October 21, 2021
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I am very much of two minds about this book. On the one hand, it is an examination of feeling alone and finding a place to call one's own, and the suffocating pressure one's peers can exert. It's also about finding the strength to break away from a toxic situation. At the end, it's a sweet love story between the protagonist Becca and her friend and fellow pack-mate (in the literal and metaphorical teenage-girl sense) Marley.
New girl Becca is drawn into the orbit of three of the most popular girls in her new school: Marley, Amanda and Arianna. The story takes a very dark turn when those three are revealed to be female werewolves: werewolves who do the usual thing of turning once a month, but who also hunt human flesh under the full moon. Human flesh belonging to date-rapey or sexual-assault-minded teenage boys, who get torn apart for their real and/or imagined sins.
In one sense Becca is coerced into joining the pack, as she's intimidated and threatened into agreeing to be bitten and turned; but in another she says "yes" without too much protest. Then she runs with the pack for several months, participating in the monthly ritual of hunting and killing.
It all comes to a head when Becca kills Thatcher, the boyfriend of Arianna, the alpha of the pack. This is a genuine accident; he was coming on to her, she shoves him away with her superhuman werewolf strength, and he falls and breaks his neck. The girls hide his body in the woods and for the next several days go through a ritual of fake concern and then fake mourning after the body is found. They try to skip a month and hold their hunger at bay, but Arianna lures a boy into the woods for another kill...and is confronted by the previous alpha, Allyson Green, who went on to college and appointed Arianna in her stead. Allyson kills Arianna for the sin of being sloppy and threatening the pack's existence, and Marley and Becca are offered the only way out--to return to being human by eating their alpha's heart.
Newly human again and also a couple, Marley and Becca go to prom. Becca clears the air with her mother, and the book ends with Marley and Becca going skinny-dipping at the lake.
This ending left a very bad taste in my mouth. Seriously? They fully participated in the pack life, in several murders, and get to walk away scot-free, with no consequences? (And apparently precious little guilt, from the few panels we see after their return to being human.) It's nice that they ended up together--Marley is, I think, the most well-developed character of the bunch--but there's way too much darkness in this story for the forced light, fluffy ending.
The art is marginally better, but not outstanding. Maybe I'm not the target audience for this particular story (although I read a lot of YA) but it feels like this book needed to be rethought from the ground up.
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October 19, 2021
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is a first novel from an author I think has promise, but it suffers from typical first-novel problems, mainly clunky worldbuilding and sometimes inconsistent characterization. It's a young adult novel featuring a reimagining of Chinese history:
This book is not historical fantasy or alternate history, but a futuristic story set in an entirely different world inspired by cultural elements from across Chinese history and featuring historical figures reimagined in vastly different life circumstances.
Specifically, the protagonist, Wu Zetian, was inspired by Empress Wu, the only female emperor in Chinese history.
The worldbuilding is okay: this book takes place on another planet where humans are fighting off alien invaders called Hunduns, using giant Chrysalis robots (mecha) shaped after various animals: the Vermilion Bird the Black Tortoise among others, and at the end, the Yellow Dragon. These mecha are piloted by people with high qi, or life force, who psychically link with the Chrysalises. This requires two pilots, a male and a female, following the Chinese tradition of yin and yang--but unfortunately, the male of the pair often drains the female, his concubine-pilot, to death.
Zetian's sister was one of the victims of a Chrysalis pilot, and she vows to join the army herself and avenge her sister. To her surprise, she discovers she is strong enough to take over a Chrysalis and deal the same death to the male pilot as was dealt to her sister--in the process becoming the titular Iron Widow.
The marriage of this sci-fi setting with elements of Chinese history and mythology is often an uneasy one (and much of the dialogue, especially, sounds way too current to suit the setting). Zetian is a fierce heroine, determined to overthrow this terrible system and save the girls condemned to die within it. At the same time she has to cooperate with it to an extent, as the Hunduns keep raiding. She quickly becomes embroiled in court intrigue, as in an attempt to control her she is matched with one of the strongest pilots in centuries, one Li Shimin, a broken, alcoholic young man with a tortured past.
One good thing about the plot is the re-imagining of the dreaded YA "love triangle." This is a cliche of the genre, as in many of these books the young heroine meets up with two boys who vie for her attention, and she has to choose between them. If the writer has even decent skill at characterization, the question is often asked (or at least I ask it when I read one of these): "Why can't she have both?" Well, in this book the author actually does it, as Zetian, Shimin and another character, Yizhi, the "son of literally the richest man in Huaxia," enter into a polyamorous triad. (Of course, none of them are sixteen-year-olds--Zetian is eighteen and the boys are both a year older. I don't know how that would fly with younger protagonists.) This was rather a pleasant surprise, and I wish more YA authors who write love triangles would do something like this.
This book ends on a cliffhanger (another cliche, unfortunately) amidst a reveal that turns the entire world of Huaxia upside down. I do think this author has a lot of room for improvement, and I hope the next book shows progress.
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October 16, 2021
There are many stories of religious horror. There's the original Exorcist, of course (the movie; I haven't seen any of the TV series, but I've heard it's very good); The Omen; Stephen King's The Stand (with added prescient pandemic bonus); and the current streaming series Evil. The X-Files' Dana Scully was a scientist and a devout Catholic. Mike Flanagan's Midnight Mass, a seven-episode limited series on Netflix, takes elements of Catholic liturgy and mythology and marries them to a very different kind of mythology to stunning effect.
This show has been out long enough that the main plot elements have already been discussed, but just in case:
October 10, 2021
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
A common thread running through Alix E. Harrow's work is the power of stories and the myths and fables humans share. This theme is front and center in this fantastic novella, dealing with a multiverse of Sleeping Beauties that subvert the fairy tale --"pretty much the worst fairy tale, any way you slice it," according to the very first sentence--and rescue each other.
Our protagonist is Zinnia Gray, a young woman dying of a genetic disease. The book opens (after an introduction explaining why "only dying girls like Sleeping Beauty") on her twenty-first birthday, and she does not expect to see her twenty-second. Her best/only friend, Charmaine Baldwin (known as "Charm," heh heh), throws her a birthday party in their small Ohio town, in the tower of an abandoned prison. Charm even brings a spinning wheel to the top room of the tower for Zinnia to prick her finger, following the script of her favorite fairy tale. After a bit of snappy repartee (the dialogue throughout is excellent), Zinnia half-drunkenly does so, expecting nothing to happen. Instead, she slides into the multiverse:
And the faces I see don't belong to me. They belong to a thousand other girls reaching out towards a thousand spinning wheels or spindles or splinters. Other sleeping beauties, in other stories? I want to stop them, shout some kind of warning--stop, you boneheads!
One of them seems to hear me. She looks up at me with eyes that are an impossible shade of cerulean, her face framed by locks of literal gold, her finger hovering a centimeter above the spindle's end. Her lips frame a single word: "Help."
The world stops smearing.
Zinnia lands in the fairy-tale alternate world of Perceforest, where the Princess Primrose, under a curse, has similarly just passed her twenty-first birthday. (Zinnia also still has cell service to Charm, which of course defies all the laws of physics, but go with it. It's a nonsensical bit of worldbuilding that makes perfect sense as the story progresses.) Zinnia has stopped Primrose from following through with the rest of the story, pricking her finger and falling under an enchanted sleep for a hundred years. The remainder of the book focuses on Zinnia and Charm's efforts to free Primrose--and Zinnia and several other Sleeping Beauties--from their fairy-tale-decreed fates.
As usual, Harrow's prose is gorgeous. This 119-page novella could easily have been a full-length novel. But even stripped down to its essence, Zinnia's voice--a dying girl who has crawled back into her shell, refusing to connect with other people and content to run out the clock, until the quest of freeing Primrose reignites her own desire to live--and complex character shine through. The pacing is flawless: the nine pages of the first chapter sets up the theme, backstory, characterization of both Zinnia and Charm, and the stakes, and everything flows steadily from there, with not a wasted moment. Zinnia and Charm come up with an idea to save Primrose by pulling in other Sleeping Beauties from their stories to hers:
My hand finds Charm's and I haul her toward me. I feel her body land beside mine on the dungeon floor, smell the slightly chemical citrus of her hair, but I remain in the whirling in-between. I look out at all those hundreds of sleeping beauties, trapped and cursed, bound and buried, all alone. I wonder if they'll even be able to hear me, and if any of them will answer; I wonder how badly they want out of their stories.
The void between worlds is nibbling at my edges, tearing at my borders. I don't know what'll happen if I linger too long, but I imagine it's the same thing that would happen to a chickadee who lingered in a jet engine. I reach my hand out to all the sleeping princesses and whisper the word that brought me into Primrose's world, that sent both our stories careening off their tracks: "Help."
I land back on the cold cell of my floor, surrounded by roses and rot. My last bleary thought before I slip into true sleep, or possibly a coma, is that some of the beauties must have heard me.
Because some of them have answered.
There follows an exciting, fast-paced rescue run, and Charm, Zinnia and the other beauties pull Primrose back to our world. In the process, Zinnia nearly dies, and Primrose fulfills the promise of the fairy tale by kissing her to wake her up. (Although Primrose and Zinnia aren't together at the book's end; as you might have suspected from the name, Primrose ends up with Charm instead.) Due to the laws of physics that Charm admits are slightly twisted for each universe, this means that the protein plaques clogging Zinnia's organs are removed, and her lungs are wiped clean. The underlying genetic disease isn't cured--new xrays reveal the damaged DNA is beginning to produce the proteins again--but Zinnia is granted a reprieve. A reprieve she plans to make the most of: taking her multiverse-traveling splinter of a spindle and rescuing the other sleeping beauties. "The girls in other worlds who are dying or trapped or cursed, who deserve better stories than the ones they were given. Who are all alone."
I have been impressed by everything I've read from Alix E. Harrow, and this is no different. This is a fierce, beautiful story, and it should not be missed.
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October 8, 2021
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Looking back on my review of the first book in the series, A Deadly Education, I thought I knew what a holy shit ending was...until I read this book.
It was almost enough to make me throw the book against the wall, not so much out of anger (though there was a little of that too, as in "WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK!") or frustration as....resignation. Because once I thought about it, I realized the book couldn't have ended any other way. Trying to be as non-spoilery as possible, the final chapters took a deeper dive into the character of Orion Lake than we'd ever gotten before, revealing why he acted the way he did and why he didn't mind being at this terrible prison of a wizard boarding school. In the final pages, when the protagonist Galadriel is working a spell to free the thousands of kids in the Scholomance, by luring in all the malefica/demons that would have otherwise eaten them on the outside, we see Orion as he was truly meant to be:
And now that he finally had it, I thought I might understand better what he'd told me, because it was all so effortless for him. He wasn't locked in a grim, desperate struggle for his life, counting every drop of mana like a tumbling grain of sand in an hourglass. His every movement, each graceful killing sweep of his sword-whip, every spell he cast, every effort he put forth, they all fed him back, and you couldn't help but feel, watching it, that he was doing what he was meant for--something so perfectly aligned with his nature that it was as easy as breathing.
And that's why, in the final paragraphs, he does what he does.
There's a similar peeling back of the layers of the rude, prickly onion that is our protagonist and narrator, Galadriel "El" Higgins, as she slowly learns to trust other people, to open up, to have friends and care about others. To realize that the entire system of the Scholomance, the extradimensional boarding school set up by the wizarding enclaves of the world over a hundred years ago to save their children from slaughter, is nevertheless wrong, and look for a way to dismantle it. To figure out how to save every last one of the kids in the school, and maybe destroy most of the malefica in the world along with it. She is an extremely conflicted and reluctant hero, but once she decides to do this, she sees it through to the end.
The only reason I'm not rating this five stars instead of four is the writing style. Due to the complexity of the worldbuilding, this is not a streamlined, breezy kind of book. There isn't very much dialogue--Orion and El do more actual talking in the chapter where they finally hook up than the entirety of the first book and most of this one put together--and to be blunt, each page is full of big whopping paragraphs and long complicated sentences. I'm sure that will be offputting to some. You need a lot of patience to read this series, and it's understandable that some people won't have that. But I think the depths of El's character, her gradually unfolding relationships and her amazement that people really care for her and she cares for them, makes up for the slow deliberate pace.
And that ending! I still don't like it, but I can see the necessity of it. But the final book, whenever it comes out, had better deliver the goods, to be worthy of it.
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October 7, 2021
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is the sixth volume in this long-running grimdark epic fantasy, and the endgame is still not in sight. In contrast to the battles and blood-dripping gore of the previous volume, this volume is quieter and focuses more on the protagonist Maika Halfwolf and her estranged lover Tuya (who, in a rather squicky plot development, was forced to marry Maika's aunt, the Warlord). This leads to the shocking cliffhanger in the final pages, and while I dislike cliffhangers in general, I must admit this one is effective.
The only thing I would change about this is: more Kippa. Which is why I liked the two "talk stories" at the beginning of the book, two mini-comics focusing on Kippa and Maika's childhoods, almost more than the main story. Both stories are small flickering beacons of hope in the girls' lives, before the unrelenting horrors of the main storyline.
Sana Takeda's art is sublime as always, but I wish she had a little more differentiation of the main characters: at times, it's hard to tell Tuya from Maika from the Warlord. But due to the overall grimness of the story, the color palette is rather is limited. Nevertheless, this series continues to hold my interest.
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October 4, 2021
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I've read two of this author's books before, and in looking back on those reviews, I see a common thread: the ideas were big and fascinating, the worldbuilding intricate...and the characterization was lacking.
This book remedies that quite decisively, and in so doing, positions itself as one of my favorite SF reads this year.
This is an epic space opera dealing with trauma, PTSD, and how we treat refugees, set against the backdrop of a galaxy-spanning extinction event at the hands of the so-called Architects: moon-sized beings that carve planets into beautiful and terrible works of art. Of course, the planet's inhabitants, at least those who can't evacuate, are killed. This happened to Earth one hundred and twenty-three years prior in this timeline, and the remnants of humanity are scattered through various colony worlds. The surviving governments and human factions are desperate to find something to stop the Architects, but nothing works...until the invention, by genetic engineering, conditioning and surgery, of the Intermediaries, humans that are basically experimented on to produce a psychic connection to the massive alien minds of the Architects.
Our main protagonist, Idris Telemmier, is such an Intermediary, and he succeeds in momentarily touching the mind of an Architect and making it aware of his existence....whereupon it abandons the planet it had been targeting and vanishes into "unspace," the dimension that Idris can navigate and which facilitates this universe's FTL travel. The Architects disappear for decades, long enough that humanity settles on other worlds and begins to forget the terror and trauma of living every day not knowing if at any moment an Architect will pop out of unspace and begin to carve up their planets. (The Architects are used sparingly and well in this book; their depredations are mostly described after the fact until the final battle, when we see humans and other alien species sending out fleets of their most advanced warships and hurling everything they have against the creatures--and hardly slowing them down. That would make a helluva onscreen battle....but I think attempting to film this story would bust the CGI bank.) Fifty years later, Idris has left the Colonies behind and fallen in with the crew of the Vulture God, a salvage ship. (The cost of remaking his brain to become an Intermediary is that he doesn't age and doesn't sleep. He's also highly traumatized and often barely holding himself together.) In taking on a job searching for a ship that has disappeared from the Throughways, the recognized paths through unspace, the Vulture God and its crew finds its target--only to realize the ship has been remade in the Architects' pattern. With this, the central question of the book emerges: Have the Architects returned?
We spend most of our time in Idris' head, but there are several other viewpoint characters as well. All of them are well-written, especially Solace, the Partheni warrior and spy who is out to find Idris and persuade him to join the Parthenon, and who talks herself into a berth on the Vulture God. (The Parthenon is one of several human factions, this one consisting, as you might guess from the name, entirely of parthogenetically grown women.) There are also nonhuman characters; a particular delight was Delegate Trine, one of the Hivers (described as "composite cyborg insect intelligences" in the glossary) who is fussy and snarky and steals every scene it's in.
This is a very fat book, but it did not sag at all, in the middle or anywhere else. It's the first of a trilogy, but despite the tense battle scenes and revelations of a further threat possibly greater than the Architects, the author does not stoop to having a cliffhanger ending. There is clearly more story to be told, but this first chapter is satisfactorily wrapped up, with the characters in a good place...at least for a while. I don't know when the next book in the series is coming out, but it will be an insta-buy for me when it does. Y'all should check this out, because it is fucking amazing.
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October 2, 2021
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I own all five volumes of Ta-Nehisi Coates' run on Captain America, and am reading them in a completely bass-ackward manner: the final volumes first, and now this middle one. I don't think it confuses the storyline too much. After all, every plot you can possibly imagine has been done with Steve Rogers over the character's 60-year history. At this point, I'm looking for more insights to who the character is than the latest big bad he defeats.
Coates does a fair job of that in this volume, I think, in between the punching and shield-hurling.
Steve tangles with several different opponents in this volume, and there are cameos from Misty Knight, John Walker's US Agent and Wilson Fisk. The ending is obviously a setup for the final two volumes of the series, where the Red Skull returns.
Since I'm going backwards, though, I'm hoping the first two volumes will be a little slower paced and more contemplative. We shall see.
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September 24, 2021
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
This is a weird little book. I'm not sure if the author intended it to be a satire, a sometimes heavy-handed allegory, or a sort of hard-science Aesop's fable, what with the talking dinosaurs and ants. I'm also not sure it succeeds at any of them, no matter how you define it.
Cixin Liu, of course, was the first Chinese writer to win the Hugo Award for Best Novel, a few years ago, for The Three-Body Problem....which, overall, I didn't like very much. I liked the second book of the series even less, and thought the third was the worst of all. Which begs the question, why did I buy this? Well, it's from the terrific small publisher Subterranean Press, which puts out lovely books. (I also got this in a dinged half-price sale, although I looked it over quite thoroughly and never did find the ding.) Perhaps I also hoped that at novella length, the author could control his penchant for "great whacking chunks of technobabble," and also since we're not dealing with any human characters in this story, they might be a little less...cardboardy.
Unfortunately, I hoped in vain. This is an alternate history of the Cretaceous, where intelligence evolved between two diametrically opposed species, dinosaurs and ants; but with the dinosaurs lacking manual dexterity, due to their huge clumsy claws, and the ants lacking (obviously) size and the dinosaurs' curiosity and creativity, two interdependent civilizations evolved instead. Basically, the dinosaurs invent things, and the ants engineer and maintain them, and neither civilization can really survive without the other.
This might make for a fascinating idea, but once again, the author falls prey to his propensity for little or no characterization (and in the case of the dinosaurs, making nearly every one of them an annoying, egotistical whiner with laughably bad dialogue and the cringing habit of injecting "Ha ha ha!" at the end of almost every paragraph). He needn't have bothered with any character names, as there was no telling the characters apart, and really not any reason to. We just have these two dysfunctional, co-dependent civilizations getting into fights and going to war with each other over and over again, until I finally started rooting for the asteroid to come along and end it all.
And at the conclusion of the story, I didn't even get that. This is an alternate history, after all, and while the Age of Dinosaurs did come to its end, it ended because of some human-style Mutually Assured Destruction weapons involving antimatter--which took an entire chapter, 13 excruciating pages, to describe. (Yeah, I use the word excruciating in these reviews a lot. That's what happens when the author insists on relating every damn detail of how his theoretical weapons work.) By that time, the dinosaurs were reduced to thinly disguised homo sapiens, with an Atomic Age, an Information Age, automobiles, computers, fossil fuels, environmental destruction, and a population of 7 billion. I kept expecting them to start morphing into humans at the end of the book, a la Animal Farm.
Which, come to think of it, might have made for a better ending than what actually happened: 3,000 years after the twin explosions of antimatter that scour the planet clean of nearly all life, two ants emerge from their subterranean nest and As-You-Know-Bob at each other for three pages, finally speculating about another creature with a smaller body and dexterous hands appearing and ushering in another Age of Wonder.
Well, gosh golly gee! Who on earth could that be?
Sorry for the sarcasm, but this book did disappoint me. I really should have known better, because I was so soured by the end of the Three-Body Problem trilogy. This was a cool idea...but cool ideas with no people (human or otherwise) do not good stories make.
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September 22, 2021
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This book has really flown under the radar. I stumbled across it at the library, but I've heard very little about it, and I think I've only seen one prominent review of it. That's a shame, because while it's not quite the best SF book I've read so far this year, it does have an absorbing premise that held my interest.
It's set nearly two hundred years in the future, when Earth has been sort of "softly conquered" by three AIs, Confucius, George and Athena, known as the Triumvirate. As described in this book, the artificial intelligences don't necessarily rule over the world's countries--the US still holds elections every four years, for example--but George, named for General Washington, informs every decision the government makes. These AIs have solved most of humanity's problems (Confucius, the Asian AI, has solved the "carbon crisis") and created a digital realm where most humans upload to spend part or all of their time. The AIs themselves created the chips human consciousness is uploaded (or copied) to, called Sontang chips, and the Machine and its supposedly benevolent guidance extends over the entire globe.
The exception to this is the lone holdout, the Caspian Republic, where artificial intelligences and any clones used to hold downloaded code are banned. This setup provides an inside-out twist on the usual AI tropes, because the Caspian Republic is a totalitarian hellhole dedicated to keeping the last free human beings inside their borders and away from the Machine. The Caspian Republic is a thinly disguised callback to the old Soviet Union and East Germany, with its bleak, grey setting and competing secret police, ParSec (Party Security) and StaSec (State Security) plus other factions fighting for control of the Caspian government.
Our protagonist is Nikolai South with State Security, an aging, cynical, thirty-year veteran of the service who is still reeling from the death of his wife Olesya twenty years earlier. Nikolai investigates murders, and he is drawn into two separate cases: the murders and illegal Sontang uploads of two sisters, and the death of one of the sisters' boyfriends, the famous Caspian journalist Paulo Xirau, who has been discovered after the fact to be an extremely illegal clone/AI who has been living in the Caspian Republic for many years. Nikolai is tasked by the head of State Security to squire Lily Xirau, Paulo's virtual spouse who has been granted special dispensation to come to the Caspian Republic in a clone body and identify her husband's remains. Only when Lily gets there, she is a dead ringer for Nikolai's dead wife...and the mystery begins.
This is a combination of a Cold War spy thriller and an examination of artificial intelligence, identity, life in a virtual world, and what all this means for what remains of humanity. This might not sound like it would work, but it does. In fact, as I was thinking of how to write this review, it dawned on me just how complex this story is. It's also unusual in that it was based on the author's previously written play, which is undoubtedly why it has a lot of dialogue and relatively few shoot-em-up action scenes. There's even a bit of philosophy and theology thrown in, namely a discussion of the "problem of evil" in which a famous Caspian Republic writer, Leon Mendolssohn, declares that "the Triumvirate rule over the world more effectively and fairly than any human government has been able to." Upon talking to Paulo Xirau, who admits to Mendelssohn what he really is, Mendelssohn writes a pamphlet advocating for "normalizing relations with the Machine world" and theorizes that:
Artificial intelligence is advancing so quickly and exponentially that before long there will come into being an intelligence whose power and understanding will be essentially infinite. An intelligence that could manipulate not only data but matter and physics. That could extrapolate the course of every atom with perfect accuracy throughout the entire history of the universe and could reconstruct flawlessly every individual that ever existed. He said that this was not something to be feared, but to be devoutly wished for. He hypothesized that once created, this intelligence would not be limited to linear time and that it could effect events in the past and the future and would retroactively rewrite history to lead to its own creation, and that once done, every human being who has ever died could be re-created. Perfectly Flawlessly. As if they never left. All of humanity would be reunited. Whole again. In a world without death. Or want. Or suffering. Forever.
In other words, the Machine would become God, and its digital virtual reality humanity's Heaven.
We don't actually see the God/Machine in this book, although it is implied to have influenced at least a few events. The story remains focused firmly on Nikolai and Lily, and what happens to them during and after the fall of the Caspian Republic. This serves to steer the story mainly clear of cyberpunky mumbo-jumbo, a genre I am not fond of. This book has maybe not made a breakout to the mainstream, but I think it is a unique, satisfying story--particularly the ending, which it nails--that deserves wider attention.
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