Category Archives: Reviews

Review: The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski

The Privilege of the Sword by Ellen Kushner is definitely in my top ten favourite novels. At first, I didn’t think I’d like the “mannerpunk” sort of fantasy, that is, a fantasy setting with no fantastical elements, so much so that it could be mistaken for historical fiction. Since PotS, I’ve been searching for a novel with a similar emphasis on duels and swashbuckling adventure.

The Winner’s Curse seemed promising, at least, judging from the back cover text, which promised a tale of intrigue, dancing, and duels.

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Kestrel is the privileged daughter of a general, Arin is a slave in his own homeland. When Kestrel buys Arin at auction, their destinies are intertwined, and they can’t help but fall in love. Unfortunately, with rebellion on the horizon, Arin and Kestrel need to decide where their loyalties lie: their countries or their hearts.

In terms of things I liked,the writing is not terrible (although the author does love her short sentences). I liked how Kestrel is more focused on traditionally “feminine” pursuits like playing music (piano, in this case) and is adamant that her worth is not tied to how many people she can whack with a sword (which is what her father wants her to do). However, Kestrel is introduced as a girl who is good at strategy but prefers to beat everyone at a game called Bite and Sting, and in a few scenes in the novel, she gets to demonstrate the depth of her strategic mind, like blackmailing a nobleman into letting her win a duel or figuring out how to sneak out of confinement with few tools available. I also like how she has a close female friend, Jess, who is more focused on pretty dresses and catching the eye of cute boys than soldiering.

Unfortunately, these moments are few and far between, as for most of the book Kestrel lets Arin (her slave, remember?) walk all over her, as well as making frankly absurd decisions, like wagering matches in a game against Arin, matches, which can be used to light fires, to a slave. She also fails to figure out that Arin is in fact not visiting a sweetheart in town. For someone who is supposed to be a good military strategist, she stays in the dark regarding this “sweetheart” until Arin tells her so.  In another scene, Atin talks back to Kestrel, what does she do? Does she punish him? No, she immediately acquiesces to his demands to give him more freedom. Not that I support slavery or punishing slaves, mind you. Fun fact: the book refers to Arin as “the slave” for about five chapters before he gives Kestrel his name–even in chapters from Arin’s perspective. That’s right, even in chapters from his perspective, the book still refers to him as “the slave”.

This undoubtedly sounds hypocritical of me given my praise of Captive Prince, but unlike Captive Prince, The Winner’s Curse depicts “slavery lite” with none of the brutality of, say, Snow Like Ashes (which, unlike Captive Prince, is also aimed at young adults). I’ve heard one reviewer describe this book as “girl buys boy at a slave auction” and I honestly can’t fathom how a reviewer doesn’t see anything wrong with the basic premise. Actually, I take that back, I know why. The author claims she was inspired by the Romans enslaving the Greeks, but Arin, like Damen, is described as having “tan” skin. Kestrel, unsurprisingly, is described as white and blonde.

Yeah, problems all around.

In a way I feel betrayed because none of the synopses or reviews I read prior to buying the book mentioned the slavery angle at all. Apparently the hardcover edition does but I was focusing on the paperback. I’m more surprised that some of the people I follow on tumblr were fangasming over this book and, once again, not a peep about the whole slavery thing. At least Captive Prince is up front about its content.

In terms of diversity, there really isn’t any unless you see the Herrani as poc (obviously not positive representation). Even though the Valorian Empire is clearly modeled off Ancient Rome, there don’t appear to be any queer characters. Potential triggers include the obvious portrayal of slavery, violence, and one attempted rape (it’s also implied that Arin’s sister was raped by the Valorians, or at the very least that something terrible happened to her).

The Winner’s Curse is doomed to occupy the spot on my shelf reserved for books with potential, but ultimately flawed execution. I have absolutely zero desire to continue with this trilogy. I’m currently reading Truthwitch, it’s awesome so far. I hope it doesn’t disappoint.

Game Review: Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune

“Whaaaaaaaaaat? A PS3 game, on this blog? I thought you only had a Vita, a 3DS, and a PC?”

I do, except now I have a shiny new PS4 that came with Final Fantasy XV and Uncharted 4, and now I have the remastered Uncharted collection so that means I’ll be reviewing the entire series, starting with the first one.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is one of my favourite movies. Raiders of the Lost Ark is okay, Temple of Doom was so boring I fell asleep, and the less that can be said about Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the better. Seriously, fuck that movie. But nowadays it’s difficult to view these movies (and the “adventurer archaeologist” trope in general) and not consider the colonialism inherent in a white dude (and it is usually a white dude) plundering cultural artifacts from non-white cultures and declaring “this belongs in a museum!”

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The protagonist of the Uncharted series is Nathan Drake, a descendant of Francis Drake. The story begins with Nathan Drake and journalist Elena Fisher finding Francis Drake’s coffin at the bottom of the ocean and leads to him embarking on a quest to unlock the secrets of El Dorado. Naturally, he’s not the only one searching for the legendary city, and he’ll have to solve puzzles, blow things up, and competently maneuver a jet ski in order to make it to the treasure before the competition, and did I mention his friend owes them money and they’re out for blood?

If I had to describe this game in one word, I guess it would be “derivative” but that sounds a bit negative, doesn’t it? Another word I thought of was “typical” but that also sounds like I didn’t like the game. I guess what I mean to say it that it doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel. There are platforming sections where you jump from thing to thing and occasionally swing on things or hang on things. There are shooting sections where you hide behind cover and play whack-a-mole with enemies. There are puzzles which are so easy the game will literally give you the solution if you rake too long, and there is the occasional vehicle section where you awkwardly control a vehicle and try not to get instakilled, and there are plenty of collectable treasures (60 in all) which unlock bonuses like new outfits for the characters to wear. That’s pretty much it. Honestly, if you’ve played pretty much any action-adventure game you probably know what to expect. I was reminded of Prince of Persia, but I suspect most people will think of the Tomb Raider series, particularly the most recent games.

The characters are a mixture of what you’d expect from the genre with some surprises thrown in. Nathan Drake is a dime a dozen white thirty-something protagonist with permastubble with slightly more wisecracks than average (although in this reviewer’s humble opinion, he seems like he’s trying to hard to be snarky). Victor is an older mentor figure to Drake that ends up getting him into the whole mess with the antagonist. Elena was the surprise. At first, you’re probably thinking “let me guess, she gets abducted and Drake needs to rescue her, and also eye candy” but not only does she save Drake’s ass, she’s competent with a gun, and her default outfit is not ridiculous and sexualized (although she is baring her midriff in dangerous situations). Most importantly, she doesn’t put up with Drake’s shit. Unfortunately, she’s literally the only woman in this game. I want more badass ladies just like her.

I feel like this is almost redundant but the environments in this game are beautiful. Drake will be running, jumping, and climbing through ancient temples and abandoned churches and taking in some gorgeous vistas. I don’t have the PS3 version to compare, but the PS4 remaster was given a graphical bump and it looks great.

Unfortunately the controls in this game were my worst enemy at times, especially when Nathan refused to jump even though I was hammering the X button or ended up leaping to his death because I pressed it a bit too hard. I am also not a fan of the jet ski levels, and by not a fan, I mean I hated them. Fuck jet skiis, you couldn’t even speed through those levels like a badass because of the explosive barrels and pirates shooting at you. Another complaint I have is that I found the shooting monotonous. They try to throw in new enemy types (like annoying snipers with laser sights) but it was basically just the same “shoot enemies before they can flank you and hide behind cover). There were also a few times where the environments were too dark to see anything (which was particularly annoying for one puzzle). Lengthwise it took me about 10 – 15 hours to beat it but I only found around 20 collectables so there is some incentive to replay it if you care about collecting all the things. Usually I would criticize a game like this for being so short, but honestly I think this is an okay length and the game definitely doesn’t overstay its welcome.

In terms of diversity, the main cast is white. The only characters of colour in the game are the faceless enemies you mow down by the dozens, a minor antagonist, and a slightly more important antagonist (both Latino). There are no queer characters (although I subscribe to the headcanon that Nathan Drake is bi and/or pan).

I obviously have the benefit of hindsight but if I was playing this game with no expectation that there would ever be a sequel, I would have probably written it off as an average action-adventure game starring a younger, snarkier Indiana Jones. It’s average in pretty much every respect, which is not a bad thing, but it’s not exactly the best first impression of such a critically acclaimed series. I’m excited to play the rest, however, because I’ve heard the sequels are vastly superior.

Review: Snow Like Ashes

Look at this cover. Isn’t it just the prettiest cover?

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The world of Primoria is divided into eight kingdoms: the four rhythm kingdoms, which cycle through all four seasons, and the season kingdoms, which have only one season year round. Each kingdom’s monarch possesses a Conduit-and artifact of great magical power which they use to protect their people and cause their kingdoms to prosper. Then Spring invaded Winter, killing its queen, breaking its conduit, and enslaving its people. The few survivors of the conquest include Meira, an orphan girl who only wants what’s best for her country, and Mather, the young future king of Winter. When these rebels hear word that the pieces of Winter’s broken conduit are nearby, Meira embarks on a dangerous mission to take them back for her country.

At first I was having a blast with this book. Sure, it’s basically “young Xena” since Meira’s weapon of choice is a chakram, but I think you could hand me a book with the most thinly disguised Xena and I wouldn’t complain. I also found the writing easily engaged my senses: I could hear the crackling of fire and taste the frozen berries that are a popular treat in Winter.  Unfortunately, the book quickly gives up on the sneaking and stealing from Spring soldiers in favour of politicking, and depicting people in horrible conditions. This is where the book started to wear on me for a couple reasons:

  1. For someone who claims to want to do anything for her country, Meira is rude and childish towards a king who is the best chance they have of getting any help. She even admits that she’s throwing a temper tantrum and it’s childish of her.
  2. Oh look, a love triangle.

In a nutshell, Meira is betrothed to the king’s son, Theron, because this is What’s Best For Winter, Meira, naturally, isn’t too thrilled with the idea (especially since she has a very obvious crush on Mather) but Theron seems like a decent guy. Then he gets into a sparring match with Mather over Meira because it isn’t a love triangle unless the love interests duel at one point, that’s just how it goes. Also, it’s really obvious which one “wins” the relationship game, I honestly don’t know why some authors bother if there’s no contest between the potential love interests.

The other issue I have with this book is that it’s a book about oppression and prejudice that is almost completely erased of actual marginalized people. Autumn is a kingdom of dark-skinned people, but the Autumnians are barely in the book. Winterians apparently have the same phenotype: white skin, white hair, blue eyes, and it was difficult for me to root for these characters when they are literally the whitest of white people, although the scene in the underground “catacombs” where the Winterians record stories and customs of their homeland was poignant. Unsurprisingly, it’s also very heteronormative and cisnormative as well, it’s a shame, because there’s a plot point that could have lent itself well to one character being trans but that’s not what happens or I’d probably be praising it more.

Also, is it just me, or is “girls dreaming of dead queens” a genre now? This is the second young adult book I’ve read that has this as a plot point (the other is Throne of Glass).

Snow Like Ashes has some good ideas, and its not as blatantly offensive as something like The Queen of the Tearling, but it feels like it doesn’t do anything new with what it has. It’s your basic “girl power” fantasy, if you like those, you might like this. If you want another book in the same vein, I thought Throne of Glass was fun (if not very diverse either).

Game Review: Hatoful Boyfriend Holiday Star

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Confession: I actually played this last year and meant to review it, but then I decided to wait until the holidays, then the holidays came and I forgot about it, but now that the Hatoful Boyfriend Second Semester plushies are on the way (which, yes, I backed because I can’t get enough of these birbs) and it’s close enough to the holiday season, I have an excuse to review this game again.

The original Hatoful Boyfriend was a dating sim with a weird premise that concealed a thrill ride (and tearjerker) of a visual novel. Holiday Star does away with the dating sim mechanics and opts for a pure visual novel. There are very few choices and making the wrong choice results in instant death, so it’s practically a kinetic novel (that is, a visual novel with no choices, just a story that you click through).

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If the original game is a novel, Holiday Star is more of an anthology. There are four main chapters. The first two involve wacky hijinks as Hiyoko and co. attempt to capture thieves who have been stealing Christmas trees, while the second focuses on Anghel. The third and fourth episodes are a bit more serious, focusing on a journey to a strange land ruled by The King who is reluctant to let our heroes leave. There are also a number of short episodes in the format of a radio show, and shrine visits with the main birds (and for those of you who like their human forms, there’s an option to view the shrine events with the main cast in human form).

There’s not much more I can say without spoiling the entire thing. Suffice it to say that you absolutely must play the original (including and especially Bad Boys Love) for Holiday Star to make sense. Fortunately, the game is short, it took me around nine hours to play the whole thing and get all the achievements.

The major trigger you need to look out for is suicide. If you are familiar with the aforementioned Bad Boys Love route from the first game (which again, is required to understand what’s going on here) you will already be familiar with this plot point (which is technically murder). Holiday Star goes into more detail, expanding on the characters involved and describing the victim’s last moments. It’s a heartbreaking, horrifying scene that is not played for laughs.

If you have played the original then you’ve probably already played this. If you haven’t played Hatoful Boyfriend, I highly recommend it. It’s easily the weirdest dating sim I’ve ever played, and although its spawned lots of imitators, most of them focus on the silly premise and have none of Hatoful Boyfriend’s depth.

Review: Rosemary and Rue (October Daye #1)

It’s time for the latest entry in “books I bought because tumblr friends said they were good” lately this strategy has been hit or miss. As I’ve discovered, some of the folks I follow on tumblr have very different tastes than I do. In fact, I bet if you tallied the positive vs. negative reviews of books recommended to me by tumblr friends, there would probably be a few more negatives.

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The world of Faerie never disappeared. It exists parallel to our own, protected by secrecy. When the human world and Faerie intersect, changelings are born, belonging to neither world. October Daye is one such changeling, but after getting burned by both sides of her heritage, all she wants is to live as normal a life as possible. Naturally, she’s drawn back into faerie politics when Countess Evening Winterrose, one of the more powerful fairies in San Francisco (and Toby’s sometime friend) is murdered, her dying curse binding Toby to find the murderer, or die trying.

I found most of the characters likeable. Toby’s been through hell and she’s just trying to live a normal life after what she’s been through (as usual, that doesn’t last long), but there are some really great secondary characters: October’s good friend Lily, an undine who lives in the Japanese tea garden in Golden Gate Park, to Sylvester, Toby’s liege lord, his wife Luna and their acerbic daughter Rayseline, to Tybalt, a Cait Sidhe with whom she shares a mutual dislike. Toby’s world is populated by a variety of creatures drawn from world mythology, from selkies to kitsune to rose goblins.There are a couple characters I’d really like to mention, but that would be spoiler territory.

The world of faerie, so close to our own, is both magical and dangerous, with magnificent gardens of glass flowers, doors that open to places you weren’t expecting to be, and denizens who are sticklers for protocol and take hospitality very seriously. Changelings like Toby naturally occupy a dubious space in either sidhe and human society, not quite belonging to both and struggling to live in either. Toby’s position as a knight errant to a sidhe liege lord is something of a novelty.

This book had me hooked from the prologue. In fact, it’s one of the best prologues I’ve ever read. I was definitely not expecting what happened and it explains why October didn’t want anything to do with Faerie and had to be dragged back into it by her not-quite-friend’s death. I also like that the plot wasn’t overly focused on romance, there are some sexual tension laden scenes between October and a few men, but she doesn’t have a lot of time for romance.

Unfortunately, while the prologue is strong, I found the plot loses momentum. For a private investigator, October doesn’t really do any serious investigating and spends most of her time getting shot, nearly bleeding out, and having to be rescued by other characters. October’s circumstances remind me of a recent post I saw on tumblr, which talked about how some protagonists have the plot happen to them, and this is definitely what I felt happened in October’s case: she doesn’t so much drive the plot, the plot happens to her and she reacts to it. The Big Bad in this book was obvious to me from their introduction, and all it really took to uncover them was October remembering her powers. Speaking of her powers, they seem inconsistent, one moment she can’t maintain a simple illusion without experiencing a splitting headache, the next she’s using her abilities with no issues (although this is explained by coming into contact with a magical artifact, I thought there was a point where the effect wore off). My other criticism is that even though this is the first novel in the series, there are many references to past events. Occasionally these sort of references can be used to give a sense of history to the world, but in this case this first novel feels like the fifth in a series. (Note that although she has written prequel stories, I’m reading each book in order of publication.)

Unfortunately, while there are a lot of different types of fae, there aren’t any explicitly marked people of colour (although my impression of Lily was that she was at least half-Japanese), the only reference to queer sexualities is one character’s offhand comment that he slept with a (male) faerie, although based on what I’ve heard, there’s more queer representation in other books in the series and the author self-identifies as bisexual.

In terms of triggers, Devin, the man in charge of the halfway house for changelings where October used to live, is implicitly and explicitly abusive to his charges. There’s also some blood-drinking (sidhe can drink blood to experience the memories of dead people), and violence.

Overall, I enjoyed this book and the preview for the next one was genuinely intriguing. I can safely say I’m hooked and I can’t wait to catch up with it. If you’re a fan of urban fantasy, you’ve probably read it already. If you like urban fantasy that focuses on something other than vampires, check out this series.

 

Game Review: Why am I Dead at Sea?

By the time you read this Hallowe’en will probably be over, but in case I manage to write this review before midnight: Happy Hallowe’en and Blessed Samhain!

In the past, I’ve played games that were conventionally “scary” on Hallowe’en, but I don’t know if it’s because I’m getting older, but I’ve found I just don’t enjoy jump scares as much as I used to, the horror titles I’m into these days are more atmospheric.

One thing that has remained consistent throughout my life is that I love a good ghost story, and that’s exactly what Why am I Dead at Sea? is: a ghost story where you are the ghost and your task is to solve your own murder on a boat at sea.

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You solve your own murder by possessing the passengers and crew and getting them to converse with one another. Depending on their relationships, they’ll have different things to say to each other. In the beginning, you have limited control over the characters, and can only say what they would say in that circumstance. However, as you get to know them, you can take full possession of them and speak through them. You can also read peoples’ minds and uncover more information about them or hints as to what you’re supposed to do next. Each character also has a special ability: one character can see what’s in a person’s pockets if she’s near them, another can peek through keyholes to see what’s behind a door before she opens it, another can see objects he can interact with, etc. The puzzles in this adventure game are more about getting to know people and ferreting out secrets, and every single character in this game has a secret.

The characters themselves are interesting, although given the length of the game (Steam has me clocked at six hours, all achievements obtained) there isn’t really a lot of time to flesh them out. I loved Quella, the writer who writes because she enjoys it and she’d rather do something she enjoyed even if she isn’t making a lot of money (I feel like I understand her) or First Mate Ferdinand and his ridiculous announcements. They all deal with some dark stuff as well: from coping with the death of a spouse from suicide to cancer to parental abuse and more.

The graphics are obviously reminiscent of Earthbound, some of the characters have a leitmotif that plays when you possess them, but the music isn’t especially memorable, perhaps because of the game’s length.

One of my major criticisms of this game is that it’s sometimes unclear as to what your next move should be. You can always ask Paolo, the only character who can communicate with you, for help, but basically what it comes down to is talking to everyone (exhausting all dialogue options) and examining everything. Another issue I had is that Xu’s portrayal (a waitress who steals stuff from passengers and crew and is also secretly here illegally) strikes me as racist stereotyping, characters even comment on how her English is good and keep mispronouncing her name (as “Sue”). Out of all the characters of colour in the main cast, the only one I found remotely sympathetic was Quella, as the others are in on the unpleasantness described below (although most of the characters have something to sympathize with).

In terms of triggers, one character’s depressed spouse committed suicide, another is implied to have been stalked or sexually abused, there’s also abuse, one character is dealing with cancer, one on screen suicide (which is unavoidable) and discussion and depiction of human trafficking. There are also some flashing graphics at the very beginning of the game, and reading a person’s thoughts will occasionally show bright colours and flashing, moving text and images.

Overall, you can finish the game in an afternoon and unlock all the achievements. It’s a nice little diversion while you’re waiting for the latest big budget title to download. It has some interesting ideas, and it doesn’t overstay its welcome. I’m not sure that it’s worth the full price of $10, but on sale it’s worth a look if you like murder mysteries.

Review: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

The following review will contain major spoilers for the play. If you are interested in reading or seeing the play, do not read this because I’m going to spoil the hell out of it. I will put spoilery stuff under a cut. Also, expect spoilers for the entire Harry Potter series, I mean obviously.

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The Harry Potter series is a literary phenomenon. Conservative Christian groups ranted about how it was teaching kids witchcraft, news outlets raved about how kids who had never picked up a book in their lives were reading, and it was part of the syllabus in a course I took on Religion and Popular Culture. It’s one series that doesn’t really need an introduction. Even if you don’t consider yourself a fan, you’ve probably heard about it by proxy.

Recently, however, my interest in the series has waned. Between the movies based on the main series being over, endless debates over whether Snape is a sympathetic character on tumblr, and the Ilvermorny cultural appropriation mess, I’ve realized I much prefer the diverse headcanons the fans come up with than the very white, very heterosexual canon universe.

But then there was an alleged “leak” of the plot of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which I read. The utter trainwreck that was this alleged “leak” simultaneously horrified me as a fan of the series and delighted me as someone who just kind of wanted the canon universe to crash and burn at this point. I knew right then and there that I had to read it for myself. I had to see with my own eyes if this alleged leak, this synopsis that sounded like someone’s first (awful) attempt at Harry Potter fanfiction was real.

Here’s a brief synopsis of the play. Nineteen years after the Battle of Hogwarts, Harry Potter is struggling with balancing his job at the ministry of magic and his personal life with his wife and three children. The youngest of these three children, Albus, feels very much like an outsider in his own family, finding it especially difficult to bear the weight of his father’s legacy. He finds an unlikely friend in Scorpius Malfoy, who has had to dodge vicious rumors spread by his peers. What begins as an attempt to right the wrongs of the past quickly spirals out of control, and Albus discovers that evil emerges from the most unlikely places.

Before I get into spoilery territory, here’s some non-spoilery ramblings about what I liked about the play. In the past, I (and many others) have complained about the lack of heroic Slytherin characters (despite being a dyed-in-the-wool Ravenclaw), so it’s nice to see not one, but two Slytherins with major, unquestionably heroic roles in the plot. Out of all the characters, I was most surprised by Draco Malfoy, of all people, who obviously cares for his son and is at times seemingly the only character who knows what he’s doing. He’s come a very long way from the bully fans grew up with. I would be lying if I didn’t say that it’s also very nostalgic, revisiting places that I visited in the previous books. It’s like reconnecting with an old friend (and I for one will never see the Trolley Witch in the same light again). Regardless of anything I will write below, it was nice to see these characters again, even if the focus is now on the next generation.

Unfortunately, here’s where the non-spoilery bits end, so I’m going to cut this. If you don’t want to be horribly spoiled, don’t read past this point.

Continue reading Review: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Review: Lirael by Garth Nix

[The following contains major spoilers for Sabriel. Do not read until you have read Sabriel. Seriously, go read Sabriel, it’s amazing.]

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I’m still mad at all of you who knew about this series and didn’t tell me to read it.

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A daughter of the Clayr with no ability to See the future, Lirael has always felt like she doesn’t belong. Driven to despair, she finds a new purpose in life as an Assistant Librarian in the Clayr’s great library. However, with a new evil lurking in the Old Kingdom, she finds herself thrust from her semi-peaceful life in the Clayr’s Glacier, with only the Disreputable Dog, a mysterious magical canine, by her side.

This synopsis and every other synopsis I’ve read suggests that the book is solely from Lirael’s perspective, but in fact a good chunk of the book is from the perspective of Prince Sameth, son of Sabriel and King Touchstone. I told you there would be spoilers. Both of these characters deal with feeling like they don’t belong and struggling to find a place for themselves. While Sabriel was more or less a “coming of age” tale, Lirael is about not only trying to fit in, but family, including (and especially) chosen family, and also dealing with loss and trauma. There is also an undercurrent of nationalistic fervor that speaks to current affairs even though this was originally published decades ago.

I love these characters. I love how they try to do things right and they mess up but they keep going. Sameth in particular is the poster boy for “didn’t think this through”, while Lirael thinks of herself as someone who can’t do anything right. They both need one of those gold stars that say “you tried” and a hug, lots of hugs. And, just like in Sabriel, Lirael has a mysterious animal companion to set her straight, and the Disreputable Dog is nowhere near as acerbic as Mogget (I love Mogget though). I don’t know what else to say about these characters, honestly, except that I love them and they deserve hugs. Garth Nix has an uncanny ability to seamlessly go from characters relaxing and enjoying themselves to a scene of horror and terror in an instant.

I realize I’m probably not saying that much about the book, especially since it’s much bigger than Sabriel and Abhorsen, but it’s difficult to talk about many things without spoiling the entire plot and the book introduces a bunch of new mysteries and questions. You won’t find very many answers in this book, some, but not many, and that’s okay sometimes, IMHO, provided the final book can wrap things up nicely.

My one problem with this book is that it as great as it is, it ultimately feels like a whole lot of buildup to Abhorsen, which is why I (and others) highly recommend purchasing Abhorsen before you’re done with Lirael. It definitely feels like a much more personal story than Sabriel, and takes some time to get going. In the hands of another author the book could have been a drag, but even through its slower moments I couldn’t put this book down. The world of the Old Kingdom is not ridiculously complex, but it is compelling.

In terms of diversity, the Clayr all have dark skin and light hair, but the author spends more time describing their hair than their skin, which almost seems like the author is trying to say they’re not “too black”. They’re also “magical black people” who spend so much time in the future that they tend to neglect the present. However, it’s a step up from Sabriel, I would say. Sameth and Lirael both struggle with depression, the former also seems to be dealing with PTSD and the latter with thoughts of suicide.

In terms of triggers, Lirael spends the first few chapters of the books depressed and at one point plans out and almost attempts suicide (though obviously she doesn’t go through with it). There’s a moment towards the end of the book where a group of the Dead surround a group of people (including children) and massacre them all, although most of the violence is “off camera”. The implications that a political group wants to send refugees en masse to their deaths might hit too close to home for some people.

Although at times it feels like Lirael is just (much-needed) build-up to the final book in the trilogy (now a series now, I guess). I still very much enjoyed it and I’ve already started Abhorsen. It’s an easy recommendation if you loved Sabriel.

Review: Red Queen

A common thing that happens when you have something that is a success is for it to spawn a plethora of derivative works–what some call rip-offs–some being more obviously “inspired by” the popular franchise du jour. Everything is either “the next Game of Thrones” or “the next Hunger Games”. Coincidentally, these are the books that get all the movie deals, because Hollywood isn’t interested in original ideas anymore, if it ever was.

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Mare Barrow’s world is divided by blood. The silver-blooded elite oppress those with red blood with powers that can only be described as godlike, but Mare quickly gets in way over her head when, in front of the king and all the nobles in the land, she discovers that she, too, has a strange ability. To hide this impossibility, the king forces her to play the role of a lost Silver princess and betroths her to one of his own sons, and Mare finds herself thrust from a world of mandatory conscription and servitude to a gilded cage where even her thoughts aren’t her own, but rebellion is on the horizon, and Mare is playing a deadly game, one that could cost not only her life, but the lives of all Reds.

Let’s start with something this book does right. In many stories, those with strange abilities or supernatural entities are forced to hide from regular humans. The struggles of these “others” are often equated with the real life oppression of marginalized communities (the question of whether they are right in equating elves and superheroes to queer and black people is something else entirely). Red Queen flips the script in making the “others” the Silvers, the oppressors, which honestly makes more sense, if you ask me. They’re the ones with a clear advantage over others, it translates well into a culture of “haves” and “have nots”.

As for the characters, I didn’t hate them, but I did find them a bit flat. Cal, one of the princes, is the popular military man everyone likes, whereas Maven, Mare’s betrothed, is more quiet and intellectual, Evangeline, Cal’s betrothed, who spends most of the book sneering at people (more on her later), and Farley, fearless leader of La Resistance the Scarlet Guard, the Red resistance movement. Mare herself doesn’t really have any idea what she’s doing half the time, but her little shows of defiance (like refusing to kneel before the king) endeared me to her. There is a very annoying love triangle, but at this point I’m more surprised by books that don’t have them than books that do.

However, while it managed to hold my interest (in no small part because the writing is good) it definitely felt very derivative of The Hunger Games, complete with mandatory arena fights that are broadcast nationwide, a decadent elite profiting from their oppressors, even a training sequence that could have been lifted straight from the first book, and, honestly, if that was all that I had issue with, I could forgive it. Unfortunately, the book tells a story about an oppressed minority but doesn’t include any actual minorities on the protagonist’s side. There’s an interview with the author where she says:

“The blood divisions in Red Queen draw obviously from American divisions of class, race, religion, orientation—but obviously are most paralleled by the horror and genocide that was American slavery, as well as modern-day prejudices against non-heteronormative people and prejudices against Muslims.”

-from an interview from BookPage here.

The only two black characters in the entire book are Silvers and one is part of the “mean girls” clique that torments out protagonist. There are a couple disabled characters (including Mare’s father, who was injured in the war Silvers are fighting with other Silvers using mostly Red troops) but other than that? White straight abled people doing white straight abled people things (there is the barest hint that one of the princes might have had a relationship with another guy, but he’s, well, dead). In addition, this book, like so many others, loves its girlhate. Evangeline, Prince Cal’s betrothed, is a bitch. How do we know this? Everyone tells us. Evangeline’s purpose is basically to be the Queen Bee and therefore Mare’s rival and not much else. Lady Blonos, her protocol instructor, is dull and keeping herself together with plastic surgery, and of course, Queen Elara is the worst of them all (although, in all fairness, she’s not a nice person). In fact, the only allies Mare has at court are men, from her guard, Lucas, to the princes themselves, to her instructor, Julian. The only other woman of note is a mute healer who exists because manpain. I almost feel sorry for the women in this book. While the men can pretty much be whoever they want to be, they’re stuck in their assigned roles. She’s the bitch and the protagonist’s Eternal Rival. She’s the obviously evil queen. They could have had nuance, but they don’t. While I’m on the subject of flaws, did you know that hating your oppressors is just as bad as when your oppressors hate you? Yep, the book pulls a #SilverLivesMatter thing, of course it does.

I was all set to like this book despite how derivative it was, and it did have a pretty interesting twist at the end, but it’s another book that appropriates the struggles of actual marginalized communities to tell a story about straight white abled people, and girlhate, although definitely not as much as in Queen of the Tearling.

At this point, I’m thinking I need a break from YA lit. I still have the rest of the Old Kingdom books and a few more after that, but the endless parade of the same old grossness is getting tiresome. Hopefully Lirael and Abhorsen won’t disappoint me.

Deck Review: Joy and Sorrow Oracle

I have a small backlog of decks but before I get to them, I wanted to review this deck that just arrived because it already has a special place in my collection. I usually devote at least a week (though lately it’s been more like months) to playing with a deck before reviewing it, so I think this is probably the quickest delivery to review time ever for me. You’ll understand why in a moment.

The initial announcement for this deck came at a time when I was still dealing with losing my mother to cancer. I’ve actually felt a lot of mixed emotions surrounding her death (I’ve talked about her emotional abuse elsewhere) but even though a part of me is glad that she’s not giving me any of her crap anymore, the emotions can still be difficult to bear at times (although it is definitely getting better with the passage of time). I have a deck that I primarily use for self care (the Oracle of the Mermaids) but as soon as I saw the first images of this one on the Aeclectic Tarot forums, I knew I needed to have it.

Sorry for the lack of pictures, btw. I can’t find a great image of the box art.

The Joy and Sorrow Oracle is the creation of Roxi Sim Hermsen, creator of the Pearls of Wisdom Tarot and are specifically designed for those “dealing with the pain of loss and trauma”. The deck is composed of paintings that were part of her art therapy after losing her son, health, and mother in a short period of time. They are based on the idea that “joy shared is doubled and sorrow shared is halved”. The artwork features women and goddesses, mostly in natural settings, with evocative meditations designed to draw you into the cards to find a moment’s peace.

The deck has 33 cards and comes in two sizes: poker size and jumbo size. Poker size is exactly what it says, while jumbo size is about 5.5″ x 3.5″, the jumbo cards also have borders on the top and bottom of the cards, while poker size is borderless. Both versions have linen cardstock that is smooth and flexible. The jumbo size comes in a serviceable box (the deck is sold via the Game Crafter so the boxes are a bit flimsy). The backs of the cards have their meditations/meanings so there is no LWB and the cards can be used right out of the box.

The artwork is colourful and vibrant, so much so that I’m thinking of buying a couple prints of my favourite images. There are a lot of pinks, oranges, and blues. There’s a very watery quality to the art, and its more stylized than realistic. I’m really glad I bought the jumbo edition, it was worth the higher price for the larger images. I love the “Escape” card, which depicts a woman on the beach, looking up at the moon and tossing flowers behind her,”The Fountain” which depicts a fountain shaped like a goddess and surrounded by flowers. and “Sleep” which depicts a sleeping woman reminiscent of the “Sleeping Goddess/Lady of Malta”. The cards mostly depict women (the few men in the cards are in the background) a number of which have darker skin and heavier body types.

I’m hesitant to really criticize this deck because its heart is in the right place, but I always try to give balanced reviews regardless of my feelings. The meditations will probably be a bit too New Age for some tastes. The text makes reference to the “Earth Deva” in a few cards, which you can easily substitute “spirit” if you don’t want to use a term borrowed from Hinduism. Some of the text also comes across as romanticizing Middle Eastern traditions like belly dancing. This doesn’t detract from the lovely imagery the text evokes for me, but it is something to keep in mind. In terms of triggers, a few cards contain nudity and a couple cards depict pregnant goddesses. There is one image of a goddess holding an infant.While I’d like to emphasize that I find the messages to be comforting, I felt that a few cards were saying more or less the same thing about sharing your experiences with other when they could have been devoted to different aspects of self care. Then again, I’ve never been a big sharing person.

Despite my criticisms, overall my experiences with this deck have been positive and comforting. I still like my Oracle of the Mermaids for self care, but I’m really impressed by the vibrant images and evocative text. At times I feel like I could just fall into these images for a brief moment of just being at peace.

If you would like a copy of this deck of your own, you can purchase the poker size or the jumbo size decks at The Game Crafter.