The Gauntlet – Karuna Riazi

Gauntlet CoverFirst Published: 28th March, 2017
Genre: Middle Grade Fantasy / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Farah and her friends get caught in a magical game. They’ll have to win challenges if they want to escape.

Farah is a quiet and analytical sort of person, who comes from a family that play a lot of games. I liked that she is Bangladeshi and a practising Muslim, who wears a hijab. This is treated in a positive way. Her friends have known her for a long time, so there’s no hostility or questioning from them (there’s some from the children from Farah’s new school, but this isn’t shown in detail).

Some of the side characters are fun, such as the giant lizard, but I wasn’t really feeling Farah’s two friends. Part of the issue was the time limit on everything they did, so there wasn’t the sort of downtime where they could talk to each other. There’s an added distance because Farah hasn’t seen them for some time and doesn’t know what to say.

When it comes to the gameplay aspect of the story, the book delivers on its promise. The game world is an elaborate clockwork construction with multiple layers. The children have to play games, solve puzzles, and all the while keep an eye on the bigger stakes. Due to them looking for Farah’s younger brother, Ahmad, there’s time for exploration of some of the world’s secrets. It’s very imaginative with a steampunk vibe. Though again, there were points where things rushed by rather quickly, as the characters weren’t in some areas long enough to really get a feel for them.

My biggest issue was with Ahmad. He’s a seven-year-old with ADHD. Before ADHD is mentioned, I thought he must be dying, because the family avoids upsetting him and doesn’t set any boundaries for him. Farah is expected to go along with anything Ahmad wants. She has to play with him instead of her friends and she has to let him win every game. Ahmad has to have presents on anyone’s birthday, though still demands to open and own Farah’s presents. When she stands up to him, she knows she’ll get in trouble if he throws a tantrum, as though it’s unreasonable for Farah to want things for herself. This is blamed on ADHD, when it’s really about how the family react to Ahmad. Added to this, Ahmad’s mind is described as maze-like, as though he’s an unfathomable puzzle to be solved. I wondered if all this might be addressed later in the book, but it isn’t.

I was down with the steampunk game, the people that lived inside it, and the overall puzzle-solving plot. I liked Farah as a main character. However, Ahmad’s treatment made me uncomfortable. It also felt like the pace moved a bit too quickly in places.

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

Pantomime – Laura Lam

Pantomime CoverSeries: Micah Grey, #1
First Published: 5th February, 2013
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Gene is the daughter of a noble family who has a secret. Micah is a runaway who joins the circus. They’re both the same person, because Gene/Micah is intersex.

There are two timelines in the book. Gene’s starts in the events leading to her running away. Micah’s starts when he visits the circus, and eventually ends up getting a job as a trainee aerialist. Often in stories like this, it’s apparent which name and pronouns are the preferred ones of the person. It isn’t in this case. Both Gene and Micah are identities put on for necessity, and neither is the whole truth. There’s a strong theme of working out how gender roles and sexuality apply. I liked that Micah’s journey was handled as something that wasn’t clear cut and that varied over time, as things like gender and sexuality are not necessarily things that are obvious and set in stone for all people. It did tend to stray into “both male and female” territory, but Micah’s society doesn’t really have a concept of non-binary anything, so it did fit as the best Micah had to describe himself. It reminded me of the ways I’d try to describe myself when I was younger.

The plot was engaging and I enjoyed reading about the circus community. The pacing was mostly there, though I did drift when the pantomime performance began. It’s difficult to make a stage play work in novel format, and I don’t feel this really did it, but it was a short part of the book.

I also liked the world. It’s relatively low tech, but there are devices left from the civilisation of the past. No one knows how they work, so once they run out of power, they can no longer be used. This also links in to a past of other species and human hybrids of various kinds. I had reservations about exactly how this was applied to Micah, but the general idea was good.

There were some areas where it didn’t work for me. A big one is Micah’s presentation as an intersex person. He runs away to avoid invasive surgery designed to make him conform to a binary sex. Micah’s problems are shown sympathetically and it’s clear that forced surgery is not the right choice. The nature of the story means that Micah manages to escape and decide what he wants, which is a positive message. The broad idea wasn’t a bad one, and does cover issues that intersex people can face. But I wasn’t too comfortable with the rest.

I haven’t found many intersex characters in speculative fiction, but where I have, they’re usually a reimagining of what humans would be like if one person could perform all reproductive processes. Technically, this is a form of ovotestes, but this isn’t how it usually looks in real life. Ovotestes doesn’t dictate a certain appearance and doesn’t mean a person can perform all reproductive processes. On the contrary, this would be extremely rare in a human. Speculative fiction usually gets around this with a handwave of magic or genetic engineering. I’m not saying this type of character should never be written, but it does seem like it’s written so often that it becomes the one true representation.

Micah is very much a fantasy intersex character. He belongs to a magical species where everyone is like Micah. This means he is not human and he is not an intersex member of his species. I’ve kept the label, and discussed Micah as belonging to that label, because it’s how he’s usually categorised in book discussions. I also think the character would be of interest to people wanting to look at intersex characters. But it’s not what I was hoping for when I read the book.

There’s an uncomfortable focus on Micah’s body. People would just happen to feel Micah’s genitals or he’d show them to people rather than explaining (and it certainly wasn’t a culture where nakedness among friends would be viewed as commonplace). It felt rather like Micah was on display to the reader. I’d also note that Micah’s concerns for being rejected due to his body don’t extend to empathy for others. Micah is rather negative about the appearance of the woman with a moustache, for example.

The choice of which circus members would be major supporting characters also didn’t sit well. The freakshow characters are there so Micah could feel bad about showing people as freaks, but they didn’t get character development. Tauro in particular stood out to me, because as well as looking a bit like a minotaur, he appears to have a developmental disability of some sort. The acrobats are non-white and don’t speak the same language as Micah, which means they’re not included in anything. The first time they appear, their movements are likened to wolves, which further removes them from being referred to as human.

The people who get the most development are white, with one of Micah’s potential love interests also being from a wealthy background. So there’s a lot of background diversity, but it only tends to come into the foreground when it’s about being QUILTBAG.

Despite all this, I generally enjoyed the book, and thought it had an interesting world and accessible writing style. It’s also still somewhat rare to have a bisexual lead or to look at gender outside of a binary framework. But it didn’t really fit what I was hoping for when it came to having an intersex character, and I wish some of the background characters had been a little less in the background. Note that there are some sexual assault themes, including an implied rape in someone’s backstory, as well as general violence.

Steamborn – Eric R. Asher

Steamborn CoverSeries: The Steamborn Series, #1
First Published: 29th November, 2015
Genre: Young Adult Steampunk / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Jacob is a boy living in a walled city, under constant attack from giant invertebrates. When an attack devastates part of the city, he and his friends investigate the cause.

I read this because of my love of invertebrates. It’s a steampunk world where invertebrates can grow to giant sizes. There are knights who ride giant spiders, insects pulling carriages, and the threat from wild invertebrates coming over the walls. I liked that though the wild ones were dangerous, it wasn’t that invertebrates were evil. Predators will kill people because they hunt, but there were invertebrates who were tame, who were farmed for food, and so on.

It’s one of the few books that treat spiders as just another animal. As well as the giant ones people ride, there are large (several inches across) jumping spiders that live around the city. Not everyone likes them, but they’re mostly treated as harmless.

Class themes are important. Jacob is from a poor family, who live in the Lowlands. As well as generally struggling with money for food and medicine, the walls protecting the Lowlands aren’t as good. That means they’re at risk from attacks. The rich area of the city is at the highest point, with the best walls.

It touches on some disability issues, as amputees are common due to the attacks. Jacob gets to work making prosthetics for people. This also links to the past, when the city was at war with people who had very advanced steampunk cybernetics. Some as prosthetics for people who’d lost limbs, but also some who’d been turned into cyborg soldiers. This would have had more impact if someone in the main cast had been injured, rather than being something that happened to minor characters. Though dehumanizing people with these prosthetics was treated as a serious issue, it was all rather distant.

The characters weren’t particularly diverse. They were mainly men/boys. Though it’s claimed the people in the present of the story are a mixture of all the races of the old world, everyone looks rather white until a few characters at the end. They fit a lot of stock character types. The eccentric old inventor. The reckless young boy who’ll save the world. Alice, the only girl who really had a major role, was there as the sensible one who told Jacob off for being too reckless.

The result is I was a lot more interested in the world than the characters living in it. The history and the society built around giant invertebrates was fun to explore. The characters who did the exploring were not the major draw for me.

The book is a little heavy on capitalised new names for things, which often made it harder to understand rather than clarifying what things were. It’s also the first in an ongoing story. There’s some resolution at the end, but it’s more of a pause before continuing the larger narrative.

[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]

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.