Fifth Season: recap

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We''ve now got a week before starting on The Obelisk Gate. I included the recap weeks in case we needed some slack to make up time, and to give people a chance to reflect on the book as a whole, rather than looking at chapter by chapter.

Here are some questions to start some discussion.

Is this a good book?

There are a few definitions of "good". Use which ones you want.

  • Is it engaging and fun to read?
  • It is well-crafted (use of language, rich characters, etc.)?
  • Does it have something important to say?

Is it a graphic novel?

The book's had some criticism for its inconsistent world-building and events happening as plot contrivances. That's led to people saying the book is more like a graphic novel than a traditional novel. Yet we've read some ripping yarns here in the past: Hiero's Journey and Venetian Masque spring to mind as books with rather ludicrous plots; those books didn't receive this criticism. What's different about The Fifth Season compared to those other books?

The Obelisk Gate

Are you looking forward to the next books? What do you think will happen?

The gaming question

Your friends ask you to run a "Fifth Season" game. What important element from the book would you include? What system would you use? When and where would you set it?

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Comments

  • 1

    Good questions, overall.

    Is this a good book? I gave this 3 stars on Goodreads, which means 'I liked it' according to their ranking system. I only gave it three because I'm projecting forward to a point where all this is done and looking back on the book. I'm expecting to learn to appreciate this book more through out discussions, and by reading that article I previously mentioned about the layered themes. If I was being honest about my present feeling, though, it's only 2-stars ('It was OK).

    It is well crafted? Yes and no. For the most part I like the writing and I think it's competent - until it starts to engage in 'cheap writer tricks' like one-word sentences for emphasis and repetition. I don't think I'm normally against this in the right circumstances, but I'm finding it clumsy in terms of execution in this novel. I'm finding it difficult to relate to the characters, and as we've discussed the setting is paper thin - just enough to serve the plot. The characters are almost universally unlikable to me, and not tremendously well drawn, so I don't care much what happens to them in the long run. However, the setting is quite unique and unlike anything I've seen in print before, so kudos for originality.

    Does it have something important to say? It has a lot of lessons about inclusivity and respect for others, and I do think those things are work saying. However, my impression is that it's rather heavy-handed and transparent in it implementation of this (it feels very author-driven, not character- or events-driver), so my feelings are mixed. Also, writing a novel to tackle these themes seems a bit of a cliche these days. But maybe my white privilege is showing? 🤐

    Is it a graphic novel? I totally agree with this assessment. And, as a general rule, I'm not that fond of graphic novels - they don't scratch my literary itches.

    How is it different from, say, Hiero's Journey or Venetian Masque?
    Hiero's Jounrey had much more thought put into the setting (which was also creative) and less put into the story (which wasn't that well conceived. I actually think they are comparable books in may ways - so for me the main difference is that Hiero's Journey wasn't up for a hugo, whereas The Broken Earth Trilogy won three of them. So what's different? The Broken Earth is vastly overrrated, but Hiero's Journey wasn't. As for the Venetian Masque, I think it was better all-round. The plot was intricate, the characters interesting from what I remember.

    What am I looking forward to in Obelisk Gate? I looking forward to the series showing it was worthy or the rewards, and I;m interested in see what's revealed once the fog lifts on a few things. I don't care much what happens to any of the characters, nor the the world (a world without ordinary people, as I've mentioned before).

    What would I do if some friends asked me to GM this? We'll, Id' honestly tell them to find someone else. That's not a very satisfying answer, though. For the sake of argument, I'd probably look to a system no more complex that Fate, and something versatile and less work for the GM (who doesn't care for this setting any more than the author does). Maybe I'd give PDQ a chance, or fall back on something more familiar like Barbarians of Lemuria, which feels well suited to this setting. In fact, I'm quite sure that's how I'd do it - BOL all the way.

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    I guess a lot of my thoughts on this are pretty clear by now. The book would have been hugely improved for me by just casting it as a graphic novel. Let me take The Trigan Empire as a parallel. The diversity of setting is striking, and the design foregrounds the heroic or villainous actions of the characters. This would work just as well for The Fifth Season. As an example from the previous discussion, I think the battle scene at Meov would have been brilliant in graphic form. So would the underground comm. And the consistency issues would have been sidelined - when I read The Trigan Empire, I am not in the slightest bothered by the abruptness with which bronze age swordsmen are suddenly able to fly supersonic aeroplanes, hovercraft, or space rockets. It just goes with the flamboyance of the mode. I definitely feel the same here - if I had read this book as graphic novel, I would have enjoyed the crazy juxtaposition of contrasts, appreciated the good and wicked characters, delighted in seeing multicolour obelisks float over the ground, and not been bothered by the flimsiness of setting and other such things. But The Trigan Empire would, and (I believe) The Fifth Season does suffer from being forced into the written word.

    I also think (oddly enough) that I would have enjoyed this book more as a quick read - I suspect that I'd have flicked through it quite quickly, skated over the things I've already talked about, and not tripped up on them. But reading in slow mode has left ample opportunity to ponder, look back and review, and generally keep having "no, surely that can't be right" thoughts. Salmon thoughts intrude (and one of the great take-homes of this book has been the salmon metaphor!).

    I confess to not liking NK Jemisin's writing style - like @Apocryphal I find her too intrusive as author, with the artificial breaking up of thoughts and lines, one word sentences, attempted presentation of stream of consciousness and so on. I'd like it better if she got out of the way more and put character / plot / setting more up front. I don't find her a good storyteller, and keep feeling that given the imaginative scope of the world (which is undoubtedly there) it should have been possible to write a much better book. There are some clever bits tying together early and later parts of the book, but I don't find her use of language to be engaging.

    is it important? I guess so - but I feel sure others have tackled the prejudice theme better.

    I can't say that anything in the book has stirred me emotionally - which considering the appalling wreck that has been made of Damaya's life through the years we have been witness to, is rather horrific. Ursula LeGuin can make the simple assertion of someone's true name into a sentence that makes me cry every time I read it: NK Jemisin doesn't seem able to do that despite all the murder, abuse, and so on that the young girl who we meet at the start has suffered.

    I'm afraid I haven't run a game for decades so (unlike @Apocryphal) would have the perfect excuse to say "please find someone else" :)

    [Spoiler alert - the following paragraph is definitely not a shoot-the-messenger statement, and @NeilNjae I think that you have done a magnificent job of guiding our discussions. And in any case we all picked this book as a group choice, myself included.]

    And so to the big question... am I looking forward to the next book? I'd have to say no. If I'd picked up The Fifth Season from a shelf and read it for myself, I would simply not bother to get The Obelisk Gate. Since we're reading it as a group, I definitely will read on, but it's out of respect and appreciation for the group endeavour (which as mentioned I have very much enjoyed) and not because I have any expectation that the book itself will appeal. In fact, stronger than that: I am expecting it to disappoint and frustrate. I am certainly not going to speculate what might happen in terms of plot or such like.

    For me this would be a 3* book, which in my system means "I finished it, but I cannot imagine ever reading it again"... it's rare for me to give anything less than 4*, though I appreciate this is not quite the same as the way Goodreads (and @Apocryphal) measure things.

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    @RichardAbbott said:
    For me this would be a 3* book, which in my system means "I finished it, but I cannot imagine ever reading it again"... it's rare for me to give anything less than 4*, though I appreciate this is not quite the same as the way Goodreads (and @Apocryphal) measure things.

    What kind of books warrant 1 and 2 stars in your system?

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    > @Apocryphal said:
    > (Quote)
    > What kind of books warrant 1 and 2 stars in your system?

    I don't ever use them... in such a case I wouldn't have finished the book, so couldn't be sure it didn't startlingly improve at some point. Also it's out of a kind of solidarity with authors... somebody has spent a decent amount of time creating it, and even if I thought it was total rubbish I'd rather say nothing than be brutal about it.
  • 1

    Again, I am with @Apocryphal and @RichardAbbott - I think I like the book a bit more than Richard and a bit less than Apocryphal. I too think the problems with this book are accentuated by the slow-read. I am astonished it won the Hugo! The author has the subtlety of a jackhammer, and even though I politically agree with her, I find her exhausting - but she is wildly inventive. I also despise the main characters, and don't care what happens to them. I also probably would not read the next book - if I finished this one - if we weren't group reading it. I am old and dislike wasting my limited time on earth.

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    These comments raise the question: should we continue with the Broken Earth slow read? It seems few, if any, have really enjoyed the book. From what I remember, the other books are more of the same.

    Is it time to stop?

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    That's a tough call - if I was just reading this for myself, I'd probably bail on the series (and the author, I think) here. Bit it's not like I actively dislike the book - it's not hard to read or anything, just not that compelling. In a pro-con analysis, this is where I end up:

    Pros:
    1. Interesting high concept. This is the one thing pulling me further into the series, in that I'd like to see how the concept itself resolves (including what the moon has to do with it). However, I figure the odds are only 50/50 that I'll like how she resolves this concept. In her afterword in the print version of the first book, she describes how she was led to this idea by attending a NASA seminar for authors in which she was encouraged to apply science to her science-fiction - but she readily acknowledges she probably let those people down. So my own hopes are not high, though I remain morbidly curious.
    2. Really interesting discussions, as we've had for all the long reads so far. In fact, these are our best discussions, I think.
    3. I already bought all the books and I'm a completist by nature. I know that's not a great reason.

    Cons:
    1. The writing is mostly competent but sometimes annoying.
    2. The characters are not very interesting or likeable.
    3. The world-building is weak. The setting is there to serve the high concept or the story, but like a Hollywood set, it has no existence deeper than that. Normally, this is a killer for me in a fantasy novel.

    Now, I still feel the the overall club impression of the book is skewed by the fact that most of the comments are from the three people who didn't like it. If I thought the members who did seem to like the book were keeping up, I'd be all for continuing. But we haven't heard much from @dr_mitch or @Michael_S_Miller since the beginning, so I rather think they're out. I'm really curious to hear @Michael_S_Miller's take on the book, since he liked the early bits and always has such interesting insights. And @WildCard was keeping up and liking it quite a bit and bringing his own philosophical approach to the story, which was completely fascinating for me. And I think you, @NeilNjae are also still liking it - or is that changing now in the slow read format?

    I'd certainly keep going even it only one person is enjoying it and wants to keep reading it.

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    Sorry. I have fallen woefully behind. January and February are always extremely busy for me, plus several family members had serious medical issues. I had hoped to catch up in March, but the current situation has made that highly unlikely.

    Sorry to hear that it hasn't proven well-liked. I will add that during the first few weeks when I was keeping up, I did feel myself straining against the slow-read format in a way I hadn't with Tolkien. I chalked it up to this being my first read, as opposed to a re-read of Tolkien, but maybe it's just not a slow read book? I don't know. Some day, I will finish reading it, but not likely any time soon.

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    edited March 29

    Dammit! Stop being so reasonable, @Apocryphal! It makes me sound like I haven't an original thought in my head! "I... agree with Apocryphal. Totally!" Makes me sound like your lickspittle!

    IF you continue so shall I, @NeilNjae! For the discussion and the company! :D

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    @Apocryphal said:

    Now, I still feel the the overall club impression of the book is skewed by the fact that most of the comments are from the three people who didn't like it. If I thought the members who did seem to like the book were keeping up, I'd be all for continuing. But we haven't heard much from @dr_mitch or @Michael_S_Miller since the beginning, so I rather think they're out. I'm really curious to hear @Michael_S_Miller's take on the book, since he liked the early bits and always has such interesting insights. And @WildCard was keeping up and liking it quite a bit and bringing his own philosophical approach to the story, which was completely fascinating for me. And I think you, @NeilNjae are also still liking it - or is that changing now in the slow read format?

    Back at the end of February, @dr_mitch said "I feel bad about not joining in this read. I really enjoyed the trilogy , but only finished it late last year and I'm not ready to read it again."

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    If others want to continue then I shall join in out of solidarity. On the other hand, whilst I used to be a completist like @Apocryphal, I gave that up a few years ago, and have no problem with cutting my losses early - so this is no longer a factor for me.

    I find it interesting that we are split as a group whether to call it science fiction or fantasy :) My personal view is that if I had to pick one or the other, I would pick fantasy, but it kind of inhabits a strange twilight zone between the two.

    Would others prefer that I not offer comments? I don't want (as @Apocryphal puts it) to skew the club impression. But having read the allotted chapters on time each week, I kind of feel bad to see @NeilNjae posting each week and nobody responding to his seed thoughts (which I do enjoy, regardless of my response to the book itself). That said, I can easily read and not respond if need be, just reading whatever other people contribute.

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    @RichardAbbott said:
    Back at the end of February, @dr_mitch said "I feel bad about not joining in this read. I really enjoyed the trilogy , but only finished it late last year and I'm not ready to read it again."

    I know he wasn't planning to re-read it, but I didn't know that also meant he didn't want to discuss it. I just assumed he was busy with other things (which I know he has been).

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    @RichardAbbott said:
    Would others prefer that I not offer comments?

    Definitely not my preference. I really don't like the idea that people might feel they need to censor themselves because they don't like something, and all your comments have been well reasoned and constructed and, I think, perfectly fair (and even educational).

    I only raised the matter because I think on the surface it looks like a little bit of an unintentional dogpile with the three of us in agreement in not liking the book, with there not really being a lot of counter argument, and I didn't want @NeilNjae to feel bad about the choice of book (which he probably doesn't - I'm just projecting).

    I did not intend to shame anybody, either for their comments or for their lack of participation. We all have other things going on in our lives and should all feel free to exercise our individual priorities and express our individual tastes.

    Hopefully I haven't offended anyone, but sorry if I did. Nobody would be complaining or using the word 'dogpile' (as I just did) if we all liked the book - for some reason, universal like-age is more acceptable in polite society. They call people 'haters' on the internet (I despise that word and its lack of nuance) but there's no comparable word for 'likers' - people who are predisposed to like everything without much thought.

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    Ok sounds good thanks @Apocryphal
  • 1

    I've been really enjoying the discussions around the book, and (to reiterate an earlier comment) everyone is engaging with the discussions sincerely and in good faith. I have no problems with people not enjoying the book. It's not my book, and I'm not offended by people not liking it! And, as @RichardAbbott says, the book choice was a a collective decision, so no blame to lay there.

    I have no strong opinions about continuing the book. If the collective will of the club is that these books aren't for us, I'll bear no malice or ill-will to anyone. I also appreciate the offers of solidarity to continue the Broken Earth long read if that's the will of the club. Finally, thanks for all the gracious comments about my questions on the chapters: they're much appreciated.

    Personally, I'm enjoying the books and re-reading them; I'll continue in any case. But life's too short to waste time on books one doesn't enjoy.

    My vote's to continue. But it's just one vote among many. Please, cast your votes, and without fear of offending me whatever you decide.

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    @Apocryphal said:

    @RichardAbbott said:
    Would others prefer that I not offer comments?

    Definitely not my preference. I really don't like the idea that people might feel they need to censor themselves because they don't like something, and all your comments have been well reasoned and constructed and, I think, perfectly fair (and even educational).

    I agree with this sentiment. Everyone's comments have been sincerely offered and intended to move discussion forward; I think they've been universally taken in that spirit too.

    They call people 'haters' on the internet (I despise that word and its lack of nuance) but there's no comparable word for 'likers' - people who are predisposed to like everything without much thought.

    I think "fanboi" is the word you're looking for?

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    Aside from the "do we continue" question, I have one other question.

    I don't understand the "it's like a graphic novel" criticism. As in, I don't really understand what people are trying to communicate by drawing that analogy. Is it that Jemisin isn't that good at description, and that illustrations would help bring the text to life? Is it about incosistent plotting and characters, which seems more at home in a medium typically aimed at uncritical youngsters? Is it something else?

    This isn't me saying the criticism is wrong. It's me asking for an expansion on the shorthand.

  • 2

    @NeilNjae - The Graphic Novel thing is that:
    A: There is not a lot of depth in the world, and no consistency. Things seem to happen just because the author wanted them to happen, not because some internal process reached a long brewing result. This is common in comics and their bastard step children, graphic novels... which we all seem to love BTW!
    B: The prose seems to be big on visual description, short on emotional subtlety and nuance. This seems to be taking the place of graphics, as if someone removed the graphics and substituted words describing the graphics. What emotions there are are heavy on angst and anger, both staples of graphic novels.
    C: Characters seem to make bizarre choices for no good reason, simply it seems to drive up impact and coolness. I have no idea why they are making these choices. This is also very comic bookish.
    D: The author keeps making stylistic decisions based on coolness, like a graphic artist. Things that stand out and scream THIS. IS. A. COOL. THING. I. AM. DOING!
    E: There is no THERE there! This world is unbelievable in every way. Nothing works. Everything is in isolation. This is very like the world of comics and graphic novels. We are never given explanations of how things work - things move too fast, are too graphic, nobody notices!

    All these things WORK in graphic novels! The artistic style and panache carry us through like a roller coaster. The speed and momentum in a mostly graphic form keeps our attention focused on the moment. This novel would work wonderfully in a graphic format.

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    When I read the book, it was a series of rapid shocks (which is appropriate to the subject matter), and a scream about the unfairness of the world. There was some clever bits of world building sketches (indeed, the book in general is clever), but the depth wasn't in the world building.

    The use of the second person was intrusive, but after a little while it didn't bother me. When I finished the volume, I knew I wanted to read the rest of the trilogy, but I knew I didn't want to read them straight away. It exhausted me. I needed something brighter. I felt the same after the second book. I did a sort of slow read of my own last year, spacing out the volumes, but reading each one quickly.

    I now wonder if the slow read would have diminished the impact, and given me time to dwell on possible flaws. I still really like it, but it was one I found impossible to discuss without thinking about spoilers.

    So despite what I thought of as cleverness and depth when I read, looking at responses, maybe the slow read doesn't show it as it's best. Maybe it needs to be read rapidly.

    I think the Hugos were deserved though, both for the merits of the trilogy and for the fact that is was something different.

    One last point - I see it's getting an RPG adaptation. I will admit, it seems really ill-suited to me for that, at least in the action-adventure format, and hope they do something rather different conceptually (which does exist, even in the form of licensed RPGs - Smallville, anyone?) .

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    A splendid summary by @clash_bowley ! To which I would amplify "stylistic decisions based on coolness... This world is unbelievable in every way". I flicked open _The Trigan Empire_, like you do, and the planetary map is almost identical to the one in _The Fifth Season_... one huge super continent loosely divided into regions. In Empire, the regions start as separate nations and/or ethnic groups, and get unified... in Season they start as an empire and are in process of splitting up. In Empire, there's a bizarre side-by-side juxtaposition of super high tech baddies with heavily armed flying wings, and simple-but-honest desert nomads armed with swords whose main recreation is hunting things like dinosaurs. The high tech baddies claim to be in process of conquering the world, but are doing a really bad job of it, and after some initial tragedies are soon outsmarted. In Season, there's a juxtaposition of high tech relics with a broadly medieval/early renaissance culture. The Guardians are sort of high tech baddies who can neutralise the super abilities of orogenes. And so on.

    But I also think this is a wider issue of literary form. There are many different forms that a story can be dressed up in - novel, graphic novel, short story, novella, audiobook, play, song, rap, film, animated film, episodic TV series, and so on. To some degree this has traditionally been driven by the publishing industry on economic grounds... for example novellas have been scarce for years because commercial logic counted against a book of that length.

    With the rise of print-on-demand and self-publishing it is certainly true that different forms or hybrid crossovers are being explored (so novellas are coming back into fashion, for example). But essentially the forms have meaning - a full length novel has certain possibilities and raises certain expectations that a short story does not. It's not just about word length, it's about complexity of ideas, depth of characterisation, focus of plotline, balance of dialogue/description/background, extent to which interior thoughts and feelings are revealed, and so on.

    Now no doubt some of these factors are historical accident or frozen convention, and I can understand the impulse to question and challenge some of them. But others are, I believe, meaningful responses to the chosen medium, and if a storyteller breaks them then you get a kind of cognitive dissonance.

    Let me give a couple of examples. There are some great Star Trek novels. There are some great Star Trek films. But a novelisation of a film (I'm particularly thinking of one I read of #4, the whale one) is often terrible. The very things that made it work as a film made it fail as a novel.

    Conversely, look at cases where a story has successfully been told as film or book. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is only passingly similar to Bladerunner... but both work. Likewise the film and short story versions of Arrival. I'm sure you can think of others. My point is that to make it work in the new medium, a major rewrite and restructuring has to take place.

    Sorry for such a long reply, but this whole issue has, I think, exposed some fascinating things about storytelling
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    edited March 30
    I would add to the list that characters are all archetypes. They are Orogenes, Guardians, Stone Eaters, or Leaders. Those are the only kinds of people that exist here. There are no schoolteachers, road workers, linesmen, farmers (or even farms, it seems). This is similar to what you get in superhero comics where everyone is a superhero, villain, leader, policeman, or doctor/scientist. This is why I thought we were in super team territory early on. For my part I haven’t really like superhero stories since I was a kid - I find them silly and shallow. And feel a bit the same about this (not quite as strongly - there’s more depth here) . But the heavy-handed angst and power posturing do remind me of SH stories line The Umbrella Academy and X Men.
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    I think I was wrong before... I probably enjoyed this MORE than @Apocrphal. Maybe because I like graphic novels more?

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    I don’t dislike it as much as my comments might let on. I’ve spoken at length about my dislikes mostly because I feel they need to be justified considering we’re talking Hugo Books here. I really don’t mind to continue reading, so obviously I don’t hate them. But I could also stop and not feel like I’ve missed anything important.
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    I read Wearing the Cape and did my best to participate fairly and accept the book in its context - so I can do it.

    I also wasn’t overly excited by Rivers of London for similar reasons to why I don’t like Superheroes. In this I suspect I’m the only one! And I did like it better than some of my other current books (Broken Earth and Musashi).
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    Wearing the Cape was the one book club read I started and gave a hard "nope" to after just a chapter. I couldn't face reading any more.

    (there are others I never started for various reasons, but that's the only one I bounced off so hard).

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    So. The Obelisk Gate read is due to start tomorrow. Is the slow read continuing or not?

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    @Apocryphal, @RichardAbbott and I have all said we are willing. I think we are all getting good stuff out of the discussion.

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    There have been expressions of solidarity, which is gratifying. "Enthusiasm" is less clear cut.

    I'll aim to post some questions on the first bit of The Obelisk Gate next week, unless people say otherwise.

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    Good! I went and bought it today! And the final volume! :D

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    Bought it (but not yet the final volume so as to spread out the cost in these straightened times :) )

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