Monday, June 24, 2013

Blood and Chocolate

(I finished this book more than a week ago, but drama kept me away from the blog. Sorry. Hopefully regular posting will pick up from here.)

Twilight may have busted the YA Paranormal genre open, but Blood and Chocolate was out eight years before. It's an artifact of an earlier time, when Anne Rice and White Wolf roleplayers still ruled the night. More cynically, you could say it was from a time when authors and publishers still cared about quality, when the emphasis was on polishing stories rather than releasing tons of them fast, like the metaphorical spaghetti thrown at the wall. So Blood and Chocolate is a very well-crafted book, tightly plotted and effectively written. But for all that, it proves that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The plot is a victim of history; it wasn't yet insufferably cliche in 1997, but it is today. Paranormal girl - subtype werewolf - meets muggle guy, falls in love, and tries to pursue that love in defiance of the supernatural community's rules. A crisis of leadership among the werewolves, resolved by the usual bloodsport, complicates things.

What becomes apparent very early on is that this is very much a 90's story, meaning a lot of things are dated. Teenagers without cell phones, just for example, but it's not just the difference in technology that's off-putting. Blood and Chocolate is also rather obviously written by a baby boomer observing "those crazy kids". I don't mean to say that it treats its cast with disrespect, because it doesn't. It's just... off. Major characters seem like stereotypes; our chief love interest is a bundle of new-age cliches, halfway between hippie and hipster. His wannabe girlfriend is a perky goth girl with jealousy issues. The two of them hang together with a circle of misfits that pretentiously calls themselves "The Ameoba", and attend concerts for vaguely-described but implicitly loud and obnoxious bands. I imagine teen readers of the day rolling their eyes and saying "This author just doesn't get it."

If you can get over that, Blood and Chocolate a pretty good read. It takes a bit long to get going, but once it does it sucks you in. Until the end, where it gets hit hard with two of the persistent gremlins in the genre's gears: the romanticization of borderline-abusive men, and the bullshit non-ending that resolves nothing.

(Spoilers ahead)

In addition to muggle boy Aiden, wolf-girl Vivian is pursued by Gabe, the pack's alpha. While Gabe isn't much older than Vivian and does harbor affection for her, he's clearly in it out of a sense of entitlement. As the new king, he needs a queen, and in his mind he deserves the pick of the litter, so to speak. Which eventually leads to him pinning Vivian to a kitchen counter for make-outs, a scene that dug up bad memories of the attempted bathroom-rape in Nightshade. However, in the last thirty pages or so, the novel's treatment of Gabe does a complete 180 and in the last scene Vivian agrees to move away with him and the pack to their new home.

What makes this extra-squicky is the way in which Gabe ultimately wins Vivian over. She's moved to sympathy when he bares his soul to her and admits to killing a past lover.

Yes, really. But he regrets it a lot, see?

Well, alright, it is more complicated than that. He fell in love with a human woman and one day transformed accidentally while they were in bed together. When he did, she freaked the hell out. He tried to calm her down, but she was too scared to listen to reason, so he struck her, forgetting all about his lycanthropic superstrength. This is supposed to humanize him, and to make the point that weres and humans Just Can't Be Together. It succeeds on the latter, since something frighteningly similar happened when Vivian tranformed for Aiden. But the former? No sale.

Even if you can put that aside, though, there's the fact that the ending undermines the entire strory. Blood and Chocolate is about Vivian struggling to break out of an oppressive society. She fights with her mother, her old friends, and the pack itself to reach for something greater, something she loves, something she can't have under the old ways. Then at the end, she decides that she'd rather stick with the old ways after all. This isn't played as a tragedy, either. It's sold as a positive outcome that will eventually bring Vivian happiness. My first thought is that it was a sequel hook, and had the book been written today I would take that as a given. If so, it serves as an example of why not to do that: since no sequel was ever released, everything is left hanging and the reader never gets closure.

Now that I think of it, though, there's another explanation. Remember, the author was a 40-something, possibly with children of her own, writing during the era where Gen-X and Gen-Y were ascendant. To her, this is the happy ending: the kids get over their teenage rebellion and settle down to realize their parents were right. Life goes on as it always does. It's not a bad theme necessarily, but it's woefully ignorant about just how deep the cracks between boomers and post-boomers run. (And just how disgusting we find it that an entitled prat is held up as Prince Charming.) Again, Blood and Chocolate is a victim of history: it sees the generation gap of the 90's mending over time, when in reality the rift between 20th and 21st century values would just get worse.

(End of spoilers)

Annette Curtis Klause is a rather obscure writer. If wikipedia is to be believed, she's a YA librarian who dabbles; she published three novels over a seven-year period, a fourth nine years later, and a smattering of short stories since. Blood and Chocolate was the only one of those that really found a following, partially because after Twilight blew up, Blood and Chocolate rode it's coattails to renewed prominence. I'm glad she's still around in some capacity, since she's certainly skilled enough to write for a living. I just hope she's been able to keep up with the times.

Thursday, June 6, 2013


Sorcery! is a 1983 Fighting Fantasy spinoff, recently re-released as an iOS app by inkle. inkle has done something here that takes courage - instead of porting over the Fighting Fantasy system, as with Tin Man Games' House of Hell port, they risk the slings and arrows of nostalgic fans by changing the rules. I never played the original, so I don't know how much it's been changed, but the gamble has paid off. I would, in fact, go so far as to say that Sorcery! is a new quality benchmark for app gamebooks.

The plot is nothing special; to save the realm from an evil wizard, you must go on a long journey to find a MacGuffin called the Crown of Kings. Sorcery! was originally a four-book series, so you don't find the crown in this first volume - instead, you spend the book traversing the Shamutanti Hills en route to the city of Khare. What you encounter - and how you deal with those encounters - depends on which of the many paths you take to Khare.

Sorcery! was originally aimed at an older audience than its parent series, and so set out to tell a more significant tale with deeper mechanics. On the first count, it seemingly failed; it serves up a bog-standard "long journey to find MacGuffin and defeat evil wizard" affair, although hints of a deeper backstory are scattered through the book. The main selling point in the plot, though, is that it spreads out through four books, with the player being able to import his character to the next upon successful completion. Unless I miss my guess, Sorcery! was the first book to actually do this, but many of the best-remembered books of the golden age; Way of the Tiger, Lone Wolf, Fabled Lands, etc., were built on the same conceit. But Sorcery! did it first, so chalk up one point for that.

The mechanical innovations are more significant. An innovative spell system and options for stealth and guile provide multiple solutions to problems, rather then just hacking your way through everything. If battle is too much randomness for you, you can always just take a different path. There are several routes through the Shamutanti Hills, and many allow you to rely on wits or magic instead of swordplay. It's even possible to get through the entire book without once entering combat (excepting a tutorial fight at the beginning) through use of the right paths, spells, and choices. Alternatively, you could risk danger for loot or other advantages. There's enough replay value here that you can keep coming back. Just yesterday I thought I was done, but then read a post on inkle's blog which mentioned things I hadn't even heard of, and now I want to replay again to find the jewelled collar.

When you do have to (or wish to) fight, you'll find that inkle has overhauled the combat system. In place of dice-rolling, you have blind bids in a manner similar to Queen's Blade, although much simpler. Each turn both you and your opponent bid a certain number of Action Points. Whoever puts in more wins the round and inflicts damage proportional to the loser's bid (so bigger attacks leave you exposed). Alternatively, you can bid 0 AP to defend, doing no damage but ensuring your opponent won't do more than one damage either. AP regenerates, but slowly, so a big attack also means you can't bring as much force to bear next turn.

It's fairly brilliant. It solves the age-old problem of making a fight challenging within the limited mechanical confines of a gamebook. There are tradeoffs to consider, but not so many that it becomes a chore to make decisions. A bigger bonus is that each round of combat is described in fair detail, and these descriptions  contain hints to the opponent's next action. Now this is a great idea. No longer are we just stopping the story to roll some dice before proceeding. Instead, we're actively participating in a fight and being rewarded for paying attention.

The biggest success in this book, however, is the writing. Yes, the plot is cliche, developing somewhat but  never rising above the standard 80's fantasy fare. But the characters shine. Jann, the helpful but annoying pixie, is the biggest standout, but nearly every character has personality and life, even the nameless townspeople whom you get some information from and then walk away from. The main character has personality too, or at least develops some in response to your choices.

There are some flaws worthy of mention - aside from the plot, the big one is that looking up spells in the middle of the action is a chore. It was apparently much worse in the original, where you couldn't consult the spellbook at all once the action started, but even this less retarded version is annoying. There's no search function or index, instead you have to page through the spells one by one until you find the one you're curious about. The overworld map, though a nice touch, is tough to move around on, with a larger than necessary player character making the screen cramped, and controls are finicky. And the app itself is a serious battery guzzler, at least it is on my iPod Touch. But none of this seriously impedes the enjoyment. Sorcery! is the best app gamebook in the genre's short history, and a definite must-play.