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Failure Friday: BL edition

One of the things about “failure” when it comes to something like fiction is, that to a pretty significant extent, whether or not something fails is influenced by the taste of the individual. Sure, there are particular standards we set up–ways we believe we can measure skill and craft–but so much of what makes a story work (or not) really comes down to taste, no more, no less.

As a critic, it’s part of my job to evaluate things against the standards set by history, the industry, and my peers, and as a blogger, it’s my job to give readers a reason to care about my conclusions. With so many manga blogs out there, what do I have to offer that’s unique? My background, perhaps, my personality… and a slew of similar items that mainly come around to “taste.” And in a genre like boys’ love, my taste is pretty specific.

Why the long introduction? Before I begin to discuss what makes a BL manga fail for me, I want to be clear that “failure” here means “failure to satisfy my tastes.” I’m specifying this, because I’m going to be making a lot of sweeping points about failures in BL manga, and since this genre lives and breathes on its readers’ private fantasies, I want to be very clear that I’m judging these manga against my own, not passing judgement on anyone else’s.

Part of the impetus behind writing a BL edition of Failure Friday was a visit to my old post My thoughts on yaoi (no, really), written quite a long time ago, when I’d read very little BL manga and had limited vocabulary for discussing what I found problematic. I’ve read quite a bit between then and now, and my tastes have refined themselves accordingly. I’ve also found books that defied my taste, by making me love them regardless of some of their content. So, now that I’ve disclaimed, here we go!

Four common BL failures (and some manga that overcome them):

1. Non-con: Rape fantasy is probably my most common deal-breaker when it comes to BL manga, most likely because it is so common in the genre. Even as a casual BL fan, it’s pretty much impossible to escape. And though it’s obviously a popular fantasy among readers, it’s definitely not mine. While rape as a plot element is something I don’t eschew (witness my love for Akimi Yoshida’s Banana Fish), as a precursor to romance, I find it personally abhorrent and far from romantic.

Successes: Some BL manga (and manhwa) I’ve found worthwhile despite the presence of non-con include U Don’t Know Me (Rakun/NETCOMICS), Gerard & Jacques (Fumi Yoshinaga/BLU), Ludwig II (You Higuri/Juné), and the second volume of The Tyrant Falls in Love (Hinako Takanaga/Juné).

2. Split focus: As evident by the range of works we’ve seen imported to the west, sexual content in BL manga runs the gamut from sweet, chaste romance to outright pornography. Now, any reader of romance knows that a believable relationship takes time to develop, and with so many BL anthologies and one-shots out there, it’s no surprise that many of them are unable to achieve that goal. There’s nothing wrong with plain ol’ porn, after all, and it certainly has its place in any grown-up demographic. Where BL writers frequently fail, however, is with story-killing indecision. One of the complaints I find myself frequently making when I review short BL is that, within a limited number of pages, and without a clear commitment to either story or porn, many manga simply fail at both. Mangaka, please choose! Tell a great story or give us some great porn, but please don’t do either half-heartedly.

Successes: A notable exception to this rule is Fumi Yoshinaga’s Ichigenme… The First Class is Civil Law (801 Media), which in just two short volumes manages to excel at both.

3. Identity white-out: While it’s understood that BL manga has nothing at all to do with queer identity, more and more BL appearing in English is managing to at least address the concept, while keeping its fantasy space intact. Books like Future Lovers (Saika Kunieda/Deux Press) and No Touching At All have proven that you can make your gay characters actually gay without causing a riot amongst female readers. And even among the usual identity-free BL, there’s still a difference between glossing over the characters’ sexuality and actively stamping it out. Even worse, are stories that cross into real homophobia, emphasizing the “shamefulness” of the characters’ sex lives, or trivializing them altogether by making all characters gay at random, like a lusty caricature of an English boys’ school.

Successes: Among series that deftly avoid queer identity, there are some that still manage to project a sense of positivity on the subject, like Eiki Eiki & Taishi Zaou’s Color (DokiDoki) and any book by est em (Deux Press, NETCOMICS).

4. Crack overload: I love cracktastic storytelling as much as anyone (and probably more than most), but when it comes to romance, I nearly always prefer believability over hilarity, if I have to make a choice. Even in a single chapter or one-shot, if the sex isn’t moving the story forward or, at the very least, really hot, it’s difficult for me to be interested. And anything that bothers to take up an entire volume without giving me something real, is pretty much a complete failure. Outrageous antics? Sexual humor? Pretty boys romping around? All of that is pretty much lost on me as a reader, and when I encounter a manga of that kind I mainly wish I could get my twenty minutes back.

Successes: This is probably the toughest kind of story to sell me on, as I’ve discovered very few of its ilk that have managed to woo me. Notable exceptions include Blood Honey (Sakyou Yozukura/BLU) and Deeply Loving a Maniac (You Higashino/801 Media).

It’s been quite a pleasure over the past few years to discover how many BL manga don’t fail for me as a reader, quite a few of which I’ve taken the opportunity to mention above. Whether there’s more BL being released today that suits my tastes, or whether I’ve simply discovered how to find it, I can’t quite say.

So, readers, what makes a BL story fail or succeed for you?

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  1. David Welsh says:

    I’ve been meaning to write something like this for ages, but you’ve completely removed any responsibility for me to do so, because I can just link to this article and type, “What she said.”

  2. I have very catholic tastes in BL, and there’s pretty much nothing that’s an absolute dealbreaker; I’m OK with non-con, and I looooove insane screwball comedies. At least half my all-time favorites are insane screwball comedies (this is also true of my non-BL manga favorites).

    One of the things that does erect a pretty high barrier to enjoyment for me is large age differences, especially if the younger guy is a teen. Not that I mind teen romances generally: two adorable kids in love = adorable, but adorable kid in love with skeevy older guy = squick. Case in point: I was totally on board with Shiuko Kano’s Kiss All the Boys in V1 when it looked like the 30-something protag was going to end up with his goofball neighbor, still liking it in V2 when it looked like he was going to end up with his long-suffering editor, and moved it firmly to the “hate” pile with V3, when it became clear he was to be matched up with his 15-year old son’s classmate, also 15-year old. No thanks.

    The other thing I really do not want in my BL is girls-are-feminine-boys-are-manly gender-role enforcement (which is actually one of the things I read BL to get away from). About halfway through Yaya Sakuragi’s Stay Close To Me there is introduced a tall, kendo-champion, tachi-type female character who instantly falls for the apron-wearing, cookie-baking uke and announces her intention of being the prince he is looking for, which was AWESOME… up until the story goes out of its way to remind us that, as stated explicitly by the seme, men (even femme-y uke men) can take care of themselves, whereas women (even those who are stronger and more athletic than the men) need to be protected and taken care of, by men. The book was good enough, otherwise, that I still like it, but that was a major mood-killer for me.

    • Ugh, I’ve had a couple of bad experiences with cross-generational BL that really skeeved me out, so I can completely relate to that. And yes, what you describe from Stay Close To Me sounds utterly maddening.

      • I know the scene you mean from Stay Close to Me and I admit it was irksome, but I still really liked that story. Speaking of cross-generational BL, though, I will never forget some absolutely squicktastic moments in Shinobu Kokoro, one of the first wave of BLU titles. I am really afraid of that mangaka’s work now, even though she draws Kyo Kara MAOH!, which I find at least slightly intriguing.

  3. I think you’ve covered the issues I have with some BL quite well. I have seldom found any BL that proclaims itself a comedy to actually be amusing—but those that combine drama and comedy are often very dear to my heart (that whole “something real” you mention)—and I am almost never interested in stories where all of the guys are gay. That almost becomes, like, a dating sim.

  4. I haven’t tried any BL yet; I am a little skittish about it, because I’m not really interested in it as a sexual experience, but I am at least moderately curious about it as a phenomenon in fiction writing and expression of sexuality. I guess what turns me off to BL is that I don’t know where to start – I want to read things that have good storytelling and interesting characters, but I haven’t plucked up the courage to ask anyone yet.

    Do you have any resources that I could look at or any suggestions?

    • My immediate recommendations would be a few of the stories I’ve listed above, Saika Kunieda’s Future Lovers, Fumi Yoshinaga’s Ichigenme… The First Class is Civil Law, and either Age Called Blue or Red Blinds the Foolish by est em. The first two are very good stories with charming characters, and I’d recommend them as manga, whether someone was looking for BL or not. I’d say the same about the est em books as well, though they are both closer to collections of vignettes than full-on stories. Her narrative style and artwork is really stunning, and works well in that format.

      Oh, and in the article above, you can find links to my reviews of each of these, though I don’t know if you like to read reviews before you read the books. :)

      Edited to add: And actually, I recall you’re already a fan of Yoshinaga, so maybe the best thing to do is start with her. Ichigenme… as I mentioned is delightful. Also from her catalogue, The Moon and the Sandals is particularly well done.

    • Melinda’s suggestions are highly recommended if you don’t mind the odd sex scene (or, in the case of most of Yoshinaga’s stuff, an entire second volume of sex scenes), but there’s also a number of PG BL stories suitable for the squeamish. The manga adaptation of Only the Ring Finger Knows by Satoru Kannagi and Hotaru Odagiri is widely loved and strictly on the handholding-and-blushing level; it’s OOP but readily available used. Toko Kawai’s In the Walnut has some soft sexuality in the first volume but is mainly about crime and intrigue in the world of fine art. Hinako Takanaga’s hilarious fluffy rom-com Challengers can be hard to get (V1 is OOP, V2-4 are best obtained directly from the publisher) but is worth the trouble; there’s a couple of dirty jokes, but that’s about it.

      • Being familiar with Alex’s taste to some extent, I feel like the other stories (which are a bit more adult in ways other than just their explicitness) would be more satisfying reads for him, but it is true they have more sex in them than these. I’m particularly thinking of Only the Ring Finger Knows which is very sweet, but also very much a typical teen romance. I think that’s why a lot of my favorites are actually more on the explicit side. They’re for older readers in more ways than one. :)

    • Er, hi. I’m totally new to this site, but I’m an avid, I’d-like-to-pretend-mature, BL reader, so I have a couple suggestions for BL that’s also good literature if you’re interested.

      I see that in this thread we seem to be discussing manga licensed in English only, so I’ll stick to that for now, although I have to add that some of the best BL manga I’ve ever read is not licensed in English, so if you read Japanese or don’t have moral objections to reading unlicensed scanlations, let me know- I have a whole bunch more I’d recommend even more highly.

      “Open the Door to Your Heart” by Yugi Yamada is one of my favorite yaoi manga- it’s sweet and relatively light-hearted, but also maturely told and respectful of all the characters. In only a few chapters you get to watch the characters as they grow through the years and their relationship changes and matures. There are a few explicit scenes though, and the characters are adoptive brothers, so I suppose it’s not for everyone…. but still, it’s great; I can’t praise it enough.

      If you can tolerate the translation, which some readers like and some hate, “Ooku: The Inner Chambers” by Fumi Yoshinaga is not frank BL, but includes meaningful BL elements by a great BL mangaka, is a good read, and is gorgeous, elegant story-telling in places (volume 2 imo is especially well-written and works nicely as a stand-alone story too) and a serious, mature look at violence in society and in individual relationships. There’s nothing explicit, and the violence is relatively subdued (though treated seriously) by manga standards [contains rape]. But maybe you’ve read it already, since it’s not frank BL?

      Someone else mentioned “The Prime Minister’s Secret Diplomacy” by Youka Nitta, which I also really like. I wouldn’t say it’s the same kind of graceful, elegant writing as the other two, but it’s a great read in which the characters are both smart, mature adults with complicated lives and relationships, and it’s a special joy for readers who get sick of yaoi tropes, because the…er… receptive partner is the colder, more socially powerful, more mature of the two (the characters don’t conform to their stereotypic roles). [explicit]

      There’s a couple that I know are great stories with subtle, beautiful writing that are available in English licensed versions, but that I don’t know how good the translations are: “No Touching At All” by Kou Yoneda, and “Lovers and Souls” by Kano Miyamoto.

      And er… then there’s the stories that are (imo) really good but that take more tolerance of factors that some people don’t care for: “Maiden Rose” by Inariya Fusanosuke (gorgeous drawing, great story-telling, complex, well-rounded characters with a life outside just their relationship, but contains lots and lots of explicit rape, and the victim and perpetrator love each other), “I’m Not Your Steppin’ Stone” (and “Playboy Blues”) by Shiuko Kano (good stories, engaging writing, but contain lots of crude language and majorly explicit sex), “Dog Style” (sweet, deep story, good writing, but tons of explicit sex, some rape [as a plot element, not between the main characters], crude language, the characters are in high school).

      Wow, is that really it… all I can think of (that I’ve read) that’s both good and licensed in English? No wonder the genre is not as well-regarded as it could be. How sad.

  5. Hmm.. gripes about BL then right.. I probably would agree with points, but also probably would reserve my own opinions.. since I am a huge bl-reader. Still good post.

  6. While I’m a huge fan of BL, I don’t go out of my way to read every single title out there as some girls do. What draws me to the title in the first place is both the artwork and the story/plot. Only gorgeous artwork doesn’t cut it for me as I don’t like wasting my time and money on pure porn with no story and character development. Also, raunchy sex scenes are a bit too much for me. I mean, I don’t mind the sex scenes but when they are so explicit and raunchy, I feel uncomfortable. Some mangakas are known for their extremely explicit sex scenes but their stories are not bad, so sometimes I force myself to overlook or to not concentrate on these scenes. A perfect example is Shiuko Kano’s I’m Not Your Steppin’ Stone. I honestly couldn’t concentrate.

    Youka Nitta is my favorite BL mangaka and while her works are explicit, they don’t bother me as they are not too much for the eye and her stories are beyond great and engaging.

    So as I said, pure porn and just sex makes a BL title a big failure for me. After all, I’m not interested in only seeing them in bed.

    • I’ve always thought couples reveal more about themselves and their relationship out of bed than they do in bed, so I definitely agree with you there.

    • Have you read The Day I Became a Butterfly by Sumomo Yumeka? The art is quite lovely, and so are the stories. Thought it’s not solely BL, as there are a couple female love stories.

      • No, I haven’t read The Day I Became a Butterfly. I guess there are a lot of licensed BL I haven’t read but I’m always looking for what appeals to me story and artwork-wise.

        In the Walnut is a good one and I have to say that I’ve always loved Toko Kawai’s work. I hope more of her works will be licensed. Another mangaka that I like is Hyouta Fujiyama. I love both her stories and artwork. Her work is more than just sex.

        Another thing that usually attracts me is the length of the series. I definitely don’t mind one shots but I prefer longer series.

  7. I don’t think I’ll ever like BL beyond my moral reservations (that’s all I’ll say don’t want to stir up a hornet’s nest needlessly) I guy ever get into two guys that being said I did like Little Butterfly. As far as realistic depictions of homosexuality in BL and Yaoi I still feel it’s like expecting a realistic depiction of the Martial Arts in Fist of The North Star i.e. it’s not likely. Also Non con is a big turn off for me I don’t care if it’s a good story if it’s Non con I’m not reading it period.

  8. The only deal-breaker in BL for me is the extremely uke character. The girlish-looking, spineless, blushing, scared, powerless character that the seme forces into everything with the poor uke only whining in response. I require some spine in my characters. And as much of BL exists mainly to titillate, it would help if I didn’t want to kick one of the characters off the page. The character type is also usually very young-looking and small, I like seeing muscles.

    Anything else, non-con, age difference, sexism.. etc. I’m able to overlook but this one character stereotype just makes me too angry to keep reading.

    • Heh, I definitely share your dislike of that particular characterization, though it’s usually the seme I want to kick off the page when the uke is so obviously pained.

  9. So much yes for your first point. Non-con in BL manga frequently inspires fly-off-the-handle rants from me. Have you ever had the misfortune of reading How To Control a Sidecar? Like Shannon from Kuriosity, I was charmed despite myself by How to Capture a Martini, but Sidecar featured a rape in the first chapter, and then whenever it was brought up in the rest of the volume, the victim was like WHATEVER, WHO CARES, IT WAS JUST A LITTLE RAPE. Instant veto, despite the interesting love triangle and the non-girly uke.

    Also, I forget, but have you read anything by Fujiyama Hyouta? I keep waiting for June to finally release Junjou or for someone to license Dear Green. Fujiyama writes really great nuanced portrayals of relationships, and rarely ever gets into non-con or crack.

    • I never did read How to Control a Sidecar (though like you, I was rather charmed by the other). Now I’m very glad I didn’t.

      I *think* the only Fujiyama Hyouta I’ve read is Tale of the Waning Moon (just the first volume) which I didn’t much care for (it *was* pretty cracky), but there were elements of it that suggest I might like something a little different from the same author.

      • I’m primarily thinking of Fujiyama’s “Lover’s Flat” and “Freefall Romance”, which both star older characters and the latter of which is probably my favorite English title of hers. I’ve never read Tale of the Waning Moon, but I can tell from the summary that it is cracky, haha. Her series “Sunflower” isn’t bad either; it’s a predictable high school romance, to be sure, but the characters, despite being a school that’s purportedly 90+% gay (I mean, honestly, what!!) are really *normal*, which makes for a nice change. (Also, so much love for you recommending Ichigenme!)

        • I will have to hunt down those titles, especially the first two you mention! And even Sunflower sounds like it has its good points. I was really surprised when Tale of the Waning Moon came out, to be honest. It was (and still is) Yen Press’ only BL release, and I thought it was an odd choice.

  10. You pretty much summed up my thoughts as well. What’s most important to me is character/story development. As you said, because so many BL titles are shorts or one-shots, it’s hard for there to be something real going on. But I’ve seen some that have managed. I’ve read many a single volume BL book that managed it quite well (we’ve all be praising No Touching At All lately).

    One thing that irks me, is all the mentor/student type romances. Teachers/tutors/etc. shacking it up with their high school (and on occasion middle school) students. There are a LOT of these. Typically the kid initiates, so it avoids getting too weird, but it really borders a fine line sometimes with the under-aged-ness. It’s not the relationship itself that bothers me; it’s how young the kid is.

    You’ve mentioned several of my favorite titles. Ludwig II (which was, I think, my first real yaoi book), ANYTHING Fumi Yoshinaga, Color is very sweet, and I’ve found myself growing fond of Tyrant. Rin! is adorably sweet, and La Esperanca very touching. I also really enjoyed How to Seduce a Vampire. And, of course, In the Walnut, whose praises I sing regularly.

    • Age differences don’t bother me nearly as much as size differences. When the uke is tiny and the seme is enormous, that’s a deal-breaker for me. Like in No Money/Okane ga Nai. There’s an age difference, there, too, but it only becomes squicky for me when one character is so much larger he simply overpowers the smaller one. There is no room for any consent there, only some weird form of stockholm syndrome. But teacher/student stuff (particularly when the student is the seme) doesn’t bother me nearly as much, like in Toko Kawai’s Just Around the Corner. It’s more about who has the power in the relationship, and WHY, and not really about an arbitrary number created for the premise.

      Personally for me, characters are far more important to my ability to enjoy a story than the premise or setting, but in BL in particular, aesthetics are a big part of my ability to appreciate the genre. I understand that storytellers like Kunieda and Yoshinaga do a very good job at weaving stories, but I don’t read BL for intelligent writing so much as I read it for personal enjoyment. That’s not to say I can’t appreciate something like Est Em’s Red Blinds the Foolish for what it is, but I’m unlikely to reread it before I reread something like Tateno’s Yokan several times over. While it has non-con in it, the flow of panels and character designs simply appeal to me more and I am more likely to forgive its flaws.

      • I think a problem I have with a story that wants to claim that in a student-teacher relationship, a student seme can have the power is that… it’s false. It’s always inappropriate for a teacher to engage a student in a sexual relationship, because a teacher is an authority like a parent, law enforcement officer, priest, etc.—someone who is in a position of trust, and who has very real and direct authority over the student which he/she is abusing by entering the relationship, regardless of who the instigator is. I think a manga about a student-teacher relationship can be really *interesting* but I don’t see any way out of the teacher being 100% in the wrong for participating. It’s not the the age difference that’s the problem, it’s their roles in each other’s lives.

        • I get all that, of course, and in an actual, real context you are 100% right, but BL is a fantasy genre, like sexual role-play, and things like teacher/student relationships and rape exist to be explored in a safe environment where no one is actually harmed, nor does it attempt to diminish the seriousness of said scenarios in real life. One of BL’s biggest catches is in its exploration of taboo. The homosexuality itself stops being the “taboo” very quickly for readers of the genre and they naturally pursue different and often greater taboo as they push forward in their fandom. I don’t enjoy the same sorts of titles now that I enjoyed even five years ago myself. Part of that is reading different types of things and finding the ones that personally appeal the most and avoiding the ones that appeal the least.

          When I say I don’t like large size differences between seme and uke it’s an aesthetic taste, not a lack of understanding of the nature of the relationship even when the characters are closer in size, or when the younger is the seme. In fact, I might be able to say that in a title like Just Around the Corner, the drama created by the taboo of the teacher/student relationship is just as interesting as the development of that relationship itself. Of course, Toko Kawai isn’t a “porny” kind of author and she uses sex and sexuality to dramatic effect in her stories, rather than for titillation, so it’s a bit different from stories where the teacher/student relationship is just used as a premise for ramping up the tension leading to the sex.

          • Well I think we’re getting around to one of the reasons why I prefaced all this with a disclaimer. :) The truth is, and I really didn’t realize it until reading your comment right now, I’m really not interested in exploring taboo as fantasy. I’ve realized this just at this moment. I look to BL stories to be fantasy only in the sense that they are romances, and romance is fantasy at its very core. But I’m not looking to explore taboo, so I want to see characters and relationships that read to me as true. When a student-teacher relationship is presented to me as something romantic, that just feels false to me and takes me out of *my* romantic fantasy. If it’s presented as complicated and ultimately problematic, I could enjoy reading about it, definitely. But romanticizing it is not appealing to me in the slightest.

            • While you are certainly entitled to your opinions and tastes, I’ve always found it fascinating to meet people who are interested in the BL genre, but not in the taboo fantasy aspects of it, since those are the primary driving force of the genre. It just seems to me that stories that do not explore these aspects are the exception, almost like they are only technically classified as BL because they involve two male romantic protagonists, but are really just shojo romance stories at their core. While I don’t dislike these stories, I don’t look at them as “BL,” but drama or romance series on a homosexual theme.

              • I think you’ve really hit upon what I’m looking for from the genre, actually, and why I’m so specific about the series I like. So, you wouldn’t consider the series I have mentioned in my post to actually be BL? Because all of those satisfy my tastes on one level or another.

                • It’s not that they’re not “BL,” it’s that they don’t exemplify the genre in any major way. I remember back when Makoto Tateno visited Yaoi-con a year or two back, she was interviewed by The Graphic Novel Reporter and they asked her where the genre was headed and if she thought stories where more “realistic” depictions of homosexuality would become more popular. Her answer was basically that BL fans like BL for the fantasy of it and that aspect would always be what was popular and what would define the genre. Mangaka who write BL “realism” are few and far between and while I enjoy their stories as well (I’m a big fan of Kano Miyamoto for her characterizations and relationships), they don’t typify the genre in any large measure. We have to remember that while BL is popular in the west with women of varying ages, skewing older, in Japan it is still largely a teen market and it seems the younger the demographic, the more towards wish-fulfillment/fantasy a genre becomes.

                  • Cait, I agree that fantasy is a major factor in BL, but, firstly, soft fluffy romance and “angst lite” romantic melodrama are a big part of the Japanese BL market, so I wouldn’t say that works without taboo-fantasy “don’t exemplify the genre”, although they certainly don’t represent the entirety of it. And secondly, I think you’re underestimating the kinkiness of shoujo/josei, especially at the teens’ love/ladies’ comics end of the spectrum. There’s lots and lots of taboo-fantasy het romance/erotic manga, whether teacher-student or incest or non-con or what have you, although the more casual shoujo/josei readers may be less aware of that material as English licensors tend to avoid the more extreme titles and even scanlators show less interest in those topics (although the fraction of shoujo/josei scanlations is small compared to BL).

                    And frankly, I don’t see any evidence that the overall age distribution of Western BL fans is significantly different from Japanese BL fans (although the distribution of people who actually buy BL manga probably skews older in the West). The youngsters just hang out on different parts of the web. :)

  11. Just a heads up, Yen Press has published a few yaoi titles. They’re Lily Hoshino titles.

  12. I think we have the same tastes. It’s nice that there are and good yaoi out there, but I still find good yuri easier than good yaoi. This also to an extent has to do -perhaps- with my artistic tastes, but not sure.

    Future Lovers and No touching at all are of the best yaoi I’ve read. I shall recommend you a great shounen-ai, Otona no Mondai. I’ve written a review for it, too. Very loved~


  1. […] fairly thoroughly to see if they meet my rather specific standards (which are very similar to Melinda Beasi’s), and I’m not familiar with this one, its creator, or the magazine from which it springs […]

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