Nebula Nominees: The Killing Moon by N K Jemisin

From the author’s note for The Killing Moonby N K Jemisin:

Like most fantasy writers, I have found it challenging to write material influenced by real (if bygone) cultures. […] Since this is a fantasy novel, not a historical text, I found myself in the odd position of having to de-historify these tales as much as possible — in effect stripping away the substance of reality while leaving behind only the thinnest broth for flavoring. My goal was to give homage; my goal was not to ape humanity. Armchair Egyptologist, you have been forewarned.

Well, thank the baby Jesus. 

I have had a long and loud love/hate relationship with high fantasy, with periods of intense love-making followed by throwing all of its shit out into the yard and setting it on fire. Some of my most favoritest books have hailed from high fantasy’s storied borders – The Long Price QuartetThe Lord of the Rings, the Earthsea Cycle. But I have also found books that just make me keen for their dangerously juvenile wish-fulfillment and naive politics. A penniless goatherd turns out to be the son of a king; a scarred warrior reclaims his honor: all of this occurring in a Medieval Europe clone that appears to be structured by nostalgia for vicious, illusory things like honor, blended with the worst of middle class American values. So much high fantasy wrong-foots it, trying to blend meritocracy with the divine right, ending in a Calvinism of fiction: good wins because it wins. Feh.

And that’s not even getting into the second or third generation “corrections” of this historical/political naïveté evidenced by formative high fantasy, novels that posit lovingly detailed rape-and-murder-a-thons as an expression of their grittiness or historical accuracy or what-fucking-ever. I am not much interested in escapisms that use casual injustice as a backdrop for some idiot imbued with narrative privilege to level up. I see enough of that shit in the real world, thank you, and adding dragons into the mix doesn’t make it easier to swallow. And just to be clear, it’s not the rape and violence that I have a problem with – I enjoy a bloody fight scene as much as the next girl – it’s how so often rape and violence are deployed without interrogation and without consequence. Good still wins because it wins, but now someone can get herself raped to prove the situation is serious and nothing else

I seriously did not intend this review to become a jeremiad about the state of high fantasy, but you go to review with the barely controlled rampage you have bubbling in your mind. Or I do anyway, not to bring you into it. What I really wanted to impart with my freak-out is that I have a complicated relationship with high fantasy, and reading Jemisin’s foreword made me sigh with relief. So often I read high fantasy, and the location is just medieval Europe or medieval Asia with the serial numbers filed off, but not particularly well. The problem I see with much of high fantasy is a sloppy, self-serving use of history which conflates character expediency with historical accuracy, creating a fantasy world with all the problems of the historical record and then some

 The Killing Moon takes place in the city-state of Gujaareh, based very loosely on ancient Egypt, but other than a river-flooded desert city and a pharaonic leader, the Egyptian is gestural or inflected. The plot centers on three people: a priest of the killing class, his apprentice, and an ambassador/spy from another city-state. While the milieu seems broadly pantheistic, Gujaarah is focused on the worship of a specific deity, a moon goddess of death and less so of rebirth. In practice, this works out to a priestly caste who harvest “dreamblood” – a magical but still body-based humor not unlike one of the four Hippocratic humors of the body in Classical and medieval medicine. (There is, for example, dreambile, and I assume dreamphlegm, but no one types out the word phlegm if they can help it.) (Also, someone pointed out that phlegm has been changed to the word “seed”, so we can have some sexytimes ritual prostitutes.) 

The opening is one of those confusing messes that ends up being more calculated than it appears, but I wouldn’t begrudge anyone tossing this book down before the gears catch, because it takes nearly half the book for the teeth to bite. A priest has one of his ritual killings go wrong; there is a murderer demon on the loose; some people have confusing conversations where the political subtext doesn’t necessarily figure, but is extremely important. And politics is decidedly the name of the game in Gujaareh, in a way that even the main characters (other than the ambassador-spy, of course) don’t get. That was one of the things I found so delightful about The Killing Moon: the way the politically naive – what about honor! and piety! and stuff! – aren’t rewarded for their naivete, but aren’t exactly punished either. True belief isn’t exempt from political expediency, and vice versa. 

Unlike Long Price, which I would hold this book in close comparison – if you like this, then – I wasn’t as enamored of the central characters. The priest and his apprentice have an intense Oedipal relationship with a bunch of sexual overlay which I don’t quite connect with, never having been a celibate killing monk. Which is not to say I found them unlikely or incoherent, just that the inherent staginess of the court intrigue plot – which is the basis of much epic fantasy – undercut the interpersonal concerns of a relationship that’s already pretty far out of the experience of most readers. (Celibate killing monks, they prolly totally grok it tho.) The ambassador-spy isn’t nearly as badass as the term ambassador-spy would imply. Not that everything has to be about badassery, of course, I just felt her character was more reactive to the other two main characters, more expedient than personal. 

So, anyway, I greatly enjoyed this, partially just because of personal insanity about high fantasy, but then partially because The Killing Moonis well written and interesting, daring to take on some very odd protagonists. I have some questions, the usual ones I have about magical systems – so there’s a goddess? and a demonstrable magical system? Does that mean there really is a goddess, or does that mean that the almost physics-like magic is just ascribed to the goddess? (These are questions that keep me up at night when dealing with high fantasy, in general, so that’s not new.) I feel a little shitty this review, because I feel like a lot of it sounds like relative faint-praise – high fantasy sux! but this sux less! – but that’s not where I’m at with this book. That said, I only picked this up because it’s one of the Nebula nominees for 2012 – self-assigned homework reading – so there was a definite kicking-and-screaming vibe in the beginning, but I’m glad it worked out in the end.

The Pirate’s Wish by Cassandra Rose Clarke

 The Pirate’s Wish by Cassandra Rose Clarke is the completion of the duology started with The Assassin’s Curse. The author’s afterword notes this is a duology because The Assassin’s Curse got too long, so the book was bisected, and it shows. The first novel doesn’t end satisfactorily, and this one feels dissipated, bled out into the more wangsty concerns of the bildungsroman. 

This is functionally the third act of the coming of age romance, and third acts are the parts of coming of age romances that I like least. Which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy much of The Pirate’s Wish, the characters, and the choices Clarke makes on a narrative level, just that maybe it could have been more ruthlessly edited to be a single novel. Young adult readers aren’t afraid of doorstoppers, bless their hearts, though I am cognizant that they are more likely to pick them up if the author is named Meyer or Rowling, and not a first time novelist. So I get it. 

The first book details how Ananna, a pirate’s daughter, flees from an arranged marriage out into the world without much more than her ambition and wit to get by. She’s a likable protagonist, competent in many ways (ways such as pick-pocketing, which is badass) but also a little naive. So, you know, like someone you knew or were or wanted to be. (Pick-pocketing!) She ends up with her fate tied to the assassin Naji through a curse, and an odd one. In the terms of the book, an impossible one. Naji cannot abide having Ananna in any kind of danger, or have her move too far away from him without pain – real, physical pain. 

It’s an interesting wrinkle, because put that way, that reads a little like the crazy instalove mania that you find in a lot of both young adult and adult romances, where lovers cannot be parted and the hero must stalk and pedestal the heroine for her own good and his. But that’s not Naji and Ananna’s relationship. He’s a little scarred and mysterious, sure, but he maintains his rationality in spite of the curse, and doesn’t treat Ananna like a child. Or not exactly like a child; he is still sometimes high-handed, but it reads as age-gap and not jerk ownership of Ananna. 

Possible spoilers for the first book ahead. 

Ananna and Naji are given a series of metaphorically vague tasks to complete in order to break the curse, one of which is something to the effect of true love’s kiss. Which, despite the fact that Naji and Ananna are not eye-gazing or spooning, you pretty much know is going to be between the two of them. So it’s a cool choice that Clarke makes to dispense with that oracular kiss first in a confounding and complicating way: she may love him, but he does not love her, and everyone becomes harshly aware of it when the first task is completed. Bummer.

But even though I kinda appreciate the whole confounding the expectations thing, it makes Ananna and Naji’s relationship a whole bunch of annoyance from this point on. She deals with this revelation reasonably well, in that she doesn’t fall apart or become a dishrag, but there’s still far more blubbering and storming off than I prefer. Naji, who has the whole mysterious scarred assassin thing going for him in book one, starts pouting and hanging out in his room in a way that diminishes his character. And while there’s something touching about the restraint in explicating his back story – a person is not just the story of how he got his scars – it makes it hard to understand his motivations. But! I do adore a lot of the characters here, even if Naji is not my favorite. The manticore and her kin are wonderful, and the lesbian queen and her pirate consort are pretty much the best ever. 

The final task is kind of a mess. Not in the way it’s written, which is beautiful and odd, but just in how it plays out. Why and how did that happen at all? But I did appreciate the final conclusion between Naji and Ananna, which took their characters into account in a way I rarely see when dealing with romantic couples. By way of avoiding spoilers, I’ll just gesture to the Norse legend of Skaði, a goddess of hunt and woods, who must choose a husband only by the look of his feet. She chooses Njörðr, a deity of the sea. Their relationship is always going to be a compromise – sea or woods – and while love may be transformative and all, it probably won’t change your basic nature. It is very cool to see a young adult novel not magic away very real, character-based conflicts between people – something that happens even in stories that are not literally magical. Nice. 

So, a nice conclusion on the story, but not as awesome as the first two acts. I want to say this could have been tighter and less peripatetic, but then I liked the shaggy bopping around of The Assassin’s Curse. Maybe I just don’t like coming of age, as a brutal, cheerful pirate’s daughter is way more fun than one who has been tempered and changed. Good story though. 


I received an ARC through NetGalley and Strange Chemistry, and thank them kindly. 

The Assassin’s Curse by Cassandra Rose Clarke

I have a challenge question if you send me a friend request on Goodreads, which is, “What is the best book you read in the last year and why?” There are no right answers – in the sense that if your best book is something I loathe I won’t hold it against you – and I don’t really care what your definition of “best” is. Best can be a lot of different things. Pretty regularly, friend requesters turn it around on me, and makes me throw up my hands. What kind of jerk question is that? Gosh, how can I be expected to answer that? 

According to the stats, I have rated 36 books since the beginning of the year, and of them, eight I gave five stars. (I admit I’ve become soft in my ratings, but then I do read less dross.) But of that eight, I’d call Cassandra Rose Clarke‘s The Mad Scientist’s Daughter the best. She managed to punch through my rib cage and strangle me with that one, with the kind of science fiction that uses technology as folklore in the long, unsaid tides of lived lives. Just, oh my god. I knew Clarke had a YA novel, The Assassin’s Curse, but I have to be in a very specific mood for YA fantasy. But then the sequel, The Pirate’s Wish, came up on NetGalley, I freaked right out and requested it. And then I read both books – which constitute a duology – in one huge freak-out sitting. (I would like to thank the ugly head cold I got for giving me the time prone to do that.)

Ananna of the Tanarau is a pirate’s daughter betrothed to a semi-landlocked idiot at the start of the action. She manages to mess that up fairly spectacularly, and ends up on the lam, chased by magical assassins set after her by her would-be-husband’s family. Ananna reminded me a little of Saba from Blood Red Road, both with her clueless competence and her near-dialect, but both her character and the dialect was more restrained, and for the better. She ends up tied to one of the assassins through magical weirdness, and she and the assassin, Naji, end up scrambling all over this world in an attempt to untether their destinies and break the curse.

Which, gotta say, written out like that, this book sounds a little trite, and certainly The Assassin’s Curseisn’t reinventing the wheel in terms of young adult or magical systems. I’m pretty sure I’ve said this elsewhere, but originality doesn’t necessarily factor for me in young adult slash fantasy fiction; whether I like a book of this nature comes down to whether I like the protagonist. I like Ananna a lot. She’s got ambition, and a mind, and she’s both emotionally reactive and measured. She factors the angles and leaps, or she leaps and then factors the angles, and she’s neither always making the right choice nor being overcome by hard choices. 

Maybe it’s all the sailing, but The Assassin’s Curse reminded me a little of Ursula K Le Guin’s Earthsea books. Especially the odd, inhuman character of the manticore, whose brutal predation was both funny and scary – not unlike Le Guin’s dragons. There’s a lot of action in The Assassin’s Curse, and often really strange action, occurring in magical locales with weird physics, and Clarke manages this all well. (And I think physical scenes can be deceptively hard to write.) The magical systems aren’t really tightly defined, but I didn’t mind. This isn’t some wank about how the world works, but about how people work within the world, and that Ananna knows what she knows but doesn’t know everything made perfect sense to me. 

The ending kind of dot-dot-dots in a way that is not the best, if you’re into self-contained fictions, but I had the sequel in my hot little hands, so it was okay for me. Not to start reviewing the sequel, but The Pirate’s Wish didn’t exactly deliver on the promise of this novel, but it still wasn’t a bad conclusion. For what it’s worth.

Corsets & Clockwork: 13 Steampunk Romances

I went up to the cabin with the best of intentions: a backpack full of books and the will to read them. But, what ended up happening was playing Munchkin, chatting about the local land scandal, and making and eating a lot of food. A very wonderful week, all told, despite the godamn half foot of snow that fell quite prettily down on all and sundry in freaking April, but not a week in which I clapped eyes on much reading. When I did eventually sit down to read, I did hack a bit on my assigned reading, but mostly I slunk off to Corsets & Clockwork: 13 Steampunk Romances.

Short stories do much better as distracted reading, and Corsets & Clockwork was the only short story collection in the backpack. I had grabbed it in a mad library rush, but also because I’ve been arguing with the hubby about the state of steampunk these days. I don’t think I’d care much about the genre in a vacuum, but my man has a huge chubby for the entire concept. He doesn’t read so much these days, but I do, so I keep reading and reporting back. I see a decided shift in steampunk towards more romantic sensibilities, which is an interesting shift from the early days of very dudey stuff like Alan Moore and William Gibson. Some of this I think is sartorial: steampunk is very much about how things look, and about ornamenting fetish objects. Which is not to say that the sartorial is always feminine, just that romance, as a genre, deals with the body in a way that many genres do not. The clothes make the genre.

I think one problem with this collection is that short form romances can be extremely weak: setting up and knocking down lovers and their impediments so fast that both the lovers and the impediments are given short shrift. There’s a reason it’s usually a romance novel, because there’s enough room to do the character work necessary to both detail and resolve whatever the conflict is. I think maybe the most common short form romance is the epilogue, and I, for one, cannot stand romance epilogues, even for characters I love. There’s often no snap to anything that happens, it’s just: look at how happy everyone is and also here are our preternaturally perfect children. After scanning over some reviews, I see that my feelings are out of step with many romance readers. Fair warning, I guess.

“Rude Mechanicals” by Lesley Livingston. Despite some goofy names that made me wince – Agamemnon, Quint, Kingfisher for crying out loud – the story of a mechanical girl who acts as Juliet in a shabby Shakespearean troupe to both comic and tragic ends made me smile. Romeo & Juliet is often disastrously misinterpreted, as far as I can tell, run in such a way that those teenaged idiots are somehow noble, when what they are is irrational in a completely different way from their irrational parents. Nobody gets to win, even posthumously, because there is no posthumous win. Anyway, my cranking aside, this was funny and clever and hit who can separate the dancer from the dance in a way I appreciated.

“The Cannibal Fiend of Rotherhithe” by Frewin Jones. This story is where I’m most out of step with other readers, because I hit several reviews that called this one bad, and I would absolutely, without a doubt call it the stand-out of the collection. Frankly, if I hadn’t hit something this bloody weird this early in my reading, I may not have even finished the collection. Beautifully sly narrative voice, fairy tale echoes which are Grimm not Disney, and a half-footed nearly incomplete ending that says more with a gesture than a statement. A rough, horrible fisherman on the Scottish coast captures a mermaid in his nets. The narrator demures as to logistics – one of the many times when the narrator points out something awful and then lets you try to sort it out, horribly – but the fisherman gets the mermaid with child. She dies in childbirth and is discarded, leaving the fisherman to raise a girl with sticky skin and shark’s teeth. She’s a monster with a monstrous upbringing, and her brutal reactions to the brutal world out there – the one that pretends not to smile with shark’s teeth – are raw and ugly and perfect. Even monsters deserve love, even while both the monster and the love are terrifying. I would absolutely seek out more of this writer’s work, in a heartbeat.

“Wild Magic” by Ann Aguirre. Fine, I guess, but somewhat perfunctory, ending in and some day I shall be the queen of all I survey! in a way that makes me tired, which is kind of disappointing because I usually love Aguirre. A young girl who is the daughter of the ruling class, but, like, gifted with magical powers which are frowned upon – yawn – falls in love with Oliver Twist, even though he might, like, have an agenda. Felt like a preface to a larger work, ending just as the actual conflicts might begin, and in that way, is something of a failure as a short fiction. Not bad, but not interesting.

“Deadwood” by Michael Scott. I liked this up until the ending, which has one of those last minute reveals where the main characters turn out to be actual, historical figures. I’m not even kidding when I say I rolled my eyes and humphed when the main characters introduced themselves with their real names – oh my god, that was the worst. All I’m saying is that you have a short story named the same as this show:

then you should try a little fucking harder, cocksucker. I get that Deadwood is an actual historical place, and that David Milch did not invent it, but this Deadwood is nowhere near as interesting as either the historical Deadwood or the HBO series. That said, before the humphing and eye-rolling – seriously, why the fuck would [redacted] and [redacted] ever be hanging out together? let alone smooching? – the whole post-Civil War company town thing was workable, and the characterizations fun. There are many a fiction I wish ended earlier than they did, and this gets to be one. Ta da!

“Code of Blood” by Dru Pagliassotti. I skipped this one after a couple of pages. I know my track record with stories of the ingenue daughters of the ruling class and their tired rebellions via fucking the staff. (See, for example, “Wild Magic”, above.)

“The Clockwork Corset” by Adrienne Kress. Yet another daughter of the ruling class fucking the staff, but I was charmed by said aristocratic daughter joining the army and trying to pass as a boy for much of the proceedings. The passing-as-a-boy trope is an odd thing in fiction, usually requiring the girl to be both more and less dumb than she is. The ending here is…maybe not unsatisfying, but it doesn’t make work of all the potentials.

“The Airship Gemini” by Jaclyn Dolamore. Fascinating premise in a locked room environment which needs to be a longer fiction. “The Airship Gemini” doesn’t exactly work – there are too many lacunae – but I so seriously want it to, and the ways it doesn’t work are still compelling. A set of conjoined twins, just regular physical freaks – work as a show on a dirigible for magical folk – vampires, werewolves, etc – because freak is freak, but not all freak is the same. A self-serving doctor seeks to separate the girls, throwing the girls into crisis. I loved that the girls have no interest in separation – their connection is fact not deformity – and I loved their relationship with The Lizard Man. I thought the crisis and denouement was confused, but there’s a lot of here here.

“Under Amber Skies” by Maria V. Snyder. I actively hated this story. Set in a steampunky Poland just after the Nazi occupation, it managed to get high and mighty about resisting the Nazis because resisting Nazis might interfere with the romantic bullshit of some teenage girl. Zosia’s father is a mad scientist who has been building farm equipment & kitchen implements when the Nazis take over. Everyone assumes he’s begun making war machines for Poland to be used in the war effort, but he’s been missing for a couple months. Then Nazis try to take Zosia in for questioning. She escapes, and then the story turns into how Zosia’s Polish nationalist mother is evil, and Zosia’s dad would never make war machines despite the fact that we’re dealing with actual Nazis here, and apparently resisting Nazis is evil because war is bad and everyone should be a lover and not a fighter and war is wrong double plus times.

What the actual fuck? I am of the opinion that most writers should avoid Nazis in their fiction unless they are willing and able to take on the most Godwin of all genocides, but here it’s an actual disaster. I get how love is dreamy and wonderful and all, but this kind of judgmental bullshit about how resisting Nazis is wrong because of love, man makes me want to die. This story is stupid and childish and takes the easy way out in situations which are forever and decidedly less than easy. Uuuurrrgh.

“King of the Greenlight City” by Tessa Gratton. Starts out in a very traditional romance vein, where the principles meet cute and discover their magical powers and whatnot, and then builds to a third act OMIGOD which is pretty freaking hilariously subversive. We two are as one…ahahahaha. Sad. 🙁

“The Emperor’s Man” by Tiffany Trent. Yet another daughter of the ruling class banging the help – someone who actually has an academic placement should write a paper about this phenomenon – but better than my dismissive opening would imply. This is one of those coded histories, with a transported London in a magical setting. I feel like with a lot of these stories there is way too much going on in the weird department. Mixing werewolves, manticores, hard science, alternate history, and clockwork is way, way too much in a story 60 pages long or less, but this was cute and it functioned as a story. The only thing that made me itch was the way science was equated with mysticism. Just because something is an epistemology, does not mean all epistemologies are equivalent.

“Chickie Hill’s Badass Ride” by Dia Reeves. Snappy dialogue and narrative voice in a setting not usually seen in steampunkery. No one writes in the segregated American South, and if they do, they sure as shit don’t write almost light-hearted romps about Black children being stolen by tentacled monsters who are easily mistaken for the Klan. I’m not entirely sure this story works, but full freaking points for a story where the casual fun belies a sharper message.

“The Vast Machinery of Dreams” by Caitlin Kittredge. Omg, another good one. I couldn’t even say what happened here, exactly, but the way the total freaking weirdness is held with a hard hard and doled out to the reader in snippets is masterful. A young boy with dreams both nightmarish and juvenile meets a girl who might be a monster, and Lovecraftian hijinks ensue. This is what happened; this isn’t what happened. ZOMG.

“Tick, Tick, Boom” by Kiersten White. Yet another daughter of the ruler class banging the help. Seriously, what is up with this? There is so much of this in this collection, and I am beginning seriously to wonder why it is that our romance lady avatars are all these high-born chickies who are discomforted by their status, and alleviate that discomfort by kissing the low-born? Why am I even talking in terms like this? Low-born? The fuck? I don’t even mean to be attacking this specific story, because it’s fine or whatever, despite the fact I saw the twist coming in the first page, and I don’t think it actually said anything at all. And it deals with political violence in a way I think is deeply lame. Har har, I blew up some people because I don’t like my daddy!

Woo boy, I must be cranky tonight, given how bitchy I’m being. Still though, what is going on here? Maybe it’s just the steampunk genre, and its hazy Victoriana written by (mostly) Americans who have zero clue about how the British class system works, and romanticize it. It’s yet another godamn Lady Diana plate. Yerch. Maybe I’ll come back with a coda some day, but for now I’m just feeling itchy and irritated that the one excellent story about a girl with shark’s teeth tricked me into the rest of this mess. Fine enough reading for the cabin, but back in the everyday I’m feeling much less charitable. Sorry.

Shades of Milk and Honey: Diversions

I haven’t had a lot of luck with Austen retellings, not that I’ve given them much energy. I’ve given half-heart to some zombie stitching, with ok to terrible results; I have avoided smut recastings; I have thrown within pages various contemporary takes, but loved a couple too. So, when I say I enjoyed this slender Austen-riff, I am actually saying something. However – and you knew this however was coming – I can’t say Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal is more than a diversion: amiable enough, but evaporating like bubbles.

My husband and I went out to lunch today and got into a big argument about fanfiction. He was disparaging something for being fanfic, and I countered: how many thousands of Shakespeare retellings have I both consumed and enjoyed? How many Greek tragedies, folktales and the like? There are absolutely more stories in the world than the 12 or so we get told exist in some freshman writing class by some credulous idiot, but the resonant cultural motifs are a specific bunch, even if they keep changing and morphing.

Anyway, so, we made up over the idea that it’s not so much the concept of fanfic that he had a problem with, but the fact that the fanfic that was he subject of the argument corrected none of the problems of the source material, and, in fact, introduced more than a couple more. Fifty Shades of Grey is pretty much garbage, not because it’s Twilight fanfic, but because it’s garbage. I don’t love Twilight, while I respect its resonance, but I feel like a fanfic that misses all the inherent silliness of vegetarian vampire chastity porn is a freaking disaster. Twilight works because Bella gets to marry Jesus, not Mark Zuckerberg.

And, quick aside: I’m not using the term fanfic with any rigor here, or as a knee-jerk indicator of poor quality. And, now that I think about it, the term seems to be used dismissively of women’s fiction more often than of stuff written by men, so it’s possible I’m wrong-footing this whole review by starting with a discussion of the term. Shades of Milk and Honey is not fanfic in any way. Sure, the plot probably owes to Pride and Prejudice some, but then so many plots do; it is firmly set as a trope across multiple genres. It is set in Regency England, and Austen is probably the best known chronicler of that period, but it’s not like she invented Regency England. Moreover, it’s entirely possible this owes more to something like The Scarlet Pimpernel or Georgette Heyer over Austen, so forget I ever said anything. Jfc, I need to get it together.

Jane and Melody Ellsworth are rivalrous sisters whose parents are roughly Mr & Mrs Bennet, but softer. Mrs Ellsworth still has the vapours, but Mr Ellsworth isn’t an entailed dick. Melody is pretty-but-dumb and Jane is talented-but-plain. While the world is decidedly Regency England, there is this tiny bit of magic in the mix – glamour – which is to be our shifting paranormal lens on the rigid gender divisions of that society. Glamour is understood to be a woman’s hobby – good for cosmetic reasons and not much else – but there’s a hot, grouchy male glamourist with whom Jane is secretly smitten. (Secret even from herself, but seriously dude.)

The whole concept of glamour is a ripe metaphor that unfortunately isn’t explored very deeply. It solves some issues with the Regency novel – aha, performing glamour is why all the ladies are swooning – but it has close to zero impact on Regency England or any of the characters. Everyone dismisses the wartime applications – the Napoleonic wars are unfolding, the way they do – but glamour obviously has an impact on a confusingly written dueling sequence near the end. Glamour can record conversations for crying out loud! That absolutely could be a thing with spycraft, at the very least!

I did appreciate the ways Jane and glamourist dude talked about the craft of art, and I even marked a passage in the now-lost book where glamourist dude growls at Jane for observing the ways he built a specific illusion. The ways Jane takes that to heart and tries simply to experience the illusion without a critical eye felt … felt like something about all this arguing I was doing about retellings with my husband. But, unfortunately, I admired the craft here much more than I enjoyed its heart.

Shades of Milk and Honey does a very, very good job of aping the craft of a Regency novel – it is set beautifully, with attention to detail and character. But it is not actually a Regency novel, and it lacks the snap of Austen’s often cutting observations about the culture she lived in. As a reader, I can only access that snap in Austen’s works through historical research, which makes the cuts less immediate; a joke explained is less funny than a joke that punches known knowledge. Which might be the lack in Shades of Milk and Honey: Kowal doesn’t cut anything about Regency England, which would be a weird thing to do anyway, but then she also doesn’t necessarily say anything about the here-and-now?

I don’t actually appreciate the dichotomy between smart-but-plain and pretty-but-dumb all that much, because I think it’s a boring and unrealistic binary, so I think the expression here of that tension is unrewarding. And unrewarding in a way that Austen never hits. Elizabeth is not as beautiful as her sister Jane, but that’s not really a thing, and, in general, Austen avoids all but the tersest of physical descriptions. Elizabeth is said to have fine eyes and dark hair and not much else. So I’m in a place where novels written 200 years ago felt more harshly critical of their societies than ones written in the last decade, which is the weirdest.

The Nebula nominee I read just previous to this, Ironskin, also recasts the woman-penned 19th Century novel Jane Eyre as to be about looks and not much else, and I wonder what is up with this contemporary attention to the superficial to the exclusion of, well, anything else.  Shades of Milk and Honey is a well written novel, unlike Ironskin, but it is still strange that these novels are being lauded as genre stand-outs. Admitting, of course, that I haven’t actually read the sequel here, which is the one up against Ironskin. Still, it is an oddment that glamour is more ornament than architecture, more diversion than statement. I enjoyed being diverted, but I can’t say much else about it.

Crossed fingers for Glamour in Glass, but…

Nebula Nominees: Ironskin

Retellings of Gothic and/or Romantic classics in this here age of the happy ending are fraught with dangers. Plucky girls are given pluck and beauty, in defiance of people who are oh so jealous of them, and not much else; growling, terrible, inhuman assholes like Rochester and Heathcliff are neutered down to lapdogs like Edward Cullen; and the very worst of all: everything works out in the end. There should be fire and death and blood on the moors. Which is not to say that Jane Eyre, from which Ironskinwas heavily cribbed, doesn’t work out in some ways, just that the ways it works out aren’t facile natterings about Jane’s plainness.

But, before I let my irritation get the best of me, let me back up. I read this because I’d idly picked it up off a library display last week, and just a few days later, learned it was one of the nominees for the 2012 Nebula Award. I have an equally idle thought of reading (or attempting to read) all of the five before May, but I know my track record when I assign myself homework, i.e. not good.

Ironskinstarts credibly enough, with a war-damaged Jane Eyre Eliot starting her employ as governess for daughter of the growling and elusive Mr. Rochart. Helen Burns is transformed into Jane’s sister Helen, a sort of Holly Golightly ingenue type. Jane herself isn’t a battered, abused orphan, but a girl who was scarred late in the Great War, a WWI analog, but with the fey this time instead of Germans. Having written all that out, I’m impressed I didn’t dash this book down in the first pages, because put baldly, all of that sucks. (I mean, Jane had a brother Charlie? Bah.)

All of this, of course, being the problem of being too closely hitched to the Jane Eyre plot, because the first half is decent if you ignore the intertext. I liked the just-after-the-war vibe, all that Lost Generation desperation. I’m maybe not as excited about Jane’s wounded face, impregnated with a leaking fey curse that must be covered with a mask; it felt too much like using an acquired disability as metaphor. Or, that’s not really fair, because Jane’s curse is dealt with okay in the first half. The curse is anger that leaks and affects those around her, and as someone whose main character flaw may be wrath, I appreciated how pissed Jane was, how she struggled with positioning her masks and calming the fires within.

Jane’s charge is also fey-cursed, but uniquely so: whole-bodied, but with strange, unnatural gifts. Rochart is some kind of artist, always vanished into his tower, and altogether a watered down version of the Romantic psycho. All of the requisite myths are hat-tipped: Bluebeard, Tam Lin, Beauty & the Beast. At a certain point the plot diverges from Jane Eyre though, centering on some high society hijinks and the desire by silly women to be beautiful at all costs, costs that include being a Trojan horse for the fey. Even our plain Jane gets in on the superficiality, but desiring only to be “normal”, not beautiful, because she’s, you know, ennobled by suffering and all that. Rochart feels all bad about his part in the fey business, but it wasn’t really his fault because reasons.

Jesus, is this what we’re taking from Jane Eyre today? That how women look & their facile desire to be beautiful is a threat to the entire human race? That Rochester was luggage in the thrall of fey beauty – boo hoo I know not what I did? Rochester was an asshole and Jane loved him, and even though both of these things were true, she walked away from him. She was a fiercely moral creature who suffered because of her morality, because love is a bitch goddess who can set your heart for assholes, and not because she was plain to look upon. Godamn does this ending piss me off.

I think the thing that really gets me is that this whole mess had potential, and I do like how Connolly writes. This Jane’s mid-book revelations about how to manage her anger felt true to me, as did how she worked with her charge. Look, I know much of my anger is about my Jane Eyre, and my feelings of ownership over that text are probably unfair. (Though, of course, comparisons are invited by the obvious intertext; that’s the Faustian deal you make when you hitch your cart to the Romantic horse.) But even stripping out my irritation with the use of my Jane, all this mask and beauty business was sloppy, badly considered stuff, with a lot of shitty implications if you think about it for, like, 15 seconds. Probably not getting my vote for the Nebula, not that I have one.

Steampunk! An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Stories

Steampunk! An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Storiesis a cromulent collection of short stories, though uneven like most (maybe all) multi-author collections. I do appreciate the emphasis by editor Kelly Link on steampunk stories outside of the now-iconic Victorian London steampunk setting. I like the thickly urban setting – it’s what drew me to the sub-genre in the first place – but I can get fiercely irritated with the way some steampunk fetishizes the upper class twit of the year with his goggles and laboratory that I sometimes find in that setting. So, to the individual stories.

“Some Unfortunate Future Day” by Cassandra Clare: Inoffensive piece of atmosphere that fails to say anything at all, cutting out right when the real narrative choices need to be made. The daughter of a mad scientist is abandoned by her father to go fight in some ill-defined war, leaving her in the care of Romantic talking dolls in a crumbling Gothic house. A soldier falls out of the sky, which leads to a lot of naive narrative imaginings from the girl, and then the obvious use of a Chekhovian timepiece and then…the end! It’s like a chapter cut out of a larger narrative where all the implications come to fruition in the next chapter. But the story is pretty enough, I guess, and the only thing I really hated was the entirety of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 64 used as an epigraph. Seriously, who does that for a short story? Ugh. 

“The Last Ride of the Glory Girls” by Libba Bray. I would absolutely kill for a Glory Girls novel, which is not to say this doesn’t function as a short story. Reminded me strongly of Firefly, with its frontier planet full of harsh religion and frontier cruelties, written in a stylized dialect that totally works. Pinkertons, train heists, girl bandits, divided loyalties: all the things that make Old West stories a hand-to-hand combat of colonialism. There is also arresting baptism by sludge sequence here, a very tactile metaphor for the industrial revolution, etc etc. 

“Clockwork Fagin” by Cory Doctorow. Very anecdotal story, told in the first person by a boy matriculating in an orphanage of children mangled in punk-shifted industrial factories. “Clockwork Fagin” is obviously a Dickens riff – Fagin was the antagonist in Oliver Twist – with its social consciousness and the plight of youngsters in the industrial machine. Full marks for being a story that doesn’t fetishize the corsets and monocles set, instead focusing on the organized rebellion of the working class. Workers of the world, unite! 

“Seven Days Beset by Demons” by Shawn Cheng. Seven deadly sins in comic form with perplexing steampunk ornament and terrible lettering. At least it’s short. 

“Hand in Glove” by Ysabeau S. Wilce. Too smart for her own good detective gets on the trail of a serial killer, despite an indigent man having already been convicted to hang for the murders. Some of the plot mechanics were unsuccessful – I didn’t like the mad scientists much – but the narrative voice is snappy, and the overall aims of the story worthy. The ways entrenched bureaucracies, like the police force, use and abuse science are always worth examining. 

“Ghost of Cwmlech Manor” by Delia Sherman. Not really to my taste, but a goodhearted little story. Cwmlech Manor is haunted by the ghost of the once mistress of the manor, killed in the English Civil War by Cavaliers looking for loot. The main character is a plucky girl type, who is pragmatic about her romanticism. 

Best of all, I loved the story that went with [Cwmlech Manor] – very romantic and a girl as the hero – a rare enough thing in romantic tales, where the young girls always act like ninnies and end up dead of a broken heart, often as not.

You can see the grammar is tortured, but the sentiment is neat. Her remark about the legend ends up describing her own story. Go girls. 

“Gethsemane” by Elizabeth Knox. A perplexing story, one with interesting themes that never came together satisfactorily for me. The setting on a Caribbean island (?) was cool, as were the racial themes: passing, folklore, even the old school non-Romerian zombie. But the plot ranged over too many characters, and shifted perspectives weirdly. I admit I just didn’t get it, but I suspect there was something here to get. 

“The Summer People” by Kelly Link. Editor, edit thyself! Which is a bitchy thing to say, and I don’t really mean it. This isn’t a bad story at all, but its steampunk elements are so nominal as to make it feel like a shoehorn job in the collection. It’s not even so much that I don’t think magic has a place in steampunkery – there’s a growing body of dash-punk work out there that shifts history by magic instead of technology – but that this magic doesn’t really do that. That said, I enjoyed this story about a girl tasked with minding the summer people, who we first are to understand are summer vacationers to her poor, rural setting. I liked her relationship with a vacationer-turned-resident, a girl who is slightly enamored of all the folksy poverty, which is of course only folksy to outsiders. The ending is a bit obvious, and the denouement more truncated than I would like, but a good story anyway. Fine, Kelly, you win. 

“Peace in Our Time” by Garth Nix. I’m on record as a Nix fan, but the more I see of his short fiction, the more I think he shouldn’t write it. The narrative voice was daft and grated, and the characterization poor. It wasn’t so much a story as a situation, one that ended in a OH DO YOU SEE? reveal that hearkened to the hokiest of Twilight Zone endings. Bah. 

“Nowhere Fast” by Christopher Rowe. Another short story that ends right before it should get interesting, where the real conflicts are going to begin. I don’t feel as irritated by this as the Clare short story, because at least this world is aiming for something more than pretty but useless. This is one of those post-apocalyptic utopias that no one bothers to write anymore – two generations past peak oil in a fiercely local America. A boy in a car, of all things, shows up in town, which kicks over a bunch of anthills. Given how bound up in our national identity the automobile is, it was interesting to consider the American landscape without them. 

“Finishing School” by Kathleen Jennings. Another comic. Slender reimagining of the invention of flight, this time by a daughter of Scottish and Chinese parents who is stuck in an Australian school for girls. Nice metaphors of girlish exuberance. When a friend’s mom got divorced, she took Amelia as a middle name. We long for flight sometimes, and sometimes we should get it. 

“Steam Girl” by Dylan Horrocks. I think I’m going to call this one out as the stand out of this collection. A nerdy, chubby boy semi-befriends a poor, outcast girl. She tells him stories of Steam Girl, an obvious self-avatar grown long-limbed and beautiful in her pulpy imaginings. Horrocks has a good sense of the teenage outcast – not the romantic one, with his bangs in his eyes, but the real kind: uncomfortable in his body, clueless, and slightly horndoggish, but not in a particularly nasty or cruel way. Escapism is important for people who have something to escape from, and this story is so sensitive to that equation. 

“Everything Amiable and Obliging” by Holly Black. Fine, I guess, but I don’t think all the implications of the central metaphors here were considered, so I feel all squicky in the end. A girl falls in love with a house automaton, and her family tries to dissuade her from her love of the dancing instructor robot. He’s part of the hive consciousness of the house, and there’s a lot of shouting and stuff about loving robots designed to give you exactly what you want. That’s not the squick part for me. The squick part was when this was equated with the other girl’s lack of agency in her own relationships, and then my brain started shouting, but wait! Are we characterizing the working class as automata? Are we really saying girls lack agency? I can see where Black was going with this, I just don’t think it was thought out enough. 

“The Oracle Engine” by M. T. Anderson. A Roman steampunk story. And not modern Roman, but the Classical kind. Holy shit, but this was fun. Written in that gossipy historian’s voice, the one that relates a bunch of folklore and quotes the classics, and then pulls back demurely and says there isn’t any basis for that conjecture. I was fully expecting a Mechanical Turk at the center of this story, which, if you are not familiar with the concept, was a chess-playing engine invented in the 18th C, but turned out to be a dude hiding in a box and not an automaton at all. (Amazon has named it’s crowd-sourcing venture after this, and this enterprise is why capchas have gotten so freaking annoying.) That would have been neat, but the actual center of the story is so much cooler and weirder. GIGO. 

Oh, and also? The scientific ornament was brilliant. Archimedes almost invented calculus, for crissakes, and while there’s no guarantees that the lunatics of the Middle Ages wouldn’t have lost his discoveries – like they did with how to make concrete – had Archimedes’s discoveries become widely known, it is a fun thought experiment to consider.

Wolfhound Century by Peter Higgins

When I read Yellow Blue Tibia, I was struck by the lack: why isn’t there more more Soviet Noir? It seemed obvious when I saw it there: the world-weary gumshoe, the crushing, predatory bureaucracy, the hidden history that is the very history of authoritarian regime. The official story is such glossy fiction, wrapped like a carapace over the bleeding sinew of the body politic. Yellow Blue Tibiais less alternate history and more historiography, the speculative fiction of national narrative and the secret speech that underpins it. Though, of course, Americans were the most well voiced creators of the Noir genre, Noir seems attuned to the Soviet history in a weird way. The commissioner won’t just bust you down to the beat, but disappear your ass to the gulag. Soviets had some of the most fabulously Noir bureaucracies ever built, only sputteringly efficient, capricious, and absolutely deadly. 


 Wolfhound Centuryis a strange animal, existing in the tidal edges of genre, the marshlands that are moving silt. Backwater police Inspector Vissarion Lom is called in by high ranking police official in the capitol city Mirgorod to investigate a Moriarty-ish terrorist, and gets caught up in the wheels within wheels of the Noir plot. I wouldn’t call this densely plotted, as at least part of the time has to be spent introducing us to the world. In this, Wolfhound Centuryprobably has some similarities with Mieville’s The City & The City. And I say “probably” just because I’ve never read The City & The City, but gossip has it that the detective plot of C&C is maybe perfunctory, while the cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma are not. I felt there was a good balance of world building and happening here, anyway, and the action is relatively breathless, if you’re into that sort of thing. Short chapters, shifting points of view, a fair amount of bloodshed once the stakes start escalating like floodwaters. 

Much of the ornament and language is Soviet Russian, something I once knew enough about to be smart, but that has gone hazy for me. Still though, Mirgorod (which translates to “world city” or “peace city”) and its origin myths smack hard of Peter the Great, standing out over the swamp that would become St Petersberg with his near seven feet. Or the Akhmatova hat-tip, or the fact that the secret police are call the NKVD (this the precursor to the KGB), or any of a hundred things. But this is not our world, not an alternate history in the strictest sense. The Vlast with its great unconquerable forests stretching off to the west, the steampunk-ish mudjhiks, the fairy tale palubas like some thing Baba Yaga would create, the fallen angels hard and stony: all of these strange, fantastical things shift the Soviet history, twist it. All in all, I get the impression that Higgins’s grasp of history is very, very good, and his choice to set this in an alternate reality is pointed, not lazy. 

I probably don’t even need to say this isn’t going to work for everyone – no novel does, even your darlings – but it sure worked for me. I usually get really cranky when writers eschew the alternate history in favor of Bullshit Fantasy Planet, where the writer constructs a near-simulacrum of a time period, but then fudges the details for the needs of the protagonists. (Later day steampunk is guilty of this a good deal, and high fantasy, don’t even get me started.) But that is not what happens here. This isn’t so much alt-history as coded history: the extremity of the details, the weirdness, the bent genres, all calling into relief the ugly extremity of history, its non-inevitability despite the fact that it happened, and so on. There’s a time leakage at the center of the plots, a breakage of possible futures and presents, and given the harsh relief between lived lives and the propagandistic gloss under Stalin, this sort of fantastic time slippery is just a beautiful metaphor. 

There’s a character called Vishnik here, a member of old aristocracy who, for a time, managed to hide his manored upbringing. But discovery was inevitable, and he was deposed from the university where he taught. He became an archivist of Mirgorod, a sinecure which he more or less takes seriously. He has been recording the moments when the possible present splits from the actual one, and those moments are stoppingly beautiful, half out of time and within it like a gestating creature. There are dog’s brains within armored suits which smash the way they must. There are fallen angels – harshly alien – who are at war with the forest. God, this kind of encoding and inflection makes me all giddy, especially hitched to a Noir plot that has breathless short chapters that run and scream from one encounter to the next. 

Here’s the thing: I’m not pumped about this ending. I don’t hate it. I get why we end in the marshlands outside Mirgorod, in the interstitial place of sinking land and silted water. That part works for me. 

The world and everything in it, everything that is and was and will be, was the unfolding story of itself, and every separate thing in the world – every particle of rock and air and light, every life, every thought and every event – was also a story, its own story, the story of everything becoming more like itself and less like everything else. The might-be becoming the is. The winter moths, on their pheromone trails, intent on love and flight, were heroes.

But the confrontation between antagonists drags, feeling like this itchy diversion before the real confrontations, which, whoops, apparently won’t be happening in this book. I suppose I could work a justification here for why the book never comes to the final crisis – blah blah, something about the insignificance of individual will versus the state kind, etc – and certain personal trajectories are completed satisfactorily, but if there isn’t a second book, I will be a cranky cat indeed. So, Mr Peter Higgins, get on that shit.

An Autumn War: Anvils

I’ve realized something about Abraham’s writing. He shows you the anvil he’s going to drop on your head. There’s a sussurus of silk as he slowly lifts the cover away, a hint of jasmine in the air as you sip tea, growing cold the way everything warm does. You consider the anvil, the way it is dark and sits, anvil-like, unassuming as the inevitable. You watch it lift, slowly, and the servant that moves the pulleys pulls hand over hand, one fist in front of another. It’s beautiful, the way the lines stretch taunt, and then go slack, and then stretch taunt again. It’s like life in its consideration, a bowl going cold because you are too busy living to drink, and then you drink and it’s cold and regretful. 

And then the fucking anvil hits you on the head, and it’s not about how unassuming the anvil is, or its color or shape, but about how the expectation is not the same as the experience, and the experience is not the same as the aftermath. There are birds and little arcane symbols tweeting around your head, and you can’t understand how that damn black and metal thing hit you so hard because you knew it was coming. You saw it unwrapped, like a stiptease of your coming mortification. 

It took me forever to get through An Autumn War (The Long Price Quartet). I cheated on it with several other books, because I could feel that coming shock. This series is stagy like nobody’s business, and that is intentional, deliberate, one foot in front of the other, a chess move that moves the other pieces like a diagram. I don’t like military books, as a rule, because I’m a squirming girl who can’t handle glory. There’s no glory here, just ash and pain and a thousand bad and completely understandable choices that end in the worse and the incomprehensible. Good Lord, this anvil. It is hard and dark and made of metal. I will grope my way through the next book, but not right now. I’m going to lie down and consider the patterns on the insides of my eyelids for a while.


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A Betrayal in Winter

It pisses me off how good a writer Daniel Abraham is. It pisses me off more that you lot don’t seem to be reading him at all. I’m going to start buying his books and mailing them to you for your birthday, L. Ron Hubbard style. This is not an idle threat. 

 A Betrayal in Winteris the second in the Long Price Quartet. I always feel a little weird writing reviews for later books in series, because I’m going inevitably to drop spoilers from the first book. With that in mind, there may be mild spoilers for A Shadow in Summer, but that can’t be helped. (As an aside, I keep having to look up the names for these books as I write this review, which is a pretty serious problem, I think. I get how they work together thematically, or whatever, but they do not marry to their content well and are pretty forgettable. I never know who to credit/blame with titles – bad titles can be the fault of either writers or publishers, for different reasons – but these are straight up bad.)

A Betrayal in Winterstarts roughly a decade after the first book, in another city, with some cast changes. I really feel the absence of the character Amat at first, with her mashalled, gendered anger, but she’s found her corollary in Idaan. Maybe corollary is the wrong word; Idaan is more a cautionary tale. I keep getting surprised by these books, because they have this really sly, cutting gender commentary, and fantasy, Goddess bless it, often doesn’t. Come to think of it, books that deal with fantasies of one stripe or other often fall into gender ghettos. Fantasies for women play out one register of stereotypes; fantasies for men another. (Arguably, Fantasy with a capital F is fantasy for men. I do not say this to start fights.) When either kinds of fantasies play out in semi-medieval settings, I think you get a lot of sexist play-set action. Not so, here, at all. 

The plot is almost Shakespearean: the king is dying. There is no primogeniture; his sons will have to kill one another to determine succession. His daughters, well, they do not count. All of them are too old to start the killing game, but one of the four sons dies suddenly, of poison, in an opening gambit blamed on our Otah, our upstart, from the first book. This would probably have more frission with an Elizabethan audience, having just gone through the whole mess with, um, something historical that I have forgotten about? Scottish succession and what a total mess it was? Anyway, um, back to my point, which is that if I spend much more time outlining the plot, I’m going to make it sound like one of those court intrigue jobs that I have mixed success with. No. My Dad is fond of quoting the following aphorism: all politics are local. Then he winks and says: No, actually, all politics are personal. Sometimes I fall asleep when I’m reading court intrigue dramas because they forget the actors are people, and not just widgets in a system. At some point, one of the characters says, “We are all men under our robes,” which is beautiful and perfect, because they are, of course, when they are men. But sometimes they are women, and that makes a difference. That difference fuels some of the plot. 

There’s other loves for me in here. The first book set forward some fantasy mechanics that have deepened here. There’s the poets, who call into being andats – semi-living embodiments of an idea who are something between a metaphor and bound god. We met one in the first book, Seedless, and here we meet another, who changes our ideas of how the andats work, how metaphors work. There is still the gesture-language, not as fully utilized as in the last book, but one that puts a spin on the statements of characters in this book. And then there is the continuing metaphor of the sleeve, where people keep their correspondence, or have it spill on the pavement; the cloth that covers the wrist also conceals the heart, or reveals; the difference between the mask and the person, the clothes and the man. Or woman. Ah ah ah. 

I think this book could almost be read as a stand-alone text, something that makes me quake. I blame Tolkien’s editors for breaking LotR into three books when it should have been one, and giving later fantasists license to write a bunch of narratives that never culminate, never complete. I mean, sure, I like how Fellowship ends, with it’s downbeat incompleteness, but I can’t remember the break between Two Towers and King, and King is mostly appendix, and OMG, I’ll stop nerding out here. This book does not ramble to its end, to be begun again where it finished like after a nap. That said, there are things in Winter that tighten into the next arc, a late moment when I realized that the library is at the heart of the metaphors in a way that makes my booknerd soul become incandescent with glee. I’m really impressed, and you lot should get up off your asses and start reading Abraham right now. Now. 

(And this, and the previous book, A Shadow in Summer, can be be found packaged in an omnibus called Shadow and Betrayal. Get on that shit.) 

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