Book Review – Defy the Stars

Defy the Stars is a YA science fiction novel (possibly the first of a trilogy?) by Claudia Gray.

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Noemi Vidal is a teenage soldier, fighting in a war for the independence of her planet, Genesis, from its master, Earth. During a battle, Noemi encounters a shipwreck carrying an unusual passenger; a super advanced android named Abel. Though he is loyal to Earth, Abel is forced by his programming to obey Noemi, and they go on a planet-hopping adventure to secure a device that will free Genesis from Earth’s control forever.

I loved this book! The setup is interesting, since the main POV character is from a planet that is at war with our own planet Earth. It feels a bit funny to see Earth as the bad guy! I also have a soft spot for AI characters and robots, so I was really interested in Abel’s character development through the story.

The main characters are both likeable and well written. Noemi is a serious-minded fighter, dedicating her life to fighting for her planet, going as far as signing up for a suicide mission. Abel is an artificial mech, but has a very human personality and has puppy-like loyalty to his creator/father. They are on opposite sides of a war, so neither trusts the other and most of the book is spent learning to see their shipmate as a person instead of an enemy. There’s a small amount of romance near the end, but not so much that it’s overpowering or sappy.

One question I had was the pronunciation of Noemi’s name…”No-mee?” No-eh-mee?” I eventually decided on “No-mee”, like the character on Sense 8.

The only thing in the book that made me go hmmmm was the religion aspect. Noemi is a religious person, and planet Genesis seems to value religion of all kinds very highly. Nothing wrong with that, but I’m not used to seeing real life religion in a sci-fi book. I’m glad it was only part of Noemi’s character development, and it didn’t get preachy or interfere with the story.

Anyway, I enjoyed this book a lot, and I’m hoping there will be a sequel! I really want to see more of these characters and their relationship.

Cover report: The cover features a black star field, with what looks like an exploding silver planet forming the title of the book. Though it doesn’t give much of an idea what the book is about, it’s a very pretty and eye-catching cover. I give this cover a B.

Typo police: I thought I had found a typo, but it turns out that the book is correct. A character talks about having a video “cued up”, and I thought it was supposed to be “queued up”. Turns out “cue” is correct. That’s one thing I love about reading – you’re always learning!


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Nonfiction Book Review – The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up

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I’ve been researching decluttering and minimalist ideas lately, so I borrowed the audiobook of “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up” from the local digital library. This book explains the “KonMari” method of decluttering, by the inventor of that system, Japanese tidying expert Marie Kondo.

Kondo has been interested in decluttering since she was very young, and has developed a unique system of her own over the years. The key components to her method are to declutter items in a specific order, gather all of the type of item together, handle each item, and remove anything that doesn’t bring you joy when you hold it. For example the first item on her list is clothes; she instructs the reader to make a pile out of EVERY piece of clothing in the entire house, then go through them one by one, deciding whether to keep or discard each item as you handle it. When that’s done, move on to books, then onto other items down the list.

A lot of her methods make sense, but she also has ways of thinking about things that are a bit…different. One big quirk is that she anthropomorphizes objects, giving them personalities and talking about them as if they are sentient. She speaks of thanking possessions for their work, storing them in ways that help them rest, etc. For most of us, that probably seems a bit odd! Another quirky thing about the book is its distinct Japanese-ness. She has a whole chapter devoted to good luck charms from Shinto temples, and speaks of items like traditional Japanese tea ceremony kits that aren’t likely to be found in a Western home!

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But overall, I think the book presents some interesting ideas about decluttering. I’m not 100% sold on the KonMari method (I still have a torch burning for the “room-by-room” method), but I think this is a good read for anyone wanting to simplify their life and declutter their home. It got me in the mood to clear out some old possessions and hold a yard sale! 😉

Cover report: The cover features a pale, pastel watercolor painting of a blue sky with clouds, with the title in small lowercase red text. It’s very simple and elegant, and fits the author’s heritage and philosophy very well! I give this cover an A.

Typo police: I experienced this book as an audiobook, so no typos.


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Book Review – Red Rising

I recently read “Red Rising” by Pierce Brown. This novel is the first in a dystopian trilogy of the same name, set on futuristic Mars.

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Centuries into the future, the solar system has been settled and human civilization lives across multiple planets. A harsh caste system separates people into colors, each of which has a specific job, purpose, and social rank. Darrow is a Red, the lowest of all of the colors, who are doomed to a harsh life of near-slavery mining terraforming elements deep under the surface of Mars. Darrow is kidnapped by a terrorist group who alter his body to that of a Gold, the ruling class who live in luxury. He is thrust into an initiation where young Golds are set against each other in a deadly game of conquest.

Let’s get it out the way quickly: this book is definitely Martian Hunger Games. Teens forced to kill each other in an arena while spoiled adults watch: check. The difference is that this time the competitors are all snotty rich kids, and the adult members of the ruling class in this book are ruthless, violent, and cruel, unlike the mostly goofy and ignorant Capitol citizens. The dystopian society is appropriately detestable, with color coded social strata dividing the population into castes that can’t be escaped from. The color you are born into controls your entire life; Golds are the elite rulers, Grays are soldiers, Browns are servants, etc. The worst is the Pink class, who are forced to into a life of sex slavery. It’s a good setup for getting the reader behind the main character and his goal to rescue his Red caste and destroy the Golds at the top of this shitty heap.

I didn’t find Darrow especially likeable, but the nature of the story made me root for him anyway. There are a couple of other decent protagonists, like Darrow’s love interest Mustang (actual name Virginia), and small-but-tough Sevro. Most of the other characters are terrible people, and I spent most of the book waiting for them to get their comeuppance!

I have mixed feelings about this book. I liked it enough to finish reading, and I’m looking forward to catching the next installment. But on the negative side, it took a LONG time to get into the story. The first 1/3 or so of the book is kind of boring…if I wasn’t so intrigued by the concept, I might have stopped reading. It finally picked up speed and got good once it got the war game part, but it was a slog getting there. Hopefully since the setup is out of the way, the second book will hit the ground running.

Cover report: The cover features an outstretched red wing on black, with the title in white letters (which have a Roman feel, which is appropriate considering the Roman influence of the Gold class). It’s simple and elegant, and I like it a lot! I give this cover an A.

Typo police: No typos found.


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Movie Review – Dragonlance: Dragons of Autumn Twilight

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As I was finishing my read-through of Dragons of Autumn Twilight, I learned that there is a movie-length animated version. Naturally I looked it up, excited to see a cool fantasy story in animated form…and…wow. It’s…something.

The movie was made in 2007 by a company called “Toonz Animation”, whose name is a red flag right off the bat. It opens with a choppy CG dragon, then cuts to this guy:

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Yeah. Ok, I really don’t like trash talking movies and stuff, but there really isn’t a good way of sugarcoating it. The visuals in this movie are baaaaaad.

Though it was created in 2008, it looks a lot like late 80s animation; I was reminded a lot of the old He-Man cartoon. The bad 2D animation is mixed with bad CG that looks like it came from a Playstation 1 video game circa 1995, and the two elements don’t go together AT ALL. Visually, this thing is a disaster! There are also animation mistakes like a sword turning into a log, and this lovely shot…check out Sturm (the guy at the right in the red cloak) and his 3 legs!

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I mean…how? I can only imagine the budget for this movie must have been incredibly low.

Story wise, the film sticks pretty close to the books. There were a few small scenes missing here and there, but nothing vital. They removed the character of Eben and his traitor plot-thread, and a lot of the gully dwarf shenanigans, but it doesn’t affect the story too much. Overall, the writer did a decent job reducing the novel into a screenplay. The only problem is that there is so much material to cover that the pace of the movie is insanely fast. Each story beat is given maybe 15-30 seconds before moving on to the next one, then the next, at breakneck speed. It reminds me a lot of the later Harry Potter movies, which have the same problem of racing from plot point to plot point in order to cover everything. Sometimes a single film just isn’t long enough to adequately cover an entire novel.

Another negative of the film is that there are freakin’ spoilers at the end! The true identity of Fizban is revealed, and they spoil the current whereabouts of Caramon and Raistlin’s half-sister Kitiara. I’m a little miffed at that. 😛

There is one good thing about the movie, and that’s the soundtrack. Sometimes the music doesn’t seem to fit the scenes its playing over, but I blame the terrible animation for that. It’s actually pretty good music, if you listen to it on its own!

So unfortunately, this animated movie was a big disappointment. If the budget had been bigger and it had been split into two films, I think it could have been a lot better. The music is good, but just about everything else is sub-par. Oh well, Lord of the Rings had several bad versions made before we got some good films, so maybe there’s still hope for Dragonlance one day!


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Book Review – Dragonlance: Dragons of Autumn Twilight

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Dragons of Autumn Twilight is the very first book in the Dragonlance universe, based on the world of the Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game. I read quite a few of the Dragonlance novels back in my teenage years, but because it was in my Clinical Depression Funk (I may write about that later…reading was my biggest life raft), I remember almost nothing about them. So I thought I might as well start my great re-read at the beginning! I read and loved the Death Gate Cycle by the same authors a while back, so I have high hopes for this universe. 🙂

The book begins as an assorted group of friends, including a half-elf, a human soldier, a dwarf, a kender (basically a halfling, aka hobbit), and a mage, meet up at an inn after five years of traveling separately. Their meeting is cut short and they are forced to flee, pursued by draconians, a dangerous race of replitian soldiers under the rule of a dragonlord named Verminaard. Along with a pair of barbarians in possession of a powerful magical staff, they travel across the land to defeat Verminaard and his army of red dragons before he enslaves the land.

The characters are a varied bunch that covers all of the expected fantasy classes; we have several fighters, a mage, a thief, and a cleric. Along the way they meet a crazy old wizard named Fizban, whose name is remarkably similar to Zifnab, the crazy old wizard from the Death Gate series. Ol’ Fiz/Zif likes to dimension hop, apparently. 😉 I’ve heard that Raistlin is the fan-favorite character of the series, and to be honest I’m not sure why…he seems like a jerk in this first book. Maybe he gets more likable later on? My favorite character was Bupu, a goofy but lovable gully dwarf who helps the party after she is enchanted with a charm spell. I think the gully dwarves are my favorite race in this world so far! My least favorite character was Laurana the beautiful lovestruck elf…*yawn*.

I really like that the dragons are actual characters in the story too. Pyros, the strongest of the red dragons, is Verminaard’s mount and the major firepower (literally) of the book. The most interesting dragon is Matafleur, an elderly female dragon whose senile mind causes her to confuse human children with her own offspring. “Senile dragon” isn’t a character type I ever expected to see in a fantasy novel! There is also a black dragon named Khisanth, whose name picked at my brain until after I finished the book, at which point I looked her up. Turns out she has her own book, Black Wing, which I clearly remember reading back in the day. I *knew* that name sounded familiar!

I didn’t think this book was super great, definitely not as good as any of the Death Gate books. But since it’s the very first one written decades ago, I’m sure the series gets better as the authors get in the groove. 🙂

I noticed that there appears to be an animated version of this book, which I am definitely going to check out.

Cover report: It looks like this book has been reprinted a few times with a few different covers. I actually listened to the audiobook this time, which has the cover seen above. It features who I believe are Flint, Tanis, and Goldmoon, with the tree houses of Solace in the background. It’s really nice artwork, and I think it complements the book well. I give this cover an A.

Typo police: No typos to report, since my experience was with an audiobook. Maybe next time!

 


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Book Review – Dissension (Ravnica book 3)

Dissension is the third and final book in the Ravnica trilogy, set in the world created by Magic: The Gathering.

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Unlike the second book, which began 10 years after the events of the first, this novel picks up almost immediately after Guildpact. Utvara has been cured of the deadly plague, but an even greater danger emerges when several magical beasts feed on the corpse of a baby dragon, imbuing them with enormous size and even more enormous appetites. Meanwhile, back in the city center, Fonn, Jarad, and their son Myc get caught up in a growing threat from the Cult of Rakdos, a violent guild that plans to summon their demonic leader. Kos returns, as a ghost this time, in an attempt to stop the Simic guild’s master chemist from creating yet another monster that seeks death and destruction. It’s monsters galore in this climactic book!

Awww yeah, we finally get to see Niv-Mizzet! The dragon lord of the Izzet takes center stage early in the book, though he doesn’t get much accomplished against the dragonmeat-buffed nephilim. In fact, ol Mizzy is a bit of a let down…not just to the reader, but to the characters as well. He might have had better luck if he had stayed airborne and used his firebreath more, instead of farting around so much on the ground. Where’s Drogon when you need him? Dracarys already!

The Rakdos are as crazy and deadly as you would expect a fire/death combo to be, and the extended battle/chase in their underground magma pit is the best action scene in the book. I also enjoyed Kos’ adventures as a body-hopping ghost. Unfortunately my favorite character Crix (now called Crixizix after a well-deserved promotion) was barely in the book, though Pivlic got lots of page time.

I was a bit disappointed that the Azorius guild didn’t get much characterization this time around. These books have done a pretty good job fleshing out most of the guilds, but Azorius was just kind of there in the background while Rakdos and Simic hogged all the glory. Azorius and Dimir got a little bit shafted in the series, while I feel that Izzet, Boros, and Golgari got the deepest characterization.

Anyway, I enjoyed this book, though I still think I would count the second novel as my favorite (this is generally a trend with me and trilogies). I thought the entire series was pretty good. It’s a solid read, especially if you’re familiar with MTG, and I’ll probably look for more books by the same author.

Cover report: The cover features Rakdos, the demonic leader of the guild that bears his name. He’s a generic looking demon guy, with red skin, wings, fangs all over the place, and some chains for a little extra edge. Not a bad cover, but not super great. My score: B-

Typo police: Only one catch this time: on page 210, a sentence reads “a second troll’s nose had been crushed with own club”. This should be “HIS own club”.


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Book Review – Wake of Vultures

I’ll get to book 3 of Ravnica in a bit, but I recently took a detour to read an interesting sounding YA novel called Wake of Vultures.

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Wake of Vultures is the first book in The Shadow series, by author Lila Bowen. This series is an unusual combination of genres: a young adult supernatural western. Definitely a first for me! To be honest, now that I think about it I don’t think I’ve EVER read a western novel of any kind.

The main character of the book is Nettie, a half-black half-native girl living in the west in the late 1800s. Orphaned as a baby, she is raised by a cruel white couple who treat her as a slave instead of a daughter, and she grows up with absolutely zero sense of self-worth. At the age of 15 she runs off, disguises herself as a boy, and joins a nearby farm as a novice cowhand. But strange and dangerous creatures begin appearing and attacking Nettie and the people around her, and she learns that she herself has supernatural abilities. Soon she finds herself on a quest to hunt down a child-eating monster with a connection to her own mysterious past.

This book was interesting mainly because of the unusual setting. All of the things you would expect in a western were there; cowboys, horses, saloons, guns, beans on a tin plate, spittin ‘baccy juice into dirt, etc, and the narration was done with typical ol’ west grammar and jargon. But there were also vampires, chupacabras, harpies, sirens, and just about every other supernatural creature you can think of. It’s a strange combination that took a few chapters to get used to, but by the end of the book I was into it.

A big part of the story deals with a variety of gender issues. Nettie spends the entire book pretending to be a boy, wishes she was a man instead of a woman, and seems to be attracted to both sexes. One of the other characters is a young gay cowboy who fears being outed. It was difficult to read sometimes, especially if you’re in any of those situations yourself and can relate.

And the gender issue brings up my big negative for this book…nonstop rape content. Nettie is threatened with rape multiple times, and comes close to actually being raped twice. I’m very sensitive to this kind of thing, so I almost abandoned the book several times. Reading is supposed to be an escape from reality, not a big wallow in the absolute worst of it. Maybe one threat, one near miss, but multiple ones? Over and over? Yeesh.

Overall, I can say I generally liked this book, I just wish the rape was toned down about 500%. I like the uniqueness of the setting and I’m curious about where the story will go, but I’m undecided if I want to finish the series because constant sex-related violence is really upsetting to me.

Cover report: This cover is super plain…just a black feather on a white background, surrounded by review blurbs. Could definitely use improvement. My cover score: D

Type police: About a third of the way through the book, a character is said to have “knocked an arrow” on his bow. This should be “nocked.” (This word is actually spelled correctly several other times elsewhere in the book.) There was also a sentence where a character “sat a horse” instead of “sat on a horse”, but apparently that may be correct?


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Book Review – Guildpact (Ravnica book 2)

Guildpact is the second book in the Ravnica trilogy by Cory J Herndon. Like the first book, it’s based in the universe of Magic: The Gathering.

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Guildpact continues the story of Agrus Kos, the wojek (police) officer whose story we first encountered in the preceding novel. Ten years after the events of the first book, Kos has quit the force and moved to the province of Utvara, a decrepit region of the city that has been devastated by decades of deadly plague. Also traveling to Utvara is Teysa Karlov, a lawyer from the intimidating Orzhov guild, who has been assigned to rebuild the area and turn it into a moneymaker for her wealthy and powerful family. Meanwhile, the magical Izzet guild has constructed a mysterious power plant that is hatching (literally) a plot that could put the whole world in danger.

This book widens the scope of the story to explore more of the world of Ravnica, both in setting and culture. In contrast to the bustling and mostly-civilized inner city, Utvara is a wasteland of rusted metal, buried towns and toppled buildings (remember that the entire plane of Ravnica is basically one massive city), inhabited by only a few pioneers and some roving bands of savages. We also focus on three different guilds this time: the Orzhov, who revolve around law and banking, the Izzet, who are experiment-crazy magicians, and the Gruul, who are nomads who live in primitive tribes.

One thing I enjoyed about this book was the cast of characters. With the exeption of Kos, all of the main players are new characters (or in Pivlic’s case, a very minor character promoted to a major role). Teysa the Advokist (lawyer) is kind of an anti-hero, with not entirely noble intentions but more morality than most of her guild. The Izzet magelord Zomaj Hauc is the main villain, and his servant Crix, a goblin enhanced with improved mental and physical abilities, is the co-hero of the story and my favorite character. We also get some interesting micro-culture with the Izzet guild, who love to experiment with a dangerous combination of science and magic.

One tiny complaint is about the title of the book…”Guildpact” really had nothing to do with the story at all. It’s clear that they based the titles entirely on the names of the game expansions, not on the content of the books. Just a nitpick, though.

I liked this book a little better than the first one. The cast of characters was better, the setting was interesting, and the new guilds were fun (especially the Izzet). I hope we get to see Niv-Mizzet, the dragon leader of the Izzet guild, in the next book!

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Cover report: This cover features more artwork from the game, in this case Teysa Karlov’s card. It features two vampiric-looking Orzhov members, dressed in black robes in front of a glowing window. Teysa’s Orzhov-symbol boob window is pretty cool. I give this cover a B+.

Typo police: Two typos this time! On page 229, Kos exclaims “you burning him alive!” instead of “you’re burning”. And on pg 281, a tree is described as being “whithered”, instead of “withered”.

Next up is the final book: Dissension. Catch you then!


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Nonfiction Book Review: The Fred Factor

Getting the award for the oddest title of the year so far is “The Fred Factor” by Mark Sanborn. The full title is “The Fred Factor: How passion in your work and life can turn the ordinary into the extraordinary.”

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The basic concept of the book is a guy named, you guessed it, Fred! Fred worked as a postman in Sanborn’s neighborhood, and fascinated the author with his unusual passion for helping people. He always went above and beyond his job of delivering mail, trying his best to make the lives of the people he encountered a little better in whatever way he could. The author was so impressed by the positive impact Fred had on everyone who met him that it inspired a book and training program based on the postman’s life philosophy.

This is a short book, but it packs a lot of punch. Chapters are grouped into sections that explain what a “Fred” is, how to become one yourself, and how to help develop those qualities in other people. Sprinkled throughout are lots of examples of “Freds”, aka people who exemplified helpful, caring, and selfless attitudes in a variety of occupations, to show that you can go above and beyond no matter what exactly it is that you do. Fred was a mailman, but you don’t have to be a mailman to be a Fred! The book ends with a report card to help guide the reader on their journey to becoming the best Fred they can be.

I enjoyed this book! It’s written in a simple and straightforward style that reads quickly (the book can easily be read in a single sitting, though I try to read self-help books slower in order to absorb the info). The stories are entertaining, and overall the book feels very uplifting. I want to be a Fred! 😀

The only negative I found was one part of the cover…see that little blue stripe at the bottom? That stripe makes it look like the dust cover has slipped upward and revealed part of the book underneath. I tried to “correct” it half a dozen times! Perhaps I need a self-help book about OCD… 😉


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Book Review: Ravnica

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Ravnica, by Cory J Herndon, is the first book in a trilogy set in the world of Ravnica, part of the Magic: The Gathering universe. The world of Ravnica is a magical plane that consists of a single, massive city that covers the entire world. The population of the world is divided up into ten guilds, each with its own purpose and beliefs. For the non-nerds out there, Ravnica is based on Magic: The Gathering, a strategy card game that relies on building a battle deck of magical people, creatures, artifacts, and spells. Naturally the game makes a perfect setup for a fantasy novel.

The main character of this story is Agrus Kos, a policeman of the lawful Boros guild (which is so lawful that it contains actual, literal angels!). Kos, who has been saddled with an inexperienced new partner, is caught up investigating the assassination of a high-ranking priest of the holy Selesnya guild. Meanwhile, deep under the city, the dark elf priestess Savra is scheming to unite the zombie-infested Golgari guild under her in a bid for power over the city. Deadly chaos erupts between the three clashing guilds as Savra makes her move.

Licensed books vary a lot in quality, but fortunately this book was a fun read in its own right. The world is written very well, taking the concepts from the game and fleshing them out in a believable way. One of my favorite parts was the array of magical police procedures of the Boros; they did things like capturing ghosts for questioning, or temporarily reanimating the brain of a recently-killed victim so they can describe their final moments. Pretty cool! You don’t usually see modern-type law enforcement in the fantasy genre, so it was neat to see the two concepts combined in a creative way.

The characters were pretty standard; Kos was the typical grizzled old cop who doesn’t want to retire, half-elf Fonn is a standard noble ranger, and Savra fits the evil priestess role with ease. The minor characters, like Svogthir the zombie-god, junior cop Borca, and Pivlic the imp, were actually much more interesting than the main players, IMHO.

Overall, this was a fun read. I will be checking out the other two books in the series soon.

Cover report: The cover for the book is actually a cropped version of a painting used on Kos’ card, featuring an older black man in armor. It’s a nice piece of artwork, as most of the MTG art usually is. It’s a lot calmer and subdued than the usual “barbarian fighting a dragon on a mountaintop” type fantasy art, but it’s cool that they used art from the actual game. I give this cover a B.

Typo police: I found two typos in this one! On pg 161, a line reads “the line went taught”, where “taught” should be “taut”. And on pg 220, the word “will” is used twice in this sentence: “Will the mighty Iv’g’nork will be dining upon two challengers?”

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P.S. Selesnya forever! XD


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