House of Hunger by Alexis Henderson

If you like Dracula, Rebecca, Mexican Gothic, Plain Bad Heroines, or Priory of the Orange Tree, you’ll probably want to read House of Hunger by Alexis Henderson. This sapphic take on vampire lore is a lush, gory, hedonistic roller coaster with a dash of social commentary to boot, and it will definitely take your breath away.

Marion Shaw’s world is strictly divided — there’s North and South, haves and have-nots. She has always been strictly in the “have-nots” camp, struggling to survive in the slums of Prane, a city in the South. When she gets the chance for a different life, she jumps for it. The only people who move from South to North, from poor to rich, are the bloodmaids: young women (always young, always women) who are employed specifically so their wealthy patrons can drain and drink their blood to protect their health. In exchange, bloodmaids get generous pensions at the end of their tenure. Marion is lucky enough to be employed by the noble House of Hunger, to bleed for the Countess Lisavet, who is beautiful, enigmatic, alluring… and desperately in need of blood to prop up her failing health. Even as Marion falls hard (and bleeds hard) for her magnetic employer, she can’t deny the signs that something is wrong; household members are disappearing, the bloodmaids are becoming ill to the point of madness, and Lisavet keeps disappearing somewhere at night. If Marion doesn’t figure out what’s going on soon, she’ll lose more than a little blood in the House of Hunger.

I loved that this is a version of the vampire story that blurs the line between monster and victim — Marion is definitely no damsel in distress, and takes action for herself, even to the point of crossing moral lines where need be. Her and Lisavet’s queerness is also clear and unapologetic, refreshingly, but unfortunately the book is still not particularly sex-positive. The lush worldbuilding of the novel — while very atmospheric — is mostly about showing how decadent and corrupt the nobility is, wallowing in every kind of vice, which ends up making any sexuality in the book feel  hedonistic and distasteful, lumped in with the rampant and destructive drug use.

What is very effective about that, however, is the social commentary underlying it; the reader cannot help but come away thinking about how much wealth is wasted on these kinds of activities while workers like Marion can barely make ends meet to survive. It’s an alternate universe version of the Gilded Age, primed for unions, labor laws, and a drastic redistribution of wealth. Pair that unique premise with a tight, fast-moving plot and you’ve got yourself a deeply compelling story.

So if you like your gothic novels bloody, intricate, feminist, sensual, and fighting for basic human rights, this book is for you.

Dead Cells Video Game

guest post by Wesley B

Although I’ve been playing video games for well over two decades, on the historical scale, gaming is a relatively young medium. As such, it’s not surprising that it has undergone many changes – growing pains, one could say – as it struggles to come into its own as an artform. Over the past decade, big budget AAA games have settled into a fairly rigid formula; fortunately, at the same time there has been an indie game renaissance, with brilliantly creative developers putting new spins on classic genres.

Two of the most popular genres in indie gaming today, despite formerly being rather niche, are roguelites and metroidvanias. The primary feature of roguelites is permadeath; when you die, that’s it. While some progress, such as items or skills, might persist between deaths, each run starts over from the beginning, giving you just one life to make it to the final boss. Metroidvanias (a portmanteau of the two franchises that cemented and popularized the genre, Metroid and Castlevania), on the other hand, are (typically 2D) platformers with an emphasis on exploring large, interconnected maps. Usually you acquire power-ups throughout the game, which then allow you to reach previously inaccessible areas.

Dead Cells, one of my most-played games on my Switch, is a hybrid of these two genres: a roguelitevania, if you will. While its genre might be an awkward mouthful, the game itself is a masterclass in elegant simplicity. You play as a headless prisoner brought back to life in a ruined kingdom. Using a combination of two weapons (which you choose from a huge assortment of swords, daggers, hammers, whips, shields, bows, spells, and more) and two skills (chosen from various grenades, traps, and abilities), you fight your way out of the prison, then through different areas of the kingdom. The art style is gorgeous, with each region looking dramatically different with radically varied color palettes, and the animation is tight and fluid, important in a game where twitch combat is of the utmost importance.

The game is hard, and when you inevitably die, you’re brought back to life in the prison to try, try again. Fortunately, as you fight you collect cells, which you can invest in various upgrades that carry over between runs. While the game is never easy, you can at least give yourself progressively more of a fighting chance, so you never feel like you wasted your time when a run is cut short. Even when (if) you finally beat the game, there is a hard mode for even more of a challenge, plus new daily challenges each day, where you play a region with various modifiers, competing with other players for the high score. Dead Cells is hard to master, but even harder to put down.