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Prof. Jenn comes to us from Bonzuko.com Bonzuko is Jenn Zuko and Jason Boughn. Daily Cross-Swords is a hub for all your latest infotainment on Stage Combat, stunts, martial arts, yoga, dance, fitness, and other movement arts, as well as our other intellectual pursuits such as Jenn’s literature and arts professorship stuff and Jason’s culinary artistry.
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Posts by Prof. Jenn
Dual Review: Thief  / The Art of Thief by Eidos / Titan Books
Review by Prof. Jenn
It has taken me a long time, readers, to finally sit down and compose this review, and I’ll tell you why: it’s because I don’t feel like I’ve played through enough of Thief 4 (aka Thief) to give an expert’s opinion fairly. Even when I’m sent a book to review that I can’t stand, I make it a point to read it in its entirety before writing the review for Nerds in Babeland. I feel it’s only fair to the artists involved for me to do so.
It has been so long though, readers, that I want to tell you my thoughts about the game and also the art book that Titan Books were good enough to send me to look at as an accompaniment, and I want to tell you also why I’ve decided to do so with the game unplayed completely. Let’s start with the book, The Art of Thief:
This is not the first time I have encountered a gorgeous coffee table style art book from the folks at Titan, and they really do a good job at it (even of franchises I have no interest in–remember the visual companion to Dark Shadows?). This art book, showing the many facets of the art for Thief 4 (not for any of the earlier games in the series unfortunately), is actually what’s making me want to persevere and continue the game after I have lost interest. It includes character design and development, concept sketches of character, loot, settings and weaponry and often shows said art from beginning brainstorm through to 3D rendering. Another very cool perk included in this book is the many storyboards laid out for various scenes from the game. It’s making me want to pick the game up again, just so I can continue to play to see those cool steampunky prostitutes and Garrett’s fence, Basso. He looks so cool! Which brings me to:
Now I am a huge fan of the Thief games. Huge. The first two, beyond being revolutionary as far as gameplay (the Thief franchise is widely touted as the originator of the sub-genre of the FPS called Stealth. Many call Deus Ex the original FPStealth, but it’s really Thief. But I digress), but offers an incredibly rich world, with an interactive story so well written it actually kind of pisses me off. So I know very well how Garrett lost his eye (a visceral cutscene I’ll never forget), what it was replaced with and what that does to make his vision special. The warring factions of Hammerites (later scarier maniacal Mechanists) and their opposites the Pagans (who can forget the creepy giggle as one navigated through Constantine’s mansion), and of course the enigmatic and ultimately political Keepers. I know the world well, and love it, especially our POV protagonist, Garrett. I’ve even written fan fiction for this world. Wow, I just admitted that online…
Having said that, I am not one to immediately go all Star-Wars-Fan-on-Episode-One when I learn the franchise I love is getting a reboot. I mean, it can work very well–witness the new Star Trek movies. Even with a different studio–I mean, Thief 3 wasn’t quite the rich stellar game its predecessors were, but it was a solid Thief game, firmly rooted in that universe, Garrett was himself and there exists in Thief 3 probably the most terrifying horror level of any game ever. Yes, I include Limbo. I mean EVER. (Read about the Cradle level here.) At the end of Thief 3 we notice our intrepid protagonist acquiring a young (we assume) apprentice. So when I saw that in Thief 4 it begins with Garrett and his now young adult aged apprentice bickering, I thought “huzzah.”
But this reboot is a pale, watery thing compared to the scotch that was the other Thief games. Where Garrett was cynical and world-weary, here he is petulant. Where he reluctantly found his heart of gold, here he’s just uncharacteristically a softie. Where before we had knowing banter with real parental strife between him and the Keepers, now his apprentice Erin whines and bitches and isn’t actually well trained enough to be his apprentice in the first place. And speaking of Keepers:
There are no Keepers in this new rebooted world. No Hammerites, no Pagans. The City is a lovely-dingy steampunk place to live, similar to how it was, but the old fantasy world this is not. This more like post-apocalyptic Detroit than the rich world Thief comes from. Real-world swear words have replaced the “taffer” of the old dialect, and Garrett dresses less like a member of a Lieber-esque thieves’ guild than an emo early aughts Goth.
The retrofitting of his special eye and thereby powers of special sight is a weak version of the mechanical eye he used to wear, designed by megalomaniac Karras. Why was the eye story changed?
And without the warring factions, the religious zealotry, the Keepers, the burricks even (we get a nod to them in the name of a tavern), we are left with a bitter protagonist with no reason for his bitterness. We get whiny teenaged goths we don’t care about enough to quest for, let alone take on their persona through the story. My point is: the reboot of the world has diminished the world irreparably.
As far as gameplay goes, the designers have made a mistake in not taking a lesson from those games that have surpassed Thief on the console. The controls are not intuitive, Garrett doesn’t have all the skills he would have as a thief of his caliber (why didn’t Eidos take a hint from the Assassin’s Creed folks?) and the simplest quests are difficult to follow based on the way the game is set up as far as objectives go. This game needs to be either a) a very open ended sandbox like an AC IV or heck even a Skyrim, or b) much more streamlined and story-driven than it is. Right now it doesn’t know which it wants to be, and, that coupled with all the richness stripped out of the world, I’d just as soon be a pirate with Assassin’s Creed than a thief with my beloved Thief game. And that makes me sad.
Now remember: I have admitted I haven’t played Thief  very far. The reason is because of the above reasons, mainly: Garrett is no longer a likable POV character, the world isn’t as rich and interesting, and the controls are annoying. Maybe it gets brilliant later on. Maybe I’ll find out.
Maybe I won’t.
Bottom Line: if you’re a Thief fan or a steampunk enthusiast, the art book is for you. If you’re not, check out the otherworldly beauty of it anyway–you’ll probably want it on your coffee table, regardless. If only the game had more than just surface prettiness. Skip the game and play Bioshock Infinite.
For this latest collection of the Kill Shakespeare adventure, I’ll make you a list, dear readers. Because lists are cool.
What I liked:
–Piratey adventure. Arr. No, but seriously: all the swashbuckling you’d want but the characters have high stakes and intense, real relationships withal.
–Strong female characters. Hurrah!
–For anyone well versed in Shakespeare, there’s plenty of quotes, references, and Easter Eggs to find throughout, beyond the character names, of course.
What I didn’t like so much:
–This really isn’t the fault of the book, but vol. 4 plunges us directly into the climax and conclusion of a complex weaving of plots worthy of a few Shakespeare plays at once, and rushes us through to the action packed end (albeit an open-ended one, ready for more to come). This is only a problem for those readers like me who are not familiar/caught up with the franchise so far. It was a lot to decipher and I think I still wasn’t clear on some points, even though there’s a nice little character descriptor/list and plot summary in the beginning which does help.
–The art is a bit blocky, and though dynamic in some places, in many areas the art is muddy enough that it’s difficult to see what is happening from panel to panel, esp. in fight scenes or other action-centered sequences.
Bottom Line: if you’re a follower of this series, this collection is essential. If you’re new to Kill Shakespeare, I’d start from the beginning, not from here.
(Image from comicbookroundup.com)
Book Review: the Very Best of Kate Elliott
Review by: Prof. Jenn
I’ll admit to you, readers, that I was disappointed by this book for one reason, and one reason only: I tried to speed-read through it because my review queue was so long, and was unable to do so. The stories in this collection are so myriad in setting and tone, so compelling, that I had to stop and read through at a slower pace, enjoying and absorbing each tale.
This collection spans multiple worlds of Elliott’s (plus some non-fiction which is equally fascinating): some stories are stand-alone, some take place in already-created sci fi or fantasy worlds already in the Elliott canon. All feature women as central (or at least essentially pivotal) characters, without every story being about feminist preaching, which is important in itself. The focus in all of them is on the story, driven by well-drawn characters. All these characters are rich, flawed, engaging, and in every single story the reader wants to know what happens next (hence my inability to speed-read). It’s no easy feat to accomplish rich world-building in such a short form as the short story, but Elliott nails it in each and every one. And one doesn’t have to be familiar with her work to enjoy this collection, though I daresay I’m going to go out to my nearest bookstore and find more by her after having read this.
There is no orbiting outside this collection: it’s an absorbing read, for anyone who enjoys sci fi, fantasy, blending of the two, excellent characters, Elliot’s previous work, or dang good storytelling. Or all of the above.
Bottom Line: I highly recommend this Best of collection.
Comic Review: A Tale of Sand by Jim Henson and Jerry Juhl–illustrations by Ramon K. Perez
Review by Prof. Jenn
A Tale of Sand is a screenplay written by the late great Jim Henson, which never saw the light of movie day. It was written back in 1974, the heyday of Henson’s immense creative output, and one can very much experience said creativity by reading A Tale of Sand. To have this surreal screenplay illustrated sketchbook style by an artist such as Perez only enhances the experience–I opine that this is better as a sketchbook-cum-comic than it would have been as a 1970s film.
The story follows Everyman Mac, who is on a quest for he knows not what (except that he really wants to light that last cigarette). He meets strange people and places as he crosses the desert, some of which are attempting to hinder him, not the least of which are the sinister Patch and mysterious Blonde. When Mac finally reaches the end of his journey, it’s not at all what he (or the reader) imagines.
The illustrations are pleasingly sketchbook-like, some unfinished and some inked to perfection. It adheres well to the odd dreamlike quality of the adventure. There is plenty of backstory about the project in the forms of introductions and afterwords (though in the Afterword, we read about how the lettering was created and handled, and we see colorized, more finished versions of some of the pages–did I miss something in my Press version of the book?), which again gives us another window into the fertile mind that was Henson’s oeuvre, including and beyond the brilliant Muppets.
Bottom Line: bar my confusion as to whether I’ve been given a different version, I still highly recommend A Tale of Sand.
Comic Review X2: Edgar Allan Poe’s Spirits of the Dead and Springheeled Jack
Reviews by: Prof. Jenn
Edgar Allan Poe’s Spirits of the Dead by Richard Corben
The well-thought-out introduction to this collection states that Poe’s oeuvre is one of the most frequently comic-ized bodies of literature around. The dark subject matter and often taut tension makes for a good image-to-text pairing, I would guess, and the mysterious nature of much of the subject matter lends well to the interstitial storytelling of comics. Being able to read between the frames is especially appropriate for the unhinged characters and strange plots of Poe.
If only this collection rose to the occasion.
What I liked:
- The androgynous, Faerie-ike narrator character, Mag, who looks as though she stepped right out of Brian Froud’s Faeries, and who links all the stories together like a TV host.
- The brief, sometimes one-frame flashes of a dream-like world within a real one. It’s an entertainingly jarring effect, like in films Natural Born Killers or Fight Club.
What I didn’t like:
- The art is so grotesque as to be distracting to the storytelling. In a Poe collection the emphasis should be on a twisted dream world or world of madness, as graphically violent as the stories can sometimes get. The art doesn’t evoke Poe, but goes beyond the grotesque into the just, well, gross.
- While I can appreciate that putting the Poe stories (and especially poems) into a different medium requires some adaptation, blatantly changing the endings to stories, or rewriting events is taking adaptation too far. The worst culprit of this treatment is “The Raven”–not only is it no longer in verse, but in brutal, sparse prose, with a completely different outcome to the climax of the narrative. What was a psychological thriller (with a verse rhythm well-suited to illustration) turns into a badly written gory slasher film.
Springheeled Jack by David Hitchcock
It’s not every day you see a black and white graphic novel, and it’s rarer still when it is richer than many full color ones. Springheeled Jack is a masterful graphic novel which takes a real legend from Victorian England and spins explanations (and other literatures, characters, etc. from that era) into a compelling Twilight-Zone-like story.
This book won an Eagle Award for Favorite Black and White Comic, and it’s easy to see why. The richness of the grayscale matches the London fog of the setting (and the morose mood of our protagonist) perfectly, and the detail in each panel is astounding. Those who like to read the fine print in their comics, both in words and in images, will enjoy savoring each page of this book, even as they can’t wait to turn said pages, to see what will happen next.
The terror of Springheeled Jack was an unsolved mystery that pervaded the mid-1800s streets of London–what devil-like horror was it that killed and disappeared so many people? This story takes a plausibly creative sci-fi turn on the “true” events and also ends on an amorphous enough note that we can hope the story will continue.
Bottom Line: I highly recommend Springheeled Jack for comic lovers, steampunk aficionados, and anyone else who likes a thriller with sci fi flavors.
Book Review: A Dance in Blood Velvet by Freda Warrington
Review by Prof. Jenn
The re-publishing of Warrington’s lush vampire epic continues with A Dance in Blood Velvet–a story that takes place after They Lived Happily Ever After. Because hey, vampires really do have literally the opportunity to do so. However, as former humans with every human foible still intact, it’s not so simple. Relationships become tautly intertwined as Karl’s former companions reawaken and challenge what Charlotte has found and begun with her new life as a vampire. Charlotte herself is learning what sort of a vampire she is becoming as well as dealing with searing jeolousy which finds manifestation (or retaliation?) in her obsession with a ballerina.
Warrington has a gift for portraying realistic strong feelings and is an excellent author of character. Because of this, what we get in this sequel is not over-ornate romanticism but powerful driven characters, going for their objectives no matter what. The reader finds it hard to put the book down, as long as it is, because she must find out what happens next. As far as how it reads as a sequel, I can imagine someone coming into this story without having traveled with the characters before, as there is enough explanation (without info dumps) and opening discussions between Karl and Charlotte that one could hit the ground running without having read the first one. Though, you’ll want to read the first one too.
This book ends with a potential serial villain much in the vein of Batman’s Catwoman–definitely an antagonist and dangerous, but surprisingly not always not on our heroes’ side…and we are left with the idea that yes, we will be seeing this villain again.
Bottom Line: this series is extremely well written–A Dance in Blood Velvet is a taut, tense, exhilarating read.
Comics Review: Crime Does Not Pay vol. 8: ed. Philip R. Simon
Review by Prof. Jenn
The 8th volume of vintage comics, Crime Does Not Pay, is an entertaining collection of not only vintage true crime comic stories but a delightful and instructional collection of vintage ads as well. Remember when I reviewed volume 5? Well volume 8 is even more entertaining as well as historically educational.
The true crime stories in this volume are more gruesome than in volume 5, and more diverse, as we have female villains in this as well as your customary male ’30s-’40s gangster types. The ghostly narrator character is back, celebrating his acolytes’ descent into worse and worse malfeasance, until their comeuppance causes the repeated declaration, Crime Does Not Pay. The art is colorful and newspaper-y in style, and the ads are a continued delight in historical study and odd nostalgia, as are the letters to the editor. Two dollars for a published letter? Count me in…
Bottom Line: The Crime Does Not Pay series is a fun read and an excellent exercise in edutainment.
Book Review: Chicks Dig Gaming ed. by Brozek, Pearson, Smith?, & Rabe
Review by Prof. Jenn
Books of this nature can easily fall into the trap of redundancy. Witness my review for Queers Dig Timelords, another anthology of this ilk, and indeed in this series. Chicks Dig Gaming does not, however, fall prey to the trap. The collection of essays span from wicked satire to sweet nostalgic memoir, to a celebration of gaming in general or certain games, a recounting of a particular gaming event, to analysis of a game or game trope, a recounting of the history of video games, to the ever-important discussion of the unfair and even dangerous treatment of women in the gaming world. This collection doesn’t only discuss video games, but board games, LARPing and pen-and-paper RPGs are discussed as well.
My problem with Queers…, as you recall, was that the essays all had the same tone and even the same subject matter (Doctor Who changed my life because…). This, especially read in big sections in one sitting, started to grate on the nerves, or at least became repetitive fawning. Chicks...doesn’t do this, as each essay has an author voice distinct from every other, and the topics at hand vary widely. I commend the editors for this, as it’s an entertaining as well as an informative read throughout.
Highlights of this collection include: a satirical look at the lack of boys in video gaming and what we can do about it, a paralleling of Mario to a bodhisattva and the Mario games to Buddhism, how one author who didn’t like video games at all tried Portal, and a delightfully written description of how another author learned to get cutthroat in Eve Online.
Bottom Line: this collection is highly recommended for anyone who loves any games.
Comic Review: Steed and Mrs. Peel–We’re Needed #3 by Edginton, Cosentino, et. al.
Review by Prof. Jenn
In this, the concluding issue of the three-part “episode,” Mrs. Peel comes to the rescue of Mr. Steed by encountering help of a surprising nature. Of course, just like the TV show, the bad guys get their comeuppance and the good guys prevail. Differently than the show, however, is the open-ended flavor of the ending, suggesting sequels to come.
The art is still consistently good, dark outlines and vivid color adding to the mod feel of the ’60s show, and the flow of the panels show the action very well. The bizarre yet tight plot is well constructed in both the dialogue and the images, and overall this is a rollicking good tale suitable for inclusion In the best of the Steed/Peel TV eps.
Bottom Line: the third in this series is a high quality read. Highly recommended.
Comic Review: Steed and Mrs. Peel–We’re Needed #2 by Edginton, Cosentino, et. al
Review by: Prof. Jenn
We’ve come to the part in the story (from the old Avengers TV series) when our heroes Mr. Steed and Mrs. Peel are in such a pinch we can’t imagine how they will get out of it. Mrs. Peel is interviewing sinister twin criminals and following up on her clues, and Steed is in a particularly precarious situation, vulnerable to the villain of the story. It’s tense and investigatory, as a good Avengers episode should be.
The art continues to be consistently high quality (with an especially lovely cover painting of Mrs. Peel) and works well as storytelling. The characters look enough like Macnee and Rigg that we know who they are, but not so much like actor portraits that we are taken out of the fictional world.
Bottom Line: This is a great series and I can’t wait to see what happens next.