28 July 2014

An interesting development in piracy and scanlation

'Scanlation' is an online industry that grew up around the Western desire for Japanese manga and Korean manwha - entire libraries worth of fascinating pictorial stories, almost all of it not available in official, legal translation.  The demand and the rise of the internet soon led to the scanning and then translation of releases, posted online by 'scanlators'.

I call this an 'industry' because aggregators quickly sprang up, lifting the scanlations from individual scanlator sites and creating massive scanlation sites making an ad-fuelled fortune from all those manga-hungry clicks.  As a further response to this, a site called Batoto.net was created that combined aggregation with a system that allowed the original scanlator to receive the ad revenue.

But where were the original creators in all of this?

For a long time, nowhere but annoyed.  As anyone battling online piracy is aware, it's a hydra not worth your energy fighting.  And the majority of scanlations sat in a legal grey area, since there were no legal English translations available.  Some scanlations sites wouldn't host manga that was available in English-speaking versions - others didn't care.  And, like a lot of online piracy, it did serve an advertising function, leading to sales if and when English versions did become available.  I've certainly bought shelves of tankobon (manga volumes) for series I'm unlikely to have known about otherwise (though the official English translations were often of lower quality than the scanlations).

But still, it is piracy, even if it sits in a grey area, and that's something I generally try to avoid if I can get something legally.  I'm fairly sure that if various manga publishers set up an e-subscription model, even if it was untranslated, quite a few people would balance their consciences by subscribing to the manga they read in scanlation format.

Korean web comics (webtoons) sit in a slightly different area.  Increasingly popular in the last few years, they are hosted by ad-revenue sites such as Naver, and thus technically a Western reader who happens to read Korean can legally enjoy them.  This, of course, doesn't remove the need for scanlations for non-Korean speakers, but you could support the original webtoon by first reading through the Korean version, and then reading the English scanlation (or just a blog post with text translation).  Indeed, for some of the more popular webtoons, it's quite fun to sit up for the midnight chapter releases, talk about them on blogs, and then go to an aggregator later for a scanlation.

Naver, however, has taken this a step further.  Aware of their Western audience, and uncomfortable with the unofficial scanlations, they've started hosting English versions of their most popular webtoons at a site called Line.  [Note: the site seems to be optimised for viewing on smartphones, and you may end up with stretched images, so if you're reading on a pc, try this frame site.]

So, anyway, long story short, if you're curious about Korean webtoons, but want to read them legally, now you can!  Some of the scanlation of hundred-chapter webtoons has barely begun, but others have the full series available.  Unfortunately, as seems to be inevitable, the official translation is not fantastic - all the really formal characters have been translated using casual slang - but it's quite readable and the pictures are pretty.

This is Tower of God, which was one of my Hugo nominations this year.  Only 111 chapters!  Cast of millions!  Fun!

26 July 2014

Something short - All Foes

I'm not much into writing short stories.  They either turn into novels, or are simply moody little pieces.

This is one of the latter, up as a freebie on Smashwords.

13 July 2014

RPG neepery

The Core RPG Kickstarter is humming along nicely - looks like if support continues the tier that involves Touchstone will be hit in the next week or so!

Watching the process is bringing back a lot of RPG memories.  I started roleplaying in university and played through quite a few different systems - original rules D&D and then advanced editions. Vampire: the Masquerade.  TORG.  Paranoia.  My friends created their own system, adaptable to any setting, and Core reminds me very much of that, of the focus on the story and taking settings and running with them.

I eventually drew back from roleplaying because the stories could get too interesting, and I started thinking about the RPG world instead of my own.  My friends were way too good at telling stories!

I still have quite a few old character sheets lying about, and was admiring the little business card sized sheets of the Core system (not least for the very cool picture).

With a dice function on my phone and my character sheet tucked into a pocket of the phone case, I'd be ready to play whenever.

08 July 2014

A kickstarter for the roleplaying Touchstone fans

For those of you who like a bit of tabletop RPG, you're sure to be interested in the Core Rules Kickstarter.  Created by Origin Award-winning game designer Lester Smith, the Core Rules system combines easy character creation with the settings of books, giving you both mechanics and worlds to fool around with.

Touchstone comes in on the Sci-Fi setting level, and if the Kickstarter reaches that level you'll get the basic systems of the Touchstone Trilogy as part of the settings guides (ie. a breakdown of the powers, the places, and the types of missions available).  [And I'll get to write that part of the setting guide! ;) ]

I'm not otherwise involved with the Core Rules or Popcorn Press, but for those who loved the world of Touchstone and want to play around in it (or just like tabletop gaming and can never have too many rulebooks!), check it out!

17 June 2014

Interview: KS Augustin

In the past couple of years I've sampled several different urban fantasy series, and the one that stood out for me - capturing my interest and keeping me reading - was the Check Your Luck Agency series.  Discovering a wealth of further titles by the same author (I'm dipping into the Qolari Diplomatic Corps series next), I thought I'd try my hand at amateur interviewer and see how self-publishing and science fiction are treating Malaysian-resident KS (Kaz) Augustin (aka Cara d'Bastian).

Q. I first came across your books with the urban fantasy Check Your Luck Agency series (set in Malaysia and Singapore and published as Cara d'Bastian).  One of the things I really enjoyed was not only discovering a wealth of mythology, but also a resident's-eye view of two countries that rarely seem to feature in genre novels – I've read more SF set on the moon than the majority of countries on Earth.  How do you feel about self-publishing opening up genre settings and stories?

A. Well, firstly, thanks for inviting me here, Andrea. :) Put plainly, the Check Your Luck series would never have seen the light of day if it weren't for self-publishing. Traditional publishing still seems very parochial to me, rehashing the same ideas in the same settings over and over again. (You see it in North American movies too. Take just the SF genre. Oh goody, we have (a) a weatherboard house, (b) a corn field, (c) strange lights hovering over a rural landscape, (d) two people looking skyward at some point, hand-holding optional. You saw it in Star Trek, Superman, Signs, Dave and a heap of others. Even the latest, Interstellar, has it. Can I say that corn fields have officially jumped the shark?

Anyway, getting back to self-publishing. :) Because so many traditional mega-enterprises in the entertainment industries play it safe and rehash the same imagery, anything that's even slightly different doesn't seem to get a look-in. And, when it does, it gets treated shabbily; e.g. Cindy Pon and Barry Hughart with their Chinese-setting fantasies. Being a career writer is hard enough, imo, without bearing additional difficulties from bean-counters and marketeers. I swear, if it wasn't for self-publishing, I'd be clinically insane by now! For other writers, self-pubbing means they can take a chance, be daring and it's my feeling the diversity can only benefit readers (and I include myself in that group).

Q. Your work ranges from space opera, urban fantasy, contemporary stories set in south-east Asia, and SF romance.  Is there one sub-genre that's particularly close to your heart?

A. Oh it's space opera. I adore space opera. It's big and dramatic and beautiful and awe-inspiring, all set against an even bigger, more dramatic and more beautiful universe. I'm a huge fan of opera, so it's no surprise that space opera really hits my buttons--the characters, the settings, the moral dilemmas, the pits of despair, the heights of exultation. What's there not to like?

Q. Last year you launched the Sci-Fi Romance Quarterly Magazine.  Do you find it a challenge to juggle the slush pile with your own writing?  What's your favourite aspect of taking on this new challenge?

A. Luckily (or through cunning planning), there are three of us working on this venture. Heather Massey handles the columnists and the new releases; Diane Dooley is in charge of the slush, although it does briefly pass through my hands on the way to her, and I'm the technical-wallah, basically. We put SFRQ together in an effort to highlight the sub-genre and get a community going.

My favourite part of it is the building. As long as I'm "building" something within the parameters of the magazine, I'm happy. Take Issue 3. As part of a cross-fertilisation effort, Ian Sales' "SF Mistressworks" site has partnered with us. SF Mistressworks is a wonderful initiative, bringing prominence to speculative fiction written by women before 2000. There's a lot more around that one would think and SFRQ now has the opportunity to showcase that.

We're also selective about who we invite to write opinion pieces for us, and prefer the feisty perspectives to more placid ones, even if they disagree with our own personal views. It's the dialogue aspect that's key. In the background, I'm trying to reach out to as many other female SF/SFR communities as I can to invite them to join us. I think it helps that I'm not North American as I'm not blinkered by it although, to be fair, both Heather and Diane are always carping on about "international inclusion" as well. ;)

Q. One thing many people don't know is that Amazon displays different books (and prices) to different countries.  In some countries they charge a 'Whispernet' surcharge, and in others they won't sell books at all.  I've heard you mention that as a self-publisher using Amazon's KDP, you cannot actually see your own books on Amazon.  How frustrating!  Are there other regional challenges that you've faced as a self-publisher?

A. Yes. That was the case back in 2011 when I started Sandal Press and it's still the case now. I can only get to my books "sideways" via the KDP dashboard or Amazon Australia/UK. I'm IP-blocked from accessing information on my books at Amazon US. They won't even display! As far as a south-east Asian reader is concerned, I don't even exist on Amazon, which is sad.

A lot of people get sidelined by the "Kindle available in more than 150 countries!" statement, without thinking what countries they are. Let's be honest here: does an author really believe she's going to sell more of her English-language books in Cambodia (inside Amazon ecosystem; approx. 1.5M English speakers; nominal GDP US$1,015 per capita) as opposed to Singapore/Malaysia (outside Amazon ecosystem; >10M English speakers; nominal GDP US$51,700 / US$10,400). You see, a single number, without context, is useless. So, yes, I was initially very frustrated with not being able to promote my books to the local market. That has since changed, and why that is has to do with the next question!

Q. How are ebooks taking off in the Singapore/Malaysia region?  Are there local platforms springing up, or is the main focus the big multi-nationals?

A. Ebook readers are very expensive here, even with the GDP numbers I've given above (Wikipedia, so take them with a grain of salt, but they're still in the ballpark). I bought my husband and I Kobo ereaders and had to get them shipped from Hong Kong! They're just not available locally. There's a site called "Kindle Malaysia" that recently started selling Kindles (and ways to get around the IP blocking), but the prices are unbelievable. A Kindle Paperwhite that retails for $119 at Amazon US retails for RM740 (with a RM10 case). This equates to US$230, or almost double the price!

The local etailer is e-Sentral.com but, with basic ereaders so inaccessible/expensive, I can't see them making any kind of dent in the market. From what I read in the papers, most people prefer playing "Candy Crush"!

In addition, I have spent the last year speaking with publishers and distributors across the two countries and, to put it bluntly, I don't write the kind of books that readers want to read. I've been told repeatedly that the Check Your Luck omnibus is too long. People are too busy to read such big books! As for SF, the average reader doesn't even know what speculative fiction is. (Of course there are exceptions, but I'm talking about general trends here.) And the bestsellers break down into either short (<200pp) books full of ghost/"real story" vignettes or get-rich and cookery non-fiction. There is also very much a "nostalgia" element to all this. Readers appear to prefer looking back ("the good ole days", "the trials of WWII occupation", "kampung (village) life") rather than looking forward. Self-publishing is a viable option, and there are a lot of small regional presses throughout south-east Asia, but the books only seem to do well within the parameters I've stated. Oh, and school workbooks. I've been told they are major revenue streams for most local presses.

Q. What's the best thing you've encountered in the new self-publishing paradigm?  What's the most difficult to deal with?

A. The best thing is the control. Everything is down to me (and now my husband J, who has also joined Sandal Press in an administrative capacity), and I like that. I was able to vet, and pick, my own editors, get the covers I want, change them when I want, and set my own pricing. Being a Type-A person, this is heaven to me!

The most difficult is getting exposure. When J and I sat down to plan and create Sandal Press, I told him bluntly that this wasn't going to be an instant-riches scenario. I was figuring a ten-year horizon before we would begin to build up enough of a reputation to make money to live off. He was, and is, fine with that, but I find I'm the one who's being impatient. I've got to constantly tell myself to keep it steady, keep writing, read more, stay informed and keep writing. Sandal Press will be three years old in August, so I have seven years to go! I'm gritting my teeth. As you've probably guessed, I'm not a naturally patient person.

Q. And, finally, what's coming up for you in the new release front?  :D

A. My biggest enemy is time. Besides the SFRQ magazine, I also homeschool our two teenage children, so that really eats into my writing--not that I'd have it any other way, I hasten to add. I think homeschooling is a wonderful way to build solid relationships with your children while learning together at a faster pace than a normal school can provide. Our 12yo daughter, for example, taught herself the Alice scripting language on her own time and J is teaching both kids how to program in C on Linux. They haven't been told it's "difficult" or "too advanced" or that my daughter will run into problems "because she's a girl", so they're just getting down and doing it! I think that's wonderful.

But back to your question. :) In no particular order, I need to finish my Perdition galactic empire space opera series (three books down, three to go), continue my Qolari Diplomatic Corps series (assassin space opera) and I'm currently working on a book that's outside my usual Republic and Fusion universes. I have a fantasy series I'm eager to start within the next two to three years, maybe some more Check Your Luck books (eh, Andrea?), and a near-future SF thriller series that keeps kicking around in my head.

In the immediate future, Quinten's Choice (Perdition #3) should be out in July; Guarding His Body (a contemporary romance reissue) is slated for September; Project Restoration (an SFR short novel) should also be out in September/October; The Siege of Olim (Qolari Diplomatic Corps #2) should be released around November/December; and Quinten's Gamble (Perdition #4) is pencilled in for early next year. That's the plan, anyway. We'll see whether I can stick to it. 

Thank you Kaz!  For those interested in sampling Kaz's work, you can find more detail on:
-The Sandal Press home page, blog and Twitter.

-Kaz's personal site and blog.

10 June 2014

Anatomy of a Promo

My approach to self-publishing involves very little promotion.  I did submit my books to a small handful of book bloggers way back when I was starting out (and was very fortunate that one of them was The Book Smugglers!).  Along with the enormously generous support I've received from other writers, book blogger reviews have definitely made readers more inclined to pick up my books.

However, for the newbie author with no rep at all, no word-of-mouth, there is one primary method to build sales:
  • Write and release books.
  • Make one free (particularly first-in-series).
  • Get buoyed along by 'also boughts' and bestseller lists.
  • Build fans/mailing list/newsletters.
  • Rinse/repeat, along with judicious use of that year's Holy Grail (currently Bookbub).
For those interested in the behind-the-scenes of this process, I've been grabbing charts and stats to show the impact of free on the sales of my books.

To start off with, here's a long chart of Book 1 and Book 2 of The Touchstone Trilogy, where you can see the impact to my sales over several years.

To give you some idea of how much money is involved in these rankings, first here's my sales for April 2014 (for all books in all Amazon markets) during a period when I had no freebies running.

Since I've released no new books this year, this gives a good idea of what my sales look like with no 'price juicing'.  [Non-Amazon sales are currently around a tenth of these amounts.]

And here are my sales for the fortnight or so following the 'Holy Grail' I mentioned earlier - a Bookbub promotion on the back of a free first book in a series.

You used to be able to do this just by setting your book free - way back in the dark ages of 2011.  Nowadays you only really get this big a boost using something like Bookbub (a free/cheap book alert service with several million subscribers).  Of course, it's becoming rather difficult to land a Bookbub promotion these days. ;)

Most of these sales are of Touchstone, which remains my best-selling series by far:

Amazon Sales - 1 June 2014 to 9 June 2014

Sadly, it's rare that price juicing has a permanent impact, but free is definitely a way to get your book out there and it's a hell of a rush to earn the equivalent of a book advance in a fortnight.  I gave away around 30,000 free copies of Stray this time (only a tiny fraction of those will ever be read), and will probably simply leave the book on permafree from now on.

And as the years go by, I slowly increase the numbers of 'my' readers out there - people who look specifically for my books and buy them when they're put out.  Not because of any price juicing or random encounter in the also-boughts list.  The career of a self-publisher can follow a very different path to trade authors (where pre-promotion and first week sales are so important).  Mine has been a slow build thing, but fun and interesting and a viable second income.

And most certainly not an endless grind of promotion.

09 June 2014

Murdered: Soul Suspect (no spoilers)

A noir-style mystery set in Salem, where you set out to solve your own murder and stop a serial killer.

Graphics and world
Reasonable, not brilliant, with some suitably spooky touches, especially with the ghosty people that flicker out of existence if you try to get closer to look at them.

Extremely lazy execution, with the same few models used over and over and over again for the people.  Salem Police Force is apparently all-male, and for a while there I thought Salem was an all-white environment as well, but a handful of POC showed up about halfway through the game.

Play-style wise, collecting clues and picking the most relevant ones to solve your mystery of the moment is reasonably entertaining, if very forgiving.  Walking through (some) walls is amusing, and possessing people and reading their thoughts fun enough the first few times.  But it never really built to something compelling, and was remarkable for the number of people who have the exact same thought when you possess them.  It's a very half-assed game, taking you through the main story with a few minor sidequests, with very little option for variation.  It's also very short.  Very very short.

Fedora-wearing ex-con cop is murdered by masked serial killer, runs around as a ghost trying to solve own murder.  His wife redeems him and is fridged in the first flashback.  Most of the people he helps as a ghost are young girls and women apparently incapable of keeping it together as well as ex-con cop ghosts.

I won't spoil the story, other than to note that I give the identity of the killer extreme side-eye given the historical rather than fictional story, and rather wonder why all mediums are women (almost all of them young).

Anyways, it's light entertainment, not very well executed, tolerable if you feel the need for more drawling tough-guy in your gaming life, and absolutely not worth the premium game price it's being sold at.

06 June 2014

Pyramids and alt-worldbuilding and language

Still making my way slowly through the first draft of Pyramids.  The characters have settled and become more real to me and - as usual with my first drafts - I'm alternating between taking days over a handful of paragraphs, and then trotting merrily through the next couple of pages, and then hitting a go-slow again.  I'm not someone who can "just put words on the page" and then go back and fix it.  If the foundation of the preceding events doesn't ring true for me, then I won't be able to build on it.

So far, it's quite a 'busy' novel in that there's a lot of different threads all running through each other - my poor characters just want to investigate a murder, and all this other stuff keeps happening to them, and some of it is relevant and some of it isn't but is kind of overwhelmingly important to the rest of their lives (and the rest of the series).

Without a doubt the most worldbuilding heavy story I'm ever going to write - perhaps inevitable given the starting point of our world.  Also by far the highest in terms of magical creatures - both Touchstone and Stained Glass Monsters technically had scads of different creatures, but you really only 'met' a couple.  I'm coming up on writing the primary triskelion scene and I'm really looking forward to it - without doubt one of my most favourite (and odd!) creatures.  Although I'm very fond of the folies and the amasen as well.

Amasen is a neologism for a creature depicted in Celtic art that has no known name (as opposed to triskelion, which is a co-opted word, and folies, which is simply a development of 'foliate') and neologisms are one of the big balancing acts that writing such a very alt world requires.

Technically all the characters are speaking Prytennian, which is what I'm pretending you'd get if you took the language of southern Britain around the time of the Roman withdrawal, and kept it as a distinct and defended language group (ending up with not-quite-Welsh) but then incorporated a bunch of Egyptian while expanding northward through existing Latin territories, and then territories strongly influenced by Norse, and also the various multiple waves of invasion that Britain went through - so you do still get your Anglo and your Saxon and your French in there, but all the balances are different.  And all the while all the other languages are developing and evolving on their own account.  Norse becomes a Swedish which is not quite current Swedish.  Latin is a living language that has grown and changed.

And then I, fool author, write it all out in English anyway, and have to make a million little decisions like: what is the money called?  Do I keep pound and sovereign and shilling because that's less work for the reader, even though it makes no sense etymologically?  What about all the place names?  Londonium has become London, but the Tamesis did not shift to Thames.  Anything with 'kirk' and other Christian-rooted names don't exist because Rome had strong reasons to stick with Jupiter, and that of course makes enormous differences.

My current choice is the standard form of polite address.  Mr and Miss and Mrs and all that - would Prytennian still use that?  French doesn't have nearly the same ties, and Prytennians would not use an honorific to distinguish between married and unmarried women (because their rulers, the Suleviae, don't marry and so marriage has become less of a focal point of female identity).  I've gone through many options to find a word I like!  I ended up wishing we used the Japanese honorific system, which doesn't even distinguish between polite address for men or women (-san) or tag gender to most titles.  Currently I'm caught between using "dama" for women and "daman" for men - or to just use "damin" for both men and women.  Both options have advantages.

Anyway - I am always slow at first drafts, but now I have added excuses!  Plus at the beginning of August I leave for three months in the UK, and it's hard to guess how that will impact my output since I do most of my writing on the train to work each morning.  I am speeding up a little, because I know my characters and world quite well at this point, but I can still make no real estimates about release dates.

I am, however, really looking forward to sharing this world and these people with you all.

18 May 2014

Godzilla (2014) - no spoilers

A friend of mine (hi Jennies!) used to be full of stories about disasters that would happen to people around her. She would always be unscathed, and yet incidents would happen in her vicinity. The lead character in the 2014 version of Godzilla, an American bomb disposal guy called Brodie, appears to be the kind of person who should clearly announce his intention to visit any city, so that the citizens can start to evacuate in time.

The set-up of Brodie's back story is the weakest part of this movie - it simply takes too long and is completely pointless, adding almost nothing to the pay off.

However, once we start with the giant monsters, this is definitely a stand-out movie. I'd place it well above Pacific Rim in the awe and majesty department, with some truly beautiful visuals and a real tangible sense of humans as tiny specks. It is both gripping and in some moments nerve-wracking.

Of course, that's not to say that the story isn't full of ludicrous developments of the "why would any sane (or insane) organisation think that was a good idea" level. A great many things happen in this story purely to set up a cool scene. The number of people who just stand around when there's a giant monster attacking is astonishing. [Particularly hilarious are the people in a skyscraper who were apparently so engrossed in a business meeting that they failed to notice a city-wide evacuation and a skyscraper collapsing. Also, people remain remarkably clean around skyscraper collapses - clouds of dust happen and they walk out of it all shiny-faced.]

Sadly, the movie falls down in both gender and racial aspects. For a story that spends a good portion of time in Japan, there seems to be a lot of American guys in charge, and only one Japanese main character, who spends his time primarily being shell-shocked, with occasional scientific observation. Just as bad are the female roles, that are the usual "die for men to grieve over", "be in danger for men to try and reach" and "be an assistant".

Still, this is a definite one to watch for the enormous monsters fighting.

23 April 2014

Hugos and Art : I don't know enough about this to have an opinion...

As I mentioned earlier, over the New Year's break I started a little side-project called the Hugo Eligible Art(ist) Tumblr, where I collated a bunch of names and links to artist portfolios, and sent out bulk emails to the artists I linked asking whether they'd like to bring attention to any eligible 2013 work.  That was fun!  [Though I've a suspicion a lot of those emails hit the spam bucket.]

The finalists for the Hugo Awards were announced last weekend (and congratulations to all the nominees), but the numbers of ballots really stood out to me.  According to the Hugo site:

- 1923 ballots were cast.
- Best novel received 1595 nominations.
- Best Professional Artist received 624 nominations.
- Best Fan Artist received 316 nominations (the lowest of any category).

Now, there is some confusion generally about these two categories - particularly the fan artist category, which basically covers any art first displayed in 2013 that was not created as a commission for an entity providing 1/4 of any individual's income.  So this means that an artist could be eligible for both categories, depending on the circumstances of individual commissions.  [The covers that Julie Dillon has done for me, for instance, qualify her for the "Best Fan Artist" category.]  Some people are even more confused because "fan art" means to many people "work created as a fan of someone else's intellectual property" (this is also eligible, but the category is not limited to that work).*

Now, since the announcement of the finalists, I've read and listened to a few different Hugo Awards discussions, and when they get to the art categories (particularly "Best Fan Artist") almost all of them have said: "I'm going to skip this because I don't know enough about the category".

I find this strange!  Very strange!  1923 people thought themselves sufficiently informed about SFF novels to cast a ballot (a process that means at minimum the six or so hours of reading it would take to finish one rather short novel), but only 624 people had managed to see at least one SFF picture and have a positive reaction to it.  Not even the cover of the novel they had just read!  [Let alone the fan art for their latest favourite movie.]

I'm willing to bet that, during this past year, most of the people nominating saw an order of magnitude more SFF art than they read novels.  Art (SFF or not) enriches our lives daily and there is almost zero effort involved in enjoying it.  You don't have to be an expert to parse your own reaction to a picture.  "Like? Y/N".  That's it.  You didn't need to be a Professor of English Literature to nominate that novel, and there's no degree in the History of Fine Art required to remember the name of the artist of a work you liked.

Finding out the name and year of eligibility of a piece of art is definitely more work, but heck, again there are the covers of the novels you've just voted into eligibility.  The ones festooning the bookshelves and pouring off our computer screens.  Are these artists not worth that tiny bit of effort?

Here is a collection of links to this year's finalists, and I expect some of their work will be in the Hugo voting package, which will make this next stage easier.  But I'd love it if next year there was less of the "I don't know enough" and more of the "I liked this".

'Cause artists are awesome:

The Pyramids of London - Julie Dillon
* My personal view of the Hugo Awards art categories is that they're incredibly confusing and we'd be well served to drop "professional" and "fan" and instead have "Best SFF Character Piece", and "Best SFF Landscape/Cityscape/Starscape".  I'd love to see people nominating _pictures_.

19 April 2014

Moebius: Empire Rising

Moebius: Empire Rising is a Kickstarter-funded new adventure game by Jane Jensen (best known for the Gabriel Knight series about a New Orleans author/bookstore owner/'Shadow Hunter').

Moebius follows a somewhat similar pattern, focusing on Malachi Rector, an antique store owner who discovers he is something more, and is drawn into a search by a government agency researching repeating patterns of history.

Graphics-wise, Moebius is pretty basic.  The 3D models are clunky in both animation and shape, and the comics-style cutscenes are no more than serviceable.

Agreeably well put together puzzles, with nothing too taxing.  Rather pointless cave-wandering exercise toward the end.  A couple of possible places to die, but otherwise nothing difficult.  On the Zork-factor scale, 2/10 in unforgiving.

Rector is rather blatantly styled on the BBC's Sherlock, with a superiority factor through the roof, sarcastic comments galore, and a tendency to display mental analysis in words popping up on the screen.  He is funny, but far from a nice person (definitely not the same model as the rogue-type of Gabriel Knight).  David, his primary off-sider, is the straight-laced soldier type.  There's a probable m/m romance going on between this pair, but it only takes the steps toward trust in this the first outing of a possible series.

Rector is an antiques savant, and gets himself into physical danger by occasionally debunking fakes.  A new client wants him to turn his historical knowledge to a different end - establishing connections between the lives of existing people and famous people of the past (not reincarnation so much as parallels).

There is an oddness to this process, because we see Rector investigating the lives/murders of people, but being completely disinterested in solving the minor mysteries, only in establishing parallels.

Spoilery Bit
And the problem that rises in the story and the characters is the attitude towards women.

Rector (apparently an extremely desirable man) is theoretically pursued and wooed and spurns them all except for favouring the occasional woman with strictly one night stands only.  This includes with his assistant from his antiques store, who he treats with either contempt or courtesy, apparently depending on his whims.

The plot revolves around identifying the woman who will marry and support to power a future US President.  Someone has been trying to figure out who this woman will be - and kill her.

Women in the game do not come off well.  They are either jealous, there to support men to power, vapid, sex-hungry, or sex-starved.  [The only exceptions to this is a brief telephone conversation with a female senator, and two 'tough' Muslim women.]  There's even a plot point apparently revolving around how women shouldn't expect fidelity from their husbands.  Men are the people who do stuff in this story, and women are there to support them or present obstacles.

This is all a bit of a downer in comparison to the Gabriel Knight series, where we had Grace Nakimura, ever-ready to call Gabriel on his shit, and to get stuff done.

If it wasn't for all the negativity toward women, I'd call this a reasonable game, if nothing spectacular.  But, funny as his snark could occasionally be, Malachi Rector was simply too off-putting for me to want to take another outing in this world.

29 March 2014

Final Fantasy XIII : Lightning Returns (lots of spoilers for FFXIII series)

To those unfamiliar, Final Fantasy is a series of games linked generally by concepts, monster types and combat systems, but with each iteration featuring different characters and often very different worlds.  They tend to be very long games (100+ hours of gameplay) and involve a lot of running around vast maps, working through various beautifully animated cut scenes between randomly encountering monsters and levelling up enough to face the final, epic, multi-stage battle with a god or near-god.

The stories (primarily focused on spiky haired brash young guys carrying oversized swords) are usually both convoluted and quite emotional.  Happily for me, the rapidly-increasing collection of characters you can include in your combat party generally includes at least one female character who interests me.

The most recent games have tended to include sequels continuing the stories of some of the characters or of the world, and so it is with Lightning Returns, the third in the even more convoluted than usual story of Final Fantasy XIII.  It's one of the rarer games that focuses on a female main character - and indeed the core of this trilogy is two sisters - Lightning (stoic and guardly) and Serah (syrup sweet).  Although they start out slightly at odds because Lightning is not much impressed by Serah's new fiance Snow, there is never any real drama between the two in the whole trilogy - instead they act as each other's plot motivation.  Lightning is trying to rescue Serah, or Serah is trying to find Lightning.

Blah blah Backstory

In Part 1, Serah is almost immediately turned into crystal and Lightning and Snow reluctantly work together to save her (and, not incidentally, Cocoon, the floating habitat they live on).  They end up succeeding in one of these things, but not the other.  Additional party members are Hope (bratty, resentful and newly orphaned), Sazh (single dad to Dajh), and Vanille (more syrup) and Fang (awesome) who are never outright stated to be but are widely presumed to be lovers.  The story ends with Serah recovered, Fang and Vanille now crystal, and the floating habitat crashed, but loss of life minimised.

Part 1 had issues with the "on rails" gameplay (most FF games give you a lot more freedom of choice), and I'd say the plot was okay without having as much impact as the average FF game.

Part 2 makes Serah our main character.  After the fall of Cocoon, Lightning vanished from everyone's memory but Serah's (who has developed an ability to see/travel through time), and she teams up with Snow, Hope and a newcomer called Noel to go time travelling in search of the sister only she remembers.

I found the gameplay of this story (which encourages you to replay segments of the game you've already played to see what your time-travelling interference has caused to change) so off-putting I gave up on the game about a third of the way through.  From what I gather, the ultimate plot revolves around a constantly reincarnated seeress named Yeul, who has powers similar to Serah's, but dies from time shock every time the timeline changes (Noel is in love with one of her incarnations).  This has driven her immortal guardian Caius mad, and he is going to unleash the Chaos to stop time to stop Yeul from suffering.  Lightning has been off fighting him.  The story ends with Lightning in crystal, Fang and Vanille rescued from crystal, Caius defeated (but his death causing the release of the Chaos).  And then Serah drops dead (from the same time shock cause that was killing Yeul).

I'm kind of glad I gave up on that story early on.

Lightning Returns story

Anyways, that was a long introduction to the game I just played, Lightning Returns.  The release of Chaos has stopped people (including children) from aging, and five hundred years later one of the remaining gods, Bhunivelze (I shall call him Bunny), has decided that the best way to fix this is to completely destroy the world and start over.  Lightning has been sent as the Saviour, tasked by Bunny to rescue souls and preserve them for the new world.

People are oddly calm about this whole world ending shtick, but I guess if you'd lived for five hundred years, the ennui factor would be high.  Bunny has promised to bring Serah back to life (presumably in the new world) as a reward, and so Lightning runs about either killing things/people who attack her, or trying to bring them to some kind of emotional fulfilment so that their souls are fit to be salvaged.  [Bunny only wants balanced souls, y'see.]

Unlike most FF games, Lightning does not gain a whole bunch of party members to help her in fights.  Instead she keeps encountering allies from the first two games, most of whom try to kill her for various reasons.  Most of the time she's running about solo until eventually she figures out the bits that Bunny hasn't told her, and saves the souls that Bunny wasn't going to be bothered to save.  All the major characters from the first and second parts are reunited, and reborn, white light, the end.

It's an okay story, again not nearly as compelling as other FF outings.  While I like stoic characters such as Lightning, she really didn't have a strong emotional arc to go with the story. The most she changes is from not liking Snow at all, to deciding that maybe he and Serah will work out after all.  Indeed, Lightning's stoicism is presented in-game as being a problem, and in theory she's reunited with her 'inner child' at the end of the trilogy (but I think behaves much the same).


The gameplay of Lightning Returns doesn't have the irritating "do over" structure of Part 2, and is considerably less "on rails" than Part 1 and I would call it the most enjoyable to play except for the stupid and bizarre decision to add a time limit to the game.  Instead of freely running around doing side quests and exploring, you have a pointless count down ticking away, making you constantly feel rushed, and having to choose whether or not it's worthwhile doing certain things.  One of the stupidest design decisions I've seen for ages, and I really wish they hadn't included it.

The Dress Up Doll

But that's not the main thing that bugged me about this game and brought it down as a whole!  As I mentioned, Lightning doesn't have an ongoing party of friends to fight with her in this game, so to make up for it the designers included lots of different outfits and accessories to keep the players entertained.  Amusingly, one web site I was reading talked about how they decided on the outfits and what they thought Lightning would wear - there was evidently some consideration of the outfits matching her stoic, guardly and rather humourless personality.

Outfits like this...

The left is a Miqo'te costume from FFXIV.  It came with an end-combat bent over, ass in the air pose.  Super in character for the stoic, humourless guardswoman heroine.  The right is...well.  Something. 

Still, at least there were options that weren't all bare flesh and cleavage.  I quite liked the middle outfit (the costume is called 'Velvet Bouncer') and had Lightning running around in a black and white version of it much of the time.

You could also get a whole host of extremely silly accessories to wear, from sunglasses to an umbrella sprouting from the top of her head.  That really livened up a few cut scenes.

So, Lightning Returns is (as usual) one of those games where you have a lot of good stuff (stoic female lead kicking everyone's ass!) and pretty cut scenes, and pretty engrossing combat.

And...Oscar worthy costume design?

26 March 2014

A Week of Me Wrap-up

I've had a great time this week reading all the posts and comments over at Rachel Neumeier's blog. For those catching up all at once, here's the me-centric reading all in one shot:

- Estara on Re-reading Touchstone.
- Chachic on the Romance in my books.
- Rachel on Champion and Bones.
- Flannery on the sheer concentration of awesome in Touchstone.
- Rachel on the heroic tradition in my books.
- The Book Smugglers break down the reasons they loved Touchstone.
- Sherwood Smith on discovering and enjoying my books.
- And finally a post by me, on the joys of being read.

Let me take the opportunity to thank all the posters and commenters, and especially Rachel for making this a special week for me.   I hope everyone is handed such an enormous compliment at least once in their lifetime - it's definitely great for the warm and fuzzies!

21 March 2014

Things I Bounce Off Of: Hyper-aggressive Posturing

I rarely read urban fantasy, even though I keep thinking I should.  Most urban fantasies use detective tropes, which I love, and many of them feature interesting female leads (or at least women not stuck only in the roles of tavern wench, princess and prostitute).  So what keeps me away?

I just bounced off another today.  I'd picked it up because I was impressed by what I'd seen of the author online, and because bunches of people who like some of my favourite books seemed to really like it.  I'd waded through chapter one a while ago, before returning to some 1970's espionage books, then gave it another shot and bounced again halfway through chapter two.

And I should like this book.  Original and complex worldbuilding and a juicy main female character and a big sprawling city setting and...all the speaking parts so far except the main character have been male.  And all of them have been aggressive males who might kill you at any minute if you look at them wrong.  And one of the team we're going to spend the most time with has lots of history with the main character that is surely full of trust broken and hatred born of wounds, and she wants to kill him, and he mocks her a lot.  While another of the team is so immensely powerful that there's a lot of time given to "I could hardly be bothered to kill you but don't push me".

And, yeah, I know my books are overfull of stoics, and this is also a character type that exists.  But I just can't read this book.  I can't bring myself to spend time with these people.  I far prefer the courteous, the quiet, the contained, the ineffably polite, the impish, the dreamfilled, the tongue-tied, even trickster types.

So...does anyone have recommendations for urban fantasy that doesn't revolve around, essentially, two rams butting their heads together?  I really liked how Neumeier's Black Dog took us through how difficult it would be the live in such a culture, and how it's something to work away from, but I wouldn't be sad to see a complete absence of "say one wrong word and I'll take your head off" characters.

17 March 2014

A Week of Me

You know when you get a compliment so amazing that you have to get up and walk about for a while to process it?  And then you spend the next couple of days wandering about grinning?  That's what happened to me when awesome author Rachel Neumeier told me she'd enjoyed my books so much she'd decided to host an Andrea K Höst week, and had invited a bunch of equally awesome people to tell the world how wonderful I am!  Well, even better, to talk about my books!

So if you're curious about my books, or just want to chat about them, check out Rachel's blog this week.  There'll even be a post from me, discussing among other things how I came to write the Touchstone Trilogy.  And there's a giveaway!

And...and...I got to get up and walk about for a while. :D