Category Archives: Reviews

Review: The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue

[tw: parental abuse, alcoholism, racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia]

It seems like I’ve been waiting forever for this book since I read some early impressions of it ages ago. It sounded like it was right up my alley: diverse historical fiction with cute boys in love.

29283884

Henry “Monty” Montague is about to embark on his Grand Tour of Europe with his best friend Percy and sister Felicity. The young lord wants nothing more than to escape his overbearing father, have one last hurrah before his responsibilities catch up to him, and flirt with Percy across Europe. But when one of his reckless decisions endangers himself and his traveling companions and sparks a continent wide manhunt, it calls into question everything he knows, including his relationship with Percy.

Here is a brief list of things that can be found in this book:

  • running around naked at the Palace of Versailles
  • a tarot reading (that is actually accurate)
  • cute boys kissing
  • badass ladies
  • the worst pirates in the world

The plot of this novel could be summarized as “Man makes stupid decisions, his friend and sister bail him out.” The book isn’t going to win any awards for its plot, although there was an unexpected fantastical element in an otherwise realistic setting. The focus is definitely on the characters, and this book has some great, memorable characters, even the characters with the smallest parts to play have some little quirk that makes them memorable even when their part in the story is over, such as the bank teller that Monty flirts with in order to make an unorthodox withdrawal or Dante, the son of an alchemist with social anxiety. The story is told from Monty’s perspective in first person, and though he might seem like a bit of a rake at first, but as the book goes on we see that he’s scared, trying to deal with his feelings for Percy (and his homophobic society), has a very unhealthy relationship with alcohol, and is possibly suffering from PTSD, Felicity is a woman in Regency-era England who wants to study medicine but is barred from doing so, and Percy is biracial and epileptic in a racist society that thinks epilepsy is caused by demons or masturbation. The book is not just about a thrilling manhunt across Europe, it’s also about people who find themselves on the fringes of society. I love these characters, I love Felicity’s snark and how Percy is a huge dork and Monty’s hilarious trains of thought as bad and worse things keep happening to him.

Many works of historical fiction are often whitewashed or straightwashed. We’re told that people of colour who weren’t slaves didn’t exist and queer people couldn’t be public about their sexuality, so it “makes sense” that these marginalized populations are invisible or meet horrible ends, that’s just “realism”. That’s why it’s so refreshing that The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue manages to both have a diverse cast and talk about the challenges they would have faced in that time period, and not only that, but Monty is constantly called out by both Percy and Felicity regarding his privilege while at the same time acknowledging that this doesn’t mean his life has been easy. The back of the book has some historical notes to provide context to their adventures.

I think my only criticisms of this book are that Monty can definitely be insufferable at times, particularly at the beginning before he gets a bit of depth to him. I also thought the final confrontation with the main antagonist was very predictable, although as I said, the book probably won’t win any awards for it’s plot. There was a part that came across as a little white saviour-y, where Monty impersonates a Scottish nobleman to keep himself, his friends, and a black crew of ex-slaves turned pirates to avoid being arrested (and in the case of the pirates, killed). Another thing I found a bit odd was the use of modern English slang. Did people say “bloody” back then because Monty says it a few times. It’s not that I expect all historical fiction to only use period-appropriate expressions at all times, it just struck me as out of place.

As I’ve mentioned (and as you can see up top with the list of trigger warnings) the characters frequently deal with Regency-era prejudice and discrimination. Percy is frequently called “negro” and “coloured” and asked about Africa when he was born in England (and the son of a minor noble, to boot), and he also has to deal with ableism on account of his epilepsy, Monty is naturally referred to as a “sodomite” and is an alcoholic and abuse survivor. There is also a scene where Felicity gives Monty the old “Have you tried not being attracted to men?” line and some disabled viewers might be disturbed by Monty’s eagerness to “cure” Percy’s epilepsy through the power of alchemy. If this last bit concerns you, be assured that he gets an earful over it.

In spite of the fact that bad things kept happening to these characters that I love, The Gentleman’s Guide to Virtue and Vice is still a great book and an easy recommendation for anyone who wants to read some queer Regency historical fiction with just a bit of fantasy to keep things interesting. I’m super excited for the sequel/side story The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy, starring Felicity. Also Scipio desperately needs his own book. Why can’t all YA fiction and historical fiction be as cool as this book?

Game Review: Until Dawn

[gore tw, ableist slurs tw, racism tw, sexism tw]

My PS4 is running out of space for some reason (that reason being each game I have for it is 50 GB minimum) so I’m trying to beat some of the shorter games I own to free up space.

I’ve been sitting on Until Dawn since I bought the PS4. It’s not that I didn’t want to play it, I’ve just been distracted by the deluge of amazing games for the console. Also the constant sales at Best Buy are not doing my library any favours. Hey, when I see a $90 game that I want on sale for $30, I get it.

until_dawn_cover_art

Until Dawn is a survival horror adventure game developed by Supermassive Games and published by Sony Computer Entertainment. Every year, a group of teenagers gather at an isolated ski lodge for a retreat. When a prank goes awry, however, two of the friends disappear into the wilderness and are never heard from again. A year later, the remaining eight friends are invited to the same lodge to commemorate their friends’ deaths, but when strange and deadly things start happening around them, including being stalked by a relentless killer, it’s anyone’s guess who will survive until dawn.

I think the simplest way to summarize Until Dawn is that it is an interactive horror movie. Have you ever watched a horror movie and yelled at the characters to not do something? Until Dawn gives you some measure of control over the characters, allowing you to subvert or play common horror movie tropes straight (to some extent).

Speaking of tropes, all the characters are predictable horror movie archetypes: Mike is the confident jock, Jessica is the sexy airhead, Sam is a girl next door type who loves animals, Chris is the nice nerd, Emily is an abrasive fashionista, Matt is friendly but a bit of a pushover, Ashley is more serious and studious, and Josh is a bit of a loner. Their personalities can change over time depending on your choices, but for the most part they stick to their archetypes, which was actually one of the issues I had with this game, but more on that below.

Gameplay consists of moving the character around and picking up objects (which may be clues that reveal background information or just things to inspect). Action sequences take the form of QTEs where missing a button press can occasionally be fatal, and sometimes you’ll need to aim at a target reticle and press R2 to fire. The most annoying aspect of action sequences is the DON’T MOVE prompt, when you need to remain perfectly still while the controller vibrates. You also use the right stick to make choices, some of which are timed, although doing nothing, the game says, is sometimes the best choice.

I feel like saying that the graphics are beautiful in a AAA PS4 title is almost redundant but the snowy environments and abandoned locations are really pretty, not to mention creepy. You can even see the dust motes in indoor scenes. The one thing I didn’t like was at times it seemed like the lip syncing was off and some of the facial animations really crossed the line into uncanny valley (particularly Dr. Hill’s teeth, which only increased the creepiness factor).

This game has been praised for it’s meaningful choices, and while I think that no game can ever completely account for every choice and that not every choice can completely change the game, I thought it was well done here. The game keeps track of your choices via the stats screen, which tracks how brave, charitable, etc. each character is, but also the relationships between characters, and the Butterfly Effect, which tracks choices and consequences and gives the player feedback when a choice they made earlier in the game has impacted current events. For instance, placing a baseball bat off to the side will allow a character to use it later. Sometimes the impact of your choices won’t be apparent until much later in the game, and can even result in characters dying. You can also collect different “totems” which might show a character’s death (or the death of their friends), guide you towards the correct path, show you something that will lead to a favourable result, or show you a possible danger. These are purely for the player’s benefit, as the characters don’t react to them at all. My only issue with the choices is that some of them are very unintuitive and will lead to characters dying because you made the wrong choice a few minutes earlier (or sometimes chapters earlier). There was also one moment where you needed a specific clue to prevent a death. Fortunately, I was able to backtrack and find said clue.

I think my biggest annoyance with the gameplay was the DON’T MOVE segments, where you need to remain absolutely still while the controller vibrates, which is especially difficult to do when they combine it with jump scares. You can easily pass the segment by resting the controller on a flat surface and picking it up as soon as the indicator goes away, which is what I did.

My major criticism from a story and character standpoint is a consequence of the game being so faithful to its genre, so of course the “sexy” character can die after having sex, Matt, who is black, can die first, and Emily, who is Asian, is practically designed in such a way that you will hate her (and, like Matt, can die most often and in really gruesome ways). I really hate that the devs decided that the character you need to hate the most is the one WOC in the cast. Meanwhile, Sam, the white vegan who isn’t into the group’s shenanigans, is clearly the Final Girl) and she spends the majority of a chapter when you control her wandering around in nothing but a towel. There’s also a heaping helping of “people with mental illnesses are scary” (and the person stalking the characters is referred to as “p*ycho” and “p*ychopath” repeatedly), not to mention appropriation of Indigenous traditions. All of these are established horror movie tropes but that doesn’t mean they aren’t racist or sexist. Apparently one of the lead designers believes Until Dawn isn’t sexist because the cast is evenly split between men and women and they’ve “avoided the traditional phallic stabbing”. I guess we can go home because sexism is over? No seriously, the cast might be equally split (although there’s no non-binary representation) but that doesn’t change the fact that Mike, the typical white, athletic, straight guy protagonist we’ve all seen before, gets the most screen time (in one case exploring the same location by himself twice). It’s a shame that Until Dawn is unfortunately constrained by the conventions of its genre in this way.

Other than the things I’ve mentioned above, this game doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to blood and gore. Characters are beheaded, stabbed and shot through the eyes, and bisected by a circular saw. They can also be stabbed with needles. One scene near the end of the game has a character hallucinating and thinking they see viscera tumbling out of a dead pig. Speaking of dead pigs, there are also scenes involving animals which have been torn apart and you have the option to shoot a bird in the early game.

In terms of length, I completed the game in about ten hours but I didn’t come close to collecting all the collectables and totems. There is some replayability, especially if characters die and you want to see what changes when they live. I don’t think I’ve played another game that feels as if you’re in control of the victims in a slasher movie. I recommend it to genre fans who don’t mind a game that slavishly adheres to genre tropes.

Review: Arrow’s Flight (Heralds of Valdemar #2)

[tw: rape, incest, abortion, child death]

I said this before in my review of Arrows of the Queen but it’s so weird reading this trilogy when I’ve already read The Last Herald-Mage trilogy. I’m not sure if I’d recommend you do the same, but it’s been an experience.

51mu2g2be5cl-_sy344_bo1204203200_

Talia is ready to assume her role as Queen’s Own Herald, but one final test remains: a year and a half internship riding a circuit with a full Herald. In Talia’s case, her mentor is Kris, the Collegium’s heartthrob and Dirk’s partner in crime. Unfortunately, with vicious rumours dogging her steps and her fraying control over her abilities, it’s going to take some work before she’s ready to assume her responsibilities, if she manages to survive.

I’m going to be right up front about this and say that this is probably one of the most boring second books in a trilogy that I’ve ever read. It starts out promising, with Talia and Kris moving from village to village dispensing justice, but then the duo and their Companions (and chirras–basically llamas) are snowed in and remain so for the majority of the book. The result is about two hundred pages of Talia being anxious and stressed about her powers and whether she might be misusing them and not much of anything being done. I heard on tumblr that Lackey mentions that these early books were “experimental” and it definitely shows. It feels like someone wanted to write a closed circle plot but didn’t quite know how to make it engaging beyond having two people (and horselike beings) grow increasingly frustrated with one another. I actually preferred the moments when they were on the road, dealing with the ordinary problems of ordinary folks. It’s like when an author creates some interesting secondary characters when the story is actually about the most boring character and their boring love interest.

I suppose I can’t get mad at a book from the late 80s for things that were probably revolutionary at the time (like acknowledgement of polyamorous relationships) but at the same time, I feel like the entire plot could’ve been avoided if Talia’s instructors at the Collegium realized “Hey this girl doesn’t know what a Companion does, maybe we should teach her the basics?” and I honestly feel like this is the sort of story that would be better as a short story or the sort of event that characters reference but never really explain. I also found the way Talia finally “masters” her powers disturbing, and a definite case of mood whiplash as the book suddenly goes from two people angrily dunking each other in the water to dealing with a murder, an incestuous rapist who committed the murder, and an abortion in the same chapter. Oh and apparently trauma from finding the body of your drowned child can be magically cured by….giving you another baby, who might be the reincarnation of your lost baby? I don’t know, it’s magic, okay? Magic is the explanation.

But hey I guess there was character development, or at the very least Talia will stop reminding the reader that she has no confidence in herself. Seriously, I take back everything bad I said about Magic’s Promise, because it’s way better than this. Also she uses the g-slur a few times in the book.

This book is a difficult one to recommend unless you’re committed to reading the trilogy. It definitely has that “early work by a celebrated author” feel to it (on top of being the second book in a trilogy). It’s best to go into it understanding that it’s an experimental product of its time and definitely weaker than other books the author has published since. In that respect, I am glad The Last Herald-Mage sold me on the series before I picked up this omnibus, otherwise I’d probably be more discouraged by Arrow’s Flight. Fortunately I’ve heard Arrow’s Fall is much better.

Deck Review: Oracle of the Unicorns

I love unicorns. They’re like horses but magical and able to impale people. Despite being loved by the New Age movement in particular for their “purity” and “loving energy” there aren’t many unicorn decks. There’s the Unicorn Tarot, which AFAIK is out of print or hard to find, and Doreen Virtue’s Magical Unicorns cards, and that one by Diana Cooper. None of these decks really have what I want in a unicorn deck, so when I saw this deck up on Blue Angel’s website and took a look at the sample images, I knew I needed it.

oracle_of_the_unicorns

The Oracle of the Unicorns is a 44 card deck and book set by Cordelia Francesca Brabbs. The art is done by a variety of artists. The card size is typical for Blue Angel oracle decks. The cards are borderless and each card has its title and a few sentences to clue you in to the meaning of the card. The guidebook elaborates on these sentences with a few paragraphs for each card. There are no upright and reversed meanings given for any of the cards. The guidebook contains a number of spreads specific to this deck. There’s instructions for daily card draws, a four card “Through the Forest” spread, a five card “Elemental Star”, a seven card “Path to Miracles” spread, an eight card “Pegasus” spread, and a nine card “Unicorn Horn” spread.

This is generally a positive, uplifting deck, with cards like “Compassion”, “Sanctuary”and “Gentleness”, even the “Anger” card is about dealing with your anger in healthy ways (and is actually one of the best cards dealing with “negative” emotions in a way that doesn’t involve denying or “releasing” your anger). Despite the deck being called the Oracle of the Unicorns, there are pegasi in here as well, but I suspect few people will mind that some of the magical horse-creatures have wings instead of a horn.

I loved the artwork without exception. Even though the art is done by different artists, it’s coherent. My only gripe is that I wish the humans on the cards were more diverse. I only saw one figure (perhaps two) that is possibly not white, and all are women. Many of the unicorns are also white with white horns, although a few are different colours. I feel like I’ve been saying this a lot about my recent deck purchases, but I’m seriously considering buying art from this to hang over my computer desk. Every single one of these paintings would make a stunning poster.

I’ve been using this deck to pull a card each day. I did a few readings with it for other people, and I think it would work best for spiritual questions, if you need a bit of a pick me up, or for questions regarding activism and social justice. I did the meditation included with this deck (to find your unicorn guide) and had an (unexpectedly) powerful experience where I did meet two such guides, whether or not it was all in my head is something I continue to ask myself, but I can’t deny that it evoked some very raw emotions in me

Besides the lack of diversity, I think a lot of people will be turned off by the New Agey-ness of the deck. The accompanying meditation references the chakras, “white light”, light and love, and all that, things that, granted, you’ve probably come to expect from a deck like this (especially ones published by Blue Angel). If you can handle the cotton candy love and light stuff and you love unicorns, this deck is an easy recommendation.

Deck Review: Celtic Tree Oracle by Sharlyn Hidalgo and Jimmy Manton

There are no good tree-themed oracle decks.

What I mean by this is that the vast majority of tree-themed oracle decks are based on Robert Graves’ fabricated “Celtic Tree Calendar” and its variations. I know of a couple decks that aren’t based on that system, but they are either a) out of print (but due to be reprinted) or out of my price range. If you want an affordable tree oracle set, you’re stuck with tree calendar nonsense unless you want to make your own out of bark.

celtic-tree-oracle

Having said that, you might be wondering why I decided to purchase and review the Celtic Tree Oracle by Sharlyn Hidalgo with art Jimmy Manton, recently published by Blue Angel, and to be completely honest, I love trees and the art is gorgeous. That’s it, that’s why I bought this deck.

The set includes 25 cards that measure about 3.5″ x 5.5″ or whatever is typical for Blue Angel oracle decks. They have a pale yellow border and a “wooden” inner border, as well as the title and number of the card. The book is slim and includes one and three card spreads, a four card “Celtic Tree Spread” and the Celtic Cross, because of course it does. Each card has a short paragraph on what it represents, a paragraph each for upright and reversed meanings, and a message given in first person from the tree to the reader. In addition, most of the trees in this deck have lists of animals, deities, letters and sounds, and a social class associated with them. Technically some of the trees in this deck aren’t trees but the Celtic Tree and Plant Oracle doesn’t have the same ring to it.

I’m going to be blunt. The book is basically useless unless you want to use the divinatory meanings the author has assigned to each card. The “correspondences” (which, predictably, include deities and animals that weren’t found in Celtic-speaking countries) seem like they were just randomly thrown together in typical eclectic Pagan fashion, and the paragraphs on the Wheel of the Year could’ve been ripped out of any Llewellyn book. I mean things like “Elder represents the Crone aspect of the Goddess Hecate” thrown together. One baffling choice is the choice to call the trees both by their Old Irish (?) and English names, for example,  Luis Rowan essentially referring to the card as Rowan Rowan throughout the text, which looks pretty silly (unless there is actually an explanation for this, but to me it looks pretty silly). The card meaning can get repetitive, with many of them mentioning connecting to your ancestors and caring for your elders, which, while not bad ideas by any means (and appropriate for a tree deck, because trees are old and family trees are a thing) it still felt like there was a lack of variety.

For this curious, this doesn’t follow Robert Graves’ exact system, but uses one based on the moon (possibly combined with the Gregorian calendar method). This is no one changes the fact that the tree calendar was not a thing, but I found myself wondering where the variation came from.

The real draw for me was Jimmy Manton’s art. He’s chosen to focus on the leaves, fruit, and flowers instead of the tree as a whole, and makes use of stunning pinks, vibrant oranges, and soothing greens. At first I thought the art would be difficult to interpret because of this, but for some reason I “get it” when I see these cards (although a keyword on the card would’ve been nice). Some of my favourite cards are Rowan, Spindle, Heather/Mistletoe, Elder, Ivy, and the Sea. This deck would be great for daily pulls but you could also use the cards to decorate seasonal altars or shrines or as a focus for meditation.

In terms of potential triggers it has that typical “Wicca 101” cissexism and heteronormativity problem, particularly with regards to Beltane, a number of trees discuss fertility and pregnancy.

In sum, buy this deck for the art, skip the book unless you intend to use the book’s meanings instead of your own intuition. Honestly though, I have a few decks from the same publisher and the majority of their books aren’t that great. This is more or less what I was expecting.

Review: Arrows of the Queen (Heralds of Valdemar #1)

Ever since reading The Last Herald-Mage trilogy I’ve made it a goal to read the entire mass of novels set in Valdemar. I’ve actually been sitting on the omnibus containing the debut trilogy (Arrows of the Queen/Arrow’s Flight/Arrow’s Fall) since January of last year. Better late than never, right?

51mu2g2be5cl-_sy344_bo1204203200_

A daughter of the repressive Holderfolk, Talia’s fate is to marry young and produce children for a husband of her father’s choosing, she is saved from this fate by Rolan, one of the mystical horse-like beings called Companions who Choose people with potential to become the legendary Heralds of Valdemar. Talia finds herself thrust into a new world of combat training, classes, and dealing with her emerging Gifts, but when an old conspiracy threatens her life, Talia must learn to make use of her mercurial gifts before she becomes the conspiracy’s latest victim.

This story is the very definition of a coming-of-age story: person with a tragic backstory discovers they are Special in some way and leaves that life to start afresh somewhere. It’s an old staple that a lot of authors rely upon (like say, me, for instance) and there’s nothing inherently wrong with relying on old staples. I should note, however, that this book was first published in 1987, when at least a few of its ideas must have seemed fresh.

Anyways, so Talia basically goes from being forced to marry whomever her father chooses for her (Holderfolk are very much like that fundamentalist offshoot of the Mormon church) to being the new girl at Herald school. What separates her from the majority of young female protagonists (especially YA protagonists) is that she actually manages to make friends with other girls. This is from a novel published in 1987. I know right? Naturally, because she is the protagonist, she has a Special Destiny, in her case, to become the Queen’s Own Herald, A.K.A. the Herald the Monarch depends on to tell them to get their shit together. Talia’s other job, besides attending classes, is to help the Heir to the throne (assuming a Companion Chooses her, as the Monarch and the Heir must be Heralds), Elspeth, who is known as the Brat, be less of a brat, and that’s before dealing with the conspiracy that killed her predecessor and wants her dead.

It’s difficult to talk about the plot not because I didn’t like the book, but because there isn’t a whole lot of plot to be had. Talia is in training to be a Herald, after all, so she spends much of her time attending classes, angsting over her lack of self-confidence, making friends, losing friends, and trying to get a grip on her Gifts. There is a plot involving a conspiracy that is the source of some tense moments, but the machinations of the wider world outside of the Collegium aren’t Talia’s concern at this time. Since this was the first published book in the series, there’s naturally a lot of exposition. The real focus of the book is its characters: Talia herself, Rolan, twin instructors Teren and Keren, Sherill, the first person Talia meets at the Collegium (besides the Dean), Queen Selanay, and her daughter Elspeth are just a few of the great characters in this book. While they aren’t incredibly complex (I remarked in my review of The Last Herald-Mage trilogy that you can sum up the characters in a sentence), but by the end of the book you feel like you’ve grown along with them. They feel like old friends. I especially like how Lackey subverts your expectations regarding Skif and his relationship with Talia.

It’s really weird reading this book after The Last Herald-Mage trilogy (which chronologically takes place before this one) when Vanyel (and Stefen) have become legends and things are a little different now that there are no more Herald-Mages. Just FYI, I’m reading the books in order of publication, chronologically, Arrows of the Queen is more like #34 in reading order.

One of my main criticisms of this book was that I felt the resolution to the conspiracy plot was anticlimactic and obvious setup for the next two books. While there are a few same-sex couples in this book (which was notable at the time) only one gets a bittersweet ending. Talia spends an annoying amount of time doubting herself, while this is not in and of itself a flaw, I felt like Lackey got the point across the second time it came up in the text. As with The Last Herald-Mage, the frequent P.O.V. switches between paragraphs were jarring but tolerable.

In terms of potentially triggering things, Talia grows up in a repressive patriarchal culture where her elders want to marry her off at thirteen. It’s heavily implied that a minor character was raped as a child. The way Talia makes young Elspeth behave is by spanking her (and telling a servant to hit her back when she hits her with a brush), which, while “normal” for the time it was written, might be off-putting to readers these days.

Overall, it’s difficult to accuse this book of being cliche when its probably inspired a bunch of those cliches. As a first book in a trilogy, it’s decent, not the most exciting first book I’ve ever read but good enough to keep me coming back for more.

Game Review: The Sexy Brutale

So far 2017 has been a year of one hit after another. Persona 5 has been keeping me from the many, many games in my backlog (including hits like Horizon: Zero Dawn). I’m in the midst of a deluge of great games, not that I’m complaining, I’d just like a bit of a break! Okay, game devs?

Inevitably with the release of so many big budget games in such a short span, some smaller projects don’t get the attention they deserve, I’m here to talk a little about one of them.

header

The Sexy Brutale is an adventure/puzzle game from Tequila Works, and takes place in the titular mansion turned casino. You are Lafcadio Boone, one of the guests of the mansion’s mysterious owner, the Marquis, during a masquerade. Unfortunately, the staff at The Sexy Brutale are inexplicably murdering the other guests, and it’s up to you to foil their murder plots and figure out just what the heck is going on.

What makes reviewing this game difficult is that pretty much everything story-related outside of the synopsis I just gave is a spoiler. The Sexy Brutale is not a long experience, my playthrough took about eight hours and I didn’t manage to find all the collectables, so this is one that you definitely should play for yourself if it interests you.

The Sexy Brutale takes an interesting approach to puzzle solving, instead of stockpiling items and combining them to make new items, the puzzles in this game are more about observation and timing. Lafcadio can’t interact with any of the other characters or the masks they wear detach and chase him until he leaves the room or dies (apparently you can die but I never did), so instead he has to follow both killers and victims at a distance, hide in cabinets, and foil murder plots behind the scenes like a guardian angel who moonlights as a stagehand. When you save a guest, you obtain their mask, which unlocks a special ability that you can use to solve later puzzles. And speaking of timing, the day resets when the clock strikes midnight, any items you’ve gathered up to that point vanish, but you keep any information you may have discovered, like a password or a door code. You can rewind or fast-forward time to certain points almost as often as you like, so if you’ve missed the window of opportunity to save the guests, you can rewind time straight away and try again.

What I liked most about the puzzles is that they’re deceptively simple. Chances are if you’re having trouble with a puzzle you’re likely overthinking it. One early puzzle had me wandering around the casino for hours when the solution was literally as simple as flicking a couple switches. There were some hiccups where I had no idea where to go, but usually figuring out how to progress was a matter of following someone around until they dropped a key piece of information. I wouldn’t say the puzzles are particularly hard, but it’s easy to assume they’re complicated when the opposite is true.

I particularly love the way sound and music is used in this game. The music will reach a crescendo to let you know that time is running out for the murder victims, then fall silent when the deed is done. It can be really disconcerting when you’re just wandering around and the music starts to pick up, even more so when you’re racing against the clock to save them before it’s too late. There are also a couple of really amazing vocal tracks.

In terms of potential triggers, one of the deaths is a suicide by hanging and you need to interact with something near the body to progress. The setting is a casino and the lore will hit home for anyone with a gambling addiction. The various deaths can be hard to watch. What lore I managed to unlock was pretty creepy.

In terms of diversity, Trinity is blind and Thanos uses a wheelchair (I don’t know if there’s another name for it). Aurum, Willow, and Greyson appear to have darker skin in the official art. While there’s no explicit confirmation in canon, the game implies that one male character has feelings for another but as far as I know there’s no indication that those feelings are reciprocated.

I almost passed on The Sexy Brutale because of the price (21.99 CAD) but I’m glad I didn’t. The ending is one that will stay with me, and I still have a lot of lore, playing cards (you can collect an entire deck’s worth of playing cards) and invitations to collect. I’m not sure if I will return to the Sexy Brutale any time soon, but it was an experience that I do not regret. If you enjoy puzzle games and you like murder mysteries–with a twist in that you’re not figuring out who done it but how to stop it from happening–The Sexy Brutale is an easy recommendation.

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.

1250056977

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!”

cs_sw_uc_coll_pckfrnt_front_003_no_burst

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?

17399160

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).