Book Review – Cold Fire

Cold-Fire

Cold Fire
Kate Elliott
The Spiritwalker Trilogy: Book 2

I enjoyed Cold Fire as much—if not more—than Cold Magic. Most of the things I said were wonderful about Cold Magic hold true in the sequel: light but not heavy-handed steampunk influence, intriguing magic, incredibly well-drawn characters, page-turning tension, an awesome culture to spend time in.

This time, the bulk of the action takes place in Expedition. Which is on an island near Cuba. It’s such a drastically different setting, and it has an effect on the kind of magic used, too: in warmer climes, fire mages are more powerful than cold mages.

It took me longer to get used to the prose style this time around. I gave it a pass in my last review, but right now I’m not sure of it. It might have a clumsiness to it? I don’t know. It confuses me. Still, Elliott’s a much more interesting writer at the prose level than many other fantasy writers I’ve read.

Beyond This Point There Be Spoilers
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Book Review – Cold Magic

Cold-Magic

Cold Magic
Kate Elliott
The Spiritwalker Trilogy: Book 1

This book blew me away! It had exactly the right blend of action, character development and worldbuilding to keep me utterly enthralled.

If you’ve hung around me enough, you might have noticed that I don’t care for Europe as a setting (especially unrealistically white Europe). Kate Elliott averts this: her Europe is populated with Celts and West Africans fleeing a plague, and the culture that emerges—a culture where the Roman Empire was fought to a standstill by the Phoenicians, allowing the Celts to take back their land (I love this detail, everyone who knows me well knows I harbour a fairly irrational hatred of the Roman Empire)—is a fantastic tapestry of various cultural beliefs living in relative harmony. Most of the population is mixed race, with a variety of hair types and colours, skin colours, facial features and backgrounds. This refreshing, deeply researched world is an absolute pleasure to spend time in.

The minimal steampunk influence is excellent. There’s an airship, social agitating, the excitement of discovery, mention of a city across the ocean in ‘Amerike’ called Expedition—thrilling and integral, but not overwhelming. I imagine actual steampunk fans may want more, but, eh, this is perfect for me.

Right away, this world pulled me and didn’t let me go. When I realized the main character’s people, the Phoenicians or Kena’ani, were traditionally enemies of the ‘lying Romans’ I got so excited I actually had to stop reading. I needed to just process that delight before I could give the narrative my full attention. Look, everyone I know adores the hell out of the Roman Empire for some reason, and I just feel so validated, ok? VALIDATED.

Our main character is Catherine Hassi Barahal, of the Kena’ani, not yet the age of majority but a loyal daughter of a house that spies and keeps knowledge close. Her fealty to her house, and especially to her beloved cousin Bee with whom she’s very close, is a defining characteristic, as is her cat’s curiosity. She and Bee are thick as thieves, and not averse to breaking rules. They attend college together, learning about combustion and aerodynamics and history, the politics of princes, and the mysterious cold magic the Mage Houses wield.

This book starts with tension, and the tension never lets go. The stakes are only raised, first as Cat sneaks books around her uncle, then as she and Bee get into trouble at college, and beyond. The tension holds throughout. The book moves at a good clip, but doesn’t neglect description and necessary exposition, which are a delight to read.

At times I found Elliott’s prose a little clunky, until I realized that Cat’s voice (the book is written in first person) mirrors the stodginess of Victorian prose without becoming unnecessarily dense. It’s a good way to keep a sense of time in place without replicating the out-of-date style of a 19th century novel. In addition, there are poetic turns of phrase and a boldness in metaphor, which I absolutely delight in. So many modern books so tediously resemble movie scripts. I can picture what things look like in Elliott’s world, and it’s vivid and brought to life. But I don’t want to scare off anyone who likes streamlined prose: Elliott’s not dense, nor is language at the forefront in the same way, say, a Catherynne M. Valente book would be.

Seriously, do yourself a favour and read this book. It’s incredibly difficult to put down, it’s that good. It’s the best new-to-me book I’ve read this year.

Below the cut I’ll talk VERY spoilerifically about what I loved best, and what I wasn’t as keen on.

BEYOND THIS POINT THERE BE SPOILERS

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Heralds of Valdemar Reviews: Arrow’s Fall

Arrow’s Fall
Mercedes Lackey
The Heralds of Valdemar: Book 3

I actually thought I’d already reviewed this one. Guess not. Well, that’s embarrassing. I had all these clever things to say. Let’s see if I can remember them.

Let’s see. In this book, Orthallen is obviously evil and no one believes Talia, again. Misunderstandings abound. It’s a bit contrived, perhaps, but still an engaging story. I think it’s a good ending to a solid trilogy, and it remains one of Lackey’s better series. This trilogy is one of the most tightly plotted of any of Lackey’s works. The plot has a very clear structure, too: upon Talia’s return to Haven, her triumph of having overcome the obstacles of Arrow’s Flight wears off quickly as things go wrong—misunderstandings, arguments, etc. The Queen sends her off as an ambassador to the neighbouring country of Hardorn, where shit promptly hits the fan, and the end brings it all to a satisfying close.

BEYOND THIS POINT THERE BE SPOILERS
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TV Reviews: Avatar Part 1: The Last Airbender

First up, I’m always late on the bandwagon. I’ve known about Avatar for years, not just because of the Legend of Korra hype, but I’d seen the first episode and wasn’t especially enthralled. Which confuses me now, because I really like the first episode! Right off the bat, a viewer will see that the writers have comedic timing down perfectly. Also: four winged penguins! I started watching Avatar: The Last Airbender all the way two weeks ago, for the first time, and damn.

Since I’m the last one to a party, you probably already know the TV show (not the movie!) is fantastic. But I’m going to talk about it anyway, because it’s cool, and it will give some context to my Legend of Korra review. That’s Part 2.

The basic premise of Avatar is that there are four nations divided into the classical elements: earth, air, fire, water. Some people in their respective nations can ‘bend’, or manipulate through martial arts, these elements. The Avatar can—and must—learn all four elements to keep balance between the nations. However, a hundred years ago the Avatar vanished—and the Fire Nation attacked, destroying the Air Nomads and covering the world in war.

The show starts when two teenagers from the Southern Water Tribe (an Inuit-inspired culture), Katara, a water bender, and her older brother Sokka, are out fishing. They find a small boy trapped in a block of ice. This boy is Aang, the last airbender, frozen for a hundred years.

Thus, our three heroes decide to go out into the world so that Aang can master water-, earth-, and firebending to defeat Firelord Ozai, all the while being hunted by Zuko, the Firelord’s son, and a whole host of other enemies.

Standard fantasy fare. But it really, really stands out from any TV show I’ve ever seen (which I confess is few, since I’m not a huge fan of TV) and even more interestingly, from many books I’ve read.

On the surface level, the animation is slick and beautiful, the voice-acting is great, but most importantly: all the nations are inspired by predominantly Asian cultures.  (I’m reminded of Laurence Yep’s Dragon of the Lost Sea books, which I adored as a kid and reread all the time.)

The Water Tribes, as I’ve mentioned, are inspired by the Inuit, the Air Nomads seem Tibetan, the Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom remind me of China. It’s very cool and very refreshing to see an American TV show actually used these elements in a way that seems respectful, informative and imaginative at the same time.

I read or watch fantasy specifically for two things: magic/a sense of wonder, and a glimpse at another culture or another aspect of culture. I firmly believe each culture in the world has something profound to say that can teach me—and others—to grow and change, to increase empathy and understanding. The Last Airbender delivers. While the philosophy and customs are watered-down, due to Avatar being a show for kids, it’s still there. There’s a spiritual, holistic feeling to the story that gives it another dimension—literally, in that there’s a spirit world, and also at the meta-storytelling level.

However, all the gloss and Asian culture aside, The Last Airbender would never stand up if it didn’t have likeable, round characters. All the characters are complex.

BEYOND THIS POINT THERE BE SPOILERS

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Video Game Reviews: Morrowind vs. Skyrim Part 2

Part 1

My main problem with Skyrim is: why are we going here at all?

Bethesda bored the crap out of me with Oblivion’s setting: medieval Europe. It was a huge letdown after Morrowind’s alien, Eastern-inspired culture(s). Not only that, but Cyrodiil, the capital province where the Imperials live, was in earlier lore supposed to be rather jungley and Roman. Look, I don’t care about white medieval, or in this case, Norse Europe—I can find it anywhere. Bethesda, you have a whole bunch of more interesting provinces to go, go to them!

One thing I’ll say: they bypassed Tolkien, though the influence is there of course, and went back to Norse mythology: what with the whole Ragnarok/end of the world plot, the power of the spoken word, etc. That was almost refreshing.

But we don’t need to go there. Why, oh why, are we back in a place that glorifies violent white guys from north Europe? Why does this story need to be told?

Yes, Bethesda is trying to make a game with solid gameplay and make it flashy and interesting with dragon battles, but any creative work will have something of politics in it… and apparently white burly Gary Stus to appeal to the 18 year old guys are still ruling the genre for game developers, despite that increasingly the people playing games are not all male or white or 18. Look, I’m sure Bethesda, being a big name RPG developer, could still appeal to those 18 year old white gamers with a backdrop of more inventive lore. Goes without saying it would interest folks like me. What about Summurset Isle? The vibe I get from High Elves is a sort of Victorian England crossed with Asia, which is newer. Or Elsweyr? The modders keep setting stuff there. Seems like a lot of (white male?) gamers want to explore the world of anthro kitty cats in an Arabian Nights setting.

I’m still pleased that in Skyrim, I can be any race, and skin colour, and female, with no restriction. I’m pleased that Skyrim, for all the NPCs will tell you there’s sexism, still features a good lot of female badasses. (Although… maybe they are more the minority?)

I enjoy/ed Skyrim, but after the initial several-month rush, I realized that it lacks a lot of in-game depth. Quest lines are incredibly short, uninteresting, and full of plot holes. They are so short, but you advance so fast, that there is no sense of progression.

 

BEYOND THIS POINT THERE BE SPOILERS

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Video Game Reviews: Morrowind vs. Skyrim Part 1

Surprise!

Video games are neither tea nor book, but I don’t know if this disqualifies them from art. It takes a lot of creativity to make a secondary-world RPG and I refuse to quibble about ‘high art’ and ‘low art.

An RPG (role-playing game) is rather like an interactive choose-your-own adventure novel, with varying levels of narration. Most RPGs keep the player to a tight narrative. Bethesda Softwork’s The Elder Scrolls doesn’t. These games’ claim to fame is that they are open-ended. Huge gameworlds, lots of choice. And from TES: III Morrowind on, the PC versions each been released with a program to customize them by adding items, making spells, altering the graphics and gameplay.

What I want to talk about is story and world-building in Morrowind and TES: V Skyrim from a feminist writer’s perspective. Why not TES: IV Oblivion? Well, I don’t like it. Simple. Skyrim is thematically much closer to Morrowind; Oblivion is thematically closer to the earlier DOS games, TES: I Arena and TES: II Daggerfall, and also to D&D, and lorewise is very shallow.

I’ll start by talking about Morrowind, and part 2 will be about Skyrim.

I discovered Morrowind when I was thirteen. I actually wanted to play Daggerfall and couldn’t find it; ironically, I was convinced I would hate Morrowind because of those gloomy Ashlands.

Ashlands Region

But as soon as I got off the ship you start the game in, I was enchanted.

I played a friend’s copy first, then I ran out to the nearest EB Games and exchanged all my The Sims games to buy the Game of the Year edition for $15. Then I spent the next several years obsessed. In fact, I just reinstalled it last night and rebooted up an old character of mine.

Why the obsession?

Firstly, it was the alien world. The village you start in is set in a swamp, but that’s only one landscape. You have a variety of choices right away. You can do some quests and get some money, or you can try the nearby bandit cave and see if you can emerge unscathed, and if you want to leave you can wander off in any direction. Or, you can travel by giant flea to a number of cities and towns.

(The bug-inspired wildlife was something I was sure I’d hate, but actually found adorable and fascinating. )

Not Tatooine

But let’s back up and talk about character creation, because this is really important, both to RPGs and why I love Morrowind so damn much. As a female gamer, I’m used to companies assuming I’m a guy, and if I have to play as a woman, at least she should be sexy. In fact, in most games, I’m used to being handed a fully formed character with a past. Well, in Morrowind, you can choose your name, your gender, your race—and then you make up your stats. And you don’t have to be sexy, unless you want to be!

So I can play a badass female if I choose. And the race options are pleasing. I can be a black woman. I can be an elf, which, depending on which elf, gives me pale skin, golden-yellow skin, or ash-grey. I can be a lizard or a cat. Already, there’s an inclusive feeling. And racial bonuses are only bonuses—my Khajiit (cat) character is ideally suited to the thief or assassin class, but the game puts no restrictions on me: I can also wear heavy armour and hit people with an axe.

The races are an interesting element. They all exist in uneasy cooperation as part of the Tamrielic Empire. TES: III is set on an island in Morrowind province, where the Dark Elves, or Dunmer, live. Which means that 50% of the NPCs the game is populated with are grey-blue people with a very alien heterogeneous culture. They have a very Eastern feeling: ancestor worship, the Ashlanders (unsettled Dunmer nomads) live in yurts, names are inspired by ancient Mesopotamia, the architecture is… well. Different. There are three main kinds of religion living in uneasy truce side-by-side—the Imperial religion, the traditional Daedric (demigod demons) worship, and the powerful Tribunal Temple. There are all kinds of politicking going on, all of which becomes slowly revealed as you read through the dialogue and in-game books.

The world is made of shades of grey. There’s lots of things to love about the Dunmer culture—and lots to dislike. They are slavers, they are xenophobic, they have infighting. But the Empire’s motives aren’t pure either. And there’s something real about all the species. The Bosmer, wood-elves, are cannibals , and carnivores because their cultural pact forbids them to eat plants in their home forests. This is a gritty world.

MAIN QUEST SPOILERS

Tel Aruhn

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Heralds of Valdemar Reviews: Magic’s Price

Magic’s Price
Mercedes Lackey
The Last Herald-Mage: Book 3

This is the first time I’ve finished this book in a decade. Similarly to Magic’s Pawn, I couldn’t read this without crying—and the end just depressed me so much I didn’t bother to read it. I would read up until the end of the Forst Reach section, and leave the story with its resolution of parental acceptance and Vanyel being united with his new love, Stefen. But this is the story of the Last Herald-Mage and his heroic death, so logic says, this is the book where all the Herald-Mages die. SPOILER LOL.

Seriously, though, this is the roughest ride of all the books. Worthwhile, yes, and well-written, yes, but ooph, it’s heavy.

The strand of brightness is Stefen, the Bard that desperately wants to be Vanyel’s lover. Magic’s Price is as much his story as Vanyel’s, somewhat similarly to Magic’s Pawn, where much of the drama was Tylendel’s. Stefen and Vanyel’s nephew Medren plotting to get the famous Herald-Mage laid is pretty funny.

BEYOND THIS POINT THERE BE [actual] SPOILERS

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