Year: 2008

Dragon Strike by E.E. Knight | Book Review

Book four of The Age of Fire had a lot to accomplish and a lot of story lines to bring together with the three sibling dragons.  Originally this was going to be a four book series, but after some publisher discussion there are now two more books to go, bringing the total to six.  E.E. Knight did a good job at bringing together the three story lines from the previous books into a single volume of Dragon Strike, and making the reunion something we have been looking forward to since book one.  The way that he integrated the lives of the dragons and brought them together seemed to be something that happened naturally.  I think this is akin to a coach of a sports team having to coach an all star game.  Each player (read: dragon) is an all star in their own right, but you still need to manage the minutes.  E.E. Knight coaches one hell of a team of dragons, with Wistala, AuRon, and Copper (RuGaard if you will) all coming back together for the first time since the egg shelf.

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The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan | Book Review

The Eye of the World is the first book in Jordan’s hugely successful Wheel of Time series. I don’t know of any other book that has gets so many “this book got me into fantasy” comments as this one. This isn’t true for me. I had already read Tolkien, Feist and Hobb by the time I arrived at Jordan’s work. He had me hooked right from the prologue though and I keep coming back to this book in particular. I must have read this book half a dozen times now. My ever expanding library has put it’s qualities a different perspective over the years, for such a hugely influential work The Eye of the World is a surprisingly mediocre book. But I love it anyway.

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A Dangerous Climate by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro | Book Review

a-dangerous-climateA Dangerous Climate is the current incarnation of Yarbro’s vampiric saga, which again describes another passage in the history of her protagonist, Count Saint Germain, her oddly heroic vampire. The novel is set in the burgeoning city of Saint Petersburg, in the very early days of the eighteen century. Count Piotyr Alexeievich Romanov, commonly known as Peter the Great, had begun one of his most ambitious undertakings. The creation of his monolithic city, Saint Petersburg, on the banks of the Neva, out of one of the most desolate, swampy, disease infested and inhospitable frozen places in the world. The Czar has reached out to many European powers to assist him in his grand scheme, by sending their most capable artisans who can help him to succeed in the face of ever present failure. In order to curry favor with Czar Peter, Europe’s leaders send their greatest talents to Russia, along with these missions go Ambassadors, and hidden in this group of sycophants are the most important participants, the Court spies. Here is where Yarbro introduces the reader to her current incarnation of the vampire, Saint Germain.

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A Good and Happy Child by Justin Evans | Book Review

Starting with The Exorcist, there have been many books, movies, and television shows about demonic possession. The image of an innocent child transformed into a telekinetic head-spinning, puking, profane, sexual murderous creature is a haunting one. But The Exorcist and its pale imitators always told the story of those affected by the demonic habitation. A Good and Happy Child examines the material from the viewpoint of the possessed. Readers exa good and happy childpecting a pyrotechnic display of supernatural events and speaking in forgotten tongues will likely be disappointed with Evans’ debut novel. The author opts for a more subdued, psychological exploration of the state.

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Some Kind of Ride | Favorite Books of 2008

This will be brief.

As I’ve said before our strength lies in our diversity. If you want a unified chorus of voices singing hosannas to the pre-approved “best” books of the year then stop reading now — but if you want a ragged company of readers; readers with their own identity that shows in the books they choose, read and fight for then welcome home prodigal sons and daughters, the light is always on.

Here are our favorite reads of 2008. From 1959 to 2009 we got you covered.

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‘Salem’s Lot (Illustrated Edition) by Stephen King | Book Review

salemslotKing’s second novel, originally published in 1975, has enjoyed renewed attention recently after the appearance of Father Callahan in the Dark Tower books. I suppose the literary virtue of King linking up a large number of his novels to his Magnum Opus is debatable but it certainly is one hell of a marketing trick. This 2006 hardcover publication features the novel, a number of haunting illustrations by Jerry N. Uelsmann, two connected short stories, a number of cut and alternative scenes and a new afterword by the author. It’s quite a nice package really. The book itself is a classic horror tale. Perhaps not the most original of tales but I quite enjoyed it.

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Every Last Drop by Charlie Huston | Book Review

every last drop charlie hustonAs much as I really enjoyed Every Last Drop, and there is a lot to like, I can’t help but being just a little disappointed.

The biggest reason resides more on a personal reading level. Maybe unfairly, maybe not I readily admit that I brought certain expectations to the table before I even started reading Every last Drop. The end of Half the Blood of Brooklyn felt like a penultimate moment; the battle lines were being drawn and finalized, story arcs were forced closed with a suddenness that caught the reader (and Joe) off guard and, perhaps most importantly, a declaration of war. I’ll be the first to admit that some of these failings may be mine alone but I really felt that the end of Half the Blood of Brooklyn had us perched on the edge of a precipice and I was looking forward to the glorious slide.

I’m still convinced that the slide will come but Every Last Drop feels like it’s ultimately just treading water. I’d even go so far as to say that the possibility exists that elements of Half the Blood of Brooklyn might have worked better as a book four with other elements of Every Last Drop working better as book three.

Adding to the treading water feel is that the beginning of Every Last Drop, where Joe Pitt is stranded in the Bronx, is stutter step at best before he spends the rest of the novel bouncing back and forth like a pinball hitting all of the major players and setting up the final book. The story doesn’t really start until Joe meets with Terry and Predo, then Huston is back on comfortable territory and the book really takes off. And I want to be clear about this, it may be the weakest book in the series, but that doesn’t mean it’s a weak book, just, for me, a little out of place for a series book. I’m actually looking forward to a re-read of the book after a little time has passed, to look at it with fresh eyes and without any baggage.

Something bugged me while reading the Bronx section, something that struck me as odd, and it took me until later in the book to realize what it was. Based on Joe’s knowledge of the underground from his time spent with Joseph at the end of Half the Blood of Brooklyn, Joe should have the full chess board mobility of a queen instead of being stuck in one place like the king. I was waiting for him to have this light bulb moment and it just never happened. There is a certain amount of power that comes in not having to abide by the other clan’s boundaries and as far as the story has it established Joe is only one of two characters with that knowledge. I hope this is an element that gets used somehow in the final book and doesn’t hang as a loose end. One of the weaknesses of the series (and I may be proven wrong eventually) is that secondary characters get introduced then forgotten about.

Once Pitt is back on familiar territory the story really takes off and starts playing to some of Huston’s strengths, right now, as a writer; dialog that is sharper then anyone else’s and action scenes that give your fingers paper cuts from turning the pages too fast.

The bottom line is that Charlie Huston isn’t admiring pulp and reacting to it he just IS pulp.

Bookslut Jessa Crispin on Self-Publishing

Jessa Crispin Hates Self-Published Books, Except Self-Published Comics, Which Are Even Cooler Than Legit Books.

 Self-publishing. The term has always had a ring of desperation. With the number of books published annually now reaching the hundreds of thousands, and after seeing the quality of a great percentage of those multitudes, it becomes easy to dismiss anything rejected by all publishers as unworthy.

An author going the self-publishing route, then, is just someone not coming to terms with reality.

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Kushiel’s Mercy by Jacqueline Carey | Book Review

Kushiel’s Mercy is the final book of Carey’s Imriel trilogy, in what is know as the Kushiel’s Legacy series. The first book in this series, Kushiel’s Dart (have a look at Trinuviel’s excellent review here), was one of the most impressive débuts I have read. I must admit I have been less enamored with the subsequent novels. While the other books were perhaps not as good as Kushiel’s Dart, they were still thoroughly entertaining. With Kushiel’s Mercy however, the series hits a low. With its heavy reliance on magic to drive the plot and the way the final reckoning between Imriel and his mother plays out, the book was something of a disappointment.

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Dust by Elizabeth Bear | Book Review

This well-known, and perhaps even iconic, statement of Clarke’s is, in many respects, particularly pertinent to Elizabeth Bear’s new novel Dust, the first canto in a tri-partite space opera titled “Jacob’s Ladder” (the sequels Chill and Grail are slated for publication in 2009 and 2010 respectively). In Dust, Bear plays with the conventions of both sci-fi and fantasy by cleverly twisting a sci-fi world into conventional fantasy tropes, turning them inside-out and eventually transcending them – and she manages to do this in a both interesting and stylish manner.

The story takes place in a broken-down generational space ship that has lost (and largely forgotten) its purpose centuries ago. It has been orbiting a constellation of twin suns for 500 years and has slowly degenerated into a balkanized and feudal-like society, rife with a violent and centuries old conflict between the Houses of Rule and Engine, the almost unrecognizable descendants of the space ship’s Command and Engine sections. Thus the story opens with the latest chapter in a war whose causes are obscure and largely forgotten in a vicious circle of never-ending violence.

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On Dragons | an E.E. Knight Interview

E.E. Knight joins us for The Boomtron Beat.  While he is probably more famous for his Vampire Earth series, he also has The Age of Fire series, which is all about dragons.  They have been some of my favorite books in recent years, and so I decided to ask E.E. Knight to talk to us about dragons.  The BoomtronBeat is a topic-specific, 10-question interview feature.

High in the mountains, deep in the safety of a cave; a brood of dragons is born.  The four young ones are among the last of a dying breed – the final hope for dragons’ survival.  But hope shatters when a murderous group of slave-trading dwarves breaks into the cave, leaving death and destruction in its wake.

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Optimistic Science Fiction | a Jetse de Vries Interview

Time for another of our 10-question interview feature! Recently Solaris Books has announced  a forthcoming anthology to be edited by former Interzone co-editor Jetse de Vries. The anthology, Shine, is set to present  Science Fiction with more of a positive outlook. From the press release:

“Shine is a science fiction collection of near-future and optimistic stories, where some of the genres brightest stars and some of its most exciting new talents portray the possible roads to a better tomorrow. Definitely not a plethora of Pollyannas (but neither a barrage of dystopias), Shine will show that positive change is far from being a foregone conclusion, but needs to be hard-fought, innovative, robust and imaginative. Most importantly, it aims to demonstrate that while times are tough and outcomes are uncertain, we can still bend the future in benevolent ways if we embrace change and steer its momentum in the right direction.”

I’m  pleased to present Jetse de Vries to chat about optimistic SF.

Jay Tomio – Describe Science Fiction ‘with Optimism’ for me.

Jetse de Vries-  That’s a tough one. Lesser wars have been thought on the pages of SF magazines, fanzines, and the blogosphere over the definition of SF alone, with no clear outcome. Same with optimism: that can also be a subjective, somewhat slippery concept. So I’ll describe what I see as ‘optimistic SF’.

To paraphrase Jason Stoddard: optimistic, near future SF is like doing two impossible things at the same time. Writing about the near future is very, very hard as this needs to integrate, to a high degree, the complexity of the real world and how everything is interlinked. To make matters worse, things change so fast and so unpredictably that your wildest scenario might be overtaken by reality before you know it. Writing with a convincing optimistic tone is just as hard as people tend to believe that things will go down the drain, and are very reluctant to believe things will actually improve.

So I define the optimistic, near future SF I’m looking for as SF just a few steps away, grounded in the real, aware of the intricacy of its environment, fully realising that our current problems are complex and intertwined; but also SF that sees these problems as tractable if we really put our combined minds to it. Therefore such ‘intelligent optimists’ are teamworkers and teambuilders: they realise their specialist’s knowledge alone is not sufficient, and that co-operation across the fields is necessary. Neither is one single ideology the answer, as most ideologies are like a Theory of Everything, and society, like reality, is too multifacetted for the ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach: quintessentially different aspects require tailor-made solutions. Thus a truly apt troubleshooting team cherrypicks the best solutions from the broadest variety of sources, and are interdisciplinary, practical go-getters: intelligent optimists.

Jay Tomio – Can you point to some past examples that you’d consider masterworks of this brand of SF that you want to promote? I realize you have stated you want progress, not just a look back into SF’s pulp days but are there examples you can point readers to that signify the tone you are looking for?

Jetse de Vries –  What I’m looking for is not a highly specific slice of optimistic SF that (might) perfectly fit my taste – and even that imaginary slice doesn’t exist, as my taste is broad and develops constantly – but any sort of optimistic SF that makes me think it might work, that, at some level, convinces me. I want to limit a writer (or reader) as little as possible: so show me what you think works as optimistic SF, and win me over. I like to be surprised.

Nevertheless, I’ll mention a number of novels that worked for me in the optimistic aspect, but please see them as signposts, as inspiration rather than perfect examples written in stone. Geoff Ryman’s Air (convincing, near-future, non-Western setting), Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy (at great cost, we can colonise Mars), most of Greg Egan’s novels (a deep-rooted belief that our intelligence will eventually overcome our limitations), especially Diaspora (not humanity, but humanity’s intelligence will survive), Bruce Sterling’s Holy Fire (humans coming to grip in a post-capitalism world with zero [economic] growth and getting old [longevity]) and Islands in the Net (which is not really optimistic, but looks at the – mostly negative – effects of globalisation and sees problems not as isolated things but as interlinked, complex events. Use the same viewpoint to portray the – possible – positive effects of globalisation, and you have a winner), Jason Stoddard’s Winning Mars (entrepreneurs are more ahead of the curve than governments, even if the positive effects of their ventures were not originally intended as such), and Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels (not SF, but a compelling and humourous depiction that progress does overcome – even if through a lot of obstacles and side alleys – human folly), to name but a few.

Jay Tomio –  Do you read enough non-English fiction to pin-point whether or not this lack of optimism is an American or Western-centric trend?

Jetse de Vries –  Unfortunately, not anymore. When I was in high school – back in the early eighties – I read mostly Dutch literature, and I didn’t particularly notice a trend either way. Rumour has it that upbeat SF is doing well in developing countries like China and India, but that’s only hear-say.

I do think that SF, like almost all literature, is grounded in the zeitgeist. What SF should attempt more is rise above the zeitgeist and try to lead the way: quite often it imagines new technologies or developments without sufficiently incorporating how people will change because of that, leading to stories about new gadgets wielded by the same old people. Change is much more elaborate than that.

Furthermore, it will be interesting to see if the outcome of the last US elections will change the tone of SF stories, although it’ll be months, or even years before we see that.

Jay Tomio –  “Science fiction writers foresee the inevitable, and although problems and catastrophes may be inevitable, solutions are not”. Does Asimov strike to the heart?

Jetse de Vries –  This comes very close to the old aphorism that dystopian SF (all the way back to Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984) is not meant to predict the future, but as a warning to prevent it from happening. The straightforward extrapolation: if this goes on, we’ll all wind up in dystopia type X. Thing is, the future does not happen in a simple extrapolative bound, but in a highly complex, chaotic, intricate and interactive manner. So things both get worse and better. There are not just problems and catastrophes, but there are very positive developments, as well.

To state the obvious: in the past fifty years the quality of life for most people, not only in the West, but in great parts of Asia and Latin America, as well, has greatly improved. I grew up in the eighties in a country that was one of the very first in line to get nuked if World War III would break out: now our greatest threat is terrorism, a trifle in comparison. And while I most definitely don’t want to understate or underestimate Global Warming – it’s a serious problem that needs a long-term, world-wide and multi-facetted approach – it’s a walk in the park compared to a nuclear winter.

So while we certainly don’t live in paradise, I do think that a lot – a huge lot – of things have improved over time, and will continue to do so. Especially if we keep working on it, with an open mind. And if you give me one cent for every science fiction novel or story that ‘foresaw the inevitable’ – such as WWIII in the countless dystopias that have been published – and were wrong, well I’d be able to get drunk, very drunk, over several weekends. Typically, a doomsayer who’s wrong is just cautiously realistic, while an optimist who’s wrong is hopelessly naïve: that’s measuring with different yardsticks.

Jay Tomio – Don’t a lot of  SF writers/enthusiasts tend to lambaste franchises like Star Wars that tend to offer this very kind of hope?  Or is this ‘pulp naivety’?

Jetse de Vries – I have seen five of the six Star Wars movies (and plenty of Star Trek: I was a fan of the original series when it was televised in Holland), but haven’t read any of the franchise novels.  I see both Star Wars and Star Trek more are as ‘modern’ (let’s say: late 20th Century) fairy tales rather than SF. Feel good escapism, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a bit like ‘serious’ musicians lambasting ‘pop’ musicians: sometimes I’m in the mood for easy listening, and sometimes I’m in the mood for an intense progressive experience.

It’s also partly jealousy: Star Wars & Star Trek franchise novels sell better than most midlist ‘serious’ SF novels. But criticising Star Wars for being escapist is a bit like criticising MacDonalds for not having a Michelin star: that’s not its aim.

The short of it: Star Wars is feel good escapism, but what I’m looking for is realistic hope, mired in the world’s inherent complexity. If people say they don’t like optimistic SF because it’s all empty, franchised, feel good fluff, they’re like cognac connoisseurs saying they can’t drink whisky because it all tastes like Jack Daniels: such people should try a 21-year-old single malt.

Jay Tomio – In your role as editor of Interzone did you ever find yourself guilty of the proliferation of the trend of bleak SF?

Jetse de Vries – Allow me to correct that: I have been part of the Interzone editorial team, so was a co-editor, never the editor of the magazine itself: that’s Andy Cox. The stories were – and I suppose still are – selected by the whole team. So in that aspect some stories were published that I voted against, but that’s part of working in a team (and the same thing happened to my colleagues).

More to the point, I have voted, quite a few times, for bleak SF stories that have appeared in Interzone. The magazine was (and is, I hope) broadly oriented: publishing a wide range of both science fiction and fantasy, both humourous and serious, and both upbeat and downbeat stories. One hopes to acquire the right mix, and this depends on the stories that are sent and the choices the team makes. I think that the new team (the post-Pringle one) got the mix mostly right (it’s almost impossible to get it perfect) in the first three-and-a-half years, and indeed tended more to downbeat in the last year or so. It’s one of the reasons I quit: a growing difference in taste (a lot of people prefer downbeat fiction).

Also, I think the trend of bleak SF in general was already there, and that my personal influence on it has been minimal. Basically, with Shine I’m not trying to turn SF into a total Pollyanna paradise, but improve the upbeat/downbeat mix more towards the upbeat side. SF is huge, it contains multitudes, but we must also make sure this diversity is maintained and does not deteriorate into a monoculture (mixing metaphors, indeed).?

Jay Tomio –  Can you identify a specific point, or project that you think perhaps popularized the shift to  a less optimistic outlook  in SF? For instance, in a field like comic books people would point to Watchmen or Dark Knight Returns symbolizing a dramatic shift of what could be status quo.

Jetse de Vries – I don’t think there’s a specific point, but that there has always been a mix of down- and upbeat stories, and that the balance of that mix mostly depends on the zeitgeist. Roughly speaking, after the Second World War there was a general feeling of optimism, and this was reflected in much of the ‘Golden Age’ SF of that time: the future was a ‘can do’ environment (even if there was an overemphasis on technological solutions: technology is a tool, and value-neutral as such). Then, as the Cold War reached its heights, the balance shifted towards the downbeat side, a trend strengthened by the cyberpunk movement.

But it’s always been a mix, as SF is a very broad genre: for every number of ‘can-do’ Golden Age SF novel there was your Philip K. Dick, for every couple of post-apocalyptic dystopias there was an Uplift War or an Eon, and even in the cyberpunk movement it was not all gloom’n’doom, just check out Bruce Sterling’s Holy Fire and Rudy Rucker (especially his later novels).

Jay Tomio – Solaris is publishing an anthology that you will be editing called Shine. Tell me about what kind of stories I’m going to see in Shine and more importantly, tell me what they won’t be

Jetse de Vries – I’m looking for stories that portray a near future just as complex (or even more complex) than today, and where – to paraphrase the band Voivod – we use ‘Macrosolutions to Megaproblems’: inventive, collaborative, interdisciplinary, cross-political approaches to our current, highly complex problems. Where intelligent optimists provide convincing solutions (or at least the beginning of such solutions). They face incredible odds, they have to fight every inch of the way to get just a little bit forward, they go through hell and back again, but in the end there needs to be a (at least one) positive development. Even if the rest is still quite bad.

What I certainly don’t want are relentless Pollyannas or feel good escapism stories: nothing against them, but it’s not what I’m looking for, as there needs to be a very plausible reason for the optimistic feeling. Also no easy technofixes like inventor invents tabletop fusion and poof: all our energy problems have vanished overnight, or some mad professor develops solar-powered, self-replicating Van Neuman robots that produce everything we need (or want) virtually for free: food, clothes, gadgets, cars, houses, and what-have-you (and keep in mind that all modern achievements in technology are almost always teamwork: the lone genius is a dying breed, if it really ever existed at all). Also no New Agey, power-of-positive-thinking power dream where people suddenly turn everything around because they’ve acquired the right mindset: even though that may help, there needs to be a realistic cause for the positive development. Not mindless optimism but intelligent optimism. Imagine your readers are the greatest skeptics on the planet, and then try to win them over.

Jay Tomio – Is there a sense of SF writers looking to their ‘literary’ counterparts using SF and being influenced by them (like a Atwood, a Ishiguro, a McCarthy)?  We have seen someone like Chabon – I think – get some undue negative criticism for embracing speculative fiction in manner and unlike those mentioned above,  he tends to have that more enforced sense of hope or whimsy in his work.

Jetse de Vries –  In general, I think a writer should read broadly and be influenced by a large range of styles, viewpoints, and approaches. Both SF and literature can be ghetto-minded: only our ivory tower is the right place to be. While in reality a good writer doesn’t really care about genre boundaries, but writes first, and worries about what it really is later (if at all). Genres are mostly marketing categories, after all.

Personally, one of my ideals in writing and reading is fiction with the sensawunda, gosh-wow feeling of great SF combined with the superb prose, depth and sheer bravado of great literature. It’s a rare combination, and from the genre side a Chris Priest or an Ian McDonald sometimes come close to that ideal. I’m not familiar enough with current English literature to know of counter-examples from that side, but I do think that as SF becomes more and more absorbed by the real world its influence will indirectly show up in literature.

Actually, when I read Dutch literature some 25 years ago we had a Flemish writer called Hugo Raes who wrote literature and SF, and easily switched between the forms, and everybody – as far as I can recall — accepted that as normal at the time.

Jay Tomio – Excluding your thought that writing optimistic SF is tougher (though more rewarding for it) why do you think this lack of such work exists?  Are we talking about a problem or simply a lack of the types of work you currently prefer?

Jetse de Vries – It’s definitely not the lack of types of work that I prefer: I really think that there is a dearth of positive SF. Apart from the fact that downbeat fiction indeed more difficult to write than convincingly optimistic fiction, I strongly suspect that this is because SF, no matter how futuristic it tries to be, is still a literature of its time, embedded in its contemporary circumstances. The political circumstances – the George W. Bush years: 9/11, the Iraq war, the clampdown on civil liberties, the credit crisis – do certainly not inspire hope, so I think the overabundance of bleak stories is simply a sign of the times (not just in the US, also in the UK, albeit somewhat less so).

So maybe things are changing: however, I was going to do Shine irrespective of the outcome of the US election. I like to think that at least some SF should aspire to rise above the current circumstances (even if they’re dire), and point the way forward, or die trying.

Jay Tomio – I want to thank Mr. de Vries for chatting with us today at BookSpot Central and wish the best of luck with Shine – the future is already looking brighter

Book Review – A Betrayal in Winter

A while ago I read Daniel Abraham’s début novel A Shadow in Summer and I was very impressed. Of course I immediately got the second book in the Long Price quartet, A Betrayal in Winter, after which it was swallowed by the ever intimidating to read stack that resides on the desk next to the computer I am writing these reviews on. Earlier this week I finally picked it up. Again, I found a well written, tightly plotted novel featuring a number of interesting characters with complex motivations. There are some notable differences with the first book too though. While A Betrayal in Winter is a good book by any measure, I think I prefer the first book.

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