In 2020, I made a post about role playing games that can be played with dreidels. It came to mind again this year because it started getting a lot of attention as Hanukkah approached, and I realized that I ought to do a follow up. Since that original post, I completed my conversion to Judaism and have become a lot more well versed in table-top role playing games.
More importantly, and the point of this post, is that I also found a whole slew of wonderful, independent, Jewish-made role playing games. Below the cut I will give you a break down of those games as well as talk about a few more mainstream games and how I incorporate Jewish elements into PCs I make and the games I run.
Telling me something is gay historical fantasy is like, the fastest way to get my attention when it comes to getting me to read a book. I am gay, I love historical fiction, I love fantasy and the supernatural. Which is to say, when the English translation of “Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation”—“Mo Dao Zu Shi” in the original Chinese—was announced last year, I could not slam the preorder button fast enough. Volume 1 arrived in December and I fell in love instantly. Well, not quite instantly, I didn’t have time to properly read it until January, but my point still stands. The book is fantastic.
From the plot structure to the characters themselves, there is nothing that didn’t draw me in and this is only volume one of five. There are two interconnected plots that you follow through the book: 1. main character Wei Wuxian’s death in the first chapter and the backstory of how that came to be and 2. his resurrection some years later on the cusp of some sinister supernatural happenings. Both plots are really cleverly woven together in that you learn what you need to know of the past when it becomes relevant to the present day, this is done variously through internal monologue, spoken dialogue or actual flashback sequences. It’s great!
To the characters, it’s very difficult to dislike a single character in the book, even when they’re antagonists, because they’re just so well done. I am particularly in love with how character development is established so quickly between past and present. I think my favorite example of this development is Lan Wangji, who we see predominantly from Wei Wuxian’s point of view in this first volume. Wei Wuxian knew how Lan Wangji acted when they were younger and in the present seeks to get similar reactions from him, but this backfires because, in the intervening years, Lan Wangji has grown and changed. We don’t see Lan Wangji’s internal development (at least not in this volume), but it is so clear that growth has happened regardless of whether or not we’ve seen it and it’s just presented in a really excellent and effective way.
The book is also just, really fun. There’s a great balance of what is, in truth, a rather heavy plot and humor. The writing is very good at playing to your emotions and it just feels incredibly human. It’s messy and complicated and it makes for an incredible story.
If you’re wondering “where is the discussion of the gay shit?” It’s interwoven throughout the plot is where it is. “Grandmaster of Demon Cultivation” is very much slow burn when it comes to romance. There were other things going on in the past and there are other things going on in the present. The romance is by no means secondary, but it takes its time, volume one deals very much in obliviousness and pining/yearning. While the most explicit discussion of queerness is the in world homophobia and Wei Wuxian’s attempts use of that to his favor, there is, in my professional experience as a homosexual, a very clear queer yearning as well, it just doesn’t beat you over the head with it, which is fitting given the character it comes from.
One final thing of note is the excellent glossary and character guide at the end of the book. The character guide breaks down Chinese naming conventions and why the same character might be referred to in different ways by different people, and the glossary explains everything from pronunciations to genre terms (danmei, xianxia, wuxia) to various terms that are staples of those genres and might be unfamiliar to a Western audience. I found a decent amount to be discernible through context, but those appendices were still massively helpful. If you were worried about being confused by the names or cultural context, don’t be, the book has got you covered.
So, you’ve watched “The Witcher” on Netflix and are wondering if it’s worth getting into the books. In my humble opinion, yes, yes it is. Now, you shouldn’t go in expecting to read exactly what you watched. That sort of thinking makes no one happy. My recommendation, having only read “The Last Wish” thus far, would be to treat them as two separate, yet complimentary canons.
“The Last Wish” is a short story collection that bounces between Geralt resting and healing at Melitele’s temple with Nenneke and a series of adventures that took place in the past. A framing you will recognize in how the first season of the Netflix show bounced back and forth in time. This first book also covers many of the stories used for the first season: Renfri’s story, Pavetta’s betrothal, meeting Filavandrel, the djinn. Each story is expanded considerably from what we see in the show, which makes sense give the constraints of a TV production, but I think they were very nicely adapted. The djinn storyline in particular I thought was condensed for the Netflix show particularly well without losing too much of the feeling of the original story.
I am also glad that the show added Jaskier/Dandelion to the Pavetta betrothal/child surprise storyline, where he wasn’t in the original story. This change makes sense both in a “giving Jaskier more screen time because he’s an important character” sense, but also because of how they brought together the storyline of the show. In the book, Jaskier/Dandelion appears in several of the stories where Geralt is at the temple of Melitele with Nenneke, stories that aren’t reflected in the show, adding him somewhere else was a good call. All in all, a good change made for a good reason.
On the flip side, I think one of the most interesting things that got lost in translation from book to show was the consistent riffing on classic fairy tales. Renfri is Snow White, her stepmother conspires to get rid of her and then she spends time living with seven gnomes; the Law of Surprise is the miller’s daughter’s promise to Rumplestiltskin made a formal pact with Destiny; Stregobor notes that when he locked girls up in towers, princes would try to rescue them, a la Rapunzel; etc. etc. They’re just wonderful little details that didn’t quite make it into the show, though you can certainly see hints of them, and I greatly enjoyed them every time I came across one.
Not everyone is going to be happy with every change, but to me, “The Last Wish” feels like a particularly excellent example of how a TV/film adaptation of a book/series can make major deviations from the text, while remaining faithful to the story as a whole. Additionally, even without the show, the books are just good. If you’re looking for more of the world of the Witcher, because you liked what the show presented good news! The books are jam packed with all the great world building in the shows and more. They’re serious, they’re funny, Geralt says “What the heck” at one point and I lost it. I cannot emphasize how much you will like the books if you already enjoyed the show.
The books are also selling rather fast at the moment due to the show’s popularity and are backordered in a number of places. I got mine used through independent sellers on Amazon, but I would recommend checking your preferred bookseller first, since these are widely available books.
All of Creation had been completed except for the northern corner of the world. – Howard Schwartz, “Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism”
This bit of Jewish mythology is the foundation for Dani Colman’s fantastic, heart-warming tale, “The Unfinished Corner.” On the eve of becoming a bat mizvah, Miriam, a budding artist, finds herself, her two best friends, and one frenemy, spirited away into the world of Jewish myth, where they meet angels, demons and more; grapple with history both joyous and painful; and finish the titular unfinished corner.
There’s a lot to love about the story from the wonderful art of Rachel Petrovicz to the depth of care given each and every relationship. Something I particularly appreciated was the balance between humor and intense or heavily factual information. Avi, one of Miriam’s friends, is very well read and familiar with the Torah and its commentaries, and he acts as the encyclopedia of the group, giving necessary information to the reader while doing so, but it never stalls the story, and the footnotes (and I use that term loosely here) are brief and only give you what is needed to understand.
It’s made clear, however, that knowledge alone isn’t enough to get them to their end destination. Miriam’s other friend, David, is a pillar of support throughout and is the only one with the ability to produce a proper shofar blast when they need it because of his years of playing the trumpet. Judith, the above mentioned frenemy, who’s only there because she was part of a group project that sorted them by last name, stands up to Azazel as they make their way toward the unfinished corner.
These four also have very different internal feelings of what it means to be Jewish. Avi is incredibly studious and follows halakha closely; David is knowledgable about Jewish history from his travels; Judith is very comfortable in her Jewish identity, even though she doesn’t keep kosher, observe Shabbat or pray. Miriam, on the other hand, is feeling very conflicted her identity because she’s unsure of what defines her identity as hers in a way that is more than just, “I’m Jewish because my parents are.”
Their differences, however, are what enable them to overcome the challenges before them. Throughout the story their angel guide focuses on Miriam as the person of import, the artist, the only one who can finish the unfinished corner, but as Miriam goes on point out at the end, she never would have made it without her friends (and, spoiler, they are all friends by the end).
The relationships that are navigated between these four are far from the only relationships in the story, and even though they aren’t as front and center, they’re still rich and feel well rounded in an instant. You know exactly the sort of happy, teasing family dynamic that exists in Miriam’s household just from her parents’ introduction, and Asmodeus calling himself Lilith’s “house husband” is an entertaining and vivid descriptor of a whole relationship in a single statement.
The book is labeled as juvenile fiction, but honestly, I think it would be highly enjoyable for children and adults alike. Anyone who enjoys Jewish mythology, has a complicated relationship with identity or faith, or is at a coming of age/turning point in their life, can find something in this story. Get it on Bookshop here.
Roughly ten years ago I read Hunter x Hunter (circa 2009). I was 14/15 at the time and just a bit too young and naive to enjoy the manga/anime to it’s fullest. I loved it, that’s for sure, but did I get the nuance, the queercoding? Unclear. I did latch on to the queer coded antagonist, but it would be years before I even heard of queercoding much less figure out how to look for it. All I knew at the time was that my favorite character was the very flamboyant clown who was horny for bloodlust.
Recently, I flew headfirst back into Hunter x Hunter. It’s really great and it’s really even better than I remember. I can’t say you can call this a traditional book review as I’m mostly just going to talk about what I love about the manga.
It’s basically Naruto with a smaller, more fleshed out cast, on speed run. And also better, more self-contained arcs. The plot actually moves forward at a decent pace without sacrificing character development Within 13 volumes, you get through three entire arcs. If you enjoyed Naruto initially, but got annoyed with/tired of it quickly you might enjoy HxH.
It’s really funny, but also really emotional and it can definitely get heavy too. The humor doesn’t feel out of place against the heaviness though.
The entirety of Kurapika’s character. I did not appreciate this boy enough when I read HxH the first time around. Kurapika is drawn in a way that tends to reserved for female characters, with big eyes, what looks like eyeliner and a small mouth. His clothing is also very androgynous, he’s even mistaken for a girl at points, but the narrative is very clear that he’s a guy. Adding to this further, in the anime he even has a female voice actor. This has led to some Choice™ trans headcanons by fans.
There may or may not be a canon trans character? I’m not actually far enough along in the manga to have met this character, but apparently there is some gender incongruity with Killua’s sister Alluka. The fandom as I’ve seen it seems to have taken it as canon and running with it, but I can’t weigh in on it myself just yet. I am definitely looking forward to getting there though.
There are some things that people might want to be wary of getting into HxH. It’s definitely not for everyone.
Earlier I compared HxH to Naruto. The violence in HxH is much more graphic that anything I can remember from Naruto.
Hisoka’s horniness for violence is explicit, there are allusions to erections. It’s not subtle.
In relation to point two, Hisoka expresses interest in seeing how Gon, the 11/12 year old protagonist, develops his fighting prowess throughout the series. This is NOT an inherently sexual interest, but certain areas of the fandom see nothing wrong with shipping an 11 year old with someone who’s an adult at worst and an older teenager at best.
A delightfully funny and entertaining read. An angel and demon who are kind of friends, a misplaced anti-christ, the four horse persons of the apocalypse, and the one single prophetess who was actually right with her predictions.
It’s got a pretty large cast of characters, which are helpfully listed in a “Dramatis Personae” section at the beginning of the book. Despite the cast sized it’s pretty easy to keep track of all the story lines in the book. Except for one small section that involves playing the cup and ball game with three babies. I found it a bit confusing to read, but much easier to understand when listened to once I got my hands on the audiobook.
There isn’t a moment that you’re bored as Aziraphale and Crowley (the aforementioned angel and demon), and the rest of the cast work, their way through the days leading up to the apocalypse that they’re trying to stop. Though Aziraphale and Crowley aren’t actually supposed to be trying to stop it, ineffability and all that.
A few notes about the audiobook specifically. I really enjoyed the way the narrator, Martin Jarvis, did the voices for everyone. Each character had their own specific voice and they were really good and fit the characters really well. My only complaint would be that I didn’t think Pollution’s voice was quite slimy enough, however, that’s on me, because I’m very picky about anything regarding Pollution since he’s my favorite character.
Martin Jarvis was also very clear with his speaking and was very easy to understand. I found his voice very pleasant to listen to. For readers who enjoy and/or prefer audiobooks, I would really recommend this one. It’s very good.
There are some sexist, racist, and one homophobic comment(s). These however reflect the opinions of specific characters and not the book in general.
The homophobic remark really caught me off guard when I was listening, because I’d forgotten about it. It’s a miscommunication about the word “faggot.” One character is using it in the very archaic sense to mean, a bundle of wood the person he’s talking to assumes it’s meant as the slur. I found it tasteless, but all in all it’s really the only even semi-large beef I have with the book.
No snaps, because audiobook. I will however, leave you with a quote, because I love it so much.
“The road to hell is paved with good intentions. (This is not actually true. The road to Hell is paved with frozen door-to-door salesmen. On weekends, many of the younger demons go ice skating down it.)” – Good Omens
Ice Massacre is mermaids unromanticized, well, except for the fact that our leading lady falls in love with one.
These are not the friendly mermaids that appear on our Starbucks cups, or even really the (Disney) Peter Pan mermaids, though those certainly do want to drown you. These are the sirens of legend who’ll seduce you and and then eat you for a midday snack.
The island of Eriana Kwai sits off the coast of Alaska, relatively isolated. Something that has only gotten worse since the arrival of the mermaids. They’ve all but lost their principle export, fish, due to mermaids attacking their fishing boats. So every year they have a Massacre. Wipe out as many of the demons as they can and hope that they’ll fall back enough to allow for the island to recover a bit. Problem is, they keep sending men to fight the mermaids. And the last few years, the boats haven’t been coming back at all.
This time they’re sending girls in the hope that they’ll be immune to the mermaids charms and they are except for one girl, Meela, who falls in love with one. Whoops. It’s not quite that simple, the mermaid in question had been a childhood friend of Meela’s, but after Meela’s father finds out that comes to an end and they don’t meet again until they’re fighting each other at the Massacre.
But if mermaids and the humans of Eriana Kwai are bitter enemies, then how does Meela end up falling hopelessly in love with one? The answer is carefully and slowly. Meela’s realization that she’s fallen in love with the mermaid, Lysi, doesn’t come until the final line of the book. That might seem like a little bit of a let down, however, the build up of the relationship is honestly excellent and this is the first book of a trilogy so I think it’s safe to say we can expect more development in books two and three.
The back drop to Meela falling in love with Lysi is, oddly enough, the Massacre itself. The troupe of girls has set out for the yearly Massacre. Of course, because things are never easy, there’s a divide amongst the girls and there winds up being two “groups” on the ship each following a different Captain. So there’s massive internal conflict on top of them being attacked by flesh-eating mermaids. Pretty romantic, huh? Both conflicts tie together extremely well, and in the end allow for a surprising revelation about the why the mermaids keep attacking Eriana Kwai.
It’s pretty violent and bloody for a young adult book. The fights with the mermaids get kinda graphic at points.
Child death. Two instances. One, a vague mention of a child being grabbed by a mermaid. Two, the rather graphic killing of an infant mermaid.
Imagine a fantastical, enchanted, Cirque de Soleil/Carnival/Renaissance Fair. A Circus of Dreams if you will. It is nothing more than a game and everything but a game at the same time. It’s all fantastical and incredibly, and yet you find the ordinary things just as charming. It’s a very nice combination of practical and mystical.
There are three stories that overlap and intertwine throughout the book. There is the story of the circus as you perceive it, the one that begins the book with, “The circus arrives without warning.” The second is the story of Celia and Marco, and the third story is about a boy named Bailey. They run parallel to each other until the end of the book, at which point they all intersect.
It’s fantastically written, and for as large a cast of characters you know everyone, and everyone is important. I will admit to being slightly worried that I wouldn’t be able to keep track of everyone at the very beginning, but my fears were all for naught.
What sets the plot in motion at the very beginning is two grown ass men wanting to have a “challenge” and they chose two children (Celia and Marco) to manipulate to be the challengers. These children have no choice in the matter. It’s a bit of an uncomfortable set up, but it also sets the stage for an “it’s time for the young people to take the reigns” arc, which is something I really enjoyed. There are three generations in this book. The first generation, Hector Bowen and Mr. A. H., who initiates the challenge. The two young people Celia Bowen and Marco Alisdair, who must survive the challenger. And then the children, Bailey and Poppet, the generation who will run things after the challenge. As someone who is part of a generation that is dealing with the repercussions of the actions of the generations before me, I enjoyed that a great deal.
Warning: Oh boy is there some child abuse stuff at the beginning. Celia’s father Hector is not a nice person. There is a scene where he cuts open her fingers and makes her heal them. All this is done under the name of training her, but it’s abusive and manipulative. The worst of it passes after the first few chapters. Narratively it’s hard to skip over because you do miss things if you avoid it. Hector also belittles his daughter throughout the book.
Another Warning: Suicide. There are two references to it, one at the very beginning with Celia’s mother and a second one with the death of another character that is a much larger event. It’s a little ambiguous whether it was an accident or an act of suicide however.
Overall, and despite the bury your gays moment, I liked the book. I thought the pacing was a little weird towards the end where all the storylines come together, but other than that it was a very smooth read.
I love that this is a story within a story. I love the effect of a book being one story written by an author and then edited by another, (but in all actuality author and editor are the same person). A very similar thing happens in House of Leaves.
Goldman tells us in various introductions (for various editions) about his troubles with the Morgenstern estate as well as about the making of the movie. All of this framed like real things that happened when, in fact, they are just fiction. The Princess Bride (and Buttercup’s Baby) are treated as a slight fictionalization of real events with real people. It’s not fiction, but a history of Westley, Buttercup, Fezzik, and Inigo.
The story is fantastic, “True Love and High Adventure” just as advertised. I’m not even bothered about the heterosexual romance cause it’s just… it’s The Princess Bride. Also it felt like there was more “High Adventure” than really obvious “True Love” scenes. The true love got threaded through all the adventure scenes, and it was done so well sometimes you almost forget that it’s there.
One thing I’ll note is that there’s an interactive bit! Originally, when the book was first published, you could write in to the publisher and get an “additional scene” to the book (I won’t spoil it, but it’s not quite what you think you’re getting). Now, thanks to the internet, you can go to website for the book, and enter your email and get the additional bit that way. Very cool and interactive, I really liked it.
If you loved the movie, you’ll love the book it’s as simple as that. I put off reading it after I bought it cause it was kind of thick and I was worried I wouldn’t have time to read it. I will say I’m glad I waited until the summer because I was able to finish it rather quickly. I do believe that if at all possible, The Princess Bride should be read without interruption. Not to say that you need to read it in one sitting, but you should not get sidetracked and stop in the middle to read something else (which is a bad habit that I have).
Now I mentioned Buttercup’s Baby earlier. Buttercup’s Baby is the sequel to The Princess Bride. It tells what happens to Buttercup, Westley, Fezzik, and Inigo after the events of The Princess Bride, as well as (and you may have already guessed it from the title) Buttercup and Westley’s child. It’s not the whole book, just the first chapter, there’s a lot of “editor’s notes” surrounding this, in fact there’s an entire explanation section before Buttercup’s Baby begins. About why there’s only one chapter and the hopes that Goldman will be able to finish the book at some point.
All in all, it’s wonderful and clever and definitely a must read. Particularly if you’ve already seen the movie.
A thrilling conclusion to a thrilling series. Emma, Jacob and peculiar dog Addison, are the only three peculiars of the original group that haven’t been captured, and now they must free their friends and keep Caul (the mastermind who’s been behind all this from the very start) from completing his abominable plans.
The trio winds up in the worst of worst loops, Devil’s Acre. And must navigate their way through it with the help of Sharon, a tour boat driver. (A delightful play on Charon the guardian of the river Styx). Jacob is finally beginning to realize the extent of his peculiar abilities, which is to control hollowgasts, not just to see them, but even with that their plans hits dead end after dead end. And allies turn out not to be such good allies after all. Victory is only gained at the very last moment.
I should say I’ve had a few issues with the heavily romance driven element of the book from the very beginning, but that’s mostly because I am tired and bitter about heterosexual romances. That being said, it’s very well written and I am very pleased with how it wrapped up. The acknowledgement between Emma and Jacob that their relationship as it was probably wasn’t going to last but friends was a thing they could do. Then at the end of the book they got the chance to be able to take their relationship slower, Jacob was like “hey let’s go that route instead, might be better.” This had me enjoying the relationship by the end of this book more than I had during the previous books.
Something that bothered me, was that we never really got proper closure about what happened to Fiona, the girl who could talk to plants. It’s brought up multiple times that she could have survived her fall off the cliff because she could control plants and could have had the trees catch her, but by the end the subject gets dropped and you never learn if anyone ever went back to look for her to confirm that theory, she’s just assumed dead. If anyone did go back to look for her, Fiona does not appear with the rest of the children when they visit Jacob at his home at the end of the book.
A few warnings. There are a few scenes where peculiars are being experimented on, it’s nothing overly explicit, but they are there.
The big warning however, comes at the very end of the book. There is a sequence where Jacob’s parents try to have him institutionalized against his will. It doesn’t actually happen, Miss Peregrine and the children show up and put a stop to that, but the whole sequence of Jacob’s parents and Jacob’s therapist trying to get Jacob institutionalized was very, very distressing for me to read.