Dead Air – Michelle Schusterman

Dead Air CoverSeries: The Kat Sinclair Files, #1
First Published: 1st September, 2015
Genre: Middle Grade Urban Fantasy / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Penguin Random House

Kat Sinclair’s dad gets a new job presenting a ghost-hunting TV show. Kat goes with him and starts a behind-the-scenes blog, but there’s more going on than she ever imagined.

Kat is dealing with family issues. Her mother has left. This gives Kat the freedom to find her own style, such as finally being able to cut her hair and wear horror t-shirts. She also gets on a lot better with her dad and grandmother (from her mother’s side). But at the same time, she’s angry her mother left. The children Kat meets on the set also have their own family issues to face. The parents here aren’t shown as one-sided evil people or as always getting it right. They’re realistic families trying to figure things out.

The internet features prominently. Each chapter opens with things like emails, blog posts and forum comments. Kat writes her blog as well as staying in touch with friends and family. It covers the positive things, like people being able to share their interests. It also covers the darker sides, of death threats and obsessive fans. I liked that it handled those issues without making it sound like the internet was the start of them. Kat’s own grandmother had a stalker when she was younger. The tools change, but there will always be people who take it too far.

There is a dash of the supernatural here, but the heart of the story is really the people, rather than the ghosts. Kat has to deal with Oscar, who is about her age. They’re both being homeschooled by the show’s intern Mi Jin. And there’s the whole issue of why the show has such a high turnover of hosts. The mystery unfolds at a reasonable pace. It was obvious to me long before it was to Kat, but that does mean it’s something the reader can figure out.

One of the crew, Lidia, has a congenital heart condition. She has a pacemaker, takes medicine, and has seizures. I did have concerns that this might be written off as having a supernatural cause. Seizures often get shown as something mystical rather than actual seizures. That doesn’t happen here. Some things might aggravate her symptoms, but it isn’t suggested that her heart condition was due to anything other than natural causes. However, I wasn’t fond of the plot requiring the triggering of seizures, as in reality, there’s never a good reason to do this.

Kat is biracial, with a white mother and black father. Her father is the one who appears the most in the story. Mi Jin is presumably Korean American based on her name, though it isn’t stated. There’s a gay supporting character. Generally, these things are handled with a light touch. The plot isn’t focused on them, but they aren’t missable.

This is a fun ghostly adventure, with references to classic horror films, and some new creepy tales of its own. There is some discussion of death (the ghosts tend to have died in bad circumstances), death threats and related violence. It’s handled at an age-appropriate level.

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

Dreadnought – April Daniels

Dreadnought CoverSeries: Nemesis, #1
First Published: 24th January, 2017
Genre: Young Adult Superhero / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Danny is transgender, but she’s scared about telling anyone. When the superhero Dreadnought dies and transfers his powers to Danny, suddenly she gains her ideal body. Now everyone can see she’s a girl, so keeping it secret isn’t going to work anymore.

There are some pacing issues at the start. Dreadnought’s history is included as one long chunk of explanation, rather than sprinkling it in. Fortunately, this isn’t a common thing in the book and the pacing does improve.

Danny has social issues to face, such as the reaction from her parents and going back to school. She catches the attention of the local superhero team, which Dreadnought had been part of before his death. She also meets another young hero, Calamity, who has a very different perspective. Calamity is Latina and her family haven’t been treated well by the authorities, so she doesn’t trust the local team. Danny and Calamity’s relationship was the best part for me. They’re marginalised in different ways, which impacts their approaches to being heroes. Right from the start, Calamity is worried about the police and other authorities. This is something that Danny hasn’t really had to think about, as being white shields her from a lot of it.

The new supervillain is introduced right at the start, when Dreadnought is killed. It takes longer for anyone to figure out what she’s up to, as it isn’t the sort of plot the heroes are expecting. This opens up a larger mystery that will undoubtedly be the rest of the series.

I found this book very heavy, as there’s a lot of bigotry. Danny is called a variety of slurs, from ones aimed at trans people to ableist ones. She’s frequently misgendered. Her parents are abusive, and were before she transitioned, so that only gets worse. The result is Danny believes she’s a terrible person and constantly berates herself about being stupid and worthless. Then there’s the hero who thinks Danny is trying to infiltrate womankind and likens being trans to being a rapist. Some readers going through similar issues might find comfort in seeing someone else facing this, but some might find it too much.

Disability is touched on, though not in depth. Prior to getting superpowers, Danny has some hearing loss. This isn’t really explored outside of mentioning it was the case, which struck me as odd. Crowded places sound very different to me if I have something boosting the sound. An amputee appears later, but those scenes are too brief for me to have much to say. I expect that to be more relevant in the next book.

Though I thought it was a reasonable story, the binary way it approached gender didn’t work for me. Danny has internalised the idea that girls and boys have to act in set ways. Girls do this, boys do that. Girls have emotions like this, boys have emotions like that. There are a few quick references to maybe not everyone fitting this division, but it’s worded as though they’re rare exceptions to the rule.

In contrast, the narrative did challenge things like the media’s presentation of women’s bodies, the pressure to starve to stay thin, and other things like that. In those cases, Danny comes around to realising she’s internalised bad things. The gender stuff doesn’t get that realisation. A particular moment of discomfort is when a girl says she was forced to learn about makeup as the only girl in the family, which Danny thinks sounds wonderful without any reservations. This is no different from Danny being forced into playing football by her dad, as it’s all about enforcing expected gender roles, but it isn’t framed as a problem.

There are positive things about the book. It shows a trans lesbian teen coming out on top despite abuse and intolerance from the people around her. The larger mystery being set up for the series looks interesting. I only wish it’d not been quite so rigid when it came to gender.

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

Ninefox Gambit – Yoon Ha Lee

Ninefox Gambit CoverSeries: Machineries of Empire, #1
First Published: 14th June, 2016
Genre: Military Science Fiction / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Cheris is a soldier who falls out of favour with the hexarchate, but she has a chance to redeem herself by winning back a fortress taken over by heretics. The catch is she has to work with Jedao, a general who slaughtered his own people for no apparent reason.

This is initially a difficult book. There are a lot of concepts introduced with no explanation. It’s worth persevering through the first chapters, as the terminology will fall into place. Until then, it can be a little confusing.

The worldbuilding centres on the idea of using calendars to control people. By making everyone follow the same calendar, with the same festivals and events, it manipulates reality. One result of this is battle formations can change how things work around the soldiers, rather than just providing the more traditional tactical advantages. This reality change also allows faster travel between planets, and helps maintain order across those distances.

Cheris gets in trouble because she calculates new formations based on the calendar of a group of heretics. This wins the battle, but it’s a little too close to heresy. Jedao also isn’t a stranger when it comes to unconventional tactics, given that he’s known for not losing battles, along with the one where he killed everyone on his own side. They make an interesting pair. Their different approaches sometimes clash, but they slowly come to appreciate each other’s strengths.

The siege of the fortress is a relatively slow affair. Cheris is constantly having to decide on acceptable losses, as no plan of action avoids all death. The focus is on tactics and managing resources, including gauging the reactions of the people under her command. As well as showing it from her perspective, there are parts from the viewpoints of other characters, including the troops sent to die. War is shown unflinchingly. There’s nothing glorious about victory. All it means is more bodies.

It’s a very political story. Outside of the task at hand, there’s more going on in the hexarchate as a whole. Issues from the past are impacting the present. The servitors, sentient robots used as servants, also have their own society and agenda. Everything feels very close to unravelling, with the situation at the fortress only being the start.

I have mixed feelings on how insanity is presented. I did like that it’s clearly a social construct. Insanity in the hexarchate means going against the brainwashing and the rigid social control. Jedao is considered mad simply because they don’t know why he acted as he did. However, it didn’t get away from associating violence with insanity.

Jedao is dyscalculic. This is revealed rather late on, so it’s handled very simplistically as dyscalculia meaning being bad at maths. It’s not actually possible to tell that someone is dyscalculic purely by looking at how well they do in exams, which is how it’s presented. It would have been good to mention it earlier, so it could be handled with a little more depth.

I liked the characters and the idea of mathematical manipulation of calendars. It’s a complex political story with some unique worldbuilding. But the ending got too dark for me. There’s a rape scene near the end, which I didn’t know about when I picked up the book. It’s also clear this is a setting where it’s a bad idea to get attached to characters and enjoy seeing their relationships develop, because ultimately, the chances of anyone surviving are slim. Which might be realistic, but I like to have that character connection in a series. Setting and story are not enough for me. For readers who like that darker edge, this may not be a problem.

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

Actual Sunlight

Actual Sunlight CoverDeveloper: WZO Games Inc
First Release: 2013
Version Played: PlayStation Vita
Available: PS Store US | PS Store UK | Steam

Evan Winter is depressed. Nothing has any meaning anymore, but he gets up for work anyway.

This game is about depression and suicide, based on the game developer’s own experiences. It’s mainly told through text transcripts. These can include imaginary therapist conversations or chat show appearances. Between these sections there are pixel art locations which Evan can explore, uncovering more comments about his life.

There aren’t any happy endings here. Evan has internalised a lot of bad things about himself, and nothing that happens causes any change in that. He hates himself because he’s fat and sees that as a reason why no one will love him. He feels alone and as though his life is worthless. He does things like watch porn (not shown in the game) and play games to take his mind off things, then hates himself for it.

Evan has a lot of prejudices and is highly judgemental of the people around him. He doesn’t believe he has privilege as a white man, as his life is hard and he doesn’t feel part of a community. At the same time, he shows some awareness of the issues faced by others, such as realising his workplace is very white and discriminates against talented non-white people. There’s also a woman with a chronic illness, who he almost manages to empathise with, but not quite. In the end, it doesn’t feel to me as though the game world reinforces Evan’s view as being correct. It’s more that he has a narrow perspective and he doesn’t see much beyond himself. Though that doesn’t make it any less unpleasant to read for someone on the receiving end of some of his comments.

Actual Sunlight Screenshot

Image Caption: Evan, a small pixel art man wearing a red scarf, is standing outside an apartment building. The building has glass doors. Against the wall is an ATM, popcorn machine, lamppost, rubbish and trees/flowers. Ahead is the road with a streetcar stop.

As a study in depression, this game does a good job. Evan’s thoughts of worthlessness go round in endless cycles. He constantly thinks about jumping off the roof. When the destinations in the lift pop up, the option for the roof is always there. It’s clear from the start that things aren’t going to get better. Evan has no support network to notice or care that things are falling apart.

This is one of those games that could be exactly what some people need. Seeing someone else facing similar issues can help people. For others, it may be too much, particularly the frequent suicidal thoughts and lack of hope. There is also a message from the creator encouraging young people not to kill themselves, but at the same time, suggesting once people get to their late twenties it’s hopeless.

The game lasts about an hour and doesn’t have a lot of interactivity. It plays more like a short story with brief game interludes. I found it somewhat interesting, but it’s not something I’d want to replay. I always felt a certain distance from Evan because of his level of privilege. I’d never be in his situation, not because it’d be impossible for me to be depressed, but because it’d play out very differently based on my other marginalisations.

Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture

Game LogoDeveloper: The Chinese Room
First Release: 11th August, 2015
Version Played: PlayStation 4
Available: PS Store US | PS Store UK | Steam

Everyone has disappeared in a small village in Shropshire. All that remains are the things they left behind and a mysterious light.

This is an exploration game, where the story of the apocalypse is uncovered by searching around for scenes. These act out what went on before and during the event. The people are made from light, showing it’s a memory of what’s happened, not something happening in real time. Each area is named for a person, and finding all their important scenes unlocks the finale to their story.

Though it’s a story about strange events, it focuses much more on the human side. It’s about how people in the village cope with what’s going on. It’s about their relationships and history. Tying it all together is the story of Kate and Stephen, the scientists working at the local observatory. Kate is African American, a woman with a doctorate, and kept her last name after marriage. All things that don’t go down well in an insular village. Stephen, her husband, is a local lad. He doesn’t really understand the issues Kate is facing.

I enjoyed the way the story unfolded, from finding the first blood-stained tissues to the final revelations. There are some answers, but there’s also a lot left open to interpretation.

The village is a great setting for the game. The beautiful countryside is a strong contrast to the horrors. There’s a feeling of isolation from walking around the empty houses and streets. It’s also a little surreal due to the way time moves around the player. Each area is at a different time of day, so the sun swings around quickly at the transitions. Then it waits until the player moves on. I felt as though the light was trying to explain what happened, though why remains a mystery, as the character controlled by the player is never revealed.

A farm field in the game

Image Caption: An open gate leads into a field of golden wheat, ready for harvest. Trees surround the field. A barn and a windmill are in the distance.

Accessibility is a problem, due to the terrible save system. There’s no manual save. The autosave only happens at points where the player has to tilt the controller to see a scene. Nothing else makes the save happen, including story scenes that happen when close by (the majority of them), listening to radios, and finding collectibles. As there are a limited number of tilt scenes, this means it’s very easy to lose progress. My first two goes at the game, I didn’t get very far before I had to stop due to motion sickness. My next attempt, I avoided activating the tilt story scenes. Instead, I kept a list, and only backtracked to them when I needed to stop. Being able to save frequently is really important for people who need to keep playtimes short.

There is a decent density of things to find for the size of area. There are also quick routes to previous areas if required. However, the game does have collectibles and players may need to search for missed scenes. Which means the lack of a proper run to backtrack is an issue. There is sort of a run, as holding one button down will eventually increase the speed, but it doesn’t help much. Restricting players to walking speed only really works when there’s no need to go backwards. I probably felt this more because of the need to backtrack to saves all the time (often whilst feeling sick, so getting there quickly would have made it a lot more comfortable).

I realise developers do these things because they think it helps immersion and makes the experience more magical. So to be clear, this does not make me feel immersed and does not improve my gaming experience. Nothing kills the mood more than having to keep lists of where I can save and hoping I can get there before I vomit on my PlayStation.

In terms of story and setting, it’s an interesting game. It relies on creating a chilling atmosphere, rather than jump scares and the like. There’s some blood and dead animals, but it doesn’t go heavily into gore. It’s likely to appeal to anyone who likes that quiet horror feel. I only wish some of the technical aspects, such as running and the save system, had been as carefully done. It feels like the way someone who doesn’t play games might design those features, which isn’t very practical for actually playing.