Friday, 10 April 2020

Top 5 Favourite Stories in Video Games

Hello again! I hope everyone is doing well. So, as well as being a doctor and an artist, I am also a writer, with my two published novels in my Chronicles of Azaria series already available and the third (which has been on a long hiatus, I know) back in progress. I must say that compared to drawing, writing definitely takes longer to get back into, and has much less obvious 'results' to show- I can't really share a completed chapter of a book in the same way you can share a finished piece of artwork, and in this social media-drive world, it can put you off as you don't get 'instant' feedback.

However, as I strive to get back into the writing groove, I began thinking, what kind of stories really pique my interest anyway? Thus, by looking at why I enjoy certain stories, I can hopefully try to channel the same thoughts to my own work and make better experiences.

So let's dive in!


Until the last decade or so, video games were not known for their depth of story. I mean my favourite game remains Sonic the Hedgehog, which is where a blue hedgehog goes up against a mad evil genius called Dr Robotnik (Eggman) who is using his advanced technology to ruin the natural beauty of Sonic's world and take it over. Hardly Shakespeare, I know!

Oddly enough, though, this simple story feels far, far more compelling than Sonic's rival Mario. Mario is a plumber who is out to rescue a princess from an evil reptilian king. And it has pretty much stuck to this formula with very little iteration or change. Personally I find the entire premise boring, dull and extremely cliched (perhaps it was less so at the time in 1989, but even so), and while gameplay wise I respect the Mario franchise, it has almost no noteworthy story to speak of.

But from these humble beginnings, video game story-telling has come a long long way, adotping many attributes from cinema, and I think this medium has some of the best stories to share.

Many mainstream audiences can be quite dismisive of game stories, but I've found these tales much more compelling that any film or TV show I've ever seen. Video games have the added element of you, the player, being literally an active agent, and this adds a whole new layer to the experience.

Anyway, enough waffle! These are five of my absolute favourite video game stories. I will be avoiding spoilers as much as I can but a few minor ones may crop up.

1. Horizon Zero Dawn

This is a relatively new game, coming out in 2017, but good grief did it hook me in! The premise is about a post apocalyptic Earth with robot dinosaurs. While that sounds ridiculous (if certainly very cool), when you delve into the story you find a deep, rich lore and an impecible standard of worldbuilding.

The main character is named Aloy, a girl outcast from her isolationist tribe, the Nora, as she was found on the doorstep of their Mother Goddess temple (which is deep within a mountain). Without any confirmed parentage, she is taken and given to another outcast, Rost, to be raised, at the beheast of one priestesses who disagreed with her peers that she was a bad omen.

Aloy thus grows up training for 'The Proving', a physical test held every so often for all of her tribe that would allow her back in as a normal member. Alas, during the Proving challenge, mysterious soldiers attack, killing Rost and several tribes members, leaving Aloy bewildered and alone. Searching for answers, she heads out into the open world- a world that her tribe has been isolated from- and discovers the truth about the past.

The game is layered cleverly, with present day Aloy finding pieces of old technology (which her tribe explictly forbade use of) that reveal the past, which is essentially a few years ahead of our time today. We find out that a corporation that manufactured self replicating war machines lost control over them, and they were going to wipe out all humanity and destroy all life on the planet.

To combat this, a brilliant scientist named Elizabet Sobeck instigated a hugely ambitious project called Zero Dawn, and the details of this plan are slowly unravelled. Each piece of this history is revealed through datalogues, audio recording and holograms, and I was very invested and engrossed in the story. It's not often I play for hours into the night, wanting to see what was coming, and this held me all the way to the end.

I think what captivated me most was the sense of mystery this story provoked. I wanted to know how and why humanity had regressed, why were there robot dinosaurs (yes even this is explained), and why Aloy was deemed an outcast. The story was also able to provoke real anger- I absolutely hated Faro (the CEO of the company who designed the war machines, although that's not the reason I loathe him so), and it's probably the first time I have actually thoroughly hated an antagonist of any story.

On the downside, Aloy isn't a particularly memorable character in that she lacks any real flaws- she's definitely not a Mary Sue or anything but she does feel more of a blank slate type character, as her personality quirks are quite tame. Still, it takes absolutely nothing away from this amazing story.

2. Persona 4

This is another game I only played recently (all 80+ hours of it), and hands down I think this is THE best story I have experienced in any media, full stop. It has it all- extremely well written characters, well paced plot, great twists and reveals, and again that same beautiful sense of mystery that Horizon Zero Dawn had. The story itself is essentially a murder mystery, with a serious of unusual killings taking place in the small town of Inaba. You play as teen protagonist Yu Narukami, who has moved here to live with his uncle and niece as his parents are working abroad.

Very soon it's apparent that Inaba has hints of the supernatural abound, and Yu gets involved investigating the killings, along with his newfound friends from school. Yu is very much a blank slate protagonist, which does impact how much he can be related to, but his supporting cast has bucketloads of character to make up for it.

His best friend Yosuke is your typical hormone rampaged teenage boy, with his own deep insecurties behind a friendly and bombastic personality. His other female friends Yukiko and Chie again have strong personalities, with Yukiko being the smart bookish shy type and Chie being a brash aggresive character (rare to see in female characters!), and then there's rough and ready Kanji, whose gruff exterior hides an impressive sewing talent. Finally there's Naota and Rise, the former being a boyish detective type and the latter being a bubbly pop idol.

I think the beauty of this game lies in the fact that its characters are all based around a central flaw (which ties into the gameplay), and this makes them really well rounded and believable. The side characters are similarly portrayed, making for a very rich experience. Mix in a compelling plot and the supernatural elements, and it for me is a near perfect experience in all ways. The only nitpick I would have is that the protagonist lacks anywhere near this kind of development, and if he's supposed to be a blank slate, then having a custom character (with gender options) would probably have worked better.

The game also got an anime adaptation which I also highly enjoyed (it's also really funny), and would recommend to any non gamer or anyone who doesn't want to grind through an 80 hour Japanese RPG.

3. Eternal Darkness

This game is very special to me, as I consider it the game that made me decide to try writing stories with my own characters. It follows protagonist Alexandra Roivas, who is phoned in the middle of night and is informed of the sudden murder of her grandfather in the ancient family manor. Alex therefore goes to the manor, and when the police don't get far in their investigation decides to take it on herself. During her exploration of the dusy mansion she comes across a strange book, the Tome of Eternal Darkness, and begins to read, kicking off a deep, era-spanning epic with repercussions that affect the present day...

This is an unusual game for this list as I am not a fan of horror at all, but it has a very clever plot spanning a great portion of human history, from the early Roman empire to the present day (year 2000), and I enjoyed it more for this aspect, as well as the interesting characters. While Alex is the main character, every 'chapter' you read of the Tome puts you in the shoes of the character from that era (so ancient Cambodia, Medieval Europe, World War I), and they all have interesting, if tragic tales to follow. I also love its magic system, and the personalities of the three 'Old Ones' who form the major antagonists of the game.

I also find the game pretty quotable, with some great lines from the villains in particular. The characters are certainly not as deep as the ones from Persona 4, but it's the setting, atmosphere and greater overarching plot that really drew me in. The biggest thing for me though was how events in the past impact the future (for example one character hiding an artifact in the past reveals where it can be found in present day), and is one of themes I carried through into my Chronicles of Azaria series.

4. Tales of Symphonia

Another JRPG title, and until Persona 4 came along this was my favourite video game story. This was the first 'Tales' game I played (which is Namco Bandi's equivalent to the Final Fantasy series), but this is far more subversive and enjoys playing with common tropes in the genre.

I love how this story pretty much rips apart the 'Chosen One' narrative, beginning by being told in the point of view of a non chosen one character. It also has themes of every 'evil' having a sympathic motive and backstory, fantastic racism, issues about resource management and preventing greed and paranoia causing more strife, and I though it handled these themes very well.

The main character Lloyd is brash, loud and has a big heart, and is very much a protagonist you want to root for. The supporting cast also have their own quirks and flaws- not quite as deep as Persona 4's, but there's plenty to get stuck into. From mage prodigy Genis, clumsy but kind-hearted Chosen One Colette, master assasin and harbinger of bad luck Sheena, to imposing but self flagellating Regal, they all have their own pieces of themselves that they want to improve, and Lloyd is there to help them. Even he undergoes some development, too, and makes for a satisfying arc.

The villain is also hugely sympathetic, and though immature in his approach, his motives have clear definition and reason behind them, which makes him all the more terrifying.

5. Dragon Age
Another game I only got into relatively recently in 2016. I had never played any western RPGs before, but this was recommended by a friend, and I loved the story so much it was enough to inspire some fanfiction (which you can read here). Dragon Age is a dark fantasy, similar to the Game of Thrones series. This game has a custom character, where you can choose from various backgrounds (noble, commoner, human, dwarf, elf) and play out an epic fantasy tale.

You are a Grey Warden, newly recruited to this ancient order against your will, and after a devastating betrayal at the start of the game, you have to unite the kingdom of Ferelden against the incoming 'Blight'- a disease that turns all it touches into mindless 'Darkspawn'. The Darkspawn armies have risen and seek to consume the entire kingdom, and you and your ragtag band of heroes need to raise an army and fight back before it's too late.

Like Persona 4 the game has very well fleshed out supporting characters. You have Alistair, the only other surviving Grey Warden with his charm and wit, the sultry Morrigan, a witch with very strong opinions and a deep interest in old magic, Leliana, a bard who lived a dangerous life as an assassin and spy who's now turned to religion for peace, a foul mouthed drunken dwarf named Oghren seeking to atone for the past, the stern and discliplined Qunari soldier Sten, the flirtacious and high spirited elf thief assassin Zevran, and the motherly kind mage Wynne. Each have their own 'quests' and ways you can gain their approval, so you really get to know them well.

The protagonist also has their own backstory and 'origin' (hence the name), and this can play into how they act in the story. I enjoy the human noble background, and is what I usually play as (female noble rogue).


So those are the top 5 video game stories, in my opinion. There are many more I've enjoyed, but I consider these the best. I hope this has also opened the eyes of those not into gaming, who may have had their interest tickled to look into this games!

Friday, 3 April 2020

Doodle a Day March- Highlights

Greetings all! I hope everyone is remaining safe and well. Before all this current situation kicked off, I participated in a small drawing challenge called Doodle A Day- created by Instagram user Ellolovely. This is very similar to Inktober, but is more flexible in that any media can be used.

I posted daily on my Instagram (@maddoctorartist), but I thought it would be fun to share the pictures I was most proud of during the challenge!


I drew a marsh space! I quite liked the effect of colouring the background in black and making 'stars' (though it did drain my pen quite a bit!). It was also fun learning how to make contours and feather texturing. All in all I was pleased with how this one turned out.


For this prompt I drew a familiar face- this is Rocky, the plucky robin who lives in my back garden! He is always singing in the morning when I go to work and he visits the bird feeder often, so I almost always see him daily. For this picture I really concentrated on making a  'soft' texture, as well as seeing how I could convey colour in just black and white (you can tell that the brown is daker than the red, which is darker than the white). I also learned that following the contour of the subject makes for more realistic shading.

This is my second favourite of the prompts, as I was able to able the lessons I learned in 'Garden' and I was super impressed at how the fluffiness of the feathers came out! It was also giving me more practice with shading and outlines. In fact I was so impressed I photocopied the original and did a version with coloured pencil too:



Easily my favourite of my prompts- earlier with another prompt I had attempted a snow leopard and I really did not like how it turned out. This was my chance to learn from that (never throw away your drawings kids) and I was blown away at how much improvement I'd made. The pose was beautiful, and I was able to get a proper fur effect which I hadn't before. The background is perhaps too dark, but I wanted to convey 'rain' in a different way, but overall this is my favourite piece.

I enjoyed this one more for the theme- I actually have a phobia of butterflies and moths and so this was my change for revenge! Hence I drew a pair of bee-eaters snacking on a butterfly. Again I enjoyed trying new methos to make a feathery texture, and I was happy how it turned out.


I drew a rufus treePIE for this prompt, and here I made more of an effort to draw in a background. I was used to this, having had to draw backgrounds for my colouring book (available here), but it was the first time I'd done it in traditional media. It gives the piece a more finished look.


This may not make the most sense initially- how can you do green when you're working in black and white? Well, I chose a bright green plum headed parakeet, which worked just as well! Here I tried a new approach for the bark, and I was really pleased with the result. It also helped me build more pen control, though to be honest I draw in my lap and not on a table so my lines are already at a disadvantage!


As an artist who loves drawing birds, what else could I draw for this prompt but a proud peacock? This was extremely time consuming and took 5 hours, as you can imagine looking at the details!


This prompt was an excuse to draw flowers and a more detailed background, so I added this to the long-tailed tit. I have very many fun poses of long-tailed tits from my bird watching photography, and it was fun to add the details here.


I notice for these challenges that my choice of complexity changes- I usually start with basic sketches, then elaborate into detailed pieces. This was another one that took over 6 hours- a pair of sleeping eagles which I found on an 'eaglecam'. As you can see the majority of my effort went into the birds, with a much simpler background, but I still think it works as it allows you to focus on the subjects without it being too cluttered.

Another of my favourites, this time a blue tit having a bath. This was the first time I tried stippling, which is a technique where marks are made with dots. Very time consuming, but it gives a very different look, which I felt was ideal for the moss effect. Wet feathers are also fun to draw!


Here I decided to step out of my comfort zone and try another animal, this time an Asian Water Dragon, which is a species of lizard. This was another time consuming piece, as I had to draw the individual scales, but wow was the end result worth it! Once more I was able to employ the 'think in 3D' tip I'd recently picked up, and I was happy with how this one turned out.


Similar to the rain prompt, but this time I decided to go for a white on black method, which turned out better. This is a white-throated kingfisher taking shelter under a leaf. I haven't quite got raindrops down, but you can only learn by trying, and I learned a huge amount during this challenge by trying different things!

Almost at the end now! This prompt allowed me to mix all the styles I'd learned so far, and it was great to combine them all in a single piece! I particularly like the stippling on the breast and tail.


This was the final prompt, and once again I had to draw something that wasn't a bird. The perspective on this was difficult, but it was worth trialling as it has shown me what to consider when planning a drawing like this. Even then, I really liked how the birds and babies came out, along with the boot 'rim'.

And so there you have it, my favourite drawings from the Doodle a Day challenge! There's another one this April, so if you're up to have a go, find @ellolovely on Instagram and check out the prompts!

If you like my artwork, please consider following my Instagram @maddoctorartist, and you can also follow my Facebook Page as I post my art there as well.



Saturday, 22 February 2020

Another Five Art Tricks I Wish I Knew Earlier

So I've been drawing for a number of years, self-taught, and while that does sound impressive to a lot of people, it comes with drawbacks. Even with the vast resource that is the internet and all the excellent tutorials, hints and tips on various websites (click here to view some of my favourites), there are just certain little things that aren't ever 'taught' per se.

Reflecting on my art journey, I thought it might be helpful to come up another top five art tricks I wish I'd known earlier (click here for my previous post on the same topic, but with different tips).These have mostly come from art podcasts and some youtubers I have recently started to follow. Hopefull you may find these useful!

1. Think in 3D

This is something I picked up a while ago, but I didn't truly understand it until I came across artist Peter Han (check out his youtube channel here). I first encounter Peter's art on another art channel I've followed for a while, Proko, where he made a guest appearance during a panel (you can watch the video here). Essentially Peter advises to break down any form into geometric shapes- advice I have heard many times before- but this time the emphasis was on 3D shapes, and this has actually already had an impact on my art!

The idea behind this is to think of forms in terms of cubes, pyramids, cones and spheres, not as squares, triangles and circles. This is why in my redraw above of my original character Ryan, his head shape looks much more proportioned (as in the old drawing I used a circle base). Thinking in 3D also makes things like perspective easier to grasp, as you are turning an object in space, rather than making guesses with lines.

A crude simplification, but it does help you understand the volume of forms, and this is very helpful for proportions, perspective, lighting, pretty much everything!

This is expecially useful for complex forms like the face- if you draw it in 'planes' rather than jumping straight in with the details, it makes it look much more realistic.

Thus I'm very grateful to Peter for finally allowing me to understand this nugget of advice after many, many years!

2. Find Art 'parents' or styles you want to emulate

This is a tip I picked up from a Proko podcast, and also an professional artist called Ethan Becker. This is *not* advocating that you copy another artist and then claim the work as your own (which is a big no no)- rather, this is asking yourself the question, what kind of art do you like, and what elements of this do you want to put into your own art style?

I really love the shading and line style of the Fire Emblem games Path of Radiance and Radiant Dawn, so this is something I may try to incorporate into my future art [this is official game artwork and is copyright Intelligent Systems/ Nintendo]

This is not something I have thought much about before, as I presumed learning from realism/ real life was enough to then develop your own style. But I have noticed that my struggles towards realism don't ever seem to quite reach it. This was part of the reason I decided to start drawing birds rather than people, as I had been doing, but it also put me off wanting to practice drawing people at all. No matter how much I tried, I always fell short of my expectation, and this took away from my enjoyment. In fact, it even made me almost afraid to try in the first place, which is never a good mindset to have.

However, learning this tip has allowed me some breathing room away from realism. Thus I am now looking at artwork I enjoy (such as the Fire Emblem example above), and practicing the elements I would like to put in my own work by copying. This can be anything from the linework, the colouring style, dynamic shapes, gesture, anything! And by coping, I mean taking an image I like and trying to work out how the artist achieved the desired effect by replicating it myself- again, this is as a LEARNING tool, not to plagerise or post online.

3. Experiment in a different medium

I picked this tip up from a few artists over the years, and also during Inktober 2019 (which I did for the first time last year). I have mostly stuck to digital art for many years, though initially I did draw traditionally on paper with pencil and coloured pencils.

However, for Inktober I decided to go back to traditional media, and I've found a brand new medium I really enjoy!

 It's a lot of fun figuring out how to shade with just three colours, black, white and grey!

Ink art has become a great new discovery for me, and I have even invested in some books on the subject. So it is absolutely worth trying out different artistic media, especially if you feel your creativity has stagnated and you are struggling to find inspiration. And with so many options to choose from, like oil painting, watercolours, ink, coloured pencils, oil pastels, alcohol markers- you might just find a brand new way of expressing yourself.

4. Don't get trapped in the 'collect for future reference' cycle

This tip comes from artist Jake Parker (he also started the whole Inktober thing). This is something I hadn't noticed I had been doing, and will definitely be more mindful of. The problem on hand here is that say you have an art project in mind- perhaps something bigger than a simple drawing, like a comic strip, graphic novel, literature novel, screenplay, whatever it could be, and you need some 'inspiration' or references to help with the worldbuilding, setting, characters etc.

Pinterest is both your greatest resource and worst addiction...

So, thanks to social media sites like Instagram and especially Pinterest, you go 'collecting'- a nice landscape photo for a setting, some references on period clothing, some animals you could combine into a new monster- and you pile these things up like a dragon protecting their hoarde. The contents however just sit there, and you never invest in them to get a return, because there's always more to collect, or something better than what you've already got.

This was something I've done for my old Zodiac Hunters story, where I wanted to redesign the monsters. Yet despite collecting a great deal of references I haven't started on a single one, and it's been years!

In contract, I managed this well with my Azaria fantasy novel series. I did a lot of research into worldbuilding and world politics, and managed to write a whole timeline and encyclopaedia. Now I have the blocks I was missing, and I have started to write the final part of the trilogy after a long hiatus!
 So, it is all very worthwhile to collect the building blocks you need to create your work, but if you don't actually use them, you will just be sitting on worthless stone.

5. Don't get tunnel vision by only looking at artists who use the medium you work in to learn from

Similar to tip #3, this is where I have broadened who I learn from in terms of art teachers. Initially I stuck to digital artists and tutorials on deviantart, but since YouTube has a plethora of artists and art teachers, I have expanded the content I watch. Some might say there's little point in watching an artist who uses oil painting and describes the ins and outs of this when you yourself use watercolour or another medium, but there is a lot of crossover potential. It can also inspire alternative approaches to drawing.

Some personal examples for me include Alphonso Dunn- he works in ink, and I have followed him long before I found ink as a medium I enjoy. His work has been great to see how to create texture and volume.

I also thoroughly enjoyed Proko's guest videos, where artists of all kinds give advice. I learnt quite a bit from an oil painter about choosing colours, which was not something I was expecting!

Of course you can ignore the technical parts of a medium you don't work in, but it's good to expand your horizons and gleen information from unexpected sources!


So there you have it, another five art tips I wish I knew earlier! I'm sure there are many many more- have you got any hints or tricks you wish you'd known sooner? Let me know!

Friday, 31 January 2020

Book review: The Priory of the Orange Tree

Hello everyone! So, I don't usually post book reviews on here (mostly because I don't read that much these days) but I made an exception with this book because wow, have I got a lot to say! It has been a long time since I've felt the need to rant (and not in a good way) about a book so here goes...

So I came across this book as a recommendation because of its diversity, and I am sad to say this was its only positive feature. I am trying to venture into adult fantasy, having been a fan of YA for many years, but all my attempts thus far have ended in heavy disappointment. This book is painfully mediocre at best, and downright awful at worse. I have so so many issues with almost all of it- the characters, the content and themes, the plot, and the utterly wasted potential and failure to capitalise on built up situations, and I will go through these below.

On the positive side, the writing was competent (if a few of the metaphors were odd), and the actual representation of LGBT was very seamless and the intimate scenes were tasteful and well done. However this does not give the book a pass on its other multiple failings (in my opinion).

First off, the story is extremely unfocused. There are four main ‘point of view’ characters (only two, Ead and Tane, I can call actual protagonists but you don’t realise this until at least 200-300 pages in, which is not a good thing), and thus the other two, Loth and Niclays, are complete wastes. It feels like the author put them in to show off her worldbuilding, to expose us to geographic regions outside where the actual main characters reside, and it’s excruciating.

Loth in particular, his ‘story’ is over within several chapters and added nothing to the overall plot. He is set up to have this arc of learning to become a spy, to infiltrate courts and perhaps do things that he would never have considered before, but nothing of consequence happens to him. He doesn’t fall into trouble or traps because of his supposed naive and honest nature, he easily gets what he was meant to get (i.e. he was a driver for plot, not a character with an arc) and later on his plot also crosses over with Niclays which makes the latter even more pointless as Loth covers the same ground he does. Loth also undergoes no development- he doesn’t change as a person as a result of his adventure. His story is also so short, and his relationship with Ead is told in pockets of backstory. Not flashback, just narrative. Their relationship is never shown, making it very weak, and hard to care for when you’ve never seen the two interact. The same goes for his friendship with Kitson- Kitson is literally there as a sympathy device, in exactly the same way ‘fridge’ characters are only there to make you feel sorry for the character they are attached to. He has maybe 5 chapters before he’s killed off- this was far too early, but clearly the author couldn’t have two characters travel together so she just erases him, making him just as pointless as Loth’s narrative in general.

Niclays is also a pointless character with no real development. He is portrayed as a drunken exile who wants revenge, and this set up could have been quite interesting...but nothing comes of it. Things happen outside of his control which he is then blamed for (rather than him making poor choices out of resentment), I didn’t care for any of his scenes because it was detracting from the overall plot, and his final turn to the good side happens in a SINGLE SENTENCE. That entire chapter is him loathing, about to get the revenge he wanted from the start, and without any prompt, without any thought process or insight or anything, he gives up and spills his plot to kill Ead. Not to mention that in the SAME SCENE, he is then told about the death of a character he was close to and this is given half a paragraph to sink in before he renews his allegiance to the good side. Again, his plot crosses over with Loth’s, so why did we get a doubling over of plot for nothing? Like I said, it seems this was done by the author to show off other regions in her fantasy world, not because the characters meant anything, and this was extremely frustrating. The alchemy plot line was also completely pointless because outside of Niclays telling us that Sabran was once interested in this, no other character cares about it. It’s not brought up in lore backstory, the rulers of other nations don’t care about why is it given so much weight? Another case of telling us alchemy and eternal life are a thing without showing us.

Because of the focus on these two needless points of view, this took away from Tane, who is an actual main character but gets far, far less development than Ead does. Tane should have had a lot more prominence, and it would not have been hard to let her take over the roles of Loth and Niclays. Her arc about doing something wrong and then having to give up her rider status was also over far too quickly (the pacing in this book is atrocious)- it would have been so much more fulfilling to have this guilt gnaw at her over the story, having her accomplish the things Loth and Niclays did, and THEN being banished when the truth was spilled. And because she has absolutely zero interaction with Ead until a chapter or two before the end, she gets TWO SCENES to develop a relationship with her (which supposedly all happens off camera) and there is no conflict, no opposing ideals, they just smile and agree to whatever the other says. This was wasted potential! These two should have the most developed arc and relationship to really convey the struggling to compromise- the east vs west that the story tries to push so hard. These two should have come into contact far, far earlier, via the gems, or via other means, so we could see how they react to each other and overcome their differences to work together. But no, we get two scenes, and a final battle where they don’t even fight side by side, which was hugely disappointing.

Ead has the most focus (but not enough)- as she is the main protagonist she should have had the first chapter, and more emphasis that she had this role (it took me 200 pages before I realised she was supposed to be the lead). Ead however also suffers from a weak arc, and (yes I know this term is banded about a lot without good reason) comes across as Mary Sue. I mean she is:

a) a magic user in a land where this is outlawed/ not believed in, making her ‘special’
b) is very proficient at it, despite being away 7 years from the tree
c) is also fully combat trained and skilled with several weapons at once
d) is never wrong in her decisions- while other characters may disagree with her, she is always eventually proven right and never makes a mistake
e) has no actual flaw- getting injured in fights is not a character flaw, and she is not truly reckless because her actions have no consequence to her as a character (as opposed to her physically)

As a result, she doesn’t undergo much development either, as she never makes a mistake or error that causes her to look at her decision making and change. There is such potential here; as I said above she could have had a real conflict with Tane about dragons and magic, but because they never meet until the end, nothing comes of it. The foundation is there, but it is never built upon, and that is equally as frustrating as the pointless other two characters. I don’t know if Loth and Niclays were added because the publisher didn’t think having two female protagonists alone would sell, or because Game of Thrones has made the cast of thousands popular, but they were definitely not needed.

As a result of these extraneous characters, the book is extremely bloated. It’s far far too long- it could easily have been condensed if the focus was on Ead and Tane. Having three mystical artifacts was also too many, as one gem barely plays a role, and the other is just a means for Tane to fast-travel when her dragon is lost. Thus her having lost the dragon is inconsequential! This seems to be a running theme in the book- a roadblock is put in various places, but then a magic alternative appears (Aralaq, the bird character, etc), so the roadblock might as well have not been there. This is a symptom of the book being too long- it’s already an unfocused bloated mess so the author has to cut corners otherwise it would be even longer. But this saps tension out of everything- like the Niclays example above, that scene is built up so well, and then in 500 words it’s all thrown out the window for nothing. Ead gets lethally poisoned- but is magically healed anyway with no lasting disability or problem, and there is no time consequence either. Same with Sabran- she gets ill a few times, nothing comes of it. She miscarries, nothing comes of it. Laya and Niclays escape the pirates- nothing comes of it. Tane is stripped of her rank- she gets demoted, sure, but everyone treats her so well when it’s supposed to be this awful disgrace, so essentially nothing came of it.

The villains of the story were also weak. If you break it down, the story is basically Lord of the Ring with some altered set dressing- find the magic relic to kill the dark lord. This for me was another hugely frustrating thing, because with the set up of east vs west, star vs fire, you could have had a much deeper and more original and interesting story looking at the conflict of these ideals- that the magics can work in harmony not opposition, but no, we get the bare bones good vs evil story. The fire dragons are always portrayed as evil- why? The book goes out of its way to tell us (again not show us) that there needs to be balance, but what balance was there? Eastern dragons good, western bad is not balance. Again so much potential lost- we know the orange tree is based off fire magic, so why not have this the cause of imbalance? Humans taking the fruit to use its power has made fire magic over-powerful, it is thus humans who have caused this problem, not some abject cosmic horror that just randomly appeared a thousand years ago. This would have been a much more fulfilling approach and an actual new take on the genre (honestly the reviews this thing has one wonders if they have actually ready other fantasy books).

Like I said with the magic system having no consequence, this was another area that could have made the story much more interesting. Why not have the mages constantly fighting addiction, and temptation of power? Why not have Ead like an addict, craving the magic and abandoning her post for it, leading to destruction of Ascalon? Why not make her a parallel to the Witch, the person she could become should she choose the path of temptation? You know, actual character driven conflict, not just ‘oh the author needs me in this city at this time so let’s put as many contrivances as we can to make sure she’s on schedule’. The story is plotted like a bus timetable- character x needs to be at y at time z, and it’s boring and forced.

The secondary characters aren’t much better. Sabran is well written enough, as was Margaret, but there was so so much focus on endless lists of names and titles, it was very hard to follow. Usually for books I read the first 3 chapters, and if it doesn’t grip me I put it aside. The first three chapters of this book are very unwelcoming- they shove lore down your throat and expect you to keep up, adding more and more names and titles, then we have nicknames mixed with real names, too much emphasis on two minor characters (the guy from the opening chapter and his girlfriend, I forget their names, because that’s how memorable they were). I only persisted with the book because I had actually physically bought it and was on an 8 hour plane journey.

As a result of everyone seemingly having equal narrative weight, this is why it took me 200 pages to realise Ead was the main character, because there was no way to tell who was significant and who was not. Tane also doesn’t come back as a POV character after the first chapter for a while so this was even more jarring. Again, over-reliance on the author wanting to go ‘Look at my world! Look at the islands and people and nations! Aren’t I so clever and original!’ means the characters and plot suffer. I mean there’s a side character death that happens and I had absolutely no idea who she was because she blended into the 100 names I’d been drowning in since the start, so it held no weight.

The lore wasn’t well built into the narrative either. This can be challenging as you don’t want characters who should know basic lore spouting it for the reader’s sake, but easily fixed- have Tane in the west and Ead in the east. Remove the death on sight penalty, and change it to imprisonment or deportation, and have the two evade authorities. Done. Each learns of the others customs and cultures and this bridges the gap between them. Alas, no.

The Eastern lore, in my opinion, was poorly done. It comes across as a purely aesthetic choice with no actual research, and amounts to eastern dragons look different to western ones and eastern philosophy reveres them, and that’s as deep as the author goes. Nothing into the base conflict of philosophy- that western philosophy favours heaven and the afterlife while eastern favours reincarnation and cycles of life and death (yes this is a big generalization I know but it’s something to work off at least). This could have been brought into the conflict so easily- the West believe they need to slay the Nameless One to end the darkness, but the East know that because the orange tree is being used by humans, this is what caused him to be created, so they need to destroy the tree to balance the cycle, so the Nameless One goes back to being in harmony. Again this would have been so more interesting, and would have actually shown balance being the way forward, not the extremely one sided view that gets pushed in the real story.

Next is the magic system, which I have touched on above. It was much too vague and felt tacked on. While there is nothing wrong with a soft magic system (one that plays off the mystical rather than having structured laws), in this book it doesn’t work. Since the author has two magic pools (fire and stars), and people can access them, it should have gone with a hard magic system. Alas, there seemed no real consequences to using magic and no real rules, it’s just ‘magic’ and works as the plot wants it to. It reeks of deus ex machina, like when Loth is healed of the plague, or when Ead awakes from her coma- it works because we can’t kill off these characters or show any lasting disability, and since there’s no ITU (intensive care unit) and this plot needs to go go go we have magic miracle cure instead. The animal characters reek of this as well- they appear because the author needs a fast travel option like in a video game, ‘cause we can’t have 800 pages stretch on even longer.

Like I said above, the author hints that eating the fruit of the orange tree bears a consequence...but it doesn’t! The addict angle would have been perfect for this but no, yet another waste. And when the Nameless One can communicate to those who eat the fruit, why wasn’t this utilised? Why didn’t he taunt Ead in dreams and visions, tempting her, being a manifestation of the addictive nature of the fruit? Why didn’t he turn over other mages to his side? So much more could have been done!

Also, Tane who is supposed to be on the opposing side of star magic, eats the orange fruit! I was stunned to read this, because as I predicted, it was utterly pointless. All it did was ‘heighten her abilities’ and didn’t impart anything new, have any consequence or impact the plot in any meaningful way. Tane never uses this new magic either. I mean if she had the proper development with Ead which the book decided to completely ignore, this could have been a symbol of the two sides coming together, uniting to be stronger, but this was just stupid. The star magic is also grossly underrepresented in a story where it’s supposed to have as much prominence as the fire magic (fire magic being stronger does not mean it should have more prominence), and it really makes the author, who is desperately trying to push a narrative about balance, look like she forgot that it was the theme in the first place.

Overall, this book is a grating disappointment, with poorly executed themes, weak underdeveloped and boring characters, unfocused and unwieldly plot, and is simply another LOTR clone with some altered set dressing. While it does do a good job with the LGBT portrayals, that tiny sliver of silver is not worth the mounds of dirt you have to sift through to get.

I can think of two much better books that did these themes justice- the first is Alison Croggon’s Books of Pellinor, which did this feminist LORT retelling far better many years before (it’s not as explict with its LGBT as this book is but it is a much, much more competent story with better characters and writing), and the second is Eon by Alison Goodman (this is based in fantasy China and actually WAS research very well, also has feminist themes and a much more engaging Eastern lore). Don’t let the fact that these are YA put you off, because they are much more competently written.

1 star out of 5, would not recommend.