The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley
The Mirror Empire has a large (but not huge) cast of characters, which allows for some breadth in exploring all the corners of the detailed world Hurley has created. The character that I kept thinking of as the main-est was Lilia, in large part because she features in the prologue and, to an extent, links the other character groups together. She works as a drudge in the temple where (that country’s) magic users train. It’s a relatively egalitarian and affluent country so although she’s called a drudge and does basic cleaning-type tasks, she was still given a good education. She just can’t train to be a magic user as she has no discernible ability. The country she lives in is not alone in being matriarchal and polygamist. Marriages often involve more than two people and it is not uncommon for women to take more than one husband. In this sense, men are treated in a way that wouldn’t be out of place for women in a “traditional” fantasy novel (including marital rape and generally being second class citizens). That said, there are still worse places to be a man. In the small world of the temple, men with power are trained alongside women, although their ruler is usually female.
The setting of the world is particularly creative. First of all the plant life is mostly carnivorous. Carnivorous in the sense that it might hunt you down and kill you. There are terrifying walking trees, plants that grow human-sized traps beneath the ground and a lot of poison. The people like winter more than I would normally expect because it freezes the killer plants. And beyond plant-life, horses don’t seem to exist so people mainly ride bears (with forked tongues) and large dogs. I strongly felt the alien landscape added to the sense of otherworldliness, as did the satellites/stars in the sky controlling the ebb and flow of magic.
With regards to plot, we had Lilia, who is on a personal mission to find her mother after being separated from her at a young age. She runs into more complications than she expects, even as she takes advantage of unusual situations. There’s Roh, Lilia’s friend, who gets caught up in other events that change his life. There’s Ahkio, who just wants a quiet life with a nice family but when that option is taken away from him, things get interesting. Then there’s Zezili, a general from another country, given unexpected orders by her Empress. When she starts looking deeper, everything she thought she knew unravels.
The Mirror Empire is a great read. It’s the first book in the series (a trilogy? I’m not sure), and not everything is resolved by the end. But it does end in a good place with enough progress made and no egregious cliffhangers. I am very much looking forward to reading the next instalment and seeing where everything goes.
I highly recommend this book for all fans of good quality secondary world fantasy. Readers who — like me — prefer not to read unoriginal and trope-filled fantasy will be pleased with this book. And of course, anyone hoping to find more fantasy with female characters who are a) central and b) not marginalised need look no further. The gender-flip aspect (for lack of a better term) really is fascinating.
4.5 / 5 stars
First published: August 2014, Angry Robot
Series: The Worldbreaker Saga book 1 (of ?)
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley
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Interview with Kaaron Warren
Today I have an interview with Kaaron Warren, author of fiction in all sorts of lengths and all shades of horrific.
Your novels Slights and Mistification are very different in tone but they both contain stories within the larger story of the novel. This is particularly obvious in Mistification but it also appears in Slights (and I believe is central to Walking the Tree which I haven’t read). Can you tell us what drives you to add this extra layer to your novels?
You’ve hit the nail on the head when you talk about ‘layers’. This is exactly what it is. It’s about seeking further meaning in these stories, and about bringing the story and the characters to life. An early inspiration in my writing is Queen Scheherazade. I loved A Thousand and One Nights from a young age. Another is Life; a User’s Manual by George Perec, a wonderful novel full of details and stories within stories within stories. I love to know the story behind the story. The story beneath the story. The details, the nitty gritty. I love to follow a story trail till it comes to an end.
Are you working on any more novels? If so, can you tell us anything about it/them?
The Solace of Saint Theresa, about a woman who knows how you’re going to die by the ghosts who haunt you. She doesn’t trust the ghosts, though, because she doesn’t always understand them. When she discovers a place called the Grief Hole, where teenagers go to die, she finally understands she needs to work with the ghosts in order to be the Saint she so clearly wants to be.
The Keeper of Truth, a re-imagining of my short story “The Lighthouse Keeper’s Club”, where the worst criminals are given the choice of a death sentence, or eternal life. The question is, “Who would you send to the Tower?”
The Underhistory, the novel I’ve just embarked on through a Fellowship with Old Parliament House. At heart, it’s inspired by art, Australian Prime Ministers, and the victims of John Glover, the Granny Killer.
You write a lot of short stories as well. What to your mind are the pros and cons of the novel versus the short story or novella forms?
Short stories and novels and novellas are all so different.
A short story can have a single focus. You can play with a single idea (a photographer who can momentarily reanimate the dead, for example) and make that shine. You need layered characters, plot and meaning, but you can have that idea as the central point; the core of the story.
A novel needs more beyond that central idea, and must explore many angles. With a novel, you can look into the story behind the story and follow many paths. A short story needs to stay more focussed.
A novella is a glorious combination of the best of both worlds!
Why horror? What compels you to write creepy/scary/disturbing stories?
Quite honestly, these are the stories that present themselves. The ideas that pop into my head. This is the way I interpret the news, the way I incorporate nightmares and the way I try to make sense of a world that can be terrifying.
The truth I imagine is not always pleasant.
Thank-you Kaaron for taking the time to answer my questions!
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A Slip of the Keyboard by Terry Pratchett
Terry Pratchett has earned a place in the hearts of readers the world over with his bestselling Discworld series — but in recent years he has become equally well-known and respected as an outspoken campaigner for causes including Alzheimer’s research and animal rights. A Slip of the Keyboard brings together for the first time the finest examples of Pratchett’s non fiction writing, both serious and surreal: from musings on mushrooms to what it means to be a writer (and why banana daiquiris are so important); from memories of Granny Pratchett to speculation about Gandalf’s love life, and passionate defences of the causes dear to him.The essays (and transcribed speeches) are arranged into three categories, divided up as sections. The order in which they appear seems to be roughly chronological — in subject matter rather than in original publication dates. Part one, titled “A Scribbling Intruder”, mostly deals with things writing- and author-related. Here you will find amusing anecdotes about signing tours (and advice about signing tours), thoughts on fantasy — his own and others’ — pieces in convention booklets, introductions to things and so forth. A most memorable essay was “No Worries”, an amalgamation of the Australian signing tours Pratchett had done up until then. There was much hilarity.
With all the humour and humanity that have made his novels so enduringly popular, this collection brings Pratchett out from behind the scenes of the Discworld to speak for himself — man and boy, bibliophile and computer geek, champion of hats, orangutans and Dignity in Dying.
The second section, “A Twit and a Dreamer”, is a more eclectic set of essays etc, as far as topic goes, anyway. There’s one essay waxing lyrical about mushrooms and mushroom picking — “That Sounds Funghi, It Must Be the Dawn Chorus” — and another about his grandmother. There is also what I think is the oldest article, “Letter to Vector”, written while Pratchett was still in school. And more introductions to things which, quite frankly, make me want to read the books they’re introducing.
The final section is entitled “Days of Rage”, which makes more sense if you’ve read the introduction to the collection, written by Neil Gaiman. (I don’t often enjoy introductions, but this one was well worth it.) This last section deals with orangutans, the NHS, Alzheimer’s and assisted dying. If you’ve been following Pratchett’s progress at all, you’ll be aware of his early-onset Alzheimer’s (a rare variant that leaves him able to think perfectly well, but unable to type or do up his seatbelt). The last few essays are very much about Alzheimer’s and his quest to legalise assisted-dying. It was interesting to read in more detail than I previously had about these issues (and reassuring in terms of wanting more Pratchett books, just saying).
So as not to end on a dark note, the collection does contain one more amusing essay: Terry Pratchett’s footnotes to life.
I would not hesitate to recommend this book to Pratchett fans and also anyone interested in reading something autobiographical about him. Of course this is not a proper autobiography and skips many topics that a biography would usually cover, but it does reveal Pratchett’s thoughts on many subjects and does sketch out aspects of his early life — mostly through anecdotes as part of speeches. It was a good book to dip into in not-too-large doses. I’m not sure I’d recommend reading it straight through as I found similar topics/ideas/anecdotes come up in a few essays which usually end up grouped together (since they are indeed on a similar topic). They were always presented in a different way, but could still come across as being slightly repetitive; one of the dangers of collecting previously published essays, I think.
4.5 / 5 stars
First published: September 2014, Doubleday
Format read: eARC, US edition (the UK/Commonwealth cover is more sedate)
Source: Publisher via Edelweiss
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Shatterwing by Donna Maree HansonRayessa and the Space Pirates, and Bespelled. What strikes me most about Donna as a writer is how flexible she can be. These three books have very little in common stylistically or even thematically, yet she pulls them off.
Dragon wine could save them. Or bring about their destruction.The blurb is a bit deceptive in that it only covers about half the book. And I mean that in the most literal sense; part two breaks from the first set of characters to follow a new group of characters. It could almost have been published as two separate books and the structure really highlights how this is only the first book in the series. Having said that, the first section ended in a fairly conclusive way that didn’t leave me so desperate to get back to those characters that I couldn’t pay attention to the new characters. If anything, I’d argue that the first part was a bit more conclusive than the second, which ended on a minor cliffhanger.
Since the moon shattered, the once peaceful and plentiful world has become a desolate wasteland. Factions fight for ownership of the remaining resources as pieces of the broken moon rain down, bringing chaos, destruction and death.
The most precious of these resources is dragon wine – a life-giving drink made from the essence of dragons. But the making of the wine is perilous and so is undertaken by prisoners. Perhaps even more dangerous than the wine production is the Inspector, the sadistic ruler of the prison vineyard who plans to use the precious drink to rule the world.
There are only two people that stand in his way. Brill, a young royal rebel who seeks to bring about revolution, and Salinda, the prison’s best vintner and possessor of a powerful and ancient gift that she is only beginning to understand. To stop the Inspector, Salinda must learn to harness her power so that she and Brill can escape, and stop the dragon wine from falling into the wrong hands.
But enough about structure. The most obvious thing to note about the content of this book that’s not necessarily obvious is that it’s dark fantasy. Dark as in brutal or “grimdark”. There is rape and there is violence. Most of the worst rape happens off the page, but there’s enough on the page that if you don’t want to read about rape (or molestation or brutal beatings), then probably give this series a miss. The characters can be more or less divided into main characters and other “good guys” and “horrible men that don’t think women are real people”. And, I suppose, miscellaneous bystanders who are afraid of witchcraft.
I really enjoyed the story but there were times when the brutality got a bit much for me. Mainly this was towards the end of part one where Salinda, our first main character, is being brutally tortured. It’s not that it’s not relevant to the plot, but it wasn’t fun to read (nor, I think, should it have been). Then, in part two, I was probably a bit over-invested in a new main character, Laidan, not being raped and it was a nail-biter for a while there. (I won’t spoil which way it went.)
Anyway, the main thrust of Shatterwing is setting up the world and the overarching plot for the series. The worldbuilding is quite nice, with two moons in the sky, one of which broke up hundreds of years ago (called the “Shatterwing” because it’s shattered and looks like a wing). There’s some historical background that remains mysterious for the time being and I look forward to learning more about that in subsequent books. There’s also the matter of the dragon wine, which has magical properties, and which is apparently the main thing keeping the human population alive. How did this come to be? I’m not sure, but I’m looking forward to finding out.
Shatterwing is not for everyone and I wouldn’t recommend it to people who wish to avoid reading about violence. However, I would recommend it to fans of dark and grim fantasy. The world may have dragons that eat people, but the real monsters here are other people.
4 / 5 stars
Series: Dragon Wine book 1 of ? (possibly 4?)
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley
Disclaimer: Author is a friend but I’ve endeavoured to write an unbiased review
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge
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Tsana’s September Status
Since I last posted one of these updates I went to LonCon 3, travelled around England and Wales, and come home to an unpleasant infestation of builders. I would like to talk more about the first two things, but the last is making it difficult for me to string two thoughts together. Nevertheless, I’ll give it a shot.
LonCon3 was pretty great. I met new friends and old — including old online friends for the first time — sat on a couple of panels, went to some panels, the Hugo Awards. I also hung out in the Dealers Room at the Twelfth Planet Press table which was more fun than it might sound. We also supported the 2020 bid for a New Zealand WorldCon and went to the NZ bid party. We also went to the Ticonderoga party and took another opportunity to spend time with Aussie fans. Both parties were good, but I wasn’t a fan of way parties were run out of tents in the fan village.
And, of course, I bought a pile of books. Also won some and a few were freebies. The Feist below is hubby’s signed limited edition copy which he won. He also won a set of signed and numbered George RR Martin quote posters, so a good haul in all.
We had fun dragging the books around the rest of England and then Wales afterwards. In each hotel I took all the books out and made a little pile. In one B&B we stayed in they were haphazardly split into two piles because of space. I had left Sex Criminals in between two normal-sized books and the cleaning lady pushed it further in so that the spin wasn’t visible. I’m imagining her clutching at her pearls when she saw it.
The second most geeky thing we did was visit the Doctor Who Experience in Cardiff. I highly recommend it for fans, although it did remind me that I didn’t like Eleven very much (and we went after watching the first Capaldi episode, so it felt a bit backwards). The museum was pretty good and so were the effects in Experience. The gift shop also tried our restraint. We walked away with posters and I bought more books there, but they were presents, so they don’t count. Actually, I was pretty excited that they had some books with Leela, my mum’s favourite companion.
On a completely different note, my round-up for the Australian Women Writers Challenge, which I wrote in a sleep-deprived haze and have little memory of.
What Have I Read?
- Wonderbook by Jeff Vandermeer — a writing advice guide.
- Angel Rising by Dirk Flinthart — read on the tube and the train out of London to Oxford
- Fool’s Assassin by Robin Hobb — the start (and alas only a start) of a new trilogy about Fitz and the Fool.
- Kaleidoscope edited by Alisa Krasnostein and Julia Rios — a pretty awesome read of diverse YA fiction
- Sex Criminals Volume 1 by Matt Fraction — an amusing comic, read in a hotel in Cardiff
- Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld — one of the best books I’ve read this year
- Guardian by Jo Anderton — the third book in the Veiled World trilogy. Read in Wales and on the flight home
- Prickle Moon by Juliet Marillier — an exquisite short story collection
- Aurora in Four Voices by Catherine Asaro — audiobook of a short story collection. Hard SF.
What Am I Currently Reading?
Again, too many books. I blame the builders.
The novel I’m reading is Shatterwing by Donna Maree Hanson. Dark fantasy, first of a series, expect to see a review soon.
And finally, I also started reading Help Fund My Robot Army!!! and Other Improbable Crowdfunding Projects. Which is also amusing. I’ve put it a bit on the back-burner for now because it was supposed to be my insomnia book, but because of the form it’s too choppy to successfully lull me adequately. Pratchett is better.
I’m running out of steam and awakeness, so these aren’t getting comments this month. Rest assured I am excited about all of them. Non-review books all came from LonCon3.
- Zac & Mia by AJ Betts (review, US edition)
- A Slip of the Keyboard by Terry Pratchett (review, US edition)
- Secret Lives of Books by Rosaleen Love
- Sprawl edited by Alisa Krasnostein
- Angel Rising by Dirk Flinthart
- Bluegrass Symphony by Lisa L Hannet
- Midnight and Moonshine by Lisa L Hannet and Angela Slatter
- The Girl with No Hands by Angela Slatter
- Death at the Blue Elephant by Janeen Webb
- Sex Criminals by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky
- The Hunt for Pierre Jnr by David M Henley
- The Hive Construct by Alexander Maskill
- Magician’s End by Raymond E Feist (can’t find the correct cover)
- Langue[dot]doc 1305 by Gillian Polack (doesn’t have a proper cover yet)
- Shatterwing by Donna Maree Hanson (review)
- The Three-body Problem by Cixin Liu and translated by Ken Liu (review)
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Aurora in Four Voices by Catherine AsaroThe Radiant Seas, which is set in the same universe as the stories in Aurora in Four Voices.
I didn’t love all of the stories in this collection, although I didn’t hate any of them either. My least favourite was definitely “Ave de Paso”, in which the main characters didn’t particularly grab me and which also had a bit of a squick factor towards the end. I liked many things about “Aurora in Four Voices” and I’d say it was probably my second favourite story. I had mixed feelings about the relationship between the two main characters since Soz is the main character of the other Asaro books I’ve read and her OTP the main character was not. I also enjoyed “Light and Shadows” although it was not, I think, supposed to be an overly cheery story. My favourite story was easily “City of Cries” and I was interested to learn in the outro that there is a novel sequel coming late this year. I will have to keep an eye out for that.
One thing all the stories have in common — with the exception of “Light and Shadows” which only really has the one male character in it — is strong female characters. This is something common to all of Asaro’s work, I believe. People seeking hard science fiction populated by women who actually do things, would do well to check out Asaro’s work. And in case you were in any doubt that her SFnal universe is indeed hard, this collection contains a short maths essay at the end. I have to admit, I found it difficult to listen to — my brain went into lecture mode and turned off — but luckily there was a simplified URL mentioned to the written and illustrated essay online. You can read it here. (And if you need further proof, some of the mathematical concepts used in her stories have been published in mathematical journals.)
As always, I’ve written some notes about the stories as I read them. I recommend this collection to people wanting to get an idea of Asaro’s work. The stories are pretty broad in setting and, I think, a good showcase of the sort of stories she can write. I particularly recommend it to SF fans looking for more women in their fiction.
Aurora in Four Voices — Not bad, about Soz (main character in Primary Inversion and Radiant Seas and others I haven’t read) and, more prominently, a man who has been trapped on a planet populated by mathematical and artistic geniuses who like to live in eternal night. He has been mistreated by, well, a mean chap and when Soz shows up she helps him escape his situation.
Ave de Paso — Meh. A pair of orphaned cousins deal with recent bereavement, the desert and magical possession by a malevolent spirit. Not terrible, but not my favourite.
The Spacetime Pool — Your classic present-day maths graduate falls into gate in the spacetime continuum and finds herself in an alternate universe where she’s at the centre of an empire-changing prophesy. I wasn’t fond of the whole “you must marry me and not my brother because he’s a bastard” opening but since it’s a novella there was plenty of room to turn it around and I enjoyed the heroine rescuing herself with the application of mathematics.
Light and Shadows — A heart broken test pilot deals with his pain by trying to go harder, faster further. When he pushes his plane beyond the specified limits he gets a bit more than he expected. An amusing story (well, not the parts where he was sad about his dead lover) about a character I’m pretty sure reappears in Skolian Empire books I’ve read.
City of Cries — This was my favourite story of the bunch. It’s a gender-flipped hard-boiled PI story in an SF setting. And when I say gender-flipped, I don’t just mean that the ex-military PI is female (though she is) but all the trope-mandatory characters are gender flipped. I found this delightful even while unpleasant things were happening to people.
A Poetry of Angles and Dreams — not a story but an essay, which you can read here. For someone with a maths degree, it was a fairly straight-forward description of concepts. Particularly the imaginary number half of the essay starts at the most basic level and builds up to the more complex (lol, pun) concept of Riemann sheets. I suspect the second part of the essay, about Fourier transforms/analysis would be less enlightening to the lay person.
4 / 5 stars
First published: 2012 Isfic Press (audiobook 2014)
Series: Stories set in the Skolian Empire universe (apparently including the ones that don’t seem like they are)
Format read: Audiobook
Source: Kickstarter reward
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Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld
Believing is dangerous.As the blurb suggests, Afterworlds is really two novels in one. Darcy is a teen writer who got an incredible book deal for the YA novel she wrote in her last year of high school during NaNoWriMo (although, actually, I’m pretty sure NaNoWriMo is never referred to directly, but she wrote it all in November, so one makes assumptions). Because of the book deal (and the giant pile of money that came with it), she puts off going to college and instead moves to New York to do revisions and write the sequel she’s under contract for. Her story is about writing and about growing up.
Darcy Patel is afraid to believe all the hype. But it’s really happening—her teen novel is getting published. Instead of heading to college she’s living in New York City, where she’s welcomed into the dazzling world of YA publishing. That means book tours, parties with her favorite authors, and finding a place to live that won’t leave her penniless. It means sleepless nights rewriting her first draft, and struggling to find the perfect ending … all while dealing with the intoxicating, terrifying experience of falling in love—with another writer.
Told in alternating chapters is Darcy’s novel, the thrilling story of Lizzie, who wills her way into the afterworld to survive a deadly terrorist attack. With survival comes the responsibility to guide the restless spirits that walk our world, including one ghost with whom she shares a surprising personal connection. But Lizzie’s not alone in her new calling—she has counsel from an extremely hot fellow spirit guide, who is torn between wanting Lizzie and warning her that …
Believing is dangerous.
Every alternating chapter is a chapter from Darcy’s novel. Darcy’s novel is a paranormal YA with pscyhopomps and mythology borrowed from Hinduism. It’s pretty dark, mostly dealing with death, ghosts and the afterworld. I think if the two novels in one were taken apart, then the fictional (-er) story could stand alone but Darcy’s story probably couldn’t. But putting two stories together like this allows Westerfeld to explore the process of writing and various issues that can arise. Darcy’s story would not have worked without having the chapters she and the other writers were discussing there for us to read.
In exploring the process of writing, a lot of different issues arise. On the more mundane side of things, Darcy finds herself thrown into the world of adults straight out of high school and with little preparation. She worries about fitting in, being seen as a real writer and whether her book was a fluke. At the same time, she meets other writers mete out advice, support and offer friendship. And discussion about books, her book and the process of writing. Some of the issues they discuss are whether it’s OK for Darcy to appropriate bits of her parents’ religion (when she herself is an atheist) and base a character more on a Bollywood actor than the religious figure, and the dilemma of having made her protagonist white while she herself is Indian. Darcy also runs into the interesting problem of having the people she meets assume she’s older than she is (for a long time, she doesn’t tell anyone she’s only 18) and treating her as such, especially by making assumptions about her already been to college. Stuff like that, which only contributes to Darcy’s imposter syndrome.
The other thing the double story allows Westerfeld to do is explore the mind of the writer which leads to certain choices in their books (something, I think, which is particularly applicable to a writer’s first book). The version of Darcy’s novel that we are privy to is the final version that eventually gets published. But part of following Darcy’s story is her rewrites and the dilemmas she has along the way. The opening chapter seems to have been the only constant thing as we hear second hand accounts of overly “Disney” scenes that Darcy removes and her endless search for a new ending. The latter was particularly interesting; we hear a lot about the endings she doesn’t choose but we don’t find out what ending she did write until we actually got to the end of the book and read the last chapter. It also allows for some discussion of what publishers want from authors and books and why.
There were also several answers to the much maligned question of “where do you get your ideas?” We learn fairly early on where Darcy got some of the key ideas for her novel and as the story progresses, we also learn about where the other writer-characters get various types of ideas from, where it’s OK to borrow ideas from and from where one shouldn’t borrow ideas. (And there’s a really hilarious bit at the end when Darcy finds out something about the story she thought she was writing <spoiler redacted>.) And, of course, some of the authors may or may not bear some resemblance to certain real-life people…
Because this book deals so much with the nature of writing, I suspect writers and other book-world people will probably enjoy it more than the average reader who doesn’t spend much time contemplating where books come from. I know that aspect definitely enhanced my enjoyment. I thought the two storylines fed off each other quite nicely. When one was moving a bit slowly, something exciting was happening in the other and vice versa. I’ve spent most of this review talking about Darcy the writer and not about Lizzie the fictional (-er) character, who plays just as important a role and has as much page time and character development. Lizzie’s story is compelling and, in terms of YA tropes, reasonably uncommon — and it is her exciting first chapter (officially chapter 2) that hooked me — but it’s not overly remarkable. What makes Afterworlds remarkable is the nested nature of Lizzie’s narrative. By itself it would have been a quick fun read (although I should note that Afterworlds is roughly the length of two shortish YA books, so it’s not that pared down), but with the other story it’s a fascinating deconstruction of the YA genre and the writing process.
I highly recommend this book to writers and people interested in the book industry. Fans of YA, especially fans with writing aspirations will, I think, find much to enjoy here. I suspect readers with no interest in the writing process or readers looking for only one of contemporary YA (slash new adult for Darcy’s story) or dark paranormal YA will be disappointed. This is not a straightforward book.
5 / 5 stars
First published: September 2014, Simon Pulse (Simon & Schuster)
Series: I don’t think so
Format read: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
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