So… Horizon Zero Dawn Feels Really Important.

So buckle up, birdies, because this post is going to be a little… all over the place. I don’t quite have my thoughts fully sorted on this matter, nor have I finished the game yet… but the bottom line is that Horizon Zero Dawn feels really important to me and I feel like I need to tell someone.

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As far as video games go, it’s pretty impressive for all the typical reasons games can be impressive. The visuals are beyond beautiful, the soundtrack is great, the battle mechanics are interesting and unique, the enemies are legitimately terror inducing, and even on the easiest difficultly level (because while I love video games, I’m super bad at them) still pose enough of a challenge to keep the fighting exciting… The game is critically acclaimed for all the usual stuff.

And yet it still just feels so much more important than that to me.

The main character Aloy has a lot to do with it. The fact that she is THE scripted main character matters. She’s a fixed element in the story, as opposed to a player character that is chosen and sculpted by the player… and she’s a she.

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As a female who has been into video games for a long time, this still seems pretty revolutionary to me. It shouldn’t, but it does. While I can think of a handful of other games where this has been the case (Tomb Raider, for example), the fact that even now, in 2017, this still feels important is indicative of a much broader issue within the gaming world. Having a female protagonist is still seen as a risk, and as a result, it’s not often done.

This shouldn’t still be a risk. Women make up at least half (according to some numbers, more than half even) of the gaming demographic, and we’ve been playing as and relating to set male characters for years, so I really don’t see why having male players play as and relate to a set female main character should be a risk for the industry. And that’s a problem that goes well beyond gaming and into plenty of other media – starting with children’s books even… But that’s a matter for another post. That I’ll probably never get to.

So anyway…

It’s not just the fact that Aloy is a girl that makes it feel important. It’s the fact that Aloy is female, and yet in the context of the story that doesn’t matter. Her gender is completely irrelevant, and is left as such. Her character design is practical, as are her outfits, and we are not constantly reminded of the fact that “oh shit, Aloy has ladyparts,” whether that be through a sexualized character design (*coughLaraCroftupuntilRiseoftheTombRaidercough*) or constant reminders that she’s filling a role that’s not typically female (e.g. comments from NPCs in surprise over her gender, or deriding her gender). As a gamer who also has lady parts and identifies as female, it’s kind of an awesome experience, to be honest. It’s revolutionary because of the simple fact that it doesn’t present the decision to have a female player character as different or revolutionary. It just simply is. And that fact alone is striking me as unique, and – if I haven’t said it enough yet – important.

Because it’s something even the best, most inclusive games sometimes miss the mark on when writing strong female characters. Even my beloved Bioware occasionally misses the mark in their super-progressive Dragon Age series. Despite culturally existing in a world that has seemingly eliminated most gender norms (and in the places they’ve been kept, they’ve often been flipped – for example the “church” of the world is matriarchal instead of patriarchal) while playing as a female Warden, Hawke, or Inquisitor there are still these moments that crop up where your character’s competence and fitness to lead are questioned on nothing but the basis of being female – bits of dialogue and implications in the way things are voiced that play out very differently when playing as the male counterpart. They’re moments that can feel very out of place in a world as egalitarian with regards to gender as Dragon Age seems to set itself up to be – moments that sometimes feel to me like reality is bleeding in and upsetting the world-building a little.

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In Horizon Zero Dawn, I haven’t yet had one of those moments. Not one. There were a couple moments where an NPC would flirt with Aloy a bit, but everything is written in such a way, and the world is set up in such a way that I’m confident that those moments still would have happened regardless of her gender – because that’s just normal human interaction. And somehow that makes the lack of super set gender roles even cooler?

And all of this is to say nothing about the seemingly effortless diversity of the NPC cast. Which also feels super-duper important to me. I mean, I don’t think I’ve ever before encountered a game that is this nonchalantly racially diverse, and I freaking love it. And it really is the nonchalantness of it that gets me. It’s not mentioned, questioned, commented on, or fussed about… it just simply is. And oh my goodness, it’s so amazing.

I could easily go on for several more pages about the things in this game that feel important to me, but I think at this point I’ve gone on long enough for one post that’s basically just a rambling brain-dump. Additionally, I have not finished the game yet – I’m taking my sweet time and being a bit completionist, so I’m only about half way through. It might very well be that the impressions I’ve gotten so far don’t maintain themselves through the rest of the story, but I guess we’ll see. I just needed to gush a little over how awesome this game is.

Have you played Horizon Zero Dawn? Did you notice any of these things? Or do you see them differently than I did? Are there actually plenty of games out there like this already, but I’ve just managed to miss them because I’m picky about gameplay mechanics? Is there something big and glaring that I’m missing in my enthusiasm? (*Since originally writing this post, I’ve read several interesting commentaries by Native American authors on both sides of the “is it cultural appropriation?” debate, which I must admit is not something that would have even occurred to me had I not happened across it on Tumblr.) I still haven’t finished the game (so try to avoid spoilers), and am still formulating my thoughts. I feel like I’ve sort of danced around points here… like they’re on the tip of my tongue but I just can’t find the words to properly convey them – so I would love to hear how other people see it. Maybe it will help clarify this overwhelming bubble of nebulous “this is important” that’s bubbling up in my chest as I play (but please keep it respectful)!

(Clicking on the photos will bring you to their source)

Book Review: Sabriel by Garth Nix

Sabriel

So I finally got around to starting Garth Nix’s Abhorsen Trilogy. Sure took me long enough. I’ve been pushed and prodded by so many people on these over the years, and after seeing them come up once again a few months ago after the publication of his latest book Clariel, I’ve finally gotten off my ass and started with Sabriel. Overall, I’ve enjoyed the ride thus far.

I must admit that at first it was a little slow going. It took me a little longer than usual to get the hang of the world – the Old Kingdom, the Wall, the Charter, charter symbols, charter magic vs. free magic… I felt like I couldn’t fully wrap my head around things properly until about halfway through the book. I’m not sure if it’s because the world building was actually a little slow, or if it’s because I started it immediately after I finished My Lady Jane, which was a VASTLY different kind of writing and tone. I’m inclined to blame it on the latter, since I quite literally closed My Lady Jane and opened Sabriel. I probably should have taken a day or two to get my head out of alternate Tudor England before I started.

So that might be my bad, but it also might not? I guess I won’t ever really be able to tell without going back and rereading after I get some distance from it.

But regardless, once I did get all the pieces in place world-wise, I sped through the rest of this book. Just lovely. Nix crafts a really exciting, suspenseful story that pulls you right to the end. But while the story kept me riveted from that point on, even as the action drove me forward I did find myself wishing for a little more in some parts (mild spoilers ahead). My small qualms are mostly in regards to character development… or, lack thereof (which, to be honest, would have been far less noticeable if I had actually read the book when I actually still fell in the “young adult” age demographic… but I’m a crotchety full-fledged adult now, so here we go).

Specifically, I will say that I very much wish Touchstone was developed just a little bit more as a character, and that the relationship between he and Sabriel was a little less… instantaneous? Miraculous? Basically, there’s not really much of a transition period for Sabriel to go from “Oh he’s pretty but, ugh, annoying.” to “this dude is now a fully developed individual, and I love him.” And while it was admittedly nice to read about a strong, young, female protagonist where a romance subplot doesn’t really end up becoming the focus – the lack of development there did make the overall relationship seem a little unnatural. The few romance or sex oriented scenes/asides that were there ended up feeling really quite out of place.

But, all that said, as jarring as the “romance” part of the book was, it was also such a small part that I’m not sure it really mattered too much in terms of shaping my overall review. That facet of the book took such a massive backseat to the rest of the plot that what would normally be an enjoyment-ruining character development problem for me wasn’t actually that bad.

My only other qualm – which is not so much with Sabriel itself, but rather with the trajectory of the trilogy – is that while her development is also a bit slow in the beginning (but that might also be a result of me struggling to grasp the world), I did grow very attached to Sabriel (the character) by the end. And because of that I also must admit to not being in a super big rush to start the sequel since it seems to both time jump and introduce a new main character. That said, I’ve ordered it and do intend to start it as soon as I’m finished working through the tome of a biography of HRH Elizabeth II that I’m currently reading. Because while I definitely want to read more about Sabriel, I hope I’ll like Lirael just as much.

In summary: Sabriel is a fun fantasy adventure through an interesting world that is definitely worth a read, even if it does let character building fall to the wayside in its relentless drive towards the final confrontation.

Overall rating: 3.75/5 stars

Would recommend to: Fans of fantasy.

Book Review: My Lady Jane by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows

My Lady Jane

Before we left for Disney, I went into a little bit of a book panic. I was looking to figure out what I’d bring with me for the trip and realized I had absolutely nothing that wasn’t heavy and/or (mostly and) depressing. I have a VERY large book collection that is TBR, but it’s full of topics like the Holocaust, Japanese WWII POWs, Death and the Civil War, and various other horrible, heavy, awful things. Because that’s the kind of history I’m drawn to. Take that for what you will.

Anyway, the point is – none of it is kid-friendly, nor does it seem like appropriate reading for a week at the happiest place on earth.

And so I begged, needled, and cajoled Jim into a last-minute stop at the bookstore after our weekly date night dinner (the bookstore is usually something we do separately, since I could happily spend hours in there just browsing, and he’s more of a goal-oriented book shopper).

Well my aimless content browsing brought me to this gem.

The cover originally is what attracted me to it, but when I read the inside flap I was a little confused. And also a little excited. Because, from my perspective, this book could go one of two ways: it could be confusing and strange and awful, or it could be, hands down, one of the best things I’ve ever read.

Ultimately, I decided to take a chance.

And guys? I’m so glad I did. As a historian, everything in my gut tells me that this kind of revisionist premise shouldn’t have worked. But it did. It totally did. It was entertaining, and clever, and just plain fun.

My Lady Jane reframes the turmoil of the Tudor succession and the English reformation as a conflict not between Catholic and Protestant, but between the magical and the unmagical. It also takes a young female figure who is largely portrayed in history books as a tragic, powerless pawn of the English political game and gives her a voice. Gives her strength and agency and pluck as she fights not just for her own happily ever after, but for a happy ending for everyone she cares about.

And guys, this was just SO. MUCH. FUN.

The writing is witty and clever and funny, and at no point does it take itself too seriously. It pokes fun at itself as it uses common tropes and over the top plot devices, and in doing so makes the ridiculousness of the story entertaining instead of annoying. Throughout reading I couldn’t help but draw parallels to The Princess Bride (book and movie), because it’s got that same sort of self-aware, inching towards parody feel to it.

Honestly, the only even borderline negative thing I can say, is that in retrospect (mild spoilers ahead) I kind of feel a little bad that Mary I ends up vilified again, particularly when they’re already throwing history out the window so heartily. Generally when the English Reformation is dealt with in popular culture, Mary I and the English Catholics end up vilified while the Protestants are cast as the “good guys” – when in reality the whole thing was much more nuanced and complicated and more about the dangers of radicalism than anything else… but that’s just kind of one of my “things” after having spent a lot of time on the English Reformation in grad school and personally finding Mary I to be kind of a tragic figure herself. But even with that said, this book handles it reasonably well, and by recasting the conflict in the manner that it does, actually (I think anyway) keeps the focus a little more on the dangers of radicalism and the power-hungry instead of just presenting it like “them bad, us good.”

That said, one of the overall charms of this book was that it wasn’t supposed to be heavy enough for that kind of criticism. It’s blatantly stated that the goal here was to take the real history – which is heavy and tragic, and horrible in many ways – and basically throw it out the window to tell a much more pleasant, much lighter, and much more frivolous story. And that’s exactly what it does. Even the text itself makes sure not to take itself too seriously – it breaks the 4th wall several times, effectively reminding the reader that, “hey, we’re just having fun here, hope you are too.” If we’re speaking candidly, it’s been a long time since I enjoyed a book as thoroughly as this for no other reason than I had fun reading it.

So yea.

Good book.

In summary: OMG SO MUCH FUN.

Overall Rating: 5/5

Would Recommend to: Anyone. But be sure to go into it expecting fun fiction, not real History or any serious allegories for it. You won’t find them. Special bonus recommendation points if you enjoyed The Princess Bride (book or movie – doesn’t matter which).

 

(PS – Happy Valentine’s Day!)

Book Review – Dragon Age: Last Flight by Laine Merciel

Last Flight

Dragon Age: Last Flight is yet another book set in the world of the Dragon Age video games. Using a nested narrative, it provides an engaging look into the history of Thedas without becoming too much like reading a giant codex.

I will start right off the bat by saying that this is, hands down, the best of the Dragon Age novels that I’ve read so far. I’ve read both The Calling and Asunder, and Last Flight comes in as most entertaining and engaging, by far. It is also, strangely enough, the only one that was not written by a member of the Dragon Age writing team.

Now it’s hard to really pinpoint exactly why that matters, but I can’t shake the feeling that it somehow does. Maybe because Liane Merciel seems to primarily be a novelist by trade, and is maybe a little more skilled with pacing for such a work? One of my only “bones to pick” with the other two that I’ve read so far was pacing – specifically action scenes that dragged on just far too long for the written word (but would probably be AWESOME and of perfect length if executed visually – say like a boss battle or a cut scene in a video game) – and there was no issue with that what so ever in this one. Merciel provides just enough action to keep it interesting, and writes the scenes in a way that the reader can easily visualize things without going overboard on choreography.

Last Flight is also unique in its content. This one is more about exploring the history of Thedas and the Grey Wardens than providing any sort of additional background for already existing characters, which I think was a smart move. So often I have trouble reading franchise books like this because the characters that you have come to know and love just don’t quite ring true in the hands of another writer. And that was one of the big reasons that I liked the other two Dragon Age books I’ve read. They’re written by the lead writer for the series. He knows the characters, and so the characters I’ve come to know and love never seem… off.

So I think choosing to focus on new characters instead of already established ones was a very good move considering they switched up authors. Instead, the plot spends most of its narrative actually going back in time, putting the reader in the middle of the fourth blight and exploring the really rather grey morality of the Wardens in a much more effective way than any of the games yet have. It gives opportunity to not only expand the world, but allow the author enough freedom within it so that nothing feels forced.

In summary: My favorite Dragon Age novel yet, but don’t expect to see any familiar faces in it.

Overall Rating: 5/5 stars

Would recommend to: Dragon Age and fantasy fans.

Book Review – Dragon Age: Asunder by David Gaider

Asunder

So I finished this book earlier last year, but never got around to posting about it.

Asunder is a book from the Dragon Age universe – a video game world which, if you’ve been around here for any length of time, you’ve probably learned that I have have an unhealthy love for. I love the setting, I love the characters, I love the stories (mostly) and I even love the flaws because of the discourse it creates.

And Asunder, like The Calling before it, is a nice little romp through a world I love. It serves as an origin story for the character of Cole from Dragon Age: Inquisition, and it does well at filling in his background a little more completely. It also introduces two characters that I wish we saw more of in the game – Rhys and Evangeline. They’re an interesting and multifaceted pair which I’d like to see more development of in the future – particularly because of their connection(s) to Wynne from the first DA game (I’m trying not to spoil anything here, but it’s REALLY HARD to talk about this without doing so!).

As with The Calling, some of the fight scenes did drag on a little too long for my tastes, crossing the line from exciting into slightly tedious – but it was really nice to get a little more background not only on Cole, but on the Mage Rebellion as a whole, and how it went down in places other than Kirkwall.

To Summarize: Like The Calling, it’s no great work of literature, but it’s a fun little read if you’re into DA. If you’re not a DA fan, you might not have ANY idea what’s going on (I can’t really speak for how well it sets the world up for people not already acquainted with the DA world), so take that for what you will.

Overall Rating: 4/5 stars

Would Recommend To: any fans of Dragon Age.

Book Review – Attack on Titan: Lost Girls

The Lost Girls

Attack on Titan: Lost Girls is an English Language translation of the Japanese Light Novel of the same title. Those of you who have been around for a while know that I really enjoyed AoT as an anime series, and since watching I’ve been keeping up with the Manga pretty consistently. The story is just so well crafted and suspense laden!

But anyway, Jim picked this up for me as part of my Christmas present, and I sped through it pretty quickly over the course of Christmas eve and Christmas day. Being a light novel, it’s a rather quick read – I think it took me maybe two and a half or three hours in total – and overall I enjoyed it.

Now, this is definitely not something you can use as an introduction to the Attack on Titan series. The book itself consists of two short stories, both of which are kind of character studies and both of which require familiarity with not just with the world, but with the entirety of the anime series (as released so far, which takes you to the end of Volume 8/ Chapter 34 in the manga). Without that familiarity you won’t know what in the world is going on, PLUS you’ll spoil some main plot points for yourself without even realizing it. But if you’re up to that point in the series, I’d recommend it as a quick little read.

The first story deals with Mikasa, and honestly was the less enjoyable of the two. It’s a little less plot driven, and sort of presents a vision of an alternate history in order to give some extra insight into her character. It’s effective, but sometimes the narrative beats a bit around the bush. That kind of flowery approach has never really quite been my bag. The second story, which revolves around Annie, was much more engaging to me. It read kind of like a noir mystery, while still providing the same level of character insight – if not more.

The book rounds out with an epilogue of sorts that ties both of the stories, and both of the girls together, which honestly was a nice little touch.

In summary: Very quick, fun little read, but only for a very specific audience – AoT fans.

Overall Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Would recommend to: anyone who enjoyed Attack on Titan and has finished either the first season of the anime, or the manga through chapter 34.

Book Review – Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War by Mary Roach

Mary Roach Grunt

Can I just tell you how much I love Mary Roach? Because I love Mary Roach.

I bought her newest book Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War a few months back as a father’s day present for my dad. My dad an I share a common interest in military history, and this seemed like it would be right up his alley as well – seeing as how he is also a scientist. I’ve read a few of Roach’s books in the past (Stiff was particularly fascinating), and I knew I too would love this book. My original intent was to wait until it came out in paperback to get a copy for myself, but ultimately I ended up lacking the self-control to manage it.

It was worth it. The book’s jacket claims that it will “tackle the science behind some of a soldier’s most challenging adversaries – panic, exhaustion, heat, noise – and introduces us to the scientists who seek to conquer them.” And sure, this book does all that – but it does so with a personality. Roach has such a funny, relatable writing style, and she manages to approach even the most gruesome topics with a perfect balance of reverence and wit. Despite its sometimes gross, sometimes tragic, and oftentimes absurd content, Roach keeps things just light enough, and always engaging enough, to keep the reader both interested, educated, and entertained.

Overall Rating: 5/5 stars.

Would recommend to: Anyone, really. Especially if you’re interested in science, in the military, or if you’re just interested in offbeat oddities – this book is really right up your alley.