Tag Archives: steampunk

Curtsies & Conspiracies, by Gail Carriger

Title: Curtsies & ConspiraciesCurtsiesConspiracies (Finishing School #2)
Author: Gail Carriger
Year of Publication: 2013
Length: 320 pages
Genre: YA steampunk paranormal
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 4 stars

The second installment in Carriger’s Finishing School Series is every bit as good as the first. Which is to say, not flawless, but thoroughly entertaining.

Returning to the floating school for female spies, we find Sophronia and her peers receiving their first evaluations. Each young lady is tested individually, but the results are given en masse. Sophronia’s ludicrously high marks make her a target for ostracization, even from her nearest and dearest — Dimity, Sidhaeg, and Agatha. Even stranger, the school is planning a trip to London — and stops on the way to pick up boys from their rival university. Suspecting that this trip is much more than meets the eye, Sophronia puts all her skills to use to get to the bottom of a scheme with major implications for the scientific and the supernatural communities alike, and to keep her friend Dimity safe from what she’s sure is an imminent kidnapping attempt.

As ever, Carriger writes with considerable felicity. The tone of the book is conscious, but not cloyingly so, as was occasionally the case in the Parasol Protectorate books. They’re over-the-top, utterly ridiculous at points, but there’s also a lot about them that feels quite real, particularly when it comes to her depiction of teenage girl social dynamics. Sophronia and her peers act like reasonable approximations of teenage girls — but not like idiots. Everything is life or death — but at Mademoiselle Geraldine’s, that’s occasionally literally true as well. Your friends don’t always behave in the ways you wish they would. Signals get mixed, sometimes someone thinks she’s telegraphing one emotion but you’re interpreting another and everyone’s confused. Some people hurt each other intentionally, and some do it by accident. Despite the strange setting of a floating school, the vampires, the mechanimal pet, the intrigues, the kidnappings, and of course the fact that fourteen year old girls are being trained on how to recognize arsenic-laced tea cookies at the same time they’re learning to flirt, there’s also a lot here that’s just very… normal.

And I really appreciate the way this book handles potential romance. They’re curious about boys, but still a little hesitant about them, too. There’s a wonderful frisson of “Not yet… but soon” about it all. Sophronia discovers that she likes the attention of flirting and wants to enjoy that, but she sometimes feels discomfited by the tangle of emotions and hormones that come along with it, too. I hope that Carriger’s taking us someplace more than a standard love triangle, though, because if she’s headed in that direction, I will have to shake my head. Right now, it’s just sort of fun to watch a heroine be allowed to feel things without the pressure of making a lifelong decision based on them.

Carriger also does a lovely job weaving together her two timelines. It isn’t a strict progression, but enough of the characters interweave (and yes, there are a few more lovely cameos here) to make it a real treat. Even better, though, is the way the world itself interweaves, particularly with regard to scientific and political developments. It makes the Parasol Protectorate world more complete unto itself. It’s also unfolding further, both for the reader and for Sophronia. Alliances and sympathies aren’t always as clear-cut as they seem at first glance.

There are, as I said, a few flaws. Though the sense of character is improved from the first book, the POV bobbles a bit in some places, wandering from third-limited into third-omniscient with no real justification. And the moral lesson of the book is a bit obvious — that, as in the first book, Sophronia’s greatest strength is in her friends and allies (friendship is magic, y’all). This despite the fact that the school still seems to encourage competition, resulting in something of a mixed message for Sophronia. I’m hoping to see that play out further, especially since Sophronia does such a good job of yoking together disparate talents from very different individuals. Altogether, I thoroughly enjoyed this installment and I look forward to the next.

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Cold Magic, by Kate Elliott

Title: Cold Magic (Spiritwalker #1)
Author: Kate ElliottColdMagic
Year of Publication: 2010
Length: 528 pages
Genre: alternate history fantasy/sci fi… oh gods, see below
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 3 stars

This book was… odd.

Cold Magic is, by the author’s description, “an Afro-Celtic post-Roman icepunk Regency novel with airships, Phoenician spies, and the intelligent descendants of troodons”. Catherine Hassi Barahal is an orphan raised by her aunt and uncle, besties with her cousin Beatrice. They live in what is geographically England, except that the Ice Age never fully ended, so it’s still connected by marshy land to the Continent. It’s also super-racially-blended, with bloodlines from Celts and Romans and Africans all mixing together in a complex and interweaving social hierarchy. Cat and Bee are enrolled in college amid a growing conflict between the mages who seem to run Europe and the revolutionary faction that seeks to supplant magic with steam technology. What kind of magic? Well, lots of kinds. There’s cold magic and fire magic and druids and bards and other things. There might be the Fae, by way of seelie and unseelie courts, but their existence is unproven. Cat has a mysterious sort of magic which gives her super-hearing, a certain level of invisibility, and other abilities that reveal themselves through the course of the book. So does Beatrice. Oh and there are “trolls”, who come from North America and have evolved to intelligence and culture. The plot initially looks like it’s going to explore Cat and Beatrice’s lives inside this construct, but then it takes a hard left turn when a cold mage turns up at the Barahal household claiming the eldest daughter as his bride, and Cat gets shoved at him with literally no explanation. The rest of the book is Cat having no more idea than the reader what the hell is going on. It has something to do with her family, who may or may not have been spies two thousand years ago, or twenty years ago, or now. It has something to do with her magic, and something to do with her cousin’s. It has something to do with the escape of a Napolean-figure who’s actually from Spain who tried to conquer Europe a few years earlier. It has something to do with sabertooth tigers. It has something to do with airships. The one thing really driving the plot is that Cat has to get back to Bee before the winter solstice so that the cold mages don’t claim her instead.

That feeling you’re having right now, trying to make sense of that summary? Is what the entire book feels like.

I very much wanted to like this book. I read it on recommendation from a good friend whose taste I trust, and it has a lot of elements that were enticing to me. But the execution was… not what I had hoped. The result of Elliott throwing all of those aforementioned genres in a blender isn’t a well-processed smoothie — it’s a chunky, uneven mess. I spent the entire book trying to figure out if my reading comprehension had suddenly taken a leave of absence, or if the book was really just that confusingly written. Since I’m reasonably certain I’m still in possession of all the wits I started last week with, I have to assume it’s the latter.

What’s so frustrating is that there are a lot of good ideas here. (The three stars I’m giving this book come a lot from just the sheer credit of that). The Afro-Celtic angle? Awesome. I love the route that alternate history has taken here, with Rome and Carthage fighting to a standstill rather than going the Carthago delenda est road. I love the idea that the Mali Empire had a diaspora that caused Africa to colonize Europe, rather than the other way around. The blending of cultures has so much potential, and the fantasy and sci-fi genres in general could do with a lot more of that. I also love the idea of magic and science engaging in a horrible struggle for dominance, and the political and social consequences for each side are such fruitful avenues for exploration. But somehow, all of these elements just totally failed to synthesize — and I rather suspect at least part of the problem is that Elliott tried to do too many things in the same novel. The dinosaur-descendants, for example — a fascinating concept, but thrown into this novel, it’s definitely just one tangent too many. The Regency era angle is underused to the point where it may as well not exist (to anyone wondering why it’s called Regency if the year is supposedly 1837, they’re counting in “Augustan Years”, and he became emperor in 27 BCE — so the equivalent year is really 1810, not 1837. Not that you would know that from reading the book, since Elliott never explains it). The blending of cultures, while super-intriguing, is also poorly explored — it’s hard to get a clear idea of exactly what melded where and with whom and so forth. The world clearly has a shape, but the reader never gets to grasp what it is. There’s also the problem I have with A Song of Ice and Fire, which is that cultural identities wouldn’t stay the same for 2000 years no matter where you are, particularly with the amount of blending that’s apparently gone on — and family identities certainly don’t, so the idea that the Barahals have a reputation that stretches back two millennia stretches credulity.

And I also think a lot of the problem is the first-person narration. Cold Magic does a great job of exemplifying what I find so frustrating about that style — it stymies the author’s ability to explain things. Throughout the book, you get the sense that there’s a lot Cat knows which the reader doesn’t and which she doesn’t bother to explain, a lot of “given circumstances” that you just can’t allow to lie there as assumptions in an alternate history. But at the same time, the first-person narration means that the reader also can’t know anything that Cat doesn’t — and as the plot progresses through the never-unpacked mysteries, that starts to encompass a lot of salient details. I don’t mind the tangents that Cat goes down — The rules of magic are never explained, which in a fantasy novel I just find extraordinarily maddening. It’s several hundred pages in before anything gets explained about the cold mages, and even then, we don’t get a lot. And for all that we get a lot of history about things that happened two thousand years ago, we get a lot less on the recent history that has shaped the culture in which Cat lives — or even the current circumstances.

But what’s so weird is that, while leaving all of that unexplained, Elliott devotes a lot of time to repeating things that the reader already does know, but without giving them any new depth or revelations. She also spends a lot of time talking about what the food is like at inns. I love tangents, I really do. I’m the child who read the encyclopedia for fun, so I will never fault an author for wandering down world-building avenues, even if it is a bit at the expense of the plot. I don’t mind it. But the digressions in this book are just strange. Quite often, they don’t add anything to the plot and they don’t clarify the world-building. They’re either just dull (I hate reading about food) or they only add more confusion (ghost plagues in Africa! a secret codebook! other things!).

I was warned that the book might feel slow, but that definitely isn’t the word I’d use to describe it. I would go with “jerky”. The book jumps between tones so often that the reader’s likely to get whiplash. The first eighty pages aren’t slow, it’s just that you think you’re reading one kind of story, and then it suddenly becomes something completely different — which would not in of itself be a bad thing if that didn’t keep happening. You never spend enough time in any one mode to feel comfortable there before you get yanked out of it and plunged into something else, with very little sinew to connect the different ideas together. This, more than anything else, is why I was questioning my ability to process written information while reading this book, and I must say I’m gratified to see from reviews that other readers had a similar experience.

Another unfortunate thing is that I quite liked several of the characters (and they account for the remainder of the 3 stars this book gets), but, either as a consequence of the chaotic writing or of the unreliable first person narration or both, we never get a clear view of them, either. Cat herself would be interesting if her head was a more coherent place in which to spend 500 pages. She’s clearly smart, thinks on her feet, and has a backbone, but is also impulsive and a little hot-tempered, all qualities I like in a heroine, and then she gets dragged headfirst into a swirling identity crisis, which makes for good internal drama. But once again, that jerky, jarring quality of the narrative makes it difficult to feel comfortable living in her point of view. Cat’s forced-husband, Andrevai, would be such an intriguing person to know better, caught between two worlds as he is, overcompensating for insecurities, experiencing an identity crisis every bit as tormenting as Cat’s — but since Cat doesn’t, the reader doesn’t get to, and the weird semi-romance that’s going on there just ends up feeling awkward and artificial. Bee is charming and a lovely subversion of expectations. And then there’s Roderic, and I won’t explain who he is because it’s a definite spoiler, but he’s just plain delightful, and I want to know him and his entire family better. Many of the side characters are interesting, too — and so many of them are female! And female characters in positions of power! That’s exciting and commendable. I just… wish we actually got to know any of them.

I think I’m going to have to read the rest of the series, mostly in a hope that there are explanations occurring somewhere, and if there are, it will drive me up the wall not to have them. I can tell that, at least in the author’s head, this is a fully-realized and complete world with a lot of nuance and underlying complexities, and I trust that it all makes sense somehow. But if and when I do pick up the next book, it will be with the fervent hope that the writing is a lot more coherent than it was in Cold Fire.

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Etiquette and Espionage, by Gail Carriger

Title: Etiquette & Espionage (Finishing School #1)EtiquetteEspionage
Author: Gail Carriger
Year of Publication: 2013
Length: 320 pages
Genre: YA steampunk
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 4 stars

I was super-excited to get my hands on Ms. Carriger’s latest novel, her first foray into YA fiction. I thoroughly enjoyed her Parasol Protectorate series, and I’m so glad that she’s decided to continue on in this world even though she wrapped that series up. Etiquette & Espionage did not disappoint me.

Sophronia, a fourteen-year-old youngest daughter in the 1850s, is unusual. She climbs dumbwaiters and gets herself into terrible fixes and is generally an embarrassment to her family, a socially-aspirant gentry . Little does her mother know that when she packs Sophronia off to finishing school, she’s actually giving the girl just what she needs. Her unusual new circumstances first become apparent when she chats with Dimity, also headed to Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality, and her brother Pillover, destined for Bunson and Lacroix’s Boys’ Polytechnique. As Dimity chatters cheerfully about evil geniuses, covert recruits, Picklemen, and Custard Pots of Iniquity, Sophronia begins to suspect something is odd. When her carriage is attacked by flywaymen, their escort goes into unconvincing hysterics, and Sophronia has to take command of the horses and rescue them all, her suspicions are rather confirmed.

It turns out that Sophronia has landed at a school designed not only to turn her into a lady but to turn her lethal as well. Or, rather, the Academy has landed at her — for it’s a floating school, suspended from enormous balloons. A werewolf named Captain Niall (!) serves as ship-to-ground transport and teaches combat, a vampire covers history and deportment, mechanical staff patrol the hallways as prefects, the students learn poisons and manipulation alongside powders and manners, and the headmistress has no idea that any of it is going on. Sophronia begins to settle in at the Academy and into an easy friendship with Dimity, though she has more trouble with the others in her dormitory. Sidhaeg (!) is prickly and recalcitrant, Agatha a shy wallflower, Preshea a snob, and Monique is none other than their escort, demoted back to debut rank for refusing to give up the whereabouts of the mysterious “prototype” which the flywaymen were after. Sophronia and Monique do not get on at all, and their rivalry drives much of the action in the book. Sophronia also uses her climbing abilities to sneak into the restricted areas, where she makes friends with the sooties who keep the ship running, including Soap, a London-born boy of African descent (and props to Carriger for including a non-white character in an English historical novel!). Sophronia, never having seen a black person before, is startled by him at first but gets over it quickly. The two become friends, and Soap introduced her to Vieve (!), niece to Professor Beatrice Lefoux (!) and a budding inventor. As the plot progresses, Sophronia finds them tremendously useful in her various schemes and maneuvers.

I felt as though the story bobbled a bit at the end of the first act and the beginning of the second. There’s a stretch where the sense of character isn’t particularly strong. It is interesting to have a leading character who is so introverted and private, but it also damages the narrative a bit, at least for me. When the POV character is not particularly reflective or emotive, I (a consummate extrovert) find it harder to engage with her. It was hard to feel emotionally connected to Sophronia, and sometimes her actions seemed very abrupt because there had been little build-up to them. I admire that Sophronia is such a practical and plain-dealing heroine, but I could’ve used a larger window into her soul.

The other problem that I had was that when Sophronia first arrives at the floating school, she has absolutely no idea what’s going on, and no one will tell her. Maddeningly, nothing gets explained for a very long time. After a while, this starts to frustrate me as a reader — and I recognise that not everyone may feel this way. It’s a valid literary trope and one frequently used in YA, but I personally struggle with it. I hate being left totally in the dark. It tends to make me rush, hoping I’ll get to the explanation, but then I end up having to go back and re-read chapters in case I missed something. I understand delaying gratification and teasing the reader, but some information in this book gets played a little too close to the chest.

There are still a lot of questions left unanswered at the end of the book, and I’m hoping we’ll get more information on them in future installments — I want to know why this extraordinary pair of schools exists. Right now, the answer seems to be “just because.” I find that unsatisfying. What need does England have for an elite cadre of female assassins and a coterie of admittedly evil geniuses? What role in society are they fulfilling? For what purpose? If the Headmistress has no idea what’s going on, who does? Who drives this whole thing? Who founded it? For what reasons? I love Carriger’s world-building, but I wish we’d gotten just a little bit more on this front at the outset.

I did think, though, that I saw a glimmer of potential for change in the school’s directives, one that I hope we’ll see expanded in future books in the series. Right now, the school seems quite competitive, designed to set these ladies against each other. Sophronia, though, sees more benefit in bringing her cohorts together, drawing on their disparate skills to achieve a communal goal. I would like to see that theme develop further. So much popular opinion, especially when it comes to teenage girls, likes to promote their potential for cattiness, sniping, and backstabbing; I would love to see more YA fiction promoting healthier ideas on what they’re capable of.

The second half of the book improves greatly, though, as a few things do finally get explained and as more action enters the narrative in the final act. Sophronia deduces that Monique must have hidden the prototype at Sophronia’s family home while collecting her, and so she determines to retrieve it with the help of her friends (and new pet, mechanimal dog Bumbersnoot). Sophronia’s skills really get to shine here, and the sense of action and excitement is wonderful fun.

For anyone who wondered why I (!)ed a few times in this review, it’s because there are several connections in Etiquette & Espionage to the Parasol Protectorate series. This book is set some twenty-odd years before that series begins, so there’s a lot of potential for crossover cameos. Even the MacGuffin of the book, the prototype, is a component of technology that becomes crucial by the time of the Protectorate series. Carriger also takes a few moments to poke fun at the steampunk world in general, through a clique of boys at Pillover’s school, the Pistons, who sew gears to their clothing for no reason but fashion, smudge their eyes with kohl, and like to crash parties and spike the punch. It’s a good-natured and, let’s face it, well-deserved ribbing.

Overall, I’m quite pleased with Etiquette & Espionage. There were a few bumps that kept it from perfection, in my opinion, but — that’s true of the first couple Harry Potter books as well. For a first foray into YA fiction, Carriger’s done a lovely job. I absolutely devoured this first installment, and I’m excited to see where the rest of the series goes.

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Leviathan, by Scott Westerfeld

Title: Leviathan
Author: Scott Westerfeld
Year of Publication: 2009
Length: 448 pages
Genre: YA steampunk
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 3.5 stars

I hoped for more out of this book.

I like the story. It’s an interesting premise and a great use of steampunk themes to build an alternate universe. Leviathan re-envisions the start of World War I as a conflict between two pathways of technological development. The Darwinists, in England, France, and Russia, have gone into biodevelopment, discovering things like DNA coding a bit ahead of time, and using that knowledge to create fantastical new creatures. Airships made out of floating air-whales with other creatures grafted on, balloons out of jellyfish/blowfish type things, lizards who can memorise and deliver messages, wolf-dog-tiger hybrids for security or searching. The Clankers, in Germany/the Holy Roman Empire (still hanging on, apparently) and most of Eastern Europe, have chosen traditional mechanical technology, viewing Darwinist creations as hellish abominations.

The trouble is that, well… there sort of just wasn’t enough there. I know it’s a YA book, but that’s really no excuse. Plenty of authors manage to write YA novels and still use sophisticated storytelling devices. The later Harry Potter books are probably the most famous example, but the honest-to-goodness best example is probably Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. Westerfeld’s style is a bit slapdash for my preferences. The vocabulary is basic, the sentence structure largely unvaried, the characterisation fairly flat. This disappointed me, and it’s not just because I’m an adult reading a YA book — it would have disappointed me just as much at age 11. You don’t have to write simply to tell a story on a level that young people will understand. (Quite the opposite, I’ve always thought — half the point of reading is to stretch your brainpan out a bit, to introduce new things rather than just dumping in what it’s already familiar with, and that goes for the language itself as much as for the story).

I found myself wishing that the book either had a lot more illustrations — I think it would’ve worked brilliantly as a graphic novel — or a lot fewer, with a lot more verbal description. It seemed in many places as if the illustrations were serving as a crutch for insufficient description in the text. This is particularly true of the Darwinist creations, which I found a little confusing to follow. I can tell there are good ideas there, that the dynamics of how these things operate has been thought out — I just sometimes had trouble following along with exactly what those dynamics were. It became clearer with illustration, but still not perfectly so.

I still haven’t said anything about the actual plot yet, have I? Prince Aleksandr, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, is fleeing after his parents’ assassination (the event that, y’know, starts World War I). His path improbably collides with that of Deryn, a British common girl with aspirations of aviation, who has disguised herself as a boy in order to join the crew of one of the dirigible-creatures. And… that’s pretty much the plot. It doesn’t really get to going much of anywhere in this first book. We meet the characters, we learn about the world, the war starts, there are adventures on the ground and in the air. That’s not to say nothing happens. Quite a bit happens, in your typical adventure-story sort of way. But it’s all rather thin and entirely unfinished — this is clearly the first book in a series, and it doesn’t wrap up on its own in any significant way.

So, this was a sort of interesting read, but not a really gripping one. I imagine I’ll get the next book the series eventually, but I’m in no rush. And when it comes to YA steampunk, I’ll be anticipating Gail Carriger’s new series a lot more.

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Timeless, by Gail Carriger

Title: Timeless (Parasol Protectorate #5)
Author: Gail Carriger
Year of Publication: 2012
Length: 386 pages
Genre: steampunk adventure
New or Re-Read?: New!
Rating: 4.5 stars
Spoiler Warning: For the series as a whole, Changeless-forward, really

I said in my review of Heartless that the Parasol Protectorate series just keeps getting better, and Timeless did not disappoint me. I think it’s the best of the series. All of the characters are handled well, Carriger’s descriptions are both vivid and precise, and her dialogue, as always, sparkles with wit and humour. Like the rest of the series, this is steampunk with a fine froth and a sense of humour. Timeless also continues the exploration of the political ramifications of the collision of the paranormal and the scientific, delving far back into he AU’s history as well as setting the stage for its future.

Timeless jumps two years forward from Heartless, two years that have been peaceful — well, as peaceful as anything is likely to get in the Maccon household, especially considering they live in a vampire’s closet so that said vampire can serve as adoptive father to two-year-old Prudence, who happens to be a metanatural. Born from her supernatural werewolf father and preternatural Alexia, Prudence possesses the capability to absorb a supernatural’s aspect — leaving said supernatural mortal until such time as Alexia can use her preternatural abilities to cancel everything out. It certainly makes life interesting — not least for their neighbours — but all in all, things seem to be sorting themselves out.

And then Alexia gets, by way of the local vampire queen, a summons to appear with her daughter in Alexandria (yes, the one in Egypt) before Matakara, the oldest vampire living. At the same time, Sidhaeg — Conall’s multi-great-granddaughter and Alpha of his old Scottish pack — shows up, looking for her missing Beta, who had been in Egypt on a mission for her. The Beta reappears, but gets murdered before he can get more than a few words out to Alexia. So Alexia packs up her family — and the Tunstells and their acting troupe — and heads out via steamer (werewolves being notoriously poor floaters). From there, the story whirls through a sequence of mishaps, supernatural political entanglements, and strange occurrences. The action clips along at a great pace, both in Alexandria and back at home, as the Maccons abroad and the wolf pack back at home both try to sort out the mystery of the God-Breaker Plague.

The really great thing here, which started to become prominent in Blameless and Heartless, is Carriger’s ability to not forget character development admist all the action. For a lot of the book, that really shines in Biffy and Lyall, though we do get a fair bit out of Alexia and Conall as well. Biffy’s swiftly becoming my favourite character in the whole series, really, because he goes through such a transformative journey from when we meet him to the end of this book. Without giving too much away, Carriger handles the various aspects of his personality and relationship dynamics really well, with a lot of tenderness and a lot of psychological awareness. She handles the expanding cast of characters without sacrificing any emotional realism, and she jumps back and forth between the two plotlines in a way that makes sure the reader never loses sight of what’s going on.

Carriger also does a nice job weaving multicultural elements into the story. I particularly like the “Drifters”, balloon-living nomads of the North African desert. We don’t get to spend a whole lot of time with them, but you get a sense of real cultural texture nonetheless. I love the idea of this herd of balloons, linked together by nets that the women and children use for social interaction. Her descriptions of steampunk Alexandria and Upper Egypt are a great blend of imaginative and clearly well-researched, and the cast of extras that the Maccon/Tunstell party meets there adds even more colour and excitement to the series.

I also commend Carriger for her ability to portray a toddler character — a notoriously difficult challenge in writing, and one that many authors seem to avoid at all costs. I’m convinced the difficulties in writing such young characters is the reason most happy-ever-afters end at the altar, or at least with the birth. But Carriger strikes it perfectly with Prudence. She has the right size vocabulary to reflect the state where vocalisation hasn’t quite caught up to cognitive reasoning; Prudence understands more than she can express, and this does seem to frustrate her at times. She also manages to make Prudence charming without being saccharine, another admirable feat; Prudence demonstrates the right balance of adorability, manic impulse, and short attention span for a two-year-old. She’s also part of the story without overwhelming it, which I appreciate; too often when series do incorporate kids, it becomes all about them. Alexia’s attitude goes a long way towards keeping this from becoming a trite or obnoxious trope.

I’ve said throughout the series that Carriger is at her best when she’s writing for herself, with her own style, rather than emulating other genres, and in Timeless, she seems to have trusted that impulse entirely. There are no moments of narrative awkwardness, where the story feels like something else has collided into it from the outside; rather, we are treated to the continuing adventures of Alexia et al in Carriger’s own witty voice. It’s a delight. My only criticism is that the denouement ties up a little too quickly. I could’ve used a bit more exploration of the new constructs our characters find themselves in at the end of the series, about how they’re going to move forward from here on out. Ultimately, it just ended way too soon; I could have happily spent a lot more time with these characters.

Timeless is an adventure story that manages to be lighthearted and emotionally tugging at the same time. Carriger gives us characters we can care about, but without ever taking herself too seriously. The series as a whole has fantastic energy, superb wit, and a sparkle that I’ve yet to find in other steampunk literature. The Parasol Protectorate series is just plain fun. I’m tremendously sorry to say goodbye to this series, but I’m delighted that Carriger’s world will be continuing in the YA Finishing School Series and the adult Parasol Protectorate Abroad series. The former will take place some twenty-five years earlier in the AU’s history; the latter is due to feature our Prudence, all grown up and taking on the world. Both are due out in 2013, and I eagerly anticipate their arrival.


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Heartless, by Gail Carriger

Title: Heartless (Parasol Protectorate #4)Heartless
Author: Gail Carriger
Year of Publication: 2011
Length: 374 pages
Genre: steampunk paranormal mystery
New or Re-Read?: Brand new!
Rating: 4 stars and a bit of an extra twinkle
Spoiler Warning: Quite active, not just for Heartless, but for the end of Changeless up through Blameless.

This  may be my favourite of the Parasol Protectorate series thus far. The wit is sharp, the action crisp, and the plot tight, all of which make for a highly enjoyable read.

In Heartless, Alexia receives a message from a ghost indicating that someone is planning to kill the queen. Naturally, Alexia does not see her considerably advanced pregnancy as any reason not to get to the bottom of the plot — not any more than her move into Lord Akeldama’s second closet should disrupt her affairs. (Why has she taken up residence with the new vampire potentate? Well, it appears to be the way to get the Westminster Hive to stop trying to kill her and her infant-inconvenience, which was really starting to become a considerable distraction to her). Investigating the matter takes Alexia deep into the worlds and secrets of vampires, werewolves, and ghosts alike, forcing her to put brainpower and sheer stubbornness together until she uncovers all the pieces of the puzzle.

I quite liked the twists and turns in the plotline. I was able to guess enough of them to feel clever, but not so many that it felt predictable, which is really the perfect balance in a thriller. The red herrings aren’t just thrown out for the sake of being there; they lead down paths of their own, vitally important to the characters and to the overall series, even if they’re not tied to the main mystery of this book. I appreciate that, because few things are so frustrating in a story as a loose end dangling out there without payoff. We also get to see the enmeshing of supernatural politics in thorough detail, picking up some of the threads from Changeless (probably my second-favourite of the series).

This book also uses technological elements a little more deftly than previous books in the series have. On the whole, the Parasol Protectorate series is more paranormal-heavy than techno-heavy, but Heartless weaves mechanical porcupines and the increasingly fearsome inventions of Madame Lefoux more neatly into the rest of the story. They feel more integrated, less like window-dressing and more like real facets of Carriger’s alternate universe. And there’s a lot to be said for the mental image of an actress walking a mechanical porcupine on a leash down the middle of a busy London street.

What I liked best about Heartless, though, was how much we got to explore the emotions and the psychological landscapes of the various characters — Lyall, Ivy, Genevieve, Akeldama, all of them get new revelations, new layers, and new facets. Alexia’s explorations, as she attempts to get to the bottom of the threat against the queen, unveil a lot of personal history. My favourite of these is Lyall’s — he’s such a perfect Beta, and in Heartless we get to see more of just what he’s done to hold his pack together with both, er, paws. Alexia thinks of Lyall as someone who no one would remember as being part of a group, except that, because of him, the group stays together — that’s a powerful skill and an incredibly valuable person to have around. Carriger also didn’t disappoint when it came to poor Biffy, Akeldama’s former drone who had, rather unfortunately, to face eternity as a werewolf instead of a vampire as he’d intended. His struggle is poignant (although not without its touches of humour, when Biffy comes to his senses after destroying wallpaper or silk breeches), and it’s a nice exploration of some of the consequences that the supernatural set faces from their actions. These character explorations — emotionally and psychologically real and satisfying ,without ever losing the effervescent tone of the book — are some of the best bits.

Add to all of this Carriger’s usual quick wit and frothy sense of irreverence, and you’ve got a thoroughly compelling read. Some of my favourite bits are the one-liners that she slips into the narrative, casual snippets which are so absurd or so sharp that they’re laugh-out-loud funny. Carriger recently mentioned on her blog (and has apparently mentioned before, though as a newcomer to the series, I hadn’t heard it before) that each of the books in the Parasol Protectorate series has been in mimicry of a particular style. Soulless was an emulation of Austen-esque early romance novels (which explains, at least, the far-too-saccharine prose of the first book), Changeless of Gothic tales, Blameless of travel-adventure novels, and Heartless of Sherlock Holmes mysteries. And it isn’t that Carriger doesn’t do these emulations well (although in Soulless I found it more a detraction than anything) — it’s that I wish she’d just trust her own style more. Timeless, out next year, is due to be the last in the series (and, judging by the cover, an Egyptology expedition), and while I’ll be quite sad to see Alexia and all the rest go, I’ll also be hoping that Carriger’s next project will showcase her own style more, rather than these experiments with genre. As I said in my review for Soulless — she’s at her best when her wit shines through.

Overall, I recommend Heartless as strongly as the rest of the series — Alexia’s story just keeps getting better. These books are inventive, intriguing, and just plain fun. They embody a lightheartedness, a willingness not to take themselves seriously, that I think the steampunk genre can really benefit from — I’d love to see more like this, and I can’t wait to keep following Carriger’s writing, hopefully for many years to come.

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Blameless by Gail Carriger

Title: Blameless (Parasol Protectorate Book #3)Blameless Gail Carriger
Author: Gail Carriger
Year of Publication: 2010
Length: 355 pages
Genre: steampunk paranormal romance
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 4 stars
Spoiler Warning: Not only for Blameless but for Changeless. Do NOT read this review unless you’ve read Changeless.

Seriously. Unless you want to be spoiled for Changeless, stop reading.

Okay. (Yes, taking up space so people can scroll away).

Blameless opens just about exactly where Changeless left off, give or take a couple of weeks. With Conall in a foaming rage about her supposed infidelity, as evidenced by her supposedly impossible pregnancy, Alexia flees his house to return to the less-than-warm bosom of her family. When word gets out about her indelicate state, however, Alexia faces censure from the Queen and shame from Society. In a very short amount of time, she’s gone from overlooked to quite prominent to entirely ostracized. Fortunately, Alexia doesn’t give so much of a fig for Society; she mostly seems to find its disapproval an inconvenience (which is, incidentally, how she refers to the fetus growing inside her).

So, Alexia takes to the Continent, partly to avoid murderous vampires, partly to escape her alarmingly empty-headed family. No bets on which would prove ultimately more fatal. As in Changeless, she has a traveling party with her, but this time it’s a far more high-functioning crowd: her father’s erstwhile dogsbody Floote, clever inventor Madame Lefoux, and former Woolsey pack claviger Tunstell. They end up in Italy, land of the super-religious Templars, hoping that their religious tomes will hold some clue to the nature of preternaturals and an explanation for this unexpected pregnancy.

And they do. We learn a lot about preternaturals, both in Italy and along the way. We learn some various theories about how they interact with supernaturals, about their place in the cosmos, and we see that the Templars treat Alexia rather like an infectious plague, in fact considering her a demon (or, rather, daemon, but I have trouble spelling it that way thanks to His Dark Materials where that’s something completely different). The metaphysics here are really quite fascinating, if you like that sort of thing (which I do), and some of the Continental scientists are pretty excellent satires of Victorian-era medicine. The hysteria, the casual sexism, the bizarre theories and even more bizarre solutions — it’s a nice bit of parody. And kudos to Carriger for taking her story out of England. So much steampunk stays firmly rooted in the U.K., so it was nice to sojourn elsewhere. I wish, though, that the rest of the world felt as fleshed-out as her Britannia does. Bits of it felt rather slapdash. The Templars, particularly, feel more like an amalgamation of stereotypes than a well-thought-out alternate universe incarnation — which is strange, considering how detailed Carriger’s historical and sociological divergences usually are. The Templars come off feeling a bit villain-of-the-week, without enough nuance or veracity to make them feel like a true, tangible threat. The whole Italy plot is also awfully, well, predictable. Considering what we do know about the fanatical Templars, it comes as exactly no surprise when they stop playing nice and imprison Alexia. Likewise, I don’t know if Carriger meant for Channing’s identity to be a mystery or not, but it was pretty much clear as day — he disappears from England on some vitally important mission, and meanwhile in France and Italy, this pure white werewolf is constantly saving Alexia just in the nick of time? Not much of a shock. I could’ve done with a nice red herring there.

The best parts of this book, though, are actually back in England. I always liked Professor Lyall before, but we never saw enough of him for him to really take as a fave for me. In this book, though, he’s just magnificent. With Lord Maccon drinking himself into oblivion, Lyall has to step up to hold the Woolsey pack together with both, er, paws. I do love a good Beta. His dry wit and no-nonsense behaviour shows remarkably well in Blameless. Lyall not only has to defend against challengers and attempt to knock sense into Conall, but he also ends up investigating the disappearance of Lord Akeldama. It’s that last twist which actually leads to a fantastic subplot: the accidental transformation of Biffy, formerly a vampire drone, into a werewolf. He doesn’t get a lot of time to react to this in this book — and neither does Lord Akeldama, nor do his new packmates — but I imagine it will be a prominent subplot in Heartless, and I’m looking forward to it. Carriger’s put in a creative twist that I definitely wasn’t expecting.

Like other readers, I felt like the reconciliation between Alexia and Conall was a bit too pat. For as feisty as Alexia is, I rather expected more from her than a few half-hearted protests, a few more sniffles, and then open arms. Love can make up for a lot, but considering just how awful he was to her, I was rather hoping to see a more psychologically satisfying resolution to the conflict. As it was, it sort of felt like Carriger just needed the plot to be able to move on, so she squeezed the reconciliation in where she could crowbar it. I know that Carriger aims for light-hearted fare, and there’s nothing wrong with that at all — but there’s also nothing wrong with taking a moment to let the emotions breathe. It would be a nice contrast to the predominant frivolity.

Overall, I quite enjoyed this book, as I’ve enjoyed the others in the series. It’s a quick and entertaining read. I’ve already pre-ordered Heartless, which comes out at the end of the month.

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Changeless, by Gail Carriger

Title: ChangelessChangeless Gail Carriger (Parasol Protectorate, Book #2)
Author: Gail Carriger
Year of Publication: 2010
Length: 374 pages
Genre: steampunk paranormal romance
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: a very strong 4 stars
Spoiler Warnings: The first part of this entry will be spoiler-free; however, there will be a spoiler-full portion at the end, so I can talk about the important bits that go into Blameless.

Well, Carriger did not disappoint me. Changeless is a delightful book, and while it’s not perfect, it definitely improves on Soulless. The twee elements are definitely toned down here — the narrative voice didn’t aggravate me nearly as much as in the first book. Carriger’s stopped trying to convince the reader that she can emulate Victorian styles and is letting far more of her natural wit show through, and the book is much better for it.

The plot in this book is more a true mystery. A plague of humanization has incapacitated supernaturals, first in London, then moving up the Isle and all the way into Scotland. Alexia, charged by the Queen to investigate just this sort of thing, treks northward, with a most unusual party in tow: her beyond-bratty half-sister Felicity, her feather-headed friend Ivy, an excitable actor-turned-claviger called Tunstell, and a crafty, cross-dressing French inventor, Madame Lefoux.

Can I just say? I adore Genevieve Lefoux. She’s just the sort of alternate strong female character I was hoping for throughout Soulless. She’s warmer, more affectionate, and more charming than Alexia, which makes them excellent foils for each other. I also love Carriger’s willingness to let her characters have alternate sexualities — between Akeldama and his drones and then Lefoux’s proclivities, it’s quite refreshing. Yes, Madame Lefoux doesn’t just eschew feminine frippery in favour of well-tailored male clothing, she’s also a lesbian. I find myself hoping that Genevieve will eventually get to have her way with Alexia, who does seem to get a frisson of excitement out of their interactions. Probably not likely, but still something I can hope for, and if not in canon… well, there’s always fanfic. 😉

I love that we got to see more of werewolf dynamics in this book, and that some of the pack rules are explained in more detail. And I also do get that Alpha female I was hoping for — Sidheag is quite a treat. Irascible and prickly, yet somehow likeable at the same time. I hope we’ll see more of her in the future — I feel like there’s a decent setup there, with Conall having re-established contact with his old pack, and with her, after all, being his multi-great grand-daughter. There’s potential in her.

The plot rolls along at a good place, with some exciting twists and turns. If some of them stretch credulity a bit… well, it is paranormal fiction, so that’s probably to be expected. Carriger really has drawn the details of her world quite well, from the basic rules that her alternate universe operates under to the visuals of places, people, and things. I suspect the overly-elaborate discussions of clothing might be trying to the patience of some readers, but I, with my affection for Victoriana garb and my aspirations as a costumer, quite enjoy them.

I think my major criticism of this book is Ivy. She was frivolous but not a complete idiot in Book One, but she’s hazardously dim in Book Two. It’s a little unbelievable first that someone could be that dense, but even more than Alexia would remain friends with such a person. It went past my ability to suspend disbelief, and it really pressed my patience. She went from character to caricature, and it wasn’t becoming.

My other complaint is that I wanted more sizzle out of the sex scenes in this book. They were a little repetitive — Alexia wants to talk, Conall gets handsy, Alexia pushes him away long enough to talk, Conall eventually prevails, curtains fall over the scene. I sort of feel like Carriger didn’t quite use the irresistible passion they supposedly have for each other quite well enough. I’d love to be shown, not told of, more of the heat.

Those two complaints are pretty minor, though, and overall, Changeless excited me so much that I had to start Blameless immediately upon finishing, even though I’ve intended to be alternating between my various reading projects. Why the imperative? Well… That has to do with the emotional cliffhanger of an ending. Alexia finds herself in an awfully tight spot, and how she deals with it gets held off till the next book.

Warning: Spoilers Beyond This Point

First off, the solution to the mystery — Alexia was kind of an idiot to trust Angelique so blindly. I mean, seriously, how did she never suspect her of misdoings? For someone who’s supposed to be so practical and level-headed, she had an enormous blind spot there. I suppose that might be a commentary on Victorian class structure and the ignorance of the uppers as to the doings of their social lessers… but I somehow suspect not.

The big thing, though, that requires the spoiler warning? Alexia is in, to put this Victorian-ly, in a delicate condition. And oh.my.goodness I am so pleased with how Carriger is handling the pregnancy. Because I guessed very early on that Alexia had, somehow, gotten knocked up. And honestly, that disappointed me a little. It was so predictable, so stereotypical, such a pedestrian progression for a romance series to take. Married in book one, pregnant in book two, baby in book three. I was feeling a little let-down.

And then Conall reacted.

And this is why I was so anxious to get along to Blameless. There’s no baby yet, she’s still pregnant in the third (and, I believe, fourth) book, so Carriger’s not rollicking along to that particular point. And it isn’t happy-ever-after. It’s exactly the opposite. Conall, under the belief that werewolves can’t procreate (being, technically, dead), accuses Alexia of infidelity, and the novel ends with the two of them severely estranged. I must say, he’s kind of an idiot — I’d assumed from the beginning that, since he’s returned to humanity when she touches him, he’d likely be restored to potency as well.

So! There’s that deliciously harrowing emotional entanglement, and I’m on to Blameless, over a hundred pages in already, actually, and quite excited about it.

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Soulless, by Gail Carriger

Title: Soulless (The Parasol Protectorate, Book #1)Soulless
Author: Gail Carriger
Year of Publication: 2009
Length: 357 pages
Genre: steampunk paranormal romance
New or Re-Read?: New, on a friend’s recommendation
Rating: 4 stars

I enjoyed the hell out of this book. And I wasn’t expecting to. I’d heard enough mixed things that I approached it with some trepidation. But I was very, very pleasantly surprised. That doesn’t mean the book is without its flaws — but, as I’ve noted before, a book doesn’t necessarily have to be technically superior to be enjoyable. And there’s much to like about Soulless.

Alexia Tarabotti has no soul. Apart from leaving her little creativity in her dress (and perhaps making her over-sensitive to flamboyant fashion sense in others), it doesn’t really affect her daily life. It’s just a fact of her being. It also gives her the power to neutralize supernaturals, who lose their powers in her presence, and this fascinating ability has started to attract interest from unexpected quadrants.

I love the approach to the supernatural here, because it’s so refreshingly new. But not in a Twilight-I’m-going-to-ignore-all-folklore-and-history-and-just-make-up-my-own-crap-based-on-whatever-I-think-is-cool kind of way. In a very clever, thoughtful kind of way. Carriger has decided to attribute the phenomenal success of the British Empire to supernatural beings – primarily vampires and werewolves. (I dare to hope she’ll introduce the Fae in some later book, but that might be a wild desire on my part; I’ve just always thought the Fae must’ve had something to do with Britain’s inexplicable dominance). Her explication is that supernaturals have, in their lives, an excess of soul, and that allows them to become something else after death rather than just progressing on into the usual afterlife. (What this implies for Alexia’s eventual fate, I’m not sure). In the typical manner of Victorian Brits, folk in this world are experiencing a scientific desire to pick this concept apart and figure out exactly what it is that gives one person more soul (or less) than another. The crux of conflict comes when not everyone’s willing to explore the matter through appropriate and genteel methods.

I think what I really enjoy is the focus on werewolves. Too many books favour the vampiric side of things, and I personally find vampires so much less interesting (all due apologies to Lord Akeldama, who is, I must admit, a real treat). I’m a hot-blooded pack animal by nature, so my sympathies have always lain with werewolves among supernatural creatures. Lord Maccon, pack Alpha and head of the British agency supervising supernaturals, is a delight — a hot-tempered, snarling, Scottish delight. The werewolves make the book for me, because they introduce, well, chaos and mayhem. The wolves are just a little bit bonkers, and I find that tremendously appealing. It’s a lot more interesting than the emotional reticence of vampires. I do like that we get some variation with the vamps as well, though. Lord Akeldama might stray a bit too far towards the Sassy Gay Friend stereotype, but he’s still pretty damn entertaining, and it’s nice to see a different kind of vampire. His drones are also pretty hilarious.

The main reason this gets four stars instead of five is because, particularly in the first half of the book, the writing style is a little too precious. The author’s too self-consciously imitating/parodying a pseudo-Victorian style, to the point that it sometimes drowns out her storytelling and her wit. Which is a shame, because once that haze gets cleared away, the wit is really quite good. Towards the end of the book, it’s like Carriger forgot to be twee and just wrote, and the book is so much the better for it. I’m hoping that improvement carries on into the next book, but I worry she’ll open with more of the same affectations.

It was also a bit annoying to be constantly reminded of Alexia’s age and appearance. I’m not sure precisely why Carriger feels compelled to drive home that she’s Italian, dark-complected, and has a big nose about once a chapter, but she does. (I also find the cover model choice a bit strange, as she looks nearer forty than Alexia’s twenty-six). I’m also hoping for some more strong female characters in the mix (a nice Alpha female werewolf heading another pack, perhaps?). Right now, there’s something vaguely chauvinistic in how Carriger portrays every other woman in the series as empty-headed, status-obsessed, twittering idiots (with the exception, perhaps, of a vampire queen who, we can presume, will prove a villainess later down the line). I know it’s the Victorian era, but it’s also, y’know, fiction, and fantasy at that. There’s room in that world for more than one intelligent, capable female. Carriger could take some cues from several popular romance authors (I’m thinking of JQ and Kleypas, in particular) on how to build a network of strong, smart women, rather than piling all feminine worth into one figure. Alexia needs a friend who’s on her level. If the only way to make her special is to make all the other women around her vapid and useless… well, you don’t have much of a heroine on your hands. And the thing is, I think Alexia is strong enough as a character already — Carriger just doesn’t seem to be giving her own creation quite enough credit.

In general, Soulless is a mash-up of genres. Judging from some other reviews I’ve read, this has been a detracting point for some readers, who were expecting an adventure, or a romance novel, or a paranormal urban fantasy, and got some of that and also a lot of other things they didn’t expect. It’s made other reviews interesting to read, as some deride the lack of romance and others complain about the overabundance of it. For me, it’s an attraction. I like genre mash-ups and stories which defy easy categorisation. For the first two-thirds of the book, the steampunk element is quite lightly handled. It’s really more a paranormal romance for the duration, with a bit of steamy flavouring; the more distinctly steampunk elements come in towards the end, with the technologies at play. I sort of wish this had been more prominent throughout, but I suspect we’ll be seeing more of it in later books.

Overall, I enjoyed Soulless and I’m looking forward to Changeless, the next book in the series. The premise of The Parasoal Protectorate is intriguing and engaging, and I think many of the problems in Soulless may be those of a first novel. I hope the twee elements will get toned down, and I hope the cast of characters will expand to include some more girls who aren’t complete ninnies. Carriger certainly has room to improve, but she’s set a solid enough foundation that I have faith in her abilities.

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Boneshaker, by Cherie Priest

Title: BoneshakerBoneshaker by Cherie Priest
Author: Cherie Priest
Year of Publication: 2009
Length: 416 pages
Genre: steampunk, historical fiction, AU
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 2 stars (and that on credit)

I wanted to like this book. I really did. I’m a big fan of the steampunk aesthetic, and I keep hoping to see it handled well in fiction. But… I found Boneshaker quite underwhelming and something of a disappointment.  The plot doesn’t hold together all that well, and I’m not a fan of the author’s storytelling style. She’s trying to be clever by holding back information, but really it just muddies everything. It doesn’t help that the two main characters spend the entire book not knowing what the heck is going on, and since it’s third-limited from their perspectives, the reader has no idea what’s going on, either. This limitation is particularly troublesome as Priest never fully defines the rules of her universe. She makes blanket statements about the way things are in this AU version of Seattle, but never backs them up with coherent explanations.

I also had trouble visualising. Her descriptions are sort of… bland? I’m not sure if that’s the right word. It doesn’t feel like it should be the right word, for a genre that is so dependent on visual aesthetic — and maybe that’s why it seems so lacking. Priest glances at the aesthetic without ever really doing it justice, without using it effectively. It sort of felt like she left out what could be important details about the setting, so that the major concepts didn’t connect to each other, and I was left trying to fit together pieces that were really blurry around the edges. A lot of times, it seemed like she was depending on the reader knowing Seattle’s topography to do the work for her — and as I’ve never been to Seattle, I couldn’t follow where she wanted to lead. Her descriptions just didn’t grab me, they never went far enough to paint a complete picture, and as such, I had trouble visualising what was going on.

The biggest problem, though, was that I also didn’t come to care about any of the characters, and I always have trouble engaging with a book when that’s the case. I can forgive a book any number of plot meanderings, logic holes, confusing moments, and sparse descriptions if I can get excited about the characters. But Briar and Zeke are as grey and dull as their surroundings. Priest gives us some background on their histories — but, as I said above, never quite enough to feel like you have a grip on what’s going on — but we never learn how they feel about anything. There’s very little introspection from either of them, and, once again, when your viewpoint is third limited, that’s sort of a necessity. Several of the supporting characters had the potential to be far more compelling than the leads, but Priest doesn’t give any of them enough “screen time” to really sell their merits. The result is a plodding, aimless story without any driving personality behind it. She’s also terribly prone to telling rather than showing, and that goes as much for the emotional development of the characters as it does for the setting.

Overall, extremely underwhelming, and I must confess that I don’t at all understand the high praise and considerable hype this book has earned in some circles. I’m bewildered that the book has warranted sequels, and even more astonished that it was nominated for a Hugo.


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