Review of The Peripheral by William Gibson

December 3, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
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SFFaudio Review

The Peripheral by William Gibson audiobook coverThe Peripheral
By William Gibson; Narrated by Lorelei King
Publisher: Penguin Audio
Publication Date: 28 October 2014
[UNABRIDGED] – 14 hours, 5 minutes

Themes: / future / time travel / drugs / veterans / crime /

Publisher summary:

Where Flynne and her brother, Burton, live, jobs outside the drug business are rare. Fortunately, Burton has his veteran’s benefits, for neural damage he suffered from implants during his time in the USMC’s elite Haptic Recon force. Then one night Burton has to go out, but there’s a job he’s supposed to do – a job Flynne didn’t know he had. Beta-testing part of a new game, he tells her. The job seems to be simple: work a perimeter around the image of a tower building. Little buglike things turn up. He’s supposed to get in their way, edge them back. That’s all there is to it. He’s offering Flynne a good price to take over for him. What she sees, though, isn’t what Burton told her to expect. It might be a game, but it might also be murder.

Reading a new William Gibson novel is both delightful and exciting. He delights with the cool, sardonic yet imaginative visions of the present and future. He excites with his uncanny glimpses of the future, grounded in canny selections from our time.

The Peripheral offers another pleasure, that of Gibson trying something new. His recent brace of novels looked at the very near future, each following a normal linear path. His classic cyberpunk or Sprawl trilogy envisioned a medium-term future, also tending to thriller linearity.

But in The Peripheral we see a very different conceit and narrative structure. This novel relies on two timelines, one in the near-to-medium term future, and one almost a century away. At first we follow these in parallel, trying to infer connections. Then we learn that the further-along future has discovered a form of time travel – well, information exchange with the past, to be precise. The far-future signals the closer-to-us future, and has a proposition. Or two. Then more, which aren’t propositions but assassinations.

This dual-track time-travel-ish idea owes much to Gregory Benford’s 1980 novel Timescape. Other parallels appear; see spoiler section at the bottom of this post.

The future-near-to-us characters are also the more sympathetic. They focus on a young, poor Southern woman, Flynn Fisher, and her family. They live in a postwar backwater, where the economy barely exists apart from illegal drug manufacture. Flynn helps her vet brother, Burton, with an online job and witnesses what seems to be a strange murder. In the future-farther-away we see a PR flack, Wilf Netherton, working with a Russian crime family and their staff. Wilf has made an unspecified bad move, and is trying to improve his situation.

The plot ratchets up slowly and steadily to climax in a party, where multiple schemes intersect. Some, not all, is revealed, and the Fishers end up alive, very rich, and with a powerful edge on their present. Wilf somehow survives, and ends up in a relationship. This is too brisk and cursory a summary, but will do for now.

One of the pleasures of reading William Gibson is tracking his experimental words and phrases. These are concentrated projections of a possible future. Let me list some that caught my eye: klepts, artisanal AIs, battle-ready solicitors, court-certified recall, the viz, hate Kegels, autonomic bleedover, continua enthusiasts, drop bears, period trains, neo-primitivist curators, quasi-biological megavolume carbon collectors, heritage diseases, directed swarm weapons, a synthetic bullshit implant, surprise funeral, mofo-ettes, and a neurologer’s shop. One near-future treat is the “freshly printed salty caramel cronut”.

Some of today’s words mutate in these two futures. For example, poor folks don’t cook, but build drugs with some form of 3d printers. “Homes” refers not to homies or residences, but to Homeland Security. A very bad crisis happened between now and 2025 or so. People afterwards refer to it as the Jackpot.

Some of the language is simply cute. One character has her name changed slightly, and refers to it as “amputating the last letter of her name.” Another speaks of “cleaning up the afterbirth of Christmas ornaments”. The Fisher family shops at a Hefty Mart.

In a sense The Peripheral is Gibson’s gloomiest novel. Like the recent film Interstellar (my notes), this story begins in a bad situation, then gets worse. The Fishers are poor and ill (the brother has seizures, the mother seriously ailing) in a society that clearly doesn’t care for them at all. Their story reads like something from a late 19th-century Southern backwater, or like today’s worst countryside. Characters have little help for the future. What we learn about the Jackpot not only makes things horrible, but sets up a future that’s inhumane. Across all of these times looms the specter of vast economic inequality, of a society caring only for the <1%.

There is a powerful sense that the far-future is a kind of 1% taken to an extreme: a lonely elite, casually breaking off temporal worlds as a hobby, easily committing murders. Our lack of information about the world around London’s far-future elite disturbs me, the more I think of it. Conversely, the far-future world is situated in such total surveillance that they see our/Flynn’s sense of surveillance as charmingly antique.

Overall, The Peripheral offers solid future thought in an engaging narrative. Recommended.

I didn’t read this one, but listened to it on audiobook. Lorelei King was the reader and did a fine job, with the whole file running a touch over 14 hours. King does different nationalities well, which matters in the kind of multinational world Gibson loves. She reads with the right level of cool, too – not a thriller’s burning pace, but with a kind of observation acuity that I always associate with Gibson.

SPOILER SECTION

Here I reveal mysteries of the novel.  Do not read any farther if you wish your brain to remain unsullied.

Ready?

Here they come:

First, more on the plot: one agency in the far-off future is manipulating the past for its own reasons, and hires the Fishers as proxies. Another far-off-future group hires others to kill the Fisher family. Ainsley Lowbeer, a London cop, or something like that, appears in the far-future, with unusual connections to the Fishers’ time. Flynn and Burton are able to interact with their far-future employers via telepresence robots, the titular peripherals. Wilf explains the Jackpot to Flynn, describing a series of interconnected, overlapping crises that killed the majority of humans:

droughts, water shortages, crop failures, honeybees gone like they almost were now, collapse of other keystone species, every last alpha predator gone, antibiotics doing even less than they already did, diseases that were never quite the one big pandemic but just big enough to be historic events in themselves…

Flynn also learns that by intervening in her time, the far-future team has effectively broken off her world from the stream of time, creating a “stub” which can’t affect their future, and avoiding neatly some classic time travel problems.

Second, how does this gloomy novel end, then? Ah, it’s a happy ending, pretty much, although we don’t learn enough about what happens in the future. We – well, the Fisher stub – get to avoid the Jackpot. Whew!

But Gibson doesn’t want us to relax. Note his comments in a Tor interview:

there may be readers who get to the end and they go, “oh, well, that’s okay, everything worked out for them!”
… But these guys had an immensely powerful—if possibly dangerously crazy—fairy godmother who altered their continuum, who has for some reason decided that she’s going to rake all of their chestnuts out of the fire, so that the world can’t go the horrible it way it went in hers. And whatever else is going to happen, that’s not going to happen for us, you know? We’re going to have to find another way. We’re not going to luck into Lowbeer.

Worse, the Fishers seem like good folks. But what will keep them (or their inheritors) from becoming klepts, with their vast power and advantages?

So this book ends up as a cautionary tale, a huge warning, and a goad to get us hauling ourselves away from the Jackpot.

Third, I mentioned earlier that The Peripheral has links to Benford’s Timescape.  Benford’s future world is facing an existential crisis, due to events occurring in the past, so they reach out to communicate with the past to get them to change their ways. Gibson’s far-future has already experienced the Jackpot, but some of the survivors want to change the past to mitigate the experience. I dimly recall Benford’s future coming to an end, somehow, and the past branching off into a new, better world. This recalls Flynn’s world cutting its way into a different, hopefully non-Jackpotted world.

Posted by Bryan A.

Review of The Slow Regard of Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss

October 26, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Reviews 

SFFaudio Review

Slow Regard of Silent ThingsThe Slow Regard of Silent Things (Kingkiller Chronicle Book 2.5)
By Patrick Rothfuss; Narrated by Patrick Rothfuss
Publisher: Penguin Group USA
Publication Date: 28 October 2014
[UNABRIDGED] – 3 hours, 39 minutes

Themes: / Kingkiller / fantasy / university /

Publisher summary:

Deep below the University, there is a dark place. Few people know of it: a broken web of ancient passageways and abandoned rooms. A young woman lives there, tucked among the sprawling tunnels of the Underthing, snug in the heart of this forgotten place. Her name is Auri, and she is full of mysteries. The Slow Regard of Silent Things is a brief, bittersweet glimpse of Auri’s life, a small adventure all her own. At once joyous and haunting, this story offers a chance to see the world through Auri’s eyes. And it gives the reader a chance to learn things that only Auri knows…. In this book, Patrick Rothfuss brings us into the world of one of The Kingkiller Chronicle’s most enigmatic characters. Full of secrets and mysteries, The Slow Regard of Silent Things is the story of a broken girl trying to live in a broken world.

Executive Summary: I think this is a book that most of the hard core fans will gush over, but I thought it was just alright. 3.5 stars rounded down for reasons I get into (rant about?) below.

Audio book: I haven’t done any of the Kingkiller books in audio. I have friends who have gushed to me over both the Rupert Degas and the Nick Podehl versions.

I’m not sure if those people will bothered by this one being read by Mr. Rothfuss himself, but I thought for this book at least, he makes for a good narrator. As he was the one who wrote it, he was able to put emphasis on the words he wanted to and he has a good story telling voice.

Full Review
I’m going to try to write a review without getting too ranty, but I may fall short in that regard, so I apologize in advance.

First a little background as to where I’m coming from: I heard about The Name of the Wind and Patrick Rothfuss over four years ago from Penny-Arcade. Since that time I had several friends telling me I had to read it.

I was reluctant to do though, because the third book hasn’t been published and there is no real eta in sight. I was content to wait until at least their was an announced publish date. Until last year that is, when I finally caved and read both books with a few friends. I’m glad I finally did, though now I’m stuck waiting for the final book like everyone else.

I seem to be in a minority of the fans I’ve talked to who thought that The Name of the Wind was good, but The Wise Man’s Fear was much better. So maybe that will put me in the minority of fans once again who find myself a bit disappointed with this story.

Originally slated for Rogues, Mr. Rothfuss set this one aside and wrote The Lightning Tree instead. It has a similar feel to this. We follow Bast around for a day in the life. I really loved that story. I felt like we got some good insights to his character we didn’t in the main novels.

Auri is definitely one of my favorite characters in his books, so I was really excited to see he had a novella about her coming out. Until I saw the price. I like to support authors I read so they will hopefully continue to write more stories I enjoy, but $17 for a 150 page novella seems crazy to me. So maybe I was already in a negative mindset coming into this book.

I was planning to wait until I could get a copy from the library and if I enjoyed it, picking up a copy for my shelves if/when the price came down. However, I was fortunate enough to receive an early review copy of the audio book, making the price irrelevant to me personally.

So I’ve written all these words now (and apparently you’ve kept reading them) and still really haven’t talked about the book. That seems appropriate because there really isn’t a story here.

We follow Auri around for a week. We do get some insights into her thought process. Maybe someone smarter than me will argue we get a lot of insights. Maybe if I read it again, I’ll come away with more. I don’t know. What I really wanted was to know more about Auri’s background more so than her character. As far as I’m concerned, you get none of that here. Maybe I’m just not smart enough.

And that brings me to why I rounded down my rating of 3.5 to a 3. I was all set to round up to 4 because I really like Patrick Rothfuss, and I really like Auri. He seems like a generally nice guy who does a lot of great things for other people with his success and influence.

But Mr. Rothfuss felt the need to include this long author’s note at the end. He makes it out like an apology to his fans who may not “get” this book, or don’t like it. But to me it came off as insincere and really more like him turning up his nose at anyone who doesn’t love this story as much as Vi Hart.

And the thing is, I didn’t dislike it for any of the reasons he mentioned. This book definitely FEELS like Auri. I liked all the randomness. Auri’s OCD makes me feel way better about my own. She really is a great character, and that shines through here. As I said my main disappointment was getting nothing about Auri’s back story.

But to talk about “There are plenty of stories out there for you, even if this one isn’t” came off condescending to me. I’m probably just reading it the wrong way, because Mr. Rothfuss never stuck me as that sort of person before now.

So if you want a story where nothing really of note happens and to just spend time with Auri, you’ll probably love this story. If you like me were hoping for some kind of back story, you may be disappointed like I was. There definitely were a few hints dropped, but nothing that made any real sense to me, just left me with more questions than before I read it.

Review by Rob Zak.

Review of The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman

September 10, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
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SFFaudio Review

The Magician's LandThe Magician’s Land (The Magicians #3)
By Lev Grossman; Read by Mark Bramhall
Publisher: Penguin Audio
Publication Date: 5 August 2014
[UNABRIDGED] – 16 hours, 27 minutes

Themes: / Fantasy / Magic / Wizard School / Meta Fiction / Alternate Worlds /

Publisher summary:

Quentin Coldwater has been cast out of Fillory, the secret magical land of his childhood dreams. With nothing left to lose he returns to where his story began, the Brakebills Preparatory College of Magic. But he can’t hide from his past, and it’s not long before it comes looking for him.

Along with Plum, a brilliant young undergraduate with a dark secret of her own, Quentin sets out on a crooked path through a magical demimonde of grey magic and desperate characters. But all roads lead back to Fillory, and his new life takes him to old haunts, like Antarctica and the Netherlands, and buried secrets, and old friends he thought were lost forever. He uncovers the key to a sorcerous masterwork, a spell that could create magical utopia, a new Fillory – but casting it will set in motion a chain of events that will bring Earth and Fillory crashing together. To save them he will have to risk sacrificing everything.

This series gets better book by book. I liked the story of the first but didn’t like any of the characters. I liked the story of the second and the characters grew on me quite a bit. This third book to the trilogy is definitely my favorite of the three. The story is interesting and has some throwbacks to the previous installments, Grossman’s dry humor is completely on point, and the characters are the best of this trilogy yet. My favorite part is Grossman’s use of humor throughout the book and his breadth of imagination with the use of magic throughout the book. Grossman brings the trilogy to a satisfying conclusion that you should definitely experience if you’ve already read the first two books of the series.

If you’re even considering reading this book, I’m sure you’ve already read the first two (if not, I’ll wait here while you go take care of that). Quentin is left shut out from Fillory so what is he to do with himself? Surprisingly enough, he does NOT turn into the miserable wreck of a creature he became after graduating in the first book – thank goodness for that. Quentin seems to have grown quite a bit from his past adventures and finds more purpose in his life. It’s really cool to see him develop that way across the books.

Grossman adds a few other point of view characters in this novel and all were nice additions to Quentin’s typical somber tone. You get to find out what other members of the old gang are getting up to as Grossman approaches the climactic conclusion of the trilogy. I particularly like Plum, a brilliant student at Brakebills that also gets involved in the adventure. Those who read Dangerous Women will recognize part of her story from Grossman’s submission to the anthology.

Grossman’s writing comes off smooth and natural. His dry tone and humor stand out as in the first two books and the book was completely enjoyable. He makes references to other works of fiction and modern influences like Harry Potter without feeling forced or making the book feel like it will be dated. There are some points in the plot where things come together far too well by happenstance, but that doesn’t hurt the story too much if you don’t focus on it.

As for the audio side of things, Mark Bramhall continues to perform his role as narrator superbly in this book. He handles the tone of the book so well – executing the voices of characters with all the sarcasm or droll tone you’d expect from these characters. Such simple ways of saying the lines Grossman has written actually made me laugh out loud in some places (“Wands out Harry”). I will definitely be looking for other books narrated by Bramhall.

Posted by Tom Schreck

Review of Tower Lord by Anthony Ryan

August 5, 2014 by · 1 Comment
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SFFaudio Review

towerlordTower Lord (Raven’s Shadow #2)
By Anthony Ryan; Narrated by Steven Brand
Publisher: Penguin Audio
Publication Date: 1 July 2014
[UNABRIDGED] – 24 hours, 39 minutes

Themes: / fantasy / warrior /

Publisher summary:

Vaelin Al Sorna, warrior of the Sixth Order, called Darkblade, called Hope Killer. The greatest warrior of his day, and witness to the greatest defeat of his nation: King Janus’ vision of a Greater Unified Realm drowned in the blood of brave men fighting for a cause Vaelin alone knows was forged from a lie. Sick at heart, he comes home, determined to kill no more. Named Tower Lord of the Northern Reaches by King Janus’s grateful heir, he can perhaps find peace in a colder, more remote land far from the intrigues of a troubled Realm.

But those gifted with the blood-song are never destined to live a quiet life. Many died in King Janus’ wars, but many survived, and Vaelin is a target, not just for those seeking revenge but for those who know what he can do. The Faith has been sundered, and many have no doubt who their leader should be. The new King is weak, but his sister is strong. The blood-song is powerful, rich in warning and guidance in times of trouble, but is only a fraction of the power available to others who understand more of its mysteries. Something moves against the Realm, something that commands mighty forces, and Vaelin will find to his great regret that when faced with annihilation, even the most reluctant hand must eventually draw a sword.

How do you follow up a debut novel that seems to be almost universally loved by those who have read it? By writing a book that may be even better in my opinion.  My opinion may not be shared by everyone who loved Blood Song. This is definitely a different book from that.

Instead of a single narrative about Vaelin told in the form of a flashback, we are instead given three new point of view characters in addition to Vaelin and the interludes from the perspective of the chronicler.  Two of the characters, Frentis and Lyrna, will be instantly familiar from the first novel. The fourth, Riva, was probably my favorite. As a new character she probably got the most character development of the four. I think having two male POVs and two female ones gave the novel a good balance.

I found Lyrna’s story to start a bit slow, but I was quickly grabbed by the book as a whole and eventually sucked into her narrative as well. Much like Blood Song this is one of those books that grabbed hold and didn’t let go. I hated to put it down and loved to pick it back up.

I’m glad for the format change as I think Mr. Ryan was able to tell a much larger story as a result. There were parts of the story where the various POV’s overlapped, but there were also a lot of things that would have gone otherwise unmentioned if he stuck with just Vaelin’s story.

There are some excellent action scenes, though probably fewer overall than the first. While the first book was more a hero’s journey, this book is more epic fantasy with larger implications to the realm as a whole.

There are answers to many of the big questions I had from the first novel. Often times it seems like authors jealously guard all their book’s secrets and wait until the last possible minute to reveal them. Not so with this series. I felt there were several big reveals in parts 2 and 3 that other authors might have held back.  There are plenty of new questions to take the place of those that are answered that kept me wanting to keep listening and find out what would happen next.

Mr. Ryan has put himself in a precarious position of writing two really excellent novels in what I believe is supposed to be a trilogy. Now the expectations are that much higher for the finale of what has quickly become one of my favorite series.

Stephen Brand is a great narrator that could stand to have his volume boosted. He does an excellent job with voices and inflections, but can be frustratingly quiet in places.

If you haven’t read this book yet, do yourself a favor and pick it up. And if you haven’t read/heard of this series you should check out Blood Song as soon as you can.

Review by Rob Zak.

Review of Skin Game by Jim Butcher

June 3, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
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SFFaudio Review

Skin Game by Jim ButcherSkin Game (Dresden Files #15)
By Jim Butcher; Performed by James MarstersPublisher: Penguin Audio
Publication Date: 27 May 2014
[UNABRIDGED] – 15 hours, 49 minutes

Themes: / Dresden Files / urban fantasy / parkour / magic / winter queen / mab / faerie /

Publisher summary:

Harry Dresden, Chicago’s only professional wizard, is about to have a very bad day….

Because as Winter Knight to the Queen of Air and Darkness, Harry never knows what the scheming Mab might want him to do. Usually, it’s something awful.

He doesn’t know the half of it….

Mab has just traded Harry’s skills to pay off one of her debts. And now he must help a group of supernatural villains—led by one of Harry’s most dreaded and despised enemies, Nicodemus Archleone—to break into the highest-security vault in town so that they can then access the highest-security vault in the Nevernever.

It’s a smash-and-grab job to recover the literal Holy Grail from the vaults of the greatest treasure hoard in the supernatural world—which belongs to the one and only Hades, Lord of the freaking Underworld and generally unpleasant character. Worse, Dresden suspects that there is another game afoot that no one is talking about. And he’s dead certain that Nicodemus has no intention of allowing any of his crew to survive the experience. Especially Harry.

Dresden’s always been tricky, but he’s going to have to up his backstabbing game to survive this mess—assuming his own allies don’t end up killing him before his enemies get the chance….

It’s been 18 months give or take since Cold Days came out and I’ve been in withdrawal. While not quite as good as that book, Jim Butcher once again shows why he’s the king of Urban Fantasy and one of the best fantasy writers out there.

I tried to hold myself over with an Iron Druid and a Libriomancer. They just didn’t do the trick. In fact, I’ve decided that apart from Dresden Files, Urban Fantasy just really isn’t for me. Nothing else compares. Not even close.

I barely made it halfway through the first track and I was already laughing out loud. I had to spend an extra ten minutes deciding which one-liner was best to use for my status update, and just opted for one of the shorter ones because I had already stayed up too late listening.

We see a return of the Nicodemus and Order of the Blackened Denarius. By far one of the best villains of the series, if not all of fantasy. I was yelling at my book and Jim Butcher a few times.  My only real complaint is that many of the questions and issues created by Cold Days go largely unanswered. It almost feels like things were put on hold for a side story. That said, the book once again combines great characters, great dialogue and great action in a way that makes it nearly impossible to put down. I always hate waiting between books, but I can’t help myself from spending every free minute reading until I finish. It’s just that good.

James Marsters once again makes this series a must listen. It’s not even the fact that he does voices for the characters that makes it great. It’s the WAY he does the voices. The emotion when Harry casts a spell. Or him actually yelling PARKOUR! instead of simply reading it. He may not be the voice I originally expected for Harry, but he sure is now.

Anyone who reads the first few books and wonders what all the fuss is about, or balks at having to read a few books before the series “gets really good” is just missing out. If for some reason you still haven’t caught up on this series after Cold Days, consider this another recommendation to get on it.

Maybe I’ll take up Parkour!

Review by Rob Zak.

Review of Murder of Crows by Anne Bishop

April 9, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
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SFFaudio Review

Murder of Crows by Anne BishopMurder of Crows (The Others #2)
By Anne Bishop; Narrated by Alexandra Harris
Publisher: Penguin Audio
Publication date: 4 March 2014
[UNABRIDGED] – 14 hrs and 13 mins

Themes: / urban fantasy / blood prophet / feathers / shape-shifting /

Publisher summary:

After winning the trust of the terra indigene residing in the Lakeside Courtyard, Meg Corbyn has had trouble figuring out what it means to live among them. As a human, Meg should be barely tolerated prey, but her abilities as a cassandra sangue make her something more. 

The appearance of two addictive drugs has sparked violence between the humans and the Others, resulting in the murders of both species in nearby cities. So when Meg has a dream about blood and black feathers in the snow, Simon Wolfgard—Lakeside’s shape-shifting leader—wonders whether their blood prophet dreamed of a past attack or of a future threat.

As the urge to speak prophecies strikes Meg more frequently, trouble finds its way inside the Courtyard. Now the Others and the handful of humans residing there must work together to stop the man bent on reclaiming their blood prophet—and stop the danger that threatens to destroy them all.

The book was wonderful. I loved how the story expanded beyond Meg, Simon and the Courtyard. In this story we get to see a lot more of the world and are introduced to a plethora of new characters. The only sad thing about the expansion of the new world is I miss getting to read more about some of the characters we met in the last book like Jake and Winter. The plot for this story is fairly straight forward so with all the new introductions and new places it was easy for me to keep track. While the story expanded it did so by going deeper into the politics and relationships between humans and the others.

My favorite thing about Anne Bishop’s writing is her focus on relationships. It is fascinating to watch Meg and Simon figure out how to be friends. Simon is a wolf and he is unsure how long he wants to hold his human skin, he also worries that being human so much is changing him. Meanwhile Meg is a blood prophet who has never been able to make choices and with so much turmoil happening her need to cut is greater than ever not to mention she is finding it a challenge to not accidentally break her skin. Likewise there is the relationship between Simon and Monty, Monty struggles to understand the terra indigene’s outlook on things without alienating the humans. Then Monty has his own issues with his daughter which I hope gets resolved because it just breaks my heart. While I could go on and on the point here is how these character’s interact with each other just makes the story even better.

The narrator for the book was Alexandra Harris. She has quite the smooth voice and while I enjoyed listening to her narrate and perform the voices of female characters, I did not care for her work as voicing the male characters. She also read a bit slower than I would have liked and so I solved that by speeding it up on my ipod. In a perfect world she would be partnered with someone like James Marsters and for me this would have been the perfect audio book.

Posted by Dawn V.

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