Saturday, 22 September 2012

Release Date: February 2011

Price:around $18.00

My friend bought DA2 from Amazon. Then she began to rave about it. I mean, seriously rave. Eventually, I wanted to know what all the fuss was about. So she let me borrow the game, and give it a try. I have so many good things and a few bad, to say about this game. (I have an entire rant devoted to Orsino. Seriously, Orsino what the hell? Also, I have a second rant devoted to my character's friends and proposed love interests. Why am I friends with all these dysfunctional people, much less encouraged to be in relationships with them? Why do they play cards and have beers with each other, but whenever I turn up its all “Wah wah, help me Hawke. I'm needy and in pain, and no one understands me”? When is it Hawke's turn for cards and beer?)

But most of those things have already been said before, by a ton of people. I really am arriving late to the debate this time. So, I'm going to hold off on saying everything I want to about this game (since that blog post would be epic-novel length) and focus on one aspect of it instead; Aveline.

Since Anita Sarkeesian's kickstarter project aimed at exploring the depiction of women in games, and the forceful backlash that project received, I've been paying more attention to the female NPC's in the games I enjoy. Sometimes, I wish I weren't. (For more on Sarkeesian's project, go here).

I'm not going to make the ludicrous claim that I never noticed the objectification of women in the games I enjoy until now. I would have had to have been playing these games with my eyes closed and wearing ear plugs in order to avoid this. Sure, Ivy in Soul Calibur is a ridiculous dominatrix-character wearing an outfit that I have trouble believing she could easily sit down in much less fight in (seriously, her boobs should be springing free of her costume every time she turns around. . . or is it not really costume but simply a thick coat of paint?).

Don't worry, her left arm is totally protected from attack.

And the outfit made primarily out of hair in Bayonetta that can become more or less revealing depending on your combat choices makes me cringe when I think about it. The list of female characters I was ignoring could basically go on forever.

Want to save some money? Just wear your own hair.

But I did begin to willfully ignore it. Often, it seemed that the only way I could enjoy the games I wanted to play was to imaginatively put on blinders and play the game without paying attention to character depiction.

I'm also not going to make the claim that female characters are the only ludicrous characters in video games (Soul Calibur, I'm looking at you again).

I think this picture speaks for itself. I'm just not sure what it's saying.

Nor, here, am I going to discuss how and why the objectification of women in games is or might be different from other ludicrous depictions of male characters. I have not conducted a study of this material, (as Sarkeesian is planning to do) and can in no way claim to be an expert here, or even widely informed. I am speaking of my own gaming experience only.

But I do want to talk about Aveline. Because, seriously, I love this character. She was like a breath of fresh air to me. My main character first meets Aveline and her husband fighting for their lives against the blight in Lothering. Shortly after the battle, it becomes apparent that Avenline's husband is dying, and needs to be put out of his misery. I could choose to do this myself, but it felt awkward to make such an offer when I barely knew these two people, so I left it up to her. She killed her own husband to spare him the pain of dying as a result of the blight, in a move that was both strong and heart-aching.

Unlike other female characters in the Dragon Age storyline, Aveline is fully clothed.

What happened to Morrigan's shirt?

Aveline also looks like a warrior. She's dressed for battle. Not only do I not fear that her boobs might fly out of her armor at a moment's notice, I also do not fear that a sword will simply slice through her exposed flesh. There isn't any exposed flesh. Aveline is not here to be sexy, or enticing, or flirty. She means business. She is here to fight, and kill if necessary.

But, and here's where things got interesting for me, I would not say that Aveline is simply a man-with-tits warrior. There is always a risk when one writes a woman-warrior that one will simply end up with a stereo-typical warrior-male in a woman-shaped body. But Aveline, somehow, manages to avoid this. She is not a man, she is definitely a woman. She is also not the tough-but-brittle female warrior figure that one often sees. She isn't simply out to prove herself as tough as any man. In fact, the issue of her sex rarely comes up in her decisions to pursue the career she does. She likes being a guard. Maintaining law and order is important to her sense of identity and purpose. She is also secure in her sense of self, at least most of the time. 

One of the funniest quests in the game is Aveline's Companion Quest where Aveline, very shyly and awkwardly, asks for Hawke's help in courting a man. She has flaws, just as much as she has strengths. She's not a sex symbol or a stereotypical out-for-blood warrior. Rather than being a flat one-dimensional character, either portrayed exclusively through sexuality or blood-lust, Aveline is complex. She's a fully rounded woman. She is also (which amounts to saying the same thing) a fully rounded human being.

Having discussed female NPC's with other gaming friends, I know that Aveline is far from being an exception. However, I don't believe she is the norm either. And so I love Aveline for being strong, smart, funny, compassionate, kind, and vulnerable. I love her for being a female character that I can understand and identify with. I love her because when I'm playing DA2 with Aveline, I don't have to set part of my mind to willfully ignore her attire and mannerisms. She isn't trying to catch my eye with a flash of cleavage, and she isn't trying to seduce me. As a result, I can simply enjoy the game.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Title: Tangled
Produced by:  Walt Disney
Release date: 2010

So, when I was growing up I was pretty much obsessed with fairy-tales (which nicely foreshadowed my adult addiction to speculative fiction). One of my favorite fairy-tales of all time was Rapunzel. I couldn't really say why, in retrospect, but I loved this story. And when I was a child I really, really wanted Disney to make a movie of this story. So, when I belatedly realized as an adult that this childhood desire had finally come to pass, I immediately tracked down the film. (I say immediately, I was only two years late, after all!)

Tangled is Disney's adaptation of the Rapunzel story. For the first third of the film, I was largely underwhelmed. The film begin with Rapunzel's mother extremely pregnant and deathly ill. The witch, by contrast, apparently has some magical flower that keeps her eternally young and beautiful (a primary goal of most witches ). Well, word of this flower's existence reaches the king (did I mention that, in this version of the story Rapunzel's parents are royalty?) and soldiers march out to collect the flower. It's taken. The Queen lives. Either the King doesn't realize that the flower belongs to the witch, or decides not to compensate her for her loss because, well, he is the King (so maybe all the land, and the flowers, really belong to him. I don't know). The witch has lost her flower, but somehow discerns that its magical healing properties have been transferred to the Queen's fetus, and so steals Rapunzel away from her royal family in the middle of the night. It's only fair, the flower did belong to the witch, after all. And now, apparently, Rapunzel possesses the essence of the flower, so now that essence probably belongs to the witch, too. Unfortunately, the essence now comes in a baby-package and has to be cared for and raised. Longevity has become pretty taxing. I almost feel sorry for the witch.

And I'm confused about this passing of the flower-essence. Is Rapunzel going to keep aging? She certainly turns from a fetus to a baby and to an adolescent, so she looks like she's aging. What happens to the flower essence when Rapunzel dies? Maybe it gets passed onto her kids?

I know, I know, I'm over-thinking it. Anyway, it's not exactly like the original fairy-tale of Rapunzel was a shining example of air-tight story-telling, or logical thought process. This retelling of the Rapunzel story has a lot of bonuses over the fairy-tale that I loved as a child. For one, the reason behind the witch's desire for the child is clear. For another, the reason behind the witch's desire to lock Rapunzel up in a tower is also clearly explained. Rapunzel is essentially a walking, talking fountain of youth here. She's a rare commodity. So of course you'd want to protect her from thieves once you've rightfully stolen her.

If you don't know the opening of the original Rapunzel story, here is the version I knew as a kid: Rapunzel's pregnant mom gets a strong craving for radishes and feels like she will die without them. This is usually played up as an extreme case of odd pregnancy cravings. So, Rapunzel's dad sees a bunch of really good looking radishes in a garden. He thinks of his poor wife (and his own apparent incompetency as a farmer), and he hops the fence into this garden and steals a pile of radishes. But, in addition to being a poor farmer, he's also a poor thief, and he gets busted by the witch (who owns the garden). She says he can have the radishes if he give her his first born child. (because baddies in fairy-tales always want first-born kids, that's why.) He agrees, and takes the radishes home. When Rapunzel is born, the witch shows up, and dad has to explain to mom where those radishes came from all those months before. Then, having secured the first-born child, the witch locks her up in a tower. Why? I have no idea. Given my experience of fairy-tales, I sort of expected the witch to eat her. Maybe she's saving her for later, okay?

Compare the two intros:

Downside to the original: there is no explanation as to why the witch would want this kid, other than the typical fairy-tale assumption that witches are always out to get babies. (get babies and retain their own youth, do fairy-tale witches know something we don't?) It's also not clear why the witch would lock this kid up, since her parents are peasants and probably aren't going to come storming her house with an army demanding the return of their child anytime soon. Disney's version has the original beat here.

Upsides to the original: Simply put, it's funnier. I enjoyed imagining the scene where the desperate father makes a reckless bargain with the witch to satisfy his wife's cravings. It illustrates that parents can make mistakes too, and avoids any gooey reunion between a parent and long-lost daughter. (Oh come on, you knew that was coming in the Disney film. That doesn't count as a spoiler.) In addition, Rapunzel has the distinction of being a fairy-tale heroine who isn't a princess. She's just the daughter of peasants. That's pretty rare.

So, I was a bit upset with Disney for altering Rapunzel's back-story so drastically such that she becomes a princess, and her parents never made the bargain to give her away to the witch. But these complaints are just the bickering of someone who loved the original. If you didn't love it, or don't remember it, these points won't matter.

Points that might affect your enjoyment of the film:

The hero, Flynn Ryder, is hilarious. Just as Rapunzel has morphed into a princess from a peasant, the prince from the original story has morphed into a con-artist thief. He's an entertaining character and given some brilliant lines. There is also a pretty funny horse who seems to think he is a dog (seriously, a horse that tracks like a blood-hound with his bum in the air and his nose to the ground, priceless). Rapunzel herself is a bit too sugary sweet, (and is even dressed in a pale pink dress with puffed sleeves) but that's mostly easy to overlook. So the hero and horse-dog held my attention and were good for several laughs throughout the film. The other characters in the film were mainly forgettable, but not annoying.

While I gave Disney credit for taking a mostly nonsensical opening to the fairy-tale and updating it so that its actually coherent, this coherence doesn't carry through for the rest of the plot. At one point a bunch of blood-thirsty thieves are all turned into sappy do-gooders based on nothing more that Rapunzel's sugary-sweet presence and a sub-par song. Later in the film, these reformed thieves just happen to show up at the right time to save our hero, though the explanation for why they were able to do this is a bit fuzzy. Wait, actually it's non-existent.

Like most of Disney's film adaptations of fairy-tales, this is a musical. The music is pretty bad, but probably no worse that most of the other films. So if other Disney musical scores didn't annoy you, this one probably won't either. It seems to me to be less imaginative than some of their other musical efforts, but it's fine.

Rapunzel's hair was awesome in this film. I loved it. It essentially dominates pretty much any scene it's in.

Don't read this if you plan to see the film. Skip to the next paragraph now. . .
Okay, if you are still reading, here's where I got upset again. In line with the original Rapunzel story, the witch in this story is killed. What's odd to me is that she's also raised Rapunzel to think of her as a mother. So, essentially, Rapunzel's mother is killed, and Rapunzel is present to see it. But she gets over this pretty quickly, without really shedding any tears. I suppose finding out that you're a princess helps you deal with things like your dead mom. The film spent a lot of time illustrating the bond between Rapunzel and her 'mom,' so I found this hard to believe. Again, I'm over-thinking it. But I wasn't alone in the crowd of people I watched this with in raising an eyebrow when Rapunzel tears up a bit, and then in the next scene is fine.

Overall, I was amused. I think the thing that put me off the most was the music, and the need to transform Rapunzel into a princess. These factors were mostly offset by the hero and the horse-dog. Yes, I found the resolution a bit odd, the heroine a bit sickly-sweet, and the music a bit bland, but this is a Disney film intended for kids. I think kids would enjoy it, based on the hair, Flynn Ryder and and the horse-dog, if nothing else.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Author: Cate Rowan
Release Date: August 2010
Price: $3.94

This is an unlikely tale of love. Our hero, Kuramos, is Sultan of Kad, father of three children, and husband of six women. Our heroine, Varene, is a royal healer from Teganne, where they don't practice polygynous marriages (yes, polygynous, the people Kad aren't wild about a 'multiple husbands' scenario). She is brought to Kad after a mysterious illness strikes the people closest to the Sultan—his wives and children—as well as certain other members of the royal household. With his own physician dead of an unrelated accident, Kuramos must turn to his enemies, requesting that Teganne send their own healer to aid him. Soon Varene and Kuramos find themselves intensely attracted to each other, but both are struggling with the vast cultural and social differences that separate them and challenge their ideas of what true love should look like.

This is another story that I began as a free read on my kindle, and purchased after reading the first 10%. The price is a bit higher than the other tales I have reviewed so far (in fact, at $4.00 it is close to what I pay for my beloved Terry Pratchett books when they are on sale) but I think it is worth the cost. This romance was unique and surprising. The story is told in the third person, typically from Varene's or Kuramos's point of view. At first, while in Varene's point of view, I bristled a bit at her sense of superiority over Kuramos's culture. I feared that this book might simply endorse old colonial stereotypes. But I was pleasantly surprised. Those colonial views were Varene's, not the authors, and they slowly changed over the course of the book. The book neither endorses nor outright condemns polygyny, though over the course of the book the general sense is that a monogamous relationship is preferred. However, Rowan explores the vast cultural web of her fictional country of Kad, creating a society in which the reader can see the logic of accepting multiple wives, even if this is not endorsed as a positive arrangement. Rowan demonstrates that things are rarely black and white.

There are, however, several things that bothered me about this book. The first is very minor. All the characters in this tale are hundreds of years old. Kuramos, for example, is over 200. But there doesn't seem to be any real point to this longevity. It doesn't serve any function in the story, leaving me wondering needlessly about it for far to long, only to realize that this aspect of the fantasy world Rowan has created is essentially inert in the story. I say this is minor because Rowan has written other tales in the same universe, and in those tales it may well be that this longevity serves a purpose. If not, it seems to be difference for difference's sake, which I found mildly annoying. It was as though the author was whispering in my ear 'see, this is a fictional world' every time someone's age was mentioned.

The second thing that bothered me was more substantial, and more problematic to blog about; the ending. I don't want to give the ending away, since I found this to be an entertaining read and I don't want to spoil it for others, but I must express some of my dissatisfaction here. The main plot arc of the mysterious illness striking members of the sultan's family mostly wraps up surprisingly early in this tale. Basically, that plot arc is all but finished by the time you are a little more than half-way through the book. As I looked at my Kindle's indicator and realized that I was almost 60% of the way through, and the mystery was mostly solved, I was puzzled. What was the rest of this book going to be about? Just the romance?

Basically, yes. Not that there wasn't a lot to explore in the romance. There was cultural differences, scars from previous relationships, and six wives to deal with. That's a lot. But I felt a bit cheated. Romance novels without story-lines just seem a bit boring to me. I was losing interest as I flipped through the pages. Near the end, there are some surprise plot twists, but they felt to me as though they came right out of the blue. There was little foreshadowing of these events, and I began to feel as though these was less of a coherent story than an attempt to rekindle my interest late in the game with some stuff pulled out of thin air. I think the mystery could have been handled in a more suspenseful way than it was, and I got the impression that the story was somewhat sacrificed to the romance.

Finally, the conclusion of the romance story arch also left me feeling a bit dissatisfied. I wanted another chapter or two illustrating how things would play out. And I'm not entirely convinced that I buy everyone's motivations and decisions. We are dealing with eight people in this relationship, effectively: Varene, Kuramos, and the six wives. I don't feel that I got to know all the characters well enough to accept their decisions (and with one in particular, I don't buy the decision at all as fitting with the character I came to know).

However, Kuramos was a strong, sexy and appealing male lead. Varene was an enjoyable and sympathetic female lead, and the surprise of having a romance in this unique situation kept me reading. I'm impressed with the angle, and with how effective it was.

Friday, 6 July 2012

Distributor: Nickelodeon
Dates Aired: 2005-2008

This was, I think, a brilliant children's TV show. But you may not know how brilliant it is. There are probably two reasons for this: First, unfortunately for the show James Cameron decided to make a move entitled “Avatar” in 2009 which effectively wreaked havoc with any google-search attempt to find the TV show. Now, anyone trying to find the TV show has to know the full title (including the sub-title after the colon) in order to get what they are looking for. Second, and arguably more damning, is the live-action film adaptation of the TV show that came out in 2010 under the title The Last Airbender. This film really did not do the story justice. If your first exposure to the characters, world, and storyline of Avatar came from this film, then no one would blame you for failing to be curious about the TV show.

But really, you should encourage your kids to see this show. Hell, even if you don't have kids, you should check out this show. Let me tell you why:

Avatar: The Last Airbender is set in a world where there are magic wielders known as 'benders'. These benders can control, or bend, one of the four elements: earth, water, fire or air. Each of these elements also represents a group of people, the Earth Kingdom, Water Tribes, Fire Nation and Air Nomads. However, the Avatar (of which there is only one in every generation) can bend all four elements, and also has mystical connections to the spirit realm. The fantasy world is heavily influenced by Eastern religious and philosophical practices, and even the motions carried out by benders were modeled on different styles of martial arts. A lot of thought, care and planning went into creating this world. Each of the four groups of people has unique clothing, hair styles, food preferences, and bending styles, leading to a real sense that we are dealing with four different cultures here. In addition, the religious beliefs and the mythology surrounding the Avatar are well crafted and explained. This is a surprisingly rich fantasy world to find in a children's TV show.

The story centers on Aang, who you may have guessed from the title is the 'last airbender'. The Fire Nation, we are told, started a war against the other nations over a hundred years ago. Their first act of war was to wipe out the Air Nomads because they knew the Avatar was among them (and he is obviously their biggest threat to victory). However, Aang was not captured and instead wound up at the South Pole frozen in a block of ice for a hundred years, only to be discovered by Water Tribe brother and sister, Sokka and Katara. From here, these three children set out to teach Aang how to wield the awesome power and control the daunting responsibility of being the Avatar, while also seeking a way to stop the Fire Nation's slow rise towards world domination.

We see Aang as a twelve-year-old boy who wants to be reckless and have fun, but doesn't want to shoulder the responsibility he has inherited by virtue of his birth. He struggles against his calling, even running away at times. He is not simply a 'little adult' but really is a child asked to take on more than he thinks he can manage. Because he is twelve, Katara is fourteen, and Sokka is only fifteen, this show begins as a bit of an irritant for an adult audience. I won't lie, I found some of Sokka's jokes to be extremely lame and annoying, and at times I was irritated with the children for acting so irresponsibility. I may have even literally yelled at the screen a few times during episodes where the kids are off having fun and playing games. I think I said something to the effect of:

Hello, guys? There's a WAR going on, remember? How is eating iced mango fruit juice, or going to see a play going to help here? Come on! Focus!”

But, they are children. The show is written for children. And, oddly, throughout the show's three seasons, I came to know and like them all, even Sokka.

The relationship between Sokka and Katara reminded me of my own relationship with my brother. We might poke fun at each other, call each other names, and find ways to gross each other out, but at bottom we love each other. (I know, that's not something siblings are supposed to admit, so if you're reading, Kiddo, just skim over this sentence and pretend I didn't say it!) That same sibling rivalry is found here. Sokka teases Katara mercilessly, raising her to anger as no one else in the ever-expanding group of supporting cast can, but it is always shown that he cares about her, and that she cares about him too. The main characters are real, believable and fully three-dimensional, a rare thing in a children's cartoon show.

Don't get me wrong, I love the Power Puff Girls, Danny Phantom and The Fairly Odd Parents, but there isn't a lot of depth there! Even shows like Teen Titan which show more depth and character development often slide into the easy way to deliver depth: angst-filled depression where every character has this horrible back-story that they must overcome. Sure, it brings depth. But at the cost of copious amounts of black eye-liner.

In fact, surprisingly, all the characters in Avatar are believable, including the enemy. (Unlike, say, Aku from Samurai Jack. What exactly is his motivation other than evil=fun? Not saying I didn't enjoy Samurai Jack, its just refreshing to see an 'evil' character that isn't one-dimensional. Actually, scratch that. Aku makes a valid point; evil is fun.)

Zuko, exiled prince of the fire nation, set with the task of capturing Aang in order to regain his honor, starts the series as a typical 'bad guy'. He's brooding, angry, inflammatory (get it, fire-nation prince? Groan.), and doggedly pursuing Aang with a vengeance. However, over time we begin to see why Zuko is like this. We also learn, especially in the third season, that the members of the Fire Nation are humans. They are not just plain evil for the sake of being evil. In addition, we learn early on that members of the Earth Kingdom and Water Tribes have their flaws. The message is clear. No one is a stereotype. Every culture houses both good and bad people, and every person has their virtues and their faults. This is a pretty sophisticated idea. In fact, I know a fair number of adults who haven't grasped this. (What, enemies are people too?!)

Finally, and perhaps most surprisingly, this show does not treat children like idiots. Often children's shows are so simplistic that you know how the plot will end shortly after the opening credits roll. And your kids know it too. Because, lets face it, kids aren't idiots. Nope, kids are probably the ones teaching most of us how to use the bewildering technology in our homes, like a tiny army of domestic IT specialists. This show respects that fact and kept the surprises coming. Not all the plot-twists were surprising, but enough came out of the blue to keep me guessing.

So I recommend Avatar: The Last Airbender for exhibiting careful world-building with attention to detail, for having deep and realistic character development and for encouraging all its viewers to think instead of just being spoon-fed. Great little gem of a show.

Besides, you have to get caught up on the back-story, because Nickelodeon has just aired the sequel The Legend of Korra this year! It wrapped on June 23rd with a 2-hour season finale. And once you've realized how awesome Avatar is, get ready to squeal like a Power Puff Girl because the sequel is set in a steampunk world. Squee!!!

Friday, 22 June 2012

Lilith Saintcrow
Release Date:
December 2011

I got a trial sample of this book on my ereader for free a while ago, and the sample just sat there as I kept being distracted by pesky things like real life. Finally, one quiet evening, I found that I had time to take a look at this book. I began reading the sample. I continued reading the sample. I couldn't put it down. In a style reminiscent of Jacqueline Carey, Saintcrow created an alternate history set in what appears to be Renaissance-era France. In fact, it was a bit too much like Carey's work at first. But I really enjoyed Carey's novels, so wasn't put off by the similarity.

The story is told in the first person past-tense. The main character, Vianne, is a noble woman serving the princess and next in line to the throne of Arquitaine. She's also a hedgewitch. At the start of the book it isn't quite clear what this means other than that Vianne spends a lot of time digging in gardens and running around in something called 'garden boots' (I was picturing Wellingtons here for no good reason!). But it is clear that there is a distinction between two kinds of magic, 'court sorcery' and 'hedge witchery' and by the very sounds of each name, you can guess that hedge witchery is near the bottom of the pecking order in terms of glamour and importance. So, the MC is a noble woman, but she's frequently dirty and running around in boots instead of slippers, and she practices a type of magic that is devalued by those around her. Translation; she's sort of an outcast, or a geek if you will.

But this magical system isn't what grabbed me. In fact the magical system is never clearly explained, though there seem to be some important connections between Court sorcery and the monarch. No, the assassination is what grabbed me. The assassination that pulls Vianne's world down around her in the dark of night, leaving her holding the dead bodies of those she cares about one moment, and running away with a tall dark stranger the next. Enter the hero of the book, Tristan. He's a dark, broody and secretive captain of the king's guard, and is now all that stands between Vianne and death. It was at this point that my free trial ran out and I hastily pressed the 'buy' button on the kindle store website.

Now, looking back, I can fully understand why I selected to buy this book for a measly $2.99, but I ended up dissatisfied. The MC spends a large chunk of the next part of the book (in fact, about 50% of the total novel) ill. She loses consciousness. A lot. She sleeps. A lot. She is shivering and weak all the time, and she spends a lot of time trying to get her sluggish wits working. The reader is told again and again that Vianne has a sharp mind. Her companions report this, she reports it, and even her own vague memories of unraveling unspecified court intrigue are supposed to illustrate and support this facet of her character. But it is very hard to believe these reports and these memories when she is unable to get her wits working for about 50% of the book. She misses things that are obvious to the reader (and also, often, obvious to her companions) and frankly doesn't seem to have a very sharp mind at all. That, combined with her constant illness and weakness, and with the fact that the story is told in the first person, results in a frustrating read.

I tried to cut Vianne some slack. She did just witness the murder of several people she cared about—that's gotta be a shock (to say the least!). And she caught a flu or fever, so of course her wits aren't working as sharply as they normally would. I recognize all of this. But the illness and sluggishness just seemed to drag on too long. I found myself losing interest in the main character.

And then there was the romance. I really wanted to like the romance. I was in the mood for a good romance. For me, this wasn't it. Tristan has all the characteristics of a good hero. He's brooding, secretive (in a way Vianne never seems to pick up on—then again her wits are sluggish) and occasionally has a precise, controlled violence that's pretty appealing in a renaissance hero. He's a bit pig-headed, but not too much. And (and this is a classic romance-move) he's been pining for Vianne for a long, long time. Perfect, right?

Romance is an individual thing. I think the Tristan-Vianne romance might work for some, but for me it fell flat. I'm going to try to explain why: I believed that he cared for her, and even loved her. I believed his emotions entirely. But, I didn't believe hers. This is especially odd, since the tale was told in the first person. Or maybe it was because the tale was told in the first-person that this was my reaction. Vianne never tells the reader that her pulse quickened, stomach flip-flopped or heart skipped a beat at the sight of Tristan. She never gives us any physical indication that she cares for him. In fact, for a while I wasn't sure whether she did care for him. She admits that he's attractive, but that seems to be the extent of her interest in him, almost as though he's merely eye-candy. Rather, it seems that she comes to care for him only because she recognizes that he loves her. Sort of: “oh, he loves me. Well, I guess I should be with him then.” Yes, she says that she loves him. But it doesn't feel as though she loves him.

By the time my ereader informed me that I was 80% of the way through the book, I was determined to see it through to the end, but I was pretty tired of the story. However, I will admit that, in the last few pages, there is an interesting twist. I was glad to see it, and it has left me mildly curious about the next book in this series. But, since I'm not invested in the romance, I doubt I'll be buying the next book.

Friday, 8 June 2012

Book Comments

Authors: Terry Pratchett and Terry Pratchett
Publication Date: 1992 (and 1971)

What follows isn't a review. Just some thoughts that occurred to me while reading one of my favourite author's more mysterious books.

First, a disclaimer: I love Terry Pratchett's fiction. Seriously. Love. It. I went in with high hopes and a full expectation to enjoy the book. What I did not expect was to spend so much time pondering the introduction. Not that there weren't many other clever 'Pratchettie' things going on in this book, because there definitely were. Tongue-in-cheek jokes about how to take over an empire using currency instead of swords, jabs at philosophers (that one hit close to home, given my degree in philosophy!) and a fascinating race known as the wights who can remember the future, that is, until one day they can't! (Cue existential crisis).

But, as I said, what I want to focus on is the introduction, where Pratchett tells us that this book was written by two authors, and both of them have the same name. One is seventeen-year-old Terry Pratchett. The other is forty-three year old Terry Pratchett, established author of the Discworld novels. Pratchett tells his readers that, when the Discworld novels became popular, people rediscovered this little book. By then the book was out of print, but the fans began pestering the publishing company for a copy of this book, if it was indeed by the same author as the Discworld. The question was, was it by the same author?

The answer in this case is a bit complicated. On the one hand, yes it was by the same author in a strictly legal and practical sense. But, in a more personal sense, no, the author was no longer the same. Pratchett tells us that he looked at the old manuscript and found that many of his ideas had changed in the intervening years. He thought differently about what made a good story in general, and what made a good fantasy story in particular. He decided a few things needed to be changed here and there, and ultimately ended up rewriting the entire book. So, the 1992 edition isn't quite the sort of book that the forty-three year old Pratchett would write if he were to approach the same subject matter again, and it isn't the same book that the seventeen-year-old Pratchett wrote in 1971. It's a collaborative effort. But, jokes Pratchett, at least he doesn't have to split the royalty cheque with the other author!

This introduction fascinated me. As I read the book, I wondered about which aspects were the seventeen-year-old Pratchett's contribution, and which were the forty-three-year-old's. I wondered about what the book looked like in its 1971 incarnation. I wondered if we all grow to fundamentally disagree with our earlier selves. And, finally, I wondered about the self itself. What is it that makes us who we are? (Cue existential crisis! I know, I know, there's a joke about philosophers lurking here somewhere.)

It's curious to me that Pratchett couldn't let the book stay as his seventeen-year-old self had written it. Writers often talk about their books as their babies, that they are unwilling to send out into the world. But in a sense, these books can be something else as well; they are often parts of the writer's self. The 1971 book could tell us something about what seventeen-year-old Pratchett thought about the world, what he valued, and what he found funny. The 1992 book mixes this up, leaving me curious and bewildered.

Identity, persona and authorship are all tricky concepts. Did Pratchett have a right to rewrite the book? Legally, of course he did. But part of me is left with an image in my head of a forty-three-year-old man muzzling a seventeen-year-old boy. Or is it a forty-three-year-old man guiding and refining a seventeen-year-old's rough ideas?

Whether muzzling or mentoring, I cannot say. But I enjoyed trying to puzzle it out. Now I wonder whether all writers cringe at the efforts of their younger selves. Maybe growing up is just growing embarrassed.

If so, I guess we only have ourselves to blame.

Monday, 21 May 2012

V.J. Chambers

Facing a break from the day job, and willfully ignoring a pile of work I should have otherwise been doing, I hit the road and went to crash at a friend's place for the weekend, bringing my ereader with me. I fully intended to spend time catching up with my friend, but then V.J. Chambers hit me with a literary ton of bricks!

I began this book with lowered expectations. After all, I had just 'purchased' it for free, so how good could it be? The beginning was not inspiring, as I realized that it is written in the present-tense, a quality I usually detest in stories. It began with the story of a teen-aged girl who was making out with a boy on the bleachers. Really, the bleachers? This is an old, highly stereotypical image, and I was already losing interest. Besides, the girl in question (our protagonist, Olivia) has a car. Can't she just ask the boy (Brice) to head back to the back seat? It has to be more comfortable than the bleachers. But, with my friend already in bed for the night, I decided to flip through a few more pages. And in the next page or two, the stereotype was shattered. Entirely.

While these two characters are trying to figure out how, exactly, the act of copulation was supposed to work (I did mention that they were teen-agers, right? Did I also mention that they were drunk? And inexperienced?) one of them, Brice, turns into a monster. Not a werewolf. Not a vampire (thank God) but a Berserker. The clearest way I can think of to describe a Berserker is to compare them to Reavers from the Firefly series by Joss Whedon a few years back. They are human-shaped still, but act like rabid animals.

Our MC, Olivia, immediately jumps into action to bring Brice safely to her Nona who may be able to preform a magic charm on him, while avoiding having her formerly-amorous-now-rabid friend tear a piece out of her jugular. This is the reader's introduction to the magic-system in this story. It hits like an 18 wheeler. Up until this point I wasn't even sure the book belonged in the Fantasy genre.

From here Olivia gets caught up in a tangled plot to try to uncover dark secrets about her parents' past, discover what has become of her mother, and watch her back as her treacherous cousin, Vincent, competes with her for control of the family 'business'. She juggles all this while dealing with her growing feelings for Brice, their relationship only complicated by his tendency to revert to a Berserker every night at midnight.

The world is contemporary, and the magic fits into it seamlessly, and uniquely. Far from the stereotypical novel I feared with the opening bleachers scene, Chambers has found a novel and intriguing role for magic to play in her world. My one quibble about the magic system is that there are too many unanswered questions. I don't know how the magic of Olivia's family works, exactly, or whether it's difficult to use. I don't entirely know if this is a magic everyone can preform if they have the right training, or whether it requires innate talent. Besides a few entertainment examples, I'm not even sure what the magic is—or can be—used for. Chambers spends little time on the details here. But this is just book one of three, and a lot of the intrigue surrounds magic-use, so perhaps more information is delivered in the next few books.

Overall, the book was a page-turning, fast-paced, enjoyable read that kept me from seeking interpersonal contact for a large part of the weekend! Olivia is a well-rounded main character and fairly believable as a seventeen-year old. Many of the other characters do not seem as multifaceted but that's often the case with first-person narratives. At times, though there is a lot of action happening, the plot did not advance as quickly as I'd like, leaving me feeling frustrated. But in general the book grabbed—and held—my interest from the moment Brice's eyes turned red, signaling his change.

Will I buy the next two books at $3.99 a pop? I am not sure yet. Though I enjoyed this tale quite a bit, I left it feeling an odd lack of curiosity about what will happen next in the mystery-plot surrounding Olivia's family. I don't quite know why this is but, for some reason, I don't feel that I care enough about the mc to be worried about what happens to her. But who knows. As the weeks stretch on, curiosity might get the better of me.

And how does one become a Berserker? Believe it or not, its a magical STI.