Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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And! A tidbit of good news I almost forgot!

Over at The Book Smugglers? Scroll WAYYYY down, and you will find that HOUSE OF SHADOWS made Thea’s list for Honorable Mentions for 2012.

That’s H of S’s second appearance on a best-of list at The Book Smugglers during their Smugglivus . . . that I know of. I kind of fell behind in reading ALL the Smugglivus posts. Though I read enough that my wishlist kind of exploded.

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Blog / The Best Cookies In The World

Adventurous Cookies

I wound up submitting nine cookie recipes for the Scharffen Berger Adventure Coookie Contest – I couldn’t quite get the caramel filling to work out or I would have submitted a variation of one of these, making ten recipes, which was the maximum allowed. But hey, coming up with nine good recipes in one month, I’m pretty happy with that. One took three tries before I thought it was okay to submit, but some I did hit on the first try.

I suspect most entries must surely come from professionals, so I don’t know that any of my recipes have much of a chance – but hey, I did develop some great recipes! So it was definitely worth the trouble to enter. Next year I will try to remember to check out this contest in October, which is when it started this year. Three months to work on recipes would be much better than trying to do it all in one month!

Here are the cookies I submitted:

Pine Nut Orange Florentines
Chocolate-Coconut Paciencia
Chocolate-Sweet Potato-Ginger Pillows
Gingerbread-Marshmallow Bars
Chocolate Pinenut Orange Spirals
Death By Hazelnut Chocolate Cookies
Mayan End-Of-The-World Chocolate Cookies
Aztec Gold Cookies
And (my favorite) Taste For Adventure Triple Ginger Chocolate Cookies

So! I know some of you bake! Here are the first couple recipes! If you try any of them, I’d be interested in what you think.

PINE NUT-ORANGE FLORENTINES

For this cookie, I just took an ordinary Florentine-style cookie, substituted chopped pine nuts for sliced almonds, added Grand Marnier and orange zest – I think orange goes well with pine nuts and, of course, chocolate. Then I used melted chocolate to sandwich the cookies together. These didn’t turn out super-fancy because it was hard to get the cookies perfectly round – if I was trying it again, I’d chop the pine nuts a bit finer, chill the dough, and see if I could form the dough into little tiny balls rather than trying to drop the dough on the cookie sheets. If you try this, let me know how they come out.

½ C. butter
2/3 C. sugar
2 Tbsp cream
2 Tbsp corn syrup
1/3 C. all-purpose flour
½ tsp vanilla
2 tsp orange liqueur such as Grand Marnier
¼ tsp orange extract
2 Tbsp orange zest
1 C. finely chopped pine nuts (or other nuts – I actually prefer almost every other kind of nut to pine nuts. I’d probably use walnuts here if I did this again, but hey, I’m not the boss of you. Sliced almonds or pecans or whatever would be great, but take it from me, you aren’t going to be able to roll the dough into neat balls if you use sliced almonds, which are too pointy.
1 C. bittersweet chocolate, melted

Combine the butter, sugar, cream, and corn syrup in a saucepan. Heat until mixture reaches 230 degrees, stirring frequently. Remove from heat and stir in flour and all the orange flavorings. Stir in the chopped nuts.

Drop onto parchment-lined baking sheets by rounded ½ tsp (or chill dough and roll into tiny balls). Bake at 350 degrees for 8-11 minutes, until caramelized and lightly browned. Cool on the paper. When the cookies are cool, they will lift right off the paper.

Melt the chocolate. Brush chocolate on the underside of one cookie and sandwich with another cookie of similar size and shape. If you like, drizzle more melted chocolate across the tops of the sandwich cookies.

CHOCOLATE-COCONUT PACIENCIA

Paciencia are Filipino meringue cookies. I simply substituted cocoa powder for a bit of the flour – you substitute 2 Tbsp cocoa for every Tbsp flour you take out – and then I added coconut extract, then made a chocolate ganache with coconut milk and coconut extract. I got these to work perfectly once, but the second time I couldn’t get the egg whites to whip stiff enough. It might, I admit, have been lack of patience. I mean, these cookies get their name for a reason. Below, I’ll provide every possible suggestion for getting the egg whites to whip really stiff. On a day when you’re feeling patient, you really should try these – they’re quite addictive when they work.

2 egg whites
½ C. sugar
¼ tsp coconut extract
¼ C. + 1 Tbsp flour
2 Tbsp cocoa powder
1/8 tsp baking powder

6 oz bittersweet chocolate
4 oz thick coconut milk from the top of an unshaken can, or 4 oz heavy cream – it doesn’t make any difference, I just used the coconut milk because it was an “adventure” ingredient.
1 tsp coconut extract

Beat the egg whites until quite stiff. Don’t use totally fresh eggs – they should be at least a week old. Bring the egg whites to room temperature before you beat them – leave them sitting in the bowl for at least half an hour before you start beating them, and an hour is better. You know you mustn’t have a speck of yolk in the egg whites, right? Before you start, you might wash the beaters and bowl in hot soapy water even if they’re already clean, just to make absolutely sure there’s not a trace of grease anywhere. But then give everything plenty of time to dry completely because even a drop of water can interfere with egg whites whipping. I have NEVER had trouble whipping egg whites until these cookies, so don’t let me scare you away from trying them. I think all the sugar and stuff interferes a lot more than just whipping the egg whites by themselves.

So, as I said, beat the egg whites until quite stiff before you start to add the sugar. I think that’s where I went wrong, starting to add the sugar before the egg whites were stiff. You can tell whether the egg whites are stiff by switching off the mixer and lifting the beaters straight up, btw – the peaks left in behind in the egg whites should stand up straight, not fold over. Standing up straight means you have whipped the egg whites to “stiff peaks”.

Okay! Gradually beat in the sugar, a Tbsp at a time. Only when you have stiff peaks AND all the sugar has been added should you beat in the coconut extract. Now: combine the flour, cocoa powder, and baking powder and beat that in. You should still have stiff peaks. If the mixture has partially collapsed again, beat it some more. I swear, the first time I made these the whole process only took about ten minutes.

Spoon the batter into a pastry bag (or a zip lock bag with the tip of one corner cut off) and pipe quarter-sized mounds onto parchment-lined baking sheets. Bake at 400 degrees until lightly toasted, 12-15 minutes, trading the positions of the baking sheets halfway through to compensate for any hot spots in your oven. Cool the cookies on the baking sheets. When cool, the cookies will lift right off the parchment paper.

Make the ganache: heat the coconut milk or cream with the chocolate in your microwave and stir until smooth. Stir in the coconut extract. Set the ganache aside until it thickens, about 30 to 40 minutes. Assemble sandwich cookies, but don’t eat any yet – they are super-crisp and will be much better if you continue with the patience. Store the cookies overnight at room temp in an air-tight container. NOW pick up a good book and settle down with these softened, chewy cookies for a real treat – they are quite wonderful.

Okay, you’ll find the next cookie recipes I’ll post will be much more foolproof!

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Recent reading: In the Land of Invented Languages

Which is a nonfiction book by Arika Okrent.

What an interesting name, isn’t it? I mean the author’s name. Arika Okrent. Doesn’t that seem like a great name for a linguist?

Actually, Okrent has a double PhD, in linguistics and psychology, and it sure shows in this book. I got it for Christmas, and it turned out to be fascinating, a great book to start off the new year. It’s exactly what the title says it is: a book about invented languages – well, no, actually, it’s a book about the kinds of people who invent languages, and about what they’re trying to achieve when they invent a language, and about what features make natural languages succeed when (nearly) all artificial languages are complete failures. It’s also really well written and just fun to read.

Do you have any idea how many people have sat down throughout history and invented their own language? Hundreds and hundreds, it turns out – maybe thousands. “The nine hundred languages, over nine hundred years, we do have evidence for,” Okrent says, “suggest that the urge to invent languages is as old and persistent as language itself.” Wow. Who knew?

Apparently the most common motivations for inventing a language are:

a) To improve on existing languages – to design a language that is logical and consistent and unambiguous and which reveals the Truth of things – and then to convert everybody to your wonderful language.
b) To encourage universal understanding among peoples and thus create world peace.
c) To play with language as a game and hobby.

I bet it won’t surprise you to learn that the only artificial languages that have ever succeeded at all – that people have ever voluntarily learned and spoken and translated Hamlet into – belong to the third type.

Language inventers who go in with the intention to design a new language that everybody will swoon over and learn and give up their own languages for, a new language that will clarify the true nature of everything in the universe and prevent misunderstandings and promote world peace – yeah, those people are pretty much all nuts. It’s like the language inventor gets consumed by some odd combination of delusions of grandeur and obsessiveness. This does not lead to good things for the poor language inventors, who often become quite bitter when things don’t work out as they imagined.

None of that applies, however, to languages designed for fun – obviously Tolkien falls into this group – or to be fun things to participate in. There are two successful artificial languages, it turns out – I mean, languages normal people can actually learn and hold a conversation in. You know what those are? Yeah, Esperanto (Okrent spends plenty of time on Esperanto, the greatest success story in the world of invented languages), but what do you think the other one is? Right, you got it – Klingon. That strikes me as kind of wonderful. Though I sure don’t plan to learn Klingon, which is apparently really difficult. I mean, I had a hard enough time with French in high school, so count me out for Klingon. But after reading Okrent’s book, I can see why some people get absorbed in the language as a hobby.

The guy who designed Klingon, Marc Okrand, is a linguist who got roped in for the job by Paramont. He worked out a full grammar, and it’s a wonderful job: believable, alien, difficult, flexible. Klingon is an agglutinating language that tags all kinds of prefixes and suffixes onto base words – it has twenty-six noun suffixes, twenty-nine pronominal prefixes, thirty-six verb suffixes, on and on. It has features similar to things in Italian, Turkish, Korean, Native American languages – all kinds of stuff that seems really strange if English is your native language. Okrent says the language came out “completely believable as a language, but somehow very, very odd.”

Here’s a Klingon proverb, just as an example: Dubotchugh yIpummoH – If it’s in your way, knock it down. Or literally, Du (it-you) bot (block) chugh (if) yI (imperative) pum (fall) moH (cause).

Isn’t that interesting? No, come on, isn’t it?

Compare that to this, possibly my favorite in the get-real world of invented languages:

hi jun pa bol, “ciq ven! – gozi ben gozi fu bau han ceq, kai han turo kai toilsa xaq hu sta skai. hikai gozi fu tenho feimkian por sam ke gozi be fintir ko kujai hu sta to dunia.”

Which means: “and letter-pronoun-j past speak, “invite come! I-you future build one city, and one tower and letter-pronoun-t separator-particle top which is-located-in-sky. And you-I future have-become fame-name-for-prevent that I-you passive spread-throw to all-place which is-located-in the world.”

Got that? No? Well, it started off as “Let us build a city with a tower whose top may reach unto Heaven, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”

That one is from a language called Ceqli, invented in the nineties, and apparently all that I-you pronoun-t stuff is the best it can do with the story of Babel. Wow, I’m sure that one will convert everyone away from their native languages. I do find it hard to imagine that language inventers actually think their languages are going to sweep the world, but evidently they often do think so.

And there are plenty of languages that are harder to pronounce, or harder to understand, or both. Okrent spends quite a bit of time on something called Philosophical Language, invented by John Wilkins in the sixteen hundreds, in which the words weren’t supposed to stand for things, they were actually supposed to define things. Like, everything in the universe. You couldn’t use a word without knowing exactly what you meant. Okrent says she “I settled in for a long weekend with [Wilkin’s Philosophical Language] . . . I emerged blinking and staggering, unsure of whether any word in any language meant anything at all.”

But you know what she realized, after working with Wilkin’s huge tome on his language and its concepts? Not that a conceptual language of this kind is totally impossible, she already knew that. No, she realized that Wilkins might not have invented a usuable language, but he had invented a thesaurus. How about that?

One more quick note: an otherwise completely unusable pictorial language called Blissymbolics (invented by a guy named Charles Bliss) actually is used today to communicate with children with cerebral palsy and teach them written English so they can communicate with anybody, when before they really couldn’t communicate with anybody. Bliss himself was definitely nutty and actually tried to prevent the rehab center from using his language (since they were “doing it all wrong”), but still, how many of us can say we’ve done something as important as open a doorway for communication with otherwise mute children?

Anyway, a great book.

This is a really neat book, an excellent choice to start off the new year.

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Amazing how fast Christmas Break is speeding by!

I mean, already half gone! Wow. And have I actually generated new pages for the WIP manuscript on which I intended to make progress?

Well . . . no. I must admit, no.

On the other hand! I bred one of my girls three days before Christmas and one two days after Christmas! So, whew, glad that’s over. The tornado in Mobile, AL? I am sorry for anybody whose house got flattened, but for me, the important thing is the weather didn’t stop Fed Ex from delivering the stud dog’s, um, contribution. Winter does add a little more excitement to getting all these things arranged.

So, but! That’s all done.

Just as a Gosh-Wow-Don’t-They-Just-Look-Artificial, here’s Teddy, the dog I choose for Kenya. His full name is CKCSC and AKC Ch Truluv Kiss N Tell at Jayba.

Teddy

And here’s The Prez, Adora’s long-distance boyfriend.

Seriously, aren’t they both so cute they really do look artificial? Plus, they’re both around eight and have all their health certifications in order — I’m looking forward (with luck) to beautiful, healthy, glamorous puppies that will live practically forever and will certainly not suffer from MVD, mitral valve defect, which is the bane of the breed.

A month or so until I know whether the girls caught, and in the meantime, I should be a WHOLE LOT less distracted.

I do expect to be revising one . . . or maybe two . . . manuscripts again. Hopefully not in a major way, hopefully nothing that will take too long. But you know what? Even if I do need another round of revisions, I am GOING TO WRITE SOMETHING NEW FIRST. I am sick and tired of revisions. New pages! That is the antidote to writing boredom. Or so I expect. Fifty pages in fifteen days: that shouldn’t be too hard.

Okay! Hope the rest of you are having either relaxing or productive Christmases, whichever you prefer.

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And a unexpected Christmas surprise for me!

this entryHey! You know The Book Smugglers?

Well, you should definitely go check out this entry:

Kristen at The Fantasy Book Cafe picked HOUSE OF SHADOWS as one of her six favorite books for 2012!

Yay!

Plus, the other ones Kristen recommends sound great! I’m adding all of ’em to my wishlist right now, on the grounds that she clearly has excellent taste.

Lots of other good posts over at The Book Smugglers, but you already know that, right?

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Other people are probably busy for Christmas too —

But probably I am the ONLY PERSON in the whole world who is busy not because of Christmas per se, but because two of my girls came into season just in time for Christmas. Because I’m doing artificial inseminations for them, this means daily blood tests to measure progesterone and/or LH levels, so as to find the exact right day for breeding.

So! Kenya is done! She should hopefully be pregnant as of yesterday! Yay! But for Adora, I seriously need to drive to the repro clinic in St Louis . . . let’s see . . . the day before yesterday, yesterday, today (I’m there right now), Tuesday, and I’m guessing on Thursday and Saturday next week. (That’s an hour and a half one way.) You will notice that “Tuesday” is in fact Christmas Day. I have to say, the repro vet is on my Christmas cookie list for sure. Can you imagine disarranging your Christmas by coming in specially to do blood tests on somebody’s dog?

Three cheers for reproductive specialists who REALLY CARE about doing things right! The Christmas cookie plate I brought today has about 15 kinds of cookies on it. I should be able to bring a completely different assortment on Christmas Day, since I have lots of kinds of cookies frozen over at my mother’s house (my freezer is totally packed.)

Oh, hey, and update! Just this minute found out that Adora’s very first LH test came back positive. How about that? Now we can set the breeding dates with confidence and with no need after all to upset anybody’s Christmas plans. Amazing cooperation from Adora and the universe at large.

Okay! So, a little obsessive about the dog thing right now. But! I have indeed also revised MOUNTAIN and think I will send it to my agent again after Christmas — obviously no rush, can’t imagine she’d want it to day. After the dog thing calms down, late next week probably, I should be able to rack up the words on the new manuscript, which will be satisfying.

Can’t believe how fast this Christmas Break is going. Amazing. And I still need to test out one recipe for the cookie contest. Plus four kinds of my family’s favorite cookies are still waiting to be made, too.

Later!

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I have a sudden mad urge —

To write a Sarah Addison Allen novel.

I just finished THE SUGAR QUEEN, which has a fabulous cover, btw. I mean this cover — I know there are other editions, but this is the cover I like:

And this morning I read the first two paragraphs of GARDEN SPELLS. Love it!

“Every smiley moon, without fail, Claire dreamed of her childhood. She always tried to stay awake those nights when the stars winked and the moon was just a cresting sliver smiling provocatively down at the world, the way pretty women on vintage billboards used to smile as they sold cigarettes and limeade. On those nights in the summer, Claire would garden by the light of the solar-powered footpath lamps, weeding and trimming the night bloomers — the moon vine and the angel’s trumpet, the night jasmine and the flowering tobacco. These weren’t a part of the Waverly legacy of edible flowers, but sleepless as she often was, Claire had added flowers to the garden to give herself something to do at night when she was so wound up that frustration singed the edge of her nightgown and she set tiny fires with her fingertips.”

Okay, can you imagine a more perfect beginning to a novel? I am dying to write a novel where frustration makes your fingertips catch fire, where the scent of baking cakes whispers an invitation to lost loves, where the wallpaper changes according to your mood . . . and where the mistakes you made in high school can be redeemed, rather than ruining your adult life.

Maybe I’ll take a stab at it one of these years.

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Well, my manuscript hasn’t revised itself.

Turns out even if you ignore the file for six months, it never does pull itself together for you.

Actually, though it’s taken a LOT longer to get to this revision (of The Mountain of Kept Memory, which is a title that I’m still proud of) than I hoped, and I still haven’t actually started work as such, I have some hope I’ll be able to dash through it pretty briskly. This is because I now have an outline! No, no, not an outline of the actual events in the book. An outline of the events that should be in the book but aren’t, plus an outline of how the protagonists feel about those events!

Making this weird kind of outline has been, I hope, really helpful. I now think that I may well be able to get the story into the kind of shape my editor wants. Setting the manuscript aside for six months really was helpful, even if it didn’t take the opportunity to re-work itself while I was doing other things.

So . . . at this point, I’ve decided to devote the first week of Christmas break to this project. The other aspect of this plan is that I now intend to write only 100 pages of the new project. I should be able to do that in a lot less than a month, if I need to, so I don’t have to feel stressed about putting the new project off while I work on the old.

Also! The sweet potato-ginger-chocolate chip cookies have humbled me. I frankly think I knocked my first two cookie recipes out of the park. And on the first try with each of them! I was feeling pretty smug about my talent as a baker, let me tell you. But these sweet potato cookies! Wrong, wrong, wrong texture! I want a MUCH cakier cookie. And even the flavor’s off. I need them sweeter, and also more complex.

Sigh. I’m disposing of the non-great cookies here at work, where I’m getting many comments but few complaints. The next try will be better! Probably.

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Kind of a fun post over at Janet Reid’s blog —

You have to scroll down a bit to find the one I mean, though there are several interesting posts on the way which are worth reading, too. The one I mean starts off

“Imagine for a moment you are applying to be an extra in “The Hobbit”.
The casting director asks “what makes you special?”
Your answer: “I’m the only person available for the job.”

And then it goes from there, with an illustrative photo and a useful bit of advice: Don’t claim that your book is the only one ever written on the subject of, say, sandwich cookies, unless you KNOW FOR SURE THAT IS TRUE.

That actually kind of reminds me of a similar issue that from time to time comes up when I’m reading about (say) the behavior of wolves and the author of the article or book says: “This behavior is totally unknown except in wolves!” And I know that actually very similar behavior is also seen in dwarf mongooses, grasshopper mice, and Harris’ hawks.

So, Janet Reid’s advice to queriers: Know your stuff. Good advice for us all!

She also has an entertaining query up front-and-center at QueryShark right now, also worth a glance, even if you’re not interested in advice about how to query your very own novel.

And! On the subject of sandwich cookies, which you saw me work cleverly into this post! I have created an ABSOLUTELY KILLER ginger chocolate cookie, which I am convinced is the VERY BEST ginger chocolate cookie EVER CREATED. I will share the recipe with you all after the Scharffen Berger contest closes. A contest which has already been worthwhile, btw, because of THIS COOKIE I HAVE CREATED.

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Recent reading: Liveship Traders

Okay . . . over the past couple of weeks, I very slowly worked my way through SHIP OF MAGIC, MAD SHIP, and SHIP OF DESTINY by Robin Hobb.

Honestly . . . I can’t decide what I think of them. They’re solidly in the modern-epic-fantasy subgenre. Lots of pov characters, lots of intersecting plotlines.

The difference between this trilogy and George RR Martin’s series is: nobody important gets killed in the first book. Actually, I don’t think anybody really important gets killed at all.

The difference between this trilogy and Joe Abercrombe’s BEST SERVED COLD trilogy is that all the characters either become better people over time, or at least don’t start off as decent people and then become corrupted, weak, and/or evil. And one of the more evil characters? Turns out there’s a very good reason for why he is the way he is, and I don’t mean a pseudopsychological explanation involving unhappy childhoods. (Though he also had an unhappy childhood, but seriously, that wasn’t why he was the way he was.)

When I started this trilogy, I was pretty sure I would wind up giving it away. And maybe I will. But I ended up liking it a lot better than I thought I would, largely because of the characters growing up and changing in good ways over the course of the books.

We have The Willful, Headstrong Heiress, Althea. I am not a big fan of the Willful, Headstrong Heroine in general, but Althea was not as annoying as some and she did turn out well.

Then there’s her niece, the Other Willful, Headstrong Heiress, Malta, who is also selfish and stupid. Thank the Lord, she grows up a LOT and becomes a very different kind of person by the end. Plus, she turns out not to be stupid after all, once she gets over being ultimately self-centered.

There’s the Dispossessed Son Trying To Prove Himself. Brashen does okay, though. He’s flawed in believable and not-too-serious ways and he really is a competent guy.

There’s the Evil Pirate, Kennit, who turns out to be very interesting, though ordinarily I’m not at all interested in seeing the pov of the bad guys. Too, too tedious. But he’s a sociopath trying to pass himself off as a good guy, which raises all these questions about what it means to be a good guy. I mean, if you do all these good-guy things, but don’t feel it, are you a good guy after all? Or not?

There’s the Whore-Turned-Pirate-Queen, Etta. Okay, I DID love Etta, right from the first.

We have the Oppressed Wife, Keffria, who takes longer to stand on her own two feet than seems strictly necessary. And her Evil Husband, who raises the question: Is he actually insane? Or just extremely selfish and stupid?

And Ronica, her mother, who works so hard to protect her family, against considerable odds. Though if she hadn’t supported Kyle over Althea in the beginning, well, whatever. I guess that would have changed the plot a whole lot.

And the Satrap’s Companion of the Heart, whose name I unfortunately have forgotten, who has some pretty dramatic ups and downs when it comes to coping with her life. Granted, she has a lot to contend with from time to time, but she’s definitely making more of her own problems than some of the others.

There’s The Boy Priest, Whitrow, who does enough stupid, stupid things in the first book to nearly make me give up on the whole book. Like: leaving the ship with no money and planning just to wing it on your way back to the monastery? This is your plan? And then letting yourself get drawn in to the very first altercation that you pass? It’s not like all his trouble is of his own making, but his worst trouble sure is.

And Reyn, who listens to dragons a bit too much, or just enough, whatever.

There’s the mad liveship, Paragon. Actually, Paragon was almost the only character I found interesting in the first book — the others grew on me later, but Paragon was always fascinating. We barely see him in the first book, though.

There’s the other liveship, Vivacia. I liked her, except when her Evil Twin took over for a while.

And last — the serpents! I like them fine. They are not exactly nice or pleasant, but they are interesting and not at all human. And the dragon herself is SUCH a selfish, egotistical creature, but I guess I can see why. Not that I liked her. Very interesting, for Robin Hobb to choose to create really unlikeable dragons.

I think that’s, what, fourteen point-of-view characters? Excessive much?

Still, there’s no doubt Hobb is a good writer. And okay, okay, yes, it did work out in ways that made me like it. I’m glad I read it all the way through. Really. But I’m not sure I will ever read it again, so I think it is still destined for the give-away pile.

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