Monday, December 29, 2014

Video Game Review: "Dragon Age II"

Well lookee here! Another videogame review! Don't worry - I'll go back to reviewing books relatively soon (including Ashes to Ashes and my reread of Prince of Midnight).

So remember when I fangirled all over Dragon Age: Origins? Well, there's a sequel!

And it's ... different. Still good! But very different, and different in a way that made some fans of the previous game pretty angry. However, I still really enjoyed it.

The game's narrative is built around a storytelling framework: the cataclysmic events of the game have already happened, and one of your party members, a roguish teller-of-tales named Varric, has been captured by the authorities who want to find out what happened and the depth of your character's involvement. He essentially "narrates" the game.

In a change that disappointed a lot of fans, you can only create your character to an extent. You can no longer choose your race or your backstory - instead, you are Hawke, a human whose family fled from Ferelden due to the Blight from the previous game (you can still choose your appearance, gender, class, and general personality, though).

Your family washes up on the shores of Kirkwall, an independent city-state in the Free Marches. You escape being confined to the slums with the other refugees, but only by indenturing yourself in servitude to either a band of mercenaries or a band of smugglers (one of your first choices in the game). Before long your prowess as a problem solver gains you a reputation and more people in Kirkwall start coming to you for help and trusting your decisions. As you gain power and prestige, the problems you're expected to solve get understandably bigger.

The Setting
One aspect of the game that really rubbed some fans the wrong way was the setting - in the last game, your adventurers were able to traipse all over the nation of Ferelden - through forests and mountains and castles and caves. In Dragon Age: II, you're confined to the city of Kirkwall and a few locations immediately outside it.

However, Kirkwall is no ordinary city. It's more like Sunnydale/the Hellmouth from Buffy the Vampire Slayer: a town whose grisly history of slavery and blood magic has made it a breeding ground for demons, corruption, and insanity. So Dragon Age: II has more of a noir feel to it, where even though the focus lies in one location, it's one with a lot of layers and context.

That being said, I can understand how people got frustrated with retreading their steps through all the same places in the city, over and over again, or going to the same (or same-looking) caves again and again while completing different quests. While the setting we get is beautifully designed and rendered, that's really it. There's no sense of exploration or travel that there is with Dragon Age: Origins or Dragon Age: Inquisition.

The Politics
What Dragon Age II lacks in exploration, it makes up for in drama. Your Hawke and her family arrive in a city on the verge of a war from within. As explained in the previous game, mages in this world are able to tap into the magical power of the Fade (the otherworld), but it leaves them vulnerable to manipulation and possession by demons.

Because of this, the Chantry (this world's version of the Catholic Church) decreed that all individuals with magical talents need to be taught in church-sanctioned Circles and guarded by Templars who are trained to take down any mage who looks too demony. Templars are also trained to hunt down apostates - mages who refuse the Circle system.

But in Kirkwall, the system is broken, with mages and Templars at each others' throats. The mages say the Templars are magic-hating, civil-rights-violating religious zealots whose brutal tactics are driving mages to desperation. The Templars say that more mages are summoning demons and using blood magic than ever before, requiring stricter vigilance. Which side is right? Which side is the greater threat? There are a lot of different stories in the game as your pursue different quests, but the main conflict at the centre of Dragon Age: II is the growing Mage-Templar conflict and which side your character will eventually have to chose.

The Characters
Nowhere is the mage-versus-Templar debate more important than if you are a female Hawke! If you choose to play a female Hawke, your love interests lie on the polar opposite ends of the spectrum. On the one end is Fenris, a runaway elven slave with no memory of his former life thanks to the magical experimentation his mage owner subjected him to. He's very much a believer in "power corrupts" and that mages need to be kept on a leash for the greater good. On the other end is Anders, who believes Circles are prisons punishing innocent magic users for the crimes of a few. And whichever dude you choose, you can bet the other will have a few choice words regarding your decision.

In fact, almost every one of the characters in your party will have a beef with one of the others. Your characters interact not only with you, but with each other, and not always in a friendly way. There are friendships, enmities, and awkward situations between the people in your party - and, as always, these reactions and situations are determined by the decisions that you make. I actually think Dragon Age: II's characters are far more memorable than a lot of the characters in Origins - I'm a particular fan of Captain Aveline, an arrow-straight warrior who grows into a capable authority figure, and Varric, a rakish dwarf-of-all-trades who starts chronicling your adventures.

Also, Dragon Age: II improves on Origins' simplistic Approval friendship system by creating a Friend/Rival system - where, in certain situations, there's actually an advantage to certain characters disagreeing with you.

Ultimately, while the setting leaves much to be desired, and certain aspects of the game feel rushed - the storytelling and the characters are top notch and still very enjoyable. If you're a fan of Origins' combat and exploration, Dragon Age: II might not be the game for you. However, if it's the story, the cinematics and the fantastic character interactions that drew you to Origins, Dragon Age: II more than delivers.

Friday, December 26, 2014

AnimeJune's First Ever Video Game Review: Dragon Age Origins

You didn't think I was much of a gamer, did you? Neither did I, to be honest. As a kid, I howled at my parents for a Nintendo 64 after spending several semi-interesting afternoons with my sisters in our neighbour's basement playing MarioKart and Banjo Kazooie. Once I finished howling over the injustice of receiving a Playstation for Christmas instead, I spent several years enjoyably bouncing along in Crash Bandicoot and Jak and Daxter, and scrolling my way through the Japanese soap operas of Final Fantasies VIII through X-II.

Once I grew up and moved out, I kind of lost interest in videogames. It wasn't that games were getting worse, far from it. To me, they seemed to grow more complicated, more difficult, and demand more investment than I was willing to give. My interests lay elsewhere - in books, writing and blogging. I didn't have time for games, and I didn't really miss them.

So this year, I dusted off my Xbox 360 and realized I hadn't turned it on in over a year. Yes, I'd bought an Xbox 360, and I'd tried Skyrim, LA Noire, and Batman Arkham Asylum, and nothing had clicked. I didn't even use it for Netflix anymore (I had a Blu-Ray for that). I figured it was finally time to give it away and turn my back on gaming for good.

But still, I felt guilty. There were games I'd bought that I hadn't even tried yet. I figured I couldn't give my Xbox away until I had tried every game I'd already bought for it. There was only one game I hadn't gotten around to opening - a secondhand copy of Dragon Age: Origins.

And that one game was enough to suck me right back in to gaming, and in a big way. Dragon Age introduced me to game and storytelling elements I'd never experienced fully in games before, it changed my whole view of gaming and turned it right back into the addictive experience it was in my teens.

The Story
So what's the story? Well, that depends. The main story is that the darkspawn, a race of subterranean demons, have amassed into a horde and are now invading the kingdom of Ferelden in a terrifying phenomenon known as a Blight. Your character, through one way or another, has just been recruited into the Grey Wardens, a secretive order of warriors dedicated to fighting darkspawn. Unfortunately, not long after you're recruited, the Grey Wardens and Ferelden's king are betrayed and slaughtered during a key battle, so you and your ragtag band of survivors, stragglers, and outcasts have to use the Grey Wardens' binding treaties to enlist the aid of the different peoples and races to end the Blight before it overruns the rest of the earth.

Your Story
The aspect of Dragon Age that shocked me the most (and had me scrambling to keep playing) is the the actual power you, the player, have over the story in the choices you get to make. In all the other RPGs I ever played, I controlled a specific character while experiencing a specific story. I didn't get to make any choices - I sat back, experienced the narrative, and continued it by fighting monsters and bosses.

Well, in Dragon Age: Origins, a large part of the story depends on your decisions. Those decisions change the story and actually have far-ranging consequences that can affect other quests in the game. The first choice you can make is your character - depending on your race (dwarf, elf, human) and class (mage, rogue, warrior), you get a different origin story and characters will interact with you differently. Other choices involve your character's personality - you can be righteous and altruistic, or hardened and practical, or sarcastic and only out for yourself.

Other choices are pretty huge, and have major repercussions throughout the game. Your ultimate quest is to amass enough allied forces to take on the darkspawn army and their Archdemon (head honcho). This takes you to several areas in the game, where you will have to complete a major task or quest - and how you complete it determines which type of forces will end up fighting for your side in the final battle. For instance, when your party encounters a mage training school overrun with demons, will you side with the Holy Templars and kill all the mages to eliminate the threat of demons, or will you side with the mages and protect them? Or when the dwarves you want to ally with are too busy with their civil war, which candidate for King will you support?

The best thing is - there are no wrong choices. There are certainly more moral choices, or more effective choices, or more hilariously evil choices (during one mini quest, I could choose between feeding a starving prisoner to get his treasure key - or simply stabbing him and taking it!). In some situations, there are no easy answers - for one particularly difficult quest in which a child is possessed by a demon, you can save him by sacrificing his mother to forbidden blood magic, or you can kill him to defeat the demon. Have fun with that one!

Not only that, but the choices make this game endlessly replayable. You played the game as a casteless, amoral dwarf rogue who romanced Leliana? Why not see how the game plays as a righteous human noble who seduces Alistair? The possibilities are endless.

The Characters
It's not only you fighting out there - you can also collect a varied cast of characters who will fight and interact with you (and with each other, if they're in the same party!). Each of these characters come with their own personalities, backstories and moral codes (or lack thereof) and will react differently to the decisions you make. There's Alistair - the bashful but righteous Grey Warden who shows you the ropes. Or Morrigan - the mysterious swamp witch with her own hidden agenda. Or Leliana - a religious sister who follows you after seeing you in a vision. Or Zevran - an elven assassin initially sent to kill you. And those are just a few.

They're all voiced expertly by talented voice actors (seriously - the voice acting in BioWare games is beyond compare), and their interactions with your character are one of the most entertaining aspects of the game. Not only that, but their loyalty and affection are not guaranteed. If a character disapproves of you enough, they might opt to leave your party - or betray you! Conversely, if their approval rating for you is high enough, they might pursue a more, shall we say, intimate alliance with you (and you can do the same!). It's your story, after all - and what's a story without a romance?

The Rest of the Story (Lore)
There's also a lot of lore. Picking things up or looking at certain things will upload books and information to your Codex. You can easily ignore this if you want. However, if you're like me - a diehard high fantasy reader, this is all delicious, delicious gravy. The worldbuilding in this game is amazing - it borrows from the common tropes regarding elves and dwarves and mages and such, but also adds unique touches to them. The idea of dwarves having a caste system, or elves being a persecuted nomadic people, or the church's control of magic with templars were all really fascinating to me.

Not all of this information is relevant to the exact quest at hand, but it's all interesting - and a lot of it carries over into future games. It gives the game and your decisions some context.

The Actual Game Stuff
Now - the gameplay. It's ... fine. It's serviceable. I played it on Casual - it's fun to explode enemies or decapitate them and there are interesting abilities and potions and stuff, but those things have never been very important to me in games. That may sound ridiculous, but that's the type of gamer I am. I'm a story person - and what I love about Dragon Age is that, instead of feeling like I'm reading an interactive fantasy novel (like with the Final Fantasy games), I feel like I am the hero of a fantasy novel. The combat and the game elements contribute to that, definitely, but all those other games I played and got tired of - they all had great gameplay elements. They just didn't have the story and the choice-based aspects.

That being said, from my inexperienced perspective, the gaming aspect is pretty sweet. Every time you level up you have the choice to improve certain aspects of your character (stamina, willpower, strength, cunning, etc) as well as learn new skills required outside combat (herbalism, lock picking) and in combat (spells, weapon moves, etc). There are also Tactics - you have the choice to actually program how your supporting party characters will behave in a battle. You can program them to use a certain spell if they're surrounded, or come to your rescue if your health is low - or you can leave it alone entirely as I did and let the automatic tactics work for you.

That's basically why I love this game - it can be as difficult or as easy as you want it to be. You can play on Casual, like me, and enjoy the story, or you can play it on Nightmare (the hardest setting, where you can actually do damage to your own party members if you're not careful enough) with strategically-programmed Tactics.

This is an older game - ha! It's from 2009! - but an enjoyable one nonetheless. I'd recommend it to any serious fantasy fans - and most especially to people who have played the new Dragon Age: Inquisition who want some more background information on what came before.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

"The Innkeeper's Song," by Peter S. Beagle

The Word: The Innkeeper's Song was one of those hidden literary gems that I picked up by chance at a remainders bookstore and immediately fell into. Written by the same dude who wrote the novel (and screenplay!) for The Last Unicorn, it was one of those transformatively good novels I was a little hesitant to read again, for fear that lightning wouldn't strike twice.

The novel centres around three strange, fascinating women who are drawn to the same inn. Lal is a storytelling warrior tracking the distress call of her former mentor, Lukassa is a drowned girl who was resurrected from the river by mysterious magic, and Nyateneri is a wanderer fleeing the murderous members of her former convent.

After arriving at the inn, the three women discover they're connected - Lal and Nyateneri were taught by the same old wizard at different points and Lukassa was revived by one of his spells. This same wizard, it turns out, is in rather dire straits and the women will have to band together and combine their unusual skills to rescue him.

The main plot (save The Wizard) is kind of weird and thin and not all that important in the grand scheme of things. It's a large, easily identifiable story that binds together the host of smaller stories that make up the bulk of the novel. Smaller stories involving the three women and their respective cultures and pasts, their ties to The Wizard, the employees of the inn (such as put-upon stableboy Rosseth), outsiders like Lukassa's fiancé and Nyateneri's shapeshifting fox companion, and their interactions with others.

The Innkeeper's Song is a surprisingly dense book, packed with lush description and tantalizing hints of various exotic worlds lying just at the margins of the main environment. Sometimes - at least during this particular reread - it felt a little too dense, but it could also have just been my frame of mind at the time that made the reading experience slower than I wanted. That part of me wanted more of a meat-and-potatoes, get-to-the-point story, instead of the pleasant, descriptive ramble The Innkeeper's Song is.

It remains a weird, subtle, meandering and unique book about three awesome magical ladies (two of whom are POCs ... one of whom is not as much of a lady as the others) and a truly bizarre/hilarious scene involving a fourway menage where not everyone remains the same gender they were when they started.

If you're looking for a diverse, original stand-alone fantasy, you can't do much better than The Innkeeper's Song.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Reread Rollout: "The Giver" by Lois Lowry

So, for the first book on my Reread Rollout, I decided to reread that life-ruiner of required school reading: The Giver.

Kids either hate this book or love this book, but few, I suspect, ever forget reading it.


The Giver is the great-grandma of the current dystopian YA trend. Our hero, Jonas, is a 12-year-old boy who lives in an idyllic Community where everyone has their proper place. There is no starvation, no poverty, no strife, and once a member of the Community turns twelve, their career is chosen for them based on careful study of their interests and skills. Lowry uses only a few succinct chapters to craft the idea of this "perfect" world where everyone is taken care of.

This lasts until Jonas turns twelve and is chosen to become the next Receiver of Memories, and has to watch as his perfect world is torn apart piece by piece. The Receiver's job is to remember all the messy, wonderful, unpleasant, chaotic crap the Community intentionally forgot/did away with in order to preserve order. As Jonas learns more, he eventually learns the darker ways in which the Community preserves order. Oh God, the scene with Jonas' dad and the box. THE BOX. If you've read the book, you know the scene I'm talking about.

I'm pleased to say The Giver is every bit as potent as it was when I read it as a young adult. The recent deluge of Hunger Games and The Knife of Never Letting Gos and Divergents have done nothing to dull the surprising razor-slash of revelation halfway through this book. The Giver is dark and horrifying without being explicit, and ambiguous without being unsatisfying. I ached for Jonas - ridiculously young by today's YA standards - and everything he had to suffer and learn.

And the decades have tarnished none of this novel's relevancy, either. The only thing scarier than what the founders of the Community gave up is knowing what the current members are giving up without even knowing it. It makes you think about the sacrifices we allow others to make for us in the name of safety and order.

So yeah, The Giver ruined my life again. It still packs a punch.

Don't watch the movie.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

December in New York: Day Two

Friday morning, we ate a relaxed breakfast in the Library Hotel's comfortable Reading/Breakfast room before going out to explore. The weather was cool, but only on par with a brisk Canadian spring, so we had no issue walking everywhere.

Opening my mouth the day before had released me from my misery - I felt anxiety and twinges of sadness and panic here and there, but I allowed myself to experience it and it passed through me instead of building up, so I was able to enjoy myself infinitely more. Mum and I spent the morning poring over the elaborately-coiffed dolls in the Lord and Taylor windows, posing next to the New York Library Lions, comparing the candy version of the Empire State Building to the real thing, and goggling at the absurdly high-tech window display at Macy's (which involved holograms, animatronics, green screens, and sharp metal Christmas trees that transformed into stars).

The first time I ever visited New York, I succumbed to the "I'm in a movie" feeling, being surrounded by so many recognizable landmarks and buildings - so being in New York in December felt like being in one of those cheesy, wonderful Christmas films. All of a sudden, I was excited again by bright lights and toys, enthusiastic sidewalk Santas, and smiling doormen in suits who opened every door.

Macy's was pretty shameless in its Christmasness, indoors and out, but when you're the Macy's on the 34th street (where that "Miracle" occurred), you have a reputation to protect. We rode old-fashioned, clacking wooden escalators from floor to floor. We didn't get into Santaland - the line was (unsurprisingly) insanely long - but the glimpses we saw convinced us that Christmas at Macy's was Serious Business.

After that, came the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I'd already been, so I let Mum take the lead. We walked into (and then quickly out of) an unsettling exhibition of Balthus' fixation on underage girls and cats before exploring the section of religious art - I quite enjoyed the enormous nativity scene. We avoided sculpture (Mum had just gotten back from Rome the month before, and was "completely sculptured out") so we instead shifted our focus to a fascinating exhibition on musical instruments. We walked through the evolution of the flute, the guitar, and the harp - we even saw a "cross harp" which is an X-shaped instrument composed of two slanted harps. God only knows how many hands you'd need to play it.

As much as we loved the artwork and the instruments - we loooooved the gift shop. There is nothing like the Met gift shop. We both bought beautiful gifts and souvenirs, and I managed the rather impressive feat of buying my mother a massive art book on instruments with her own discount card, while she stood ten feet away, without her finding out.

After that, we broke for lunch at the Museum's cafe. And wow. The museum cafes in NYC do not mess around - none of this reheated soup and sandwich cafeteria nonsense they have back home. My chicken soup had quail eggs in it, with Yukon gold potato chips, and Mum discovered the best-tasting espresso outside of Italy itself.

After that, we returned to the hotel to relax. And I mean relax. I mentioned the Library Hotel's narrow corridors and hatbox-sized rooms, but not how the hotel compensates for that with their plush, impeccably comfortable Reading Room. Cozy furniture, soft music, free coffee and snacks (with Prosecco and cheese after 5pm!), it was the perfect place to curl up and read after a day of adventuring. It had none of the sanitized, transitory air of a hotel lobby. New York City is amazing, but it's intense and often overwhelming, and the Reading Room was an oasis of calm where one could pass time without feeling like they were wasting it. On those other, horrible New York trips, where I spent hours glumly hiding out alone in my hotel room, I really could have used a Reading Room like the Library Hotel's.

We had supper at the hotel's restaurant, Madison and Vine, which was somewhat less than appetizing (Mum ordered spinach on the side, and was served enough spinach to give Popeye a stroke), and then dashed out into the rain to the Shubert Theatre to see Matilda the musical. While it was snowing in Canada, it was only raining here, but enough to leave us quite washed up and bedraggled by the time we squished into our theatre seats.

Worse, we wound up sitting in front of a tribe of unmannered hillbilly rubes who talked during the entire show. And I mean the entire show, not just a wee bit too long after the curtain rose. Their uncultured patriarch performed quite a soliloquy about spilling his frozen margarita down the front of his pants and "freezing his boy parts" (direct quote). The only possible explanation is that the parents assumed Matilda was a "children's show," and only worthy of their children's attention, despite the fact that they must have paid upwards of $500 to take them all out to see it.

And they would have completely ruined the evening for me and my Mum, if Matilda had not been absolutely amazing - the clever set design, the brain-twisting lyrics, the stellar performances quite drowned out (most of) the complaints about Mr. Hillbilly's genital hypothermia. Both Mum and I were blown away by the energy and the music and the magic. I was so happy - my first Broadway experience (Book of Mormon with Josh Gad and Andrew Rannels) was everything I could ask for and I wanted it to be the same for Mum, and it was!

The musical version is quite a darker beast than the American film adaptation. Murder, child abuse, telekinesis - it's the same events played out in the book and suggested in the film but put under a different focus. While still child-friendly, it has an edge to it I really enjoyed. The actor who played Miss Trunchbull (a drag role), was absolutely phenomenal - from celebrating her long-ago hammer throwing victory with a triumphant ribbon dance to tossing a student out the window by her braids (one of the most delightful instances of stagecraft I've ever witnessed), Miss Trunchbull was a formidable villain.

And the soundtrack? I've already listened to it from start to finish about a hundred times since. And here ended the second day of our NYC trip.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

December In New York: Day One

I sort of have a love-hate relationship with New York City.

My first trip to New York (for RWA Nationals 2011) was everything a prairie kid with a love of 1940s musicals and cop shows could ask for. My first ever Broadway show: Book of Mormon with the original cast. I wandered goggle-eyed through the Metropolitan Museum of Art, fed a pretzel to the world-weariest pigeons I'd ever seen, tramped through Central Park without a map.

The second time I went, for Book Expo in 2012, was a carriage-horse of a different colour. I had my first brush with serious anxiety. Suddenly, I felt alone, and scared, and New York morphed into this grey, claustrophobic labyrinth of strangers, garbage-strewn alleyways and bedbug-infested corners.

I figured that was a fluke, but when I returned in 2013, it escalated. I had a full-on panic attack on the train ride from Newark to Manhattan. My worry about my food allergy evolved into a massive phobia that restricted my diet to bananas and yogurt. I felt depressed despite being surrounded by hundreds of women with the same interests as me.

I came home from that last trip at midnight and stayed up three hours more to wash my laundry, vacuum and disinfect my luggage, and painstakingly inspect everything I brought home with me for parasites, bugs, or dirt of any kind. And it took a full week after that before I could eat comfortably and go to sleep without inspecting my sheets. By the end of that trip, I was convinced you couldn't get me to return to New York City if you put a gun to my head.

So why the blog post? Well, it's been exactly a year since the time I got over that fear and returned to the Big Apple for one of the most memorable Christmas seasons of my life.

After the last two disastrous trips, what could possibly tempt me back to that squalid, insect-infested island? A hotel. A very special hotel.

The Library Hotel. A glorious, boutique hotel blocks away from the flagship branch of the New York Public Library, it boasted plush reading areas, exceptional service, literary-themed cocktails, rooms based on library categories, books in every room - and one hell of a high price tag. And in April 2013, I won a two-night stay there thanks to their haiku contest on Twitter.

And even then, I almost didn't take them up on their once-in-a-lifetime offer, until my dearest mum decided she would come with me, as part of a combo Christmas-birthday celebration, to celebrate December in New York with me and keep my anxiety at bay. 

Day One

Mum and I few out on a Thursday. We arrived in Newark and grabbed a cab just in time to hit rush hour traffic in the Holland Tunnel, which chewed us up and spat us out close to the Garment District. Mum marvelled over the small shops dedicated to only zippers, spandex or tassels (a whole shop of tassels!), while we passed a deli with a sign that read, "We cure our own brisket ... and our chicken soup cures everything else!"

When we reached The Library Hotel, we discovered it wasn't only full of books - it was shaped like one. Like an enormous hardcover volume of brick, it has a wide front and an extremely narrow side. In all else, the Library Hotel exceeded expectations - but not in actual physical size. We manoeuvred our bags through the tiny entrance and to the narrow front desk and up the cramped elevator to our, uh, compact rooms (my room was Poetry because I won the Poetry contest, and my mother's was Dramatic Literature).

However, despite the lovely hotel, my anxiety was a hardy beast, undeterred by rapturous TripAdvisor reviews and designer soaps. It was determined to reach out its long, cold fingers and find every little fissure of doubt in my "perfect" trip and widen them into flaws impossible to ignore. The threat of bedbugs. The possibility of allergies. The incredible expense, and the pressure to enjoy everything, absolutely, all the time or else all that money would be wasted.

It followed me out into the street as Mum and I followed the stream of people exploring the Christmas lights on Madison and Fifth, the enormous tree at Rockefeller Plaza. We had to hold hands and walk single file through all the crowds. The Cartier building was done up like an enormous gift with glowing red ribbon and shining panthers climbing up and down the building. Harry Winston was covered with glittering diamonds (Mum actually knocked on the door to inquire about the enormous emerald pendant in the window - "10 million dollars," the attendant replied). Another building had an entire Advent calendar projected onto its face, and yet another jewellery store was encircled by a giant, gem-encrusted serpent.

And yet, that first night was a bit of a nightmare. Depression is a bit like a snowball rolling downhill - it accumulates. First I felt miserable, than I felt miserable because I was miserable because this was Christmas! In New York! And it had cost so much money! We finally paused to sit down after exploring FAO Schwartz - and I had to tell Mum the truth. I cried. I remember feeling so ashamed. Mum and spent so much time and money and effort to get me here so I could have my dream trip and I was so ungrateful and broken and selfish because I couldn't enjoy it.

But actually talking about it, about my fear and sadness, felt like loosening a pressure valve. Mum admitted she was scared, too, and that she felt the same way on her first days in Paris and Rome. New York City at Christmastime is far different from our hometown in Canada. We were still transitioning. We were still adjusting. We would feel better tomorrow. Sometimes, when you're feeling scared or pressured or sad, it can help just to be reminded that the feeling is temporary and will go away. And one should never allow oneself to feel pressured to enjoy anything.

I found the first of many Christmas presents that night: Mum and I walked into a store called the Art of Shaving, where I found a luxurious badger hair shaving brush and high-quality shaving soap for my dad (one year later, he's still addicted to the stuff, which he has to buy through Sephora now since Art of Shaving isn't in Canada yet).

Thursday, December 04, 2014

"City of Dragons," by Robin Hobb

Reviewer's Note: This is going to be a little different from previous fantasy reviews, simply because I read this book a bit of a while ago, and I wasn't able to review it due to work, NaNoWriMo, and general Life Stuff.

So I'm running on memory!

So the first book of this series, Dragon Keeper, didn't wow me, but Dragon Haven blew me away with how easily it fixed the problems with the first book, advanced the plot, and developed the characters. My expectations were pretty high for City of Dragons.

Unfortunately - it's a bit of a filler book. Scratch that, it's entirely a filler book. The plot moves forward a couple of inches, but otherwise, it's entirely a set-up to what is presumably the final book in the quartet, Blood of Dragons.

The dragons and their keepers have finally reached the fabled Elderling city of Kelsingra. The only problem? A wild, uncrossable river stands between them and their destination, and the only dragon who has successfully crossed it is Heeby, the first dragon to master flight. If the other dragons want to reach the city and unlock its secrets, they'll have to force themselves to learn to fly or remain trapped on the rain-drenched shore. This is especially difficult for the arrogant, intractable dragon Sintara. Her first attempt to fly ended very badly and she's too proud and vain to admit that she's terrified of trying again.

Another issue arises regarding the fate of Kelsingra. Alise wants to preserve the Elderling city exactly as it is, to research it and finally discover the secrets of the Elderlings and why they disappeared. On the other side of the issue, Rapscal and some of the other keepers want to actually use the city and its contents rather than protecting it like a dead relic. On top of that, once the existence of Kelsingra becomes publicly known, it'll only be a matter of time before treasure hunters descend to try and wrest it from their grasp to sell it piece by piece.

Hobb also grooms more characters to become future antagonists (such as the Duke of Chalced and Alise's Evil Gay Husband Hest) and explores more on the theme of female sexuality, but otherwise, the story doesn't progress terribly far. I'm still looking forward to the final book, but perhaps my expectations will be more tempered this time.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

I'm Late! I'm Late! Drive-By Reviewings

Okay, my bad.

I fell a little behind on reviewing. Okay, a lot behind. For several reasons, some of which weren't my fault but most of which totally were.

I was promoted to a new position at work (the day job), I've become (officially!) an editorial assistant at Entangled (a second job), I signed up for NaNoWriMo, and I discovered obsessively-absorbing role-playing video games.

The result: not a lot of time or inclination to review. After a stressful day of new-job training and reading manuscripts, I was more in the mood to explode darkspawn and romance knights in Dragon Age (which I will also be reviewing soon!). Now that NaNo is over and I have a bit more time on my hands, I'm just in time for my Annual Re-Reading Month.

But for now, let's recap the books I did read in October and November that aren't super-special enough to merit their own reviews:

Just Listen, by Sarah Dessen.

Yes, I finally read my first Sarah Dessen. From what my YA-focused blogger friends tell me, she's kind of the First Lady of Contemporary YA.

My first impression wasn't wholly strong - her language seemed too bare and simple for my taste, but she slowly and surely hooked me in so by the midpoint, I was pretty strongly invested in her heroine.

Our protagonist, Annabel, is someone incapable of speaking her mind for fear of hurting others. She experienced a terrible trauma at the end of the previous school year, but she can't tell her family - with them so focused on her older sister's recovery from an eating disorder, and her mother's history of depression, she can't bear to add to their burden or risk undoing her mother's progress. But the truth is eating her up inside.

The novel is all about truth-telling, and believing you're important enough to be heard, and Dessen aptly conveys how difficult it is for Annabel to speak up for herself and put herself above (or at least on the same level as) others. The novel has a deceptively simple start that reveals itself as more layered later on. However, it wasn't a perfect book. I felt the romantic interest's obsession with honesty was a little over-the-top and unreasonable, even with the novel's theme, and the treatment of rape and rape victims seemed a bit simplified by the novel's end, but otherwise, I understand where Dessen's fans are coming from.

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, by Leslye Walton.

I had to read this novel for the FYA Bookclub, and let's just say this book sparked a lot of ... debate. And by debate, I mean rage.

The story explores three generations of women all leading to Ava Lavender, a girl born with wings. The story meanders along through unreliable narrators and magical realism - Alice Hoffman levels of magical realism. Spells, ghosts, girls with bird parts, all that jazz.

Walton is a splendid writer, and 90% of the novel is fine, if unfocused and a bit derivative. The ending, however, absolutely kills this novel - spoiler and trigger warning: the climax (not the conflict, but the climax) of the novel comes when Ava is brutally raped and mutilated by an obsessed stalker. And all of her family's  problems are solved by how they rally around and care for her.

Nothing in this novel - not the story, not the tone, not the theme - suggested or fit with a brutal rape. That event doesn't fit organically within the plot at all. Moreover, the rape is used as a disgusting plot device to better the lives of other characters, not the actual victim. Ava's character doesn't change or progress. In fact, she recovers and gets a boyfriend within the span of the epilogue and gets magical new white wings FOR SOME REASON. WTF. Mindbendingly stupid and offensive garbage.

Please, please, let's not make Magical Rape a trope.

Ravishing the Heiress, by Sherry Thomas

I'm still a general fan of Sherry Thomas, and this novel wasn't terrible, but that's about it.

This novel - wasn't terrible. It was interesting enough but it didn't grab and wow me like her earlier novels. Our heroine, Millie, is a merchant-class heiress whose parents arrange for her to marry a debt-ridden earl named Fitz. Millie falls for Fitz immediately, but discovers Fitz is deeply, passionately in love with another woman - someone he now has to give up in order to save his family from ruin.

Fitz ... does not take this well. He's such a flamboyant ass about what a terrible SACRIFICE he had to make by marrying Millie, that Millie spends the next six years of their marriage keeping her feelings under wraps and allowing him to pursue his various emotionless, extramarital flings. However, when Fitz learns that the former love of his life is now widowed, he plans to leave Millie to set up a household with his ladylove - but not before "fulfilling his end of the bargain" and giving Millie a baby.

There were certain things I liked - Fitz finds it difficult to reconnect with his former love as he slowly comes to understand how meaningful the last six years of marriage with Millie have been to him. His attraction to Millie grows out of their deep and abiding friendship rather than instant lust. But their actual romantic development is remarkably spare on the page, and Millie is almost pathological in her emotional repression (not that I can blame her). It was a pleasant and even a relatively original romance, but I feel the romance was lacking.

The False Prince, by Jennifer Nielsen

Here was another extremely-hyped novel that just underwhelmed me. Sage is an orphan who's picked up off the street along with two other orphans by an unscrupulous, obsessed noble determined to save his nation at any cost.

The nobleman reveals that the king, queen and crown prince were recently poisoned by an unknown party. The truth of their deaths is not publicly known yet, but once it gets out, their nation's enemies will waste no time in taking advantage of the political chaos. However, if another viable heir to the throne is discovered in time, the crisis may be averted. The noblemen chose orphans who best resembled the long-lost second prince who was supposedly killed by pirates years before, and he plans to train them to impersonate the kingdom's last heir. The most convincing fraud will accompany him to the capital - but the other two will become dangerous loose ends.

None of the characters here were particularly interesting. Sage was kind of a smarmy know-it-all, and the "twist" near the end of the novel had me rolling my eyes at the ridiculousness of it. The novel was just boring from beginning to end and there's not much else I can say about it - I read it a while ago and nothing else remained memorable enough for me to recall today.

And that's it for now! More reviews to come later.