Review: Truthwitch (Witchlands #1) by Susan Dennard

Few things appeal to me more than books about witches and books about relationships between women. I don’t care if the witch is becoming the new vampire in fantasy and urban fantasy. I will take a good book about lady witches supporting each other over an interesting setting with girlhate any day of the week.

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In the Witchlands, some people are born with a magical talent–a witchery–that sets them apart from from others. Safiya is a Truthwitch, able to discern truth from lies, while her friend Iseult is a Threadwitch, able to see the invisible threads that bind people together, though she is unable to see the threads that bind her heart. The two make an unlikely pair, Safiya is reckless, whereas Iseult is a careful planner. Unfortunately, their desire to live their own lives free from the influence of others proves difficult to obtain when they are caught up in political maneuvering between empires, and with a formidable Bloodwitch on their tails, Safi and Iseult will need the help of Prince Merik–a Windwitch desperately trying to help his impoverished nation–if they mean to survive long enough to attain true freedom.

The main characters, Safiya and Iseult, are the stars of the show. Safi is hotheaded, very much about doing. Iseult is the planner, the thinker, brains and brawn. In some stories, the secondary characters steal the show. In this book, the relationship between the two women takes center stage. I love them. There are also some great secondary characters: Aeduan, the Bloodwitch hunting Safi and Iseult for his patron, and Evrane, a Monk with a calming presence, especially when compared to her nephew, Prince Merik, who has quite the explosive temper. Some characters have smaller roles in the book, but manage to leave an impression on the reader, like Vaness, Empress of Marstok, or Mathew and Habim, the girls’ mentors, with some exceptions, I didn’t find the characters unlikable at all.

I love the idea of “thread-family” which is very much a family of choice rather than blood. Thread-brothers and thread-sisters share a close bond, one which often takes priority over, say, romantic bonds. It’s refreshing to see this sort of story where friendship is treated as just as important, if not more important, than romance.

I also enjoyed the action scenes. The book begins with a highway robbery gone wrong and everything just gets worse for our two protagonists from there. At times it’s difficult for me to see the action scenes in my head, but the scenes in this book played out like a big budget summer blockbuster in my head. This is one book I’d love to see adapted to the big screen.

One criticism I’ve heard about this novel is that there’s no worldbuilding. I disagree, to a point. There’s an elemental magic system, various empires and nations all trying to out-politic each other, and some hints at different pantheons and religious beliefs. The problem is that it’s not really expanded upon. Whereas some books will spend paragraphs telling you about how magic X works, Truthwitch takes a more, I guess you could say, minimalist approach. There’s nothing wrong with that but there were times that I wished the author had elaborated more on certain points.

If I had to name one thing I didn’t like about this book, I think I could sum it up in one word: Merik. Merik is the Prince of the impoverished nation of Nubrevna, desperate to forge a trade agreement or two to keep his country from being set upon by its neighbours, he’s also Safi’s Obvious Love Interest. Initially, I liked their playful bantering back and forth, that is, until he puts Safi and his aunt in leg irons on a ship for an entire day because he needs to maintain the loyalty of his crew. It was at this point that I completely lost interest in this character.

Another issue I had with the book is despite the emphasis on the friendship between Safi and Iseult they spend a fair chunk of the book separated until everything goes to shit. While we do get a glimpse of Iseult’s life before Safi and I understand why they separated, both characters are at their best when they are together, and it was these chapters in particular that I felt were the slowest parts of the book.

In terms of diversity, Iseult is described as having “slanted” eyes and her culture is basically (stereotypically) Romani in all but name (she is even referred to with the fantastic slur “‘Matsi”). There’s a minor black character, Ryber, and the powerful Empress of Marstok is described as having “bronze” skin. Safi herself is described as “tan”. In fact, Iseult, with her pale skin, is seen as unusual, although I should mention that the nation where they live is based on Venice, so it’s one of those ambiguous “are they tan white people or people of colour?” situations. In addition, Vaness, though powerful, is still a minor antagonist. In terms of LGBT representation, Matthew and Habim, Safi and Iseult’s mentors, are described as “heart-threads” which, if Ryber and Kullen are any indication, means that they are at the very least romantically involved, if not sexually. Overall, I’d say Truthwitch could use some work on the diversity front. It’s disappointing that there’s a main character of colour (and possibly two, depending on how you interpret Safi’s skin colour) whose family is depicted in such a stereotypical way.

Overall though? I loved Truthwitch despite its missteps. I loved the themes of friendship and found family. The action scenes were some of the most vivid I’ve read in a book, and most of the characters were interesting. I can’t wait to read Windwitch!

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Game Review: Persona 5

There was a time when I thought I wasn’t going to get to review this title, in 2016 when everyone thought the apocalypse was nigh, but it’s 2017 now, year of amazing game releases that offer amazing worlds to explore and problems to solve, escapes from reality that help you forget about all your mundane problems.

In Persona 5‘s case, the amazing world is Tokyo and the problem is high school.

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This is actually the cover of the fantastic steelbook edition. I LOVE PS4 steelbooks.

In Persona 5, like its predecessors Persona 3 and Persona 4, you assume the role of an ordinary high school student. After attempting to stop an assault, the protagonist is arrested, branded a criminal, and sent away to attend the only school that would take him: Shujin Academy. As he’s settling into his new home, a cramped attic space above his new guardian’s coffee shop, he discovers a mysterious app on his phone. Later he discovers that the app is the gateway to the Metaverse, a space where the desires of corrupt adults become Palaces where they hide their deepest, darkest secrets. Seeking to change the hearts of these corrupted adults, the protagonist and his friends become the costumed vigilantes dubbed the “Phantom Thieves of Hearts” who infiltrate Palaces to steal the Treasure at its heart, thus changing the heart of the corrupt adult in the real world.

Persona 5, like its predecessors, marries typical JRPG dungeon-crawling, treasure-finding, and boss-fighting to a life simulation where you make friends, try to ace your tests, juggle three part time jobs, hit the batting cages, brew coffee, watch movies at the theatre, and possibly find time for romance. You know, just like real life. You’ll typically attend classes during the day. When classes are out, you can choose to hang out with other characters or participate in activities to raise your social stats, or you can choose to infiltrate a Palace. Infiltrating a Palace takes up the afternoon and evening, so you usually can’t do anything else that day if you choose to go dungeon-crawling. To make matters more complicated, you only have so much time to steal the Treasure before something really bad happens, fail to steal the Treasure before the deadline, and it’s game over. This means you do need to manage your time somewhat: do you make progress in the Palace or do you hang out with the friend who asked if you wanted to go to a movie that day? Fortunately, the game is generous with its deadlines for the most part and you can usually complete a Palace within the first three days at the start of the mission.

Palaces are Persona 5’s dungeons, they’re all unique and reflect their owner’s personality. Unlike Persona 3 and Persona 4, which had randomly generated dungeon floors, Persona 5’s dungeons are hand-crafted. Enemy shadows roam the dungeon, and coming into contact with them initiates a battle. Persona 5 takes a more stealth-based approach to gameplay (you are thieves, after all), you can hide behind objects in the level and ambush enemies to gain an advantage in battle. If an enemy spots you, the Palace’s security level will rise, and if it reaches 100%, you’ll be kicked out of the dungeon and need to return the next day. Safe rooms can be found throughout the dungeon where you can save your game, check your progress in the dungeon, and heal up using items that can only be used in safe rooms. Palaces also contain puzzles, these puzzles generally won’t keep you awake for days trying to solve them, but they’re a nice break from battling.

Speaking of battles, the endless menus of the previous games have been mostly done away with in favour of every action being mapped to a controller button. Press X to attack with your melee weapon, press Circle to guard, you can see and target enemy weaknesses with the press of a button. Persona 5 uses the familiar “One More” system, where targeting enemy weaknesses knocks them down and gives you an extra turn, managing to knock all enemies down allows you to perform a powerful All-Out Attack, or to negotiate with the shadows. Negotiation is a staple of the Shin Megami Tensei series and the earlier Persona games, but it disappeared in 3 and 4. You can negotiate with shadows for money, items, or their mask (which allows you to summon them as a persona). Negotiation is basically a matter of choosing options you think the shadow might like and hoping the RNG likes you. Occasionally, if you leave an enemy on the brink of death, they will attempt to negotiate with you, which is an easy way to gain their mask if they don’t have easily exploitable weaknesses. Speaking of exploitable weaknesses, enemies can also exploit your party’s weaknesses. It can be frustrating yet hilarious to watch enemies ambush you and then proceed to destroy your party before you even get a chance to react. The enemies may also take your party members hostage, failing to negotiate their release will make them unusable for the rest of the encounter. While still very much a turn-based battle system, the player feels a bit more involved in the action. Once you’ve obtained personas, you can take them to that old series staple, the Velvet Room, and fuse them together, sacrifice a persona to strengthen another, put them in “lockdown” to train them, or turn them into various items. Speaking of fusion, you have much more control over skill inheritance, especially when you factor in skill cards that you can use to give a persona certain skills.

The ability to form bonds with your party members and other characters has been an important part of the series since Persona 3. Persona 5 calls these relationships Confidants rather than Social Links. Each confident is linked to one of the Major Arcana, and usually all it takes to increase a confidant’s rank is to have a Persona of the same arcanum in your stock when you speak to them, but some levels might require certain social stats to proceed (for instance, a character won’t even speak to you if your knowledge isn’t at rank 3). While previous games treated social links as ways to give experience bonuses to personas during fusion, Persona 5‘s confidants all have impacts on the gameplay. For instance, one allows you to brew coffee and make curry, which is used to restore SP (used for skills), a valuable skill since SP-restoring items are few and far between. Another confidant might help you with negotiation, give you access to unique skills in combat, or allow you to do more things during the day. Each confidant has their own story and issues to overcome, and this ties into the second major dungeon area of the game: Mementos. In a nutshell, Mementos is everyone’s Palace, for regular people who are not quite evil enough to have their own Palace, but have still fallen victim to corruption. Occasionally (either through the Phantom Thieves’ fansite manager or your other confidants) you’ll receive requests to change someone’s heart in Mementos. It’s basically a matter of heading in, wandering around until you find the area with their shadow, and beating their shadow to complete the quest. Since Palaces disappear after you steal their Treasure, Mementos is your go-to grinding spot as well as a place to obtain Personas you missed in the Palaces.

Persona 5 might not have the most cutting edge graphics in the industry, but one thing it does have is style. Everything from the main character’s climbing animation to the menus oozes style. The shadows/personas themselves look fantastic in HD and this absolutely needs to be a series standard now. Even the (awesome) victory screen seamlessly transitions to the dungeon. It just looks so cool. While Persona 3‘s colour scheme was a melancholy blue and Persona 4‘s was a more upbeat yellow, Persona 5 has an aggressive red colour scheme that fits its themes of revolution and change. The soundtrack is amazing. “Rivers in the Desert” (a track that plays during certain boss battles) is one of my favourite boss themes in the entire series. I also love the upbeat “Life Will Change” which plays when you infiltrate a Palace for the final time to steal the Treasure. “Beneath the Mask” the track that plays during the evenings and on rainy days, has that “relaxing with a hot beverage and a book” feel.

I’ve been talking a lot about the game’s systems and not so much about my own personal opinions, but I think most of my readers are aware that I love this series, and this game is no exception. I loved hanging out with my party members. Persona 3 and 4 by no means had awful social links, but I found that I genuinely wanted to hang out with the confidants. I looked forward to messages they would send me asking if I wanted to go to a movie or hang out at the coffee shop. I liked making curry for them. I grew to love these quiet moments outside of battle. By the end of the game I was wishing it let me spend more time with the social aspects than the actual dungeons (not that the dungeons are awful). Their stories range from a washed-up politician trying to atone for his past mistakes to a woman who needs the courage to leave an exploitative cult, to fake dating one of your party members so she can check up on one of her friends, and, as I said, each one has an impact on other systems in the game. I absolutely loved the way Persona 5 makes you feel like a mysterious phantom thief, complete with sending a calling card to the target the day before you steal their Treasure. The actual heists, where you infiltrate the Palaces while an awesome track “Life Will Change” is playing in the background will make you feel like a badass. One last thing, boss fights have interesting strategies and at times you can send a teammate to perform special actions to weaken the boss. While this does make the majority of bosses ridiculously easy, I thought it was an interesting “hold the line” mechanic.

I also love the little touches in this game, like the fact that the tarot images you see when you rank up a confidant are from the Marseilles tradition instead of the Rider-Waite Smith, to the way the protagonist rakes his hand through his hair when he gets out of the bath. One minigame I loved was the flower shop part time job, where you have to choose the right flowers to match the customer’s order.

One major criticism I have is the fact that the game won’t let you do anything else that day even if all you’ve done is talk to your friends. The game makes you waste days doing nothing but meetings with your friends and sleeping. While I do appreciate, just as a person, that Morgana is reminding the protagonist to take care of himself and makes sure that he’s getting enough sleep, as a player it’s frustrating (so much so that Morgana telling the protagonist to go to sleep is a meme). It feels like Atlus is anticipating the release of “Persona 5 Crimson” which will give players more time to do things (which is another issue for another day) but at present, it’s really annoying that a game about time management doesn’t appear to respect your time. The other thing that I’m salty about is the fact that while the protagonist can initiate romantic relationships with any of the lady confidants (including his teacher) he can’t date the guys. While this is unsurprising seeing as Japan is still very conservative and there are few protections for non-straight, non-cis people, it’s particularly unfortunate considering a major theme of the game is rebellion against systems of oppression. To add insult to injury, two recurring characters are a stereotypical gay couple who exist to make Ryuji and the protagonist uncomfortable. I also didn’t like how Ann, a sexual abuse survivor, is constantly sexualized by the game and other characters even though she’s obviously uncomfortable (not to mention being body-shamed by Ryuji for liking sweets). Many people have pointed out that Lala Escargot, a trans woman (or drag queen) who works in a not-gay bar in Shinjuku, is a more positive portrayal of queer identities. The game refers to her with the correct pronouns and she is the voice of reason in Ohya’s confidant events (as well as your employer if you choose to work there), but she still speaks in a stereotypical husky masculine voice and plays a support role in Ohya’s story. Personally, I didn’t care for Ohya as a confidant and think that Lala’s story would be much more interesting, but it’s important to acknowledge that one positive portrayal doesn’t change the fact that someone decided to stick some gross stereotyping in their game, especially since Persona 2 gave us the option to have Tatsuya voice his attraction to Jun. In terms of actual gameplay things, the second to last dungeon was a long drag and culminated in a series of boss fights without an opportunity for a break. I also would’ve liked to see more opportunities to avoid combat (there’s a point where you have to convince some NPCs to give you invitations and there’s no option to avoid a fight completely). Lastly, I found the game overall to be pretty easy. The boss I had the most trouble with was the second story boss, but after that it was mostly smooth sailing barring some enemies getting the drop on me.

In terms of potentially triggery content. The opening scenes involve the protagonist being drugged and beaten by police. The very first antagonist you encounter is physically abusing male students and sexually abusing female students, including an implied sexual assault that drives one student to attempt suicide. There’s another suicide later in the game, but it’s revealed to be a murder. One of your party members is threatened with the prospect of sex slavery. The “bad ends” you reach by failing to complete palaces before the deadline also reference suicide and sex slavery. Several sidequests involve abusive boyfriends and girlfriends, abusive family members or bosses, stalkers, animal abusers, and other unpleasant people. A number of characters have unpleasant home lives that involve abuse or neglect of some sort. Suffice it to say if it’s something awful humans can do to other humans, it’s probably in this game in one form or another.

There’s so much more I could say about this game (such as influence of Gnosticism in its narrative) but that would involve heading into spoiler territory. The game has me clocked in at 150 hours and 50 minutes and I’ve only filled half the compendium, maxed about seven confidants, and didn’t even try activities like fishing. There’s so much to do that Persona 5 is easily worth your time and money despite its shortcomings and my personal gripes.

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.

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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 Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow

Most YA post-apocalyptic settings are about the world going to shit or the world going to shit and giving birth to an oppressive dystopian society. The protagonist joins a rebellion and topples the oppressive regime, things are better, the end.

The Scorpion Rules is not one of those books.

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The Scorpion Rules is set in our world controlled by an AI, Talis, who keeps the world from being ravaged by war by taking the children of world leaders hostage. If their countries go to war, their children die. This is Greta’s fate, as a duchess and crown princess of the Pan-Polar Confederacy, she lives in a compound with other hostages until she turns eighteen. Until, one day, a boy, Elian, arrives at the compound, and he’s not interested in following any of the rules. As Greta and Elian watch their nations tip closer to war, Greta finds herself faced with a choice: die, or find a way to break all the rules.

I think the best way to describe The Scorpion Rules is that it’s not so much a story about rebelling against an oppressive regime as it is a meditation on a way of life that’s come to an end. Talis is in control, and the hostages need to make the best of a shitty situation. Greta accepts this as how the world is supposed to work. While other heroines might be frustrated by their treatment and dream of revolution, she’s aware that her survival depends on the willingness of others to go to war.

Inevitably, someone shows up and isn’t interested in following the rules, this person is Elian (there’s an accent on the A) and before you ask, yes, he’s a love interest, and, yes, there is a love triangle between Greta, him, and Da-Xia, a girl seen as a living goddess by her people but again, unlike a typical novel of this type, there’s no staging a rebellion in the compound and overthrowing their oppressors and living happily ever after. It’s closer to something like a slice of life anime set in a dystopian society than the Hunger Games trilogy. Do you like goats? There’s a lot about goats, and philosophy, that doesn’t mean the novel is devoid of tense moments, far from it, but you shouldn’t go into it expecting an explosion a page.

If I had a criticism or two, I think the writing can be a bit pretentious at times, name-dropping Roman philosophers like they’re rock stars. I also struggled with the way Greta cared for an AI despite said AI torturing her with her own nightmares and basically being in charge of (and therefore responsible for) their treatment in the compound, even when she acknowledges that this is the case.

The main cast is also pretty diverse, besides our main protagonist (who is bisexual) there’s a bisexual Tibetan girl, an black girl (who speaks Xhosa), a disabled albino boy, a Jewish boy, and a couple who don’t get a lot of characterization. My one issue with the case is I wish Thandi, the black girl, wasn’t so much of an Angry Black Woman.

The only major triggers I can think of are that there are a couple torture scenes and some violence.

The Scorpion Rules is a strange book. It’s definitely not for everyone but it’s something different in a sea of nearly identical novels with the same plot and some name changes. If you don’t mind a slow, slow burn, like goats, and want something different in this genre, I recommend this one and I can’t wait for The Swan Riders.

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: Root Letter

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Once upon a time, no Western publisher thought that there was a market in the West for visual novels. Nowadays, Aksys releases at least one otome game a year and the visual novel tag on Steam keeps having more titles (of varying quality) added to its ranks. One genre we don’t see represented very much, however, is the adventure game. The Ace Attorney series immediately springs to mind for me, or maybe it’s because I just don’t play that many adventure games.

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Root Letter (stylized as a square root sign encompassing the word “Letter”) was a pleasant surprise when it was announced for localization. It’s developed by Kadokawa Games and published by PQube in the West, and is the first in Kadokawa Games’ “Kadokawa Game Mystery brand. Key staff from the popular Japan-only dating sim LovePlus also worked on this game, including character designer Mino Taro.

The protagonist of Root Letter (default name Takayuki) is a middle-aged man who is searching for his high school penpal, Aya Fumino, after he finds an unsent letter from her in which she confesses to a murder. Determined to find out the truth, he heads to Matsue in Shinmane Prefecture to hunt down her classmates she spoke about in her letters. Unfortunately, she only addressed them by their nicknames, so he has a bit of detective work to do.

I think this is one of the only games I’ve played where the setting steals the show. The developers worked with the local government to depict Matsue as accurately as possible. You can go on Google right now and find photographs that look just like the backdrops in the game, down to the view from the tour boat that tours around Matsue Castle. The area is also rich with history, folklore and traditions that are reflected in the game, such as when the protagonist visits Yaegeki Shrine, known for its association with lovers and matchmaking, and participates in a divination where a coin and a slip of paper placed in the Mirror Pond foretell how long it will take you to marry based on how long it takes to sink. Food is ever present, from soba noodles to dango (dumplings) and Western-style cakes. It made me very hungry and I have very limited access to typical ingredients used in Japanese dishes where I live (for some reason they stock sushi rice but no seaweed).

Gameplay consists of two main phases. There’s the typical adventure game phase, where you can Move to different locations, interact with objects in scenes by “Checking” them, have conversations with witnesses through the “Ask” command, and occasionally present them with items from your Inventory. At certain times or if you’re just stuck, you can have Takayuki use the “Think” command to give you a hint as to where to go next or what to ask. He can also consult the guidebook, which provides information about the locations you visit, or check his smartphone, which you can use to save and load the game or view items you’ve collected. Then there’s Investigation mode, where Takayuki interrogates someone he suspects to be one of Aya’s classmates by presenting evidence and asking the right questions at the right time (much like the Ace Attorney series). At certain points during this phase, he’ll enter Max Mode, where a meter starts climbing and you need to select the correct phrase to throw at the person to continue the story. At the beginning of each chapter, Max will read a letter from his penpal, and remember how he responded. Your responses determine which ending you get. The game should take about 15 – 20 hours to complete with all trophies, even if you don’t use a guide for the little side missions.

The characters themselves aren’t as exaggerated as your average anime character, and they each have their dreams and secrets. Unfortunately, there isn’t a whole ton of depth to them. There’s the fat kid (originally nicknamed “Fatty”) who struggles with his self-confidence and feelings for a girl when he isn’t conventionally attractive, there’s the housewife who dreamed of becoming a famous pop star and instead lives her dreams through her daughter, there’s the riches-to-tags scion of a father who made one too many shady business deals who is struggling to make ends meet, and so on. I think my favourite of the bunch was Snappy, who doesn’t take anyone’s shit.

That said, ultimately Root Letter fell short of my expectations for several reasons. The protagonist is flat out rude and obnoxious, harassing characters when they straight up tell him to leave them alone. and even triggering them by exposing them to their phobias when they clam up and he can’t get any useful information out of them. I get that the devs needed to think up ways that these characters would keep talking to this douche, but it didn’t endear me to the protagonist at all. The investigations all follow the same basic format: the person you’re talking to denies they are one of your penpal’s classmates, you present evidence to the contrary, they deny it, you act like a prick until they admit it. Unlike in, say, Ace Attorney, where some trials throw some extra condition at you, there’s really nothing like that here. It doesn’t help that the English script feels like it’s been literally translated from Japanese, so there’s some really odd phrasing when you’re questioning people about certain topics. One example that immediately comes to mind is when asking someone about their “Preferred Partner” when the topic is the person this individual is crushing on. More than once I was clicking through all the dialogue options because I didn’t know if they were at all relevant to the discussion. While the music is nice, ranging from melancholy piano music to more upbeat when you engage Max Mode, there’s not a lot of it, and you’ll be spending most of your time with this game listening to the same track over and over. Many reviewers have complained about the endings. Personally, I like that the endings are so different, covering everything from horror to UFO sightings, but only the fifth ending explains the whole story. The others are more like someone wanting to be a bit more experimental. Something that particularly annoyed me was that although there is an option to skip chapters after you’ve completed the game once, there’s no option to skip chapter eight, which means that you need to play through it at least five times to see all the endings. Also, in chapter three, the protagonist doesn’t read the letter at the beginning of the chapter like the other letters, so if you want the trophy for all the letter responses you’ll need to go through that bit five times.

In terms of potential triggers, the “Cursed Letter” ending is the bloodiest and most violent ending that requires you to collect ghost stories featuring varying degrees of murderous ghosts. The nicknames Aya calls her friends include Bitch, Fatty, and Four-Eyes, which the entire cast uses constantly. In one scene, the protagonist essentially forces one of the characters (who has weight-related issues) to eat chocolate potato chips, tries to take advantage of a character’s bird phobia by waving a stuffed bird around, and causes a character to pass out by making them think that there’s blood on the floor (actually jam). In at least two of the endings, one character knocks Aya to the ground and kisses her. This character doesn’t try to deny that this was assault.

At least in terms of setting, Root Letter feels like a labour of love on the part of the developers. It’s a shame that a wooden English translation and obnoxious lead character soured my experience. I want to recommend this to people who like thrillers and are looking for something to play on a weekend, but the fact is that there are better games out there that deliver the same sort of experience.

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

[tw: pedophilia, rape mention, suicide mention]

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

Alternatively, read Prince’s Gambit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: The Girl at Midnight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Game Review: Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Game Review: Uncharted 2: Among Thieves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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