The Cybernetic Tea Shop – Meredith Katz

Cybernetic Tea Shop CoverCollection: Solitary Travelers
First Published: 14th March, 2016
Genre: Science Fiction Romance / Novella
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | LT3 Store

Clara moves from place to place, with only Joanie (her Raise hummingbird) for company. Sal is a robot who runs a tea shop in memory of her owner. Then Clara pops into Sal’s place during her lunch break.

There’s some interesting worldbuilding in the story. Humanoid robots were banned from production, due to worries about them being able to learn and become full people. Instead, people have Raises – robotic animal companions who are intelligent and have personalities, but can’t learn and adapt the way a robot could. Robots like Sal are in a difficult place, where society doesn’t know quite what to do in terms of rights. Sal has outlived the company who made her, so spare parts are increasingly an issue, and her memory is failing.

The novella focuses on Clara, Sal and Joanie, giving space for their relationships to develop. I liked that Joanie really doesn’t change, because she’s not able to without being re-programmed, as a contrast to both Clara and Sal. In the case of the latter two, their first meeting isn’t perfect. Clara knows she shouldn’t treat Sal as a novelty, with all the being-an-object that implies, but does it anyway out of surprise. She also realises how hurtful that reaction would be to Sal.

They get over that initial awkwardness, and continue to get closer as Clara regularly visits the tea shop. Sometimes Clara brings Raises she’s repairing for work, and eventually Sal trusts her enough to do the needed repair work. Both have things they’re not ready to face. For Sal, it’s the obvious one of her owner’s death and continuing to run the tea shop because she always has. For Clara, her wandering is something she picked up due to growing up in a migrant worker family. They moved where the jobs were. Even though she doesn’t need to do that anymore, she moves from habit, rather than considering what she really wants.

It touches on issues of power imbalances in relationships. As much as Sal loved her owner, it doesn’t change that she was owned. Her owner’s name is coded into her, and that registration of an owner prevents her from being able to move on. Clara realises this isn’t something she should change without permission, but also that ownership is a problem. No one’s name should be in that field. As much as people may talk about belonging to each other in romances, it’s meant metaphorically, not as a literal thing that someone has no choice over.

This is an asexual romance. There’s some intimacy though cuddling, generally being close and Sal trusting Clara to work on her systems. There isn’t any sex, and the couple discuss that they’re not interested in that. It’s nice to see a focus on finding out what a partner is comfortable doing, rather than a focus on pressuring a partner to do things anyway.

What I didn’t find so believable was the social worldbuilding. Sal was several centuries old. Things might have advanced in robotics, but there weren’t really other signs that this society had gone through a few centuries. Things like gender roles and fashion were stuck much as they are today. I’d also have expected more impact from people having Raises, as social spaces would need a redesign to accommodate many people having a robotic pet.

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

The Missing – Melanie Florence

The Missing CoverFirst Published: 12th February, 2016
Genre: Young Adult Mystery / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon Canada | Lorimer

Girls are going missing at Feather’s school, but the police aren’t taking it seriously because they’re Aboriginal. Feather has to deal with the aftermath of the disappearances, as well as try to figure out who might be taking them.

There are a lot of serious subjects tackled in the book, such as the disappearance of Native girls being ignored by the police, anti-gay sentiments, child abuse, and victim blaming. It ties into many real cases where such disappearances are ignored or mishandled. Though it has some mystery aspects, investigating the disappearances is not the primary focus. It centres much more on how Feather and her friends cope with what’s going on.

I liked the interaction between the characters as they come to terms with what’s happened. Everyone reacts differently. Sometimes in ways that show they’re not such nice people after all. Feather has to work out her feelings about this, as well as understanding that her friends come from very different family environments. Not everyone has their family’s support.

The killer’s perspective was also interesting. He uses a lot of exotifying terms, like describing the girls he watches in comparison with food. It’s pretty creepy to be constantly compared to food products, whilst never getting to be a person, and these sections highlight that perfectly. The girls aren’t people to him. They’re sugar-sweet playthings. It’d be nice if this was required reading for authors who think it’s a compliment to liken non-white people to chocolate.

I did wonder at one point why Feather didn’t take a weapon with her. She seems to have thought everything else though, except for that. I was also hoping for a bit more mystery solving towards the end.

Despite being good at handling some issues, it did fall down somewhat when it comes to mental health. The killer is described as crazy and insane. It’d be nice to find a story where the killer isn’t depicted as a crazy person, especially when it’s in this sort of context. Using privilege as a weapon against marginalised people isn’t a sign of insanity. A non-neurotypical person is much more likely to be the victim in this scenario.

The book is written for reluctant readers, and achieves the aim of mature subjects written in easier language. It has short chapters and clear writing. Some of the dialogue is a little stilted. However, a reader who is absorbed in the story is likely to overlook this.

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

Dust on the Wing – Parker Foye

Dust on the Wing CoverCollection: Solitary Travelers
First Published: 14th March, 2016
Genre: Science Fiction Romance / Novella
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | LT3 Store

This book is part of a collection of novellas called “Solitary Travelers”. I was interested because they’re asexual romances and/or aromantic relationships. This particular title does have some sexual content.

I found this book difficult to read. Tam is asexual and is being pressured by his partner to do more than he’s comfortable doing. It paints an unhealthy relationship, as Tam feels pressured, and his partner feels like he’s being denied something. It also doesn’t feel like there’s much emotional connection between the characters. It’s about power, with Tam having to constantly be on his guard to avoid being forced into situations he doesn’t want. This wasn’t just my feeling about it, as the book later confirms that the partner is basically interested in Tam being physically attractive, and Tam has to move quickly to “escape the promises his body made”.

It was a relief that the opening is the last time they see each other. Most of it is about transporting a young woman to another planet. There wasn’t a whole lot of character interaction, as Tam doesn’t want to speak to anyone. I’d hoped for a bit more of a friendship between them, but they never really break through Tam’s dislike of being around people.

My expectation for the book was a feel-good story with a happy ending. If the book had only been the transportation part, it would have succeeded at that. Not in a perfect way, as it was a little prone to infodumps at the start, and could do with more development of the character relationships. But it would have passed the time. Unfortunately, the romance was not a happily-ever-after situation. It reinforced some of the negative things asexuals face in relationships with sexual people (you’re tempting people if you’re pretty and you’re denying things to people that are rightfully theirs). I wanted them to break up, and it left me feeling uncomfortable with the book as a whole.

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

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.

Secret World – Act One Roundup

Dead on a bridge
I reviewed urban fantasy/horror MMO The Secret World shortly after it came out. Since then, I’ve played through the main storyline available at launch and tried out a number of the other activities in the game. The first special event (Hallowe’en) has also happened.

These are my updated thoughts on issues of gameplay and representation.

 

Gameplay

Storyline – Act One

The main story remains strong throughout. A story mission guides the player through each region. Mini stories link each of the areas, and these mini stories vary depending on the character’s faction. The story themes are as follows:

  • Solomon Islands – Zombie invasion, Wabanaki (Native American), Norse.
  • Egypt – Biblical plagues, Aten (Sun Cult), Ancient Egyptian Gods.
  • Transylvania – Forest folklore, vampires, Soviet era, Roma.

Recurring themes are sun cults (including a modern New Age cult, which runs through several of the zones), the Filth (dark stuff that corrupts people) and the Orochi group (a Japanese mega-corporation). Along the way, you learn more about Gaia and your own place in things.

There are several points where you have to make a choice. It could broadly be defined as a choice between good and evil, but it’s a little more complicated than that. You’re never really sure which is which, or whether evil has a point. Good has its own agenda and it may be evil is the one telling the truth. It’s been implied the choices will impact later on the game world or characters, but so far, it’s uncertain in what way.

New quests are released in small batches at regular intervals. There were two general updates, and then the Hallowe’en quest line. My main complaint is about Hallowe’en, as they said the event would run until the first week of November in one announcement… but they ended it on the morning of November 1st. This didn’t give enough time, as many people would have used the weekend after Hallowe’en to finish it (especially those hit by the hurricane). I hope next year they take on board the feedback, and reactivate the quests from this year (as well as any new quests they design for that year).

End Game

The end game does have issues. The main repeatable things are group dungeons (separate areas with a mini-story running through them) and lairs (where players spawn rare bosses to fight). The dungeons come in various difficulty levels, from normal to nightmare. Unfortunately, it’s very hard to get a group for anything above normal, unless you have gear from PvP. This is a player-created issue, but would be alleviated by having a better chance of decent gear in solo PvE play.

Accessibility

Right from the start, there was dialogue without subtitles. This has been improved. A lot more of the background comments have subtitles, but there will still be areas where it’s an issue. The community has taken this on board though, and walkthroughs will turn sound information into pictures.

My biggest accessibility problem has been player created, as it’s become very hard to find a cabal (guild) who doesn’t organise everything over voice chat. Text-only cabals are rare. This is likely to be an issue in any game, so I’m not blaming that on the developers. It’s just a pity it’s gone that way.

Factions

Now I’ve tried out factions, the Templars still remain the most interesting. They are utterly colonial, yet at the same time, they have a whole lot more diversity than the other factions. They’re also the only one your character chooses to join (the others practise forced recruitment). The (faction-specific) story mission between Egypt and Transylvania was one of the most atmospheric in the game, in a creepy horror way.

The Illuminati are rather mad science, and though that can appeal to me, it didn’t quite hit it here.

The Dragon were the least my thing. There are some good aspects. I like the work they did on Seoul. They used Korean voice actors for the parts of dialogue in Korean, which avoids the Firefly effect of people who don’t speak the language botching the words. Working in chaos theory gave a modern mathematical edge to dragon legends.

But overall, the Dragon intro is full of East Asian stereotypes. Silent tattooed men stand ominously. No one says what they mean. And all round, the mysteriousness is so thick there isn’t really a chance to get attached to your handlers. Less yellow peril would have gone a long way to making me like the Dragon.

 

Portrayals

Gender/Sex Neutrality

The game has an interesting design choice, in that it does not differentiate between male or female characters. Everyone takes the role of Sarah (a woman) in the tutorial flashback. The Templar guards (mixed male and female) will flirt with anyone. NPCs who make suggestive comments in their cutscenes do so to all player characters.

However, it is a little imbalanced. Though a few male NPCs do make suggestive remarks, it’s a blink-and-miss-it moment. This is in contrast to some female NPCs, where it’s very obvious. This could easily be balanced though, but having a few more male flirts.

Sexuality

The game normalises gay and bisexual behaviour. In some ways, it has to, due to having no male/female differentiation with player characters. But it’s shown directly in dialogue with characters too. In the first zone (Kingsmouth) Moose tells you he has feelings for Andy. It’s not immediately obvious if this is mutual, but Andy does talk about Moose a lot and the Hallowe’en cutscenes suggest Andy is considering a relationship. It’s not uncommon to have a gay man pining after a straight man, and calling it representation. It’s a way of avoiding having to actually show a relationship. But it looks like it’s not the road they’re heading down, based on Andy’s current reactions…

…though this may not be a surprise considering Egypt has a gay couple who appear in cut scenes together.

There’s apparently a lesbian character, but this is known because of what some of the other NPCs say about her. I haven’t found that dialogue yet.

Women

Women and girls continue to have varied roles in the story, including positions of power. The Roma storyline especially has some direct criticisms of sexism, both from the woman who acts as their lookout and the daughter of the leader. The latter directly confronts her father when he suggests the only reason an older man enjoys her company is her looks, telling him it’s messed up to think being pretty is her only worth.

There are points that made me wince, like the French women at the windmill where one uses gendered insults against the other, but overall, it’s pretty female-positive.

However, women are underrepresented in marginalised groups. Kingsmouth has two black men as NPCs, complete with missions and dialogue. It has one black woman, who is the voice of the zombie announcements, and who can’t be spoken to and has no missions. There are several gay men, but only one lesbian who you wouldn’t realise is unless you hear the right background dialogue.

Disability and Non-Neurotypical People

One NPC in Transylvania has facial scaring and is blinded in one eye. There’s also a woman in a wheelchair in London (who currently has no dialogue, but is set up as though she will have in the future).

A recurring trope is seeing unknowable things and going insane (something common in Lovecraftian horror). What interested me more is how people with pre-existing conditions or who were non-neurotypical were handled. That’s a bit mixed. I loved the sociopath headmaster, as it showed a positive side to it. By not being concerned about the people around him, he’s able to cope with everything that’s happened. It gives him an impartiality that lets him organise the school, without getting caught up in feelings of guilt or grief.

Not so hot was the man with a low mental age in Transylvania. He enjoys killing things, and about the only thing keeping him from killing humans is his mother. Though it’s clear she encouraged this behaviour in him, it’s a common trope to show low mental age people as violent, and it isn’t countered by any other more positive representations.

Belief Systems of Marginalised Groups

There are a number of marginalised groups, include a Roma group, a Native American Tribe, Egyptians and some references to voodoo in the Hallowe’en event. Some are better handled than others.

The Wabanaki – the Native American tribe (or more accurately, a confederacy of nations) – came across as reasonably well researched. They were shown as modern people, and the events in the game touch on the issue of lost cultural knowledge. The tribe remembers they shouldn’t dig somewhere, but their last medicine man is shot and no one left knows why they can’t dig and why it’s important.

I wasn’t as comfortable with the handling of the Roma (who appeared to be an entirely invented sub-group, with invented beliefs), though it does avoid things like the gypsy fortune-teller stereotype.

The voodoo references were too brief to really say, and in itself, I don’t think that’s a good thing… they have a Haitian market and a voodoo supply shop, so they could have NPCs and related missions. Voodoo should be a year-round religion, not kept as ‘black magic’ for Hallowe’en.

But the biggest area of discomfort are the sun cults. In the game story, the sun cults aren’t really worshipping the sun, but are being corrupted. This works fine for the invented New Age cult. It’s getting a little dubious at Aten. I couldn’t see any signs of a continuing tradition of Aten worship from an internet search, but it may exist. However, once we hit the Mayans, I wasn’t happy… it strayed too far into the North Native Americans being good and South Native Americans being bad (as the context is a battle between the Mayans and the Wabanaki). Unlike Egypt (where a village of everyday people is shown), this example had no ordinary Mayans to act as a counter to the corrupted Mayans.

 

Final Thoughts

The game still has aspects that need improvement and areas where the portrayals could be better. However, I’m still enjoying the storytelling and they’ve got me interested in how it’s going to end. I like the prominent women, non-white and gay characters, and would like to see this extended to other groups.

I have some cautions, in that it’s a horror game and some characters will die. I hope they focus on killing off non-marginalised characters, because it’s far too common to kill off the black and gay characters first. And there are a lot more non-marginalised characters to kill, so it’s not like there’s a lack of other choices.

A Wabanaki gathering

The Wabanaki (…with two exceptions. I’m the centre character with the cross on my back. To the far left is Boone, a white man, who is there with his partner Jack.)