Saturday, 1 November 2014

Armchair Activism: A Practical Guide

“What can Men do against such reckless hate?” – Theoden, The Two Towers

A few days ago I (finally) tweeted about my horror and disgust at the Gamergate “movement”, and about my disappointment at the relative lack of comment by most of the male gamers I know. A couple of people responded with “but what can I do” questions or comments, and I have spent some time since then thinking about that. (Also plotting out a novel and playing Saints Row IV, because I multitask.) So here are some suggestions. I have illustrated with lots of different examples, not just my current particular bugbear, because this stuff is appropriate in a lot of different situations.

Publicise. The general public does not have my awareness of Gamergate, because most people don’t have my specific interests. Even where there is public awareness of specific events, like natural disasters and war, people forget pretty quickly. This is natural and does not make them terrible human beings with all the compassion of a brick. It is just what we do. We care about things that affect us personally, and if they don’t, we care when we first hear about it and then we forget. So, keep talking about it. You don’t have to bore everyone by talking about it all the time, but mention it, link to articles or stats about it, and make it clear that it affects you – it’ll affect other people through you.

Consider getting your place of employment involved, if you work in the kind of place that likes ostentatiously giving to charity or which has some kind of interest in the issue. Companies wield a different kind of power than people do, and usually have much wider pools of people they can reach. But companies do not take action independently of their employees and owners/shareholders: someone has to be the first to suggest it. This isn’t always appropriate, but it widens your ability to publicise from a couple of hundred people up to potentially Stephen Fry-like levels of influence.

Educate yourself about the issues involved. This is especially important for social justice stuff, but the way that things are presented in the media always involves some level of prejudice and presumption, and you need to be able to identify what and how. For example, the ebola crisis in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea is widely known about, but the media concentrates on white victims, or on those who have developed the illness in Western nations. Not only is this a clear media bias based on systemic racism, it also presents a false image of the disease and its spread and consequences across the world. In order to counter that, you need to know the facts about the epidemic as a whole, and you should try to have an understanding of the social issues involved both here and in the affected countries.

This leads on to: Learn the arguments. Again, this is more specific to social justice issues, but there are always arguments, and you need to understand both sides in order to explain them to people who don’t know. So, in the case of the Fukushima disaster, a lot of people took the view that all nuclear power stations were ticking time bombs, when in actual fact the set of circumstances which led to the meltdown were really specific - tsunami and industrial negligence – and they can be protected against. But people don’t know that unless they know roughly how nuclear reactors work, and have a reasonable working understanding of probability. Most people do not have these things, hence the reaction.

In situations where you have a clear moral stance on something, you need to know what the other side is saying so that you can recognise the specific argument and respond to it effectively. Most people have not been trained in debating or in critical thinking, and there are a lot of really terrible arguments out there. It is unreasonable to expect that the people who are directly affected by the "policing" of Ferguson should have to spend their time and effort explaining Systemic Racism 101. They are too busy doing other things, like surviving and keeping themselves safe. But Systemic Racism 101 still needs to be explained. That is something you can do, and it’s helpful both as an explanation and as a gesture of support for the victims.

Complain to the relevant authorities. This isn’t always an appropriate course of action, but when it is, do it. You can write to your MP, MEP, Senator, whatever. There are specific oversight bodies which have powers to investigate, fine, or take to court –get in touch with them. You can also get in touch with other bodies which have a vested interest, like the Comic Book Legal Defence Fund, or the Trussell Trust, or a politician who is on a committee investigating a related issue. And then tell other people what you’ve done and why. Don’t make it about your feelings though – you’re not telling people so they can praise your actions, you’re telling them so that they know they can do it too. Provide a link to the method you used, to make it even easier. This is tedious to do (believe me, I know) but people are lazy and won't necessarily do it themselves.

Provide emotional support to the victims. It’s a little eye-rollingly twee to say things like “solidarity for the victims of this terrible thing”, but it’s not useless to do – you’re making your views clear, and while one voice on its own is quiet, lots of quiet voices together is a roar. Politicians and charities genuinely do gauge reactions to crises by aggregating responses on social media and blogs etc, so even if none of the victims ever see it, you’re still helping.

Provide financial support to the victims, if you can afford it. For big disasters, go through one of the big charities – they’re more reliable and more efficient. I would recommend UN bodies, MSF, or the Red Cross and Red Crescent, which are much larger and have access to specialists who can provide appropriate assistance. For private individuals, check if there is a crowdfunding appeal for them (I would exercise caution with this though, be sure to research it as thoroughly as you can), or support them through their work by sponsoring them or purchasing their products.

Providing goods instead of money can be useful, but unless you know what specifically is needed it’s generally a better idea to just donate a sum of money. Food banks much prefer to receive cash rather than tins of food, because they can buy in bulk which is cheaper, and because people get it wrong. Anyone who’s ever seen a harvest festival in a church or school knows that there are a lot of mystery cans or esoteric ingredients which are unlikely to be useful to the people receiving them. What use is a can of capers on its own? Even if you get it right, you’ll still be missing a lot of basic supplies that are needed – food banks also hand out nappies, sanitary towels and tampons, toilet roll, and other necessary but unglamorous products.

(This last is something that it is good to remember about giving wedding and baby presents. When my sister got married, she ended up with so many towels that some of them are still unused five years later. When she had her daughter, they got so many newborn clothes that my niece had grown out of them before she could wear them all. This is so common that charity shops have huge ranges of unworn newborn clothes, which hardly ever get bought. Think about what other people are likely to get, and don’t get that. If you don’t know, just give a voucher or cash.)

Listen to the victims and believe them. Hard to believe that this still has to be said, but people doubt the testimony of victims all the time. This is in part because of media reporting on the issues, which makes false claims seem much more prevalent by focussing on them instead of on the wider picture, but also because of underlying social issues like sexism and racism. (That ties back to education as well.) If you as an ally or supporter dismiss claims as outlandish or as exaggeration, think how much easier it is for the opponents to dismiss them.

Don’t expect thanks or praise. You might receive some, but you shouldn’t be looking for it. Giving money to look good is still useful, but constantly making the conversation about yourself is selfish and unhelpful. I know that this sounds like I’m contradicting the first thing I said, but it’s possible to demonstrate that you are affected by an issue and care about it whilst making sure that the voices of the direct victims are heard. If in doubt, don’t mention anything more than “I care about this issue and I think you should too”.

Don’t talk yourself out of helping. You don’t have to do all of these things. You don’t even have to do any of them: if you want to help and can think of a better way, do that. But don’t think that your contribution would be meaningless so why bother at all. It’s both defeatist and wrong. One person genuinely can change the world, albeit one person in the right place at the right time with the right skillset, and you have no idea if you’re going to be that person.

Keep yourself safe: only do things that you are prepared to accept the consequences of. This is especially important in protests where you know the police (or army) are using violent or aggressive tactics. If you can’t afford to get arrested because of the type of industry you work in, you’re allowed to stay at home. You are allowed to place your safety ahead of your principles. Equally though, everyone is allowed to place their principles before their safety. The calculation is different for everyone at different times. Don’t presume that someone else didn’t think their actions through just because you came to a different conclusion.

Finally, don't be a dick. Don't threaten people with an opposing viewpoint physically or verbally, or make deliberately inflammatory statements, or make sweeping generalisations like "all TERFs are evil". These things can and will be used as ammunition by the other side. They will also alienate people with more moderate views, or people who are undecided about the issue or issues involved. You don't have to be excruciatingly nice to every sockpuppet or right-wing talk-show host you come across, but as a general rule you can't persuade them anyway: you can only persuade their audience. And that's a worthy goal.

Armchair activism has a bad name, but I'm pretty sure I have just comprehensively demonstrated that there are a large number of things that can be done sitting on one's arse in front of one's PC, or standing on public transport using your phone, or round the water cooler at work. You don't have to do all of them. You don't have to do any of them. If you need to stay anonymous, do it. But there are always, always things that you can do if you care about something.

Here are a list of links to various organisations, some specifically mentioned here and some not, which I have googled for you so you don't have to. Feel free to add more in the comments. (Just so we're clear, I reserve the right to moderate any comment made.)

Thursday, 24 July 2014

#CBR6 14: You Had Me At Hello, Mhairi McFarlane

Page count: 436 pages
Time taken: 3.5 hours

Rachel has been with her fiancé Rhys since before she went to university, until an argument over their wedding DJ sees her ending their relationship and moving out. This coincides with an old friend (Ben) moving back to Manchester, and Rachel finds herself examining her life in detail, both past and present. Her work as a court reporter, her friendship group, and Ben’s wife, all serve as complications which she has to juggle. As the layers of concealment and deception build up, she has to decide which truths to reveal, and which to bury for good.

I love this book. Every part of it is perfect to me. The only criticism I have about it is that it makes me nostalgic for university. That’s it. Everything else is great. The characters are engaging, flawed, and well-rounded; the relationships are all believable; there’s no fat-shaming, or slut-shaming, or stupid frothy girly twee bullshit. It’s one of the few books I own in more than one format, purely so I can lend people the book so that they can love it as much as I do. (Also, I had a voucher for Sainsbury’s and it was perfectly priced to use up the rest that wasn’t spent on a stockpot, which was also a very good purchase.)

I was reminded a lot of Jane Austen – not in terms of the plot, which is very different, but in the pointed observations of people, subversive humour, and tidiness of the story. There are a lot of laugh-out-loud funny bits – I suspect it helps to have a dry, dark, and occasionally twisted sense of humour - and the book is a fast and compelling read.

This is McFarlane’s first book, and it really announced her as a rising new star of contemporary romance in Britain. I’ll review her second book once I finish it (for the second time), and she’s on my “buy immediately and keep forever” list. She’s also on Twitter ( @mhairmcf ) and is just as funny in 140 characters. I hope that it marks a watershed moment in romance fiction as well, where more authors try to avoid the worst tropes of the genre – if you want any examples of those, feel free to browse my Alpha’s Touch boxset reviews, which range from the depressed to the disgusted. YHMAH is the perfect cure for all such shit.

5 stars: reaffirms faith in humanity whilst being, to quote the book, a proper lol.

#CBR6 13: Metro 2033, Dmitry Glukhovsky

Page count: 464 pages
Time taken: 6 hours (I spent a lot of time looking up stations)

Artyom is a young man living in VNDKh, the northernmost inhabited station in Moscow’s metro system. The past few weeks have seen terrifying new creatures, “dark ones”, invading down the lines from the irradiated and lethal outside world, and Artyom finds himself on a mission to warn the near-mythical Polis of this new and lethal threat. On the way, he meets a motley collection of people who variously help and hinder him, and uncovers secrets of a world he barely remembers. Can he save the Metro, or is the presumed last bastion of humanity doomed to die in the dark?

This is a classic post-apocalyptic piece of fiction, which if the writer were British I would say owed much to John Wyndham’s legacy. Given that he’s Russian though, I have no idea what his influences were. The action mainly takes place within the confines of the Moscow metro system – there are handy maps at the front and back of the book for readers without familiarity, although I still found it difficult to work out where the action was actually taking place because the names are all long and I have very little familiarity with Russian.

The pacing is superb, which really adds to the race-against-time theme, and Artyom’s journey, both physical and spiritual, is a really good variant of the hero’s quest. I enjoyed the slow reveal of what happened to the world above, and I loved the various different social structures which exist in various different stations – the ideologies and how they interact are really well thought through and investigated. I’m not a huge dystopia fan, but I enjoyed this one a lot, and the black Russian humour that seeps in is very welcome. There’s also a surprising amount of Pilgrim’s Progress style allegory, which breaks up the dark and claustrophobic imagery of the action sequences, and the nature of humanity is thoroughly explored.

I have two criticisms of the book: firstly, very few female characters at all, the plight of women in this world being almost entirely ignored, which for my money makes it a much less in-depth thought experiment than it otherwise aspires to be. And secondly, there is no way that radiation alone could account for all of the mutants in the time stated since the nuclear apocalypse – one generation is not enough time for such vast speciation. There are hints in the book that more esoteric weapons were used than just nukes and explosives, but no-one really talks about it, which annoyed me because I like a certain amount of accuracy in my science fiction. That being said, this is a really good read, and deserves to be on everyone’s post-apocalyptic depressing dystopias reading list.

4 out of 5: a classic example of the genre, pity about the sexism.

There is a computer game based on the novel, which I own but have not yet got round to playing, and I'll link to that review when it's done. I'm curious to see how it compares, I'm pretty excited about the ways that games can reinterpret extant worlds.

#CBR6 12: Paladin of Souls, Lois McMaster Bujold

Page count: 456 in the large paperback edition
Time taken: 4 hours

Ista, dowager Royina of Chalion, has finally been released from the toxic influence of the curse which affected the royal house for generations. With her mother recently dead, she finds herself able to take charge of her life for the first time, and sets off on a voyage of discovery disguised as a pilgrimage: Ista has no desire to speak to any of the gods, ever again. Unfortunately, the gods have other ideas, and she finds herself on an all-too-familiar path. Will this one, too, lead her into death and madness, or will she find a way through the darkness?

The second of three books set in a late-medieval world where gods, demons and souls are all real, Paladin of Souls follows on pretty directly from The Curse of Chalion, and contains spoilers for it. However, you don’t have to read them in order as enough exposition is given. The theme of the series is the five gods of the world: Father of Winter, Mother of Summer, Son of Autumn, Daughter of Spring, and the Bastard, god of things out of season. This book is primarily concerned with the Bastard, although there is another cameo appearance. My understanding is that Bujold intends a series of five books, one for each god, but has only made it through three so far – the third one, The Hallowed Hunt, is set a couple of hundred years before Chalion and Paladin and can be read as a stand-alone with no spoiler concerns.

I love the gods of this world, who are all characters in their own right. Bujold is, I believe, quietly religious herself, although she neither proselytises nor evangelises in her works, and if she’s a practising Christian she’s definitely a modern one who likes birth control and gay people. The sense of the spiritual I get from this series is not something I would associate from a lifelong atheist, certainly, and the theology of the world is well thought-out and examined in all three books.

The secondary theme in this book is recovery from mental health issues, and as such it can be a bit of a difficult read. In the parlance of the time and place, Ista was driven mad by grief, and rage, and guilt, and a mystical curse. When the curse is lifted, she is still heartsick and depressed, albeit no longer actively suicidal and occasionally raving. Her journey to whole-ness is convincing and filled with all of the pitfalls one might expect, and the occasional flashes of her former thought patterns and processes are both worrying from a reader’s point of view, and entirely on the money from a sufferer’s perspective – again, I suspect personal knowledge from Bujold, although I do not know any specifics. As a chronic depressive, Ista is both mirror and aspiration.

This book is my favourite book of all time. I cannot read it without tears and laughter, and it warms my battered soul to the core. It deals with a wide variety of topics which are personal and constant headweasels: family, religion, depression, self-hatred – pretty much all of my worst thoughts are covered in this in one way or another. Despite the difficulty of the subject matter (for me personally, I don’t think it’s as on-point for everyone), I return to it again and again. If I could only read one book for the rest of my life, it would be this book. If I lose the ability to read, or hear, or feel my body, I will still find my way back to this book. I cannot recommend it highly enough: it has genuinely enriched my life, and I hope it does yours too.

5 stars, obviously.

#CBR6 11: Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, Lois McMaster Bujold

Page count: 422 in the hardback edition
Time taken: four hours

Ivan Vorpatril is working in one of the domed cities on Komarr when an old frenemy asks for his help. As the help in question is picking up a beautiful woman, Ivan agrees with very little hesitation, a decision he quickly comes to regret. Tej is a refugee from Jackson’s Whole, fleeing the destruction of her House with her only surviving companion Rish. Pursued across the wormhole Nexus, several planets still to go from her eventual destination, she finds herself on the planet Komarr working a dead-end job, trying to scrape together enough money to make it to Escobar and avoid the assassins still on her trail. Ivan quickly proves himself a solution to her problems, but is she the solution to his?

This book is the latest in Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga, taking place a couple of years after Diplomatic Immunity and before Cryoburn. Ivan has been a character voice before, in A Civil Campaign, but never the main character, and this book shows him at his most complex to date. He has always previously been the foil to either his cousin Miles or the brilliant Byerly Vorrutyer, so it’s a welcome change to see him stretching himself and actually being the hero he has clearly always wanted to be.

I'm not sure how good this book would be for a first-time reader. Bujold does a good job with exposition of previous stories, but not all of the details are given, and it’s definitely a book with a lot of in-jokes. On the other hand, taken at face value it’s still a much better romance than a lot of the other romances I've read recently, with complex and realistically flawed characters, a fast-paced and engaging plot, and a liberal sprinkling of dry humour. Bujold always fades to black whenever her characters are doing anything more than kissing, but she still fits in plenty of dirty jokes.

As far as the science fiction elements of the book go, they’re pretty light on the field, no more complicated than the average fantasy novel which references faraway places and a couple of esoteric weapons. Bujold mainly concerns herself with genetic engineering, solutions of biological conundrums, and the occasional piece of large-scale engineering. This, in my considered opinion, has given her an unfair reputation as a genre-SF writer rather than a “proper” SF writer, in a combination of scientific snobbery and common-or-garden sexism. Biology has always been seen as the science that women do, the easy one, and engineering doesn't count as a real science either, as there’s not enough theory and too much practical application.

Despite this attitude, Bujold consistently tops the bestseller lists when a new book comes out and she has won numerous prestigious awards, so you always know you’re in safe hands. I highly recommend this book: it’s lighter and fluffier than a lot of her works, but a welcome one nonetheless.

4.5 stars: A fun read, good romance, great chemistry.

Thursday, 24 April 2014

#CBR6 10: Digger: The Complete Omnibus Edition, Ursula Vernon

Page count: 850 pages
Time taken: 4.5 hours

Digger-of-convoluted-tunnels is a wombat who accidentally finds herself digging to the surface through a temple to Ganesh, where the statue of Ganesh - also a god in its own right - helps her to work out where she is, what's going on, and what she needs to do to get home. Unfortunately, things quickly stop being simple, as Digger meets a weird shadow creature who needs lessons in basic morality, and a nameless hyena she calls Ed after he agrees not to eat her. And that's just Chapter 1. Lots more stuff happens, involving mad priests, dead gods, why obligatory herbivores shouldn't eat meat, ghosts, vampire squashes, and things that skin people and wear their faces as a mark of respect and are actually really cute.

This is an omnibus edition of a webcomic that ran for several years, although I'd never come across it until a friend told me I would like it. She was right. I read chapter one one evening, and then I read the next eleven chapters instead of playing Mass Effect one morning. That's how good this graphic novel is. The humour is mostly dry, the action is compelling and the characters are lovable and memorable even several weeks after I read it, last month not having been a great month for blogging because of health stress and laziness.

Unlike a couple of the webcomics I follow, Digger stuck to one story arc which by and large sticks to the initial premise: the plot resolves, the characters develop and move on in the way you expect, and there aren't many new characters after the first couple of chapters. This makes it a much better candidate for novelisation than, say, Least I Could Do, or even than Garfield and Peanuts: short story arcs followed by random funny interludes don't really work as novels, although they're great bathroom books for precisely the same reason.

However, webcomics are different from graphic novels in that it's a more organic process of development over time, and reader interaction can be much easier, so this isn't quite the same as reading 850 pages of Sandman or Preacher. It's tightly written and plotted, but there are a few points which feel much more "I have a cool idea about vampire squashes" rather than  "I shall now introduce the major plot element of vampire squashes". I'm pretty sure Vernon just likes the idea of undead gourds.

The artwork is lovely, black and white with good shading, and it's easy to follow what's going on. I really enjoyed this, and I recommend it without reservation to everyone regardless of how much of a comic fan you are; it's very accessible and a really good example of what the medium is capable of. It's also a lot easier to read than most of the big names in quote-unquote literary graphic novels, whilst still being complex and thought-provoking.

#CBR6 9: NOS4A2, Joe Hill

Page count: 720 in paperback, although once again, I read the Kindle version
Time taken: seven hours?

Victoria McQueen is a kid when she discovers an unexpected talent for finding lost things. A creepy talent, which only gets weirder as she gets older. Charles Talent Manx also has a creepy talent. He kidnaps children and takes them to a magical place called Christmasland, where their teeth turn into tiny hooks and they play forever. Their paths collide several times, and Vic is forced to repeatedly confront the dark places in herself and others, and question how much she is willing to lose - and sacrifice - on the way.

This book creeped the everloving shit out of me. I read it in feverish chunks over several days, unable to put it down for hours at a time until I was forced to stop because oh my god, little hooks for teeth, or something worse. I enjoyed it immensely, which I did not really expect, and I really empathised with the ensemble cast of weirdos and fuckups (except Manx, I hate that guy) - unexpectedly so, given how badly they mess up their lives and the lives of people around them at times.

The book touches on a lot of really complex ideas, like the nature of identity, the destructive power of genius, and the surprising and unexpected inheritances we get from our parents and theirs. Hill is no doubt deeply irritated with people doing this, but to me it pretty clearly drew on elements of his own life - his father is Stephen "I write all of the books" King - albeit I really, really hope his home life was nothing like the lives of his characters. Still, as someone who regularly thinks about her own physical and psychological inheritances, I was particularly struck by those motifs in the later parts of the book.

Hill deals with various different kinds of mental illness, destructive personality traits, and conflicted relationships really well, whilst never really making it feel like a effort or an object lesson. Occasionally, this cut really close to the bone for me, but never passed across the invisible line into triggering. I would exercise caution if you're particularly sensitive about issues surrounding child abduction, addiction and self-harm, and mental breakdowns, as the book returns to these themes pretty regularly.

My favourite part of the book was where Mr De Zoet was listening to the Cloud Atlas symphony, because I love David Mitchell too, and I'm always thrilled when writers I like like other writers I like. I've only read another couple of Hill's works, some of the Locke and Key graphic novels, but I will absolutely read more when I get the chance.

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Game Review: Gone Home

I'm still winging this reviewing business so it'll take me a while to find a format for this that I like. But I do like looking a game from a non-gaming point of view as well as a gaming one, in the hope of spreading the love to non-gamers.

With that being said, Gone Home is pretty much perfect as an entry level game, as it's far more of an interactive story than a skill-based game. (To the outsider, this definition is unimportant, but a lot of gamers get their knickers in twists about it; I'll discuss this at the end of the review.) The gameplay is easy, it's similar to the classic hidden-object style of game which was popular in the mid-Nineties, and there's nothing complicated or fast about the physical elements of gameplay. You don't even need a good sense of direction, because the map's really good.

The premise is simple: you are a 19 year old who has arrived home (to Salem, I think) from her year in Europe. The house is empty. You don't know it at all, as your family moved there when you were abroad, so you need to find out where your family are and what has happened to them. You find various different letters and the occasional object along the way. There's a lot of tape players around the place too, and you can use them to give yourself a Riot Grrl soundtrack if you want to (I actually didn't much, not being much of a fan, it wasn't part of my adolescence at all).

What makes this game stand out from any other hidden object/clue based game is the depth of the characterisation and the interweaving stories. There's not just one mystery, there are four, and I'm not sure that one of them has any kind of resolution - I certainly didn't find one. There are dark secrets which are hinted at but not resolved, and creepy areas to go through - it's very atmospheric, just the right side of scary for me to get an adrenaline response but not be too scared to continue (I am looking at you here Amnesia, I got five minutes in to that game and then stopped forever).

As the game progressed, I got more and more emotionally involved with the characters, and by the end my response was pretty much what it would be if I'd been in that situation in real life - it's hard to describe without spoiling the story, which I really don't want to do. I played through the whole thing in about four hours, maybe five, and while that's a short game, the experience was very intense.

I highly recommend this to pretty much everyone. This is an experience I will carry with me for a very long time, and I hope it marks a watershed moment in the industry, showing that you can make these stories, these pieces of art, and people will play them and love them. A lot of non-gamers don't appreciate that games can be art - a lot of gamers don't either to be fair - but if this game doesn't change your mind, then there's something wrong with the way you define art. Gone Home is beautiful and important, and that's what art is.

So, onto the scoring. I'll stick to the arbitrary system I used last time.
  • Plot: 5. Compelling and well told, the plot becomes more complicated the closer you look at it. There are a lot of laugh out loud moments to relieve the tension, but you never forget your purpose.
  • Sound and vision: 4. It would be 5 if I hadn't had to turn the graphics settings really low in order to get the movement as smooth as possible.
  • Gameplay: 5 for ease of use. Everything was well-documented in-game as well.
  • Representation: 3. Given that there were only six characters, three of whom aren't voiced, this is harder to judge, but basically, excellent gender and sexuality awareness and representation, poor race representation (one Hispanic character, the rest WASPs), questionable mental health representation.
As a point about the Representation category, I don't expect every game to be perfect at this - in fact, scoring any points at all is an achievement. I don't think that every game (or novel, comic, film, etc) necessarily needs to hit everything all of the time, and some stories will by necessity be more limited in their representation due to number of characters, actual historical details, or limitations of the genre. What is important to me is that both some kind of awareness is shown, and that stereotypes are avoided. Whereas everything else is judged on a 1-5 scale with 3 being "meets minimum expectations", Representation is judged much more fluidly, and I am happy to give negative points (down to -5), as my enjoyment of a game is genuinely impacted negatively by use of offensive stereotypes, images and language.

In total then, this gets 17 out of a possible 20 points. Play this game. You will not regret it.

Here follows a brief but connected discussion about interactive story and skill-based games.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

#CBR6: 8: Dark Witch, Nora Roberts

Page Count: 368 pages in the deckle edge edition, I read a kindle version
Time Taken: 5 hours

Iona Sheehan has arrived in Ireland to take up her mantle as one of three inheritors of the powers of a 13th Century witch and matriarch of her family line. Together with her cousins Connor and Branna, she has to fight a dark power who hounded her ancestress to death and desires her power even now. As her power grows, so too do her feelings for her handsome boss, Boyle McGrath. Can she beat her personal demons and claim her prize?

I made that sound good there, right? It's a shame that the actual book is much more formulaic than my précis of it, because I would like to read a book where the heroine got to claim some bit of fluff as a reward - oh sorry, a well-rounded character who develops and grows over time and is coincidentally attractive. That is not this book. Unfortunately.

The book lost me in the first part, which is told in close third person narrative and starts with the eponymous Dark Witch, Sorcha. It lost me at quite a specific point. It lost me when Sorcha told her daughter to go back to the house and chop the potatoes for the stew.

From Wikipedia, entry potato: "In the Andes, where the species is indigenous, there are some other closely related cultivated potato species. Potatoes were introduced outside the Andes region four centuries ago, and have become an integral part of much of the world's food supply...Following the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire, the Spanish introduced the potato to Europe in the second half of the 16th century."  Those first two sentences came from THE FIRST PARAGRAPH OF THE ENTRY. Now, I grant you that researching potatoes for your partially historical novel might not strike you as necessary, but I found it staggeringly awful that neither the writer, nor the editor, nor any of the proof readers picked up on what is a glaring historical inaccuracy in the first chapter.

In fact, none of the historical or cultural details in the book really ring true to me. The 13th Century stuff is pretty bad all round - "Sorcha" is not what the name is in Gaelic, that would be "Saoirse" - and a lot of the modern Irish stuff is very... well, shit. Horseshit. Quite literally, a lot of the time. Okay, it's a vaguely supernatural romance written by someone who isn't Irish, for a US audience who probably (also) don't know about the potato thing of how to spell/pronounce Gaelic, but for the writer of over 200 novels, I kind of expected better. I presume that the Gaelic in it is of similarly dubious provenance, but I don't speak any so I don't know, and also Scots Gaelic is a bit different to Irish Gaelic so I'd know the wrong one anyway.

There's no exposition in the story as to the nature of magic or how common its usage is, the book completely ignores everything Catholic about Ireland except for a couple of buildings, and the non-witches in the circle of friends are completely okay with magic existing. There's no sense of world-building or history in the books, no sense of place or time particularly; it didn't feel real to me at all.

Also the word is spelled "magic" not "magick". I appreciate that one might want to use the word magick to hint at a pseudo-Celtic romanticised mythology, and it certainly did that in this book, but it also really reminds me of teenagers who think they can do magic because they got stoned and watched The Craft and wear a lot of green and black. I am totally fine with pretentious arsery, do not get me wrong, me and pretentious arsery go way back, but deliberately drawing on that resonance seems a bit sloppy. And shit.

The second book in the trilogy will be out soon. Without reading any of the blurb, I knew that it would be about the romance between Connor and Maera (not even sure that's an Irish name). I'm sure that Connor will find himself hurt and Maera will have to rescue him with her leet swordswoman skills, and that she'll be rescued by him whilst wearing an unlikely outfit, and there will be Humorous Misunderstandings which will Cause Their Blossoming Relationship To Falter.

I know what the next book will be as well. The compellingly beautiful Branna, long thwarted in her love for Fin because he's the descendent of the evil witch man who is trying to kill them all and claim their powers, will become more and more drawn to and suspicious of her erstwhile lver. He, meanwhile, will be tortured and brooding whilst his dreams are haunted by his dark forefather's malign influence. Eventually, nearly mad with it all, he will do Cabhan's bidding (yes, that's his name, you pronounce it "Cavan", it apparently means "the hollow" LIKE HIS SOUL and is a placename in the Republic of Ireland) before redeeming himself to prove his love for Branna and finally defeating Cabhan, taking a mortal would in the process which will of course be cured by Branna. In the epilogue, Iona will reveal she's pregnant.

I did not just do magic there. Or *shudder* magick. I used my wealth of experience at reading by-the-numbers novels by bored writers. This is one of those. I'd give it two stars, because it was at least readable trite, but I'm taking one star off for the potato and name thing, because that really fucked me off. It's pretty harsh that I marked this lower than Claim Me, but it had better sex scenes, and laugh-out-loud bad is, you know, laughable, rather than tedium interspersed with a voice in my head shouting "IT'S SPELLED MAGIC YOU FUCKS". Not recommended, unless you're doing a thesis on "common US misinterpretations of Ireland", "cultural appropriation", or "examples of poor pacing/stereotypes/clichés/chemistry in romance novels". If you do read it, I found that occasionally pausing to say "it doesn't have a K in it" helped a lot.

#CBR6 7: The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini

Page count: 352 pages
Time taken: 6 hours

Amir is the wealthy and privileged son of a rich Afghan entrepreneur, whose best friend Hassan is the son of one of his father's servants and a member of a despised ethnic minority. The book covers a period of about thirty years, detailing Amir's struggle to earn his father's love and respect, his great betrayal of his friend, and his difficult journey to find forgiveness. The story takes place mostly chronologically, and follows the historical progression of Afghanistan from relatively progressive monarchy through to total religious oppression under the Taliban.

Obviously, I am several years behind most people for a first time reading of this book, but I was given the opportunity to read it and am very glad I did so. This is a masterpiece of regret, loss of innocence, truth and lies, and redemption, and I highly recommend it. (Five stars: this book will make you a better person.)

There are so many themes in this that it must be a source of it to any English Lit student who is assigned it; the only difficulty is unpicking them all from each other, as the threads of the tale are so thickly interwoven that to discuss one part one must by necessity discuss them all. Of course, that would also spoil the book, so I'm not going to do that. Also it would take ages and I still have two more completed books to review tonight.

Instead of themes, then, I'll talk briefly about the cleverness of the book from a literary point of view. Early in the book, Amir writes a short story, and is complimented by his father's best friend: "But the most impressive thing about your story is that it has irony...". It's rare that a writer tells you the constructions he is using in his work before you get to them. I've only seen it does a couple of times before, and each time, it's been a combination of self-deprecation (I'm being silly here), pride (look how clever I am for using this!) and fear (what if no-one gets it?). This is no exception, I think; Hosseini must have congratulated himself on the tidiness of his work even as he was agonising over whether it was too subtle or convoluted to be enjoyable.

The irony isn't particularly subtle, in truth, but it is ever-present, and the sense of terrible inevitability it engenders is part of the power of the story. This was a very hard book to read in places, and deserves a whole bunch of trigger warnings for pretty much everything awful you can think of, but it is a very important book, and there is a great deal in it to take away and think about.

#CBR6 6: Taming the Alpha, Adriana Hunter

Page count: 116
Time taken: 1.5 hrs

Trigger warning: Child rape, emotional abuse

Nikki Avery is a stripper, and a pretty good one, working for a strip club which is only slightly dodgy and doesn't actually require her to sleep with anyone. One of the johns catches her eye and she becomes increasingly drawn to him, against her better judgement and that of her best friend Lori, also a stripper.

Jax is the leader of the local werewolf pack, much to the chagrin of his younger brother. He has yet to do the two things which will cement his claim to be Alpha: kill in wolf form, and take a mate. In Nikki, he finally finds a woman he desires more than any other, but can she ever be accepted by his pack? And what is it that stalks the night, leaving behind death and a terrible stench?

This is book five of the Alpha's Touch set, the previous two books not being long enough to count for the cannonball read. To its credit, it is definitely better than "Curves for her Billionaire Doms", a book which I genuinely regret having read, although I have to say "His Golden Cuffs: Sacrifice" was better, scoring a good, oooh, 2 stars as it did (not worth paying for but you're not going to want to claw your own eyes out). This... One star: would make a good object lesson in how not to write a book.

The characters are one dimensional and frankly fucking annoying, the sex scenes irritating and of dubious hygiene - if you're regularly using sex as a way to make yourself feel better about your shitty life and you don't use condoms, you're going to be passing around a lot of clap, fantasy novel or no - and the politics risible. The only vaguely interesting this is the monster and the similarities and differences between it and the werewolves, but seeing as there is fuck all by way of exposition, it's more annoying and frustrating than an interesting take on the legend, which was clearly what the author was going for.

Unlike One Night of Danger, the emotional and mental trauma suffered by the heroine is used purely as a plot device and is magically fixed by Jax being there and listening, because of course that will get rid of all of the trust issues you would have if you'd been sexually abused by your father and your mother had denied it or blamed you depending on her mood. It's not even surprising; the "stripper damaged by childhood sex abuse" cliché is, well, a cliché.

The relationship Nikki has with her best friend is really odd - they have had sex before but there's no real desire there, and Lori has a cavalier attitude towards personal space and fidelity in a relationship - and it feels really out of place in the novel, coming across much more as a lesbian interlude in otherwise straight porn (which, let's be clear, is what this is). I'm pretty sure that Lori's some kind of shapechanger as well, or at least is clued in, but no exposition means I don't know what is possible in this world at all. Jax's relationship with his brother Bec is also really odd, lots of posturing and dick-waving but no explanation.

The book clearly suffers from the fact that it should have more parts, e-readers having reopened the possibility of serials for authors, but I doubt an extra 200 pages would make me any happier - at least this was a fast read, literally the only thing it had in its favour. Unlike many poorly executed books I've read, I don't even have the sense that I could do a better job with the basic idea: it's so poorly conceived there's nothing salvageable. I'd say burn before reading, but it's digital, and delete before reading doesn't quite have the same ring to it.

#CBR6 5: One Night of Danger, Clara Bayard

Page count: 231 pages
Time taken: 3 hours

Trigger warning: Domestic violence

Carly Chase works a dead-end job which she hates. After a particularly bad day at the office, she goes out for a night on the town with her BFF, and meets the sexy and surprisingly into her Sam Rollins. As her work life spirals deeper into crime and physical danger, she turns to Sam for help; but is he all he appears to be?

Unlike the first book of the Alpha's Touch box set, this one was surprisingly well written and enjoyable. There, I said it. From a feminist point of view, Carly is pretty awful, but she's well written enough that she has good reason to be, and while she does a whole bunch of things that one might generously call "of questionable judgement" they all serve to drive the plot forward, and it's difficult to see how the story could have progressed if she hadn't done them.

There are a few things that annoyed me - the erotica parts used really clichéd phrases in place of "erection" and "vagina" which I got really bored of, but I appreciate that many people prefer floaty euphemism so I'll put that down to taste. Carly is described as a "plus-sized beauty", but in fact there's nothing in the book to make me think she's particularly plus-sized at all, just tall and correspondingly bigger all over. It's possible I missed something, but all of the occasions where Carly's narration talks about it is really just stuff most women get paranoid about even when they've nothing to be worried about. Then again, that in itself might have been a commentary on the fact that society deems all women not built on petite lines as "plus-sized" even when they aren't, which as a taller than average woman myself I feel pretty strongly about.

Sam also bothered me as a romantic lead; Carly's mistakes were compounded by his, although his actions are presented as reasonable and logical, and his character seems an uncomfortable mix of proper hardcore alpha male and sensitive understanding and empowering feminist-appropriate type. As it's a first person narrative, and he's not the first person, the conflicting drives seem much more stark than they might have done if the novel had been from his perspective.

The plot was pretty light and relatively predictable, although there were a few nice touches in there which I didn't see coming. Where the book really stood out for me was the fact that Carly is the survivor of an abusive relationship, and has struggled her way back to herself; she suffers a couple of panic attacks and flashbacks over the course of the narrative. It's dealt with pretty sensitively, and it's not brushed off. Current estimates suggest that one billion women worldwide are victims of domestic abuse. That's 1,000,000,000 women, or the equivalent of the entire population of India. It's important that this is recognised in media and entertainment, because it's brushed under the carpet all too often.

Whilst it loses a point for its general predictability, I was impressed enough with its treatment of a difficult subject to add a point back, so this gets three stars: you probably won't hate yourself for reading this, but it won't blow your mind.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Scottish vs British

I live in Scotland, and everyone here is aware of the independence referendum coming in September, and we're talking about it a lot. I mean, we talk a lot about things generally, we're a talky country, but we're talking about the referendum a lot even by our standards.

The UK-wide press isn't so much. The occasional article in the papers, a reference or two in speeches, a snippy or comedic aside here or there, and not much else. In fact, I'm told that the London scene doesn't even consider Scottish independence to be likely at all, which seems really badly informed, given that the Yes vote is hovering around the one third mark and the No vote on just over half, with everyone else still undecided.

What commentary I've seen by British pro-Unionists seems to default to bafflement. Why would Scotland want to be independent? What could they possibly gain? They have such a good thing going, why leave? Being British is much better than just being Scottish.

There is one major problem with this argument which the commentators don't seem to be able to grasp: it presumes that Scotland feels British. Now, a lot of people in Scotland do feel British. I am one of them. I always mark myself as British White on anything which asks about ethnicity, because I know that my ancestry is as varied and meandering in location as everyone else's is, and calling myself Scottish White is a disservice to those ancestors who came from other parts of the British Isles and beyond.

But I've always felt that my Britishness is something that I have to fight for. Like it's not proper. Like I'm worth less, as a Scottish British person, than my English British compatriots.

Privilege and micro-aggressions

There are two concepts which I've learned from feminist thinking which I want to explain before going any further with this post. The first is "privilege", and the second "micro-aggression". Feel free to skip the next couple of paragraphs if you know this.

The word privilege has not radically changed meaning in feminist debate, but its usage has become a lot more varied. Privilege is defined as "a right, immunity or benefit enjoyed only by a person beyond the advantages of most" (from This is frequently clarified in equal rights movements as specific privileges, like male privilege, white privilege, straight privilege, or cis privilege, which are umbrella terms covering all the different individual privileges which individuals fulfilling these criteria possess without them realising that life is not like that for everyone. It can be used pejoratively, and it makes people really uncomfortable, but it's not meant to blame the people involved; these identities are innate and as such don't carry any absolute ethical values.

Micro-aggression, meanwhile, is used to describe everyday instances of bigotry which are faced by people without specific privileges. This is stuff that most people don't think of as abuse, but the underlying reason as to why it's not considered inappropriate is because of a wider culture of racism, or sexism, or all of the other forms of discrimination. Stuff like a woman being asked to make the tea all the time in an office, or a person of colour being asked if they're planning on going home for their holiday, are both examples of micro-aggression, because they both contain assumptions which are hurtful and not true: women belong in the kitchen, if you're coloured you're not from here.

If you've been following me so far, I'm fairly sure you can see where this argument is going. In Britain, the English are more privileged than the rest of us are. "British" and "English" are used interchangeably in the media, and the English don't notice it, or realise how alienating it can be. This is predominantly seen via micro-aggressions, rather than any major anti-Scottish/Irish/Welsh/[insert island] sentiment. So, every time there's a World Cup, the whole country rings with the phrase "they think it's all over, it is now" and references to 1966, even though that was England vs Germany, not Britain vs Germany, and as such only really concerns the English. Or the way names referred to as British names always seem to be English ones, although Celtic derived names are arguably much more British than the names Christianity gave us, to say nothing of the Saxon/Norman can of worms.

What this leads to is a situation whereby it's really hard to think of yourself as British unless you have some recent English ancestry, and even then, the actual English are still going to sneer at your accent, make jokes about potatoes or shagging sheep or being a skinflint, and not know anything about your geography and weather beyond "hilly and rains a lot". Really doesn't make you feel like we're all part of one big happy country.

The P Word

And then there's the actual politics. Scotland is pretty socialist and has been for a long time, whereas Westminster has been getting progressively more neoliberal for decades, to the point where literally everything except the Queen has been privatised, and children are getting scurvy and rickets because their parents are being denied benefits, whilst The City grabs all of the money and refuses to pay any of its sodding taxes. That's a pretty big gap right there. (It's very connected to class, as well, although I think that's a rant for another time.)

Europe is another big sticking point; Scotland loves to bang on about "the Auld Alliance" with France (despite the fact that as far as I can tell France doesn't remember it and doesn't really care) and we have strong ties to various European nations which are separate from the relationships held by Britain. Sure, right now we're being total wankers to the Poles, but we're much more pro-EU than most of the rest of the country. And with Cameron promising an EU referendum in 2015 if he gets back in, and Miliband likely to do the same, it looks like we might be taken out of Europe whether we like it or not, as the Little England Daily Mail brigade vote us out with nary a thought as to where we actually do most of our trading and the fact that, language barrier aside, we have much more in common with Europe than we do the US at this point.

I'm one of the undecided voters. But the No campaign is not addressing any of my concerns at all, and that leaves me increasingly looking towards Holyrood as the answer. As with most people with privilege, the English commentators I've seen don't even hint at understanding that not only are a lot of the political and philosophical concerns valid, but that they should be being discussed across the whole of Britain and they're not. If it's hard to be Scottish and British, how much harder is it to be another race and British? It's hard for Scotland to watch her brightest and best leave for fairer climes and better jobs, but that's true of everywhere, and it's hard for everyone not in London to see London booming and the rest of us still in the grips of an icy and ideological recession.

No-one in Westminster seems prepared to have a national debate about this, and the media is just as bad - if not worse, seeing as we're frequently being told how to be British by papers owned by American corporations and headed by an Australian oligarch. But the referendum means that these discussions are being had in Scotland, all the time, and that's what leads me to think that if the No vote wins, it'll be much more marginal than anyone in Downing Street expects. Whatever we choose, we will be choosing it consciously and deliberately, not sleep-walking into it as we seem to have been doing for so long.

I have a lot of problems with the SNP and the Yes campaign, but whilst they're not offering me anything I actually want (except free prescriptions and no bedroom tax, I'm good with those) they're at least not offering me things that I emphatically don't want and telling me I'm stupid not to want them and don't deserve them anyway. That's not the way to win my vote. In fact, it's the biggest thing in the Yes campaign's favour, by far. And even Big Eck's ego isn't large enough to eclipse that yet.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Game review: Skyrim

I wanted to try for one of these a month, and I've only actually played four games total this month (this, Minecraft, Mass Effect, and Mass Effect 2), so even though this has been out for ages and nearly every serious gamer will already have played it, I'm going to review this one. Because most gamers will know it, I'm going to look at it from a non-gamer point of view - I did actually get a non-serious-gamer playing this at one point, so I figure I have form there.


Skyrim is the fifth instalment in The Elder Scrolls series, but don't be put off by the fact that there's a series, they're all stand-alone. It is set in a land called (wait for it) Skyrim, home to the Nords, which is in the middle of a bloody civil war as the Stormcloaks seek to secede from the Tamrielic Empire. Added to this, the dragons are returning; once thought long extinct, they are rising from their ancient burial mounds and reclaiming their seats of power, led by Alduin the World-Eater.

The game is designed to be played first-person, although you can play it third-person if you prefer. You have access to a wide range of weapons, grouped into three sets (One Handed, Two Handed, and Archery), an even wider range of spells covering pretty much everything you could want, and various sneaky/talky/crafty abilities. Each time one of the skills levels up (from 1-100) your character progresses towards the next level, which allows you to pick Perks and increase one of your three stat bars: Health, Magicka and Stamina.

Because you don't have a character class, and every skill progresses your character, you're not limited to one play style through the course of the game. It's harder to kill things at higher levels if you're using things you're less good at, but a little care and attention will see you through the worst of it. Everyone has a play style they find most comfortable and natural, and Skyrim really gives you the space to work out what yours is and develop it if you don't already know, whilst allowing more experienced gamers to challenge themselves by moving out of their comfort zone.

You can have a follower as well, who will fight for you and carry your things if you want. You can equip them with better gear, and they level up at similar rates to you. I usually don't bother with them because I get guilty when they die though, and most of them can die unless they're crucial to the plot. They are really helpful while you're finding your feet or if you're concentrating on a particular play style and are missing something, but be aware they all have their own moral code, and some of them will be really arsey if you steal things or murder people, which whilst a really nice touch definitely makes the Dark Brotherhood and Thieves' Guild quests a lot harder.

Story and gameplay

As an open-world game, you're not led down any one plot more than any other: once you finish the introduction, you're free to do what you want. I would highly recommend following the main plot closely until you speak to the Greybeards, because certain things will be unlocked and explained to you, but after that do what you feel like. There are four major guilds you can join, each of which have long and interesting plot chains; each major settlement has one major quest or quest chain associated with it, and a bunch of minor ones; each of the Daedra (sort of demons but not all of the are evil) has a quest chain, and a couple of the Gods (also known as Aedra) do too, and of course there's the Civil War stuff, where you get to pick a side.

Your character can be male or female, and any one of a number of different races, which all start with slightly different advantages in different skills and one unique racial power. As far as character building goes though, that's basically your lot; there's not much room for character development beyond "am I going to follow this quest or not", and whilst there are consequences for your actions, there aren't really any for your words. The player character isn't voiced although everyone else is, which adds to the impression of being a bit of a cipher.

Gameplay wise, the controls on the PC are fairly easy to grasp and the most challenging part for a new player is using the mouse - the sensitivity defaults to pretty high so if you're particularly jumpy your point of view can swing around wildly, making it hard to hit the enemies. Fortunately, this is easy to customise in the options, and all of the key bindings can be changed as well to whatever you feel most comfortable with.

Musically and graphically, the game is beautiful. There's a lot of in-game footage out there demonstrating just how incredibly gorgeous it is, and I regularly find myself enjoying the scenery even after nearly 300 hours of play time and on the lowest graphics settings (my PC has a problem with particle rates which makes me very sad).


As far as representation goes, the game isn't without flaw, but it's still ahead of the curve. (Of course, this is an industry with a massive problem with representation, so the bar's really low.) Men and women are represented pretty equally across professions, so they're pretty good with gender issues. Race and mental health issues clearly both still have a long way to go though; of the four human races, only one of them is non-white, although in the game's defence that's more a legacy thing I think, and there is a lot of discussion about xenophobia in the way that the other races are presented and interact with each other. (I do not think that this excuses the game designers though. They could comfortably get rid of Imperials and Bretons as different races and add another coloured race if they wanted to stick to the same numbers. The fact that they haven't seems to suggest that they're perfectly happy to not represent anyone who isn't white particularly well.)

Mad characters are either raving murderous lunatics or beggars, and whilst there's a lot of "I used to be an adventurer, til I took an arrow in the knee" from the guards, you never seem to see one of them limping and there's no visible sign of infirmity except a magical plague and some ill people in the temple of Kynareth in Whiterun. One can make the argument that lycanthropy and vampirism are diseases (vampirism certainly is in game mechanic terms) and as such are the way that the game investigates illness, but that's stretching it quite a lot, seeing as they're both powerful advantages as well.

There is zero trans awareness in the game at all; when you pick up clothes, the skin changes depending on your gender, and despite a school of magic which literally turns iron into silver then into gold, there's no spell which will let you change your gender. Whilst the game has rightfully been praised for allowing both male and female player characters to marry any of the marriageable characters regardless of gender, all of the relationships I've seen in the game outside of my own are straight, which is really poor.


So, using an arbitrary 0-5 scale, I give the game as follows:

  • Plot: 5. A brilliantly crafted and immersive story.
  • Sound and vision: 5. Groundbreaking when it came out, this is still incredible two years later. The only criticism it's possible to level at it is its starkness, but I'm fine with stark.
  • Gameplay: 4. There are definitely quirks, but on the whole it's pretty seamless.
  • Representation: 1. One point for being okay for women, half a point for gay marriage, half a point for investigating xenophobia, and -1 point for completely ignoring queer issues except in that one way.
That gives it a total of 15 out of a possible 20. A great game in many ways, but let down by its lack of sensitivity towards under-represented groups.

#CBR6 4:Claim Me, Tawny Taylor

Pages: around 200 kindle pages
Time taken: 2-3 hours

Sylvie is the owner of a goth/fetish club whose office is the scene of the latest in a series of grisly murders. After the police leave, she finds herself in the company of Burke, who she presumes is a PI. In fact, he's a vampire who's been falsely accused of the murders, and he wants to clear his name. Sparks fly between the two characters, and upon realising that Sylvie is his Origo, a mystically ordained fated lover, Burke ravishes her pretty effectively. His mission to clear his name is complicated, however, by the discovery that Sylvie's other Master (yes, really) is Miko, the brother of the lead investigator into the murders, and sexy shenanigans ensue.

This book was laugh-out-loud awful. Seriously. Some of the smexy parts are okay (I added half a star for that), but some of them are pretty bad (hence it not being a whole star) - I found the BDSM bad and the threesomes okay, but YMMV. The rest of the book is just... wow. The plot could have made a half-decent book if it had place over a longer period of time and had not been secondary to the sex scenes. The characters were just awful; the narration is over-the-shoulder third person between Sylvie (so many exclamation marks! So little time between them!), the murderer (little sense of his character comes across, which was a waste), and Burke and Miko, who are practically identical in the way they think, act, and look, in as much as anything other than their rippling muscles and impressive cocks is described.

The exposition is really bad: Sylvie is perpetually confused about things - which I can't blame her for because neither Burke nor Miko bothers to tell her anything properly. The origins of Origos and Vampires are not discussed; the vampires can use magic, but they do it by snapping their fingers, and that's not explained either; Sylvie has a Small Dog Plot Device which gets abandoned at her one female friend's house and never mentioned after that; and the tropes followed are all clichés.

That all being said, I had fun reading it, largely because I was so amazed it got published at all. and there were certainly nuggets of good ideas there. It's basically the literary equivalent of my relationship with Burger King: every so often, I crave their fries, and I inhale a bunch of them, and then it triggers my IBS and I feel faintly disgusted with myself. This is like that. Only with words.

This is part of an anthology, The Alpha's Touch Boxed Set, and I have another 13 books to read in it. I am afraid for myself, but I won't stop reading it, just like the fries.

#CBR6 3: The Invention of Wings, Sue Monk Kidd

Pages: 384 hardcover (read ebook version)
Time to read: 4 hours. Barely put it down after I started reading it. This caused me to burn the first lot of toast I made.

Set in Charleston in the early 19th Century, The Invention of Wings tells the story of Handful and Sarah Grimké, slave and owner, and their separate but entwined lives. Sarah Grimké was one of the earliest Abolitionists and her story is based on what really happened to her; the character of Handful is mostly fictional, although Sarah was given a slave called Hetty (the name Handful is known to whites by) and she did try to refuse the gift on grounds of conscience, at the tender age of eleven. There are two first-person narratives intertwined through the novel, and the story covers a period of around 30 years.

This was a deeply compelling and well-crafted novel. The volume of research must have been enormous, but it has clearly paid off, as the book is redolent with details which ring true (albeit I don't know much about that period of history). Both characters are vividly drawn, and their relationship with its painful inequalities is really interesting to see develop. It's also great to see what each thinks about the other; in a way there is a silent third narrative voice, that of the objective truth the reder pieces together through the subjective viewpoints.

Given the very white-washed way we all seem to learn about history, a lot of the book makes for very uncomfortable reading. Slavery was not legal in Britain at the time the book was set, but the British had heavily profited from slavery for well over a century by that point. The ingrained attitude in the Southern states is something that I was aware of, but I was not aware of the arguments used and how much they fed on a (twisted, to my mind) Biblical precedent, although I could have probably figured it out if I'd ever thought to think about it.

It was also fascinating to see how closely entwined the philosophy of abolition and that of women's rights were entwined, not only in Sarah's personal journey but in the historical movements. I found this particularly striking because of the ongoing and vocal debate about the treatment of race in feminist thinking (or, to be more accurate, the lack thereof), and there's a particularly striking argument made by one of the (male) abolitionist leaders who tries to persuade the Grimké sisters not to argue for the rights of women at the same time as they are arguing for the rights of slaves and black people, because it's more complicated and drives people away from the abolitionist cause. This argument is still used against intersectional movements and thinking today, and I hope that more people learn to show it the same scorn that Sarah does.

I highly recommend this book. Be sure to read the afterword by the author; Kidd gives a very good accounting of her sources and thinking behind the novel which provides greater depth to the work.

Monday, 27 January 2014

#CBR6 2: The Valley of Amazement, Amy Tan

Page count: 608 in hardback (I read an e-book version)
Time taken: 5 hours over two days

Violet is the daughter of a popular Shanghai hostess and madam at the start of the 20th century. The books follows her from childhood through to middle age, zooming in in important times and memories. Half-American, half-Chinese, Violet is pulled in several different directions by her heritage and the whims of fate, but is always saved by the strength of her relationships with others.

I read this book very quickly, in about five hours, which is testament to the pacing and plot of the novel. Violet is an interesting character; the book is essentially her life as she would tell it to someone else, and her narrative voice is a strong one. Set in a turbulent time in China's history, the cultural conflict was particularly resonant, and the book dealt very well with "passing" - Violet is white enough to pass for Southern European, and Chinese enough to pass for Manchu, with the right accessories. The discussion of race in the book is nuanced and subtle.

As the book progresses and time passes, Violet stops valuing herself the way others do and starts to value herself for who and what she is. It sometimes feels as though she is not the main character in her own life though; her mother cast a very large shadow over her, and even in the long years they are separated, Violet constantly compares herself to her mother. In fact, the main theme of the novel is "troubled relationships with parents" and this is particularly striking in the Mysterious Lulu Segment, which (whilst I appreciated getting to know the character through her own eyes) I could not find a reason for it being where it was or its relevance to the plot at the time.

I felt that the novel could have used more historical context than was given; I'm pretty well versed in that period of Chinese history (by which I mainly mean I read Wild Swans a bunch of times) so I knew the basics, but there was an awful lot left out. This could well have been a deliberate narrative choice to highlight the narrowness of Violet's world as a woman at that time, or how little life actually changed for people in the 40 years after the abdication of last Emperor and before the rise of Communism, but it was mostly just confusing when particular people were mentioned with no background as to who they were or why they were important.

The best thing about the book, for me, was its exploration of race and racism. The rest of the book felt much more shallow. There are other books - novels or factual - which deal with the subjects of enforced prostitution, life as a courtesan, life as a junior wife, and the gender politics of the place and time, with greater breadth and scope. Obviously, books are allowed to concentrate on one aspect of a situation more than others; but it came across as much more ambitious than it actually managed to a achieve.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Mass Effect 3 revisited

This isn't a proper review of the game: instead I want to look at my reaction to it two years ago and to re-analyse the ending from a more... rational point of view. There will be spoilers for all three games.

I was devastated when I finished the game for the first time, as I'm pretty sure anyone who read my previous post on the matter would realise. I've seen this type of reaction described as "entitled" in the past. I both agree and disagree with this.

I agree because so many of us were neither rational nor moderate in our discussion of the ending at the time, and Bioware were pretty much forced to release an extended ending to address some of the complaints that were made. From a writer's point of view, this is pretty awful. It was their story. They should have been able to tell it the way they wanted to. I mean, I hate the Star Wars prequels, but I absolutely agree it was George Lucas' right to do what he wanted with his own intellectual property.

The basic criticisms of the original ending still stand though. It was a pretty arbitrary deus ex machina which was not foreshadowed well except in DLCs (Javik's and, later, Leviathan) which not everyone had access to at the time; it was poorly presented with a lot of things happening that the viewer was unaware of the context of; and it was a very emotionally abrupt way to finish the player's relationship with the characters. I think that criticising the game on these points is not being "entitled", it's just being critical.

I would love to know how the writers came to make their decisions about the ending, but I'm never likely to find out - whilst Bioware were willing to address the issue by giving us more exposition, they've closed ranks about any discussion over whether they consider themselves to have done a sloppy job on it or not. In lieu of ever actually knowing, I have formed my own theories about it.

Mass Effect was a very different game to Mass Effects 2 and 3. It was much more like the Knights of the Old Republic games, with a considerably improved combat system. So, a role-playing game. Shepard talked a lot. There were a lot of pissant plots which required you to make moral judgements. There was a lot of emphasis on the choices and personality of Shepard, and the game encouraged you to become emotionally involved with the characters.

Mass Effect 2 had a very different engine, and the emphasis in the game was much more on combat and much less on character. From being an RPG with shooting elements, it became a third-person shooter with role-playing elements. This changed the nature of the plots available. By necessity, the action became more important, and you-as-Shepard spent little time talking to anyone other than your team just for the sake of it. The moral choices are left to big decisions in the important story missions, and any choices you make outside of them are pretty arbitrary and unimportant, basically just whether or not you wanted to be a dick.

There was also very little investigation done in the game. The Collector plot revolves around it, sure, but there's not much else in there which encourages the player to consider a wider, older galaxy. This was crucial in determining the plot of Mass Effect 3. The game is all about the action, even removing the hacking mini-games (which I personally enjoyed because I'm a nerd like that). The pace of the plot is relentless. There is no mission which does not feel urgent or necessary. No more pissing about on crashed spaceships or crashing your Hammerhead into a wall: Shepard was on the go all the time.

(It's worth noting that of the three DLCs released after the game, two of them directly address the gameplay mechanics I've mentioned here: Leviathan is all about the investigation and logic puzzling, and Citadel (whilst the plot itself clearly has a purpose) gives the player a constant facility to piss about. You can even play Find The Lady with a pair of Vorcha card sharps. I presume that the DLC writers realised there was an audience for these aspects of the game and specifically added them in to address that.)

Obviously, that relentless focus served an important purpose in making the player appreciate the importance of the plot. But it also meant that the plot could only ever go the way that it did. As soon as the writers decided to start the game with the invasion of Earth, they had to make the rest of the game about the war. So, instead of spending several missions trying to come up with a plan or investigating the historical battles with the Reapers, you're just handed the plans for the Crucible and told to get on with it. That again was a deus ex machina, albeit not the literal one seen at the end.

The reason why the writers misjudged the fanbase with the ending was that by the time 3 rolled round there were essentially two separate fanbases. There were the people who approached it as a role-playing game who generally invested much more heavily in the characters, and there were the people who approached it as a combat game, who were more interested in the action. (This is a massive generalisation, I know, but I think the basic idea is a valid one.) I make no value judgements here: the games lent themselves to both types of player, and we all play games in our own ways, that's one of the reasons why we game after all.

The thing is. if you're playing it for the combat, you pretty much expect the plot to lead you, rather than you dictating the plot. So when the game ended the way it did, your reaction was probably much more "why is the Normandy there? Oh bugger it, I'm having a beer and playing Halo" rather than the bereft confusion and sense of being cheated that the RPG fan was left with. I didn't mention Halo casually there either: Halo 3 also ends with the presumed death of the main characters, but I was fine with that, because I hadn't made a single decision in the game that wasn't about shooting the shit out of Covenant or Flood.

I'm convinced that the reason why Indoctrination Theory became so popular so quickly was because it was the one way that a Paragon Shepard (and a Paragon player) could keep Shepard alive and still feel good about themselves. The Destroy option kills an entire race of people, and the one member of your crew who is utterly loyal and has never fucked you over (even BFF Garrus has caused you hassle over the course of the games). That's obviously not the Paragon choice. But it's the only choice you can make which allows you to get your happily-ever-after. That was a terrible choice made by the writers, frankly, and they should have realised it.

The kind of heroic quest that Shepard was on by the end pretty much requires Shepard to die. Heroes don't get to live if they're saving the world from certain destruction. HOWEVER. There is a workaround. An appropriately important and heroic secondary character can sacrifice themselves to save the hero. This is a well established trope. It would have been easy to do that in Mass Effect 3. You even actually shoot Anderson, who one assumes then dies, so he would have been the ideal choice. Failing that, you have a squad full of people you didn't shag who would be appropriate. As would Hackett. Hell, even the Normandy herself could conceivably fulfil this criteria.

Even with the limitations imposed on the plot by the nature of the game, the writers still deliberately chose to have Shepard die in two of the three original endings, and only allowed Shepard to survive with the Destroy option if they played the multiplayer game - a game which, purely coincidentally I'm sure, encourages micro-transactions to get better gear. I've been playing it on and off for nearly two years now, and I'm still missing guns, characters, and equipment: very little is maxed out other than the really basic packs. (This does not bode well for me ever actually managing to solo a Gold match. Gear really makes a difference at the higher levels.) This was clearly done to promote the new cash cow, and should be treated with a lot more scorn than I've seen directed at it.

Regardless of the confusion of the ending, Destroy/Control/Synthesis ending was essentially identical to the ending of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, which at least had the decency to foreshadow the nature of the ending in the name of the fucking game. Mass Effect 3 came out considerably after DE:HR did, and even if the writers did have the idea beforehand, I'm really surprised they stuck to it.

I've completed the game a couple of times since my original playthrough, and it elicits a brutal emotional toll on me when I do. I normally just stop playing after you sync the Mako to the Normandy, and avoid the worst of the trauma. I still don't have a completed playthrough on the X-box though, and I want those achievement points so I'm going to do it again soon. I'm really not looking forward to it; I might leave off having the party until after I get the respawn point when the game is over, just so I have a reason to finish it.

No game should make me have to bribe myself to finish it. Especially not one I loved so much. I'm capable of having a rational discussion about it now, but I'm still hurt by it, and I don't think that'll ever change.

Saturday, 4 January 2014

#CBR6 1: The Lions of Al-Rassan, Guy Gavriel Kay

Page count: 592
Time to read: 6 or 7 hours over 2 days

The Lions of Al-Rassan is a fantasy novel set in pseudo-Europe, in a time roughly equivalent to the late 10th Century AD. The national and political situation is roughly based on the occupation of Spain by the Moors, and the retaking of the lands held by the occupiers.

Jehane bet Ishak is a doctor who finds herself caught up in the sweeping politics of the day. Her fate becomes entwined with that of Ammar ibn Khairan of Aljais, the adviser to the King of Al-Rassan, and that of Rodrigo Belmonte, a captain of the kingdom on Valledo (formerly a duchy of Esperaña). With me so far? All three find themselves exiled from their homes and meet again in the city of Ragosa, whilst they shape and are shaped by the unstoppable consequences of faith.

Each of the main characters follows a different faith, which are roughly analogous to Chrsitianity, Islam, and Judaism. The Esperañans (and their fellow pseudo-Europeans) are Jaddite, who worship the God-behind-the-sun Jad. The pseudo-Middle Easterners are Asharite, who worship the stars of Ashar. And the despised and wandering Kindath acknowledge the God but primarily worship his twin moon sisters. Despite being really obvious, this was a fairly clever move by Kay to be able to discuss the religious hysteria of the day without actively offending any part of his audience. He still makes mistakes though.

Given that the book hinges on the differences between these three faiths, surprisingly little exposition is given to their natures or details. We know that the Kindath are hated - in fact, they even suffer from what's know as the blood libel that was claimed of the Jews - there is no information as to why. At all. The other two faiths similarly suffer, and I was uncomfortable with the level of fanaticism shown by the Muwardi (Asharite) tribesmen in particular, who seemed to be pretty lazy Islamist bogeymen stereotypes. On the other hand, the corrupt and cynically manipulative Jaddite clergy were pretty spot on for what I know about the Church at the time, so maybe I'm just being over-sensitive about things I know less about.

The plot is fast-paced and compelling, and the descriptions are very vivid and well done. I've always felt that Kay tends to be much less good with his main characters than he is with his minor ones, and I think that's true here too - the minor characters are much more interesting than the main three. I did care about Jehane, Rodrigo and Ammar, but they could all have done with being a bit less perfect and beautiful and a bit more flawed and realistic. Also, despite hints of the fluid sexuality of Ammar, that was never really seen at all, and the nature of the relationship between Rodrigo and Ammar didn't really feel as well-developed as I think the author intended it to be.

That said, this was a very enjoyable read, and I am glad I was persuaded to keep it. On a scale of 1 to 5, it definitely deserves a 4.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Cannonball Read 6

Following in the footsteps of my friend Malin I've signed up for the Full Cannonball this year. The goal is to read and blog about 52 books. The is an eminently achievable goal, and means that I should in theory post something.

Worry not, dear readers. I shall also challenge myself to review one game a month. These are probably going to be games I already own and have played a lot to begin with, but I'll try to branch out.

I'm going to pay specific attention to characterisation of "minorities", in quote marks because actually, women aren't a minority, and neither are coloured people, but we're still treated as such. I'll try to illustrate with quotes or examples if I compliment or criticise anything specific. Also, this applies to the books as well as the games. Intersectional feminism is for life, not just one small (alright totally not small I game for more than 12 hours a day sometimes) part of it.

When I say intersectional feminism, what I mean is that I am a believer in equal rights for everyone, regardless of gender, colour, health, sexual preference, or class. I am not necessarily typical of all the people who self-identify as intersectional feminists, and I have disagreed with statements that other intersectional feminists have made. We are not a monolithic culture and we should not be presumed to all be the same. I come from a position of relative privilege: I am white and middle class (which in the UK has little to do with wealth but is much more to do with aspirations and upbringing). Whilst I identify as gender-queer, I am comfortable with my presented gender. As I am heteroflexible, I have rarely encountered any homophobia or biphobia. I am privileged.

This means that I'm much less good at sensitivity about any discrimination I personally don't experience. I am trying to be a good ally, but I might not always be on top of my game. I am much better at spotting sexism and ableism (in myself as well as others) and I'm more likely to concentrate on that accordingly.

So with that out of the way I should probably read some damn books. My fingers are not going to thank me for this. (I nibble them while I read and they bleed a lot. Fortunately, blood wipes right off kindles.)