BOOK REVIEW: The Velderet by Cecilia Tan

The VelderetThe Velderet by Cecilia Tan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The dual protagonists of this novel, Merin and Kobi, live in a society in which equality is the supreme value, and in which sexual freedom is nearly complete (except where it bumps up against the aforementioned value.) For many, this would be a utopia, but the problem for Merin and Kobi is that they crave subjugation. That might seem an unusual desire, but one need not look far to see how urges develop for little apparent reason other than a person being told that such activities are prohibited or taboo. Merin is a straight female serving as legislative worker bee. Kobi is a bisexual male who bartends at a leisure club that not only serves drinks but facilitates virtual reality cyber-sex. The two are roommates (part of equality is a pairing of unattached without consideration of gender or sexual orientation), and one evening in a buzz-fed stupor Kobi admits that he would like to know what it’s like to be enslaved.

This story in which these two try to figure out how to develop an underground community of those who revel in power dynamics as part of sexual activities, plays out in a larger geo-political and historical context. It turns out that the reason that this society (i.e. the Belledonians) is so keen on equality in all activities is that they were once a slave-owning empire, and they basically killed off another race of people who they’d enslaved (i.e. the Gehrish.) So, it’s a guilt-driven policy. As the individual level actions play out, this society is in trade and security negotiations with the Kylarans, a more technologically advanced society that still practices slavery. There is a fear that the Kylarans might decide not to trade as equals but to colonize the Belldonians.

The resolution of the story brings this sadomasochism fight club story line into contact with the larger geo-political story, and that raises the stakes and presents one with varying philosophical stances on the dominant – submissive relationship. While the Belledonians had brutally oppressed the race they subjugated (i.e. the Gehrish,) the Kylarans have a much more traditional, protocol-driven, and complex approach to these power dynamic driven relations. For example, leaders must spend time as slaves before they can progress upward in the chain of command.

As I hope has been made clear, this book combines erotica with sci-fi and sex scenes are ubiquitous and kinky. Readers who are squeamish about such matter will probably want to steer clear. However, if one isn’t disturbed by sex, and sexual power play, this story is readable and intriguing. I would recommend it for those who are intrigued by stories at the nexus of science fiction and erotica.

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BOOK REVIEW: Careless Whispers: Pritish Nandy Recreates the Best of Sanskrit Love Poetry

Careless Whispers: Pritish Nandy Recreates the Best of Sanskrit Love PoetryCareless Whispers: Pritish Nandy Recreates the Best of Sanskrit Love Poetry by Pritish Nandy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 

This is the third in a series of [at least] three short, illustrated collections of love poetry. As with the others in the series, the poems are said to be based upon the work of historical poets though not – strictly speaking – translations of these poets’ work. The books were release in 1994 by Rupa & Co. with the sub-subtitle of “Classic India: Images of Love.” This book is different from the preceding volumes in a couple of ways that result in it having a different feel. First, the poems anthologize from the works of various poets rather than having a single inspiration. Second, they changed artists, and the artwork bears little resemblance to the previous volumes except with respect to being erotic in subject matter.

The book begins with a short introduction by Nandy that seeks to both introduce the reader to the anthology which serves as the basis for the poems included, as well as to explain that the poems are not translations but rather work with the gist of that poet’s verse to create new works, and why he took that approach. The source matter is said to have been originally anthologized by a Bengali Buddhist scholar named Vidyakara.

Beyond the introduction, the 50-ish pages are covered with poems and black and white line drawings. The poems are sparse free verse poems. Unlike the previous collections, it is quite clear where one poem begins and the next ends because these are attributed to different authors.

The artist who did the drawings is M. F. Husain. The drawings are not only monochrome, but are more crudely drawn and stylistic. (I’m not suggesting the artist is less skillful. They may well be purposely cruder, intending to reflect a historical artistic style rather than being modernistic like the previous volumes. The previous volumes’ art was very 1980’s.)

Despite the campiness of the titles, which are based on American pop tunes or romantic pop culture references, these books have insightful moments amid language that can sometimes drip with cliché and bland – if lustful — imagery.

If you read love poetry and run across a copy of this book, it’s worth a read.

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BOOK REVIEW: Unchained Melody: Pritish Nandy Rediscovers the Love Poems of Amaru

Unchained Melody: Pritish Nandy Rediscovers the Love Poems of AmaruUnchained Melody: Pritish Nandy Rediscovers the Love Poems of Amaru by Pritish Nandy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 

This is the second in a series of [at least] three short, illustrated collections of love poetry. As with the others in the series, the poems are said to be based upon the work of historical poets (in this case, Amaru) though not – strictly speaking – translations of their work. The books were release in 1994 by Rupa & Co. with the sub-subtitle of “Classic India: Images of Love.”

The book begins with a short introduction by Nandy that seeks to both introduce the reader to Amaru and to explain that the poems are not translations but rather work with the gist of that poet’s verse to create new works, and why he took that approach. Amaru was a Sixth Century poet and anthologist. As for why Nandy rewrote, rather than translating from the Sanskrit, he offers an Italian quote that says that poetry translations are like women, “the more beautiful, the more unfaithful.”

Beyond the introduction, the 50-ish pages are covered with poems and colorful drawings. The poems are sparse free verse poems, and it’s not always clear where one is meant to begin and another end. Because the topic throughout is love, sex, and romance, and the imagery thereof, the poems often flow together — whether that was intended or not is not clear. One can choose to read them as short pieces or as a longer flowing pieces.

The artist who did color drawings (the look to be colored pencil drawings) is Samir Mondal. The plates are always erotic, sometimes symbolically so, but in most cases explicitly so – involving nude figures or sensuous lips.

Despite the campiness of the titles, which are based on American pop tunes or romantic pop culture references, these books have insightful moments amid language that can sometimes drip with cliche and bland – if lustful — imagery.

If you read love poetry and run across a copy of this book, it’s worth a read.

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BOOK REVIEW: Untamed Heart: Pritish Nandy Rediscovers the Love Poems of Bhartrhari

Untamed Heart: Pritish Nandy Rediscovers the Love Poems of BhartrhariUntamed Heart: Pritish Nandy Rediscovers the Love Poems of Bhartrhari by Pritish Nandy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 

This is the first in a series of [at least] three short, illustrated collections of love poetry. As with the others in the series, the poems are said to be based upon the work of historical poets (in this case, Bhartrhari) though not – strictly speaking – translations of their work. The books were release in 1994 by Rupa & Co. with the sub-subtitle of “Classic India: Images of Love.”

The book begins with a short introduction by Nandy that seeks to both introduce the reader to Bhartrhari and to explain that the poems are not translations but rather work with the gist of that poet’s verse to create new works, and why he took that approach.

Beyond the introduction, the 50-ish pages are covered with poems and colorful drawings. The poems are sparse free verse poems, and it’s not always clear where one is meant to begin and another end. Because the topic throughout is love, sex, and romance, and the imagery thereof, the poems often flow together — whether that was intended or not is not clear.

The artist who did color drawings (the look to be colored pencil drawings) is Samir Mondal. The plates are always erotic, sometimes symbolically so, but in most cases explicitly so – involving nude figures or sensuous lips.

Despite the campiness of the titles, which are based on American pop tunes (except this one which appears to be taken from an American romantic comedy film), these books have insightful moments amid language that can sometimes drip with cliche and bland – if lustful — imagery.

If you read love poetry and run across a copy of this book, it’s worth a read.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Autobiography of a Flea by Anonymous (Stanislas de Rhodes)

The Autobiography of a FleaThe Autobiography of a Flea by Stanislas de Rhodes
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“The Autobiography of a Flea” is a historical work of erotica first published in the late 19th century anonymously, and later was attributed to Stanislas de Rhodes. Like the works of the Marquis de Sade, the book is simultaneously a socio-political commentary and philosophical novel. While the erotic elements tend to not be as extreme and perverse as Sade’s work, it shares in common a philosophy of society and a disdain for the clergy and the aristocracy / upper class (Sade’s work was earlier and straddled the French Revolution, and so things had changed on this front.) But, for example, in this book, two lascivious and hypocritical clergymen play key roles in the story that would not be unfamiliar to Sade’s readers.

The story starts with discussions (and wagers) regarding a competition that is coming up between women who work for the village’s main employer, a vintner. Whichever woman tramples the most grapes, wins a substantial prize. Our narrator is a libidinous, little flea who follows the sexual antics taking place in this French village. From the flea, we learn about the competition through discussion before, during, and after amore by two village couples. Two women who are likely to be front-runners make a salacious wager that involves the other’s husband. Each woman confesses the wager to her respective husband, but the husbands each have confidence in his wife to win, and so neither is concerned about the competition. Little do any of them know, the vintner has stacked the deck in favor of the fairest maiden in the village, who he intends to marry – despite the fact that he is old, feeble, and disgusting.

This fair (re: young and gorgeous) maiden has a suitor, and she is about to be intimate with him for the first time, when the village priest interrupts them. The priest then uses his knowledge to manipulate the young woman to his benefit. (Ultimately, he is joined by an English priest on sabbatical who involves himself with a couple village widows as well as in the priest’s nefarious plot.) The village priest simultaneously seeks to please the vintner (because the old man is the church’s leading patron), and at the same time he pursues his own pleasure. So, the young woman is forced into marriage, and into allowing consummation of said marriage — though the old vintner repeatedly shows himself not up to the task and is usually comically premature.

The author echoes a theme from Sade’s philosophy, which a society that is anarchic under its feeble institutions, i.e. in which the strong do whatever they please to the weak. The lead character, the maiden, is constantly humiliated and run roughshod over whenever she tries to move against the flow of this anarchy. Counting on the strong to behave virtuously only gets her punished and humiliated. It’s only when she starts moving with the flow so as to game the system by acknowledging and heeding this power disparity that she starts to see success in getting her way.

As with the Marquis de Sade’s work, this book could correctly be claimed to be excessively pessimistic and Hobbsean (philosopher and author of “The Leviathan” who believed people were brutish and self-interested.) I found it to be cleverer and less gratuitous than the works by Sade that I’ve read. Both the use of the narrating flea to give the reader a well-established point of view and the story — which exists (in contrast to many works in this genre, including Sade’s work “120 Days of Sodom.”) I’d recommend this book for readers of historical fiction and erotica (particularly if one enjoys — or can tolerate — the sado-masochistic dynamic.)

[Note: there are a couple versions of this book, but – as near as I can tell – the story is consistent between them. It’s the character names that vary. The book is set in France, and features one English clergyman (kindred spirit to the village priest.) However, the more common version of the book features more English-sounding names, but there is a version with more typically French names. e.g. the lead, Bella, is Laurette in the latter edition. I read the version with the more French sounding names, but read a plot summary of the other edition, and the story was the same in broad brush strokes at least.]

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BOOK REVIEW: Erotic Poems ed. Peter Washington

Erotic PoemsErotic Poems by Peter Washington
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This collection stands as one volume in a series entitled “Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets.” Other volumes in the series feature the work of a particular author, a regional or national poetic tradition, a type of poem (e.g. sonnets,) or – like this one – a central theme (e.g. friendship, love, animals, war, etc.)

It’s a broad ranging collection. It covers a period from before Christ (e.g. the Roman poet Catullus) to twentieth century poets such as Sylvia Plath and Joseph Brodsky. The poetry also spans the globe including not only English language poets of Britain and America, but also translated poetry from India, the Middle East, China, Japan, and elsewhere. The poem’s lengths range from the brevity of a Bashō haiku to long poems such as Keats’s “The Eve of St. Agnes.” Epically long poems aren’t included, though there are excerpts such as that of Shakespeare’s “The Rape of Lucrece.” There is a favoring of classical English forms (e.g. iambic pentameter) even among many translated poems, but that doesn’t mean that the collection lacks diversity of form.

One nice thing about the diversity of poems is that one gets to see how various cultures and time periods dealt with erotic content. It should be noted that readers who are expecting poems that are erotic in the sense of being pornographic or bawdy by today’s standards are likely to be disappointed. That said, while many of the erotic elements are veiled in symbolism, that isn’t the case throughout. There is some explicitly erotic content among the collected poems. (Though, not as explicit as one sees in the works of Allen Ginsberg, for example.) It was interesting to see that it isn’t necessarily that the further back one goes in time the more repressed or veiled the writing is. On the contrary, some of the Latin and old Indian poems were among the most explicit. Of course, decoding the meaning of poets, and the savoring of reading that requires, is part of the joy of reading poetry.

I enjoyed this collection. I thought it was nice gathering of poems that explored sensuality, romance, and eroticism.

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BOOK REVIEW: Lila Says by Anonymous

Lila SaysLila Says by Chimo
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Lila Says is the tale of a star-crossed odd couple. The lead, Chimo, is an unemployed, 19-year-old, Arab man living in a Parisian government housing complex. Chimo’s life revolves around writing stories and getting by however he can. A fair amount of the book is about living a life of poverty in the ghettos of one of the world’s most expensive cities, but the core of it is about Chimo’s relationship with Lila.

While Chimo is awkward with girls and uncomfortable in sexual matters, Lila is an exhibitionist and – it seems at first – a nymphomaniac. She is a pretty blonde girl being raised by a Catholic aunt. Over the course of the novel, it becomes less clear that Lila is a nymphomaniac, and it’s possible that she just gets excited by causing arousal in others – particularly Chimo. In other words, it’s not so clear to what degree she is having sex, versus telling erotic tall tales. At any rate, the interplay between Chimo’s repressed nature and Lila’s unrestrained nature is at the center of the story. It soon becomes clear that part of the reason Lila has chosen Chimo is because he’s simultaneously safe and interested. That is, he can control his libido but doesn’t reject Lila’s flirtations. Chimo is surprised to find that Lila doesn’t talk to any of his friends the way she does to him, and – in fact – she doesn’t talk to them much at all.

This book is hard to rate. It’s definitely rough around the edges. However, as it’s presented as the journal of a young, unemployed man with minimal education that roughness contributes to an authentic feel. I have no idea whether it’s really a case like Go Ask Alice. (Go Ask Alice was presented as an anonymous manuscript written by a teen-aged girl whose life fell apart due to drug use, but it turned out to be written by a middle-aged woman whose life experience was nothing akin to Alice’s – though she was a therapist and youth counselor and thus had access to stories of those like Alice.) However, the text feels like it could have been hand-scrawled in the ruins of an abandoned building by candle light as described. (That is, if one discounts the British slang which takes one away from the “Arab man in a Parisian housing project,” but the book was originally published in French and so the English edition translation was made to invoke the same class level in its readership.) There are even a few footnotes about the state of the pre-edited manuscript that sell the meta-story of the book.

It’s also a great oversimplification to classify the book as erotica. It’s true that there is a great deal of sexual content in the book, and most of what Lila says, except toward the book’s end, is intended to be titillating. However, the book is also about living in poverty, selling blood to get grocery money and such. Furthermore, the book’s end ventures away from eroticism and into the realm of tragedy.

I found this book to be incredibly and surprisingly engaging. I might say I liked it warts and all, but I think it’s truer to say its warts contributed to making it more engrossing. I would highly recommend it for readers who don’t mind adult themes and who aren’t attached to happy endings (no pun intended.) I don’t mean to give anything away or to beat a dead horse. It’s just that if one picks the book up thinking of it as romance or erotica, one might feel betrayed. Better to think of it as a gritty work of fiction.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty by A.N. Roquelaure (a.k.a. Anne Rice)

The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty by A.N. Roquelaure
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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This is a bawdy take on the tale of Sleeping Beauty—and, in particular, the aftermath of her rescue and awakening. There are many such adult-targeted books based on children’s fairy tales, but the reader should be particularly aware of the nature of this story because it’s fairly hard-core. Since one may associate the fairy tale with lighthearted stories, many readers won’t be ready for the wide-ranging sexual and sadistic activity that goes on in this book. If you’re a hard-core sado-masochist, you may object that this isn’t so intense in subject matter. That’s probably true for you, but for the run-of-the-mill reader, it’s pretty wild stuff. In essence, Sleeping Beauty enters into a finite period of sexual slavery (technically more sexual indentured servitude) in repayment for her rescue.

Part of the reason that there may be misunderstandings of what this book is, is how it’s been marketed. There was a cover blurb on the version I read that says “If you liked 50 Shades, you’ll love the sleeping beauty trilogy.” This statement is clearly meant to capitalize on the success of those books. While I haven’t read any of the “Fifty Shades” books, I doubt that the claim is true. This book is somewhere between “Fifty Shades” and the works of the Marquis de Sade. While E.L. James’ books work on a one-on-one dynamic that forms an S&M tinged romance, Roquelaure / Rice’s book is about sexual servitude of individuals who are essentially stabled in a more harem-like situation. While they are both books that revolve around the psychology of dominance and submission, the dynamic of the two is quite different. From what I’ve heard about James’s works, Rice’s book is probably better written and it may even be a bit more psychologically sophisticated. However, if you’re expecting that “mommy porn” dynamic in which a man who is extraordinary in every way (billionaire / 6-pack having / philanthropist / speaks ten languages fluently / and has a doctorate in quantum rocket dynamics) takes a mediocre woman merely because she completely submits to him, you’ll probably be disappointed.

Because people’s ideas of what’s hard-core varies, I’ll touch on that. There is a huge amount of bondage and physical punishment. There’s no gore, no breaking of skin, nor any permanent damage /disfigurement. There’s no horror aspect to the book. As far as sexual acts are concerned, they are both heterosexual and homosexual in nature. There are a finite number of options, and I think they’re pretty much all touched on at some point. There’s no bestiality, scat, nor pedophilia—so if those are your limits, you’re safe.

This book was clearly outlined and written with the intention of being a trilogy or multi-part work. That is to say, the story arc is not particularly satisfying as a stand-alone book. This may, in part, also be because of the lack of importance of story to hardcore erotic works, but I suspect that the author / publisher had a thick tome and needed some place to chop it into standard length books to maximize revenue. I probably won’t read the other books, in part because this trend toward putting out books that don’t stand alone as stories cheeses me off a bit. As you might expect, the ending feels abrupt and seems more about leaving the reader dissatisfied (i.e. wanting to read the rest) rather than leaving them satisfied (having seen the character grow and change.)

Instead of making an explicit statement of recommendation, I’ll say that if you read the review and are intrigued, give it a read. If you read the review and are disgusted, avoid it. It’s as simple as that.

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BOOK REVIEW: Submission by Marthe Blau

SubmissionSubmission by Marthe Blau
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book describes the life-cycle of one woman’s submissive relationship with a dominant man. Her relationship with the man isn’t sexual in the conventional sense–though she participates in lots of sex and he commands her to engage in various sexual activities. It’s a relatively tame and more modern variant of the tale told in the famous “The Story of O” written by another Frenchwoman, Pauline Réage (a.k.a. Anne Desclos.)

While “Submission” is like any number of stories of submissive individuals being dominated by a dominant and / or sadistic partner, it does carve out a unique space. The female lead is a highly regarded lawyer who is married with a family. She isn’t on the weak side of some power dynamic (i.e. it’s not a secretary / boss or employee / employer kind of tale.) That’s not that different from “Story of O” in which the lead is a successful photographer, but it does add complexity to the lead’s motivation.

It also makes the story’s main question a little bit more intriguing. That question being, how long can the relationship go on with the demands on her becoming progressively more intense (re: degrading) while the intimacy of the relationship isn’t increasing as she’d like? This tension builds to a climax at a point where the man momentarily shifts from the cool dominant to an angry abusive.

It goes without saying that the book contains graphic sexual scenes and won’t be the cup of tea of puritans or those with delicate sensibilities. Included among acts described are bisexuality, public nudity, wearing of sex toys in public settings, and mostly mild sadism.

“Submission” is interesting both as a work of erotica and as a psychological sketch. There seem to be many books out there that tell similar stories, so it’s hard to place this one. I wouldn’t call it exceptional in any way, and I found “The Story of O” to be more intriguing and intense. That said, while I haven’t read the “50 Shades…” books, from what I heard about them, this one likely surpasses them in terms of writing and the building of characters of verisimilitude. [That said, the “50 Shades…” books have obviously been immensely popular for a reason, and that reason—near as I can tell—is they tap into a fantasy in which a man who is extraordinary in every way (genius-billionaire-playboy-philanthropist-with-six-pack-abs) falls for a woman who is mediocre in every way because she submits to his will. “Submission” won’t scratch that itch.]

The book is short, clocking in at a less than 220 pages. It does have a discernible plot, though it’s more character-centric. A little more depth with the lead character and her dominant could be interesting. As it is the reader is left to draw many conclusions about the characters’ motivations—which, admittedly, has its advantages.

If you know what you are getting into, I’d recommend this book.

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BOOK REVIEW: Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller

Tropic of CancerTropic of Cancer by Henry Miller
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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This, Henry Miller’s first novel, is about a young man living a bohemian life in Paris in the late 1920’s. It reads autobiographically. It’s often said that literary fiction downplays story in favor of character development. This isn’t necessarily true today, but it seems to be the case with this 1934 novel. There’s not much story—though a little one is packed in at the very end. The book does illuminate the lead character, but the reaction that character evokes is neither love nor hate but more of an “ewww” of disgust. Put another way, he’s like a Chuck Palahniuk anti-hero (e.g. think of Victor from “Choke”), but without out the quirky humor to make him amusing and interesting. This will make more sense in the next paragraph.

This book is often classified as erotica, but many readers might not find it to be erotic. Like a shock-jock, Miller chooses the most vulgar term to stun rather than using descriptive language to arouse. The lead (and other characters) spends a lot of time in bed with prostitutes, but at the same time he’s sleeping on the couch of some acquaintance or grumbling that he can’t afford a sandwich. Lest one think I’m hammering the book because of gratuitous sex, let me say that it’s not the sex that I find dismaying but a guy whose priorities are so askew of Maslow’s hierarchy as to make one wonder if he’s of the same species. There’s an uncanny valley with this character, only not with respect to facial appearance. All of that would be fine if the character experienced change over the course of the book, but the character neither grows nor is destroyed. I should also point out that I like Palahniuk’s anti-hero stories, but Miller takes himself too seriously to be fun, and I think that fun is the only way such a character makes for appealing reading.

So far I’ve made this book sound horrible, but I didn’t savage it with a sour rating. Ergo, there must be some redeeming value. There is. Miller’s use of language is intermittently gorgeous. He gets in these streams of consciousness in which poetry infuses into his prose. During these times, the story—such as it is—disappears even further into the hinterland, but the words can spark. Maybe Miller should’ve forgotten the hype that the novel is the ultimate literary art form and devoted his efforts to poetry.

I offer a qualified recommendation of the book. If you’re a reader of erotica and heard that this was a classic of that genre, then pursue it with caution. However, if you love words artfully twisted into little flashes of light, maybe you should check it out.

It goes without saying that there’s graphic content, but there are other reasons readers might be sensitive to this book. Not that I encourage avoiding a book because a character makes one feel ill-at-ease. (On the contrary, I frequently encourage it.) If a lead who comes off as simultaneously lusting after and despising women is a trigger for you, be forewarned this is such a character. (Note: He may also be anti-semitic, racist, and homophobic as well, but those elements aren’t explored in great detail. It could well be that the character doesn’t like humans in general. Maybe he was supposed to be a robot after all [hence the uncanny valley] and in that case I recant this review.)

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