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Media Review – June 2019

Posted in Blog, Media Review

I could not possibly be more overdue with these, but I’ll get them done sooner or later. Let’s talk books (and game)!

Books: The High Window, Frogkisser!, The Lady in the Lake, Neverwhere

Games: Monsters’ Den: Godfall

You know the drill by now, so let’s go.

Books

The High Window by Raymond Chandler (1942)

The High Window is the third Philip Marlowe book, where he gets a case from an extremely unpleasant woman to find a rare coin that has gone missing–presumably stolen. As many of these stories go, the case quickly gets more complicated and ends up involving blackmail, murder, fraud, and abuse.

This is the book that lays out the thesis of Philip Marlowe’s morality about as plainly as it can get. I don’t recall if I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it now and in the future: a large part of what makes Philip Marlowe so compelling is that he’s a fundamentally good person. He’s cynical and tired and rough around the edges, but he is, at his very core, honorable and morally compelled to do the right thing. A large portion of the book involves Marlowe realizing that one of the characters has been sexually assaulted in the past and trying to help her get out of an abusive situation without making things worse. When she’s nearly delirious and goes to get help from him at his apartment, he gets a doctor to figure out what’s up with her and then gets a female nurse to take care of her overnight while he goes to stay in a hotel for the night because he understands that hey, she’d probably be more comfortable not sleeping in the same place as a man. The ending of the book, not to spoil anything, involves him removing her from an abusive environment just because he thinks that’s the right thing to do.

I mentioned last month that if you name your book The [blank] Window, someone had better be falling out of or getting murdered in a window, and I am pleased to report that this book also fulfills my expectations. The incident is very plot-important so I won’t discuss it in detail, but suffice to say, someone does fall out of a window in this book.

I think this is around the time where I realized that Marlowe has a lot of bad habits. He doctors crime scenes. He pokes his nose into places where it’s not appreciated. He destroys evidence and lets murderers go. It’s really no wonder that the police hate his guts, especially considering how many times he ends up reporting murders to them–like many fictional detectives, Philip Marlowe has a magical field around him that causes people to get murdered in his vicinity. Taking this conversation back to Marlowe’s morality, it’s pretty clear that Marlowe doesn’t consider the law to be the moral standard, because he breaks it all the time. It’s obvious that he makes judgement calls on all the murderers he runs into–Carol Lundgren gets chased down and turned in, but Carmen Sternwood is let go with the promise that she’s put somewhere for her mental health. In The High Window, Marlowe doctors a crime scene to look like a suicide but still goes to confront the actual killer just to tell him everything he knows that happened. That said, it’s hard to say too much about Marlowe’s judgement calls in these books because almost every time the most morally reprehensible characters end up dead.

Anyways, by this point I don’t think I need to make recommendations for the Philip Marlowe books. If you like the other ones you’ll like this one, and I do.

Frogkisser! by Garth Nix (2017)

Frogkisser! is a book that I picked up at the library because it’s written by Garth Nix, who also wrote Sabriel and the other Old Kingdom books. Unlike the Old Kingdom books, Frogkisser! is a fairy tale sort of story. It’s also in the genre of self-aware fairy tale stories, along with books like Howl’s Moving Castle. The premise on the inside of the book jacket is that a princess needs to go on a quest to make magical lip balm which can undo magical transmogrification without needing true love, and while she’s at it, save the kingdom from her step-stepfather (aka her non-evil stepmom’s new husband) who’s an evil sorcerer who wants to take over the kingdom. As you’d expect, she’s got a ragtag group of companions including a talking dog, a thief who’s been sort of turned into a newt, and an otter who’s been sort of turned into a human. As you do.

As you can probably tell from that description, Frogkisser! is a little bit tongue-in-cheek, playing with a lot of the tropes that come with fairy tale sorts of stories. There’s a Good Wizard, there’s a band of noble thieves, there’s heralds and magic and sorcerers and witches and dwarves. It’s definitely not a story that takes itself too seriously, but it’s not without substance, either. The main plot of the story has to do with Anya (the more sensible of two princesses) on her quest to make magic lipbalm to un-frogify a prince, but also picks up threads about the kingdom’s past and the One Stone, which has within it The Bill of Rights and Wrongs, the old laws of the land which includes stuff like the right to a fair trial. So part of Anya’s journey is meeting a lot of people and learning about how she’ll one day need to rule her kingdom and perhaps unite all the small kingdoms into the grand one that it used to be, without incredible class disparity and abuse of commoners.

I found Frogkisser! a fun read. It’s as well-written as any of the other books that Garth Nix writes, and it’s refreshing to read a story that is not 95% male characters–Garth Nix, here as in his other stories, casually and without commentary includes non-male and non-white characters of varying importance and roles. It’s a story that can juggle its lighthearted setting and characters and handles serious themes while keeping its lightness all the way to the end, and I think it’s definitely worth reading if you want something standalone and a little magical.

The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler (1943)

Apparently I read two Philip Marlowe books this month. The Lady in the Lake, not to be confused with Lady in the Lake, a book that came out very recently, is the fourth Philip Marlowe book and is the one that I think of as the one that has a plot that most resembles an Ace Attorney case. Which is to say, without spoiling anything, the plot of this book is even more ridiculous than the standard Philip Marlowe book.

The basic setup for the plot is thus: Philip Marlowe’s hired by a rich guy named Derace Kingsley (because Chandler has a thing for weird names, I guess) to find his wife who has gone missing. Marlowe goes to Kingsley’s cabin in a small mountain town to check it out and finds out that another dude, Bill Chess, also has a wife who went missing around the same time…and then they go down to the lake and find a corpse in it, which happens to be Bill Chess’s wife. Things spiral out from there.

This is the first of the Philip Marlowe books to acknowledge WWII and its effect on everyday life, which makes sense because Chandler apparently wrote this book around the time when Pearl Harbor happened. It’s a little surreal, reading stories from the thirties and forties and knowing about the history that would happen after those stories were written. Sometimes, especially with Chandler’s work, you can understand a lot about what he writes based on the context of the time and some of the things that happened in his life. I say ‘especially with Chandler’s work’ because Chandler had a chip on his shoulder the size of the moon while writing these books and he used his stories as a way to complain about whatever he was pissed off about at the time, whether that was corruption, police brutality, or Hollywood. I don’t think there’s anything wrong about writing about contemporary topics–for a genre of crime fiction that takes place very much in the present, it’s pretty par for the course. But I guess I’m just saying it’s odd to think about how these stories are colored by the context of the times, and how different it is to read them now versus when it was released.

This is also the book where it became most apparent to me that Philip Marlowe is probably not straight. I don’t know if writing Marlowe as bisexual or otherwise queer was intentional on Chandler’s part, but Chandler was clearly aware of queer identities and of putting them into his books (if euphemistically and not really in the best light as you might expect from someone in the early 1900s) and it is a very consistent thing that Marlowe often takes note of the beauty of both men and women, and more to the point, there’s no platonic, heterosexual way to spin the way he describes Chris Lavery, an unpleasant man whom he has only just met:

Lavery swung the door shut and sat on the davenport. He grabbed a cigarette out of a hammered silver box and lit it and looked at me irritably. I sat down opposite him and looked him over. He had everything in the way of good looks the snapshot had indicated. He had a terrific torso and magnificent thighs. His eyes were chestnut brown and the whites of them slightly gray-white. His hair was rather long and curled a little over his temples. His brown skin showed no signs of dissipation. He was a nice piece of beef, but to me that was all he was. I could understand that women would think he was something to yell for.

…I mean, really.

Anyways, The Lady in the Lake is a very enjoyable read. If you’ve gotten this far into the Philip Marlowe books, you might as well keep going.

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman (1996)

Here’s a confession: I’ve always been a kind of low-key fan of Neil Gaiman. Not necessarily because I love all his stories (though they are good) or because I’ve read all of them (I haven’t). It’s because Neil Gaiman is basically the author I want to be one day–someone who writes a bunch of one-off stories about things that appeal specifically to the author, and be able to work within multiple mediums and hang out with cool people who are just as interested in writing as I am. Gaiman’s got his thing about gods and monsters and generally fucked-up stuff happening to random dudes, and I can appreciate that.

I read this sometime around when everyone was getting into Good Omens again due to the TV series, which I still have not seen and don’t really intend to, and I mostly picked it up because I remembered seeing it or hearing about it a long time ago and figured I might as well give it a read. Which is to say, before reading this book, I had no idea what it was about, except that London is involved at some point.

Well, it’s about a guy named Richard Mayhew who’s a weenie with an unfulfilling relationship and job he doesn’t really like that much who ends up helping a weird girl named Door and then finds that he’s basically been deleted from the world because nobody recognizes him or talks to him, which is admittedly a pretty rough start to your week. A bunch of fucked-up stuff happens from there as Richard, Door, and their other traveling companions go on a trip through London Below to stop the people who are trying to murder Door.

It would be remiss of me to not talk about London Below, since it’s basically the whole premise of the book. Basically, London Below is where people sometimes go when they slip through the cracks, and there’s a little bit magical and a little bit horrific about it. There’s people who talk to rats, there’s people who have strange magical Talents, there’s people who aren’t quite people at all, and they’re all in a very grimy, cutthroat, underground society through places like the London Underground. There’s a number of puns having to do with places in London, such as Knightsbridge/Night’s Bridge, and Blackfriars/Black Friars, but I (not being familiar with London) have no way of knowing all of them. An analogous system for a city like Chicago probably wouldn’t work so well, since places in Chicago don’t have fun names that lend themselves to puns. But my point is, Neverwhere is, as many of Neil Gaiman’s books are, extremely local.

Reading Neverwhere, I got a lot of Un Lun Dun vibes, which is unsurprising considering that Un Lun Dun was inspired by Neverwhere. I think there’s a very particular flavor of urban fantasy that focuses on crumbling cities and grimy people with knives and unknowable monsters crawling through the cracks. It’s presumably a flavor that appeals because cities are human spaces, much more than any other location could be, and where going out to the woods and getting murdered by a demon is caused by bad choices on your part, getting murdered by a demon in a city is the demon invading your territory. By the same token, there’s something fantastic about a hidden city that’s out to murder you. It’s the unfamiliar within the familiar, and it’s the unknown wrapped in a place you do know.

So what about the actual story? Well, it’s good. There’s deceit and murder and cunning people who are always trying to get the better of other people. Richard is mostly being dragged along because he got roped into it, but eventually he comes into his own as a member of the party and a linchpin of the whole plot (though strictly speaking, things probably would have been fine if he’d died, except for a few other main character deaths, but at least the world wouldn’t end). I like the characters–they’re all interesting and they play off of each other nicely, and most of them have their own agendas, which is always spicy.

I think that if you enjoy Neil Gaiman’s work, you’ll find a lot of what he has in his other stories in here. Shadowy figures, murder, monsters, fucked-up stuff happening to people who probably don’t deserve it, and a richly constructed world on the underside of London. I enjoyed Neverwhere, and if these things appeal to you, you probably will, too.

Games

Monsters’ Den: Godfall (2017)

Back in the day when Flash games were really popular (though maybe they’re still popular now, I wouldn’t know), I played a lot of games on Kongregate and Armor Games, and definitely one of my favorite games from those days was Monsters’ Den: The Book of Dread. I can’t exactly say why I enjoyed it so much, except that I enjoy dungeon crawlers and it passed a lot of time.

For the uninitiated, Monsters’ Den is a turn-based dungeon crawler. You have a party of four characters from a number of classes with unique skills and abilities, and you trawl a procedurally-generated dungeon floor and fight monsters and collect equipment and continue down the floors until you fight the final boss. And then you can keep playing because it can go on infinitely, or you can stop because you’ve put in enough hours. I think one of the reasons I liked Monsters’ Den was that, despite its fairly primitive assets (the characters were just face portraits, and there were basically no animations) it had a little more complexity than the typical RPG combat. Combat has two opposing fields with six spaces apiece–three in the front rank, three in the back. You can situate your characters anywhere you want in those six spaces, and their weapons and skills determine the spaces they’re able to attack. The spacial element becomes something you need to work around, both offensively and defensively, and it’s something that’s a little more interesting than just saying who attacks who.

Monsters’ Den: Godfall is much like its predecessor, gameplay-wise. The skills system has been changed around a bit and the skills themselves are a bit different now, but the main combat gameplay is basically the same. Now, instead of being an endless dungeon, there’s some sort of story mode where your band of mercenaries travels to cities and complete missions out in the world to gain favor for factions, and also there are some actual character graphics which are honestly kind of ugly (but at least you can actually see the equipment they’re wearing? and you can put in your own custom portraits if you want) and more events added to dungeon crawling.

There’s an overarching story of some sort having to do with some sort of near-apocalyptic god event, but I didn’t manage to play long enough to really see what that was all about. And honestly, I’m not playing Monsters’ Den for the story.

I think that how much you’ll enjoy Monsters’ Den is directly related to how much you enjoyed the combat system of the earlier games, and fortunately the earlier flash games are still available online for free. If you enjoy Monsters’ Den: The Book of Dread, you’ll probably also enjoy Monsters’ Den: Godfall, and it’s up to your discretion to decide if the price for Godfall is worth it.

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