Alanna: The First Adventure

I’m not exactily in the mood for clever titles this time. Alanna rocked my socks off, and I want to share it with y’all.

Tamora Pierce’s Alanna: The First Adventure follows Allana of Trebond on her journey to defy the norms by switching places with her brother to become a knight of the kingdom of Tortall. In a world where women are expected to learn how to be proper ladies, Alanna has to use her brains and perserverence to rise abover her peers, hold her own against bullies and intimidating teachers, and explore her Gift (her connection to magic) while keeping her identity a secret.

Pierce’s books have inspired countless young girls to push through the murky patriarchy of the modern world with honor and confidence. Alanna earns the trust of her fellow pages and her teachers through her actions, whether she’s holding up for her friends or standing up for herself.

Another of Pierce’s strengths is her worldbuilding. Rarely does it feel like raw exposition. Readers can trust that places or people mentioned in passing will return in the future, be it the intricacies of palace life, the seedy underworld of the capital, or how magic works.

As I continue reading the Song of the Lioness (there’s four books total), I’m sure my reviews will get longer. I can only hope that, much like Alanna, the tone of the books will develop alongside the audience that grew up reading them as they came out.

 

If you’ve read Alanna: The First Adventure, let me know what your thoughts are. Share if you liked it!

I’m always looking for new stories, no matter the medium. If you know of any great books, movies, or video games that you absolutely love, let me know in the comments and, if I haven’t checked it out, I’ll add it to the list!

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A Wonderful Return to the Wizarding World

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This review has a bit of a backstory, I suppose, so I won’t be going much into plot or anything. A couple weeks ago, we had a mini family reunion in Pittsburgh. It’s a great city, one I could absolutely see myself living in at some point.

Another thing to know is that my whole family has been Harry Potter fans since The Sorcerer’s Stone. We used to argue over who read the books first when they came out. I remember we chased my Dad around the yard because he got his hands on The Half-Blood Prince before the rest of us did.

With that being said, my sister has a copy of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. I had begged her to send it to me, but she’s understandably protective of it. So, being the introvert that I am, I asked if I could borrow it during the mini reunion and finished it within four hours. Don’t worry, I didn’t abandon my family. I just, you know, read the book around all the activities. They even let me sit off in the corner, away from  them, while I read the script. I love my family for that.

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Back to the book, though.

Everyone knows J.K. Rowling and the Harry Potter series. The Cursed Child is the eight official story in the series, and it’s different from any of the other books. Firstly, it’s a play. Lots of dialogue, minimal description. I read it in an afternoon. Secondly, it doesn’t follow the traditional story structure of the other books. It picks up after the Epilogue of The Deathly Hallows, where Harry, Ron, and Hermione are sending their kids off to Hogwarts. What follows is a whirlwind adventure that spans four years in the Wizarding World.

I haven’t talked to many people about The Cursed Child, so I had no expectations going into it. That may have been one of the greatest decisions of my life, reading-wise.

I didn’t expect the heart-wrenching story of expectations, love, and reconciliation. Rowling revisits all our favorite characters as adults, plus explores other characters in a deeper fashion than in the books. There’s also the kids: Albus Potter, Harry and Ginny’s second son, and Scorpius Malfoy, Draco’s kid. The adult angle gives new depth to the original trio (even Ron, who still serves a fair bit of comic relief), made even deeper by the children.

Does this live up to the hype that anything Harry Potter related carries? I think so. Hogwarts is back through fresh eyes. Harry, Ron, and Hermione are as familiar as always. The story gripped me more emotionally than anything I’ve read in ages. I grew to love reading in no small part because of Harry’s adventures in the Wizarding World, and Rowling has recaptured that in her newest tale.

I definitely encourage you to read this book. If you can afford to see the play, too, go for it. I’m sure the magic doesn’t lose any luster on stage.

 

If you’ve read Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, let me know what your thoughts are.

I’m always looking for new stories, no matter the medium. If you know of any great books, movies, or video games that you absolutely love, let me know in the comments and, if I hadn’t read it, I’ll add it to the list!

Felix, Part 8: Salt in the Air

Felix has always been fascinated by the world around him and unafraid to try new things. Ever since he read about the rise and fall of the Elementals, however, he hasn’t been able to think about anything else. 

After Filion makes a significant announcement, Felix and Zia hatch a  hair-brained plan to find some answers about Felix’s vision and Zia’s family. 

I arch my back, sticking my chest out a bit. I try to raise my arms, but the family next to us has been shooting us death glares ever since the incident with the drunk. It’s impossible to stretch in such a crowded space.

Zia lies curled up against our bags, brown hair draped over her shoulder. I wonder what would have happened if she had tried to steal food from the drunk instead of me. Maybe the watchwoman or the bald man wouldn’t have gotten involved. I still don’t see why that man freaked out about us talking. He didn’t hit me. He wasn’t rude to me. He was just drunk.

I nudge Fil. “Hey,” I say in a soft voice. Fil’s gaze is fixed at the far end of the wagon. “Fil!” I say louder.

My brother blinks twice before turning to me. “Sorry, what?” His grimy hair sticks to his face, a bead of sweat rolling down between his eyebrows.

“Explain why the bald man got the drunk thrown out again. I wasn’t doing anything wrong, was I?”

Fil sighed. “It happened three weeks ago, Felix. We already talked about it.”

“You said it was because he might try things. What things?”

Fil’s eyes went wide. “That’s, um, that’s…look, there are some people out there who would take…advantage of weaker people. That’s what the bald man thought. I talked with him during the break a few days ago.”

“I don’t have anything of value, though. What is there to take advantage of?”

“Felix, you’re too young to understand. Just trust me.” Fil returned his attention to the back of the wagon. I followed his gaze. Two girls wrapped in red sat in the back, talking with one another. They might have been a few years older than me, I couldn’t tell with their hoods. All I could make out was the glimmer in their eyes.

“Who are they?” I ask.

Fil shrugs. “I don’t know. I’ve been seeing them during the breaks, though. They keep to themselves.”

“So why are you staring at them?”

“I’m not.”

“Yes, you are.” The two girls keep talking. They don’t look that different from anyone else in the wagon, apart from the red garb.

Zia jerks awake, coughing. “Why are we stopping?” she asked.

“We are?” Sure enough, the wagon was slowly grinding to a halt. How had I not noticed it before?

The flaps at the back tear open. “Everyone out! Break time!” someone shouts.

“Finally,” Fil says, scowling. He hasn’t smiled much since we joined him outside of Haven. Maybe he’s tired of not getting enough food. Maybe it’s just because of how uncomfortable this wagon is. Zia said not to think about it too much. She thinks if he had a problem, he would have told us by now.

Everyone’s jostling around me as we all stand up. I take my fair share of elbows and hands shoved against me. Fil grabs me by the arm, and I grab Zia’s arm. Separating is never a good idea here.

Somehow it’s even hotter outside than in the caravan, despite the gentle breeze. I take a deep breath through my nose, relieved to get a breath of fresh air, but something’s off. “Do you guys smell that?”

Fil sniffs. “It’s not as bad as home. It’s…fresh.”

Zia nods. “It’s a hundred times better than the smell at home.” Her eyes widen, and she points to the distance behind us. “I didn’t know Baress was by a lake.”

I scoff. “It’s not by a lake, it’s…” The words dry up in my mouth.

None of us have ever left Haven before, so the concept of a never-ending body of water has never made sense to me. Looking out across the small field, however, I couldn’t help but gasp. The lake in North Haven seems a puddle compared to this. Deep blue, it bleeds into the sunny sky at the horizon. “It’s by an ocean.”

Zia smiles. “I didn’t know this much water existed outside of a well. I thought it was all pumped up from the ground, like the lake.” She runs across the field, stopping at the edge. “Felix, you have to see this!”

I look to Filion, who nods, glancing at the girls in red. As I run to Zia, the breeze grows stronger, the smell more intense. Zia shouts, “Down there!” She has to shout, it’s that loud.

Waves crash against the rocks below in frothy white, a dull roar audible just below the whip of the wind. I can’t tell how far it is, but it’s definitely too far to jump. “We’re really high up!” I say.

Zia grabs my hand and points it to the left. “Over there!”

Further down the shore is a bay. Dozens of tiny islands encircle the outer edges of the bay, leaving only several narrow canals deep enough to allow sea travel. A red granite wall protects the city on land, one of the strongest structures in the east. I can’t tell where the Baress School is, though. Besides size, I can’t tell any of the buildings apart. Several towers rise up from the maze of buildings, fires blazing at the top as a signal for incoming ships. “The waylights! Those are the waylights, just like I read about!” I can’t help but hug Zia in all the excitement. “We can’t be more than a day away.”

Zia smiles. “Let’s hope we find what we’re looking for.”

I grip the coin from the stranger in black in my pocket. “We will. I’m sure of it.”

Not every comic is made for kids (The Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes)

 

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People say comics are for kids. That at some point you outgrow them. Plenty of grown adults who would disagree wholeheartedly with that statement. Blending visual and literary storytelling can lead to some of the most compelling stories out there. I’ve reviewed 2 Sisters, and I’ve read V for Vendetta before. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention The Sandman.

No, it’s not about the shape-shifter made of sand from Spider-Man 3. Published by Vertigo, which is owned by DC Comics, Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes is the first book in a series about Morpheus, a powerful entity with dark hair and even darker eyes. Stripped of his powers, Morpheus must reclaim his rightful place as the Master of Dreams before the world plunges into chaos. Sounds like a fairly typical comic plot, I know, but I refuse to give anything substantial away. Gaiman’s comic isn’t hailed as the greatest comic of all time for nothing. You’ll have to read it yourself.

What can I tell you about The Sandman, you ask? It’s bizarre in only a way that Gaiman can pull off. Granted, he only writes the stories. A team of illustrators brought all the creepy, twisted monsters to the page. Everything originated from Gaiman’s imagination, though. The ooze dripping from the walls, the riddles of Hell and all the demons under Satan’s command, even the interactions with other DC characters are all Gaiman’s ideas.

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Plenty of classic DC characters and locations are referenced, and some even make an appearance. John Constantine receives a visit from Morpheus Arkham Asylum serves as a setting over several issues. Even Batman shows up, if only in a vision.

That being said, Morpheus’ journey takes him to the fringes of the DC Universe, primarily venturing to new territories where few of the classic DC characters would stand a chance. In no way, shape, or form do you have to be a DC fan to appreciate The Sandman. Think of it as more of a bonus.

There’s not much of the classic comic-book style BANG or POW in this. Gaiman opts for a darker, more terrifying vision, with very little physical conflict. Everything is either intelligent wordplay or mysterious, supernatural powers. Morpheus’ abilities are never spelled out for us, leaving us with a sense of wonder as to what he is capable of. There is one moment near the end where my eyes widened and I couldn’t help but whisper, “Whoa!” The buildup to it makes it even more powerful.

If you aren’t a comic fan, I feel that The Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes will prove to be beyond entertaining, if not downright captivating. Most importantly, it proves that comics are one of the greatest media for storytelling.

 

If you’ve read The Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes, let me know what your thoughts are.

I’m always looking for new stories, no matter the medium. If you know of any great books, movies, or video games that you absolutely love, let me know in the comments and, if I hadn’t read it, I’ll add it to the list!

Video Games Can Be Moving, Too

 

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When most people think of video games, the first thing that comes to mind is either violence, Pokemon, or that it’s just for kids. I challenge people to consider video games a powerful medium for storytelling. After reading this review, look up Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us for two popular examples of engaging, powerful stories in video games.

As much as I’d love to break down Bioshock Infinite, I’d like to talk about another fantastic, story-driven game: Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. This fairy-tale influenced indie game follows two brothers – the older one dressed in blue, and the younger one dressed in yellow – and their quest to find the Tree of Life so they can save their ailing father. As the player, you guide both brothers through a European fantasy world filled with enslaved trolls, invisible giants, and griffins that are one part cat and one part owl (yes, it’s an owlcat, and it’s adorable). Those are just a few of the things you’ll encounter here.

One of the most unique aspects of Brothers is that you control both brothers at the same time, one with each joystick. This type of control makes for a unique and at times challenging gameplay experience. Puzzles in the game must be solved by using both brothers at the same time. Yellow is smaller and can squeeze through tight spaces. Blue is bigger and can move heavier objects. Only by working together can the player move on to the next level. Once you grow accustomed to the unique control system, you’ll realize how inventive the mechanic is.

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You’ll notice I referred to the brothers as Blue and Yellow. They do have names, but they’re not crucial to the story. No one ever speaks in actual words. Everyone gestures and expresses themselves physically to convey their messages. Combined with a stellar soundtrack to set the mood and stunning visuals, I had no trouble giving myself over to the game and the story it tells.

***Spoilers ahead, because I don’t know how else to share the power of this story***

Even though the game is called Brothers, it becomes readily apparent that Brothers true story arc belongs to Yellow. The game opens on him grieving for his mother, who he failed to saved in a boat accident. Visions of his mother still haunt him, and she even appears to him in a dream sequence.

For much of the game, he’s carried and supported by his older brother Blue as early as the first chapter, where Yellow must ride on Blue’s back to leave the village because he can’t swim. That’s just one of many example where we find Blue supporting Yellow in some way.

When the brothers finally reach the Tree of Life, Blue is suffering from grievous injuries. Yellow climbs the tree to collect its water, but when he descends, he finds Blue has died. I’ve played games where main characters died, but never have I been so moved as when I dragged Blue into a hand-dug grave and buried him. The game makes you, the player, initiate these acts, with Yellow sobbing the whole time.

A griffin flies him back to his village with the water from the Tree of Life, and Yellow has to confront his weakness: cross the stream that leads to the village. The same stream where we first learn Yellow can’t swim.

On the shore, confronting his fears, Yellow is comforted by his mother, then he hears the voice of his brother in the sky. Channeling his spirit (I don’t know how else to describe it), Yellow crosses the river to save his father, collapsing from the weight of his grief and the exhaustion of his travels.

***Spoilers Over***

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The simple premise (two kids go on a quest to save their father) helps to make Yellow’s emotional arc as powerful and moving as it is. That’s where this game wins out over so many other big titles out there. It’s not about how many kills you can rack up. It’s not trying to beat players over the head with symbolism and philosophy. It’s about losing yourself in a fantastic world and investing in these two brothers.

Do yourself a favor and give this game a shot. It takes less than three hours to play, and it only costs $15. I guarantee you’ll enjoy it, whether you like video games or not.

 

If you’ve played Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, let me know what your thoughts are.

 

I’m always looking for new stories, no matter the medium. If you know of any great books, movies, or video games that you absolutely love, let me know in the comments and, if I haven’t checked it out, I’ll add it to the list!

Mencken and the Monsters

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During the past week, the air conditioner in my house hasn’t been working properly. The first time the repairman took a look at it, the problem seemed fairly straightforward, and he was in and out within an hour.

The next day, however, the AC shut off again. He came back and checked every single part inside and out. The further he dug, the more problems he until finally a solution was reached.

Jeff Elkins’ latest book unfolds in a similar fashion, although the stakes are much higher. Mencken and the Monsters follows Mencken Cassie, an ambitious journalist fighting crime and corruption in Baltimore one story at a time. As the puzzle pieces fall into place, however, unfamiliar faces make their presence known, key players in Mencken’s story die brutal deaths, and monsters emerge from the shadows. With every turn, Mencken finds himself even deeper over his head. It’s up to him to find the courage within himself to do the right thing for his city.

Mencken doesn’t let up, not even for a second. When the titular character isn’t working out the details of the crime syndicate, he’s chasing down a lead on a serial killer or meeting with his editors. When the action comes, it’s fast, brutal, and bloody. There’s even a bit of romance for Mencken, although it’s not a central part of the story. If anything, the romantic subplot is strictly used to reflect on Mencken’s growth.

Elkins subtly ponders the importance of duty and responsibility compared to prestige and glory throughout the story with every challenge Mencken faces. The climax only serves to reflect that duality, leading to a satisfying finale.

The strongest aspect of Mencken is how satisfyingly Elkins blends two genres together. It starts off as a political thriller with hints of urban fantasy scattered throughout. As the story progresses, however, the fantasy side takes center stage, thrusting readers into a world rife with fantastic creatures and mythology.

How are the monsters and the gangsters connected, you ask? I can’t say, and not just because that would be spoiling the fun. This is the first book in the Defense of Reality Series. Elkins has barely scratched the surface of the bizarre, terrifying world he’s created, one that’s sure to enthrall readers. For more info on Elkins and his work, visit his website.

Pre-order Mencken and the Monsters on Amazon. It’s available for Kindle September 10th.

I’m always looking for new stories, no matter the medium. If you know of any great books, movies, or video games that you absolutely love, let me know in the comments and, if I haven’t checked it out, I’ll add it to the list!

RWBY: Grimm Eclipse

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One of the beauties of independent companies such as Rooster Teeth is the sheer creative freedom they’re allowed. They can create things how they want, when they want.

Rooster Teeth took the internet by storm back in 2003 with the launch of their web series Red vs Blue. Since then, the show has entered its fourteenth season, and they’ve created tons of live-action shorts, a gritty miniseries (Day 5, which I’ll be reviewing in the next few weeks), and RWBY (pronounced ‘ruby’), a 3-D anime-esque web series that spawned its own video game.

Developed by their lead animator Monty Oum, RWBY takes place in the sci-fi/fantasy world of Remnant and follows the lives of four girl as they train at Beacon Academy to fight monsters born of darkness and uncover plots to destroy civilization as they know it. With over-the-top fights, well thought-out characters set to grow dramatically over ten seasons, and (especially in the later seasons) fantastic writing, I may actually be looking forward to season four of RWBY more than the next season of Game of Thrones.

***Minor Spoilers Ahead***

That being said, when I played RWBY: Grimm Eclipse, I couldn’t help but feel a bit letdown, at least by the story. You play cooperatively alongside up to three other players, investigating malfunctions in the security network, hacking and slashing at monsters along the way. Upon discovering someone’s tampered with them, you and your team are guided by your professors at Beacon to unearth the source of the mystery. Eventually you learn what’s going on is a classic mad scientist plot to mutate the monsters, and then you have to fight your way through even more of the monsters to destroy the mad scientist’s lab and put a halt to his experiments. The game ends with you and your team getting extracted from the final level, and that’s it. No final confrontation with the mad scientist or anything. It ends rather abruptly.

***Spoilers Over***

My biggest issue with the game is how hollow it feels compared to the show it’s based on. RWBY relies on strong characters who are also excellent fighters to carry the story forward, but with Grimm Eclipse the story just sort of…exists. Most of the exposition and dialogue comes from radio communication with the professors. Even though you’re playing as one of the main characters, they hardly speak outside of quips or one-liners, which isn’t what I expected from characters I know and love. The game relies on intense fighting and rapid-fire gameplay to engage people, and after ten levels (it’s a fairly short game) it can get a bit boring.

The other interesting thing is that there isn’t much of an explanation about each character at the beginning. You choose whether to play a single player game or a team game, pick your character, and dive right in. There’s no tutorial telling you what to do. I’ve never played a modern game that does that. It can be a bit jarring to people that have never seen RWBY before.

However, I love RWBY, and that’s what makes the game fantastic for me. Rooster Teeth made a game that would appeal to fans who want to play as their favorite characters, walk through setting from the show, and kill monsters. If you aren’t a fan of RWBY, this game will definitely not have as much appeal to you.

Despite a lackluster story and somewhat repetitive gameplay, I really enjoy this game and will probably continue playing it for some time. This is Rooster Teeth’s first game, after all. They created RWBY, which has only gotten better with time. I can only expect the game will continue to improve as well.

If you’ve played RWBY: Grimm Eclipse, let me know what your thoughts are.

I’m always looking for new stories, no matter the medium. If you know of any great books, movies, or video games that you absolutely love, let me know in the comments and, if I haven’t checked it out, I’ll add it to the list!