Review: Aetherchrist by Kirk Jones

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Aetherchrist
By Kirk Jones
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Rey is a door-to-door knives salesman, meandering through life as much as the neighborhoods he wanders selling cheap cutlery, hoping to bed his boss and to get his coworker to stop showing him his penis. While attempting to make a sale in the backwoods of Vermont, he comes to a home filled with analog televisions. On the screens is Rey - Rey walking down the street, Rey standing before the television, Rey laying dead on channel 13. Initially he suspects the townspeople of recording him, but as strange occurrences, and murder victims, begin to stack up, Rey quickly finds himself in way over his head, caught up in a chain of events he could have never imagined.

Aetherchrist is my first trip through the surreal mind of Kirk Jones, an author of weird fiction whose bibliography includes titles such as Uncle Sam’s Carnival of Copulating Inanimals and Masturbatory Entropy. If you ever wondered how The Matrix might have turned out if written and directed by David Cronenberg and David Lynch, with maybe a touch or two of uncredited, off-screen Act I consultation from Chuck Palahniuk, Aetherchrist may be the answer. Filled with surrealism, hints of conspiracy and secret worlds, moments of science fiction-fueled body horror, and the power of analog signals, this one's a bit of a head trip.

Jones plunges readers straight into his weird little world filled with oddball characters. For being less than 150 pages, Aetherchrist feels quite a bit denser thanks the big and bizarre ideas taking center stage following America's move from analog broadcasts to digital television. We're given hints and peeks into hidden subcultures and rogue movements who possess startling power, but much of it is a sideways glance, filtered through Rey's own ignorance and paranoia - he's an Everyman narrator who knows about as much as we do and is oftentimes just as lost and confused. Although the narrative is straightforward, the topics of discussion and peculiar details of the story itself are strangely oblique and mysterious nonetheless. To his credit, Rey at least seems to understand this on one level, noting that not only does everything in his life go wrong, it goes wrong in the most absurd ways possible.

Aetherchrist is a high-concept read, with philosophical questions of fate and destiny and how much control we really have over the events in our lives kind of lurking around the margins, touched upon but never deeply explored. In between the strange happenings occurring from page to page, there's plenty of ancillary fodder left to mentally chew on, like collectivism versus individuality. Readers who need a strong, definitive finale may be a bit disappointed at the abrupt conclusion and the niggling threads of story left unanswered (threads that are perhaps, more accurately, unanswerable), but Jones's narrative is more about the trip itself and not the destination. This is the story of a journey, a wandering through some strange, dark, and abruptly violent corners, and it isn't really important where Rey ends up, but how he gets there.

Aetherchrist is a bizarre work, but also bizarrely engaging. It's one of those books that I'm pretty sure I understood, even if I can't properly and sanely articulate all the ins and outs about it. What I do know for sure, though, is that it completely captivated me, held my interest, and made me feel completely invested in my brief journey alongside Rey and his briefcase of knives. I'm also pretty sure Kirk Jones just earned himself a new reader with this book, one who is curious what other oddities he's put to the page.

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Review: Hell Divers III: Deliverance by Nicholas Sansbury Smith

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My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Picking up on the heels of Hell Divers II: Ghosts finale, Michael Everheart and his small crew of Hell Divers set out to find the missing Xavier "X" Rodriguez after being abandoned by the traitorous Captain Jordan.

Nicholas Sansbury Smith stretches his narrative wings a bit in Deliverance, giving readers insight into X's decade-long stint on Earth's hellscape through prolonged flashbacks, in between tackling the story's present-day timeline from the perspectives of Everheart and Jordan, and a few other Hell Divers along the way. Readers who were disappointed at the lack of X in the prior novel, particularly after Smith's nasty cliff-hanger ending back in Book 1, will certainly get their fill of Rodriguez this time around as Smith brings X back to the narrative's center.

While I was certainly happy to get more of X, now accompanied by a thawed-from-cryo husky named Miles, the real delight for me was seeing Smith's post-apocalyptic world building. While X travels the hellish landscape of an irradiated America to reach the ocean, Smith gives us a delightful tour of this new nuclear-adapted ecosystem. In prior novels, the Sirens were the clearly the biggest threat facing the remnants of mankind, but life outside the airship Hive is more expansive and far-reaching in Deliverance than the Hell Divers had imagined. As Ian Malcolm famously reminded us in Jurassic Park, "Life breaks free, it expands to new territories and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously... Life, uh, finds a way." Smith takes Malcolm's words to heart, presenting a number of thrilling encounters that reminds humans they may no longer be at the top of the food chain in this wildly mutated environment.

Not that life aboard the airship Hive is much better. Without mincing too many words, let me just say that Captain Jordan is a piece of crap. I hated this guy in Book 2, and Book 3 didn't do much to swing me around to his iron-fist mentality of rule as the top dog. Every chapter he showed up in only solidified his narcissism and I kept waiting for him to get his comeuppance. Life aboard the airships, though, does make for a fun bit of compare and contrast to life on the ground. No matter what dangers lurk in the ruins of America, Jordan and his cronies serve to remind us that humans are, typically, the biggest threat to everything around.

If you've enjoyed the previous two Hell Divers books, you'll feel right at home with Deliverance. Smith delivers plenty of action and suspense, and even a few dashes of socio-political intrigue along the way. Its final moments even kick the door wide open for a fourth installment, taking this series in a direction that good and truly excites me. I can't wait to see what comes next!

[Note: I received an advance copy of this title from the publisher via NetGalley.]

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Review: Obscura by Joe Hart

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Obscura
By Joe Hart
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Joe Hart takes us into the near-future in Obscura, to a time when the Earth is severely polluted and global warming is set to pay a disastrous toll. A deadly new virus, Losian, has emerged, cursing the afflicted with an Alzheimer's-like memory loss on the way to fatality. Although science hasn't had much luck curbing mankind's deadly carbon footprint, it has made some headway into developing a new, cutting-edge method of travel currently being tested in space. Inexplicably, though, the human test subjects are developing violent psychoses and memory loss - symptoms that bear remarkable similarities to Losian. After losing her research funding, Dr. Gillian Ryan is recruited by NASA to continue her work and develop a cure for those afflicted aboard the space station. Easy, right?

Hart does a tremendous job building up the story of Obscura, giving Gillian plenty of personal reasons to be involved in the search for Losian's cure, while also making her an important and striking character in her own right. Smart, tough, and resourceful, Gillian is a terrific heroine, but one who also has an important weak spot in her addiction to pills. On the science front, Hart's fresh mode of travel will be old-hat to plenty of sci-fi fans, but the technology is given a shiny new coat of paint here thanks to some refreshing plot elements and unintended consequences.

While Obscura is a thrilling read, Hart infuses plenty of creepiness throughout, injecting some welcome elements of horror that will keep readers guessing. There are a few memorable scenes, and characters, etched into my mind thanks to Hart's vivid descriptions and scenarios that packed a lovely bit of wow factor. The story itself is what truly grabbed me, though - murders aboard a space station, drug addiction, and whole lotta paranoia - all perfectly paced and flawlessly executed. I absolutely had to know what was happening, and what was going to happen next.

Obscura is the kind of read you need to clear your calendar for because this is one hell of a page-turner from start to finish. Fans of Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter and Pines should feel right at home with this cutting-edge thriller.

[Note: I received an advanced copy of this title from publisher Thomas & Mercer via NetGalley.]

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Review: Star Wars: Last Shot by Daniel José Older [audiobook]

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My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Set in the month's following Chuck Wendig's Aftermath trilogy, Daniel José Older explores the rise of a singular threat in a post-Imperial galaxy. In the book's opening moments, Lando Calrissian is attacked in his home on Cloud City by a mysterious hooded figure demanding the Phylanx Redux Transmitter, a mouthful of a galaxy-changing MacGuffin if ever there was one. While Lando doesn't possess this transmitter, he learns that its last known whereabouts were aboard the Millennium Falcon, leading him straight to his ol' buddy Han. Soon enough, the two scoundrels have assembled a new team to help them as they rocket across the galaxy in search of this mysterious device and a rouge evil scientist, Fyzen Gor, who Han encountered ten years previously.

The big draw behind Star Wars: Last Shot, of course, is Han and Lando themselves. Older does a remarkable job bringing Lando to life here, capturing the sleek, cool style of Billy Dee Williams, with a particular eye towards the character's penchant for fashion. Knowing that the clothes make the man, Lando's always been the best-dressed smuggler in the galaxy, and Older pays particular attention to that, as well, describing the man's careful deliberation when it comes to selecting his clothing for events and encounters, as well as a closet full of stylish and colorful capes.

Lando, of course, is off-set by his partner in crime, and Han is as rumpled and grumpy as ever as he tries to cope with fatherhood. With the Imperial Empire run off to the Outer Rim, Han is struggling with his place in life and the oftentimes stationary requirements of being a husband and father. He wants to roam free among the stars, and instead finds himself dealing with a screaming two-year-old whose sleep has been interrupted by noisome droids and urgent late-night calls for Leia. Of course, once free of familial commitments, Han longs to return. As a father of a two-year-old myself, I could sympathize with Han and his emotional and psychological state pretty well here, particularly as he attempts to soothe his distraught son and steps on a bunch of Lucasfilm's Lego-equivalent blocks.

While Older gives us plenty of insight into Han and Lando, and injects a handful of new diverse characters into the Star Wars universe (an Ewok hacker, an agender pilot [as with Wendig's Aftermath trilogy, you can expect lots and lots and lots of pearl-clutching from the anti-diversity, cultural homogeneity-only crowd for this book, too!], a Twi'lek love interest for Lando), he's also sure to pack in plenty of action that help wrinkle the plot and stymie the search for the transmitter. There's also some intriguing looks at the results of Gor's Frankensteinian experiments and the cult that has formed around them. The story itself is unraveled across three time-lines, with the events of the present-day story informed by Lando's and Han's individual, and unwitting, encounters with Fyzen Gor and Phylanx Redux Transmitter in the previous decades.

For the audio edition, Random House has brought in three narrators to tackle the various story threads. Marc Thompson handles the bulk of the novel, with Older narrating Han's story from ten years ago, and January LaVoy reading Lando's segments set twenty years prior. While Last Story probably didn't need three narrators to get the job done, the various performances help shake things up a bit. Thompson, a Star Wars audiobook staple, does a fantastic job as expected. His performances are consistently excellent, and Last Shot is no exception. His performance of Lando is exceptional, and he does a solidly gruff Han Solo, too. If I have any quibble at all, it's in his performance as Taka Jamoreesa, a twenty-something hotshot pilot, who Thompson reads with an annoyingly Jack Black-esque inflection. LaVoy taps into Lando's vocal mannerisms with a cool, entertaining reading. Older does a solid job, although his presentation is not as professionally refined as his co-narrators. Rounding it all out is the usual high-level production quality of a Star Wars audiobook, with the narration enhanced with sound effects, music, and voice digitization for droid characters. All in all, Last Shot makes for an easy, captivating listen that's a heck of a lot of fun.

Readers looking for a solid bit of entertainment fueled by two of the most popular characters in Star Wars should find a lot to enjoy in Last Shot. I'm always game for more Han and Lando adventures, though, so I'm hoping Older is able to return to this galaxy far, far away for at least one more outing. It'd be a shame if this were his last and only shot with these characters.

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Review: Alien: The Cold Forge by Alex White

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Alien: The Cold Forge
By Alex White
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

While I've enjoyed my share of Alien tie-in works across comics and prose novels, The Cold Forge by Alex White might be the first to truly impress me beyond being a few days worth of solid entertainment.

Most Alien stories seem to involve beleaguered colonists or Colonial Space Marines getting more than they bargained for, with the authors content for their stories to exist as little more than a redux of one of the first two films. While this approach has certainly worked well and given this franchise's reading audience exactly what it expects, Alex White's approach is to raise the bar, and for that I'm grateful.

There are no colonists in (un)surprising peril, no marines battling for their lives. There are in fact no good guys or good gals at all. The Cold Forge is a secret research base for Weyland-Yutani, the megalithic corporation seeking to exploit and weaponize the infamous alien Xenomorphs. While there are various other research projects in progress aboard the space station, the aliens are the big money maker and the reason Cold Forge exists at all. Unfortunately, the researchers aren't delivering on their contracts and auditor Dorian Sudler is tasked with cutting the fat. He pinpoints as the primary loss leader Dr. Blue Marsalis, a bed-ridden geneticists cursed with a rare, incurable disease. Blue's mind is cutting-edge, but her frail body means she has to operate via a cybernetic interface with the station's android, Marcus. How these three personalities interact and cope, particularly once the inevitable excrement hits the proverbial fans, is the crux of Alien: The Cold Forge.

Although White delivers a bevy of Xenomorphic action, it's the human characters that really sold me on this particular novel. There's not a single likable individual in this whole book's cast, and I good and truly dug that. Dorian Sudler is a freaking psychopath, and I was absolutely delighted by the depths of his at-times shocking depravity. Once he learns about Blue's research into the alien lifeforms, his fetishization of the creatures is marvelous to behold. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Blue, whose discovery of a protein injected into victims during the face-hugger stage of impregnation leads her to exploit the Xenomorphs for medical advancement - primarily her own. Ostensibly, Blue is the closest character we have to a heroine in The Cold Forge, and it's mostly by default simply because of how evil and manipulative Sudler is. While she is certainly one tough cookie when push comes to shove, her utter lack of altruism makes her a pretty far cry from Ellen Ripley.

If you're looking brave souls doing heroic and adventurous derring-do in the name of all that's good and holy, you might want to look elsewhere. For me, it's flat-out intriguing to see two monstrous humans stuck in the middle of an alien outbreak and fighting for survival, working to one-up the other in their cat-and-mouse games to not only escape the doomed station but to seek out and destroy one another. Sudler and Blue are both Alphas in their respective fields, and putting them together is like throwing water on super hot oil. Their instant dislike of one another is palpable, and White does a great job keeping us on our toes as to who will eventually make it out on top, and how, given that Blue is so heavily dependent on cybernetic aid. While the Alien property has never been high in humor and upbeat chipperness, there's moments to The Cold Forge that are wonderfully nihilistic, carving out a new level of darkness for such a long-lived property.

In The Cold Forge, Alex White embraces the crossroads of sci-fi horror genres that the Alien property has lived in for so long. There's plenty of medical science, some of which even ties into how the Xenomorphs take on characteristics of the face-hugged hosts they're birthed from (in this case, chimps are the victim du jour), some sci-fi wizardry between Blue and Marcus (as well as a past romances between Blue and Anne, a security officer, whose dalliances with each other were furthered through the use of Marcus's android body, which raises all kinds of other intriguing questions), and a whole lot of horror and gore once things click into high gear. White gives this particular Alien story a score of various and compelling layers that help set it apart from the more traditional franchise fare, and it's all the stronger because of it. He stays true to the spirit of the franchise, but isn't afraid to cut loose and get daring where it truly counts, giving us characters defined by their determination at the expense of everyone else. Bravo, sir!

[Note: I received an advanced copy of this title from Titan Books.]

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Review: Forsaken (Unit 51 Book 2) by Michael McBride

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Forsaken (A Unit 51 Novel)
By Michael McBride
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Genre absolutists will have a field day trying to classifying Forsaken, the second in Michael McBride's Unit 51 series. Like its Subhumanpredecessor, McBride seamlessly blends scientific thrills with plenty of action, globe-hopping adventure, and some moments of delicious horror, all of which add up to a gripping read that's difficult to adequately categorize.

Having spent the bulk of Subhuman slowly unravelling this series's premise with methodical deliberation and stage-setting for the books to follow, McBride drops readers straight into the deep-end in Forsaken. Six months after the startling discoveries beneath the Antarctic research base Atlantis, readers are reunited with the Unit 51 team as the book's core of researchers have returned to their research and explorations. Soon enough, each are drawn back into the thick of things as alien encounters in the Antarctic and the discovery of a buried Mexican temple point toward a common threat, as well as the emergence of a new enemy that may be pining for the end of the world.

It has been a while since I read Subhuman, so it took me a fair bit of time to reconnect with the women and men of Unit 51 and to try and remember who's who. McBride tosses in a lot of characters, a fair number of whom are disposable and make little more than a one-off appearance in order to be killed in various and interesting ways to help shuffle the plot along from point A to point B. This isn't a bad thing, in and of itself, but it does gives the primary members of Unit 51 a sense of imperviousness. While these characters constantly find themselves in peril and get all kinds of banged up along the way, I never really got the impression that they were in mortal danger simply because McBride reserves the bulk of Forsaken's grisly deaths for more minor, tertiary Redshirt characters. Character development is pretty thin and minuscule all around, a complaint I had regarding Subhuman as well, but one that is ultimately pretty low priority for me given how well everything else is done in these books. McBride keeps the pace amped up with kinetic fervor that I ultimately didn't much mind the disposable cardboard cutouts caught up in the mayhem. I was too busy flipping pages to find out what comes next and having myself a grand old time reading.

Despite my inability to connect with any of the characters, I found myself loving Forsaken simply because it's an incredible amount of fun. Fun goes a long way for me, and I can always count on McBride to deliver an entertaining read. Once he hits the halfway mark, Forsaken becomes an incredible actioneer, chockfull of adventure that carries the story along to the finish at a breathless, breakneck pace. The narrative hops between the various Unit 51 crew, ping-ponging between their ordeals in the Antarctic and the simultaneous, violent encounters in Mexico as the researchers explore the booby-trapped temple, and it's at this point that Forsaken becomes impossible to put down. This sucker is a roller-coaster, fueled on adrenaline and gunpowder, and with just as many turns and narrative wrinkles to jostle the car in a number of exciting ways.

Books like the Unit 51 series typically come in two flavors - dumb fun, like Matthew Reilly's Scarecrow books, or propulsive adventures wrapped around scientific plausibilities, like James Rollins's Sigma series. McBride falls in the latter category, exhibiting a rich scientific acumen, medical know-how, and plenty of attention to detail that gives both Unit 51 titles smarts to spare, as well as enough of a real-world pedigree to make the most speculative aspects of the plot wholly convincing.

I also like the fact that the Unit 51 series is shaping up to be a cohesive series. These aren't stand-alone adventures with all new stories for each installment. Unlike the Sigma series, Unit 51 is a legit, and massive, single story being told over multiple books in what I presume will be a trilogy. It's a safe bet a third Unit 51 title will be on the way, and I can guarantee I'll be reading it as soon as I can sink my claws into a copy.

[Note: I received an advanced copy of this title from the author.]

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Review: Aliens: Dead Orbit by James Stokoe

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Aliens: Dead Orbit
By James Stokoe
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Given all the buzz that had surrounded its initial release, I was pretty jazzed to read Aliens: Dead Orbit, written and illustrated by James Stokoe. Unfortunately, this is a pretty disappointing exercise all around, and one that's utterly derivative of the source material it's licensed from.

Stokoe doesn't try to reinvent the wheel here, but nor does he try to do anything original or fresh. Dead Orbit is an utterly by-the-book Alien story that often times feels more like a game of swapsies. Trade in the Sulaco for a Weyland-Yutani space station with only six inhabitants responding to a passing ship's distress call, and you pretty well know where it's all headed from here. Our team of orbiters find three humans in cryo and, after nearly accidentally killing all of them in a coolant leak while reawakening them, transport the bodies back to their space station. It's all cut-and-paste Alien 101 stuff from there.

Besides being an Alien clone, Stokoe attempts to gives the story a bit of fresh polish by basing much of the story in flashback. This technique is a bit jolting and clumsily handled initially, with little in the way of segue to transition readers into what's happening, but as you grow accustomed to Stokoe's storytelling methods it does serve to keep reader's on their toes, oftentimes jarringly so. The grand finale gets a bit muddled and confusing, though, as you're dropped in and out dual climaxes in the story's recent past and lone survivor present. While it's not entirely disappointing, and Stokoe does create a few neat story beats, it's nothing that hasn't been done plenty of times before.

I also was not a fan of Stokoe's artwork, although plenty of other readers and reviewers seem to have found a lot to like on this front. I found it anime influences too garish and messy, with faces composed oddly enough to make many of the characters look unintentionally disfigured. I prefer a cleaner style, and Stokoe's lines just didn't work for me. His cover art for the individual four-issue run, however, did present some exciting concepts and beautiful artwork that I quite admired. He does do fine job in recreating the gritty industrial aspects of the Alien universe though, and while his artwork isn't pretty to look at it, it does lend a certain tension and unease to the proceedings.

Despite the critical raves surrounding Dead Orbit, it's ultimately not a work I would recommend. I just have too many reservations about the story, its execution, and presentation.

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Review: Apocalypse Nyx by Kameron Hurley

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Apocalypse Nyx
By Kameron Hurley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Apocalypse Nyx is exactly the kind of science fiction I like - it's dark, violent, and has, at its core, a deeply flawed heroine who is hard as steel and has whiskey running through her veins. Nyx is a gal that sees few problems that can't be solved with her scattergun, and is always a hairsbreadth away from cutting off all ties with those that work for her and, if she were a more emotionally accessible and less war-wounded woman, people she might even call friends if she were drunk enough. Nyx is rugged and mean, and this collection from Kameron Hurley serves as a wonderful introduction to the former assassin turned ultra-violent problem solver, particularly if, like me, you haven't read the Bel Dame Apocrypha series proper.

I believe most, if not all, of the stories collected within Apocalypse Nyx were initially written and published for Hurley's Patreon supporters prior to their publication by Tachyon in this single volume. Gathered here are five stories set within the original Bel Dame Apocrypha, but which do not require any prior reading. You might get more out of these stories, or welcome a reintroduction to Nyx and her world, if you've been following this character previously but it's also highly accessible to newcomers.

The world Hurley has created here is as intense as it is interesting. The alien desert world Nyx inhabits is caught up in perpetual war, and Nasheenians like her are drafted to fight against their rival, darker-skinned Chenjans. The ruling body is highly matriarchal, but also heavily influenced by Muslim doctrine, with daily routine calls for prayer and a plethora of masques. On the technology front, bugs are king. Society has adapted to and grown reliant on insect-based tech - beetles are ground up to power vehicles, and form a communications network based on pheromones and body colors. Even the bullet casings and walls are rooted in creative uses of various bug life.

Story-wise, Apocalypse Nyx has a welcoming stand-alone episodic structure to it (quick, somebody call Netflix!). Although the various jobs and missions Nyx and her crew take in order to stay solvent are unrelated, taken as a whole there is a decent, if minor, character arc at play binding these stories together. I suspect there's a deeper arc to Nyx across the main trilogy, but I also kind of suspect that Nyx may be too violent, introverted, alcoholic, and deeply set in her ways to grow too much. Besides, she's more interesting without the happily ever after, at least in this volume, and Nyx is the type of character that it's hard to even imagine a happy ending for anyway.

I've been wanting to read about Nyx for quite a long while now, but somehow never made room for her. I happy to have finally corrected that with Apocalypse Nyx, and I now feel a greater urgency in exploring the trilogy of novels focusing on her. After this book and Hurley's prior release, The Stars Are Legion, if I've learned anything it's that from here on out all new releases from Kameron Hurley are to automatically move to the top of my mountain of TBRs. Count me among the number of faithful converts, because I am officially a fan of Nyx. This lady is one serious bad-ass.

[Note: I received an advanced copy of this title from the publisher via NetGalley.]

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