Okay, So

Thing 1 I’ve learned from the video-game-review part of this blog: playing video games* kind of takes forever when I’m also trying to write and work and have a life. (Not to mention driving lessons, which hopefully will be coming to an end soon; relatedly, the concept of “parallel parking” can and should bite me. As can the state of Massachusetts, for putting it on the damn road test.) Not that I’m going to stop the reviews, mind, but they’ll probably come in bite-sized chunks.

The first chunk of Shadow Hearts will also be…okay, here’s the thing. I had taken notes on this, playing with my notebook by my side and everything like Responsible Viewer Girl. And then I kind of maybe sort of lost my notebook. (I also plot out both novels and D&D campaigns in said notebook, and do so with a blithe disregard of note-taking structure. Odds are, there’s someone in eastern MA reading a little purple notebook which says “…and then some sex…” on one page and “DEMOGORGON! DEMOGORGON for EVERYONE! ALSO OWLBEARS! FROM THE SKY!” on the next.)

So this is going to be what I remember of the first part of Shadow Hearts. I should have decent recall, since this is the second time I’ve played it. Spoilers, of course.

Right. Shadow Hearts is this frankly bizarre game that’s vaguely in the style of a JRPG but which a) gives you something to actually do during combat due to timed hits and all that, b) is set in something resembling the real world around 1913, only with magic and Lovecraftian monstrosities, and c) has no Internet flakejobs claiming to be married to any of its main characters. As far as I know.

The romance plot in this one, at least in the beginning, is not that unusual. (Later in this game–and then in the next two games–it gets, as Derrida would say, CRACKTACULAR.) Worldly sarcastic warrior guy teams up with prim and naive healer chick, both denying feelings whilst facing great danger. Very anime; very much the reason why I don’t like a lot of anime, at least on the surface. (Prim/clingy/jealous/naive main female characters are almost an instant “meh, no” for me where entertainment is concerned. Just so my biases are out there.)

Surprisingly enough, though, I don’t actually hate Alice. (Who’s called “Pandora” in my game, for reasons that escape me and probably have to do with spectator input.) I don’t love her as much as I do later female characters–she’s kind of a Significant Healer type*, to use the language of tabletop/LARP, and often a damsel in distress–but she’s reasonably plucky, and her attitude to Yuri’s advances is less “how dare you insult my incomparable purity” and more “ugh, stop hitting on me, especially while we’re in the forest that wants to kill us,” which, fair enough. And the historical setting helps somewhat with the innocence thing. Also, it’s hard to dislike a girl who hits things with giant books.

Yuri is Spiky Haired Occasionally Brooding Smartass Guy, as happens a lot with JRPG heroes. It’s not a type I dislike, though some of his smartassitude doesn’t translate particularly well, and comes across as more obnoxious/zany. Again, though, he doesn’t grate on my nerves like other JRPG heroes do–CECIL, oh my GOD–and his moments of Occasional Brooding tie into one of the neater bits of the game.

To wit: shapechanging with the power of EMO.

Here’s the deal. There are these six elements: the standard Western four plus light and darkness. Just about everyone is affiliated with one of them. (Non-elemental people exist, generally either for Vast Metaphysical Reasons or to screw with you.) When Yuri kills a monster, he takes that monster’s soul, or at least the elemental wackiness subset of it. Once he gets enough souls in a particular element, he can fight a big freaky-looking elemental monster and, if he wins, take that monster’s form in other fights.

Taking some intangible quality from your defeated enemy is a concept with some legs to it. (Although generally not actual legs. More hearts ‘n’ brains.) It appears in a lot of mythology, from the old eating-a-lion’s-heart-gives-you-courage deal***to the legend of Sigurd and Fafnir to, um, Nethack. Pre-Hitman-games-industry standards necessitate a certain amount of abstraction here, which also makes sense given that Yuri’s going for elemental essence rather than any particular eyeball-or-liver-associated virtue.

So far, so good. The problem is that devouring souls for power has, shockingly enough, a few drawbacks. Chief among these is that the things whose souls Yuri devours are not happy about the whole arrangement. By taking on their power, he also leaves himself open to their rage, or, as the game has it, “Malice”. This builds up throughout the game: if you let it reach maximum, every fight will have a random chance to include an additional, uber-tough opponent in the form of “the thing you most fear”. Or the thing Yuri most fears. (A guy in a fox mask. Or, rather, his dad in a kitsune mask, which, to Western-raised me, does not translate over very well on a gut level: even though I know the mythology, “guy with fox face” does not conjure up primal fears so much as it does unpleasant corners of the Internet. Oh well.) Alternatively, you can pre-emptively fight a less powerful monster and bleed off Malice.

Where, you might be wondering, does Yuri go for these pre-emptive fights? And where does he go to fight the giant elemental monsters? It’s 1913 Europe; surely there aren’t offices for this kind of thing.

No. No, there are not.

To access new powers, or to keep the hatred of his enemies from taking tangible form, Yuri visits…

A graveyard.

In his soul.

This might be the best mechanic ever. Although, for maximum effect, I think Yuri would need to accompany someone whose deal was to help people and collect their subsequent good feelings until he or she could access new powers in an internal rainbow-filled meadow. By cuddling the Fluffy Guardian Puppies, clearly.

I would spend actual money on this game. For the record.

*My attempt at a non-sexist version of Girlfriend Healer. It’s true that non-gamer boyfriends tend not to tag along to games in the first place, and to play big fighty guys when they do–and I blame society for the discrepancy, oh yes–but I might as well make the attempt to be gender-neutral.
**The IG term for this is “Harmonixer”, which I prefer to ignore, because…Harmonixer.
***Sir James Frazer cites a reversal, where the Dyaks of NW Borneo apparently didn’t like their warriors to eat deer because it would make them timid: not sure how accurate he is on the culture, but it’s an interesting myth.

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Warlock

Spoilers. And ick.

My Oh What the Hell, it’s On Netflix movie review seems to be randomly Antichrist*-focused lately. At least, I assume the titular character of Warlock is supposed to be the Antichrist. The box art is all “Satan also has one son,” oooh, scary synth track here, but if that gets mentioned anywhere in the actual movie, I missed it somehow. Dude certainly seems fond of Satan, but I’m not sure it’s ever actually stated that there’s a blood relationship there.

It works okay as a concept, though. As with the elderly Satanists in Rosemary’s Baby, the Warlock’s motivations are never really explained so much, and that works okay–he’s introduced as a fully-developed threat and we spend more time with the heroes–but not as well here as it did with the Castavets et al. We’re supposed to peg the Warlock as evil from the beginning, so the mystery doesn’t conceal the motives (or lack thereof); plus, he doesn’t really work subtly. Yeah, the guy has your ring–I’m still sure there’s a way to get it off other than cut off his finger, bite out his tongue while kissing him, and leave the corpse around. The Warlock–played by Julian Sands in a disturbingly hot manner, considering the number of facial features this guy removes from other people over the course of the film–comes off as a psychopath with control issues. That works okay if he’s a freaky Satanist guy, but better if he’s the actual Antichrist: he doesn’t get working subtly in the human world because he’s not human. Makes sense.

Evil Julian Sands is also the hardest-working Antichrist I’ve ever seen. The guy comes from Puritan-era Boston to nineties LA–the plot is clearly inspired by Terminator, but tweaked considerably, and I absolutely approve of this, of course–and as soon as he’s conscious, he gets right to work with the dismembering and the killing and the trying to end the world. In LA! In ’91! You’d think the man would at least take a break to find some hookers and cocaine.

Actually, Evil Julian Sands (and the whole destroying-the-world plot) makes way more sense if I assume that the Satan of this movie isn’t the suave-and-scheming figure of most popular mythology, but rather something more akin to the Great Old Ones or the powers of the Silent Hill universe, and the Warlock is Wilbur Whately’s really-really-lots-better-looking counterpart.

Our Heroes are Giles Redferne, fur-clad hunter and, like Sands, full-time scenery gnawer, and Kassandra “with a K”, the Generic Spunky Kinda Ditzy Girl you were required by law to team up with the grim hero type in any fish-out-of-temporospatial-water sf film of the era. (See also: Terminator, Beastmaster 2…) They sort of get their bickery quasi-romance on, but it never goes very far, and ends in an irksome diabolus ex machina because This Is a Horror Film and therefore Can’t End Happily. Feh.

It’s not the most compelling love story ever to begin with, though. Redferne has outbreaks of historically accurate obnoxiousness, yelling a lot and saying that “goodly women don’t paint their faces,” in case we needed a reminder that importing men from the 17th century** is a bad idea. Kassandra…is Kassandra with a K, and therefore obnoxious from the get-go, and does not know when to shut up about a dude’s presumably-horribly-murdered wife, but somehow doesn’t manage to annoy me quite as much as she logically should. She does, however, sport bullet-deflecting helmet hair and wears weirdo silver space skirts with macrametastic purple sweaters. It’s possible that Evil Julian Sands decided to end the world after seeing her wardrobe, and I can’t say that I blame him.

The actual world-ending is supposedly accomplished with your standard Book of Eville, which someone had the foresight to divide up and hide in three different places. Well done, that guy. Except–and this is a common complaint with Books of Eville–why are we not actually destroying it? Y’know, burning it, shredding it, dumping acid on it, feeding it to a goat? (Actually, let’s not do that one. The last thing your average goat needs is more necromancy in its diet.) At least give some sort of “we tried to destroy it and can’t” or “it also contains stuff we need” explanation, because otherwise you guys just look stupid. I’m normally very much opposed to destroying knowledge, but I’m willing to make an exception for the backwards name of God.

That sort of gripery aside, the plot does its occult thing pretty well. All of the legends about witches are supposedly true, including some pretty weird stuff, like the one about driving nails through someone’s footprints and the various warning signs like bread not rising and milk curdling. I found the Convenient Mennonite Farm–in SoCal, yet–to be a bit much, though the hex sign was cool; much better was the bit on the plane where someone’s individually-packaged cream goes bad. Did make me wonder about non-dairy creamer, though, and whether the bread thing is just bread or all baked goods. Did the Warlock’s presence in Boston cause a massive Dunkin’ Donuts crisis?

Redferne gets points at the end for responding sensibly to the Goddammit, Cecil, You Moron choice. Recognizing that the girl will die anyhow if you turn over the world-destroying artifact: awesome. I would kiss you for that, you strange and unkempt man. The setup for what actually kills off the Warlock is well done, and Kassandra actually gets to do something, so I like that too.

As in any other movie that involves airports, the anachronisms there are good times. “Why, yes, miss, I will totally sell you and your scruffy fur-wearing friend there two cross-country tickets at the last minute. No problem at all! Did I mention that LAX doesn’t have metal detectors yet, and you can totally hand a big old iron weathervane to the stewardess without a problem?”

Aw, 1991. You’re so cute.

Well, except for your fashion sense. Yikes.

*Or at least Child-of-the-Devil focused. Wiki informs me that the Antichrist is not necessarily Satan’s actual kid, but the two have become sufficiently conflated over the years. There you are: Bizarro Theology Fact of the Day. Use it at cocktail parties!
**Or at least from 17th century Massachusetts. There’s a reason that Puritan romance is not a huge subgenre.

On Villains: In Which I Don’t Ask Much

The alternate title of this post is: Don’t Be Lex Luthor.

This is a little unfair to Lex, I believe, at least if you take in the scope of comics canon in which he has issues with aliens and is the President and, um, something about Kryptonian steroids? (Have to admit I couldn’t really follow that bit of Final Crisis.) And, I guess, the canon where he’s really vengeful about being bald. No, I’m talking about the Silver Age/Superfriends era Luthor. The guy who would invent working giant robots and orbital mind control rays and use them to rob a bank. Because not only could he, as per the trope, make a lot of money just selling this stuff, but I’m given to understand that there’s a substantial layout involved with making giant robots in the first place, not to mention having a secret underground base.

If you had a secret underground base, would you really need to create giant bank-robbing robots? I wouldn’t. It’s an underground base! I could just hang out in my underground base all day! If I needed money, I could rent rooms. In my underground base.

I think I got a little bit sidetracked there.

Right. So I was reading a pretty decent urban fantasy series, and liking it okay, until they started spending a lot of time on the villains’ point of view. No problem there, in theory, since I do that myself a bit, except that the villains were kind of Luthoring it up. Right, okay, you’re all sinister and powerful conspiracy people with private helicopters, and you’re doing black magic to get you artifacts of sinister power so that you can…do more black magic? Maybe? I don’t understand! You already have occult power and private helicopters! What do you want? (This sort of gets resolved in a later book, but in my mind, you can’t wait too long for these things.)

Okay, then. Things The Reader Needs to Know About Your Villain, Because I’m So Good at This:

1) What do they want right now? This is pretty easy; this is, in fact, giant bank-robbing robots or armies of mind-controlled lemurs or the Gem of Amarra. Pretty much everyone gets this right. Moving on.

2) Why should the reader care?

Sometimes this is really easy. It’s hard to be neutral regarding the Crimson King or Freddy Kreuger; I don’t think most people would argue LeChuck’s case.

In more ambiguous cases, though, it’s tougher. The secret cabal of secretness is trying to run the world from behind the scenes? Well, what are they trying to do with it? Frankly, in the modern world, having large parts of my life controlled by monolithic forces is a basic day: does it really make a difference if it’s the Illuminati and not my day job and the public transit system? Will our alien puppet-masters give me a good dental plan and maybe some more options re: telecommuting?

If you want me to unquestioningly cheer for the hero against the conquerors or the conspiracy or whatever, you probably need to show them doing unpleasant things. Not necessarily wantonly unpleasant–hey, someone has to go down the beryllium mines if Count Vordax is going to have a new set of wineglasses this year–but, you know, tell me why I should give a damn who’s ruling. National identity doesn’t do much for me in general, and certainly not if it’s a nation that doesn’t actually exist.

ETA: If I’m not supposed to be cheering for one side or another, that’s fine too. That’s a thing where you are Guy Gavriel Kay and you’re writing The Lions of Al-Rassan and making me cry on the goddamn bus, and that’s fine. I mean, I kind of hate you for the bus-crying thing, but well done.

3) What can it get them that they can’t get by being a normal person? You’re a billionaire: what do dark powers get you that a billion dollars won’t? Why do you want to rule the world? Don’t you know how much work it is? Why don’t you just channel your energy, as a thousand guidance counselors have put it, into more productive outlets?

Here’s where the title of my post comes in. I’m a simple, undemanding sort of girl. I don’t ask for deep motives and labyrinthine plots. I mean, they’re great if you can get them, but if your guy’s deal is that he drowned because camp counselors were having sex and now he wreaks his bloody vengeance on all horny teenagers? I can get behind that too. We live in a world, sadly, where people go on killing sprees basically because they don’t have prom dates: Evil Guy Flips Out, Tries to End World or At Least Kill a Lot of People doesn’t shatter my suspension of disbelief. Likewise, the old Horde of Alien Locusts thing is just fine. Sometimes you eat suns because suns taste great and are less filling. I’m on board.

And yeah, there are plenty of people in history or great literature who got power and just kept wanting more, or got wealth and then went after power, or whatever. Macbeth makes sense, in a horrible way. Dude succumbed to a little temptation, once, got in over his head, and…there we are with Birnam Wood and MacDuff and severed heads getting carried around. It can happen.

Just show how it happened. Show why it happened–at least a little. Or don’t spend much time from the villain’s POV. You have a lot of alternatives, ’cause I’m relatively easy to please. Just…don’t be Lex Luthor.

I mean, purple and green? Together?

Rosemary’s Baby

Part of my “Netflix Presents: Movies I Really Should Have Seen” series, I guess. Spoilers, of course. Also triggers for severe nonconsensualness and pregnancy trauma.

Two things really stood out about this movie.

Okay, three things, and the first is that–as I’m neither religious nor planning on having kids, I guess–the “your longed-for child is actually the son of Satan” plot didn’t terrify me nearly as much as the mid-sixties decor. And clothes. Rejecting racism, greed, and unjust warfare is great, The Sixties; rejecting the concept of a waistline is not so lovely. When Rosemary’s maternity clothes differ only in size from her pre-maternity outfits, I am disturbed.

More seriously, it’s a neat and probably inadvertent illustration of how creepily patriarchal the sixties still was. There’s a bit at the end where Rosemary goes to her doctor and tells him all about the Satanists and the evil spells and the yadda yadda yadda, which, to me, felt really dumb*: of *course* he’s not going to believe you, you’re rambling about witches! Just tell him your previous doctor was giving you really sketchy medical advice–true–and that your husband threw a hissy when you talked about not going to him any more–also true–so you don’t feel safe around him any more and could he examine you without telling either of them…oh, wait, it’s 1965. (There are probably some places today where things aren’t much better, horrifyingly enough, but I don’t think it’s as widespread an assumption that of *course* your obstetrician will tell your husband everything if you don’t bring the Satanists into it.) Yow.

Speaking of the husband…gaaah. Guy, just because you let Satan impregnate your wife doesn’t mean you have to *act* the part, y’know? I could see his asshattery later in the movie as a coping mechanism, I guess–I feel really bad about this thing I did, so I’m going to be horrible to you to convince you and myself that I don’t care, or something–if he hadn’t really been kind of a jerk even before he sold out to the devil.

That seems not to have taken much convincing, by the way. Rosemary and Minnie are washing dishes, they come back in, and Guy’s gone from Sort of a Jerk to Really Really Sketchy. How did this conversation go?

Roman: “So, Satan–”
Guy: “Yes please!”

Anyhow, it’s either a commentary on the time or the relationship or both that Rosemary stays with Guy. Deal with the devil aside…I mean, I *suppose* I can overlook the gratuitous insulting her hairstyle bits: she asked, and maybe he’s Compulsively Honest Guy. (I sort of hate Compulsively Honest Guy, personally, but that’s another story.) But he flips out at her because she doesn’t finish her dessert–which, yes, is because he wants her to eat the Satan Roofies**, but she doesn’t know that–and she just sort of shrugs and scrapes it into a napkin, like he’s her dad and she’ll get in trouble for not cleaning her plate. Creepy! He then as much as states that he had violent sex with her when she was passed out–and “fun, in a necrophiliac way” is not a line that anyone should use at any point ever–and she’s…disturbed, mildly, but more like she’s disappointed by his inconsiderateness than like she’s realized that she’s married to a sociopath. And again, when he’s flipping out over the potential obstetrician change, there’s no real recognition that maybe this is really not an okay way for your husband to be acting.

I don’t know. Either we’re supposed to believe that Guy’s actions are, without the Satan, mildly dysfunctional relationship behavior and not something a woman would leave over under the media standards of the time, or we’re supposed to believe that Rosemary is so used to her husband being Controlly O’Dramapants that nothing he does really seems like a danger sign until Hutch starts delivering warnings about the devil. Either way…

…ladies and gentlemen of the jury: GAH.

On a less creepy and more storytelling-relevant plane, I’ve been wanting to do a post on villain goals for a while now, and this movie does a pretty good job in terms of showing villains whose motives we don’t really understand that well. The Satanists, well, worship Satan, want him and his son to rule the world, etc etc. Roman is in it hereditarily–and possibly for vengeance–and we can extrapolate from Guy that maybe most of them got some favor or other from His Dark Yadda Yadda, but we don’t know what it is. (In Minnie Castavet’s case, we know only that it clearly *wasn’t* the ability to make her lipstick line up with her actual lips.) That works out okay, though, at least in my view, because the movie is very tightly focused on Rosemary, who has no idea what’s going on here.*** The Satanists are pretty much the Faceless Conspiracy until maybe the last half hour, so while we need to know their goals, we don’t really need their individual motives.

It’s a well-put-together film, and I recommend it. I recommend seeing it on Netflix, because…Polaaaanksi….but it’s good stuff for non-gory, non-jump-scene horror. And the mid-sixties.

ETA: The verdict, talking with a friend, was that Rosemary should totally have left Guy, both because he’s a controlling jerkface and because, frankly, I would so watch a show about the Antichrist and his single mom. Sharing an apartment with her old college friend who *also* has kids and no husband. In the sixties. Get on this, HBO.

*It’s actually a semi-major pet peeve of mine. If you know that talking about the aliens or the witches or the alien witches or the Illuminati makes you sound delusional, and there’s a way you can get help without mentioning them, then why are you not going with that?
**Another part where this movie is disturbing in a way that the director probably didn’t plan. More so because the director is…Polanski. Yeaaaaaaah.
***The movie is one of those Crying Game type things where everyone knows the basic facts by now, and I don’t know to what extent the trailer or box art spoiled things at the time, but in the movie itself? The Grand Plan actually doesn’t become clear for ages: there are wonky neighbors that are up to something, but we don’t know what, and then maybe the Satanists are trying to sacrifice the baby, and only near the very end is it clear that no, Antichrist.

Recommendations

I’ve gotten a few questions lately, from people who got e-readers for the holidays or need books to read on the plane trip back home or whatever, about what I recommend for books. Below, therefore, are some of my long-term favorites. There are probably a lot of authors and books that just don’t come to mind right now–my brain, post-holidays, is making gentle whirring noises but not doing a whole lot else–so please feel free to suggest others. I myself am always on the lookout for new stuff, though I like happy endings and nothing too brain-breaking. (I would particularly like recs for authors of color, since I realize this list is wicked Caucasian.)

Robin McKinley. Really, anything by Robin McKinley ever. My personal favorites are The Hero and the Crown for heroic questy goodness, Rose Daughter for a cool romantic plot and some really engaging domestic details, and Sunshine for amazing modern fantasy with a world just enough off from ours, but she’s a pretty sure bet for an engaging story every time. I’m a little hesitant about reading the Pegasus series, due to my own “um, ick” reaction to some of the themes I’ve heard are involved, but she’s good enough that I’ll probably get over it.

Terry Pratchett. If you’re not keen on puns or direct parody, which I understand, skip the first few books. I personally recommend starting with either the Tiffany Aching series (Wee Free Men and onward), Witches Abroad, or Reaper Man. The Guards series is really great too, and I personally like Men at Arms pretty well, but I’ve heard mixed reactions on that one because some parts of it are still in the high-frequency-puns stage.

S.M. Sterling, in specific Dies the Fire and its sequels. Sterling does a really interesting job of describing how different cultures evolve and create myths, and creates a very vivid picture of the new world. (Also a rather sensual one, in a non-sexual way: I always want to have a snack when reading the series, because the descriptions of either food or not having food are compelling.) He seems to always create at least one major female character who bugs me big time (shut up, Signe, and you too, Mathilda) but I can overlook that.

Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel/Naamah books. First of all, to get it out of the way: yes, there’s a fair amount of sex in all of them, which Carey does well. What keeps drawing me in, though–especially since the main romance in the first three books made me roll my eyes more than not–is the world-building, and the way that each country has its own magic and pantheon of gods. It’s a fun look at an alternate world. Carey’s other series didn’t grab me, but I’m not big on villain’s-perspective fiction, so it may work for someone else.

Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series. Another alternate history–I like the genre, though I usually want some supernatural or at least vaguely science-fictionish element involved. Novik’s dragons seem to fit more in the second category at the moment, since I’ve never seen anything blatantly magical in the series, but who knows? They’re also very engaging characters, with a distinct nonhuman outlook on things. Plus, the female characters in the series are largely badass and all well-rounded, which is always a plus for me.

Stephen King. Not that everyone hasn’t heard of the man, but as long as I’m putting in recommendations, why not? I myself started out with IT and still love it, but it’s *really* dated where gay characters are concerned, and there’s a scene at the end that a lot of people, justifiably, find really off-putting. As a first-time reader, I’d pick up either Different Seasons or Four Past Midnight, novella collections that have a fair amount of variety.

Clive Barker, as long as we’re doing horror. Lyrical and extremely disturbing: I will not read his stuff after 10 PM. The Great and Secret Show and Everville, particularly, contain interesting meditations on the theme of dreams and stories and The Human Condition, which is about as close as I get to being serious.

Diane Duane, the Young Wizards series. Duane is one of the rare authors who can actually write poetry as part of her fantasy novels, and it shows in her prose, too. She’s got enough of a scientific background to incorporate physics into her magic well–or at least well enough for this English major. 😉 There are eight novels out in this series, and I love every one of them.

Mercedes Lackey is excellent mind candy, particularly when she gets away from writing about teenagers with self-esteem problems. (Or if you care about teenagers with self-esteem problems, which I did back when I was twelve.) If the talking white ponies put you off–you are not alone there–I’d go for the Victorian magical wonkiness of the Elemental Masters series or the just plain weirdness of the Bardic Magic stuff.

At the risk of seeming biased, since I read both their blogs regularly, I enthusiastically recommend Susanna Fraser and Rose Lerner to anyone who likes romance novels, or thinks they might. Fraser’s The Sergeant’s Lady is an incredibly engaging story, set largely on or near the front lines of a war, with an amazingly sweet hero and a sensible, tough heroine. Lerner’s In For a Penny is a highly original Regency romance, with characters I admire and adore. These are the first books from both authors, and I can’t wait to see more!

And now my mother is telling me that I have to get dressed and see more relatives. More books to come, hopefully–and please recommend your favorites as well.

Dragon Age: Finished, For Now (Spoiler-Tastic)

Would have been finished a week ago, except that I’m a giant wimp when it comes to NPCs, and kept re-loading until I could keep the darkspawn from killing any of my volunteer army guys–which is kind of a task, since said army guys are bent on running directly into the Vortex O’ Fiery Death that I just put up–and then re-loading again to keep the Archdemon from munching on the named NPC. Then one of my friends pointed out that said NPC just gets knocked unconscious if he falls, since he’s in the final cutscene, and I blithely let him get eaten while I fired ballista bolts all over the place. Good times.

Good game, generally speaking. The AI on my side was supremely dumb, but I’ve never played a game where it *wasn’t*: over the years, I’ve got used to either “oh my GOD do not charge the–great, now you’re dead, are you happy?” or “would you for the love of God come over here and KILL THIS THING BEFORE IT EATS MY FAAAAAAACE–great, now I’m dead, are you happy?” so there we are. Besides, plenty of people have already discussed the gameplay and general plot, so I’ll move on to the two ostensible blog subjects.

Occult Stuff: Handled well, I think. It’s always tough to do this in RPGs–adventure games have a pretty decent chance of keeping magic or spirituality as a mysterious and otherworldly force, but in CRPGs it often ends up being just a form of artillery with a longer loading sequence. A lot of the combat magic still is, don’t get me wrong–although they did tweak the secondary effects nicely so that, for example, fire and ice spells had some differences even when you were just facing regular guys–but there’s a pretty coherent worldview around both mages and magic, and parts of the game you get to access only if you’re a mage. The “Fade”, a sort-of-dreamscape otherworld inhabited by both benign and malevolent spirits, is well done; so are the spirits themselves, when they show up. Not a lot of concrete connection to RL occult practices–it is, after all, a fantasy world–although the Fade and its spirits seem vaguely shamanistic.

The Grey Warden magic stuff is actually more intriguing: the use of blood as a sympathetic-magic connection that gives you powers to fight a specific sort of enemy (or kills you, but hey) and the drawbacks that come with it all make sense and are also narratively compelling. (I feel like Loghain could have done more with that, actually, in his smear campaign: these guys have the Darkspawn in their heads, all the time, so can we really trust them? Really?) Likewise, the soul-hopping Archdemon thing and the HOLY SHIT EW Broodmother worked for me.

As I write this, I realize that there’s actually an interesting transformation theme running through the game–the Wardens, the Darkspawn, the golems, Morrigan/Flemeth/bleh, the werewolves–which I might English major all over at some point soon.

Romance: Yay!

No, seriously. I liked the variety of options available, I liked that heroic bisexuals–heroic *male* bisexuals, holy crap!–exist in this game, I liked the dialogue options I ran into and, as I mentioned elsewhere, the fact that I can get away from the thing where a woman can’t be in charge of her love interest.

Also, nobody in this game falls into the tropes I hate. No Love Makes You Stupid/Evil/Crazy among either the PC base or the sympathetic NPCs. None! It’s so awesome. (Excessive Patriotism Makes You Evil and Crazy, on the other hand…yes, apparently. Or Excessive Hatred of the Not!French, at least.) Furthermore, as far as I can tell, people deal with jealousy by…talking about it. And being reasonable if you break up with them. Hurt, but reasonable. It’s like a breath of fresh air in the Jennifer-Aniston-character-perfumed room that is the current media landscape, and it makes me a happy, happy Izzy.

Not that I’d mind a Tenchi Muyo-style harem option, BioWare. Juuuust saying. On the subject, though, I do like that I can settle down happily into being Alistair’s mistress, and also send him off to sleep with Morrigan and sire the Hopefully Not Antichrist without flipping out about it myself. He comes back, we both live, we’re all good–though, since I also made him king, I do seem to have a habit of sending the boy off to strange women’s beds in order to produce one sort of child or another, and the pattern is creeping me out a little now.

Oh well. Life in Ye Olde Mutant-Haunted Kingdom, I guess.

I’ll play through it again soon, in order to check out the Zevran arc and how things work when I’m a warrior. For the moment, though, I’m for Shadow Hearts and the PS2 room. (Also, Mike from Slacktivist recommended Gog.com, where I was able to buy Baldur’s Gate honestly and download it, because I’m willing to pay for things, but it’s the twenty-first century and I want my instant gratification.)

We Gather Together to, Um, Forget the Second Verse

We ate out for Thanksgiving this year: Dad got back from Korea the day of* and spent the next thirty-six hours up in his room, like Bertha Rochester minus the arson and the tendency to gnaw on visitors. Mom isn’t thrilled with cooking, I’m just beginning to get the hang of food preparation more complicated than “microwave for three minutes on high”, and The Current Boy, while a good cook, was also exhausted. Plus, the restaurant in town is excellent, and knows my folks. I confess, I was a little uncertain about the increased distance between the end of the meal and the time until I could fall asleep in front of A Christmas Story, but it all worked out.

My family hasn’t really done “classic Thanksgiving” often–or not that I can remember very well. A few of my getting-yelled-at-for-kicking-my-sister-under-the-table childhood memories involved cranberry sauce and grandparents, so I guess we did when I was young. My memories before I was seven or eight are pretty vague, though–and we moved to California about then.

Not that California doesn’t have Thanksgiving. Dad’s school didn’t take the week off, though: they had a sort of Parents’ Weekend deal instead, where the students would sing and recite and put on plays**, their parents would meet the teachers and take tours of the campus, and I would mostly hide. There was a year or two where Mom would try to scrub me and my sister, stuff us into nice dresses, and make us sit through the student performances and Dad’s speeches, but she gave it up as a hopeless case by the time I was eleven or twelve. (See also: graduation.) At that point, I’d generally spend the performance time curled up in the library–or playing bad QBasic games in the computer lab–so I’d be close to the dining hall.

See, the school put out a giant buffet Thanksgiving dinner. Five turkeys, vats of potatoes and stuffing bigger than I was, peas, rolls, pie, and, at the very end, a giant, artistically-arranged stack of fruit. Fairly medieval-feast in my memory, really, and an excellent meal.

I hated to stand in line, though–what kid doesn’t? More than that, I hated the oh-hey-let’s-be-nice-to-the-headmaster’s-kid small talk from parents and board members. Not their fault, really, but…well, we had nothing in common, and there were only so many times I could go through the How Big I’d Gotten and How Well I Was Doing In School routine. You know the out-of-touch great-aunt in movies? Being a faculty brat at Midland meant having, like, a hundred and three more.

So Thanksgiving, like most School Occasions, became a whole Mission: Impossible routine for me: okay, okay, they’re clapping, the bell’s going to go any minute now, lurking around the edges of the dining hall and…go go GO! Turkey! Mashed potatoes! Sweet potatoes! Peas! Yes I am Dan’s kid yes school’s going well this year yes I liked the speech a lot Happy Thanksgiving sir or ma’am! Roll! Butter! Pie! First pomegranate of the year!*** Annnnd out!

I’d curl up somewhere with a book–usually the student common room was pretty unoccupied, or there was always the top floor of the administration building–and come down when everyone had gone to drop my plate and cup off at the kitchen. Secret Agent Izzy, having completed another successful mission, could start making her Christmas list.

Those Thanksgivings ended when I was fourteen, but that, as the Conan guy says, is a story for another time.

To get sappy for a moment, I’ve had a lot to be thankful for this year: friends, family, publishing contracts (eee!), a new job, and hobbies new and old. It’s been a good time–and it was a good Thanksgiving, even if it did lack the adrenalin rush of the old days. Hope yours was just as good.

*No, I wasn’t at all tense last week. Why do you ask?
**I did get to be a newsboy in the production of Dracula one year: I don’t remember the play itself so much as I recall watching the big girls dressing up, and dreaming of the day when I too would have earrings down to my shoulders and a magenta silk dress.

Yeah, it was 1992.
***I always looked forward to pomegranates–finding more seeds when I’d gone through a sector was fun, and I did not care, back then, that I inevitably ended up looking like someone out of Titus Andronicus.