Sunday, 28 July 2013

Review: Ships of My Fathers

Ships of My Fathers
Ships of My Fathers by Dan Thompson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a very old-school space opera in which an orphaned young man finds out who his real father was. It suffers from excessive detail, over-reliance on genre tropes and over-use of luck to get the protagonist out of trouble, but redeems itself somewhat with a good ending. That ending took it from the solid three stars which it had been sitting at through most of the book to a shaky three and a half (rounded up to four).

When I say it's "old-school", I mean that it's very much in the style of space opera's heyday, around the 1950s, if I had to pick a date. I grew up reading Andre Norton's Solar Queen series, which were about 20 years old even then, and there's really nothing in this book that couldn't have been written back in that era. It's set in the late 34th century (as far from us in the future as the rise of Islam is in the past), yet not only is there no sign of technologies that are set to take off in the next 5-10 years, like 3D printing or augmented reality, but even technologies that have come into common use in the past 10 years are conspicuous by their absence.

Unlike you or me (and unlike Ishmael Wang from Nathan Lowell's Solar Clipper books, which appear to have been an inspiration), Michael Fletcher, the protagonist of Ships of My Fathers, does not carry a powerful pocket computer which can connect him to information, and other people, wherever he happens to be. He has to bribe his way into a bar to use a "terminal". It's not in order to stay under the radar (though that would be a reasonable explanation); he just doesn't seem to have an alternative. Likewise, he has to spend an exhausting day acting as a runner, carrying physical documents around a space station before cargo can be unloaded.

Of course, there are the spaceflight technologies which make the story possible: the tachyon sails and the artificial gravity. On the other hand, I found myself questioning as I was reading through why the story had to be science fiction at all. Apart from the presence of women in the ship crews, there really wasn't much that couldn't have been re-skinned as a story from the days of sail. So much so, in fact, that the size of ships is given in terms of their "displacement", which makes sense if you're talking about a ship that sits in the water and displaces it, but not so much when your ship is in vacuum. There, mass is the more usual measure. The protagonist even laces up his boots, something which reads oddly if those boots are expected to be used with a spacesuit.

Now, these are not problems of this single book, by any means. These are problems of the space opera genre in general. The setting tends to be technologically unsophisticated and off-the-shelf; the stories tend to be sailing-ship stories "in spaaace". Space opera can be much more than that, though, and at its best it is.

The influence of Nathan Lowell shows, to me, in a few ways. The close-knit, helpful crew is one. The fairly meaningless sex that doesn't come from or lead to a committed relationship is another. I like the first, could do without the second, personally.

I mentioned excessive detail. Early on, there's a very long section which gives a great deal of detail about shipboard operations, most of which has no relevance to the plot or characterisation. It's just worldbuilding for its own sake, and not even exciting worldbuilding. Later, there are a couple of times where the author does something like this: "Possibility A was that blah blah blah blah, but that didn't apply because blah. Possibility B was yada yada yada." In my view (as a person who's somewhat impatient with detail, and I know not everyone feels this way), we don't need to know about possibilities that didn't apply unless we can see - not hear about, but see - the characters pursuing them and being disappointed, and probably not even then.

Now, luck. One of the Pixar Rules is that you shouldn't rely on luck or coincidence to get your protagonist out of trouble, only to get them into trouble, and it's a good rule. I counted at least six consecutive pieces of good luck (some of which were actually highlighted as such), including the hoary old "convenient eavesdrop" where the hero just happens to be in a position to overhear the antagonists discussing some vital information that he couldn't otherwise get hold of. These pieces of luck got the protagonist out of trouble.

It's true he had to work for them, something which was overdue. This was about 80% of the way through the book, and up to this point the protagonist hadn't really been a protagonist, just a main character. He was being led around the nose, or other protruding organs, by other people. He had his own agenda, but he hadn't really made the decision that he had to work towards that agenda with determination until about two-thirds of the way through, and even then he was heavily manipulated. In the Seven Point System of plotting, the moment that the protagonist decides to take action, rather than being forced or manipulated into action, is known as the "midpoint", and the fact that it arguably comes 80% of the way through this book highlights that the first 80% of the book may be longer than it needs to be.

Once his luck ran out, though, the book improved. He took action - action that involved doing three time-consuming things before someone with a gun already in hand could fire, but he did take action - and he got a resolution out of it that I, as a reader, found satisfying.

The best character in the book, in my opinion, dies almost on the first page. This is Malcolm Fletcher, who brought Michael, the main character, up. Quotations from him stand at the head of each chapter, and they're the best writing in the whole book: compact, pithy, funny, vigorous. In a sense, the book is about Malcolm Fletcher, and who he was, and what he did.

If the author can take the writing ability that he shows with the character of Malcolm Fletcher and put it into the next book, without long digressions on meaningless detail, without relying on luck and coincidence, and without leaning too hard on the adventure-story tropes, then that next book will be a solid four stars, even if it continues to be outdated space opera that could equally well be set on historical Earth in the age of sail.

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Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Review: The Bone Road

The Bone Road
The Bone Road by Mary Holland

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Disclaimers out of the way first. Disclaimer 1: This book is up against mine in the Kindle Book Review Best Indie Book 2013 contest, in the F&SF division. Since I genuinely think that (apart from the editing, which I'll mention later) it's a better book than mine, I don't believe that's influenced me negatively.

Disclaimer 2: I didn't buy this book, though I was going to. The author saw my comment on a review by a mutual acquaintance (Ripley Patton) and offered me a copy, with no expectations attached.

In that comment, I mentioned that I'd very much enjoyed her previous book, Matcher Rules. There are some similarities between the two. Both feature a society where marriage customs and social structures are different from our own, both are told mainly from a female perspective but have a male viewpoint character part of the time, and both are very good.

I was hesitating initially about reading this book, because the blurb led me to believe that it was post-apocalyptic and/or dystopian. It's neither. It reminded me very much of the social SF/fantasy of Ursula Le Guin. I say SF/fantasy rather than SF because, as the author acknowledges, there's no genetic scenario that could create the situation the book depicts, where two groups of people can only produce fertile offspring by breeding with each other, not with their own group; and the "divvy gift" which enables some people to distinguish between the two groups with a touch is a straight-up psychic power. There's no magic or wizardry in the more classic sense, though, and to me it feels more like social science fiction with a low tech level, like some of Le Guin's works.

It's a long book, carefully plotted, full of twists and revelations, and it kept me guessing and kept me interested throughout. Though I'd developed some idea of what was going on before the ending, it still had some surprises. The characters were well fleshed out, with clear, powerful motivations, and they were strong and determined people.

Why not five stars, then?

Well, it came very close. Early on, I thought it was going to be a five-star book. As I read through, though, enough things wore away at my enjoyment that I couldn't quite award the fifth star.

Firstly, I never completely bought into the economic setup, which seemed to have too high a proportion of nomadic traders to food-producing settlements. I also, for a long time, found it hard to believe that the outcast Shun, a minority, unable to have children of their own, with various social handicaps, could have built the relatively prosperous and stable society that was depicted. Late in the book their key role in trading emerged, and it became more credible, but somehow the whole society never seemed completely natural to me. The ending of the book does give a reason why that might be so, but by that time I had spent most of the book thinking it didn't quite work.

As another minor example of worldbuilding that didn't quite work for me, a couple of characters state "there are no gods". Their society has taboos and superstitions, they have a sacred mountain from which the people, according to legend, emerged, and they obviously have the concept of "gods" or the statement couldn't be made, and yet they don't appear to have a religion as such. Again, I didn't find that credible. I can understand why the author might want to remove that complication, though I think it would also add richness, but... as a reader, I found myself not totally sold.

Beginnings and endings are important for stories (there's been a psychological study into it, and they influence ratings more than middles), and while the beginning is strong, the ending, I thought, contained an overly convenient escape that wasn't adequately foreshadowed.

Probably the main reason for the missing fifth star, though, were the editing issues. As per my usual practice when I have direct contact with the author, I'll be sending her a list of the ones I spotted (I mark them as I see them in my Kindle, then download the list using the ClippingsConverter website), so they may well be fixed soon. They were mostly apostrophe issues. The author doesn't seem to know where to put the apostrophe when a noun is plural, and there are one or two cases where an apostrophe is inserted where it doesn't belong. There are also a number of comma splices (sentences that should be separate, but are joined by a comma), some missing commas and a couple of homonym errors and mechanical errors (missing or repeated words). I usually don't ding books too much for these issues nowadays (especially because they're likely to be corrected), but I do when there are a lot of them, and there were over a hundred. Apart from that, the writing is smooth, and stays out of the way of the story. I listened to the author's other book on Podiobooks, so it very likely has the same problems; one of the advantages of an audiobook for me is that I can't be annoyed by the punctuation.

I've spent a lot of space in this review talking about the negatives, so I want to close by saying that this is an excellent story, well told, with characters that I found memorable and admirable. As a story, it has a depth and richness to it that I don't often see. If I'd been able to set aside my hesitations about the worldbuilding and my annoyance at the editing and really immerse myself in it, I think it would have definitely earned five stars from me.

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Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Review: A Lost Witch

A Lost Witch
A Lost Witch by Debora Geary

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I think I'm starting to understand how Debora Geary does what she does.

She puts you inside the characters' heads (using free indirect speech, so it has extra authority, as if it's narration about the state of the universe rather than just their inner reflections).

Then she one-two punches you. The "one" is the inner reflection on events from the character's perspective. The "two" is a sentence fragment in its own paragraph, leading on from the thought of the first paragraph but bringing out the emotional importance.

Often with an unexpected twist. (Yes, like that.)

Result: ALL THE FEELS. Every time. Even though I find the kids' maturity credulity-shaking, even though I don't believe the occasional attempt to cast doubt on whether the latest misfit is going to find healing and a place in the community (because this is far from our first trip around this particular block, and there's a pretty clear pattern emerging), even though I don't know why the whole of Witch Central isn't in the advanced stages of diabetes and vitamin deficiency, even though there's no antagonist, even though nobody ever seems to work at their jobs but at the same time nobody ever lacks for money.

That's part of why a series with minimal worldbuilding, about nice middle-class people trying to help each other get over themselves and eating cookies, has consistently been at the top of the Amazon contemporary fantasy charts.

There is a bit more suspense that usual in this one. The power that the latest misfit witch has is dangerous, not only to her, but also to the sainted Aevyn, The Most Beloved Child in the World. (He doesn't always say something cute, but when he does, he... no, actually, he does always say something cute.) The higher stakes are good to see. A lot of the series has pretty low stakes in the universal scheme of things, which is nice as a change from the usual urban fantasy "demons are going to destroy the world!!!11!", but a bit of a boost from time to time helps to keep things interesting.

The other problem that the series is facing is character accumulation. There are so many characters from earlier books floating round that you end up with a lot of crowd scenes. It would benefit from a bit of reigning in.

Still, even now I'm starting to understand the formula, it's still working for me, and I'll keep buying them as long as she keeps writing them.

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Monday, 15 July 2013

Review: The War Against Love

The War Against Love
The War Against Love by Matt Posner

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I gave the first volume in this series five stars, but I'm liking them less with each subsequent volume. There's no one reason for it. In fact, there are many, which I'll go into below. This one, though, only makes it to four stars because I can't give it three and a half. It's well-written and the setting is compelling, but the issues are accumulating.

Firstly, each of the books has a number of typesetting errors (misplaced quotation marks, mistyped words and the like), but this one also has the odd homophone error and misspelling as well. There's "censor" for "censer", "emperil" for "imperil", and "a tabby cat with long gleaming whispers". There are also a few commas where they don't belong, especially after the second of two adjectives: "A horrible, horrible, writing style", "a tall, thin, man". The word "undersexed" is used where I'm fairly sure "oversexed" belongs. "Nickname" is written as two words. In general, the editing seems to be getting worse rather than better.

In each of the other two books, I've noticed a factual error (there may be others, but I've only noticed one in each book). Here we have another. During a scene I'll discuss more below, a character asks rhetorically about C.S. Lewis whether he was "a Roman Catholic or a Roman pagan". He was, in fact, an Anglican. It was Tolkien who was the Catholic, and the difference was a point of tension in the two writers' friendship. I considered the possibility that this was supposed to be character ignorance, rather than being the author's mistake, but if so, I would have expected it to be corrected.

As well as this, a chimera turns up, and is first described as having "a furry ram's head". Traditionally, the third head of the chimera is a goat's head, and indeed all the other description after the first mention refers to a goat's head. Rams are, of course, not goats.

I notice that the moas which (as I pointed out in my review of the previous book) were in the wrong part of Oceania are now referred to as "elephant birds", which are from a different continent entirely.

All of these are relatively minor, but I think I'm more aware of them because of the more significant issues, which are reducing my immersion in the story. Firstly, there's the author's occasional literary experiments.

In volume 2 of the series, there was an extended sequence in a version of Lewis Carroll's Alice setting. It was quirky, it was well done, but I felt it went on too long. Here, we have a chapter in which two malicious fellow students attack the main character with fantasy books - the physical books, thrown at him - while giving snarky potted reviews of each one. (That's where the Lewis-as-Catholic error occurs.) While some of the reviews are clever ("Donaldson writes female characters like an anteater makes jewelry"), again, for me, the sequence went on far too long. It doesn't really lead to much in the book as a whole, and there's also a moment (really two moments) of fourth-wall breaking which annoyed me considerably.

The other experiment is to drop in a random chapter written as a film script, rather than in the first-person narration of most of the book. (I say "most" because the narrative sometimes strays out of the first person to show events that the main character was not present for, but was told about afterwards, something that I find very mildly annoying. My feeling is that if you're going to use first person you should commit completely, otherwise use third-person limited.) The only thing this chapter appears to give us that couldn't have been done in the same way as the rest of the book is a very mild bit of dramatic irony: the audience knows for a fact that something was done which the main character is only told about, and doesn't necessarily believe. It's rendered moot before the end of the book anyway.

To me, the effect of dropping that chapter in a completely different style in the middle of the book was as if you were shooting an action movie and suddenly, for one scene, had the entire cast do an in-character musical number, after which you went back to the action movie as if nothing had happened. It doesn't work for me.

It doesn't help, either, that I'm disliking the viewpoint character more and more as the series goes on. He's not emotionally warm, and he's increasingly anti-heroic in his actions. He also, in this book, has a romance that I found unconvincing, for the classic reason that a romance is unconvincing: I didn't see anything attractive in his supposedly perfect love. Perhaps it's just that I personally am attracted to sane women with some kind of emotional stability.

As well as those issues, Simon, the main character, is too high-powered. He does go down a couple of times early in the book, when ambushed, but when fighting presumably more powerful and more highly trained enemies he seems to have no serious difficulties, doesn't get badly injured and is able to defeat them handily. He casts a complicated spell on a ring that does four different very useful things, and describes it as taking "about 10 minutes". Sure, he had prepared some of it beforehand, but that seems too easy.

Perhaps it's because he's so powerful that he's able to say "get out" to a teacher he finds in a classroom and suffer no consequences. In fact, School of the Ages seems to have no disciplinary penalties for students, no enforcement of respect for teachers, and certainly no mechanism to keep male and female (underage) students from sleeping in the same bed. It's surprising that there aren't a rash of teenage pregnancies. I suppose it's possible that the internal mental discipline taught to the students takes care of the problem, since Simon, for one, doesn't seem eager to go very far sexually, but it does seem unlikely (and inconsistent with the lack of outward discipline).

The final thing I'll mention is that Simon completely forgets about a prediction made in the previous book (that is, less than two years earlier) until after he fulfills it. I found this unconvincing. Certainly I'd forgotten about it, but I'm not the character who was upset about it when it first came up. It was quite specific, too, naming the city where it occurred, so I would have expected him to remember when going to that city was first proposed.

Overall, I'm not as enthused about this series as I was after finishing the first book. I'll still read the next one, but if it continues the trend that will be my last, I think.

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Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Review: New Tricks

New Tricks
New Tricks by Sean Cox

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really can't sum up this book any better than the author does himself, reflecting what his teacher self would say about it: "Good ideas, but the prose needs work."

Specifically, it needs approximately 125 classic editing errors fixed. They're all the usual suspects: lots and lots of homophones, pretty much all the possible apostrophe errors, occasional misplaced commas, two words where they should be one, and some straight-up typos. If I'd been playing Common Issues Bingo, I would have filled my card.

I do sometimes send authors lists of problems which I mark in my Kindle as I read - less as a service to them than as a service to my fellow readers - and I'm doing that this time as well, so if this review isn't recent when you read it the errors are probably gone by now.

Moving past that, what's the book like otherwise? Well, I've given it four stars, but for a long time it was looking like three. I was on the fence right from the sample, which has a lot of backstory given in tell-don't-show narration - backstory, what's more, for someone who turns out not to be the protagonist.

It's amusing, but I didn't laugh out loud. I may have snorted quietly once. Like a lot of humourous fantasy/SF, there's a great deal in it that doesn't attempt to make sense, or refers to cultural phenomena belonging to our culture rather than the ostensible setting. It's more satire than comedy, directed mainly at bad D&D games and the worse fantasy novels they spawn. I've played enough D&D to get the references, though under a good enough DM that I hadn't had the experiences. If you've never been into tabletop fantasy roleplaying or the novels that come out of it, you won't find this story very accessible.

If I was that lukewarm, why four stars? Well, it's really three and a half, rounded up. I did want to keep reading, despite the frequent errors, to find out what happened, because the protagonist is clever. He's a trickster, in fact, and I have a huge soft spot for good trickster characters. That with a very small humour bonus tipped it just over three and a half.

Senses of humour differ, of course, and you may roar with laughter over this, especially if you've played a lot of cliched games of D&D.

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Saturday, 6 July 2013

Review: Secrets and Lies

Secrets and Lies
Secrets and Lies by Christine Amsden

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This one nudged over the four-and-a-half-star threshold because of a moment near the end which made me say "Yes!" aloud and pump my fist on behalf of the protagonist.

Cassie Scot is more than worthy to stand beside Kitty Norville, Joanne Walker or Mercy Thompson in the urban fantasy genre. She's smart. In fact, she's primarily smart. She doesn't have any supernatural advantage going on, and is surrounded by people who do. She isn't big and strong and kickass; she's been a sherrif's deputy and can handle herself, but she's an average-sized young woman without any unusual physical prowess, and when it all goes down, what she can do physically against much stronger opponents is not what's going to tip the balance. She has to be smart in order to survive.

She does more than survive. She triumphs. Not that everything is all rosy at the end of the book; far from it. The immediate problem is resolved, yes, but the one that carries on in an arc throughout the series is very much not. (That's the way to write a series, if anyone was wondering.)

You do need to start from the first book. There's not much in the way of recap to remind you who these people are and why they're all fighting, and the situation at the start of this book is set up in Book 1.

It's a heck of a situation, though. Cassie owes her childhood friend/teenage crush/son of her father's greatest enemy a life debt, which gives him power over her - the kind of power which means she's magically compelled to obey his orders. The problem is that she's an independent-minded young woman, and while she would like a relationship with him, she's not prepared to have one in which he has all the power.

This is great. It's the start of a theme of the exploitation of women as chattels which gets developed from multiple different angles throughout the book. The magical community has held on to 19th-century thinking into the 21st century, and Cassie is having none of it. It's an excellent theme, the more so because of the multi-angled exploration and the way in which it's both a matter of principle and also deeply personal to the protagonist (and not just in her own situation).

My favourite kind of protagonist takes personal risks, accepts personal costs and overcomes their own limitations in order to act decisively and effectively, out of principle, in a worthy cause, which also has personal significance involving those they love. In this book, Cassie Scot ticks every one of those boxes, which is why I cheered for her.

I'm delighted to hear that the remaining two books in the series are already written. They can't come fast enough for me.

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Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Review: Level Three's Dream

Level Three's Dream
Level Three's Dream by Matt Posner

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I loved the first book of this series, and even though I had made commitments to other authors to review their books, I went straight from the first book to this second one. I didn't love it as much, but it is good.

It's longer than the previous one, and longer is not necessarily better. In fact, it reached the point where I felt less would have been more. Every part of it is well done, but some parts go on longer than I felt they needed to. The quotations from Lewis Carroll at the beginnings of most of the chapters didn't add as much as they might have, either. I kept looking for parallels between them and what happened in the chapter they headed, and there were some, but they were tenuous.

The author has a rare gift, though: an ear for language. Not only are the different dialects of the characters well done, but even the Lewis-Carroll-style poetry is well done, and that is hard to do. There was one poem that didn't quite work metrically, but the others (as far as I could tell, since I didn't know the originals of a couple of the songs that were parodied) were spot on.

There's an obvious affection for Carroll's work, and a large section of the book is set in a version of his imagined world. That was the part I felt went on too long. I like Carroll as much as the next person, and this is a well-done homage, but there didn't need to be so much of it. Nor, I thought, did there need to be such a large group of characters visiting that world, who were then split into four smaller groups to have fairly similar adventures.

Apart from that, I have only one quibble, which is disproportionately important to me because I'm a New Zealander. In a passing mention, the characters visit Australia in the past, and encounter moas, a bird native to New Zealand. New Zealand is not Australia, and is separated from Australia by hundreds of miles of ocean. It really annoys us when Americans don't know this.

Anyway, the relationships between the characters, and their knowledge of their world and their abilities, advance; seeds are sown for book three; and in general a fine book is had by all.

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Monday, 1 July 2013

Review: The Ghost in the Crystal

The Ghost in the Crystal
The Ghost in the Crystal by Matt Posner

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I went in deliberate search of indie urban fantasy on Google and Amazon, and found a number of possibilities. This was the first one I tried, and it was excellent.

Any book about a magic school will inevitably be compared to Harry Potter, so let's get that out of the way first. The difference between the two is that Harry Potter is built on the basis of whimsy. Apart from about half the magical creatures, it doesn't draw on much prior art from myth, legend, history, literature or historical people who believed they were practicing magic. It makes it all up out of whimsical whole cloth. This is a strength as well as a weakness, and probably helped its widespread appeal, but it introduces a note of silliness that's hard to ignore, even among the very dark material.

School of the Ages is not whimsical. The magic is based on medieval and renaissance beliefs about magic, including the Jewish practice of cabala. The school is in New York, and is combined with a Jewish cabala school, and the initial antagonist, the Malfoy character, if you like, is a Chasidic Jew with the wonderful name of Mermelstein.

The tone is serious, and so are the characters. The quarter-Indian, quarter-Jewish, quarter-Hispanic, quarter-English first-person protagonist is a very serious young man. He's a young man who wants to fight his own battles, even when he probably shouldn't, and his mentor, while annoyed at this, puts up with it. I think this is because he has enough experience teaching young people to know when they won't be talked out of something. Of course, that leads to problems, which the main character confronts with the help of his friends, well-drawn characters with their own quirks and motivations.

It doesn't all go well. In fact, it goes tragically. That's all I'll say, because more would be a spoiler. There's hope amid the tragedy, though, and it's the kind of tragedy that matures the people who go through it.

Early on, one of the teachers says, "To master the skills we teach here requires great mental and emotional stability." This is something that's missing from a lot of "young wizards" stories, including Harry Potter, who never did concentrate properly on his occlumency. In far too many fantasy stories, kids develop powers not by practice and training and mental discipline, but suddenly and spontaneously in a crisis (because they're the Chosen One, usually). This leaves them free to be angsty, erratic and explosive all the rest of the time. This isn't how you gain skills in real life. Training and mental discipline, and emotional stability, are also a big emphasis in traditions like cabala, so this gives the magic an authentic feel that's often missing in this kind of story. It also means that, while the main character certainly feels powerful emotion, he's not an emotional loose cannon like so many young heroes. He can't afford to be.

The writing is competent. I found eleven errors in the whole book, and all of them were the kind that I would have blamed on the typesetter back in my professional editing days, when typesetters still roamed the earth. Someone's done a find-and-replace and messed it up, resulting in quotations that end like this:

,". Tinker

instead of:

," said Tinker

That accounts for five out of the eleven typos I found, and the remainder were even more minor.

When I finished this book, somewhat shocked by the emotional power of the ending, I immediately bought the next one, and even though I have other books I've committed to review, I'm reading it because I really want to know what happens next.

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