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

[tw sexual assault, suicide]

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.

Review: Of Fire and Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Game Review: Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Snow Like Ashes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Game Review: Hatoful Boyfriend Holiday Star

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

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

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

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

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

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