Hellgate Review

Hellgate by Morgon Newquist Book Cover

Here at the Periapsis Press blog, we only post reviews of works we recommend, so you already know I enjoyed Hellgate. I encourage you to check it out!

Hellgate Publisher Description:

Emilia King has made an art of bad choices. Just ask her mother, she’ll tell you every single thing she’s done wrong for years.

When her latest bad choice changes the locks to their apartment and leaves all her stuff on the doorstep, Emilia can’t bear to hear “I told you so” one more time. So she moves in with her grandfather. Then she can have some space to figure out who…and what she wants to be, without her mother breathing down her neck.

What she finds there is anything but peace. Her grandfather battles invisible creatures in the dark. Neighbors torn apart by wild beasts.

Not to mention the moody, gorgeous man across the street with the motorcycle. The kind of man that’s her kryponite.

But when her grandfather falls ill, his position of head of the Neighborhood Watch falls to her. And in this neighborhood, it’s more than measuring grass height or catching petty thefts.

As she uncovers her grandfather’s double life, his mistakes are coming back to stalk the neighborhood in the form of a vicious, shapeshifting beast. Thrust into a world of magic and monsters, Emilia is out of her depth.

Can she save the neighborhood? And do it without falling for the fae across the street?

Morgon Newquist moves into Urban Fantasy with this fast paced, witty urban fantasy series about an unusual Neighborhood Watch. Fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Bella Forrest will love Hellgate’s female hero, handsome fae, and magical battles.

Join the Neighborhood Watch today and read Hellgate!

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Review: Hellgate by Morgon Newquist

Hellgate is a paranormal suburban fantasy with both classic horror and romance elements. This driving story throws a relatable female lead alongside two compelling romantic interests in a fight against a demon wolf, all with harrowing tension and an uplifting theme. A great start for the Neighborhood Watch series!

This review contains minor spoilers.

Sympathetic Female Lead

Emilia makes for an extremely relatable main character. She doesn’t feel contrived or pandering, which is easy to fall into in this genre, when she is placed alongside men and against monsters during action scenes.

There are some elements of a supernatural strength she possesses, certainly to be developed later in the series, but the bulk of her success stems from diligence. Emilia has made a point of running daily, building strength and stamina. It is this consistency that pays off for her most, not any latent powers she may possess. This alone sets her apart as an admirable hero.

Emilia has some flaws, but the story’s inciting incident is made possible because she is actively attempting to grow and leave her “old” life behind. She becomes particularly sympathetic to me in her healthy thought life; she reigns in negativity, even when frustrated, and turns her focus to doing the right thing.

Strong Supporting Characters

The other characters were diversely written. Of course, the two male romantic interests are both attractive in different ways—one hot bad boy and one hot quiet type—giving rise to the typical question of “who will she choose.”

However, the other characters of the story are beautifully varied in their individuality. Lydia, whose character is only really present by reputation, serves as a foil for her daughter. The neighbor lady contrasts Lydia. Emilia’s grandfather is complemented by his best friend, who has his own interests and traits. The result is a believable community.

Focused Setting

The setting came across as very tight: a suburban neighborhood and the woods nearby. It felt very manageable and easily visualized. A place protected by a neighborhood watch, in the traditional sense of the word (as opposed to certain friendly “neighborhood” superheroes who recently protected the multiverse).

Important elements, such as the abandoned church in the woods, were introduced before they became plot points. The nice small setting with reusable, versatile locations allows the reader to feel familiar there, too.

This is why I shy away from terming the story as “urban” fantasy. Urban settings tend to suggest an unwieldy size, by necessity filled with never explored areas and unaware non-characters. The events take place in locations connected only by taxi, breaking the plot into scenes as on a stage. Hellgate’s more focused setting allows the plot to continuously pick up speed, without these awkward breaks.

Driving Plot

This story isn’t a paranormal romance. There is plenty of paranormal and the romance is present, but it is a subplot and does not direct the main beats of the story. The primary genre is more along the lines of a classic horror story.

The basic premise is a monster tale, with the story beats related to discovering the monster’s origin, weaknesses, and setting up traps and defenses. And there are good classic defenses, too, which combine some religious lore (such as holy ground) with fae lore (such as herbs and mushroom circles).

Newquist raises the stakes consistently with good “yes, but—no, and” tactics. The traps and defenses set up by the heroes work, but a new problem arises; or they don’t work, and now they are in even greater danger! The tension pushes the reader through the story at a breakneck speed.

Romance

The romantic subplot keeps the tension high, even when the monster is not present. The male leads are attractive and compelling, providing plenty of juicy interactions, especially as the two are friendly to begin with. The conflict is light, serving as a welcome diversion from the driving force of the main plot, yet insistent, keeping the story from settling between the confrontations. As with any good love triangle, the pull between the two men is believable, unpredictable, and poignant.

The subplot is largely defined by the female gaze. For those less familiar with this term, it is more than the opposite of the more commonly discussed “male gaze.” It certainly includes the objectification of the male body, as seen through the eyes of a sexually interested female. However, it also encompasses an awareness of the woman’s own body and the effect she has on men.

For Emilia, this results in a boldness to reciprocate the attention she receives from the two male love interests. I wasn’t always completely comfortable with the level of lust she displayed, and she often chose to put herself in improper situations. I could explain them to my satisfaction by pointing to her old life, which she was clearly trying to grow beyond. Her references to her old boyfriend and her “weakness” for bad boys on motorcycles seem to support this theory.

It will be interesting to see where the romantic arch goes in subsequent books. The story’s conclusion, with Emilia’s answer to the “who will she choose” question, casts her relationships with the two young men going forward in even more uncertainty.

Uplifting Themes

Emilia serves as a vehicle for at least two inspiring themes. The first arises from her general situation. She has chosen to place herself with her grandfather instead of her mother. At face value this decision was motivated by a desire to avoid her mother’s judgement, however, throughout the story we see the importance of placing yourself in a situation where you can heal and grow.

Emilia’s new community, from her grandfather to her new neighbors, gives her love and encouragement. They remember her from her childhood or know her through the enthusiasm of her grandfather’s recommendation. Rather than her mother’s familiarity with her failings, there is space for Emilia to begin rebuilding her identity beyond them.

The community does not stop at providing a safe place for healing, however. Nearly everyone has healthy expectations for her, too. Things that she has the capability to accomplish, where her mother’s expectation has become (perhaps unintentionally) for her to fail.

Sometimes, we don’t have control over our situation, but Emilia serves as an example of taking proactive steps to change what we can control and choosing to spend time with others who encourage us to become better people.

The second theme is tied to diligence, which I mentioned earlier. The constant raising of the stakes in the plot means that Emilia has to be determined and work through difficulties instead of giving up.

Check Out Hellgate!

Hellgate is a compelling and satisfying story! I look forward to reading more about the actual Hellgate and Emilia’s adventures in the rest of the Neighborhood Watch series!

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Penance Review

Penance by Paula Richey and Thomas Plutarch Book Cover

Here at the Periapsis Press blog, we only post reviews of works we recommend, so you already know I enjoyed Penance. I encourage you to check it out!

Penance Publisher Description:

Penance Copper is tired of being a tool for evil.

She’s been working for Acid ever since she was small. She had no other choice, he owned her. Even with her superpowers, she’s never been able to escape. But at least he only has her steal. Never anything worse than that.

Until he orders her to use her powers to kill the superhero Justice for investigating trafficked girls.

Penance doesn’t want to be a murderer. She uses the opportunity to run away from Acid and make a new life. One where she can make up for everything she did on Acid’s orders.

But events larger than Penance are spinning into action, and soon she is embroiled in an intergalactic encounter with an alien boy named Kail, who is perhaps as lonely and broken as she is. Even if he is infuriatingly arrogant.

The first young adult series in the shared Heroes Unleashed universe launches with the Teen Heroes Unleashed series. Readers will love hardworking, sassy Penance as she tries to learn to use her superpowers to save the world instead of to steal.

Can Penance and Kail find the missing girls and save the Earth from an alien invasion? Or will Acid find her again and punish her for running away?

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Review: Penance by Paula Richey and Thomas Plutarch

Penance is an energizing young adult superhero novel, featuring superpowers, aliens, an extraterrestrial sex trafficking ring, and the imminent invasion of earth! This first installment of the Teen Heroes Unleashed series is wholesome and entertaining.

This review contains minor spoilers.

Sympathetic Youths

One of the typical attributes of YA fiction is the age of the main character. It is highly unfortunate that most YA fiction seems determined to reflect the worst of that age group, resulting in unappealing view point characters. Penance is not one of these.

Authors Paula Richey and Thomas Plutarch did not make Penance overly emotional or stupid in order to appear young. Instead, her inexperience is communicated through her eagerness to learn and her tendency to make herself involved in creating solutions to problems as she sees them. This proactive attitude is much more sympathetic than moody or sullen, and much more believable than unexplainably charismatic and rebellious.

Penance does rebel, of course. But once again, her rebellion is mature. It is not the acting out of a child wishing to be acknowledged as an adult as much as it is a young woman becoming an adult by taking responsibility for her own beliefs and behaviors. As a result, she rebels against the evil she had been part of and seeks to do the right thing.

Kail, the male lead, is also sympathetic. His respectful, goal-oriented outlook is easy to understand and like. It is a refreshing change from snarky and rash. He, too, sets an example of working proactively, even when situations are out of his control.

Strong Adults

The non-antagonistic adults in this YA novel are reasonable people. They are not negligent or stupid, rather their understanding of the situation is actively sabotaged. This makes them effective and trustworthy cavalry in the later acts of the story.

They also display a desirable trait: everyone is able to offer help, admit when they need help, and accept help from others. These heroes do not need to take on impossible odds alone in order to be heroic, and this results in more believable conflicts which in turn deliver better emotional pay-offs.

Furthermore, it almost completely avoids the always frustrating and ultimately pointless discussion wherein adults deny teenagers agency by insisting that they cannot help and should remain “safe.” Penance and Kail are sent to a safehouse at one point, allowing for some welcome down-time interaction between the leads, but it was clear that they would eventually return to action.

Punchy Action

The pacing of the story is lively. Even when Penance is bored, the audience is not. There is enough tension and expectation to drive the story forward, and the occasional point-of-view switch to a minor character is tolerable as the emphasis remains on the action.

This is animated and striking, effective without dragging in long sequences. No one character is overpowered, so the stakes remain high for each conflict. Penance has great powers, but she is also inexperienced and doesn’t always fully understand them. Her greatest success is actually not won through physical confrontation at all, but an application of head knowledge and relationship growth.

The action is enthusiastic, and it complements the rest of the story elements, rather than overshadowing them.

Young Adult

On the surface, most books are labeled “Young Adult” fiction due to the age of the main character, but there are two fairly consistent elements that appear in most YA novels.

The first is, of course, romantic tension, particularly of the trials and elations of first love. Penance is charged with the atmosphere of unspoken romantic attraction, which serves to layer additional tension within the story. Its unresolved nature will certainly contribute to readthrough as the series continues.

However, what makes Penance a distinctly YA story is the theme of self-discovery. Both Penance and Kail struggle with self-worth, identity, and belonging throughout the story. These are common for young people moving into adulthood, and thus they have an important place in YA literature.

That being said, Richey and Plutarch use the standard theme to point the reader eloquently towards Christ.

Christianity

Penance converts to Christianity early in the story, but it takes place “off stage,” so to speak. The reader sees her exposure and initial interest, but the actual moment when she takes the leap occurs while the story is in Kail’s point of view, away from his experience.

This makes Penance’s conversion far more tolerable than typical “Christian fiction,” which is generally defined as having a conversion of a main character as a major plot point. Changing hearts is a miracle of the Holy Spirit, and thus difficult to portray convincingly in fiction, especially when the author is preachy and determined to resolve a character’s every doubt.

As for Penance, the reader sees her searching and then trusting. It is enough that she reached a decision in that moment and is determined to see it through. She still has doubts and lots of things she doesn’t know or understand about God, but that is an unadorned, realistic depiction of Christianity, which leaves room for character growth.

The placement of the conversion early in the story emphasizes this. Penance’s faith becomes the answer to her questions of self-worth, identity, and belonging, while Kail’s trust in the false god of his culture is betrayed, leaving him unsure of his place in the world.

Check Out Penance!

Penance is a fantastic superhero novel for readers looking for congenial young characters to admire and aspire to, who engage in clearly praiseworthy efforts to protect others with their powers. I look forward to seeing more from the Teen Heroes Unleashed subseries of Heroes Unleashed!

This book is also available on Amazon.

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The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin Review

The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin by L. Jagi Lamplighter Book Cover

Here at the Periapsis Press blog, we only post reviews of works we recommend, so you already know I enjoyed The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin. I encourage you to check it out!

The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin Publisher Description:

Roanoke Academy for the Sorcerous Arts – A magic school like no other!

Nestled amidst the beauty of New York’s Hudson Highlands and hidden from the eyes of the Unwary, Roanoke Academy is a place of magic and wonder. It offers everything a young sorceress could desire—enchantments, flying brooms, and the promise of new friendships.

On her first day of school, Rachel Griffin discovers her perfect memory gives her an unexpected advantage. With it, she can see through the spell sorcerers use to hide their secrets. Very soon, she discovers that there is a far-vaster secret world hiding from the Wise, precisely the same way that the magical folk hide from the mundane folk.

When someone tries to kill a fellow student, she investigates. Rushing forward where others fear to tread, Rachel bravely faces wraiths, embarrassing magical pranks, mysterious older boys, a Raven that brings the doom of worlds, and at least one fire-breathing teacher.

“Supernatural meets Narnia at Hogwarts”, The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin is a tale of wonder and danger, romance and heartbreak, and, most of all, of magic and of a girl who refuses to be daunted.

Curiosity may kill a cat, but nothing stops Rachel Griffin!

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Review: The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin by L. Jagi Lamplighter

The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin is a delightful magic school tale of fast friendships, secrets, and parallel worlds. Rachel sets out on a quest for knowledge and ends up getting more than she bargained for in this first installment of the Books of Unexpected Enlightenment series.

This review contains minor spoilers.

The Wizarding World of Rachel Griffin

Any book in the magic school genre will inevitably be compared to Harry Potter, and in this case I feel that it is appropriate. Rachel Griffin is a young, enthusiastic protagonist who must apply her limited practical skills against older opponents intent on destroying her world.

Rachel must face bullies, true baddies, and, of course, school work with courage and determination. The magical academy is divided into groups defined ostensively by scholarly interests, but practically they have many of the usual prejudices, conventions, and legacies. This includes Drake Hall, the “bad” group full of uppity rich kids and conniving schemers.

However, Lamplighter’s execution of the genre’s expectations is faithful without becoming tiresome or predictable. The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin delivers all of the wonder of the early Harry Potter books, while presenting something enticingly unique.

Deeper Characters

The young characters in this story are well-developed and possess a pleasant level of depth that goes beyond the simple “smart,” “looney,” “forgetful,” “funny,” or “bully” descriptors. Instead, their motivations and aspirations differentiate them. Rachel wants to know and share secrets. Nastasia desires to meet others’ expectations of her, particularly by following the rules. Siggy wants to perform great (and awesome!) deeds of heroism. Valerie Hunt, girl reporter, wants her friends to be able to rely on her as she uncovers the truth. Vladimir Von Dread wants to be able to protect others through his own power.

This emphasis on motivations gives particular complexity to the students in the “bad” group that was never quite fully realized in Harry Potter. Power is a means to an end, and those who seek power are not by necessity evil.

And this point in not merely flavor, but inserts uncertainty into Rachel’s relationships, thus impacting the plot. It results in greater tension surrounding the mysteries she is trying to solve, since it is unclear who can be trusted, even when there are underlying assumptions about their loyalties, friend or foe. This is much more satisfying than a bully (student or teacher) who merely wants to embarrass the main character due to a personal grudge and who is otherwise relatively flat. Of course, the latter is always good for schadenfreude and is also employed to good effect.

Consistent Protagonist

The main character Rachel is particularly well-crafted. I really appreciated her clear thinking and believable emotions. She is by no means a robot, but she exerts more self-control than your typical lead, male or female, reigning in emotional urges to lash out, gloat, and fall in love in a way that made her both sympathetic and worthy of my respect as a reader. I can trust this kind of character to behave in consistent ways, making plot twists so much more satisfying when they flip my predictions and exceed my expectations.

Well-delivered Plot

The storyline of The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin is a bit typical. Rachel must use her knowledge and skills to identify the source of a threat—one that easily outstrips any student-level conflict—and face it with courage and a determination to protect her friends.

As in most magic school stories, adults are necessarily too busy, stupid, prejudiced, or evil to be relied upon. It is unfortunate that Rachel’s inner conflict pivoted around the issue of obeying adults, closing in a thematic climax of suboptimal conclusions. Still, that has always been a weakness of the genre.

More positive is the shift away from an epic fate that casts Rachel in a dichotomy of good vs. evil. I’ve always been a fan of stories that depict people holding the line against evil through diligent choices to do the right thing. Rachel consistently chooses to help and protect her friends.

She accomplishes this through thoughtful contributions within her means. The climax of the story does not have her facing off alone against a villain, but rather applying what she has learned to provide timely and vital assistance to more skilled allies, including older students and adults. The resulting conclusion was satisfying and meaningful without imposing on my suspension of disbelief.

Setting and Sci-fi

The setting of this story also has a crafted feel, with enough details about the world of the Wise to provide context, but not so many that the plot becomes bogged down with worldbuilding. The location of the school is beautifully described and gives it a more concrete sense of place.

There are some really intriguing sci-fi elements, too, including strange, parallel worlds or dimensions and a little alternate history. I am interested to know more about how and why Christianity has been removed from the public’s conscious, leaving only traces in the lexicon such as the word “steeple.”

Check Out The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin!

The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin is a fun magic school adventure that delivers on the expectations of the genre in unique ways. I am eager to read more about the exploits of Rachel Griffin and her friends in the rest of the Books of Unexpected Enlightenment!

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For Steam and Country Review

Here at the Periapsis Press blog, we only post reviews of works we recommend, so you already know I enjoyed For Steam and Country. I encourage you to check it out!

For Steam and Country Publisher Description:

What could a 16-year old girl do with an airship? 

As a an ordinary farm girl, Zaira von Monocle is in way over her head. She’s inheriting Rislandia’s most deadly weapon of war, the airship Liliana. Her modest life couldn’t prepare her for flying the massive vessel, let alone protecting her ship and homeland from invading Wyranth soldiers.

Even as her whole world turns upside down from war, Zaira learns her presumed-dead adventurer father, the legendary Baron von Monocle, might still be alive. It’s up to her to take the Liliana into Wyranth territory and see if the rumors are true.

Can Zaira learn how to command an airship and gain the respect of her new crew? Read For Steam And Country, CLFA Book of the Year Award winner and first book in this #1 Bestselling YA Steampunk series!

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Review: For Steam and Country by Jon Del Arroz

For Steam and Country is a streamlined tale of steampunk-flavored adventure told from the perspective of a young farm girl who inherits an airship. Air battles, heroic rescues, explosions, and dramatic outfits ensue! A good first installment of The Adventures of Baron Von Monocle series.

This review contains minor spoilers.

Sympathetic Teen

This story is told from the perspective of Zaira von Monocle, a 16-year-old who has been living a sheltered life on a farm, struggling to make ends meet without her parents; her mother passed away and her father has been missing for two years when the story begins.

This story is not limited to Young Adults, per se, but it does hit many of the hallmarks of novels intended for that age group, such as blossoming romantic tension and the transition to adulthood. However, unlike many teenage main characters depicted in modern media, I found Zaira to be a pleasant girl, whose interactions with others, especially adults, are polite, rather than characterized by angst or resentment.

Consequentially, my feelings towards Zaira (as an adult, myself) were more sympathetic. It is believable that the adults around her would want to help and support her, even when she makes grave mistakes. It should also be noted that Zaira is not a Mary Sue. Her struggles and accomplishments are not contrived to make her a vehicle for a statement about women, but feel organic and natural.

Strong Reader Connection

It is important for a main character like Zaira to be accessible in this way for readers of any age because she functions as more than the protagonist; she is our surrogate through which to explore Del Arroz’s steampunk world. She begins the story outside the fantastic, in the most mundane (if noble) profession of farmer. We are able to connect with her ignorance and enthusiasm immediately because we are also being exposed to airships and life on board them for the first time.

Too often, I find myself detached from teenage main characters due to poor attitudes. I wouldn’t want to associate myself with that kind of negativity and rude behavior even when I was that age, so why would I want to align myself with a character defined by such conduct or subject myself to that kind of company for the duration of the novel? Zaira is a refreshing change in that regard, and it was a pleasure to join her journey!

Minimalistic World-Building

Jon Del Arroz’s style in this novel is streamlined and minimalistic. I would have liked to see more indulgence in the steampunk aspect of the story, especially more vivid descriptions of the machines and outfits. However, there certainly wasn’t any superfluous world-building intruding upon the plot: a potential problem in a setting so swashbuckling!

I do think this style reflects Zaira’s practical farm-girl outlook. When she is first brought to the airship, she thinks it is a wall. This may convey ignorance or a focus on the down-to-earth functionality that has been her life up until this point. Her excitement while flying the airship, her incredulity over the histrionic outfits, and her unwavering determination even in the presence of royalty or enemy all work together to keep the audience invested in her experience, rather than the specific details.

Furthermore, the lack of explanation on how these machines work, especially the airship, lends an almost magical quality to its operation. Whether or not that is appropriate in a steampunk setting is debatable, but it does permit the story to move forward steadily, without pausing for arduous explanations that not all readers may find interesting.

Off the Rails Ending

I love it when a story ramps up for the climax in an unexpected way!

The war between the two countries Rislandia and Wyranth begins fairly standard, for a steampunk world. There is a particularly interesting element of scarcity with Zaira’s airship being the last one, and therefore indispensable in the war effort for her country. The conflict progresses along a bit predictably, although not necessarily negatively so. Zaira contributes to a victory, the rescue attempt fails when they are betrayed, the Iron Emperor is crazy, etc.

However, that is all deviated from with the introduction of a mythical monstrosity!

Even better is the fact that this element was foreshadowed and not pulled out of nothing to inject the climax with new excitement. I don’t want to spoil too much, but the end brought more intensity to the story with greater evil and higher stakes.

Depicting the Enemy

Jon Del Arroz did not take the easy way out when it comes to the characters from Wyranth, the enemy country. I think parents interested in this novel for their young adult would be particularly appreciative of this, but anyone can find it a wholesome portrayal.

Simply put, Del Arroz treats the enemy characters as people; people who are doing their jobs, fighting for their country, providing for their families. There is the addictive substance the soldiers drink that gives them berserker-like disregard for life, but generally the baddies on the ground are not really baddies at all. The true evil is reserved for the actual antagonist.

Enemies and Evil

This does create some ambiguity early in the story over why the two countries are at war. Especially as Zaira has spent her life on her farm, sheltered from the war and far from the epicenter of the conflict, the motivations and goals of the enemy are not well defined. When the people on the ground, who interact with Zaira, are not indiscriminately malicious, it makes the matter even more unclear.

It would have been very easy for Del Arroz to make the enemy uniformly wicked, and I would have accepted it without question. The matter of why they are at war would be easily dismissed as virtuous vs. vile. Instead, the issue is brought forward.

Now, it could be that it is discussed more in subsequent iterations in the series (I have not read any further at this time), but the answer appears to at least partially lie with the addictive elixir and the monster revealed at the climax. How then do the actions of the heroes at the end impact the conflict? It is a brain worm that makes me want to read more!

Check Out For Steam and Country!

For Steam and Country is an engaging adventure with a refreshing young protagonist. Jon Del Arroz’s streamlined style and subtle conflict development form a solid foundation for all the swashbuckling theatrics. It is a wonderful novel for steampunk lovers of any age!

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