A Front Page Affair – Radha Vatsal

Front Page Affair CoverSeries: Kitty Weeks Mystery, #1
First Published: 1st May, 2016
Genre: Cozy Mystery / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Kitty Weeks is an apprentice reporter for the Ladies’ Page of a newspaper. Her first big assignment, to cover a party, turns into something more when someone is murdered.

The story is set in the USA during World War I. The period comes across clearly, and the series looks set to cover America’s entry into the war. There are a number of mysteries that come together in the book. I guessed the initial murderer quickly, but as there was more going on, there were still things to figure out.

The biggest issue was I didn’t connect with the main character. Kitty is from a wealthy family, which gives her the freedom to take on her dream job. She still faces issues from a newspaper editor who thinks women shouldn’t be reporters, though her biggest issue turns out to be herself. Kitty is the one who decides to skip off work for things that could have waited until later, or to go home early on a day when she was needed late. She simply assumed that if she did that, there’d be no consequences. When there are consequences, she’s shocked. Her first reaction is to assume those working class people around her, who do stay at work, were out to get her. Rather than not having a whole lot of choice because they can’t risk their income. This is why I empathised more with the people around Kitty than I did with her.

It’s uncomfortable to have the attitudes of the time laid on so thickly, without anything to balance it. For example, there are racist statements, but no prominent characters of those races. It touches on attitudes to gay people at the time, but the only gay character ends up dying tragically. People outside of the white upper class are lucky to get lines, and certainly don’t get a lot in the way of development.

It was also difficult to get through the non-fiction sections. There are quotes from books and articles, which slow the story down. All round, I found myself skimming a lot.

I didn’t hate the book. It’s competent. But those things meant I didn’t love it.

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

The Rowanwood Curse – Elizabeth O’Connell

The Rowanwood Curse CoverSeries: Hal Bishop Mysteries, #1
First Published: 23rd January, 2016
Genre: Historical Fantasy / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Jem is the apprentice of his magician brother Hal, and is bored of the dull routine work they’ve been taking on. Then Hal is called to break a curse on Sir Jasper Pryce’s daughter. In order to break it, Hal must figure out who cast the curse and why.

The story is told by Jem as he aids Hal. It has a very Sherlock Holmes vibe, being set in a similar era with the companion of the genius sleuth as the one writing the story. That said, the relationship dynamics are different, as they’re brothers. As well as the case at hand, it explores some of the circumstances around their father’s death. Hal initially tries to keep those things from Jem, but does start to share before the end. It looks like that mystery will continue to be developed as the series progresses.

This is a world where magic was the major push in the industrial revolution. Spirits and elementals are bound into machines to make them function. Industrial magic is treated as a science, with formal teaching and rigid thinking about how it works. The result is local folktales and magical teachings are dismissed as superstition. Local wise women aren’t considered true magical practitioners, unlike the learned gentlemen who’ve studied it at academic institutions. I liked the handling of this aspect of the world, as it mirrors the real systematic bias against local knowledge. It’s also clear the bias is wrong. Hal realises there’s a lot the magical institutions don’t know, and the local yarbwoman has valuable information for the case.

It’s an interesting mystery, weaving in folklore with family secrets. The focus on understanding the curse is a twist on usual murder mystery formats.

I wasn’t comfortable with the handing of disability. All examples of mental illness are people who’ve been affected by magic. They’re possessed, cursed, or otherwise been driven mad by magic. It would have been nice to see a contrast to this, rather than having magically induced mental illness as the only sort that existed. There’s also a heavy layer of pity towards the idea of being disabled, and Jem is upset that people will think him an invalid for having to take medication (for his magic sensitivity). Sir Jasper is blind in one eye, but as that aspect is barely there, it’s not really a counterpoint to the idea that disability is the end, and caused by magic.

Overall, it was an entertaining story, and sets up some bigger mysteries for the future. It will appeal to people who like crossovers between mystery and historical fantasy.

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

The Honey Mummy – E. Catherine Tobler

The Honey Mummy CoverSeries: A Folley & Mallory Adventure, #3
First Published: 1st March, 2016
Genre: Steampunk / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Eleanor Folley and Virgil Mallory travel to Egypt to assist their friend Cleo. There’s a mystery surrounding a set of unusual iron rings and a sarcophagus that may hold answers to Cleo’s accident.

There’s a lot going on, as this is the third in the series. Virgil is a werewolf and Eleanor can turn into a jackal, due to being a daughter of Anubis. She’s still getting used to this, as well as her romance with Virgil. She’s also in the process of cataloguing the archives of Mistral, a society that’s been gathering artefacts from Egypt for study.

All of that is thrown into confusion when someone attacks the archive, leaving one of the rings. They travel to Egypt to attend an auction with Cleo, hoping to find out what’s going on. Also accompanying them is Auberon, who had been on the verge of a romantic relationship with Cleo before her accident.

I felt the book did a good job at recapping what needed to be recapped. The recaps weren’t confusing or overly longwinded. They were spread where needed through the story.

Cleo’s accident involved being pinned under a statue. Her arms had to be amputated below the elbows, and were replaced with steampunk mechanical arms. Some of her recovery is shown in flashbacks and letters, as she learns to use her new arms, and comes to terms with the loss of her old ones. I was a little concerned at first that it’d be a story about someone deciding life wasn’t worth living with disability, but her reasons for pushing Auberon away are not directly about her arms.

A large theme is the handling of Egypt’s history and property. This is a steampunk version of the era when Westerners raided Egyptian tombs, damaging much of the archaeology out of greed. Eleanor pushes back against this to an extent, as she believes in properly cataloguing finds, and wants to keep things safe. She finds mummy unwrappings repugnant. But she still believes that removing things from Egypt is a good way to keep them safe, as they can be returned later. An opinion that is only directly challenged by people who are either villains or not entirely trustworthy. I wasn’t comfortable with that, given that in our history, most of those items still haven’t been given back. It would have been nice if someone who wasn’t shady had wanted to keep the items in Egypt, and away from Mistral, as a counterpoint to Eleanor’s optimism about it.

For that matter, it would have been nice to see more Egyptian characters. Eleanor and Cleo have some Egyptian ancestry, but the Egyptians without European ties don’t have big roles.

I did like the interaction between the characters, as this was about strengthening relationships, rather than starting fresh. I also liked that Anubis acted in ways that didn’t always make sense to Eleanor, as he’s a god and has a rather different perspective on things. It’s an interesting story, and took some turns I wasn’t expecting. It mixes together steampunk with Egyptian tradition and time travel, in a way that works. I just couldn’t really get on board with the idea that Mistral were the good guys.

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

Agent Carter (Season One)

Agent Carter Cover (UK)Alternate Titles: Marvel’s Agent Carter
Genre: Superhero / Television Series
Main Cast: Hayley Atwell; James D’Arcy; Chad Michael Murray; Enver Gjokaj; Shea Whigham
First Shown: 6th January, 2015
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

** This is a full season review, so will discuss some scenes from later in the series. It will not reveal the major plot twists. Please don’t post information about season two in the comments. I’ve not seen it yet. **

Agent Carter tells the story of Peggy Carter’s (Hayley Atwell) life after the war. She works for the SSR, but is constantly undervalued for being a woman. They’re more interested in having her take the lunch orders than doing secret agent stuff. When Howard Stark’s (Dominic Cooper) vault is raided, and his dangerous inventions end up on the black market, he contacts her to clear his name. Part of the deal is assistance from his butler, Edwin Jarvis (James D’Arcy).

One unusual thing with this series is we know where it ends. Peggy will found SHIELD and survive into old age. Howard will eventually become the father of Tony Stark. Jarvis will live long enough to inspire Tony, and be immortalised as the A.I. Jarvis. This is the story of how everyone gets there.

I enjoyed how the story progressed. Each episode tackles a new part of the overall plot, with plenty of twists and turns. The short season meant there was no filler or waiting on the movies to reach a certain point (an issue Agents of SHIELD is prone to having). What makes it though is the relationship that develops between Peggy and Jarvis – one of friendship and mutual respect. I’m down for watching them solving mysteries together.

Peggy losing Steve is also tackled head on. She’s grieving the loss of the man, while society only sees Captain America. One reminder of this is a radio show, where her role is taken by Betty Carver, a damsel in distress. As well as being salt on her wounds, this show highlights how history was often rewritten to exclude the women who were part of it. The secret agent becomes a nurse, who is there to mend socks and get kidnapped.

A large part of the conflict for Peggy is getting things done in a society that’s sure she’s incapable of doing so. It’s why she ends up going behind the back of her colleagues, as she knows they’ll neither believe her, nor be willing to look at theories outside of Howard selling his own inventions. Roger Dooley (Shea Whigham) is trying to protect her. Jack Thompson (Chad Michael Murray) is the typical women-don’t-belong-here sexist. Daniel Sousa (Enver Gjokaj) is the best of the bunch in many ways, but still idolises her in a way that a real person can’t live up to.

It’d be easy to show Peggy as the single exceptional woman, but that’s not how it goes down. One of my favourite moments is when the women she lives with are explaining the elaborate ways they smuggle food out of the buffet. They don’t lack ingenuity. They lack opportunity.

It also touches on disability issues. Daniel is a war veteran with a leg injury, who walks with a crunch. He’s been told his survival is an inconvenience. When someone notices his developing feelings for Peggy, he’s told she’d never date a guy with a crutch. Daniel also stands out among his colleagues as not being the classic Northern European guy (the actor is Albanian-American).

The dynamic between Daniel and Peggy is interesting, as they’re each marginalised in different ways. They use that to empathise with each other. They don’t always get it right, but it gives them a starting point to try.

Around the time I was watching, there was yet another example of a romance book where a Jewish woman falls in love with a Nazi, then converts to Christianity. There seem to have been a string of them recently. Some authors are very determined to romanticise Nazis and sweep all of the atrocities under the rug as not being that bad. One comment on this is why the non-Jewish love interest has to be a Nazi, rather than one of the many people who actively opposed them.

So I was very interested to find out that Jarvis was married to Ana, a Jewish woman. This is one of those stories about a person who opposed the Nazis doing what he can to get the woman he loves out of Europe, and to safety. I also liked that when Peggy refers to Ana being Jewish in past tense, Jarvis corrects her. She hasn’t stopped being Jewish.

What I didn’t like so much is we don’t get to meet her. This was a golden opportunity to have a positive on-screen Jewish character, and it didn’t happen. Though I can see why Jarvis would try to keep her out of things, this wouldn’t have prevented there being a scene where he made up some vague excuse and she was suspicious, or something on those lines.

It’s also very noticeable that black characters aren’t in main roles. Though I’d be happy to see more non-white people in general, I really wanted to see anti-black racism addressed given the setting and time. For a series that handles other issues of marginalisation, this is one that’s glaring in its absence.

Despite those areas where I would have liked more, I enjoyed the season as a whole. It tackles a number of difficult issues, as well as having a fun action mystery plot. I’ve always rather liked stories that handle being non-superpowered in a world with superheroes, so in many ways, I like it better than the movies it came from.

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.