All the Stars Left Behind – Ashley Graham

Stars CoverFirst Published: 6th June, 2017
Genre: Young Adult Science Fiction / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Leda moves to Norway after her father’s death. Roar is an alien looking for a weapon to stop the destruction of his world.

Aliens in this setting are basically human. There’s a reference to humans being “almost another species” compared to Aurelites (Roar’s people). So there are differences, but they’re not that huge. The only oddity is blood colour changes depending on where someone is born. It’s probably best not to worry about the science of that too closely.

The early part of the novel had some odd jumps and inconsistencies. My guess would be there were some heavy cuts in the beginning during editing and the rest wasn’t changed to match up, but it means it’s a little confusing at times. Things settle out when the space elements gets going.

The book has instalove, which is not really my thing. I did like that Leda and Roar have to consider life beyond instalove. I wasn’t so fond of the idea that sex is mandatory for relationships (this comes mainly from Leda). I also don’t like over-protective and controlling behaviour from love interests. Roar does this less often than some, but he still ends up climbing into her bed and hugging her without asking, not letting goes when she struggles, and it’s fine because that’s what she wants after all. This is scary, not romantic.

There’s a fair bit of representation in this book, but some of it is rocky. Early on, there’s a microaggression about a woman having shoulders that are too broad for a woman, which sets the tone. There are a lot of little things and some big things. I’ll discuss a few of them, but it’s not a complete list.

Leda has spina bifida and uses crutches. The good sides are that she isn’t magically cured when the alien stuff gets going and she can’t suddenly run around without crutches when the plot demands it. There is also a mention of having limited energy, such as walking without crutches for a short distance making it hard to walk at all. However, I wasn’t fond of her constant self-hatred. She’s internalised a lot ableism, which may well be realistic, but it is somewhat constant during the story. She wants people to see past her disability, as though it’s a negative thing that overlays the real person inside.

Leda appears to be non-white. She’s described as having light brown skin and black hair. Roar considers that she looks “Spanish-meets-Arabic”. So she’s likely someone who has ancestry that is not clear. I didn’t like that Roar considers her “beautiful in an exotic kind of way”. This is not a compliment. Worded another way, this is saying she’s pretty for someone of her race, not properly pretty like all the pale blondes.

Roar’s friend Petrus is mute and uses sign language. Both norsk tegnspråk and Aurelis’s sign language. It’s unclear how he became mute, though it’s implied that he hasn’t always been.

One of the characters is a trans boy. The reveal was through misgendering and deadnaming the character, which is repeated several times. Also, it avoided any issues that would be specific to Aurelites. Namely that males have living tattoos that develop at birth. There is a brief mention of the trans boy having tattoos, but it’s something I’d have expected to be much more of a big deal in this context.

Some of the supporting characters are either gay or bi/pan. There’s not a lot to say on that, as not a lot happened, but they’re there.

The central issue is that this book copies some tropes that are popular in mainstream books, without critically looking at those tropes. It’s great to have a more diverse cast, but not so great to copy harmful tropes relating to that diverse cast. It’s painful because a lot of these things were on the surface. They could have been sorted without changing the main plot. It did feel like the author was trying, but wasn’t able to get there.

All this aside, I thought the book was reasonable. It passed the time and there were some bits I liked. The concept of aliens hiding out in a remote part of Norway was an interesting idea. The space conflicts make it clear that there’s more going on. There’s the potential for a series tackling some colonial political issues. Note that the book does have an ending, but it’s written as though it is the first in a series rather than a true standalone.

Fillius Glint – Ditrie Marie Bowie

Fillius Glint CoverFirst Published: 31st January, 2017
Genre: Science Fantasy / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

A universe is attacked by hackers who want to destroy it. Meanwhile in the universe, three people find some magical colouring pencils.

There are four viewpoint characters and a frame story. The frame is a family where the children are growing universes. When hackers attack the home network, Nancy loses most of her universes. The one that remains is where most of the story takes place.

Fillius has quite a bit of viewpoint time, showing the lead up to the main story events. He was raised in the gender-neutral religion of Zorda. Everyone uses Spivak pronouns, which is briefly explained at the start of the book. People with breasts bind them. The aim is to be as genderless as possible, in honour of the deity. I had issues believing all this, because the Zords are very binary for a gender-neutral cultural group. When they do gendered things, it is based on where they would be assigned in a binary society. So if they would be assigned female at birth, they might wear a dress or makeup. They also have names to indicate that, just with a letter cut off the end, rather than using truly gender-neutral naming conventions (Clar/Clara, Nor/Nora, Belind/Belinda).

On my first read, it gave the impression that being non-binary was a sham and that no one was really non-binary. On a second read, I can see it might be intended to show Fillius’s issues. He decides he’s a man based on his genitals. He starts misgendering other Zords. Everything he sees is filtered through this perspective. It’s also possible the names are due to more recent converts altering their names. However, this is the first introduction to anyone non-binary in the book, and the only time the Zords are shown living in a community, so I remained uncomfortable with it even after seeing it in the context of the full story.

Fortunately, the other viewpoint characters are more interesting and don’t fall into this as much. Their story happens in the present in the universe, as each of them picks up a magic crayon.

Luiz is recovering from breaking up with his girlfriend by taking a lot of drugs. He’s also in trouble with a business associate. I liked that his story deals with issues facing people of ethnic minorities in a majority culture.

Calliya is a shaman who lives alone in the forest and has control over elements. This introduces another religion and culture. I also liked how it highlights the ridiculousness of some of the worldbuilding, such as the trees with tacos growing on them. I could imagine a child growing a universe like this.

Nor is a Zord living outside of a Zord community. Unlike the Zords in Fillius’s sections, it’s clear Nor really is non-binary. Ey faces issues like gendered changing rooms. Ey competes in a sport that splits people by weight class, rather than gender, to avoid some of those issues. Nor is very honest and open, to the point that when things get weird, ey just tells eir coach plainly what’s going on, magic crayons and all. There is some misgendering of Nor by the others initially, particularly from Luiz, but this is something that self-corrects. It’s rare to have characters get it wrong, realise they were wrong, and start getting it right, without being told to do that.

Once I got past Fillius’s initial sections, I did enjoy the book overall. The setup and plot are unique. The protagonists contrasted well with each other. It presents a world that’s fanciful, yet also complicated in a realistic way, with different cultures and how they interact. The main weakness was the Zords, because outside of Nor, it didn’t hold together for me as a gender-neutral society.

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

Thunderbird Strike

Thunderbird Strike LogoDeveloper: Elizabeth LaPensée
First Release: October, 2017
Version Played: iPad and PC
Available: Apple iOS | Android | PC (Direct Download)

A thunderbird uses lightning to destroy a snake (an oil pipeline) consuming the land.

This is a short sidescrolling game, focusing on the theme of oil pipelines being built on Indigenous land. There are three levels, one of which is a boss fight. Each level has a brief animation to introduce it. I initially tried the iPad version, but that was too glitchy to play. It crashed either at the end of the first level or the end of the second level introduction animation. This was consistent, so I couldn’t play beyond the first level on the iPad. I didn’t experience any crashes on the PC version, which is the one I played to the end.

I liked the general concept of the levels. The thunderbird flies into the clouds to gather lightning. The lightning can then be fired to destroy industrial items or to restore living things. There’s no damage or death for the thunderbird, so it doesn’t matter how well the player does. This is a good feature for a gamer who wants to experience it, but may not be too good at controlling the bird.

However, there were elements I didn’t like in the gameplay. There’s no charge meter for the lightning, which makes it difficult to tell when the bird needs more lightning. There is a sound when it runs out completely, but that doesn’t help much for players who don’t use sound. There is a crackling visual, but it’s subtle, and isn’t really usable on devices with touchscreens where fingers cover the bird. It is also hard sometimes to see if the lightning has hit, which was particularly an issue in the boss level where I didn’t appear to be able to do any damage at the start, and I have no idea why it wasn’t working.

I do wish there’d been a few more levels. It felt like I was just getting going when it ended (and the points on the snake map suggest this might have been the intention, as there are more points than levels).

A scene from Thunderbird Strike

Image Caption: A blue thunderbird fires lightning at an industrial vehicle. Rain clouds are above a bleak landscape with mountains in the distance. The art is 2D with outlines on the main subjects and textured fills and backgrounds.

The strongest element is the art. It’s a beautiful style, with clear outlines and textured fills. As the outline moves, the texture stays in place, which is a nice effect. The destroyable items are industrial machines and pipes. Activatable items include animal skeletons and pipeline protestors. Each level has a distinct visual theme.

The weakest area is the sound, which doesn’t fit very well with the rest of it. The spoken words are more like a retro fighting game, with announcements of “fatal strike” and similar. The music doesn’t match where it appears. For example, the first level has a stirring boss fight feel to the music. Added to this, there are no options to turn sound elements off or down.

Overall, it’s a good concept for a game. I really liked being able to repair the damage with the lightning, as well as destroy the industrial things. The artwork and animation were good. But it is a little rough around the edges, particularly when it comes to the sound design and the crashing issues with the iPad version.

Everything

Everything Game LogoDeveloper: David OReilly
First Release: 21st March, 2017
Version Played: PlayStation 4
Available: PS Store US | PS Store UK | Steam

You are everything and everything is nothing.

This is a simulator where you can become any of the things in the game. You start as an animal (I was a sheep). Wandering around will yield guidance on how it works and new abilities will be unlocked. Alternatively, you can leave the controls and let the game play itself, because the game doesn’t need the player to guide it. This would be an odd choice in most games, but it fits the themes well. Nothing is more essential than anything else, and that includes the player.

The art and animation choices are immediately apparent. The models are low detail and the land animals don’t animate. Instead, they either roll over end to end or skitter along, like they were toy animals being pushed by a child. Some things do have basic animations, such as birds flapping their wings and plants growing. I mostly didn’t have a problem with the animations, but the blur when ascending/descending into things did cause some motion sickness. I did like that the thunder storms didn’t have bright flashes of light (I’d note for those with flash issues, some of the disasters are a bit flashy, but they can be disabled).

Once the ability to ascend/descend to different scales is unlocked, it gets a whole lot more interesting. You can descend into the grass and then the microscopic level. You can ascend to continents, planets and galaxies. As the game continues, you get abilities that mean being able to change the size and type of thing, should you want to do so. I released giant geckos on one continent and left miniature planets between cracks in a city pavement.

During all this, it’s possible to listen to the thoughts of some of the other things. These are collected and used to generate your own thoughts. Those generated thoughts range from nonsensical to the inadvertently profound.

verything Screenshot: Thoughtful Flats

Image Caption: I’m a block of flats framed against the sky and having a thought constructed from the thoughts I’ve heard. The thought reads: “Is ludicrous to go on forever, but sometimes we make them short. Remember that happens.”

The narration is from a series of lectures by the philosopher Alan Watts. They were recorded between 1965 and 1973. His lectures deal with the general nature of reality, and that divisions are something that people create, rather than an innate part of the universe. At the same time, there are also elements of the lectures that are dated. Despite talking about how divisions are culturally constructed, he still considers men and women to be inherently opposite and unknowable to each other. Trying to explain anxiety disorders in terms of a philosophical crisis also really doesn’t work. The lectures weren’t anything new to me in terms of basic concepts, but they were interesting from a historical perspective. He’s a good speaker who explains his ideas clearly.

There aren’t many set goals in the game, as it focuses more on being a sandbox. There is the tutorial to complete, though it’s somewhat more lengthy and involved than most things labelled as tutorials. I enjoyed the ending and the unique area for the tutorial. Broader goals are to complete the catalogue of different things and listen to all the narration. I hit a few issues with collecting all the things, as some of the things disappeared from my universe. This can be solved, as each area can be reset to its starting point, which brought them back.

Everything Screenshot: Rolling Unicorns

Image Caption: I’m a herd of rolling white unicorns on a purple alien world with giant bacteriophages. The white circle at the top is the game interface.

I enjoyed wandering around to find the things and listening to the lectures. It was interesting to see a game with world/universe simulator themes, but not from a perspective where the player is a deity looking down on the playing area. The player is an ordinary thing in the universe and manipulates it from that position. Time does not go faster or slower based on global game settings, but by becoming things with different perceptions of the passage of time. The exploration side appealed to my love of walking simulator games, as there were a number of environments to explore.

However, there are some weaknesses. The vehicle behaviour has some issues, which means cars get stuck running down the river instead of on the road. An area has train viaducts, but the trains run on the grass next to them. Also, some scales are a little sparse on things. This is particularly true of the larger scales. It would have been nice to see some gas giants and a wider range of stars. The range of options to customise the experience was mostly good, but an instant alternative to the ascend/descend blur would have been a useful accessibility feature.

This game will appeal to players looking for an experience to wander around in. It’s not a game for players looking for strong narratives or structure. Note that it does discuss themes like death, and some things have thoughts that are suicidal or self-hating, so it may not be the game to play when needing a break from that.

The Foxfire Lights – Elizabeth O’Connell

Foxfire Lights CoverSeries: Hal Bishop Mysteries, #2
First Published: 26th August, 2016
Genre: Historical Fantasy / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Jem and his brother Hal are called to break another curse. Lord Ransom’s youngest child is sick under strange circumstances.

The setup for this book is very similar to the first in the series. A child is cursed due to events in the family’s past. Jem and Hal have to uncover those events to understand the curse. It’s based on making deals with spirits, which is resolved in a similar way. It also repeats a fair bit of character development, as Hal goes back to not wanting to share his thoughts with Jem. This means there isn’t really any progress on the overall series story of figuring out what happened to Jem and Hal’s father.

There are some areas of improvement. In the first book, only magical disabilities were shown. In this, there is some sickness due to magic, but there’s also a disabled supporting character. Matthew, one of the sons of Lord Ransom, was born with a back injury and is non-neurotypical. There’s the suggestion that he doesn’t feel empathy (rather than just not showing empathy). It’s made very clear this isn’t magical, and a positive future is suggested for him.

Isabella, Lord Ransom’s wife, is from Argentina. She’s not particularly fleshed out as a character. I’d have liked more of her story, even if it wasn’t directly related to the local events.

A character is blinded in one eye towards the end, though it’s late enough that there’s not a lot to say about it in this book.

It isn’t a bad book and will appeal to people who enjoyed the first book. A lot of the things that stood out in the first are apparent here. The world is one where industrial magic is common. The curse breaking provides opportunities for interesting investigations. There’s folklore woven into the narrative. It just feels like it repeats too much from the first book, rather than building on that foundation.

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