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Friday, September 13, 2019

Exclusive Cover Reveal: Rumble In Woodhollow + Q&A with Jonathan Pembroke (by Mihir Wanchoo)

Official Author Website
Pre-order Rumble In Woodhollow over HERE

Today we are extremely excited to exclusively present the cover for Jonathan Pembroke's sophomore effort Rumble In Woodhollow. This is a start of a new series for him and quite a departure from his debut which was a post-apocalyptic fantasy western. Also Jonathan was gracious enough to answer some questions about the book, the world and characters within. 

So with further ado, here's Jonathan and checkout the stunning cover for Rumble In Woodhollow by Jessica Dueck below:

Q] Welcome to Fantasy Book Critic Jonathan. To start with, could you tell us what inspired you to be a writer in the first place, and why you choose to go the self-published route? Anything else you’d like to share about yourself and your past? .

JP: Thanks, for having me, Mihir. I really think I was inspired to start telling my own stories when I was around eight, when I read C. S. Lewis for the first time. Around the same time I saw the movie Dragonslayer and that was it, I was done. The fantasy motif captivated me and I never looked back. My imagination took over and I started telling stories right then. Sadly, life happened. I had a whole career in the military come and go, got married, raised and booted a kid from the house (and now have an adorable granddaughter too). I didn’t take time to develop or practice writing skills until I was older. Lost opportunities, right? With my wife’s encouragement, I began making a serious effort around fifteen years ago and haven’t looked back. A hundred short stories and a few bad novels later (most of which will never see the light of day), here we are. My first published novel, Pilgrimage To Skara, was a finalist in SPFBO 3, where it received...ahem...mixed reviews

I went for self-publishing for a few reasons—the main one being that it feels very hard to break into conventional publishing. I tried for a bit. After a lot of failures, I rationalized that I could sit and wait for a break or get out and try to make something happen. The entry into SPFBO was just one excursion but the experience and community has been invaluable. Even if I manage traditional publication, I don’t think I will give up the self-publishing route altogether. It’s tons of work but tons of fun and I’ve enjoyed the experience too much to walk away from it. .

Not much else to tell about me. I live in northeastern Arizona (in the southwestern US, for our friends overseas) on a good-sized acreage where I can’t really bother anyone with my ramblings. Aside from reading and writing, I like to garden and do some gaming. I spent twenty years in the US military as a meteorologist...and before you ask, yes, it’s going to rain today (somewhere in the world, at least). .

Q] I loved the striking imagery in the cover art for Rumble In Woodhollow (The Holly Sisters #1). What were your main pointers for your cover artist/designer as you both went through the process of finalizing it? What were the main things that you wished to focus on in it? .

JP: The cover artist is a very talented lady by the name of Jessica Dueck and she was great to work with. My main idea was to depict Sydney, the story’s protagonist, nervously glancing over her shoulder as one of her adversaries approaches. Jessica ran with that concept and I think she did a phenomenal job. The mood and lighting are perfect and I believe the look on Sydney’s face captures the feeling that’s she’s in trouble. You can see more of Jessica’s work at the website StarsColdNight.

Q] Could you tell us about the inception of Rumble In Woodhollow & vis-à-vis The Holly Sisters Series and what was/were your main inspiration(s) for it? .

JP: It actually came from me watching the movie Gangs of New York. I got it in my head that an all-out brawl for control of a city’s organized crime—but with mystical races duking it out instead of rival human factions—would be fun to write. That was the nucleus of the idea. I wrote a short story focusing solely on the actual confrontation, but the idea stayed with me. Then, when I started digging into the foundations of the characters and wider world around them, I realized I had a much bigger and more interesting story. 

The fallout from the gang war and subsequent events will be outlined in the next two volumes of The Holly Sisters. I have one trilogy solidified and am putting together the plot for a second trilogy with the same characters. Well, the ones who survive. .

Q] This book and series seems to have quite an enigmatic mix of crime gangs, assassins, faeries, family troubles and a whole bunch of quirky weird stuff. What lead you to mix all of these elements into the story? .

JP: It was kind of a natural outgrowth of the original concept. Once I had the skeleton of the story, I kept asking myself, “What if?”:
- What if you find out that your older sister Marla—to whom you haven’t spoken in years—leads a criminal gang of faeries?  
- What if you found out a rival gang of leprechauns was leaning on your sister’s gang? 
- What would your aunt, who had raised you since your parents died, think of you running off to get involved in trouble? 
- What if something you did—or at least something you think you did—drew the attention of a sinister group you only thought was a rumor? 
- What if you found that in charge of the whole mess was a...well, you get the idea. .

I’m a weirdo, so letting my imagination run wild generally does in these strange combinations. If you think the mix is eclectic now, you should see the ideas I ultimately discarded! .

Q] The main character seems to be of Faerie heritage. Will the story be focusing more about this heritage and did you draw your inspirations from the Celtic Fae legends? .

JP: Not really. It’s not derivative of the Tuatha De Dannan stories. I don’t mention the Seelie Court or Unseelie Court, though now that I think about it, I am tempted to do it in a sarcastic manner. The faeries of this world are just more of a generalized concept one might expect from generic fairy tales: human-shaped, winged, a little magical (and in this setting, human-sized). They aren’t mischievous imps playing tricks on the unsuspecting. The gang members are ale-swilling foul-mouthed crooks, most of whom have a wide hedonistic streak. I didn’t want to make a direct connection to any mythology, for any of the characters. About the closest I came was with some of the naming conventions; the leprechauns, for example, lean heavily on Gaelic names. But everyone in the story speaks in colloquial terms, not in accented brogue. Other races in the setting draw inspiration from other mythologies but no direct parallels. .

Sydney’s particular heritage is one source of her angst. The faeries of Sylvan Valley are organized in clans, identified by their wing color. Faeries born without clan colors are usually called “unaffiliated” and are sometimes treated poorly by clan faeries—anything from antipathy to outright banishment. Sydney’s wing colors were random due to circumstances of her birth, despite her lineage coming from the Holly Clan, and that creates its own set of problems for her. .

Q] Can you tell us more about the world that The Holly Sisters is set in and some of the series’ major characters? What are the curiosities (geographical, mystical, etc.) of this world? .

JP: Most of the initial series will take place in the city of Woodhollow, which is not nearly a nice and pleasant as it sounds. Set on the Woodrush River, Woodhollow is the central city of the realm, kind of at the nexus of the homelands of the faeries, different degrees of elves, dwarves, gnomes, trow, vilas, dryads and goblins. It’s an industrial hub and is overrun with vice and corruption, though the ruling lord’s ogre and drake Enforcers keep trouble under control. The area seen outside Woodhollow is forests and farmland and mostly unremarkable. Thus far. .

Everyone likes to talk magic systems. I tried to keep mine simple in this world. Only a few of the races can access magic and they all need a conduit. For the faeries, it means eating dried albino mushroom, which gives them a charge, like a short-lived battery, they can use to alter reality around them very briefly. If unused, the charge fades after a short time. Other races have similar vectors. Some have very minor magical talents that are little more than magic tricks. Then there are, of course, old and immense beings with powerful magical talents that require no special actions to access. .

As for major characters, besides Sydney, her older sister Marla features prominently. Compared to Sydney’s introspective and somewhat philosophical personality, Marla is loud, brash, confident, and skilled in a fight. I think the two play off each other well. Lila is Marla’s secretary and keeps the gang’s records. She’s a smart-alec who becomes Sydney’s best friend. Markus and Dana, lieutenants in the gang, have important roles as does a gang member named Vivian and she’s….well, she’s interesting. Members of rival and allied gangs, and Crol, the too-smart chief constable of the Enforcers—acting on behalf of Lord Burnside, the city’s ruler—also get a lot of page time. .

Q] So for someone who hasn't read any of your novels, how would you describe the type of stories that you write, what would be your pitch for The Holly Sisters Series? .

JP: My stories tend to get dark and cynical, which is amusing to me, since I am kind of a romantic at heart. I like writing damaged (whether mildly or in a major way) protagonists who have to come to grips with their shortcomings and self-doubts. I have a habit of weaving a lot of plot threads together and dropping clues that don’t become significant until much later—maybe not even until the next book. I also prefer a tight POV. I know multiple POVs are in vogue and I’ve read quite a few books with head-hopping that I enjoyed. But for myself, I like to stay in the head of one or two characters. With one exception at the very end of the book, Rumble is all told from Sydney’s perspective. Hopefully, that will give the reader a good idea of what’s happening in this young lady’s thoughts. .

At its core, The Holly Sisters is a young faerie’s journey to find her place in the world and figure out what she wants in life. And maybe bust a few heads, drink a few beers, and break a few hearts along the way. .

Q] You will be releasing Rumble In Woodhollow in October. Could you give us a progress report on book two and outline your plans for the series as a whole? .

JP: Yes, 7th October is the release date. Pre-order for the Kindle version is live and I’ll have the paperback version available right about the same time. .

I’m over halfway through the first draft of the second book (The Mauler), which I should finish before the end of the year. I’m targeting release for late summer/early fall of 2020. I have a plot outline for book three and it will follow on in late 2021 sometime. Not sure past there, though I would like to write some more with these characters. .

Q] So what can readers expect from this book/series and what should they be looking forward to according to you? .

JP: In a word, fun. I tried to write an action story with a little bit of humor, a little bit of suspense, and a little bit of intrigue and plotting. With luck, it will all blend together well. Even though Rumble contains plenty of violence, loads of swearing, and a bit of sex (implied and discussed, not shown), this isn’t a grimdark series. It’s more of a character-centric adventure story, that doesn’t take itself super-seriously. Writing about these faeries was a greatly satisfying and I hope readers fall in love with the characters as much as I did and want to read more about them. .

Q] In closing, do you have any parting thoughts or comments you’d like to share with our readers? .

JP: Nothing other than: thanks for reading and I hope you check out Rumble and enjoy it. If you loved it (or hated it) hit me up on Facebook or Twitter and lemme know.

Pre-order Rumble In Woodhollow over HERE

Official Book Blurb: Sydney was bored--bored with mixing potions in her aunt's alchemy shop and bored of life in the faery homeland of Sylvan Valley. So when her sister Marla sends her a letter and asks Sydney to bring some family documents to the crime-ridden city of Woodhollow, Sydney leaps at the chance--only to discover Marla in charge of one of the criminal syndicates competing for control of the Woodhollow underworld.

Before she knows it, Sydney finds herself embroiled in a gang war and must maneuver her way through the plots of rival thugs, ogre peacekeepers, and the semi-immortal ruler of the city. And through it all, she learns she has drawn the attention of a mysterious order of assassins...who want Sydney for some sinister purpose of their own.

NOTE: Gangs Of New York poster by Lee Bermejo.
Thursday, September 12, 2019

SPFBO: Semifinalist Interview with Levi Jacobs (Interviewed by David Stewart)

Order Beggar's Rebellion over HERE
FBC's Review of Beggar's Rebellion is right HERE

Q] Thank you for taking the time to answer some questions, and congratulations on advancing in FBC's pool of books! 

LJ] Thank you! I was happy to land in FBC's section of the SPFBO, and even happier to advance! 

Q] Maybe you could start off by giving us some background - where you're from, who are your influences, what do you do when you aren't writing epic fantasy?  

LJ] I grew up in a succession of small North Dakota towns, and I think the lack of cultural variety or events  pushed my overactive brain to add variety through imagination. Then when I discovered Lord of the Rings, around third grade, it was all done, and the next decade was a happy wander through the literary imaginations of all the 80s and 90s fantasy icons: David Eddings, Terry Brooks, Margaret Weis, Tracy Hickman, Robert Jordan...  especially Jordan just because he wrote so much, and in such epic scope. I'm currently rereading the Wheel of Time and recognizing how much his writing has been an influence on mine. The biggest influence, though, is probably his fantastic successor, but more on that later...

When I'm not writing, I'm a lover of a few things: bicycle riding (mostly towing my year-and-a-half-year-old in a trailer, these days), board game playing (especially Agricola, Dominion, and MTG), food cooking (especially Thai + Indian), and time spent with friends and family. I also love to make things with my hands--most recently transforming a 1940s garage into a writing studio, complete with massive bookshelves and a wood-burning stove. I'm also a regular meditator and enjoy a walk in the wilderness.

Q] How long have you been working on the Resonant Saga? Is this your first series? What inspired your initial thoughts?

LJ] Beggar's Rebellion took me three years to really finish; I probably wrote 300,000 words to come up with the final 110K. There was a lot of painful revision and darling-killing that happened in that process, but as a result the two follow-up books, Pauper's Empire and Apostate's Pilgrimage, only took about three months each. The Resonant Saga is sort of my first series... I wrote two series-starters before it, but didn't give myself permission to keep writing them because I didn't think they were good enough. With Beggar's Rebellion I decided to push through it instead of starting over. Plus the concepts behind it resonated deeper with me than the other two books (one of which you can find on Amazon, under a pen name...). 

About the inspiration, I've always thought science fiction was best suited to exploring possible futures and the ramifications of technology, and fantasy better equipped to look at human nature and the impacts of our strange minds on nature, writ large in the form of magic systems. With the Resonant Saga I started out wanting to interrogate the limiting stories many of us tell ourselves, the things holding us back from owning our own power. I also wanted to do something different from the typical fantasy stories of the Chosen One/Chosen People, in which for unexplained reasons a few people have magical powers. To me magic has always made the most sense as a different set of natural laws, so it seems like anyone should be able to do it. That's a harder story to tell, because if everyone's throwing fireballs all the time the worldbuilding gets a little more complex... but I liked the challenge. Basically, I wanted the magic system to be an externalized metaphor for the power we can grasp in this world when we overcome the limiting we've accepted and actually do the things we've always wanted to--in my case, drop out of grad school and start writing. 

Q] How do you feel about comparisons to Brandon Sanderson? 

LJ] Ha! Flattered. Flattered that it would even come up. I am unabashedly a student of the informal school for fantasy writers that Brandon has made with his publicly available podcasts, YouTube lectures, and essays on writing. When I came back to fantasy in my 20s, after a decade or so spent not reading much, his were the first books that really caught me, and I've admittedly been under his sway since. He's actually the reason I'm rereading the Wheel of Time, because it bothers me that he has three giant epic series-ending novels I haven't read, even if it means rereading Jordan from Eye of the World on. It's a journey through my roots, I suppose. 

Q] How did you find your cover artist? 

LJ] For the afore-mentioned pen name book I'd used a site called 99designs, and you can get great work on there, but it's mostly photo-bashed stuff, based in digital images and made with manipulation. To me the best epic fantasy books have always had illustrations on their covers, actual hand-painted works of art, and I knew I wouldn't find that from cover designers. So I took a long sojourn through DeviantArt, finding artists whose work I loved, then messaging them to see if they'd do some commissioned pieces I could turn into covers. I was tickled when Mateusz Michalski wrote back, and blown away by the painting he made for Beggar's Rebellion (and the next two books). It was no surprise when his cover was chosen as part of the SPFBO's cover contest, and I hope it gets Mateusz some recognition. He's a very talented man, and though I don't doubt his prices will go up and availability down, as I write this I'm guessing he'd still be interested in doing some epic covers for up and coming writers. 

Q] Why did you decide to enter the SPFBO? Had you ever entered before?

LJ] This is my first time. I entered for visibility: indie publishing these days is like treading water in a sea crowded with other authors, all of us waving our hands wildly to catch the attention of readers circling so far overhead we kind of all blend into the scenery. Quality can be hard to see from that high up, especially as good covers and design work and editing become more accessible. SPFBO is ultimately about the strength of the writing, so I think it's a useful shorthand for readers looking for something outside the mainstream but not willing to wade through kindle samples to find it. Previous years of the SPFBO have certainly lead me to some books I've loved. So my hope is that the contest puts some sand under my feet, and I can stick a little further out from the crowd as I wave my hands and shout at the flocks of readers flying past.  

Q] Beggar's Rebellion is full of political turmoil and class warfare. Is this something you've always thought about, or have events in our own world inspired you?  

LJ] Both. Economic inequality has always bothered me, and was a focus for a lot of activism that I did in my twenties, from protests to nonprofits to living in Uganda, trying to understanding poverty on a personal level. Exploring political and economic conflict is something fantasy is good at, at least secondary world stuff, because we come at it with no expectations or allegiances. Sometimes one side is obviously evil (see Tolkien), but other times the depiction is more nuanced, and hopefully in wading through the gray areas alongside the main characters we get a better sense of what being on different sides of these conflicts can be like. That's why it was important to me to have viewpoint characters from both sides of the conflict in Beggar's Rebellion, and as the series progresses and more 'sides' show up to the fight, I want to keep giving them all equal representation. I don't write with some current topic in mind (though I used to, inspired by pre-Sanderson author crush Paolo Bacigalupi) and I don't have a point to make; the personal and ideological conflicts in my stories seem to come up by themselves, and I end up feeling like I've learned as much from my characters as that my life or opinions have been embossed onto them. 

Q] The notion of "imaginary friends" talking to one even into adulthood is never something I've read about in fantasy, and I think your take on it is brilliant in its intrigue and scope. How did this idea originate?  

LJ] Thank you! Without naming names, I have a good friend who told me about hearing voices when he was younger. My first reaction was, "That's nutty." Then, partially through practicing meditation, I started to realize this was more common: people talking to themselves, my mind rehearsing or rerunning conversations with people not present, and ultimately the negative messages we internalize from society about not being smart or attractive or whatever enough (and thus, usually, that we should buy a thing that will fix it). I wanted to explore that internal conflict, and the power in overcoming it, in a more literal way--thus the internal voices and the powers tied to them.

Q] Where is the Resonant Saga heading? Is it a trilogy and done, or is that a world you want to revisit for a while to come? 

LJ] It's more than a trilogy. When I started writing, I thought I needed to write short stories to get published, and they always read like novels. Then when I started writing novels, the ideas in them always felt bigger than a  book could hold. So I've accepted it: I'm a series writer. The Resonant Saga is likely to be seven books or more, with some spinoff novellas (there's one already, for free at my website) and maybe even spinoff series. As to where it's heading, well, I have some general ideas, but that would be spoilers. Let's just say that it's going to be epic. 

Q] What would you do if you won the SPFBO? Would you like to write full time? And if so, do you see yourself staying in SFF, or would you branch out? 

LJ] Writing full time is absolutely 100% my dream and goal. If winning the SPFBO did that for me, I would dance and sing and generally make a fool of myself for an extended period--then sit down and keep writing. SF/F has always been my love, and though I could see a few experimental things in other genres, I think the speculative will always be my home. 

Q] What attracts you to the SFF genre? 

LJ] Its remarkable blend of escapism and allegory. Getting hit with loveable, oh-so-human characters in strange environments that give us new perspective. Epic storylines. Stand up and cheer moments. Getting so lost in fictional worlds I forget the one I'm in. And now as a writer, the challenge of taking those experiences and making them new, to tickle the fancies of another generation of readers. 
Wednesday, September 11, 2019

The Imaginary Corpse by Tyler Hayes (reviewed by Lukasz Przywoski)

Official Author Website
Order The Imaginary Corpse over HERE (USA) & HERE (UK)

Tyler is a science fiction and fantasy writer from Northern California, and a Social Justice Bard specializing in the College of Comfort. He writes stories he hopes will show people that not only are they not alone in this terrifying world, but we might just make things better. 

OFFICIAL BLURB: A dinosaur detective in the land of unwanted ideas battles trauma, anxiety, and the first serial killer of imaginary friends.

FORMAT/INFO: The Imaginary Corpse is 312 pages divided over 32 numbered chapters. The cover design and art were prepared by Angry Robot's in-house designers Francesca Corsini and Kieryn Tyler.

OVERVIEW: Detective Tippy is good at what he does. Probably the best. He’s also a fluffy and minuscule stuffed triceratops. Nothing shocking in the dreamland of ideas known as Stillreal. As people grow up, they tend to abandon their imaginary Friends who, when it inevitably happens, find shelter in this exact place. Not a perfect scenario, but better than being erased from existence.

The Stillreal. The underside of the Imagination that nobody remembers to clean. It can be a rough place, but it can also be beautiful. Fortunately, you have me to help you find the latter instead of waltzing face-first into the former.

When an unidentified resident of the Stillreal goes on a killing spree, no Friend is safe. Detective Tippy applies his detective skills, charm, and empathy to solve the crime. And he gets the job done. He even finds time to go to a bar and sip a root beer, as befits a detective.

Stillreal is a fascinating, and detailed place in which all possible imaginary worlds and landscapes blend into something unique. The action jumps from modern skyscrapers and offices (Big Business operating area) to underwater abysses, and the Avatar city filled with superheroes. Here, nothing is impossible. I would go as far as saying that exploring the place and meeting its wacky residents is the biggest fun the book offers.

Investigations led by Tippy vary in difficulty but they all follow a similar scenario. Some are lighthearted, some dark and scary. Creatures of Stillreal are endearing, but also tragic (abandoned, lonely, trying to build a new life without children who have imagined them). They deal with trauma, but they’re also affectionate creatures, plenty of love and readiness to forgive.

I enjoyed Tippy as a lead, because who wouldn’t cheer for a minuscule triceratops whose favorite pastime is going for a spin in a dryer? Secondary characters like Miss. Mighty, Spiderhand or Dr. Atrocity are memorable but not fully realized. You remember their wackiness and longings, but their motivations fade with time. That said, their origins are fascinating and heart-breaking (they wouldn't end in Stillreal if their creators still needed them). Take a look at Miss Mighty, Stillrill's biggest superhero.

"Miss Mighty was created as her person's way of standing up to bullies. She was her person's strength, her confidence, but also her belief in goodness and justice"

The Imaginary Corpse tries something new (even if it’s a bit of everything) and, with few negligible misses, succeeds at creating a memorable story. It mixes humor, horror, intrigue, and action into a singular blend and is emotionally engaging throughout. Highly recommended, especially for fans of Neil Gaiman of Frances Hardinge.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow (reviewed by Lukasz Przywoski)

Official author website
Order The Ten Thousand Doors of January over HERE (USA) & HERE (UK)

OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFORMATION: Alix E. Harrow has been a student and a teacher, a farm-worker and a cashier, an ice-cream-scooper and a 9-to-5 office-dweller. She's lived in tents and cars, cramped city apartments and lonely cabins, and spent a summer in a really sweet '79 VW Vanagon. She has library cards in at least five states.

Now she's a full-time writer living in with her husband and two semi-feral kids in Kentucky.

OFFICIAL BLURB: In a sprawling mansion filled with peculiar treasures, January Scaller is a curiosity herself. As the ward of the wealthy Mr. Locke, she feels little different from the artifacts that decorate the halls: carefully maintained, largely ignored, and utterly out of place.

Then she finds a strange book. A book that carries the scent of other worlds, and tells a tale of secret doors, of love, adventure and danger. Each page turn reveals impossible truths about the world and January discovers a story increasingly entwined with her own.

FORMAT/INFO: Ten Thousand Doors of January is 385 pages long divided over 13 numbered chapters with an epilogue. The book was released on September 5, 2019 by Redhook (an imprint of Orbit) in hardback and ebook formats. The cover design is by Lisa Marie Pompilio.


Those of you who are more than casually familiar with books—those of you who spend your free afternoons in fusty bookshops, who offer furtive, kindly strokes along the spines of familiar titles—understand that page-riffling is an essential element in the process of introducing oneself to a new book. 

I pride myself on being a stoic person who rarely shows emotions, but after finishing Ten Thousand Doors of January I may have shed a single tear. No, let’s make it a half of a single tear. And it was probably just an allergic reaction to pollen but the fact stands

It also gave me a book hangover, a mythical state I’ve heard about but never experienced myself. Harrow’s prose is so vivid that anything I try to start seems so bland that I just can’t get into it. And I’m the reader who reads the way some people watch tv or read newspapers - I just sit, do it and enjoy myself.

Harrow’s debut, set at the turn of the 20th century, follows January Scaller, a mixed-race girl with unique talents. Her father travels the worlds (yep, plural) in search of valuable artifacts that will please his wealthy employer, William Cornelius Locke, an important member of the Society, a secretive association of the powerful, including 
an old man in Volgograd who kept his heart in a little velvet box; a wealthy heiress in Sweden; a fellow in the Philippines who transformed into a great black boar; a handful of princes and a dozen members of Congress; a white-skinned creature in Rumania who fed on human warmth.
January spends most of her time reading books and dreaming of adventures. When she discovers that the words she writes open Doors to other worlds, she sets off on a journey to find her seemingly disappeared father. With the help of her allies (a faithful dog, the grocer’s son, and Kenyan woman) she may be able to succeed, not an easy task when you’re followed by interdimensional beings with a loose understanding of notions of good and evil.

I’m not big on portal fantasy but the premise, while not really unique, hooked me. I have a soft spot for young women with agenda struggling against prejudices of the society of their era. Thanks to Harrow’s narration I felt fully engaged by the ideas explored in the book, in love with the prose and characters, and in awe of her craft. Ten Thousand Doors of January is a marvel of storytelling, balancing humor, horror, action, and charm. January is earnestly good, probably in a way that has fallen out of fashion but that I loved reading. She cares for people and has both courage and a moral compass she follows. 

Harrow excels at catching the magic of the moments in elegant, often lyrical sentences. Scene after scene she'll pull at your heartstrings. It's a book you can read just for the pleasure of reading wonderful prose. It is not only written beautifully but tells a beautiful (though sometimes painful) story as well. I expect most readers will find at least a few scenes that will awe them. As a dog person, I absolutely loved the one in which January meets her best friend and companion, Bad. Bad is a dog. He's actually named Sindbad, but once you get to know him, you’ll admit that Bad is an appropriate abbreviation. 

Harrow is never entirely predictable, and the book moves cleverly forward through its unexpected twists. The use of portals allows her much leeway - she can shape worlds to her needs - but everything does have a purpose and it all comes together neatly in the end

Ten Thousand Doors of January is a special book: immersive and genuinely moving. The ending is fully satisfying. It gives a possibility of a sequel but doesn't require it if Harrow wants to focus on other stories. No matter what she writes next, I’ll buy it and read it as soon as it’s published.

Monday, September 9, 2019

SPFBO Semi-Finalist: Beggar's Rebellion by Levi Jacobs (reviewed by David Stewart)

Order Beggar's Rebellion HERE 

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Levi Jacobs is the author of the near-future science-fiction novel ACHE, as well as the fantastical Resonant Saga and forthcoming Water of Night series. He has received the Colorado Gold award in Speculative Fiction, taken first place in The Zebulon Fiction Contest for Science Fiction, and had shorter work published in Spark: A Creative Anthology, Jungle Crows and Perihelion SF. Hailing from North Dakota, with much of his formative years spent in Japan and Uganda, Levi has an MA in Cultural Anthropology and sells fruit in the oil fields to make a living. 

FORMAT/INFO: Beggar's Rebellion is 421 pages long, divided over 43 chapters. It is the first entry in the Resonant Saga series. The book is currently available in ebook and print formats, as well as on Kindle Unlimited. The two follow-up novels in the series are available as well. It was self-published by the author on February 17, 2019. Cover art and design by Mateusz Michalski.

ANALYSIS: I was pleased to see Beggar's Rebellion pop up in my batch of books for this year's SPFBO. The premise seemed intriguing, and the cover showed a clear dedication to finding quality art. It did not take long for Jacobs' easy prose and intriguing plotlines to scoop me up, and by the end of the book it was shockingly clear which book in my batch would be advancing to the next round of the contest.

Setting: Beggar's Rebellion shows us a setting that is becoming more common as the fantasy genre stretches its legs a bit - a colonized nation under the yoke of an Imperial power. The Councilate, the ruling body in the city of Ayugen, can be likened to the overreaching fingers of 18th century England. Their interest in Ayugen is a substance called yura, a plant that allows people to tap into latent powers that can range from unassisted flight to the slowing of time itself. This is not at odds with the current grabs for oil around our real world as yura is a substance that everyone needs but that is in limited quantity. The Councilate finds loads of the stuff, which grows on cavern walls like a moss, in the mines around Ayugen. This happens to be the home of Tai Kulga. Tai is famous as a former rebel, one who fought against the Councilate years before but lost and now lives as a street tough. 

The backdrop that Jacobs sets us in is atypical of much of the fantasy we read. There are no dragons here, no monsters in the forest or creatures in the deep. This place feels unsettlingly real at times, and might even feel historic if it weren't for the superheroes bouncing around. Make no mistake, this is fantasy. It is built as such, and the powers that people display are only explained as a type of magic. The system is not that far from the metal-consumption of Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn series, but there is a more egalitarian feel to Jacobs' sorcery because it seems that anyone can do it. To add to this dynamic are voices that every living person hears in their heads, and which provides one of the central mysteries of the book. 

Plot: We first meet Ellumia Aygla, Beggar's Rebellion's other protagonist, aboard a ship where she plies her accounting trade for the captains and merchants aboard the vessel. Events force her from the ship in the city of Ayugen where she meets Tai. Ella's goal in life is to learn, and it is the effects of yura on the body that she most wishes to learn about. The rumor that there is a young man who can channel his power without the effects of yura leads her to Tai. They form a quick friendship, and it isn't long before Ella is brought into what looks to be another rebellion. Conditions in Ayugen are not friendly for the natives, with Councilate lawmen cracking down and imprisoning them for very little reason. The prison camps bear a horrifying similarity to the concentration camps in our own history, and Jacobs does a pinpoint job of nailing down the simmering anger and helplessness felt by every citizen native to Ayugen. That the Councilate has built up what they refer to as New Ayugen, a place where they flaunt the riches granted them from the harvest of yura, only adds fuel to the fire. 

Jacobs plotting is precise and paced almost flawlessly. This will not be the first time I, or anyone else, compares him to the famed Brandon Sanderson, genre superstar and big blockbusting seller of books about wizards, because Jacobs seems to have every chapter thought out, every detail refined to happen at the right time in the right place. The story has its beginning, middle, and end, and manages to create this arc while also leaving the doors blaringly open for the sequels. 

Characters: Comparisons to Sanderson do not end here, but they do change. Tai and Ella are both really great characters, well-rounded, believable, and whose motivations and actions make sense. Tai is angry, and rightly so, and his actions often mirror this even as his innate kindness and love for his adopted family usually override his passions. Ella, my personal favorite character and one of my favorites in all of fantasy, has a similar compassion, but hails from the very oppressors that she fights against. What I most love about Ella is her clarity of vision. She knows she lives and benefits from the injustices in her system, and also sees in an almost prescient way just how rebelling against that system will only replace it with something similar and arguably better or worse. She wants to change the Councilate from the inside, a task far more gargantuan than simply fighting physically against it. She is also smart enough to do it, and if intelligence is a weapon, she is the most dangerous woman in Ayugen.

I think Jacobs writes better characters than Sanderson, and it has to do with the humanity that shines from his protagonists. These are flawed individuals whose flaws might not be that apparent. They are people who grow in the novel, a growth that is quite literally personified in their acquisition of power. The imaginary friend theme that Levi Jacobs writes about, and I apologize if that sounds childish but it is an apt analogy that doesn't go into spoilers of the story, is a smart way of creating an inner dialogue that doesn't seem forced, and so we are privy to the arguments his characters have with themselves. There is an intimacy to this that isn't captured as well by simply relating inner monologues, which happens far too often in fiction. 

Parting Words: By the three-quarter mark of reading Beggar's Rebellion, I was already recommending it to other readers. I was trying to explain to people in my real-life what self-publishing even entailed, and that they could start a free trial of Kindle Unlimited to read this book. The series is called the Resonant Saga, and I feel that it is an apt name because this book resonated with me in a way that not many do. The themes of poverty and oppression are not uncommon in fantasy, but the way in which Jacobs presents them feels authentic in a time where we see much of what we only expect to witness in fantasy bleed into our reality. There is a catharsis in Jacobs' characters finding their own power and means of rebellion, especially when many of us feel so powerless to make the changes we want in the world. My favorite type of fantasy is that which can show us a different way, and often a better way. I loved The Lord of the Rings so much not because Gandalf could throw fire at wolves but because Sam and Frodo were the most unlikely of hobbits to be tackling Dark Lords. It is the ability to watch Davids topple Goliaths that I love to read about, and fantasy is the best at presenting that outcome. 

There was no question which of my books would advance to the semi-finals of Fantasy Book Critic's SPFBO 2019 judging. I want to see it advance further and reach the eyes of fantasy lovers everywhere. I think Levi Jacobs could be a big, and perhaps an important, voice in this genre. 
Friday, September 6, 2019

Bone Ships by RJ Barker (reviewed by David Stewart)

Official Author Website
Order Bone Ships over HERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Age of Assassins

AUTHOR INFORMATION: RJ Barker lives in Leeds with his wife, son and a collection of questionable taxidermy, odd art, scary music and more books than they have room for. He grew up reading whatever he could get his hands on, and has always been 'that one with the book in his pocket'. Having played in a rock band before deciding he was a rubbish musician, RJ returned to his first love, fiction, to find he is rather better at that. As well as his debut epic fantasy novel, Age of Assassins, RJ has written short stories and historical scripts which have been performed across the country. He has the sort of flowing locks any cavalier would be proud of.

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: For generations, the Hundred Isles have built their ships from the bones of ancient dragons to fight an endless war. The dragons disappeared, but the battles for supremacy persisted. Now the first dragon in centuries has been spotted in far-off waters, and both sides see a chance to shift the balance of power in their favour. Because whoever catches it will win not only glory, but the war.

FORMAT/INFO: Bone Ships is 512 pages long divided over thirty-nine numbered chapters and is the first volume of Tide Child seriesBone Ships will release in all formats on September 24th via Orbit Books. Cover art and design are by Hannah Wood

In an era where almost every new fantasy book is about a band of Dungeons and Dragons style adventurers bounding around a fully-built and populated world, along comes RJ Barker to completely buck this welcome trend and write a fantasy book that is also a high seas adventure in the vein of Patrick O'Brian and Dudley Pope but also about dragons and inexplicably post-apocalyptic in the most intriguing ways. It has a talking parrot, criminals abound, and also features some of the best naval warfare scenes that I've ever read in a book. The truth is, this review of Bone Ships is hard to write because I loved the book so damn much that all I really want to do is squeal like a middle-schooler and talk about how cool Gilbryn "Lucky" Meas is. But, let's do our job and review the thing. 

Setting: Bone Ships takes place on the high seas in a world where hardwood is seemingly non-existent. Instead, ships are built upon the bones of slain dragons, a species that was once abundant but is no longer. This makes ships incredibly valuable things, even beyond their value as modes of transportation in a land that is made up mostly of islands ranging in size and breadth. When I said that Bone Ships was inexplicably post-apocalyptic, I am making an educated guess as to the history only hinted at within the novel. Barker writes about a human population that is cursed with poor progeny. Most children are born with some sort of deformity, and it is the ones born whole that are considered blessed and allowed to rule. Barker's world is one of castes, a society where, if one is born without a foot, they are automatically pushed into the ironic profession of cobbler. If born without a hand, why, to the tailors with you! There is a might meets right specter hanging over all of the Hundred Isles, the main societal focus of Bone Ships, that is tragic even as it is practical. 

The Hundred Isles are ever at war with a different set of landmarks collectively known as the Gaunt Isles, and each society has entire mythos built around the evil atrocities committed by the other. The bone ships are the heart of this war, where nearly all conflict is fought upon the all-encompassing waters that surround everything. And Barker's sea isn't friendly, teeming with vicious creatures that could only come about through horrid imagination or perhaps some type of over-polluting of the natural waters. I read these nods to climate change and pollution as subtle suggestions towards what our current civilization is doing to the Earth, and fantasy is nothing if not a mirror to society.  

Plot: Amidst this background comes Lucky Meas, one of the most famous bone ship captains in the world. Stripped of her naval command for reasons unknown, Meas finds Joron Twiner, the hapless captain of a black ship. Black ships and their denizens are those condemned to man the seas and atone for their crimes. Unlike the much greater, both in purpose and size, white ships of the Hundred Isles navy, the black ships are shunned and looked down upon, even as they serve a vital role in roaming the waters. Lucky Meas whips Twiner in duel and takes command of the Tide Child, and in doing so initiates a change in every and woman aboard. 

Barker weaves in the myriad mysteries of each character throughout the novel, revealing enough to keep us wondering, while never really giving us all the answers. Before long, Meas is tasked by an old acquaintance high up in Hundred Isles society with hunting down and protecting a dragon. Yes, a dragon has been sighted, which hasn't happened for a long time, and there is only one thing that any nation or power will want with a dragon - its very bones. This sparks a hunt across the seas that is heart-racing and action-packed, but that tempers itself with moments of slower-paced character interactions that are as important to the story as its main focus. Barker manages to pack a variety of settings and scenarios into what would at first glance seem to be a rote and uninteresting landscape. There are sieges and spelunkings and strange, otherworldy artifacts whose nature can only really be guessed at. Behind all of this is the mythology of a great bird god whose purpose is hinted and who, if my own conjectures are near to mark, has to do with whatever apocalypse inflicted this made-up world. It is a dark world that RJ Barker has crafted, but one ripe with curiosity and a true sense of discovery that is near-required for a naval adventure tale. 

Character: Part of what makes the Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey and Maturin series so powerful, aside from its huge world-scoping adventure, is the relationship between its two main characters. It does not matter how good a ship battle is nor how majestic one's dragons are if the characters that we must read about from page to page are not likable and relatable in some way. As with nearly everything in Bone Ships, Barker nails down his characters and their relationships in ways that continue to mature throughout the book. Meas and Twiner have a fascinating dynamic, with Twiner hating Meas for stealing his ship, but slowly growing to respect her and the effect that she has on the rabble of his crew - a respect he never had. There is a bit of The Great Gatsby to the way in which Barker tells the story, with Lucky Meas as the protagonist of the book seen through the eyes of Joron Twiner, yet unlike Nick Carraway, Twiner's growth throughout is as important as his dynamic with Meas. Along for the ride are as rag tag a group of misfits as any sea captain could wish, a true pirate's den of vagabonds, the aforementioned talking parrot, and a bird-like creature that serves as a wind-mage for the ship and who becomes surprisingly important to both the novel's themes and the growth of Joron Twiner. 

Even beyond the arcs of each character, there is a group-growth that happens on the Tide Child, one spurred by the presence of Lucky Meas, and even when characters whose names we never learn are blasted apart by shipfire and tossed overboard, we can feel the impact it has on a crew that becomes tighter and tighter as the weave of the tale is cinched. I'll admit, most of the names and faces in Bone Ships, outside of its two main characters, are fairly forgettable and could even be called caricature-esque, but the book is no less for this and in some ways requires it for the development of Meas and Twiner. 

Parting Words: In my notes, after reading the first chapter, I wrote "this is the best first chapter I have read in a long time." I had fairly high expectations going into Bone Ships because, despite it not being published yet, it has been getting buzz. Well I am here to add to that buzz because it is an excellent book and one of the best I've read all year. The attention is well-deserved. There are moments in Bone Ships that left my skin tingling, one in particular that I don't think I will ever forget, and that is something that one so rarely gets with a novel or any form of entertainment media. I may be particularly susceptible to a fantasy naval adventure, I love the Liveship Traders series from Robin Hobb after all, and had my time with some of the more classic high seas adventures. However, I think anyone can love this book. The terminology is fairly unique - Barker makes up his own terms for the apparatus used on his ship because there really is no equivalent in our vernacular for some of the parts of a dragon that can be shaped into weapons and ship parts, and the writing is so good that it's simply a pleasure to read. Barker had fun writing this book, and it shows and is so good for that reason. 

I apologize for not having more negative things to say. I often do, and I'm not shy about saying what I think is wrong with a book (this is Fantasy Book Critic after all), and Bone Ships is not perfect. But it is exactly what it should be, and in that lies a sort of perfection that more fantasy novels, and books in general, should strive to match. 

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Interview with J. A. Andrews (Interviewed by Justine Bergman)

Official Author Website
Order Pursuit of Shadows HERE (US) and HERE (UK)
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Pursuit of Shadows

AUTHOR INFORMATION: JA Andrews is a writer, wife, mother, and unemployed rocket scientist. She doesn't regret the rocket science degree, but finds it generally inapplicable in daily life. Except for the rare occurrence of her being able to definitively state, "That's not rocket science." She does, however, love the stars.

She is eternally grateful to CS Lewis for showing her the luminous world of Narnia. She wishes Jane Austen had lived 200 years later so they could be pen pals. She is furious at JK Rowling for introducing her to house elves, then not providing her a way to actually employ one. And she is constantly jealous of her future-self who, she is sure, has everything figured out.

She spends an inordinate amount of time at home, with her family, who she adores, and lives near the Rocky Mountains of Montana, where she can see more stars than she ever imagined.
Thanks so much for joining us, JA. Care to tell us a little bit about yourself?
JA: First, the J is for Janice. I know that’s basically impossible to find out through Facebook, so I’ll talk to someone for months before I realize they don’t even know my name. One of the perils of using initials that I never envisioned.

Also, I didn’t realize some readers would think I was a man. I didn’t even realize that female authors used initials because of the unfortunate truth that there are readers who only want to read male authors. (Are you beginning to see how much I didn’t realize when I started out?) I just figured many of my favorite authors used initials, so I would too.

Anyway, I’m married and have three kids who I stay home with and homeschool. I’m less organized than that makes me sound, and undoubtedly less driven. My kids are 13, 10, and 8, and they’re three of the most interesting people on the planet, so it’s fun to be around them.

I’m also inspired to write partly because they love stories so much, so I write books that I’m happy for them to read, which keeps the rating of my books PG at the most. They’re not written for children, but there’s nothing in them I would worry about them reading.

Your bio mentions your educational/professional achievements. I can definitely see the parallels between rockets and dragons, and stars and magic, but I need to does a rocket scientist end up writing books involving surly dwarves and ancient sorcery?
JA: Mostly by happenstance.

I never, ever, ever considered writing as a career. I know most authors have wanted to write since they were tiny, but I loved math and science and figured engineering was the way to go.

My degree is in aerospace engineering, which was really fun, but looking back I realize it was fun because in space, the rules are different. A spaceship doesn’t fly the same way a plane does. The forces on it, while they all have the same name as ones on earth (gravity, heat transfer, radiation), act very differently outside of strong gravitational fields and an atmosphere. And so engineering something to go into space is almost like obeying different laws, or bending them a bit. Or creating something to go in a fantasy world.

I have never worked in aerospace engineering. Shockingly, there isn’t a huge need for rocket scientists. But I did work in engineering until my oldest son was born, and was thoroughly bored.

My husband was out of town for an extended period years ago in the dark ages before Skype. I’m not even sure we had cell phones. We did have email, so I’d write him a new scene from a story every night. My only goal was to give him something interesting to read, and end on a cliff hanger to torture him.

Those scenes eventually (many years later) became the opening chapters of A Threat of Shadows, which is the first book in my Keeper Chronicles.

What’s a day of writing like in the shoes of JA? Do you have any quirks, routines, or rituals?
JA: I sneak out of bed early, before anyone else is awake (this is not hard in a homeschool house where no one has a set "get to the bus!" time.) I brew coffee and creep down to the basement so I can’t even hear when the rest wake up.

Then I turn on to help me focus and try to write. Usually I’m typing a chapter based on notes from the shower the day before. I have waterproof paper because I was tired of losing all my good shower ideas down the drain. I’m not kidding. They’re called AquaNotes and they’re amazing. Best plotting tool ever.

I write until about 9, while people get up and get themselves breakfast and cause mayhem upstairs where I can’t hear them.

By that point, my writing productivity is shot. Any other bits of free time throughout the day are spent on marketing or plotting in my head or chatting with other authors on Facebook.

What comes first, the plot or the characters?
JA: The characters, always. They usually show up talking. Some of them don’t shut up.

JA: The first time (2017) because, why not? The second time because the first was so much fun and I’d met so many great people. And this third time because it’s becoming a habit.

I love the authors and bloggers I’ve met through SPFBO. And in general the tone is so encouraging and supportive. It’s a fantastic competition. Mark Lawrence is a genius for thinking it up, and a hero for keeping it going. And the bloggers are amazing. The amount of time you guys donate to the competition is unbelievable, and we’re all so grateful.

Can you share with us something about Pursuit of Shadows that isn’t in the blurb?
JA: A lot of the book takes place as Will, the main character, travels with a semi-nomadic clan across wide grasslands.

It’s not a coincidence that I started writing it when we moved from the mountains, which I love, to the grasslands, which I’m less enamored with.

I’m pretty sure my lack of enthusiasm for grasslands came through in the book.

I even made a character named Rass, who’s a little girl who loves the grass, just to try to balance out my negativity, lol. Then Rass got a life of her own and became this amazing character. So maybe grass has some redeeming qualities.

Give us an idea of how Pursuit of Shadows came to fruition. What kind of research was involved? Did you already have an idea in mind when writing A Threat of Shadows? Did you initially intend to divert from the story and characters established in book one?
JA: I didn’t even intend to publish book 1, A Threat of Shadows, originally. It was just a fun project to screw around with. When I realized indie publishing was a thing, and was semi-viable, I figured I’d try. I decided, randomly, that it would be book 1 in a series called the Keeper Chronicles with no concrete idea of what that meant.

I then proceeded to finish up the storyline of that main character, Alaric, so neatly that I had nothing left to write about him.

When I discovered A Threat of Shadows was selling a little, I figured I had to come up with a plot for book 2. Picking Will, the Keeper missing from book 1, was the obvious choice. It took a lot of writing/editing/throwing away tens of thousands of words/rewriting/editing/rewriting before the plot became what it is now.

Do you have a favorite character you’ve written? If so, who? What about them makes them extra special?
JA: I am really fond of Sora. She’s a ranger who’s fiercely independent, a bit of an outsider, and she is thoroughly unimpressed with Will. Seeing as Will is used to having people like him, or reading them well enough to know how to change how they feel about him. Sora, though, he can’t read. Her distance and lack of emotions is terrifying to him, and it was really fun to write.

I absolutely ADORE the character illustrations peppered throughout the book. What made you decide to include these? And can we get a shoutout to the artist?
JA: I republished a second edition of my first book several years after I initially published it so I could put in all the things I had wanted added in at first, but couldn’t afford. A map, a short story, and illustrations. They were drawn by Wojtek Depczynski and I love how they came out.

Of course, since I’d done it in book 1, I needed to keep it going. Wojtek is also the artist who designed the cover for my box set. He’s amazing.

Is The Keeper Chronicles complete, or do you plan on revisiting this world in the future?
JA: The trilogy is complete (plus a standalone related short novel) but I will definitely be back to these characters. There are too many stories left unwritten about them.

I have some dwarves that are demanding more of my time, and a pair of Keepers who are twins. And a little grass elf.

Why did you choose the self-publishing route with The Keeper Chronicles?
JA: Because I never dreamed of being an author, I never had the draw to be traditionally published. The entire process, once I looked into it, was so long and so uncertain that I knew I’d never go through with it.

But as I read about people like Lindsay Buroker who were indies, and as I read their books and realized they were similar enough to my writing that there might actually be a market for stories like this, I thought I’d try. I didn’t know what I was doing when I first published A Threat of Shadows, but it chugged along in an encouraging enough manner that I just kept going.

I also thought, when starting out, that indie publishing would mean Independent. As in Alone. It has been such a thrill to find out that the indie community is this vibrant place where authors help each other generously and continuously. Some of the authors I’ve met have become really close friends, and everything that’s ever gone well with my writing career has been thanks to collaboration with other authors.

At this point, I find it doubtful that a traditional publisher would be silly enough to offer me the sort of deal that I would give up the indie route for.

Are there any particular authors or books that have captured your imagination and inspired you throughout your writing career?
JA: The first series I fell in love with was The Belgariad by David Eddings which I read in the 80’s. I had never read anything that swept me away so fully into a new world. I went on to read many more fantasy books, but the best ones always did that.

Writing can be a stressful pursuit. Do you have any tips for aspiring authors?
JA: Find other authors you can talk to. It helps so much. And reassures you you’re not crazy. Or at least that you’re the same kind of crazy as other authors.

Ok, let’s see what kind of person you truly are. (No explanations necessary!)
JA: If you knew how unopinionated I am on almost every topic, you’d laugh at asking me all this. But, here goes...
Coffee or Tea?

Winter or Summer?
Oooh…I love snow, and I hate hot, which makes me lean toward winter. But I love the mountains in the summertime too. So mild summer, or winter. See? Opinions are hard.

Physical books or Ebooks?
I’d pick physical book always, except ebooks are so dang convenient. So…both?

Mountains or Oceans?

Beer or Wine?
Wine. Or Beer.

Books or Movies?
Books, although I do love a good movie.

Cowboys or Aliens?
Can we go both and say Firefly? Do they count as aliens? I’m saying yes.

Pie or Cake?
What? No. Ice Cream.

Rural or Urban?
Rural, by a country mile.

Work Hard or Play Hard?
Neither? Work some, play some, sleep a bit.

Well, I had a firm opinion on 4 of those. That’s not too bad.

Thank you again for taking the time to chat with us, JA. Do you have anything coming up in the future that you’d like the world to know about?
JA: I’m currently writing a new trilogy set several hundred years earlier that tells the story of the first queen of the land, and the very first Keepers. My main character, Sable, is based loosely off of the Empress Theodora from the Byzantine empire, and so far I’m having a lot of fun writing it.

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