The Fall 2020 Light Novel Guide

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The months we're covering in this Guide don't have an enormous amount of new light novel series debuting. There are still a good amount, but some of them came out as digital-first titles in the late summer, so they won't feel quite as shiny and new if you prefer reading that way. But what's interesting is that the offerings this time feel a bit more balanced in terms of intended audience: books for a male audience and books for a female audience are nearly equal in number, and given where we started with light novels in English, that's pretty amazing. There are also four LGBTQIA+ titles, three yuri and one BL, which is also worth noting not just because they exist in English translation, but because it shows how yuri has, after something of a slow start, firmly gained a foothold. Fantasy and isekai still make up the bulk of the books, and those are still mostly slotted into either “reincarnation” or “game world” (or both!), but that sort of escapism is popular for a reason. I mean, who hasn't wanted to escape 2020 at some point?

As always, we're only covering new series or standalones, and further, those which haven't been covered by staff on the Preview Guide team, so there are some titles missing from this round-up. Series with new volumes coming out that you may want to look for include Wandering Witch and I Became the Secretary of a Hero!, both of which are getting their third books in November, the tenth So I'm a Spider, So What?, and the second volume of The Eminence in Shadow. Happy reading, and remember to tell us what titles you're reading in the forums!

October

The Hidden Dungeon Only I Can Enter
Story by Meguru Seto, illustrations by Takehana Note. Seven Seas, $13.99 paperback, $9.99 digital.

Synopsis:
Noir is the son of a minor noble with very little to his name other than a job offer–which is canceled before he can even start his first day. He does possess one rare trait, though: the magical ability to consult with a great sage, even if using the skill gives him terrible headaches. Unsure of what his future holds, he accesses the sage for advice on how to move forward and is directed to a secret dungeon filled with rare beasts and magical items. It is here that Noir will train, compiling experience and wealth, until he's powerful enough to change his fate.

Thoughts:
There's something almost impressive about how this book tries to make something both moderately offensive and totally nonsensical seem like a good idea. I'm speaking of the basic mechanics of protagonist Noir's magic powers – not only does discovering a hidden dungeon grant him amazing new skills, but he can raise their functionality by increasing his “LP” (a term never defined, but it appears to be what other similar RPG-themed fantasies call “MP”)…and to do that, he has to have sexual encounters with women. He doesn't have to sleep with them per se, although I suspect that's coming in later volumes, but he does have to be at least slightly aroused by them. What's even more credulity-straining, however, is that literally every single female of his acquaintance is not only a-okay with this, they're actually eager to help out. There's nothing wrong with a power fantasy, but this one feels just a little too blatant.

That's mostly a problem because it takes a lot of the potential tension right out of the story. That Noir's new skills (which even he acknowledges are “broken”) include being able to make up new skills out of whole cloth (“Get Creative”) or to change existing skills (“Edit”) means that he has an easy fix for virtually any problem he encounters – lay his head on his mother or sister's lap, gain LP, change or create a skill, and voila: instant answer. Attempts by the author to make the world otherwise unique, such as have a quest be for “goblin wrists” rather than ears or some other easily harvested part, fall a little flat, because it's clear that the main point is how many women Noir can have falling all over themselves to do whatever they can for and with him. If that's what you're looking for in a story, I still can't say this does it particularly well, but it may be more enjoyable than if you're hoping for something with more of a plot.


High School DxD
Story by Ichiei Ichibumi, illustrations by Miyama-Zero. YenOn, $15 paperback.

Synopsis:
Most of Issei Hyoudou's perverted life has been filled with dreams about having a harem, so it's not a great sign when one of his dates ends with his murder. He's fortunate enough to be revived by a beautiful girl, but his luck ends after he discovers his school is filled to the brim with deadly angels and demons.

Thoughts:
With the big “explicit content” warning and the anime's first episode (all I've seen of it) taken into consideration, the opening light novel of High School DxD is actually kind of tame. That's not to say that it doesn't feature a protagonist fascinated with breasts and obsessed with sex, but honestly, the fact that he knows he's a jerk and rarely actually tries to do anything creepy makes him seem like a relatively normal self-aware hormonal teen. That the writing is more preoccupied with showing us that Issei actually has a heart underneath all of that rather than tortured descriptions of female anatomy also helps to make this a good read. Essentially all of the ecchi content, while present, is supporting material to the main plot, which is about how high school boy Issei, unaware that he was born with something called a “sacred gear,” is murdered by a fallen angel, resurrected as a demon, and begins life anew with supernatural powers that are really only semi-awesome most of the time, because they only truly manifest when he's in serious trouble. That this trouble tends to come when he's putting his life on the line for others is part of the interesting disconnect between how Issei sees himself and who he actually is, as well as the fact that for “demons,” Issei, Rias, and the rest of the gang are much more likely to be helping people in some way than sending them to hell. All of the truly heinous acts are performed by fallen angels and priests, creating a celestial system that has clearly become corrupt at some point in the past, possibly due to resentment on the part of the fallen angels, who, angered at their rejection by God and ejection from Heaven, have become vengeful and invested in gaining power through whatever means necessary. The demons are much more straightforward, offering simple exchanges of wishes for souls, lives, whatever their human summoners can give them. They certainly aren't good, but it's hard to say that they're entirely bad, either. That's what makes this book interesting even if you aren't in it to watch Issei get all the girls. It's prurient with a plot, and as the western romance genre can attest, that's actually a really good combination.


A Lily Blooms in Another World.
Story by Ameko Kaeruda, illustrations by Shio Sakura. J-Novel Club, $6.99 digital.

Synopsis:
Miyako Florence isn't sad when her fiancé breaks off their engagement after two years. It's all according to plan. Whisked to the world of her favorite otome game, Miyako frees herself from a dull noble to pursue her true soulmate: the game's villainess Fuuka Hamilton. Proud Fuuka only has eyes for their mutual ex-fiancé. Miyako confesses her love to Fuuka and proposes that they run away together. Fuuka agrees on one condition: Miyako must make her say “I'm happy” in 14 days.

Thoughts:
If you read just one villainess-themed isekai novel this season, this should be it. By the same author who brought us Sexiled, A Lily Blooms in Another World is a sweet love story that only happens to be part of the popular isekai subgenre rather than leaning into it to the exclusion of all else. Miyako, the reborn party, was one of those luckless Japanese corporate workers who died of overwork only to be reborn in her favorite otome game (which she played back in high school; she had no time in her adult life for things like “fun”) and quickly realizes that this is her moment to fix what she saw as the main problem in the game: that the villainess didn't deserve what she got. What's interesting is that at first Miyako has no thoughts of Fuuka being her true love; she just thought that the character was unjustly punished by the game's scenarios and wants to save her. The two young women, however, soon find themselves falling in love, at which point Fuuka, who originated from the story's pseudo-19th century world, believes that they are doomed, because there's no way two women can make it on their own without a man.

Miyako, hailing from the modern world, knows that this is, in fact, possible, but she's not sure how to convince Fuuka of that, or even to tell Fuuka that despite her family she's allowed to be happy. The story then becomes a commentary on how women convince themselves that they're only allowed the happiness men permit, and how if Fuuka can just trust Miyako and believe that she deserves to be happy, nothing can hold her back. It isn't heavy-handed or pointed (much less so than Sexiled), but the subtext is there and makes the romance plot even sweeter. These are two people who deserve happiness, and to see them take it is heartwarming. As an added bonus, the story shares a world with Sexiled and features a few male characters who aren't total assholes, because it's always nice to have a balance. It's honestly just a good book, and perfect if you're in need of a pick-me-up.


In the Land of Leadale
Story by Ceez, art by Tenmaso. Yen On, $15 paperback, $7.99 digital.

Synopsis:
The last thing she can remember is her life support beginning to fail. Her body had suffered terribly after a fateful accident and the only freedom left in her life came from the VR World of Leadale. Now she finds herself in a country very similar to Leadale and 200 years have passed.

Thoughts:
There's a reason why so many creative writing courses instruct you to “show not tell.” It's too bad Ceez didn't get that advice, because while there are a fair amount of issues with In the Land of Leadale, that's the biggest one: pretty much nothing is left up to our own interpretation or imagination. It's all explained or described to within an inch of its life, with the one possible exception being what happened to Keina as a child to land her in the hospital in the first place. In part this seems to be because Ceez is trying to work out all of the world building as they write, and for an MMO (even a VRMMO) it doesn't make a great deal of sense. The levels are frankly ridiculous (Cayna is level 1200 or something similar), there are thousands of skills that players can acquire and that apparently some players, like Cayna, do, and even the various elven races seem kind of random, as if Ceez was deliberately trying not to use the Tolkein model while still sort of using the Tolkein model. It's both frustrating and boring, and it doesn't even matter that the web novel may have been one of the earlier ones to do the whole “reborn in a game” thing, because it's a bit hard to imagine why anyone else would have bothered with how much of a slog this is. I may be being a little unfair here, but between the exhaustive and bizarre details of Leadale-the-Game and Cayna's NPC “children” who seem to be the only NPCs to have made the leap to Leadale-the-World (one of whom loves his mother WAY too much), this felt far longer than 200 pages. It may improve in later volumes, but nothing about this one makes me want to find out.


Roll Over and Die: I Will Fight for an Ordinary Life with my Love and my Cursed Sword.
Story by Kiki, illustrations by Kinta. Seven Seas, $13.99 paperback, $9.99 digital.

Synopsis:
Flum Apricot was born with the strange skill of Reversal, which keeps her from raising her stats to anything above zero, since all skills gained are “reversed” back down. Despite this, the god Origin has indicated that she's supposed to travel with the Hero's party, and although she feels like a burden at times, Flum gets along fairly well. At least, she does until Jean, a sage in the party, decides that she's not only a burden but also getting in the way of his romantic pursuit of the hero. Telling her it's what everyone wants, Jean sells Flum into slavery, where an encounter with a cursed sword proves that her Reversal attribute definitely has its uses. Now armed with ever-increasing stats thanks to cursed gear Flum is out to make a life for herself and Milkit, another slave girl – and woe betide anyone who gets in her way.

Thoughts:
At this particular moment in time, most of the yuri light novels that seem to be getting translated are in the “otome game villainess” subgenre. That makes Roll Over and Die appealing on two levels: not only is there not a reverse harem in sight, but it's also very far from a fluffy feel-good story. Kiki's novel is dark and very gory, and the world Flum finds herself negotiating is in no way kind to a young woman with a slave brand on her face. Everyone thinks that they can take advantage of her, more than one person suggests she should just be a good girl and go into sex work like she's supposed to, and Milkit, the abused slave girl she meets early on in the story, is not only almost raped, but she's been so badly beaten down by life that she has exactly zero self-esteem. The book feels like the gritty cousin of Banished From The Heroes' Party, with which it shares a basic theme of someone being ousted by the one jerk party member in a fantasy quest setting.

In point of fact, the two books are very similar, with the major difference being that Flum doesn't just get to settle down nicely like Red does. She's in constant danger and often in pain, since part of her curse reversal with her sword means that she gets put back together after being hacked to pieces several times. This isn't a book for the faint of stomach, but it does offer some interesting details besides the lesbian romance (really only developed in the bonus short story) and the grimdark feel. Most notably the world seems to be in trouble because of the rise of the Church of Origin, which has not only supplanted polytheistic religions, but also outlawed the practice of medicine, which the church higherups maintain erodes faith in their god. That means that once curable diseases and conditions, like Milkit's scarred face, are now incurable, and that certainly doesn't sound like the kind of god who cares about their followers. It also seems very likely that the church caused the problem the hero has been dispatched to deal with as well, because when Flum and Sara encounter a demon outside a secret research facility (where church-sanctioned human experimentation has gone horribly wrong), she tells the girls that demons aren't actually interested in killing humans and would rather get along. The hints are all there as to what the true evil is, and that's actually the most intriguing part of the story. It's grim, but worth it if you're looking for something different in your yuri fiction.


November

Fushi no Kami: Rebuilding Civilization Starts with a Village.
Story by Mizūmi Amakawa, Illustrations by Mai Okuma. J-Novel Club, $6.99 digital.

Synopsis:
Ash is an 8-year-old boy with apparent past-life memories, who lives in a remote deserted village. As he remembers leading a bountiful life, he cannot bear living in a world akin to the Dark Ages, where not even the internal combustion engine exists. For that reason, he needs to consult books containing knowledge from a highly developed ancient culture, that is said to have existed far in the past. This is only the beginning of story about a young boy who sets out to revolutionize the world in order to rebuild civilization and achieve his ideal life.

Thoughts:
If Fushi no Kami has one thing that sets it apart from other similar light novels, it's that Ash doesn't know for sure that he's on his second life. He has memories that indicate it, yes, but he doesn't know his old name or how old he was when he died or anything of the sort. The one thing he knows 100% is that life in his village sucks. It's Medieval – not as a metaphor, but as in the actual time period – which means people die from cavities and septic cuts, literacy is basically nonexistent, and food is so scarce that when the one horse in the village had died, they had to eat it. Since this is totally unacceptable to Ash with his strangely advanced knowledge, he decides to be a one-boy army to improve everyone's lifestyle…no matter what his crummy dad thinks.

And that's about the size of it. Ash convinces the village priest (like Medieval Europe, only the clergy can really read) to teach him literacy and then uses his knowledge of etymology and the history of writing as a form to decipher the world's version of Old English (people can still read the equivalent of Middle English, which may put writing in Ash's time as more like Elizabethan English) and thus access the knowledge of the ancients…which is surprisingly similar to what our world knows. It's got some really fascinating historical detail and it's clear that the author is having a wonderful time morphing Earth history into something that works with the fantasy world Ash now lives in. While Ash himself is moderately insufferable (and a magnet for the ladies, or at least for both Maika and her mom, which is exactly as uncomfortable as it sounds for most of the novel), the decision to add in Maika's first person narration for the light novel – the afterword says it wasn't present in the web novel – really helps with readability. It isn't entirely unique, but the joy the author clearly takes in writing it makes it better than it otherwise would be, and it will be interesting to see how volume two, taking place in a city, will play out.


I'll Never Set Foot in That House Again!
Story by Milli-gram, Illustrations by Yuki Kana. J-Novel Club, $6.99 digital.

Synopsis:
Chelsea may be the eldest daughter of a Baron, but her days are spent enduring both verbal and physical abuse from her mother and younger twin sister. However, upon skill appraisal on her 12th birthday, it's discovered that she has a never before seen skill—Seed Creation. Brought to the Royal Research Institute for the investigation of her new skill by the Appraiser Glen, Chelsea's life does a 180. A big room with personal maids, a warm, soft bed to sleep in, and delicious food to increase her mana pool. She's treated like a princess. But of course, her younger sister Margaret won't sit by quietly as Chelsea is pampered.

Thoughts:
Plenty of light novels take inspiration from folklore, but few wear that on their sleeves quite as clearly as this, which author Milli-gram tells us garnered her a huge amount of publication offers after she posted it online. It's not hard to see why – even if you don't recognize (or care about) the direct links to Cinderella and The Kind and the Unkind Girls (which most people know as either “Diamonds and Toads” or “Frau Holle”), the story plays with fantasy light novel staples like game-style stats, the underdog protagonist, and reincarnation just enough to make it feel like it isn't the same story we've read forty times before in the last month alone. Chelsea is of course the Cinderella/Kind Girl figure, but the abuse she endures at the hands of her mother and younger twin sister is more vicious than we often see, and by the time the hero, Lord Glen, arrives on the scene, she's emaciated, her growth has been stunted by starvation and malnutrition, and she's so afraid of “discipline” that she's barely able to function. Even if Chelsea hadn't shown evidence of an unseen magical skill, Glen wasn't going to leave her there, and it becomes his mission to make sure that she's able to not just live, but thrive, both emotionally and physically. It certainly helps that she's got that seed creation skill, though, because it allows her to be protected at the highest levels of government. For readers, seeing Chelsea come into her own and slowly shed the fear she wears like a ragged cape is rewarding, and the developing relationship between her and not just Glen, but everyone who interacts with her is really very sweet. It certainly helps as well that Milli-gram is a more polished writer than many others pulled from web novels; even when we learn that one character has actually been reincarnated from another world it feels less heavy-handed than it ought to, and Chelsea's emotional issues don't feel like caricatures of mental health.

If there is a problem, it may be due to some editorial advice Milli-gram got in the transition from web to print. It's clear that a romance is being set up between Chelsea and Glen, and we're told that fifteen is the age of adulthood in this fantasy world. That means that Chelsea at twelve is nearly out of childhood and Glen at seventeen isn't far from it…but there's still enough of a difference in maturity between twelve and seventeen to make the whole thing a little uncomfortable. Nothing happens, but we can see where it's headed, and the one consolation is that in the afterword the author makes a remark about having aged Glen up. That may not play well with western audiences. But that aside, this is a very good book, easy and engaging to read. You can see why so many publishers in Japan were vying for it.


I'm in Love with the Villainess
Story by Inori, Illustrations by Hanagata. Seven Seas, $14.99 print, $9.99 digital.

Synopsis:
Ordinary office worker Rei Oohashi wakes up in the body of the protagonist of her favorite otome game, Revolution. To her delight, the first person to greet her is also her favorite character, Claire Francois–the main antagonist of the story. Now, Rei is determined to romance Claire instead of the game's male leads.

Thoughts:
If you read just one yuri villainess novel this fall, I'm inclined to suggest that you go with A Lily Blooms in Another World. That doesn't mean that this is a bad book; it just is much busier and a touch more similar to other otome game isekai stories (yuri or otherwise), and while it is a good read, it does pale in comparison to the other similar work released in the same time frame. The basic plot incorporates much more of the actual storyline of the game that Rae is reborn into, which on the plus side for her means that she's able to more accurately work towards her goal of romancing Claire, the villainess of the piece. For her part, Claire is totally confused at what's going on, even more so because Rae, in her previous life as Rei, was also an avid fanfiction writer and so knew more about the game's world than probably even the developers, all in pursuit of the perfect fic. As a friend put it, she's basically weaponized fanfiction for her own purposes, and poor Claire doesn't stand a chance.

The other piece that really makes this stand out is that Rae has zero problems coming out. She's a lesbian, and she's not ashamed of it. That's definitely refreshing in a style of fiction that often leans into the “straight, but gay for you” trope, although the wording in the text does make me question whether author Inori knows the difference between homosexual, bisexual, and pansexual, because there are a few very odd turns of phrase. Rae also doesn't hate men; she's just not attracted to them, which again eschews a lot of common tropes of queer fiction in both manga and light novels. This book's heart definitely feels like it's in the right place, and if Rae and Claire both start off as almost intensely difficult to like, they do undergo enough of a change by about midway through the novel that makes them much easier to root for. This is, simply put, worth reading – just be careful not to read it in too close proximity to A Lily Blooms in Another World, because it's much more enjoyable without close comparison.


December

The Angel Next Door Spoils Me Rotten
Story by Saekisan, Illustrations by Hanokane. Yen On, $15 paperback, $7.99 digital.

Synopsis:
Amane was surprised to realize that his next-door neighbor is the girl largely hailed as the school angel, but since he's nowhere near her social status, he decides that the best plan is to just ignore her. That's fine until he sees her sitting in the rain without an umbrella and decides to give her his, resulting in him catching a cold. To pay him back, Mahiru takes care of him, and that begins a friendship that may possibly turn into something more…

Thoughts:
If you're in the mood for something sweet, gooey, and that has no interest in doing anything new with the romantic comedy genre, then this is the book for you. Amane and Mahiru's romance is comparable, at least in this first volume, to at least four others that I can think of off the top of my head, which isn't in itself a bad thing – the book could very easily be slotted into the “if it ain't broke, don't fix it” category. From Amane's very ordinary teenage boy self to the fact that Mahiru is a near-perfect specimen of male-oriented rom-com girlhood, this is actually something of a relief in light novels, which these days feel as if they're 99% isekai or power fantasies. To read an ordinary story about two ordinary kids is almost refreshing.

That said, the by-the-numbers qualities of the novel largely eclipse its token efforts to stand out. The characters are very much stereotypes of their genders – he's a slob who can't cook, she's perfect at housework and school – and they interact strictly based on those lines, with him teaching her the joys of ordering in pizza and video games while she teaches him to cook and clean. His mom's obnoxiously involved and looks and acts younger than she is, and his best friend is kind of annoying, although one of the places the book varies its tropes is that the friend has a steady girlfriend and isn't chasing anything in a skirt. That Mahiru feels comfortable with Amane because he doesn't pursue her romantically from the start is another nice touch; he's very concerned with her feeling safe and reacts badly when his friend's girlfriend or his mother make her uncomfortable. This isn't by any means a bad book, it just doesn't do much to stand out beyond being in a genre that's a little passé.


Reign of the Seven Spellblades
Story by Bokuto Uno, Illustrations by Miyuki Ruria. Yen On, $15 paperback, $7.99 digital.

Synopsis:
At Kimberly, those with the talent for it train for seven years to become mages. But the world of magic is both difficult and dangerous, with teachers bogged down by old beliefs and students vying to become the best no matter the cost. Six incoming first-years will learn this sooner rather than later as they all try to navigate the school – and some, like Oliver Horn, may have distinctly different motives than learning for being there.

Thoughts:
This is one of those books that plays its cards very close to its vest. At first it looks like any other Harry Potter magic school knock-off – prestigious academy, most students come from a long line of mages, etc. etc. Things quickly begin to take a turn for the political, however, when one of our group of six incoming first-years tries to save a magical beast who has broken free of its restraints. Sneering professors and students realize that Katie is a civil rights activist, which in this case means giving rights to sentient magical beings like centaurs, trolls, and so on. Katie is ridiculed by a large section of the school from that point on, and that's just the tip of the iceberg. The school is basically a battle royale where teachers barely react if students, for example, stage kobold hunts to the death or accidentally kill themselves experimenting with magic, and only our core group of six seems to care about any of this at all.

Parts of the book work really well with this format. Oliver Horn, our point of view character, has just enough inconsistencies that when we find out the truth about him it doesn't feel out of the blue, and a lot of what happens is decently set up and the world feels solidly built. The prejudice the one “Azian” (yes, that's how it's spelled) character faces doesn't feel out of place when the issue of civil rights has already been brought up, and the overall sinister feel of the story does set it apart from a lot of other magic school light novels, if only in that it's carefully curated. This does mean that attempts to lighten the mood with rom-com antics fall pretty flat, and with six main characters there isn't time to develop all of them as well as they should. But this is worth giving a chance, because there's enough here that merits time and space to see where the story goes.


The World's Finest Assassin Gets Reincarnated in Another World as an Aristocrat.
Story by Rui Tsukiyo, Illustrations by Reia. Yen On, $15 paperback, $7.99 digital.

Synopsis:
When it's time for great assassins to retire, they get removed, and that's what happened to the man who was once the finest assassin on Earth. But his skills manage to get him a second chance at life – after his death in a plane explosion, a goddess offers to reincarnate him with all of his memories intact and the skills of his choice if he promises to kill the world's hero after the Demon King has been defeated. It's too good an offer to pass up, so the assassin begins his new life as Lugh Tuatha De, and despite his mission, he's determined: this time around, he's not just going to be a tool for others to use. He's going to live.

Thoughts:
Rui Tsukiyo's novel does basically what it says on the tin: it's about an assassin, the world's finest even, who dies and is reincarnated in another world as the scion of an aristocratic house. An aristocratic house of assassins, but that just doubles down on the idea. In fact, he gets this chance precisely because he was an assassin (the world's finest), since there's a hero slated to go rogue and the goddess in charge of this other world wants him taken out. By an assassin. The finest in the world. Yup.

As premises go, it isn't terrible, albeit grossly overemphasized, but it goes a bit sour when the novel is unable to do anything BUT stick to its stated title. Lugh Tuatha De, the new identity of the protagonist, not only retains all of his memories of his previous life, but he spends most of his new one training in the way assassination works in his new world, meaning he needs to learn magic and basic medieval life skills. Since part of his goal here is not to simply be a tool for someone else's use, this does feel like it undermines the point to a degree, although the team that he also spends the book building consists only of nubile young women, so he's at least doing something strictly for himself. But for a book about prepping to kill a hero, this drags a lot, spending too much time on jargon and establishing how every little thing works in the other world, almost to the exclusion of plot. The girls don't add much to the story beyond offering a selection of stereotypes for Lugh to have fawn over him (he is only in love with one, Dia, but I'm not sure that'll stop him from creating a harem), and his mother is just WAY too into him – he catches her staring at his crotch while he's sleeping towards the end of the book, when he's fourteen. Even as power fantasies go, this one doesn't have much that's unique to offer, throwing in an overpowered protagonist, reincarnation, a bevy of ladies, and even the stale and by now irritating concept that introducing modern cosmetics to a fantasy world makes ladies fall all over themselves. If you can't get enough of the genre, you may find something to enjoy here, but there are better examples of it. This one really is no better than the sum of its title.

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