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The City of Woven Streets by Emmi Itäranta

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In the City of Woven Streets, human life has little value. You practice a craft to stay alive, or you are cast out. Eliana, a young weaver in the House of Webs, knows she doesn’t belong there. She is hiding a shameful birth defect that would, if anyone knew about it, land her in the House of the Tainted.

When a mysterious woman with her tongue cut off and Eliana’s name tattooed on her skin arrives at the House of Webs, Eliana discovers an invisible network of power behind the city’s facade. All the while, the sea is clawing the shores and the streets are slowly drowning.
~~~~~
City of Woven Streets, known in the US and Canada as The Weaver and in Emmi Itäranta’s native Finland as Kudottujen kujien kaupunki, was released in June 2016 in the UK, and has been waiting in my TBR for me to get to it ever since… finally, that time has come!

The City of Woven Streets is fairly obviously a young adult novel, in terms of plot. Not only does Itäranta approach the standard rebellion against a restrictive society combined with forbidden romance angle, but she also integrates into this a kind of personal bildungsroman for Eliana in discovering her true power and role in things. It is a reasonably well executed example of its type; Itäranta’s version of an oppressive society built on a history of oppression and violence feels realistic in this regard, and the way it responds to opposition, and how the channels of power work, feel very plausible. It simply breaks no new ground, and there are certain moments, especially around the romance between Eliana and Valeria, which don’t feel like The City of Woven Streets really earned them.

The characters of The City of Woven Streets don’t stand out particularly strongly either; Itäranta’s characterisation isn’t bad per se, it’s just got a singularly unoriginal feel to it. Eliana feels like any other young adult protagonist discovering their powers and importance to the world while resisting the oppressive social order; Valeria’s muteness is virtually her only characteristic, which makes the romance between them a little strained; Weaver is the standard enigmatic, not entirely trustworthy mentor who is part of the structure of power; Alva is the wary ally; et cetera. The City of Woven Streets has characters, but none of them feel particularly real; the closest is Eliana, who at times does exhibit emotion and growth, but even her depths don’t feel very real.

The world of The City of Woven Streets is, on its face, a very creative and interesting one. Itäranta’s worldbuilding is complex and layered; the society she creates, with its rigid castes and classes, its professionalising of certain crafts as specialised to the point of not just guilds but almost monastic specialism, and its hidden, dictatorial political leadership, is one rarely seen in fantasy. The way Itäranta integrates these elements into a single society is at times very ill-considered; for instance, the gendering of certain roles like weaving and writing is stereotypical, and given the seclusion people with these roles are required to live in, the idea that they will also eventually get married seems rather strange.

This is also a world with very unclear attitudes towards queerness. At the same time, The City of Woven Streets has a couple of early references to homosexuality as a forbidden thing, but also not an uncommon thing in the cloistered single-sex environments; this would make sense were everyone’s reactions to the lesbian relationship that forms the key romance of the novel less straightforwardly accepting. The way Itäranta reveals both an intersex character and the treatment of intersex people by the society simultaneously is also rather problematic, almost brushing by the consequences of the worldbuilding she has done without really considering their implications.

Despite all this, I actually found myself enjoying The City of Woven Streets. Itäranta’s writing is fast and simple, without being simplistic; it keeps the story moving at a good lick, and draws the reader through, with hints at the broader picture and bigger world dropped from the start such that things build up slowly without too much by way of infodumping. The City of Woven Streets is almost like a packet of sweets: not as much content as one might have hoped for, and somehow disappointing afterwards, but at the time, definitely enjoyable.

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Six Months, Three Days, Five Others by Charlie Jane Anders

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Revealed•The terrible truth about why humans were created – and why we’ll never discover aliens. •A tale of three wishes, after the end of the world. •A family reunion in which some of the attendees aren’t human any more – but they’re still family. •TFW you try to solve a problem with time travel, and now you have two problems. •The love affair between the man who can see the one true foreordained future and the woman who can see all the possible futures. •And a coda to Anders’ bestselling All the Birds in the Sky, answering the burning question of what happened to Patricia’s cat.
~~~~~
Charlie Jane Anders has been building her genre bona fides for some time; beyond her role as cofounding editor of io9 with her wife Annalee Newitz, she’s been nominated for the Nebulas, Sturgeons, and Hugos multiple times, winning a Hugo in 2012 for the titular story of this, her first short fiction collection.

Six Months, Three Days, Five Others is an interesting collection; while seemingly disparate at first glance, comprising a mixture of science fiction, fantasy, science fantasy, and urban fantasy, stories, there are some themes which emerge from the six stories in the collection. The biggest of those is Anders’ interest in romance and love; an oft overlooked idea in genre fiction, love of various kinds is either central to or plays a major role in every story in this set.

“The Fermi Paradox Is Our Business Model” is an odd choice to open the collection with, as the least strong story collected. While amusing, and while the characterisation works very well, the aliens are far too human as characters, despite their apparent physical differences. They’re rescued somewhat by the way Anders threads a tense romance between them through the story, and the execution of their relationship. The plot itself feels like a joke extended rather too far, and the ending of the story feels like it demonstrates that Anders didn’t quite know where to go with it.

“As Good As New” is a rather stronger tale; Anders takes a traditional fairy story, resets it in a postapocalyptic landscape, and subverts it. The banality of much of the story, in contrast to its actual events and weightiness, is brilliantly balanced, and adds a lot of humour to what could otherwise have become more a philosophical problem than a piece of fiction. The role of fictional drama of various kinds within the story itself is also rather masterful, and really lets Anders play with narrative.

“Intestate” is another odd story that could almost only have come from Anders. In it, she plays between mimetic fiction and speculative; the open-endedness of the story is not just about the events afterwards, but about the reality of the shared ideas the characters have within it. The combination of themes of posthumanism and technological personal upgrades with family strains and tensions is handled well, and the balance between the two, with each reinforcing the other, works fantastically. It could have seen the characters a little better fleshed out, but overall, it is effective.

“The Cartography of Sudden Death” is an odd time travel story. The drive that pulls Ythna through the story is powerful, but often eclipsed by simple events, and Jemima’s motivation and characterisation is basically completely blank. The action is fast-paced and well written, really punchy stuff, and it’s an interesting take on the inevitable rise and fall of empire and society, but the flat characterisations and lack of motivation of the primary actors makes it feel a little hollow.

“Six Months, Three Days” is the longest story in the collection, and one of the quietest; it is about a relationship between two clairvoyants, whose clairvoyance work in different ways. There aren’t world-shattering events involved, and the stakes are almost entirely personal; Anders keeps the story on a very human level, and the friction between the two main characters is far more powerful as a result. It’s a little solipsistic, and the engagement with free will versus clairvoyance can feel a little light and frivolous, but really, this is a beautiful story about love, and about male arrogance.

“Clover” closes the story with another small, quiet, domestic romance. Anders’ strength of writing, using the supernatural to simply exaggerate the mimetic, is on full display in this story; the ups and downs of a relationship, the strains and difficulties of romance, are emphasised but not created by the minor magical elements of the story. It’s a beautiful piece, and the way Anders writes both the cats and the humans involved in the tale is incredibly well done, although one suspects cats aren’t quite this human. It’s worth noting that although this ties into All the Birds in the Sky, and has greater poignancy if you’ve read that novel, it stands perfectly well on its own and retains all its own beauty.

Six Months, Three Days, Five Others isn’t a perfect collection, but its strongest stories are absolutely brilliant, and Anders’ writing of romance is truly a wonderful thing to read. More, please!

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Spice & Wolf Vol. 1 by Isuna Hasekura, trans. Paul Starr

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The life of a traveling merchant is a lonely one, a fact with which Kraft Lawrence is well acquainted. Wandering from town to town with just his horse, cart, and whatever wares have come his way, the peddler has pretty well settled into his routine-that is, until the night Lawrence finds a wolf goddess asleep in his cart. Taking the form of a fetching girl with wolf ears and a tail, Holo has wearied of tending to harvests in the countryside and strikes up a bargain with the merchant to lend him the cunning of ‘Holo the Wisewolf’ to increase his profits in exchange for taking her along on his travels. What kind of businessman could turn down such an offer? Lawrence soon learns, though, that having an ancient goddess as a traveling companion can be a bit of a mixed blessing. Will this wolf girl turn out to be too wild to tame?
~~~~~
As with Book Girl and the Suicidal Mime, this was one of Jeannette Ng’s light novel recommendations; a high mediaeval fantasy about economics? Right up my street, surely?

Spice & Wolf Vol. 1 starts off promisingly enough, with the tribulations of Kraft Lawrence, a travelling merchant, without fixed abode, longing for the possibility of belonging somewhere. We meet him plying his tricks to get information, and see the way that knowledge is power, before we ever really get into the meat of the story; Lawrence is our viewpoint character, and Hasekura introduces him to us early, in all his flawed and stereotypical, simplistic ‘glory’. Holo is similarly unsubtle a character; Spice & Wolf treats her at times as a completely naive person with no knowledge of society, despite clear interactions with it, and at others as deeply knowledgeable about modern (that is, mediaeval) systems of economics.

This uneven characterisation for both is frustrating, and not helped by the constant undercurrent of romantic tension that Hasekura tries to create; Spice & Wolf wants to make Holo and Lawrence seem an obvious couple, but despite the text itself repeatedly suggesting mutual feelings, there doesn’t seem to be any real chemistry between them, only a kind of dull, muted thing that could at a glance be seen as such. Hasekura’s writing of people all tends towards that, in this volume; no one really has a personality, they are pieces on the board to be moved around to fit the plot.

The setting does little to allay this problem. Spice & Wolf is set in a stereotypical high-mediaeval pseudo-Mitteleuropa, dominated by a monotheistic Church intent on stamping out paganism and killing demons and the possessed. It’s a collection of microstates and trading companies and free cities, whose interdependence and interconnections are assumed but not clear; we seem to jump from mediaeval feudalism in one moment to a guild structure in the next, from kingdoms and dukedoms to city-states. Hasekura’s care and attention to aspects of the worldbuilding is patchy, at best; indeed, it often feels like the world of Spice & Wolf exists to allow Hasekura to explain economic principles, rather than for those economic principles to actually make sense.

The plot of Spice & Wolf is a quiet, small thing, at first; what starts as a minor deal to get in on the ground in a bit of currency speculation quickly spirals out of control into a matter of rival merchant consortia kidnapping and counter-kidnapping. Hasekura is assured in his action sequences, with fast-paced movement and some really heart-pounding moments, but these are few and far between. What advances the plot far more are economic discussions or negotiations between merchants. While Hasekura makes some of these negotiations fascinating through showing as much what’s going on behind the spoken words as what’s actually said, on the whole, they can drag a bit. This is especially true when Spice & Wolf devolves into Lawrence simply explaining to Holo exactly what currency speculation is, or how a commodity currency works, or what devaluation of a currency means; they feel rather stilted and intrusive on the plot.

In the end, Spice & Wolf Vol. 1 is an interesting attempt at writing an economics-based epic fantasy, but Hasekura can’t quite make it work.

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Book Girl and the Suicidal Mime by Mizuku Nomura, trans. Karen McGillicuddy

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High school student Konoha Inoue is a gifted writer who’s lost his passion for his craft. When he meets beautiful upperclassman Tohko Amano, though, he finds someone with a greater hunger for literature than anyone he’s ever met… literally!

Amano is a book-scarfing goblin who satisfies her cravings by munching on the printed works of history’s greatest authors. However, nothing is as delicious as the handwritten stories she bullies Konoha into writing for her.

When a desperate classmate approaches the “literature club” to draft love letters on her behalf, the very thought of it sets Tohko’s mouth watering! But as Konoha will discover, the greatest love stories are often the most tragic…
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Jeannette Ng, of last week’s Under the Pendulum Sun review, some little while ago had a thread of light novel recommendations. I’ve been curious about light novels for a while now, and so took these up…

Book Girl and the Suicidal Mime is an odd little book, which starts off as one thing before slowly morphing into quite a different book. It seems, at first glance, to be quite a frothy little novel, a story about high school romance, subterfuge, and misplaced or unrequited love; Nomura leans heavily into the frilly side of the novel as she kicks proceedings off. It is only as the book continues and developes that a darker theme emerges; Book Girl and the Suicidal Mime isn’t about a love story, it’s an investigation into a death, an investigation Konoha and Tohko have been tricked into by seemingly-chirpy Chia Takeda, a first year.

The slide from one plotline into the other is strangely smooth; Book Girl and the Suicidal Mime builds up the romantic plotline as a standard schoolgirl romance, unrequited and of an older student, before Konoha’s attempts to learn more about this older student turn up the fact that he doesn’t actually exist. Nomura doesn’t lean heavily on supernatural elements, although Konoha assumes they are in play; instead, this is essentially, but for the book-eating girl herself, a dark piece of mimetic fiction, and the plot reflects that, with its plotting that has more than a hint of the Shakespearean to its resolution.

Shakespeare is not the only literary touchstone for Nomura in Book Girl and the Suicidal Mime. Not only does Tohko reference the different way different authors taste repeatedly, and show an incredible engagement in literary criticism and a deep engagement with various texts, but the whole book is built in conversation with Osamu Dazai. Indeed, many of the decisions characters make are heavily influenced by, and structured around, Dazai’s final work, No Longer Human; all the characters have read it, and there is explicit engagement with it in the context of Dazai’s wider ouevre, making literary criticism a key plot point for this novel.

Book Girl and the Suicidal Mime is also a fascinating book for its characterisation; everyone has a full and interesting personality, and the degree to which things like depression and angst are treated sympathetically is incredibly powerful. Indeed, Nomura’s discussion of different presentations of difference and depression, and the coping and deflection methods teenagers may develop to mask it, is moving in its accuracy; characters aren’t flattened by their mental health difficulties, only altered by them, and we have to see people in new lights as we learn more about them. This is a rare nuanced approach, and the way it manifests in the central cast is really well written.

The problem comes in the way Nomura treats the physicality of the female characters; Book Girl and the Suicidal Mime seems almost to become a different novel temporarily at times, as the bodies of the girls in the cast are discussed in pornographic, prurient, male-gaze ways that really intrude on the way the rest of the book is written. By turns deeply thoughtful and whimsically light, Nomura’s occasional succumbing to the pressures of certain conventions of how one describes a girl’s body really jar when they appear.

In the end, Book Girl and the Suicidal Mime isn’t high art, but it is deeply thought and felt art; it’s breezy, and eases you into its darkness, but Nomura really does carry that darkness well. A fascinating read.

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Mapping the Interior by Stephen Graham Jones

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Walking through his own house at night, a fifteen-year-old thinks he sees another person stepping through a doorway. Instead of the people who could be there, his mother or his brother, the figure reminds him of his long-gone father, who died mysteriously before his family left the reservation. When he follows it he discovers his house is bigger and deeper than he knew.

The house is the kind of wrong place where you can lose yourself and find things you’d rather not have. Over the course of a few nights, the boy tries to map out his house in an effort that puts his little brother in the worst danger, and puts him in the position to save them . . . at terrible cost.
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It’s after Halloween, but still time for one last good chilling read…

Stephen Graham Jones’ Mapping the Interior is an odd little novella, about culture, about family, about love, and about the lengths one will go to for those we care about. Jones’ story is about a family of Native Americans who left the reservation after the death of the father of the household, moving to a poverty-stricken exurb; their physical environment is as much a source of horror as the supernatural elements that appear in the story.

Jones brings this environment into the stark foreground incredibly powerfully; Mapping the Interior is as much concerned with mapping the prefab house the family lives in, in all its different parts, as anything more interior to the family, and indeed, the unfolding mapping of the house plays a major role in the unfolding strangeness and horror of the plot. Jones describes the house in detail, through the eyes of a child; it’s a very effective approach, as we build a complete picture up only in snapshots, and somewhat impressionistic ones, as much emotional as physical.

The main horror of Mapping the Interior is built up slowly; Jones starts the novella off looking like one kind of ghost story, and then turns around and writes a rather different, darker, more horrifying kind. The way this is achieved is through the dawning realisation of a child of the reality of his dead father’s return; at first, he thinks of it as a blessing, his father come back to him, but the cost of this return becomes increasingly clear as the novella goes on, even as the benefits are shown. It’s a dark story, and Jones doesn’t shy away from its darkest elements; the gut physicality of violence is painfully clear, as is the familiarity with it of our twelve year old protagonist and narrator, Junior.

There are also banal horrors around; Jones doesn’t overlook the effects of racism, or of ableism directed at a developmentally delayed child, Dino, on a Native American family. Indeed, one of the biggest horrors of Mapping the Interior comes from a violent pack of dogs kept by one of the neighbours, who seem more like coyotes than domestic canines; their desire to eat the children of the family is powerful and brutal, and Jones really brings the fear of them home, with a visceral reality. These horrors are the backdrop to the supernatural horrors, and indeed almost an alternative to them; they make the supernatural seem more benevolent at the start, before its true nature becomes clear.

This isn’t a perfect novella; Mapping the Interior has a tendency to treat developmental delay as a comic relief motif or as the effect of supernatural agency, although Jones is fundamentally writing about Dino with sympathy. Some of the key plot points turn on his unspecified condition, and the way it is treated is at times deeply frustrating. Furthermore, Jones’ tendency to cut away at key moments, for various somewhat contrived reasons, cuts the tension a bit, and makes the novella more convoluted than it has to be.

In the end, though, despite these problems, Mapping the Interior is a powerful, dark, and moving novella, with a real chill at its heart.

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A Small Charred Face by Kazuki Sakuraba, trans. Jocelyne Allen

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What are the Bamboo?
They are from China.
They look just like us.
They live by night.
They drink human lifeblood but otherwise keep their distance.
And every century, they grow white blooming flowers.

A boy name Kyo is saved from the precipice of death by Bamboo, a vampire born of the tall grasses. They start an enjoyable yet strange shared life together, Kyo and the gentle Bamboo. But for Bamboo, communication with a human being is the greatest sin.
~~~~~
Vampires are a mainstay of horror, and have been since before John Polidori wrote The Vampyre in 1819; they’ve also long been a subject for reclamation in fiction, whether in that model or from other cultures. A Small Charred Face caught my eye as another entry in that long tradition of humanising monsters… Kazuki Sakuraba’s book is somewhere between a single novel and three separate, linked novellas collected into one volume; the marketing suggests it be read as one, and so I will review it as such.

A Small Charred Face is fundamentally a wistful, sad set of stories; it is about fading, aging, changing, and memory. The first two parts of the book are very intimate in scale, following single individuals; first, a human child taken in by a pair of Bamboo, who raise him until he becomes an adult; and second, a Bamboo who had befriended him briefly in his childhood, who later took in the child he took in shortly before his own death. They focus in very deeply and intently on the emotional relationships, and the idea of growing up; in the first part, of how a child does not understand the importance of growing up, and in the second, the problem of not growing up while those around one do.

A Small Charred Face is beautiful in both these parts; the characters are so well realised and so deeply, painfully human, in all their flaws, that their fights, their struggles, and their loves are all intensely touching. Watching Kyo age, and realise what he has forgotten, is a profoundly painful experience; while watching Mariko remain a perpetual child, while those around her age and die and maybe even forget her fundamental traumas, is similarly brutal. Sakuraba’s grasp of voice is vital here; the shifting first person narration is not only incredibly individual, but also ages with the characters, and shows their emotional development, in a very real way. Sakuraba’s writing also draws the reader through with great pacing and style, demanding one reads on to find out what happens to these characters, making it a fast book to read, and one hard to put down.

Sakuraba also shows romantic love beautifully; Kyo is raised by Mustah and Yoji, a pair of male Bamboo, and their mutual love and adoration is never shown as a sexual matter, but is shown as utterly pervading everything about them. A Small Charred Face, for half its length, shows some truly beautiful romantic writing; and the confusion of feelings of Kyo towards his adoptive parents is painful and beautiful to behold, as is the way his feelings about his past change and develop.

The third story in A Small Charred Face is rather less strong; it explains how Bamboo society in Japan came to be, in exile from China. Focused on a narrator who is a smart, dedicated, driven member of the royalty of the takezoku (the name the Bamboo called themselves in China), it looks at persecution and at discrimination. Sakuraba takes on a lot of themes across the sixty pages of this story, and tries to grapple with them all; while the despair of a brilliant woman forced into hiding her intelligence because of the needs of society are incredibly moving, other emotional elements don’t ring true, in part because the story is just too rushed, and relies too much on the way it plays on references to events in the future of the story that happened in previous episodes of the book.

In the end, A Small Charred Face reminded me very strongly of Octavia E. Butler’s Fledgling; both intensely emotional and beautiful books using vampires to talk about humanity, Sakuraba’s is much more wistfully sad, but, for the most part, just as brilliant.

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Cottingley by Alison Littlewood

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In 1917 the world was rocked by claims that two young girls – Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths – had photographed fairies in the sleepy village of Cottingley. In 2017, a century later, we finally discover the true nature of these fey creatures. Correspondence has come to light that contains a harrowing account, written by village resident Lawrence Fairclough, laying bare the fairies’ sinister malevolence and spiteful intent.
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Cottingley is a historical engagement with Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous folly, The Coming of the Fairies, published in 1922; whereas Doyle’s work was supposedly nonfictional, and about the glory of the fairies, based on the since-admitted fakes of Wright and Griffiths, Littlewood’s takes a somewhat different tack…

This is a horror novel, pure and simple, and takes part in many of the standard conventions of such. Cottingley is one of those books that very directly aims to chill the heart with rendering the familiar and cosy, strange and dark; in this case, Littlewood takes on the comfort of the woods, the idea of the fairy at the bottom of the garden, and makes it increasingly sinister and destructive as the novel goes on. The creeping horror is mountingly effective as the narrator is willing to believe in the fairies from the beginning, but becomes increasingly disconcerted by their natures; these are not the gentle fairies of Conan Doyle but a rather more sinister, bloody group of beings, more linked to earlier folklore. Littlewood builds up the atmosphere in stages, with minor malice and fascination growing by degrees across the course of the novella, with the hints of the evil right in the very first encounter but unwilling to be believed, before Cottingley changes entirely.

The entire novella is epistolary, correspondence from Lawrence Fairclough to Edward Gardner, who helped Conan Doyle investigate the real Cottingley Fairy photographs. Cottingley suggests Lawrence is an ardent admirer of Conan Doyle’s fiction, and drawn into the great writer’s obsession with fairies, seeks to investigate himself; the relationship between Edward and Lawrence changes and alters over the course of the book, although Littlewood only gives us Lawrence’s side of the correspondence, leaving the reader to try to fill in the gaps oneself, and attempting to work out what the other side has said to prompt certain parts of the letters.

The solipsistic nature of this approach has its drawbacks. While Lawrence’s daughter in law, Charlotte, and granddaughter, Harriet, are fleshed out somewhat, they remain relatively elusive and idealised in the letters themselves; Cottingley really only has one complete character, and even he is very limited as we only see him in retrospect of times of crisis. Littlewood distills the plot down to its utmost drama, but at the sacrifice of individuality; Harriet is a good, dutiful, bookish girl, while Charlotte is the model of a good wife grieving a husband lost in the First World War now looking after her father in law. Even Lawrence is little more than a caricature, a man looking for something to cling to after losing his son, and finding the fairies; Littlewood makes him somewhat sympathetic but largely this is by the forces raised against him, not on his own account.

In the end, Cottingley is a good piece of literary horror, and an excellent engagement with one of Conan Doyle’s weirder obsessions, but as fiction goes, Littlewood has sadly forgotten the importance of character.

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