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The Heart Is a Small, Angry Child

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Cover of “All or Nothing” by Rose Lerner.

Rose Lerner’s “All of Nothing” is a novella which first appeared in the anthology Gambled Away, romance stories about bets and gambling.

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.

Worldbuilding: Notes on the Ten Plagues of Egypt

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Three events fuel this worldbuilding-related musing: firstly, the omnipresent Covid-19 situation, which has been ongoing worldwide since December, and in my backyard for the past month or so. Second, my recent dive in Mary Robinette Kowal’s Glamourist Histories series, specifically the third book, Without a Summer. Third and final, Pesach, and the annual reading of the Pesach Haggadah, including a recitation of the Ten Plagues of Egypt.

Covid-19 has got everyone with disaster on the mind, but in some ways it’s an apex of a common sentiment I’ve seen online for years now, expressing that each year/month/time period is more terrible and disaster-ridden than the last. Memes about volcanic eruptions and wildfires spark both fear and laughter, depending on the reader. For myself, they remind me of the Plagues of Egypt. Because of the timing — a Seder in isolation is no ordinary feat — and because Pesach happens to be my favorite holiday, and I especially love the Haggadah.

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On Writing and Quarantine

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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.

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Evertree Saga – “And then the murders began.”

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The Evertree Saga: Evertree Inn
Title banner of Evertree Inn

Evertree Inn is a mystery text adventure from Choice of GamesHosted 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 Evertree Saga: Sordwin
Title banner of Sordwin

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.

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Return of the Revenge of 2019

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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.

In other exciting news, I’ve relaunched my Patreon account in order to support the process of developing games with ChoiceScript, which can be quite lengthy. My Ko-Fi account remains active, as well.

Intrigues and Influences

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Turncoat Chronicle is a fantasy intrigue interactive fiction game.

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.

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Blood Magic and Rebel Scum

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Choice of Rebels: Uprising – the rebellion lives.

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.

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