5 Stars of the Magi

A delightful, exhilarating fantasy adventure game of surpassing achievement. If you are unfamiliar with the yuri genre of culture then take a sensor reading!

I’m unsure how I happened upon this wonderful, multi-faceted gem of a game creation. It must have been one of those dreamlike internet sojourns, where you pass through an experience of mystery and find yourself exploring new possibilities of your own joy.

Luxaren Allure is a computer RPG done in the style of old school console games. If you’re familiar with Final Fantasy then the interface will be easy to absorb. Total game play is about 20 hours, though I spent more than that because I got sucked into every detail.

197-battleFrom what I can make out on the game’s website, it appears to be an indie collaborative project using RPG Maker VX Ace. This toolset and the style choice mean limitations on the graphics. You can’t expect wowsers stuff here visually. Fortunately, the imagination and intelligence of the gameplay transcend this condition to create genuine brain-expanding fun.

The story of the game takes place on the island of Luxaren. An ancient evil has returned to have another try at crushing the population and becoming ruler of the island.

Rising to the challenge of defeating this evil is an all female cast of adventurers, each with different abilities, dispositions, and goals. Can your gameplay guide them to victory?!

199-advanceYour party starts with Karuna, a fighter selected by the local ruler to embody the hopes of her town that she is the heroine prophesized to save the island. She begins the core of protagonism that builds over time as others join the party and the story develops. Simple at first glance, but things soon become more complex!

The wilderness and dungeon maps are varied and show cleverness. They’re hard enough to avoid being a breeze, but if you’re patient you can decipher the navigation. I appreciated this—I want a mild challenge without grinding through pathways.

If you forget what the most important current quest is while wandering about, the mission button in the party menu is available. This has the party members go over in a dialogue scene what they are currently trying to accomplish. This is a really nice touch.

202-party-statusI mean, I can dig it; right? Group of people wandering around trying to do quest stuff. Wouldn’t they naturally take a break and talk about their goals? Especially after fighting tons of monsters and having only a vague idea of where they are right now? “Oh yeah, that’s right we were supposed to be looking for a town. Got it.”

The NPCs are varied; they can be witty, ignorant, friendly, boring or insightful. Conversations get to the point while also showing a layer of depth. You can encounter them to get what you need, but you can also see that they make an internal sense. The first time around I only chatted with the people I came across, but later I searched everyone out just to see what they said. Their responses paint a diverse picture of people’s attitudes and priorities. You know, like real people do.

198-experienceThere are a number of puzzles and problems to overcome, all of which kept me guessing but not too much. You have to pay attention to what you’re doing, but you can eventually figure things out. This creates a smooth flow from one place to the next while also supporting that the party of adventurers are living an ideal. That’s romanticism that easily glides into your aesthetic sense.

Monsters are often plain weird, disgusting or disturbing. People had a lot of fun putting these things together. There’s thought behind them though—they do require weakness analysis or you might find yourself getting worn down hard or surprised. The potion monster stands out as truly bizarre and puzzling.

Then there is the top notch music. A game like this soars or slogs through the selection of its soundtrack. Often the tracks are hypnotic, poignant, inspiring, or jarring. It opens up your heart to the thrill of what’s going on and the timing can create unexpected moments of elation.

I pulled out Audacity to convert these gems to mp3 so I could experience them outside the game arena. I could listen to this piece all day. That’s a sign that something is going on. The artists such as Monster Cyborg stand up to the best game music out there today.

201-dialogueAn interesting aspect to the strategy of the game is the Impulse characteristic. As characters take damage they gain Impulse, which can be used to fuel a whole subset of special abilities. Some of them are pretty amazing!

After a battle you lose 20% of your Impulse though, so you need to pay attention to the dynamics of a monster fight. This trait means your character does their normal routine, and then over time as the battle progresses, if they survive they start to become inspired and motivated by their ordeal to strike back and triumph. It’s a really nice way to game mechanic a struggle, overcoming adversity, and counterattacking.

So what makes this such an outstanding game? I think ultimately it’s the commitment to depth—the care in crafting a believable internal structure—with the stance of treating all the characters (not just the ones you guide) as fully realized people with agency. It’s that combined pair of ingredients that allows you to experience a fantasy adventure that is both a little bit of a struggle and a whole lot of exciting exhilaration.

200-spoilsI had to play the game again two more times to get a better handle on this quality. Details emerge organically that are linked, many of which you miss as you try to solve the quest cornerstones. There are amazing big moments, but after a third playing I really started to enjoy how much thought went into making sure things hold together.

It’s amazing how different the terrain is with such limited elements. I never felt I was repeating myself even though there were times when I had to return to a similar tileset. It encourages familiarity over time with the useful repetition but keeps surprising you with new applications.

The party characters are really fantastic to play. Their romantic development is a delight to watch unfold; humanized conversancy, passion, and intimacy. They handle inner dilemmas and personal problems with an admirable dedication that hits home with relation to the big questions of life. Game designers should be taking notes here.

The struggle against the attempt to destroy the party by digging into their childhoods and finding their weaknesses is a highpoint with this technique. You get a clever exposition that deepens your appreciation for the characters while having to guide them through their fears.

The part with Chisa actually using this shadow-challenge as a catalyst to master her true strength after hiding herself in fear for half the game—pure storytelling mastery and a thrill. This is how you do it, folks.

The villains are well-developed too. There is complexity and nuance in how they express themselves, with more than a few surprises. A large part of conquering evil in this game is about conquering it in ourselves and having the courage to continue on, while also dispelling outmoded models of the past that are lingering way past their time. Now there’s a romantic message on many levels if I ever saw one!

204-party-exploreWhen I contemplate a party made up of queer women who all share a certain outsider status (with different backgrounds on that aspect) and take it into myself as an aspect of play, I find this game reveals a really extraordinary and inspiring journey of self discovery during a time of danger, romance, and testing. This is greatness in art and in culture.

It isn’t utterly perfect. Not all the music fits, but I have to admit this is personal preference talking now and may not be a flaw since the game embodies such a large diorama of places and people here. Other than Karuna I didn’t see very many people of color, but they are there if you look (I checked). Hyperawareness of tropes and the use of ironic humor in some of the NPCs and characters might strike some people as off; I found it suits the character of the game marvelously.

However, these are weaksauce criticisms. The overall effect is beautiful. Believe in love, believe in friendship, and believe in yourself. These things are real and they can happen. This is what the highest forms of expression return us to when they are fresh, vital, and true to the open panorama of life. Cake and prizes are there and they can be had with a wholesome approach and a bit of light ordeal.

Cannot recommend this enough. This is a master crafted experience of human discovery.

5 out of 5 Stars of the Magi

190-bridesmaid-for-hireThere’s a new romance author in town and she’s a real ace with her squirtgun. Pretty good with a pen too.

I picked up a copy of Anne Wagener’s debut novel and dove into the story. I’m pleased to have found a book that is a positive, funny, and doesn’t shy away from characters that matter.

The basic character and setting is this: young woman hires herself out as a bridesmaid. Adventures ensue and coming of age is achieved.

The protagonist, Piper Brody, is lost in a circling pattern as her life floats free of her college intermediary jump to adulthood. She’s stuck in the limbo of a boring, low paying job with a creep boss. Meanwhile, her best friend and roommate Lin is moving into a serious relationship with his chef boyfriend.

Going broke, she decides to pursue a course of becoming a bridesmaid for hire. From that moment forward her life begins to unfold and Piper discovers new friendship and hope for the future. She also finds a new romantic prospect—a gentle, fellow writer named Charlie who thrills and inspires her.

The antagonist is a toxic ex-girlfriend of Charlie’s named Holly who refuses to let go and is determined to marry Charlie despite anyone’s self interest (including her own). Backing her up is a mother who is a local politician with an eye for power and domination. Can Piper save the day as bridesmaid in Charlie and Holly’s demon wedding? Hilarity and tension ensue.

The things that stood out most to me are the author’s great turns of phrase, astute eye for detail, and smart choices in timing. These techniques really serve the story well and give the narrative ammunition a lot of punch and momentum. Best of all, the protagonist makes hard choices and resolves the story so there’s an actual ending.

Piper is a likable protagonist. She’s spontaneous, determined, and caring. She has a strong reckless streak owing to her lack of confidence in herself. Part of her development involves finding her anger and standing up for herself—then she is capable of bravery in the face of horrible behavior.

She’s also surrounded by wonderful supporting characters. The relationships between them are solid and reveal all sorts of interesting things about their inner workings. I’m a big relationship junkie, so I love watching characters interact with each other and this story delivers on that.

The book is loaded with kooky and absurd moments of humor. I laughed out loud a lot, there were so many great phrases. I plan to use “emotional panty line” and “Grover Clevelanded” for myself in the future.

Not just funny quotes though, but some fantastic moments of writing insight worth pondering in-story. The author has a rich and powerful imaginative space inside of her. I think people who enjoy underlining favorite passages will have a blast with this book.

The book is definitely a page-turner, filled with fun and nail-biting excitement. There’s a larger, more important subtext in the book though. Piper is a manifestation of the idea of the maiden as subversive.

There’s a scene in the book where Holly’s politician mother Lena attempts to explain the facts of life about bridesmaids to Piper, in an attempt to dominate our plucky heroine into submission and obedience. That a bridesmaid is a handmaiden, or servant, and therefore a non-person.

That’s getting the visible face of the role right, but it’s an incorrect conclusion. Lena only sees half the story and so doesn’t understand why the bridesmaid is a servant (and thus what it means). It’s a fatal error to make at a moment when her plan is about to come to fruition.

There is another side to the bridesmaid in the internal world. In Roman times, the bridal party all dressed alike, and the bridesmaid was intended as a decoy to fool evil spirits. The idea was that evil spirits would not be able to find the real bride and would jack the bridesmaid instead, freeing the bride to have a trouble free wedding and begin life on a positive note.

This is where the idea of the bridesmaid as friend, confidante, and trusted helper comes from. Rather than a bauble for an aristocrat, she becomes a bodyguard and protector. How bad ass is that?

When you combine the external and internal face, what emerges is a feminine version of The Fool. The Fool is free to move as she pleases, unimpeded by convention and capable of both hilarity and heroism.

I think that idea should be explored just on principle. The bridesmaid lends her body as a status symbol, but her soul is a crucial support—this is reinforced again and again in the text of the book. Piper helps those who need help, and throws a monkey wrench into the mix when bad heads are causing trouble.

This is very relevant culturally. It occurs to me that women need to see the internal face of this role as much as the external one. That there is something exciting, helpful and courageous underlying the bridesmaid.

And it occurs to me that men could also benefit from having an experience of this hidden side of the bridesmaid. Like the Fool, she works in the wings and out of direct sight—sometimes a helper and sometimes a hindrance, but also an agent towards helping men become more conscious of their own choices.

I mean, if I were a bride, I would feel so much better knowing there was a hidden secret ninja agent performing tricks and shenanigans to keep me safe from evil spirits. How cool is that?

Top notch.

5 out of 5 Stars of the Magi

178_cryptworldfrontlawnYou can never tell when you’re going to find the gold. Just the other day I ran into a cool little free indie game by Cicada Marionette, with a smashing soundtrack by Ella Guro aka Liz Ryerson. There’s also a Lilith in there, among several others.

It’s an exploratory and simple puzzle solving first person funfest that reminds me of a very primitive DOOM without firepower. The action is mainly internal as you uncover the world’s secrets and accomplish your goals.

And what a world it is—a surreal, disturbing, nonsensical nightmare world of messed up people and situations. Everyone is selfish, stupid, deluded or unfriendly.

179_cryptworldpeeYou are the only person, it seems, who has any agency. Your main ability is the ability to pee—a curious choice that is both ridiculous and a secret clue to the primordial mythology of every heroic journey.

A unicorn goddess has awakened you to find her missing plot coupons before her evil rival blows up her messed up nightmare world out of self-centered grief. Meanwhile, a monstrous chaos god waits for a chance to break free and turn the nightmare world into a really boring and empty nightmare world.

Life is rough when you’re the protagonist with the deciding vote.

The graphics are blocky, pixelated old school images that recall the simple programs of the salad days of video game design. The gameplay has to rise to the occasion in such a case, and delightfully it does.

180_cryptworldcryptsofaYou gather resources, do fed-ex quests, and click around looking for clues. This isn’t as easy or as ho hum as you might think. Everything about this game is warped to some degree, often against assumptions.

For example, you come across an underground fast food cafeteria inhabited by ghoulish skeleton people. They all appear to be worshipping the counter where the fast food is dispensed, like a group of cultists.

It’s an obvious mockery of fast food, and one could easily take it as an attempt to be disdainful while hiding behind a ‘just kidding’ façade. But the detail of the conversations with the burger cultists—the attention paid to the material—suggests that a lot of serious thought went into the observations that were articulated in this scene in the game.

That’s both disturbing and a valid, relevant statement. You are witness to a scene of unconscious horror that makes you question whether this world is worth saving. Who would want to save this dispensary of banality and mindlessness?

181_cryptworldpilgrimeshopThe soundtrack really makes the game. The sound effects are calculated to throw you off and undermine your expectations. Again, it may seem like the gameplay is just being funny or difficult, but it’s consistent throughout the entire experience. This is a statement of building cognitive dissonance. I applaud this commitment.

The music is at times sad, alarming, or pensive. It matches the game world perfectly. Approaching the unicorn goddess to give her a status update, you’re surrounded in an unearthly dirge that approximates being in the presence of a divine being. It’s eerie and beautiful, a small master stroke of game genius.

Then she tells you to buzz off if you haven’t got all the plot coupons and you shamble away. Who wants to help such a difficult and ungrateful being? Yet, why not? It does make a certain irrational sense.

Later, nearby you discover a corpse in a coffin who tells you how annoyed they are that that goddess is always playing her music so loud. They can’t get any sleep!

182_cryptworldtunnelsYou have to decide what all this means.

I found the music and the graphic blob of what I presume is some kind of unicorn or pony a strange experience that stays with you in a really powerful way.

But then, when you look at it objectively through her treatment of you and the opinion of one of her own denizens, you realize it’s also mundane and grounded in imperfection.

You know, I want a game to move me. I want it to be fun. I want it to make some kind of internal sense. Crypt World hits all of these for me. Unforgettable scenes, inventive ideas with some bite to them, relaxed gameplay that draws you in, and a storyline that evokes a mostly broken world limping along.

Just when the bitter nihilism gets to be a little too much, the game shows you a small piece of beauty. Rescue the gold bugs and they build a stunning temple in your basement honoring your heroism. Eat enough fast food and you unlock a passage to a mysterious retreat within your own being. These are oddball discoveries that are deeply touching and a reward for staying with the game.

I had to keep playing just to unlock some of the more accessible mysteries.

Is Crypt World a place I’d want to be? Hek no, talk about a depressing, bizarre place. You know though, a lot of the concepts in the game are worth meditating on. That we have all lost our way, maybe for good, is an important idea to consider.

The mirror the game presents us with reveals some unsettling reflections. The best you can hope for is to be a pawn of the gods, which allows you self-determination within a very limited scope.

Then there is everyone else, trapped in their private game trap of saying and doing the same thing over and over. And maybe some positive thinking protagonist will change the world a little for the better so that what you repeat is at least decent.

Scary, isn’t it?

Mainstream games like Okami or Rune Factory Frontier are in almost every measurable sense better than a game like Crypt World. They too can bring important moments to the forefront of our consciousness even though they are many times more complex and polished.

But as in mythology, the basic experiences are the most important and powerful ones of all. Pee, poop, spit—These things are transformative and have the true magic that moves things forward.

As much as I love those two mainstream games, I was never able to finish them. Too much of a good thing. Crypt World I finished several times. Just right.

Crypt World operates in the realms of the underworld of our consciousness, much like a dream. It’s an impressive achievement that demonstrates the value of originality, vision, and determination in crafting gameplay. I had a very satisfying and enriching time with this quirky little gem.

5 out of 5 Stars of the Magi

And tips his hat.

In many fairy tales, childhood is the worst time of your life. This is worth pondering.

A brave and plucky life simulation computer game known as Long Live The Queen dares to take on the challenge of allowing you to explore this possibility, as experienced by a princess faced with adapting to a brutal adult world at court. It’s an extraordinary stance to play with in a market where franchises, sequels and reboots are all that matter.

Your mother (the queen) has died and your father has his hands full keeping the kingdom from falling apart outright. You have been sheltered by your parents so much you know literally nothing at all about the life skills needed to survive in high society.

Your father (the king) has arranged for you to be in complete command of your education with the finest tutors. You have but to select what two courses you take each week to steadily increase your abilities, knowledge, and experience. On the weekends you are free to pursue your own interests. In a little less than a year you will be old enough to officially assume the throne as queen and restore stability to the country.

As in many fairy tales, there are three daunting obstacles you must overcome.

First, every adult you meet is out to kill or manipulate you. That includes your father. You literally cannot trust anyone. People will try to use your influence to strengthen their own plots, attempt to assassinate you for reasons you have no idea exist, or just prevent you from reaching certain goals that conflict with theirs.

Second, you are still a child with very little control of your emotions. You must master your intense reactions to events and carefully think about the cost to your mood when you take action. Otherwise, your education will suffer and you’ll be pulled along by events instead of steering them toward your survival.

Third, you don’t have time to learn how to do everything that is required of you. There are not enough lulls in the action to allow you to close all the gaps in your vulnerabilities. Many of your opportunities will be lost, often without you knowing they were even there. You’ll need to make hard choices about what to focus on to be effective.

Good luck, kid.

The game is very unforgiving on the cruelty scale. Every choice you make has a cost. Decisions come back to haunt you later. Often you don’t know you’re in a dead end until you’re way past the point of no return. Maybe you should have spent that earlier time to learn Accounting after all. Save often and keep several waypoints looking backwards.

It’s harsh, but it makes a very strong point—you are in trouble and scarce equal to the demands thrust upon you. The alternative to victim is equally harsh though: What are you becoming as you get closer to your goal of reaching your own coronation?

I like it. Too often games don’t have the guts to face you with yourself through the choices you make ‘as if’ you were in a situation. Escapism is a noble and necessary form of play, but sometimes we need to be thrust into the haunted house. There are some forms of hypersensitive play with deep value that we may be losing out on. Long Live The Queen doesn’t let this path go unexplored.

Hanako Games have long been masters of the resource currency system. In games such as Cute Knight or Magical Diary decisions about where to take action and allocate points make for incredible gameplay. You need to be strategic and aware of how your choices affect the state of your character.

In Long Live The Queen this becomes manifest in the management of your mood characteristics. You control your mood both by taking actions during the story and by weekend activities such as attending court or visiting the dungeons.

Different moods give you bonuses and penalties to your education during the game. For example, if you are cheerful it is easier to learn many social skills. If you are willful instead of yielding, you will find it more difficult to learn critical court skills. But negative emotions can also be useful! Depression helps you learn artistic expression and being afraid helps you learn reflexes.

Mastering the balance of your mood swings is critical to a successful game.  It determines the speed at which you learn and at times what skills you can study at all. Every week of study counts; a streak of feeling pressured can be disastrous at the wrong time.

The choices you make in your education are the other part of your character’s agency.  What you choose to study will influence how you solve problems. You can’t fight off the bandits without some archery skill, but maybe it’s better to have enough skill in internal affairs to find out who sent them against you in the first place.

The level of a skill determines your options during the story—a high enough skill level in an applicable situation can give you more choices and provide you with information about what is happening. For example, knowing enough about what accepting a noble’s gift means will allow you to choose whether or not to accept it. Otherwise, you’ll blindly accept it (ooh shiny…) and commit to a course of action that may not suit you.

If you gain enough overall ability in a group of skills, you unlock an appropriate outfit. When you wear this outfit, say the Tea Dress, your conversation skills will get a bonus. Also, once you reach a certain level many skills give you additional options during the weekend. These activities may be used to make small adjustments to your mood.

It can be a huge help to have the option to play tennis at a competent level and blow off steam, increasing your confidence.

The game world itself is detailed and intricate, with a web of personal agendas that takes a lot of play to parse out. It has magical powers, mysterious creatures, and divinatory portents. There are secrets buried all throughout the realm. You’ll have to gain skill in the right areas to learn about the details. Or find out the hard way when you encounter things first hand right before you’re killed!

The descriptions of the skill levels as you earn them are elegant and to the point. I often felt I was learning a first class primer on music, history and cryptography as my young queen-to-be advanced. The interface is solid and the music is appropriate and subtle. You really start to feel as if you’re moving through a court of high pedigree and opportunity.

It’s an outstanding game. The premise is well developed and the gameplay is excellent. However, it has greater value than just being worth your time and money. There’s a powerful statement here implicit in how the game portrays a girl finding the strength to overcome the crushing expectations of the society in which she lives.

What kind of adult do you want to be? This is gobsmackingly important and relevant stuff in a world where girls flock to Bluebeard tales such as Twilight—where being a valued, infantilized object is the best you can hope for. This game pulls no punches in what you as a girl must face if you are to develop into the whole woman you are capable of.

It’s a twisted and warped labyrinth that requires you to continually reexamine what is most important to you. How will you pass through the landmarks of your journey without becoming someone else’s doll? Growing into a mature, whole adult capable of taking one’s place in the world is often a profoundly personal secret. This game reproduces that process in a way that is inviting, meaningful, and fun.

You don’t need to identify as female to find value in this game either. There are lessons here that males can take hold of and make hay on if they choose to introspect. Some of the experiences are universal—in the beginning you are full of possibilities, but should you reach the next stage of life (your coronation) you have undergone a highly individual ordeal of liminal transformation.

This is the fulfilled promise of computer games taking their place among the highest art forms possible by human beings. The contemporary era is a bleak wasteland devoid of meaningful rites of passage, save for diamonds in the rough such as this.

5 out of 5 Stars of the Magi.

I heard tell that without gospel there would be no rock and roll. I believe it’s true.

At some point, all great bands do an album of covers and jamming experiments. It’s inevitable; you need to return to your influences and work out their place in your musical development.

The acoustic elf-metal band CRIME and the Forces of Evil released an album of their turn at this kind of exploration and I’m warmly surprised. Usually this sort of thing is just not interesting to me at all, yet here I am energized by the exposure.

Total respect to them for having a lighthearted romp through their roots because this is important work. It’s an affirmation and a blessing to work through what has gone before and make it your own. The expressions of music belong to all of us, but if they aren’t renewed they fade from our spirit.

I loved their previous album, so I was expecting this to be a waypoint—a kind of rest stop to catch their breath and power up for the next round of discovery. Covers of standard issue favorites ho-hum, whatever. Boy was I completely wrong!

First off, these musicians have clearly improved since last time. How is that even possible when the last album was so good? There’s confidence in this collection, and that means this time they just sit back and have a riot of fun. Humor, camaraderie, loving life—the songs are well established but CRIME makes these songs pay.

They’ve been playing live long enough now that they are getting some serious chops. Some of the songs are live and sound fantastic. They bring in guest stars, another sign of leveling up, and while “Red is the Rose” is my least favorite song I still must say Leannan Sidhe sounds every bit as good as a mainstream act like Loreena McKinnitt.

When I hear “Old Black Rum” I find myself drawn in by the sheer fun of it all. It might be the best song about drinking I’ve heard yet. The elf spirit kindles a human passion for hanging out with your friends and singing along, or if you drink alone the recursive pleasure of roaming the hallways of your inner self in warm joy.

The first song, “Song for a Blockade Runner/High Barbaree” is the highlight and easily the strongest song—such great lines and pirate attitude—but don’t overlook “Hove in Long Beach”. A great beat and good fun music to feed the soul. Howl it!

“Paddy Murphy” rules. Best rhymes ever, with such a playfulness I can’t imagine a better funeral romp. Then there’s “I’m A Rover,” which is so singable it gets stuck in your head for days. “Columbia” is objectively the weakest song, but it is still wistful, beautiful and real.

The last official track, “Dalek Boy” is an outtake of sorts, with the musicians all speaking in mechanical voices as they try to cooperate long enough to do a rendition of “Danny Boy.” The absurdity of the track distinctly establishes this album as belonging to the irreverent humor that the group is developing a persona around.

There’s an element of public disobedience inherent in the songs, of being a lowdown outsider who is unapproved of by the rulers. In a way this is just what a gathering of super-villains actually is: ordinary people with extraordinary viewpoints hearing the call to gather into an assembly and defy authority that serves only a few superheroes and their estates. Hanging out in the pub singing songs might be the most dangerous place on earth for the League of Justice for the Fortunate Few.

This is how a band builds a catalog of items worth owning. Holy cow, can that be true? Keep your eyes on these folks.

5 out of 5 Stars of the Magi.

Traveling carnivals and liminal spaces; mix well to create a mystery ride.

I played an amusement park game for kicks because I’m a sitting duck when it comes to the carnie pitch. Strangely enough, I won an emerald ticket to the mermaid tent and found myself reading a most curious book.

It is presented as a diary of impressions, with evocative photographs that offer a theme to each chapter. You are pulled along by the narrative and facedwith an organic labyrinth of the senses that rapidly disorients and alarms.

The reader and protagonist switch points of view; at times you are the voyeur, other times you are participant. How ghastly! The horror is imminent and personal. Denial or humor may dull the pain.

The only cure is to listen. Under the immediate tumult is the story of an anxious and compelling internal experience; a young woman discovering her shadow and the trauma of understanding her soul’s growth.

Dive into the depths and what you really have is the journey of Kore through the underworld. Plunge, hunt, rise. This is hard core stuff. People lose minds, innocence and teeth on journeys like these. Sometimes they don’t even leave a corpse.

To allow ourselves to feel for another is to open the door to terrible risk. Invasion by a vampire or a bluebeard are just one possibility. We might be swept away by divine brutality and carried off into an otherworld which is beyond human understanding.

It’s distressingly relevant today. Having an experience of the mermaid and the unredeemed passions of the underworld without being blasted to pieces is a serious human issue. All of us are in need of wizards who can show us what is in our being and how it is understood. Making more conscious choices might be the best tool we have.

The author is no slouch. She can craft a solid sentence and handle the whopper fish with the respect and skill for the inner ocean that makes it look easy. Her grasp of photography is stunning when you consider how much goes into the capture of a compelling image.

I had to dig around though; something told me this kung fu master had a few more concealed tricks in reserve. Multimedia competency and honed artistic talent are impressive accomplishments, but I felt I was missing some context.

To say the author knows her stuff is an understatement. Looking up photos from the book on her Flickr sets or watching the YouTube videos she’s posted, it gradually becomes clear to me she has a Leonardo’s Workshop thing going on. Master model of disguise, Doctor of creativity, Sage of academic standards, Ace crafter—I could go on, but I’m satisfied.

The book reaches me on a personal level because I’ve been through the underworld myself. Finding the other you is no mean feat. I have to admit I was afraid of where the book was going about half way through—finding one’s way to the center and out again often seems to me to be a rare moment in art. How exciting to see that I’m not alone!

The turbid darkness of it does make for some tough reading. Prose like this needs to be savored, and reexamined in order to extract the full meaning. In real life the labyrinth is a constant series of marking and re-marking of your path. I just don’t know if I could come back to this book; it’s that harrowing.

Indeed, the text itself indicates that the heroine hates aspects of the journey, that she wants it to be over with. Don’t I know it—preach sister! One ticket is enough for anyone, just like an everlasting gobstopper.

It’s too soon to tell with a work like this whether the text is built like that or whether there really is bounty. There are works of art that make a mark on you, and you don’t need to experience them again because they have served their purpose. Either way is valid, and worth whatever you paid for your psychic increase.

Remove the glamor and you have something most freakish: something ordinary and wholesome. Real food that feeds the soul and restores us to ourselves. Superbly well done.

5 out of 5 stars of the Magi.

Rat droppings. That’s what all art is made of.

If you can’t taste it, then the art is bland and no damn good. If that’s all you can taste, then the art is garbage and only good for flybaiting.

The true struggle for civilization lies in between those extremes, in seeking ways to express and adapt to life that awakens our senses and stimulates our thinking. The Wizards show us how by demonstrating their unstoppable powers, so that craphounds may learn the proper application of rat droppings.

Except many folks don’t want to know what the secret ingredient is. Many of them would prefer others not know as well.

Nick Mamatas is unafraid to tell us the nasty truth about rat droppings in the writing industry. His book Starve Better lays out a series of essays and commentary on his experiences clawing for survival as a writer.

The book is done well, which surprised me. I knew the content would be good, but everything is arranged nicely and in relational order. Each essay has an aside text as if Nick himself were psyching you up for the punching you’re about to take. He’s in your corner, even as he faces you with the champion.

Get ready for your fantasy projections to take some hits though. Nick’s stories reveal the world of writing as a mean, exploitative business filled with dishonesty and confusion. There are opportunities for subsistence, but they take discipline and self-understanding to see clearly.

How else would you find rat droppings? Not from the multitudes of distracted and wrong-headed amateurs buying the image as they dash off like mice to the tune of a phony game show like Jumping for Dollars.

I love the craphounds. I love them like junk food sliders. But crumbs! We need to recognize that crap is where the flavor is, and if your entertainment has any value at all then I’ll bet you’ve got some dirt in there. It pays to face this fact.

Nick doesn’t stop there, even though revelations would be enough. He takes the time to seed his text with genuine insight and intelligent reasoning. You learn not just that things are seedy or absurd, but also why and how to make these features into a tool. Often, just knowing the trick exists is enough for you to be able to use it.

For example, his analysis of perfection as a false goal is spot on. Screwing up or having gaps can be an advantage once you recognize it as an inevitable process. Completeness, that is, a flavor that is all your own—a secret sauce—comes from understanding when to stop chasing the pearl. This shows Nick to be a kung fu master already.

You need tips? If you take his advice on listening you’ll recognize that everything a writer is exposed to is useful. This applies to his stories in the book as well. From figuring out how to do dialogue, to avoiding your story’s failure just before the finish line, you’ll find gems of insight.

His best piece of advice might be to pick a direction—to choose a publishing outlet and act on it. Too many folks get frozen in fear because of their hang ups. Nick shows you that yes it’s tough out there, but so what? Do it anyway! You’ll learn something, gain confidence, and have a few laughs regardless of how you do.

Because you won’t find any rat droppings or how to mix your secret sauce by sitting around trying to finish that last sentence just right. You’ll only be one more desiccated writer corpse for the sucker wagon. Next in line please! Have your blood and soul card ready.

How well will all this hold up over time? I suspect a lot of it will still remain crucial reading for some while. The world is a gruesome place more than it’s pretty, and certain fundamentals of needing to know how things actually work as opposed to what people are expected to believe never seems to change. That makes this book a desperate breath of fresh air.

If you’re a writer, then at least after reading this book you’ll understand better the reasons you are starving to the crisp. Your choices, right or wrong, will be better informed and more conscious—and that alone is reason enough to celebrate.

If you’re not a writer, the book is valuable as a snapshot of many of the things wrong with education, the arts, and human consciousness in general. Rat droppings are not going away.

5 out of 5 stars of the Magi.