EXPeriencing ‘The City of Brass’ by S. A. Chakraborty

Cover image via Amazon.

I know reading and travel quotes can be a bit cliche, but reading a great book can sometimes take you on journeys that rival those in real life. I found just that in S. A. Chakraborty’s novel The City of Brass. It’s an adventure in time, religion, and the fantastic, and I loved every single word.

Before going on a trip – the best time to find new books – I swung by my local library to browse. Except I had forgotten that my library is running with limited services right now as it’s being remodeled. While the children’s section is open, there were only three little library carts of new releases. Having made the trek, I figured I could browse what was there and if I didn’t find anything, I could run to Half Price Books instead.

On the middle library cart was a book with thick spine with a unicorn sticker that categorizes it as Fantasy. I snatched it up and read the inside cover. I was a paragraph in when I started walking to the check-out desk. The premise: It’s 18th century Egypt, and Nahri is a con-artist with some peculiar healing abilities. When she accidentally summons a fire djinn – a daeva, he’ll insist you call him – and they fight off an ifrit, the daeva realizes Nahri must be part-djinn and whisks her unceremoniously off to the djinn capital, Daevabad. And that’s just the first couple chapters. The journey there, and the palace intrigue when they reach Daevabad and Nahri befriends Prince Alizayd, is completely page-turning. I couldn’t put it down.

Really solid world-building is almost a character in and of itself, and when it’s completely unfamiliar to me I love it even more. I love that The City of Brass is not only set in 18th Century Egypt and spans further east to modern-day Iran/Afghanistan/Pakistan, it celebrates all the cultures in between. The clothing, weapons, and mythical beings all stem from Middle Eastern tales and history, and it was fascinating to read more about them. There are several characters who are also Muslim – Prince Alizayd being particularly devout – and it was lovely reading about Islam through a fantasy lens in a world where there is magic.

I’ve said it on Twitter and Facebook a few times, but I’m sick to death of Anglo-European-based fantasy novels. Even if the world is completely made up, having lore and creatures and even just names from diverse locations in the real world is refreshing. The City of Brass was like a full spa day, and I can’t wait for the sequel.

If you’re looking for a great, thick fantasy novel to curl up in, I highly recommend The City of Brass.

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EXPeriencing ‘Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection’

Cover image via NaughtyDog.

There weren’t a ton of games I felt I was missing out on by having an Xbox 360 instead of a PS3, but the Uncharted series was one of them. I knew they had Assassin’s Creed-like puzzles and an Indiana Jones-like story line. What’s not to like about that?

When Terry and I got a PS4 for Christmas this year, Terry also bought me Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection, a remastered version of the first three games. I dove right in.

Was it worth the wait?

The Gameplay

This part was not worth the wait. The only word to describe the gameplay in the first three Uncharted games is “linear.” The first game was particularly bad: kneel behind a crate, shoot at a bad guy, kneel, reload, dive to another crate, repeat. There was no strategy to how to take down enemies. They would rush you and you would shoot them. Sometimes you would shoot them with an AK-47, sometimes with a 9mm, sometimes you’d throw a grenade. Once you cleared the area, on you went. It was more mindless than anything.

As the games progressed, the combat got a little better each time – more stealthy takedowns, more weapons, more vantage points. It was still very linear overall, but it felt less like being led down a tunnel, and more an open-air hallway.

I also found the instructions could be a little vague. In the first game, for instance, I had just gone through a section where you were speeding along in a jeep and would shoot the bad guys if you had a chance. The following area saw you on a jet ski, and I was trying to book it through enemies shooting at me. Well, turns out, this particular section was the opposite of the jeep section: take cover and shoot down the bad guys before they can shoot you. Didn’t realize that ’til I’d been blown out of the water about three times.

It’s very jarring when you die in Uncharted. The screen goes black and white, a discordant brrring plays, and one of your allies yells, “Nate!” Whereas in some other games when you drop down too far, they just force you to climb up again. But when Drake falls too far, he falls outside of the playable area and it’s game over, back to the last checkpoint.

And you will die a bunch. There are a lot of times where you only really know which way to go next by dying. Either you’re running as fast as you can along a crumbling walkway and you jump in the wrong direction, or there’s a guy hiding behind a wall with an RPG that you just didn’t see until he blew you up. These types of deaths can be especially frustrating. The few sections I had to attempt over and over and over again were where these games definitely weren’t my favorite.

The gameplay aspect I liked most was the puzzles. I had been looking forward to these the most, but they weren’t as amazing as I was expecting. They really fell on two ends of the spectrum: trivial and obscure. A lot of the puzzles I was able to figure out before the NPC bantered hints. But there were some where I fumbled through by guessing and was about 5 minutes from Googling it before I got it right. There wasn’t really much middle ground. Frankly, I think some of the memory-type puzzles in Skyrim and the skill-based jumping puzzles in Assassin’s Creed were more deftly crafted.

The Story

Before you think I despised the games because I wasn’t a fan of the gameplay, I actually did really enjoy them overall. While every time I died was super frustrating, the story was incredibly compelling, well acted, and entertaining. I liked Drake and his roguish Indiana Jones-style treasure hunting a lot, especially through his excellent portrayal by voiceover extraordinaire Nolan North. Sully, his BFF, and Elena, his on-and-off again flame, are equally entertaining; the three of them make a great team. The other allies and villains were fairly well-rounded, too, although the cast was pretty whitewashed throughout the games. I could have done with more main characters of color, though I do believe there are more in the subsequent games.

I also like the Indiana Jones/X-Files mystical/alien-meets-real-life aspects of the story. They’re hunting for historical treasures, but there’s always some magical element that defies logic on top of it. It provided a good framework for the shooter-meets-crumbling-puzzle mix of gameplay.

Ultimately, like any good entertainment, you don’t play Uncharted for the mechanics, but for the story. The mechanics improved with each game, but I often found myself lamenting that I wasn’t playing Assassin’s Creed every time Drake made some physics-defying leap – or fell two feet and died. The story, however, was compelling enough to drive me forward to finish each game and relish in the cut scenes rather than scowl at the quicktime events.

I’m glad I played the games, but I’m also glad it was only $20 to do so. If you haven’t played the first three Uncharted games, now is a great time to pick them up – just know that playing through the first game might be really rough if you’re coming from Assassin’s Creed: Origins or Overwatch. If you’re a diehard Uncharted fan, I absolutely see why, and I’m glad I got to experience this story.

EXPeriencing ‘An Ember in the Ashes’ by Sabaa Tahir

Cover image via.

You know when you read a new Harry Potter book for the first time and you just couldn’t stop reading? All the way through the night, you kept turning pages because you just had to find out what happened next. Rarely did a chapter end where you thought, Yeah, I can put the bookmark in and go to sleep now. No, you read until the sun came up and then went for a walk in your neighborhood before even the golfers were awake.

Okay, maybe that’s just me.

That inability to put the book down, though, and turning page after page no matter what the clock reads is exactly what happened when I read Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes. I started the book Saturday afternoon and finished it Tuesday night/Wednesday morning at 1 a.m. I. Was. Hooked.

An Ember in the Ashes is a young adult fantasy novel—like all the best books are—and is set in the fictional Martial Empire. This empire is located in the ancient desert kingdom of the Scholars who were conquered by a Roman-esque emperor 500 years before.

The story follows two protagonists: Laia, the Scholar slave, and Elias, the Martial soldier-assassin. As the back of the book says, “Elias and Laia will soon realize that their destinies are intertwined—and that their choices will change the fate of the Empire itself.” I love these kinds of stories. Each chapter switches back and forth from Laia to Elias. Following their stories to see when they would meet and when their paths would cross again is one of the big reasons I kept turning page after page.

It helps that Laia and Elias are also really compelling characters. Laia, a free woman until her grandparents are murdered and her brother taken by a Martial Mask, seeks out the Scholar Resistance to save her brother. Elias is a Mask, the most talented one at Blackcliff Academy, and he hates it. When the Trials to choose a new emperor are called, Elias participates reluctantly, and Laia is sent as a slave to spy on Blackcliff for the Resistance. I would say “hijinks ensue,” but that casts it in way too light a tone. For instance, the Trials. Think the Tri-Wizard Tournament, but if Harry had to make sure Ron drowned faster than Hermione, Cho Chang, and Gabrielle Delacour. It is brutal.

But Laia and Elias are not the only characters, of course. All the characters, from Resistance fighters to Blackcliff students to slaves, are unique with their own motives and fears and desires, and play vital roles in Elias and Laia’s stories.

Tahir paints a brilliant world full of life and death and beauty and pain. World-building is something I love most about fantasy. Does it read true, even though there is magic or mystical creatures? Do I feel like I’m there, or just like I’m watching it on a far-away screen? How keenly do I feel the characters’ emotions? I can sum up Tahir’s Empire in a world: vibrant. I was there, it was real, and I didn’t want to leave.

I know not everyone is a YA fan. I get that it’s just not up everyone’s alley. But if you’re looking for a fantasy novel set far away from yet another rehashed England/France/Western Europe location, An Ember in the Ashes is worth the read. You’ll knock it out in a few days, have a new appreciation for diverse fantasy, and be dying to read the next one. I know I am.

EXPeriencing ‘The Graveyard Book’ by Neil Gaiman

Cover image via, which is a helluva way to open a book.

Thank you, airport bookstores.

Not much is worse than having a long layover or delay and running out of things to read. Last month, I had a several-hour layover in O’Hare before heading home to Indy. I’d finished the book I brought with me on the previous flight (Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie), so I was stuck without anything to read. (And O’Hare’s wifi is terrible, so sitting on Facebook for three hours wasn’t appealing.)

I wandered into a bookstore and navigated my suitcase through the cramped stacks. After wandering the perimeter of the stores, I headed for the sci-fi/fantasy section because I knew I’d find something interesting. I checked to see if Neil Gaiman had signed any copies of his newest book, Norse Mythology—he hadn’t—then picked up The Graveyard Book. I’d read the title a few times on Twitter, but didn’t know anything about it.

The blurb on the back starts, “In this reimagining of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book—

Whaaaaat?!

If I have any literary weakness, it’s retellings and reimaginings of classic stories. I’m pretty sure I’ve read 10 different versions of Cinderella in my life, and I devoured them all. But a reimagined Jungle Book? Where the wolves are ghosts and Mowgli is a living boy named Nobody being raised in a graveyard because an assassin—the Shere Khan of the story—failed to kill Nobody as a baby? Sign me up!

I enjoyed connecting the characters I knew from the Disney movie with Gaiman’s more macabre versions. Beyond that, though, the novel doesn’t need to be compared to Disney or Kipling. It stands on its own with compelling characters, a plot that draws you six feet deep, and a setting that’s as lovely as it is spooky.

If you haven’t read a lot of Gaiman’s work, I would highly suggest giving The Graveyard Book a read. It’s quick, fun, and will give you a healthy dose of childhood nostalgia in the process.

EXPeriencing ‘You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)’ by Felicia Day

Cover photo via.

If you’re a gamer or on the internet often, you know who Felicia Day is. If you’re not, here’s an introduction, in her own words:

Hi, I’m Felicia Day. I’m an actor. That quirky chick in that one science fiction show? You know the one I’m talking about. I’m never on the actual poster, but I always have a few good scenes that make people laugh. As a redhead, I’m a sixth-lead specialist, and I practically invented the whole “cute but offbeat hacker girl” trope on television. (Sorry. When I started doing it, it was fresh. I promise.)

Basically, if you Google her or look her up on IMDb, you’ll probably figure out something you know her from.

I first knew her from a couple of the literally hundreds of internet videos she’s made and starred in, the company she started called Geek & Sundry, and as the voice of one of the heroes in my favorite video game, Guild Wars 2. When her memoir came out, I added it to my ever-lengthening Goodreads list.

Last month when I was craving books to read, I grabbed Felicia’s memoir from the biography section of the library. I don’t go to this section of the library or bookstore often. I’ve never read a memoir that wasn’t from the 1900s or earlier and assigned to me in an English class. Ever. I haven’t read Bossypants or The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo or Furiously HappySo, intentionally grabbing a memoir was a new thing for me.

I’m glad I did, because Felicia’s memoir is a delight. From reading about her life as a home-schooled kid to her being a violin prodigy (whaaat?) to moving to LA to become an actress, I was fascinated.

What I didn’t expect (though in retrospect, I’m not surprised) was how much of Felicia’s memoir resonated with me. I dog-eared quite a few of that library book’s pages (sorry!), but there were just too many quotes to let them go without a second read.

My favorites:

On being addicted to World of Warcraft:

The thing about a computer game character is that a part of you BECOMES that character in an alternative world. That little gnome was an emotional projection of myself. A creature/person who was more powerful, more organized and living in a world where there were exact parameters to becoming successful. …
When we graduate from childhood into adulthood, we’re thrown into this confusing, Cthulu-like miasma of life, filled with social and career problems, all with branching choices and no correct answers. Sometimes gaming feels like going back to that simple kid world. Real-life Felicia wasn’t getting more successful, but I could channel my frustration into making my gnome an A-list celebrity warlock, thank you very much! (pg 115)

On writing:

Every second of writing that script felt like walking barefoot over shards of glass. I would write a bit and then I would sob, wanting desperately to erase what I’d just written. … Then I would force my fingers to type more, every word feeling like I was bleeding from every orifice. I was engulfed with fear of making mistakes, of writing something stupid, of encountering story problems I couldn’t think my way out of. I was, in short, terrified of the process. It was not fun. (pg 141-2)
If ideas flow out of you easily like a chocolate fountain, bless you, and skip to the next chapter. But if you’re someone like me, who longs to create but finds the process agonizing, here’s my advice:
  • Find a group to support you, to encourage you, to guilt you into DOING. If you can’t find one, start one yourself. Random people enjoy having pancakes.
  • Make a goal. Then strike down things that are distracting you from that goal, especially video games. (Unless it’s this book; finish reading it and THEN start.)
  • Put the fear of God into yourself. Okay, I’m not religious. Whatever spiritual ideas float your boat. Read some obituaries, watch the first fifteen minutes of Up, I don’t care. Just scare yourself good. You have a finite number of toothpaste tubes you will ever consume while on this planet. Make the most of that clean tooth time. For yourself. (pg 143)

On mental health:

Imagine saying to someone, “I have a kidney problem, and I’m having a lot of bad days lately.” Nothing but sympathy, right?
“What’s wrong?”
“My mom had that!”
“Text me a pic of the ultrasound!”
Then pretend to say, “I have severe depression and anxiety, and I’m having a lot of bad days lately.”
They just look at you like you’re broken, right? Unfixable. Inherently flawed. Maybe not someone they want to hang around as much?
Yeah, society sucks. (pg 228)

And finally, on representation:

[Nora Ephron] had made it possible for me to imagine my own future in the world of film. Her very existence showed me it could be done and allowed me to dream about following the path she laid behind her. Without her work, I doubt it would have ever occurred to me that such a path existed.
Now, I certainly am not saying that I consider myself an icon like Nora Ephron or that I should be [the] ultimate example of “GAMER FEMALE” but the idea of representation is important. And I think the world of gaming needs people from all walks of life to speak up and represent the positive side of what we love. Because, let’s be real: gaming’s reputation is NOT good in that area right now. …
I joined the world of gaming as a little girl. It was where I first discovered my voice and felt accepted. I found a community … During all that time I spent online I was never shamed for my enthusiasms. Never made to feel that I didn’t deserve to be heard because of my gender. And I wouldn’t be who I am without that community. (pg 251)

If you’re a nerd, a gamer female, or just love the internet and want to read a good memoir about an interesting person, I definitely recommend You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost).

Now, to translate all the hours I spent playing Heroes of the Storm this weekend into writing hours this week….

EXPeriencing Wonder Woman

Cover image via.

Caution: There’s a spoiler below.

My husband made me cry because of Wonder Woman.

Don’t worry, they were happy tears.

We saw Wonder Woman this afternoon, and were both blown away. Not only was it a great story with great acting and awesome fight scenes and explosions that make all good superhero movies worthwhile, but it was a woman. leading. the. charge. I didn’t know I’d been waiting my whole life to see Wonder Woman kicking ass and taking names on the big screen, but when I watched her train with the Amazons, fight Germans, and save the world, I was mesmerized. She’s everything the 8-year-old girl in me needed to see 20 years ago: a strong, smart woman warrior who can do anything.

I was particularly choked up during a fight scene in the latter half of the film. Diana had just walked across No Man’s Land and helped the allied forces overcome the entrenched Germans. Then she cleared out the nearby German-occupied town to save the villagers. She was fighting a dozen men at once, and beating them all to pulps. My nose started to tickle as tears were welling in my eyes. I’ve never truly been struck with the sense of seeing myself represented on screen, and it is powerful. It’s one thing to see Captain America and Batman and Thor leading a team, running around, beating up the bad guys. But it’s another to see a woman doing it. Representation matters in all things. It took more than 75 years from Wonder Woman’s creation for women to see her on the big screen in all her deserved glory. It’s ridiculous it took Hollywood this long to catch up. But boy, was it worth the wait.

As I was about to share with Terry how this scene made me tear up, he said, “The movie almost got me. I almost cried during it.” I asked him what part. He replied, “When Steve Trevor was saying goodbye to Diana before flying the plane away from the base.”

Terry said, “Because that’s how I see you. You’re Wonder Woman to me.”

Reader, I burst into tears.

I clutched his hand and said, “Really?”

He said, “Yeah, are you kidding? You are Wonder Woman, and any other strong female video game or movie character. That’s why I want you to go everywhere with me. I’m Steve Trevor, I can’t do anything on my own. I need Wonder Woman there to help me.”

I’ve never felt more loved or special in all my life. I told Terry it was the sweetest thing he’s ever said to me. He replied, “What about ‘Will you marry me?'” That ranks second.

The moral of this story is two-fold:

1.) Go see Wonder Woman. Immediately. Take your daughters and sons.

2.) Find a lady or gentleman who sees you as Wonder Woman, and marry them.

EXPeriencing ‘Uprooted’ by Naomi Novik

Cover image via.

Who doesn’t love a good, mindless Buzzfeed quiz? At worst it’ll eat up a few minutes as you’re waiting for your Starbucks order. At best, you’ll get a killer book suggestion.

It was through a Buzzfeed quiz that I discovered Uprooted by Naomi Novik. It was something like, “Pretend to Write a Book and We’ll Tell You What Book You Should Read Next.” (I can’t find the exact quiz, but here’s one based on a book you’ve liked, and here’s one based on your favorite emoji.) The quiz suggested Uprooted and the blurb looked interesting enough for me to look it up on Goodreads. The Goodreads rating was pretty incredible: 4.1/5 stars and more than 69,000 ratings. Anything over 3.5 is usually worth checking out, and with that many ratings, I immediately added Uprooted to my To Read list.

A quick visit to the library resulted in a stack of books, including Uprooted. After reading Maus I and Maus II, I was definitely in need of a fantasy/fairy tale to lighten things up.

I dove into Uprooted, and didn’t want to climb out until I was done with the last page. I couldn’t put this book down. It was almost to Harry Potter levels of immersion. But, not from the first page.

It actually starts out pretty generic: clumsy girl lives in small village surrounded by enchanted wood. Wizard is expected to claim perfect girl (not main character) for 10-year servitude. Doesn’t. Chooses main character. Hijinks ensue.

The important part of this generic description is the “starts” part. The above description constitutes just the first two chapters, 38 pages total. It’s worth the payoff to get through. You soon discover, if you haven’t guessed by the end of Chapter One, that the main character, Agnieszka, is a witch herself, which is why the wizard chooses her. Cue another chapter of Agnieszka not realizing she’s a witch, and you’ve gotten past all the truly “generic” content of the book.

~400 pages of the true story follow: the conflict with the Wood. This evil Wood steals people from the valley to expand its territory and corrupt the humans. And Agnieszka wants to stop it from devouring her family, her village, and everyone she’s ever known.

Cue adventure, which include a desperate prince, some court intrigue, and magic magic and more magic. The base magic is familiar if you’re the role-playing sort, but Agnieszka’s breed throws everyone for a loop. She makes magic her own, not how any of the other wizards want it to be.

The depth of the story sucks you in until you finish the last page. It spans a kingdom and 10,000 years. Novik’s writing is beautiful, particularly her simile descriptions. She describes unrelatable situations in a relatable way, while keeping Agnieszka’s personality in tact.

If you like fantasy novels and fairy tales and want to dive into a new story that treads just off the familiar track, I highly suggest Uprooted.

A Buzzfeed suggestion is one of the best fantasy novels I’ve read in years. A+, Buzzfeed. A+.