by Peter Heck
INVISIBLE SUN: Empire Games Book III
By Charles Stross
Tor, $27.99 (hc)
Stross’s latest novel brings his “Empire Games” trilogy—itself a sequel to the “Merchant Princes” trilogy—to a conclusion.
The series is set in a universe where some people—the worldwalkers—are capable of moving between alternate timelines. They can start from any spot on Earth—Manhattan, Berlin, the Arizona desert—and “walk” to the same geographical point in an alternate timeline, provided there is no obstacle at the destination point. The various timelines have had divergent histories, and are at different technological levels. And in some timelines, humans appear not to have developed at all.
The plot pits a fairly close analogue of the modern United States (there are significant differences, including a woman president—not Hillary Clinton) against another timeline, the North American Commonwealth. The Commonwealth is the outgrowth of a world where the British Crown reigned in the New World until the early twenty-first century, ultimately to be replaced by a revolutionary government built on democratic principles. The Commonwealth timeline, when first contacted by worldwalkers, was at a technological level roughly equivalent to the late 1800s in our world. But they have made rapid progress as worldwalkers have imported science and engineering from the alternate U.S., whose technology is equivalent to our own.
Events in the “Merchant Princes” series have made the alternate U.S. fanatically hostile to any timeline that poses a threat—and the Commonwealth, which now has a significant stock of nuclear weapons, amply fits that description. Especially worrisome to the homeland security officials of the alternate U.S. is the presence of several worldwalkers in the Commonwealth government, many of whom are working to import as much advanced technology as possible from the U.S. to their own world. The US has recruited worldwalkers into its security service and has even developed technological means for travel between timelines. For its part, the Commonwealth is equally aware of the threat posed by the U.S., and is making every effort to strengthen itself against possible hostile action.
The Commonwealth is also concerned with events on its own timeline, especially since it is facing its first succession crisis—the First Man, essentially the Lenin of the Commonwealth’s revolution, is dying of cancer. There is reason to believe that the deposed king, now an exile in the French Empire, would like to use the crisis to regain his throne. To oppose that threat, Commonwealth agents have launched a plan to bring his heir, Princess Elizabeth, to the Commonwealth, where she will renounce any claim to the throne. Promised by her father to marry the French Dauphin—a dissolute lecher—Elizabeth seems eager to escape that fate. But the escape plan has hit a snag: Elizabeth is now stranded in the U.S. timeline, in Berlin, and the powers that be in the U.S. have their own idea how best to make use of her.
Caught in the middle of all this is Rita, the daughter of Miriam Becker, the protagonist of the Merchant Princes books and now the Commonwealth official in charge of importing advanced tech from the alternate U.S. Herself a worldwalker, brought up in the U.S. and recruited at a young age by the National Security Agency, Rita has been spying on the Commonwealth. Now she’s been captured, and she’s about to be faced with a choice of loyalties.
And while all this is going on, in a third timeline, U.S. probing has unleashed an even greater threat: an advanced robotic society with a level of technology human science hasn’t even dreamt of. It isn’t clear whether it’s possible to confine it to the timeline where it’s been discovered. It is clear that nothing in human hands stands much of a chance at stopping it if it does break out.
Stross juggles these plotlines—and a couple of others, equally appealing—with a deft hand, keeping the action moving and the suspense at a high level. There are a number of sympathetic characters beyond those mentioned, and a sufficient number of credible antagonists to maintain tension, and the resolution feels just right. While the final scenes appear to suggest further stories in this series, Stross says on his blog that direct sequels are highly unlikely. Too bad—this is an especially ambitious and thought-provoking series, well worth a reader’s attention. Luckily, Stross is still very much an active writer, with several other books projected for the near future.
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THE LAST GRADUATE
by Naomi Novik
Del Rey, $28.00 (hc)
The second installment of Novik’s “Scholomance” series picks up shortly after the conclusion of the first book. Rising senior El (short for Galadriel, a name she hates) is still seeking some way to survive graduation from the school for budding wizards.
As we learned in the first volume, A Deadly Education, prospective graduates can only leave the school by running a gantlet of ravenous monsters blocking their way to the exit doors. The usual strategy is to form an alliance with others in hopes that a combination of talents can get the group out of the school with minimal loss. Even so, in a typical year, something like 50 percent of the seniors who’ve survived to the end of the year don’t make it out of the graduation hall. Most of those who do are kids from enclaves—close-knit groups of high-powered magic-users centered in big cities.
El is working on an alliance with two of her friends, Aadhya and Liu, who like her are from non-enclave families. At the same time, she’s trying to figure out her relationship to Orion Lake, a boy from the New York enclave who’s made a school career of saving his fellow students by killing off monsters about to attack them. It’s developed into a sort of love-hate partnership, with each helping the other get out of sticky situations. And it gets even more complicated when, at the very start of this novel, a note arrives from El’s mother warning her to stay away from Orion.
Meanwhile, she’s got classes to take—and the school has stuck her with some brutal assignments, including a homeroom with eight freshmen—natural monster bait, since none of them know what to look out for yet. But while everything she’s learned up to this point says she should leave them to whatever fate befalls them, when the first hungry monster shows up, she goes ahead and gets them out of the way, before killing the monster with a spell that uses up all her stored mana.
That sets the pattern—in defiance of all the pressure to look out for herself and her immediate friends, she can’t help trying to save other people. Always resourceful, El keeps finding ways to avoid the worst that the school has to throw at her and her fellow students. That ultimately leads her to a strategy designed to save a large fraction of the graduating class—even though the school itself seems to be amping up its efforts to reduce the size of the student body. And she even manages to convince some of the enclave students that she’s something other than a “creepy outcast,” as she describes it.
Novik has done a good job of finding a fresh angle on the “school for wizards” trope, built more on most Americans’ high school experience than on the British public school model most familiar from the Harry Potter books. She builds the plot of this one right up to graduation day, when the danger reaches its peak—and then, on the last page, pulls off a twist that caught me completely off-guard. Another must-read from one of today’s most inventive fantasy writers.
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by Rebecca Roanhorse
Saga, $16.99 (tp)
The first in a fantasy series set in an alternate pre-Columbian America, this novel from 2020 follows several characters whose fates are bound together by a solar eclipse—an event of vast significance in a sun-worshiping society.
At the core of the story is the city of Hova, analogous to Cahokia—the center of the “mound builders” culture in present-day Illinois. Ruled by a council of priests representing four different aspects of the divinity, Hova is home to four rival clans, currently at peace with one another, along with a large population of “clanless” people. Narampa, the Sun Priest, is the first to be elevated to her position from a clanless family, a distinction that not all her peers are happy with. As the novel opens, the priests are preparing for the important ceremonies surrounding the eclipse.
Meanwhile, in a city far to the south, in a culture analogous to the Maya, Xiala, a young sea captain, is recruited to transport a passenger named Serapio to Hova. Xiala is a Teek. The Teeks are a society whose women have the power to calm the waters with a song, a quality that may well be necessary in this voyage at the end of the usual sailing season. Serapio, for his part, is blind and scarred, and comes from a backcountry village. Despite his apparent helplessness, he is the living reincarnation of the Crow God—the enemy of Narampa’s Sun God. This novel is built around the convergence of the three major characters as they approach the moment of the eclipse.
Roanhorse has taken what we know of early Native American cultures and created a rich, diverse world as captivating as any in fantasy. Xiala’s voyage across the Gulf of Mexico and up the Mississippi—to give them their familiar names—is almost in itself sufficient to drive the novel. Add in the details of Serapio’s background and Narampa’s struggles against rival factions in the priesthood and the surrounding city, and you have a real wealth of riches. It’s hardly surprising that this one ended up on a number of awards ballots. I somehow missed this novel when it first came out, but you can bet I’ll be looking for the sequels.
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FOR THE GOOD OF THE REALM
by Nancy Jane Moore
Aqueduct Press, $20.00 (tp)
Moore gives a feminist twist to the classic swashbuckling adventure tale in this fantasy homage to The Three Musketeers. Anna d’Gart is a member of the Queen’s Guards in a country where the royal lineage has only recently been reunited after a long division between two noble houses. Anna’s best friend is Asamir. Asimir declares that she intends to follow a quiet religious life, though in reality she is more interested in chasing men and dueling. In a tavern, they meet two King’s Guardsmen, Roland and Jean-Paul, with whom (after an initial rivalry) they become friendly.
But while the King and Queen are for the time being working together, not all the powers in the Realm are happy with the status quo. In particular, the Hierofante, head of the church, appears to be working to restore absolute power to the king. And while on a secret mission for the queen, Anna sees evidence that, despite a strict ban on the use of magic, the Hierofante is making use of the forbidden powers to forward her agenda. In addition, the Hierofante appears to be behind a diplomatic crisis that arises between the realm and a neighboring country.
Anna is again chosen by the queen for a secret mission to try to set things right before an unwanted war breaks out. With Asamir she sets off—and learns that Roland and Jean-Paul are on a similar mission for the king. Thus begins an increasingly close partnership among the four—which also leads to closer personal ties. Further adventures, bringing increasing levels of dangers and intrigue, follow. In the process, we learn a fair amount about the realm, as well as about Anna’s background. As we’d expect in a homage to Alexander Dumas, Moore has the French ancien regime as her basic model, but she fleshes it out with interesting characters and settings, all without slowing down the adventure plot.
Moore also does a very creditable job of recreating the style of the nineteenth-century writers to whom the book is a tribute, a bonus for readers who appreciate something more ornate than most current writers offer. The author, in a brief introduction, doesn’t say whether she has plans for any more in this same vein, but I for one would be quite happy to see this become the first of a series.
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BARBARIANS OF THE BEYOND
by Matthew Hughes
Spatterlight, $14.95 (tp)
Hughes, whose work has always shown a strong influence of the late Jack Vance, now offers a novel set in the universe of Vance’s “Demon Princes” series. For any reader fond of Vance’s work, that’s almost enough in itself to make this book a must-read. In my case, having recently reread Vance’s series, I found myself aware of just how well this “authorized sequel” captures the flavor of the original.
The plot follows Morwen Sabine, a young woman getting off a spaceship on Providence, a world where a couple of decades earlier the five Demon Princes raided a small community and enslaved the population except for a few who happened to be away. As we soon learn, Morwen’s parents were among those enslaved; she has only recently escaped and returned to the town she knows only from her parents’ tales.
Like many worlds far from the settled parts of the human realm, Providence is suspicious of outsiders, especially any who might be “weasels”—agents of the Interplanetary Police Coordinating Commission. And in a town like New Dispensation—so named by members of a religious cult that settled there after the Princes’ raid—that suspicion is amplified by the nature of the local crop: maunch. Maunch is a hallucinogenic plant that is outlawed on a number of other worlds. Morwen convinces the local authorities that she’s not a weasel, and soon finds work as a cook in a local restaurant. Eventually, the authorities allow her to visit, and finally move into, her parents’ old house. We then learn the purpose behind her visit—recovering a valuable item hidden by her parents before their capture. Morwen intends to convert the item to enough cash to buy her parents’ freedom.
But her plans take a new direction when the real power in town—Jerz Thanda, the head maunch-grower and nominal leader of the local cult—takes an interest in what she’s doing. His security forces bring her in for questioning, and again she’s forced to prove she’s not a weasel. Finally convinced that she’s no threat to him, Thanda works out a plan by which they can both profit from the artifact. The downside is, they will have to deal with some of the most dangerous and disreputable characters in the lawless Beyond—including the slaveholder from whom Morwen escaped, and who still holds her parents.
Hughes puts together a complex plot, full of shady characters and exotic settings, worthy of Vance himself. Little touches—the cuisine of distant worlds, the names of ordinary things, the dance music of a far-future culture—are all reminiscent of Vance’s characteristic world building. And there are occasional side glances at the original Demon Princes novels—subtle hints I might have missed if I hadn’t recently re-read them—that help blend this new novel into the work that inspired it. Ask your local SF bookseller for this one—or look for it in one of the online book sources. You’ll find it well worth the effort.
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THE SILENCES OF ARARAT
by L. Timmel Duchamp
Aqueduct Press, $12.00 (tp)
This fantasy novella by Duchamp is one of Aqueduct’s “Conversation Pieces,” short paperbacks on feminist SF that includes both fiction and nonfiction, original and reprint. Duchamp postulates a future in which the U.S. has, after a second Civil War, broken into several smaller nations, divided largely between democracies and religiously based kingdoms. Ararat, where the first person narrator Paulina lives, is one of the latter.
Paulina, a sculptor who uses magical illusions to enhance her work, is married to one of King Leo’s senior staff members, and is thereby closely involved in the court’s doings and intrigues. So when the king accuses his younger brother Paul of being the father of Queen Hermione’s unborn child, the implications hit close to home. Eventually, her husband is ordered to remove the newborn child to a neighboring kingdom—where he is killed in a car crash. Not surprisingly, Paulina blames the king—and begins to think of ways to make him pay for the death of her husband.
So when the king puts the queen on trial for adultery, Paulina uses her magic to put herself in the position of defense counsel. The trial itself is a series of stunning twists, concluding with the queen’s apparent death—an illusion engineered by Paulina, who spirits the queen away to a secluded hiding place. There she sets out to gain her revenge on the king, in a long-term plan drawing on both her talents as a sculptor and her magical skill.
Duchamp tells the story in straightforward style, using a setting only slightly removed from the here-and-now and characters many of us will recognize as drawn from some of our neighbors. The magical component, while crucial to the plot, doesn’t divert attention from the relevance of the story to the world we see on the nightly TV news. Not always a comfortable read—nor is it meant to be—but well worth tracking down.
* * *
by Mark Roth-Whitworth
Eric Flint’s Ring of Fire Press, $18.00 (tp)
In this first novel, a group of space explorers from the middle of the twenty-second century enter the gravitational field of a black hole and are propelled eleven thousand years into the future—thus the title.
After the initial disaster around the black hole, the crew of the Hawking, led by Captain Phelan Morgan, sets out to learn what sort of future they’ve arrived in—especially, what’s become of the human society they’ve left in the deep past. Luckily, their ship has survived intact, and except for a few casualties in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, the crew is healthy and ready to take on the challenge.
The focus then shifts to Hammad bin Hammerskld, an “inquisitor” in the capital city of a minor planet of the Society of Humanity—one of several rival groups the inheritors of Earth have split into. The Society, it quickly becomes clear, is a conservative religious autarchy, with little scope for dissent or deviance. Interrogating J’dith, a woman arrested for sexual misconduct, Hammad begins to question the principles of Purity he is charged with upholding. Following her sentencing, he takes her out of her cell, telling his superior that he believes she can lead him to other wrongdoers. Instead, he takes her offplanet, hoping to learn whether her view of the Society has any validity.
Not surprisingly, their experiences on the frontier world where they end up only sharpen Hammad’s misgivings about the Society. They link up with a group of smugglers, who lead Hammad even farther from his faith in Purity. Eventually, his quest for answers leads them, along with the crew of the Hawking, to the distant world where the prophet of Purity received his revelation—resulting in even more world-shaking new disclosures.
The author has put a good bit of thought into creating a society farther in advance of ours than we are of the pyramid builders. And extrapolations like this are one of those things SF is particularly well suited for. This exploration of the transcendent themes at the root of the Society’s religion is reminiscent of Arthur C. Clarke’s handling of such material. An interesting first novel—I’ll be looking for the author’s future work.
* * *
THE DESERT PRINCE
by Peter V. Brett
Del Rey, $28.99 (hc)
Set in the world of Brett’s “Demon Cycle,” this novel launches a new series built around the children of the heroes from the previous series. The two major characters, Olive and Darin, are both marked by their parents’ encounters with the demonic forces, and neither is especially happy with the pattern their lives have fallen into.
Olive is a princess, raised in a palace with a wide range of privileges—and responsibilities, all carried out under the watchful eye of her mother and other instructors in her expected role. But Olive is more than just a princess. Her mother was pregnant with twins. But due to exposure to the uncanny magical forces at play during the battle with demons, the twins merged into one body with both male and female characteristics: Olive. This dual sexuality is a secret known only to her closest family. And because Olive is being brought up as a princess, her mother forbids her to take part in traditionally male activities such as sparring with the others in her martial arts classes.
Darin, for his part, is country-raised. But his father was the Deliverer, who struck the decisive final blow against the demon hordes, and everyone expects great things of Daren. Daren just wants to be a simple farm boy, although he does find considerable value in some of the magical abilities he’s inherited. As it turns out, his down-to-earth viewpoint is just the right counterbalance to the high expectations laid on his shoulders.
The novel takes off after Olive, on the equivalent of a field trip for young aristocrats, finds out that the demons have not only survived, but are looking for revenge on their conquerors. But that’s not the only threat. Family politics—always a potential issue in monarchies—takes an ugly turn, and suddenly Olive, Darin, and a couple of their cousins are off on a mission to stop what looks like a demon incursion every bit as world-threatening as the one their parents’ generation had to deal with.
Attractive young characters, well-drawn settings, and a nicely paced plot put this one a step above the usual fantasy fare. This could be a good choice if you’re looking for something to hand to a younger reader who’s starting to show an interest in fantasy.
* * *
CAN’T FIND MY WAY HOME
By Gwynne Garfinkle
Aqueduct Press, $20.00 (tp)
Here’s a first novel set in the early 1970s, an era when revolution seemed to be in the air. The protagonist, Joanna, is a young college student in New York City, friends with a group of student radicals. Her best friend, Cynthia, recruits Joanna to help her plant a bomb at a downtown draft board, a protest against the war in Vietnam. But Joanna backs out at the last moment, pleading a case of the flu. When the bomb goes off prematurely, Cynthia is killed, and Joanna is saddled with guilt.
The story picks up a few years later; Joanna, a theater student, has won a role on a popular soap opera. While it’s not her dream acting assignment, it covers the bills, and she’s beginning to feel like a success. Just to complicate things, she’s feeling a strong romantic connection to one of her costars, an older man with a wife and family and a reputation for playing around. And then Cynthia’s ghost appears to her.
Unsurprisingly, the ghost blames Joanna for bailing on the bombing, and even more for carrying on a life without her former best friend. To show her what might have been, the ghost puts Joanna into a series of alternate lives—examples of what might have been if she’d taken some of the other options available to her.
The result is a sort of travelogue through the underground of the early 1970s, with Joanna on the run along with Cynthia and some of their partners in radical protest. At the same time, Joanna’s life on the set of Hope Springs Eternal—the soap opera—is getting knottier, as her fellow actors see her involvement with Martin developing. Some of them try to warn her off the older man, while others hint that she might be endangering her place in the cast of the show. And inevitably, the past and present start mixing together, as Cynthia begins to manifest herself backstage at the soap opera.
Garfinkle has caught the feeling of 1970’s New York with impressive accuracy. She also gives a convincing look behind the scenes of daytime television, with characters who’ll be familiar to anyone who’s ever been around a theatrical production. A real page-turner, especially recommended to anyone who remembers the era.
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* * *
REVELATION & Other Tales of Fantascience
by Albert E. Cowdrey
PS Publishing, £25 (hc)
A story collection by a World Fantasy Award winner, edited by Gordon Van Gelder, who regularly published Cowdrey’s work in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.
While the stories are for the most part fantasy, with many set in the author’s hometown New Orleans, that doesn’t begin to suggest the collection’s range. As Van Gelder notes in his introduction, the entries include work that, like the collection’s title story or “Poison Victory,” would have fit smoothly into one of the SF magazines of the 1950s. Other stories are unabashed fantasy, often lighter in tone, like “The Boy’s Got Talent,” which centers on the notion that sometimes a person with a super-power has a very limited idea of what it might be good for.
Still other stories are darker in tone—for example, “The Housewarming,” a New Orleans ghost story, or “Grey Star,” the tale of a resort hotel that’s not what it seems. Then there’s “The Overseer,” a disturbing look at the lingering effects of slavery on a family’s history. A particular treat is “Queen for a Day,” a Mardi Gras-centered police story that took home a World Fantasy Award.
As of this writing, there’s no US edition of this excellent collection, but it’s readily available from online booksellers. Cowdrey is a fine storyteller, and his collection showcases his range of themes and styles. Highly recommended.
* * *
THE MIGRATION OF DARKNESS
New and Selected Science Fiction Poems, 1975-2020
by Peter Payack
Cthon Press/Assembly Line Studio, $12.95 (tp)
A wide-ranging poetry collection for Payack, whose work has appeared in this magazine, among many others, from The Paris Review to Rolling Stone. The pieces here range in length from a couple of lines to a couple of pages, and they are in a variety of formats—some of which many readers might not classify as poems if they weren’t between the covers of a poetry book. That doesn’t matter—the external form of poetry has evolved, and will doubtless continue to do so as long as anybody is still interested in the art. They’re Payack’s poems, and we might as well enjoy them for their own merits—which are considerable.
In particular, the author’s wit—a quality that in several periods of history was considered the very essence of poetry—is on ample display here. Even his titles illustrate the point: “No Free Will in Tomatoes,” “The Scavenger Hunt for Truth,” “Here Comes Da Judge,” and “Universal Kiss-Off,” to pick a few at random. The subjects themselves range from the broadly philosophical to the quick quip, but there is a definite science-fictional sensibility in almost all of them.
An enjoyable collection—and one that might make you re-evaluate whatever preconceptions you have about poetry, especially SF poetry.
* * *
Ten Visions for Our Future
by Kai-Fu Lee and Chen Quifan
Currency/Random House, $30.00 (hc)
Two Beijing-based authors look ahead to the possible role of artificial intelligence in our society, and the lifestyle changes likely to result from it.
Chen, a prominent Chinese SF author, has produced ten stories in a variety of settings that explore the impact of AI on everyday life. Kai-Fu, a former executive at Google China, Microsoft, and other high-tech companies, follows each story with an essay exploring the concepts behind it. It’s an interesting collaboration and an effective way of using SF to illustrate specific futuristic concepts.
Chen’s stories are, by design, set in communities all over the world. “The Golden Elephant,” set in India, explores the complications of young love in a world where every daily decision is put under the microscope of a family’s financial well being. “Twin Sparrows” shows the potential for AI in education by looking at the stories of a pair of Korean twins. And “Gods Behind the Masks” maps out the implications of AI-generated “deep fakes” in a cutthroat political campaign—something already uncomfortably close to reality.
In his essays following the stories, Kai-Fu puts the concepts from the stories in the context of the current state of knowledge and pushes ahead two decades to explore what might lie in the future. He shows considerable awareness of earlier SF uses of some of the ideas, and explores both the positive and negative implications of the technology involved. A nice job of combining the ability of stories to involve the reader with an instructive mission. Teachers take note: this could be a useful tool for the classroom.
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THE NATIONAL PASTIME
The Future According to Baseball
edited by Marty Resnick and Cecilia Tan
Society for American Baseball
Research/University of Nebraska Press, $14.95 (tp)
This one may seem an anomaly at first—what does baseball, a sport with roots firmly in the nineteenth century, have to do with SF? If you’re one of those SF readers who disdain any and all the permutations of “sportsball,” you can ignore this one with a clean conscience. But if, like me, you spent a fair amount of your youth trying to throw, catch and hit a baseball, or watching those who were really good at it, the book might be right up your alley.
The premise of the collection is to look a couple of decades ahead and figure out what the game and all its associated activities might look like. How will climate change affect a sport played outdoors in the summer? Will the game finally admit women to the playing fields at its highest level? How will advances in medical technology—advanced prosthetic limbs, for example—be accepted? What part will virtual reality and augmented reality technology play in a fan’s experience of the game? And—as Harry Turtledove asks in his story “Under Coogan’s Bluff”—what if modern players could time travel back to an earlier era and play the stars of that day?
Much of the collection is in the form of essays, often looking back at how some change in the game came about and extrapolating how it might be extended into the future. There are also a number of fictitious press releases, news stories and other “documents” portraying the future of the game, including expansion of the major leagues to incorporate franchises in Europe, South America, and Asia—the latter two already fertile breeding grounds for major league stars. Additionally, there are several statistical explorations—not surprising when you recall that “sabermetrics” is the most recent incarnation of the age-old infatuation of baseball fans with statistics of all sorts.
This one will especially appeal to fans of both SF and baseball, of whom I’ve met a fair number over the years. But it might also serve as a convenient gateway to SF appreciation for open-minded baseball fans.
Copyright © 2022 Peter Heck