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Magdalena de Silva is a hostess in a gambling den, which she runs alongside her friend-with-benefits. She’s glamorous and disreputable, in the way of the demi-monde that runs parallel with high society, interdependent but aloof. Beautiful, self-assured, and un-self-consciously frank about her desires. Simon Radcliffe-Gould, a thoroughly English gentleman, is at once enchanted and intimidated by her. Too intimidated to approach, he admires her from afar. Even as it requires losing endless card games and gambling money he can’t spare, he stays close enough to her to feed the fantasies painted by his imagination, which he can’t muster the confidence to act on.
Simon needs to be pushed to act, and Maggie prefers to act by proxy. After lusting after him from a distance and waiting for him to take the initiative, she contrives to invite him into the elaborate role-play between herself and her partner, Meyer. Meyer challenges Simon to a game of chance, with Maggie’s company as the stakes. The slight deception, ostensibly obvious to everyone in the establishment except Simon, provides the impetus that puts the two of them in close proximity for two weeks. Simon’s discomfort with the game, once it’s laid bare to him, provides the first hurdle their relationship must pass.
Although he’s attracted to her from the start, and Maggie has no qualms about making her desires known, Simon’s character and personal history fix him as his own obstacle. He’s not precisely weak-willed, but he is easy to manipulate, and suffers from his inability to maintain healthy boundaries. Maggie’s strongest tie is to her friend, lover, and partner, Meyer. Simon has a parallel tie to his school friend Clement, a former lover with lingering feelings, whom he never knew how to refuse. As befits a story that begins in a gambling house, the first step in Simon and Maggie’s relationship is a negotiation: Simon is invited to the house of his former lover, and he wants Maggie’s presence to use as a buffer, to give him an excuse to turn down Clement’s advances.
In this book, the plot, theme, and characters click together in a way that’s not fully apparent until you’ve processed the story, start to finish. Maggie, who spends her nights taking bets from tipsy gamblers, has a skill at negotiation that Simon lacks. Her ability to differentiate between a feigned and an honest reaction is honed by her years of playing consent games in the submissive role, affecting to be bartered to strangers by her indifferent lover, when really the marks were chosen by her, to please her. She tries to impart some of her skill to Simon, whose friendship with Clement is on the verge of collapse after years of awkward dishonesty and encroaching resentment. Meanwhile Maggie herself has to confront the unpleasant truths she’s shunted to the back of her mind, when her separation from Meyer threatens her conception of self.
The intertwining of the three relationship arcs — Maggie and Simon, Simon and Clement, and Maggie and Meyer — is the book’s strongest feature. Both protagonists are flawed characters, Simon in a way that’s obvious and upfront, and Maggie in a subtler way, which she conceals from both the reader and herself, and struggles to come to terms with. They complement each other, again in differing ways. While Maggie imparts her lessons on boundaries and negotiation to Simon in the most open and honest manner, she derives from him in return a kind of quiet certainty in the sense of self, more through osmosis than overt instruction.
All of this doesn’t begin to touch of the many other facets of interest in the book. Part of Magdalena’s struggle hinges on her flawed and vulnerable concept of self, which traces partially back to her being a Portuguese Jew, and the granddaughter of forced converts. She’s proud and determined to be open about her Judaism, even in the face of unkind treatment from Clement’s house guests. At the same time, her Jewish identity is raw and vulnerable, inexpertly reclaimed in solitude and filled with self-doubt. She pays a heavy price for the violence visited on her ancestors, the scars of which are evidenced in her yearning for both family and community, and the casual acceptance they imply.
Maggie and Simon quarrel often about both her Judaism and her sexual licentiousness. Simon is well-meaning but ignorant about the first, and deeply conflicted about the second. In a moment of self-awareness he admits he “can be very all or nothing”, shuttled between excess and self-denial and pleased with neither. Like Maggie, his vulnerability is tied to his identity, but in his case it’s implied that the tension is between the straitlaced Anglican rectory he was raised in, and the queer, non-monogamous libertine social circle Clement introduced him to. He dreads being dragged into sex games (slash mind games) that he doesn’t want, but knows he doesn’t really fit with his mother and sisters’ ideas of propriety.
All or Nothing is billed as a romance novella, but the character of the ending has more in common with the HFN or “happily for now” ending I associate with erotica. The ending is distinctly optimistic and relationship-focused, but also pointedly engaged in possibilities rather than certainties. Given the two protagonists’ internal conflicts both have to do with feeling hemmed in by their past decisions and future options, that sense of possibility feels appropriate and even freeing, especially given the relatively short time frame of the plot.
Last but not least, I owe thanks to Corey Alexander for including the book in their blog post, “Fave Jewish Rep in Romances I Read 2018-2019“, which is how I discovered it in the first place.
It’s been some time since I wrote an update. A lot has changed in the world, and that has naturally affected my work, as well. After a difficult winter, during which I was sick more often than seems entirely necessary, March brought the Covid-19 crisis to my doorstep. Since March 13th my part of the world has been under the onus of social distancing, which has gradually affected more and more parts of my life. Although it may superficially seem that my normal routine is not much different than what I’m doing now, the constant barrage of news and the worry for myself and those around me take an emotional toll, which can make productivity quite difficult.
Evertree Inn is a mystery text adventure from Choice of Games‘ Hosted Games label, featuring an amateur detective untangling a cobweb of clues and secrets, but set in a by-the-book fantasy role-playing world, complete with elves and dwarves, mages and rogues, and all the rest. Sordwin is the sequel to Evertree, which can continue the adventure with a character from Evertree, or be played independently.
The premise of Evertree Inn is bare-bones. The game has a vested interest in speeding through the niceties of character generation, and dropping the player right in the middle of “and then the murders began”. This is just what a good detective mystery ought to do, in my opinion, and it contributed a lot to how readily the game drew me in, even in a time when I had found myself stuck in the middle of several other — otherwise excellent — games. You play a young adventurer, recently come of age and out to seek their fortune in the world. Much of the customization revolves around preset RPG concepts of race and class, though space is given for gender and sexuality, to propel the optional romantic side plot.
It’s been a long time since I updated this blog. Life is full of twists and turns, and sometimes new priorities have to override preexisting obligations. I spent the latter half of 2018 focused on my two ongoing projects, Turncoat Chronicle and an unnamed novel. I chose to prioritize those works over reviews and blog posts. Then I had a long stretch of time where my day job had to take priority, and even finding time to work on my game was a challenge. Once I had reclaimed my writing time and started making major progress on the game again, another thing popped up. And so on, so life goes.
Lately, though, it occurred to me that it was time to post a small update on my recent writerly activities. During May and June I have been hard at work on both the game and the novel, while at the same time planning ahead for what my next ChoiceScript project might be. I examined and discarded a large number of promising ideas, which is why I am holding back on discussing the details of the current idea, at least until I’m certain that it’s taken root.
Since February, Turncoat Chronicle has been undergoing a closed beta testing process. Both feedback and changes resulting from it have been extensive. Some of the comments were expected, others less so. Revising and expanding chapter two, the meatiest section of the game, has also helped me rethink the structure for chapter three, which will require further revising when I get back to it. Readying the next beta version is my top priority at the moment, and to that end I’m working full-tilt on the second half of chapter two, including the much-anticipated romance scene.
Since last May I’ve been working intensively on a new interactive fiction written in ChoiceScript language, titled Turncoat Chronicle. My previous attempt at writing a ChoiceScript game did not go well, but with a year’s worth of writing experience I decided to revisit the draft of the old game and re-spin it into a new story, told from a different point of view. Restructuring the narrative gave it a new lease of life, and my strict adherence to limiting the scope of the story means I have great hopes of completing it in a reasonable time frame.
Like the game it spun out of, and like several of my other writing projects in progress, Turncoat Chronicle occupies a complicated fantasy world, alien to our own, but without magic and religiously agnostic. Its setting, the kingdom of Koth, is known within its own world as a militant and battle-ready nation. Despite this, combat does not form the bulk of the story’s plot, nor the game mechanics. It lives in an uncomfortable subgenre, where talking typically solves more problems than stabbing: political fantasy.
Choice of Rebels: Uprising is an interactive text game from Choice of Games. I previously reviewed their game The Daring Mermaid Expedition, and have also played several of their other games, notably the Affairs of the Court trilogy. As implied by the name, the game’s plot involves an uprising against a corrupt empire in which you, the player character, play the role of both instigator and leader. As in all Choice of Games offerings, this game is rich and divergent, with hundreds of choices large and small that can affect the outcome of the plot.
One of the game’s main strengths is in its worldbuilding. The world of the Karagond Hegemony is richly drawn and thoroughly outlined in the attached codex, which is accessible from the game’s stats screen. The centuries-old empire has swallowed up the nations that preceded it and morphed their religion into a doctrine in support of their brutal hierarchies. This world order is held in check by theurgy, a vastly powerful kind of blood magic restricted to elite practitioners, and requiring the yearly sacrifice of thousands of serfs to power it. The game does an elegant job of intertwining the cultural and historical elements of worldbuilding with this deeper, more metaphysical aspect of the plot. While at times confusing, it also provides a richness that long-time readers of epic fantasy can appreciate.
The year-end mood has been upon me for weeks. 2017 feels like it’s been fleeing from under me, while at the same time, in retrospect, it’s been one of the longest years of my life. It’s hard to think of the passing year without remembering all that I didn’t accomplish. I had big ideas for this year, ideas that didn’t pan out quite as I’d hoped.
My plans to complete a playable game, top to bottom, met with repeated setbacks. I had hoped to have the final version of Girlfriend Material complete for release before the end of the year. Now I’m uncertain of when I’ll be able to set a hard release date for the game at all.
Work stress and real-life circumstances prevented me from dedicating myself to NaNoWriMo as I’d planned, though I participated in the latter half and managed to rehabilitate my daily writing habits. I ended November with ten thousand written words that I hadn’t had before, setting the course for a story sun out of 2016’s wordier — but still unsuccessful — NaNovel.
Apart from NaNoWriMo and my daily pages, I hadn’t tracked my word count at all in 2017. I think 2018 is as good a time as any to resume that habit. I hate to find myself at the end of the year, or even the week, looking back and unable to effectively assess how much progress I’ve made. 2018 is already looking to be a year of big changes for me, and the first one of those is going to be reviving my meticulously color-coded spreadsheets.
I plan to keep writing games and short stories in the year to come. January will bring my very first professionally published work, and hopefully also a review for the last book I read in 2017, Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice. Behind the curve, I’m afraid, but better late than never. I’m also looking forward to the second iteration of Finally Finish Something Jam as an incentive to step up my work on Girlfriend Material.
There’s a great deal to (remind myself to) look forward to.
Happy New Year.
I came upon a link to Reigns 2 quite by accident over Twitter, on the very day it was released. I’d never heard of it before, not the game to which it’s a sequel. It was a fortuitous discovery for me, because Reigns: Her Majesty is exactly the sort of game I liked. I downloaded it the same day and was enthralled for hours. Though the game has a learning curve I was determined to get ahead of it, especially since it comes with many, many unlockable achievements.
The basic premise of the game is that you play from the point of view of a newlywed royal consort, who is called to act as helpmeet to a bumbling but mostly harmless monarch. Successful ruling requires appeasing many factions with incompatible desires, which appear in the form of four metrics for faith, popularity, power and wealth. Failure is lethal, and even being too successful is its own kind of deadly. I’ve found, for example, that by far the most common mode of death in the game is being crushed by the love of adoring crowds.
In preparation for my very first Yuri Game Jam, I found myself browsing some of the best-loved entries from jams of years past. The one that stuck with me most is undoubtedly Syrup and the Ultimate Sweet. This is a cute and quirky adventure with a mildly romantic tone. You play as Syrup, a self-proclaimed candy alchemist and the owner of the only mundane candy shop in a village occupied entirely by witches and magical creatures.
Syrup is an endearingly grumpy character, devoted to her discipline but a little lacking in social skills, and surrounded by an equally endearing supporting cast. Her best friend Pastille is her only employee, in charge of dealing with customers and all the aspects of managing a shop that Syrup herself just isn’t very good at, while she works in the laboratory, creating fanciful candies. She carries on a friendly rivalry with the witch Butterscotch and her familiar Toffee, who are also her best customers.
The plot begins when Syrup enters her workshop and discovers a stranger there, a girl made entirely out of gummy pink candy. Being the suspicious character that she is, she immediately assumes the candy construct is a spy sent by her nemesis, Butterscotch, to discover how she makes her fabulous candies. Butterscotch is vain enough to accept the credit for creating such a complex piece of magic, bringing a candy girl to more-or-less autonomous life.
How the plot progresses depends largely on the player’s choices, unlocking one of several endings based on Syrup’s behavior towards both her friends and her enemies. Some of the endings are sweet and hopeful, some of them are quite depressing, and a few are ambivalent. All in all, the theme of the game is more around friendship than romance, which perhaps makes it an odd candidate for a yuri-based game jam, but I found it to be just the right kind of heart-warming for me.
Being a completionist, I made a decent stab at pursuing all possible endings, even the aptly-named “candibal” ending. The bad ends bring the good ones into focus, although I wouldn’t recommend playing them all back-to-back. There is also one friendship ending that’s only attainable after you’ve already unlocked one of the other good ends, and it even happens to be one of my favorites.
You can download Syrup and the Ultimate Sweet through itch.io or play it online through your browser. The browser-playable version has a slightly different interface, but I found both versions very playable. For a better look at the game’s art, check out Nami-Tsuki’s Deviant Art account, or find the game’s music on Bandcamp.
Crossposted to Dreamwidth.