Monthly Archives: August 2010

The Magicians of Caprona

Jones, Diana Wynne. The Magicians of Caprona (2001 ed.) 273 Pages. Greenwillow Books. $6.99

The Chronicles of Chrestomanci

As I’ve said (repeatedly, I think) I owned quite a few incarnations of the Chrestomanci series. I’ve misplaced them all, and replaced them all at least once. I did, however, get this one from the library, because it is at the “lost, not yet replaced” point in the cycle of Diana Wynne Jones books. So, when Diana Wynne Jones Week rolled around, I grabbed this from the library, hoping I could squeeze it in, but obviously that did not happen. Regardless, I’ve kept going.

War is looming over the Italian city-state of Caprona, and an unknown enchanter threatens everything that Paolo and Tonino Montana have ever known. Casa Montana may be one of the most powerful spell-houses in Caprona*, but without the help of their rivals (the Petrocchis) they may not be able to do a thing.

With invasion imminent, and both spell houses afraid to use magic, it may be up to some of the smallest family members to save the city.

Some books do not stand up to re-reading, because they rely upon the surprise factor, or because the plot holes become more evident with familiarity. This is not one of those books. Despite the fact that I knew the twists, and the surprises, and the villain, I still enjoyed the mystery, and watching the characters discover things I already knew.

In Conclusion:

If you’ve read any Chrestomanci books, you’ll likely at least enjoy this one. There is more of a cameo than a real involvement, as Italy is very far outside of England (and thus Chrestomanci’s official office). It is not crucial to the understanding of the series (though it does relate to a short story in Mixed Magics, where Tonino and Cat bond. Reading the book before the short-story will keep spoilers at bay.) This particular story gets a 5/5, because it was a very, very fun read.

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* It took serious effort not to type “Verona,” “Montague” and “Capulet.”

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I got the omnibus edition from the library, because while I own it, I cannot find my copy anywhere. This copy is pretty well “loved,” and since I’m participating in the Dogeared Reading Challenge, I’ll share a few photos of just how well “loved” it is. This one is worth 6 points.

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Filed under Book Review, Children's Fiction, Fantasy, High Fantasy, Young Adult Fiction

Enchanted Glass

Jones, Diana Wynne. Enchanted Glass (2010). 292 Pages. Greenwillow Books. $16.99

Because I feel like I should open with a synopsis, and because I am not sure I can come up with one on my own, we shall use the cover synopsis;

Aidan Cain has had the worst week of his life. His gran died, he was sent to a foster home, and now malicious beings are stalking him. There is one person Gran told Aidan to go to if he ever got into trouble– a powerful sorcerer who lives at Melstone House.

But when Aiden arrives on the doorstep, he finds that the sorcerer’s grandson, Andrew, has inherited the house. The good news is that Aiden can tell immediately that Andrew’s brimming with magic, too– and so is everyone else at Melstone. The bad news is that Andrew doesn’t remember anything his grandfather taught him. Chaos is swiftly rising, and he has no idea how to control it. A sinister neighbor is stealing power from the land, magic is leaking between realms… and it’s only a matter of time before the Stalkers find Aidan.

If Aidan and Andrew can harness their own magics, they may be able to help each other. But can they do it before the entire countryside comes apart at the seams?

I finished this book on the 16th, but I’ve been trying to figure out what, exactly to say about Enchanted Glass. As a whole, I really loved it. I hadn’t read any reviews, and I didn’t even read the synopsis before I cracked it open and began to read. I really felt absorbed into the story, and I was really attached to the characters. Andrew and Aiden were amazing, their relationship fascinated me.

Less fascinating, and more irritating was Mrs. Stock. I hated her, and saw absolutely no reason to keep her around. All she did was vengefully hide things, move furniture, and make cauliflower cheese. She did not do a single good thing in the entire novel except bring Shaun into the story. I felt like she was a superfluous character who could easily have been combined with a different character and the story would have been just fine. Only a shade less annoying and superfluous was Mr. Stock, because he brought in the vegetables, which connected to an actual plot, and he periodically did something, like get Stashe and Tarquin into the story.

That aside, I really felt like I was reading a good fantasy novel with a large dash of mystery, until I hit the last two pages, and my good fantasy novel was ruined. Really, what the hell was with that letter, and why didn’t the characters react properly to the revelation within? “Oh, wonder if we’ll mention it…” is not appropriate. Shock, awe, disgust, something along those lines I could have handled, but an “oh, it was so obvious” made me gnash my teeth and left me feeling completely unsatisfied. It was like when I got to the end of Harry Potter, and there was that convenient bit of deus ex machina that resolved everything almost-happily-ever-after*.

In Conclusion:

While I loved the story, I felt like this had some weaknesses that really distracted me from the main plot. My annoyance at Mrs. Stock is one thing– every time she came into the scene, I had to consciously mellow out. Mrs Stock aside, I really did enjoy the story, and I was enthralled, until the letter at the end. That just ruined it for me. I’d say “I don’t know why I’m having such an extreme reaction,” but that would be a lie. Spoiler Warning: I’m having such an extreme reaction because I’m picturing an old dude having sex with a teen. He was an old dude of “a great old age,” and she was at most in her early 20s, from the way the narrative was going. All I can see in my head is a nasty old man knocking up a teenage girl. Then sending her home to her mother. What. The. Fuck. DWJ? End Spoiler Warning! Highlight between points A and B to read. I apologize to anyone who can inadvertently see the white text. If we disregard the bit that angered me so very much at the end, it gets a 5/5, but I think that page must be counted towards its score, so it gets a 4/5.

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* Poor Fred. That made me so very sad. The whole list of dead wizards made me cry (no, not kidding) but Fred most especially.

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Filed under Adult Fiction, Book Review, Fantasy, High Fantasy, Mystery & Suspense, Young Adult Fiction

The Midwife’s Apprentice

Cushman, Karen. The Midwife’s Apprentice (1995). 117 Pages. Clarion Books. $10.95

It may have only taken me an hour to read, but a lot gets packed into this slim book. There’s a lot about 14th-century life, a lot about classes, and a lot of old midwife “magic” crammed into a shade over 100 pages. Somehow, it works, without being too overwhelming.

The book opens with a young girl climbing into a dung-heap to sleep, because it will at the very least be warm. It is because of this decision that the local Midwife decides to give her a few odd jobs, in the hopes that she will be useful. The Midwife calls her Dung-Beetle (Beetle for short) and the name sticks. Too cowed from years of being homeless, Beetle does not protest.

The Midwife is mean. She’s harsh, demanding, and distrustful. She brings Beetle along to births as a packmule, rather than a true apprentice. She doesn’t hesitate to make a woman give birth alone if she can’t come up with money, or enough goods. But Beetle is not stupid, and manages to learn some things on her own.

Things truly begin to change when Beetle has to go to a local fair for the Midwife. It is here that she dubs herself “Alyce,” and begins to find a new identity. The journey from nameless girl at the beginning of the book to Alyce at the end is what makes this book significant.

It’s meant to be meaningful to children at the end of elementary though junior high, when they’re also struggling to find themselves. It’s a sort of “you are who you make yourself” thing, because Beetle/Alyce rises against all odds, with nobody expecting her to be anything, and manages to find an identity, and a life that suits. There are a couple scenes where characters are truly cruel, but I think that despite this, it is a good book for the intended age. Children can be amazing, but they can also be horrible to each other, so cruelty is not exactly a bad thing to deal with in this book.

In Conclusion:

I remember loving this book when I was in the target age group. Now, I just liked it. Averaging the scores, it gets a 4/5, because it isn’t bad by any means. There are some scenes I didn’t like, but that’s because I’m a softie. Alyce/Beetle deals with them, and preteens often deal with awful things they do to each other. Don’t read this book with your “adult” mindset, try instead to read it as a “kid,” and you’ll see why it was Newberry worthy.

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Filed under Book Review, Children's Fiction, Fantasy, Realistic Fiction

Alchemy and Meggy Swann

Cushman, Karen. Alchemy and Meggy Swann (2010). 159 Pages. Clarion Books. $16.00

Margaret Swann has never been a normal girl. Deformed since birth, she has been treated as an outcast, as a tainted soul, cursed by a demon while still in the womb. She’s called “witch” or other more awful names. When Meggy leaves her small town for London, there is no love lost between herself and those she is leaving behind. Despite that, she almost immediately wants to go home, back to her mother’s alehouse, back to what is familiar, if not welcoming.

In London, she is told she has been “summoned” by a man Meggy only knows as “Master Peevish.” It is revealed to her that Master Peevish is an Alchemist, that he expected an able-bodied boy, not a crippled girl, and that he is her father. Her relationship to her father is distant– he never knew anything about her, having been too absorbed in his “science” to stay at a small alehouse in a small town. When he realizes that Meggy’s legs will stop her from being the ideal servant, he ignores her. There is little to say about Meggy and her father, and what there is to say should be read about, rather than spoiled here.

Because people from Meggy’s old village were superstitious, and fell into the category of “cripples were cursed by the devil,” she has never really had friends. The one exception to this is Louise, her pet goose, who was also crippled in a way. Unfortunately, one of the first things Louise does in London is annoy Master Peevish, so Meggy must re-home her only friend. With some help from Roger (her father’s ex-servant/apprentice) Meggy manages to find a place for Louise where nobody will eat her.*

Then, Meggy must learn to make her own way in London. Roger has always been friendly to her, but he is busy now, working with an troupe of players. The cooper next-door is kind, but has his own problems to worry about. There are many other people that Meggy meets while running errands for her father, or trying to fill her stomach. Through her adventuring, she figures out that people can be kind, and that she, herself is kind sometimes.

There are more life-lessons for Meggy before the book is through. Things happen which make her realize that she is strong, despite her disability, and that she can make her own fate instead of having it made for her. Like Cushman’s other heroines, Meggy is a strong girl, and she does alright, in the end.

In Conclusion:

Meggy is the sort of heroine you’re rooting for, despite her being a bit of a jerk in the beginning. She softens, over time, as she realizes that not everyone hates her. The language is a bit dense at times, but if you just keep going, you adjust, (much like Scones and Sensibility) and by the end the language feels natural. There’s a bit of a blurb at the back about the history included in the story, which crams a bit of extra education in there.

Overall, I feel like this was a good book, though I definitely prefer some of Cushman’s other titles a bit more. It scores a 3.5/5– I liked it, but I’m not going to be rushing out to buy my own copy any time soon.

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* When I was a kid, my parents got me one bunny. But, they thought, the bunny might be lonely. We’ll get him a friend! Which might have been fine, if the bunnies hadn’t then err… bred like rabbits. We went from one, to two, to five, to thirteen or fourteen at the peak. I gave away bunnies to anyone who would take them if they would promise to never eat it. Of all the animals I’ve kept as pets, chickens are the only ones I’ll eat, because they were dumb and smelly and annoying. Bunnies are soft and snuggly and friendly, and the idea of eating one freaks me out.

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Harumph

Yes, I did just type out “harumph,” and I will mention that I am quite cranky while I do it. For the past several days, I have been attempting to read a variety of books, and I have come up against a brick wall more than once. I cannot bring myself to read some of the books that I’ve picked from my shelves, or have picked up from the library recently. There are a few in particular worth mentioning, and then I am going to share some pictures of my bookshelf. Continue reading

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Jane Bites Back

Ford, Michael Thomas. Jane Bites Back (2009). 320 Pages. Ballantine Books. $14.00

Have you ever picked up a book, and not expected anything from it, but been pleasantly surprised? Jane Bites Back was an impulse-grab off the new books shelves at the library. I was just there to pick up my holds. “I promise, I’ll be done in just a minute. I’m only grabbing one book and I’ll be right back!” My unfortunate (and non-bibliophilic) boyfriend does not enjoy trips to the library, so when he comes along I try to hurry. It works well if I’m attempting to limit myself to my holds.

Anyway, Jane Bites Back was on the shelf, and I couldn’t help picking it up. It’s even got a cover-blurb by Seth Grahame-Smith (of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) mentioning that it’s lovable. Having not loved anything about Pride and Prejudice and Zombies any of the several times I tried to read it, I took it as dubious praise at best. But I let myself get it (and Queen Victoria: Demon Hunter) off the new-books shelves.

I made the mistake of reading it while we drove home. Three chapters in, I realized that we were home, and that I was sitting in the car in our parking space. Whoops. It’s that good though. The premise is silly, but it somehow works– Ford is an author, writing about an author (Austen) who is writing about an author (Constance). Ultimately, Ford is writing an Austen-inspired book about an un-dead Austen who wholeheartedly disapproves of Austen-inspired books. It’s really quite funny how this works out.

A little over 200 years ago, Jane Austen was turned into a vampire. Shortly after, she “died,” and has been living under a series of pseudonyms ever since. In the last few years, she has become Jane Fairfax and purchased a bookstore in the town of Brakeston, NY. Due to a recent Austen craze, Jane has seen a lot of spin-offs and rip-offs appear (making her long for royalties and recognition she will never receive) and as a result is rather irritated that hacks who use her name can get published, while she cannot sell her own manuscript to anyone. It’s a failure, she knows this because she’s been trying to get Constance published since she “died,” and it’s still only a manuscript.

So, when she finally gets a letter from Kelly Littlejohn saying that Constance is brilliantly Austenesque, and that they would love to publish it, Jane is surprised. That is not the only one in store for her, and unfortunately not all of them are quite so pleasant. A “dark man from her past” (back cover) makes an unwelcome reappearance in her life, and makes unwanted advances. Meanwhile, Jane struggles to come to terms with her attraction to Walter Fletcher– a local carpenter– who Jane has refused repeatedly.

As if romantic entanglements weren’t enough for Jane to deal with, she’s also got a publicity tour– to Chicago and New Orleans– for her book. Things get really complicated while she’s away from home, and a surprising new villain appears in the latter half of the book (to help set it up for the sequel Jane Goes Batty from Ballantine Books, due February 2011.)

The book ends well, but leaves some things unfinished. It was clearly setting up for a sequel which will be out next year.

In Conclusion:

I really loved Jane as a narrator and a character– especially the way she changes– and I feel like she is a large part of the reason that I enjoyed this book. You want to like her (not just because she’s Jane-Freaking-Austen) and you root for her. The prose is solid, and the story is really fun, and light. There is a lot which is clearly being set up for future novels– not the least of which is Jane’s revelation of vampirism to loved ones (and how she avoids discovery). Perhaps it is because I didn’t expect anything from it, though I’m more inclined to think that this was just a surprisingly good book, but this novel gets a 5/5.

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Goose Chase

Kindl, Patrice. Goose Chase (2010 ed). 214 Pages. Sandpiper. $5.99

Not exactly the cover I read...

Alexandria Aurora Fortunato is a sassy narrator who tells her story with panache. It opens strong, and keeps up the pace and wit throughout. She starts in the middle, works her way back to the beginning, and then finally gets to the end.

The King killed my canary today.

Now, I know full well that the customary way to begin such a tale as mine is: “Once upon a time, when wishes still came true, there lives a poor orphan Goose Girl,” or some such fiddle-faddle. But what do I care for custom? ‘Tis my own story I am telling and I will tell it as I please. And as I find myself plunged into it right up to the neck, I see no reason why you should not be also. (1)

The book was re-released recently with a new cover (right), though I think I prefer the old cover a bit more. Anyway, our narrator and heroine is Alexandria Aurora Fortunato who is, when we first meet her, locked in a tower. A King and a Prince await her decision as to which of them she will marry. Unwilling to choose, and unable to accept the consequences of her decision either way, she stalls for time by insisting that she be allowed to make her own solid gold wedding dress. She will not marry either until it is complete.

Alexandria gains quite a bit of time when her geese manage to save her from the tower and fly her far away, but it is almost worse in the wilderness than the tower. Sure, she no longer has to deal with the issues surrounding her choice between the Prince or the King, but she’s been grabbed by a group of ogresses, and she’s not entirely sure how to escape. Her enchanted hair certainly isn’t helping her case.

Then, just when Alexandria begins to think that things simply cannot get any worse, the Prince is captured by the ogresses. Somehow, Alexandria has to save both their skins, because there is quite a bit more adventure ahead of them.

The climax is hardly surprising, and the ending is completely expected, if you’re familiar with “The Wild Swans,” though it is not the same story, exactly.

In Conclusion:

With surprisingly strong prose, and a vocabulary which feels a bit dense, even for the junior-high readers it targets, this novel can even be enjoyed by adults. Alexandria is a solid narrator, and a good character who draws you in, and keeps you interested in her story. There are a few things which don’t seem to sync up; The Prince starts out dumb, but without explanation seems to get smarter when it’s convenient, which is rather frustrating. As a whole though, it’s a solid story which I enjoyed reading. It gets a 4/5.

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Filed under Book Review, Fairy Tales Retold, Fantasy, High Fantasy, Romance, Young Adult Fiction

Howl’s Moving Castle

Jones, Diana Wynne. Howl’s Moving Castle (2001 ed.) 329 Pages. Greenwillow Books. $6.99

They always say “save the best for last,” so I have opted to save my favorite Diana Wynne Jones book to conclude Diana Wynne Jones week. It’s been nothing but fun, reading long-time favorites and books I didn’t know existed. The book which has stuck with me the longest, and which I think I enjoyed the most out of all of DWJ’s novels is Howl’s Moving Castle, because it so seamlessly melds fairy-tale conventions and adventure and twists and turns to become such a solid and excellent fantasy novel. Let us begin with the beginning:

In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three. Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to seek your fortunes.

Sophie Hatter was the eldest of three sisters. She was not even the child of a poor woodcutter, which might have given her some chance of success.

So begins one of the few books which I can safely list as a favorite novel of all time.

Sophie Hatter has resigned herself to a boring life, running her family’s hat shop. As the eldest, it’s a “fact” that she will never become anything, that her adventures will fail, and that she has nothing to look forward to but mediocrity. After Sophie’s sisters — Lettie and Martha– are apprenticed away from the shop, Sophie’s life is exactly what she expected; quiet and average. Everything changes when the Witch of the Waste appears at the hat shop, and curses Sophie, turning her into an old lady.

Something about being old makes Sophie fearless, so she heads out to Wizard Howl’s Moving Castle in the waste. There she meets Calcifer the fire demon, and enters into a deal– she’ll break his contract, and he’ll find a way to remove the Witch’s spell. It sounds like a fair enough bargain, so Sophie agrees, and so begins the first adventure of Sophie’s life. Life with Howl is nothing like what she expected, and the “freedom” of old age allows her to grow from the quiet, fearful girl she is at the beginning into the strong adult she is by the end.

There’s a lot more that I cannot say without spoiling the book (which would be a horrible thing to do), so I’ll leave it at that. Almost nothing is what it seems at first glance, and by the end of the novel everything has resolved itself in a thoroughly satisfying way. There are more books which form this “series,” though Sophie only makes cameos later, rather than being the central character.

In Conclusion:

If you like fantasy adventures, then this is not the book to miss. It’s got adventure, intrigue, magic, and romance. The narration is excellent, the characters intriguing, and the story enthralling. It’s one of my all-time favorites, so it gets an unquestionable 5/5.

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On an aside, there is a Studio Ghibli interpretation of Howl’s Moving Castle, which is a beautiful, enjoyable movie. However, it falls into the genre of “inspired by the book” rather than being true to it. Martha disappears, Michael becomes a child, Howl is a bird-monster, Sophie a brunette, the Witch a blob. Calcifer is still Calcifer, but that’s because the whole premise rides upon  his… flames. It is a very, very good movie if you’re interested in animated movies which were inspired by books.

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As part of the Dogeared Reading Challenge, I’ll be documenting the “loved” shape this volume is in with a couple pictures. It’s been pretty well beaten, with that beautiful curve that spines get when they’ve been read too many times. This particular book is worth 5 points on the beaten-scale. The cover is actually a separate entity from the book, it’s held on by tape and a bit of glue. I wish I had a book-repair setup, so I could fix this book before I return it to the library. That’s the thing I miss the most from my student-assistant job.

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Filed under Book Review, Fantasy, High Fantasy, Romance, Young Adult Fiction

Diana Wynne Jones Week

August 1 – 7, 2010: Diana Wynne Jones Week

This week, Jenny’s Books is hosting a Diana Wynne Jones week, in which we all choose to appreciate the works of a very prolific (and talented) author. Every day this week, I hope to read and review a different Diana Wynne Jones book. (And since I’m such a D.W.J. fangirl, I think it will be incredibly easy to bring myself to read her novels.)

There are a lot of good books to choose from, and I hope to get a chance to read them all eventually, but the goal for this week is to read seven of them. I’ll edit this post each time to include all new D.W.J. reviews.

Wish me luck. Continue reading

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Filed under Children's Fiction, Fantasy, High Fantasy, Not a Book Review, Young Adult Fiction

Mixed Magics (Anthology)

Jones, Diana Wynne. Mixed Magics (2000). 138 Pages. Greenwillow Books. $15.89

The Chronicles of Chrestomanci

This book satisfies two challenges, and fits into this week’s theme, which is a strange realization. Mixed Magics is a Chrestomanci-themed anthology which features four stories. Cat and Christopher show up in all of them, getting their fingers into the various tales and changing the way they play out.

In the first story, “Warlock at the Wheel,” we again meet the Willing Warlock from Charmed Life— this time, without his powers. Desperate for a new shot, he goes to a seedy wizard named Jean-Pierre, who sends him to another world. Things don’t go the way he expects, and he ends up with a new chance which revolves around a terrible job. Neither Christopher nor Cat actually show up in person, but their involvement reveals itself eventually.

“Stealer of Souls” has Cat and Tonino (from Magicians of Caprona), and a mystery that they have to get to the root of. Gabriel de Witt– Christopher Chant’s predecessor– makes an appearance as well, though he is a feeble old man at this point, and his lives are leaving him rapidly. In his moments upon his death-bed, Gabriel mentions something very important to Cat and Tonino– something which could help save them. There are cameos of quite a few characters from The Lives of Christopher Chant, which makes this a fun read if you’ve already read that story.

Next is “Carol Oneir’s Hundredth Dream” which was a very surreal story, actually. It didn’t quite feel like it fit within the Chrestomanci universe, though apparently Christopher gets involved in this story as well. I don’t really like Carol, I think she’s a very annoying character. However, the idea behind the story, and the plot itself is absolutely fascinating. I couldn’t stop mid-story to put this one down for anything. I don’t want to say much, because it is a very short story, but Carol Oneir is something like a star-director of dreams; she controls best-selling dreams which are recorded and released to the public for mass consumption. When she gets to her hundredth dream, however, she stalls, and ends up speaking with Chrestomanci. (Ok, so maybe I said much, but I don’t think I spoiled anything…)

The last story in the book is “The Sage of Theare,” which has a very mythological flavor to it. The gods of Theare are obsessed with order, and so have a major crisis when they realize that they have prophesied that Theare will fall upon the arrival of the Sage of Dissolution. One of the gods believes that the sage might be his son, and so he dumps his son in another world. (It just happens to be Chrestomanci’s world, conveniently.) This story is interesting, but a bit forgettable.

In Conclusion:

Diana Wynne Jones is a fabulous author with a knack for strong prose and realistic characters. The fact that these stories are in Chrestomanci’s world without being about the reigning Chrestomanci is impressive, and makes them quite enjoyable. When all is said and done, I did not enjoy “Warlock at the Wheel” or “The Sage of Theare” all that much, and so this volume only gets a 4/5.

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