Ash & Bramble: Sarah Prineas

I finished¬†Ash & Bramble by Sarah Prineas only just this morning; I guess I was pleasantly surprised, because it was very much one of those books that you can kind of pick up and put down at random intervals and not forget the story in between. It follows the tale of Pin, a prisoner in the Godmother’s fortress, who escapes her captivity alongside another hostage named Shoe. Unfortunately, their newfound freedom isn’t exactly what it seems, and Pin must figure out how to beat the Godmother’s game and escape alive.

So this is a retelling of the traditional Cinderella, with a cast of very untraditional characters. There’s obviously Pin, the protagonist and a strong heroine in her own right. She’s very decisive, surprisingly blunt, and favors the unexpected route. Her magical item is a strange thimble that’s always been with her, and later discovered to be an heirloom from her Mother. Then there’s Shoe, another protagonist and my favorite character. I remember that when he was introduced, I was pretty disappointed with the fact that Ms. Prineas introduced the love interest so blandly– he’s a shoemaker working in the same fortress that Pin is captive in– and their “happily ever after” was going to be so predictable. I’m not saying that it wasn’t predictable, but he ended up being so much more than your typical male love interest. I like Shoe because he’s kind of an anxious disaster. He’s definitely the more moderate of the two, especially since he’s been tortured by the Godmother before. He spends most of the book worrying and fearful, and for good reason. The thing is, he doesn’t immediately give up after discovering that he may never escape from the clutches of the Godmother or the more imminent and massive¬†Story,¬†which is the arguable main antagonist of this novel. Instead, Shoe decides that he’s going to do as much as he can to screw up her perfect ending.

There are other characters, too, but the other VIP is Prince Cor, or Cornelius, also known as “Pin’s Handsome Prince.” He’s basically the bachelor chosen to be her happy ending, the prince who fits the shoe onto her slender foot and sweeps her away from her dreadful life and into the life of a princess. He’s more the typical YA protagonist, but it’s funny because (at least to me) he was very much a¬†white knight. He’s inconsistent about it; there are times where¬†he’ll let Pin run right into danger though more often than not, he insists that he be around to “protect her,” despite knowing that Pin can very easily defend herself. ¬†There are a lot of characters in this book and I’m not going to list out all of them, but they were pretty interesting. The thing I liked the most about this cast is that there were no unnecessary side characters; we didn’t have that one guy that never does anything except contribute some dialogue, and then was written off at the end.¬†Every character that appears contributes their fair share.

So, I really liked that Pin absolutely could stand up for herself in this book. She was pretty resilient in everything, and refused to give in to¬†Story¬†or Godmother throughout the novel. Every time something terrible happens, she resolves to fix it. I also thought that the whole “wiping out her memory at the beginning” part was interesting, because post-wipe, we essentially read through Pin’s life from the moment she was “born” until the end. I thought that the plot was really interesting, too– the whole thing about Godmother being a pawn in the workings of the¬†Story, which isn’t really evil but is very powerful and needs to be leveled. Ms. Prineas really makes a point that not everything is as it seems, ever; first, they think that Godmother is terrible and evil. Then they realize that it’s because that’s her role in the story– even though it’s unforgivable, it is what she has been forced into doing. And at the end, Shoe, who has suffered the most from her, is the one to forgive and take her under his wing. I thought that it was actually a fitting end, given Shoe’s personality.

I didn’t like the love triangle at all. The only okay thing about it was that it didn’t overwhelm the plot too badly, but it didn’t need to exist. It’s very hard to make love triangles ever work out well, and unfortunately,¬†Ash & Bramble‘s love triangle failed utterly in that regard. Basically, Pin has to choose between Cor and Shoe. Shoe is content with saving the world and letting Pin choose for herself. Cor is the one that’s insistent that he and Pin love each other and will end up together. Pin, as much as I liked her, is really dumb when it comes to this. She absolutely is thinking with her ovaries and not her brain when she believes that she’s in love with Cor for like 75% of the story, which is horrible because for so much of the book she’s this really mentally and emotionally-able character. I don’t know. I personally felt like it was kind of an affront to her, but I didn’t write the character or the book so I guess it’s not really my place to say that. I do wish that her feelings had been explained a bit more. The book would probably have been ten times better if Ms. Prineas had just chosen one character for her to fall in love with and let her have an amicable relationship with the other, but no, romance “spices things up.” Please, it’s 2016: enough with the unnecessary love triangles.

I also wish that we got to know Dulcie and Precious, Pin’s stepsisters, a little more. I feel like they could have been an interesting addition to the cast of rebels. And also, that we’d gotten to know more about Pin’s mother, the elusive woman who was Godmother’s arch-nemesis and played the role of the evil fairy/wicked witch. Apparently, she went around protecting the characters from the different stories, like turning the frog prince into a frog so that he could really discover who truly loved him. I’d read a book about her.

Ash & Bramble, as a whole, was okay. It was a good one-time read, though I wouldn’t pick it up again. I might check out the companion novel,¬†Rose & Thorn,¬†if I see it around somewhere. I do have to commend Ms. Prineas on her characterization of Pin, who really does make an interesting protagonist, but still… I’d only recommend this book if you’re really completely out of anything to read. Also if you like fairy-tale retellings and strong female characters.

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Dishonored

After discovering that¬†Dishonored 2 will be coming out this November, I thought it’d be prudent to get on this game ASAP; I’m only four years behind. Ha. Ha.
In all honesty, when this game first came out, I wasn’t really that interested in it. I guess the visuals didn’t catch my attention, and 2012 was the year of Hitman: Absolution, so¬†my stealth quotient was filled. I don’t know why I was being so dumb, because this game– while not exactly a masterpiece– is incredibly fun to play.

Dishonored follows the story of Corvo Attano, the “Lord Protector” of Queen Jessamine Kaldwin of Dunwall and her darling daughter Emily. When the queen is assassinated, and Emily, kidnapped, all the blame falls upon Corvo. He’s promptly arrested and escorted away to be killed. While imprisoned, Corvo discovers that the Queen’s assassination had been ordered by the Royal Spymaster, a man named Hiram Burrows. After receiving help from this rebellion that calls themselves the “Loyalists,” Corvo sets out to find Emily and take revenge on the man who ruined his life. Things start getting a lot darker as the game goes on, though, and there’s more to the plot that I won’t explain at this point, though there may be spoilers below.

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Samuel the Boatman takes you around to different parts of Dunwall.

So, let’s do the cons first; that way we can end on a good note. I think that my biggest problem with this game was the time it took to load. This is probably because I’ve grown up rather spoilt, but the five to six minute loading time can get really annoying, especially with how much you have to restart levels if you’re a beginner like I am and also trying not to kill anybody/ghosting through the levels. I had to save almost every five minutes to ensure that I wouldn’t lose any progress, and also so that I’d have a backup plan in case someone spotted me during my many attempts to nonlethally take them out. As a result, I ended up loading the game to these checkpoints several-hundred times, and each time it was absolute misery.
The other thing that weirded me out a little was the character design; not that anyone in particular bothered me, it’s just that every NPC human had a really tiny head and laughably huge hands. Their hands were probably bigger than their heads; but I’m pretty sure that this was a style choice.
Okay… that’s it. That’s my cons.

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The Boyle Sisters level involves attending a masquerade ball.

Pros: The game is gorgeous. It’s very thematic, very dark and depressing– it¬†looks¬†like a plague-ridden city. There are multiple extra areas that you can wander through, typically apartments or manors for side quests only, so it’s not¬†too¬†linear. I do like that these areas are only open for specific missions because otherwise I’d spend all my time trying to open every door in Dunwall. Every area has been mapped out expertly, and it plays more like “levels” than a “world.” So you can’t access old areas through this new area, but each level is built to reflect older areas.

The music is really amazing; you mostly hear it in the menu and during the loading screens (so I heard it a lot…) I remember it being very fitting to the game; a lot of kind of creepy, twinkly music. Lots of strings and flute-y chords in the background, and I guess I’d say that it’s similar to the soundtrack from Skyrim. Gothic, and perhaps, medieval; it’s good, really atmospheric. I enjoyed it a lot and will probably purchase the soundtrack, because it makes really good ambient music as well.

The game relies on a lot of manual saving, which can be either a blessing or a curse; it’s great for me, because I like to save every ten to fifteen minutes– especially with Dishonored. Being able to manually save means that I don’t have to proceed from a far-away checkpoint every time I restart after getting caught or killed or killing someone on accident. So the manual saving thing definitely helped me, although there were times where I’d get very far and then make a mistake, and, having forgotten to save, had to start over from a while ago. The game¬†does¬†autosave so you’re not completely left on your own, though I’m not sure how often autosave points occur; probably only when you do something significant or enter a new area, like most games.

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Concept art of Lord Protector Corvo Attano; he’s exactly as broody as you’d imagine.

Another thing that I really loved about this game is that most of the characters that you interact with have specific roles to play and developed backstories. For example, there’s Admiral Havelock, leader of the Resistance and a stalwart captain of the sea. Pendleton, the dignified and kind of prissy nobleman, also part of the Resistance. Teague Martin, a highwayman-turned-overseer that works for the Resistance as well; but it’s not just major players of the Resistance that have their unique personalities. Lydia, a maid who works for their crew, is flirtatious and world-weary and surprisingly willful. Piero, the socially awkward engineer, is careful and pensive and has a massive crush on Callista, another maid who embodies kindness but is rather uninterested in Piero’s (or even Corvo’s, if you try to seduce her) advances. Granny Rags, Slackjaw, Sokolov, The Boyle sisters, Overseer Campbell, the Outsider, even Hiram Burrows and Daud– who I found especially intriguing, considering the fact that he killed Jessamine… but lives on in deep regret and guilt. Each one has their own lore, which can be discovered through audiographs and books that you find throughout the game, or even by simply interacting with characters. If you’d like to unearth¬†their deepest secrets in a more crafty manner, you can use the heart.

The heart was another thing that I enjoyed utilizing; it’s used mainly to locate Runes and bone-charms, both of which will grant Corvo more powers and abilities, but if you point the heart at a person and press the trigger, it reveals their secrets. I can’t imagine the amount of time put into writing the script for the secrets of all the main characters, and even those of the NPCs, considering the sheer number of them. Of course, most NPCs have the lines of male and female survivors, or thugs, so each NPC is part of a larger group and their secrets don’t change but that’s still a lot of history. The heart doesn’t spoil future parts of the game, which is great; but she does make some cryptic comments that make more sense later on.

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Tallboys, whom you have to avoid if you’re going for the low chaos ending.

Another notable character is¬†Emily Kaldwin: the ten-year-old daughter of Queen Jessamine, and Corvo’s kidnapped ward. She’s tiny, she’s spunky, and she’s incredibly insightful. Emily Kaldwin isn’t featured very much during the game, because most of it is spent running after the men who kidnapped her, but she’s undoubtedly a light in Corvo’s dark life when she does make her appearance. I personally believe that her character was written incredibly; she’s traumatized by everything that’s happening and in the midst of grief, after having witnessed her mother’s murder, but she’s also determined to take her place on the throne and insists that Corvo be at her side. ¬†She never loses faith in her protector, even when she’s kidnapped for a second time, and you can get a feel of how much she means to Corvo, who has watched her grow and bloom into this daring, sweet little girl. She’s essentially he’s daughter– and then you realize through discovered lore that haha, she¬†really is¬†his daughter. That just makes the bond even deeper. It very much reminded me of Elizabeth and Booker from¬†Bioshock: Infinite,¬†but this relationship was a bit more tender and not nearly as confusing because Emily is this little child that you have to protect, not a fully grown woman. I might even venture to say that the father-daughter bond in this game is more established than the one that¬†Infinite¬†featured.

I like that they introduced three essential plots (the murder of Jessamine Kaldwin, the kidnapping of Emily, and the rat plague,) and made sure to feature each one in every level. Emily and Jessamine tie together, since the men that kidnapped Emily are also the ones who murdered your beloved Empress, but the rat plague is mentioned in almost every conversation– understandable, considering the fact that it’s brought your city to its knees. Also, swarms of rats inhabit various rooms in different levels, and they’re terrifying to deal with, even if they can be easily defeated.

Lastly, I enjoyed this game because it was sufficiently difficult, especially if you’re going the nonlethal route. Killing everyone that stands in your path is definitely presented as the easier route, and a lot of the powers that you can purchase with runes do make it easier to murder your enemies instead of knocking them out. For example, there’s one power that turns unsuspecting, murdered enemies into ash– which leaves your trail virtually invisible. Another gives you a boost of adrenaline or something whenever you kill someone. So the game is geared towards bloodshed and massacre, but you have to keep in mind that every body that you pile up will lead you closer and closer to the high-chaos ending, which is infinitely sadder than the low-chaos one. Also, I believe that future levels get more difficult as the body count goes up.
On the other hand, it’s¬†so¬†much easier to just chop up a few bodies and not have to worry about dragging them into inconspicuous corners of dark rooms, so they won’t be spotted and alarms won’t start ringing.

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Concept art of Queen Jessamine Kaldwin; the image that was finally used is the one on the very bottom, a portfolio snapshot, and the woman in the center, in purple.

So overall, this game is definitely something that I’d recommend. The replay value is high, especially because you can try for the low-chaos ending and the high-chaos ending. Apparently, murdering people will also change character perspectives of you, so your interactions with Lydia, Piero, Admiral Havelock and perhaps even Emily, etc, will be much different. It has a simple, easy-to-follow story and focuses greatly on your character and interactions with other characters. The time it takes to complete the game is sufficient as well– I actually had a lot of time to spare and so, was able to finish it in the past week. I imagine that it’d take a little longer or maybe a lot long for those playing casually. If you like stealth games, definitely give it a try! And if you’re looking to start, I’d say that Dishonored is a good way to go.