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Jessica Strider (Toronto, Canada)

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by David Walton
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 12.26
23 used & new from CDN$ 5.27

4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating alternate history where the world is flat..., April 14 2015
This review is from: Quintessence (Paperback)
Pros: great world-building, entertaining

Cons: surprisingly swift resolution to numerous problems

The Western Star returns to England from the edge of the world purportedly carrying treasures untold, but the hold is full of barrels of dirt, rocks, and seawater, and the crew has mysteriously died. Stephen Parris, physic to the ailing King Edward VI, attempts to increase his knowledge of the human body by dissecting corpses, an act that would mean his execution if discovered. The most recent body he examines, from The Western Star, is remarkably preserved and has some bizarre characteristics. Christopher Sinclair is an alchemist, determined to find the elixir of life, and believes the tales of wealth the admiral of The Western Star told before he died. He convinces the king to finance a second mission for the repaired ship and persuades Parris to accompany him on his voyage of discovery.

This book is set in a world very similar to our own where the Earth is, in fact, flat, and a mysterious substance called quintessence - the fifth element, the essence of life - is found in creatures that live close to the world’s edge. The book, consequently, has a lot of fantastical creatures, starting with a beetle that can fly through walls and a manticore that can speak mind to mind using its tail as a connection port. Learning about the different creatures and their miraculous properties was highly entertaining.

I’m currently learning about the history of science so it was a real pleasure to see Aristotelianism argued against atomism (not to be confused with the modern atomic theory).

The book doesn’t pull any punches with regards to what life was like, either with England in its time of tribulation (with the succession), shipboard life, or the challenges of learning about a new land. I especially appreciated that the Spanish inquisition was used accurately - as a way to wipe out heresy, not a series of witchcraft trials. Again, the horror of the institution isn’t toned down at all, and the true targets, conversos (Jews and Muslims who professed conversion to Catholicism while retaining their beliefs in secret), are briefly shown in focus. Witchcraft does come up, but in the contexts of body snatching and magic.

I really liked Parris and his inquisitiveness, as well as his daughter Catherine, and her desire to learn more about the natural world and avoid marriage for the time being. I felt that Catherine grew over the course of the book, though mostly at the end, when the consequences of her actions throughout the book become clear. Parris too grows to some extent.

Sinclair is pretty interesting as a character, though he’s not very likeable. I found his experiments cool, but his willingness to manipulate people to get his way became disturbing as the book wore on.

Most of the action in the book was predictable but there were some interesting twists, mainly concerning the creatures encountered and revolving around the ending of the book.

The ending came rather suddenly and wrapped things up a little too neatly. A number of people mastered powers too quickly to be believable. I did, however, appreciate that there was no cliffhanger leading to the next book in the trilogy.

The Fire Sermon
The Fire Sermon
by Francesca Haig
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 18.80
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3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting premise but the book left me wanting more from it than I got., April 7 2015
This review is from: The Fire Sermon (Hardcover)
Pros: fascinating premise, interesting protagonists

Cons: limited plot

400 years ago the Blast wiped out most of humanity. Now everyone is born as twins. One child, the Alpha, is perfectly formed. Alphas teach that the second child, the Omega, is born of the poisons that haven’t entirely dissipated from the Blast, thereby explaining their deformities: a missing limb, an extra eye, the inability to speak. Visions. The Omegas, unpleasant to look at and more prone to disease, are sent away, but kept in decent enough conditions because when one twin dies, so does the other.

Cassandra is a seer, a rare Omega with no distinguishing features but the ability to sense things about the world around her. Raised with her twin brother Zach longer than usual, due to her unblemished appearance, both their lives are impacted. Zach’s fear of Omegas and the rejection of his peers causes him to have ambitions that will change the lives of Omegas everywhere, starting with Cass.

I find myself somewhat conflicted about this book. I really liked the premise surrounding the twins and the political and ethical questions regarding the treatment of the Omegas, but there’s very little plot. Most of the book is about Cass running away from her brother. That’s not to say that the book isn’t interesting, the characters pass through a cross-section of the world, and it’s a very interesting world.

While I liked Cass and Kip - a fellow hunted Omega - I didn’t end up with the emotional connection to them that I expected given the character driven nature of this book.

I liked that Cass had the idea that Alphas and Omegas shouldn’t be considered separate groups, especially given their death connection, but the few times she brings it up her idea is shot down by others. I recognize how hard changing such ingrained beliefs would be and kind of hoped to see the author tackle it by having Cass bring it up more often, wearing her compatriots down or finding new and more concrete ways of getting her views across to more people. I’m wondering if book 2 will deal more with this.

The book was enjoyable to read but left me wanting more from it than I got.

Voyage of the Basilisk: A Memoir by Lady Trent
Voyage of the Basilisk: A Memoir by Lady Trent
by Marie Brennan
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 18.80
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5.0 out of 5 stars A fun, lighthearted fantasy adventure., March 31 2015
Pros: excellent world-building, fun protagonist, quick read

Cons: ending felt rushed

This is the third volume of Isabella, Lady Trent’s memoirs and deals with the 2 year research voyage she took on the RSS Basilik. With her she brings Tom, who accompanied her on previous journeys, her nine year old son, Jake, and his governess, Abby.

As with the other books in this series, this is a character driven fantasy novel, following the extraordinary adventures of a female dragon researcher from Scirland. While the previous books focused on one area for her excursions, this one covers several locations where she researches various types of dragons in an effort to create a proper taxonomy for the species.

I love the degree of detail Brennan adds to these book, particularly the background tidbits that don’t strictly need to be there but show the amount of behind the scenes thought that goes into the stories. For example, it doesn’t really matter to the story that this trip took 2 years or more to plan (besides aging the characters), but it acknowledges that such travel in the past was not only expensive but also difficult to arrange. I also appreciated the occasional bureaucratic, medical, and cultural problems they encountered.

The world expands greatly as the ship stops at numerous ports, sometimes leaving Isabella’s group behind for a month or more to do research, sometimes carrying on immediately to the next location. Once again the world-building is excellent. It’s possible at times to see what real world cultures she’s adapting for her book, but each society is very different from the others and there’s a wide variety of characters and customs that show up.

I’m not generally a fan of character driven fantasy but Isabella is such an interesting person that I race through these volumes. Part way through this book they encounter another researcher, who helps them out. Suhail was just as fun and interesting as Isabella, and I have my suspicions about his hidden last name.

While it’s possible to read this volume on its own, there are several allusions to the events of the previous books, and a few spoilerish conversations.

The ending feels a little rushed. There’s a climactic event, after which events are narrated rather quickly through the denouement. It works for the structure of a novel but would be somewhat unusual for the memoir this purports to be.

These are lighthearted books that don’t take long to read and are accompanied by gorgeous illustrations by Todd Lockwood. It’s a series I highly recommend.

The Skull Throne: Book Four of The Demon Cycle
The Skull Throne: Book Four of The Demon Cycle
by Peter V. Brett
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 21.32
31 used & new from CDN$ 19.43

5.0 out of 5 stars The stakes are rising, can't wait for book 5., March 31 2015
Note: This review contains spoilers for book 3, The Daylight War.

Pros: lots of politics, lots of intrigue, complex characters, the last 100 pages will blow you away

Cons: have to wait for the next book

Both Arlen and Jardir disappear after their fall from the cliff, putting Inevera in a difficult position to keep her sons alive and off the Skull Throne, while maintaining the unity of the clans that she and Jardir fought so hard for. Leesha and her companions return to the Hollow where she agonizes over what to do about her coming child, her growing love for Count Thamos, and organizing the gatherers. The Hollow leaders are soon called to Angiers by the royal family. Leesha, to help cure the Duke’s infertility; Gared, to find a wife; and Rojer, to introduce his Krasian wives to the court. Meanwhile, Arlen has a dangerous plan in mind.

Get ready for deep intrigues and a lot of politics. This book is fast paced and a quick read, despite its near 700 pages (which includes the ever helpful Krasian dictionary at the end).

The characters remain complex, with tough decisions to make and lots of compromises between how they want the world to become versus dealing with how it actually is. I loved the scenes from Ashia’s point of view, getting to know her and the other sharum’ting (female warriors). Their training was interesting, as was the family politics she was thrown into with regards to her marriage. I felt both admiration for her and pity for her situation. Though I started to find Leesha irritating in book 3, here she’s back to the woman I admired in books 1 and 2, only with more responsibilities and harder choices to make. I love Inevera as a character, even though she can be quite horrible at times. This book made me again appreciate her intelligence and drive while pitying her when things start to spiral out of control. Abban’s manipulation of power made him less sympathetic in this book, but his storyline remains intriguing. The interplay between Rojer and his wives is so interesting, especially given their various abilities.

Unlike book 3, this one doesn’t end with a cliffhanger, but it will have you cursing the fact that book 5 isn’t out yet. The last hundred pages or so really ramps up the action as all of the political maneuvering comes to fruition in unexpected ways. This series continues to get better and I can’t wait to read what’s going to happen next.

Shadow Scale: A Companion to Seraphina
Shadow Scale: A Companion to Seraphina
by Rachel Hartman
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 16.61
2 used & new from CDN$ 16.61

5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent world-building makes for an excellent book, March 17 2015
Pros: excellent world-building, interesting and varied characters, political intrigue

Cons: less mystery, Seraphina misses some obvious connections

With the dragons fighting a civil war and Comonot living in exile in the palace, things in Goredd remain tense. When word of a possible half-dragon mind weapon is uncovered, Seraphina is sent to find the others from her ‘mind garden’ and bring them back with her. She’s also tasked with sending aid in the form of men and supplies from the southern states she’ll be travelling through. But her task is hard and her allies few, especially when a powerful figure from her past reappears.

This is the sequel to Seraphina, a novel I thoroughly enjoyed. For those who read Seraphina a long time ago, there’s a fantastic summary at the beginning going over all the important elements of the previous book. I really wish more series books would do this.

While Seraphina had elements of mystery and romance, Shadow Scale is more of a quest story, with Seraphina combing the world for others of her kind. I have to admit I missed the interplay between Seraphina and Kiggs, who stayed behind as she travelled. While I enjoyed the whole book (seeing how other lands functioned was really interesting), I liked the second half the best. Porphyry was really fun, especially their contempt for the more barbaric southlands, which put the protagonist in the position of being the uncouth foreigner. The second half is also when the villain’s actions start to have real effects on the story.

There’s a wide variety of characters, humans (from 4 distinct cultures), dragons, half-humans, quigutl (draconic cousins), as well as people from different statuses and belief structures. Another thing I loved about Porphyry was the complexity of its language - that it has six genders and seven cases and that “[y]ou use cosmic neuter for a stranger, … And he’s a stranger until you’ve asked, ‘How may I pronoun you?’” (p207). I love the idea that this culture allows people to choose their own gender and form of address, and that you ask people when you meet, how they prefer to be addressed.

As with the previous book Seraphina is forced to grow as a person. As her dearest wish becomes a nightmare, she’s forced to make difficult decisions. There were a few times when she misses what seemed like obvious connections, but she’s 16 and in some of those cases the final result wasn’t quite what I’d expected either.

There’s a decent amount of political intrigue. I loved that though Seraphina was travelling and time was obviously passing, her communications with Queen Glisselda reminded her - and the reader - that things were happening elsewhere in the world. While some action happens off page, there’s enough on page to keep you invested in the story and the end of the book will have you flipping pages pretty fast to see how things are resolved. While the ending doesn’t tie up everything, it’s a satisfying conclusion to the duology.

by Rachel Hartman
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 11.54
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5.0 out of 5 stars Great fantasy novel, March 10 2015
This review is from: Seraphina (Paperback)
Pros: brilliant world-building, interesting characters, interesting politics, thought provoking


For Parents: no swearing, minor suggestive content, a few kisses, some violence, nothing graphic

Seraphina has a secret to hide regarding her mother. Her distant father warns her to avoid calling attention to herself, but her love of music makes it hard for her, especially when she becomes the assistant to the court composer. It’s a mere two weeks before the Treaty Eve festivities when the Ardmagar Comonot visits to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the peace pact between the Goredd nation and dragonkind. Not everyone is happy with the peace, especially since Prince Rufus recently died in a suspiciously draconic way. The Sons of St. Ogdo are stirring up the populace against the vile scurge even as members of the royal court make snide remarks behind the backs of the draconic embassy members. The depth of Seraphina’s knowledge of dragons and her willingness to stand up for them in the face of prejudice, brings her to the attention of Prince Lucian Kiggs, Captain of the Queen’s Guard, as more and more incidents occur. As the days count down both her secret and the peace pact are in danger.

This is a brilliant novel. The writing is top notch and the world-building excellent. It’s a pseudo-European world, but one that remembers there are other nations with other peoples, many of whom travel and have political and economic ties to each other. The religion is obviously based on Catholicism, with a plethora of interesting saints (including St. Ogdo the dragon slayer). I loved that the politics around the peace weren’t simple. The racism of humans to dragons and vice versa is covered (in multiple forms), as is the peace pact between the human nations that came about beforehand, which allowed the humans to present a united front to the dragons. I also liked that the book pointed out the uncertainty that people feel when forced to trust that their former enemy is trading in good faith.

The dragons are coldly logical, refusing to allow feelings to affect them. But when they take human form, they can have trouble dealing with the wash of emotions that come over them. Dragons that forget themselves face harsh punishments - the excision of those emotions and any memories that could revive them.

Seraphina is a wonderful character. She lies to protect herself, knowing that she’s hurting herself by doing so. I loved that many of her lies are uncovered, forcing her to face the consequences of her actions and make difficult decisions based on them. Lucian’s great, always asking questions and sometimes getting burned by the answers. Princess Glisselda was fun to read about, with her obvious intelligence and political savvy. It was refreshing to see a friendship develop between women that didn’t involve any backbiting or gossip. I also loved Orma, who tries so hard to appear human but doesn’t quite grasp all of the intricacies involved even as he often has to prove he has no emotional attachment to Seraphina.

The book has some great examples of how to stand up for yourself - and others - when facing bigotry. It isn’t easy and Seraphina sometimes does the wrong thing, but it’s great seeing examples of how to deal with bullying behaviour head on. It’s equally good that it shows the potential backlash and consequences that standing up for something can elicit.

I personally found the jump between the prologue and the first chapter very confusing. The prologue shows Seraphina’s birth, which made me think the book would progress through her life, but the first chapter jumps several years ahead, and you have to read a few chapters to understand how she got where she is now. Logically prologues tend to stand apart from the rest of the book so that was my failure of attention rather than a flaw in the text.

I loved this book. The characters felt so real and Seraphina’s loneliness so heartbreaking that I cried several times while reading it. The mystery is a little on the slow side, but I found the world and happenings so fascinating that I didn’t care. If you love fantasy, get this book.

by Ramez Naam
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: CDN$ 9.49
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4.0 out of 5 stars Fast paced hard SF, March 3 2015
This review is from: Nexus (Mass Market Paperback)
Pros: lots of action, interesting characters, thought provoking, accessible science

Cons: some of the characters were underused, not as much emotional connection with characters as I would have liked

Kaden Lane and a small group of other brilliant college students come up with a way to add programmable code to Nexus 3, a drug that allows people to communicated telepathically. Their still incomplete code, which has the potential to transform humans into transhumans, puts them and their upgraded Nexus 5 on the hit list of the Emerging Risks Directorate, a subsection of Homeland Security, taxed with maintaining laws restricting research into certain areas of science. Kaden believes in the best of humanity, and knows that Nexus 5 could do great things for people. ERD officer Samantha Cataranes has seen the worst that mind altering drugs can do, and believes - along with her organization - that Nexus 5 will be horribly abused.

This is a novel that examines the morality of augmenting humans to help them become more than human and how the tools of such augmentation can be used to benefit and harm people. Both Kaden and Sam start the book firmly entrenched in their positions, but the events of the story make them both question what they believe. This questioning is thought provoking for the reader, for whom the various pros and cons aren’t immediately obvious, but also allow the characters the chance to grow as individuals.

There’s a fair amount of action, culminating in numerous showdowns at the end of the book.

I loved that Naam has an ‘extras’ section at the end of the book where he explains the science that he extrapolated from to come up with Nexus and the other scientific advances in the book. It’s amazing the things we’re currently capable of, and both inspiring and terrifying to see what might come next. The science contained in the book is clearly and concisely explained. There are no long expository passages weighing the book down. It starts fast paced and continues so throughout.

I had two complaints about the book. The first was that one of the characters was underused, in that I expected interesting things to happen with that person’s storyline but nothing really came of it. The second is that though you really get into Sam and Kaden’s heads, you don’t feel a close connection to them, or the other people who they interact with in the book. When the bodies started piling up I didn’t really care about anyone that was dying. I wasn’t too afraid for Sam and Kaden, mainly due to Sam’s augmentations, but again, I wasn’t as invested in them as I wanted to be.

This isn’t a subgenre of SFF that I normally read, so I was afraid I’d find the science over my head. Naam does a great job of making the science accessible and the action fast and furious. There’s enough down time to appreciate the difficult position Kaden is in while wondering how (and if) he’ll escape it. It’s a book that makes you think about science and technology and where we’re headed as well as what role governments should play - if any - with regards to regulating the advancements to come. In other words, it’s a great hard sf novel.

The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales
The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales
by Franz Xaver von Schonwerth
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 13.72
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Some new fairy tales and familiar ones told differently make for a great collection, Feb. 24 2015
Pros: fun, wide variety, readable translation, interesting characters, informative introduction

Cons: commentary could have been more in depth

This is a collection consists of 72 of the lost tales Franz Xaver von Schönwerth recorded in the Eastern Bavarian region of Oberpfalz in the late 1850s. Rediscovered recently and translated into English, this collection allows modern readers more insight into the Germanic oral culture of what we now call fairy tales.

There’s a short forward by the historian who discovered the papers on how this volume came to be published. The translator of the collection, the chair of folklore and mythology at Harvard, does the introduction and commentary on each of the stories. The introduction explains where these stories fit with the other tales that have come down to us and points out that fairy tales morphed from stories told by and to adults into stories told more often by women (whether mothers or nannies) to children. Which is why there are so many princesses and female rags to riches stories, and so few such tales about boys. This book brings back several tales of ‘Cinderfellas’ and other disenfranchised young men. The commentaries, coming at the very end of the collection, mention the similarities between these tales and others we’re familiar with. There’s only room for a little explanation, so some of the commentaries are merely synopses while others have a bit more depth to them.

While some of the tales have morals and happy endings, several don’t have either, with some truly unscrupulous people getting away with horrible things and curses going unbroken. And since these were oral tales you can expect a lot of twists out of left field, where the stories turn on previously unmentioned characters and events.

The collection is separated into seven categories: Tales of Magic, Enchanted Animals, Otherworldly Creatures, Legends, Tall Tales and Anecdotes, and Tales About Nature. It’s a decent attempt to separate the stories, but the reality is that most of the stories can fit into several categories and that some stories with similar elements end up in different sections. There are a few with overly Christian themes (including some tales with the devil as the antagonist), and some with more ’pagan’ themes. There are a lot of dwarfs and witches/evil women, and a smaller number of elves, gnomes, mermaids and other fantastical creatures. And curses. Lots and lots of curses.

One story ended with a very modern idiom, which made me wonder what the original German said, but on the whole I thought the translation was great, immersive and entertaining.

The stories are only a few pages each and the collection as a whole is a quick and pleasant read. While most of these wouldn’t be considered ‘children’s stories’, they’re not overly bloody or ribaldrous. The collection is fantastic for the variety of tales told and for the ways they used the fairy tale tropes we’ve become familiar with.

by Claire North
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 18.18
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4.0 out of 5 stars Action, mystery and SF elements, Feb. 24 2015
This review is from: Touch (Hardcover)
Pros: fast paced, complex, interesting morally ambiguous characters, thought provoking, several international locales

Cons: took a while to get into

When Josephine Cebula is gunned down at Taksim station, the ghost riding her flesh jumps to a new host in order to follow the man who, though obviously after the ghost and aware it left the body, for some reason made sure that Josephine died. It’s quickly apparent that a secret organization is hunting ghosts, and ‘Kepler’ is their current target.

The book begins with a murder and catapults you through several countries in various bodies as ‘Kepler’ (named so by its hunters) tries to figure out who’s after it and why. Flashbacks to earlier lives show other murder attempts, other lives, other ghosts and how they all deal with the flesh they wear.

The idea of beings that can transfer between bodies isn’t a new one, but North does some great things with it. I loved that the ghosts were all individuals, treating their flesh in different ways. Some, like Kepler, are respectful, learning about them, and offering them money and improved circumstances for the time they lose. Others are less concerned with the humans around them, wanting to glory in the achievements, beauty and wealth of others without putting any effort into learning the skills necessary to achieve anything of their own. I liked that the ghosts can’t access the memories or abilities of their flesh, meaning they can pretend to be that person, but only with effort on their part to learn the habits and skills of their borrowed flesh. I also liked that the people they take over have no memory of what’s happened to them. This allows them to be tracked while also making what the ghosts do - stealing time from their hosts - more insidious. Kepler argues at one point that most people don’t care - or are even happy - to lose an hour or two of their lives, especially when working or doing boring tasks. Few people would even notice if they were taken over for a minute or two, long enough for the ghost to get lost in a crowd. But consider the ghost that stays for 6 months or a year. What about 10 years? Or 30? Who’d be ok with losing that amount of their lives?

And what happens when you’re effectively immortal, but unable to have a home, loved ones, possessions? What does that kind of lifestyle do to you after hundreds of years, when you’re constantly moving from body to body, running from hunters or just bored of who you are?

The book asks some tough questions as none of the primary characters - except the main antagonist - is entirely good or evil. There’s so much grey area and you really get to know - and like - the characters that it’s hard to remember that this all started with a murder, and that Kepler, who seems so kind and loving, has done some horrible things in its past - depending on your point of view.

Because there’s so much to learn about the ghosts, the killer and the plot, I found the opening slow. Not in terms of things happening, but in terms of trying to get a handle on everything that was happening. By the time I had a grasp on things I was thoroughly invested in Kepler and so drawn into the story that it was hard to put the book down.

I’d recommend this for book clubs as there’s a lot of discussion possibility here. And if you like action and mystery with body hopping protagonists, give this a try.

Star Trek: City on the Edge of Forever
Star Trek: City on the Edge of Forever
by Harlan Ellison
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 19.75
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4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting to see the original episode screenplay, Feb. 24 2015
Pros: great artwork, interesting story, thought provoking messages

Cons: story drags a bit in the middle, some unnecessary characters

A drug dealer on the Enterprise teleports to a planet that has been making the chronometers on the ship count backwards. When an away team follows, the fugitive passes through a portal to Earth in the 1930s. A change there affects the present, forcing Kirk and Spock to go after him.

The story has Kirk fall for a woman who’s making things better for those living in the depression era, but Spock discovers that she’s fated to die and saving her life is what changed the timeline.

There are a lot of differences between the original screen play and the episode that aired under this name. Several characters are removed entirely or condensed, making the plot tighter. The guardian is the same in essence but not in execution. I thought some of the changes made the story stronger but others changed its ultimate message.

The artwork is in a realistic style that I enjoyed. The shading is done in such a way that each panel looks more like an oil painting than a comic book page. Expressions are clear and give added emotion to the story. Even full pages of dialogue have interesting backgrounds and character motion.

Ultimately, I preferred the TV episode to the screenplay, but I think the screenplay has a lot to offer and this comic rendition of it is beautifully done. It’s an excellent story and a wonderful tribute to Star Trek fans to make it available.

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