How Dark Souls Taught Me to Close-Read

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All images in this post are the author’s personal screenshots of his Dark Souls playthroughs.

 

Like any English undergrad, I’ve been lectured on the concept of close-reading by nearly every professor I’ve encountered. During discussions of how to find meaning by picking apart the form and content of a text, I’ve often found myself thinking about Dark Souls. At the time, I almost felt ashamed for thinking about a video game rather than a novel. But after a year of considering the game’s analytical potential, I’ve realized that Dark Souls had taught me how to close-read long before I was even given a definition for the term.

Created by developer FromSoftware, Dark Souls has garnered both acclaim and criticism for its lack of guidance and difficult combat. Many who play Dark Souls would describe it as a masochistic dark fantasy game with a dry narrative that barely ventures into the foreground. Those people are partially right, and on my first few attempts to play the game I agreed with them. I dismissed Dark Souls as flawed and inaccessible and left the game on my shelf to gather dust.

What changed my opinion was the Souls Community. This collective of YouTubers, bloggers, Reddit threads, wikis, and many other Internet venues had undertaken the task of analyzing and interpreting Dark Souls and its sequels. After immersing myself in essays and videos dedicated to the game’s narrative and gameplay, I had to give it a second chance. After all, how could I dismiss the patterns clearly seen by so many others?

All I had to do was change my expectations. The second time I played Dark Souls, I didn’t expect it to provide me with a prominent narrative coupled with a challenging yet railroaded gameplay experience. In other words, I had to realize it wasn’t designed like so many other modern roleplaying games. It was designed to be a lot deeper than that.

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The dying world of Lordran is filled with secrets.

This time, I experienced the game step by step. I overcame its merciless combat by realizing that its gameplay rewarded patience. Those who rushed in expecting instant gratification were inevitably given a grey screen with the words “YOU DIED”. By being patient, I saw the holes in my enemies’ attack patterns, allowing me to turn the fight to my advantage. I then applied this philosophy to its obscure story, and I came away amazed at the level of detail the creators had woven into its minimalistic world.

On the surface, Lordran (the setting of Dark Souls) is just another medieval fantasy world with knights, demons, gods, and dragons. There is a fallen kingdom to reclaim and heck, there is even a princess to save. It’s only when you start examining your environment, reading item descriptions, and making the connections between them that you start to decipher the game’s lore. That’s when you realize that the “monster” you killed was just defending the grave of her long dead master; that the princess and the kingdom of sunlight to which you pledged your fealty were just illusions created by a lonely deity of the moon; that the dark portal you were dragged through didn’t actually bring you to a new location, it just put you back in the same place several hundreds of years in the past.

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Ravenous beast or loyal guardian?

Any other game would just give the player all of this information in cutscenes, long expository dialogue, or big chunks of text. But instead of telling, Dark Souls shows the player the aftermath of these events and expects them to take the initiative to make sense of it all. This game expects a patient, attentive, and skeptical player, and if you meet the game on its own terms it will reward you for your efforts.

Nevertheless, there are always gaps in the story that the player will have to interpret for themselves. While other games may provide every question they raise with a canonical answer, Dark Souls revels in its fragments and provides the player with just enough evidence to evoke narratives and themes that they have to interpret on their own.

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But can you really trust an old withered snake?

While part of close-reading involves discovering a text’s hidden meanings, the rest is all about the interpretation of what you’ve discovered. Your interpretation is the “so what?” that gives your findings an actual purpose. This is why people still continue to interpret and reinterpret the lore of Dark Souls. Like any dense text, Dark Souls provided me with multiple layers of understanding to critically analyze in order to discover evidence to fuel my own interpretations.

The game never explicitly told me to do this. Instead I was led to this path through its combat, which taught me to be aware of the details and to take things slowly. Then, when I discovered that its item descriptions suggested the existence of unseen narratives, I felt encouraged to gather evidence and come up with my own conclusions. In lecture, you may close-read a text simply because the professor told you to do so. But Dark Souls convinced me that in order to enjoy the game for what it was, close-reading was my best option.

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The player interprets the ruins of Lordran like how the reader interprets the text. Both are proactive users of the present trying to comprehend what came before them.

I’m sure many people have discovered the concept of close-reading through complex novels or other works that require critical analysis. For them, those works are what pop-up in their thoughts whenever the topic is brought up. Since Dark Souls has come to occupy that space in my thoughts, I’ve begun to wonder when video games will become a valid medium of study. When will the first courses on close-reading video games begin? When will the first person graduate with a major in video game studies? The international success of Dark Souls has shown that there is a demand for this kind of game. This means that developers are likely to produce such games in the future, and perhaps even find new ways to increase their depth and complexity.

While I think Dark Souls came out far too early to be regarded as a subject of professional study, I’m sure that the Souls Community will continue to discover new interpretations of this game’s vast textual world. Hopefully, that will be enough for future video game scholars to recognize Dark Souls as part of a vanguard that led the medium into the realm of professional study.

-Contributed by Lawrence Stewen

Why I Play Dungeons & Dragons, and So Should You (If You’re Into That)

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Illustrated by Mia Carnevale

Okay friends, it is time to talk about my favourite subject.

Despite the rise in nerd culture, Dungeons and Dragons still has a bit of lingering stigma. The problem is that many people do not understand it. When you ask non-nerds about it, often they’ll make references to teenagers running around in sewers dressed in wizard robes, or mumble something about demon summoning and satanic rituals (I mean, that sounds fun too, but it does not really have much to do with D&D—unless that is how you want to play, in which case: you do you, buddy).

Even nerds will sometimes shrug and say, “I’m not that kind of nerd.” It’s as if D&D players are some kind of off-brand super nerd: a lower rung in the nerd hierarchy that no one likes to acknowledge. However, if you like fantasy, storytelling, and hanging out with friends, I think you should give this game a chance.

Dungeons and Dragons is a fantasy improvisation game played with friends. You have a Dungeon Master (or DM)—yes it is silly, but the game does have its glorious roots in the 70s after all, so we need to get past this, guys—who acts as the storyteller and main author of the world. Think of it like a fantasy novel, but each player brings their own protagonist to the table, each with their own personalities and goals. Together, you weave a story as unique as the people playing the game.

Every group I have been a part of has had a completely different dynamic. You could play a character-heavy intrigue game full of alliances and betrayal, a heroic coming-of-age story, or even the rise of a villain. Alternatively, you can just battle monsters and collect loot, Diablo-style. Unlike video games, there are no “invisible walls” limiting what you can do; the narrative is purely based on the creativity of its players.

What makes D&D special is that it provides a framework in which to tell your story. Its core mechanic involves dice-rolling, where your character’s success or failure in a task depends on their skill—represented by bonuses or penalties added to the dice total—and on pure luck. This last part is what draws you into the game: the stakes are real, and every time you engage in combat, you are risking your character’s life along with all of the personal investment you have in their continuing story.

Putting your characters in “danger” can lead to the most creative and memorable experiences in the game. I’ve seen situations where, when the chips were down, a player in trouble has pulled out the most off-the-wall solutions and just rolled like a boss to pull it off. These moments can stay with you for years; I still look back fondly on many of my own close calls.

Dungeons and Dragons also provides a large range of pre-made settings and adventures, plug-and-play style:  if you are new to the game, the developers have your back. Many experienced DMs engage in what is affectionately called “home-brewing,” and create their own rules, maps, and other features customized to their players. So if you really want to play a gunslinger in a medieval fantasy setting, your DM can make that happen in a way that keeps the game balanced and enjoyable for everyone.

I really want to emphasize the social aspect here. Unlike playing an online game, D&D lets you sit around a table, along with some snacks and a case of beer (or whatever floats your boat). In short, you should play Dungeons and Dragons because it is fun.

Now that I have given you my spiel, those of you who are still reading may be asking, “So how do I get started?” What a great question! If you are not asking that, you do not have to read this next bit.

First of all, you need to find a group of like-minded individuals who are interested in playing. The best size for a group is around five people (including the DM), but you can play with as few as two and as many as you can fit in one room.

If you want to do some window-shopping before you commit, there are a few recommendations I can make. Critical Role on Geek and Sundry (also on Youtube) is a show where a bunch of “nerdy-ass voice actors” (their words, not mine) get together and record their D&D sessions for the world to enjoy. If you are into anime, cartoons, or video games, you may have heard of some of them: Matthew Mercer is the DM, and the players include Ashley Johnson, Travis Willingham, Laura Bailey, Liam O’Brien, Taliesin Jaffe, Marisha Ray, and Sam Riegel. Orion Acaba stayed on for the first twenty-five episodes before moving on to other projects, and there are several exciting guest stars that make an appearance throughout the series.

I cannot emphasize how amazing it has been to watch this show and its storyline develop. From a slightly glitchy first episode to the jaw-dropping latest episode (fifty-eight was a personal favourite—I may have cried a little), this show is definitely worth your time. Matt Mercer is a master storyteller. He’s the kind of DM I aspire to be, and he really demonstrates the heights of what a game can reach.

I have also recently started Acquisitions Inc., a podcast of Penny Arcade fame—being only six episodes in, I am a little late to the party, but it has been highly recommended and from what I have heard so far I feel comfortable passing it on to you. They play fourth-edition Dungeon and Dragons, which is slightly less streamlined and intuitive than the newer fifth-edition, but it is still great.

You will need some gaming dice to get started. The rulebooks can be pretty pricey, so if you are not sure you want to commit (and you live in Toronto), the Merril Collection at the Toronto Public Library at 239 College St. lets you peruse them for free. Look for the fifth-edition Player’s Handbook—that’s where everyone starts. There are a myriad of supplemental materials once you have gotten past that, so feel free to go wild!

If you are an aspiring DM, I recommend Matthew Colville’s Youtube series on how to run a game. He lays things out in a really accessible, straight-forward kind of way that I found really helpful when I started DM-ing (not too long ago, I might add).

And that is all she wrote! I hope this helps you.

Go forth, friends, and play!

Contributed by Eleanor Crook

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: A Charming New Chapter of the Wizarding World

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Some people may understand I say that the first time I saw the commercial for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, it felt very much like deciding whether to go and order another cup of coffee. On the one hand, you know you’ve already had several and so drinking another will probably ruin the pleasant effect, but on the other hand the thought is so appealing, and it looks so damn good that you can’t help but wonder if this one might be even better than all the rest.

At first, the movie seemed like just another cash-grab. And when J.K. Rowling announced that she plans to turn it into a series, with five films rather than the initially planned three, I have to admit it felt like another example of an author milking their success.

But seeing the movie turned out to be much different, and the feeling of relaxation, enjoyment, and overall lightness after exiting the theatre made the verdict quite clear: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is very good. The adulthood missing from Harry Potter is present in Fantastic Beasts.

Fantastic Beasts transports the viewer to New York in 1926, and it is the wizard and magizoolistic Newt Scamander who serves as our protagonist. He is just as British as Harry, and as tussled and quirky, but that is where their similarities end. Unlike Harry, who we first met at 10-years-old, Newt begins the series as an adult and has the knowledge to prove it. He never sets out to flagrantly display his intellect, but instead spends the movie content with inwardly curating it out of the joy that it brings him.

The main conflict of the film is a little formulaic, part Pandora’s box and part comical-accident-turned-catastrophic. The magical suitcase Newt brings into NYC ends up switched with a suitcase full of pastries carried by the No-Maj (the American term for Muggles) Jacob Kowalski, who accidentally releases several of the magical creatures within it. One of these animals is the adorable Niffler, which has the appearance of an echidna and the personality of a magpie, amassing all the gold and jewels it finds into its bottomless pouch.

And thus begins a hunt for the missing creatures throughout the city, with the help of Porpentina ‘Tina’ Goldstein, her Legilimens (telepathic) sister “Queenie,” and Jacob.

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Right from the start one finds the distinction Rowling draws between the North American and European wizardly worlds. From the use of terminology for regular humans (muggles vs. no-maj), to the American wizards governed by the Magical Congress of the United States of America, which is headed by a president. There is even a squabble at one point between Newt and Queenie over which wizarding school is the best in the world. Of course, Newt represents Hogwarts while Queenie argues for the recently introduced and still unfamiliar Ilvermorny.

Some aspects of the world-building cross the geographical borders, such as the Deathly Hallows sigil and the name dropping of Albus Dumbledore. Others transcend time and begin to create a sense of interconnectedness with the future, occurring in the form of a photograph Newt carries with him of Leta Lestrange, as he later admits, a past love from his Hogwarts years that ended poorly.

These differences and connections within the plot cannot compare to the most important difference of all: that of the quality of the story. Rowling presents a much more measured and sophisticated approach to magic, making it feel magical and all-encompassing in a way that doesn’t bombard one with a dazzling show of gimmicks and terminology as the Harry Potter series did. Instead time is taken to show the inside of Newt’s suitcase, to explore the nooks and crannies of it and develop a personal attachment to the creatures living inside it, giving a detailed example of the Undetectable Extension charm which was previously only vaguely shown in Hermione’s bag.

There is also a greater sense of order—or lack thereof—and consequence in the movie. The character of Mary Lou Barebone, head of the New Salem Philanthropic Society, an order that that fights to draw New York’s attention to the existence of witches, adds a touch of urgency to the story. She was a reminder that the threat of exposure and negative influence of no-majs on the wizards was just as significant as the threat wizards posed to each other.

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I can find few qualms in the movie, and even those are more technical than they are glaring plot errors. The obsession with darkness and dark scenes grew to be a bit much at certain points, making some scenes difficult to make out visually. The casting of Johnny Depp was another reason for confusion. His appearance in the film and just in general were unpleasant, by the bleached hair, eyebrows, and moustache, while his last words “Will we die just a little?” were delivered in a muffled manner that was also contextually disappointing.

These had little impact on the movie, which was a well-crafted story of adult wizards and witches from beginning to end. It did have the quality of a prologue to it, and some may find it to lack action while stressing the informative tone, but that is to be expected of a movie that is not only part of a series but is also introducing a new side of the wizarding world.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them balances the familiar with the new, the former used more as a strategy to make the viewer more comfortable with the latter. It isn’t a crutch but rather a reminder that there is always room to create new worlds, characters, and plots, which is exactly what Rowling was able to achieve. The fact that she wrote the screenplay gave the movie a quality of confidence and authenticity, strengthening the sense of magic and wonder it already possessed.

-Contributed by Margaryta Golovchenko

The Poor Teaching Practices of Professor Dumbledore

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Illustrated by Mia Carnevale

Professor Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore was a great man. A champion of wizard and muggle rights, defender of the innocent, genius, scholar, warrior, philosopher, and general. Founder of the Order of the Phoenix, Dumbledore single-handedly stopped the dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald’s reign of terror, kept the dangerous Elder Wand safe from those who would abuse its power, and waged two wars against the Dark Lord Voldemort (yeah, I can say his name) over a period of twenty years, even giving his life in order to stop the darkness.

Dumbledore’s life stood for kindness and compassion for others, and the value and power of love. I love him and I will challenge anyone who disagrees to a duel. And yet… how well suited was Dumbledore to be the headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry?

Here, to the detriment of my own soul, I admit that as great a man as Dumbledore undoubtedly was, he wasn’t a very good headmaster.

Let us start with the dangers that Dumbledore allowed into his school. Does everyone remember in The Philosopher’s Stone when three eleven year old children stumbled into a room that held a gigantic, vicious three-headed dog? I sure do, that book was great. But you might be shouting, “Fluffy and the other traps were there to protect the philosophers stone you moron!”. And yes, I know this.

It was a very decent thing of Professor Dumbledore to do, to keep safe the most important possession of a dear friend against the forces of evil. But…why exactly did Dumbledore decide to do this in a school? Yeah sure, he mentioned at the feast that year that the third floor was out of bounds to any who didn’t want to suffer a horrible death. This is a school full of children! It was wildly inappropriate for Dumbledore to hide the philosopher’s stone inside of the school where his priority should be the children. Yes, he had the best intentions, but he still endangered the lives of his students in order to prevent the return of Lord Voldemort.

Also, speaking of monsters, remember how there was a giant child-killing snake hiding in the Hogwarts castle? The first time the Chamber of Secrets was opened, Dumbledore was a professor! A child was killed, and that was absolutely out of his hands. But later, once the attacks stopped, Dumbledore just kind of went, “Well, I know there is a child-killing monster somewhere in this castle. Neat.” and he did nothing about it! There is no evidence that in the fifty years between the times the chamber was opened that Albus ever so much as peeked under a bed to try and look for it.

Now we must come to Dumbledore’s teaching practices. Professor Quirrell can be excused, as he was hired before supergluing the Dark Lord to his head. I will also fight anyone who says it was inappropriate to hire Remus Lupin. Even Hagrid I would say was a perfectly decent choice for the Magical Creature’s professor, although some limits as to what he was allowed to teach at what level (and what he was allowed to breed) should have been firmly put in place before Hagrid accepted the job.

So this leaves us with six teachers we know were hired by Albus Dumbledore during his tenure as headmaster of Hogwarts school of Witchcraft and Wizardry: Severus Snape, Gilderoy Lockhart, Sybill Trelawney, Firenze, Mad-Eye Moody, and Horace Slughorn.

The most obvious and insane mistake of Dumbledore’s hirings: Gilderoy Lockhart. Lockhart, who is a barely-competent wizard, a selfish fraud, and a charlatan, is hired by Albus Dumbledore, a man adept in seeing through people, has the power to read minds, and hopefully the ability to check references. What on earth prompted Dumbledore to hire a man who is so obviously incompetent that a bunch of twelve year olds figured it out after a couple weeks of lessons? Really, there are only two possible explanations.

  1. He did it because it was funny. Yes, Albus has a great sense of humour. No, it should not be at the cost of the education of the youth under his care. Or…
  2. Dumbledore thought Lockhart was very pretty, and so hired him on the basis of how pretty he was. This is horrible and his students suffered as a result, though admittedly, since I too am hoping to get by in life by being so very pretty, it does give me hope for my future.

Sybil Trelawney is a true psychic. Indeed, it was her prophecy which caused the deaths of James and Lily Potter, and ensured that their son Harry would be the one to bring about the downfall of Lord Voldemort. Knowing her importance, Dumbledore agreed to hire her as the divination professor in order to keep her safe from Voldemort’s forces.

But just to be clear, so far as Dumbledore is aware, Trelawney has only ever made one real prophecy in her life. Albus believes that the rest of the time, Trelawney is a fake. He does not hire her to teach his students, he hires her as a chess piece in his war against Voldemort. An asset in a supernatural war is really not a good reason to hire a bad educator.

Now how about Mad-Eye Moody, eh? Yes, I know Moody himself never got a chance to teach since he had been secretly replaced a Death Eater. That wasn’t the real Mad-Eye. But we still meet the real Mad-Eye Moody in later books. We get to see how paranoid, abrupt, and extreme he is. This is a man with intense PTSD from his time as an officer of the law. He is brilliant, but he is also prone to violence, shouting, and telling people that someone is going to come and try to kill them at any moment.

Albus Dumbledore thought it would be cool to put this man in charge of eleven year old children. Maybe I’m being judgmental here, and it could have turned out that if given the chance, Mad-Eye would have been a great teacher and had hidden talents in working with youth.

But I don’t think so.

And finally: Snape and Slughorn.

Slughorn is a more than competent potions master. He is perfectly capable to do the job he has been hired to do and, creepily making students join his pseudo-cult aside, he seems like a good teacher. But this is not why Dumbledore hires Slughorn. Slughorn is actually hired so that Dumbledore can have Harry Potter extract a memory from the old professor, so that Albus may confirm his theory on Voldemort’s seven horcruxes. Slughorn is hired so that Albus can continue the fight against Voldemort. It had nothing to do with his teaching ability.

And finally, Snape. Snape, who is Dumbledore’s valued spy. Snape, who Dumbledore entrusts with both his life and his death. Snape, who brutally tortures the child of the woman he loved, just because she didn’t love him back. Snape, who was biased in the classroom, cruel, and abusive. Snape, who made thirteen year old Neville Longbottom more afraid of his teacher than anything else in the universe.

I understand that Snape was ultimately not the villain he pretended to be. Snape did what he needed to do on Dumbledore’s orders. He was an excellent spy and soldier. But he was a terrible teacher. Maybe Harry could forgive Snape for his treatment of children, but I can’t. Dumbledore brought Snape to Hogwarts to fight a war against evil, and they won. But he did so at the cost of allowing a teacher to bully his students until they trembled when he approached.

I will never forgive Snape for being the thing that the Bogart became at the sight of Neville.

If there is an underlying theme of my criticism of the headmaster, I think it is that Dumbledore often put his fight against evil over the safety and education of his students. Yes, he did the right thing, he stopped a terrible dark wizard from destroying his people. Albus worked as hard as he could, and saved as many as he could. But really, did he do so as a teacher? No. Many of his hiring practices were to do with fighting evil, which was good for the fight, but bad for the school.

Dumbledore might have turned down the position of Minister of Magic, believing he could not be trusted with power. But really, it might not have been a bad idea to go and run the war from the Ministry instead of the school. If anything else, he could have at least found a place for that giant three-headed dog where an eleven year old girl couldn’t break the lock.

Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore. Great man. Lousy school administrator.

 

-Contributed by Ben Ghan

Setting Sail: “Magonia” Book Review

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image source: strangehorizons.com

Book spoilers ahead, beware!

Described as Neil Gaiman’s Stardust meets John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, Magonia tells the story of almost-sixteen-year-old Aza Ray Boyle, who suffers from a debilitating and mysterious respiratory condition which hinders her activity. After she “succumbs” to her disease, Aza ascends to the heavens and enters Magonia: a mystical city of ships, where the skies are the seas.

In Magonia, Aza meets her biological mother, Zal Quel, captain of the ship Amina Pennarum who requires her help to rescue Magonians from starvation. The reason Aza could not thrive with the humans—or ‘drowners,’ as Magonians call them—was that their air quality was insufficient.

Although the fantasy world of Magonia is fictional, there is a historical basis. Headley introduces medieval Irish texts called the Annals of Ulster by way of her characters. Written in the eighth century, the Annals of Ulster document people’s accounts of ships sailing the skies. Headley’s book mentions other creatures, like bat-sails and squall-whales, which aid in the ships’ flight but of course are not in the Annals. Headley skillfully manages to incorporate historical texts into Magonia, without being overwhelming or watered-down. And if there is a question of whether she allows a slight tribute to a medieval text to give her fantasy world an ounce of realism, it makes me neither jaded nor suspicious.

As per the book’s cover, birds are prominent symbols in the book. As someone who dabbles in poetry myself this excited me, as birds have been used over the centuries as metaphors for freedom and flight. Firstly, Magonians are not the only residents of Magonia—there are also bird-human hybrids called “Rostrae” in Headley’s world. The Rostrae are humanoid creatures with blue skin and wide black eyes, who work on ships and serve the Magonians. As Aza discovers later, they also have the ability to transform completely into birds.

But birds are not the only reoccurring theme in Magonia; for every bird, there is a song. And Aza, after living among the humans and inhaling poor air, has not developed her song. To remedy this Captain Quel enlists her first-mate, Dai, to assist her and teach Aza. In Magonia songs are akin to magic—they have the ability to change elements, and Aza’s song, according to the Captain, is especially important in the success of her mission. Tiny birds, called “canwrs”, reside in the chests of Magonians to help them sing.

In addition to Aza, who is as real as any other leading female character I’ve seen in fantasy novels, Magonia does contain some interesting characters. Aza’s best friend, Jason, is an amalgamation of quirky traits and skills: a handsome cook with patents on two inventions who recites pi to hundreds of places when he’s anxious. He’s not perfect by far, but he does complement Aza in other ways.

Aza’s human mother, as well as her biological mother Captain Quel, also offer interesting perspectives on the traditional stock roles of the Helper. As Magonia is a first-person narrative, readers do not glean information on the inner thoughts of the other female characters in the novel.

Unlike other novels, Magonia’s page prose is unconventional. While the majority is paragraph format, there are parts that read like concrete poetry, with strikethroughs, one-word lines, and even swirling text. And though employing unique tactics like this doesn’t always translate very well—like Maggie Stiefvater’s colored ink in her Shiver series—Headley manages to succeed without being corny. Her approach adds to the dream-like air of the world she created.

Like some Hollywood movies, Magonia didn’t have much in the way of plot. The story focused more on Aza’s integration into Magonia and the development of her singing abilities than the execution of the Captain’s plan, the latter taking up a few chapters at the end. Other reviews described this style of writing as leading toward a great epic finale, but I thought that Headley could, and should, have fleshed out the climax more than she did. Furthermore, it wasn’t nearly as epic as the reviews promised.

Magonia is a fascinating read, with a highly developed fantasy world and a host of characters for a certain kind of reader to fall in love with. It is the first in a series.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

-Contributed by Terese Mason Pierre

I Am the Devil, How Can I Help You?

Devil is a Part Timer
Illustration by Sonia Urlando

The devil as typically presented in literature and the arts strikes a red, bloody figure. Often with horns and pitchfork included.

But as a fast-food franchise employee?

I’ll bet you’ve never seen the devil like this.

The premise for the light novel turned anime series The Devil is a Part Timer! is as quirky as it is bizarre. It follows the adventure of Maou Sadao, the titular devil from the realm of Ente Isla. In the midst of a battle to determine the fate of his world, Sadao and one of his generals, Alciel, are transported to modern day Japan and forced to assume human form. Also unceremoniously hurtled through the void is the hero of Ente Isla, Emilia Justina, whose mission to stop Sadao extends beyond worldly borders.

The three must then settle on Earth until they fulfill their purpose: whether to return to Ente Isla (Sadao and Alciel) or to stop the devil (Emi). Sadao, Alciel, and Emi were all equipped with magic in Ente Isla but their magic is ineffective on Earth, making their respective missions very difficult to fulfill.

Surprisingly, the first of the group to recognize the necessity of blending in as well as the means to do so is Sadao. He finds a job at MgRonalds (McDonalds much?) as a part-timer, hence the title.

Here’s where the humour kicks in.

Sadao approaches his job in the same way he approaches his plan to conquer the world. He has ambition and drive, which makes him the perfect employee. When a KFC opens across the street from MgRonalds, Sadao approaches the situation with the gravitas of a war: spies are sent out, tactics observed, and a counter-attack prepared. Meanwhile, Emi takes up a cubicle job and plans to watch over Sadao.

I’m not someone that usually laughs out loud over movies or TV shows, but specific scenes of this anime had me laughing until I cried. The anime thrives on moments such as when Sadao tirelessly promotes the various specials of the day or when he learns how to use a fryer for the first time.

Up to this point the anime appears to be a typical fish-out-of-water comedy. Don’t misunderstand, it adopts those elements very well. But what makes this anime special is its balance of action and humor.

Underneath the glossy veneer of humour and incongruity, the characters of the anime break free of conventional tropes and engage in complex moral dilemmas.

Emi is presented as the classic hero. She is a powerful general who seeks to defeat Sadao, who she has always viewed as the personification of evil. She prepares to destroy him in Japan as soon as her powers allow.

However, Sadao behaves differently in the human world and his actions are kind, generous, and, dare I say, a little heroic. Sadao’s changed nature forces Emi to question her entire purpose. It makes her doubt her role as a hero and forces her to reconsider her desire to finish him off.

In the beginning, Sadao occupies the traditional role of a villain. After all, he is the Demon King who led an army that killed thousands of people, civilians included.

Sadao’s human form is deceiving.  It allows the viewer to condemn his actions and furthers the belief in an evil Satan. However, as the anime progresses, it becomes apparent that Sadao never saw his actions as being good or bad. For him, morality was not apparent in the furthering of his goals;  his actions were simply a means to an end.

Now, this doesn’t mean that Sadao should simply be forgiven, and the anime makes no attempt to fully exonerate him. It simply juxtaposes his past evil with his present goodness and leaves the viewer and Emito decide his fate.

I’m not going to deceive any of you. The second arc of this thirteen-episode series appears weaker than the first. Jokes are more worn-out and the absurdity of Sadao’s situation becomes wearying. The second half is more character-packed and loses the perfect balance of humour and action championed by the first arc. There are plot details left unexplained which heightens desire for a second season.

I must confess that prior to this, I had exclusively invested my time in the Shoujo genre (a guilty pleasure of mine). The Devil is a Part Timer! is my first venture into an anime with action fantasy and it took me for an amazing ride.

While it is not perfect, The Devil is a Part Timer! is humorous and relatable, and with empathy and compassion it addresses the problems of simply being human—such as working a part-time job, struggling with living expenses, and dealing with your own convictions in life. Go watch it if you like day jobs, epic battles in the sky, and the devil, of course.

-Contributed by Molly Cong

4 Webcomics with which to Coldly Murder Your Productivity

Plume
Image source: plumecomic.com

Plume (Fantasy/Supernatural)

One of the very first webcomics I read, Plume is the story of Vesper Grey, a young woman living in the early 1800s “West.” Her life, according to her, is “boring,” consisting of an endless parade of activities “suitable for young ladies.” This suddenly changes when her adventurer father is murdered in front of her.

She then embarks on a mission of revenge, aided by an immortal being named Corrick, who is bound to protect the wearer of an enchanted locket. The locket was gifted to Vesper by her father shortly before his death.

The story is strongly reminiscent of the film True Grit but with fantastical additions. The characters themselves are completely original, which is where the comic truly shines. Vesper takes to revenge with a worryingly gleeful exuberance. In her own words, “killing is therapeutic,” and she has a naïve badassery that is extremely endearing. The evolving relationships among the cast are well-plotted, and, as of yet, have utterly avoided one-dimensionality.

http://plumecomic.com/

Rumplestiltskin.png
Image Source: http://rumplestiltskin.smackjeeves.com/

Rumplestiltskin (Fantasy/Fairy Tale)

This is not the tale of Rumplestiltskin as you remember it. Incredibly well-written, the story is a complete retelling of the classic. The tropes of the “handsome prince,” “demure princess,” and “dastardly villain” are upended and replaced with infinitely more relatable and realistic characters. Dotted with twists that thumb their noses at your expectations, the story continually reminds you that it is the captain now, and will remain so.

As the protagonist Chris grows up, she becomes a willful and petulant girl who seems oblivious to the world around her. A world of war, greedy kings, and conscription exists around her, but she instead chooses to make friends with a mysterious man who meets her at the edge of the woods. A man, it must be said, who refuses to tell her his name…

http://rumplestiltskin.smackjeeves.com/comics/1565538/cover/

No End
Image Source: http://no-end.smackjeeves.com/

No End (Science Fiction/LGBT)

Recently, I was made aware that the roster of comics with both speculative and LGBT content is expanding far past the “story with a token diverse character.” The punctuality of my schoolwork may have taken a hit shortly afterwards.

No End is one such cause of my GPA’s demise. Set in a post-apocalyptic world, it follows an ensemble cast through the ruins of civilization. They attempt to survive and solve the mysteries of their world, all while facing threats from the now unapologetically corrupt military and (of course) zombies.

Zombies are like bow ties. They are cool, okay?

Each character is utterly unique and none conform to the clichés of apocalyptic zombie fighting. The story feels fresh, though shades of it have been seen before. Some parts resemble The Walking Dead—but with characters I actually care about.

http://no-end.smackjeeves.com/

Sfeer Theory.jpg
Image Source: http://www.sfeertheory.com/

Sfeer Theory (Steampunk/Fantasy)

I may devolve into fangirl-ranting with this one, so please bear with me. Sfeer Theory builds a world with perhaps one of the best magic systems I’ve seen since the book series Mistborn. I cannot attempt to explain it, as I will embarrass both myself and the authors, but suffice it to say you have a round thingy and you do stuff and then things happen and aaaaaaargh.

The comic mainly follows Luca Valentino, an assistant at Uitspan University, where Sfeer Theory is taught. He is an ingenious cyclist (one who practices Sfeer Theory), but has been denied entry to the university due to his status as an immigrant. He instead practices in secret, hoping to one day present his innovations to the university.

A backdrop of looming war between the countries of Warassa and Valence, and the intrigues surrounding them, provides compelling contrast to the relative peace of the university. It quickly becomes clear that Luca will somehow be caught up in the coming conflict.

The truly fantastic story is framed within gorgeous, full-colour art. Scenery and characters both are drawn with an eye for detail and attention to the complexities of motion. No one ever looks stiff or unnatural. This allows for comedy, emotion, and character development to be clearly expressed in a look or movement. Quite honestly, this is one of the best comics in recent memory.

http://www.sfeertheory.com/about

-Contributed by Rej Ford

If you’re still hungry to read about more webcomics, why don’t you consider some of the following?

  1. Stand Still Stay Silent
  2. Strong Female Protagonist
  3. The Abaddon