Mar 29 2021

Greek Mythology: The Gods, Goddesses, And Heroes Handbook by Liv Albert with illustrations by Sara Richard

Gosh, this is just such a beautiful book. The cover is both gorgeous to look at and lovely to touch, and the interior illustrations exceptionally good-looking. Kudos to Sara Richard for her terrific illustrative work here, depicting the old stories in flowing lines that blend the best of Arts Deco and Nouveau for a fresh, modern feel that’s still visibly rooted in the classic.

Text-wise, Greek Mythology: The Gods, Goddesses, And Heroes Handbook entirely lives up to its cover, featuring accessible, informative biographies of the major deities, heroes and monsters who populate the ancient Greek mythology that lives on still in the popular imagination. Liv Albert’s chatty tone points out the problematic nature of a lot of these handed-down stories, which serves to underscore a theory I read about — and bear with me here for a second — how the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Avengers are a modern-day equivalent of the squabbling, dramatic but ultimately heroic pantheon and their supporting characters and villains. The most popular stories a society tells are the ones that reflect their own values, and how that changes through the ages is a fascinating, and I’d say vital, field of study. As such, the upcoming and more explicitly Greek-mythos-based The Eternals will be such a boon to enthusiasts like myself and Ms Albert, who also runs the popular podcast Let’s Talk About Myths, Baby, which brings these ancient stories to the masses and breaks them down into ways we can better understand and evaluate them in modern contexts.

While GM:tGGaHH is squarely aimed at people just now wanting to get to know the deal with Greek mythology, it also provides a wealth of interesting material for those more familiar with the subject. I hadn’t realized till this book, for example, that Dionysus was the only one of the main Pantheon with a mortal parent! While the scope of this book can only hint at why, it makes for an excellent jumping-off point for people who want to learn more.

Overall, this is an impressive package lovingly put together by people who clearly know their stuff. It serves as a primer that makes it a point to not forgive the rampaging misogyny of ancient times, thereby impressing upon readers that that stuff has happened but is not okay, which honestly is a reassuring thing for readers who might be alienated by said misogyny from delving into the riches of mythos. It also underscores the fact that you can love the classics without buying into their baser aspects, as Ms Albert does here by not sugarcoating any of the bad stuff. Bonus: she also points out the sex-positive and queer aspects of the myths that have often been obscured in the last few centuries. It’s so fascinating to see her do the work of viewing these stories explicitly through the eyes of modern progressive society. The only flaw of this book is that it made me hungry for so much more.

Greek Mythology: The Gods, Goddesses, And Heroes Handbook by Liv Albert with illustrations by Sara Richard will be published tomorrow March 30th 2021 by Adams Media and is available from all good booksellers, including

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Mar 28 2021

Georgia: In the Mountains of Poetry by Peter Nasmyth

In his preface to this, fourth, edition of Georgia: In the Mountains of Poetry, Peter Nasmyth writes that he has seen the book migrate from the Travel section of bookstores over into History. Likewise Nasmyth has transformed from a footloose twentysomething seeker, happening to stop in Moscow on his way from India back to England, into a star in the firmament of Georgia’s resident international community, curator of exhibitions for the British Council and Foreign Office, one of the founders of the National Trust of Georgia. (I don’t know that I have met him, but I don’t know that I haven’t either. His bookstore, Prospero’s, was a wonderful oasis during the three and a half years I lived in Tbilisi. The extended diplomatic community there is not very large, and I may well have bumped into him in one place or another. My friend Elizabeth from fencing club is there in the acknowledgments, as are others I know more fleetingly.) And while the big division in the book is historical — before and after independence from the Soviet Union — most of the chapters within the two parts focus on particular regions. This is less true of the second half, where not quite half of the chapters have been added through subsequent editions of the book. Those are naturally more chronologically oriented.

Georgia: In the Mountains of Poetry remains one of the two best introductions to an amazing country, read by nearly international person who engages with Georgia and a great many more casual visitors. My interest is plain: Georgia was home for several years, crucial ones for both the country and my family, and remains vivid and beloved in memory. While my judgements are not congruent with Nasmyth’s, I have great respect for his experience and his important positive contribution. Seriously — running a bookstore is never easy, running an English-language bookstore in a non-Anglophone country raises the difficulty considerably (for instance, as I understand it the publishers’ credits and returns policies that absorb a great deal of bookselling risk are not available in non-Anglophone countries), running an English-language bookstore in a non-English-speaking country where utilities were intermittent for many years and doing it for more than 20 years through both a revolution and a Russian invasion is some off-the-scale difficulty level.

Nasmyth himself was pulled almost gravitationally to Georgia. He repeated his first pass through Moscow some years later during the heady years of glasnost and perestroika. At a party in Leningrad, which had yet to revert to St. Petersburg, Nasmyth met “a remarkably frank, well-informed man at a party” with “a thick plack moustache [and] excellent, relaxed English—from two years in Pakistan, so he said.” (p. 5) He dismissed Gorbachev’s reform with a wave of his hand. “If you really want to know about rebellion away from this huge imperialist power you should look at Georgia. In fact it’s better you go there.” (p. 5) And so he does, following his Russian literary heroes such as Lermontov, Tolstoy, Pushkin, Gorky and others to the High Caucasus. Nasmyth arrives by bus in 1989, sputtering up the Georgian Military Highway, up from Pyatigorsk through the Daryal Gorge and the Alan Gate into a different world. “To arrive in the spacious Kazbegi valley straight out of the Daryal Gorge — is to transfer from one absolute of landscape into another. From the shadowy claustrophobic cliffs of the canyon we sped out into a brilliant white arena of peaks and luscious Alpine meadows. Before us a transparent green grass rolled out like a welcome mat across the valley floor, climbing up the steep hillsides toward the white line of snow, then finally ebbing away into the frosty blue firmament. … Beside the road the Terek had also changed. From a violent, streaming attack on rocks hundreds of feet below, to an obedient river burbling along quietly beside the road.” (p. 33)

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Mar 27 2021

The Unbroken (Magic of the Lost #1) by C.L. Clark

The Unbroken starts out extremely promisingly, telling the tale of Touraine, the young Qazali who was taken from her home as a kid and raised in the Balladairean empire as a member of the colonial forces, meant to be the first troops sent back to quell any uprisings in their land of birth. And here she is now, on a boat back to El Wast, a lieutenant in charge of troops known as Sands for their desert origin, accompanying Crown Princess Luca on a tour of her empire’s Qazali holdings.

But Luca has an ulterior motive: with her uncle on the throne as her (unwanted) regent, she wants to prove herself worthy of replacing him by investigating Qazali healing magic and finding a permanent solution for the deadly plagues that ravage Balladaire. Her own homeland has long since turned its back on magic and faith, considering both “uncivilized”, but Luca is convinced that her people will embrace any remedy that frees them from devastation, and by extension will embrace her own ascension to the throne.

When Touraine’s quick thinking saves Luca from an assassination attempt, the soldier comes to the princess’ attention. Needing a go-between who will prove acceptable to the local rebels as well as loyal to the Empire, Luca decides that Touraine perfectly fits the bill. Unfortunately, Touraine soon finds herself struggling with both attributes, betwixt and between dissonant aspects of her own identity.

This is such a fantastic premise, based on the French history of colonizing North Africa, and the first third or so is really gripping, compelling stuff. The almost out-of-body feeling Touraine has upon returning to her homeland is something I felt in my bones, as is the complicated relationship she has with colonial Balladaire, feeling both grateful to and resentful of it for all that it’s done to and for her. In this respect, it’s very much reminiscent of the excellent Baru Cormorant series it’s been compared with.

Unfortunately, the similarities end when it becomes disappointingly clear that Touraine is no Baru. Whereas Baru was often too clever for her own good, Touraine is very much not. Touraine has to make several hard choices — and with the first big one about the guns, I empathized, as that was not a clear line to navigate — but she keeps making progressively worse and worse choices as the narrative continues. It’s really hard to sympathize with a character who keeps doing dumb things. I was also less than thrilled with what seemed to me an inconsistency in the science of the book (ha! I’ve gotten really tetchy about science in speculative fiction recently) as it flip-flopped over whether Balladaire understood vaccines — tho perhaps that was just an error in the Advanced Reader’s Copy that has since been edited out in the finished product.

I did appreciate how C. L. Clark shows that choosing violence is almost always a race to the bottom. While I thought the ending somewhat unlikely, or at least too sudden to be likely, I am glad that Ms Clark hints at how unprepared the rebels are for what comes next. I’m curious to see if she’ll explore the workings of government from there on in, both in Qazal and Balladaire. I’ll probably read the next book, but am not looking forward to it with any great enthusiasm.

The Unbroken by C. L. Clark was published March 23 2021 by Orbit Books and is available from all good booksellers, including

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Mar 25 2021

Shadows of the Short Days by Alexander Dan Vilhjalmsson

Hrimland, an alternate Iceland, sighs under its exploitation by Kalmar, a Nordic union that in history lasted from 1397 to 1523 but extends into the unspecified present of Shadows of the Short Days. Garún feels that exploitation more keenly than most; half human and half huldufólk, she’s an outcast among the oppressed. Worse, she left what little support she could have counted on in the countryside — since it came with a heaping helping of enforced servitude — so she is on her own in the big, walled city of Reykjavik.

The city hides behind Kalmar-built walls because Hrimland is far more filled with magic than Iceland, and that magic is typically much more malevolent. Not that people haven’t found ways to deal with and use the extradimensional forces, from little folk spells and ways all the way to an established school of sorcery. As Shadows of the Short Days opens, Garún’s ex-boyfriend Sæmundur has just gotten himself expelled from that school for refusing to follow the strict protocols of spell working, protocols that, in the school’s view, are the only things that keep magic under control at all and save people who work with it from death, or worse.

Vilhjálmsson conjures up a dark and gritty atmosphere for Reykjavik and Hrimland, a place where many scrape by but only a very few prosper. Humans share the world not only with the huldufólk, who are human-like exiles from another time and place, but also raven-people called náskárar and fish-folk called marbendlar. Vilhjálmsson originally wrote the book in Icelandic, and he translated it into English himself. Some of the linguistic choices he made for the original carry over into the English version. The náskárar speak in a harsh and archaic style, and in scenes involving them Vilhjálmsson retains even more of the original language than he does elsewhere. The meaning is never opaque, but the sense of dealing with another intelligence is unavoidable. Throughout the book, he retains a lot of Icelandic names for things, or words that were also neologisms in the original because they are unique to the fantastic aspects that Vilhjálmsson portrays.

The setting and the atmosphere were, for me, the most effective aspects of Shadows of the Short Days. Reykjavik is confined and close, with portals that lead into a Shadow Downtown that’s even more claustrophobic. Characters mostly find release at bars and parties, with the occasional rock concert and the even more occasional political demonstration.

For Garún is an artist, and she thinks she is also a revolutionary. She’s in touch with other artists and revolutionaries, and they put out an underground newspaper and hope to inspire rebellion against the Crown to replace a patently unjust order with independence and … something. She goes through the book hopped up on righteousness and rage, and seldom leaves that register. Sæmundur is a selfish asshole, heedless of the costs of his pursuit of esoteric knowledge, quite willing to commit murder just to show the uptight know-it-alls who are keeping him down. He, too, seldom leaves that register until at the end of a series of increasingly despicable deeds, the author hands him an apotheosis. The other characters mostly struck me as NPCs, shuffled around to provide the two leads with props, motivation, or sidekicks.

Vilhjálmsson’s Hrimland is a vivid place, established in detail and made to feel real through an accumulation of detail. If he writes again in this setting, as seems likely, I hope to meet characters who are less set from the start, and whose companions feel more like equals with their own weight. Maybe the longer days of a Hrimland summer will shed more of that kind of light.


Doreen’s review is here; she liked Shadows of the Short Days more than I did.

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Mar 25 2021

Deathless Divide (Dread Nation #2) by Justina Ireland

Thank God for Katherine! I was pretty fond of her in the first novel of the series too, and am so, so glad she gets entire viewpoint chapters in this novel, alternating with Jane’s.

Deathless Divide begins with the girls fleeing Summerland and trying to figure out, with their small band of survivors, where to go next. Jackson, Jane’s sometime lover, is cagey about their original plan to head to the nearby utopia of Nicodemus, and wants to press on to Fort Riley, further away but more heavily fortified with military and escape routes along the Mississippi. Given that they have barely any supplies tho, the closer destination wins out.

Tragedy strikes before they even reach the safety of Nicodemus, which appears a welcome balm after the horrors of Summerland and their journey. Jane and Katherine are surprised to discover that Gideon, the young scientist who is their occasional ally, is already well established here — perhaps too well established. A suspicious set of circumstances leaves the town open to the shambling horde, causing Jane and Katherine to go on the run again.

Fast forward nearly a year and Katherine is ready to leave the relative safety of ocean travel for a shot at establishing herself as a seamstress in San Francisco. But the California promised land isn’t quite as welcoming as expected, so she must fall back on her still sharp martial skills in order to find a haven… and to bring a killer to justice.

The strength of this series lies in the unshakeable, at least on Katherine’s end, bond of friendship between her and Jane. Katherine is aro/ace and it’s so great to have her be such a kickass main character, a woman of principle and a steadfast friend. She’s just as awesome as she was in the first book, if not more so. Sue also gets more time on the page and is also fun to be around, especially when she’s telling off Jane and Katherine for being ninnies.

Unfortunately, the other main characters from the first book suck really hard here. Gideon, I imagine, sucks by design: the evolution of his character is fascinating to see. I don’t remember Jackson being quite this annoying in Dread Nation tho, picking idiotic fights at the worst times.

And Jane. Oh, Jane.

Jane spends most of this book being angry and mean, focusing on revenge and pushing away the people who love her. And while she’s 100% entitled to her rage, and 100% correct in wanting to stop scientists who experiment recklessly and unethically, it is also 100% no fun to be in her head while she’s stalking around the country, so bitter that she can barely string coherent thoughts together. If it weren’t for Katharine’s more even-handed chapters, I doubt I would have been able to finish this book. Jane hates science, hates Chinese people and Native Americans, hates Black people who think they can live in harmony with people of other races. Jane thinks everyone else is stupid but won’t tell them why. Someone else in the book points out that Jane is a huge hypocrite, like that’s a charming character trait. While hypocrisy is hardly the worst fault known to man, when it means our heroine is essentially a Jane supremacist whose idea of dealing with situations is to get angry and go off instead of informing the other person why they’re wrong so they stand a chance of correcting themselves — and we’re not talking about microaggressions here but situations like trying to save the lives of hundreds of people — it’s really hard to care about, much less sympathize with, such a self-centered petty tyrant.

So thank goodness for Katharine, who manages to care about Jane and to make readers like myself care about what happens in this novel, which is worthwhile even with one of the main characters sucking the joy out of everything with her incessant “everyone sucks except me” attitude. While there are no plans for more books in the series, and it has a good ending, there’s still room for more of Katharine’s adventures, which I’d like to read. I’m just baffled and annoyed still that Jane went from being so much fun to spend time with in the first book to being an absolute chore here, as incoherent and malevolent as the zombies she strikes down and just as uninteresting.

Deathless Divide by Justina Ireland was published February 4 2020 by Balzer + Bray and is available from all good booksellers, including

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Mar 24 2021

The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel

More than any other book I can think of Wolf Hall impressed upon me the number of people constantly present in a pre-modern household of any size. The first book of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy about the life of Thomas Cromwell, it teems with people coming in and out the main character’s presence, from its unforgettable opening — the novel’s first words “So now get up” on one billboard in Picadilly Circus in 2019 were enough to announce that the long-awaited third book was on its way — through Cromwell’s relentless rise, first into service of Cardinal Wolsey and eventually close service of King Henry VIII himself. People and relentless, swirling thought and action by Cromwell are what have remained in my recollection of Wolf Hall, which I read in 2010. Bring Up the Bodies, which I read in 2012, was less vivid to me, for all that it was a more concentrated dose of Henry’s court, conveying the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn.

The Mirror & the Light begins the moment after Anne’s beheading, with Cromwell remembering not just to pay the executioner, but to pay him a compliment. “The [executioner] has performed his office with style; and though the king is paying him well, it is important to reward good service with encouragement, as well as a purse. Having once been a poor man, [Cromwell] knows this from experience.” (p. 3) Returning to the book some months after finishing it, I am struck again by how vivid every moment seems, how quickly I get caught up again in Mantel’s intense present-tense rendering of Cromwell’s final years.

Because I bought the book the first day it was available in Berlin, the lovely folks at the bookstore gave me a tote bag to cart it away with me — a welcome present to go with the 900-page novel. The bag bears the quotation, “Your whole life depends on the next beat of Henry’s heart.” That knowledge hangs over practically everyone at court, and Cromwell most especially. He has seen Wolsey’s fall, and he helped to engineer Anne Boleyn’s. As a commoner raised to dizzying heights, he knows that all of his authority is borrowed from the king; it is one of the things that Henry likes about him. But Henry’s heart is most inconstant.

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Mar 22 2021

Namesake (Fable #2) by Adrienne Young

Deeeeeep sigh.

So I was sent this book without having read the first one, and when I went to read Fable to get myself up to speed, I was Not Impressed. That was a book that romanticized immature people making irrational choices. This sequel has the dubious virtue of being utterly consistent with its predecessor.

Here’s the deal: Fable has managed to make her way back from the cutthroat island where her father Saint left her to fend literally for herself as a pretty young 14 year-old (!!). She’s found a new, accepting family with the crew of the Marigold, helmed by her lover West. Only, as the first book ended, she was kidnapped by her father’s arch-rival Zola, for purposes unknown. Adding insult to injury is the presence of one of her parents’ closest friends on Zola’s crew. At first frantic with worry that West will think she’s abandoned him, she soon discovers that there are greater threats to her health and happiness on her new, unwanted vessel, as enemies old and new come out of the woodwork to menace her.

Not a terrible premise on its own, and Adrienne Young’s prose is lively and engaging. But honestly, it’s like this book was written with the sole purpose of showcasing several cool scenes, barely strung together by any writing as connective tissue, and certainly given no depth beyond the flashy set pieces. I didn’t understand Fable’s antipathy to Holland, which was couched as “oh no, Holland is such a good trader that she’ll stifle all competition” like, that’s not how trade works? Even inclined as I am to think that unfettered capitalism is bad, you HAVE to give me something more to work with than “she’s so rich therefore she is evil.” Yes, Holland is a murderer but so is everyone else in this stupid book! I didn’t understand why Fable had to be a mean, wasteful brat any time she was given a new dress — at least the pink one got repurposed! — and I didn’t understand… no, actually, I did understand all the West-Saint nonsense because it was really clear that Fable had daddy issues that she was transferring to her boyfriend, which was just weird and creepy to read.

Namesake felt like a book written for small-minded, shallow people, the kind who’ll agree with Fable when she calls her mother — who died when Fable was 14, mind — a liar because Isolde didn’t tell her about a certain detail from Isolde’s past that never came up in conversation. I don’t know who needs to hear this, but people are allowed to have secrets, y’all. They’re not liars until they actively dissemble when asked about something. It was also really hard for me to believe that no one knew Saint was her dad given how all Fable’s flashbacks were of how he doted on her aboard ship. Saint’s crew must have been too dumb to live… which is awkward of me to say since all the ones who “didn’t know” actually did die.

On the plus side, at least the sailing bits here didn’t feel as egregiously offensive as they did in the first book, but boy am I glad I don’t have to read any more of this nonsense.

Namesake by Adrienne Young was published March 16 2021 by Wednesday Books and is available from all good booksellers, including

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Mar 21 2021

Die Olympiasiegerin by Herbert Achternbusch

There’s scene in “Before Sunrise” where the young couple encounters two Austrian guys who tell the visitors about a play they are putting on, an eye-rolling bit of Continental pretension.

Man with tie: This is a play we’re both in, and we would like to invite you.
Céline: You’re actors?
Man with tie: No, not professional actors uh, part-time actors, for fun.
Man with jacket: It’s a play about a cow, and an Indian searching for it. There are also in it politicians, Mexicans…
Man with tie: Russians, Communists…
Man with jacket: Russians.
Jesse: So, you have a real cow on stage.
Man with tie: No, not a real cow. It‘s an actor in a cow costume.
Man with jacket: (Gesturing.) And he’s the cow.
Man with tie: Yes, I am the cow. And the cow is a bit weird.
Man with jacket: The cow has a disease.
Man with tie: She’s acting a bit strange, like a dog. If someone throws a stick, she fetches it, and brings it back. And she can smoke, with her hooves (motions with his hand, as if smoking with cow’s hooves), and everything.

Imagine a whole book of that level of imagination and dialogue, and that’s Die Olympiasiegerin. Think I’m kidding? Here’s a bit from the chapter “Plattling-North” (a place name).

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Mar 19 2021

Skyward Inn by Aliya Whiteley

The most rational part of my brain understands exactly what I’ve just experienced with this book, but every other part of me, the emotional, the lizard brain, the higher consciousness etc. is absolutely 100% going, “What the fuck did I just read?!” and not in a bad way either.

Inspired by Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn, Skyward Inn tells the tale of its owners: Jem, a local girl who ran away as a teenager to serve for a decade spreading propaganda for the Earth Coalition as it conquered the planet Qita, and Isley, the Qitan partner she met while she was away. Once her tour of duty was over, Jem persuaded Isley to come home with her to the Western Protectorate, a closed-off area of Earth with throwback values hearkening to a pastoral idyll, located roughly in Devon, England. At the Skyward Inn, Jem and Isley sell the intoxicating Jarrowbrew that allows Jem’s tongue, so often weighted when there isn’t a script to follow, to finally loosen when it’s just her and Isley, and she can tell him stories of her travels on his home planet. Isley is the only alien of his kind around, but the locals have taken to him, despite murmurs of xenophobic violence from surrounding areas. But when another Qitan arrives needing help, the new arrival sets in motion a chain of events that seems small at first but could change everything Jem thinks she knows and loves.

Interwoven with Jem’s first person narrative is the story told in third person of her son, Fosse, whom she left with her parents and brother in her youthful determination to escape the Protectorate. Fosse is an angry young man of sixteen, and he and Jem barely have any relationship, till the arrival of newcomers prompts him to question his own origins as well as his destiny.

This is a book about life and grief and connection and moving on, or perhaps forward, and it is definitely not for the faint of heart. Even as the most rational part of me is thinking, “That absolutely makes sense scientifically”, the rest of me is flapping its metaphorical arms about, sputtering, “Do not want!” This is, perhaps, the most uplifting book involving body horror that you’ll ever read.

But more importantly, it’s also a book about what changes us, what exposure does to all parties involved and how, in the end, not even The Cheese can stand alone. With its deeper philosophical and sociological underpinnings, it well deserves the comparisons to Ursula K LeGuin’s most thoughtful works. It’s also very modern: there’s a hilarious “what are those” reference in there for those who appreciate a good meme, as I do.

Skyward Inn is weird and wonderful, as only Aliya Whiteley can write. It’s a work of terrifying genius, depicting an alien future that seems equal parts desirable and repulsive, founded entirely on very human observations and truths. If you enjoy speculative fiction and can handle a little horror with your sci-fi, then you absolutely must pick up this book.

Skyward Inn by Aliya Whiteley was published March 16 2021 by Solaris Books and is available from all good booksellers, including

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Mar 17 2021

The Empress Of Salt And Fortune (The Singing Hills Cycle #1) by Nghi Vo

I’m so glad I managed to sneak in this novella between work assignments! It’s a swift read, tho the first few pages require the reader to make several quick adjustments as Nghi Vo drops us directly into her Asian-inspired milieu. It’s well worth it tho, as Ms Vo packs a whole lot more into this slim volume than most fantasy novels can manage in three times the page length.

We open on Chih, a cleric from the Singing Hills abbey, sent to the capital to record the eclipse that will mark the ascension of Anh’s latest ruler. Accompanied by their near-immortal hoopoe bird Almost Brilliant, their task is to chronicle whatever they come across without fear or favor, a shared mission that has often brought the wrath of the powerful down on their remote abbey. Still the order and its remarkable birds survive, tho not even political favor can ascertain the day-to-day safety of its intrepid chroniclers as they traverse the empire, braving omnipresent ghosts and more prosaic perils in their journeys.

Passing by a seemingly abandoned estate on the banks of Lake Scarlet while on their way to the capital, Chih is surprised to be invited inside by the elderly caretaker. They had known that the building had been the home-in-exile of the previous Empress In-yo, but had thought it destroyed once the titular ruler returned to power some decades ago. Apparently there’s still one person left to fend off looters, an old servant who introduces herself as Rabbit and who seems determined that Chih not only records what’s left of the villa but also understands what happened here so many years ago, as In-yo successfully plotted her way back to the throne.

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