white image, key phrase, magical applications, a few paragraphs about the meaning of the card in a reading, and some more specific ideas and messages for each card. There’s also a space to write notes. The cards themselves are borderless apart from a footer that has the name of the flower. The backs are bright purple with a compass rose and different flowers at the points, they are non-reversible but the book doesn’t use reversed meanings. Many of the flowers in this deck are common flowers that you will see in many gardens in North America, such as rose or tulip, although some were unfamiliar to me.

The artwork is the main draw of this deck for me. I love the bright, vibrant colours and the level of detail in the images, but despite the detail, the images don’t feel cluttered, although without the keywords, some would be difficult to recognize unless you’re familiar with that flower. One of my favourite cards is “Crocus” which depicts a wintery scene with a woman walking towards a gazebo. “Carnation” is a fiery card, depicting a woman emerging from the flower, wreathed by flames and arms open wide. “Morning Glory” is a transitional card, depicting the sunrise through a gateway surrounded by the titular flower.

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Unfortunately, while the companion book has a bunch of suggestions for how to use the cards, the messages are often steeped in New Age jargon which might make it difficult to interpret. One of the more difficult cards for me was “Dandelion” which is all about manifestation and the Law of Attraction which was difficult to interpret for friends who not only didn’t believe in the Law of Attraction but saw it as thinly disguised classism. Although, I will say that some messages resonated with me. Another unfortunate thing about this deck (which strikes me as a missed opportunity) is that the book seldom references the art. This deck would probably work best as an affirmation or spellcasting deck. The positive messages in this deck would also make it a good self-care or “pick me up” deck. If you know the symbolic associations of each flower, you could also bring those into play. This is one deck that I wish had keywords, because sometimes the meaning isn’t that apparent from looking at the card image, particularly Rose, which seems to be going for a stained glass window weird mandala look, and seems out of place in the deck. This is personally disappointing for me as someone who loves roses, and I almost didn’t buy the deck due to that one card.

In terms of diversity, a few cards unambiguously depict people of colour, including Bouganvillea, Impatiens, and Dahlia (and others), while others, like Carnation, are more ambiguous. The characters are mostly women, although Sunflower and Yarrow both feature men and others don’t depict any humans at all. The only questionable images in this deck that I found are the cover image, depicting a white lady in the “royal ease” position and the Sunflower card, which depicts an apparently Native American man in a loincloth, which is all kinds of nope.

Overall, this is a very pretty deck that is let down by reliance on New Age jargon and a couple of unfortunate choices in imagery. I would tentatively recommend it to anyone who likes their plant decks bright and colourful. For something a little more subdued, I recommend checking out my review of the Flower Reading Cards, which is forthcoming.

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Game Review: Aviary Attorney

There are games that are obvious attempts to cash in on another franchise’s popularity, and there are games that are obviously a loving homage to its parent franchise. The difference between the two is often a matter of who you ask.

Aviary Attorney is an obvious homage to the Ace Attorney series, only with birds. As defense attorney JayJay Falcon, you’ll explore 1840s France on the cusp of a revolution. Whether France is consumed by revolution or not is up to you.

Oh, and there are bird puns, tons of bird puns.

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If you’ve played any of the Ace Attorney games, the basic flow of the game should be familiar to you, although Aviary Attorney is much closer to a pure visual novel. This is one game that definitely wears its influences on its sleeve. You’ll still be investigating, gathering evidence, pointing out contradictions and the like, but instead of scrutinizing every individual line of testimony, you’re given a transcript and asked to point out contradictions. Also unlike Ace Attorney is that the story continues if you lose cases (albeit it becomes much darker). You’re also on the clock, so if you spend too much time wandering around, there’s a good chance you’ll lack evidence for a trial, and the game is surprisingly strict about this. I ended up losing the second case because I visited a certain location early and ate up a valuable time slot. Even though I went back and tried to do the chapter over, I still couldn’t get the exact sequence of events down and gave up because I’m impatient like that.

The character designs are taken from the work of J. J. Grandville, who I am actually familiar with through his art being used for the Fantastic Menagerie Tarot and the Victorian Flower Oracle. The music is by the romantic-era composer Camille Saint-Saëns, whose work adds a certain grandeur to the setting. The graphics are in a sepia style that have an old sketchbook kind of appeal.

Although I liked this game, I do have a couple criticisms. The ending you get is based on the outcome of the third case, so you can theoretically bumble your way through the other cases and still end up with a good ending. Also I never thought I’d say this, but the bird puns sort of wore out their welcome by the third case, and I felt like the game has a hard time deciding whether it wanted to be a barrel of laughs or dark and serious. It felt like it just didn’t know when to put on each mask, unlike its inspiration, Ace Attorney, which can go from courtroom antics to serious drama in a matter of moments, Aviary Attorney doesn’t seem to know what it wants to do. Part of it is probably due to length, I was able to get a decent ending in four hours. Understandably, that’s not a lot of time to immerse players in sweeping drama.

I don’t want it to sound like I hated the game. It definitely scratched the AA itch, and I recommend it to anyone who’s waiting for Ace Attorney 6, but I want to emphasize that it’s a fleeting experience and at times it seems like it doesn’t know what it wants to be. I would definitely recommend picking this one up on sale if you’re interested. IMHO the price is a little steep considering its length. If you really want a game to scratch that AA itch, I’ve definitely played worse than Aviary Attorney.

Game Review: Hustle Cat

If there’s one thing visual novels with a bunch of romance options and dating sims have taught me, it’s that fictional people are better than real people, and I have A Type. Unfortunately, if there’s one other thing these games have taught me, it’s that at least one person in my fictional dating pool is bound to be a total jerk.

Then there’s Hustle Cat.

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Hustle Cat is a visual novel about a cat cafe. You play as Avery Grey, the newest employee of A Cat’s Paw, a place where the coffee’s good and the staff are friendly (not to mention cute!). Sure, your coworkers disappear and reappear at odd times during the day and there’s a strange book in the basement that you can’t read, but it’s probably nothing, right?

This is one of the cutest visual novels I’ve ever played.

This isn’t an exaggeration. The characters are genuinely sweet and the closest thing to a jerkass route is the “delinquent” taciturn cook who fell in with the wrong crowd in the past and the assistant manager, who is a little full of himself but is easily (and adorably) flustered by your awkward attempts to flirt with him. There’s none of that “he’s a jerk to me it’s so romantic!” thing like in certain other games *coughAmnesiacough* and I know I’ve been saying this a lot lately, but it’s a refreshing change from games like Sweet Fuse, which, despite being pretty sweet at times, still had jerkasses, angstbuckets, and a male yandere character.

There isn’t really any gameplay so to speak apart from the typical visual novel mechanic of reading text and picking choices. There’s not a ton of choices, either. Unlike many visual novels with separate routes, there are no bad ends with individual characters (although there are a couple that you can get by picking certain choices). Once you’re on a route, all you have to do is read until the final encounter. Regarding length, it took me nine hours to finish all the routes and get all the achievements. Hayes and Mason are probably my favoutite routes, and unlike some games, you can’t unlock the route that explains much of the story until you complete the others, so don’t worry about accidentally spoiling yourself.

I can’t really think of any criticisms. Sure, it would have been nice to have some choices once you were on a certain route, but “bad ends” don’t really fit the tone of this game (although there are a couple you can get). The requirements for the secret ending are kind of weird, but on the other hand it wouldn’t really be a secret ending without being, well, secret. Although having a non-binary option for Avery was great, I would have liked to see at least one non-binary love interest. It’s great to have that option for a main character but I find it hard to see the game as “non-binary friendly” if the only character who is actually non-binary is the one character where you can specify your pronouns. The writing is generally decent apart from some awkward sentences (also, it’s “vampires” not “Draculas”).

In terms of diversity, Mason, Reese, and Landry are all dark-skinned love interests. Any of the main cast can be romanced regardless of gender. It’s implied that Hayes has some form of anxiety, though it’s only stated that he gets “anxious” and nervous around people. The only obvious trigger I found was that one of the routes (Finley’s) deals with misogynist online harassment.

In sum, Hustle Cat is easily one of the cutest visual novels I’ve ever played with love interests who aren’t massive jerks. It’s a little on the short side, but is definitely worth the money if you like fluffy romance, especially fluffy romance involving cats and witchery.

Review: The Faerie Godmother’s Apprentice Wore Green

This book was obtained via NetGalley.

I’ll keep this short and sweet because this book is short and sweet.

 

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The village of Styesville has a dragon problem, and is in need of a knight in shining armor to save the day. What they get instead, however, is a strange traveler in a green cloak, and it soon becomes clear that they might have more problems than a rampaging dragon.

This story is part of a collection known as “Solitary Travelers” which features asexual and/or aromantic protagonists. Another reason I picked it up was due to the striking cover. I can never stress enough that a pretty cover will attract readers and first impressions definitely do matter.

It’s difficult to talk about this story because it’s so short. It’s around 50 pages long. I’d consider it more of a novella. Suffice it to say that it’s pretty much exactly what it says on the tin: There’s a village with a dragon problem and someone needs to solve it. The few characters there are don’t have a lot of depth, most outside of the two main characters could be summed up in one or two words, but the thing is, I don’t think this sort of story requires a lot of character depth, although it’s always nice. The world of this story is intriguing. It’s the sort of world I’d like to see explored in a novel, with magical academies and an interesting take on dragons, where the author would have more time to flesh out the world and its characters.

If this story has one major flaw I felt like it was a bit too long-winded at times and I think a few pages of content could have been cut and it wouldn’t have hurt the story. Yes Louisa rattling off what the inn has for supper establishes that she’s a bit of a scatterbrain, but it felt as if the monologue wore out its welcome half a paragraph ago. There was also a bit of a tendency to repeat information. This is a common thing that happens to new authors, in my experience.

In terms of diversity, the major characters are an asexual woman of color and a lesbian. Dragons are stated to not have a sex and only adopt genders out of curiosity, otherwise the minor characters seem pretty homogeneous: white and straight as far as I know. In a large novel with a cast of thousands, this would be an issue, but the cast seems just right for the kind of story being told.

In terms of potential triggers, there’s a description of a bloody sheep carcass, a shotgun wedding, and talk of romance “fixing” the ace and lesbian leads (although in the latter case, it’s because the family believes that she’s been cursed by a dragon).

All things considered, The Faerie Godmother’s Apprentice Wore Green is a typical “queer” story. The sort of coming-out story you’ve probably seen before. Still, typical does not mean bad, and I absolutely recommend it if you like asexual protagonists and/or dragons, especially queer dragons.

Review: Night Owls

This book has been on my wishlist for a while now. I added it to my list based on a recommendation from the usual site (Fangs for the Fantasy). I appreciate that sites like Fangs and Goodreads exist because otherwise I would have looked at the book’s generic cover and given it a pass, and that would have been a shame, because there’s a good book under the generic trappings.

 

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Valerie McTeague’s bookstore is a late night haven for students from Edgewood College who are looking for a place to have late night study sessions. When a mysterious book ends up in her possession, Val has to fend off the monstrous creatures known as Jackals who desperately want the book. Finding herself thrust into this conflict with a mismatched crew of humans, vampires from her past, and lesbian succubi, her ultimate goal is to keep the book out of Jackal hands, whatever the cost.

So many urban fantasy novels these days have jerkass heroines who push everyone away and are snippy even to characters who are supposed to be their friends. Night Owls has characters who are genuinely nice. Val looks out for students and staff at her place of business. Elly, a member of a brotherhood that specializes in slaying jackals, is a young woman with an unstable home life and a fresh trauma while Justin is just a nice kid who gets caught in the crossfire. The cast supports one another in various ways. Another thing that I liked is that point of view characters are not infallible. When Valerie screws up in the first few chapters, Chaz, her Renfield (basically a servant) chews her out and she apologizes. Elly’s brother, Cavale, confronts his sister over how she idealizes her now-deceased mentor. Many stories seem to have either protagonists that can do no wrong or protagonists that never really apologize even when they have screwed up. Some series introduce huge worlds to explore right off the bat. Night Owls universe is comparatively small: the Jackals or Creeps are the main antagonists, with vampires as their natural predators, and werewolves are also mentioned. Cavale is a warlock, and of course there are the succubi. The Jackals are something like demon-possessed werewolves who were once human, which is a bit of a change from the standard “fur vs. fang” plot.

One particularly refreshing change is the complete absence of romance. The closest thing to a romance in Night Owls is a couple characters admitting they have feelings for someone and never acting on them, and of course, Sunny and Lia are already a couple. There’s no love triangle, and no mention of a “sexy” character in the back cover text. It’s quite refreshing to read an urban fantasy novel without a romantic subplot. It’s nice to see a book that doesn’t rely on romance so much to create tension. Val worries about her past literally coming back to bite her. Chaz worries about Valerie. The Creeps are constant threats.

Unfortunately the book isn’t very diverse. The only characters of color are Sunny (who, as a shapeshifter, can change her appearance) and an unnamed child who spends her “screen time” in a catatonic state. Sunny and Lia are the extent of the book’s sexual diversity. It’s a shame that more diverse characters weren’t seen given the close proximity of a college, usually a very diverse place unless it’s one of those yuppie private colleges.

If I had any criticisms of this book besides the lack of diversity, it’s that I wish Sunny and Lia had had a role in the story that was a little more than glorified babysitters for Justin and then an appearance in the final battle. I also felt like it took some time for the plot to really get going. One thing that I thought was pretty abrupt was the way Elly goes from idolizing her mentor to the way that illusion is suddenly shattered. It felt like it could have used more build-up or had the character begin to question her idealized picture of him before the ball dropped. The one other thing I didn’t like is the way Val is catty with another vampire, because one thing urban fantasy can’t do without is cattiness. However, it’s a small, personal issue when the majority of the main cast supports each other in ways we don’t see very often in urban fantasy.

I liked this book, it had nothing that made me frothing at the mouth angry and the lack of a strong romantic subplot was a refreshing change. I want to see where this story goes, especially given where the characters are when the first book leaves off. In some ways it is a fairly typical story in urban fantasy, but if you’re looking for a typical story and are just tired of endless love triangles, I’d recommend this book.

Game Review: The Banner Saga

I didn’t like this game at first.

At first glance, it has everything I like: fantasy vikings, grid=based strategy, choices that mean something (including whether the characters live or die), random events, and gorgeous art and music.

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The gods are dead and the world is ending. Humans and Varl (giant humanoids with horns) alike are facing a relentless army of Dredge with seemingly no end to their numbers. In this bleak environment, characters must fight for survival (often literally), and depending on your decisions, some of them won’t make it.

Usually this is where I would say something about the characters, but the fact of the matter is that either I didn’t find them particularly likeable, they died before I could decide if I liked them, or they were just kind of generic. You have Rook, a guy who finds himself in an unexpected leadership role and has to try his best to keep the caravan from killing each other. A demanding princely character who spends most of his time complaining, a widow who acts as a surrogate mother for Rook’s daughter, Alette, and a whole bunch of virtually indistinguishable Varl apart from Ubin, who is a scholar instead of a warrior, and Sigbjorn, who is Chaotic Neutral personified and might as well be named Loki, coincidentally, he’s also a redhead. TBH, I’ve played a ton of games with archetypal characters, but The Banner Saga also suffers from a slow start. At the beginning of the game, I wasn’t sure who we were fighting or why. It felt like I’d walked in in the middle of a conversation and was missing context. Another thing that didn’t help was the fact that the first few hours are (mostly) a sausagefest, with men talking to other men about manly things, and I was as bored as I was reading the actual sagas.

Let’s take a break from talking about characters and story and talk about gameplay. Outside of battle, you’ll be leading a caravan. The caravan screen shows you how many fighters, Varl, and Clansman (non-combatants) you currently have traveling with you. Each day, the caravan consumes one unit of supplies, if supplies ever run out, members of the caravan start dying. I never had all three numbers drop to zero, but I’m guessing it’s an automatic game over if you run out of people. As you travel, random events will frequently pop up, giving you decisions to make. These decisions can have both good and bad effects (leading to a gain or loss of supplies, clansman, fighters, Varl or even a combat encounter). There are also scripted events where you’ll have the opportunity to recruit more characters. Some of these decisions may or may not come back to haunt you later.

Combat in The Banner Saga is inevitable and takes place on a grid. Humans take up one square of space and have a greater range of movement but don’t hit as hard, while the larger Varl take up four squares of space and can’t move as far, but hit like a ton of bricks. Both enemies and allies have two values that take damage: armor, in blue, and health, in red. In later levels especially, it’s imperative that you destroy foes’ armor before whittling down their health. Characters also have a variety of special abilities, ranging from calling down lightning to damage foes to knocking them back a few squares and damaging their armor. Characters who fall in battle aren’t permanently dead, but will be injured for a set number of days, which naturally results in stat penalties. Once characters have killed enough anyways, they are eligible for promotion (leveling up), winning battles also nets you Renown, which you can spend to buy supplies and trinkets for your fighters to equip. Apart from a couple fights neat the end of the game, I didn’t find the combat that challenging or deep, it was mostly a matter of positioning the Varl characters so they could soak damage while I had the archers pick them off. However, it was nice to go back to basics after playing Fire Emblem Awakening for so long.

This game has been described as “Disney meets Game of Thrones” and the Disney comparison is evident in the game’s art and hand drawn animations. The score is similarly beautiful, although it’s more moody than memorable. The lack of voice-acting didn’t bother me, and admittedly, I found the narrative portion hard to understand at times since I have trouble understanding certain accents.

This is a bleak game about war and death, so it’s probably best to play this one when you aren’t down in the dumps. Characters can and will die, sometimes with little indication that their life is in danger. Fortunately, death scenes are usually brief “and so-and-so didn’t make it” affairs. In case anyone is tokophobic, one random event involves a baby being born to your caravan, and as expected in a game about fantasy vikings, there’s a lot of drinking.

I’ve already spent a lot of time criticizing this game, but one thing I’d definitely like to see in the sequels are more roles for women. Women can only be ranged attackers in this game, which is especially silly to me because not only do we have examples of women who were buried with weapons but we also have accounts in the sagas of women taking up the sword, not to mention goddesses like Freyja and Skadi. The Banner Saga falls into the same trap that many other fantastical works fall into, assuming that “realism” means restricting women to certain roles while giant horned men who were created by one of the gods and monsters who are apparently made of stone are acceptable breaks from reality.

The Banner Saga is not a happy game. At best, it’s a game where you chase after hope, only to have it snatched from you, add to that a slow start and characters I found hard to get attached to, and I think I’ll wait before picking up the sequel. This is one game that feels like it has all the right parts, but somehow the sum total just didn’t appeal to me as much as I thought it would, that is not to say that it’s an awful game. It’s certainly no Hyperdimension Neptunia, I just didn’t like it as much as I thought I would. I would recommend picking this up if you enjoyed the sagas, you want a solid strategy RPG, and you can handle bleak fight-for-survival atmosphere where the world’s gone to shit and you’re along for the ride.

Politics and Polytheism

This is your occasional reminder that this isn’t just a review dumping ground (although I will have more reviews for you later).

The latest debate raging in the polytheist community is in response to a post on Gods & Radicals entitled “Confronting the New Right”. I recommend giving it a read. I also recommend giving the post “Gods of a Radical” both because of the lovely Prayer to the Goddess of the City and the content of the post proper.

I’m currently inactive in the Pagan blogosphere apart from tumblr, so what I know of the kerfluffle is restricted to what tumblrs I’ve followed have reblogged, and what I’m seeing worries me. I’m seeing a lot of “How DARE he call us fascists!” and “Keep your politics out of my polytheism!” I see folks claiming that polytheists should not be political, because it’s “putting humans before the gods” or somesuch thing.

My polytheism is political.

To claim to be apolitical, to me, is to claim a privileged position, a position that has the luxury of not thinking about how one’s views impact others. I’m also reminded of the old feminist slogan “The personal is political,” and what is more personal than religion? Politics is also not just a human endeavor, deities get involved with politics all the time, whether politicking among themselves, choosing the next monarch, or supporting their favourite country or city. I find myself agreeing with the author of “Gods of a Radical”, Christopher Scott Thompson, when he says:

“But if your god’s lore implies something to you and you choose to ignore it, you can hardly say you’re ‘putting the gods first.’ The lore of my gods implies certain values, I take those values seriously, and I guide my life by them.”

How can I claim to honour Freyja if I don’t give a shit about sex workers, or access to abortion, or such a highly politicized topic as women’s rights? How can I claim to honor the Vanir, who came to live with the Aesir, and not give a shit about immigration? How can I claim to honor deities associated with the land and not give a shit about the environment? All of these issues are political issues, of concern, I believe, to both humans and deities. Heck, my very existence is politicized, I’ll politicize whatever I want.

Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying everyone needs to go out and march for a cause. I’m not equipped for that sort of activism, but for me personally, it’s impossible to separate my politics from my polytheism, and I suspect that some of the folks who are screaming the loudest about being apolitical are the ones who are happy to support political causes they agree with.

One final note, if you are more concerned about being called a fascist than you are about combating extreme right-wing views in your movement, you’re doing something wrong.

That’s all for now. Stay tuned for “Reviews: The Deluge”.