Book Review: Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo

Introduction

Throughout Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo, Galaxy Stern fights to balance her background as a drug abuser and teen runaway, her lifelong gift (curse) of the ability to see ghosts, known as Grays, and her job working for a secret cultish organization entrenched within the high society of Yale University.

Together with her distant work partner, Pamela Dawes, who resents Alex for losing their boss, Darlington, to an unknown portal, and Detective Abel Turner, who resents Alex for interfering in his murder investigation, Alex must survive where all her worlds clash to do her job and put her own ghosts to rest. But she has more to do with the dangerous events happening around her than she realizes.

Plot

For Alex, the opportunity to study at Yale leads to her wholehearted attempt at change. From the drug abuse, from the hurt she caused her mother, from the abuse of the Grays themselves. But in exchange, she must use her gifts in service to the House of Lethe to guard dog the other Societies of the Veil from taking their magic dealings too far, sacrificing the lives of the citizens of surrounding New Haven in the pursuit of whatever they want.

Yet Alex soon learns that if she continues to keep her head down and try to fit in, she will fail the main directive of her House: we are the shepherds. Everyone expects her to let the murder of Tara Hutchins go, but where good girl Alex can get nowhere, the sharp, hardened Alex who has survived worse than anyone at Yale could imagine coils up to strike back. She may not fit into this world, but that lends her the element of surprise.

Characters

In her role as Dante of Lethe House, Alex meets Occulus Pamela Dawes and their Virgil, Daniel Arlington, who begins mentoring Alex to take over his role once he graduates Yale. Darlington, well-loved by all as the gentleman of Lethe, struggles to deal with Alex’s presence, as she was chosen as his apprentice for him rather than by him. But with his mysterious disappearance soon after they begin getting along, Alex finds herself on her own doing a job she has not enough guidance to do well.

She and Pamela must team up to uphold Lethe House’s creed when the very dean of the school leaves them high and dry with no help. Detective Abel Turner, recruited from New Haven’s police force as Lethe House’s Centurion, would rather have nothing to do with magic and monsters. But as Alex calls upon the two again and again, they become embroiled in helping her get to the bottom of Tara Hutchins’s murder, whether they like it or not.

Review

I loved so many moments in Ninth House. When Dawes stands up to Dean Sandow for Alex, calling him out on his blaming her for being attacked; when Alex first begins letting her true colors as a sharp-edged, deadly person to deal with show through in order to continue the investigation without the dean’s approval; when Alex gets petty revenge on another student who hurts her roommate; when Alex calls out the main villain for attempting to turn a string of murders into a feminist manifesto. And all the soft moments when Alex gets to, for one or two minutes, enjoy the wonders of magic and of a found purpose.

Leigh Bardugo pulls no punches, so the narrative contains harsh elements and examinations of cruelty and unfairness, considering how trauma can shape a person into the sort who would seek justice at any cost so others won’t have to suffer like her. Everyone who loves magic, hope, kickass women in droves, honorable detectives, underdogs, and petty revenge should read Ninth House.

Conclusion

Since purchasing Ninth House in October 2019, I have read this book twice and loved every second of both readings. I enjoy the high stakes action, the contrast between Yale high society and Alex’s poor, mixed background, her toughness and unwillingness to let injustice pass, and the high energy, witty interactions between the characters.

This fantasy murder mystery examines individual responsibility to protect the weak and seek justice for wrongdoing, but in a low, shifty, clever manner. Not every tale of wrongdoing brought to judgement need be noble and lofty. When the nobility will not take responsibility for the actions of its own, the lowest must rise to take up the mantle. For, after all, we are the shepherds.

My rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Goodreads rating: 4.07


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Book Review: Network Effect by Martha Wells

Introduction

Following the events of the first four Murderbot Diaries novellas, Network Effect by Martha Wells delivers a long-form adventure for our favorite anxious SecUnit. When its human clients get kidnapped by a familiar research transport and unfamiliar humanoids, Murderbot must fight to keep all the humans alive while trying to figure out a way out of a hostile situation. Featuring members of Murderbot’s previous crew, the fierce child of Murderbot’s favorite fierce human, and a certain research transport with a charming acronym, the story follows Murderbot’s battle to evolve as fast as the situation changes.

Plot

The narrative of Network Effect covers the importance of humanity and artificial intelligences working together to achieve the impossible: freedom for those enslaved, whether humanoid or robotic. Taking place in a chunk of space abandoned twice by the corporations responsible for terraforming planetary hopefuls, the story picks up after Murderbot and ART parted ways, with them leading their customary lives of security detail for the leader of a free planet and transporting around anti-establishment academics who forge documentation to free indentured humans from bondage, respectively.

But the research vessel gets itself in trouble when the planet its academics hope to free turns out to have an alien remnant hellbent on escaping its planetary prison to infect the universe. Dragged out into this forgotten sector erased from map coordinates, Murderbot finds itself with no chance of rescue. It must solve these overwhelming problems on its own.

Characters

Though Murderbot gets the gift of starting the story alongside some of its friends, such as Pin Lee and Ravi, it now has to contend with Dr. Mensah’s brother-in-law, Thiago, who does not trust the ungoverned SecUnit, and Mensah’s stubborn and intelligent daughter, Amana. Murderbot has grown enough to admit that it has friends and likes helping and protecting them, but starting over with new humans who did not come along for that journey makes gaining their trust a struggle all over again. Especially when Murderbot would rather be allowed to watch media or just get on with its job without human interference. Or, worse, shows of affection.

Yet with the re-entrance of an old acquaintance, Murderbot gets to revisit little pockets of peace through sharing media. The narrative covers the autonomy of constructs, but more than that, the ways respect for personhood and botdom can lead to friendship.

Review

My favorite part of Network Effect was all of Network Effect. I would happily live in that world and Murderbot’s mind full of scathing criticisms of incompetence, admissions of inability, and growth as it continues to learn how to be a person. I couldn’t get enough of the HelpMe.file snippets showing Murderbot’s normal life and inner conflicts in between the action. Though a good-sized book, the snappy pace of Wells’s writing led to me to devour the story almost in one sitting (alas, I have a day job).

As always, I appreciated the anxious desire to do a perfect job, the acceptance of Murderbot from others with the occasional gentle reprimand, and the catharsis of letting the savagery out when lines get crossed. Anyone who loved the first four books will love this healthy dose of everything that makes Murderbot’s life relatable.

Conclusion

In addition to the narrative’s human drama and space opera hijinks, Murderbot’s inner voice and its obvious attempts at “unreliable narrator” crack me up. When I read most of the book, I spent my whole evening snorting in amusement, along with the occasional cackle of glee. I also cried at one point, I think. Network Effect reaches out and grips your heart, but makes the experience fun the whole way. I recommend this book to anyone whose hands I can push it into saying read it read it read it. (Spoiler alert: I have already done this once. Expect many more.)

My rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Goodreads rating: 4.47 stars


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My Top 10 Favorite Books Written by or About Women

You know readers. We can never pick just one favorite book. For my part, I can’t even pick my favorite series. So many amazing books await out in the world, more than I could ever read before I die. To keep this post short, I had to narrow down the parameters to my top ten favorite books written by or about women.

While I spend my life trying to read the most moving, the most truthful, and the most meaningful novels out there, a few have drawn me back into their welcoming pages over and over. I have reread every one of the books below and keep most of them on my (limited) bookshelves. (Only Sabriel still lives at my local library, but I will own a copy someday.)

Nothing makes me happy quite like when I meet someone who has read one of these, or who decides to read them at my suggestion. Please check them out. They’re arranged in no particular order. If you’ve read any of these, I would love to hear what you thought!

The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater

The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater

Though I loved The Raven Boys, the first installment in the Raven Cycle, I fell deeply into Stiefvater’s writing in The Dream Thieves, which released just after I finished the first book. Imagine characters you know so well as to be your friends. Imagine they stumbled upon magic, the dangerous kind, and upon each other, dangerous people. Want so big and impossible as to swallow up existence. All set against the backdrop of Virginia’s mysterious Shenandoah Valley.

Her writing hooks itself like thorny vines into my veins. The narrative driven by these characters makes me breathless for flashed smiles, daring choices, and the strength of unbreakable friendship.


The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

Oh, look. Another book by Maggie Stiefvater. (Spoiler alert: there is not a single one of her stories I have not enjoyed.)

I first bought The Scorpio Races for my mom’s birthday, even though I had never read it. While sitting within the massive shadow of a Gander Mountain sign, hoping to sell a litter of puppies to passersby, I read the first several chapters aloud to my mom.

I may or may not have later asked several times if she was done with the book yet so I could read it.

Every year in October or November, I reread The Scorpio Races. Nothing else I have read evokes the magic of fall and deadly horses the way this book does.


Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

I’m not even sure how I wound up reading Six of Crows. My friend had convinced me to read Leigh Bardugo’s previous series, the Grisha Trilogy. I recall standing in a Barnes & Noble with her as she gushed over the book’s beautiful, black-edged pages. Maybe she handed it to me one day in that Read this! way some readers will do.

I had never loved heist stories before reading Six of Crows. As a fantasy heist, The Lies of Lock Lamora could not begin to compare to Six of Crows and its sequel for sheer brilliance of maneuvering, tactics, risk, and stakes. And beyond that, each and every character breathes with life, cleverness, and desperation for a better life.


Trickster’s Choice by Tamora Pierce

Trickster’s Choice by Tamora Pierce

In Tamora Pierce’s lengthy, multi-installment series about the country of Tortall, the Trickster’s Choice duology comes at the very last. I own every one of her books, but for me, none compare to this one.

Two words: fantasy spies. The daughter of a rogue and a knight who becomes embroiled in the espionage of a foreign country as she works to prove herself a capable spymaster. She’s fun-loving and sly, surrounded by clever and brave characters who grow dangerous enough to stage a coup.

I have ever loved the rogue and spy tropes. Perhaps this book is why.


Gregor and the Code of Claw by Suzanne Collins

Gregor and the Code of Claw by Suzanne Collins

You want a fantasy, underground (literally) reimagining of World War II and the Holocaust, mixed with giant flying bats, kickass princesses, and prophecies? The Underland Chronicles have exactly that and more. I love this entire series, more even than Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy. But the fifth and last grips me the most.

Lines have been drawn, alliances made and severed. The main character has experienced loss, betrayal, and growth as a young man and warrior into a deadly fighting machine. Gregor and the Code of Claw puts Gregor through the wringer of all-out war. I love tracing his journey to this point, from kid to adventurer to soldier, training to become deadly enough to protect the mysterious world he loves.


All Systems Red by Martha Wells

All Systems Red by Martha Wells

Anxious? Just want to be left alone to do your thing? Have only a specialized skill set at which you are very, very good? Don’t know what you want out of life? Sarcastic and cynical?

If so, you will love Murderbot. I identify so hard with the protagonist of All Systems Red by Martha Wells, a SecUnit designed for security and nothing else, that hacked its own governor module in order to… keep pretending to work just so it could watch media serials. Where ‘pretend’ means do a top notch job while worrying about the quality of the work performed. Y’know, like we all do.

Eight chapters of thrilling action, touching moments, wonderful characters, and seething intrapersonal conflict makes up this first installment in a quartet of novellas, all set within a seamless science fiction interstellar society.


Sabriel by Garth Nix

Sabriel by Garth Nix

Whenever I talk about good books about necromancy, I always laud Sabriel by Garth Nix as the best. Beyond a wonderful story about a strong and thoughtful young woman adventuring in a land full of monsters and finding a boy to love and protect along the way, the narrative covers all the delectable little necromancy things I love. From a representation of the River Styx to the death knell of a bandolier of small bells to a lineage of necromancers who, instead of raising the dead, send them back down the river where they belong.

This story brought me in to the presentation of trained wizards living in a modern age (that being a World War I era fantasy world), mixing ancient magic and rune-inscribed swords with modern inventions like firearms and flying machines. I practically vibrated with happiness through the whole read and couldn’t get enough of some of the beautiful and haunting diction. In my opinion, Sabriel is the best necromancy story.


Eona: the Last Dragoneye by Alison Goodman

Eona: the Last Dragoneye by Alison Goodman

I have spent many a moment admiring the cover art of Eona: the Last Dragoneye by Alison Goodman. In this sequel to Eon, in which Eona pretended to be a boy in a desperate bid for power and status, Eona must now face her identity as a woman. I loved following her struggle to grasp for power in a man’s world by attempting to erase herself, only to discover that doing so lost her the most important aspect of her life, her connection to the queen of the dragons that controlled the land.

This story inspired me so much when Eona discovered she could find strength in her truth instead of viewing womanhood as weakness. The journey across two books to find her way is filled with splendid characters, a variety of perspectives, and incredible power plays and counter plays, all set against the beautiful backdrop of fantasy China.


Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett

Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett

Remember from before when I mentioned I love rogues? And tough women? Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett has both, as well as playful, fun banter, deadly peril, clandestine operations, and underdog struggles to save everyone in the awful city of Tevanne from several individuals, each with ambitions to be become a god.

I love how the unfolding of the narrative brings the four main characters together: a rogue, a paladin, and two artificers, to use some tropey language. Oh, and a talking key. Though the characters all begin at odds with each other, they soon find that their goals align as they uncover secrets about the magical method of scriving, secrets that upend everything they know about their world.

Also, there’s a fabulous LGBTQIA+ element, but I won’t spoil. Wink.


The Rook by Daniel O’Malley

The Rook by Daniel O’Malley

In The Rook by Daniel O’Malley, Myfanwy wakes up in a park with amnesia, surrounded by dead bodies. The rest of the story follows her discovery that she, pre-amnesia, knew this would happen and left clues and helpful notes to herself to be able to resume her life and find out who would do this to her.

As an office worker firmly planted in the corporate world myself, I appreciate the descriptions of Myfanwy’s experience starting over with a blank slate to discover the person she always could have been as she navigates her high stakes job and office politics. The office life interwoven with supernatural bureaucracy cracks me up. The intricate mystery of finding herself and uncovering her attempted murderer keeps me turning the pages on every read.


If you’ve read any of these novels, I would love to hear what you thought! If you haven’t, then what are you waiting for?!


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Book Review: Shorefall by Robert Jackson Bennett

In Shorefall by Robert Jackson Bennett, three years have passed since the events of Foundryside, the first installment in the Founders series. Long enough for Sancia Grado and the allies she made in Foundryside to plan and begin to execute a magical-industrial revolution, one that will make scriving, the sacred and secret art of bending reality to one’s will, accessible to all. But on the cusp of the realization of this dream, Sancia and company learn of a deadly enemy being brought back to life. So they set out to defeat him before he has a chance to manifest back into their reality. Sancia, alongside Berenice, Orso, and Gregor, must struggle against this new threat that dwarfs all of them apart, but they may stand a chance together. If only they could rise above their personal traumas still not settled from their last adventures in Tevanne.

Much as in Foundryside, the narrative of Shorefall broadens the characters’ and readers’ understanding of scriving, the medium for magic in this world. In addition, building on the resourcefulness of the main characters evidenced in the previous book, our heroes find themselves thrown against a force of evil both convincing and powerful, forced to pit their shared skills and love for one another against more of an enemy than they can handle as they are attacked both in body and in conviction as to what makes right and wrong. The villain, having lived for thousands of years, has concluded that no matter the effort put into freeing humans from slavery, they always choose to use their resources to enslave others in an endless, vicious cycle. The more he talks about this idea, the more he shakes the altruistic conviction of the Foundryside bunch, because does not history already prove his claims true? The villain’s effect on beloved, despicable Tevanne turns the characters’ world upside down as he grabs for power through human sacrifices. By the end, nothing they knew is the same.

Yet an idea introduced in Foundryside, known as twinning, reaches new heights through the dubious help of a diminished golden god, the villain’s former helper. As the Foundrysiders begin twinning themselves to each other to share experiences, they find this powerful form of walking in each others’ shoes allows them to forgive, understand, and know each other the way they forgive, understand, and know themselves. Though they already loved each other before, their love deepens with every new addition to their twinned experience. Sancia and the rest hope that such an experience could break the cycle of human enslavement if only everyone could experience through the application of this technique the lows and highs of everyone else.

The narrative seeks to interrogate the fruitlessness of altruism. Only a handful of days pass over the course of the entire story, with a majority of the plot zooming in on small moments to keep the revelations coming as the villain goes about his dirty work. While Foundryside functioned the same way, I found in Shorefall a lack of the action and discovery prevalent in its predecessor. As well, this book went to some darker places, making the villain someone truly horrifying as bodies began piling up in gruesome detail. But I think those who tend to grapple with this kind of thinking may benefit from this stark look at such difficult questions, as well as the answer.

While Shorefall was not the rip-roaring ride of the first installment, I enjoyed the deeper examination of the relationships cultivated between the main characters in the previous events. As well, I had not expected to confront such difficult questions as, how will humanity ever end its barbaric cruelty to other people? and how could the removal of free will or the deepening of empathy potentially be the solutions? I found myself facing my own conclusions about these thoughts and re-examining them as the story progressed. I would recommend this book to readers who like to read about the deep questions and who appreciate clever and fantastical representations of the answers to those questions.

My rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Goodreads rating: 4.24 stars


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Book Review: Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

In Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir, orphaned, broadsword-wielding Gideon Nav makes a bid for freedom from a life of servitude on the claustrophobic planet of the Ninth House, but the Reverend Daughter Harrowhark Nonagesimus, necromancer and bone manipulation prodigy, thwarts Gideon’s attempt at escape, demanding the swordswoman’s help in exchange for her freedom. The Emperor has summoned the heirs of all the houses to the planet of the First House to participate in a deadly competition to gain immortality and sit at his right hand. Harrowhark cannot win without Gideon, but it turns out that Gideon also cannot survive without Harrowhark.

The narrative of Gideon the Ninth follows Gideon Nav’s foray into pretending to work with Harrowhark Nonagesimus, her lifelong enemy and tormentor, for a chance at freedom. But upon their arrival at the First House, the fabled home of the Emperor himself to which he may never return, they receive no explanation and only one rule for the trial set before them. Exploration and puzzle-solving ensue as the various heirs and their cavaliers execute different strategies to unlock the secrets of the ten-thousand year old, crumbling palace, stumbling across futuristic technology and ancient rituals alike.

Between snarky remarks and witty ripostes, Gideon and Harrowhark begin to learn more about each other and how to function as a team, even as the trial turns deadlier and deadlier. They begin the story as hated enemies and remain that way for a long time, until they catch themselves saving each other’s lives. As contestants fall around them left and right at the hands of a mysterious murderer, secrets long-kept start to surface, drawing them together.

The moment in Gideon the Ninth that sticks out to me the most happened when members of one of the houses had conned a coveted key from a character Gideon really (really) likes. It was dueling time, and though the smart thing to do was to stay out of the rising tensions between the houses, Gideon badly wanted to fight for that key. When Harrowhark announced that the Ninth House would represent the Sixth House in the match, some of the combatants got snippy about the move. Harrowhark simply said, “Death first to vultures and scavengers.” First, this moment represents Harrowhark at last caring about Gideon’s desires enough to allow her something she wanted, regardless of whether Harrowhark disagreed. Second, this also shows a tiny, tiny sliver of the way Harrowhark felt about the other houses’ taking advantage of an invalid; proof that she hid a fragment of honor beneath those layers of arrogance. This line also highlights the sudden moments of weighty syntax sprinkled within witty comments and sharp retorts throughout the narrative. Beyond just a delightful emphasis on the necromantic vibe in such short supply within the fantasy genre, brilliantly lively characters, and an even mix of action, exploration, and fighting, readers will enjoy the speedy and clever wording that had me laughing out loud.

As the first installment in The Locked Tomb series, Gideon the Ninth already has me hooked. I have to read the next books to solve the mysteries of Gideon’s past and her future – who and where did she come from? how will she continue in the state she’s left in at the end of the book? I rarely spend large swathes of time on reading these days, but as the book picked up in pace, I wound up reading the entire last half in one sitting. My only issue was the uniquely bad feeling I get when reading about enemies to lovers, as I find the unlikelihood of forgiveness for years of oppression and torment difficult to overcome in my suspense of disbelief. However, I love so, so much of the rest and I recognize that this hangup may only be mine, so I would recommend Gideon the Ninth to any readers who love the necromancy aesthetic, who are looking for a lesbian slow-burn, and who appreciate, as I did, a masculine-coded woman character.

My rating: 5 stars
Goodreads rating: 4.23 stars


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Book Review: The Cloud Roads by Martha Wells

My Thoughts

Martha Wells, of 2018-2019 Murderbot fame, weaves a tale of social complexity in The Cloud Roads. Following Moon, an orphan Raksuran, the narrative details his experiences of finding a colony at last and attempting to integrate through politics and social expectations he knows nothing about. With an outsider’s perspective, he begins to codify the deteriorate and extinction which the colony faces as he uncovers the mystery of the enemy that seems to have pursued him to his new home. I loved the depictions of social complexity, of divergent relationship roles, and the acceptance of individuals with difficult behaviors as just part of colony life.

The Cloud Roads Synopsis

Moon has spent his life hiding what he is — a shape-shifter able to transform himself into a winged creature of flight. An orphan with only vague memories of his own kind, Moon tries to fit in among the tribes of his river valley, with mixed success. Just as Moon is once again cast out by his adopted tribe, he discovers a shape-shifter like himself… someone who seems to know exactly what he is, who promises that Moon will be welcomed into his community. What this stranger doesn’t tell Moon is that his presence will tip the balance of power… that his extraordinary lineage is crucial to the colony’s survival… and that his people face extinction at the hands of the dreaded Fell! Now Moon must overcome a lifetime of conditioning in order to save himself… and his newfound kin.

Goodreads

Appraisals

PLOT

The beginning of The Cloud Roads gives little indication of the surprises, twists, and turns in store for Moon. He must learn to go from lost and alone to part of a community of his own people that he does not understand at all. At the same time, enemies of the Raksura come bearing down on his newfound colony in his wake, awakening suspicions in all and demanding action from the most powerful down to the most diminutive members of the colony. Success rides on the ability of everyone to work together, as well as both a sundering and an embracing of traditions.

While I was reading The Cloud Roads, Martha Wells herself responded to a tweet, describing the Raksurans as arguing bats.

@marthawells1: Arguing bats is basically the plot of the Books of the Raksura

I couldn’t agree more. Moon spends his time arguing with others of the Indigo Cloud Court with whom he wants to join up, while the entire colony endures a crisis of potential extinction. All of them argue back, a whole mess of distinct, intriguing characters driving the plot forward with both actions and opinions.

As someone walking around with a low level of Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria, I enjoyed this representation of socializing. The freedom to express one’s opinion or have a moody moment and not get immediately ejected from the social circle had me wishing I could curl up in a Raksuran nest with a few cuddly bat-lizard companions.

CHARACTERS

The Cloud Roads features a slew of complex characters, all bound together by one colony or an ancient animosity. Throughout the depiction of character relations, Wells demonstrates a powerful ability to represent diversity, polyamorous relationships, opposing world views, and social structures.

Most of all, I loved the depiction of strength and submission in both females and males of the colony, most revealed in the love triangle between Moon, the sister queen Jade, and Charm. Moon switches between domination and submission, while Jade embodies all power, all strength. Charm struggles with his identity of changing from one caste to another out of nowhere and acts more soft around Moon.

THEME

An outsider’s perspective. With his ignorance from growing up as an orphan outside of a Raksuran court, Moon brings fresh eyes to the situation facing Indigo Cloud Court as the colony deteriorates with no explanation. While he becomes embroiled in Raksuran politics, their struggles, and his place among them, through empathy and a desire to understand others, he begins to recognize the enemies they face as more than just brutes bent on Raksuran destruction.

ENDING

While the beginning of The Cloud Roads hinted not at all about the direction the narrative would take, by the end, the events that unfold seem inevitable. As if this story could have ended no other way. A testament to Wells’s skill.

Criticisms

I disliked nothing about The Cloud Roads.

My Rating: 5/5 stars
Goodreads Rating: 3.96 stars

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