On most work days, I liven up my commute by listening to podcasts. They’re easy to listen to, because I can drift in and out of focus without too much trouble, and put together whatever I miss from context. Listening to audio fiction isn’t so easy. I need to focus on every word, or the thread of the plot is lost, and my enjoyment of the words themselves is lessened. I listen to short fiction on audio only rarely, and then only to very short things, twenty minutes or less. Still, I’ve found some remarkable stories online. These are three of them.
That hilariously short attention span aside, and ignoring for a second that sometimes depression prevents me from focusing on anything interesting, I like listening to short stories on audio on my phone. While waiting for the bus, on my commute, on lunch breaks, on the line at the supermarket… wherever I can squeeze in those twenty minutes of peace.
My fall’s reading has been not nearly so prolific as the summer or spring had been. Since Icon wrapped up in October, I still haven’t finished the small pile of graphic novels sitting on my shelf, gazing at me, forlorn. NaNoWriMo happened and I was focused on trying to break barriers in my own writing and, frankly, November had been a rough month for everyone.
It’s a good thing I started out with Lumberjanes, then. This comics series, bound up in four-issue trade paperbacks, hovers somewhere between young adult and middle grade. Though nominally a fantasy adventure book, it’s a little more unrestrained in its fantastical exploration than I’m used to seeing in YA. The art style is vibrant and compelling, but the human figures are stylized enough that the age of the protagonists stays ambiguous. The summer camp environment and the bright and cheery atmosphere give it an overall middle grade vibe.
The Cloud Roads is the first installment of Martha Wells’ Books of the Raksura series, a vivid and imaginative secondary world fantasy populated by a wealth of strange and fascinating creatures. Primary attention is given to the Raksura, a species of reptilian shapeshifters with a curious insectile social structure. This book is driven by worldbuilding, and as such, it must introduce a point-of-view that can ease the reader into the rich vitality of the setting, one piece at a time. Moon’s backstory as it is given is far from original, but as a vagabond traveler orphaned at a young age, he serves the book’s needs perfectly.
A well-rounded review requires revealing to the reader some things that the protagonist himself is initially ignorant of. Moon begins the story as a solitary being, camouflaged among strangers and unable to answer even the simplest questions about what he is or where he came from. The only others of his kind who he knew are long-dead. He does know a few things about himself, some of which he reveals to the readers, and others which he holds back. But the first turn of the plot is stated in the very beginning of chapter one, before doubling back to expose the transition in full.
I’ve been obsessed with mermaids since I first watched Disney’s The Little Mermaid when I was six years old. Reportedly, after the movie I menaced my father with complex natural science questions like ‘what do mermaids eat?’ Fairy tales never really stopped having an appeal for me, even as a teenager when I grew frustrated with their simplistic and formulaic nature. It’s a good thing, too, because studying fairy tales taught me more about writing than almost anything else. To this very day, there are some words that, if I see them on a book cover, will spark an immediate interest: “dragon”, for example. Or “mermaid”.
I have two new games out on my philome.la page!
- Escape to Princess is a light-hearted humorous adventure where you escape your dreary life… to become a princess. Just as advertised. This twine is built in the form of a story with multiple choices. Your previous choices are highlighted and you can scroll back up to see them at any time. Content note: the game is humorous but does contain some strong language, if that’s not your cup of tea.
- Why Aren’t You Happy? is a game where you play a dragon who is trying to keep its princess happy. Give gifts to improve her mood, but remember that the cost comes straight out of your hoard. The game has three settings that determine how many game days pass before your tenure as a princess-minder receives its judgment.
One of the delightful things that happened at Olamot Con 2016 is that I happened upon a copy of the first Rat Queens TPB at one of the stands. The name rang a bell, so I flipped through it and eventually surrendered to temptation and took it home with me. This title has been vaguely on my radar for a while, but the scarcity of comic book stores and my general disengagement with the medium produced an obstacle of availability. What am I gonna say, there is so much entertainment media out there, you have to work hard to catch and keep readers’ attention.
Conventions, however, exist to circumvent the barriers that make mass media vastly more available for consumption than more niche markets, and I took full advantage of this fact. I bought the first two TPBs, covering Rat Queens #1-#10, and a full story arc with a satisfying conclusion. Frankly, that’s already more than most comics can boast.
Queen at Arms, a strategy and romance visual novel, first became known to me under the working title ‘The Silent Princess’. Thankfully this title was dropped pretty quickly since, despite being accurate in the literal sense, it gives an entirely false impression of the game’s content. The protagonist of QAA is variously characterized as shy or reserved, and the player receives a close view of his anxieties and insecurities via his inner monologue. Ditching the awkward moniker lets his characterization stand on its own merits and lets the player engage with Marcus on their own terms — without subjecting both to the implicit judgment of what strong heroines are supposed to be.
The plot of QAA is basic fantasy fare. A good king and queen are assassinated and usurped by a brutal pretender. A loyal knight takes in their only child, a baby girl, and raises her anonymously under the identity of his own dead infant son, Marcus. Years later Marcus attempts to follow in his adoptive father’s footsteps, still oblivious to his royal heritage. Circumstances conspire to put him in the path of the pretender king, and place him in a position to either affirm or deny his male identity.
Marcus worries a lot about what he’s supposed to be. On more familiar terms, we learn that many of the supporting characters grapple with similar concerns. Hardly surprising given this theme seems nearly universal in nature. He nurses a secret, mutual inferiority complex with his older foster-brother, Nicholas, as they both labor under the shadow of their late father’s military reputation. He struggles to embody ideals of masculinity he learned from his environment and stays silent, in part, because of how feminine his voice sounds to his ears.
The central struggle, of course, is the one on which the whole plot of the game is predicated. Like most fantasy readers (I imagine) I’ve seen more crossdressing teenage girl heroines than I care to recount. By now the trope seems impossibly stale and unsatisfying. Again, the heroine rejects the burden of “weak” and “soft” femininity and seeks to emulate male role models. Again, she struggles to bind her breasts and hide her short stature (writers! there actually are tall women in the world, I promise). Typically whatever subversion of gender or sexuality norms is implicit in the scenario is obliterated when the narrative buries its heroine under a thick, treacly layer of compulsory heterosexuality. Haha! Nothing gay here, I promise!
I’m not going to say that QAA is the perfect antidote to this, or that it can fill the conspicuous lack of growing up with all those other ones. I’m also not ready to slap it with a grandiose label like ‘interrogating masculinity’, although heaven knows that masculinity needs some interrogation, especially in fantasy. I can tell you, however, that my first run through the game culminated in a romance where the love interest had no qualms about using Marcus’s birth name (Callista) as well as his chosen male pronouns. “Do they know you’re not a woman?” It’s rather refreshing to see such a seemingly-complicated identity just accepted as a matter of course.
I don’t know if I feel comfortable praising QAA for its depiction of gender issues. Its first and main advantage is that the character in question is the protagonist. The player is able to empathize with them from a position of exposure, to read and experience their inner narration, their authentic self. Then there is also the matter of being able to choose, and especially valuable is the fact that the choice isn’t presented in a clear-cut, obviously labeled dialogue option. Rather, it’s woven into the narrative. The game also spends some time on the intersection of gender identity and sexuality. Although the conversations surrounding this could be made more explicit and detailed, something about their implicitness rings true. It feels more like a love story between people questioning their gender or their sexuality, and less like a pamphlet for high-schoolers in disguise.
As well, I would need to experience all the different romance paths and their variations on this conversation before I felt comfortable drawing a bottom line. I played the game once through and was delighted by it. My second playthrough stalled near the end and I don’t know when or whether I will pick it up again. Frankly, the game is very playable and entertaining, but just not varied enough or beautiful enough to keep me amused through a third and fourth run.
The quality of the dialogue is a little inconsistent, and there are some eyebrow-raising writing choices. As a player with virtually no experience with strategy games, I found the gameplay responsive to common sense and satisfyingly challenging. The occasional timed decision added tension without becoming nerve-wracking. The visual novel convention of sprinkling the dialogue with voiced catchphrases is… well, I assume I’ll get used to it, but it rather caught me by surprise. There’s enough variation in the supporting cast to appeal to most players, and the game features six possible romances, four male and two female.
Ultimately I would say QAA is a compelling game, although not an excellent one. What recommends it is that it tries to bring something new to the table, and in the experience it can offer to the player. Despite multiple romance paths, achievements and hidden secrets to discover, it has limited replayability value. Recommended with reservations.
Crossposted to Dreamwidth.