Thursday, May 31, 2018

The Warrior Within (Angus McIntyre)

The Warrior Within
Angus McIntyre
Fiction, Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Though Karsman is nominally the mayor of his small town on the Road, the great planet-encircling ring dotted with relics of the long-forgotten Builders, he prefers not getting entangled in troubles. He doesn't even wield much actual authority; the Muljaddy in the Temple is the true power, and nobody has any reason to question them. But when three offworlder soldiers come, they bring trouble with them. Karsman finds himself and the artificially-implanted personas in his head tested to the limits as he struggles to find out what they want, and why... and if he can discover answers before they kill anyone he cares about, such as himself.

REVIEW: This novella establishes some interesting ideas via a reasonably well-paced tale and decent characters. Though set in a galaxy rife with post-human and artificial Powers akin to gods, much of the action stays at the human level, keeping the high concepts relatable for much of the story's length. Karsman makes for a good protagonist, a man long ago infused with specialized personas such as the mechanically adept Artificer, the pragmatic Strategist, and the difficult-to-restrain Warrior, all of which help (and occasionally hinder) his task. Peripheral characters are a trifle thin, but this is a novella, and ultimately more about the concepts than most of the people involved. Things move fairly well, with some nice images and ideas playing out in unexpected ways. Enjoyable.

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Monday, May 28, 2018

The Book Jumper (Mechthild Glaser)

The Book Jumper
Mechthild Glaser
Square Fish
Fiction, YA Fantasy

DESCRIPTION: Seventeen-year-old Amy Lennox is used to her mother's erratic, free-spirited ways; she even insists on being called Alexis, not Mom. A hard break-up, coupled with a personal disaster in Amy's own life, leads to an impulsive trip back to the Lennox ancestral home, a place Alexis ran away from when she was little more than her daughter's age - and a place with a very special secret that she hasn't even told Amy about. The Lennoxes and the Macalisters of the Scottish isle of Stormsay have in their blood the ability to jump into books and enter any story, though only before their twenty-fifth birthday; after that, they take on lifelong duties to protect the realms of literature.
Amy is thrilled to discover she's inherited this skill... but, just as she comes to Stormsay, things start going very wrong. Someone is meddling in timeless tales, stealing key ideas and leaving permanent alterations in the written word. As Amy investigates, she soon learns that there's more to book jumping than she anticipated, and just because it's all a story doesn't mean it can't hurt - or even kill.

REVIEW: As someone who usually finds the worlds of imagination more attractive than the one I'm stuck inhabiting, I was immediately drawn to the concept of The Book Jumper. I wanted this to be good. I wanted it to be immersive. (In all honesty, and despite one may think from a few of my reviews, I never pick up a book wanting it to be bad. Still, some concepts I hold higher hopes for than others, and this was one of them.) So it was that I ignored some early warning signs - such as Amy being a collection of teen heroine cliches whose reactions are more in line with a preteen, plus the tired trope of an Important Family Secret she's been deliberately and rather pointlessly shielded from - and pushed ahead. Then I reached Amy's first jump into a book... and the first pangs of real disappointment pricked my brain.
Her first jump is into The Jungle Book... not a bad choice (public domain and all), and though Amy claims to be a voracious reader, she admits she hasn't read it yet, which is plausible enough. But her reaction to entering the story is to immediately wonder if they'll break into song like in the Disney cartoon. My suspension of disbelief hit a major air pocket right there. Even not having read the book, by seventeen, simple cultural osmosis should've told her that it was highly unlikely that Kipling's classic was an animated musical (or that popular movies necessarily reflect with any accuracy the book source material), especially if she reads as much as she claims to have read. I could buy this from a younger person whose main exposure to canon is DVDs, but a teenager who has taken on Austen, Goethe, and other works?
Shortly thereafter, Amy meets and speaks to her first in-book character, the tiger Shere Khan, followed soon by a trip to the "Margin" where story characters mix and mingle when not actively retelling their tales, and I had to check the cover to be sure this was a Teen title and not a middle-grade novel that had been misshelved. The book worlds and many of the characters encountered therein just felt too shallow, too simplistic, especially for a book aimed at a slightly older and (presumably) more sophisticated audience. Couple that with Amy's ongoing clumsiness and general obtuseness, and it made for some rough going, despite a few okay mind's-eye-candy moments.
Then there's the whole concept of book jumping and the notion of "protecting" stories. Protect them from what? It's established early on that nobody outside the two clans can enter books to interfere directly with the stories, and that they lose the ability before they reach thirty. No other plausible threat is presented from which the stories need protecting, nor are the protective duties of older Lennoxes and Macalisters made in any way clear. What is there to protect stories from when the protectors themselves are the only ones from which the stories might need protecting, and then only for a decade or two of their existence? (If their duties are to protect literature from shoddy media interpretations, I'd say both clans have a lot of explaining to do, but I digress...) This also limits the suspects in story interference to the populace of Stormsay, which barely cracks double digits - a population of characters little deeper than heroine Amy. (Hands up, those surprised that the blonde teen Macalister girl is a Grade A snob... 'cause blonde, and all.) She misses some obvious clues, and has to be led to others, rarely able to achieve much on her own without help - more often than not from males. The finale, despite itself, builds some real tension and terror, with a decently emotional (if telegraphed) conclusion, barely managing to pull the rating back up to three stars.
There are some nice ideas at play here, lots of potential, and a few good moments that speak to a love of reading and the power of stories. Even during some gooey-eyed makeout sessions, though, I never fully shook the feeling that The Book Jumper, at heart, wanted to be a story for a younger audience, and suffered from being aged up.

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Thursday, May 24, 2018

The Invention of Nature (Andrea Wulf)

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World
Andrea Wulf
Nonfiction, Biography/Nature
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: Once a household name, Alexander von Humboldt is all but forgotten in many countries, but his life and works continue to influence how we view the world. From the late 1700s to the mid-1800's, he traveled much of the world, viewing nature not as a collection of individual parts but as an interconnected web - and raising an alarm about the disruptive and short-sighted activities of humans and their long-range consequences as strands of the natural web are thoughtlessly snapped. Author Andrea Wulf explores the life and legacy of the first modern environmentalist and the many people he influenced.

REVIEW: It's both chilling and depressing to read of Humboldt even as my nation takes active, borderline malicious steps to eradicate ecological progress, though that makes the topic all the more timely. Like many Americans, I don't recall ever hearing the name Alexander von Humboldt - an eradication partially attributed to anti-German sentiments following World War I, but that's hardly a valid excuse given the man's massive influence that resonates even today. His ability to marry emotion with science, to turn a topic prone to dry numbers and figures into riveting narratives and poetic imagery to capture the greater public's imagination and attention, helped make him one of the greatest naturalists of his age, with books published in dozens of languages around the world. He was not without his flaws, of course, but he was a singular individual who managed to exist at the perfect time and place to create a new vision of the world, possessed of boundless energy and a keen intelligence. As enthusiastic as he was about his many areas of study, he never hesitated to call out our species on its mismanagement of our only native habitat, seeing with his own eyes how deforestation destroyed soil and waterways and poor farming practices exacerbated poverty... calls that, by and large, went unheeded by those with the power to act on them, as witness the state of too much of the world today. Indeed, by the end of his life he had become very jaded on matters of politics. Wulf includes several illustrations from Humboldt's work and others, particularly those who rose in his wake: Thoreau, Darwin, and John Muir, among others who read and fairly worshiped the man's books.
In parts it could be a bit dry, but the message of the man's work is so timely I gave this one an extra half star. I'm seeing it again and again in my reading, how the compartmentalization and isolation of scientific subjects weakens the whole, how the emotions and imagination need to be engaged alongside the intellect if we're going to have any hope of surviving our own tenure on this planet, let alone having any hope of reaching others. Why do we keep forgetting this, and will the lesson ever stick beyond a generation? Where is our Humboldt, with the vision and the drive and the words to teach us again in the face of ignorance and greed so active they seem like viral pandemics poised to wipe us out? I wish I had answers, but I'm just another uneducated reader...

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Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Beyond (Chris Impey)

Beyond: Our Future in Space
Chris Impey
W. W. Norton and Company
Nonfiction, Science
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Countless generations ago, an upright-walking primate left the plains of its origins, eventually to reach and colonize nearly every extreme on planet Earth, from icy tundra to lush jungle, from low river valley to thin-aired mountain. Not so long ago, the ape turned its eye to the last frontier it could see, sending explorers into space and even, briefly, as far as the moon. Some believe space travel to be a momentary blip on the radar, a brief but ultimately unprofitable fad. Others, looking back on ancestors who took unimaginable journeys, aren't so sure our wandering days are over. In this book, author Chris Impey explores the past, present, and possible future of space travel, from earliest imaginings to bleeding-edge hypotheses that could take us to the edge of the solar system and beyond.

REVIEW: Watching the squabblings and backsliding of so much of the world today, it's difficult to imagine an interplanetary future as anything but fantasy, but it's closer and more plausible than one might think. Impey points to a seeming genetic imperative that drives H. sapiens to explore seemingly-inhospitable environments and make them livable as evidence that we not only can overcome vast obstacles, but - given time, ingenuity, and a little luck - we will. Of course, making a Mars colony or interstellar vessel work is exponentially more difficult than anything our species has attempted, but the theories are there, and the science is moving forward... science with practical applications here on Earth as we deal with a changing climate and accumulated damage from centuries of planetary mismanagement. The science can get a little thick, but Impey does a decent job breaking it down for those of us whose last major exposure was in high school, with several charts and illustrations. He covers a broad range of topics, touching on the people who broke ground on keystone concepts of space travel and the ones still digging at the problems, and ventures into the possibility of ever encountering (or even recognizing) intelligent alien species. He even acknowledges the works of science fiction pioneers in exploring the technology and the psychology of space exploration and colonization. A frame story attempts to provide context, the tale of a future colonist and humanity's first interstellar voyages - a story that feels incomplete, and isn't really necessary. All in all, for armchair explorers like myself, Beyond offers a decent overview of space travel for those curious about the concept beyond the pages of science fiction.

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Sunday, May 20, 2018

The Autumnlands, Vol. 1: Tooth and Claw (Kurt Busiek)

The Autumnlands, Vol. 1: Tooth and Claw
The Autumnlands series, Issues 1 - 6
Kurt Busiek, illustrations by Jordie Bellaire and Benjamin Dewey
Image Comics
Fiction, YA Fantasy/Graphic Novel
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: The young dog-wizard Dusty, born among the floating cities, looks forward to starting his official apprenticeship with his father, sailing a trading airship to many exotic lands. Perhaps the only more exciting thing is the coming conference of wizards... but this is not a normal gathering. Magic is fading, and nobody seems to know what to do about. Nobody, perhaps, except one rebellious warthog sorceress, Gharta, who proposes a risky spell: reaching back in time to find the Great Champion, the unknown hero who first opened the gates of magic centuries ago. But their efforts go terribly wrong... and, in the aftermath, what they've grabbed is something none of the animal-wizards expected, something they cannot even comprehend. This bare-skinned beast is not even a wizard - but he is a devastatingly effective warrior, and Dusty soon realizes that a warrior is just what his people need if they're going to survive.

REVIEW: The concept for The Autumnlands - a post-apocalyptic, magic-infused future of anthropomorphic beasts - could've very easily fallen flat on its face. Here, by creating distinctive characters and cultures in a richly-detailed setting, it succeeds brilliantly. Shades of old human concepts linger into the animal world, as Dusty starts each morning praying to gods of Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, and Wildlife and Fisheries, among others. Further shades of humanity, or perhaps the simple cost of sentience, are visible in the social stratification and prejudices of this new society. Nobody is simple or stupid, making for an interesting plot and intriguing conflicts. Like the other animals, Dusty isn't sure what to think of the human Learoyd, his hero worship of the legendary Champion clashing with the reactions of his elders and his own observations of the man's often-brutal methods. I'm looking forward to seeing where this one is going.

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Saturday, May 19, 2018

Sun Dragon's Song #1 (Joyce Chng)

Sun Dragon's Song #1
The Sun Dragon's Song series, Issue 1
Joyce Chng, illustrations by Kim Miranda
Rosarium Publishing
Fiction, CH Fantasy/Graphic Novel
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Young Ho Yi dreams of becoming a Sun Dragon rider like his parents, soaring above the land on his own beast, but everyone tells him his crutches will keep him an earthbound nobody. Despite the bullying, despite his own fears that he'll never fly, he works hard while his parents are away at war, fetching the crystals the dragons feed upon. But will his hard work ever be enough?

REVIEW: It's a little tough to rate this one fairly; it is, as stated, just Issue 1 of a longer work. As such, it's rather short and ends inconclusively. Even for such a short glimpse, though, the edges of the tale feel watered down. Ho Yi and his world are intriguing, though not much deeper than the paper (or Nook screen) on which they appear. Naturally, I liked what I saw of the sun dragons. The art, like the story, tends to simple lines, but they do the job. I will probably read onward, though I am pushing the limit of my monthly Hoopla checkout allowance so it may have to wait.

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Saturday, May 12, 2018

River of Teeth (Sarah Gailey)

River of Teeth
The River of Teeth series, Book 1
Sarah Gailey
Fiction, Sci-Fi
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: In the mid-1800's, to combat a nationwide meat shortage, the American Congress passed the Hippo Act, importing hippopotamuses to the southern bayous. The lower Mississippi was dammed to create marshland for hippo ranches, which would provide meat and leather and jobs.
It seemed like a good idea at the time...
Winslow Remington Houndstooth, an English immigrant "hopper" (the hippo equivalent of a cowboy) whose ranch was destroyed years ago, takes a government contract to clean deadly feral hippos out  of the Harriet, the stretch of marshland between the dam and the gate preventing the hippos' escape into the Gulf of Mexico. To help him, he assembles a crew of rogues and miscreants, all the best in their fields and not a one worth trusting. While the government had intended to give him a year to round up the ferals, Winslow has a much faster plan, one with the side-bonus of exacting vengeance for his own destroyed dreams - but the caper goes wrong from the start, endangering his crew, himself, and everyone in or near the Harriet.

REVIEW: As alternate histories go, this is one of the weirder takes I've yet encountered. Apparently, the "Hippo Act" was a proposal that almost happened... clearly proposed by people unaware of hippos as anything but large sources of potential meat. Hippos are, in fact, about the deadliest land animal known, responsible for numerous deaths annually. In a South overrun with ferals, the swamps become deadlier than any mere alligators could make them, even as the domesticated strains of riding hippos prove every bit as clever and loyal as a horse. It makes for an interesting "Wild South" milieu.
What drug this one down in the ratings was the characters. While each had distinctive personalities, I didn't like any of them, and had trouble believing several of their interactions given what little I knew of them. One in particular seemed to have no reason at all to be part of the caper in any official capacity, and ends up contributing next to nothing, a subplot that would've meant a lot more had the tangled threads of character backstory not been so deliberately hidden from me. As a result, I couldn't care overmuch about the plot, which felt both stretched and rushed. I couldn't quite tell if this was a short story made too long or a full-length novel made too short, but something felt off-kilter by the end, leaving me unsatisfied with the conclusion.

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Wednesday, May 9, 2018

The Girl In Between (Laekan Zea Kemp)

The Girl In Between
The Girl In Between series, Book 1
Laekan Zea Kemp
Amazon Digital Services
Fiction, YA Fantasy/Romance
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Afflicted with Kleine-Levin syndrome, teenager Bryn sometimes feels like a stranger in her own life. Uncontrolled episodes of prolonged sleep steal days, even weeks from her life, interrupting school and severing friendships and even leading to her parents' breakup. While many sufferers outgrow their symptoms, her case has defied the norm from the start. Other KLS patients simply fall into darkness, while she has always visited the "dream state," a surreal and ever-shifting place stitched together from memories. She's always been alone here - which is why it's so startling when the boy arrives. He's a stranger, not a memory, and he seems to persist in her dream state even when she wakes back up to reality. His arrival coincides with a disturbing shift in her condition, the appearance of a predatory shadow that follows her into the waking world. Is the boy another delusion, a sign that her condition is deteriorating, or something else - perhaps a sign that her dream state and the shadows are much, much more than a simple quirk of her own mind?

REVIEW: I came close to shaving a half-star off the rating for the abrupt ending, clearly leading into the second book in what appears to be a four part series, but the rest of the story was solid enough I decided to give it a pass. Bryn is a damaged teen from a damaged home, surrounded by other wounded people all struggling to make the best of imperfect lives, coping with burdens and demons they never asked for, yet often find more comforting than the unknown possibilities of letting their unhealthy habits go. It borders on angsty, but manages to stay just this side of the line. It's not a spoiler to say that Bryn's stranger is more than a simple hallucination (this is a fantasy title, after all), though he's no white knight, being at least as flawed and broken as she is. The ending, as I mentioned, feels rather abrupt, and I'm on the fence about continuing (I do have a sizeable backlog already), but overall I found it an enjoyable, sometimes harrowing and gut-wrenching read.

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Tuesday, May 8, 2018

wishtree (Katherine Applegate)

Katherine Applegate
Feiwel and Friends
Fiction, CH Fantasy
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: For over two hundred rings, Red has watched over its neighborhood as the resident wishtree: every May 1, people come to tie wishes to its branches, on paper or ribbons or even socks and undergarments. Not that Red has any real power as an oak tree. Normally, trees don't even speak, at least not to humans. But it has its friends, the animals who live in its branches and hollows, and people... well, while Red is an incurable optimist, even it has to admit that people can be tricky and hard to understand. When a new family one from a far-off land moves into the blue house, the people become very hard to understand indeed. These aren't the first immigrants to move into Red's neighborhood, but this is the first time anyone defaced its trunk with a message: LEAVE. Red can't figure out why; the girl Samar seems like any other girl, if perhaps more quiet, and her wish is simply for a friend in this new place. With the neighborhood growing more hostile and the landlady grumbling about the tree having outgrown its place, this may be Red's last chance to ever make a wish come true - if a tree can make any difference in the world.

REVIEW: Like Applegate's other recent books, this is a deceptively simple fable, tackling a tricky subject with heart and nuance without talking down to kids or lecturing. Here, with the unusual narrator Red, she offers a tree's-eye-view of prejudice, fear, and history. This is not the first time Red's neighborhood has had trouble accepting newcomers, though the ugly overtones of modern hate unsettle even the tree. Indeed, even amongst the animals, neighborhoods are often fraught with squabbles and misunderstandings and petty feuds. That doesn't mean happy endings are impossible, just that they're more complicated than most storybooks like to tell us. Red's efforts to make one wish come true, with help from its animal friends, are vaguely reminiscent of the gorilla Ivan's struggles in Applegate's The One and Only Ivan; both face challenges because of who (or what) they are, and must find unique ways to communicate with a species that, for all its tendency to talk incessantly, has a very difficult time actually listening. By turns silly, serious, and even sad, wishtree is an excellent tale for our troubled times, a reminder that we've been here before - but that history is no guarantee of a happy ending in the here and now if nobody will stand up for what is right.

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Saturday, May 5, 2018

Catseye (Andre Norton)

Andre Norton
Fiction, YA? Sci-Fi
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: As a boy on Norden, Troy Horan had dreams of becoming a Range Master like his father before him, hunting with bright fussel hawks and tracking vast herds of tupan... but, even across interstellar distances, war always comes to destroy dreams. Like many others across the galaxy displaced by skirmishes, Troy winds up on Konwar, where he must scrounge for day labor jobs with other noncitizen refugees outside the great city of Tikil. It seems a stroke of luck when he finds work in Kyger's pet shop: Troy's childhood taught him skills in handling animals, and Kyger imports all manner of exotic creatures catering to the whims and vanities of Tikil's moneyed elite. Kyger even has a fussel hawk, a painful reminder of home. But it's the man's latest imports that truly captivate Troy: Terran animals, peculiar creatures like cats and foxes and the clever kinkajou... animals with whom Troy develops an unexpected telepathic bond. All, however, is not as it seems at Kyger's shop. Soon, Troy finds himself caught up in a dangerous web of clashing powers and interworld intrigues, where his animal bond might save his life - or endanger it.

REVIEW: First published in 1961, it's hard not to see the age in Norton's "tell"-heavy style. Traces of racism tinge the plot, particularly in the untrustworthy "yellow" shop assistant Zul, and it's hard to imagine a modern kid or teen reading the Tikil honorific "Gentle Homo" - the local term for "gentleman" - with anything but a snigger. Norton's characters read a bit flat compared to many of today's offerings. It also reads rather juvenile, despite the main character being (nominally) an adult; had it been written today, it probably would've featured an aged-down Troy and been aimed at the middle grade market, but such categories weren't options at the time. Beyond those issues, though, are some interesting ideas and settings... too many to really explore properly, but which present some nice mind's-eye candy. The story reads fast, like much of Norton's work, and if there are some convenient coincidences that stretch credulity now and again, it still generally entertains.

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Tuesday, May 1, 2018

The Adamantine Palace (Stephen Deas)

The Adamantine Palace
The Memory of Flames series, Book 1
Stephen Deas
Fiction, Fantasy
*+ (Terrible/Bad)

DESCRIPTION: For centuries, the kings and queens of the realms surrounding the Adamantine Palace have ridden dragons as the ultimate show of power. The bartering and buying of rare viable hatchlings may be costly, the feeding and training moreso, but the value of a fiery beast is greater than their weight in gold, for no soldiers can stand against them... and a tame dragon is undyingly loyal to their rider. Should a dragon ever slip the bonds of the alchemical formulae that keep them docile, however, all Hell would break loose - and the political squabblings and machinations of an ambitious prince and his royal lover have just allowed that to happen.
The dragon Snow is the first of her kind to truly wake to her own mind in generations. Memories of past lives - of fire and death and mortal men crushed like so many ants - drive her to vengeance against those who have enslaved her kin: the alchemists, the dragon-priests, and ultimately the kings and queens whose power centers in the legendary Adamantine Palace.

REVIEW: You may notice, aside from the dragon Snow, a lack of names in the description. That is because I hated them. I honestly, down to my marrow hated every character presented in this story. The degree varied from general dislike to active malicious loathing, but there was not a single human I could even begin to relate to, let alone enjoy spending time around. As a result, most of them remain a jumble of names in my head as I think back on the story, unlikable people doing unpleasant things for entirely selfish and cold-hearted reasons. On top of that, they all seem to have stepped out of a time machine from at least fifty years ago: women use sex to entrap and coerce males whose brains exist solely below the beltline (except for the one dragon-obsessed princess who is portrayed as an immature fool for not sleeping her way to power like a woman oughtta, and the non-royal Outsider whose life is one of prostitution, rape, drug addiction, and zero agency - 'cause, hey, that's why guys read fantasy, I guess?), men generally disparage women even as they rut with wild abandon, everyone's white except for the evil, sly, not-so-subtly Asian "wizards," and despite lip service given to familial warmth, nobody comes closer to the warm end of the emotional scale than rather sketchy loyalty. So, while things kept happening on the page, I couldn't really be bothered to care about any of it. When Snow (a white dragon... is it mere coincidence that the author chose the only pure white dragon in generations to become the "leader" of dragon resistance? In this day and age, I have to wonder...) finally makes her appearance as an independent character - about a third of the way through - I thought I'd finally met someone to relate to... but, no, soon enough she turned into another generally repellent personality, marginally justified by being nonhuman and at least having a reason to not experience the full range of human emotions. (It takes a lot for this confirmed dracophile not to like a dragon in a book, but the author managed that.) Which is a shame, as I liked some of what Deas did with his dragons: savage yet loyal, clever yet impatient, full of secrets and flame, always treacherous to deal with on their own terms, they hearkened back to the less-friendly beasts of elder days, while still being powerfully and distinctly draconic and staunch allies if their trust can be earned. That - and, quite literally, nothing else - spared this a rock-bottom one star rating.

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