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A Laundry novella about My Little Ponies from hell.


Equoid

Tor.com, 2013, 65 pages. Available online at Tor.com.




"Equoid" is set shortly before the events of the "The Fuller Memorandum". It's the longest non-novel-length Laundry story so far. And it explains (among other things) precisely what H. P. Lovecraft saw behind the wood-shed when he was 14 that traumatized him for life, the reproductive life-cycle of unicorns, and what really happened on Cold Comfort Farm.


What happens when you mix unicorns, virgins, and Lovecraft.
What happens when you mix unicorns, virgins, and Lovecraft. )

Verdict: As an homage and satire of Lovecraft, Equoid is both funny and repulsive; if you like gruesome monsters and British humor, it's a good read, but if the life-cycle of alien mollusks who depend on young girls to spread their spawn does not sound appealing, this may not be your cup of tea.

Also by Charles Stross: My reviews of Accelerando, Saturn's Children, and Neptune's Brood.




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A writers' workshop in a book and a glorious kaleidoscopic work of art.


Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction

Harry N. Abrams, 2013, 332 pages




This all-new definitive guide to writing imaginative fiction takes a completely novel approach and fully exploits the visual nature of fantasy through original drawings, maps, renderings, and exercises to create a spectacularly beautiful and inspiring object. Employing an accessible, example-rich approach, Wonderbook energizes and motivates while also providing practical, nuts-and-bolts information needed to improve as a writer. Aimed at aspiring and intermediate-level writers, Wonderbook includes helpful sidebars and essays from some of the biggest names in fantasy today, such as George R. R. Martin, Lev Grossman, Neil Gaiman, Michael Moorcock, Catherynne M. Valente, and Karen Joy Fowler, to name a few.


Advice from a Who's Who of SF and fantasy authors, lavishly illustrated. )

Verdict: A fantastic workshop for would-be writers, a masterwork in visual and literary mediums, a huge collection of advice and exercises, recognizable Names galore, and a pretty good coffee table book. Highly recommended.




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Contains (a partial list): 1930s noir superheroes, samurai battle armor, magical ninjas, Lovecraftian monsters, and zeppelin pirates


Warbound

Baen, 2013, 448 pages




Only a handful of people in the world know that mankind's magic comes from a living creature, and it is a refugee from another universe. The Power showed up here in the 1850s because it was running from something. Now it is 1933, and the Power's hiding place has been discovered by a killer. It is a predator that eats magic and leaves destroyed worlds in its wake. Earth is next.

Former private eye Jake Sullivan knows the score. The problem is, hardly anyone believes him. The world's most capable Active, Faye Vierra, could back him up, but she is hiding from forces that think she is too dangerous to live. So Jake has put together a ragtag crew of airship pirates and Grimnoir knights - and set out on a suicide mission to stop the predator before it is too late.


It is what it is, and it's kind of awesome. )

Verdict: This book is cheesy big guns blazing noir superhero action, and I loved it. The author is doing nothing more and nothing less than entertaining his audience. Is it deep? Is it literary? Is it a classic of the genre? No. But would I read another Grimnoir series? Absolutely.

Also by Larry Correia: My reviews of Hard Magic and Spellbound.




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A tabletop wargaming tie-in novel that somehow made it onto the Hugo list.


The Butcher of Khardov

Privateer Press, 2013, 80 pages




His blind fury is infamous, his strength without rival, but the legend of the man known as the Butcher of Khardov was forged in a crucible of pain...

The legacy of the massacre near Boarsgate at the hand of the warcaster Orsus Zoktavir has followed him his whole life—but it is another memory that fuels both his rage and his will to live. Before he was one of Khador’s most potent weapons he was simply a young man striving to make a life for himself, and for his beloved, free of the violence that came so easily to him. Her gentle presence helps him quell his simmering temper, but fate changes everything, sweeping him up in events that would lead to grief and madness.

Learn the tragic history of Orsus Zoktavir and plumb the depths of his rage in The Butcher of Khardov.


Fridged family and 'crucibles of pain' notwithstanding, this grimdark anti-hero is almost not cardboard. )

Verdict: Dan Wells has written more original stuff than this, so why a novella set in a tabletop wargaming universe was nominated for a Hugo mystifies me. The Butcher of Khardov is not bad — it's enjoyable enough if you're in the mood for macho bloodbaths and a bit of pathos. But it's not special enough for a Hugo.


Also by Dan Wells: My review of I Am Not A Serial Killer.




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A multi-generational, literary tale of Hollywood monsters and Jim Crow.


Wakulla Springs

Tor, 2013, 99 pages. Available online at tor.com.




Wakulla Springs. A strange and unknown world, this secret treasure lies hidden in the jungle of northern Florida. In its unfathomable depths, a variety of curious creatures have left a record of their coming, of their struggle to survive, and of their eventual end. Twenty-five thousand years after they disappeared from the face of the Earth, the bones of prehistoric mastodons, giant armadillos, and other primeval monsters have been found beneath the seemingly placid surface of the lagoon. The visitor to this magical place enters a timeless world of mystery.


A dreamy, magical piece of historical fiction...but is it fantasy? )




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Dear Respected Planetary Occupants, GREETINGS! Permit me to inform you of my desire of going into business relationship with you. I got your reputation from highly respected interstellar contacts and it's esteeming nature informs me to entrust you with secret of profitable venture for our two civilizations...


Neptune's Brood

Orbit, 2013, 337 pages




The year is AD 7000. The human species is extinct - for the fourth time - due to its fragile nature. Krina Alizond-114 is metahuman, descended from the robots that once served humanity. She’s on a journey to the water-world of Shin-Tethys to find her sister Ana. But her trip is interrupted when pirates capture her ship. Their leader, the enigmatic Count Rudi, suspects that there’s more to Krina’s search than meets the eye.

He’s correct: Krina and Ana each possess half of the fabled Atlantis Carnet, a lost financial instrument of unbelievable value - capable of bringing down entire civilizations. Krina doesn’t know that Count Rudi suspects her motives, so she accepts his offer to get her to Shin-Tethys in exchange for an introduction to Ana. And what neither of them suspects is that a ruthless body-double assassin has stalked Krina across the galaxy, ready to take the Carnet once it is whole - and leave no witnesses alive to tell the tale…


The sequel to 'Saturn's Children' is full of Big Ideas and scale, but the fun and adventure isn't the same. )

Verdict: A good book, but not really a great book. Neptune's Brood is full of big space operatic ideas and showcases Stross's cleverness as an author, but I was not blown away and even the entertainment factor was lacking compared to Saturn's Children.

Also by Charles Stross: My reviews of Accelerando and Saturn's Children.




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I've now read all the Hugo nominees for Best Novelette (a category I still think is an unnecessary insertion between "short story" and "novella"), and I was more impressed than I was by the Short Story nominations. That said, nothing stood out as something destined to be a classic of the genre.

The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling, by Ted Chiang



Subterranean, Fall 2013


When my daughter Nicole was an infant, I read an essay suggesting that it might no longer be necessary to teach children how to read or write, because speech recognition and synthesis would soon render those abilities superfluous. My wife and I were horrified by the idea, and we resolved that, no matter how sophisticated technology became, our daughter’s skills would always rest on the bedrock of traditional literacy.


This story alternates between two viewpoints running thematically in parallel — a father discussing the impact of a new technology that essentially gives everyone near-instant recall of every moment of their lives, and an African tribesman discovering the European technology of writing. Both are initially excited if apprehensive about the possibilities; both discover that an immutable record of unquestionable veracity may present hidden dangers and alter your life, even your civilization, unpredictably.

Well-written and definitely meeting the criteria of science fiction (something I could not say for all the short story entries), The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling presents a big idea in a very readable story, and the author demonstrates his skill by maintaining two completely separate (in space, time, and setting) narratives that still run together in an easily-linked way. Also, kudos for presenting literacy as a science fictional premise, which it is to the Tiv tribesmen to whom it is introduced.

Even so, the big idea felt a little lacking; this is a story that I'll remember for being well-executed, but it's not really something that lingers in your mind.

Opera Vitae Aeterna, by Vox Day



Opera Vitae Aeterna


The cold autumn day was slowly drawing to a close. The pallid sun was descending, its ineffective rays no longer sufficient to hold it up in the sky or penetrate the northern winds that seemed to gather strength with the whispering promise of the incipient dark. The first of the two moons was already visible high above the mountains. Soon Arbhadis, Night's mistress, would make herself known as well.


I have already reviewed this story, which was one of three novelettes contained in The Last Witchking.

While I don't think it's as bad as his critics say it is, I cannot rate Vox Day's writing highly in terms of prose. Day and his fans argue that the merits of the story are largely in its themes and symbolism, being a religious allegory mixing traditional elven fantasy with Catholic Christianity. On that count, Opera Vitae Aeterna aims high in an effort to express its big, important idea. But while the elements are there and there's definitely a story here, its only real recommendation as a Hugo nominee is the number of people its presence on the ballot is pissing off... which I admit, is not an inconsiderable merit. I probably won't vote for Vox Day's entry, but I will laugh wildly if he should actually win.

The Waiting Stars, by Aliette de Bodard



The Waiting Stars


On the sensors of The Cinnabar Mansions, the ships all appeared small and diminished, like toy models or avatars--things Lan Nhen could have held in the palm of her hand and just as easily crushed. As the sensors' line of sight moved--catching ship after ship in their field of view, wreck after wreck, indistinct masses of burnt and twisted metal, of ripped-out engines, of shattered life pods and crushed shuttles--Lan Nhen felt as if an icy fist were squeezing her heart into shards. To think of the Minds within--dead or crippled, forever unable to move...


This is, I think, a side story taking place in the same universe as de Bodard's novel On a Red Station, Drifting, which I have not read, and based on this novelette, might or might not yet.

Basically, this is a rather heavy-handed "diversity in SF" entry getting its accolades because of that. This is not to say the writing is bad: it's just very generic space opera made a little less generic with spacefaring Vietnamese and anvil-dropping allegory about Western colonialism.

Obvious metaphors are obvious in the form of the "Outsiders," or as they call themselves (groan) "the Galactic Federation of United Planets." Who slaughter the ship-minds of the Dai Viet (Anne McCaffrey and others did ship-minds decades ago) and assimilate surviving Dai Viet children by raising them in abusive convent-like orphanages and giving them WesternGalactic names like "Catherine."


The best luck in the world--she and Jason and her new flat, and her old haunts, not far away from the Institution-- though she wasn't sure, really, if that last was a blessing--if she wanted to remember the years Matron had spent hammering proper behaviour into them: the deprivations whenever they spoke anything less than perfect Galactic, the hours spent cleaning the dormitory's toilets for expressing mild revulsion at the food; or the night they'd spent shut outside, naked, in the growing cold, because they couldn't remember which Galactic president had colonised Longevity Station--how Matron had found them all huddled against each other, in an effort to keep warm and awake, and had sent them to Discipline for a further five hours, scolding them for behaving like wild animals.


Subtle this is not. Catherine is stuck in an unsatisfying paper-pushing job, in a relationship with her pleasant but dull Galactic boyfriend Jason who of course is a symbol of internalized oppression and assimilation. We alternate between her and Lan Nhen, out among the stars trying to rediscover her people.

The writing sparkled a little bit here and there, though the narrative was sometimes a bit muddled. The setting had its moments — I would love to see some Vietnamese-themed science fiction that isn't just an extended metaphor for the history of Southeast Asia in the 20th century.

The Lady Astronaut of Mars, by Mary Robinette Kowal



The Lady Astronaut of Mars


Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies, with Uncle Henry, who was a farmer, and Aunt Em, who was the farmer’s wife. She met me, she went on to say, when I was working next door to their farm under the shadow of the rocket gantry for the First Mars Expedition.


Kowal almost lost me with this opening. "If you're going to do a riff on Dorothy and Oz," I thought, "you are competing with Catherynne Valente, and lady, you don't have the chops for that."

Cute naming stunts aside, The Lady Astronaut of Mars was not bad. It's an alternate history in which an asteroid destroyed Washington, D.C. early in the 20th century, spurring the entire world to realize that maybe humanity needed an escape hatch. Hence, we colonize Mars (and the rest of the solar system) in the 50s, and computers are still operated by punchcards.

Elma York was the first lady astronaut, selected more for her visual appeal to other women, who were needed on Mars, than her Ph.D. Now she and her husband are both retired, living on Mars, and Elma dreams of returning to space while her husband slowly dies of a crippling terminal disease.

At this point, the plot of the story and the moral dilemma she will be faced with should be obvious.


Nathaniel and I’d made the decision not to have children. They aren't conducive to a life in space, you know? I mean there’s the radiation, and the weightlessness, but more it was that I was gone all the time. I couldn't give up the stars... but I found myself wishing that we hadn't made that decision. Part of it was wishing that I had some connection to the next generation. More of it was wanting someone to share the burden of decision with me.


This could be a rather interesting retro-futuristic setting for an entire novel, but the story is entirely preoccupied with Elma's internal monologue over her choices. Kowal is so eager to make her lady astronaut a brilliant and talented woman who deserves her opportunities while still being a conscientious and loving wife that she punts on the moral dilemmas by absolving Elma of any but internalized guilt for her decisions. Of course she is going to go to space. Of course her dying husband will tell her to go. Of course there are stakes higher than her own ambition.

At one time, this probably would have stood out as a Hugo-worthy classic, but newsflash: women SF writers and women in space are not novelties anymore. So while this character study written in a setting with shades of Bradbury and Baum was appealing, it still felt like retreading ground others have covered better.

The Exchange Officers, by Brad Torgersen



The Exchange Officers

I liked Torgersen's The Chaplain's Legacy. This is his second entry on the 2014 Hugo list, and the weaker of the two, as he doesn't have enough space to really develop the story, which is, essentially, your basic military SF yarn about a couple of officers defending a U.S. space station against Chinese attackers.


Mission Control looked more like a penny arcade than a command center. No long desks populated with keyboards and computer displays. No super-sized jumbo screens on the walls. No bespectacled engineers with headsets perched on balding scalps. There were only control booths arrayed uniformly in neat bunches. And in each booth sat or stood an Operator, either male or female. Most of them were United States Navy or United States Air Force personnel—the facility being a joint USN-USAF operation. As the United States Army’s latest exchange officer to the Orbital Defense Initiative Station, I stuck out like a sore thumb. Both because of my rank, and because of my uniform.


Set in a near future, the "exchange officers" are two Warrant Officers from the Army and the Marines, under the command of an Air Force Colonel aboard a U.S. space station. They learn to become Operators of remotely-controlled robots, and then there is an attack on the station (described as a "probe" to see how the U.S. would react, though in reality, it seems like it would be a pretty blatant act of war by the PRC that could hardly fail to lead to full-scale hostilities) which the officers of course fight off, and that's pretty much the story.

Torgersen likes his military jargon, which did not lose me, being ex-military myself, but the story is laden with him showing off his own military background. Not coincidental, I think, that the two main characters I've read so far by Chief Warrant Officer Torgersen are Chief Warrant Officers.

This is another straightforward, almost retro piece of action-adventure sci-fi that was entertaining, but its inclusion on the Hugo list seems dubious to me. Literally nothing is new, and the writing didn't elevate it above average. I'd read more by Torgersen, but this (and, in truth, his other entry) did not make me say, "Wow, this guy is a serious up-and-comer in the genre!"
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Enemy Mine with religion.


The Chaplain's Legacy

Analog Science Fiction and Fact, 2013, 58 pages



This novella, the shortest of those nominated for a Hugo, is entertaining but not particularly original. You can read it for free, or buy the upcoming book it is a part of.

The Chaplain's War

Warrant Officer Harrison Barlow was taken POW during a war with the mantes, an insectoid race that has already wiped out several other rival spacefaring races and was well on its way to exterminating humanity. Barlow, who was assistant to his unit's chaplain, somehow brokered a cease-fire with the mantes, who were intrigued by human religion. When the cease-fire appears to be at an end, the human Fleet calls Barlow back into service, hoping he can persuade the mantes to stay their hands (claws) once more.


"Instruction," I corrected her. "And it’s not even anything so formal as that. You ought to know as well as anyone, if you’ve earned your commission recently, that the mantes are an utterly atheistic people. They cannot even conceive of a God, nor a soul, nor do they understand anything about Earth’s varied and flavorful religious history."


Negotiations do not go well, and while the humans have a few surprises for the technologically superior mantes, Chief Barlow, a young female Captain, and two mantes, including the leader of their entire species, wind up stranded on a barren planet, pitting them together in a rather contrived survival trek which of course leads to mutual philosophical self-examination, meditations on faith, and shared bonding experiences.

The author (a Mormon, and a member of the military, the latter being more obvious than the former) treats the subject of religion sympathetically but fairly agnostically. Chief Barlow is a stock character, the cleric who's lost his faith, only to have it put under scrutiny by atheistic aliens. The mantes are interesting if overly convenient aliens, not quite humans in bug suits but still not really quite alien enough despite their insectoid appearance and cyborg technology. There are some other stock SF themes like over-reliance on technology, and some stock tropes as well, like the crashed lifeboat that they have to abandon, the planet that is conveniently habitable yet uninhabited, space battles between two supposedly mismatched races that are always closely fought, and the man and the woman who are chastely forced to strip and share a sleeping bag with much ensuing embarrassment and embarrassing questions from the bugs, etc.

Torgersen has no great gift for language and this is quite a standard, almost retro, military SF tale. I enjoyed it, and in contrast to the generally secular future envisioned by most SF writers (Star Trek being the most notable example) or weird mish-mash spirituality such as that embodied by Star Wars, Torgersen does present a human future in which religion occupies the same role it does today, even in space, which is probably more realistic. That said, other authors have handled religion in science fiction and bridging-the-gap-between-alien-races more profoundly, so it's hard for me to see this is a Hugo-worthy novella.




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A Farmboy of Destiny hikes through Middle EarthFantasylandia


The Eye of the World

Tor, 1990, 670 pages




The Wheel of Time turns and Ages come and go, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth returns again. In the Third Age, and Age of Prophecy, the World and Time themselves hang in the balance. What was, what will be, and what is, may yet fall under the Shadow.


My, this Wheel does go on. )

Verdict: The Eye of the World is honored for its sentimental value and because of the massive investment Wheel of Time fans put into reading this huge series, not because this book is truly great. It isn't. It's not terrible. But Robert Jordan was not a great writer and there was barely anything original about this trite and overwritten epic fantasy quest. I don't mind having read it, but the thought of reading fourteen more fills me with existential horror. Enough.




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Tapeworms shall inherit the Earth in Mira Grant's #weneedtokendiversity Hugo nom.


Parasite

Orbit, 2013, 512 pages




A decade in the future, humanity thrives in the absence of sickness and disease.

We owe our good health to a humble parasite - a genetically engineered tapeworm developed by the pioneering SymboGen Corporation. When implanted, the Intestinal Bodyguard worm protects us from illness, boosts our immune system - even secretes designer drugs. It's been successful beyond the scientists' wildest dreams. Now, years on, almost every human being has a SymboGen tapeworm living within them.

But these parasites are getting restless. They want their own lives . . . and will do anything to get them.


Entertaining but formulaic Hugo-fodder. )

Verdict: Entertaining, derivative, readable, a Mira Grant product for fans of Mira Grant. I liked Parasite but it did not in any way impress me, and the ways in which this Hugo nomination did not impress me were sufficiently irksome for me to belabor them in more detail than I usually snipe at books I'd otherwise write a mostly unmixed positive review for. If you liked Newsflesh you will probably like Parasite, but don't expect anything new.

Also by Mira Grant: My reviews of Feed, Deadline, and Blackout.




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A collection of novellas and short stories set in Selenoth, the author's epic fantasy world.

The Wardog's Coin A Magic Broken The Last Witchking


In which the reviewer prepares to face orcs. )

Verdict: I've now read three ebooks by Vox Day so you don't have to. But seriously, they weren't bad, and they were better than I was expecting. Whether VD and his fans believe me or not, this review was an honest effort, in which I did my best to avoid letting my opinion of VD's persona affect my opinion of his writing. (If anything, I was probably more generous than I would otherwise have been.) So yes, I honestly liked them; Vox Day is a fine if not original storyteller. I'd enjoy reading him a lot more if he could improve his dialog and stop describing pallid and insipid suns. I am not prepared to dive into A Throne of Bones yet (see above, I can only handle so many epic fantasy horse-chokers of dubious quality at a time), but I probably will try out his SF novel, Quantum Mortis, and see if he does better in that genre, since I generally prefer SF to fantasy nowadays anyway.




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Snow White is the gunslinging half-breed daughter of a silver baron in Catherynne Valente's latest retold fairy tale.


Six-Gun Snow White

Subterranean, 2013, 168 pages




From New York Times bestselling author Catherynne M. Valente comes a brilliant reinvention of one the best known fairy tales of all time. In the novella Six-Gun Snow White, Valente transports the title's heroine to a masterfully evoked Old West where Coyote is just as likely to be found as the seven dwarves.

A plain-spoken, appealing narrator relates the history of her parentsóa Nevada silver baron who forced the Crow people to give up one of their most beautiful daughters, Gun That Sings, in marriage to him. With her mother's death in childbirth, so begins a heroine's tale equal parts heartbreak and strength. This girl has been born into a world with no place for a half-native, half-white child. After being hidden for years, a very wicked stepmother finally gifts her with the name Snow White, referring to the pale skin she will never have. Filled with fascinating glimpses through the fabled looking glass and a close-up look at hard living in the gritty gun-slinging West, readers will be enchanted by this story at once familiar and entirely new.


Note: This year, I am going to try to read and review as many of the Hugo Nominees as I can. I will tag them with 2014 Hugo Nominee.

Does the world need yet another version of Snow White? Does the world need more zombie apocalypses or space operas? (Dear Catherynne Valente: I would totally read a zombie apocalypse written by you.) )

Verdict: If you like fairy tale retellings (like Fables) or any of Catherynne Valente's other work, then you'll enjoy Six-Gun Snow White. I didn't love it quite the way I love Valente's Fairyland books, but as one of the nominees for Best Novella, it's a worthy contender.

Also by Catherynne Valente: My reviews of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There, The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two, The Habitation of the Blessed, Silently and Very Fast, and Deathless.




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A revenge-epic space opera that's almost as clever as it's trying to be.


Ancillary Justice

Orbit, 2013, 416 pages




On a remote, icy planet, the soldier known as Breq is drawing closer to completing her quest.

Breq is both more than she seems and less than she was. Years ago, she was the Justice of Toren--a colossal starship with an artificial intelligence linking thousands of corpse soldiers in the service of the Radch, the empire that conquered the galaxy.

An act of treachery has ripped it all away, leaving her with only one fragile human body. And only one purpose--to revenge herself on Anaander Mianaai, many-bodied, near-immortal Lord of the Radch.

From debut author Ann Leckie, Ancillary Justice is a stunning space opera that asks what it means to be human in a universe guided by artificial intelligence.


Artificial intelligences working for evil Space not-Romans, gender ambiguity, and the Dumbest. Revenge. Plan. Ever. )

Verdict: Ancillary Justice is a good book despite some annoying defects in plot and characterization. If you can ignore the pointlessness of the quest which drives the entire plot of the first book, you will like it enough to want to read the next (yes, this is the first book in a trilogy).

Oh, and am I the only one who looks at that cover and thinks of a 80s Atari game?




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