Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

April 14, 2011

Dan Abnett – Prospero Burns

Filed under: review — Tags: , , — Sam @ 10:23 am

This is part of the Warhammer 40k franchise’s Horus Heresy line; whilst I’ve not read any of these before, I’m familiar with the general outline through picking up a few Black Library books here and there over the years. This one is billed as what happens when one entire army of super-soldiers turns to the dark side, and another is sent to destroy them. It’s actually deceptive, since that plotline is only introduced properly two-thirds of the way in; it’s possible to interpret the early part of the book as building up to the Space Wolves’ destruction of the planet Prospero, but since we hear almost nothing from the first army (the Thousand Sons) before then it’s very hard to feel invested in this plotline. Also, “Prospero Burns” sounds like a Victorian theatrical impresario.

Fortunately, the main story the book tells is much more interesting. Scholar Kasper Hawser decides to abandon his comfortable life on Earth to live amongst the Viking-themed Space Wolves, taking the name Ahmad ibn Rustah in a nod to history, and record their unique warrior culture. He is accepted, for reasons that seem arbitrary, as their skjald. His developing relationships with the warriors and his increasing awareness of his own role are absorbing, and deftly done, bringing an interesting dimensionality to what would otherwise have been an absurd cliché of a culture. Like all franchise writers, Abnett has to work with what he’s given, but he does a good job of it.

Speaking of what the franchise requires: the denouement is unsatisfactory in itself, being an utter diabolus ex machina, and it would have been nice to have encountered said diabolus before. On the other hand, it makes perfect sense (and is entirely necessary) when viewed as part of the overall arc plot, and these books aren’t really intended to be read on their own. It does give a good sense of the nihilism and meaningless inherent in the 40k universe, and the mind-twisting gulf of scale between the successes and failures of a human life and the long sweep of time on a galactic scale.

November 18, 2010

Alan Campbell – God of Clocks

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , , , — Sam @ 2:36 pm

This is Part 3 of the Deepgate Codex series; I realised after it got to me that I hadn’t actually read part 2 (Iron Angel) after all, but I picked up on what was happening quickly enough.

From my several-years-old recollections of Scar Night I’d expected something fairly intense, with text as gothically baroque as the architecture, but my memories must have been in error because the style here is straightforward and relatively transparent.

What did stick in my mind was the imagery, and it’s amazingly inventive. The god of brine and fog sails a decaying wooden ship across the sky, with an army of deathless corpses hanging from the gallows below, and an immortal man dragging it behind him across the world. The god of knives and flowers rules a kingdom, and commands a legion of soldiers. And the god of clocks lives in a vast castle which exists, in strange and complex ways, across all of time.

Time travel is handled interestingly here—we see the classic looping effect, but without being shown all the branching points for the duplicated character. Mind you, it uses the Very Slow Time Machine method (ie. living through the intervening time, 1:1) for part of the trip, so that was probably a practical decision as much as anything.
It’s introduced very late in the book, though, and doesn’t really relate to—or interact with—anything that happened before it, so its potential feels rather wasted. That’s symptomatic of the whole book, really; vast numbers of cool things happen, but not in any real detail, and without emotional intensity.

I found the characterization a bit lacking, but that can often happen when you (effectively) start with Part 3. Some are excellently done (John Anchor, for instance), but others seem to be coasting rather on their initial introductions. I think part of it is the classic adventuring party problem; with a lot of characters together, it’s rare for an author to find things to do with all of them, and Campbell is noticeably better with two- or three-person scenes.

Overall, it’s a fun and easy read; I’d recommend the series to a mid- to late-teenager looking to move on from Garth Nix, or anyone who’s looking for an uncomplicated thrill to spark their imagination.

October 29, 2010

A.M. Tuomala – Erekos

Erekos is A.M. Tuomala’s first novel, and also the first offering from independent digital publishers Candlemark & Gleam. You can read the first chapter, or buy it for immediate download, at the publisher’s website here. (250pp, PDF/ePub/mobi, US$10) There’s also an interview with the author over at Bibliognome.

It’s an intricate, thoughtful jewel of a book, with rich gleams of meaning, translucent depths, and sharp-edged facets, which opens with a magical spell as swamp witch Achane tries beyond hope to resurrect the sister she couldn’t heal. Magic in Erekos—this country of forests and swamps, between the mountains and the sea—is very much a thing of words and sigils, of ink and papyrus and answered prayers, and Tuomala neatly manages that all-too-rare feat of showing us viewpoint characters who use magic themselves without trivializing or demystifying the spells.

Achane’s spell works, after a fashion, and her dead (decayed, rotting, vermin-infested) sister returns as a zombi. We aren’t spared the details, but nevertheless we always see people treating Shabane as primarily a person, rather than as a type or an object of revulsion. The one exception is the king who captures Achane, dreaming of a host of zombi soldiers so that no more living men need die in the war against Weigenland.

Erekos is a colonized country; hundreds of years ago, a pseudo-Greek people came from the sea, and conquered the dark-skinned natives. By the time of the novel, their peoples have melded into one, and so have their mythic cycles, stories colliding and finding a mutual accommodation.

Look closely—can you see the place where two stories collided long ago? Can you see the jagged edges of one ideology grafted messily onto another, justification of war meeting a more nebulous ideal? These edges still grind together today; in places where their shade of skin marks the local people as particularly unmixed, where the colonist or the indigen is particularly close to the surface, the two pieces of the story do not mesh until one has broken the other to fit.

Our other main viewpoint character is Erlen, a young Weiger anthropologist turned mountain commando; we follow him and his lover Jeiger through several battles against the Erekoi invaders. The text is very good about humanising each side, and showing us a fascinating take on the “war god” trope so common in fantasy: The devoted know that Loukaros is only the god of war because war is the swiftest way to change the world. Loukaros is also the god of storms, and water imagery is associated throughout the book with war, but also with healing.

This is clearly epic fantasy, from the map at the front (beautifully drawn, too, with iconic cities and shrines and even a lighthouse) and the pronunciation guide that follows it. Unusually, though, both of those clearly show competing sources of authority—the map has both Germanic- and Greek-derived placenames, and the pronunciation guide takes care to note several regional accents for each language. Tuomala’s prose shows—and assumes—a lot of familiarity with some standard fantasy tropes:

The priestesses of Terīchone are seldom slender waifs who grow into tall and ethereal women; they have never worn robes of purest white silk. They know that the most powerful mystic pools come after the rains that rip the world apart, and they lie deep in the forest—not ensconced in marble, where the waters cannot touch the land.
No, a priestess of Terīchone is a firm, comfortable sort of woman with serviceably ruddy arms over which she has always pulled up her sleeves. This sort has reaped the rewards of her hard work in the gardens or with the hogs or out on the boats, and she is often heavy in the solid, maternal way of good cooks.

Tuomala’s style is clear but multilayered, showing strange translucencies and currents as the reader looks deeper, with the occasional sentence that chimes like delicate wooden bells, and a strong focus on people usually disenfranchised in epic fantasy.

She looked into the eyes of a beautiful, thick-set woman with her grey hair pulled into a bun; the woman had an age-wrinkled face, nut-brown but with cheeks as red as hands long lent to laundry, and she wore her skirt pinned over the knee and her sleeves rolled up over her broad, hairy arms. Nothing in this woman must seem beautiful, for beauty is too often defined by delicacy. But for those who understand what compassion and love look like when they are ingrained into the fiber of a body—when every muscle is filled with love so that every gesture and step becomes an act of goodwill—for those people, this woman was the most lovely woman alive.

Again in the tradition of epic fantasy, the text has quite a bit of mythology interwoven with the action, and this is also done well—partly, of course, because Tuomala is using it to make the very Tolkienian point that our adventures are others’ stories, and that all the stories came from somewhere. This is not just epic fantasy in the purest sense, but epic fantasy with many characters of colour, competent older women, and a very touching gay relationship. Very much recommended.

July 21, 2010

Paul Hoffman – The Left Hand of God

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , — Sam @ 12:10 pm

I was pleased to find this in the library yesterday, since I’ve been seeing strongly negative reviews from a lot of people since it came out, and wanted to see what all the anti-fuss was about. Having finished it, I still don’t know, because I was rather charmed by it.

It has some flaws—specifically, a somewhat shallow level of characterisation, and a distinct lack of rounded female characters—but I think that’s thoroughly explainable by the biased & unpleasant narrator. (I’m looking forward to reading any sequels that may appear, partly in the hope of finding out who’s narrating it and which bits they just made up.)

Biased and unpleasant the narrator may be, but I was rather charmed by the narrative style, which begins at “baroque” and occasionally takes sudden left turns into “ludicrously surreal”. Sadly, it isn’t kept up consistently throughout the novel, but the lapses into normality are unexceptionable and only stand out because of the very strong beginning.

The nomenclature, geography & theology of the secondary world are equally surreal; it’s an obvious pisstake of Fantastic Europe (complete with religious wars in Eastern Europe, expanding empires, and references to historical figures) with a few invented fantasy cultures plonked into the middle. The religion is a peculiar Christian-heresy-analogue; I’d say an invented one, but I’m mortally certain that at least one historical sect has held it as their central tenet that God just wants to punish us for killing His son, and must be appeased.

There’s a back-cover quote from Charlie Higson, which can be summarized as “Peake does Dickens”. There are certainly a few Dickensian thematic echoes, but I’d want to add Ender’s Game into that, and KJ Parker’s Scavenger trilogy.

Unsurprisingly for this genre of fantasy, the book ends on a large climactic battle; unusually, it’s realistically done. Slow, grinding, messy, and with all the unfolding inevitability of a blocked drain during a thunderstorm.

May 25, 2010

Mark Charan Newton – City of Ruin

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , , , , — Sam @ 11:31 am

This is the direct sequel to his earlier Nights of Villjamur, and it’s even better. He still has the same taste for overexplanation, and there are a few instances of characters telling each other things they already know, but this one is definitely a complete story within the larger plot arc, and it’s not necessary to read the first before this.

The world is clearly the deep future of our own, enough millennia into the future that the sun has cooled and dimmed to red, in the tradition of Vance’s Dying Earth or Farmer’s Dark is the Sun. Oddly, the connection doesn’t annoy me nearly as much as it usually does in fantasy. I think that’s partly because it is deep time rather than post-apocalyptic, and doesn’t have any of the “clever” little references that set my teeth on edge.

“Ah, yes, you were admiring my antique soup jug, I think?” The slender man’s eyes darkened with pleasure as he traced a finger along its curving flank, following the strange words somehow inked into the ivory-yellow surface: “Russell Hobbs”.

He doesn’t hesitate to kill characters off, in grotesque and meaningless ways, and generally at a viewpoint distance. On the other hand, he also doesn’t hesitate to show complex, interesting plans (for, eg., killing characters off) crashing and burning abruptly. There’s a very strong arbitrary-and-meaningless vibe going on throughout, which might make this sound somewhat Moorcockian (and the sheer prevalence of fantastic and in fact downright bloody weird imagery—I particularly liked the flying monkeys—could reinforce this impression) but he does manage to pull off the feat of having an albino protagonist who is nothing whatsoever like Elric.

One very good thing this book features is a competent, sensible, interesting older woman. You’d think there was some Fantasy Bylaw against those, most of the time… and, speaking of Fantasy Bylaws, this one does indeed have a map in the front. I suspect that after Nights of Villjamur came out, the Fantasy Establishment went around to the offices of Tor UK and started making comments about what a nice place they had here. Not sure what the point is, but if it keeps the traditionalists happy, there’s no harm in it.

May 18, 2010

David Friedman – Harald

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , — Sam @ 7:36 am

Micro-review: Fun bit of mil-fluff; strategy & logistics for gamers. Harald himself is basically Mary Sue Stark. (Er, that’s as in Ned Stark, not Tony Stark. Just to clear things up.) One thing that annoys me, though, is the prevalent voice. Talk like this, all the time. Everyone. Like they hate talking. Hard to follow. And then the narrative voice starts doing it too for some of the action scenes…

This is a Baen Free Library book, which means you can buy, download, or read it online for free here.

April 8, 2010

Mark Charan Newton – Nights of Villjamur

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , , , — Sam @ 8:52 am

I’ve been horribly behind on my blogging, because I’ve been incredibly busy with art projects, with preparations for Eastercon, and with the holiday I’m about to take in the Highlands. So I’m going to get even more behind.

I just wanted to do this one quick review, though. Everyone’s been talking about Nights of Villjamur recently, and with good reason—it’s great.

It’s an interesting original vision, with a powerful central image. A glacial period (not an Ice Age as the book copy suggests) is heading for the Empire, and the rulers have to make hard choices to get through it, complicated by all the usual afflictions of internal politics, strange magics from the dawn of time, and invaders from Elsewhere. All of which may be linked…

And that “may” is important. This is very much the first book of a series, and almost none of the plot strands are resolved inside this book. Doesn’t stop it being a good read, but it isn’t a whole text.

Thematically, it’s Erikson-lite, which isn’t a bad thing. I’m not sure the world is ready to cope with two of him. This is definitely quest fantasy[1] rather than city fantasy, but only one of the viewpoint characters has anything even resembling the traditional portal-quest trajectory, and even then he’s rather more independent than the usual farmboy type.

I do have a couple of issues with this book. First, it’s heavy on the infodumping; one of the favourite pastimes of nearly every main character is to sink into a reverie and tell us about their past or what the city’s like[2], and sometimes the narrative voice does this too.

Second, the names threw me a bit. Partly, the clever mix of different styles and cultural origins is a nod to a huge multicultural Empire (we have botanical names like Urtica and Rumex alongside Ghuda and Mewún, and garuda fly above the city while draugr menace it and banshees wail within it) but I still have no clue how to pronounce Goúle, Fúe, or Júula. The best I can do is to imagine that that’s an umlaut instead. Tineag’l, on the other hand…

On the upside, we see a well-written homosexual romance before page 100, and nobody’s being coy about it either.


[1] However, there is no map in the front, and a DeLillo quotation. We are clearly into much more serious territory here.

[2] But only once. We all know these people in real life, and they Just Keep Doing It, over and over again, worrying at the past or clutching it like a favourite teddy bear. We never see these reverie memories repeated, in books…

March 8, 2010

Feminist indoctrination via SF

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , , — Sam @ 1:09 pm

First, have a link: Juliet E. McKenna guestwriting for Joshua Palmatier, on the subject of women in SF. (Incidentally, her new novel Blood in the Water, is out—it’s book 2 of the sequence starting with Irons in the Fire. Since I don’t have a copy yet, you can read more about it here, and admire the cover art again.)

I’ve been re-reading some of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover series recently (entirely coincidentally, Jo Walton started posting about Darkover re-reads recently too) and I hadn’t realised it had been so long. I first started on these at the age of 14 or so, and a lot of the very progressive social content (for its time – this is 70s and 80s SF here) slipped right past me.

That sort of thing doesn’t slip past without leaving traces, though—the stories we read shape our lives, and we bring all of it to every story after that, whether it’s fiction, the evening news, or family.

So all Bradley’s portrayals of bisexual men, strong women, and young people struggling to make a life for themselves free of the dead hand of history and convention really did stick, and she did a lot to dramatize the struggle that both women and non-alpha men face against patriarchy. There are some problems with her portrayal, of course—there always are—but nobody with any sense will ever have taken it as gospel. Why is it always the absurdly inferior, risibly bad, and philosophically evil books that do get taken that way…

February 17, 2010

Chronicles of an Age of Darkness

Between 1986 and 1992, New Zealand-based author Hugh Cook wrote a ten-volume series of inventive, grim, exuberant, disconcerting, nonplussing, and downright bloody weird fantasy novels. They weren’t nearly as popular as they should have been – I suspect he was mostly just ahead of his time, given the popularity of work in a similar style now. China Miéville has described them as “intensely clever, humane, witty, meta-textually adventurous and pulp-avant-garde”.

I first read them in my early teens, and I adored them – I think that was one of the things that originally set my standards for fantasy, and I’ve been seeking out More Like This ever since. Luckily, there’s a lot of it around now.

The setting for the world of Olo Malan – whose name, I think, we don’t find out till Book 6 or so – is extremely post-apocalyptic, twenty thousand years after its connection to the intercosmic civilization of the Nexus crashed and broke. There are barbarous tribes, strange races, empires, priesthoods, magic, technological survivals that look like magic, and technological survivals that aren’t magic at all; the malign torturing monster lurking Downstairs below the island of Untunchilamon is an AI employed by the Golden Gulag as a therapist, and The Combat College in Dalar ken Halvar still trains Startroopers for the Nexus, teaching them to pilot spacefighters in the virtual reality tanks, despite not of course having had any actual spacefighters for millennia.

At the beginning of the series, however – with The Wizards and the Warriors – it looks as though the apocalypse was a standard magical one, with plentiful leftover magical weapons and mysterious devices. The books stand alone, but often cover the same events from the viewpoint of a minor character in previous ones – Togura Poulaan, the hero of Book 2, The Wordsmiths and the Warguild, gets caught up in Elkor Alish’s army, which we saw in detail in Book 1; two minor supporting characters, the pirates Drake and Bluewater Draven, appear in Book 4, The Walrus and the Warwolf (Drake, in fact, is the protagonist); and Yen Olass Ampadara, whom Draven describes as “the reason men should always be in charge of women”, is the centre of Book 3, The Women and the Warlords.

I never really rated Book 3 when I was a teenager, but re-reading them recently it’s now one of my favourites. Yen Olass is a female slave in a deeply sexist society, an Oracle whose function is to mediate quarrels between men. The book shows her in an uncomfortable position – in a strange legalistic limbo with influence but no power, and power but no influence (it makes sense in context, honest – as much as anything in these books does), with the Collosnon army but not part of it, caught up in politics and quarrelling, trying to make her own way in the world and never getting to do it for long. At one stage, she does establish a small self-sufficient lesbian utopia in the woods; but the politics of men intrude, and one of the heroes of the first book casually takes away her lover and then kidnaps her and her child for politics yet again.

The Walrus and the Warwolf is more or less the opposite of The Wordsmiths and the Warguild: a long hard journey, indeed, and a quest of sorts, but with an utterly selfish, irresponsible, fantasist as a hero – Dreldragon Drakedon Douay, known as the Demon-son, pirate, rightful king of Stokos, priest of the Flame, slayer of a Neversh and a watermelon stand. It’s wonderful, and self-consciously storied – all of these books do interesting things with narrative and legend, but this one is where Cook starts actively playing silly buggers.

Book 5, The Wicked and the Witless, expands on some of the political developments over the last book, as Sean Kelebes Sarazin, one of Drake’s antagonists (though, to be fair, practically everyone he meets is his antagonist, and for very good reasons) schemes and plots to take over the Harvest Plains. It’s good, but I can’t find much to say about it in comparison to the others.

Book 6, on the other hand – The Wishstone and the Wonderworkers – is definitely my favourite of the lot. It’s much more restricted in scope than the others, set entirely in the city of Injiltaprajura on the island of Untunchilamon, and it marks the point both where Cook starts going for really outlandish imagery (a millennia-old Hermit Crab with gourmet tastes and the powers of sorcery; irresponsible children’s toys from the Golden Gulag, reconditioned from military-grade autonomous robots; fountains of thixotropic industrial lubricant pouring into the sea; the Cult of the Holy Cockroach) and when the narrative tricks really get going. We have not only the unreliable narrator’s manuscript, complete with derisive references to the Redactors of Odrum, but a half-dozen layers of editorial interjections, elisions, amendments, and reproofs to less senior Redactors. The Originator, at that, is explicitly insane – an inmate in the Dromdanjerie, the asylum of Injiltaprajura – but the Foreword, in which yet another (nameless) writer debunks the Redactors, makes no mention of that.

As it endured redaction in the dungeons of Odrum, the Text which follows became encumbered by a full two million words of explication and interpolation. In the interests of convenience, readability and sanity, most of this overgrowth has been cut away.

A previous draft of the manuscript of The Wishstone and the Wonderworkers actually exists as a major plot point in the next book, The Wazir and the Witch – which is narrated by the same historian as the first, but has clearly not fallen into the hands of the Redactors of Odrum. These two books, together, show off one of the other good features of the series – diversity of races, from the grey-skinned Janjuladoola and the redskins of the Ebrell Islands with their flaming hair to the purple-skinned Frangoni warriors of Dalar ken Halvar. This shows up very strongly in the contrast between these two and Book 9, The Worshippers and the Way – Asodo Hatch, of the Frangoni, and a Startrooper of the Nexus, strongly resents the popular depictions of the Wild Tribes in Nexus popular culture as purple-skinned barbarians, given that the proud warrior culture are already looked down upon by the dominant Ebrell Islanders. On Untunchilamon, on the other hand, “Ebbies” are the lowest of the low – considered feckless, irresponsible lowlives. There are some explicitly white-skinned peoples, but generally when others refer to them it’s with some reference to “the disgusting pallor of the natives of Wen Endex” or some such.

Book 8, The Werewolf and the Wormlord, is set in Wen Endex, where the Yudonic Knights only come out at night; it gives us a picture of a complex society built on violence, financial manoeuverings, scheming, and the strategic use of monsters. It’s my least favourite of the books, and I think the weakest. Book 10, on the other hand – The Witchlord and the Weaponmaster – is rather strong, and we finally get to see the story of Guest Gulkan, Emperor-in-Exile, who has been wandering through others’ stories throughout the series in a rather Moorcockian way. Instead of the brooding questing hero we see from Togura’s perspective in Book 2, or the Conanesque thief-hero in Books 6 & 7, we see a spoilt princeling who grows to become a selfish prince, a foolish (and brief) Emperor, a brave and loving son, a cunning guerilla general who uses the magic of wizards to his advantage, and a hater of the irregular verbs with a passion beyond all telling – and the process happens insensibly, as the narrator never tires of telling us after the fact.

Sadly, they’re almost all out of print; The Walrus and the Warwolf is being reprinted by Paizo Publishing’s Planet Stories, with an introduction by China Miéville, at the end of March 2010, and the Book Depository claim it’s still available in hardcover from Colin Smythe Ltd. Cook made books 2, 9, and 10 available on his website, where they’re free to download in HTML format (and very sensibly formatted for reading on my phone – I’ve been using those for travel books for the last few weeks, since I don’t have physical copies of 9 or 10), and the Book depository claims they’re also available via Lulu, but Lulu doesn’t. Basically – if you can find a set, you should, but good luck!

February 5, 2010

The Magician’s Apprentice – Trudi Canavan

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , , — Sam @ 11:54 pm

This standalone novel is an interesting part of the backstory to Canavan’s Black Magician Trilogy, showing the founding of the Magician’s Guild and the discovery of magical healing.

It’s nicely subtle in its examination of war crimes and atrocities – not so much with the relatively flat villains, locked into patterns of evil by their society, but in the effect the war has on the heroes’ supporting cast. It doesn’t go to nearly such a high emotional pitch as a Donaldson or a Kay does (in fact, Canavan’s emotional pitch is relatively unvarying here – it comes across to me as slightly numb, which is certainly a very reasonable artistic reaction to war) but it works.

The one thing that annoys me is the unrelenting smeerpitude – Canavan’s books are scattered with rebers, rassooks, gorins (or is it gorin, plural? Hard to tell), ceryni, ravi, and so on and on. A helpful glossary in the back tells us that a reber is “a domestic animal bred for wool and meat”, a gorin is “a large domestic animal used for food and to haul boats and wagons”, and a rassook is a “domestic bird used for meat and feathers”. So that’s sheep, oxen, and chickens, then. Ceryni and ravi are two sizes of verminous rodent. A yeel is a “small domesticated breed of limek used for tracking”, but a limek is a “wild predatory dog” – aha, dogs, now we’re getting somewhere. And this world has horses, because it’s a fantasy world and horses are inherently fantastic. Her approach seems inconsistent as well as annoying – presumably she does it because sheep, cattle, rats, and so on leap out at her in fantasy worlds and spoil her immersion, but horses and dogs don’t, and a reber or a limek just add fantasy flavour.

To me, it’s the other way around – I want to know more about all these new things. I want to be able to have faith in the author, that she isn’t just splattering strange words around decoratively, but that they’ll serve useful worldbuilding purposes and we’ll get to learn more.

I want to learn that reber have three clawed toes on each foot, and a purple nose. I want to find out what their wool is like, what the people do with it, and what they use to dye it. I want to learn that yeel were first (re)domesticated by the Edrain people, because limeks had sharper noses and more endurance than ordinary dogs, and that the word is a mutated version of their word for “friend”. Or, alternatively, I want to see unremarkable sheep and dogs in the kind of countryside you can expect to have sheep and dogs in, so I don’t get distracted from the book’s themes.

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