Leveling Up as a Writer

Level_Up

Being a writer can be a mentally and emotionally exhausting profession (especially for those of us who work full-time jobs, have families, have kids, have other obligations, try not to be crusty shut-ins who do nothing but write, etc. etc.). Writing, editing, and polishing manuscripts and then sending them out to publishers and agents. You play the waiting game, and then you deal with the hundreds of rejection letters–more emails these days than actual letters.

So how do you keep it from getting you down? I try to celebrate every little success. I think of it as some sort of experience points bar–really it’s the one from Pokemon because they have such fun sound effects as they fill up.

Each word I write, each book or story I finish, each one I edit and polish, and each manuscript I send out on submission–all those things fill in the bar.

And then whenever I hit a new milestone in my career, it feels like I’m leveling up as a writer. I hear a little ding in my mind, celebrate for a minute or two, then get my ass back to work.

So what were some of the milestones that I’ve celebrated?

  1. Finishing my first short story
  2. Getting my first story acceptance
  3. Finishing my first novel
  4. Making that first novel not suck*
  5. Getting that first novel published
  6. Finishing a sequel
  7. Making that sequel not suck*
  8. Writing a novel in a completely new genre, new style, and new series
  9. Making that novel not suck*
  10. Getting form rejection emails from agents
  11. Getting partial requests from agents**
  12. Being asked to submit directly to a publisher**
  13. Getting a personal rejection email from a publisher and being told to reach out directly with other projects**

These last three are huge to me. Getting agents to request something based just on a query letter feels like a big deal. But also my experience submitting Gifts of the Earth has been a huge step forward.

Even though the publisher passed on it they said the “quality of the book wasn’t in question” and that I should reach out directly the next time I have something to submit. Anyone who’s trying to submit manuscripts knows that being able to bypass the slush pile is an enormous advantage.

Rejections are never fun, but the important thing is that there’s a trajectory here. I can’t help but celebrate that. And now if you excuse me, I have more books to write.

What about you, fellow writers? What milestones count as “leveling up” to you?

Gender-Swapping Writing Experiment

Author’s Note: this is a very, very simple thought experiment I’m throwing out there. Obviously these sorts of issues have to consider intersectionality as well. So this sort of thing can, and I’d say should, be done across multiple axes of oppression. I purposely chose a high level example for this post.

Another Author’s Note: Gender is not binary. But discussing the fluidity of the concept is beyond the scope of this post and what I was trying to accomplish with this little experiment.

You’ve all heard of the Bechdel Test, right? It’s not without flaws nor is it necessarily a quality benchmark. At the very least it just tells you that a particular work has two women who have a conversation with each other about something other than a man.

Tying into that is: how often as writer do you make secondary or tertiary characters men by default? Until it was brought up to me a while ago, I had no idea I even did that. I always thought I was pretty good about making sure I had women in my books and stories. But then I went back to my WIP at the time and saw that almost every time I needed a:

  • restaurant owner
  • business person
  • guard
  • solider
  • police officer
  • friend
  • colleague
  • doctor
  • random passerby
  • etc. etc.

These characters would be written as “he” in my outline. Even if they didn’t have names or more than a line or two of dialogue, almost all of them were men by default. It blew my mind to realize that. It wasn’t that I was trying to actively exclude women characters, it was just I was conditioned to think of and create men characters first. As if it had been ingrained and reinforced across multiple spectra–especially pop culture–that men were the important pieces in a story.

As I’ve gotten older and have attempted to be more aware of these issues regarding representation  and intersection, I’ve wanted to fix my shortcomings. Not only does it help a tiny bit to improve the field, but it also helps me grow as a writerThis kind of thing–unconsciously emphasizing men and just writing the same things over and over–requires no effort. It’s lazy. And lazy writing is boring writing. Lazy writing doesn’t challenge the creator nor the reader. This kind of lazy writing accidentally “punches people in the face.” And I don’t want that.

So going forward I decided to do a little experiment. In my current WIP, the main character, Itjani, is a woman detective, and the women in her family are all major characters (mother, aunts, and grandmothers). But there were other characters in the first draft of the outline that were men, including a character that teams up with Itjani outside official police channels to move the plot forward. Let’s call that character K for right now.

I stopped halfway through my outline and went you know what? This book already emphasizes interpersonal relationships between women in a post-colonial context (i.e. how do they form communities and identities going forward and dealing with centuries of colonization in this secondary world fantasy), so why not make K a woman too? How would that change the dynamics of the relationship I’d written into the story? I changed absolutely nothing else about K’s personality or actions other than their gender.

All of a sudden tons of new nuances entered into the story, themes that resonated with other more personal, familial sections. Itjani already had a male partner on the police force and they had a whole slew of interactions (based on gender, tenure at work, political power, ethnicity, social status, etc.) so it made the story better to give a counterpoint to that. Itjani and K interact across those axes in completely different ways (plus a few more that I can’t talk about right now without giving away too much plot).

I continued the experiment throughout the outline. A god became a goddess, a police coroner with a few lines became a woman as well. And so it went. Not every character was changed, but the majority of them were. And you know what? Even just re-reading my outline, it feels like a stronger story with more nuance, more subtext, more everything. I think part of why things felt better goes hand in hand with what Liz Bourke discusses in “How Do We Talk About Strong Female Characters?

This isn’t revolutionary stuff, and I’m not claiming that consciously changing a bunch of characters to women will somehow give this book a free pass. Or that these characters won’t be problematic in other ways. Nope. Chances are I’ll manage to screw something up, but that’s part of being an artist–especially one in a privileged position. It’s how you react to learning of those screw ups, listening to marginalized voices that’re telling you how you screwed up, learning from those mistakes, and not repeating them in the future.

Still, I’d rather make these choices than play it safe and churn out the same face-punchy science fiction and fantasy you’ve seen for decades (see Puppies, Sad & Rabid). This experiment is a small step, but it’s one I’d urge other writers to take too.

How Not to Respond to Reviews

Reviews are part of being an author. Some people are going to love your book; some people are going to hate your book. And if you’ve written multiple books, multiple series, some people are going to enjoy some installments and dislike others. It all comes with the territory.

And it’s not just for writers but for any artists, musicians, creators that put their work out there for the public to see.

I’m of the mind that reviews are primarily for readers and potential readers rather than authors. That’s not to say that an author can’t look at reviews and find common threads running through them. Maybe a bunch of reviews noticed that your secondary characters were cliche or that the book’s middle section lagged. Those are things to learn from. But for my money–you, the author, do not step in and debate these things. It never ends well.

Which brings me to this perfect example.

Reviews aren’t for you. And everyone on the internet should familiarize themselves with the Streisand effect. Trying to suppress a review, getting the reviewer to change it, disagreeing with their opinion, is a terrible idea and only makes things worse.

I’ve never heard of this particular book or author before (which pretty much everyone can say of me too), but based on his behavior, I can damn well say I’m far less inclined to ever read any of his works in the future. That’s what happens when authors try to attack people over reviews that are less-than-glowing. The internet amplifies their terrible behavior and soon people like me–people just scrolling through their Twitter feeds or whatever–see the thread linked and come take a seat to watch the meltdown. I mean as soon as I saw this author’s first comment on the review, my mind immediately went to that gif of Michael Jackson eating popcorn.

Yeah that’s the one. Good stuff.

Do not engage with negative reviews. They aren’t bullying. They aren’t comparable to physical abuse (as that author said). They aren’t cyberbullying either. Maybe if a reviewer wrote a negative review that attacked the author personally, then continued to contact the author across multiple social channels to send personal attacks their way, that would be cyberbullying. But I’ve never seen a reviewer do that before.

It bears repeating: Do not engage with negative reviews. Just stay away from ’em. Learn from criticism. Grow as an author. Don’t tell somebody their opinion is wrong and that they’re hurting the consciousness of humanity because they gave your book a one-star review on Goodreads.

Who is Jacquie Renairre?

No, the title of this post isn’t some weird Atlas Shrugged reference. Instead it’s a jumping off point to looking at the main character of my Tethys Chronicles steampunk series. You’ve seen the covers of The Exile’s Violin and the upcoming Terraviathan, right? I’ll post ’em here. Take a gander; don’t worry, I’ll wait.

The Exile's Violin (Tethys Chronicles #1) by R.S. Hunter

And now for Terraviathan!Terraviathan (Rara Avis cover)

(A big thank you to Enggar Adirasa for the art and the fine folks at Rara Avis for the cover design. If these two books don’t scream steampunk to you, then just take my word for it. There’s steam and punk in them, even if they don’t take place in Victorian England or even our world)

So Jacquie Renairre is the woman on the front of both books (shocking, right? Having the main character on the cover?) But who is she?

Simply put: Jacquie Renairre is a survivor. Jacquie Renairre is somebody who doesn’t give up. Jacquie Renairre is a woman.

I’m not going to lie when I first started writing The Exile’s Violin, I didn’t have any particular reason as to why I wanted the main character to be a young woman in her 20s. I just thought it would be cool. And to be quite honest, that’s what drove a lot of the initial planning for the book.

But then things went deeper than that.

As I wrote and outlined, I knew I needed more to my main character than “it’d be cool to have a steampunk book with a woman private eye main character.” So what did I do next? I made character sheets. (Maybe someday I’ll share them with the world, but not on this day!)

I examined situations and beliefs that a character in this fantasy world might encounter and thought, how would Jacquie react to this? What would she do? What would she believe in? What would she fight for? I looked to other people I know, most importantly my wife. I asked, how would her sarcasm and–not going to lie–her vengeful streak come out, sometimes even at inopportune times? And the answers to those questions became the basis for Jacquie.

By the end of the book, after numerous drafts (and that’s a blog post for another time–how many drafts it took to get the book into the shape it’s in now) Jacquie Renairre emerged as a character who it’s really easy for me as a writer to get into.

Jacquie Renairre is more than just a “cool action hero.” She’s a character who’s been wronged in the past and carries those scars with her wherever she goes, who won’t let those scars hold her back, and she’s someone who will stop at nothing to fight for what she believes is right. She’s a character who has a multitude of stories within her.

But don’t just take my word for it. Read Jacquie’s story and draw your own conclusions. The Exile’s Violin out now from Rara Avis, and then come back when the sequel is released. I want to know what you all think!

Why hire mercenaries to kill an innocent family just to obtain one little key?

That question haunts Jacquie Renairre for six years as she hunts down the people responsible for murdering her parents.

Not even accepting an assignment to investigate a conspiracy that aims to start a war can keep her from searching for the key. Armed with her father’s guns and socialite Clay Baneport at her side, she continues her quest for answers abroad.

With the world edging closer to disaster, Jacquie is running out of time to figure out how the war, the key, and ancient legend are intertwined. The fate of the world hinges on her ability to unravel both mysteries before it’s too late.

Available Now:

Direct from the Publisher

Amazon

Barnes & Noble

“Male Performance”

I listen to sports radio on my way to work, and if you listen enough you start memorizing all the commercials. One in particular stuck with me, and I want to take a few minutes to tease out my thoughts.

The commercial starts with a man’s voice, comfortingly, saying, “Men as we get older we all have problems with our ‘male performance’.” Now there’s a cocked and loaded euphemism. (Pun intended)

Obviously, this commercial for the Universal Men’s Clinic is for treating sexual dysfunction in men. But of course they can’t/won’t say “sexual performance” on the radio. And in doing so the commercial’s creators add a whole unintended layer of meaning to their ad.

“Male performance” as a euphemism for erections, ejaculation, typical “standard” sexual performance for me. But it can also be taken to mean as the performance of masculinity via “performing” in the bedroom. Masculinity in this sense is constructed by our patriarchal culture and it is a “performance.”

Because, really? What is masculinity? Fuck if I know. (Pun intended) This ad ties it to sex, bodies, and physicality. If you can’t perform in the bedroom then obviously somehow you’re maleness is coming into question. But don’t worry! The Universal Men’s Clinic welcomes “men of all ages” and is discrete and has drugs that work “faster and better than Viagra!”

Where does that leave non-gender binary people? Trans* people? Certain individuals may have a penis, testes, and “male” anatomy but aren’t men. Would they be welcome at this clinic? I don’t have any personal experience in the matter, but I imagine if one has a penis, erectile dysfunction is a possibility.

I’d like to think that this clinic turns nobody away who needs help. But considering the ads that also run on these sports radio stations, I have my doubts. Men’s clinic commercials. Truck commercials because trucks are manly. Golf. Always golf. New clubs, new balls (pun intended), hit longer and harder. Go fix your embarrassing deficiencies at performing maleness by buying these things. Have sex with your wife (and in these kinds of things being a man is always a straight thing). Put on a performance. Be a man.

into the nexus

My 2014 Game(s) of the Year

End of the year lists always seem to come out the same: the video games with the biggest budgets, biggest explosions, biggest everything tend to dominate. A couple of indie games might get included in a cursory fashion, but that’s about it. Back at Gamer Limit we used to write about our personal favorites. It allowed us to highlight games that affected us (see my 2010 and 2011 posts), and it’s a tradition I continued on my here last year.

This year felt different for me. To say nothing of the horrendous movement that is #gamergate, 2014 felt like a year where my interest in mainstream AAA games and gaming culture hit an all-time low. But that doesn’t mean 2014 was a bad year for games themselves. Indie games are everywhere; and I even got my hands on some I backed via Kickstarter. Oh yeah, my list is in no particular order! Oh yeah again, a 2014 release date isn’t a requirement for my list; I only had to have played the game this year!

Faves

Ratchet & Clank: Into the Nexus

The Ratchet & Clank series started in the PS2 era, and those games are good (though I haven’t gotten all the way through any of them), the series didn’t take off for me until the PS3 iterations. The series just gets better with every iteration. Into the Nexus is the swan song for the series on the PS3 and it’s everything that makes Ratchet & Clank great distilled into a focused, downloadable title.

The art direction is amazing–like a Pixar movie that you get to play in. The story’s goofy, funny, and Into the Nexus just made me feel pure joy. Saturday morning cartoons meets zippy space opera meets an action adventure game with impeccably tuned controls and over-the-top weapons. I can’t wait for Insomniac Games to return to the series.

Highlight: listening to Mr. Zurkon’s taunts

The Banner Saga

I missed out on backing The Banner Saga on Kickstarter, but as soon as the first episode came out, I knew I had to get it. To contrast Into the Nexus’ obsession with joy, The Banner Saga is a game permeated with melancholy. Melancholy can be gorgeous and haunting at the same time, and the developers at Stoic Games nailed it. The game is set in a Viking-inspired world with a hand-drawn art style that looks like it came out of an old-timey Disney movie. The gods in this world are dead, and everything is slowly dying. To make matters worse, a race of walking suits of armor called the Dredge are rising and are intent on wiping out humanity and a race of horned giants called the Varl.

the banner saga

The player takes control of a refugee caravan, and large portions of the game are spent watching the caravan travel from place to place, trying to stay ahead of the Dredge horde. All the while you watch your food stores dwindle and wonder when the people under your protection will start dying from starvation. Oh, and then random events can happen: you come across people claiming to be refugees but maybe they’re bandits, what do you do? Somebody has been stealing food from the caravan supplies, what do you do? Sometimes there’s no right answer and people die. Sometimes there is but people die anyway.

In between stretches of travel, you participate in tactical, turn-based battles against humans, Varl, and Dredge. It’s a system similar to Final Fantasy Tactics, but it works. The funny thing is: the combat was my least favorite part of the game. By the end of the game, things had gotten a little repetitive but damn if I’m not going to get the second episode when it comes out.

Highlight: watching your banner flutter in the breeze as you cross a desolate landscape as the caravan’s morale drops to dangerously low levels

Super Mario 3D World

Nintendo rarely goes wrong with Mario games. Super Mario 3D World is no exception. I loved Mario Galaxy, but never finished Mario Galaxy 2 despite its excellence. This game came with my Wii U, and it’s easily a reason to get the console if you’re on the fence. Everything in the game just works, even the chaotic-made-my-wife-threaten-to-divorce-me-for-messing-her-up multiplayer. I tried playing Super Mario 3D Land on the 3DS but I just couldn’t get it, but the Wii U iteration clicked.

My wife and I spent months playing the game, and we even collected all the stamps, green stars, and top o’ the flagpoles. If Super Mario 3D World is your latest in a long string of Mario games or your first one ever, it’s worth your time.  Nintendo manufactures meticulous happiness flavored with nostalgia (at least for a lot of people my age-ish) and with this latest outing they’re still at the top of their game.

Highlight: Cat Luigi saying “meow”

Cook, Serve, Delicious

I first heard of Cook, Serve, Delicious on Northernlion’s channel, and after watching his video I went out and bought it. So what is Cook, Serve, Delicious? I’d say it’s Guitar Hero meets running a restaurant. You’re a chef at a restaurant in an office tower, and your goal is to make your hole-in-the-wall greasy spoon into a Michelin star winning establishment.

Every day you open your restaurant and cook four dishes for your patrons. Cooking is accomplished via quick time events and it takes some getting used to. Not only do you have to hit the right buttons, but some dishes take longer to cook than others, some have multiple steps, and the customers themselves are picky little bastards. Do good and you’ll be rewarded with extra tips. Fail and you’ll piss off your patrons and miss out on revenue which can be used to buy new stoves, dishwashers, and recipes.

Running the restaurant is a fast-paced balancing act and every now and then I’d find myself complaining that I was “in the weeds” or yelling “Behind, chef!”

Highlight: Doing a day of perfect service and then heading back out into the culinary trenches again the next day

Almosts

Wolfenstein: The New Order

I haven’t played a Wolfenstein game since Wolfenstein 3D, but the premise of The New Order was too interesting to pass up. I mean, Germany winning WWII isn’t the most original idea for a speculative story, but The New Order excels when it comes to its setting. Nazi-fied Europe is terrifying, especially when you get to explore 1960s Berlin. The game doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to the setting and the horrors of the Nazi regime–especially a regime that ended up in uncontested control of the whole continent. What was more surprising was that Wolfenstein did it while being a First Person Shooter, a genre not known for subtlety (see: pretty much any AAA FPS franchise).

The game wasn’t perfect though. I played it not knowing it was a sequel to 2009’s Wolfenstein, but the game assumes you’re familiar with the side characters that make up the resistance movement. Since I had no idea who any of these people were, some of the moments that were supposed to be the most affecting fell flat. The other reason this game ended up on my “Almost a Favorite” list is because even though I enjoyed playing it, I didn’t feel any compulsion to keep it once I was done. Still, my year was better because I played it.

Highlight: shooting Nazis on the moon.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds

Can you really go wrong with a Zelda game? The answer is yes. Very yes. I’m still angry at Nintendo for Skyward Sword. But I’m not angry at A Link Between Worlds. It’s a finely crafted Zelda game, and the big hook is a good one: it’s a sequel to the classic* A Link to the Past.

a link between worlds

So why is LBW not on my list of 2014 favorites? Because of its big hook, more specifically, the fact that it’s big hook wasn’t that big to me. The SNES was the first game console my family owned, but I never owned LTTP as a child. I never even played it until high school, and then it was on an emulator. So LBW doesn’t push my nostalgia buttons as hard as it might for other players either my age or perhaps just a couple years older.

A Link Between Worlds is still a well-crafted game (it’s following a pretty dang good template for a start). I love the item rental mechanic, even if I think Nintendo could’ve gone a little bit further with the amount of freedom they give you. However, it’s a novel feeling buying the bow before the bombs or some other “Zelda Formula” breaking combo. But is LBW my favorite handheld Zelda game? No. That honor goes to Minish Cap. This one was great game, but still an almost favorite.

Highlight: Buying items out of order then not dying so you get to keep all of them forever

Dishonorable Mentions

Are the following two games“bad” games? I dunno. Maybe? Not sure how you’d really qualify or quantify that. But I can say definitively that these were my personal duds of 2014.

Pier Solar HD

Pier Solar HD is on my list of shame more because of how much of a letdown it ended up being. I backed the game on Kickstarter in 2012, and I spent the past two years waiting for the HD version to come out. How could I not be excited? Pier Solar was a Genesis game released in 2010. Yes. A Sega Genesis game developed and released in the Year of Our Luigi 2010. What? And a classic JRPG to boot! So hell yeah I was all on board for an HD version on Steam.

pier solar

Unfortunately, I didn’t make it more than a couple of hours into the game… The writing didn’t do it for me, and I guess I’m not as big a fan of old school JRPGs as I used to be. Plus the game was terrible at explaining how to turn on the auto-save feature. It might have been a perfectly serviceable throwback, but no thank you. I’ll pass.

Yoshi’s New Island

I’m not sure what I was expecting going into Yoshi’s New Island. The original Yoshi’s Island on the SNES is one of my favorite games of all time (and IMO one of the best games of all time) so Nintendo had a lot to live up to in making a sequel to one of their classics. I mean, they already made a sequel on the DS that was okay. Not amazing, but okay.

Right off the bat, I wasn’t a fan of the art direction. Everything just looked weird. Yes, I realize that’s a highly technical term, but I’m sticking with it. Yoshi’s New Island isn’t terrible, but it felt more like it was put together by following a list of things a Yoshi platformer should have. That lack of heart, that special care that you can feel in Yoshi’s Island wasn’t there in this New version for me.

And that’s it for 2014! Come back in a year for more!

 

Ganymede by Cherie Priest

Let’s Talk About: Ganymede by Cherie Priest

Cherie Priest is a talented writer. I love her Clockwork Century setting with its alt-history + steampunk + zombies mashup. However, Ganymede was just ok and kinda boring. The characters are great. You have Josephine Early, madam of a high class establishment and spy for the Union, trying to get an experimental submarine out of the New Orleans bayous and into Union hands. And then series regular(?), guest star(?) Andan Cly, a tall dude and airship pilot, also a former pirate.ganymede cover

Great stuff. Great supporting cast. Great central premise. There should be tons of tension to this plot. But none of the “expected spy story” plot beats ever happen. Josephine is afraid that the Confederates and their Texian allies are onto her, but never once does it *actually* happen. Nobody questions her, suspects her, searches her place, nothing like that. Every time she goes out and is doing the “watching her back for tails” type thing, it never manifests into anything.

And then when it comes time to move the Ganymede sub: the book tells the reader that it’s tense, full of danger, that the Texians (that spelling/term bothered me; no idea why) or the Confederates could spot them at any time. But it never happens. They move the sub without a hitch.

Okay I can buy that. That part of the story *was* tense. So to have nothing terrible happen lets the reader breathe a sigh of relief. It also makes them think “Okay, they made it through that. But what about what’s next?” Cool. I’m all on board with that.

Once the Ganymede is put into the Mississippi River, it comes time to sail her to the gulf. The crew decides to make a stop at Barataria Bay to help out some pirates who are putting up one massive fight against the occupying Texians. Cool! This part of the book is going to be the climactic “Final Battle” so to speak. I was fully expecting for something to go wrong as the Ganymede sneaked into the battle and started picking off Texian boats.

Nope. They never once take any hits or anything. There’s no scene with the sub taking on water. Nothing. The entire climax had no tension. The good team blows up some bad guy boats and then moves on. And then the scene Josephine’s been waiting for the entire book–reaching the airship carrier Valiant and turning over the Ganymede to the Union–is *told* to us in a quick little paragraph. So the supposed payoff isn’t even shown to the reader.

Overall, Ganymede (the book, not the underwater craft) felt like a first draft. It took forever for the two main characters to meet up, and then when they finally do, everything goes their way. Lots of things are told to the reader rather than shown. And even a surprising revelation about one of the supporting characters near the end is never explored. It would’ve been so awesome and unexpected to have that be a bigger focus. As it was I just went “Ohhh. Ohhh. Cool. I see what she did there.” and then didn’t really give it another thought because the book ended a few pages later.

It’s clear that there are bigger things happening in the world while the story of Ganymede is taking place, and like I said before, Priest is talented and inventive. I’m going to finish this series–not out of some sense of duty and finishing what I started–but because I genuinely want to. And it’s the fact that the series and previous books, Boneshaker and Dreadnought especially, have been so fun that makes Ganymede such a letdown.

The Exile’s Violin Review Copy Requests

The Exile's Violin (Tethys Chronicles #1) by R.S. HunterOh, hello there. I didn’t see you come in. Stay awhile and listen. Oh, don’t worry. I’m going to keep this post short and sweet.

My first novel, The Exile’s Violin, was just re-released by Rara Avis, an imprint of PDMI, with a new cover layout, editing, and formatting! I want to make sure if you’re interested in reviewing it that you can get a copy in your hands as quickly as possible. To do that, I direct your attention here! *tada* This is PDMI’s review copy request form. Fill it out and get yourself a copy!

I appreciate any and all reviews, so make sure to request a copy from my publisher if you like any of the following**: me, steampunk, sci-fi, airships, gunfights, airship fights, adventure, reading, books, kittens, puppies, go-karts, slip-n-slides with the little pools at the end, extension ladders, extension cords, grading extensions, hair extensions, Land Before Time (1 & 2; none of the others), physics, metaphysics, metafiction, Metatron, and just plain Tron.

Thanks and I hope you enjoy the novel!

**Some of the above may not be featured in The Exile’s Violin

Let’s Talk About: The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley

The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley

I don’t really do book “reviews” per se, but I just finished Kameron Hurley’s latest novel, the epic fantasy The Mirror Empire. Since I have lots of thoughts (and feels too as the kids say) I figured I’d jot them down here in a loose sorta way. There will be some spoilers so read on at your own risk.

1. The Mirror Empire is the first book in the Worldbreaker Saga. Points for having a badass title and series name. This isn’t an in-depth thought. I just like the name.

2. As Justin mentions in his review, the world of The Mirror Empire starts in a state of flux–and flux seems to be the status quo for the world(s). The world of the story is orbited by “satellites” (moons? comets? actual man-made thingies? No clue and probably not important), and these satellites give certain people magical wizard powers. The closest comparison I can think of is the bending powers from Avatar: the Last Airbender. But each satellite also waxes and wanes at irregular intervals, so each wizard faction can gain and lose power at random. This means the worldview for almost every country in the world is based on change. It’s awesome how deep this theme of change permeates the book.

3. However, because everything is in a state of change–satellites, a bad moon rising so to speak, impending civil war, impending invasion (more on this later), it felt a little hard to get everything straight in the book. Plus, being epic fantasy, there are multiple point-of-view characters in The Mirror Empire. Keeping them straight, their allegiances, their friends and families, and even genders straight can be overwhelming at first. (This may also be partially user error as I tend to read right before bed, so sometimes I fall asleep reading)

4. Lots of stuff happens in The Mirror Empire, but at times, it felt like the opposite. It’s the first book in a trilogy (series?) so a lot of the stuff (heady, dare I say world-breaking even) can feel like setup for future books. There’re quite a few threads and by the end of the book it feels like they’re just starting to really tie together. But I get it, you can’t cover everything and you have to end a book somewhere otherwise it becomes a never ending tome.

Mirror Empire map

5. Hurley some really cool stuff with gender/gender roles in this book. So there’s an assassin that can change their biological sex at will or basically at will. So that character embodies the theme of change in the book. One culture has five different genders each with their own pronouns and an individual gets to decide how they view themselves and which gender they want to be referred as. Cool stuff!

5b. But it goes further than that. One of the cultures, Dorinah, is a matriarchy. So one of the POV characters is a high ranking general. Basically take all of the stereotypes you see male characters think about women in fantasy books (and elsewhere too!) and then flip them around. When you read a passage about this general catcalling a man and then thinking “Well, he just got upset because he doesn’t have a sense of humor,” it’s biting. It hits home because I’ve seen it in real life and on the internet. Women don’t have senses of humor; they’re too sensitive; can’t they just see that men are trying to compliment them? The Dorinah culture in The Mirror Empire flips this all around and man it makes for some caustic satire.

5c. That’s not to say that we’re supposed to read the general as 100% in the right. Or that readers shouldn’t criticize her actions or the actions of her nation. Hurley’s writing makes it clear that we’re supposed to engage all of this critically.

6. Rideable bears. With forked tongues, big-ass claws, and cat-like eyes. Seriously. Rideable bears. Read this book.

7. Alternate universes. That’s one of The Mirror Empire’s big hooks. It’s like Fringe meets epic fantasy meets plant-punk or something. It’s awesome but also a bit confusing. At times I couldn’t remember who was from what universe, and it’s mentioned in an off-hand way that there are more than two universes out there. So when people in World A mention invaders, I think they’re talking about World B. But then I swear people in World B mentioned invaders. Are they being invaded too? And really their invasion of World A is just another word for retreat? Cool stuff, a bit confusing, and I think it will be explored even more in future books.The Mirror Empire cover

8. The characters, especially the POV ones, didn’t quite grab me as much as those in Hurley’s Bel Dame Apocrypha series. I get it though. As a writer you don’t want to just create the same main character over and over again. I appreciate that there’s a wide variety of personality types on display here, and all the characters have agency in their own way. Still, and this is just personal stuff (YMMW), I didn’t feel a huge connection to any of them. I think I cared about Lilia the most and probably Roh the least. I’d love to see more of Taigan too.

9. You can’t help but use the word “ambitious” to describe The Mirror Empire. It’s sprawling, but also personal at the same time. Occasionally the number of concepts thrown at you can be overwhelming, and for me, the characters didn’t quite hit the mark. But seriously, what else is like this on the market right now? I honestly can’t tell you. Despite a few flaws, you have to applaud Hurley’s ambition and the way she throws the reader into the deep end of everything. But unlike the Malazan books, I was never too lost that I gave up. In fact, I finished The Mirror Empire pretty damn quickly. The only bad thing about devouring it so fast is that I have a longer wait until book two comes out.

10. The Mirror Empire, her previous Bel Dame novels, plus her nonfiction collection, We Have Always Fought, only cement in my mind that Hurley is a writer to watch and one I want to learn from.

Final Fantasy X/X-2 HD

Let’s Talk About: Final Fantasy X-2 HD

Final Fantasy X/X-2 HD

YRP: Girl Power

It took me over 10 years to finish Final Fantasy X-2. It took multiple tries, a completely different console, and an HD upgrade for me to get it done. It wasn’t the game’s fault that I never finished it before; the blame is entirely at my feet.

You see, Final Fantasy X-2 is the first direct sequel in the Final Fantasy franchise. As I said in my write-up about Final Fantasy X HD, I was in high school when that game came out. It was one of the first PS2 games I bought, and it blew me away. Those graphics, that voice acting, those character models–so realistic when compared to the weird Popeye-esque blocks of Final Fantasy VII or the blurry pixels of Final Fantasy IX, and of course, that opening Blitzball scene.

I loved it. I loved playing Blitzball, filling out the Sphere Grid, and the story-focused nature of the whole affair. No more wandering around a zoomed out world map wondering where to go.

FFX-2 abandons all of that. As Todd Harper said on Twitter (apologies for paraphrase! I never saved the original tweet), it’s like the producers at Square Enix purposely made a sequel that had none of the things that gamers liked in the first one.

I hated it. You see, like most 14-15 year old boys, I was a bit of a fuckhead. “It’s too girly. It’s too gay. Tidus isn’t even in it. You just play dress-up.” Yup. A little fuckhead, just like Tidus really. That’s why Leigh Alexander’s recent essay really hit home for me.

Fast forward a few years: I’m a bit older, a bit less fuckhead-y. I understand that Final Fantasy X-2 is purposely trying for a different tone: a JRPG Charlie’s Angels with a fast-paced battle system and an emphasis on fun. And it works. Oh yes it works.

But where FFX is a relatively linear affair, FFX-2 breaks up its plot into chapters and in each chapter you have certain locations (Hot Spots) you have to go to in order to advance the story, but everywhere else is optional. You can do some sidequests, then do a Hot Spot story mission, and then go back and do some more sidequests. This structure makes the game feel more open and less constricting. That’s all well and good except for one little thing that makes one of my biggest gaming neuroses kick in: FFX-2 has a completion percentage counter.

According to Mitch Krpata’s “A New Taxonomy of Gamers,” I’m something of a Tourist with Completionist tendencies. I like to see what a game has to offer; I don’t need to get the highest score possible or top an online leader board. However, I try to find as many secrets as I can, collect as many collectible thingies as I can, do as many sidequests as possible without annoying amounts of effort (which varies from game to game). These personal tendencies are what drove me away from FFX-2 on my second and third attempts. I wanted to get 100% completion and see the secret, best, ultimate, etc. etc. ending. Maybe I could have just tried to find a recording of the ending online (more on that later), but back then doing something like that was out of character for me.

Final Fantasy X-2 HD screenshot

Fast forward to 2014. I’ve sold my PS2, sold FFX-2 (but I’ve held onto X), and sold the tome of a player’s guide I had used on my previous attempts. I tell my wife that the HD remaster of and X-2 is available and she convinces me to buy it. We’re going to play both games together. Luckily I know FFX well enough that we’re able to get through it pretty quickly. (See my thoughts on the remaster here)

She enjoyed the characters–especially comparing Auron to Teen Wolf‘s Derek Hale (it makes sense, trust me)–and the overall story. Understandably, she was less than happy at the more game-y, RPG-y parts of the experience. Luckily, we struck a deal where I was able to grind “off-camera” so to speak and we’d play together whenever I made story progress.

As soon as I finished we jumped into the sequel. I warned her that I’d only ever reached Chapter 3 one time so I didn’t remember as much of this game as the first one. We also set the ground rules that I would try to get as much completion percentage as possible and that we’d just watch the secret 100% ending online. (10 years later I now value my leisure time more than I did when I was 15)

Right off the bat, FFX-2 throws the melancholy tone of FFX right out the window. I mean, the opening cutscene is like a J-Pop music video. It’s silly. And I mean that in the best way. It’s silly, over the top, and amazing. This game takes Yuna and Rikku (revealing default outfit aside) and adds in newcomer Paine and throws them together in a globe-trotting, girl-power fueled adventure.

However, the game’s episodic nature didn’t appeal to my wife. She knew going in that Yuna’s journey was in part about finding Tidus, but she expected that to really take the driver’s seat. Looking back on the finished experience, it really doesn’t. FFX-2 is more about exploring Spira and seeing how Yuna’s victory in the first game has changed things.

I guess if you just played the mandatory Hot Spot missions in order the story would be more cohesive. But if you do that you’ll miss out on tons of completion percentage points. Some of the sidequests in X-2 are character-driven and reveal more about Paine or more about what happened between the two games. And others are: selling balloons or participating in a coin-based mini-game. I didn’t mind them because I was trying to get as much completion as possible, but my wife wasn’t too pleased. She wanted more story stuff, more character interaction, and more shipping.

I mean it all comes down to the overused adage: your mileage will vary. I absolutely loved the parts where the Gullwings were together on the airship or fighting/working with the Leblanc Syndicate. Plus the funky music played aboard the airship is really fun. The main story was good, and it was nice to see Yuna be more outspoken; this was her Calm after all.

Even if you get annoyed with the way the plot kind of meanders through chapters and some random sidequests, the game plays great. Eschewing the turn-based battle system from before, Final Fantasy X-2 returns to a more active system. Plus you can change the character’s dress spheres (basically classes like warrior, thief, mage, etc.) on the fly. It creates a rather frantic energy to fights, and boss fights can be downright tough if you’re unprepared. There’s a ton of depth and with the monster capturing/raising sidequest included in the HD remaster, I know I barely scratched the surface of FFX-2‘s character and class-building content.

Final Thoughts

Again, your mileage will vary. If you really, really liked FFX’s battle system, know that this one is completely different. Todd really hit the nail on the head; aside from setting and characters, almost every aspect of the first game doesn’t carry over to the sequel. In my opinion, it works. It really does.

I think part of my wife’s problem came from the fact that we had just finished Tales of Xillia before starting on the X & X-2 collection. She was used to more modern conventions, an even more active battle system, and little skits and vignettes bewteen the main characters all the time. Still, I consider my money well-spent. I finally finished Final Fantasy X-2 eleven years late, but I’m glad I finally did. While I’m sad I was too much of a fuckhead to play it years ago, I feel like this HD remastered collection is the definitive way to play these two games.

Statistics

Game: Final Fantasy X-2 HD

Platform: PS3

Release Date: 3-21-14

Completed: 5-2-14

Trophies/Achievements: 28% (10/35)