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Two nominees got punted on Did Not Finish grounds, but the other three - Addison's The Goblin Emperor, Leckie's Ancillary Sword, and Liu's The Three-Body Problem - have had me dithering.

3BP is good but flawed. If I can tell the physics is silly and inaccurate, the physics is really silly. AS is very much a middle novel; it's a competent middle novel, but my evaluation of its quality will be greatly influenced by Ancillary Mercy, out this October. And TGE is operating in such a different register from the other two novels, to the point where I ask whether you could strip out the genre aspects and have the exact same story.

In a good year, the Hugos are an embarrassment of riches, a diverse slate of competing innovative well-written ideas. I'm pleased these three novels give me a taste of that. I say with all my heart there is merit in stories where writers are figuring out their craft, or roughing out new things, or getting the bills paid in a competent but not brilliant fashion. But there's a difference between a story that demonstrates promise or developing talent and a story that merits Hugo recognition. That's why there's a lot of No Award going around this year.

My novel rankings right now are:
1 The Three-Body Problem
2 The Goblin Emperor
3 Ancillary Sword
4 No Award

But yesterday I had AS up top, and I still have a day to change my mind.

Ancillary Sword, Ann Leckie: already read, and reread it too. In case you were wondering whether I liked it, ah, yes, I did.

The Dark Between the Stars, Kevin J. Anderson: There are so many problems, and I'm only 100 pages in. You know what? I'm 100 pages in, there have been 13 PoV characters in 16 chapters, it's exactly like reading Exile's Song only I'm not 14. The terrible prose, the illusion of depth that would likely be shattered by reading the rest of the series, the failures at basic mechanics of storytelling, the gratuitous Indiana Jones bad archaeology... I can stop now! There's been enough exposure that I know how I plan to rank this when I cast my ballot!

The Goblin Emperor, Katherine Addison / Sarah Monette: already read it. And I reread it while considering rankings. It's sweet and cute and at the end of it I asked, "does this have to be genre?" The story of TGE works equally well as a Ruritanian epic: substitute trains for airships and the goblins for a European power, and you've got something not entirely unlike, say, Philip Pullman's The Tin Princess.

Cut for space. )

Skin Game, Jim Butcher: The prose is slick, though the protagonist is ridiculous. The story opens with Harry Dresden hanging out on an island with certain eldritch properties, mostly playing parkour and waiting to... die from a magical brain tumor... or... something. Clearly I am coming into the middle of this series!

I only read the sample chapters of Skin Game, which were enough to convince me of Butcher's qualities as a writer without generating sufficient interest for me to check the full novel from the library. Beach reading; competent but not award winning.

(Parkour in the eldritch catacombs. Oh, Harry.)

The Three Body Problem, Cixin Liu; Ken Liu translator: Now this is unquestionably science fiction. Spoilers. )

This is so very rooted in genre conventions. The aliens are hostile; the most critical science is cutting edge physics; a classic physics problem is a key aspect of the backstory. I'm fascinated that the author's note included with the English translation tells us that Chinese science fiction usually writes aliens as benevolent, since that's not my experience of the American approach to life in the skies.

I'm also surprised 3BP didn't show up on the Puppy slates, being the sort of gosh-wow SF they claim to support, but then I found Cixin Liu's Big Idea on Scalzi's blog, and for those of you who have been blissfully ignorant, the people behind the puppy slates are not rational on the topic of John Scalzi and anyone associated with him. Also, dare I suggest that a group that has consistently behaved as through straight white men of a certain socioecomic classes are the only group that counts might have, ah, not welcomed the contributions of a non-white non-American? Maybe I'm mistaken, but it seems like such an oversight not to include 3BP, when writers like KJA, Marko Kloos, and Larry Correira made it on the puppy slate in the novel category.
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As a form of bonding with a non-geek coworker, I watched "The Notebook". In the spirit of enjoying things for what they are, not what you want them to be, I will note there were several moments where I was moved: the young lovers' screaming fight that acknowledges the character flaws that will be part of their relationship if they're going to continue as a couple; the meditation on love and choice when Allie's mother reveals her own youthful fling to her daughter; and the very end, where the lovers romantically pass away on the same night, the night Noah sneaks into Allie's room at the nursing home. But by all that's holy give me friends to lovers with ridiculous snark and banter, or true love in the context of a bigger world, or a character study with science, for my go-to entertainment.

The new Avengers movie is on this week's to-do list.

The Goblin Emperor (Katherine Addison / truepenny aka Sarah Monette) (2014):. Fantasy novel about the ascension of Maia, the Elvish emperor's disregarded fourth son, to the throne of the Elflands. The novel opens with Maia shaken awake to learn his father and three brothers have been killed in an airship explosion, right before he is whisked from an impoverished country estate to the imperial palace, so this is not a big spoiler.

This novel is a warm fuzzy blanket of feelings. It's like Monette took what she learned from writing the Mirador quartet (which I loathed), combined it with wolftimes feedback, and produced this tempered work borrowing from the hurt-comfort tradition with beautiful attention to structure and sequencing of information. The interwebs tagged it "fantasy of manners", which does not seem inappropriate. People keep spontaneously offering to teach Maia. Maia keeps figuring out how to deal with people! Maia charts path toward being a good person and a good Emperor! Maia connects to his remaining family! This could have been a byzantine political novel; instead, it's a complex humanist novel. In a stronger Hugo year, I probably wouldn't expect The Goblin Emperor to make the ballot, but I'd pick it up for comforting rereads for years.

Katherine Addison is Monette rebranded, as mentioned multiple times on her livejournal. If you haven't read Monette's work, and liked this novel, you might or might not like her previous work. Look it up, but if you don't like the first chapter of The Mirador, set it aside before you're tempted to hurl it into a wall later on. (Wow. As I write this, I find I am still disgusted with the obligation d'ame in The Virtu.)

The Windup Girl (Paolo Bacigalupi) (2009): 23rd century Bangkok, generations after peak oil, faces a number of environmental, technological, and biological challenges to its existence. I liked the structure, and like that it tries to break out of the northern hemisphere, but it feels, how to put this, exactly like it was written by a Western man. There is a habit of attention, a certain angle on the world, that is rooted in that heritage and experience.

But within that frame of reference, there's a lot going on. The post-oil economy, a sincere effort to write a future Krung Thep that is energy-poor; at constant risk of being drowned by the rising ocean; poor, and fiercely defiant of the "calorie men" of the West.

The structure is amazing, a loose ricchochet collection of multiple PoV characters whose actions influence each other in direct, indirect, and generally unexpected ways. The yellow card refugee Hock Seng schemes to rebuild the wealth and stability of his old life in Malaysia, destroyed along with his family during ethnic purges, by stealing a Maltese Falcon plot device from the factory where he is employeed. The factory is a front for Ken Anderson, one of the calorie men of the West, in Thailand to find and exploit a rumored seedbank, a priceless treasure in a future ravaged by genetically engineered plagues. He is thwarted by the Environmental Department's Captain Jaidee Rojjanasukchai, and his lieutenant, Kanya, sworn to protect Thailand against the aggressive bioengineered life forms: beetles that have claimed entire forests; crop diseases that blight harvests, threatening famine; viruses and bacteria that rip through human populations like a scythe. They're professionally and personally disgusted by the New People like Emiko, the "windup girl" of the title. Emiko is a genetic construct, originally from Japan, abandoned by her owner and left to survive in Krup Theng, where she is considered so much biological trash to be recycled, and maybe beaten to death first. Emiko survives under the questionable patronage of a foreign pimp, one of Anderson's acquaintances. Her experiences are related in detail bordering on torture porn, so this is probably a skip for people who nope out of sexual assault descriptions.

I love this sort of plot. I love the ping-ponging cause and effect which become the causes of more effects. I love that Emiko struggles with her biological constraints and deep-seated psychological programming to find agency. I do not love that The Windup Girl will probably date very quickly, because of its topics and its approach to subjects that we're struggling with in the here and now, like climate change and genetic engineering. But it was enjoyable in the moment, and probably has a few more year before it's too dated to recommend without caveats. That's the problem with science fiction: the more detailed and interesting the extrapolation from the current body of knowledge, the less well it ages. Read it if you like kinetic plots with thoughtful future science.
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This got kind of long. Oops? If you only read one thing in this post, read me gushing about Y: the Last Man.

Contact (Carl Sagan): Reread. Alien message, alien machine, human field trip. Surprising how books will imprint on you in ways you don't notice until you come back ten years later, and well. There you are.

If I had to summarize the themes, I'd say it's science and religion balanced on a fulcrum of faith. Or maybe love. It's interesting to reflect on the ways time's changed the book in large and small ways. Apparently no one saw the fall of the USSR coming, but the slow creep of women into hard science continues to drag. No one's done us the favor of a TV ad auto-mute, or low Earth orbit habitats, or a female President. But the characters' reactions to events ring true, or at least ring compellingly. Who wouldn't dream of a world where a giant project encouraged humanity to rise to the challenge and strive to our best, instead of sinking to our worst.

Quotes to entertain and challenge. )

The Last Colony (John Scalzi): Third in the "Old Man's War" series. Two ex-soldiers and their daughter are recruited for a human push for a new colony planet. Life gets a little more complicated than getting the crops in before winter. Spoilers, spoilers, and what's this? Spoilers! )

The story's playing with tropes I know, which makes it a soothing read, but doesn't make it particularly good. Take, say, characterization: Space cut. No spoilers here! ) I know what I'm getting when I pick up an OMW-verse book, which is soothing when I'm stressed, and less entertaining the rest of the time.

Tomorrow, When the War Began (John Marsden): YA. Seven teens return from a backcountry trip to find their homes deserted and their families captured by an invading army. Epistolary format, which I usually find awkward, but for a plot that could only be improved by an invading army from space, I will cope. Marsden is an Australian writer, and it shows in the slang, the grammar and the familiar approach to the landscape. (See also previous comments about Midwest Man vs grandchild of India.) This rocks my Americentric little world more than it should.

The Demon in the Freezer (Richard Preston): Smallpox, anthrax, and bioweapons. Narrated in a dramatic or even thriller style, but the essentials seem to be nonfiction: smallpox is bad news, but was annihilated in the wild by an epic World Health Organization campaign. Anthrax is scary, but less scary than smallpox. Biowarfare is not as hard as counterterrorism people would like it to be. Easy, fun read.

A Companion to Wolves (Elizabeth Bear/[ profile] matociquala & Sarah Monette/[ profile] truepenny): Fantasy. Njall the jarl's son is taken for the wolfheall tithe and bonds a queen trellwolf. It's like an earn-your-R-rating version of animal bonding fantasy. With wolves. Cut for space, no major spoilers. )

Final note: I liked this, but I also read it right after pop sci nonfiction on smallpox and traumatizing postapocalyptic fiction, so this may not be as harmless I think. I also watched the last episodes of Farscape before writing down my thoughts on the novel, (John: "I can't believe it - I left a nuclear bomb in an elevator." Chiana: "Hey - you've done worse." Sadly, he has) so I may be really skewed on appropriate sapient interactions.

All-of-a-Kind Family (Sydney Taylor): Children's book based on the author's experiences as part of an immigrant family in New York City's lower east side. I consistently file this next to Cheaper by the Dozen in my mind, and forget which one I've read. (Possibly both.)

Y: the Last Man: 1 - 8: Unmanned, Cycles, One Small Step, Safeword, Ring of Truth, Girl on Girl, Paper Dolls, Kimono Dragons (Brian K. Vaughan, Pia Guerra): It's like Vaughan sat in on the feminists of LJ ranting about the treatment of women and minorities in fiction and took notes. Yorik Brown and his capuchin monkey Ampersand are the sole male survivors of a mysterious event that strikes down every mammal, fetus and sperm with a Y chromosome. In the first graphic novel he travels to Washington, DC, and Boston, teaming up with a federal secret agent and a biomedical researcher to find out why he and Ampersand survived. In later editions they travel across the country to Dr. Allison Mann's West Coast backup lab, getting a roadside view of America after the men.

So, so good. Let's go down the checklist of likes and watch the series light up every button. )

The series is lighter than it could be, but also violent, messy and prone to killing minor characters. Other than the 3 billion (less one) men who died in the first issue. This is a story that could be the ceaseless pornographic romps of The Last Man on Earth, and in the first three graphic novels - the first 17 issues of sixty - Yorik gets it on with... well, he kissed two girls. Maybe two? See, there's this girl, who he was proposing to when the world ended... right.

I don't just rec Y, I will actively push it on unsuspecting people. This is your only warning. Speaking of warnings, I have 11 issues / 2 collections left to read, and if you spoil me past the end of Kimono Dragons, I will hurt you.
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Climbing Mount Improbable (Richard Dawkins): Dawkins on natural selection as the power behind life and evolution. A number of interesting case studies showing the gradual accumulation of "irreducible" complexity. Unfortunately, the book didn't really gel for me, or engage my intellect at the level which The Selfish Gene did. Some that may be the timing; this was published in 1997, and uses a lot of computer modeling that was hot stuff in the mid-90's.[1] Today, we have spiffier software. But Dawkins' ability to turn a phrase doesn't utterly desert him. Take a look at this paragraph from the chapter on figs and fig wasps, for example:

Much of the deciphering of the wasp-pollination story would simply have involved slicing figs open and looking inside. But 'looking' gives too laid-back an impression. It wasn't a passive gawping but a carefully planned recording session yielding numbers to be fed into calculations. Don't just pluck figs and slice them. Systemically sample figs from a large number of trees, from particular heights, and at particular seasons of the year. Don't just stare at the wasps wriggling inside: identify them, photograph them, accurately draw them, count them and measure them. Classify them by species, sex, age and location in the fig. Send specimens to museums for identification by detailed comparison with internationally recognized standards. But don't make measurements and counts indiscriminately just for the sake of it. Make them in the service of testing stated hypotheses. And when you look to see if your counts and measurements fit the expectations of your hypothesis, be aware, in calculated detail, how likely it is that your results could have been obtained by chance and mean nothing.

Now, imagine doing a great deal of that outside. In the heat and humidity. That's science. And I am so glad my specialization doesn't require field work.

[1]I remember the '90s. I remember when the CD-R drive was the Hot New Thing on our computer, and when we got the ten gig hard drive, and how we wondered how anyone could fill it up. As I write this, I have forty gigs of data clogging my laptop hard drive. Five gigs of that's just program files. The WINDOWS folder gets 2.75 gigs all to itself. And let us not even start on the music folders.

Star Wars: Outbound Flight (Timothy Zahn): The Outbound Flight project gets off the ground and shot out of the sky. Whoops.

The narrative uses umpteen PoVs to cover the umpteen sides dancing on the head of a pin. I thought this was pretty fun, but then, I was getting a kick out of all these people from other Zahn novels showing up. Zahn's done a fairly unobtrusive information control job on the facts of the OF in the past (right up until Survivor's Quest, where people needed to be beaten with an "ask questions, fools!" stick), so the climatic destruction didn't feel like a retread. Recurring characters felt younger, crazy Jedi masters proved that bad cloning merely exaggerates pre-existing megalomania, Obi-Wan and Anakin had an extended cameo that didn't really affect the plot. Was this deep? No. Was this fun? Yes. Thrawn was a bit of an over-manipulative supergenius, but that's his role in the series. I really was hoping Car'das would hijack one of Thrawn's plans for his on purposes, but no joy. On the other hand, there were smugglers, but no Bothans. Cheers!

There's also a thing to be said about how this means I've been reading fanfiction since I was, like, ten, and didn't notice. Not that I was tempted to describe any part of the OF plot as crack. Okay, maybe I am. See also "strategic supergenius who reads alien psyches through their art."

Fifth Business (Robertson Davies): I have no idea how to classify this. I think it might be genuine, plain fiction. And I have no idea how to discuss this. There are a ton of pithy quotes, but I have no idea how to approach what the book is "about". It seems to be Dunstable Ramsay's account of the interlinked fates of himself, Paul Dempster, and Percy Boyd Staunton. But that's speaking to the bones of the novel, not the spirit and heart of the story. This may be a case of the theme whooshing over my head, and it makes me want to hash the book out with people.

The Art of Detection (Laurie R. King): A mild collision of series when Kate Martinelli must solve the mysterious murder of a die-hard Sherlock Holmes fan.

I'm most tempted to compare this to A Letter of Mary, where a manuscript of sorts also acts as the McGuffin, but I'm also compelled to note that there's a 100 page Holmes pastiche wedged in the middle of the book. It was an entertaining pastiche, mind, but it does break up the story a bit.

Randomly: internal evidence dates the book's conclusion to mid-February 2004. Which end was very schmoopy, and pretty cute, but felt a little tacked-on. Discuss in comments.

The Vitru (Sarah Monette/[ profile] truepenny): Felix isn't crazy. Pity, that; we liked him better when we was.

Felix is Justin Warrick. Why am I still talking about this? )

This suffered from bad packaging: for the full effect, it should be read back-to-back with Melusine. I lost a few character names and biographies between volumes, and I still feel like there's some unresolved stuff going on; it should come as no surprise that Monette's writing two more books in the same series.

Monette's written some engaging characters, and some fairly intricate worldbuilding (contrast the city of Melusine to Lankhmar or Tai-Tastigon), but the things the characters make me roll my eyes and want to throw popcorn. I've read enough of her LJ that I can't believe it's accidental the characters are behave in such a compellingly human fashion, but that isn't helping me suppress the urge to hand out love-taps with a clue-by-four. I think I'm skipping Monette's next book, unless someone vets it for me and tells me it's awesome in all the ways the first two books weren't.

Also read sundry essays from Understanding The Lord of the Rings (Rose A. Zimbardo and Neil D. Isaacs, editors): "The Dethronement of Power" (C. S. Lewis) - a classic "my friend wrote a book and it's really cool, you should all read it!" only in Oxford Don English - "Men, Halflings and Hero Worship" (Marion Zimmer Bradley) which I read twice because I'd forgotten I'd already been through it once, "Frodo and Aragorn: The Concept of Hero" (Verlyn Flieger) academic and dry-ish, "Another Road to Middle-earth: Jackson's Movie Trilogy" (Tom Shippey) academic and entertaining. Also picked up Meditations on Middle-Earth (Ed. Karen Haber), essentially a collection of authors discussing some aspect of their own reactions or analysis of LotR. "A Changeling Returns" (Michael Swanwick), "Rhythmic Pattern in The Lord of the Rings "(Ursula K. Le Guin), "The Longest Sunday" (Diane Duane). I power-skimmed the Card essay; Ender's Game may be a classic, but I really can't get into Card's oevre. I keep trying to find something Card's written that doesn't turn me off, but he is my anti-author with shocking consistency.
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If there's a theme this month, it's, "but your meta is so good! Why is your book not so good?"

Self-Made Man (Norah Vincent): Woman decides to cross-dress to explore that age-old question, "but how does it feel to be a man?" Yes, I did read this for the titilation factor. Two things strike me: the temptation to check off central themes bandied about in women's studies courses, and how joyless and relatively humorless the author makes the entire process seem. If you're going to transgress social norms, you may as well have fun, no? The author had a breakdown at the end of the book, about a year and a half into her exploration into masculinity, which may have something to do with the tone. Her experiences are interesting, but every chapter leaves me thinking, "you know, you make it sound like life as a man is a terrible thing, an emotional wasteland - except I'm pretty sure it's a little more complicated than that." Also, I think Vincent failed to fully acknowledge the impact of class and race on her personal experiences with masculinity. For example, door-to-door sales (one job she tried) are soul-destroying regardless of gender. A cushy internship at dad's law office is something else. For men or women.

Conclusions? Flawed, but thought-provoking. Gentlemen, pipe up: do you feel like you're living in an emotional wasteland? Discuss.

Tooth and Claw (Jo Walton/[ profile] papersky): Self-described Victorian novel with dragons. I appreciated the elegance and artifice of the many plot threads concluding happily, but suspect I'd get a lot more out of this if Pride and Prejudice had inspired me to read more regencies.

"A Gift of Wings" (Sarah Monette/[ profile] truepenny): Monette keeps doing cool meta in her lj, but her actual fiction does nothing for me. "A Gift of Wings" is a romance, which means the narrative tension should derive from the lovers overcoming obstacles to be together, but in this case, the primary obstacle seems to be the traumatized wizard and the battle-hardened mercenary not talking to each other. For months. When the narrative voice reflects that "he made it plain without so much as a word that they were lovers no longer" I tend to gag a bit.

Digression on romance, by way of quests. )

The characters are adequately crafted (if love-struck fools), the setting nicely evoked, and - to me - the plot a complete turnoff. Even the smutty bits do nothing for me. YMMV, especially if you like romances.

On the other hand, a traumatized wizard and a battle-hardened mercenary woman must solve a murder they are accused of committing. Together, they fight crime!

("A Gift of Wings" was published in The Queen in Winter, a collection of romances written by Claire Delacroix, Lynn Kurland, Sharon Shinn and Sarah Monette. Had I realized what I was getting into, I would have totally not ILL'd this. Not a romantic!)

Black Powder War (Naomi Novik/[ profile] naominovik): Look! It's an overland Asia trip with dragons, and then it's a Napoleonic land battle with dragons! Mild book 3 spoilers, comment on book 4 chapter 1 preview. )

And there I go, getting gleeful about horrible deaths. Like I said, I'm here for the worldbuilding; plot and characterization are a little secondary. Though I may get attached to Iskierka, pluckiness and all.

July previews: I'm 30 pages from the end of Richard Dawkins' Climbing Mount Improbable, which involves a lot of circa early '90s computer modeling, and generally isn't as cool as The Selfish Gene. But I'll at least have some nonfiction finished this month. Also, Fifth Business is kicking around my room, so I'll probably knock that off Real Soon Now.
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Short, because I read lots and lots of guy-on-guy smut written by women fan fiction instead. Done now.

Melusine (Sarah Monette/[ profile] truepenny): The Virtu has guarded the ancient city of Melusine from its worst excesses for centuries. Pity it got busted. And really pity this isn't about the Virtu at all, it's about the two PoV characters: the angstful aristocrat Felix, who spends most of the book insane and angsting, and Mildmay the Fox, cat burglar with history. Mildmay gets to be snarky. Felix gets to be Justin Warrick.

I seem to recall hearing someone defining genre as "a group of books talking to each other" (paraphrased, and totally forgot who said, sorry), and I think Melusine is very genre, by that definition. It's obviously fantasy - it's got magic, and is clearly set in a place not here - but if you comb through [ profile] truepenny's livejournal, there's some other stuff going on, too. There's an LJ midlist SF/F conversation that is happening in the internet zone around the [ profile] truepenny, [ profile] matociquala, and [ profile] papersky friend lists that I suspect contributed a lot to the book. Not in specifics, but in aims and messing-with-tropes choices: in genre, if you will. I think that, if the book is read with this in mind, it may be very interesting, but I'm not really part of that conversation, so I think I read a very different novel than the conversant.

From that perspective, there were two serious problems with the novel: madmen make terrible narrators, and as Mildmay says at one point, "there ain't much to be said about walking across Kekropia aside from the boredom of it." Monette does a good job of keeping the story moving during the traveling-bit, at least. Maybe Felix will be more likable in the next book, when he's not stark raving mad or on the edge of it. Also, the novel manages to smack one of my narrative hot buttons in the first twenty pages. I am deeply pissed that I haven't yet learned that "lush" is code for "abusive sex, explicitly described. Put down the nice novel and walk away." It gets better eventually, but it takes a really long time.

Tentative thematic summation:
"Don't what? Treat you like a person instead of an object? Don't acknowledge that you have been shamefully misused and betrayed?"
"Please." My face felt like it was on fire. "It doesn't matter." (Melusine p.421 HC)

This is two guys talking. About feelings. See why I have issues?

I have to reserve full judgment until June, when the second half (The Virtu) is published, but at the moment I'm mostly reading it to see what happens to Mildmay.

The Crystal Cave (Mary Stewart): Merlin, pre-Arthur. First book of a trilogy. Kept me amused while I was reading, but I'm in no rush to read the other two books. Considering this was a novel about Merlin, there was remarkably little of the mystic or numinous about it, a consideration that may cut negatively and positively, depending on how long it's been since your last high fantasy binge. Also, dramatic irony of conclusion not as riveting as author might have hoped.

This Can't Be Happening at Macdonald Hall! and The Zucchini Warriors (Gordon Korman, Bruno and Boots series): Canadian boarding school duo wreaks havoc in 100 pages or less. Introduction by way of "fan fiction that radically revised our childhood reading memories." Written when the author was in his teens, and at boarding school, and it shows. On here for completion; nothing important to say about them.


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