Wednesday, March 27, 2019

2018: A Year in Reading - Now with fancy graphs!

2018 was a year of serious change for me - I moved halfway across the country to start graduate school (yay!) in a new city. While I was still living in the DC area, I spent as much time as physically possible with friends and family, so there wasn't much time for reading. Between that and the craziness of starting school again, I'm not surprised that 2018 was the first year in a while where I didn't meet my Goodreads Reading Challenge goal (69/80), and didn't read more than the previous year (82 books - my record).

Thanks to my audiobook addiction, I did get a ton of reading done! 44 of the 69 books I read this year were audiobooks - that's almost 64%, although last year 71% of my reading was audio. When I plotted format by genre, I could easily see that all of my comic book reading is done in hard copy (either hardcover or paperback), and all of my many fantasy books were audio.


I also read very few books that I actually own, relying almost entirely on libraries. In 2019, I'm going to try to spend more time reading through the books that I have physically on my shelves!

Library (school)0
(Note that numbers in the charts might add up to more or less than 69, as some might not reflect the full range of categories I entered, and author counts include not just the first author, but also second and third credited authors, if any. Graphs only count first authors.)
This was the year of excellent short story collections. When I think back on the books that blew me away in 2018, they were all contemporary single-author collections by women. Here's a selection of my favorites:

After the Apocalypse, Maureen F. McHugh
Magic for Beginners, Kelly Link (a re-read)
Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories, Vandana Singh
Starlings, Jo Walton
Wicked Wonders, Ellen Klages
Alien Virus Love Disaster, Abbey Mei Otis
Her Body and Other Stories, Carmen Maria Machado
Homesick for Another Planet, Ottessa Mosfegh

I also read some excellent nonfiction that I highly recommend:

The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls - a touching memoir of a woman with a troubled but loving family
Proust and the Squid, Maryanne Wolf - a wonderfully readable journey through the science of reading
Lab Girl, Hope Jahren - possibly my favorite book this year, a poetic memoir by a scientist, about science and the people that do it (grab the audiobook if you can - it's narrated by the author, and it's a treat!)

It was also a big year for re-reading. I'm usually vehemently against re-reading (for myself - everyone makes their own fun!), mostly because there are so many new-to-me stories in the world that I'll never get to read all of them in my lifetime, doubly so if I'm re-reading old ones. But this year, I re-read pretty much every Tamora Pierce novel (childhood favorites) and two of my current favorite books: Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer and Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link. I needed some familiar comforts, and it had been long enough that I'd forgotten the details anyhow.

Thanks to my fancy graduate education (and this blog post by my colleague, Adam Goodkind), I've stepped up my graphics this year, switching over to R from my usual SPSS/Excel/Google Sheets hack job. Below is a plot of my reading throughout the year. (I'm aware this plot is a ridiculous behemoth and maybe not best practices for easily conveying information, but I had so much fun and learned a ton while putting it together!) 

Each bar is a different book, where the gray bars span from the date I started the book to the day I finished. The colored dots on the bars indicate the genre, and the shape indicates the format I read it in. Titles/Authors are purple if the first credited author was male, and purple otherwise, and bold if the author is a person of color.

You can seee that the slope is pretty steady (although occasionally stepwise) up until August, and then I basically don't start reading any more books until November. That's what happens when you move and start graduate school, I guess.

For a slightly less busy breakdown by month and genre:

It looks like I only finished one book September. I was also reading Dhalgren and Dune around that point, so that might have contributed to a phenomenally slow reading month.

It also becomes pretty obvious that I didn't read many books by men this year, and when I did, they tended not to be white men - which becomes even clearer here:

I was also interested in how quickly I was reading and how the books I read varied in length. That 800-page monster is Dhalgren by Samuel Delany, one of the best books I read this year.

For the code that generated these graphs, see my academic website:

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Review: Angel Catbird, Vol. 1

Angel Catbird, Vol. 1 Angel Catbird, Vol. 1 by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I spent most of this book wondering whether this was intentionally absurd or simply lazy. Perhaps it's a bit of both. Much of the dialogue and inner monologuing - maybe, I think, possibly - tried to poke fun at early pulp comics. Unfortunately, this questionable satire didn't have bite, ambition, or quality enough to elevate it beyond what it imitates. We're left with a dull distillation of all the oldest tropes in superhero comics and nothing else (except for occasional cautionary real-life tips about caring for cats, which might be the sole reason this comic exists). I'd say that it might be a passable comic for children, except that it uncomfortably sexualizes every relationship, including those involving animals. And Atwood's introduction reads like a fever dream or an apologetic excuse for what this comic became.

I can't believe there are any further books in the series, but even my vague desire to know why they exist is not compelling enough to read them to find out.

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Friday, February 16, 2018

2017: A Year of Reading

Much of my life can be measured in books. One summer, when I was twelve, I read one hundred and ten books over three months - it was a lonely summer, in some ways, but I didn’t notice. I’ve slowed down since then as my books have gotten longer and my life has filled with other joys. Still, I track my reading in part because I can divine truth about my inner life by my reading habits. It’s kind of like a tarot reading for reading.

I read 84 books in 2017. This is a record high as long as I’ve been tracking my yearly reading (obviously not including my prodigious childhood years). This has been a busy year, so I was surprised that I got so much reading done - I beat out 2015 by 1 book, and that year I spent working in a bookstore and living alone in the mountains. But then I got a good look at the format breakdown:



*Note that numbers don’t add up to 84 because I read some books in multiple formats simultaneously, switching between eBook and hardcover or audio and paperback.

Almost ¾ of the books I read were audiobooks! That’s a much larger percentage than I would have guessed, but it makes sense. Three factors drove those numbers way up this year. First, I started off the year with a series of hilarious memoirs by female comedians that were narrated by the authors - Tina Fey, Mindy Kaling, Amy Poehler, Carrie Fisher - and that got me into the audiobook habit.

The second two are linked. This year, I made the exciting and terrifying decision to move cities to go to graduate school (I start in September 2018!). The choice to go was a hard one, and both before and for months following the decision I was wracked with anxiety. It was hard to exist alone with my thoughts. Having a book to focus on as I drove, painted, worked out, walked, played Call of Duty became crucial if I wanted to enjoy what I was doing, or at least keep from succumbing to constant anxiety and tears.

You can see below that there are upticks in March, when I was waiting for acceptance letters, and in June, after I made my decision to go. I spent a lot of time during both those periods exploring D.C. on my own, walking through the city and discovering new places on random weekdays off.

Audiobooks have done almost as much for me as therapy.

I try to be conscious about my book choice. I aim for 50% books by female authors and 30% by authors of color. I did better this year about both but have yet to hit that 30%. I also try to read authors that are new to me and to shake it up if I find myself reading the same authors over and over. About half the authors I read this year were authors I'd never read before, and I only had a few 'repeat' authors over the course of the year.

#POC or F
%POC or F
#New to me

Author numbers are hard to track because of anthologies that collect a bunch of authors, so typically if an anthology has any authors that meet any criteria, it gets counted as one entry in that category. So an anthology with 3 authors I’ve read before and 8 I haven’t is 1 ‘author’ in the ‘new’ category.

So how do I keep up this habit? Used book stores, partly, but mainly: libraries!


Library (school)
Own (ebook)
Own (physical)

**Again, numbers don’t add up because of multiple copies.

February is library lovers month and I will take every opportunity to plug my own public library, Montgomery County Public Library, and public libraries in general! Guys, I am learning how to build a robot at my public library - playing around with circuits, programming, and 3D printing for free! My library also has an agreement with the surrounding counties from Maryland, Northern Virginia, and D.C. that residents in one county can have a library card in all the counties, so I have access to some excellent online catalogs. Anything I can’t get there I’ll get through UMD’s interlibrary loan service, delivered straight to my work mailbox. One of my favorite things to do when I’m exploring D.C. on a weekday is to check out a new library. Heck, I’m sitting in my library right now to write this. Everyone should go to the library!

And lastly, one of my favorite things is comparing my ratings to Goodreads to see exactly how much of a curmudgeon I am. I’m notoriously critical of what I read, so it’s unexpected to see that my average rating is lower - but a .6-point difference is huge even for me! In 2015 and 2016 it was only about .3. That’s driven by a lot more 1- and 2-star reviews, possibly because my general emotional valence was higher this year than other years - if I didn’t like a book, I really didn’t like it - and possibly because I still feel compelled to slog through every new Star Wars book even though they’re universally atrocious.

Average difference:


This was a hard year but a wonderful one, and I think that comes through in my reading. I discovered a new ‘use’ of reading in my audiobook habits, I read more than ever, and I’m a savvier library user now, too.

Do other people track their reading this extensively? I’d love to see anyone else’s numbers - especially how other people differ from that Goodreads mean!

Friday, February 2, 2018

Review: The Sword of the Lictor

The Sword of the Lictor The Sword of the Lictor by Gene Wolfe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'm going to review the entire Book of the New Sun series here, rather than split the reviews up between the volumes.

Other people have said that The Book of the New Sun is like nothing they’ve ever read. That’s nearly true, for me, but Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota (for which she cites Gene Wolfe as an inspiration) is remarkably similar in quite a few ways. Both four-volume series feature suspiciously unreliable narrators who know much more about their world than they’re telling us (and can’t seem to report the facts quite accurately anyhow). Both are masterworks about a wondrous future where humanity is striving for the stars. And both deal with the potential of having religion revealed and a vessel of a god working godly powers upon the Earth. Or Urth. I found myself trying to talk about BotNS and slipping into theories about Mycroft’s past in Terra Ignota. I’m struggling to articulate the philosophical similarities, but there are discussions to be had about the nature of god and identity and goodness in both, and I would love to have read/re-read these as a paired set for a course or book club. For now, I will review BotNS on its own terms (as much as I can).

Severian lies. That’s the first thing I ever heard about this book. I’d heard it was great, I even knew Palmer had named it as one of her influences, but the first specific fact about the content of the book was that Severian lies. Apparently, there is some debate about this fact. I am inclined to think that those who believe Severian does not lie are extremely literal-minded sociopaths. Somewhat like Severian himself! Severian tells us perhaps in the first few pages that his memory is perfect. He can recall any memory and relive it like it is happening just now in front of him, and says in fact that is what he is doing, as he is writing this chronicle to his reader (or Reader, as Mycroft would say). We’ll see about that.

He is a student of the Guild of the Seekers for Penitence and Truth when the book begins. A torturer, in other words. Shadow of the Torturer, the first book, is structured like the beginnings of a bildungsroman. Severian grows up, becomes a journeyman, meets a lady. He leaves the guild to take on a new role, meets another lady and then another lady, and gets into a swordfight but with plants instead of swords. He thinks a great deal about his ladies and whether he loves them. In many ways, the first book sets you up to expect a fairly traditional fantasy story with some occasional weird window dressing, then ends just when your epic fantasy novel would start to pick up.

If the first book cuts off its story arc midway, the second, Claw of the Conciliator has no real arc at all. Severian wanders into and out of various situations with no real direction or sense of how his own story is building - even as he narrates it to us. He is still generally making his way to his new post, with many detours and no sense of urgency. He gets there by the third book, Sword of the Lictor, which also has him wandering - but with much more self-direction, and it feels like the book is telling one singular story of a journey rather than some stuff a guy did on a road trip. He is still uncertain about some fundamental facts of the world (and the reader is even more so). The second and third books are both chock full of atmosphere and worldbuilding and fascinating vignettes and characters, but the second feels directionless in the whole, and even after reading book three I was not sure I’d like the overall series unless the fourth book brought the whole thing together for me, and it would have to do a whole lot of work to make that happen.

Citadel of the Autarch, book four, did an impressive amount of work without making it look like work at all. Severian, and more importantly, the reader, finally has enough information about the world to make some informed decisions and/or guesses. I would say that the shape of the series becomes clear in retrospect, but it would be more accurate to say that some of the many shapes the series could possibly be are visible but still distant beyond a hazy fog. Part of what many people love about the Book of the New Sun is that it’s a puzzle. People like who like to solve puzzles seem to obsess over the book, but this one is one that isn’t meant to be solved. It’s supposed to be turned over, prodded, combed through, dis- and re-assembled. Lots of the pieces fit into many slots. There are pieces leftover that still fit in the puzzle somehow, just not in it, y’know.

The best parts of the books are just how strange this world is. Set maybe a million years in the future, told in the style of an epic fantasy, following a totally-truthful liar who knows nothing about the world beyond his towers and who witnesses some of the strangest bits of his Urth’s locales and peoples.

I don’t think anyone volume of the series could satisfy a reader, and I’m not sure even one reading of the whole series has satisfied me. There’s a “coda” in the form of another novel, Book of the New Earth, and I think it would take several (re-)readings of all five books to even approach satisfaction. It has definitely engaged me, though, and it was worth it to read all four, despite my doubts.

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Review: Provenance

Provenance Provenance by Ann Leckie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Provenance takes place in the same universe as Ann Leckie’s Radchaai trilogy, the first of which (Ancillary Justice) won a Hugo, and which I loved. The events of Provenance take place shortly after the events of the trilogy, but don’t involve any of the same characters (or even locales) so each can stand on its own (though comparisons between the two are inevitable).

The story follows Ingray Aughskold, a young woman who is trying to prove to her mother that she - rather than her brother Danach - deserves to inherit her mother’s name. Ingray’s scheme immediately goes awry, she finds herself responsible for a person who shouldn’t exist (named Garal Ket), and her ride home accidentally draws attention from the ambassador of the alien Geck. Once home, she finds herself in the center of a tangle of local, inter-planetary, and inter-species politics that (she believes) she is ill-equipped to handle.

Much is made of Ingray’s hand-wringing and self-doubt, but this is one of those novels where it is clear to the reader (and several other characters) that the very flaws that the protagonist agonizes over are those qualities which make her the perfect fit for the job. It’s too clear, in fact. Ingray reminded me of Mia from The Princess Diaries; her misfit status and trusting nature are what endear her to everyone and make her a natural leader.

This is a perfectly fine novel, and if not for the inevitable comparison to the Radch Trilogy, I don’t know if I’d take issue with Ingray or any of the other unsubtleties. But once of the things that made the Radch Trilogy excellent, to me, was the subtlety and nuance of the characters. The characters acted and spoke in a way that belied a thoughtful underlying psyche, and the story was anchored to the internal struggles and changes of the characters, yet Leckie avoided slicing the characters open and revealing the detailed minutiae of every why and what and how of every change. It was confusing; it took me a while to really get what Leckie was doing in Ancillary Mercy. But it was rewarding. Provenance, though, has characters helpfully vocalize the qualities and traits and reasoning behind each action and decision. I enjoy a good character-driven novel, and Leckie is an excellent writer and the story and characters were delightful, so the heavy-handedness doesn’t make it a bad story, just lands it solidly in the ‘very good’ and not ‘excellent’ tier.

A more generous reading might be that the difference is intentional, and reflects the different cultures at the forefront of each story. The Radchaai have many taboos and strict social hierarchies while the Hwae are very much about public performative gestures. I could be convinced this was Leckie’s intent but it would take some strong evidence.

Leckie does a good job of growing her universe, making it wider and still recognizable. The Radchaai ambassador to the Geck is one of my favorite characters (think Mindy St. James from The Good Place but less horrible) and is the most significant reminder of the Radch Trilogy. The Hwae are a solid addition to the universe, a planet that values “vestiges” of significant cultural events. The story stumbles for me when I’m expected to believe that next to no one on the planet has ever questioned the authenticity of any of the vestiges; it felt like a moment where natural worldbuilding was sacrificed to the necessity of the plot. (And perhaps it’s just my own reading, but it felt a touch on-the-nose to talk about these monuments to culture that are are powerful symbols that are essentially valueless beyond what people see in them, in light of recent efforts to remove Confederate monuments in the U.S.)

Despite it being a few steps away from ‘excellent,’ I appreciated the themes the novel tackles. Ingray’s trust, which is read as naivete by some characters, is her strength, and I enjoy stories where trust is valuable and rewarded. In such a world, choices matter, and people are trusted when they make choices that are right for them. Here we see some of the subtlety I loved in the Radchaai trilogy; characters make personal and interpersonal choices that are treated with gravity and respect by other characters. The protagonists recognize the importance of not necessarily unquestioning, but unconditional support once these personal decisions are made. It’s radical in a soft, comforting way.

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Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Review: The Will to Battle

The Will to Battle The Will to Battle by Ada Palmer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I simply can’t say enough good things about the Terra Ignota series by Ada Palmer. My past reviews are gushingly full of a love that I struggle to articulate, I moderate a subreddit about the books, and I lend the first book out like a religious person lends a Bible: with the passionate fervor fueled by both a burning need to talk about the book and the belief that other people will truly be bettered by reading it. So I was surprised, but not too surprised, when I received an email through NetGalley offering me the chance to read the third book, The Will to Battle. They reached out to me – something I’ve never experienced before! The past few weeks have fulfilled all of my big ol’ nerd heart’s desires. I jumped straight from Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun series (which Palmer cites as a huge influence on her work) to The Will to Battle, and in the midst of reading it I attended Chessiecon in Baltimore, where Ada Palmer was guest of honor. I sat in on readings and discussions led by Palmer and got a set of books signed – including a hard copy of The Will to Battle, a full month early! So, full disclosure, I loved this series going into book three.

And it didn't disappoint! Where book two, Seven Surrenders, felt very much like a sequel necessary to complete the story of book one, TWTB is a new chapter; while it follows the same story and characters, it strides confidently into new settings and conflicts. The series continues to succeed where it has done well before, with Mycroft’s tricky narration supplying more intriguing - and alarming - deception as we finally see his growing instability unedited. Palmer methodically lays out the new starting grounds for who are all facing the fallout from public reveals of two separate nests of collusion while they struggle to ready their unprepared world for war and theological unrest.

Some of my favorite moments are first steps into new settings. The world is bigger and more wondrous as it provides glimpses of technology and history unseen in previous installments - and more legal minutiae than any book has a right to make so compelling! A simple walk through a Utopian neighborhood was so delightful that I re-read it half a dozen times before moving on. Several chapter-long courtroom dramas are as engrossing and dramatic as attempted murder, and I’m sure many die-hard fans (myself included) will be poring over those chapters for much longer looking for clues about the world.

The character work is strong, too. I’m impressed by how thoroughly and efficiently Palmer handles the large cast, although there are a few characters who are noticeably absent from all or most of this chapter (I suspect that’s a deliberate choice intended to make us think about what those characters are doing until we do meet them). There are beautiful moments of utter catharsis - a passage where a character chooses to finally live their dream had me weeping with the joyful possibility that there is always a way forward into the life you want. Even J.E.D.D. Mason, who is arguably the central character in this drama but is not high on my list of favorite characters in the series, now has goals (and some fascinating scenes with religious figures - a rare instance in a world with a religion taboo) that make him more exciting.

My only complaint would be that, after three books, it feels like we may be just at the beginning of the physical action, but at no point did I feel the story was slow, and I may just be trying to get more books out of the series. The book is called The Will to Battle, after all, and an interjection by Thomas Hobbes (yes, THE Thomas Hobbes) points out that the Will to Battle is not yet Battle itself, but it just as important. And for all the build-up surrounding Achilles’s importance to prepare for this battle, he felt underused. Hopefully we’ll see more of him in book four.

And, as always, we are left with so many questions - the kind I can't ask here, as they'd be full of spoilers - but check out the subreddit!!

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Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Review: The Stars Are Legion

The Stars Are Legion The Stars Are Legion by Kameron Hurley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

They say don't judge a book by its cover and that's especially true in this case. Never has a book deserved a pulpy, lurid, colorful cover more, and what did it get instead? Some generic photoshopped planets in gold and black. I read the premise for this a while back and thought it was interesting, but was put off by the cover; it looked like your standard-issue hard-or-military SF cover. Thankfully I picked it up because 1) I heard it had lots of ladies and 2) it was one of the few books on my to-read list available in audio from my library. This book is not your standard-issue anything. I love this book. It's easily in my top 5 so far this year, and might be in my top 20 of all time.

What this cover doesn't convey, but could and should, is the primal, goopy, biological nature of the book. Hurley has written a true successor to Russ and Tiptree, interbreeding Russ's adventurous heroines with Tiptree's weird bioforms and the staunch feminism of both to create a fleshy beauty of a tale.

The plot:

The story follows a woman named Zan who has just awoken on a ship with severe injuries and has no memory of her former life. The people that surround her claim they are her family, but she feels this is deeply wrong - and she also feels some strong, non-family-like feelings for Jayd, a woman who is constantly by her side.

Then Zan finds out this has happened before - many times. She is sent out to fight, she loses, and she comes back with no memories. But this time might be different. She is sent to the bowels of the ship and has to force her way back to the surface, while Jayd's mother marries her off to secure an alliance that might have consequences her mother doesn't realize.

But none of that plot description makes any sense unless you know the key thing about this world: in the Legion, ships are biological and circle (apparently, according to other reviews) an artificial sun. And all the ships are dying, save one that has been able to detatch itself from the 'thing' at the center of their solar system and move of its own accord. This ship is the one Zan is sent out to fight over and over.

Oh, and every creature on the ship and every ship component is birthed. This is a book about wombs and bodies and birth.

The good:

I loved this book. I loved the atmosphere, the visceral body horror, the slimey-stickiness. I loved how different it is from anything I've ever read. I love that all the characters are women and that makes *sense* for the world and that the world revolves around life-giving.

Full disclosure, I listened to the audiobook, and while I wasn't the biggest fan of the narration (I think there were two narrators, one for Jayd's chapters and one for Zan's, but I honestly couldn't tell them apart), it wasn't a hindrance. I liked that truly strange accents from the center of the ship were not quite recongizable or mappable to any Earth language - like the narrator had come up with a unique combination of phonemes. And they doubled down for characters who were supposed to have similar accents, which was cool.

Zan meets a lot of people along her journey, which is a Quest in the most traditional sense. She starts out in the deep center of the ship with the trash and refuse and has to fight her way through many levels, encountering races and cultures that people on the surface don't event know exist. Hurley does an excellent job creating a cast that is varied and vivid where even months later they feel as real to me as when I was reading. The idea of pushing your way out of the center of a core of flesh layer by layer is fascinating and Horrifying with a capial H.

The story pushes forward through some completely unexpected and inventive detours though it resolves fairly quickly and predictably come the final act. There was so much *un*predictable, weird, engrossing stuff in the plot and the world and the characters that I can forgive the ending - but I absolutely want more Legion.

The less-than-good:

I don't really buy that a civilization can be completely unaware of several other civilizations that live within the same lump of flesh - the world just seemed physically too small for that to be realistic. But it's supposedly a decaying world and no one knows how to fix anything, or how any of them got in this mess to begin with. If there were a sense of history of the Legion, maybe it would be easier to accept, but this is a story very tightly focused on the personal (and narrated by someone with amnesia) so history is absent.

And about the amnesia. Stories that start out with amnesia are risky, and I think my biggest complaints with the story are related to the amnesia, but Hurley successfully avoids most of the tropey problems. Zan is capable, despite her memory loss. She thinks about it occasionally but it doesn't overwhelm her personality. It does loom too large in the story, though. Zan is sent out to attack a ship that kills everyone but her *many times*, strangers often treat her with far too much deference, and she knows that she's not from the ship she's currently on. What ship could she *possibly* be from, and who could she *possibly* have been before? It's obvious to the reader from the very beginning but it doesn't occur to Zan until she's basically told.

The slightly unrelated:

I'm currently reading the Dominion of the Fallen books by Aliette de Bodard - a very different series about an alternate-reality Paris where fallen angels reminiscent of vampires have just come off a devastating battle that has sapped most of the city of its strength and beauty, with occasional appearances from Asiatic immortals and minor deities. They're similar in many ways, though. The sense of decay and lost power and desperation pervades both. There's a long history that is critically unexplored and leaves gaping holes in both stories (a much more grievous offense in the Dominion books, IMHO). People are petty and conniving and weak, House/ship alignment rules everything, clever powerful sadists manipulate women who are fearful of *and* drawn to them simultaneously, an underclass functions as its own separate world, and both have excellent queer/female/POC representation. The Stars are Legion is a stronger work in pretty much every way, but I might meditate more on these parallels for my reviews of de Bodard.

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