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Monday, July 21, 2014

Divergence

I always find it interesting to learn what people actively hate about about a book or story. Here are two reviews of two award-nominated stories that illustrate the vast divide in the SF/F community today. First, Scooter reviews "If You Were A Dinosaur, My Love":
There comes a point in the evolution of any intelligent species where it develops the ability to destroy itself. Mankind arrived at this danger point in 1945 with the invention of the atomic bomb. The science-fiction and fantasy community has now reached the same apocalyptic milestone with Rachel Swirsky’s invention of the dino-porn revenge fantasy tale.  While nukes can merely bomb mankind back to the stone age, “If You Were A Dinosaur, My Love” threatens to blast the credibility of the fantasy genre all the way back to the Cretaceous. 

The story itself, however, never takes us to a place so exotic. Instead, the narrator of this 966-word Hugo-nominated flash fiction story has an extended monologue imagining her husband as a five foot ten T-Rex who becomes a Broadway singer and hangs out in pool halls. From this description, and the ridiculous title, one might expect the piece to be a parody of the inter-species romance trope found primarily in fan-fic. In a way, that’s exactly what we get.  In overwrought pseudo-poetic prose, the narrator envisions feeding her lizard-lover a live-goat, serenading him with lullabies, and jealousy presiding at his wedding to a genetically engineered dino.  At one point the narrator even inexplicably transforms into a flower. 

Underlying all the silliness is an attempt at profundity so inept that Swisky manages to unintentionally exploit the silliness of the premise and deliver on the chuckles. The titular therapod of the story turns out to be a paleontologist who was beaten into a coma by a bunch of generic bigots shouting generic epithets for generic reasons. The narrator is reimagining her weak hubbie as an alpha dinosaur with the carnivorous capability to enact revenge against his attackers.    

“If you were a dinosaur, my love, I’d teach you the scents of those men. I’d lead you to them quietly, oh so quietly. Still, they would see you. They’d run. Your nostrils would flare as you inhaled the night and then, with the suddenness of a predator, you’d strike. I’d watch as you decanted their lives—the flood of red; the spill of glistening, coiled things—and I’d laugh, laugh, laugh.”

The power of short fiction hinges primarily on a strong ending:  a good punchline, a sudden reversal, or anything that packs an emotional wallop. In that respect, Swirsky does not disappoint. Her climax finally answers the two questions the reader has been asking since the beginning:  how in the hell is this considered a fantasy story, and why has it been nominated for a Hugo? The answer is that Swirsky has redefined the entire fantasy genre. Fantasy does not need to have internal consistency; the only requirement is that it be set in “a world of magic where anything [is] possible”. In other words, it doesn’t have to make a lick of sense. 

Forget world-building. Forget character development. Forget that limitations make a story more interesting. Now a Hugo-nominated fantasy story can just be someone’s weird daydream – about anything whatsoever – so long as it contains clichés that fit into the culturally approved narrative. To her credit, the bestiality in the story is – if not impossible – at least dimly recognized as unideal. But it’s her new insight – that details are not important to storytelling – which promises to be the pink sci-fi/fantasy equivalent of the atomic bomb. Perhaps Swirsky will one day look upon the devastation wrought upon the genre’s readership, and like Oppenheimer, misquote the Baghavad Gita:  “I am become Dinosaur Porn, Destroyer of Fantasy Worlds.”
On the other hand, Justin A. Bacon thinks just as poorly of "Opera Vita Aeterna":
Easily one of the worst pieces of fiction I’ve read lately. The “world-building” consists of thinly veiling the Catholic Church by inconsistently swapping out the names and terminology and then slapping in some magic-wielding elves. (You might think that magic-wielding elves would have some sort of meaningful impact on the beliefs or teachings of the Church, but they don’t.) The “plot” would be stretched thin on a very short story, but it takes a truly prodigious amount of “talent” to stretch it over the length of a novelette: An elf shows up at a not-Catholic monastery and says, “I killed your missionary. Now I’d like to stay here and study your God.” He decides to stay for several decades while he single-handedly illuminates an entire copy of the not-Bible by himself. This is interrupted by a single scene in which he asks the head of the monastery a question about his religious faith, prompting the head of the monastery to respond by literally cribbing Thomas Aquinas at interminable length. No one in the monastery has their faith or their lives remotely affected by the elf. The elf leaves for a bit and everyone in the monastery is brutally killed by some other elves. Then the elf yells at a statue of not-Jesus Christ.

It’s not so much a story as it is a train wreck of bad writing, bad plotting, bad world-building, and bad characterization.
Both reviewers have clearly read the stories they are reviewing; these are not fake reviews. But what is interesting is that both of them think so poorly of stories that others think very well of. Are the differences purely ideological or is there more to it? I tend to suspect the latter; it might be informative to know what Mr. Bacon thinks of "If You Were A Dinosaur, My Love" and what Scooter thinks of "Opera Vita Aeterna".

NB: I don't think it is fair to criticize Bacon's lack of awareness of the impact of the magic-wielding elves on the beliefs of the Church since he clearly hasn't read Summa Elvetica and what is actually there in "Opera" is pretty subtle. On the other hand, it is fair to observe that if he thinks everyone in the monastery was killed by "some other elves", he was not reading very closely.

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57 Comments:

Blogger Tom July 21, 2014 9:18 AM  

Hey Vox, when is the next installment of that not story coming out? I want to know if a not Roman legion can stand up to a charge by a group of not Medieval French knights.

Blogger Mr.MantraMan July 21, 2014 9:29 AM  

Wasn't Swisky's story based on a real life butt whooping her male counterpart took on her behalf? If so were the alleged perps men of color? And using left logic creating an allegory like she did is it possible she is a vile "racist?" If so is there a place for her at the SFWA?

Anonymous Apollo July 21, 2014 9:36 AM  

Whats the source of the Scooter review? I like the cut of his jib - that review is certainly much more entertaining than the piece its written about.

Anonymous Salt July 21, 2014 9:39 AM  

Bacon did catch Thomas Aquinas. There is that.

Anonymous VD July 21, 2014 9:42 AM  

Bacon did catch Thomas Aquinas. There is that.

Probably because he reads this blog. It's not a literal cribbing, which means he doesn't actually know Aquinas.

Anonymous VD July 21, 2014 9:43 AM  

Whats the source of the Scooter review?

He emailed it to me. He's going to be joining the blog crew at Castalia.

Blogger Crowhill July 21, 2014 9:44 AM  

I'm wondering if Amazon free days are an invitation to bad reviews, because people who wouldn't normally read the book (maybe it's normally not their thing) download it, then don't like it, then post a bad review.

Anonymous Loki Sjalfsainn July 21, 2014 9:44 AM  

...Odd, my comment has vanished. Ah well, I shall repeat myself. No one has yet accused me of hating the sound of my own voice.

Bacon must be a great hater of fantasy works in general, for it is fairly common to pattern the dominant religion of the medieval-Europe analogue after Catholicism. Indeed, it is a time-honoured tradition.

Or, perhaps, does he merely hate Christianity and desires that it be erased from human awareness?

Blogger James Dixon July 21, 2014 9:57 AM  

> It’s not so much a story as it is a train wreck of bad writing, bad plotting, bad world-building, and bad characterization.

If the world building, plotting, and writing were that bad, he wouldn't have been able to follow the story as well as he did.

Blogger Nate July 21, 2014 10:15 AM  

wait... how am I supposed to take a reviewer seriously that says the elf's presence had no effect on anyone at the monastery... when the elf's presence at the monastery was the impetus that caused the writing of one of the foundational theological works in the whole religious world?

I can cut some folks some slack. The fact is the story is far more powerful if you've read the other works. If you know who Bessarius is and what he has done and what he is capable of...then the story means a great deal more. And if you have read Summa then you know how the presence of Elves and their magic has impacted the church and the story is again far more impactful.

Anonymous Stilicho July 21, 2014 10:30 AM  

That is probably the fairest of the negative reviews of OVA I've seen (admittedly a low bar). Sure, it's somewhat derivative in that it draws ideas heavily from other, earlier works, but does Tolkien. For that matter, so does every significant work. If a story does not build on what went before, it typically lacks context and meaning for the reader. And that difference between building on foundations laid by others and being a cut-and-paste artist is an enormous gulf that requires actual talent to cross.

Anonymous YIH July 21, 2014 10:34 AM  

"If You Were A Dinosaur, My Love"; When I saw just the title alone as a nominee the first thing that came to mind was ''are you eff'in serious?''.
I give you credit Vox, after doing a search for that post: ''I give you the obvious frontrunner for the 2014 Hugo Award!'' you knocked that one out the park!
Just from what I've seen from your writeup and others on the subject (and those ridiculous covers) kudos go out to Scooter, someone had to go wading through that literary septic tank to dig up that gem of a review.

Anonymous hygate July 21, 2014 10:42 AM  

I think Bacon is just pissed off that you set the Catholic Church in a fantasy setting.

It is clearly not "not the Catholic Church." It is the Catholic Church recast into a fantasy setting.

And what is the "cribbing" complaint about other than grouchiness that the Church has answers when questioned? Is each believer supposed to come up with an original, logically consistent answer each time they are questioned about the tenants of their faith?

I am reminded of debating an atheist online who finally dismissed me with devastating logic that I, "had an answer for everything."

Anonymous Porky July 21, 2014 10:42 AM  

how in the hell is this considered a fantasy story

Umm...because it is her fantasy?

...and why has it been nominated for a Hugo?

Because it is a groundbreaking, seminal work.

But it’s her new insight – that details are not important to storytelling – which promises to be the pink sci-fi/fantasy equivalent of the atomic bomb.

Stream of consciousness is not new, and the literary world didn't explode when James Joyce employed it. But it is unusual to find it in a short story.

Personally, I thought it was very effective. There is no more honest look into the mind of a feminist writer than a stream of consciousness portrayal of her most twisted, violent, and disturbed fantasies. This story is a window into the fallen human condition. Swirsky has not merely broadcast a trainwreck, she has cut the police tape and allowed us to walk around inside the smoldering wreckage while giving us a guided tour on why she derailed the train.

MOAR DINOPORN!

Blogger Pat July 21, 2014 10:46 AM  

I normally do not comment on blogs, but I felt somehow compelled to say something here. I gave up reading short fiction several years ago, mostly because short forms did not give me enough "bang-for-the-buck" of my valuable reading time. But also because most short fiction, esp. in the speculative fiction (SF) genre has become dreadful. Case in point is “If You Were A Dinosaur, My Love”; how this piece of dreck got published, much less nominated for a Hugo, is a truely WTF moment for short form SF. Compared to say Roger Zelazny's "A Rose for Ecclesiastes" or Gordon R. Dickson's "Soldier, Ask Not".

Anonymous Anonymous July 21, 2014 11:11 AM  

Maybe it's just me, but if I were going to write a very negative review, I'd try to find something positive to say about the book so it wouldn't just look like a hit-piece. After all, someone liked it, so I could figure out what others liked about it and discuss that, if only to disagree with them. If I couldn't honestly do that, I'd try to make it humorous or tie it to a larger point about the genre or something, as the first reviewer does here.

When a review, like the second one, boils down to: "This book is bad. Really, really bad and terrible in every way. Did I mention that it's bad?" it's hard to take that seriously. Tell me you don't like it and tell me why, but don't tell me it's impossible to like it. That just makes me look for your real motive; and in this case, I have to agree with others who suspect he didn't like seeing a stand-in for the Church portrayed positively. Or it was just a standard hit-piece done a bit better than most.

Blogger Krul July 21, 2014 11:16 AM  

I just now read "If You Were A Dinosaur, My Love".

Surely I'm not the first one to notice that, stylistically, it's a clear ripoff of If You Give A Mouse A Cookie.

Anonymous Loki Sjalfsainn July 21, 2014 11:26 AM  

Well, Krul, ascended fanfiction is all the rage these days. See, for instance, Fifty Shades of Grey and the Mortal Instruments series.

Anonymous jack July 21, 2014 11:31 AM  

@YIH kudos go out to Scooter, someone had to go wading through that literary septic tank to dig up that gem of a review.

Indeed! I would like to welcome Scooter to the line up over at Castalia; from his review of that strange, Hugo nominated, waste of good computer processing time, and, the horror, even paper, he will be an entertaining addition. Looking to his future reviews.

Anonymous zen0 July 21, 2014 11:32 AM  

Stream of consciousness is not new, and the literary world didn't explode when James Joyce employed it.

That was the syphilis talking.

Anonymous patrick kelly July 21, 2014 11:37 AM  

There, that'll show Vox, bet he's so butt-hurt he'll suck down purple umbrella drinks watching world cup replays for days......

Wonder what Bacon thinks about the negative portrayal of the parallel Christianity in the 60's "Planet of The Apes". Hmm.... I don't remember if that was in the original book "Monkey Planet" by some French guy. Been a while, was still in elementary school when I read it.`

Anonymous patrick kelly July 21, 2014 11:44 AM  

Vox, any inspiration from "Canticle for Leibowitz" in your writing? I think it was on one of your list of books you liked. Interesting post-apocalyptic vision of the RCC in that one....mostly monks in monasteries, which serve as an oasis of refuge IIRC....

Sorry, I haven't read any of yours yet. Have not been reading much other than this blog or where the links lead me lately. Have a few started hard copies of books I need to finish laying all over my coffee table....and code....lots of code.......mostly mine......and what I steal from others.....

Anonymous Porky July 21, 2014 11:59 AM  

zen0, try to be civil.

Blogger James Dixon July 21, 2014 12:10 PM  

> zen0, try to be civil.

With respect to Joyce? That was civil.

Anonymous cheddarman July 21, 2014 12:22 PM  

"Hey Vox, when is the next installment of that not story coming out? I want to know if a not Roman legion can stand up to a charge by a group of not Medieval French knights." - Tom

If it was an early not Legion in the not Roman Empire, the Triarri could make a not Wellington Square around the not Velites and not Hastatti, a later not Roman Legion could form a hedgehog defense behind shields and pilia

If the not roman Legion were brave and disciplined enough to hold together, it would probably work, and the not Roman Legion could counterattack by throwing pilia or javelins at the cavalry

Anonymous PV July 21, 2014 12:28 PM  

Out of morbid curiosity I googled "If You Were A Dinosaur, My Love" and learned two things: The authoress is really fat and the things she wish to gain from having her lardy lover turn into a dinosaur could be more easily gotten by having him buy a gun.

Anonymous Michael Maier July 21, 2014 12:37 PM  

Great, PV... now you've got me wanting Jurrassic Park to be real so I can go Dino Hunting.

Anonymous Josh July 21, 2014 12:53 PM  

Roughly what percentage of pink sff is about the author having revenge on the people who were mean in high school? 50%? Higher?

Anonymous Loki Sjalfsainn July 21, 2014 12:54 PM  

Great, PV... now you've got me wanting Jurrassic Park to be real so I can go Dino Hunting.

An amusing titbit, on that subject, and on the subject of why your species was made to be ruled.

Blogger Joshua Dyal July 21, 2014 1:03 PM  

wait... how am I supposed to take a reviewer seriously that says the elf's presence had no effect on anyone at the monastery... when the elf's presence at the monastery was the impetus that caused the writing of one of the foundational theological works in the whole religious world?

I can cut some folks some slack. The fact is the story is far more powerful if you've read the other works. If you know who Bessarius is and what he has done and what he is capable of...then the story means a great deal more. And if you have read Summa then you know how the presence of Elves and their magic has impacted the church and the story is again far more impactful.


It's clearly the story's weakest element; that it depends too much on context from other works. Without that context, the whole affair becomes a big shrug-worthy; it's not really very clear who these people are, why they're important, or even why they're doing what they're doing.

I think his comments are more or less fair for someone who doesn't have any additional Selenoth context. Not saying that I agree with them completely, but I do certainly think that they're fair complaints.

It's just a little bit harder to take them seriously because of the tone of the review. Fair complaints hidden in a hit piece tend to get shorter shrift than fair complaints in a piece that doesn't have the tone of a hit piece.

Anonymous joe doakes July 21, 2014 1:20 PM  

Bacon complains monks are thinly disguised Catholics so therefore Vox is a crappy writer. Okay, what about Shepherd Book, who just got out of Southdown Abbey to meet Mal Reynolds who used to wore a Christian cross before he lost his faith in God in the war, are their religion the reason why Firefly sucked? What about the Bene Gesserit sisters, are they thinly disguised Catholic nuns, is that why Dune was so bad? Monastic communities are so often used in science fiction there's an Amazon Forum called "Monks in Science Fiction" for crying out loud.

For many of us, science fiction is about looking at ordinary humans and asking "what if?" What if an ordinary schmuck living in London invented a working time machine, what would he do with it? What if an ambitious kid who wanted to go to the moon, was kidnapped by aliens and taken there, what would he do about it? The science fiction element - be it a light sabre, mind-focusing lens or cave full of mysterious gas in the Arizona desert - is just a plot device that lets us examine how ordinary human beings would act with that device. The best stories are the ones that explore humanity, not the ones with the weirdest whiz-bangs..

Anonymous patrick kelly July 21, 2014 1:25 PM  

OT: ISSISMarkingChristians

Blogger John Wright July 21, 2014 1:26 PM  

I am puzzled by one thing. Out of curiosity, I read the Dinosaur short story. (http://www.apex-magazine.com/if-you-were-a-dinosaur-my-love/) Both you and the reviewer you quote refer to it as 'dinosaur porn' and he mentions bestiality.
But in the text there is no mention of any sexual contact between the woman and her dinosaur, merely that she brushes its teeth and sings it a lullaby.

What is being called porn and bestiality here? Am I merely being too literal? Or is there a line where the two copulate which I did not see? (I am not willing to reread it to discover: I am hoping you will merely tell me)

Anonymous joe doakes July 21, 2014 1:39 PM  

And another thing . . . Bacon is upset about magic-wielding elves; apparently he thinks they're too common, too trite for good writing. He's an idiot.

No fantasy writer starts with a blank slate. Every fantasy reader already knows about elves: short Christmas elves who help Santa, tall slender elves who help hobbits, Hogwarts house elves, Narnia princess elves, Dungeons and Dragon elves, and also other fantasy creatures that act like elves: the fairies in Spenser or in Midsummer Night Dream or Peter Pan, or Darby O'Gill's leprechauns. They all have magic powers. We expect it of them. A writer who describes a tall, solemn, long-lived, super-strong, mind-reading elf with pointed ears but no magic powers isn't describing an elf . . that's a Vulcan and every reader already knows all about them, too.

The challenge is not to create a new fantasy entity. The challenge is to toss an existing one into an existing human society and see how they interact. Only Jesuits would seriously debate whether elves have souls and whether it matters. That's the joy of the fantasy world Vox created, that Bacon is missing.
.

Blogger James Dixon July 21, 2014 1:55 PM  

> What is being called porn and bestiality here?

Simply because it falls into that general category of fiction.

See http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/02/dinosaur-erotica_n_4032092.html for some details and http://www.amazon.com/Taken-T-Rex-Dinosaur-Erotica-Christie-ebook/dp/B00FI9JFFO for one of the more prominent examples.

Blogger James Dixon July 21, 2014 2:00 PM  

> I think his comments are more or less fair for someone who doesn't have any additional Selenoth context.

Well, except for the fact that his concluding statement doesn't follow from any of his complaints, yes. If he had simply stated that he found the work too derivative, with characters that didn't appeal to him, and that he simply didn't see the point of the plot; then the review would have been fair.

Anonymous VD July 21, 2014 2:18 PM  

What is being called porn and bestiality here? Am I merely being too literal?

Because it is hilariously near to something I declared last October to be the frontrunner for the Hugo Award this year. Reality is very rapidly approaching parody.

Blogger Feather Blade July 21, 2014 2:27 PM  

Because it is a groundbreaking, seminal work.

Sexist! How dare you apply such an androcentric term to a woman's literary work!

Anonymous Porphyry July 21, 2014 2:55 PM  

Vox, just make sure they dont find out you had a wolf, demon, witchking, cat-demon, wolf-demon love pentangle in your own book, or they might start liking your work.

Anonymous Don July 21, 2014 3:20 PM  

Porphyry - I think there was something like that in the Last Witchking IIRC there's some animal-demon/human sex. Does that count?

Anonymous Don July 21, 2014 3:21 PM  

Porphyry I failed reading comprehension again. Never type with a migraine.

Blogger Joshua Dyal July 21, 2014 3:42 PM  

Well, except for the fact that his concluding statement doesn't follow from any of his complaints, yes. If he had simply stated that he found the work too derivative, with characters that didn't appeal to him, and that he simply didn't see the point of the plot; then the review would have been fair.

Well, yeah--like I said. The review has the tone of a hit piece, which makes it easy to dismiss his complaints. But if you can separate the complaints from the tone, they're not totally unfair complaints.

Blogger Quadko July 21, 2014 3:46 PM  

...more easily gotten by having him buy a gun.
Lefties laud lefties who dream of inflicting violence, but hyperventilate over righties doing the same thing. Imagine that. They depend upon and demand civilization and civility from their opponents, but don't feel constrained themselves.

Blogger James Dixon July 21, 2014 3:54 PM  

> But if you can separate the complaints from the tone, they're not totally unfair complaints.

Yes, but doing so makes it clear that the complaints are subjective. Can't have that you know. No, no; you must make it clear that the work has no redeeming qualities that anyone whatsoever would like.

Blogger Anthony July 21, 2014 4:09 PM  

I liked OVÆ, but I haven't read any of the other Selenoth works. It clearly feels like a piece of a greater whole, which the reviewer missed. As a standalone story, there's too much missing. Some of the review's complaints are fair, if that's the way your tastes run. Bad characterization is not a fair complaint - the whole setting is window dressing for the internal lives of the characters.

Anonymous Porphyry July 21, 2014 4:19 PM  

"Porphyry I failed reading comprehension again. Never type with a migraine." Dont worry about it. For some reason the worse any particular headache I have is, the more I have a desire to post views online. It seems like you have a similar problem.

Anonymous Logo July 21, 2014 5:09 PM  

He's going to be joining the blog crew at Castalia.

Scooter is clearly a capable and skilled wordsmith, his writing is literate, witty, and crammed with clever consonances, awesome alliterations.

As I read it I wondered, this man has too much skill to not write something else, but where can I read more?

Well now I know.

The Castalia blog is superb. You've assembled a real winning team there, the major problem thus far being that days can go by there without a new post. But with the addition of Scooter, that problem should be mitigated, in part. Good news, all around.

Anonymous Pellegri July 21, 2014 5:16 PM  

Personally, I thought it was very effective. There is no more honest look into the mind of a feminist writer than a stream of consciousness portrayal of her most twisted, violent, and disturbed fantasies. This story is a window into the fallen human condition. Swirsky has not merely broadcast a trainwreck, she has cut the police tape and allowed us to walk around inside the smoldering wreckage while giving us a guided tour on why she derailed the train.

I was about to be alarmed by this but then got to the punchline and smiled.

Well-played, Porky. (And very close to my own thoughts on the matter.)

Anonymous VD July 21, 2014 6:48 PM  

The Castalia blog is superb. You've assembled a real winning team there, the major problem thus far being that days can go by there without a new post. But with the addition of Scooter, that problem should be mitigated, in part. Good news, all around.

Thanks, we're trying to fill it out so we've got 7 days per week covered with at least one quality blogger. But it takes time.

Anonymous Don July 21, 2014 7:31 PM  

Vox Markku, can't get into CH from here. Gives me a 502 error.

Anonymous Anonymous July 21, 2014 7:35 PM  

Correction: it's Bhagavad Gita

Anonymous Freddy Foreshadowing July 21, 2014 8:34 PM  

This leads to the question: WHY THE HELL WOULD YOU NOMINATE A WORK THAT PRACTICALLY REQUIRES THAT YOU READ SUMMA ELVETICA TO ENJOY?

Blogger James Dixon July 21, 2014 9:57 PM  

> WHY THE HELL WOULD YOU NOMINATE A WORK THAT PRACTICALLY REQUIRES THAT YOU READ SUMMA ELVETICA TO ENJOY?

Why don't you ask the people who nominated it?

Blogger Michael Maier July 21, 2014 10:11 PM  

@ Fucktard Freddy:

It doesn't... you utterly moronic moronosity of a moron.

Anonymous The other skeptic July 21, 2014 11:02 PM  

WHY THE HELL WOULD YOU NOMINATE A WORK THAT PRACTICALLY REQUIRES THAT YOU READ SUMMA ELVETICA TO ENJOY?

Well, Freddy Child Fondler, it doesn't.

Blogger automatthew July 21, 2014 11:15 PM  

Hey, at least he didn't say "begs the question".

Blogger Herb Nowell July 25, 2014 9:57 AM  

Justin did If You Were A Dinosaur My Love (caught up with my reader last night and saw it).

I list I'm pretty sure Justin Alexander at The Alexandrian is the same person as Justin A. Bacon given the reviews of Opera Vita Aeterna are the same.

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