Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Book Review: Secondborn

Rebel Born (Secondborn, #3)Rebel Born by Amy A. Bartol

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This conclusion to the three book series Secondborn lacks the intrigue, politics, and mystery of it's two predecessors. As the series progressed into book 2 it held most of these elements with a slight increase in the science fiction aspects of the story. But our lead gal remained the same and her narrative was very compelling. Unfortunately book 3, Rebel Born, by Bartol is a bit of a mess. It takes our fantasy world and adds too much technology, too quickly.

Pet Peeve
Nothing bothers me more in literature than convenience. If your character needs all the stars to align every chapter for events to move forward, and you always make that automatically happen, then it's boring. Compelling stories have tension, excitement, uncertainty, etc. A good author keeps the line between what needs to happen, versus what does, very thin and always ensures that the events and outcomes are plausible (inside their worlds rules), logical and intricate enough to surprise the reader at times. Events that are curated too tightly, because the plot heavily relies on them, and don't easily fit cohesively in the story are frustrating and make me twitch. Reading is difficult when your twitching so much your eyes can't keep their place on the page.

There is one strong aspect to Bartol's trilogy however: the characters. She has a strong heroine, and sultry compassionate men whom all feel genuine.
From sentimental quotes like:

"life is lost without love”
To downright evil thoughts like:
"I merely strive to annihilate weakness. Isn’t that the very purest form of evolution?”
Bartol keeps the reader entranced by having authentic and honest people in her story. If only a book could stand entirely on the shoulders of it's characters, and didn't need believable plot, then Bartol might have a hit on her hands. Unfortunately, as much as character studies are one of my favourite types of reads, a character can't save a book entirely. We are not saved by our characters from Rebel Born being stupendously unbelievable and leaping technological barriers too quickly.

Sci-Fi/Fantasy Combos
As a reader of both the science fiction and fantasy genres I often love when they merge together. But it's tricky to balance the need for magic to be well 'magical' and science to be technical. Unfortunately these types of books are rarely done well. It seems to be quite the literary challenge to set up parameters for both science and magic that don't contradict each other or feel out of place in the same world. Bartol falls to the same trap I've seen in countless other books that merge sci-fi and fantasy together. In Rebel Born magic does X and technology does well... everything else. In fact magic becomes insignificant at one point and science the 'supreme ruler' of her world. This would be fine if the science used didn't resolve every single plot issue by just being. Where's the ingenuity of the characters in the resolution? Giving all the glory to magic or science is never satisfying for the reader. I want books to be clever and represent events in a compelling way where our characters are critical to the outcome; not just have science (or magic) make everything resolve by default.

Bartol has the writing style and character development skill needed to write good books; but she needs to work on her plot resolutions. I want to see our characters analyze and sort out situations on their own more; without the power of magic or science creating a perfect fix. The resolution can involve magic or science, don't get me wrong, but it shouldn't just be a 'wave and everything is better' scenario at the end of three books. Overall I wanted more from Bartol's series. I'll look for her publications in the future but will be a little wary of investing into any large series by her until I've seen a trilogy that doesn't rely on the flip of a magic wand (or press of a button) to make everything all better.

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.

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Book Review: The Lost Sister

The Lost SisterThe Lost Sister by Andrea Gunraj

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Don't pick-up The Lost Sister if you are looking for a light fluffy read. This is an intense, honest and emotional reflection on losing a family member, racism, child abuse, and residential schools. For those not familiar, residential schools were situations in the past where the Canadian government forced parents (often of colour, native descent, or Russian ancestry) to give up their children to government run facilities (called schools but they were more like jails). Where children were taught to forget their culture, language and traditions; and encouraged to adhere to more 'Western' conventions.

The overall plot of The Lost Sister isn't anything new in the mystery genre. A little girl goes missing and we follow the story via the eyes of her sister. Lucky for our lead girl she has an influence in her life that is helpful. A woman who, attended a residential school as a child, and is estranged from her own sister. Thus we are provided with a connection between two histories and taken on a journey of healing.
I foolishly didn't make the connection between our two stories until about 35% into the book. Knowing there is an eventual connection won't spoil anything for you as the book is more focused on the trauma and emotions of the characters than the actual plot events themselves.

At its core The Lost Sister is really about women. Be it young girls, teens, adults or elderly women. There is a constant cultural attitude (at least in North America) that pits women against one another. As though we are supposed to be constantly competing with our own gender to be bigger and better. I'm not sure why this exists exactly (maybe men thought it would be a good way to distract women if they fought amoungst themselves?) but it's clear to me in my life in Canada that this socialized behaviour for competition between girls is inherent. Andrea Gunraj does an excellent job of bringing this competitive culture forward and discussing it in an open and honest way. She gives us genuine emotions, comments and events that women encounter and tries to offer alternatives to fighting one another. If nothing else this book does try to breakdown the silos of racism, culture, religion, ethnicity and gender; in an attempt to remind us all that we are essentially the same inside. We all have physiology and biology that are comparable and so it makes no sense to pick on one another's subtle differences. Especially in a world already so full of hate.

Sisterhood vs Motherhood
Gunraj spends a lot of time during the residential school timeline looking at the difference between a sister and a mother. So often older siblings become parental like figures (especially in the absence of parents). I myself am the oldest of three and can confess that there were many days as a child/teen where I felt like I needed to step up and be more of a parent than a sibling to my own sister and brother. This complex relationship often turns sour as the siblings get older. The Lost Sister demonstrates this very effectively and Gunraj focuses on the decisions made by the sibling and how they affected the younger sister. Consider how different things had been if your sibling had only done XYZ instead of ABC... this is the core question The Lost Sister asks the reader and it brings up many challenging emotions and ideas/questions of blame. Of course ultimately blame doesn't change the past and while not a 'satisfying' ending, The Lost Sister does wrap things up in a way that allow the reader to have grown in their consideration towards why others may make the decisions they do.

This is not a pleasant read. But it's an important one. If you want to understand a little more about residential schools in Maritime Canada, or the challenges women have faced (from a very young age) in certain historical circumstances The Lost Sister is a good place to start. By no means will any of us ever be able to comprehend the extent of the injury done by residential schools; but at least by knowing it's history we have a chance of not repeating the same mistake. Instead, let us recognize that one another are both the same and different in our own unique and special way. If nothing else Gunraj has set a stage for further discussion amoungst readers about this embarrassing but important piece of Canada's history.

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.

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Friday, December 20, 2019

Book Review: Here There Are Monsters

Here There Are Monsters by Amelinda Bérubé

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There are well executed and poorly under taken concepts in Here There Are Monsters. Overall it was a let down for me (and many others if you peruse the other reviews). While the plot is okay and the thoughts of our lead gal are very genuine; all along there is something missing. It's lacking that spark or attraction that makes a book great (or even just 4-star good).

Internal Thoughts
The best part of Amelinda Berube's novel is the first person writing of her lead character. As the oldest of three kids, and 4 years separately me and my next sibling in age, I really connected with what our lead teen felt and expressed inside her head. From comments about how annoying her siblings are to how she is tired of feeling responsible for them given she's not the parent. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Berube is the oldest child in her family with a gap between siblings as all the thoughts our lead gal thinks are also ones I've thought over the years.

The actual plot itself is very interesting. A sister that is missing, weird happenings in the forest, and odd sculptures showing up all contribute to an overall creepy ambience in Here There Are Monsters. However the entire time the story is missing that something. I never really felt fear for our lead or her missing sister. I also never really felt like the strings of the story were linked together. It was as though one thing happened, and then another; but actually feeling like they were related and building towards something was missing. It's too bad because there is a great story to be told here if only I felt more invested. The ending is the bad icing on a crumbling cupcake as it falls apart very quickly and feels like it was written in about ten minutes on a bus just to get it done. It's unfortunate as a good ending, in some ways, might have saved this novel from it's mediocre status.

The Missing Sister
Take note newer writers, if you want your reader to feel something for a character they barely meet in the present day narrative then you MUST make them relatable and create an environment where the reader can have sympathy for them. We read flashbacks of the missing sister throughout the current day story and yet I still felt like I never knew her, and never cared. Now this may be because the story is told from the point of view of the older sister? Our lead gal has become a bit ambivalent towards her sister and her odd behaviour. I wonder if the flashbacks had been from the missing younger sisters perspective would that have created the bond needed for me to care?

There's opportunity here unfortunately Berube doesn't quite create a polished book that stands out. Here There Are Monsters feels like it should be better than it ultimately is. That's not to say it's a bad read. It's fine. Maybe a half step above your average free book. But it's certainly not going to stand out amoungst all the YA books of today; and doesn't live up to it's hyped pre-release. All-in-all you won't be missing much if you pass on it.
That said it is a stand-alone which is attractive to many. Although I can't help but feel thankful that it's one and done; and this world won't be revisited because there is barely enough to care about in this one book; let along if another was to be written in to make a series.

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.

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Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Book Review: Shatter the Sky

Shatter the SkyShatter the Sky by Rebecca Kim Wells

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The introduction to Shatter the Sky is absolutely adorable. We meet two girls, clearly in love, who are kissing in the woods. How cute right?! Sadly these two girls are almost immediately separated. Although that is the plot of Rebecca Kim Wells story; so I suppose it's hard to critic (lol). Unfortunately the remainder of the story isn't written as smoothly as the opening chapter. Many times Wells goes from stilted plot points to convenient happenings to confusing the heroine's goals throughout the 300 pages. And while there are dragons present they are perhaps not as prominently featured as many would like. Although I expect that will change into book 2 of the series.

Yes, there are dragons. Yes, people ride them. No, I do not know anything more about dragon riding than you can assume in advance of reading this novel. At best we learn about dragon eggs and bonding humans to dragons. That is essentially it. I craved a lot more context and content about how they rode dragons, our lead gals plan to steal one (she has no plan ever which was annoying), and/or if dragons were inherently friendly or not. We get tidbits of the personality of some dragons (and some possible reasons why) throughout; but I never felt like I really understood the culture of dragon riding or the historical reasons for dragons being used the way they are (other than the usual boring reason of war).

The overall plot is cliche but works. Girl looses girlfriend to an enemy group, girl leaves home to venture to save girlfriend, girl determines she needs a dragon to win, girl meets boy on the way and girl does a bunch of things because conveniently events fall into place for her. Oh wait, that last one is perhaps not in well written books.
One of my top 3 pet peeves in any plot is convenience. If a lead character just 'happens' to find a trap door, secret entrance, stumble upon a conversation, or is in the perfect spot every time they turn around; then probably your story is too convenient. I'm okay with these things happening once in awhile; but not every time the lead leaves her room. I got excited at one point during the novel that maybe our lead gal had some bad luck... except that bad luck 'drops' her into the hands of the boy who leads her on her journey. *sigh* Convenience is very boring and takes away from the excitement and drama that unexpected happenings bring to a story.

One nice thing about setting up our gal as a lesbian from the get-go is that the attractive boy she meets along her quest isn't a romantic factor. Instead he's just a friend. It mildly annoys me that he's still clearly gorgeous, special and affluent as though he was going to be a romantic interest; but then again I suppose that is just the formula of YA novels so I'll allow it.
I do like that Wells keeps the devotion and love of the lead gal for her girlfriend throughout. We often see our lead gal drawing strength from remembering why she is doing things and persevering because of the loving bond she has with her girlfriend. The devotion towards a lover is a wonderful change from many others YA books. It also (so far) ensures there is no love triangle! Always a plus in my books.

The Ending
Shatter the Sky is oddly written in that the beginning (minus chapter 1) is weaker than the end. Usually debut authors end up putting too much time into the beginning of a book and their endings suffer because of it. However Wells has a great ending. The writing style, pace and action all make the closure to this book really positive. However be aware, it is a series and there is a major cliffhanger.

I wouldn't be opposed to reading book 2 in Shatter the Sky series; but I doubt I'll go out of my way to get it. I'm interested to see what happens; but not dying to know. I'm also concerned that the convenient plot points will continue and the lack of dragon lore both items which are sure to annoy me if carried forward. But if Wells can capture the success of the ending of book 1 and build from it then book 2 would definitely be worth adding to the 'to be read' shelf.
All that said, for a debut YA novel, this is a decent read. I wouldn't discourage anyone whose interested in the premise from reading it; but it doesn't make my recommendations list either. Wells may be an author to watch in the future however as she is signed to Simon Schuster. There could be some great potential for her if she matures her plots and can replicate the narration pace of the end of the story throughout her future stories.

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.

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Book Review: Ninth House

Ninth House (Alex Stern, #1)Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Let's start with a few things that are relevant about me in the context of this review:
1) I've never read a Leigh Bardugo book before. I still plan to read her YA series (on my print shelf);
2) I like dark fantasy or grimdark as it's commonly called. I also enjoy explicit authors like Laurell K. Hamilton and (more recently) Marlon James;
3) I'm a recovered drug addict who hasn't used in 16 years.

So here's the thing, I went into this book wanting adult urban fantasy. Reading the blurb it sounds like the perfect 'Mel' book. Rituals, murder, ghosts, and a whole lot of darkness. What I got instead was disjointed characters, tolerable plot, and weak attempts at darkness. All that said the last 25% is much better than the first 75%. Unfortunately the last paragraph is so corny and lame (setting up book 2) that I nearly gave myself a stroke rolling my eyes into the back of head. Let's break it down into pieces:

One of the decent things about Bardugo's first adult novel is that the plot is not bad. It's not perfect, and could use some work in places; but overall I'd say it was strong enough to carry the book forward. The biggest issue I had was that our list of murder suspects was weak at best; and with limited character development it was tough to think it could be any one of them given how little we knew about them. Which brings me to...

This is the crux of what is wrong with Ninth House in my opinion. Bardugo has given us a leading gal that we are supposed to feel sympathy for. Instead I just felt annoyed. She's a whining wuss at first; and later she feels fake and unrealistic. I mean, Bardugo wants us to believe that a girl who has seen ghosts her whole life, is a major drug user and recently ran with very rough crowds is afraid of... well frankly... anything? I like that she has a healthy fear of the ghosts; but her fear of the people and power surrounding her just doesn't fit. She shouldn't care; there is no threat of jail over her head so what exactly does Lethe have on her to make her co-operate? I never did figure that out. And what was Bardugo thinking making our gal's mentor missing from page one?!
Then there is our sidekick man who is an interesting, albeit missing (literally) character. As we only see him in flashbacks he doesn't feel like he's an integral part of the story at first. As his importance is amped up in the end I'd have liked more time to understand him as a person. Instead we spend a lot of time with a clean-cut cop who, ironically, is probably my favourite chracter.
Our cop is not a magic user of any kind. Instead he's just your average guy that got offered a lot of money to work for a secret society. Not only is he the most realistic character but he's also the only one whose actions always feel perfect for his personality.
Wrapping all that up with some weak women, except maybe one lady near the end, we get a bunch of typical, preppy Yale girls and scuzzy Yale boys. No thanks to any of them.

Let's get to one of my biggest pet peeves about Ninth House. Bardugo gives us a lead gal whose life is worth nothing; and then she suddenly gets an opportunity to attend Yale and be a part of a network of secret societies. Neat, I guess. But wheres the authenticity of her recent drug use? There's no cravings of any kind, no mention of withdrawl time, and no actual addiction symptoms (like shaking hands, excessive sweating, twitching, etc). The one thing Bardugo did get right is giving our lead gal an obvious motive for her drug use and descent into a personal hell as a teenager.
Sticking with possible trigger events; there's a rape scene that is well written. But, like the drug use, there is a lack of follow-through with the types of emotional scars an event like that leaves on someone. Where's the specific fear and follow-up? We feel it in the flashbacks at times but I never felt like our gal was as afraid as she should be. Or maybe she just relies on magical wards too much...
The core issue for me is that the thoughts of our characters don't match up with the trauma they've experienced.

Snakes, Secret Socities & Sorcery
Yep we've got lots of secret socities (nine surprisingly, lol) on campus at Yale and we have exactly ZERO actual snakes. I cannot even begin to tell you how frustrating this was for me (put a snake on a cover and then don't even feature one live snake!). What's perhaps worse is our lead gal has snake tattoos that are referenced but never explained. I wanna know why she chose snakes! I feel like this is a piece of her emotional self that is key (see character issues above). Perhaps Bardugo has no tattoos; but for myself (and most I know) tattoos have symbolism, meaning and value. Understanding the tattoos of our gal might have helped with the weak emotional connection I felt to her. It's a clear lost opportunity to give our leading gal some emotional substance that she carries with her everyday.

As for the magic there were some really well put together rituals and overall ambience of each attempt to use said magic. I was enjoying the use of Latin (and other) language use; right up until Bardugo translates some Latin to "fuck". Am I actually expected to believe there is a direct translation to fuck in Latin? Come on. Have some respect for your readers Bardugo and give us a proper translation. We can infer from there the meaning or impact of the words. This moment is one of many that stood out to me as ridiculous for an adult book (maybe you'd do it in a YA one...).

Truth Peppered Throughout
The absolute best thing in Ninth House is Bardugo's use of real events. From a skeleton found following Hurricane Sandy to the layout of Yale campus to the stories of hauntings or other happenings on said campus. Her incorporation of true historical tidbits shows a commitment to story telling that I admire. If only the rest of the story, especially our lead gal's drug use, was as genuine as the tiny side moments we are given.

The Morale?
This line, from the book, perhaps sums up best what I think Bardugo is trying to say in Ninth House:
"magic wasn't something gilded and benign, just another commodity that only some people could afford."
Let's face it, huamns will market and monopolize everything and anything in the end. We've done it with animals, nature, commodities and even our fellow human beings. Of course we are going to do it with something as powerful as ritual magic.
In this same vein Bardugo sets up a good showing of the dispartity between the poor and the rich, the educated and the non, and the Yale elite to the rest of the world. She uses this to help the reader understand the classes of ghosts out lead gal encounters. It's clear that Bardugo wants to make a statement about privilege and I believe that is something she succeeded with in Ninth House.

This is a 3-star book at best for me. I didn't hate it; but I didn't really like it. I might have DNF'd it if not for it being so hyped and my desire to be able to speak to the entire book. It feels a little too 'YA' if you will. While the dark events are there, the characters emotions and reactions don't feel genuine to go along with those plot points. Perhaps Bardugo is a great YA writer (I'll get to her other books, promise) but her skill as an adult urban fantasy writer is mediocre at best. I wanted more from the characters, from the magic, from the circumstances and above all from the promised darkness of a world filled with ghosts, demons and ritual sacrifice.
In the end I feel like this line (ironically) from Ninth House sums up my experience:
"you were all excited, and by page two you realize it's a lot of words and not much drama."

The final question left to be asked: will I read book two?
I don't think I will bother. Particarly given the ridiculous premise of what the next book will focus on. I actually laughed out loud at how chessy and silly the final lines are. I mean, if Bardugo can't portray a tiny piece of what hell on Earth is like even for a recent drug user, I don't expect her to do any better in any other dark setting that she brings forward in the series.

Pre-read comment
Am I being tricked into reading this because there might be snakes and then there aren’t? This happens a lot. Us snake lovers want good fiction too where our hissing babies are on top and not always evil.
Whom I kidding everyone, including me, will read this no matter the content. 😂

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Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Book Review: Fairy Science

Fairy ScienceFairy Science by Ashley Spires

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is an interesting children’s book. It takes the concept of science and applies it to fairies whom have magic. I like the science concepts taught about photosynthesis, fog, gravity, etc. However it could be very confusing to a child to understand that the overall idea is nothing is magic; it just has an explanation we may not know yet. I’m not sure the book conveyed this very well.
I do really like the illustrations and that the glitter on the cover (and fairies in general) are likely to attract the attention of little girls. We certainly need more women in science! Ashley Spires (Canadian author and illustrator) does a good job of keeping the pictures light but contextual.

One caution here for those purchasing this: be sure you know the concepts in the book in advance! For example: they call fog ‘condensate’ which is correct but I could see a child not getting it based on the picture. You’re likely to get asked why gravity works, what is dispersion, and other things referenced in the book. So I’d recommend being prepared to answer some basic questions. For myself prior to reading this cute book to a child I’d brush up on dispersion and maybe condensate to be sure I could easily explain it. Remembering that knowing what something is and answering a child’s specific questions can be very different things!
Another thing to be prepared for is the termination of seeds exercise at the back of the book. You just know many children will want to immediately do it.

Overall this is cute enough. I like the scientific method presented, the use of science words (like hypothesis, method, photosynthesis, etc.). It’s a picture book appropriate for a bit of an older age due to its complexity of words. I’d even buy Fairy Science for as old as a 7-8 year old.

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.

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Friday, December 6, 2019

Book Review: The Girl Who Could Move Sh*t With Her Mind

The Girl Who Could Move Sh*t with Her MindThe Girl Who Could Move Sh*t with Her Mind by Jackson Ford

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I liked the concept and plot but felt overall disconnected with the characters. There is a lot of humour and wit (just like the title implies) in Jackson Ford's first book of a new series called Frost Files. However it often felt like the humour was just covering up for poor character development. Jackson Ford does, however, start off very fast in the plot department. Let's get into some details:

Leading Gal
The female main character, whom the story is told through, is a bitter sarcastic, and relatively funny 22 year old. The reader is immediately given the impression that this chick is not happy about her plight in life, her 'superpower' or the current situation she finds herself in. But she's clearly quick thinking on her feet and with her wit.
To give you an idea however of why this gal feels so shallow this is one of the opening lines of her thoughts:
"...a face that still gets her ID’d at the liquor store. Even though I’ve been able to buy my own drinks like a big girl for a whole year now.”
Sure being ID'd is annoying. But if you're only one year over the age limit I don't think you get to complain. I'm 37 and in all seriousness am constantly ID'd. Both my husband and I look about 10 years younger (or more) than we are. I'd kill to have only been ID'd for one year after I turned 18 (legal age in my province). So from the get-go I knew that this was going to be a typical Millennial girl that would annoy me. And I was right.
I should mention here that there is another POV in this story but it was so lackluster that I didn't really key in on any of its moments. This book is really all about our leading gal with the power to move stuff.

Thankfully our girl who can move sh*t with her mind is capable of being fairly amusing. This line in particular had me imaging all kinds of things:
"The only thing worse than splatting onto the sidewalk would be doing it naked."
Seems fair and true! (lol) The other characters around our lead gal are equally amusing and sarcastic. Without this wit I don't think I'd have lasted. The plot is good, a bit weak in places but overall acceptable, and the concept and 'power' given to our gal is fine; but without the amusement these characters would appear as cardboard as they are unfortunately.

There is a fair bit of plot and happenings, as one would expect, when you get into a science fiction novel like Ford has provided us. The Girl Who Could Move Sh*t With Her Mind has the typical super power troupes you expect like having: conspiracies, destroyed childhoods, dependencies on the bad guy and the like. Take TV Shows like: The Gifted, Supergirl, Smallville, every spy show ever, and even a splash of Buffy the Vampire Slayer; and you've basically got the premise of this novel. That's okay with me I expect troupes when I read very genre geared novels and so it didn't bother me too much. The one thing I would argue is there isn't an X-Files feel here for me. This book lacks the depth X-Files had.

The saving grace of Ford's first installment, in the series Frost Files, is that the ending is strong. It's engaging and didn't feel cheap. It wasn't an 'ah-ha' or 'oh wow' moment like I prefer; but it's plausible, believable and moved me to want to read the next book.
For me a three star book isn't bad but isn't good. It's just meh. I wouldn't convince anyone to read it, or recommend it necessarily, but if someone asked me about it and was interested I wouldn't convince them to find a different novel to pick-up. My hope here is that book 2 improves and our characters are less cardboard and more flesh and bone.

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.

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