The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories – Ken Liu

Paper Menagerie CoverFirst Published: 8th March, 2016
Genre: Speculative Fiction / Short Story Collection
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | IndieBound

Ken Liu has been nominated for, and won, many genre awards for his short fiction. He’s also a translator, which is discussed briefly in the preface.

The collection starts with short stories, with the novelettes and novellas towards the end. This was a good choice, as it gives the reader a chance to read through several stories to get a feel for the range. The opening story, “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species”, was particularly imaginative. It’s written like an article and covers a range of alien species and their books. I liked how they all tied together at the end, with the books of the final species.

“Good Hunting” was one I didn’t expect to enjoy at first, as it looked like a classic science versus magic story. The construction of a new railroad starts to cause magic to disappear, leaving a trainee demon hunter out of a job, and a hulijing unable to transform. But as the technology veers off into steampunk territory, the story takes another turn. It ended up being one of my favourites.

I enjoyed most of the stories, though a few didn’t really work for me. “The Perfect Match”, where an automated assistant called Tilly controls people’s lives, was rather predictable and about as exciting as Tilly’s personality. The funny side is Microsoft chose that moment to suggest I downloaded Windows 10 and they’d give me a new personal assistant. It’s one of those things where the idea is certainly based on reality, but the execution didn’t take it anywhere new.

It’s generally a strong collection, with reoccurring themes of Chinese history, the experience of being an immigrant in America, and control/surveillance. However, there is a tendency for the work to be rather heteronormative. Not in the kind of way that is openly anti anyone who doesn’t fit that, but in the kind of way where anyone else is unlikely to appear in the stories. Men and women date, men and women marry and have one or two children, people broadly follow binary gender roles, and so on. It’s the sort of thing that wouldn’t be so obvious reading any one of the stories in isolation, but does stand out when they’re collected together.

Readers should note some stories have detailed torture descriptions and violence against women is a common theme. There’s a lot of text in italics in some stories, which can be difficult to read.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

The Oddfits – Tiffany Tsao

Oddfits CoverSeries: The Oddfits Series, #1
First Published: 1st February, 2016
Genre: Fantasy / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Murgatroyd Floyd doesn’t fit in. He’s the only white child at school, has one friend, and nothing ever seems to work out for him. He’s also an Oddfit, able to visit another land called the More Known World. Once he reaches adulthood, a group who explore that world seek him out.

This is a portal story set in a person’s life before the portal. Murgatroyd sees a few glimpses of the More Known World, but it’s mainly not about that. It’s about his life growing up and living in Singapore. It’s also a story with mature themes written in a children’s book style. Both of these things made me interested in reading it. I did like the early part where Murgatroyd is befriending the ice cream seller. Unfortunately, that didn’t last.

Murgatroyd is abused right from the start. It’s not simply that he feels like he doesn’t fit in, but that the people around him actively try to harm him. This starts with his parents, who make sure his first day at school goes badly, then tell him it’s his fault. The abuse continues into adulthood, where they keep all his earnings, to be sure he doesn’t gain any independence.

The other people in his life are only marginally better. His employer sees him more as a novelty possession to make her restaurant look good, and his best friend is selfish. It only counts as better because they don’t spend as much time with Murgatroyd, so the damage they do is limited compared to his parents.

As the abuse continued, I was increasingly uncomfortable with how it was handled. At first, the tone feels as though the reader is supposed to laugh at the things happening to Murgatroyd. I wasn’t laughing. Later on, this abuse is blamed on the Known World reacting to Murgatroyd being an Oddfit. In other words, blame for the abuse is shifted away from the abusers. They couldn’t help it. Murgatroyd was just different and they had to treat him like that. Which is disturbingly close to how people try to minimise abuse against non-neurotypical children.

There are interesting elements to the story. The idea of the More Known World, and the parts shown of it, was potentially fascinating. It looks set for the series to make some different choice in terms of plot, compared to the usual portal story. Where it falls down is the challenge of making someone’s pre-portal life as exciting as the world on the other side. I don’t feel this book managed it. There wasn’t a whole lot of plot, so it was stretched very thin. There’s a lot of padding, such as the multiple paragraphs taken up listing out food items.

There are some things that may be an issue for readers. There are a few casual bigoted comments made, generally by characters (though some are in the narration). Examples are bystanders fat shaming people, Murgatroyd’s parents using binary gender assumptions as a weapon, and calling an unhealthy home environment schizophrenic. There are also some detailed descriptions of killing animals, as the restaurant where Murgatroyd works slaughters animals as a public entertainment. Basically, the book isn’t as fluffy as it might appear on a quick read of the opening, so go into it knowing that.

I liked some parts of the book enough that I might read the next one. This acted as a prologue more than anything, and it might be the aspect of abusers not being able to help abusing will be subverted later. It’s difficult to tell at this point, as a lot of the nature of the More Known World wasn’t explained. I’d also hope the next book picks up the pace, now that the world and the main players are introduced. This is a book that had potential, but never quite reached it.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

The Order: 1886

The Order: 1886 Cover

Developer: Ready At Dawn
First Release: 20th February, 2015
Version Played: PS4
Length: Medium

The Order: 1886 is a steampunk game set in London. The Order is a group of knights, named for the original knights of the round table, who prolong their lives by drinking blackwater from the grail. Their mission is to fight the half-breeds (such as the lycans… werewolves by another name).

Though the game has some shooter and stealth elements, it’s mainly about the story. That makes it a good place to start when discussing the game, as this is likely to make or break whether someone enjoys it.

Story

The story follows Sir Galahad, starting with the prologue where he’s being held prisoner by the Order, and flashing back to what led to this. In the flashback, a lot of things are happening in London. The poor are rebelling against oppression. A killer (Jack the Ripper) is targeting prostitutes. The patients of a mental asylum have broken out, and there’s suspicion of a lycan connection. The knights have a lot to deal with, but not everything is as it seems.

Anyone expecting a more common action game narrative of defeating the big bad and saving the day is likely to be disappointed, as it’s not that sort of story. It’s more about Galahad’s personal journey, as he discovers things aren’t as black and white as he assumed, and has to decide where he stands.

One thing I look for in steampunk is how colonial themes are tackled. Some stories are prone to glorifying the British Empire and all it did. The Order doesn’t. Some of the characters certainly think that way, but it’s clear to the player that the poor join the rebellion out of desperation for how they’re treated. The authorities are doing little about the murdered women, and something odd was going down at the asylum.

The supernatural elements are shown as taking advantage of the British Empire’s expansion, rather than being responsible for it. A subtle difference, but an important one, as blaming it all on magic is a common way for stories to avoid addressing history.

In terms of inclusion, there are two Indian women who are important to the story. However, I would have liked to see a wider racial mix among the inhabitants of Whitechapel. At this point in history (and there’s no suggestion that the game version is any different) people moved to London from all parts of the Empire. Few would make it into the upper classes (such as the knights), but the poor workers would be more diverse.

The biggest issue with the story was not developing some of the characters and subplots. The collectables would have been a good way to introduce more information about the things going on at the asylum and hospital. The knights visit a brothel, which makes sense as prostitutes are being targeted by Jack the Ripper. But they don’t actually talk to anyone to find out more about that, which seems like a wasted opportunity. These things could have been fleshed out without giving away everything. And in turn, a little more story in the subplots would have given more space to develop the characters.

Overall though, I enjoyed the story. It was the gameplay where my reaction was more lukewarm.

Gameplay

The shooter parts of the game were solid. It’s cover-based shooting, with a variety of weapons. There are a number of fun science weapons, designed by Tesla (though I would have liked more time to explode things with these). I also liked the tools, such as the lockpicking, morse code sender and circuit breaker. These could have been used more, such as having some puzzles that required them, but the basic mechanism for how they worked was fine. If this was all the gameplay, it would have been fun.

Unfortunately, the game also had quick time events. These can be fiddly for someone like me, as my coordination isn’t the best, and reacting quickly to onscreen prompts is difficult. I could at least retry the cutscenes with quick time events, so I got there eventually. The stopping point was the stealth takedowns. Rather than sneaking up and hitting the takedown key, it has rings around the button prompt. Only at the precise moment the rings hit the prompt, and the buttons highlights, can the takedown be performed successfully. Failure means total failure, as Galahad forgets how to fight if they turn around to face him. Which meant I failed as often as I succeeded. This was hard enough when I had to perform two takedowns in a row. But a later chapter with multiple takedowns was extremely difficult, and not in a fun challenging way. I thought I wouldn’t be able to complete the game due to that chapter. I can’t imagine why any developer would think it was fun to fail, and fail, and fail, and fail, for hours on end. So my assumption is they didn’t consider that quick time events can be a problem for people (I’d note that using an easy difficulty only seems to change the gun fights, not the reaction time for quick time events).

Subtitles

The subtitles had some issues. They were a little small for a start. Fine on the big screen I’m using, but I feel for anyone using them on a smaller screen.

I often got no subtitles for a conversation happening next to me, but at the same time I got subtitles for a conversation happened elsewhere. I would have also liked non-translated subtitles to go with dialogue in other languages (this was especially strange when the French character used the odd French word in mostly English dialogue, and the subtitles translated it… I wanted to know what he actually said).

The game was pretty free of bugs, though I did find one with the subtitles. I picked up a newspaper while a conversation was happening, and the subtitles got stuck on the screen.

It does feel like they needed a tester who uses subtitles regularly.

Graphics and Polish

The game’s graphics are as good as the promotion promised them to be. It sets a high bar for photorealistic games. Outside of my subtitle bug, I didn’t find anything else amiss. There was no getting stuck on geometry, trophies failing to award, save file corruption or other issues of that nature. It was clearly polished to a high standard.

As someone who likes collectables, I would have liked them to have more additional lore in them. I also would have liked a collectables log, so I could track them. The basic system for collectibles is really nice (Galahad can pick them up and look them over), so the potential is there.

No game is perfect, but this one certainly gives the feel of hitting what the developers set out to do.

Conclusions

The Order: 1886 is a beautiful game, with an interesting setting and storyline. It will appeal to steampunk fans, with its airships, Tesla devices and other trappings. For someone who is good at quick time events, it will be a quick play with easy trophies. However, I don’t recommend it for anyone who struggles with quick time events, as the chapters with multiple stealth takedowns will be frustratingly difficult.

I’m on the fence about whether I’d get another game in the series. The stealth takedowns were the least fun I’ve had in a game for a long while, and I’m not sure the story is going to be enough to sign up for that.

Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death – M.C. Beaton

Agatha Raisin CoverSeries: Agatha Raisin, #1
First Published: December, 1992
Genre: Cozy Mystery
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Agatha Raisin takes early retirement from her PR job to move to a quiet Cotswolds village. In order to fit in, she enters the quiche competition with a quiche she bought. When the judge dies after eating her quiche, her deception comes out. But was the death an accident or murder?

The main focus is really on Agatha trying to find where she fits. Her life has been very lonely up to moving to the village, and she feels like an outsider (which brings her to cheat, as she thinks winning will help her fit in). She does spend time questioning suspects and the like, but she isn’t fully committed to the path of the amateur sleuth and has her own doubts about whether it was murder. It’s clear this book is setting her up to believe in herself as a sleuth.

The mystery was relatively straight-forward, though there are several suspects (one of my criticisms of a number of the mysteries I’ve read recently is there’s only one possible suspect).

I found the main character interesting. Agatha is someone who’s had to struggle for everything she’s got in life. She’s abrasive, ruthless and not above cheating to get where she needs to go. During the story, she has to acknowledge that she’s not always the nicest person. But the people around her also have to acknowledge that she’s good at getting stuff done.

In terms of inclusion, some of the characters are rather stereotyped. The one that particularly got the side-eye from me was describing one of the characters as “gypsy-looking”. She was also someone with poor personal hygiene and a gambling problem.

Then there’s Roy, who comes across as the stereotypical gay best friend and is described as effeminate. I did like that Agatha disapproves of some of his later actions as chauvinistic (like wanting to marry a woman purely to help advance his career). It’ll be interesting to see where Roy ends up going with that. Personally, I liked his first friend (implied boyfriend) Steve, who was serious and wrote everything down in a notebook. He made a good contrast with Roy… but I suspect he wasn’t being set up as a regular series character.

There’s also Bill Wong the British-Chinese detective, who I imagine will be a reoccurring role, though there wasn’t that much of him in this one (he’s mostly there to warn Agatha not to get involved, rather than working with her).

Overall, I enjoyed the story. It fulfils its cozy mystery aim of providing a lighter read, with nothing too graphic (there’s some mild violence and a few instances of stronger language). It also made me want to eat quiche (though I avoided the spinach one). My main criticism is the stereotyping and some of the language used to describe marginalised people, which did detract from my enjoyment of the book.