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Jan 132014
 

Hello! Welcome to the first edition of “The League of Books” book club. For our first novel, we picked an epic fantasy novel by Mercedes Lackey, “Arrows of the Queen”. This novel was first published in 1987 and is the beginning of the Valdemar series of books. We know that it is a fan favorite, so we had to check it out. Neither Ben nor I (Mystie) had read it before, though Ben had read other books by Lackey. We broke “Arrows of the Queen” into three sections (4 chapters each) in order to give a more comprehensive overview of the book instead of simply focusing on our reaction to the ending of the book.

Part 1 (Chapters 1-4)

Talia is a young 13 year female in a very drab and serious household- we enter the story as she is carding wool and reading a tale about Heralds and their Companions- a world to which she desperately wants to belong. It seems that Talia does not fit into her family’s idea of how a woman should behave, which includes illiteracy, submissiveness and obedience.   She, at 13, is to be married off. Talia escapes while the mothers are arguing and hides out in a small cavern she has found on the side of a hill. During this time, she daydreams about being found by a Herald and a Companion and then hears hoof beats, falls out of the hole and is found by a Companion. This seems a little too easy and a little quick to me as a reader, that Talia doesn’t have any sort of struggle or challenge that we read about before her life is swept into this magical tale. I am also not a huge fan, most of the time, of knowing major plot points that the main character is unaware of and knowing the entire ride to the Collegium that Talia was to be a Herald and having her continually wonder what was happening to her was a little overdone for my tastes, but I very much enjoyed the descriptions of the towns that she visited and the people that she met. Having Talia afraid of men, due to her authoritarian patriarchal upbringing, was a very interesting and much needed psychological element that elevated the story, to me. Talia, as a small and abused 13-year old would have emotional baggage, and I was very glad that it was included-though it does not remain consistent.

Talia and the Companion travel together and despite all of the evidence in front of her face, Talia stubbornly clings to the idea that she is “returning” the Companion and that he is not as smart and capable as she is making him out to be. In this chapter we see a lot of “it seems that this is too good to be true” thinking from Talia and outright refusal that she could be Chosen and that this Companion could be having her accompany him for a reason. We also start to learn about the Kingdom that Talia is a part of and it seems that everyone lives a much happier and more colorful existence than the “Holderkin”- they wear bright colors and are very loud and expressive people. The juxtaposition between Talia’s home life and the life that she sees in the kingdom polarizes the two worlds- one seems good and the other “evil”.

While traveling, Talia encounters a female guard and she is very taken aback, but accepts it fairly readily, after all “there were women as Heralds who held equal position as men”. One of my reservations about this is that Talia accepts things that go against everything she has ever learned very easily and quickly and seems to have no difficulty changing her mindset. The guard takes Talia into hand very quickly and understands exactly what she needs and what she won’t say, gets her fed and cleaned up and back on her way- this seems almost too easy. Once Talia enters the Collegium (taken there by Rolan) she is sent into a waiting room and approached by a very young girl. Almost out of place with her shy and scared character, Talia immediately puts this “little” in her place and treats her very firmly, even after learning that this young girl is the heir to the throne- though Talia’s reaction to this may be explained by information learned later in the book. Talia is fetched by the Dean of the Collegium, who is extremely perceptive and can tell immediately that Talia is very uncomfortable with men and adjusts her schedule and teachers in his mind as they walk. However, as mentioned above, we get the following reaction from Talia, “the wary unease she usually felt around men evaporated when she saw him”.

— Mystie

I absolutely agree with a lot that has been said about the first section of the book. There is a lot that I really enjoyed reading, mostly the sections that Talia was alone and traveling with just her new, and unknown, companion. She gets a chance to leave the borderlands and starts to see a whole new world opening up before her eyes, meeting several people along the road who serve as a stark contrast to the type of people she is used to. It also doesn’t really setup any sort of “save the world” scenario at first, it is focused on real problems that Talia is personally going through as a person, which is really where I think the strengths of the novel were. However, like you say, a lot of this is simply too convenient or “easy” for her. We get hardly a hint of what her life is like amongst her family (it is pretty poor), and honestly I could have used more setup here before she finds her companion Rolan. For example, where is it that she learned to read and fell in love with books and reading, something that was heavily discouraged by the rest of her family?
This ease at which she transitions carries through into her journey and on to the collegium. We get this entirely stark difference between the holders and the rest of the country, and even in the collegium, we find that she somehow innately knows to trust many of the men she meets even though it has been expressed that she had once been extremely uncomfortable around men and even people in general. Her initial encounter with the heir also stuck in my mind as rather odd, as she seems to be able to deal very well with a small girl demanding her to kneel as she is royalty (something she is sure to never have encountered before). Is this a sign of budding powers and her connection to her companion? Maybe, but again it is almost an instantaneous change that she comes upon, with very little difficulty, which I found less than convincing. I do very much enjoy the tale that Lackey is telling here, Talia and the people she is meeting are all very compelling, but things just seem to be falling into place too neatly.

— Ben

Part 2 (Chapters 5-8)

The middle section of this book was my favorite of the entire book overall. We see Talia start to settle into her new life, meet new classmates and teachers, and even gain some friends. I think the characters that Lackey has created are definitely one of the strengths of the novel, and especially their relationships to Talia are all intriguing and fun, and I found myself wishing that there had been more focus on her actual education. I was especially fond of the bond she forms with aging herald Jadus, during the holidays as the rest of the students have left, as the two almost come to each other’s rescue and each goes through a major turning point, with Talia losing some of her previous inhibitions and Jadus regaining his desire to rejoin society and his peers at the collegium.

This middle section is also where we start to get an idea of some of the darker aspects of life in the capital and the threats facing the Queen. These include the “blue” students, highborn pupils who didn’t fit into any of the colleges but are brought in basically on their bloodlines, and are suspects in the murder of the herald who held Talia’s position prior to her choosing. A group of these students begin to pick on, and even attempt to murder, Talia. Again, my only issue with this seems to be a common one; the line between good and evil in the book is extremely clear, as characters seem to either be the nicest person imaginable, or the cruelest, willing to do anything to further themselves. I would not mind a little more “grey.” Faults aside, I still found myself blazing through this section very quickly, and Lackey seems to be at her strongest when we are exploring Talia’s day-to-day life, schooling, and relationships. It falls a little flatter with some of the grand schemes and plots, but still a very enjoyable read to this point.

— Ben

Again, a lot of agreement between us on the major points. However, I think it bothered me more that we never learn anything about the larger plots going on in the Kingdom. We are given hints and nudges, but it is never actually explained why the Prince wanted the throne and why the plot is continuing after he was dealt with. I intensely agree that we seem to split the world into black and white and if they are evil, then that is the reason that they do bad things. It does seem to be a stretch that these children (as they are teens from the Blues) are so willing to murder a young girl who has done nothing to them and seem to do so only because they are told to by people we never see or know anything about.

However, Lackey does excel at building the small relationships between her characters and the interactions between Talia and Jadus, the servants and her fellow Heralds. She befriends and immediately puts at ease everyone that she meets.

— Mystie

 

Third Section (Chapter 9 – End)

What I enjoyed most about this section is that Talia started to really take control of her own actions and be the protagonist in her own story. She starts to find plots and begins to unravel them, with the aid of her friend Skif. We also see that her powers, that we were led to believe were part of her being the Queen’s Own, are actually part of her “Gift”. She has a strong sense of empathy- which leads her to seek out and aid people who are having a lot of emotional trouble. I really enjoy that we are fleshing out Talia’s character and giving her these abilities- but occasionally it seems that Talia can do no wrong. She is a great friend to everyone and fixes all of these problems and takes care of the Heir and turns her into a respectable child and … and … and. I feel that Talia doesn’t have a major flaw and I worry about the reader being able to relate to her.

At the beginning of Chapter 11, it has been three years. With the strength of Lackey’s writing on the day to day life of Talia’s training, I would have liked to have more of this fleshed out. I feel that, though three years have passed, the relationships between Talia and the rest of the characters have not moved forward much, if at all. She has had no problems with any plots for her life and there have been no additions to her close friend circle. Despite this, chapters 11 and 12 are extremely interesting and I think the final conflict in the book is perhaps my favorite part, despite the darkness and death of a close friend. It really stretches the story and makes the hazards of being a Herald much more realistic and believable- up until this point it has seemed that being a Herald is all easy and wonderful, at least for Talia.

All in all, this was a fun and quick read. I will definitely pick up the sequels and give those a read. After all, I have to figure out whether Ben or I are right about the love interest. 3.5/5 stars.

— Mystie

I’m a bit split on the last 4 chapters of the book. The last two chapters were great, as Mystie said we really start to see Talia start coming into her abilities and we start to get an idea of where the series as a whole is going to go. I thought the final conflict, and what came immediately after, was fantastic, it really raised the stakes for all of the characters while also really pulling in the reader to the story and plight of the heralds and Queen. I definitely agree that up to this point it almost seemed too safe, considering how much time Lackey spends telling us what a dangerous profession being a herald is.

I was not a big fan of the two chapters preceding this section though. It almost felt like an extended epilogue, as it wrapped up several plotlines from earlier, and basically rushed through several years of Talia’s training and life at the collegium. I think it really threw the pacing off, and I wish a lot of what she rushed through could have been a bit more fleshed out here, and that is just too bad considering how good the last two chapters were.

I’m definitely looking forward to reading the next books in the series, all faults aside, because this really was a fun read. And I am obviously right about the inevitable love interest. Obviously. However, I do agree with Mystie on the overall score, 3.5/5.

—Ben

 

Let us know what you thought in the comments below!

Jan 012014
 

Best New Console

WiiU. Hands Down.

LOL. Just kidding guys (Sorry WiiU). Now I’m going to throw a cop-out caveat here that the “best” console here is really going to come down to a matter of preference and taste.

That being said, my pick is going to be the Playstation 4. I see a lot of potential with the Xbox One. The fact that Kinect is going packaged in with the console instead of having to buy it separately makes me hope that game makers will be more inclined to include Kinect elements into their games so there are more things I can do with the Kinect than play Dance Dance Revolution (as fun as that is).

But as of right now, that’s all it is – potential. I wasn’t too sold on any of the Xbox launch titles, and although I have one – it’s mostly getting used for its entertainment features. The Playstation 4 kicked off strong with some great games, an interesting controller (a touch pad ON THE CONTROLER?!?)
— Cassi

Best PC Game

Bioshock Infinite
I was a very big fan of the first Bioshock game, and System Shock before that, so when Bioshock Infinite was announced I couldn’t wait to dive into every scrap of information they released. The first shot of bright, shiny Columbia in the announcement trailer seemed so perfect, a natural counter to the dark and dreary underwater world of Rapture.

Thankfully, that first trailer didn’t disappoint. Columbia is in many ways the opposite of Rapture, but as you explore the game you find many of the same underlying themes that made the first game so compelling. Gameplay has been touched up and improved, the ability to wield vigors (plasmids) and guns at the same time makes a huge difference in combat, and the skyhook adds an extra element of exhilaration to some of the bigger battles (along with providing a convenient transport). However, what I feel really sets this apart from the first game is Elizabeth. She provides an extra connection between the events of the story and the player, and thankfully is an example of companion characters done well, rarely blocking the way and often tossing helpful items to Booker in combat. Her presence is very much central to the main story, and the interactions between her and Booker create a more compelling experience than the solitary story of Bioshock 1, and oh what a story it is. Fairly easily stands as my favorite game of the year.
— Ben

Best DLC

Star Wars: The Old Republic “Rise of the Hutt Cartel”
SWTOR is a beautiful game that, for the longest time, has not let you rise above level 50. Finally the burdensome cap is raised…to a mere 55. But this is definitely an improvement for those players whose 50s have been collecting dust.
— Matt

Mass Effect 3: Citadel
The final DLC for Mass Effect 3 came out in the form of its most amazing story. The Citadel DLC brought to Mass Effect’s many fans a chance to delve deeper into Shepard’s relationships while telling a humorous story that shows the developers are more than willing to poke fun at themselves.
— Matt

Sins of a Solar Empire Rebellion: DLC
Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion has released two DLCs in 2013 that most definitely add to my all-time favorite 4X strategy game. Stellar Phenomena adds numerous random events that can affect the outcome of the game—mostly in the early stages. It offers new stars and orbiting anomalies as well. Forbidden Worlds gives four extra planet types as well as a new system for focusing planet production.
— Matt

XCOM – Enemy Within

This was technically a stand-alone expansion, but as it basically uses same storyline as Enemy Unknown, I’m going to include it in DLC (plus now I can get two of my favorite games this year listed!). Enemy Within adds a new resource (meld) which allows for research of several new technologies, such as superhuman abilities or even MEC Troopers. Furthermore, they have added a ton more maps and reworked some of the old ones, giving an entirely fresh experience while still keeping what made Enemy Unknown sooo good. As before, I highly recommend playing on ironman mode and classic difficulty. This will make every choice absolutely crucial to your survival, every move you make could be your last, and every man or woman on your team lost will be a stab to the heart.
— Ben

Best Console Game

The Last of Us
Amazing backstory, acting, and graphics combine with well-designed gameplay to create my favorite game of 2013, even if it is an ‘on rails’ experience. Best moments: The Intro, Winter, and the sewers. There were some puzzles that were few and far between but I was never at a loss for what to do. (Eventually I would like to write an article about the ending.) My favorite moment in the game was seeing wild giraffe roaming free in an American city in shambles. Like many people, I compared it to Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’ as I played through the various seasons. I suppose one of the big differences is that this is a zombie survival game whereas The Road is post-apocalypse. Either way, humanity is boned. There’s also the fact that this game utilizes a female lead. Not many games are willing to do that, and here it works.
Runner up: GTA5
My second favorite video game of 2013. Michael and Franklin were kind of throwaway stereotypical characters. The shining star of the game was absolutely Trevor. The sheer amount of things to do in the sandbox environment pushed this game over the top and the amount of interaction was unreal. My favorite moment in this game was when I randomly got got into a discussion with a man cosplaying as superhero Impotent Rage outside a shop, then beat him to the ground and ran away. Minutes later, a broadcast on Weasel News about a cosplay gang fight played on the radio. It’s that kind of level of detail that really makes the Rockstar games shine.
— Andrew

The Last of Us
I don’t want to jump on a bandwagon, but I am going with the crowd (and with Andrew) on this one. The Last of Us is a standout game for console gaming during this past year. It played on most people’s fascination with “zombies” and post-apocalyptic scenarios, but dealt with them in realistic and fascinating ways. The main characters were complex and not sexualized, which is difficult to find when one of the main playable characters is of the female persuasion.
With many video games, the story is secondary to simply completing the mission, but I found myself rooting for Ellie and Joel as much or more than most of my favorite television series or novel characters. The storyline is compelling and intense; I ranged from tearing up to screaming at my TV. The gameplay was easy to pick up but had intriguing aspects I hadn’t seen before (like listening to know where the enemies are) and the graphics and style were gorgeous. If you haven’t picked this up yet, do it.
— Mystie

Best Continuation of a Game Series

Ratchet & Clank: Into the Nexus
The Ratchet and Clank games are just fun—just pure fun. Take the enjoyment of platforming with running around, breaking boxes, jumping on things – combined with some shooting and the Ratchet & Clank guns. Oh the silly, sometimes unpractical, sometimes quite bad-ass, and usually hilarious guns. This game offers that with its signature brand of humor. If it were just that this would just be a great continuation of the series.
However, what I really love about this game is it gives us that and more with the introduction of the “Nether” which are rips in time which offer some break in the gameplay with some fun puzzle-platforming. Although not a next generation game – still one worth checking out.
— Cassi

Best Handheld Console Game

Legend of Zelda – A Link Between Worlds
A blast from the past and a trip down nostalgia lane. Being able to morph into a painting was an interesting new gameplay element and I played it right around the same time as I played Contrast, whose main character was able to morph into shadows and travel along walls. Similar execution but plays differently.
— Andrew

Pokemon X/Y (Near Tie- Zelda: A Link to the Past)
Link between Worlds came painfully close to taking this spot, and I definitely never expected to take the top spot away from any Zelda game ever, but here we are, and I am forced to admit that Pokemon edged Zelda in an absolute toss-up.
When I first picked up my 3DS, I’ll admit Pokemon wasn’t one of the games I listed highly on my list of “must-haves.” I hadn’t played any of the games since the original generation, and each passing game garnered little attention from me. However, things started to change as I read more about what Pokemon X/Y were adding to the formula, everyone in the office seemed to be picking up a copy, and the multiplayer possibilities started to take shape. So once release day hit, I found myself quickly jumping on eshop to pick up a copy, and boy was I ever glad I did.

Pokemon X/Y manages to combine several of my absolute favorite game mechanics together almost seamlessly, bringing an experience very few, if any, games can match. First you have your more traditional RPG fare of experience and leveling, which blends with the more strategical aspect of finding your perfect team that presents few elemental weaknesses, maximizes potential strengths, and creates unique synergies with your choice of moves (each Pokemon can learn a maximum of four). Finally, you add in the mechanic of collecting the absolute massive number of Pokemon (oh and then there are the shiny variants too!). This is addiction at its, well, finest. Plus there is nothing finer than laying down an old-fashioned beat-down on your co-worker while on your lunch break. If any of the above appeals to you, and it should, this is a must-play game on the 3DS.
— Ben

Guacamelle
I picked up my Playstation Vita a few months ago and since then have tried a handful of different games. The best of which I enjoyed was Guacamelle. You’ll come to find that I’m a sucker for Indie games, so this plucky little game made by a small Canadian studio – Drinkbox – definitely helped play a part in getting my attention.

In this game you play as a Mexican farmer who dreams of becoming a Luchador. A visit by an evil skeleton who whisks away your potential girlfriend gives you the chance at doing just that. The Luchador aspect paves a great path for learning melee attacks (GET IT? GuacaMELEE??), and the game has a way of layerin challenges and fun special moves along the way that I really enjoyed (brought on by a crotchety­ old teacher who can also turn into a goat).

What really brings this home for me is the fact that the game makers didn’t just throw together a game about Mexican culture because Dia De Los Muertos would be a fun and hip theme to have, they really took the time to learn about the culture and to make sure they did things right. That combined with the cross-play offered makes this a 2013 Vita game well worth checking out.
— Cassi

Best Indie Game

Contrast
If you look online you’ll see lots of reviews panning this game. The big reason for that is because it was buggy as hell when it came out. But the developers took notice, listened to all the complaints, and they’ve fixed all the bugs that I know I had problems with. I would imagine it should be a very smooth experience now. Contrast is the story of a young girl named Didi who with her invisible friend Dawn navigates a Moulin Rouge-esque dreamscape. Along the way, she helps her mom and dad reunite while he bumbles about trying to start up a circus to pay off his mafioso debtors. You control Dawn and you have the unique ability to meld into shadows. This allows you to bend physics and get to locations that would be inaccessible in the real world. The puzzles all rely on your ability to figure out how to move objects from one area to another while utilizing the projections of shadows from objects, some of which you can move to resize the shadow. Now that the game runs smoothly, I can say that this was my favorite indie game of 2013.
— Andrew

The Cave
As mentioned, I’m a sucker for Indie games, so picking an overall Indie game for me was going to be a tough one. At the same time, The Cave was love at first sight—I just couldn’t figure it out at first what really drew me in (I in fact wrote a whole post about it on my other blog to try and explain it to myself.).

To sum it up—I think the best way I could describe it is by what Justin McElroy of Polygon said “The Cave puts this most charming of cinematic endings to the test by asking what happens when those having their every wish granted are bad people? Like, really bad people.”

This game certainly isn’t without its flaws. That aside—the villainous game play, combined with the unique exploration of several different characters and their stories, and the dark but amazingly spot on humor (helped brought on by a mind that created Monkey Island mind you), this game stuck in my head – in a good way, making it my Indie pick for 2013.
— Cassi

The Stanley Parable
I picked up The Stanley Parable during a Steam sale after hearing Chloe Dykstra mention it during a Nerdist Podcast and after playing through the demo and laughing after every twist. If you don’t know about it, go get the demo and play through. Part of the enjoyment of this game is not knowing what you are getting yourself into and trying everything for yourself. As I discuss the games with fellow TLo42ers, we have to speak in code and not spoil it for each other. “Did you do the part with the yellow?” If you enjoy the humor of Portal and innovative games, this is a not-miss.
— Mystie

Best Mobile Game

Tiny Death Star
An adorable and moderately addicting re-skin of Tiny Tower, adapted for the Star Wars universe. The 8-bit graphic style is endearing and nostalgia-inducing, and the OCD part of me has to arrange the floors in a very specific order for optimum financial growth and efficiency. I can write a whole how-to guide for this if desired. The most important rule is to update your elevator as soon as possible using Imperial Bux.
— Andrew

Best Rerelease of a Game

LoZ – The Wind Waker
I remember when news about this game broke, everyone went nuts. It looks like a cartoon! What the crap kind of game is this? One of the best Zelda games of all time, actually. And with the improvements to the game this Zelda title could very well be one of the best games, period.
— Andrew

Baldur’s Gate I & II Enhanced Editions
Baldur’s Gate I & II have been re-released by Beamdog and I think they are great editions to 2013’s games. Baldur’s Gate is where you’ll see the biggest difference, with graphics having been updated to that of Baldur’s Gate 2. Both games have new characters with unique storylines and a new dungeon crawl mode called the Black Pits.
— Matt

Jan 012014
 

Best Original Movie

Gravity
This year was a great year for the promotion of gender equality in Hollywood. Gravity had a very entertaining ride. The story wasn’t too original or inventive but the technical aspects of the film and the special effects really put it over the top. One of the few movies that I felt was NECESSARY to see in 3d. More on gender inequality in my review of Hunger Games- Catching Fire.
— Andrew

Oblivion
I feel a little dirty labeling a Tom Cruise movie as the best of 2013, but strangely enough his cliche intensity was perfect for this role, and luckily never over the top. More importantly, though, Oblivion was visually very beautiful – it resonated with the part of me that loves the polished futuristic look paired with a sparsely populated post-apocalyptic Earth. The story was perhaps just decent, but the score, an original created by M83′s Anthony Gonzalez, was fantastic and solidified the film’s spot at the top of my list.
— Joe

Best Sequel

Hunger Games – Catching Fire
I can’t say enough about this movie. Catching Fire is simply a compelling movie and Jennifer Lawrence seems to effortlessly portray a character haunted by PTSD who unintentionally becomes the face of a revolution in a post-civil war America in the future. Now, there’s another narrative that this movie is helping to destroy, and that is the notion in Hollywood that a woman can’t lead a film franchise. The amount of gender inequality in American cinema is staggering. The Huffington Post recently posted an article explaining just how bad it is – 14% of the 50 highest grossing films starred female leads, while men dominated with 64%. Hollywood is also very good at making bad excuses that externalize the blame for their crap quality. “People don’t want to see it” is a common one I’ve heard. I think a lot of it is self-fulfilling, so shitty scripts get written when the people writing them insert their own biases which makes people not want to see it. It’s not that a woman is in the leading role, it’s just a shitty movie. Catching Fire, and Gravity to a lesser extent, are helping shatter that myth.
— Andrew

The World’s End
The last movie of the Cornetto Trilogy, The World’s End, is my 2013 pick of best movie continuation. Sure it’s no Hobbit, Star Trek or Hunger Games. But the Edgar Wright/Simon Pegg/Nick Frost movies hold a special place in my heart and their amazing job of genre blending and humor made the third in this trilogy a much anticipated movie for me, as well as for a lot of people I suspect.

I loved this movie. Of the three, my favorite probably will always be Shaun of the Dead. That being said, that doesn’t mean this movie was any the lesser. A movie about a washed up guy trying to relive his glory days and then having to fight with alien robots definitely make this movie a perfect fit with the others.
—Cassi

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
If you enjoyed the Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, then you will certainly enjoy its sequel.
Star Trek into Darkness
With an all-star cast, Star Trek into Darkness delivers the next great installment in the re-envisioned Star Trek universe.
Thor: the Dark World
The second installment of the Thor movies is easily one of the best movies released in 2013. Despite the lack of Kenneth Branagh as director, this movie was pulled off with the same finesse as I’d expect of the Shakespearean actor. The Dark Elves were, perhaps, one of my favorite villainous groups of all time.
— Matt

The Hunger Games – Catching Fire
There was no shortage of great sequels at the box office in 2013, but Catching Fire takes the top prize for me. Though there were various discrepancies from the book (and those always stick out to me), the movie was captivating and the imagery was breathtaking. Like the rest of the internet, I have an enormous woman crush on Jennifer Lawrence (especially because of what she stands for) and I think that she has given young women everywhere the role model they needed, both as Katniss and as Jennifer. Katniss is a real hero, one who does what she has to even though every fiber of her being is against it and she is having a very real and very intense personal struggle. We owe a lot of this to the wonderful storytelling of Suzanne Collins, but Francis Lawrence gave it life in a spectacular fashion. To me, this sequel outshines The Hunger Games.
—Mystie

Best Soundtrack

The World’s End
Oh, there are so many movie soundtracks I love. So…so many. But the 2013 winner for me was the soundtrack to accompany the final and glorious completion to the Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy-The Worlds End. Not only does it have a great sound, but it pairs the movie so well.

This movie is a tale about a washed up man who tries to relive his glory days with his friends (who have all moved on with their lives) to try to do the Golden Mile – an epic pub crawl in their home town – then aliens get thrown into the mix (as they do).

The great thing about this soundtrack is it pairs the theme of in-the-glory-days-past Gary King (played by Simon Pegg) with late ’80s and early ’90s Britpop. Whether this is your sound or not, the pairing is flawless.
— Cassi

Oblivion

Anthony Gonzalez’s score for Oblivion provided the final push the movie needed to make it to the top of my list for 2013. The music fit the plot and setting perfectly, with ethereal and fantastic (in the literal sense of the word) aspects that would cause the listener to imagine a world much like the one seen in Oblivion had the film’s creators not already presented it to us. Of course, it helps that I am already a fan of M83. I was lucky enough to have had the opportunity to see the film’s title track performed live this summer. Susanne Sundfor’s vocals are nearly as big as the movie itself, which is a significant factor of why the song worked so well.
— Joe

Jan 012014
 

Best Ongoing Show

Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones on HBO is very much following in the footsteps of films such as Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter in bringing fantasy back into mainstream culture, for that alone I have to applaud their efforts. But they manage to accomplish so much more than just that, creating one of the most compelling stories on television while still staying faithful to the original stories and even providing different perspectives on events that have only been hinted at in the books.

What is even more amazing to me is how they manage to keep the emotional impact of events of the book intact, arguably even surpassing the book in places. Even having read the books before watching the show, and knowing exactly what is in store for some of these characters, events never came across as predictable, and each setback, triumph, and tragedy struck me as hard as if it had been the first I had ever heard of it. That is an amazing accomplishment, and I cannot wait to continue devouring everything Westeros has to offer, whatever format it appears in.
— Ben

Big Bang Theory

Big Bang Theory continues to hold its standing as one of my all-time favorite shows. While I sometimes feel that Sheldon now occasionally acts as a caricature of himself, the intelligent charm of this show continues to dominate my attention.
— Matt

Best New Show

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D

Unsurprisingly, Joss Whedon’s involvement with yet another superhero-related project has produced a winner (well, at least of a TLo42 Best of 2013 Award so far). Perhaps superhero-related is an overstatement, though, since most of the show doesn’t actually include Marvel’s Universe of Superheroes. Not directly, anyway. But that doesn’t stop the show from achieving something great. Coulson, Fitz, and Simmons shine, though at times other characters can be a bit trying. Each episode has centered around a creative mythical or supernatural device, and the writers have managed to continue developing new ones without the stories becoming contrived.
— Joe

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D

Sometimes it seems like anything that Joss Whedon does, I will love no matter its actual content, but the fact is that Joss is constantly fighting to have women who are not tropes and who are 3-dimensional characters and that happens to be something that I look for in the media that I choose to consume. However, that does not mean AoS is without its flaws. The first few episodes were difficult to get into- each character was stuck in a very narrow character arc and it took them a bit to branch out and be more interesting.  The storylines were rather simple, but after the sixth episode (which was awesome) it really started to pick up and I started to become invested in the characters and what happened to them. I also have to give a shout out to “FitzSimmons” the scientific duo who are hands-down my favorite characters on the show (being a scientist myself). If you are getting bogged down in the first couple of episodes, wait until after the 6th to write it off. It is definitely my favorite new show.
— Mystie

Jan 012014
 

Best New Book of a Series

Dance with Dragons: Paperback
My favorite series has finally released book 5 in paperback, giving a great excuse to reread this epic story.
— Matt

Tempt the Stars (Cassie Palmer Novel #6) by Karen Chance
Tempt the Stars was a sequel that I was awaiting anxiously for and I was not disappointed (except by the fact that it wasn’t longer). The Cassie Palmer series is an urban fantasy series where vampires, werewolves, djinns, mages and clairvoyants interact. Cassie is one of the latter. In fact, at this point she is the Pythia (the chief clairvoyant) and is in a strong position of power in the magical community- but one that she doesn’t want, necessarily. Cassie Palmer is one of my favorite types of heroines: she does what needs to be done even if she doesn’t want to get out of bed that day. She makes sure that she does what she feel is morally right and doesn’t hesitate to put her own butt in danger to help out any one of her friends. If you enjoy urban fantasy, I recommend picking up this series.
—Mystie

Best New Book

And the Mountains Echoed (by Khaled Hosseini)
Due to my rather outrageous “to-read” list, I think this may have been the only book published in 2013 I managed to get to this year. So that definitely makes coming up with the title for this spot quite a bit easier, but I am a big fan of the first two books by Khaled Hosseini (The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns), and his third offering proved to be just as much of a joy to read, absolutely engaging until the last page, while bringing a perspective many people are sometimes unable or unwilling to see.
I think the major strength of any of Hosseini’s novels are his characters. Each is remarkably complex, deep, and unbelievably real, all while facing some of the most difficult hardships humanity has known. The first two books focused strongly on one or two characters, but Mountains takes a different approach by introducing nine characters who each have their own chapter, fragmenting the narrative but providing an overarching connection between them all and the events that occur in their lives. This fragmentation can make the story a little difficult to follow at times, and I think overall I prefer the style of the first two, but at the end of the day this novel is all about the characters and their connection to each other and to the reader, and in this regard, Hosseini has outdone even his previous two books.
— Ben

William Shakespeare’s Star Wars
The greatest story of all time now has its first installment told in true Shakespearean style.
— Matt

Jan 012014
 

Best New Comic

Rat Queens

This was a fairly tough choice between Rat Queens and East of West, but Rat Queens is just too much damn fun to be denied. The blend of dark humor, booze, and dungeons and dragons is a perfect mixture that very much brings to mind late-night tabletop sessions. Sure, there is adventure and fighting and loot, but much like those tabletop sessions, often the temptation to engage in shenanigans trumps all. And so it is with Rat Queens, with the party engaging in excessive booze, drugs, candy, and violence, sometimes all at the same time. Very much a fun read even if you have never touched a d20 in your life, but if you have, there is plenty here that will have you going “Yep… that looks familiar.” 
— Ben

Rat Queens

Anything that makes you laugh as soon as you open it is gonna be good, and Rat Queens was no exception. With an interesting mix of mercenaries in the Rat Queens guild, you get a little of everything and each character is a new spin on an old RPG classic: the mage, the paladin, the rogue and the priestess. In this new comic from Image, you get a refreshing and updated feel for the classics, without taking anything away from them. And it doesn’t hurt that the humor is a little crude and the quips from the guild will have you holding your sides.
— Mystie

Best Ongoing Comic

Saga
Saga is a prime example of what comics are all about, and just what they can bring to the storytelling table. Brian Vaughan has been one of the most consistently fantastic writers in comic books over the past decade, and thankfully that is fully evident in Saga, with a stable of likeable and complex characters, and some of the best dialogue you can find in any medium. Every single character has their own motivations, dreams, fears, and life. I truly cannot find a character I actively root against, even those at odds with our lovestruck heroes, which in my opinion is a marvelous accomplishment.

This is paired perfectly with the glorious artwork of Fiona Staples, which brings to life this incredible universe. Her illustrations are unbelievably dynamic, the facial expressions in every scene especially are terrific, and bring an added element of realism and provide a deeper connection between the characters and reader. This is really where the comic medium shines, when you can bring together the art and writing and form something that is more than the sum of its parts.If you have even a passing interest in seeing what is possible with comics, this is a must-read book.
— Ben

Saga
I only started reading Saga in November after Mystie and I picked up the first two graphic novels at Comikaze in LA, but it’s been hard to put down ever since. Fiona Staples’ art is beautiful, fantastic, and occasionally comically disgusting, while Brian K. Vaughan’s storyline and dialogue make waiting for next month’s release incredibly hard. The characters are probably my favorite part of the work, and Alana’s combination of badassery, sarcasm, humor, and ferocious motherhood is refreshing. She is easily my favorite character, though Lying Cat has his moments, too…
— Joe

Jan 012014
 

Best Ongoing Webseries

Video Game High School

Easily taking this category, Video Game High School released an amazing second “season” this year. The continued character development in the new season is excellent, and surprisingly so in some aspects. In particular, the writers’ treatment of The Law’s exile was hilarious and unconventional, with one vomit-related scene nearly sending me to tears via laughter. Not to be outdone, the sweet romances in the show continued to blossom adorably, though again, unconventionally: many of the key scenes actually take place within video games. 
— Joe

Best New Webseries

Spellslingers

Still a relatively new offering, Spellslingers is a show about Magic: The Gathering, hosted by Sean Plott, better known on the internets as Day[9]. Sean is most famous for his show that has traditionally focused on starcraft strategy called the Day[9] daily, but is an avid MTG player, and together with the Geek and Sundry youtube channel created spellslingers, a show where Sean takes on various challengers (thus far mostly those who have been involved with other Geek and Sundry productions) in a match of MTG.

Sean’s humor, and many years of experience teaching starcraft, really shine through so far in the series. I have a passing familiarity with Magic, and feel fairly comfortable with how the game works, but even someone completely new to the game would be able to gain a great deal of knowledge just watching them play, as Sean and his guest explain each card and explain the reasoning behind each move. His guests thus far have been equally charming and fun to watch. Very easy recommendation for new web series for anyone remotely interested in Magic or other trading card games.
— Ben

Co-Optitude

It might be a bit of a stretch to call it a webseries, considering that Co-Optitude is just composed of Felicia Day and her brother Ryon playing old video games. Be that as it may, the show is hilarious, and the idea that a couple of geeks should get together, play video games, and record it seems only natural. Of course, the best episodes are those in which they play a game that I once played, but they’re all entertaining. Ryon and Felicia’s on-camera presence has become much more natural as the show has gone on, with Ryon in particular really coming out of his shell. The brother-sister camaraderie that surfaces makes for a unique and enjoyable dynamic.
— Joe

Jan 012014
 

Best Tabletop Game

Magic: the Gathering – Commander 2013

Magic: the Gathering is a collectible card game where you take on the persona of a wizard, casting spells and summoning creatures and allies in order to defeat your enemies. One of the most fun casual formats is Commander. Originally known as Elder Dragon Highlander, the format was officially adopted as a sanctioned format by Wizards of the Coast and retitled ‘Commander’. In this format you choose a legendary creature card of your choice to be the general for your 99 deck, which is built using only the colors of your general. Additionally, you can’t play more than a single copy of any one card except for basic lands (also known as Highlander – gee I wonder why?).  Wizards of the Coast created five 100-card three-color decks which consist mostly of cards from older sets, but also contains cards never before printed like the oft-maligned True-Name Nemesis. It’s a powerhouse in older formats, and so you’re likely not going to find the blue black red (also known as Grixis) deck in stock for a while. Like the previous decks Wizards of the Coast has sold, each comes with three generals in regular card size and oversized. It’s a great and VERY cost-effective way to get involved in a seriously fun and amazing game, and the deck builders game some really serious thought to including lots of non-basic lands to help you crush your opponents. The cool part is that there are new magic cards, and commander 2013 is the only way to get them. I have played with and against all five, and they are certainly strong enough to hold their own against more powerful opponents, provided you play your cards strategically. The best thing you can do is play some games to get a feel for the style of the deck then look around the internet for ideas to upgrade.
— Andrew

Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 Premium Editions

Wizards of the Coast is finally re-releasing what is, in my opinion, books from the best version of D&D ever released—the beautifully created 3.5 version.
— Matt

Best Board Game

Zombicide 2

My favorite board game and also my favorite Kickstarter project of the year. Zombicide is a well-designed synthesis of board game, RPG, dice game, and miniatures game, pitting players as Survivors against Zombies. The new rules update allows for survivors to turn into zombies called Zombivors when they die. There are a LOT of pieces to the game, and setting up can be a chore but you can expect a game to last from 90 minutes to over 3 hours depending on how well your team can figure out a plan of attack for the included scenarios. The rules were also intimidating at first, but once we got the hang of it we were blasting zombies left and right. Who wouldn’t like finding a gunblade in a pimp mobile just in time to blast zombie brains all over the pavement as they’re chasing you down? The game uses a LOT of miniatures. It can look overwhelming, and it can also be a hassle trying to put them all away. I recommend marking numbers on the rows of the plastic container and the bottoms of the bases so you know exactly where everything goes. It saves a lot of cleanup time.
— Andrew

Jan 012014
 

GoldieBlox

I came across GoldieBlox like any other thing on the internet, pure dicking around. I stumbled across the Kickstarter and was curious so started exploring it further. What I discovered was nothing short of something I want to be 8 again for just so I can get this for Christmas.

The concept is pretty simple (or so it seems) – the toy was dreamed up by a Stanford Engineer who wanted to help get girls at a younger age to start thinking about and being interested in Engineering. And I love the use of gold (to help break down the girls like pink stereotype. Duh). 
— Cassi

Jan 012014
 

The Nerdist

An obvious contender, The Nerdist continues to be fantastic. Chris Hardwick seems to strike gold with nearly every one of his endeavors, and I would nearly have included @Midnight, his Jeopardy-esque variety show, on this list had Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. not blown me away. Hardwick manages to develop a rapport with all of his guests that would suggest they are friends outside of the recording studio, and the incredible humor that develops provides corroborating evidence. Hardwick hasn’t forgotten the “nerd” in Nerdist, either, which makes including the podcast on this list that much easier.
— Joe