The Widow’s House (Dagger and Coin #4)

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The Widow’s House continues the series in characteristic Abraham style, but  in a less interesting way than I’d hoped after the cliffhanger that was the end of Tyrant’s Law.

House, I think, is where Abraham’s thematic preoccupations are really starting to coalesce into narrative payoffs. The series is shaping up to be a clash of opposing structures of power – power sustained by violence, and power propped up by fiat – i.e. the dagger and the coin. Geder and Antea represent the former, Cithrin and her compatriots and her financial acumen represent the latter.

Then there’s also the added layer of religious fanaticism disguised as a bunch of spider priests whose powers rob them of their ability to distinguish between truth and certainty. That fundamentalism drives violence, glamorizes force as a means to establish truth. More circumspect minds understand that the world is not black and white and can never be, especially when much of the world transacts using deception – whether benign white lies or criminal knavery.

Abraham is methodically layering these themes into the ongoing story, seeking at every turn opportunities for characters to talk about them, or to witness the consequences of the actions of the great impact them in ways that solidify their respective philosophies.

In doing so, Abraham sometimes loses that kind of naturalistic feeling in the earlier books, where the world was presented as-is without an added layer of authorial messaging. In Widow’s House, plot developments don’t naturally follow the contours of the world and plot but sometimes feel a bit wedged in to make a point.

Case in point: Cithrin’s invention of a representative currency – war gold – essentially a form of paper money backed by the treasure of the bank she works for, in order to generate enough funds to pay for the war effort against Geder, is a thematic example of the power of fiat and gold combating the power of the sword. But I find it a little hard to believe the speed and alacrity at which her idea is taken up, especially because it is indeed based on fiat. Abraham tries to describe the initial skepticism towards the idea, but my sense is that this particular plot development was a little bit contrived in order to push the themes.

Another case – while I find the struggle between different interpretations of truth and certainty interesting, especially when presented in the compelling way that it is in the books, I also find it hard to believe that having spiders in your blood automatically makes you a slavish devotee to the doctrines of the people around you. Not only does it seem a bit deterministic and binary – spider priests are evil by dint of thing in their blood – it feels, again, contrived in a way that is meant to forward the thematic point in a way that doesn’t quite gel with the contours of the plot and world. Especially because there are spider priests, like Kit, who understands that certainty is not truth – but why is he the only one?

The last observation that I wanted to make is that The Widow’s House didn’t quite match the wild hopes I had had for the series after reading the third book. I’d mentioned that I was a fan of fantasy with deep history, and I thought that the signs were pointing to a completely off the rails development when they – spoiler! – woke the last dragon and intimated that the dragons had been a highly technological (if not very good at the individual liberty thing w.r.t. their human slaves) species. But Iny’s involvement has been kept minimal and the series has pretty much just stayed on the rails that Abraham has built for it over the course of the fourth book, leading up to what will probably be a well-crafted, thematically relevant, but ultimately as-expected denouement.

I give this book: 4 out of 5 anti-dragon ballistas

 

 

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

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The name is really a mouthful.

Peregrine is composed of many small pieces of visual and textural brilliance owing to Burton’s very developed sense of the uncanny, but ultimately, when seen as a whole, it doesn’t quite stand out from its crop. It also embodies a kind of escapist, Peter-Pan mentality that, frankly, sends an unsalutary message to its viewers.

Peregrine is a classic two-worlds fantasy story – the modern, prosaic world, and a secret world of people with strange powers owing to a recessive peculiar gene –  Peculiars. Many Peculiar children live changeless existences in time-loops created by special Peculiars known as Ymbrynes who can turn into birds and act as guardians for the children. Forever. Yeah, a bit creepy and Peter Pan-esque, but it certainly fits in with the Burtonesque branding.

Our teenaged protagonist, Jacob, lives a normal, if somewhat muted life in Floridan suburbia, with only his grandfather’s wild stories of his youth spent with his peculiar friends as a source of escapism. Of course, like everyone else, he dismisses these stories as fantasies, but after he witnesses his grandfather being killed by a monstrous being that slips into the shadows, he begins his induction into a new reality.

Peregrinepremise is a great fit for Tim Burton’s specific visual style, which, I think, is about accentuating the uncanny by juxtaposing the banal with the discomfiting. The Peculiar world isn’t the scintillating fantasy of the earlier Harry Potter books – it’s a world of persecuted people, forced to re-live the same day of their lives over and over again as children, under the pretext that they are being protected from the prejudices of the outside world. The children’s peculiarities run the gamut from vanilla superpowers like invisibility or pyrokinetics, to uncanny things like the ability to create and control puppets by inserting the hearts of once-living things into them. Peculiarity is amoral and capricious in a way that is much more visceral than what is portrayed in Harry Potter or even the X-men comics.

This uncanniness gives the viewer pause at every turn, because it doesn’t fit into the well-worn patterns of two-worlds stories where the fantasy world is, at least at first touch, magical and inviting (or nightmarish and apocalyptic). Peregrine straddles the middle in many ways. When Jacob first meets them, they seem out of joint with the world, anachronisms – mysterious children wearing 1940s era clothes, who we later on learn have been living the same day over again for seventy years. Miss Peregrine, played by Eva Green, is a formidable combination of maternal guardian and authoritarian dictator, leading her charges on an isolationist existence against the rest of the world. Jacob feels a sense of alienation from the Peculiar world precisely because he, initially, doesn’t quite fit into that uncanny environment.

The amorality of the peculiar world is made more binary in relation to the antagonists – a cabal of Peculiars led by the manically frizzly and sinisterly voluble Dr Barrow (Samuel L Jackson in another flamboyantly villainous role ). Wights are Peculiars who underwent an experiment to gain immortality but who instead turn into monsters called hollowgasts, and need to subsist on a diet of eyeballs to maintain their human form. Guess what they like to do to Ymbryne orphanages?

The conflict with these wights casts the story into a more traditional binary mold of good guys and bad, which is fine, especially because the wights make genuinely frightening villains. There’s the fact that hollowgasts kill their victims by using prehensile tongues to pluck their eyes out, of course. But Samuel Jackson’s Dr Barron infuses his character a kind of self-aware pleasure in what he’s doing that really brings out the enormity of his actions.

It’s a slight shame, then, that the elements of this world – the morally grey and uncanny one of the Peculiars and the creatively evil wights – aren’t really put together in a way that suggests a complete or cohesive world or story. When is Peculiar civilisation situated in the timeline? Is Mr Barron a creature of the past or present? There’s also a massive grandfather paradox (in the literal sense of the term) that I don’t really understand, but it can be overlooked in the context of this being a 2 hour film with not enough time for extended expositions. But the timey-wimey convolutedness of the plot with insufficient explanations for some of its parts kind of left the film wanting a little in the way of closure and a sense of internal consistency.

But I also think that the other thing that threw me off was really also about the core of the film, which is Jacob’s character arc. Ostensibly, the film portrays Jacob as an outsider in his own society who finds a group of outsiders and slowly comes to identify with them. In the film, Jacob’s emotional connection to that group is exemplified by his relationship with one of the Peculiars, Emily Bloom. But the relationship feels a little contrived and also quite uncanny (since she is, mentally over 70 and was also involved with Jacob’s grandfather). And at the end of everything, Jacob just up and leaves school and his (admittedly dreary) household and rejoins the Peculiars, presumably to find a timeloop to live the same day of his live again and again on infinite repeat. Because the world of the Peculiars is so cloistered and seemingly limited, it doesn’t feel like an escapist fantasy should – that the character is blossoming into their own as a member of that other world, like Harry Potter did in the wizarding community – but more of a regression or stasis – like Wendy going back to Neverland. It represents – in a few words – a form of escapist fantasy that feels limiting, rather than freeing.

I give this film: 3.5 out of 5 hollowgast-killing crossbows

 

Stranger Things (Season 1)

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Stranger Things’ first season is a visceral and nostalgic mishmash of half a dozen science fiction tropes.

Small-town America in the 1980s was a perfect time for science fiction of the Close Encounters kind – the juxtaposition of neighborly familiarity not yet disintermediated by the disembodying effects of the Internet, with the vast  screaming unknown of space and its lurking horrors. Stranger Things is all about taking this milieu and making a show out of it with today’s production values, throwing in a kitchen sink’s worth of classic elements from that tradition – secret government programs, other dimensions, aloof children with vast mental powers, nerdy kids saving the day – the works.

The effect is a show that feels both fresh and derivative – fresh because of its modern sensibility and high production values, derivative because, ultimately, it’s taking, almost out of whole cloth, from the building blocks of the subgenre.

The story starts with a horror escaping out of a clandestine lab, the disappearance of a child, and the emergence of another, bald and bearing only the tattoo of the number eleven on her wrist, who can lift things with her mind and receive visions from far away.

In the town’s frantic search to find one missing child, the other is found by the first child’s friends, and she slowly learns how to be human after having been isolated and subjugated to emotional manipulation by her handlers her entire life. In her slowly emerging newfound empathy, she learns the power of friendship.

If this all sounds vaguely like everything we’ve seen before in science fiction television and film, that’s because it probably is. It’s hard to place but the premise feels familiar, almost archetypal – and to some extent, that’s a good thing for a show that runs so much on that 80s aesthetic and feeling.

The show does try some fresh things, and it is capable of demonstrating surprisingly layered emotional complexity. The initial episodes lay out the central mysteries in a way that doesn’t quite reveal the big secrets to those familiar with the tropes. There are some brilliant moments in these early episodes, like the scenes where Joyce (Winona Ryder), the mother of the missing child, Will, is shown doing all she can to find her lost son. Ryder imbues her character with a raw maternality that, frankly, should earn her an Emmy. Her emotional performance elevates the show at its best moments to something approaching magical.

As the show proceeds on to its climax and denouement, however, the mysteries have to reveal themselves, and that’s where the tropes come in and kind of set up the stage for disappointment. After the alluring unknowns of the early show, the later show starts to just go back onto the well-worn tracks of its genre predecessors in explaining its mysteries. It’s perhaps a tall order to expect a show to come up with something completely original, but I think the slightly disappointing thing about its late-season quality is the disjunct between its set-up, which was suitably mysterious, and the payoff, which verges on trope territory.

I also have a bit of a problem with the general quality of the last few episodes. Where previous episodes were carefully plotted, the last few episodes have a bit of a rushed quality to them, and there are a lot of odd plotholes that detract from the believability of the story at the end. It also tends to be bogged down at certain points by the kind of human drama that seems wedged in there for the sake of adding pathos – and it comes in the most frustrating form – quarrels between the kid protagonists due to adolescent passions and feelings. I won’t go too much into that, but there you have it.

Fortunately for subsequent seasons, Stranger Things does wrap up its most problematic story arcs, and it also leaves a few tantalising threads of mystery at the end, and it’s enough of a hook that I will definitely check it out.

Ultimately, Stranger Things doesn’t cover that much new territory, but maybe it doesn’t have to.

I give this show: 4 out of 5 hazmat suits

Oxenfree

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A midway interesting narrative stymied with utterly numbing gameplay.

Oxenfree is a 2D narrative adventure game developed by the indie Night School studio. It puts the player in control of Alex, a high school student who inadvertently opens a mysterious rift into a spectral plane while on an escapade to an out-of-the-way island for an overnight drinking party.

Oxenfree is in spirit a classic ghost story with a science-fiction twist, and it succeeds on this front, both on an atmospheric and narrative perspective. The environments are beautifully rendered 2-dimensional canvases that seem gravid with a creeping sense of foreboding. The narrative has all the elements of the best ghost stories – in which the protagonist isn’t just hiding from the external threat of the paranormal, but also grappling with her own personal demons. The mirroring of the internal and external gives the best ghost stories their particular capacity to disturb.

The game excels at making the player feel boxed in and threatened at every turn. There are events that might have been called jump scares in other horror games, but are deployed every so often in the narrative to keep the player on their toes, always tensely on the lookout for them. Alex is usually accompanied by an NPC, either her step-brother Jonas or her best friend Ren, and the dialogue between them provides a kind of normalcy to the situation, so when the game contrives to suddenly take them away, the player is discomfited.

But this is where the game’s greatest weakness – the lack of gameplay – comes in. Oxenfree relies on the conceit of gameplay challenge to sustain the dread the player feels. When weird things happen, the game usually has Alex complete some sort of task to bring things back to normal. However, the vast majority of the time these tasks have no intrinsic challenge – mostly performing some rote action or locating a frequency on a radio. The game has very little in the way of gameplay to sustain itself.

This would generally be okay if the game played well in general – if it was responsive and fluid in its controls, like Tales of the Borderlands, it might have seemed like playing an interactive movie. But Oxenfree can’t simulate that immersive feeling because it’s a 2D platformer. Navigating the gamespace is a chore and feels like busywork – the characters move slowly, there are a lot of climbing sections, and Alex doesn’t always go where you want her to. It discourages exploration because it feels like it takes forever to go from point A to point B.

The other thing I found frustrating was the dialogue system. You can choose what Alex says by clicking speech bubbles over her head when they appear. But when you click them, she interrupts what someone else is saying, cutting them off and preventing you from hearing what they wanted to say. Wait too long to click, however, and the bubble disappears. This is compounded by the fact that it’s hard to tell when people are done talking, so a character might say something and pause, and you click the speech bubble, then the character starts speaking again but is cut off by Alex’s dialogue. It’s an unintuitive and clunky system that compromises the delivery of the game’s most important asset – its narrative.

Ultimately, the game’s a short, 4-5 hour adventure that offers some, but not particularly compelling, replay value due to a narratively-justified game plus mode that allows you to test alternative narrative choices. While I liked the story, the clunky gameplay was a big factor for me in not replaying the game.

I give this game: 3.5 out of 5 radio keys

The Tyrant’s Law (Dagger and Coin #3)

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The Tyrant’s Law is your typical middle novel – a little slow going as it maneuvers its players into position, but it does dole out unexpectedly delicious morsels of worldbuilding to pass the time.

The book sees its characters in the midst of journeys – both physical, mental and moral. Where Abraham was content to merely depict his fantasy world and its morals as-is in previous books, he begins to set his pieces on one side or the other of the moral divide. Driven by the false certainty of the spider goddess, Geder has demonised and enslaved an entire race of humanity after having subjugated their kingdoms with the help of the spider priests.

Abraham casts this moral enormity as a trial of fire for Cithrin, who grows as a character as she begins to understand that banking can be more than just about the blind acquisition of money, and begins to help in spending her bank’s money to ensure safe passage for persecuted refugees.

Even though Cithrin’s chapters are a little slow going, Abraham seems to be building her character up as a kind of foil to Geder – where he deals in conquest through war, she does with money; where he is enshrouded by certainty, she finds meaning in the ambiguity and obfuscation that is a part and parcel of her trade. Where he subjugates based on religious faith, she liberates by repudiating her banker’s creed.

This book is also the point where the Dagger and Coin series starts to delve into its own lore. Worldbuilding, insofar as it existed, has very much existed only in passing where it befitted the plot to mention it. In Tyrant’s Law, plot circumstances now allow Abraham to delve into some of the less explored corners of the world – Hallskar in the north, the jungles of Lyoneia – in search of deep history, as Marcus and Kit embark on a wild journey to slay the spider goddess. And there are some very interesting developments in the story from these explorations that are very much up my alley where fantasy is concerned – I like anachronisms, tech-as-magic, and all that, and the very last scene of the book ends on a cliffhanger that left me excited to the point of frustration to start on the next book, just to find out what Abraham had in store for the revelations on the nature of the precursor dragon empire that created the races of humanity.

I give this book: 4 out of 5 Lyoneia beasts

Dreamfall Chapters

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Dreamfall: Chapters doesn’t quite get away with its audacious attempt to tie together the disparate and chaotic narrative strands left open by its predecessor.

Chapters is the five-chapter, long-awaited conclusion to the Longest Journey series of games, but in a way, it was my entry into the series. I’ve long had a soft spot for narrative-driven adventure games, and having heard of Dreamfall: Chapter’s Kickstarter success, I decided I’d play the first two games in order to play the third.

The Longest Journey was a charming but slightly twee point-and-click adventure games with fiendishly illogical puzzles and a MacGuffin-powered story about restoring Balance and finding powerful and hidden Draic Kins (a wilful misspelling of dragons) to stop a conspiracy from reshaping the universe in its image. The second, Dreamfall: The Longest Journey, had some terribly unpolished gameplay but (I thought) a more grounded and compelling narrative. I finished the two games and then waited over a year for all the chapters in Dreamfall: Chapter to come out so that I could play the game in one go.

I’m glad I did. Dreamfall:Chapters is such an involved narrative maze that it would probably be difficult to remember its various plot contrivances if I had to wait a few months in between.

Mechanically, it’s a great leap forward  from its predecessor Dreamfall. The animations are smooth, the characters look great, the third-person camera doesn’t get itself in a twist – although these are things that I would expect from a modern video game. There’s no wonky combat, which is a plus, although there are still terrible stealth sections which, in their contrived nature, really take you out of the story every time you get stuck in one.

The two previous games created an interesting dual world of Stark and Arcadia, and one of Chapters’ great strengths is that it kicks the worldbuilding up several notches. Where the previous games sported constrained environments and broad strokes that hinted at the worlds they were set in, Chapters has more expansive setpieces with much more in the way of peripheral interest. The district of Propast in the city of Europolis, which Zoe spends much of the first few chapters running around in, is a stand-out example of Chapters’ compelling worldbuilding. It is a post-cyberpunk metropolis of incredible ethnic diversity, one of the few worlds that doesn’t portray an unrealistically whitewashed future. Marcuria, the city of Arcadia, has also been given a facelift – where it used to be a few small levels, a fairly large section of the city has been developed for the player to roam through, and there is a real sense of scale. It’s a vast improvement over the toy-like levels of TLJ and Dreamfall.

Thematically, Chapters take a  more grounded stance than its predecessors, with the first few chapters dealing with a political crisis in Propast that strikes a clear parallel with contemporary goings-on in Europe – the fight between far-right ethnic nationalism and social-centrism and liberalism. In Marcuria, we have a fascistic dictatorship of foreign invaders – the Azadi – who commit ethnic cleansings on segments of their subjugated populations.

Unfortunately, there is a tension between these more grounded themes and the original raison d’etre of the game – to wrap up the disparate plot threads of the previous offerings.

It really seems like the two are at cross-purposes with each other. The early game takes its time in carefully developing the building political tensions in Propast, or detailing the guerilla war against the Azadi, and these are interesting stories and conflicts. These early chapters, however, do comparatively little to begin to address the key conflicts that were left unresolved in the previous game.

It’s only in the final chapter that the plot suddenly lurches in the direction of culminating towards a denouement, and that’s where the game’s quality starts to degrade. Earlier plot threads are hastily resolved and forgotten, and the groundedness of the earlier chapters gives way to the floaty, macguffin-centered fluff of the central plot – an attempt by the Bad Guys to reshape reality by collecting dreams and using them to feed a giant steampunk computer.

In doing so, the plot seems to take some liberties with characters and conventions from the previous games. Take the character of Roper Klacks, for example – he was a side-show antagonist in the first game, a reformed seller of potions in the second. The third game, however, retcons his apparent redemption and fashions him back into a villain, which is jarring given his lack of rancour towards April Ryan in the second game.

And most egregious of all, the plot basically resolves itself with a deus ex machina character that appears in the first chapter as a baby and grows up in an interdimensional house just in time to step into the timeline and tweak a few things to allow the good guys to win. But her powers, and the agents that guide her in her mission, are never identified, and we’re expected to be okay with the plot intervention just because it was introduced as a Chekov’s gun in the first chapter. While the introduction of this character does kind of address a long-standing plot thread that was never really addressed in the first game, her inclusion brings up far more questions than it does answers, and avers to an even greater conflict that sets the stage for a subsequent game that will, unfortunately, probably never see the light of day.

I give this game: 3.5 out of 5 new-style Dreamers