September Staff Picks
I have been loving the advanced reader copy of Cassandra Clare’s Sword Catcher, a novel that will be released on October 10th, 2023. Clare, author of the bestselling young adult Shadowhunters series, has entered into the adult fantasy genre with a stunning first installment of a forthcoming epic fantasy series.
Though I’m still in the process of reading Sword Catcher, I have been thoroughly and wonderfully consumed by the story. Sword Catcher draws the reader into the city-state Castellane, a world that is both vividly beautiful and quietly dangerous. In Castellane, readers meet Kel, a boy who serves as the body double for the royal heir, and Lin, a physician who belongs to the small community of people who can still access magic. As Kel and Lin both find themselves entangled with the criminal underworld of Castellane, secrets begin to unravel around them. I love how immersive the world of Sword Catcher feels; one of Clare’s greatest strengths as a writer has always been her vivid yet accessible fantasy worldbuilding. Combining expertly paced plot and Clare’s almost otherworldly ability to make every setting feel as real as your own city, Clare has written a novel that is sure to enchant readers for many years to come. I highly recommend checking out Sword Catcher here.
Astarion with a side of Baldur’s Gate 3, anyone? I’m a romance lover through and through, so any video game with romance options is for me. That being said, when BG3 came out and I saw the buckets full of beautiful options of course I knew I was going to get it. But it was Astarion in particular who caught my eye. His snark and beauty mixed with my I-Can-Fix-Him mentality clearly made us a perfect match. But I fell in love with his character more than I thought I would, in ways I hadn’t ever imagined.
He may start off as what seems like an emotionless, uncaring, sex-crazed lunatic, but under all of that is a tortured soul who’s just trying to find out how to start living for himself. What does that even mean? He doesn’t know, but with your help he can find out. And it’s that part of him that doesn’t get enough appreciation, because how terrifying is that? Imagine being subjected to living a certain, torturous way for hundreds of years and then suddenly getting a chance to become your own person? I’ll stop there because I think his story is one that should be experienced first-hand. His character soothes the part of me that believes games and stories will always be unforgettable when they give you someone so raw and so real to care about.
Lately, I’ve been deeply immersed in the dystopian wasteland that Ashnikko has built through their new album, Weedkiller. It’s got a genre-blurring sound with songs about queer love, environmental destruction, self-empowerment, and reclaiming autonomy. The inspiration for the album came to Ashnikko in an unreleased short story they wrote about a fairy utopia being destroyed by robots called Weedkillers.
Ashnikko plays the main protagonist throughout the album, transmitting a story of rage, revenge, battle, and defeat. With official visualizers for each song and five music videos, the album is also aesthetically stunning. It gives off an industrial, apocalyptic vibe that is simultaneously dark and fun. Think of Mad Max but with witchy forest fairies. The climax of the story is beautifully represented in the title track, “Weedkiller,” where Ashnikko engages in an epic final battle with the Weedkiller. They also offer social commentary on more serious topics throughout the album. “Miss Nectarine” touches on homophobia, and “Possession of a Weapon” speaks on reproductive rights. It’s refreshing to see an artist handle these topics in such a boldly unapologetic way. The album finishes on a hopeful note with “Dying Star,” featuring the otherworldly vocals of Ethel Cain. The song is about maintaining hope for peace and softness in a violent world. I have tickets to Ashnikko’s show on October 6th, and I am so excited to see how the energy and message of the album translate into a stage performance.
In high school, I was obsessed with Toby Fox’s hit indie video game, Undertale. Visiting any corner of the internet without encountering memes, fan art, or famous YouTubers broadcasting their playthroughs seemed impossible. So, imagine my surprise and delight when I discovered my boyfriend had never heard of Undertale, and I got to watch him play it for the first time.
In Undertale, you play as a child who has fallen into The Underground, where monsters have lived since humanity banished them from the surface. To make your way back to the surface, you must carefully consider your choices: spare and befriend the monsters…or destroy their lives.
Undertale is a standout game due to its experimental gameplay mechanics, breathtaking plot twists, infectious soundtrack (which Fox composed entirely by himself), unique humor, and memorable characters. It was also refreshingly progressive, especially for its time—the playable character is non-binary, and multiple main characters are explicitly or implicitly LGBTQ+!
However, the true magic in Undertale is Fox’s talent to subvert all expectations a seasoned gamer has nurtured over a lifetime. For example, the decisions you make in a previous playthrough can haunt you even after you reset the game entirely; don’t be surprised if certain characters respond to you with déjà vu.
If you’re still unconvinced, consider Undertale is one of the few games to achieve a 10/10 rating on Steam and a 97% rating on Google—and yes, that’s the current rating eight years after its release.
With Halloween right on the horizon (it’s September, which is basically Halloween), I’ve been preparing for the spooky Superbowl by playing a lot of Dead by Daylight (DBD).
If you’re not familiar with the game, DBD is like hide and seek but with murder. There are two ways to play the game: The first way is to play as the killer. DBD has their own killers, but the game also features characters from well-known horror media, such as Michael Myers, Pinhead, and Pyramid Head. Your objective as the killer is to hook survivors and sacrifice them to the Entity, which is a fun guy that has spider arms and whispers in your ear every so often.
The second way to play is as a survivor, which is my favorite way play—especially if you’re new to the game. In this mode, you can play with up to four friends, and you can play as characters like Leon Kennedy, Ellen Ripley, and…Nicolas Cage?! As survivors your objective is to complete generators, power the escape gates, and, well, survive. This mode is all about teamwork, communication, and cursing out the killer when you are inevitably hooked.
If you’re looking for a way to scream your lungs out this October (or any month, really), I highly recommend rounding up a few of your friends and giving DBD a try! Like writing, I believe that games are most enjoyable when you can play without the expectation of needing to be good. So remember: Good luck, have fun!
As a treat for the Fall, we re-signed up for MAX at our home. Some favorite shows now have new episodes. I am going to say up front that my Staff Pick of Harley Quinn is raunchy and violent. It is also one of the smarter shows out now for addressing relationships and mental health on streaming.
This animated series is a good companion to the Harley Quinn comic book written by Stephanie Phillips, where Harley was helping people heal from their trauma from The Joker War. In the MAX series, Harley (Kaley Cuoco) grows and learns to be together with Poison Ivy (Lake Bell). The couple of Harley & Ivy develops from villainous cohorts into two people in a healthy and supportive relationship. This streaming series honors, brings representation and builds dimensions to one of the more iconic queer couples in comics. The third season was about two people in a relationship learning to listen to each other’s needs—and how they can still be a “power couple” even if their personal goals differ beyond “partners in crime”—as we see throughout Season 3 into Season 4, which dropped this Summer.
The series also takes a huge step forward in regards to mental health awareness and two other DC characters. The Season 3 episode Batman Begins Forever has Harley helping Bruce Wayne (Diedrich Bader) literally face the trauma of his parent’s death and focusing not on one moment in Crime Alley. Bruce, not BatMan, then starts to do the work to be present in his current life and bring his best self to assist those around him. Another iconic character, The Joker (Alan Tudyk) challenges himself and changes in this series by growing past the narcissist who created a toxic relationship with Harley and imprinted his identity onto her. In the Season 3 episode Joker: The Killing Vote, this change is shown by his run for Mayor of Gotham not as part of a criminal scheme but to improve the public schools. This episode ties into the multiple season storyline where The Joker becomes a supportive partner to a single working mother and a stepfather to two kids. As a stay at home dad, he puts the spotlight on his wife’s career and nurtures his two stepchildren not by molding them in his image but mentoring them as unique individuals. He is putting in the work, with struggles, to put others needs first, by working on homework, quality family time and being involved in their school to break the pattern of being a narcissist.
For fans of the baseball bat bashing version of the main character, the show still has a lot of capers, bawdy humor and explosive action in every episode of Harley Quinn and all changes to DC’s long-standing heroes and villains are organic and character based. Harley Quinn is a show with strong female characters, heart and a perspective shift on some eighty year old characters from in the DC Universe.