Monthly Archives: July 2016

Review: Sabriel by Garth Nix

I love this book.

I know I usually beat around the bush and hold off on stating my opinion until after summarizing the book, but I figured after reading the mess that was Queen of the Tearling it was time for a change.

 

 

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Sent to a boarding school in Ancelstierre as a young child, Sabriel knows little of the Dead who won’t stay dead or the dangerous magic of the Old Kingdom beyond the Wall, but when her father, the Abhorsen, goes missing, she knows that she must enter that perilous land to find him. Her only companions on this journey are Mogget, a cantankerous cat who barely conceals a malevolent spirit within, and Touchstone, a Charter Mage who is definitely more than he seems. Their quest will take them deep into the Old Kingdom, where, assailed from all sides, Sabriel will come to face to face with her destiny.

I remember seeing this book a long time ago and passing it up in favour of The Forbidden Game. While I love The Forbidden Game dearly, I regret not picking this up sooner, especially after hearing all the positive things about it. Also, I am angry at everyone who knew about this series and didn’t tell me to read it. Yes, that means you if you’ve read it. Seriously, why didn’t you tell me? Have I done something to offend you?

While the books I’ve been reading recently tend towards character-driven drama (emphasis on drama) Sabriel feels more like an adventure story with a bit of magic. That is not to say that the characters have no personality (Mogget has enough personality for two characters) but that this is one of those books where the world itself feels more like a character. A lot of books have been compared to the likes of Harry Potter and His Dark Materials, and Sabriel, I feel, definitely deserves comparison to the better parts of the latter (Philip Pullman even wrote a blurb for Sabriel). Many books are compared to popular series these days for superficial reasons, Sabriel is right up there with great fantasy books of the past couple decades.

The phrase “strong female character” is overused and meaningless so I’m not going to use it, but next to heroines from recent reads, like Celaena from Throne of Glass, Sabriel is almost melancholy. She knows what she has to do but she really doesn’t know what she’s doing. She is sometimes jealous, sometimes scared out of her mind, but determined. Mogget’s snark is absolutely delightful even if he is a precursor to Grumpy Cat, and then there’s Touchstone who….has some stuff to work out. No character ever grated on me. From the first page, I knew I wanted them to succeed and be happy. In terms of the actual writing style, some reviews have complained about the lack of dialogue, but I want to draw particular attention to the diction. I think “tricksome” is now one of my favourite words.

Magic in Sabriel’s world is divided into Charter and Free Magic. Near as I can tell (it’s not explained in great depth), Charter Magic is a more organized form of Free Magic, created using Charter signs, whereas Free Magic is more volatile and dangerous. Whereas necromancers use Free Magic to raise the Dead, the Abhorsen uses Charter magic to put the Dead to rest. Speaking of Death, Sabriel has such an interesting and beautiful depiction of Death, with the soul of the person passing through multiple Gates and trying to avoid numerous perils on their journey. The main tool Sabriel uses to control the Dead are Bells of varying sizes with a variety of effects, including allowing the Dead to speak, binding them in place, or sending everyone who hears it into Death (including the ringer), these Bells also seem to have minds of their own. There are apparently official Bell charms for sale, I want them, but they are currently sold out. That’s just terrible.

On an emotional note, this book made me tear up. It seems like it’s been so long since a book got an emotional reaction from me that wasn’t rage or annoyance.

My only major criticisms of this book are that I wish it was longer and I felt like it was a little ambiguous when it came to describing people of colour. Abhorsen (Sabriel’s father, it’s both a name and a title) is described as “brown” a couple times, but Abhorsens have a habit of turning pale, and Sabriel herself is just described as pale. Sanar and Ryelle, the two representatives of the Clayr (an isolated people who are gifted with the Sight) are dark-skinned and blonde, so there’s that, and the book doesn’t have a huge cast. Unfortunately, Sabriel joins the long list of protagonists with dead mothers, but she makes up for it by having a genuinely affectionate (if long distance) relationship with her father.

I can’t think of any of the big triggers I usually mention. Touchstone first appears in the book naked, although it’s described in a tasteful way. Since this is a book about dead things, expect to read descriptions of animated corpses in various states of decay (you know, like zombies). There is also a brief mention of scavengers enslaving children to act as distractions for the Dead….yeah….this is a great book but sometimes it can be a little bleak, and one particular ritual requires human sacrifice to work, although, the book never reaches the grimdark levels of something like Queen of the Tearling.

In sum: this book, go read it immediately. It’s beautiful, it’s action-packed, it’s occasionally horrifying, it’s absolutely heartbreaking, and it’s wonderful. I love it. The fact that this is apparently not being made into a movie while a shit book like The School for Good and Evil is fills me with rage. Seriously, I think Sabriel is now in my top five favourite books, and that’s saying something. I cannot wait to read the other books in the series and I can’t praise this book enough. If this is sitting on your TBR pile, read it, for the love of all the gods, read it. If you only read one book I’ve recommended this year, make it this one.

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Review: Iron Age Myth and Materiality by Lotte Hedeager

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: The High King’s Golden Tongue

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

This book was obtained via NetGalley.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Game Review: Ray Gigant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Dissension by Stacey Berg

[The following review contains spoilers, read at your own risk.]

I picked this book up because at the time I wanted a change of pace from reading about straight people and their problems. This one was getting some good reviews on Goodreads and Amazon, and while post-apocalyptic dystopian societies are a dime a dozen these days, there aren’t a ton with romance between characters who aren’t straight.

 

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After a cataclysmic event known as the Fall, the remnants of humanity cluster in the single remaining city under the protection of the Church, who cares for and reveres the Saint who provides the city with power. Echo Hunter 367 is a clone raised to be what the Church wants her to be: loyal, obedient, and lethal, but Echo harbours a secret sin:doubt. When the Church sends her on a mission to ferret out rebel leaders before civil war between the Church and the citizens destroys everything the Church has fought to preserve, she unexpectedly bonds with a doctor named Lia. Soon, however, Echo will be forced to choose between her duty to the Church and the woman she loves.

This book is probably the most okay book I’ve read all year. It wasn’t horrible, but it wasn’t great either. It has an interesting premise but the world failed to draw me in. The city didn’t feel like a living, breathing place. That probably seems like a weird thing to say about static words on the page, but I’ve definitely read books with settings and characters that feel real, this book’s setting felt more like it was the backdrop for a play. Maybe it’s the fact that the writing doesn’t get very descriptive. Part of the problem, I suspect, is that we only experience the world through Hunter’s third person limited perspective, and Hunter, essentially someone who trains for years to protect the Church, is more focused on finding exits to rooms and assessing the threat level of anyone she encounters rather than, say, the colour of the curtains, things you would expect a soldier to notice. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really make for compelling reading. There’s also a lot of repetition, somewhat justified because the Church has been Hunter’s only home for ages, but once you read about something reminding her “of the priests’ laboratories” for the fifth time you start wishing she would find a different point of comparison. The characters in general don’t really have a lot of depth to them, either. Lia is the sort of character who will throw herself into life-threatening situations if someone needs help. Loro is highly suspicious of Hunter and protective of Lia, the Patri is Echo’s boss and seems to be hiding something. There’s a bit more nuance towards the end but it can’t make up for the approximately three quarters of a book worth of flat characterization.

This book does what a lot of books like it do and Calls a Rabbit a Smeerp: bullets are “projectiles” and guns are “projectile weapons”, doctors are “meds”, “prints” are books. There’s nothing really wrong with this (regardless of what that bigot Orson Scott Card says} but somehow the use of the future speak almost seems to make the setting more generic for me, which is, I know, an odd thing to say. I guess the long and short of it is everything about this book feels generic to me.

Unfortunately, the book could have been just a generic sci fi dystopian work and I’d be okay with it, but unfortunately it had to feature a particularly problematic trope regarding the main relationship. First let me say that I actually liked how Lia and Hunter’s relationship was very understated, it definitely wasn’t instalove and they weren’t spending every moment of their time together obsessing over each other. It was almost a little too understated, I think, especially since the back cover makes a big deal out of it. However, where the book ultimately falls short in my eyes is the use of the tired old Bury Your Gays trope.

I wish I was kidding, but no, it couldn’t just be generic, it had to incorporate that trope, and you know, it’s annoying enough when straight people do it, but when we queer folks start doing it in our own stories, it feels like a betrayal. I can hear the objections right about now “but it fits with the tone of the story!” or “maybe she’ll write a sequel where it gets better!” but that doesn’t change the fact that the author decided to employ a particularly insidious trope in a book that was not great but was also not horrible, and I am disappoint, I am very disappoint. This is exacerbated by the fact that apart from two anonymous priests whom Echo catches making out at the beginning of the book and Lia and Echo themselves, there are no other overt queer characters.

In the end, I can’t really recommend Dissension. The world didn’t really grab me and by the end I just wanted to finish it and move on to other books. If you would like to read a neat sci fi tale with a diverse cast and a f/f relationship that is bittersweet but not tragic, I would recommend checking out The Abyss Surrounds Us by Emily Skrutskie.

Review: The Queen of the Tearling

[The following contains references to rape, pedophilia, homophobia, ableism, racism, sexism, and fat-shaming.]

Before I get into this review, some context is necessary. I was initially drawn to this book for a bunch of reasons: the heroine was described as “plain”, the lack of romance, and I kind of have a thing for queens regnant. There’s at least one in many of the stories I’ve written where monarchies are a thing. The Queen of the Tearling has all the ingredients to make it a must read for me. Unfortunately, as I’ve learned from years of baking, you can have all the right ingredients and the final product could still taste like crap.

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Upon surviving to her nineteenth birthday, Princess Kelsea Raleigh Glynn is taken from the isolated home where she’s lived her whole life and whisked off to the capital to become the new Queen of the Tearling. Surrounded by corruption both close and abroad and with few friends at court, Kelsea must rely on her wits and the power of the magical yet mysterious Tear sapphire to succeed in changing her kingdom from within, if she can survive that long.

Where to begin? Let’s start with the fact that the author apparently received a seven figure advance for the entire trilogy. Normally I wouldn’t bring something like this up, but I’d like you to keep this in mind as you read this. There also appears to be some confusion as to whether this is meant to be YA or an adult novel. I picked up my paperback edition from the young adult section, but the trade paperback edition was in the adult section (under “fantasy”). I’ve heard conflicting accounts, but having read the book, I’m going to classify it as an adult read with a strong young adult periphery demographic. This is also important to remember, please keep it in mind.

I don’t know where to start so I’m just going to be blunt: this book is a load of crap. It’s definitely not the feminist epic I was promised. In fact, it’s the sort of watered down feminism that thinks the only requirement for a thing to be called feminist is a strong female protagonist (whatever that means) who takes no shit from men.

I’m going to start by saying a good thing about this book. For the most part, I thought it was well written. There’s a certain lyrical quality to the prose that I liked. It’s a bit purple, almost, but not quite on the same level as Kushiel’s Legacy (which as far as I’m concerned has the most purple prose of any book I’ve ever read). There were moments where I thought the text could have used a bit more polish, but I wouldn’t call it badly written.

Now that I’ve said my good thing, it’s time to address all the ways I feel this book fucks up. Spoiler alert: it fucks up everything that doesn’t have to do with writing style. Particularly regarding the way its being marketed as a feminist novel with a plain heroine and no focus on romance, because I would argue that it ultimately fails on at least two fronts.

Firstly, let’s start with the plain heroine. Kelsea is plain because she is overweight with dark brown hair. Oh, but her eyes are a stunning green. Understand, there is absolutely nothing wrong with protagonists who are not conventionally attractive. As someone who is very much like Kelsea (that is, overweight with dark brown hair) I’d love to see more characters who aren’t skinny, blonde, and blue eyed (not that there’s anything wrong with fitting that description).

My problem with Kelsea as a plain heroine is that the narrative will not stop fat-shaming her.

Kelsea has a major problem with negative self-talk. She is constantly, constantly lamenting the fact that she’s overweight, talking about how she needs to go on a diet or that she shouldn’t eat so much or the men she’s with will think less of her (more on this in a bit). Other characters get in on it too, like the one scene where her guards remark that she’s essentially too fat to wield a sword. Did I mention she’s supposed to be a queen in what is likely an absolute monarchy, and she’s taking this level of shit from her guards? Seriously? In all fairness, Kelsea is nineteen, and as someone who was once overweight and nineteen, a little self-consciousness is normal. However, it still feels like a slap in the face to be lured in with the promise of an overweight heroine and then having to sit there as she turns out to be another overweight woman who hates herself.

Actually, let’s talk about other women in this book for a second. This book seems to delight in demonizing other women. A good example of this is Queen Elyssa, Kelsea’s mother, who essentially sold her own people into slavery. I think most people will agree that this is a very bad thing, but my issue with Elyssa is that, like Queen Levana in Cinder, villainy is coded in a very conventionally feminine way. Queen Elyssa likes frilly pillows and dresses. Kelsea herself is punished for trying on a dress in an early scene, because apparently liking things like dresses makes you frivolous and therefore a bad monarch, not, you know, selling your people into slavery. An older woman, Lady Andrews, has the gall to care about her appearance when she’s over forty. The beautiful women in this book are overwhelmingly victims of abuse and rape (like Marguerite). Even Carlin, Kelsea’s foster mother, is seen as cold and unfeeling when compared to Barty. It becomes particularly egregious when Kelsea admits to Marguerite, her corrupt uncle’s sex slave that she’s jealous of her because she’s beautiful, because apparently being raped and abused because you’re beautiful is preferable to being an ugly queen that men don’t like? Also apparently the Red Queen keeps pedophiles around for….some reason? Seriously, she says she doesn’t care for them yet still keeps them around? It seems like its there for shock value or to emphasize just how evil Mortmesne is, in case the raping and pillaging didn’t tip you off.

Speaking of men not finding her attractive, Kelsea spends a considerable amount of time drooling over the Fetch, who is a lot like the Black Man in The Princess Bride with none of the charm. This charming specimen implies that Kelsea is too plain to rape in her sleep. See for yourself:

“‘Thank you,’ Kelsea replied, then realized that she wasn’t wearing her own clothing, but a gown of some sort of white cloth, linen, perhaps. She reached up to touch her hair and found it smooth and soft, someone had given her a bath. She looked up at him [the Fetch], cheeks reddening.

‘Yes, me as well.’ His smile widened. ‘But you needn’t worry, girl. You’re far too plain for my tastes.'”

Yeah, this is the man she keeps trying to impress. Personally, I think Kelsea would be completely within her rights to set the dude on fire. Unfortunately, that’s not what happens. So yeah, Kelsea spends a good chunk of the book obsessing over impressing men who are absolute douchebags. The other leading man in this story is the Mace, a man who is constantly on her case about “dolls and dresses”. Although at first glance he seems like the only sensible character in the story, my issue with him is that he won’t shut up and let Kelsea make her own decisions. The moment where she tells him to shut his mouth is probably the best moment in the entire book.

Let’s stop talking about men for a moment and talk about the villainous characters in general. Maybe my expectations are too high, but for a feminist book aimed at adults, the villains seem almost cartoonishly villainous. Villains in this book are one of four things: fat, old, ugly, or sexual, with motivations that basically amount to “I did it because I’m evil.” Note that in the Red Queen’s case, however, the way she expresses her sexuality is by raping her slaves. By the way, did I mention that having Mort blood apparently equates to having dark skin and there’s literally only one unambiguously black character on the protagonist’s side (Lear, a soldier who is the first black person Kelsea has seen in her life). I get what the author was trying to do (citizens of color being oppressed by a white person in charge) but in practice it’s just another “good white nation vs. evil people of color” thing. Now, the villains do plenty of villainous things: the Regent, for example, abuses women and lives in luxury while his people starve. Lady Andrews shut herself up in a tower and let an invading army massacre her serfs, but there’s also a suspicious amount of emphasis on their appearance that the protagonists generally escape (unless your Kelsea). Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t the first series I’ve read with obviously evil villains (hello Black Jewels series) but I guess I expected a little more nuance.

Let’s talk setting and how it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. As far as I am aware this book is being marketed as fantasy. Well, surprise! It’s actually a post-apocalyptic world! Yes, it’s another post-apocalyptic world where society has inexplicably regressed to the Middle Ages. There was something called the Crossing, see, where this socialist named William Tear gathered up a bunch of people and made a crossing to Europe. I’ve read weirder premises, but the thing with the world-building is that it’s just inconsistent. It’s outright stated that all medical knowledge was lost in the Crossing–except birth control. Why birth control? I have no idea. Also how the fuck do a bunch of English and American socialists end up founding a pseudo-Catholic church? How did a socialist utopia somehow become a monarchy? How did Tear manage to somehow only recruit white socialists? Why is a very sexist society like the Tearling okay with having a woman on the throne when there’s an easily manipulated male relative they could just keep as a puppet ruler?  None of this is actually explained and to be completely honest, the author could have still written a compelling book without the inconsistent modern trappings, suspension of disbelief can only go so far.

Triggers are numerous, references to rape are frequent, pedophilia less so. I’ve already discussed the sexism, racism, and fat-shaming, but there’s also some ableism as well in the way Carlin is described as “physically whole” unlike Barty, as well as the statement that Queen Elyssa sent away “criminals and the mentally ill” as slaves, because mental illness is equated to criminal activity. Note that while there is a history of lumping mentally ill/disabled people and criminals together, Kelsea only expresses disgust with the fact that her people were enslaved, not that mentally ill people were specifically targeted.

I think the bottom line for me is that The Queen of the Tearling ultimately undermines its own message. It wants to be a feminist story about a heroine who manages to come to power in a sexist society, but instead it’s a story about an overweight heroine who hates herself and constantly judges other women based on their appearance, never mind the plethora of -isms and the inconsistent worldbuilding. The Queen of the Tearling could have been something special, but instead it just regurgitates the same tired old crap. I know I gave Throne of Glass shit for perpetuating girlhate but honestly, at least Throne of Glass was kind of fun.

Review: Throne of Glass

You probably don’t remember awhile back when I said that I’d bought three YA paperbacks because there was a deal on them at Chapters. Out of the three books (Cinders, The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, and Throne of Glass) I was most hesitant to start this book, as the back cover blurb isn’t subtle about there being a love triangle.

 

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In a world with no magic, Celaena Sardothien is Adarlan’s finest assassin, but after being captured and sentenced to a lifetime of hard labour in the mines of Endovier–a sentence that means certain death–she is abruptly released and given an opportunity to compete against other criminals to earn the title of King’s Champion, thrust into a world of balls and fine gowns and the attention of both the Crown Prince and the captain of the guard. However, when the contestants start dying one by one, Celaena must find the killer before she’s next on the chopping block.

This book occupies a weird position in my mental catalog, that of “books I should hate but inexplicably like”, although it is, in many ways, a mess, I ended up being entertained by it for reasons I will discuss below.

Let’s start with the characters, initially I found Celaena insufferably arrogant. I was ready to write her off as Generic Spunky Special White Protagonist #2543 (and make no mistake, she is a special super white protagonist) in fact, the way the author focuses on her physical appearance is kind of creepy considering that she’s half-starved and thinks she’s on her way to her execution, but she grew on me. She’s a very confident protagonist, and I did smile at the very beginning when she relentlessly sasses Chaol, the captain of the guard. Most of the other characters aren’t as fleshed out, unfortunately. I found Dorian, the crown prince (A.K.A. Obvious Love Interest 1), kind of bland, his only purpose for most of the book is to banter with Celaena and complain about his mother’s gatherings. Chaol (A.K.A Obvious Love Interest 2), seems to be the only character with an iota of sense. The one other character with a bit of personality (besides “obviously evil”) is Nehemia, a princess of a colonized kingdom who spends most of the book complaining about how life in the Adarlan court is boring. The world itself is pretty generic as far as fantasy worlds go, but even though magic is largely absent from this setting (as the king has banned magic) there are still glimpses of the fantastical such as numerous mentions of the fae, ghosts, and a land of witches far from the current book’s setting.

The blurb makes it sound as if Throne of Glass will be action-packed, with favourable comparisons to The Hunger Games (then again, literally everything is compared to The Hunger Games). Unfortunately, Throne of Glass is less about criminals fighting to the death or fierce competition to become the King’s Champion and more about Celaena wandering around, reading books, and snarking at both Chaol and Dorian. In my opinion, Celaena suffers from a major case of Informed Ability, we’re told that Celaena is Adarlan’s best assassin, but she’s never in a situation where she can actually demonstrate her skills. Ir’s like the author wanted to write Cinderella if Cinderella was an assassin (which is practically what she says in the post book interview) but then forgot about the assassin part. In spite of the fact that there’s a killer on the loose, there’s never really a sense of urgency like in something like The Hunger Games, where death is a very real possibility. The actual tests that she participates in are glossed over and seem pretty tame for a competition between criminals to obtain a tyrannical king’s favour. Some reviewers have complained that Celaena doesn’t act like a badass assassin, but I felt her behaviour (throwing up after running a race, for instance) was realistic for someone who spent a year in a place described as a “death camp”.

Another thing about the book that annoyed me was the treatment of women who weren’t Celaena, Nehemia, or Philippa (Celaena’s maid) and that’s the fact that the only thing women seem to do in court is a) be jealous, especially of Celaena or b) bore everyone around them. Throne of Glass isn’t the first book to perpetuate fictional girl hate, but it’s disappointing that the book uses so many of these tropes. In addition, the antagonists are so obviously evil that it’s a wonder Celaena took so long to catch onto their plans. There’s a bit near the end that I won’t spoil except to say that I found it very anticlimactic and felt almost cheated.

In terms of diversity, Nehemia is (near as I can tell) the only person of colour in the entire book (apart from her guards, possibly). Everyone else is (again, near as I can tell) white. I’m told this improves in future books but this one is uniformly white with the one exception.

So why do I like it, given that the book is such a mess? Celaena’s banter with the leading men was entertaining, and Maas’ writing style is very readable. Even though it wasn’t a story about a badass assassin doing badass assassin things. I could appreciate Celaena’s desire for a soft warm bed, a bath, and some nice clothes after a year of living in a hellhole, and it was nice to see a protagonist who didn’t scorn traditionally feminine things, even though the book as a whole has issues with women hating on other women over men. Fictional women can do so much better, if you ask me.

Ultimately, this book is a mess, but it’s a fun mess. It seems to have hit that sweet spot for me between “this book is so cliche it’s awful” and “but it is pretty fun though”. It definitely wasn’t the  action-packed thrill ride I was hoping for, but it was a readable mess despite the overused tropes and wasted potential. I’m not sure who I would recommend it to, to be honest. If you’re looking for a book about assassins that involves actual assassinations, I’d say look elsewhere, if you want more of a Cinderella story and you don’t mind a ton of annoying tropes, I’d say give this one a shot.

Game Review: Virtue’s Last Reward

[suicide mention tw]

I am bad at puzzle games and terrible at anything involving math. Please keep this in mind as you read this review, it will be important later, I promise.

This game was actually one of the first games to be added to my 3DS library and was originally supposed to be one of the first 3DS games I reviewed here. Unfortunately, a bug that corrupted my save about a third of the way through every route in the game frustrated me so much that I put it down and didn’t pick it up again until now, now that Zero Time Dilemma is out.

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If you haven’t played this game’s predecessor, Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors (999), the gist of the series is that nine people are trapped in a remote location by someone named Zero and forced to play a deadly game. It’s equal parts escape-the-room puzzle game and visual novel, and has a surprisingly good (if weird) story where characters frequently go off on tangents about quantum physics and philosophy. It’s really interesting, I promise! 999 was originally supposed to be a standalone game, and it apparently was a flop in Japan, so it’s kind of a miracle it spawned not one, but two sequels.

While 999 was mostly a self-contained narrative with a murder mystery, conspiracy theories surrounding the Titanic, and Morphogenetic fields, Virtue’s Last Reward tackles game theory, specifically the Prisoner’s Dilemma. If the Wikipedia link is confusing, that’s because most of the concepts in the game would probably go way over the heads of most people when explored in depth. In this game, you play as Sigma, a young man who is forced to play a deadly game with eight other people. The Prisoner’s Dilemma portion involves choosing to ally or betray other players to obtain bracelet points (BP) needed to open a door with the number 9 on it. Only those with nine points can open and go through this door. This might sound complicated, but in practice you’re basically choosing which character’s route you end up on and what sort of ending you get. The story is a roller coaster ride of twists and turns that manages to surprise even when you think you know what’s coming. If you haven’t played the previous game, you’ll be missing a lot of context and some plot points won’t have the same impact, but the in-game files you get for completing puzzles do an okay job of summarizing the previous game so you won’t be completely lost.

I would argue that Virtue’s Last Reward‘s story stands up on its own merits and the developers could have easily cut out the puzzle rooms and left the ambidex game and it would have been worth the money. Having said that, the puzzles themselves don’t have any bearing on the plot. In order to escape a room, the player requires a password to open a safe with a key. Players look around the room in first person and click on objects of interest. Each room has a variety of items to collect and combine, and a minigame or two related to the function of the room. For instance, the Lounge has you mixing drinks at the bar, while the Laboratory has you comparing seed specimens and dissecting a frog. Some puzzles require you to compare two sets of data. This might seem like a daunting task, but the game provides you with a memo function where you can jot down notes (or just use good old-fashioned notepad paper and a pen). Puzzles can be completed on easy or hard mode, the only difference between the two being that characters give you more hints on easy and completing all puzzles on hard gets you a special extra ending. You can also complete bonus objectives to obtain a second password for different colored file folders depending on which difficulty level the puzzles were set to, these files provide more background info on concepts in the game and some information on the events from 999. While I wouldn’t call the cast endearing, some of their decisions are kind of baffling, and even though this is one of the least “anime” games to come out of Japan, some of the characters still manage to occupy their stereotypical niche (like the perverted old man trope) they’re still an interesting bunch with plenty of secrets between them. Veterans of 999 will definitely see some familiar faces.

As I said in the introduction, I’m terrible at puzzle games, but even considering this, oftentimes it felt as if the puzzles required leaps of logic, particularly math-based leaps in logic, and even with a walkthrough, I found myself scratching my head and wondering how the hell they managed to arrive at the solution. Unfortunately, there’s no option to skip puzzles outright, although you can easily skip puzzles you’ve already completed by using the “Flow” feature, which is basically a flowchart displaying all possible routes through the game. The structure of the game encourages multiple playthroughs, as many routes are locked off until other routes are completed. While this means the game’s story is a more linear experience than the flowchart would suggest, it also safeguards against players accidentally spoiling themselves–unless you’re like me and looked up the solution and was promptly spoiled to hell and back–I should note that despite being spoiled on many of the major plot points, the game still managed to surprise me, and the finale left me eager for the third (and final) installment.

In terms of triggery content, while it doesn’t have as many horror elements as 999, Virtue’s Last Reward can sometimes be a bit bloody, particularly in one of the bad endings that is actually required to unlock other routes. One of the participants in the game, Quark, is a child, and while any deaths he suffers are implied, there is one particularly unnerving scene where he screams and begs the other participants to kill him. Speaking of which, the plot discusses mass suicide and at least one death in the game is a suicide, to say nothing of the stabbings and poisonings the participants suffer in many routes. Characters are sometimes injected with drugs or medicine and a couple of puzzle rooms are medical-themed. Usually I don’t remark on diversity in Japanese-made games, as it’s generally assumed the characters are Japanese (although IIRC in the localization, at least one of the characters is American). However, it’s worth noting that not only is Alice the only dark-skinned member of the cast (that we can see, because K is wearing armor that conceals his entire body) she’s also the most sexualized member of the cast (comparable to Lotus from 999). Apart from the game-breaking bug I mentioned (see below) the game also had a tendency to freeze or lag during dice puzzles.

Virtue’s Last Reward may seem like an unapproachable game for those who have difficulty with puzzles (especially math-based puzzles) especially when it goes off on one of it’s philosophical tangents, but IMHO, it has one of the most interesting narratives of any puzzle game I’ve played, and while the story alone is well worth your time, the puzzles can be somewhat challenging diversions depending on how you feel about math and comparing multiple sets of data at the same time. Since both 999 and this game are being ported to Steam, I would absolutely recommend picking both of them up before playing Zero Time Dilemma.

Note: The 3DS version has a game-breaking bug that corrupts your save file. To avoid it, do not save at any point during the PEC puzzle, or in puzzle sections in general, just to be safe. As far as I know, this bug isn’t present in the Vita version.