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.
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.
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.
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.
It feels odd to get started on a game, at least two years after it was first published. Still, it’s not as though Little Alchemy is ancient enough to feel outdated or irrelevant, and I can gladly report that it’s every bit as enjoyable and engaging in 2017 as it probably was when it was first released. The only downside is knowing that it’s unlikely to receive any more updates. Once you’ve exhausted the 500+ existing alchemical elements and their combinations, that’s it. And given the habitual nature of the game, you might find yourself marathon playing it for hours at a time, and end up running out of game within a day or two.
Little Alchemy is a lightweight and fun alchemy simulator. Beginning with the four classical elements, it allows you to combine two elements to create a third, sometimes with additional byproducts. Simple as that. To my great delight, it can be played out of any browser through either the official site or indie game outfit itch.io, and also has a mobile version. After messing around with the browser game for entirely too long, I downloaded the Android app and lost several hours of potential sleep to it.
“Concerning the Mystic Marriage of the Earth and Sun to Beget Works of Great Virtue and Power…
The title went on for another half page.”
The Mystic Marriage is a historical fantasy taking place in the fictional European principality of Alpennia, beginning in the year 1821. Both a romance and an adventure, its primary plot revolves around Antuniet Chazillen, last daughter of an Alpennian noble family that has been disgraced and all but destroyed. Antuniet’s life is bleak and devoid of most comforts and securities she’d been raised to. She’d been a scholar and her access to continuing her studies is severely restricted so, like many young women in her position, she makes a strained living by tutoring more wealthy students. The only bright spot in her life, if it could be termed such, is her single-minded quest to redeem her family’s reputation through the art of alchemy and her discovery, mostly by chance, of a singular alchemical text.
I’ve written before about the Dark Parables series of hidden object games. They’re great games and I revisit them pretty regularly, especially since I started them out by buying the standard editions and was quickly converted to the more expensive collector’s editions, which contain an impressive amount of additional content. I still haven’t completed my collection, which means I haven’t played all of the bonus games. Since my PC crashed and burned in March and I’m operating on a new laptop, I decided it was time to get back to the games again. New installments of Dark Parables come out reliably once or twice a year, and there had been two new games released since I’d last checked.
On Saturday night, I finally watched the Wonder Woman movie. It’s been highly anticipated in general, both because of Gal Gadot’s short but redeeming performance in last year’s appalling Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, but also because of the revolving-door rumors about a WW movie, and its many years in so-called development hell. It took me a long time to become a fan of the character myself, given the nature of creative work on a shared universe like DC Comics’ universe. Writers and artists come and go, each one wanting to leave their mark on the character. With each change in creative teams, you never know what version of your favorite character you’re going to get next. At the end of the day, every fan has their own idea of what Wonder Woman is, or should be.
Fortunately, this is an idea that the movie takes a strong stance on. Wonder Woman is a character full of contradictions. She’s a superhero, a princess, a warrior, a mythological figure and an ambassador for peace, and none of these roles, no matter how conflicting they might seem, can be elided and still remain true to form. An explicitly feminist character from her inception, Wonder Woman was initially conceived as a superheroine who fights evil, “not with fists but with love”. There’s a great deal that might be said about William Moulton Marston and his ideas of gender, and how they gave rise to the Diana we know. Whatever else might be said, though, what persisted is a profile of a heroine combining strengths stereotypically both masculine and feminine.