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.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

"Half a Crown," by Jo Walton

Principal Cast:

Inspector Carmichael: Now the Watch Commander (head of England's secret police), he does the government's dirty work - while secretly smuggling Jews out of fascist Europe. How long can he keep this up?

Elvira Royston: A lowly police sergeant's daughter whose connection to the Watch Commander has raised her to the status of debutante. Her secure status can be taken away, however, especially by the Watch Commander's enemies who want to bring Carmichael down for good.

The Word: Well ... this is awkward. Jo Walton's trilogy, which started with the brilliant Farthing, continued with the good-but-not-great Ha'Penny, has now ended with a ... splat.

Half a Crown takes place in an alternate 1960. Hitler is still alive, England is a fascist state, and life sucks for the Jews everywhere. In slightly better news, the vile Prime Minister Normanby was permanently disabled by the bombing at the end of Ha'Penny and now people are questioning his right to rule. Unfortunately, the folks doing the questioning might be even worse than Normanby is.

Meanwhile, Inspector Carmichael - the trilogy's main protagonist - is head of the Watch, England's version of the Gestapo. The nastier Powers that Be think he's firmly under their thumb, but in truth, Carmichael's been secretly using Watch resources to smuggle Jews out of Britain and Germany. Meanwhile, Carmichael's adopted niece Elvira (the daughter of his murdered partner Royston) accidentally winds up on the wrong side of a street riot and Carmichael's political enemies decide to use her as leverage to take down Carmichael.

Unlike the first two books, there isn't really a murder mystery component here. Carmichael's already got his fingers in every pie that matters just by being Watch Commander. Unfortunately, the plot meanders all over the place and is mainly about how England's plight couldn't possibly get any worse - until the end when everything magically resolves itself. Walton does too good a job demonstrating how prevalent fascism has become in England, so when the sudden ~*Happy Ending*~ appears, it makes absolutely no sense and ties up everything in the neatest and silliest bow you could possibly imagine.

If you don't mind spoilers (seriously) - Elvira asks a young Queen Elizabeth II to please make the fascists go away and to release all the Jews. And the Queen is like, "Sure, complete stranger whom I've met for the first time today, why not? Shut it down, you guys! Fascism is over!" And England's like, "Cool." An out-of-nowhere deus-ex-machina speech from a fictionalized version of a real-life monarch immediately solves all the issues that Walton's set up over three books. Really. REALLY. It's a Disneyfied ending that seems wholly out of place - and wholly unworthy of the nuanced horror setting Walton developed.

I suppose you could say she wrote herself into a corner where any positive ending would have seemed like a cheat, but it could have been accomplished far less ham-handedly than it actually was. A disappointing conclusion to an otherwise interesting series.

"Crazy Thing Called Love," By Molly O'Keefe

The Chick: Madelyn Cornish, a.k.a. Maddy Wilkins, a.k.a. Maddy Baumgarden. A popular daytime television host.
The Rub: When her show wants her to do a project with reviled hockey thug Billy Wilkins, she can't reveal that he used to be her husband without dredging up their painful history.
Dream Casting: Michelle Monaghan.

The Dude: Billy Wilkins. A violent, almost-washed-up hockey player who's lauded (and hated) for the fights he frequently starts on the ice.
The Rub: The opportunity to go on his ex-wife's show seems too good to be true - can he clean up his act and win her back?
Dream Casting: Jeremy Renner.

The Plot:

Billy: Violence solves everything! *starts hockey fight*

NHL: No it doesn't.

Maddy's show: Hey, want to do a makeover series?

Billy: Yay! Makeovers solve everything!


Surprise Niece and Nephew: Hey, our mother's dead and our aunt's abusive. Let's lie! Lying solves everything!


Maddy: I find your total incompetence with life suddenly relatable.

Billy: HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist:
  • 1 Pair of Reunited Exes
  • 2 Angsty Plot Moppets
  • 1 Evil TV Producer
  • 1 Swarm of Paparazzi
  • Several Flashbacks
The Word: It didn't take long for Molly O'Keefe to secure herself a spot as one of my favourite authors. Two books into her hockey-star (or hockey-star-adjacent) trilogy and I was hooked. Now we're onto the final book. Maddy Cornish, a daytime television host in Dallas, was a friend of the heroine from Can't Hurry Love, and freaked out when she ran into Billy Wilkins - a hockey friend of the hero of Can't Buy Me Love - at a party at the end of the last book.

Madelyn Cornish has spent the better part of a decade making a name for herself in daytime TV. She built her career from the ground up - losing weight, straightening her hair, and changing her name to distance herself as much as possible from her humiliating past.

Her humiliating past comes back to bite her in the ass when her show's producers suggest they do a "Makeover" segment on her show for Billy Wilkins, a washed-up hockey thug known more for his violence on the ice and time spent in the penalty box than his actual plays. The producers think the prospect of turning this burly, scarred toad into a burly, scarred prince could boost their ratings.

Unbeknownst to her employers, Maddy used to be Mrs. Billy Wilkins. She and Billy married extremely young, but Billy's exploding hockey career ended up sweeping all of Maddy's own emotions, goals, and ambitions under the rug in favour of Billy's. After a few miserable years of that, Maddy divorced him and fled with what little identity she had left. She's terrified that any resurgence of feelings towards Billy will destroy the independence she's gained.

Billy, meanwhile, has hit rock bottom. He's ruined his own reputation with his violent antics and now no one wants to play with him. The only light in his life is the miraculous opportunity to make things right with the only woman he's ever loved - his Maddy. Could he use this makeover to change himself into the husband she deserves?

Billy and Maddy make an interesting pair - Maddy's terrified of her feelings, while Billy is nothing but feelings - mostly rage and self-loathing. As Billy dives headfirst into the makeover segment in order to win his ex-wife back, he has to change how he sees himself (as someone worth loving rather than a human punching bag) in order to improve himself and impress Maddy. Meanwhile, Maddy has to learn how to love someone and invest in their life without sacrificing her own.

Of course, O'Keefe doesn't make this easy and drops a number of bombshell plot lines that force our couple through the emotional wringer in a number of delicious ways, slathering on the angst and the high drama with skill and gusto. The reason I continue to gobble up her books like catnip even as I lose patience with other romance writers is because of her continued commitment to meticulously-developed characters. With her gorgeous turns of phrase, she give her protagonists colourful inner lives that reveal their neuroses and fears without becoming boring and navel-gazey. So when melodramatic things happen, I find myself turning the pages faster and faster because I need to know how her characters will react.

Crazy Thing Called Love is no different. A marvellous addition to Molly O'Keefe's growing canon.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

"Untold," by Sarah Rees Brennan

The Protagonist: Kami Glass. A budding investigative reporter whose sleuthing uncovered the fact that her town is full of resentful sorcerers waiting for a good excuse to come back into power.
Her Angst: She has no true idea who's a sorcerer and who's not, and no longer knows who to trust. On top of that, Jared is giving her the cold shoulder for breaking their magical bond.

The Secondary Cast:

Jared: An entitled, navel-gazing, self-absorbed whiny loser with low self-esteem who deals with this by being a dick to everyone. He's supposed to be attractive for some reason?

Ash: An entitled, navel-gazing, self-absorbed whiny loser with low self-esteem who nevertheless finds healthy ways to deal with his issues and other people. Why is he not the hero?

Angela: Kami's best friend who's coming to grips with her crush on Holly.

Holly: Friend to both Kami and Angela, who's struggling to come to grips with Angela's sexual orientation - and maybe her own?

Lillian: Ash's mum, Jared's aunt, and official Head Bitch In Charge of Sorry-in-the-Vale. Determined to hold on to her crown by any means necessary.

Rob: Ash's dad, Jared's uncle (?), who's determined to return sorcerers to power and make the humans of Sorry-in-the-Vale his rightful serfs.

YA Angst Checklist:

  • I Know Way Too Many People Who Are Suddenly Okay With Human Sacrifice
  • Child-snatching
  • Why can't all these people see I'm acting like a Giant Tool because I'm starved for Love?
  • Emotional Independence
  • Bad Moms

The Word: I'd heard the hype about Unspoken, but I didn't truly get it until I opened the book and fell headfirst into a richly layered gothic fantasy that's serious, but not too serious to take itself too seriously. If that make sense. It used time-tested YA tropes, but in a fresh, self-aware way that made them entertaining instead of tiresome.

Needless to say, I was excited about the sequel. Untold picks up where Unspoken left off - that is, In A Very Bad Place. Kami's investigations from the previous novel uncovered the fact that the Lynburns are sorcerers and her town of Sorry-in-the-Vale is riddled with other magic-using families. Even worse, Rob Lynburn (Jared's uncle, Ash's father) had been secretly recruiting these local sorcerers in order to forcibly return the town to the Old Ways - the human-sacrifice kind.

So on top of coming to grips with the fact that people she's known her entire life are suddenly okay with murdering people, Kami has to stop Rob and his cronies from fulfilling their promise to sacrifice a human on the Winter Solstice to solidify their rule over the town. This means Kami and her friends have to team up with Lillian Lynburn, who stands in opposition to Rob - not because she opposes the murder of peasants, but because they are her peasants and that's rude. Yeah, Lillian's the worst.

I did enjoy this book, really, but it does suffer from a pretty severe case of middle-book-itis. It's heavy on character development, and really, really light on plot. The book layers on the description and the internal monologuing and the angst, but most of the novel is just a countdown to the Solstice.

Oh, and angsty tantrums from Jared. So many angsty tantrums. I put up with Jared in the previous novel because Kami was such a strong character and didn't put up with his pressuring. At the end of the previous novel, Kami actually severed their magical bond because she was (rightly) terrified about what it was doing to her emotional health and independence. Well, that action sends Jared spiralling into an insufferable, whiny, self-loathing angst-spiral for the rest of this damn book and I just couldn't stand him. He spends a good 70% of the novel being a total asshole to people who care about him while crying that "nobody wuvs me, I am so dark and unwuvable and broken, I cannot handle the feels!"


The novel beats the dead horse that is Jared's Tortured Feels over and over, but at least other characters (like Ash and Holly) also get some spectacular development. Untold spends time examining the pieces on this particular chessboard rather than making any significant plays, but thankfully (most of) the characters (who are not named Jared) are interesting and multifaceted enough to hold my attention.

Yeah, it's a middle book, but it keeps a firm enough hold on the reigns to keep me excited for the final novel.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

"The Game and the Governess," by Kate Noble

The Chick: Phoebe Baker. A former debutante forced into servitude when her father was swindled of his life savings by a con artist the Earl of Ashby refused to prosecute.
The Rub: Now she lives as a governess, in the very house where the Earl is visiting. Will her hatred rise up to consume her?
Dream Casting: Chloe Sevigny.

The Dude: Lucky Ned, Earl of Ashby. He thinks he has it all because he's an awesome person, but his best friend thinks it's because he's a privileged asshat. Naturally, he decides to make a wager at it, switching places with his secretary friend.
The Rub: Being a secretary is hard. Who knew?
Dream Casting: James McAvoy.

The Plot:

Ned: What?! Are you really saying the reason everyone loves me, caters to my every need, and waits on me is because I have money and power?


Ned: Oh. Be my wife?

Phoebe: Despite my 5-year-long hatred of you and disgust for privileged aristocrats and the fact that you literally lied to me about everything, I inexplicably agree!


Phoebe: ...hmm, maybe it's because of all your money and power.


Romance Convention Checklist:

  • 1 Asshat Hero
  • 2 Sequel-Baiting Dudebros
  • 1 Desperate Sequel-Baiting Countess Who Gives Us NO CLOSURE AT ALL
  • 1 Poisoned Blackberry Tart
  • 1 Random Murder Attempt

The Word: Okay, so I kind of fell off the Kate Noble fan wagon after the awful Follow My Lead. Revealed is still one of my favourite romances, but the rest of her novels never really lived up to the perfection of that one. However, I was quite intrigued by the plot of The Game and the Governess and thought I'd give her another try.

Lucky Ned, Earl of Ashby, has it all - he's one of the wealthiest men in the country, he's handsome, healthy, and a sure hand at cards. However, when his best friend/war buddy/secretary John Turner calls him on his privilege, Ned gets all butthurt. Turner, who has been pleading with Ned for years to lend him the money to help his family's mill, says the only reason Ned is "lucky" is because he's an earl. Ned, who's refused to lend Turner the money because ... mills are boring and working for a living is stupid, believes it's his naturally cheerful disposition that grants him Lady Luck's favour, and John has only his sourpuss personality to blame for his own misfortunes. Yeah.

Turner decides to turn it into a wager. The two are headed to a small English village neither has visited in decades to sell off Ned's mother's property. Turner proposes they switch places - Turner will pose as the earl, and Ned as the secretary - for two weeks, and in that time Ned has to win the romantic favour of a noble lady in spite of his "lowly" status. If Turner wins, Ned owes him 5000 pounds. If Ned wins, Turner loses his family mill. Yup - Ned's the hero of this novel.

They arrive at the house, and Ned's eye is caught by the whippet-thin, stern-faced governess of his host's children. Unbeknownst to him, this governess, Phoebe Baker, harbours a deep grudge against the Earl of Ashby. Years ago, Ned discovered his previous secretary was embezzling from him and he chose to cover it up rather than lose face, leaving the thief free to swindle Phoebe's father of his inheritance and drive him to suicide. Phoebe's reconciled herself to her reduced circumstances but she wants nothing to do with anyone associated with the Ashby house.

So, what was good about this novel? Noble does an excellent job examining privilege. Ned is an ass, and the narrative both acknowledges and commits to this and uses it to develop his character. Ned thinks the wager will be easy, he'll just use his abundant charm on the ladies, but his tried-and-tested moves blow up in his face - and the narrative doesn't only imply his earldom made womenfolk more receptive. It also suggests his high station could have scared women who would ordinarily have resisted his advances. I loved that aspect, and I loved that Ned had to really start thinking about consent and willingness and the enjoyment of his partners.

So what didn't I like? Pretty much everything else. Phoebe's an impractical Mary Sue who turns down an offer for five hundred pounds because she's become a "better person" in poverty than she was as a sheltered gentleman's daughter. Um, it's money - not a time machine. You're not magically going to turn back into a Terrible Person the moment you float above the poverty line. I also didn't buy her romance with Ned at all - it happens far too quickly, with almost no real development, and it skirts most of the thorny issues that ought to keep them apart.

More than anything, however, I hated this novel's pacing. Was it written under a really strict deadline? This novel reads like it was taken out of the oven fifteen minutes too early, still raw in the middle. The ending is laughably rushed - it introduces a murder plot that's barely solved a few pages later, we don't get to see anyone's reactions to Ned and Turner's switcharoo, and Phoebe overcomes her five-year-grudge and the horror of being lied to within the span of one page. Even more egregious, the secondary romance between Turner and a desperate countess, a romance that took up precious time that the primary romance sorely needed, turns out to be a ridiculously blatant cocktease for the sequel.

This novel is nothing but build up until a shoddy last-minute resolution.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

"Ha'Penny," by Jo Walton

The Corpse: Lauria Gilmore, a prominent actress who inconveniently explodes right after landing a part in a controversial retelling of Hamlet.

The Gumshoes: 

Viola Lark: A talented actress who's coerced into completing the mission Lauria started before she got blown to high heaven.

Inspector Peter Carmichael: A depressed inspector who's not sure how many more cases he can solve for superiors who hold his darkest secrets over his head.

The Suspects/Secondary Characters:

Lady Russell, a.k.a. "Siddy": Viola's Communist sister who may have gotten herself in too deep.

Devlin Connelly: an Irish revolutionary with a literally explosive backstory (yes, I'm going to keep doing bomb puns).

Jack: Inspector Carmichael's lover who resents having to hide their relationship, even as he understands why they have to.

Normanby: A racist, fascist, wife-abusing murderer - and Prime Minister of Great Britain.

The Word: I don't normally read sequels right after their original books. I like to give myself time to read other things and keep from burning out on (or through!) an author's novels too quickly. However, after reading and raving about Farthing to my family members, both my mother and grandmother started racing through the books so I took on the second book in order to keep up with the discussion.

Ha'Penny takes place only a few months after the events of Farthing. Normanby is now Prime Minister thanks to his murderous machinations in the previous novel, and he's already started to exploit the fears of the populace in order to bring fascism into England. And most of the nation seems willing to follow Normanby's lead.

Inspector Carmichael learns otherwise when he's called to investigate an explosion in a London suburb that killed a prominent actress and her male companion. Incriminating paperwork in the woman's house suggests the victims were trying to build a bomb before their amateurish efforts literally blew up in their faces, but who were they working for? And will they try again?

Meanwhile, stage actress Viola Lark is preparing for her performance as the Danish Princess in a gender reversed staging of Hamlet when her estranged sister Siddy contacts her for the first time in years. Worried at the desperation in her sister's voice, Viola agrees to meet - and winds up coerced into an anti-government plot to kill Normanby and Hitler during the Fuhrer's visit to England. Viola's just the person they need to plant a bomb in the theatre while Hitler watches her show.

Viola, born to an eccentric and politically diverse aristocratic family (closely modelled on the real-life Mitford sisters), left her upper-crust origins behind to pursue a life on the stage. In that way, she's much like Mrs. Kahn from Farthing - a blueblood who renounced her birthright in order to pursue her passion. Viola is a little less sympathetic than the generous-hearted and idealistic Lucy, but her character arc is just as interesting. Viola doesn't give a damn about what's happening on the continent. She thinks the stories about the concentration camps are rubbish and the politics have nothing to do with her. She's just an actress - she wants to read and perform and receive applause. That's all. The world's too big for anyone to really change it, after all.

Yes, Viola is a fairly selfish person. She lives in her own little sphere and resists (understandably!) the pleading diatribes of the conspirators who fall over themselves trying to explain their good intentions, even as they regretfully admit they'll have to "silence" her if she doesn't comply. And yet, her own observations as she assists with their plans slowly clue her in to the fact that the world is not okay, and hiding in one's dressing room only makes it easier for monsters to seize power. Even if, when she actually meets Hitler face-to-face, she discovers she "instinctively [likes] him."

The novel also sees the return of Inspector Carmichael, who's grown remarkably world-weary in the few short months since Farthing. Much like Viola, he's forced to participate in political machinations he finds extraordinarily distasteful. Now that his superiors (including the Prime Minister himself) know he's gay, he's a tool who has to dance to their tune if he doesn't want his private life with his lover Jack exposed to the public. Horrified at the thought of being their puppet indefinitely, he plans his early retirement - even as he works to protect the loathsome Normanby from a murderous plot.

While Ha'Penny has an engaging plot peppered with vibrant characters, it still suffers from "middle-book-itis." It doesn't really go very far or do very much, other than solidify the set-up for the third and final novel, Half a Crown. It doesn't even have a mystery, not really - we learn pretty early on that the inexperienced Lauria did herself in. It also takes every possible opportunity to throw the word "ha'penny" into the narrative, just in case we forgot the title of the book. It would make a pretty entertaining drinking game if you had some mulled cider, a rainy day, and a few hours to kill.

Thankfully, what it lacks in plot it makes up for in the exploration of its theme: the distance between a person, their intentions, and their ultimate actions. Viola's conspirators are all blusteringly well-intentioned, and we, the readers, cannot help but support their hatred of Hitler and the Nazis. However, they're willing to bomb a crowded theatre and coerce an innocent woman into being their accomplice - is this right? Meanwhile, Viola has to reconcile her knowledge of her sisters as girl she grew up with, with the understanding of who they are today - her sister Siddy is disturbingly willing to sacrifice Viola to serve her own ends, and another sister is married to Himmler (yes, that Himmler) and seems blithely oblivious to the Third Reich's atrocities.

While not quite as page-turningly-exciting as Farthing, Ha'Penny is an entertaining and thoughtful successor that only raises my expectations for the final book in the trilogy.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

"Midsummer Moon," by Laura Kinsale

The Chick: Merlin Lambourne. A famous lady inventor.
The Rub: She's dumb as a post at anything that isn't mechanics. How will she cope?
Dream Casting: Alison Brie.

The Dude: Ransom Falconer, Duke of Damerell. A high-handed duke who must protect Merlin from evil French spies who want to kidnap her for her inventions.
The Rub: Unfortunately, after "accidentally" having sex with her, protecting her becomes a whole lot more complicated.
Dream Casting: Cillian Murphy.

The Plot:
Ransom: Hey, I'm here to save and protect you!

Merlin: What are you wearing?

Ransom: ... a hat.

Merlin: Mercy me, a hat! How exciting! I've never seen a hat before, what is it for?

Ransom: Huh. I somehow find your utter ignorance of everything somewhat arousing! *accidentally eats Magical Salt* Now it's completely arousing!

Ransom and Merlin: *knock boots*

Ransom: Crap. Now we have to get married!

Merlin: Why?

Ransom: Well, you might be pregnant.

Merlin: Doesn't the stork bring babies?

Ransom: Wow I am already regretting this a LOT. And yet your baby behaviour is so inexplicably erotic!

Merlin: I don't want to get married! I don't want to make babies! I want to stay up all night and eat candy and play with my toys--I MEAN INVENT MY FLYING MACHINE.

Ransom: No! Bad Merlin! GO TO YOUR ROOM RIGHT NOW!

Literally Every Other Character: Hey there, we're totally interesting and have really intriguing backstories but go ahead and focus the story around the Teletubby and her babysitter. We'll wait.

Evil French Spies: *kidnap Merlin a lot*

Ransom: *rescues Merlin a lot*

Merlin: *falls into a coma, wakes up with amnesia*

Literally Every Other Character: ... really? You'd rather read about AMNESIA than us? When we have secret lovers and acrimonious divorces in our pasts? Oh well. There's no accounting for taste.

Ransom: *recuses Merlin again*

Merlin: Okay I'll marry you now! How do we petition to stork to bring us babies?

Ransom: ....hoo....ray....

Romance Convention Checklist:
  • 1 Romance-Aiding Pet (a hedgehog)
  • 1 Condiment-Induced Deflowering
  • 1 Infantalized Heroine
  • 2 Flying Machines
  • Several Barrels of Gun Powder
  • 1 Bout of Fountain Sex
  • 5 Infinitely More Interesting Supporting Characters
  • Several Evil French Spies
The Word: I will hand it to Laura Kinsale - her heroines are a varied bunch. Some are practical, some are romantic, some are stone-cold bad-asses, and others are emotional and compassionate. Unfortunately, with Midsummer Moon, I spun the Kinsale Heroine Wheel and wound up with Helpless Baby Duckling Woman.

Our heroine, Merlin, is a wide-eyed, chipmunk-cheeked, oblivious dithering idiot of a woman who is (allegedly) a genius at physical engineering and a sleep-deprived six-year-old at literally everything else. Perhaps the author intended her to be an Absent-Minded Professor, but she wound up closer to Nell, instead. And of course, the novel presents her as the Cutest Widdle Special Snowflake, rather than a woman with severely stunted social, interpersonal, and self-preservation skills thanks to an abusively isolated upbringing that is only barely hinted at.

Our hero Ransom Falconer, named in the ancient English tradition of picking two random words out of the dictionary, is a duke/government agent who has been sent to protect Merlin because one of her inventions has attracted the notice of Evil French Spies. His task is to figure out what Merlin's trying to invent, and protect both it and her from falling into Evil French hands.

Ransom makes his own task (among other things) much harder when he accidentally ingests Magical Sex Salt and winds up despoiling Merlin (twice!) on her dead uncle's bed not five minutes later. This contrived coitus-causing condiment is never explained nor mentioned again. But that makes sense - why write Ransom as an Irresponsible Rake when you can just give him a magical potion that makes him one for three pages? Then he can go back to being your Man of Honour Hero without taking any pesky responsibility for his actions. The magical salt made him do it. Right.

Adding a crank of Creepy Pepper to this Gumbo of Stupid is the fact that Merlin clearly has no idea what's going on while it's happening, giving us a scene that reads pretty darn close to statutory rape.

See, this is why you don't have sex with children. If your partner is incapable of understanding what sex and its consequences are, you're doing it wrong. And if you write a heroine who talks like a baby, thinks like a baby, and fiddles with her lower lip like a baby, it's going to look really creepy when your hero fucks that baby.

Anyway, Ransom recovers from his, uh, sodium-induced boner to realize he's been an Exploitative Dick, so he decides to kidnap Merlin so she can continue to work on her inventions under his supervision and protection.

The novel picks up a bit at this point, because Ransom's family members are also in residence, and each one of them is about a billion times more nuanced, colourful, and interesting than our main pair. How could Laura Kinsale write women as complicated and interesting as Ransom's politically-minded sister Blythe, or his dramatic opera-singer ex-sister-in-law Jacqueline, and decide to make Professor Honey Boo Boo the heroine instead?

Yeah, I absolutely despised Merlin. While she's not quite as unbearable as Olympia from Seize the Fireat least that book acknowledged Olympia was an idiot once in a while, whereas Merlin's utter incomprehension of language, social conventions, adult behaviour, and advanced reasoning is depicted as Just So Precious by everyone in the novel. Merlin acts like a child - and the other characters coddle and treat her like one, which makes her burgeoning relationship with Ransom come off like Regency Lolita.

The secondary characters are pretty much the only reason I didn't DNF the novel. The main conflict between Ransom and Merlin is that Merlin's determined to build a flying machine, which scares the utter bejesus out of Ransom because he's so terrified of heights he's never even visited the second floor of his own house. Merlin tries to work on her machine, Ransom tries to talk/force/trick her out of it, Merlin gets angry, Ransom whines and apologizes, then tries a dirtier trick - until Merlin winds up kidnapped and has to be rescued. She gets kidnapped (and subsequently rescued) a lot. Because she's about as sharp as a bowling ball.

Their relationship is founded on Ransom constantly saving or easily tricking Merlin away from the danger she constantly puts herself in, and that is the last kind of romance I care to read about. I grew out of the Babysitters' Club books when I was in elementary school.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Once Upon a Blogger: "The Three Little Men in the Wood"

So there's this widower and this widow, see? Bonding over their shared experience of dead spouses, they decide to get hitched, with the widow promising to treat the widower's daughter even better than she treats her own.

You can just imagine how that turns out. The widower's daughter bathes in milk and drinks wine for about a day before her stepmother gets tired of being Not Evil and starts right in on the child abuse, while her own daughter remains free to bathe in and drink any bizarre combination of popular beverages she fancies.

Where is the widower in all of this? NOBODY CARES.

Anyway, during a blizzard, the stepmother gives her stepdaughter a paper cloak and crust of bread and orders her into the woods to fetch a basket of fresh strawberries.

Stepdaughter: "But why? They're not even in season--"

Stepmother: "Because I'm trying to kill you, obviously."

Stepdaughter: "Well, then. That makes sense."

The stepdaughter wanders off into the cold, because really, what choice does she have? She comes across a little house inhabited by three dwarves, and asks for shelter. After warming herself, she returns the favour by sharing her crust of bread with the dwarves and doing some housekeeping.

While's she's outside shovelling the walk, the three dwarves convene.

Dwarf #1: "Man, her life sucks, and she seems like a nice gal. I know! I'll make her grow more beautiful every day!"

Dwarf #2: "I'll make it so that gold drops out of her mouth every time she talks!"

Dwarf #3: "I'll arrange it so she'll marry a king!"

As a bonus, the stepdaughter uncovers strawberries while shovelling the walk, and takes those back to the house.

Meanwhile, the Stepmother's real daughter becomes jealous, because she's ugly and hateful and smells of sour milk after a lifetime spent bathing in nonpasteurized dairy products. So she wanders into the woods herself looking for the same result, but when she finds the dwarves' house she acts like a spoiled little turd.

Dwarf #1: "Man, that girl is a hot-ass mess. I'll make it so she gets uglier every day!"

Dwarf #2: "Is it just me, or does she smell like bad cheese? I'll make it so that toads jump out of her mouth every time she talks!"

Dwarf #3: "I'll make it so that she dies a miserable death!"

Dwarf #1: " Dark. I like it!"

Dwarf 2: "Oh, Number Three, you're so bad!"

So now the Stepmother has even more reasons to hate her stepdaughter, so she sends her stepdaughter ice fishing. Because if it doesn't kill her, she'll still be cold and bored for a few hours. Fortunately for the stepdaughter, a King wanders by and, intrigued by her superb ice-fishing skills, takes her home and marries her.

A few years later, after the young Queen's delivered of a fine baby Prince, her stepmother and stepsister decide to come visit, and the Queen lets them in for some unfathomable reason but quickly regrets it when the two women throw her out a window and into the river. The stepmother then puts her daughter in the Queen's bed instead, wrapping her up in a sheet.

King: "Why can't I see my wife? And why does the room smell like mayonnaise left out in the sun?"

Fake Queen: "I'm on my period!"

King: "ENOUGH SAID! ... wait, why are there four and a half toads in the room now?"

Stepmother: "Every woman menstruates differently, my King. Some get cramps, some spontaneously belch out toads..."

King: "RIGHT-OH! I'll just go hunting until your orifices stop emitting blood and amphibians!"

Thankfully, the real Queen doesn't die - she turns into a duck (as one does). With much quacking and flapping of wings, she conveys her troubles to a servant, who fetches the King. The spell is quickly undone (I guess people turn into ducks all the time on that river), but what to do about the evil step-relatives and their incredibly short-sighted plan?

The King approaches the bedchamber and asks, "Hey, if I really wanted to punish someone, how would I do it?"

Fake Queen: "Ooh! I know! I know! Drive a bunch of nails into a barrel, then roll the criminal down a hill in it!"

King: " Dark. I like it!"

Stepmother: "Oooh, you're so bad!"

22 Toads: "Ribbit! Ribbit!"

Unfortunately for the step-schemers, that's exactly how they wind up punished. And the King and his Queen lived happily ever after.

Not Suitable for Children:
  • Child Abuse
  • Attempted Child Murder
  • Attempted Queen Murder
  • Rudeness towards Dwarves
Points For:
  • Helpful Dwarves are like celebrity deaths: they come in either 3s or 7s. 
Points Deducted For:
  • Seriously, where was the girl's father this whole time? He's never seen dying or running away or anything. 
  • An evil stepmother who clearly has no sense of followthrough or longterm planning. Seriously how long would she have been able to fool the King that her cheese-scented daughter was really his wife?
And the Moral of the Story is: Don't fuck with dwarves.

Rating: Two Helpful Dwarves out of Three. 

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Once Upon a Blogger: "The Twelve Brothers"

So there's this King and Queen, see? And they have twelve sons, with another bun in the oven waiting to bring it to a baker's dozen. However, the King's sick to death of boys at this point.

So he tells his Queen, "Let's just be honest - dudes suck. Sexism is real and with our society's outdated patriarchal norms, if we have a daughter, I'll have to murder our 12 sons and make her the sole heir just to even things out. It's only fair."

Queen: *gasps* "MISANDRY!"

But by this point, the King's already fitted out a special room in the castle with twelve pre-built boy-sized coffins, just to prove he's serious, singing, "Who run the world? GIRLS! Who run this mutha? GIRLS!" under his breath.

To protect her sons, the Queen orders them to hide in the forest and wait for her to raise a flag on the day her baby is born. If it's a boy, she'll raise a white flag and they'll be able to return. If she has a girl, she'll raise an overly-symbolic red flag, and the boys'll have to run for the hills.

Unfortunately, 12 days later, the Queen raises the red flag, dooming the boys' futures.

12 Princes: "OMG, women suck!"

Prince #1: "We should totally murder any women we come across! Because they SUCK so much!"

Prince #5: "Even better - let's sign a Lady-Murderin' Pact!"

12 Princes: "HUZZAH! This totally won't bite us in the ass later on!"

Ten years later, their sister the Princess figures out she used to have brothers (the room with the 12 empty coffins was kind of a giveaway) and goes into the woods to find them, eventually discovering her youngest brother (Benjamin) tending their cottage.

Princess: "Hey! I'm your sister!"

Benjamin: "OMG, and you don't suck!" Benjamin is overjoyed to re-discover his baby sister, and so are his 11 brothers - once he tricks them out of their Lady-Murdering pact. Because murder is terrible and everything, but breaking a pact is even worse!

So all the siblings live happily for a while in their cottage (and the Princess's parents never seem to notice she's missing, despite the fact that her dad was willing to butcher his other children in order to enlarge her inheritance), until the Princess fucks it all up because women suck. While in the garden outside the cottage, she spots 12 lilies and plucks them, hoping to make a tasteful centrepiece. However, the moment she does so, the house and garden disappear, and her brothers turn into crows.

12 Crows: "Caw, caw!" (translation: OMG, women suck!)

Random Old Expository Woman: "WTF?! Why'd you pick those magic flowers? You've cursed your brothers forever!"

Princess: "This is literally the first I've heard of this!"

Random Old Expository Woman: *rolls eyes* "Women!"

Princess: "What can I do?"

Random Old Expository Woman: "If you remain perfectly silent and never laugh for 7 years, your brothers will be cured, but if you so much as chuckle before those seven years are up, they'll all die!" *vanishes in a puff of smoke*

So our faithful Princess zips her lips and holes up in a tree with some late-career Adam Sandler DVDs for five of those years, until a King and his hunting party pass by. The King falls in love with the Princess and marries her, and for the next two years is creepily happy with a wife who never talks or laughs. However, the Princess' mother-in-law is hella creeped out and nags her son about it so much he agrees to have his wife burned at the stake just to shut her up (women, am I right?)

Coincidentally, the seven years run out just as the Princess is being lit on fire, so her twelve brothers become human again in time to rescue her and for some reason the King is okay with not-burning her anymore and people live happily ever after for no reason.

Not Suitable for Children:
  • Sexism
  • Child murder
  • Child-Flower Murder
  • Lady-Murdering Pacts
  • Shade-Throwing Mums-In-Law
Points Added For:
  • The Princess having to save the Princes - even if she manages it by literally doing nothing but not speaking.
Points Deducted For:
  • Like, yay King for valuing his daughter, but at the expense of murdering his other kids? What the hell?
  • The Princess is blamed for literally everything despite being responsible for nothing
  • So ... do those 12 brothers keep up their lady-murdering pact, like, indefinitely? How many unlucky women dropped by their dude cottage before their sister happened by?
And the moral of the story is: women ruin everything.

Rating: 7 unjustly exiled brothers out of 12.