Thursday 28 February 2019

Shout-Out: Cogheart by Peter Bunzl

Thirteen-year-old Lily Harman always dreamed of adventure. A strong-willed girl, Lily felt trapped in a life of Victorian stuffiness at her prim boarding school. But after her father-a famous inventor-disappears on a routine zeppelin flight, Lily's life gets turned upside down.

Now cared for by her guardian, the heartless Madame Verdigris, Lily is quite certain that she's being watched. Mysterious, silver-eyed men are lurking in the shadows, just waiting for their chance to strike. But what could they possibly want from her?

There are rumors, Lily learns, that her father had invented the most valuable invention ever made-a perpetual motion machine. But if he made such a miraculous discovery, he certainly never told Lily. And all he left behind is a small box-with no key, no hinges.

With the help of a clockmaker's son, Robert, and her mechanimal fox, Malkin, Lily escapes London in search of the one person who might know something about her father's disappearance-and what he left behind.

Tuesday 26 February 2019

Book Review: The Afterward by E. K. Johnston

Pros: great romance, optimistic, inclusive

Cons: tenses changes often bumped me out of the story

A year after successfully using the godsgem to defeat the Old God, the seven questers returned to their lives. Sir Erris Quicksword married the King. Mage Ladros took the gem to the Mage Keep in case it’s needed again. Their thief, Olsa Rhetsdaughter paid off her debt but keeps getting picked up by the guards for thievery, which is becoming a problem as the king can no longer intercede on her behalf. Her lover, the apprentice knight Kalanthe Ironheart has also interceded several times, but her own problems - finding a rich husband before she’s knighted and her own debts come due - can no longer be ignored.

This is the story of what happens after the quest is over.

The novel alternates between scenes from the quest - which detail the quest itself and the burgeoning romance between Olsa and Kalanthe - and what’s happening in the present. Oddly, the present scenes are written in the past tense third person viewpoint whereas the past scenes are told from a first person present tense from either Olsa or Kalanthe’s point of view. On the one hand, this makes it very clear what period you’re in, on the other hand, it can be jarring going from one tense to the other.

I loved the characters. Seeing five female knights on a quest was great, especially when one was asexual and another was transgender. The romance between Olsa and Kalanthe developed organically in the flashback scenes and you can see them trying to come to terms with their choices - imposed and desired - in the present and how their circumstances and pride cause problems.

It was refreshing to read a quest story that shows how characters move on from the disruption to their lives and one that’s so unabashedly positive. There’s no shame around sex (or any of the pairings - all of which happen off screen, there’s no graphic content here), nor is race an issue (several characters have dark skin, and among them different hair care is required). There is a desert dweller who faces ridicule due to her background by side characters, but the questers accept her without question.  

This is a fantastic standalone novel, perfect for the YA crowd and adults looking for more optimistic stories.

Wednesday 20 February 2019

Video: Pinky and the Brain by Postmodern Jukebox

Ok, this classy version of the cartoon's theme song is awesome. According to the comments on the video, the two bartenders are the actual voice actors from the show! Here's a link to Postmodern Jukebox's channel if you want more.

Tuesday 19 February 2019

Video Game Review: Wandersong

Pros: great story, thought provoking, variety of levels, no consequences for failure

Cons: no tutorial or guidance for most battles (so some were hard to figure out)

A young bard has a dream where he learns that the world is ending and a hero is needed to gather the Earthsong that could save everything. The next day ghosts have appeared in town, terrorizing people. He learns he can sing to the ghosts and understand what they say, which starts him on a quest to travel the world and learn the Earthsong.

It starts off as a standard quest, with a handful of puzzles you have to complete in order to solve each level and move on to the next area. What sets it apart is the twist that happens at the half way point, which I won’t talk about as it’s fantastic and I don’t want to ruin it for others.

The story, which starts off fairly superficial and lighthearted, suddenly becomes much deeper and darker, dealing with depression, the weight of expectations (yours and others’), feeling like an outsider, friendship, and what it means to be a hero.

The gameplay is generally straightforward with easy controls. My only complaint here was that there were no tutorials for the musical 'battles', which change each level, so at times I was left wondering what I was supposed to do. Some of them brought a white circle onto the colour wheel to tell you when to sing each note, but others were… strange. There was one level ending where you ping wires and orbs fly off. I’m still not sure what I was supposed to be doing but by fumbling around I somehow cleared it. On another there were white dots, and it was my husband who finally figured out you had to stand close to them and then do a frequency matching once the dots expand. On another level you could sing to attract butterflies but it wasn’t until I found and talked to the correct NPC that I learned you needed to attract 5 butterflies for the necessary action to happen. A more experienced gamer would probably have figured out the controls and actions faster

Another annoyance was that parts of the story were told in song, but the act of hitting the notes made it hard to read the text. In these cases the screen often jerked around to show different characters, which didn’t help, as the location of the colour wheel and text changed on the screen. The lyrics for these scenes were simplistic rhymes and the tunes seemed more like random notes than songs, which was unfortunate as the actual background music was fantastic and it seemed odd that the bard didn’t have more skill.

There was a nice variety to the levels, with one having you pilot a boat using the colour wheel, and another being a magic city where you have to get around without the ability to fly.

As someone who’s not very good at games I loved that there were no real consequences for failing/dying. You simply start again at the last save point (which is generally the next screen/puzzle so you don’t lose any progress).

On the whole I enjoyed the story and am glad my husband got me to play it.

For more information, here's the developer's website.

My copy was bought from the Steam store and played on a Linux computer (note: Wandersong isn't supported on Linux, but Steam play has a beta that does something to make it playable - Don't ask me, my husband sets this stuff up. BUT do check ProtonDB before you purchase something to be sure it will work with the emulator). 

Friday 15 February 2019

Shout-Out: The Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Mascarenhas

In 1967, four female scientists worked together to build the world's first time machine. But just as they are about to debut their creation, one of them suffers a breakdown, putting the whole project - and future of time travel - in jeopardy. To protect their invention, one member is exiled from the team - erasing her contributions from history. Fifty years later, time travel is a big business. Twenty-something Ruby Rebello knows her beloved grandmother, Granny Bee, was one of the pioneers, though no one will tell her more. But when Bee receives a mysterious newspaper clipping from the future reporting the murder of an unidentified woman, Ruby becomes obsessed: could it be Bee? Who would want her dead? And most importantly of all: can her murder be stopped?

Traversing the decades and told from alternating perspectives, The Psychology of Time Travel introduces a fabulous new voice in fiction and a new must-read for fans of speculative fiction and women's fiction alike.

Tuesday 12 February 2019

Book Review: Armed in her Fashion by Kate Heartfield

Pros: very feisty women, lots of history, clever integration of the hellbeast

Cons: writing was a little dry at times

When her revenant husband returns to the besieged city of Bruges and reveals he’s hidden a fortune, Margriet de Vos demands her rights: a third of that wealth belongs to her, the rest to their daughter. Her husband now serves the Chatelaine of Hell, and intends to give her this gold. But Margriet won’t be deterred. Neither war, the King of France, nor Hell itself will keep her from getting her due.

Meanwhile, Claude a transgender man-at-arms and former guest of the Hellbeast also wants the de Vos treasure, or rather, a mace he unwisely sold to Margriet’s husband and now needs back.

The story is mostly told from Margriet’s point of view, though there are a few scenes from her daughter and Claude’s viewpoints as well. Margriet is very feisty, willing to fight over a sou if she feels she’s owed it. Her daughter’s much kinder but has little agency, as her mother’s overprotective and often overbearing. Margriet supported the family by working as a wet nurse, which isn’t something that comes up often, though historically it was a common thing. It was also nice seeing a middle aged woman as the protagonist, especially one who is near-sighted in an age where glasses can only be afforded by the elite.

Claude was a great character. It’s awesome to see often overlooked people in history and, while misgendered through a good part of the story, the author always maintains his understanding of who he really is. Though they were short scenes, I really enjoyed the revelations regarding aspects of womanhood he’s missed (like breast binding) and how he survived in a soldier’s camp.

The author cleverly integrated her mythological aspects into actual history. At the end of the book she cites a Flemish painting that was her inspiration for the book, and it added an entire new layer to the story itself.

The writing can be a bit dry at times, in that it’s not a particularly fast paced or adventurous tale. There’s a lot of sitting around and talking or walking between cities.

If you like medieval history or want a historical fantasy that’s different from the norm, this is an interesting read.

Tuesday 5 February 2019

Book Review: Vigilance by Robert Jackson Bennett

Pros: thought-provoking, interesting characters, good social commentary

Cons: lots of adult content

In a future America, the hit reality TV show is Vigilance, where active shooters are sent into unprepared locations to see if the people there have what it takes to survive.

This novella is told through the perspectives of two people. First is John McDean, a marketing man and head of Vigilance’s production team. The second is Delyna, a bartender whose patrons are hyped to watch the next episode of their favourite show.

Don’t pick this up if you don’t want to read the following: mass shootings, excessive swearing, and masturbation. While not as violent and profane as some books (possibly due to its shorter length), there’s a lot of adult content here.

What’s also here is some actual reasons behind why such a show is popular and what that says about the people who would watch it. Murder as reality TV (or just people being hunted for sport) isn’t new in the SF field. But quite often the violence is left unexamined. Yes, there’s often a vague hand wave to the fact that it’s a form of oppression, but Battle Royale is one of the few stories I can point to (and I’ve read/seen quite a few of these in long and short form) that actually posits a reason for why such a show is put on in the first place (though Battle Royale had a very different reason for it than Vigilance). Not only does Vigilance make you think about the story and society in general (especially today’s gun culture in the US and all of its mass shootings), it works to make the violence in the story - which could otherwise be gratuitous - deeply uncomfortable and horrifying instead of entertaining. These aren’t characters in a book fingering their guns. These are your neighbours, your friends, your family members.

Delyna’s got some great scenes, especially once the TV show starts. Her story is where the social commentary really shines, in several ways.

It’s short enough to read in one sitting, but will stick with you long after.

Friday 1 February 2019

Books Received in January 2019

Many thanks to TOR for sending me a copy of:

They Promised Me the Gun Wasn't Loaded by James Alan Gardner - This is the sequel to All Those Explosions Were Someone Else's Fault, which I haven't read yet but which sounds hilarious.
Only days have passed since a freak accident granted four college students superhuman powers. Now Jools and her friends (who haven't even picked out a name for their superhero team yet) get caught up in the hunt for a Mad Genius's misplaced super-weapon.
But when Jools falls in with a modern-day Robin Hood and his band of super-powered Merry Men, she finds it hard to sort out the Good Guys from the Bad Guys-and to figure out which side she truly belongs on.
Especially since nobody knows exactly what the Gun does . . . .