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.
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.
There is a huge difference between a good graphic novel and a great one. Good graphic novels are prevalent–they’re beautiful, well-written, and an all-around underestimated genre. Still, a great graphic novel is rare and elusive, and will possess some quality that can’t be found in any other book, a unique visual element that the novel cannot subsist without. My favorite graphic novel is Asterios Polyp, which exhibits this quality effortlessly. The Sculptor, Scott McCloud’s book that came out in early February, also contains visual elements that make it settle above the crowded alleys of its neighboring competitors.
The story is as follows: David Smith is one of many David Smiths. He’s not even the only David Smith in the art world. But one day he’s offered a deal by Death himself–a tremendous gift that would allow him to leave his artistic mark on the world, at the price of his remaining life, which would be cut down to 200 days. David accepts the deal and is given the ability to mold any material with his bare hands, but shortly after meets a girl and falls in love.
At nearly 500 pages, this formidable graphic novel is gorgeously illustrated in blue monochrome. Though this is not McCloud’s first foray into books–he has written a few others about comics–it is his first graphic novel. Despite this, it reads like a self-actualized veteran’s accomplishment.
The main character, David, is a frustratingly tortured artist struggling to make his mark on the world. He continues his downward spiral even after he receives his thorny but incredible gift from Death. Then he meets Meg–who appears to him as an Angel during a street performance–and immediately falls in love. Meg is the embodiment of the manic pixie dream girl, instantly loved by all who meet her, constantly helping others at her own expense. As the story progresses, Meg’s character grows beyond the stereotype. McCloud has addressed the manic pixie trope in interviews. Meg is actually based on his own wife. “I married the trope — what am I gonna do?” he says.
Though The Sculptor does not necessarily tread any new ground, it explores its themes of death, memory, and artistic fulfillment, well. David’s artwork, which he takes to the streets, eventually manipulating the entire city to fit his vision, is the needed element in The Sculptor that elevates this novel from good to great. It’s a sad tale, but it gives the gift of hope to the reader and the graphic novel enthusiast who wants this art form to succeed.
This review doesn’t come with a trigger warning, that just happens to be the name of Neil Gaiman’s newest short story collection, which was released in early February. As usual, Gaiman delivers a unique cavalcade of stories marching in a variety of different formats. Stories in the first and third person, stories told as one half of an interview transcript, and stories that may read traditionally, but always don a twist. There is truly a wide variety of fiction here, for which Gaiman apologizes in his own introduction.
“I firmly believe that short story collections should be the same sort of thing all the way through. They should not, hodgepodge and willy-nilly, assemble stories that were obviously not intended to sit between the same covers… This collection fails that test. For this failure, as for so much, I request your indulgence and forgiveness…”
Trigger Warning amasses a collection of stories that were not meant to live in the same world, some of which were already given worlds of their own. “The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains” and “The Sleeper and the Spindle” already have their own bona-fide illustrated versions. “A Calendar of Tales” assembles all of the material that Gaiman wrote with the help of Twitter and BlackBerry. “Feminine Endings” has been around for ages, and any Gaiman fan has probably been aware of it since Neil first hooked up with Amanda Palmer back in 2009.
Still, there is a character to Gaiman’s writing that remains consistent. An oddness, a strange frankness about the world, that ties these disparate stories together. They are all so very Gaiman-y, which means, in some strange way, that they are all very much ours.
The stories twist and turn and surprise you, in their own way. Some of them are surprisingly funny, like “Orange,” the story of a girl answering questions about her sister turning into a god. [This happens to be one of my personal favorites from the collection]. There are the takes on classic horror (“Click-Clack the Rattlebag”), a Doctor Who story (featuring the 11th Doctor and Amy, so what’s not to love?), a Sherlock story, and a tale following the American Gods hero, Shadow. Then there are the heart-breaking new characters, making their first and only appearance in this book.
It is a worthwhile collection that possesses the ability to turn any short-story naysayer around.
With 2014 beginning to fade from recent memory, it’s about time I write about my favorite graphic novel of the preceding year: Bryan Lee O’Malley’s book Seconds. Released over the summer, it is O’Malley’s first published work since the last Scott Pilgrim installment was issued in 2010. The story follows Katie, a young chef trying to open another restaurant so she can leave Seconds (her first culinary establishment and the place where she lives in an apartment upstairs). After a dramatic incident in which a young waitress gets injured, Katie discovers her resident house spirit, who gives her a mushroom and an opportunity to erase a mistake and rewrite events. Soon afterward, Katie finds a patch of these mushrooms and begins abusing their power, despite Lis, the house spirit’s insistence that they should only be used once per person.
The book itself is beautiful. The half dust jacket and cover boards have different designs, giving it a unique style. I’m also a sucker for any novel that takes the color of the panel lines into account (props to the colorist, Nathan Fairbairn).
Seconds differs quite a bit from the Scott Pilgrim series, and more resembles his first graphic novel Lost at Sea. The book is a single, contained story, rather than a series released manga-style. The story also incorporates a narrator, though there is some witty banter exchanged between it and the main character, implying that the narrator may be an inner voice of Katie’s. These quirks bring the story to life. There are even some nods to Scott Pilgrim for O’Malley’s dedicated fans. (Scott and Ramona are eating in the restaurant on page 259, for example).
One of the Second’s flaws is its main character, which is admittedly sort of the point–she is flawed to a fault. As she digs herself farther into trouble by continuing to eat the mushrooms that erase her numerous mistakes, it seems to take an unbelievable amount of time for her to learn from these errors. She is hard to root for. Katie differs even in style from the others. O’Malley’s style is cartoony, but Katie’s design takes it to another level, as she is the only character with gravity-defying anime hair.
There is nothing groundbreaking in Seconds; no new story elements or decisions that set it far apart from other works, but it has just the right amount of humor, quirk, and design to make it pop. I want more graphic novels like this, with a single developed story that plays with narrative styles, and some nice resolution at the end. Seconds is worth checking out, and not just for Scott Pilgrim fans.
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.
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.
Book review: Jackrabbit by Ian Healy
Review by Prof. Jenn
Ian Healy has delivered again in this next installment of superhero novels in the Just Cause universe. As I have written before, I have and continue to enjoy Healy’s ability to embody the coming-of-age voice, as well as the voice of the “regular Joe,” whether they are superpowered or not. (Sorry, “parahuman” is the correct term in his universe.) In Jackrabbit, though, we run into a new kind of parahuman–that of the Herald. The cheeky rabbit god and his buddy the frog god run into a new, insectile god in God’s Land–and it is revealed that this new god isn’t one invented by humans. This is a big deal, and not a good thing, at all. So (as it so often is) it’s up to our trickster god Leporidus to save the day. He begins his rescue plan by choosing a Herald–that is, a human who will embody the god on Earth. He selects hapless nerdy teenager Jay and, as it turns out, he has made an excellent choice.
Since I know Ian personally (we grew up together through Talented and Gifted programs in junior and senior high school as well as the theatre programs in said schools), I can slap him a virtual yet hearty high five in glorifying the nerd in this world. Even with today’s “geek chic,” nerds are still the victims of bullying today, and actually the nasty insect takeover of Earth event in this novel is connected directly to the theme of bullying. What Healy does very well is illustrate real human beings, whether it’s the coming of age type of Jay/Jackrabbit here or Mustang Sally in his earlier works, or “normal” folks trying to deal with the extraordinary, as in yet other novels in the Just Cause universe. And I love that the female hero is adorably annoying–it’s so great that she’s not flawless, but we still love her. Thanks for the realism and the joy amid the tense action. Also, thank Heaven for an African-American protagonist hero.
Usually I adore Healy’s Just Cause books without question, but I had a couple minor reservations about this one: a) why does Jay have to get all buff and huge when he transforms? Isn’t he a better Rabbit god herald by staying slight and quick? b) Bunny, Jay’s best friend, smacks of the stereotypical Gay Best Friend. In fact, he reminds me of the gay dancer friend in the 1984 movie Breakin’. maybe it’s the dance studio thing. Anyway… c) Jay turns real cheeky once he becomes Jackrabbit. he was pretty meek before. I’m not quite buying his snarky transformation. Maybe if he were already getting in trouble because of his wit and cheek, before he transformed? That way we can see exactly why Leporidus chose him, and his personality later would fit, etc. d) I hate to say it, as I love the ending, but I think it was a little too easily achieved. All of you, go out and read it and come back and tell me what you think.
Bottom Line: Jackrabbit is a fantastic novel and I recommend it wholeheartedly.
Book Review: Blade of the Samurai by Susan Spann
Review by: Prof. Jenn
How good a combination is a ninja-detective, seriously? What a perfect set of skills to be able to solve a murder in 16th-century Japan. Blade of the Samurai is a sequel to Claws of the Cat, which are historical thrillers starring Hiro, our shinobi protagonist, and his partner in solving crime, Father Mateo, a Portuguese Jesuit priest. With these two intellects at the helm of any investigation, no murderer will stay safe for long. Admittedly I haven’t read the first in this series, so I can’t tell you how the characters have evolved in this sequel, but I can tell you if this is your first foray into the investigations of these two, you will have no problem getting to know our characters, their situations, and setting immediately.
An official in the shogunate has been murdered, and a whiff of a plot to assassinate the shogun himself is in the air as Hiro and Mateo are conscripted to investigate the murder before Oda comes to invade Kyoto. The inclusion of real historical figures (Nobunaga Oda, Hattori Hanzo, etc.) and detailed descriptions of the 16th century Japanese setting plunges us right into the setting as good historical fiction does. However, the quick, clipped pace, the tension begun right as the story begins, and the short chapters make this also a well-crafted whodunit. This book is difficult to put down, and is a quick, exciting read. It’s also a fun addition to have the cultural differences pop up between Father Mateo and his Japanese surroundings (especially noble and samurai encounters, normal Western gestures and thoughts being offensive to the Japanese characters). The outcome of the mystery is complex and not cookie-cutter easy, and the end leaves us with many open ends ready for another sequel (Flask of the Drunken Master, out in 2015).
Bottom Line: Blade of the Samurai is highly recommended.
Book Review: Yesterday’s Kin by Nancy Kress
Review by Prof. Jenn
Yesterday’s Kin is a novelette which takes us on a breakneck pace through the philosophical, scientific, and psychological implications of a near-future contact with alien life. They come in peace, they come with some scientific advancements but not totally all-powerful, and we experience them through the POV of a prominent scientist and her flighty, dreamy, ne’er-do-well son. What the aliens’ actual purpose is for parking in New York Harbor and what happens to the people of Earth (and what will happen) is a fascinating, intelligent and intuitive discussion of the old “are we alone” question of so much sci fi.
The book is written in third-person limited POV, and is limited to two perspectives only: Marianne”s (the scientist) and Noah’s (her son), which makes what we know and when we know it tightly dictated and suspenseful. By the time we get to the big twist/revelation at the end, whether or not the reader has guessed it already is irrelevant–it’s a tense moment nonetheless.
Bottom Line: Yesterday’s Kin is highly recommended. I read it through in one sitting. I think it’d make a great movie…