Category: Read Diverse 2017

Homegoing

Cover image for Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi by Yaa Gyasi

ISBN 97811019947142

“You are not your mother’s first daughter. There was one before you. And in my village we have a saying about separated sisters. They are like a woman and her reflection, doomed to stay on opposite sides of the pond.”

Effia and Esi are half-sisters who have never met. First divided by their mother’s secrets, they will soon be divided by an ocean when Esi is sold into slavery and shipped across the Atlantic. Effia remains in Ghana, sold in marriage by her step-mother to the British governor of the Cape Coast Castle, where slaves are held in cramped dungeons before being loaded onto ships bound for America. In present day America, Marjorie wrestles with her identity as a Ghanaian immigrant to the United States, while Marcus struggles to complete his PhD knowing that many young black men of his generation are dead or in jail, and that only chance has kept him from the same fate. In a sweeping family saga, Yaa Gyasi follows the sisters’ bloodlines over hundreds of years, one child from each generation, tracing the impact of colonialism and slavery across the centuries, between Ghana and America.

Homegoing opens in what is now Ghana in the mid-1700s, and concludes in America in the present day. Extremely ambitious in scope, it employs an unusual structure that alternates between the two bloodlines, with a new narrator for each generation, meaning that Homegoing has a total of fourteen point of view characters. This requires the reader to settle into a new perspective every twenty or thirty minutes. However, two factors keep this structure working. First is seeking the connection back to the previous story, to find out what has become of the mother or father since we left them behind. And next is looking ahead for the new character’s romantic interest, a necessity in order for the family tree structure of the novel to function, making every chapter a love story in its own way. The chapters are not quite short stories, though each has a distinct narrative arc. But the full function of the novel comes in the layering and juxtaposition of each subsequent piece, until they are all taken together.

I was personally most drawn into the chapters set in Africa, perhaps because the story was less familiar. The American side of the story traces the family from plantations to convict leasing to Jim Crow to the Civil Rights era, and through the modern day, history that I have at least a decent grasp on. I knew much less about tribal conflict between the Asante and Fante, and how the British exploited it to fuel the slave trade. Another fascinating chapter, featuring Effia’s great-granddaughter, Abena, recounts the introduction of cocoa farming in Ghana. It remains one of Ghana’s chief agricultural exports to this day. However, the chapter that gave me the biggest emotional punch in the gut was about Kojo—Esi’s grandson—and his wife, Anna, who are living free in Baltimore when the Fugitive Slave Act is introduced in 1850.

Homegoing is a multigenerational epic that walks the fine line between hope, anger, and despair as the tales of Esi and Effia’s descendants unspool. Each chapter is a slice of life set against the background of a particular historical era, be it the Great Migration or the War of the Golden Stool. The full effect of the novel is such that in the end, the reader knows more about Marcus and Marjorie’s families than they do, the fall out of slavery and colonialism depriving them of their history and culture. The book is a potent reminder that the history is always there, just beneath the surface, and that the story has always been waiting to be told, though the voice of the victors has long drowned it out.

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One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter

Cover image for One Day We'll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koulby Scaachi Koul

ISBN 978-1-250-12102-8

Mom talks about moving to Canada as though my father had requested she start wearing fun hats. Why not try it? she thought, instead of This fucking lunatic wants me to go to a country made of ice and casual racism.”

The daughter of Kashmiri Indian immigrants, Scaachi Koul was born in Canada, and grew up in Calgary, Alberta before moving to Toronto for university. There she became a writer and editor for BuzzFeed Canada, and started dating a white man more than a decade her senior who she kept secret from her parents for many years. She sparked on a storm on Twitter in 2016 when she put out a call for more diverse submissions. Her debut collection of essays addressing growing up at the intersection of two cultures, fighting for a place in either one, while constantly defending choices her parents do not understand or approve of. Koul approaches this subject with a biting humour that belies the seriousness of the subject matter.

Koul vividly sketches a portrait of her family, including her parents, much older brother, and young niece. Her father in particular is a vivid character, the kind of person who will decide a year later that he isn’t done being mad about something you did that he didn’t approve of, and abruptly stop talking to you for months at time. The intergenerational conflict is at once unique to her situation, and recognizable to parents and children everywhere. Her niece, nicknamed Raisin, also plays a prominent role, as Koul often reflects on her experiences through the lens of what she hopes or fears Raisin will face growing up as a young half-Indian woman.

Koul shares her complicated relationship with race in general, and skin colour in particular, a relationship that shifts depending whether she is in Canada or India. In Canada she is brown, yet just light enough to be ethnically vague, and constantly questioned about her identity. Racists casually toss the n-word at her, because “racism doesn’t have to be accurate, it just has to be acute.” In India, her family is pleased with, and occasionally jealous of, her pallor. There, her relatives casually touch her skin, as if hoping the colour will rub off. Koul worries over the value her family places on this lightness, and particularly what this emphasis on whiteness will mean for her half-white niece. This push-pull is constantly at play as Koul tries to parse out her place between the two worlds.

The pieces in this collection range in tone, but even the essays that are pure humour have an undertow of cultural commentary. As she recounts getting stuck in a skirt in the fitting room of a clothing store where she used to work—and having to be cut out of it—Koul manages to perfectly capture the tendency to pin our hopes on the perfect wardrobe. Even as she is getting stuck, she thinks this is “The item, the big item that changes the way I dress and thereby changes the way I am as a person. It’s not just a skirt; it’s the entry fee for a better existence. I would exude a new confidence, it would smooth out the wrinkles in my body, it would hide all the ways I have disappointed and failed people in the past.” Body image is never far beneath the surface of these reflections, with race and gender only serving to further complicate matters. And this piece fits into the collection right alongside more serous pieces, such as the dissection surveillance as an aspect of rape culture, showcasing Koul’s diverse range and deft hand with a variety of subject matter.

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Always and Forever, Lara Jean (To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before #3)

Cover image for Always and Forever Lara Jean by Jenny Han by Jenny Han

ISBN 978-1-4814-3048-7

“We’re all just counting down, passing time. Everyone knows where they’re going, and the right now already feels like it’s in the rearview. Suddenly life feels fast and slow at the same time. It’s like being in two places at once.”

It’s senior year, and Lara Jean Song Covey is anxiously awaiting her college acceptance letters, and looking forward to participating in traditions like the senior class trip, prom, and Beach Week. Her boyfriend Peter has already accepted a scholarship to play lacrosse for the University of Virginia, but Lara Jean is worried her grades aren’t good enough to into UVA. She’s keeping busy helping plan her father’s wedding to their next door neighbour, Ms. Rothschild, but sooner or later, the letters will come, and Lara Jean will have to make some big choices about her future.

As in previous installments, the Covey family dynamic is one of the standout aspects of Always and Forever, Lara Jean. Kitty and Lara Jean have both adjusted to the presence of their father’s new girlfriend in their lives. But Margot has missed that adjustment, and so when she comes home to visit, Trina’s presence in their house suddenly feels tense in a way it never did before. For Kitty and Lara Jean, everything has changed slowly, but from Margot’s outside perspective, her family is changing at the speed of light. Each in their own way, the Song girls have to face what this means for their mother’s memory, and their family going forward.

Back at the beginning of the series, the action began with Margot breaking up with her long-term boyfriend, Josh, before heading off to college in Scotland. Before she died, their mother advised Margot, “don’t be the girl who goes to college with a boyfriend.” Now Lara Jean finds herself in Margot’s shoes, facing down her last year of high school, and her dead mother’s advice. Will she follow in Margot’s footsteps, or carve her own path?  Big decisions about her future lie ahead, and Jenny Han has placed this dilemma at the heart of the plot.

Unlike the previous two installments in the series, Always and Forever, Lara Jean has no embarrassing plot catalyst, which was a relief to me as someone who suffers from vicarious embarrassment. In To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, Lara Jean was forced to face up to her past crushes—including her sister’s ex-boyfriend—when a box of her old love letters got mailed out. In P.S. I Still Love You, her tentative new relationship with Peter was tested when a video of them making out in a hot tub on a school trip was posted to an anonymous Instagram account. Always and Forever, Lara Jean doesn’t rely on any such device, and the book does not suffer for it. Jenny Han really captures the essence of senior year, and strikes the perfect balance in her conclusion to this series.

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March: Book Three

Cover image for March: Book Three by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin with art by Nate Powell by John Lewis and Andrew Ayden

Art by Nate Powell

ISBN 978-1-60309-402-3

“For so many months I’d kept my emotions bottled up to be strong for those counting on me to lead, but there I was alone in the dark with it all.”

Politician and civil rights leader John Lewis has been representing Georgia’s fifth congressional district for the past three decades. Before that, he enjoyed a long career as a civil rights activist and organizer, and served on the city council in Atlanta. The script for the March graphic novel was written with his congressional aide, Andrew Aydin, who wanted to capture some of the memories Lewis had shared with him in their time working together. This is the third and final volume in the trilogy. Catch up with March: Book One and March: Book Two here.

March: Book Three opens where March: Book Two left off, with the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama on September 15, 1963. The third volume is by far the longest in the trilogy, and has the most ground to cover, not necessarily in terms of time, but in terms of significant events in the civil rights movement, when participation and media attention gained critical mass. This installment includes the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Malcom X, the Freedom Summer voter registration project, the Selma march, and the passage of the Civil Rights Bill and the Voting Rights Act. The frame narrative that anchored the first volume has mostly slipped away, with only occasional references back to the inauguration of Barack Obama. It concludes on a meta note, with Lewis and Aydin discussing the idea of turning Lewis’ memoirs into a comic book.

Book three continues to chronicle the violence faced by peaceful protestors, particularly in Mississippi and Alabama as the civil rights movement gained steam. Scene after scene shows demonstrators beaten by police, or police standing by while they are attacked by white supremacists. Volunteers knew they might face violence when they signed up to register black voters in the South, but no one expected three volunteers to be intercepted and murdered before the Freedom Summer even began. Nate Powell’s black and white art chillingly depicts dredging the Mississippi swamps in search of the bodies of the three missing young men. Over and over, it shows the terrible price paid to bring in the Civil Rights Bill and the Voting Rights Act.

In addition to teaching the history of the civil rights movement, Lewis also provides a behind the scenes perspective on the growing pains of a swelling movement, and the ideological differences that arose. He highlights disagreements about the role of white people in the movement, and the role of gender equality as more women began participating. Different organizations often had profoundly different ideas about how to approach their advocacy, which Lewis presents in a diplomatic fashion. We also see Lewis beginning to move in powerful circles, not just the leadership of the student movement, but also among other civil rights organizations, and even meeting the president. This might be a little inside baseball for some readers, but it does drive home the amount of behind the scenes work and debate involved in bringing about change.

Throughout March, Lewis emphasizes action over legislation, highlight the fact that while laws are important, they mean nothing without practical enforcement or compliance. Even as it concludes at a triumphal moment, with the inauguration of the United States’ first black president, there is a note of sadness and caution. One of the last scenes depicts Lewis listening to his voicemail. “I was thinking about the years of work, the bloodshed…the people who didn’t live to see this day,” Ted Kennedy says as Lewis listens in the dark, head in his hands. March is dedicated to “the past and future children of the movement.” And the next day, Congressman Lewis is back at his office, planning to educate those future children about what was lost, what was gained, and the work yet to be done.

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The Prey of the Gods

Cover image for The Prey of the Gods by Nicky Drayden by Nicky Drayden

ISBN 9780062493033

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher through the Harper Voyager Super Reader Program.

If there’s one rule in planning for world domination, it’s to make sure you look good doing so.

South Africa, 2064. Sydney, a debased demi-goddess with dwindling powers, schemes to find enough fear, blood, and belief to feed on to return to her heyday. A new designer drug is hitting the market, and unleashing the divine potential of seemingly ordinary humans, and in it Sydney sees the possibility of chaos such as the world has not experienced for a long time. Meanwhile, her old mentor Mr. Tau is preparing to release a new demi-goddess into the world, one who may help her or undermine her, depending on how Sydney plays her cards. Can a pop star, two gay teens, a little girl, a politician, and a robot foil her plans?

To be honest, it is hard to give a concise, non-spoilery plot summary of The Prey of the Gods. There are at least eight point of view characters, and a lot of seemingly disparate elements that have to come together in this unusual novel. The book has elements of both fantasy and science fiction, as well as a distinct sense of humour. Sydney is a demigoddess, and mythology forms the underpinning of the story, but it is science that unleashes the action. The new drug hitting the market seems like a hallucinogen, but is really tapping into the divine potential of humans, including powers such as mind reading and manipulation that will create unprecedented chaos as they spread through the population. Meanwhile, the ubiquitous personal robots belonging to the human cast are gaining sentience, and questioning their role in society.

Perhaps the book’s strongest feature is its diverse and interesting cast of characters. I was particularly drawn to Nomvula, the young Zulu girl, and Councilman Stoker, the cross-dressing politician with a secret life as a drag performer who is starting to realize that he just might be trans. Drayden has also created an interesting character in Riya Natrajan, a fairly unlikeable pop diva who has been faking a drug problem to hide a more serious chronic medical condition from the public. Additional points of view come from Muzi, who is struggling with a crush on his best friend, Elkin, and This Instance, later named Clever 4-1, Muzi’s newly sentient personal robot. The mix of characters is exactly as odd and intriguing as you would expect, but works well once the reader gets everyone straight, and especially after the narratives begin to overlap.

Part of what gives nuance to the large cast is the theme of family, which is important for each character in different ways. When the book opens, Muzi is about to be circumcised not because he wants to, but because he knows that going through this traditional rite of passage will please his grandfather, whose approval he craves. Much of Riya’s backstory is defined by her mother’s death, and the complications that ensued in her relationship with her father, who she has not spoken to in years. Nomvula has grown up before her time caring for her sickly mother, with no father or siblings. When Mr. Tau and Sydney come along, her desire for family connections will change everything. Councilman Wallace Stoker is less interested in politics than music, but pressure to continue the familial political legacy keeps him from pursuing his dreams, or realizing his true identity. His domineering mother has her eye on the premier’s office, and will let nothing get in the way of her son achieving that landmark.

The Prey of the Gods is a humourous, genre bending romp through the near future, fearlessly mixing and matching demi-goddesses and robots, pop stars and politicians. Although it takes a while to settle in and get a handle on all the moving pieces of this narrative, the result is fresh and unexpected.

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March: Book Two

Cover image for March: Book Two by John Lewis and Andrew Aydinby John Lewis and Andrew Aydin

Art by Nate Powell

ISBN 978-1-60309-400-9

“The fare was paid in blood, but the Freedom Rides stirred the national consciousness, and awoke the hearts and minds of a generation.”

Politician and civil rights leader John Lewis has been representing Georgia’s fifth congressional district for the past three decades. Before that, he enjoyed a long career as a civil rights activist and organizer, and served on the city council in Atlanta. The script for the March graphic novel was written with his congressional aide, Andrew Aydin, who wanted to capture some of the memories Lewis had shared with him in their time working together. This is the second volume in what has become a highly-acclaimed trilogy since its 2013 release. Catch up with March: Book One here.

March: Book Two opens on Inauguration Day 2009, and then transitions back to Nashville in November 1960. After successfully integrating the city’s department store lunch counters, Lewis and the Nashville Student Movement continued in the same vein by trying to integrate cafeterias and fast food restaurants. They also turned their attention to segregated movie theatres. However, the heart of the second volume focuses on the Freedom Riders and the March on Washington, as Lewis rises to national prominence within the civil rights movement. Despite covering several climactic events, tension remains high, as the volume closes with the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama on September 15, 1963.

Book two recounts the increasing force with which non-violent protests were met as the civil rights movement gained momentum. Powell continues to walk the fine line in depicting the events truthfully but without exploiting the horror. However, the severity of the violence undeniably increases in this installment. The violence did not come as a surprise to the activists. In fact, Freedom Riders signed wills before undertaking their journeys, which were designed to test whether the Supreme Court decision that integrated interstate buses was being upheld in practice. Lewis also describes watching news coverage of protests in Alabama, where activists faced fire hoses and police dogs, resulting in what “looked like footage from a war.”

As in the first volume, Lewis is not afraid to chronicle philosophical differences within the movement, and his worries that as the number of protestors swelled, the new recruits lacked the discipline to adhere to the principles of non-violence. At the back of the book, the original draft of his speech for the March on Washington is included. The comic itself depicts the intense negotiations that surrounded certain aspects of his wording, which led to him delivering a highly revised version. While Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is the most famous address from this event, Lewis’ speech is powerful in its own right, and receives a six page spread. Yet the book also highlights the many other players and contributors, while also remaining Lewis’ story. Malcom X makes a brief appearance, though Lewis clearly disapproves of his philosophy. Dr. King is depicted respectfully but sometimes critically, without the idolatry that often surrounds his legacy. But Lewis is most interested in A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, the architects of the March on Washington. Rustin, in particular, was the logistical brains of the operation, but could not play a prominent public role because of his communist connections and homosexuality. March memorializes his key contributions.

March continues to move back and forth between Lewis’ life story, and Barack Obama’s inauguration. The first volume used a slightly stilted frame narrative of Lewis recounting his childhood to two boys who visit his office with their mother, who wants to teach them about the history of the civil rights movement. The second volume is purely Lewis reflecting alone on his experiences as the inauguration progresses, which works more smoothly, and also creates some interesting juxtapositions. Lewis’ election as chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee is placed alongside Obama taking the oath of office. The scenes depicting famous speeches given at the March on Washington are followed by the opening words of President Obama’s inaugural address. Aretha Franklin sings “My Country Tis of Thee” in 2009 as Freedom Riders are beaten in the streets of Alabama in 1963. This creates an effect that conveys the breadth of history, even as the closing on the church bombing creates a sobering, cautionary finish. There is always a backlash.

March: Book One

Cover image for March Book One by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin

Art by Nate Powell

ISBN 978-1-60309-300-2

“The thing is, when I was young, there wasn’t much of a civil rights movement. I wanted to work at something, but growing up in rural Alabama, my parents knew it could be dangerous to make any waves.”

Politician and civil rights leader John Lewis has been representing Georgia’s fifth congressional district for the past thirty years. Before that, he enjoyed a long career as a civil rights activist and organizer, and served on the city council in Atlanta. The script for the graphic novel was written with his congressional aide, Andrew Aydin, who wanted to capture some of the memories Lewis had shared with him in their time working together. This is the first volume in what has become a highly-acclaimed trilogy since its 2013 release.

March opens on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, as the march from Selma is about to be confronted by troopers armed for a riot, then flashes forward to Inauguration Day 2009, when Barack Obama is about to be sworn in as the first African American president of the United States. The frame narrative takes place in Congressman Lewis’ Washington D.C. office when a black woman from Atlanta arrives with her two sons to see the office of their representative. The congressman begins to tell the boys about his early life, and the beginnings of the civil rights movement, and continues through the desegregation of Nashville’s lunch counters in 1960. The transitions between past and present are not always smooth, but have the effect of emphasizing the currency of the narrative, and its continued relevance to the present moment.

March is part autobiography, and part civil rights primer. It both chronicles Lewis’ childhood on an Alabama farm with former sharecroppers for parents, and his early involvement in civil rights with the Nashville Student Movement. The early days are particularly interesting, as they show differences within the movement, and how the younger generation of activists made an impact by refusing to accept the more modest rollbacks of segregation that some older leaders were pushing for. The book also depicts the organizing and training that goes into building an effective and coordinated strategy for a movement. One particularly powerful scene shows activists roleplaying, insulting and abusing one another in order to prepare for the challenges they will face at the lunch counter sit-ins.

The graphic memoir format is particular suitable for illustrating the abuses faced by early civil rights activists, and Nate Powell powerfully captures the fear and tension in his art. The decision to illustrate the book in black and white renders these events in all their stark ugliness. The violence is not sugar-coated, but nor is it gratuitous. Notably, part of John Lewis’ introduction to the civil rights movement was the 1956 comic Martin Luther King Jr. and the Montgomery Story, which was an educational comic designed to teach the principles of non-violent resistance. March carries on in that tradition.

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Ninefox Gambit

Cover image for Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Leeby Yoon Ha Lee

ISBN 978-1-781088-449-6

“The problem with authority is that if you leave it lying around, others will take it away from you. You have to act like a general or people won’t respect you as one.”

The Fortress of Scattered Needles—a key strategic holding of the Hexarchate Empire—has been overtaken by heretics from within, an event which threatens to spread calendrical rot across the galaxy. Thanks to its shields of invariant ice, recapturing the Fortress by siege is virtually impossible, and the only man who could do it, General Shuos Jedao, has been dead for three hundred years. Fortunately, he has been preserved as an undead weapon which can be extracted from the black cradle when duty calls. Captain Kel Cheris—a mathematical prodigy who inexplicably chose the military Kel faction over the more academically minded Nirai—is selected to be the person to wield this “weapon,” and lead the campaign to reclaim the Fortress of Scattered Needles. Unfortunately for Cheris, Shuos Jedao slaughtered his own army before his death, which means that the Hexarchate’s secret weapon is mad traitor who cannot be trusted, even when his help is desperately needed.

Ninefox Gambit gets off to a bit of a dull start with a battle and a lot of strategic details that will appeal to fans of hard military sci-fi but leave other readers floundering for purchase. This is essentially world-building by immersion, as Lee introduces the concept of calendrical regimes and mathematical warfare. The Hexarchate relies on precise adherence to the strictures of a mathematical calendar, and the very technology of the society, including the weapons and military tactics, are dependent on this adherence. Calendrical heresy means a world where nothing functions properly. Lee also uses this section to introduce the basic cultural structure of the Hexarchate. Like many dystopians, there are six factions with distinct roles in society, and a defunct seventh faction that was annihilated after breaking from the empire’s orthodoxy. The Liozh heresy continues to haunt the Hexarchs.

The story becomes more interesting when Shuos Jedao joins the action. Although he served in the Kel military, Jedao hails from the Shuos faction, the other military branch of the empire responsible for intelligence operations and assassinations. The Shuos have a reputation for being wily, even when they aren’t mad traitors. When Kel Command goes mysteriously silent, Brevet General Kel Cheris is left with only Jedao’s advice, her own best judgement, and the feeling that she might not come out of this mission alive. It is in the unique interpersonal dynamic between Jedao and Cheris—no, not a romance—where things get interesting. Jedao has an unparalleled understanding of military tactics, and many years more experience than Cheris, but he has also been out of the game for many years, unaware of many developments in Hexarchate technology and society. And he is a terrible mathematician, an unforgiveable and potentially fatal weakness in a calendrical military. Their relationship involves the necessity of sharing information based on their own strengths, but also a high level of mutual distrust that maintains the narrative suspense.

On a more conceptual level, Ninefox Gambit is about the exercise of power, and freedom of thought. This is expressed mostly through the concept of calendrical heresy, and the Kel formation instinct. Lee’s unique society runs on citizens’ belief in and agreement upon a highly specific and regimented calendar, and deviation from that belief begins to degrade society in a way that is literal rather than theoretical. Orthodoxy is strictly enforced, to the point that fighting heresy with heretical math can result in re-education, even when calendrical rot has rendered orthodox tactics inoperable. If quashing heresy is about controlling what people think, formation instinct is the corollary that controls what they do. Specifically, soldiers in the Kel military are indoctrinated with an obedience instinct that helps them execute the mathematical formations that have calendrical effects on the battlefield. These themes of free thought and will even play out in a subplot about the sentience of artificial intelligence robots and drones that service the space ships and stations.

Ninefox Gambit is highly conceptual science fiction that starts slow but builds to an interesting and worthwhile conclusion that is open to a sequel. While it will be a hard sell for those who don’t love military sci-fi specifically, it is the kind of richly layered story that will repay repeat visits. I didn’t love every minute of reading it, but Ninefox Gambit has continued to grow on me in retrospect.

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