Wednesday, July 31, 2019

July Site Update

Just a quick note that the main Brightdreamer Books site has been updated, archiving and cross-linking July's reviews.


Friday, July 26, 2019

Stronger Than a Bronze Dragon (Mary Fan)

Stronger Than a Bronze Dragon
Mary Fan
Page Street Publishing
Fiction, YA Fantasy
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Liang Anlei was just a child when she watched the Shadow Warrior, a vicious Ligui spirit of living darkness, cut down her father, and ever since she has wanted only one thing: vengeance. Now she is a warrior with the town guard, defending the people of Dailan from the Ligui, but their numbers keep growing as the town dwindles - until the bronze dragons arrive. Viceroy Kang, a mage of considerable power, has devised these and numerous other wonders that would protect the land, but he charges a steep price: the pearl of the River Dragon and the hand of a townswoman as a bride. The pearl is a small enough token - for all that a dragon gifted it to their ancestors, it has done nothing to protect Dailan. But the arrogant man wants Anlei as the bride. For the sake of her family, she reluctantly agrees, until a masked thief makes a more tempting offer: a journey to the Courts of Hell to discover the source of the Ligui. She hardly hesitates to take this last chance for glory before the chains of matrimony tie her down, but what she finds is more terrifying than any demon.

REVIEW: It's a great world with some nice concepts in the magi-mechanical bronze dragons and other wonders, but the story is hobbled by Anlei. She's a frustrating window to view the tale through, being impossibly obtuse about several points even given her atypical mentality: it's established early on that she's dyslexic and possibly a touch autistic, traits that are hammered home so hard that it's some time before any other characteristic can be seen. She may process the world differently, but that doesn't explain how she misses so many glaring clues as to what's going on. Her sidekick, the thief boy Tai, is frankly irritating for far too long; when he is finally explained I was past the point where I felt much sympathy. When you want to reach into the book and slap the main characters silly, it's difficult to care about the world or the plot. Things do at least move rapidly, wending from palace to village and waking lands to underworld and back again, building at last to a reveal that's far less shocking to the reader than the deliberately obtuse leads, but at least involves plenty of action. I liked some of the ideas and mind's-eye candy, and once in a while (almost despite itself) emotions rang true, but overall I just didn't enjoy it as much as I'd hoped.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Flash Gold (Lindsay Buroker) - My Review
Dragon Keeper (Carole Wilkinson) - My Review
The Black Tides of Heaven (JY Yang) - My Review

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Stranger Things: The Other Side (Jody Houser)

Stranger Things: The Other Side
A Stranger Things graphic novel, Volume 1
Jody Houser, illustrations by Stefano Martino and Keith Champagne
Dark Horse Books
Fiction, YA? Fantasy/Graphic Novel/Horror/Media Tie-In
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Young Will Byers led an ordinary life in small-town Hawkins, Indiana. The most danger he ever faced was in Dungeons and Dragons as the wizard Will the Wise. Then one night, riding his bike home in the dark, he somehow takes a wrong turn and ends up... elsewhere. Everything looks the same, but darker. Emptier. And there's something lurking here - a monster that even a wizard would hesitate to confront, but which stands between him and the way home.
Based on the Netflix Originals series Stranger Things, created by the Duffer brothers.

REVIEW: I've been enjoying the series, so this graphic novel, detailing Will's ordeal in the Upside-Down during the first season, looked like an interesting read. On some basic level, though, it's just plain unnecessary. Will finds himself lost and alone in a shadowy version of Hawkins (alone save for the Demogorgon beast, that is), surrounded by voices he cannot reach and with only rare glimpses of his mother and the mysterious girl Eleven. He draws on courage and lessons gleaned from his role-playing experiences, striving to become Will the Wise in order to survive... but the story is mostly him wandering (or running) through the Upside-Down, eluding the Demogorgon and trying (and failing) to escape. It doesn't add much to either the story arc or the character, as much of it was self-evident from the show. Some of the illustrations failed to capture actor likenesses, as well. While it's not a bad visit to Hawkins and the Upside-Down, and it conveys some sense of the isolation and terror experienced by Will, it ultimately feels like a needless cul-de-sac rehashing events the viewer already experienced.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Something Wicked This Way Comes (Ray Bradbury) - My Review
Coraline (Neil Gaiman) - My Review
Stranger Things Netflix Exclusive Complete Season 1 and Season 2 Bundle, DVD / Blu-ray Discs in VHS Style Boxes - Amazon link

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

The Mueller Report (The Washington Post)

The Mueller Report
The Washington Post, with Rosalind S. Helderman and Matt Zapotosky
Nonfiction, Law/Politics
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: The official public documentation of the Special Council investigation into possible foreign interference, and later attempts to cover up crimes, associated with the American 2016 presidential election, presented with footnotes and additional related material.

REVIEW: This is not the sort of material I regularly read, but some documents are too important to ignore. The Mueller report is one of them.
The rating takes into account the overall thoroughness of the investigation, which was made under difficult (and sometimes hostile) circumstances. Though dense and thick with names and associations, not to mention copious legalese (particularly in the sections on whether or not there is any standing to even question Presidential authority and conduct), the gist of matters is not difficult to ascertain. Oddly enough, it's post-election conduct that raises the most red flags and is the most damning; proving knowledge of Russian interference pre-election is much more difficult, given the layers of contacts and general insulation of the candidate from acting individuals. Couple that with an official White House stance that facts are malleable (the infamous stance that the president has a right to "alternative facts" being just one example) and that certain people are above the law (in direct violation of Constitutional intent, that all powers should be checked and balance and should, first and foremost, exercise their authority for the good of the American people and not the self), plus the numerous convictions already on record related to these events, and there's simply far too much smoke for there not to be a fire somewhere, even if it's not the one the Special Council initially investigated. The process itself appears to have been undertaken with utmost impartiality.
The ultimate picture is grim indeed, a tangled web that the best conspiracy thriller authors would hesitate to posit, yet backed up by testimony and evidence as actual occurrences. Failure to act on these findings paints an even grimmer picture of the state of our nation, as partisan wrangling and posturing appears to take precedent over actually reading the gathered evidence. As the last lines state in words that may well go down in history: "Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, neither does it exonerate him." This is not an exoneration by any means, but while not every avenue investigated here resulted in suspect findings, those who have benefited from these events - regardless of proof of personal knowledge of shadiness or active wrongdoing - appear to have successfully placed themselves beyond reach of further investigation, let alone trial.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Prince (Niccolo Machiavelli) - My Review
The Rights of Man (Thomas Paine) - My Review
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Friday, July 19, 2019

The Infinite Sea (Rick Yancey)

The Infinite Sea
The 5th Wave trilogy, Book 2
Rick Yancey
Fiction, YA Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Once, humans ruled planet Earth, numbering in the billions. Now, after the Others arrived and unleashed four population-devastating Waves of horror, almost none remain... and of those, some aren't fully human anymore, but Silencers: alien consciousnesses downloaded into human hosts. Come spring, the 5th Wave will launch. An army of brainwashed child soldiers under the direction of Other leaders will hunt down the last stragglers.
Which gives Cassie Sullivan and her companions three months to live. At most.
After escaping the camp where her kid brother had been stolen and trained to kill, she, her one-time crush Ben, and a handful of fellow deserters are almost out of hiding places. Wounded, starving, holed up in an abandoned hotel, they argue about their next move, even as they all know the truth. Not even Evan, the Silencer who broke protocol when he chose his love of Cassie over his directive, can save them if they can't figure out what the Others' ultimate plan is, a plan that has to be about more than mere extermination.

REVIEW: It took me a while to get back into the rhythm of Yancey's dystopian tale, as I remembered who was who and where they were; it has been a few years since I read the first installment, after all. From the start, though, Yancey's near-poetic voice carried me along, making the hopelessness, the rage, the despair, and the devastation almost beautiful. Carrie shares page-time with hard-edged recruit Marika, better known as Ringer, the jaded sharpshooter from Ben's squad who figured out the truth behind their "mission" before he did. Meanwhile, Evan managed to survive his risky gambit that allowed Carrie and her companions to escape, but at a great cost, and General Vosch shows he's far from finished with their little group. Events move fairly quickly, with plenty of action (and more than a little death and gore), pushing the limits of human (and inhuman) endurance as the story openly addresses what had appeared to be a weak spot in the first volume: why the Others chose such a roundabout method to finish off humanity given their planetbusting capacities. (Skirting spoilers, the question is only partly answered here.) Once in a while the angst borders on overkill, though when one is in the throes of a true species-ending apocalypse, angst is a perfectly understandable reaction. It narrowly missed out on a extra half-star due to overall "middle book syndrome": being in the middle of a trilogy means it both begins and ends a bit up in the air, and once in a while I felt I was being toyed with just to draw important revelations out into the third installment. Beyond that, it made for an enjoyable, though harrowing, read, a true end-of-the-world dystopia rendered lyrical.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Martian Chronicles (Ray Bradbury) - My Review
When the Tripods Came (John Christopher) - My Review
The 5th Wave (Rick Yancey) - My Review

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Three Parts Dead (Max Gladstone)

Three Parts Dead
The Craft Sequence, Book 1
Max Gladstone
Fiction, Fantasy
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: For generations, Applied Theology allowed human priests to channel the power of the gods, immortal beings who fed in turn on the faith and soulstuff of their believers... until a century ago, when one man posited that the theory behind theology could be used in other ways. Thus rose the Craft, schools of men and women who sought to harness power for themselves, culminating in the God Wars of fifty years ago that saw most deities destroyed. Kos the Everburning, fire god of the vast city of Alt Coulumb, was one of the survivors - until a few days ago.
Tara Abernathy's graduation from the Hidden Schools of the Craft was marred by her immediate ejection from the floating edifice and a plummet to Earth she barely survived. Her exile ends unexpectedly when a former professor, Elayne Kevarian, recruits her to a private necromancy firm. Their first job: resurrect Kos, or at least a semblance of Him, so the lights stay on in Alt Coulumb and the citizens don't panic when the last of His residual power fades with the turning of the moon. But before they can resurrect the god, they have to figure out why He died... leading Tara and shaken acolyte Abelard on a twisted, dangerous trail in search of Kos's murderer.

REVIEW: Three Parts Dead starts with a great premise - a murdered god - in a complex and intriguing world, where deities are as much a manifestation of magical contracts (power paid out for faith paid in, with interest) as independent entities. Elements of necromancy, religion, borderline steampunk, and more blend into the strange web of people and powers that make up Alt Coulumb. At first, it's an exhilirating mixture, complete with characters who may have moral compass deficiencies but are definitely interesting. At times, though, the surreality overwhelms the interest; though some elements of the magic systems feel solid, others are murky enough that literally anything seems either possible or impossible, which can be dazzling or numbing (in this case, tending toward the latter.) It moves quickly, if sometimes circularly and/or bizarrely, down winding city streets and the boiler room bowels of the great church of Kos, up to rooftops where a secretive race of stone Guardians mourns their lost creator, through an elite club where vampires and other inhumans (or marginally humans) party and indulge sadomasochistic fantasies, and even into a courtroom where advocates battle their cases out via magic, though a few elements of the climax were telegraphed blatantly while others felt dropped in from nowhere. By the end, I felt subtly let down for reasons I couldn't quite identify; at some point, I think I stopped enjoying the characters and was left wandering through a world just a hair too surreal to be believed. Still, the overall ideas were nicely unique and certainly intriguing, even if I don't expect to follow the series further.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Armored Saint (Myke Cole) - My Review
The Water Mirror (Kai Meyer) - My Review
Warbreaker (Brandon Sanderson) - My Review

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Altered Carbon: Download Blues (Richard K. Morgan and Rik Hoskin)

Altered Carbon: Download Blues
A Takeshi Kovaks graphic novel
Richard K. Morgan and Rik Hoskin, illustrations by Ferran Sellares
Dynamite Entertainment
Fiction, Graphic Novel/Media Tie-In/Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Across the interstellar Protectorate, Envoys have a reputation as rough customers, and ex-Envoys even moreso. So when a business magnate is found murdered in his hotel room while his ex-Envoy bodyguard is standing right outside the door, the police on Sovami consider him a prime suspect, or at least an accessory. But he refuses to talk - until they bring in another ex-Envoy already locked up for disorderly conduct, a man named Takeshi Kovacs. Kovacs isn't normally a fan of the cops, but he's offered a chance to erase the charges against him if he can get this guy to talk. It seemed like an easy enough request - until the suspect blows up the interrogation room and tackles him out through a skyscraper window during an escape. The blast took out the officers and nearly killed him, and Kovacs takes that kind of thing personally. Thus begins a chase across the stars, from one expendable "sleeve" body to another, through a plot with roots deep in a century-old atrocity of justice.
Based on the Takeshi Kovacs novels by Richard K. Morgan, also a Netflix Originals series.

REVIEW: This graphic novel is a sort of hybrid between Morgan's book, which forms the roots of the setting and story arc, and the Netflix series, which has a strong influence on the artwork and overall color palette. (I checked, and this was published in early 2019, a year after the show debuted: those frames that looked straight out of the streaming show were definitely homages, not inspirations.) The whole works reasonably well, a self-contained adventure for the jaded antihero Kovacs that could exist before, after, or during the novel series. It starts with a high-class man and prostitutes of iffy legality, which threatened to hew too close to the first book and made me wonder if that was the only sort of plotline that Kovacs dealt with, but soon skews off on its own trajectory. The body count starts racking up soon, and once again stack technology and resleeving play heavily into the storyline, as the tale leaps from planet to planet, from surface to orbit, and even stopping off in a self-contained retirement habitat. Clean justice isn't really a thing in this universe (or our own, sadly), but what unfolds offers about the closest one can expect in a universe where power is built on corruption and watered with small oceans of blood. A decent, if again testosterone-heavy, cyberpunk noir graphic novel, though I'm not sure how well someone who was unfamiliar with Morgan's work (or the Netflix series) would follow it; it seemed fairly clearly laid out to me, but I've had prior exposure.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Kiln People (David Brin) - My Review
Descender: The Deluxe Edition Volume 1 (Jeff Lemire) - My Review
Altered Carbon (Richard K. Morgan) - My Review

Monday, July 8, 2019

The Myth of Multitasking (Dave Crenshaw)

The Myth of Multitasking: How "Doing It All" Gets Nothing Done
Dave Crenshaw
Nonfiction, Business/Self-Help
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: In a fable for the modern business world, consultant Phil helps business owner Helen figure out how the corporate myth of "multitasking" is costing her company more time, energy, and money than she realized - and what to do about it.

REVIEW: A few years back, I watched Crenshaw's time management lecture course via Lynda's online learning site, so I thought I'd track down his book. As numerous studies indicate, multitasking is not something a human brain actually does. In truth, brains and computers only do one thing at a time. The problem is that a computer processor switches tasks so fast a human doesn't notice the lag, so the human thinks they can do the same, when in fact every switch costs time - sometimes mere seconds, sometimes minutes - that adds up to startling amounts of waste, not to mention mistakes and frustrations.
The fictional Phil walks Helen and subordinate Sally through a few exercises that point out how counterproductive the concept of multitasking truly is, and offers some steps to remedy the situation, improve actual productivity, and reduce stress all around. He is, however, intentionally vague on several points; I suspect this book was originally part of a live lecture/course series, wherein Crenshaw provided more detailed (and likely customized) information beyond the few worksheets included at the back, meaning the book was never intended to stand completely on its own. As such, it loses a little effectiveness when read without supplemental material or support. (It also has limited use beyond the corporate world; when one takes books out of boxes at a part-time warehouse job, dealing with phone calls from co-workers or scheduling regular meeting times with nonexistent subordinates isn't really an issue.) I also found the fable structure forced; why couldn't Crenshaw just write a nonfiction book, with anecdotes and study excerpts to back up claims and emphasize points?
The Myth of Multitasking makes a decent, quick-reading counterpoint to the continued cultural insistence that, thanks to technology, we can overcome our evolved mental capacities and do it all, all at once. Mental resources, like time and money, need to be budgeted carefully; they are not infinite, and no smartphone or app is ever going to change that. (To be honest, though, I got more out of the Lynda courses, which delved into more specifics of setting up a calendar, dealing with physical as well as mental clutter, and other issues that come up when trying to make a major change. Since Lynda access is now offered through some library services for free, I'd suggest taking a look for yourself if you're serious about breaking the multitasking habit.)

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Habit Fix (Eileen Rose Giadone) - My Review
The Laws of Money, the Lessons of Life (Suze Orman) - My Review
Fast Focus (Damon Zahariades) - My Review

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Trail of Lightning (Rebecca Roanhorse)

Trail of Lightning
The Sixth World series, Book 1
Rebecca Roanhorse
Saga Press
Fiction, Fantasy
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: When the Big Water came, drowning most of the world and shattering civilization, the people of Dinetah - once the Navajo Reservation - were prepared, protected by a wall built with power rooted in their ancestral tales and pantheon. With the rising water came the return of old forces, ancestral powers, inhuman beings... and meddlesome gods.
When her grandmother was slain, the girl Maggie Hoskie was saved by Neizghani, immortal Monsterslayer and wielder of a blade forged by pure lightning. He took her on as apprentice, and she grew to love him, even as he trained her to be as great a killer as himself - only to abandon her, suddenly and inexplicably, as though she'd become too much a monster herself for him to consort with. When a new breed of monster begins preying on Dinetah, Maggie must tackle the challenge on her own - a challenge that entangles her with the charming apprentice medicine man Kai, some old and not-so-friendly acquaintances, and the conniving trickster Coyote himself. If only she could be certain that the greatest threat to the Dine people was the monsters, and not herself...

REVIEW: This quick-reading novel, a post-apocalyptic tale based on Native American mythos, has been nominated for several awards, and I can certainly see why. Not only is the concept exciting and fresh, but Maggie's a decent antihero to follow, competent and clever enough to root for without being either too perfect or too brooding. Roanhorse builds an interesting world, with ancestral powers that can be as much a burden as a gift and monsters that aren't simple rehashes of vampires or zombies, plus gods that retain their inscrutable immortal mentality even when interacting with "five-fingered people" (ordinary mortals.) The action starts quickly and rarely slackens. Unfortunately, at some point it becomes apparent that Maggie and her partner of convenience Kai aren't really solving anything, but are being led around by external forces. This culminates in a finale that left me cold for reasons I can't elaborate on without spoilers. (I will say that there's an underlying measure of... possessiveness, I suppose is the word, concerning how Maggie is viewed by others in her life that rubbed me the wrong way, especially given how independent she had been until then.) The wrap-up feels too abrupt, as well, clearly meant to lure me into the second volume. This disappointment nearly dropped the book to a flat three stars, but the earlier originality, the distinctive characters and world, managed to claw back a half-star. If you're looking for a different sort of post-apocalyptic fantasy, it's worth reading; just be prepared for the ending.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Sky Coyote (Kage Baker) - My Review
Monstress Volume 1: Awakening (Marjorie Liu) - My Review
The Falconer (Elizabeth May) - My Review

Friday, July 5, 2019

Arabella and the Battle of Venus (David D. Levine)

Arabella and the Battle of Venus
The Adventures of Arabella Ashby, Book 2
David D. Levine
Fiction, YA? Adventure/Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: After a tumultuous introduction and much hardship, the lady Arabella Ashby had hoped to marry her beloved Captain Singh as soon as possible - but, while the rebellion on Mars may have ended (with their help, naturally), the rest of the solar system is still at war, especially after the tyrant Napoleon escaped from his lunar prison and holed up in the jungles of Venus. When Captain Singh is ordered to the green planet by the company, he has no choice but to acquiesce... and when his ship is captured by the French, Arabella has no choice but to set out to rescue him, accompanied by the privateer Captain Fox and a burdensome escort, the Lady Corey, whom her brother insists she bring for propriety's sake.

REVIEW: Like the first book, this retro-flavored adventure reads like Edgar Rice Burroughs (or maybe more like Jules Verne) crossed with the Age of Sail, set in a fantastic alternate history where sailing ships ply the solar system and European colonialism has spread to the planets. Also like the first, sometimes the suspension of belief can feel like a slight strain, even given the inherently fantastic physics at work, but it makes for a ripping yarn. Arabella remains a headstrong young woman, but not without her flaws and blind spots. She chafes at being saddled with the widowed Lady Corey, but finds she has much to learn from the older and far more proper Englishwoman, even if Arabella still refuses to let society dictate her vocation and happiness. Indeed, she finds herself sidelined more than once, as her skill set fails to meet the demands of a current challenge; learning to trust others and be patient takes some serious effort when she's so used to taking everything in her own two hands (though I admit once in a while I tired of her helplessness.) Meanwhile, she finds her loyalty to Singh tested by the dashing rogue Fox, a reminder that, for all she's been through and all she's learned, in some ways she's still been sheltered, particularly in matters of the heart. Singh further tests her by proving oddly aloof when she finally locates him, albeit under inauspicious circumstances. The journey and rescue are full of challenges and wonders and dangers, from an encounter with vast "wind whales" in the spaceways to the smothering jungles of Venus (not to mention the froglike Venusians, who in some ways felt underutilized, for all that hints were dropped of a far more complex culture than met the eye), building once more to a breakneck battle at the climax. If a few parts felt a bit predictable, and if some other elements struck me as slightly flat or overstretched for effect, well, it still made for an enjoyable enough read for a four star rating. Still, I hope things pick up slightly for the final third installment; I could do with a little less of the in-transit dithering next time out, if I'm being entirely honest here.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Arabella of Mars (David D. Levine) - My Review
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Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Beasts of Burden: Wise Dogs and Eldritch Men (Evan Dorkin)

Beasts of Burden: Wise Dogs and Eldritch Men
The Beasts of Burden series, Issues 1 - 4
Evan Dorkin, illustrations by Benjamin Dewey and Nate Piekos
Dark Horse Books
Fiction, MG? Fantasy/Graphic Novel/Horror
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: When unusual happenings disturb the quiet Pokano Mountains, the Scottish Terrier Lundy and his companions set out to investigate. These are no ordinary housepets: they are trained mages, from a long and storied lineage of wise dogs who have defended humanity against occult darkness for generations. What looked to be an ordinary forest fire turns out instead to be the work of a salamander, a fire elemental... but the poor creature was only trying to free itself from a cruel trap, one laced with crude but powerful spells the likes of which the dogs have never seen. Who in their right minds would want to trap a salamander - and do they have anything to do with the rise in mutated beasts and attacks in the area? The wise dogs are on the trail, as team novice Miranda gets a trial by fire - in more ways than one.

REVIEW: For those who see the dogs on the cover and think it looks like a cute, harmless little tale for young readers, beware: there is plentiful gore and some violent deaths, not to mention some rather scary monsters and men. (If they can't handle the Watership Down movie, they may want to take a pass on this one.) Beyond that, this volume sets up an interesting world, where pets can speak and be protectors against dark forces. The dogs make a decent team, though not without tensions; Lundy's handling of the salamander runs at odds to his teammates. Their world is a dark and lonely one, though it was not always so, as hints are dropped that dogs used to work with human partners and only recently had to go it alone. (Mostly alone, that is: they do have one friendly contact among men.) Their investigation of the salamander trap leads them to a secret hidden deep in the Pocano Mountains and a danger they've never encountered before, but a wise dog never turns their tail on a challenge, no matter the cost. The story moves fairly fast - a little too fast to establish more than broad-stroke personalities in the dogs, of whom Lundy and Miranda are the most fleshed out - and wraps with several dangling threads leading to even more trouble on the horizon. The illustrations lend the concept a sense of realism and weight, not veering into cutesy or stylized territory... though this realism also applies to the gore, as another warning for sensitive readers. In the end, aside from a nagging sense that a few elements weren't explored or explained enough (even given this is just a first volume), I enjoyed it enough for a solid four star rating.

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The Autumnlands Volume 1 :Tooth and Claw (Kurt Busiek) - My Review
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WE3 (Grant Morrison) - My Review