Monthly Archives: January 2017

Review: Prince’s Gambit (Captive Prince #2)

[tw: pedophilia, rape mention, suicide mention]

The second book in a trilogy is seldom as good as the first book and is only as good as the third if the finale sucked. Second books occupy the precarious position between the exciting newness of the first book and the exciting race to the finish of the third. Rarely do second books completely flip the script on their predecessor. For an example, see The Tainted City by Courtney Schafer.

Alternatively, read Prince’s Gambit.

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Whereas Captive Prince was set in the intimate world of the Veretian palace, Prince’s Gambit is set on the open road as Laurent and Damen make their way across Vere to the border it shares with Akielos. Both Laurent and Damen are keenly aware that they are playing into the Regent’s hands, but are determined to thwart him. Unfortunately, they have a disorganized rabble of an army composed of feuding factions to deal with in addition to the machinations of Veretian nobility. And of course, they both have secrets and pesky feelings to contend with as well.

As much as I love courtly intrigue, Prince’s Gambit is mostly devoid of the rapeyness and pedophilia of its predecessor. It focuses more on rivalries between Laurent’s men and the Regent’s men that he totally hasn’t sent to keep an eye on the prince. There are swordfights, daring escapes, a truckload of sexual tension, and shocking twists. There are rooftop chase scenes, disguises, and awkwardly being pressed against your partner as you try to keep quiet lest the man having sex in the room next to you hears you moving around. It put me in mind of the politicking in Kushiel’s Dart, only Laurent and Damen take a slightly more active role in attempting to outplay the Regent.

Recently, a friend asked me what I liked about this series, because she’d heard some awful things about it from friends. I thought about it for a sec and I finally said “I like the characters,” and it’s true. The characters are what makes this series. They are all deeply flawed individuals who have all been through hell in one way or another. Damen is brave, loyal, and proud, Laurent is, as always, a cunning manipulator who is a bit of an asshole. My one issue with Damen in this book is that he’s still very much underestimates what Laurent is capable of doing, although this is likely because he can’t shake the stereotypical view of Veretians as soft and indolent, and, to be fair, he’s been on the receiving end of stereotyping for a whole book now.

One complaint I had about the last book was the lack of women. While the book is still mostly about men doing manly things, we do get a glimpse of Vaskian culture, which is matriarchal, with women warriors and clan leaders. A second complaint I had about the first book is the way Damen’s treatment at the hands of Laurent is never really addressed. In this book, Laurent apologizes for treating Damen “cruelly”. Damen’s rape in Captive Prince is acknowledged as not being Ancel’s work, but Laurent’s: “it wasn’t Ancel, we both know it was you”. I can’t help but see this as too little too late, and it of course doesn’t justify what happened to Damen, but as I said, neither of these characters are perfect cinnamon rolls. Thirdly, at times the book goes a bit slowly as paragraphs are devoted to discussing military strategy and politics that, while important to the plot, aren’t exactly the most exciting reading. The rooftop chase, disguises, and swordfights and battles more than make up for it, in my opinion.

In terms of triggery content, there’s a scene where Damen is triggered and recalls his whipping in the last book. There are also references to the Regent’s pedophilia (without spoiling anything, a character is revealed to have been another of his victims). Damen has (consensual) sex with a group of women (although he is technically still a slave at this point, Laurent has no say in his choice). There is also a lengthy sex scene towards the end of the book which is pretty explicit. There is also a suicide.

In sum, I enjoyed Prince’s Gambit, although as I said before, I don’t think it’s for everyone and I completely understand why most people wouldn’t want to read it. Heck, I went into it expecting to loathe it. That said, I can’t wait to finish the trilogy.

Review: The Girl at Midnight

Now that another year is over and I’ve grown another year older,  I’ve taken the time to look back on my reading choices, and concluded that this year’s theme is “needs more gay” so with that in mind, the next few reviews have more gay (or bi, as the case may be).

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Beneath the streets of New York City live the Avicen, a race of people with feathers for hair and magic in their veins. Raised by the Avicen since childhood, Echo is a pickpocket by trade who is still struggling for acceptance in Avicen society, but when a centuries old conflict hits way too close to home, Echo goes in search of the legendary Firebird, the one thing powerful enough to end the conflict once and for all.

Based on the Goodreads reviews, a bunch of people are comparing this book to Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor and the Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare. I haven’t read either of these series so obviously I can’t comment, but even without having read those other series, there’s nothing you haven’t seen before in terms of plot: human raised by community of magical people in an ancient war with another race of magical people, human goes in search of legendary MacGuffin that will end the war, their enemies are also looking for the MacGuffin, who is going to get to the MacGuffin first? Is there even a MacGuffin to find? It’s the usual race against time against antagonists who want the same thing you’re after and the world is probably screwed if you’re not the one who gets the prize.

I wish I could say I liked the characters, but main protagonist Echo comes across as very immature one moment and like a mobile word-of-the-day calendar the next. She’ll constantly interrupt the flow of the narrative to spit out a word and its definition that’s relevant to the situation. I don’t know if this is supposed to make it sound like she’s well read but it comes across as pretentious, and the constant “pausing” of the action to skim the dictionary was more irritating than enlightening.

As for the other characters, the Ala is a mother figure/mentor to Echo, as well as something of a seer. Ruby fills the role of the girl Echo hates for no real reason, whereas Ivy is the Best Friend. On the antagonists’ side there is Zuko Caius, his sister, Azula Tanith, and his best friend/bodyguard Dorian, who are all Drakharin, that is, dragon people, who have scales on their faces like freckles. There’s also Jasper, a flamboyant Avicen who, like Echo, makes a living as a thief and is basically a gay stereotype. Dorian, btw, has unrequited feelings for Caius. I think out of all of them Dorian was my favourite, he’s a badass, disabled (missing an eye) gay dragon boy who seems to be the only one who knows what he’s doing. I kept thinking how much better this book would be with someone like Dorian as the main character, but that’s just my personal bias talking.

If I had to name something I liked about the book, it would be the character death near the end. It was handled surprisingly realistically, I thought, where Echo, who has never killed anyone before, freaks out and keeps replaying the scene in her mind. I felt like this was a high point in her character development, which is saying something because this is the same girl who kept flirting with the enemy when she had a boyfriend, and then didn’t remember she had a boyfriend until close to the end of the book.

There are few characters of color, the Ala is black, Jasper’s skin is brown, and there are a couple characters with bit parts, like a Japanese woman who just exists to give Echo a clue and then dies, or a warlock Echo attempts to rob in the first chapter. The only non-straight characters are Dorian and Jasper, Jasper, as I’ve mentioned, is a stereotype who at one point offers to “buy” Dorian from Caius. Dorian himself strikes Ivy while she’s being held captive and has unrequited feelings for Caius, although I did find their relationship started off as kind of creepy, Dorian and Jasper do share a tender moment at the end of the book. The only disabled character that I recall is Dorian, who as I said lost his eye.

The biggest problem with this book, IMHO, is that it kept reminding me of other things that did it better. Amelia Atwater-Rhodes’ shapeshifter books had interesting bird people and snake people. Avatar: The Last Airbender had Zuko and Azula on opposite sides of the main conflict. Plenty of books have interesting “scavenger hunt” type plots. Even the ending was predictable (although with a creepy twist). There’s nothing that really makes it stand out in a crowd.

Game Review: Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception

It’s a small personal milestone, but now that I’ve completed this game, I’ve beaten my first game on PS4! Although technically there’s three games in this collection, but they’re three games on one disk so they count as a single game.

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Nathan Drake is at it again, this time on the trail of the “Atlantis of the Sands” (Iram of the Pillars) which will take him from London to Yemen. The villain du jour is Katherine Marlowe, the head of a secret order with a lust for power. The adventure naturally involves puzzle-solving, climbing, jumping and shooting in fantastic locales, you know, the usual stuff.

While the previous titles were a bit more focused on following breadcrumbs to the next treasure. This game spends about half the time looking for breadcrumbs and the other half chasing the antagonists. There are fewer puzzles this time around, and they’re not so much hard as they are frustrating (and the game will helpfully provide the solutions if you take too long solving them). On the plus side, we learn a bit more about Nate’s past and how he met Sully, although his past is basically Dark and Troubled Past #5: Troubled Orphan Street Kid.

Regarding the debate over which is better, the second or third games, I have to say I prefer the third. I didn’t have as much trouble figuring out which ledges I was allowed to jump to as I did in Uncharted 2, and I had a much easier time with those annoying shotgun-toting enemies. It’s much more practical to melee attack them in this installment, speaking of melee combat, enemies can now grab you and you can grab and throw them. I think my favourite parts in this game were the sections where you needed to jump from vehicle to vehicle to get up to the front of a convoy, but there’s also a sequence where you battle while hanging out of a plane, while it’s on fire. Awesome. The entire game is just focused on being as over the top awesome as it can be.

I did experience a few frustrating moments. The shooting sections often became exercises in trial and error, especially with enemies armed with RPGs, which can kill you in one or two hits (usually one). One of the more annoying puzzles, where you have to place a staff in the exact right position to create a shadow, ate up half an hour of my time before I gave in and looked up the solution on the Internet.

In terms of game length, it will probably take you about 10 – 15 hours to finish the whole thing. There are about a hundred treasures to collect. I managed to collect about 60 and I was actively seeking them out.

Regarding potential triggers, there are several sequences where Nate is chased by spiders or where spiders land on him. One of the supporting characters, Cutter, is claustrophobic and becomes very anxious and angry (leading to a fistfight) with Nate when he has to squeeze through tight spaces. There are also a couple instances where Nathan is drugged and hallucinating and the line between reality and hallucination is blurred. Usually you can tell when this is happening because the environment is covered in a pink haze. The one time this doesn’t happen is when he’s hallucinating due to dehydration and heat exhaustion.

Overall, the third Uncharted game was a blast to play (in fact, the entire collection was pretty good) and I can’t wait to play the final installment in the series.

Game Review: Uncharted 2: Among Thieves

I’ve only read a few reviews for the Uncharted series (as I never thought I’d be able to play these games) and while most of them agree that the first game was good (if a little rough) the second and third games are much better, with the second being particularly beloved. I suppose it’s natural that successive installments in a series will be better than the last, but not always (see: the fandom’s split opinion on Dragon Age 2).

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Uncharted 2 begins with our protagonist, intrepid treasure hunter Nathan Drake, wounded and on a wrecked train that is dangling haphazardly over a cliff in a snowy mountainous area. Flashback to a few months earlier where he’s contacted by a former associate, Harry Flynn, and his driver Chloe Frazer and asked to help steal a Mongolian oil lamp from a Turkish museum. Naturally, this simple heist is not what it seems, and Drake soon finds himself trekking across Borneo, Nepal, and Tibet in search of Shambhala (Shangri-La) and a mystical stone said to confer limitless power upon its bearer.

If you’ve already played the first game you should be familiar with the mechanics as they are pretty much lifted from Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. Drake can pick up guns, ammo, and grenades from fallen enemies and the environment, and the shooting is still cover-based, and of course he runs, jumps, climbs, and swings during platforming sections. There are also stealth takedowns which make battles less of a headache. The melee combat feels less risky and easier to pull off this time around: press triangle to dodge an enemy’s attacks and then quickly press square to finish them. It’s not a revolutionary combat system by any means, but it does its job and does it better than the first game. The enemy AI is a bit smarter this time around, moving to flank you or engage you in melee. There are also 101 treasures to collect this time around. I was only able to find 29, but I wasn’t looking very hard.

I feel like it’s almost redundant to mention graphics but the environments are gorgeous. My only complaint in this area is that sometimes it was difficult to tell which surfaces were climbable and which were just decoration (in one case I spent at least half an hour looking for something to climb only to discover that there was some climbable moss next to the wall where I was standing.

There are some familiar faces from the last game, but this game introduces Chloe as a new love interest (or lust interest) for Drake. Elena and Chloe are basically the Light Feminine and Dark Feminine trope, respectively. The main villain has more of a presence in this game, in part due to his tendency to yell his lines and shoot his underlings. The first game introduced a villain who was somewhat interesting but was replaced at the last second. This game’s villain feels more like an actual threat to Drake and co.’s safety. A standout character for me was Tenzin, a Tibetan village leader who doesn’t speak a word of English (and his Tibetan is left untranslated), the missions where he accompanies Drake involve both of them trying to make themselves understood through gestures as they navigate the environment.

Low points for me include the very first proper level of the game, a stealth level where being spotted means instantly failing the level. I had to redo this level so many times I managed to get all of the achievements for stealth takedowns. It’s especially frustrating in that you don’t even need to really use stealth at all throughout the game, at least not in the “instantly lose if spotted” way. It was fun the first few tries but I think it’s in my “top ten worst levels ever” list, and I don’t think I can even think of ten examples of levels I hated. At least there were no jet skis this time. Another low point for me was the final boss, which is basically a game of cat and mouse in a circular arena which was not very fun.

I look back on reviews when it first came out to find critics praising it as “game of the year” and “one of the best games ever” and while I can easily see why it was a great game a few years ago (hindsight is 20/20 and all that) to me it’s a great game, a great Uncharted game, but it’s nothing I haven’t seen before.

Review: Of Fire and Stars

I wanted my first review of 2017 to be something good and it seemed like a book with lady protagonists who love ladies would make a great start to the year. I was so highly anticipating this book that I couldn’t wait to buy it in paperback. Yes, I actually bought a hardcover book, the world is obviously ending.

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Princess Dennaleia has always known what her future holds: marriage to a prince of a neighbouring kingdom. Her marriage will seal the alliance between the kingdom of Mynaria and her homeland, protecting her people from hostile nations. However, Denna has a secret: she has an affinity for fire, a secret that could compromise her marriage, since magic is strictly forbidden in Mynaria. Arriving at court and trying her best to fit in and hide her magical abilities, she finds herself faced with the near impossible task of learning to ride Mynaria’s warhorses, under the instruction of the prickly, unconventional Princess Amaranthine. When a shocking assassination leaves the kingdom reeling, however, Denna and Mare team up to find the people responsible, before Mynaria is damaged beyond recovery.

I wouldn’t say the characters in Of Fire and Stars are incredibly deep and complex, for the most part they fit into their designated boxes: Mare is the tomboy to Denna’s girly girl, Nils is Mare’s best friend/ex lover and partner in crime, Thandi, Mare’s brother and Denna’s betrothed, seems like a nice guy, if a little self-absorbed, Casmiel, the king’s brother, is a decent fellow who is one of the few people who respects Mare as a person (instead of criticizing her for not wanting to marry or acting unconventionally). Lady Hilara is a typical conniving politician, and Ellaeni is one of Denna’s only friends at court.  However, Denna and Mare both subvert their expected roles in different ways. Denna is intelligent, able to determine the precise trajectory of an arrow by examining the area, and Mare’s reckless trips outside the castle frequently land her in hot water. Denna might be stuck in an undesirable situation, but even though she might lack Mare’s skill with the bow, she’s far from helpless. I also loved that the book focused on relationships between women instead of girlhate. There is a flock of courtiers that follow Denna everywhere and exasperate her, but there’s no “mean girls” squad devoted to ruining the protagonist’s life. Denna has wonderful relationships with other women, particularly her sister, although her relationship with her mother is somewhat strained, it’s not malicious. I love the way Denna looks at Mare and says “I’m going to befriend this girl,” and I love the way Mare goes from thinking Denna is hopeless at everything to realizing “Oh my gods, I like this girl.”

Another aspect I really liked was the casual way same-sex relationships are talked about in the setting. Denna casually mentions two men dancing together at a ball and talks about how her first crush decided he liked other boys better. Havemont also has no problem with queens running the country, although Mynaria’s king believes that the throne should pass from father to son (hence why Thandi is in line to rule instead of Mare, who is older). The neighbouring nation of Zumorda is also ruled by a woman.

If I had any complaints, it would be that the book is pretty slow-paced. Mare and Denna’s relationship is the slowest of slow burns (actually understandable, given the circumstances) and much of the book is set in the castle and the nearby city in the days leading up to Denna’s wedding. Much of the page time is spent talking about horses. If you love horses, you’ll love this book. If you don’t care about horses, you’ll probably be bored. I am also very sad that this is apparently a stand-alone book. I demand an epic six book series like all the ones with straight couples that I’ve read over the years. I also found the mystery was sort of meh, especially since they spend a lot of time talking about it but not investigating it thoroughly. The world-building is sparse, or perhaps minimalist would be a better word; there are different gods but they don’t have names, just an association with an element: fire god, wind god, etc. I am certainly a fan of complex religions and magic systems (to a point where magic is concerned) but I didn’t feel like the setting really needed a complicated magic system and for me it was easy to accept that magic simply exists in the world.

In terms of representation, Mare and Denna are both bisexual (near as I can tell), Ellaeni has a girlfriend, and there are some small mentions of same-sex relationships. One thing I found disappointing was that Hilara, the only explicit black character, is disliked by pretty much everyone, although she is recognized as a powerful politician and Denna even asks her advice with building connections at court. There may have been more characters of colour that I didn’t catch. In short, yes, it has a relationship between two princesses as the central relationship, but I would have liked to see more.

In terms of potential triggers, there is a scene where Thandi takes Denna to a secluded place and kisses her (she tries to reciprocate but fails because she isn’t in love with him) his dialogue (and Mare’s comment about how he takes girls down there to make out with them) is a bit creepy. There is a sex scene but it’s a tasteful fade to black sort of scene (which is typical for YA stuff).

In short, I really liked this book despite its slow pace, uncomplicated characters, and central mystery that was just kind of okay. If you want a sweet slow burn fantasy about princesses loving other princesses and princesses who love horses with a dash of magic, Of Fire and Stars should be right up your alley.