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The Red Threads of Fortune by JY Yang

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Fallen prophet, master of the elements, and daughter of the supreme Protector, Sanao Mokoya has abandoned the life that once bound her. Once her visions shaped the lives of citizens across the land, but no matter what tragedy Mokoya foresaw, she could never reshape the future. Broken by the loss of her young daughter, she now hunts deadly, sky-obscuring naga in the harsh outer reaches of the kingdom with packs of dinosaurs at her side, far from everything she used to love.


On the trail of a massive naga that threatens the rebellious mining city of Bataanar, Mokoya meets the mysterious and alluring Rider. But all is not as it seems: the beast they both hunt harbors a secret that could ignite war throughout the Protectorate. As she is drawn into a conspiracy of magic and betrayal, Mokoya must come to terms with her extraordinary and dangerous gifts, or risk losing the little she has left to hold dear.
~~~~~
JY Yang is one of the voices in the genre fiction community I always want to hear more from: intelligent, angry, nonbinary, queer, not white or Western. Imagine my delight when I discovered that I could hear from them in not one, but two novellas this autumn; and imagine my greater delight when Tor.com sent me ARCs of the pair of them… today I’ll review The Red Threads of Fortune, and on Thursday I’ll review the simultaneously released companion volume, The Black Tides of Heaven.

Silkpunk is a relatively meaningless genre descriptor, seeming to apply to everything with an East Asian influence on it; but The Red Threads of Fortune really does seem to solidly fit into the silkpunk designator. Not only is Yang using strongly East Asian influenced cultures as a starting point from which to build their secondary world, but they’re also using the political side of the silkpunk label; The Red Threads of Fortune is heavily engaged in discussions of, and resistance to, systems of various kinds, and is in dialogue with real world racism and assumptions. There’s a theme of resistance to authority, and of the way some authority collaborates in or overlooks resistance to higher authority; there’s a theme of personal relationships having political impacts; and so on, all fascinating and thought through. None of this is heavy-handed; instead, Yang makes them essential to the plot and world, seeding their themes throughout the novella, and rarely taking sides on the issues they raise but making it clear that these are issues to be considered.

That could suggest The Red Threads of Fortune is a very intellectual story, more of a thought piece than anything with emotional resonance. That’s very much not the case. Yang’s plot is built around heartbreak, love, resentment, and emotion; this isn’t a book about politics, really, but about the human heart. Specifically and mainly, the human heart of our protagonist, Sanao Mokoya. Mokoya has suffered the heartbreak of the death of her daughter, in a move that superficially resembles the opening of The Fifth Season, but has a completely different emotional reaction; Yang doesn’t pull punches, and Mokoya’s depression and grief are bluntly portrayed. However, Yang isn’t brutal either, and Mokoya isn’t a caricature of sadness; she is a complex, rounded, interesting character, one whose every interaction is coloured by the loss of her daughter but also by the way her mother raised her, and by her love life, and her emotional ties. Yang gives us a rounded and full emotional character to really connect to, even when she finds it hard to connect to others.

Around Mokoya, Yang arranges a number of other similarly complex characters; her twin, her husband and the father of her daughter, the person she has worked with since running away from her husband in the wake of the tragic death of her daughter, and most interestingly, Rider. Rider is a nonbinary character of a different racial and cultural background to the rest of the characters, and The Red Threads of Fortune relies heavily on emotionally connecting with them as well as with Mokoya; Yang really builds on and uses their relationship, and the way it develops, in a beautiful, powerful, and sweet way, without ever making it untrue. There are bumps and problems between them, and the emotional truth of the negotiation of the relationship is brilliantly moving.

Themes and characters don’t make a plot, necessarily. The Red Threads of Fortune slightly falls down on this front; the core plot is simple, and effective, and self-contained, with brilliant emotional resonances. The monster-hunting transitioning into politicking is brilliant, and the way Yang ties personal grief and responses to that into the plot is fantastic. It’s fast-paced and the romance feels very true. However, the way Yang ties the story into a wider world doesn’t feel complete; the references are obviously intended to be meaningful, but they don’t actually connect with the reader on the terms of The Red Threads of Fortune alone, and that takes some of the force of the story away.

The strengths of The Red Threads of Fortune more than makes up for the weaknesses; this is among the most beautiful and most deeply human books I’ve read in some time, and JY Yang is a truly fantastic talent whom I will follow wherever they lead.

Disclaimer: JY Yang is a friend. This review is based on an ARC from the publisher, Tor.com.

If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write by contributing to my Patreon.

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The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin

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THIS IS THE WAY THE WORLD ENDS. AGAIN.

Three terrible things happen in a single day.

Essun, masquerading as an ordinary schoolteacher in a quiet small town, comes home to find that her husband has brutally murdered their son and kidnapped their daughter. Mighty Sanze, the empire whose innovations have been civilization’s bedrock for a thousand years, collapses as its greatest city is destroyed by a madman’s vengeance. And worst of all, across the heartland of the world’s sole continent, a great red rift has been been torn which spews ash enough to darken the sky for years. Or centuries.

But this is the Stillness, a land long familiar with struggle, and where orogenes — those who wield the power of the earth as a weapon — are feared far more than the long cold night. Essun has remembered herself, and she will have her daughter back.

She does not care if the world falls apart around her. Essun will break it herself, if she must, to save her daughter.
~~~~~
N. K. Jemisin is a writer who I have admired since her first series, the Inheritance Trilogy, and who has only improved over the course of her succeeding novels; so I’ve been looking forward to The Fifth Season since it was announced, to the point of buying the ARC in the Con or Bust auction just to lay hands on it faster.

Warning: this review contains some SPOILERS for plot and structure.

The blurb of The Fifth Season arguably reveals one of the most interesting things Jemisin pulls off in the novel; mentioning only Essun, it ignores the two plot threads of the novel that follow Damaya and Syenite (Syen), plot threads that at the start of the novel could be roughly contemporaneously set with Essun’s journey but increasingly, as the novel continues, are obviously not, and are instead Essun’s own history. Jemisin pulls off this trick excellently; each name reflects not only a different stage in Essun’s life, but also a different person, defined by experience and by the image Essun feels it necessary to convey in order to be safe. Indeed, this code-switching narrative in The Fifth Season is one we don’t see enough of in fantasy; a look, through the eyes of one character (referred to in the second person present as Essun, in the third past for the other characters, in an early hint of the later revelation), at how one has to change one’s self-presentation for self-preservation. Essun is a member of oppressed classes, too, as a woman (the main society of the novel seems to be patriarchal, or at least the society Essun starts in is) and as an orogene, a kind of geological magic user, treated like witches by villagers and like dangerous animals to be trained and used by the main state. Watching Essun negotiate these statuses, and how she has to act because of them, is fascinating; as is watching others use different strategies to negotiate the various axes of oppression on which they fall, such as Alabaster, whose orogenic power allows him to bypass a certain amount of the self-preservation efforts that Syenite must engage in.

Of course, there’s a whole lot more to the cast of The Fifth Season than code-switching, that self-preservation; they’re an amazingly diverse, well-thought-out group. Essun is obviously the most complex, bearing the different selves she has been on her shoulders as she changes from a seemingly diffident wife and mother to return more to her confident self, but not unchanged by that experience; the evolution of character she undergoes across the course of the book is one of the most impressive character developments I have ever read, tying three distinct moments together and yet not letting any of those moments be static or unchanging themselves. That’s not to say that characters who only appear in one of those moments aren’t good or rounded characters, though; Jemisin has created a tremendous ensemble cast in The Fifth Season to surround her undeniable protagonist, and they’re all well-written, interesting characters, all of whom have fascinatingly different attitudes to Essun and her abilities, from Schaffa Guardian Warrant, an abusive sadist who Damaya doesn’t realise is either of those things and who is amazingly written as showing a face of benevolence over a reality of brutal cruelty, to Alabaster, the incredibly powerful orogene who doesn’t really care about the opinions of those around him but who is also a deeply sensitive person once his defences of apathy fall, and the smart, slightly unworldly Tonkee, who joins Essun on her journey only to turn out to be someone unexpected from her past. Every character has a unique voice and character, and they all have different masks they wear; no one is who one assumes them to be at first glance.

This is also a very queer book, despite its patriarchal societies. The Fifth Season‘s core relationship goes from being a purely sexual, heterosexual one to being an emotional, polyamorous, queer triad; Jemisin handles the transition, the growing feelings, the introduction of an additional character, incredibly well and beautifully, giving the reader a glimpse of a relationship that is incredibly erotic, incredibly sensual, incredibly sensitive, and incredibly human, as well as incredibly beautiful, with the kind of quality of sex scenes we have come to expect of her and the kind of emotional honesty, including conflict, that reflects reality rather than some idealised idea of polyamory. This is hardly the first time I’ve seen poly in a novel but it is certainly one of the best instances, and truly beautifully conveyed.

Of course, there’s more to The Fifth Season than character; all this is, after all, happening against the background of an apocalypse. “An” apocalypse is the best descriptor, because this is a world which is incredibly unstable and appears to undergo regular apocalypses; everyone is a survivalist, because you have to be prepared for the next time the world upheaves itself under you, and society is organised around principles that are intended to aid in that preservation, such as a caste system, although that appears to have ossified into a problematic heirarchy as time has gone on. An empire rules over small communities, an empire that has lasted through a number of these apocalypses somehow; but this apocalypse, it won’t emerge from. The Fifth Season has an awful lot going on; Damaya is learning what it is to be an orogene, how society views her because of it and what the demands of the empire on her are. Syenite is learning about heirarchies with the orogenes, and how the empire uses them – the things that they’re not told, and have to try to learn from themselves; the abuses of orogenes perpetuated by the empire. And Essun is simply trying to find her daughter, after her son is murdered by her husband for being an orogene; fleeing through this apocalyptic (the apocalypse isn’t over, so though N. K. Jemisin describes the book as post-apocalypse, I don’t think that’s quite accurate) novel. This is where the novel starts to run into some problems; each strand follows the same parallel path – a journey that ends in finding a new community – but their pacing is different and the way Jemisin times them is different, which means chapters can jar against those around them because of a different feel or approach. This is the kind of literary structural engineering I really appreciate in a novel, and Jemisin carries off the theme elegantly; but the actual mechanics of precisely how parts of it work are less smooth, less polished, than would be ideal.

In the end, though, I have no hesitation about recommending The Fifth Season to you; it’s a fantastic novel that I heartily enjoyed, and a fascinating opening to a new series from one of the best writers in fantasy.

The Fifth Season comes out August 4th from Orbit Books

Despatches from the Frontiers of the Female Mind eds. Jen Green & Sarah LeFanu

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Marvels, myth and microchips from classic writers of science fiction, and a dazzling array of new authors. From farflung planets to Greenham Common, from distant futures to the here and now, the stories explore the myriad possibilities of women’s lives: women under attack, women in control, women alone and women together. With stories set in societies barely recognisable, and societies only too credible, this collection comes from the frontiers and offers a glimpse of what lies beyond.
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Published in 1985 by The Women’s Press, Despatches from the Frontiers of the Female Mind is an anthology almost entirely of original work (Joanna Russ’ story is a reprint) by female science fiction authors, many of whom have now faded from view; it’s not a comprehensive overview of the field at the time, but it is a broad look at what was being written.

The absolute stand-out stories are two political ones by significant, and enduring, names in (feminist) science fiction, Joanna Russ and Raccoona Sheldon (who also wrote under another pseudonym as the “ineluctably masculine” James Tiptree Jr). The first, Russ’, is as much parody as itself a story; framed by the idea of possession by an evil spirit, ‘The Clichés From Outer Space’ sees Russ parody the approaches to women taken in much science fiction, ripping to shreds the matriarchal utopia, the matriarchal dystopia, the equalist society and the future-patriarchy of stated-but-unseen equality. Each of these is in itself riotously hilarious, but Russ’ comments at the end of each, and her acerbic framing of the whole thing, raises this above the simply joy of parody to absolutely brilliant brutality.

‘Morality Meat’, on the other hand, is a very downbeat story, a political warning rather than a literary joke. Sheldon’s story is very bluntly about a woman’s right to choose, and about the socioeconomic gap she saw developing in society under Reagan; it’s a fantastic tale, slowly revealing the darkness at its heart that is hinted at from the very opening of the story but doesn’t get confirmed right until the end of the piece. ‘Morality Meat’ is the darkest story in here, and Sheldon carries that darkness off amazingly, and believably.

Unsurprisingly, the majority of stories in the anthology are very political, whether it is Josephine Saxton’s broadside against advertising culture in ‘Big Operation on Altair Three’ or Lisa Tuttle’s environmentalism and anti-nuclear ‘From A Sinking Ship’, with its startling similarity in premise to elements of the 1981 TV adaptation of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Some take a more broad view of politics, such as the far-ranging ‘The Awakening’ by Pearlie McNeill or ‘The Insurrection’ by Gwyneth Jones, where others are incredibly particular, such as Zoe Fairbairns’ story of Greenham Common, ‘Relics’. They’re not subtle but nor are any simply diatribes, all working their politics into stories that are good in and of themselves.

Despatches from the Frontiers of the Female Mind does have one or two stories that I felt didn’t belong, including the closer of the anthology, Sue Thomason’s ‘Apples In Winter’; trying to be mythic, it ends up simply dragging, in a style that doesn’t seem to suit anything, including itself. Similarly, Pamela Zoline’s ‘Instructions for Exiting This Building In Case of Fire’ has a good core, and some great moments, but on the whole the mix of scale between abstract intentionally-fictional and concrete pseudo-real is a little broken, and the concept at the heart of the story is nearly nonsensical.

In the 1980s, queerness was a big part of feminism, so it is no surprise to see it come up time and again in these stories. The most interesting of these is Tanith Lee’s ‘Love Alters’, which is a brilliant, dark satire on the treatment of gay relationships and the way it is societal norms, not heterosexuality per se, that is the problem. Lee convincingly creates her world in very short order, and proceeds to highlight the extent to which that world is ours, just twisted only a little, and it works incredibly well. Similarly, Mary Gentle’s ‘A Sun in the Attic’ is an interesting little steampunk tale about the dangers of discovery, but it includes a society based on multiple-marriage; bisexuality and polyamory are both completely normalised parts of society, it seems, and Gentle plays with some of the implications of that as the story wends towards its Galilean conclusion.

Despatches From the Frontiers of the Female Mind is, perhaps inevitably, a bit dated now, and some of these concerns seem less relevant; but some of them are shockingly present now, and Green & Lefanu’s selection, whilst including a few duds, is overall excellent. An anthology very much worth your time.

Queering The Genre

The Bone Palace by Amanda Downum (Part 2)

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Yesterday, I reviewed The Bone Palace, discussing some of the queer representation in the novel but only briefly touching on the trans matters covered; today, I want to engage specifically with that topic, in the context of Cheryl Morgan’s discussion of the book.

Her piece focuses on the character of Savedra, the transgendered consort of the prince. Throughout the book, Savedra is gendered and presents as female, and the narrator, like the cast, uses the pronoun “she” of her; she is presented as a mistress of the prince who can never marry him because they could not have children. So far, one would think, so good; Morgan’s objections to the book start here, though. In a world of magic, there appears to be no surgery to make Savedra’s “treacherous” (a word she uses) body match her self-image; while problematic on one level, a magical cure for transsexuality is also problematic, erasing the huge, every-day struggles of people in the real world. Compassion might argue for erasing those in the novel but making transsexuality look “easy” is as much a lie as making it look impossible; Savedra is a woman, and she is seen putting effort into her appearance on a regular basis.

Savedra is also a femme woman. This isn’t the only image of women presented in the novel; Isyllt is relatively unfeminine, although she does have a taste for dresses and jewelry, while Ashlin, the queen and a friend of Savedra from the start of the book, is a soldier through and through, and indeed the most competent fighter in the novel. The Bone Palace does see Savedra suffer for her femininity at times; during the Ball, she struggles with her dress during an assassination attempt; but then earlier in the novel, she kills an assassin attempting to kill the royal couple, demonstrating clear physical capabilities. This isn’t the awful stereotype of a femme trans woman unable to fight for fear of breaking her nails, but rather an image of a trans woman who is still very capable.

Morgan’s biggest problems with Downum’s book fall largely out of two specific events. In each case, I think The Bone Palace is doing something very different to what she believes it is. The first is a piece of dialogue described by Morgan as follows:

Both women make a point of stating that they don’t normally go for girls. From Savedra’s point of view this has some legitimacy because Ashlin is a very macho woman. But from Ashlin’s point of view the statement can only be seen as implying that she sees Savedra as male.

The dialogue is as follows:

[Savedra and Ashlin kiss]

“I don’t like girls,” Savedra whispered when she could breathe again […description of her arousal…]

Ashlin’s laugh caught in her throat. “Nor do I. But I like you.” (p230)

That Savedra introduces that phrase, and that Ashlin is replying to it and making the point that despite not normally liking “girls” each likes the other, to me has a completely different implication from that drawn by Morgan; Ashlin is here reinforcing the idea of Savedra as female, saying that she is the exception to a general heterosexuality, just as Ashlin is Savedra’s exception. This is a problematic model of sexuality for other reasons, but as far as gender presentation goes, this dialogue seems to me to be actively reinforcing that Savedra is a woman; that she still has, and is able to enjoy using, her penis (“traitourous flesh”) absolutely does not undermine her trans identity, since there are trans women out there who are in that situation.

The second passage quoted by Morgan is this, with Morgan’s discussion:

She offers Savedra the same deal: switch sides, and she can have a real female body to inhabit. Isn’t that what she has always wanted? Ginevra would have to die, but that’s a small price, right? It is an horrific suggestion, and one that Savedra declines, but not quite for the obvious reason.

Madness, Savedra would call it. Abomination. Temptation.

Nikos had always said he loved her, not the flesh she wore. Did he really mean that?

“No,” she said at last. “I can’t”(p425)

So yes, there are moral considerations, but the main reason Savedra says no is that being given the choice has forced her to confront the “reality” of her relationship with Nikos. For all her fine fantasies, she is forced to admit that when it comes down to it Nikos wants her as she is, not as she imagines herself. If she had a female body, Nikos would not love her anymore.

Again, I think Morgan is interpreting the passage in a counterintuitive way. The first, gut reaction Savedra has to the suggestion is indeed that it is horrific; that she then also thinks about it in the context of her relationship doesn’t undermine or remove that first reaction. Furthermore, her statement that Nikos loves her, not the flesh she is in, seems to me to be the exact opposite of the statement Morgan believes it to be; Savedra is Savedra, and it is her soul (The Bone Palace is very openly dualistic) Nikos loves, her female soul, no matter what her body appears to be. She does not reject the offer because Nikos only loves her for her male body, but because Nikos loves her whatever body she is in, so accepting the horrific offer wouldn’t actually have any benefit for her.

In the end, Morgan’s analysis of the gender politics of The Bone Palace strike me as incredibly wrongheaded; whereas she believes Downum to have written an anti-trans text on the level of Russ’ Female Man, it reads to me as a very trans-positive novel with an excellent, honest, empathetic and thoughtful depiction of trans life.
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The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley

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On the eve of a recurring catastrophic event known to extinguish nations, a troubled orphan evades death and slavery to uncover her own bloody past. As the dark star of the cataclysm rises, an illegitimate ruler is tasked with holding together a country fractured by civil war, a precocious young fighter is asked to betray his family and a half-Dhai general must choose between the eradication of her father’s people or loyalty to her Empress.

Through tense alliances and devastating betrayal, the Dhai and their allies attempt to hold against a seemingly unstoppable force as enemy nations prepare for a coming together of worlds as old as the universe itself.

One world will rise – and many will perish.
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Kameron Hurley is well established, at this stage, as a writer who pushes boundaries, who innovates, who embraces and applies new ideas and ways of doing things. The Mirror Empire, her first new book since finishing the Bel Dame Apocrypha in 2012, in some ways is less radical than that science fiction series; in other ways, however, it bears some of the hallmarks of Hurley’s mould-breaking brilliance.

If the blurb makes The Mirror Empire sound like a complicated novel, that’s because it is one. Despite the farmhand-to-powerhouse trope (subverted in that this time, it’s a girl; and again in that the other farmhand who becomes powerful knows he is the son of the ruler), and the slave-race (the daijin under the Saiduan and Dorinah powers are Dhai who, Hurley makes it very clear, have been broken to slavery as a people; the independent Dhai, once an imperial power, are now isolationist and pacifist vegetarians), The Mirror Empire introduces some fantastic new concepts into the realm of epic fantasy, not least the multiple-worlds interpretation of quantum physics.

As one character after another realises and exclaims, “We’re fighting ourselves.” The Mirror Empire is in a mirror-universe where the Dhai retained power; I didn’t pick up on this until a fifth of the way through the novel, myself. The central conflict of the novel, then, is between the mirror-Dhai trying to leave their world for the “prime” – and needing to wipe out all the Dhai in the “prime”, because they can’t cross between worlds if their double lives; and the various powers in the “prime” world (who, unlike the mirror-Dhai, are all morally complex powers, none of whom can be called outright evil), trying to defend their homes. However, the status of the Dhai as a once-empire, the Saiduan as those who overthrew them, and the Dorinah as a province of Saiduan that successfully won independence, means that those in the “prime” world are as prone to stabbing each other in the back as they are to defeating the mirror-Dhai. The plot weaves a complex knot that, at the end of The Mirror Empire, is made more complex by an unnecessary epilogue that, I think, would have made a better prologue to the next volume; as it is, Hurley leaves us with such a full, complicated plot that it’s clear she can take us through at least a trilogy in this world-breaking conflict.

The characters of The Mirror Empire are all surprisingly winning. From Akhio, the farmhand (well, ethics teacher at a farm) who becomes Kai after the death of his sister, whose unwillingness to rule doesn’t stop him trying to, through Roh’s affable enthusiastic teenage blundering about, to Zezili, raised in a matriarchy where men who are allowed to live are property and to be treated as such, who is half-Dhai but most famous for defeating that people, and Anavha, Zezili’s husband-slave, who has one of the most disturbing points of view in the book, as a victim of essentially domestic abuse; Hurley does an impressive job of writing rounded, interesting full characters, who have understandable and believable motivations for all their actions. Perhaps Lillia is the epitome of this; thrown from one world to another by her mother as a child to save her life, she is driven and motivated in an entirely believable way and incredibly well written.

This is also, it’s worth noting, a book as queer as the Bel Dame Apocrypha, if not queerer. The Mirror Empire‘s cultures all have multiple genders – three or five; and bisexuality is completely normalised and expected. The Dhai are a polyamorous society, where multiple-person marriages with all sorts of configurations of gender are shown without comment, and the men of Saiduan seem to be shared at their owner’s whims. Hurley has also included the Orlandoesque character of Taigan, who changes gender with the seasons; we see Taigan as both male and as an intersex individual in the novel, but presumably in future installments we’ll see her become female too. The one criticism I have is that Hurley only ever uses binary pronouns, which can be startling; someone who thinks of themselves as neither male or female will still be referred to as “he” or “she”, and I think The Mirror Empire might have benefited from greater use of Spivak or even invented pronouns.

There is so much more to this book than will fit in any reasonable length of review; but hopefully I’ve captured some of the glorious essence of The Mirror Empire, even without discussing the moon-based magic system, the “Winter is Coming”-style prophecies of doom, the various characters I’ve not even mentioned who are wonderfully rounded humans, the nuances of the different cultures, the different strands of plot and internecine infighting; Hurley has really come into her full strength with the start of the Worldbreaker Saga, which reads like an angry, feminist George R. R. Martin dropping acid and using steroids.

This novel has more substance to it than most entire series of fantasy with a pagecount less than many single volumes from those series, and I heartily recommend that you pick up a copy of The Mirror Empire when it is released in September.

DoI: This review was written based on an ARC sent by Angry Robot Books in response to a request for one. The novel will be released in early September, around which time I will reblog this review and post a guest-blog from Kameron Hurley.

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